Plato against the Postmodernists, or why Santa Claus is Real #52 #cong23 #reality


The talk explores the nature of reality, delving into diverse philosophical perspectives. It contrasts empiricism, rationalism, idealism, and realism while questioning whether reality is solely phenomenal or extends to a noumenal realm. The speaker advocates Plato’s position, asserting that reality is unchanging and can be known. Plato’s three levels of reality—being, nonbeing, and the ever-changing phenomenal world—are discussed. The narrative navigates through the limitations of human perspectives and presents the idea that ultimate reality lies in unchanging forms. Analogies illustrate the unity of diverse objects in universal truths. The talk concludes with a profound reflection on death and philosophy’s role in understanding it.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Nature of Reality:
    • Exploration of reality through contrasting philosophical perspectives.
    • Empiricism, rationalism, idealism, and realism examined in relation to the knowability of reality.
  2. Plato’s Position:
    • Advocacy for Plato’s view that reality is unchanging and can be known.
    • Plato’s three levels of reality—being, nonbeing, and the phenomenal world—are discussed.
  3. Limitations of Human Perspectives:
    • Recognition of the subjective nature of human perception.
    • Acknowledgment that personal beliefs and experiences shape individual perspectives of reality.
  4. Universal Truths and Wisdom:
    • Presentation of analogies illustrating the unity of diverse objects in universal truths.
    • Emphasis on reason as a means to access objective, unchangeable reality, and wisdom’s role in understanding eternal truths.

About Stephen Costello:

Dr Stephen J Costello is a philosopher, psychoanalyst, the founder of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland, author of 16 books, and an Enneagram coach. He also consults to the corporate sector in the areas of leadership, meaning at work, communication, and decision-making.

Contacting Stephen Costello:

You can connect with Stephen via his website

By Dr Stephen Costello

What is reality and can it be known? My thesis is that reality is that which is unchanging, and it can be known.

Empiricists will say the only reality is that which can be known through the senses.

Rationalists will argue that reason rather than experience is the foundation of knowledge.

Idealists will hold that objects of knowledge are in some way dependent on mind (on the activity of thought, therefore).

Realists view a thing’s existence as being mind-independent.

It seems obvious that some knowledge comes from the senses even if such knowledge can be mistaken.

It also seems obvious that some knowledge comes from the mind, for example, the truths of mathematics which are not empirical.

It also seems sensible to say, to me at any rate, that the external world exists but psychologically that I impose categories of thought on this reality even if it can’t be reduced to an idea in my mind.

Is reality just what we see or taste or touch or smell or hear – what philosophers call ‘phenomenal’ reality or is there more going on – what philosophers call ‘noumenal’ reality? Is the meaning of being just what appears to me to be? This smacks of subjectivism.

Psychologists talk about thoughts, feelings, the psyche, the self, and the ego etc, none of which can be seen. Mystics talk about the soul, God, and angels, which are not observable. Physicists talk about atoms, molecules, and quarks which aren’t visible to the human eye. And mathematicians act as if numbers exist – they do, of course, just like Santa Claus is real … as an archetype!

Psychologically, we all see the world through a set of lenses. We see from where we are. There is no view from nowhere. My beliefs, desires, attitudes, expectations, prejudices, projections, class consciousness, ideology etc – all my ideas or conceptions get in the way of my perceptions. My personal ‘story’ superimposes itself on reality. So what we call reality – this stream of life in which I participate is only known, it seems, at first glance at any rate, from my perspective.

One line of thought proceeds thus: at any given time, we are in possession of only a limited number of cumulative views of reality. These views are aspects of a thing. The aspect of a thing is inseparable from the observer. Only an aspect of a thing is revealed to us; it is the face, as it were, shown to us, like a round orange that contains segments we don’t see or like a Russian doll which hides deeper layers and levels of reality. Our ideas of things are formed from these aspects.  But the thing in its entirety is surely not only its partial perspective? If we go along this philosophical path, it looks like we’re saying that the essence of a thing is a mere construct or schema so that knowledge is perspective, just an interpretation of the thing but not the thing. So, that every ‘thing’ only appears under various aspects and that the thing is the sum (or integral) of all its aspects. But if we add up all the aspects of a thing, are we really any closer to ascertaining the essence of a thing? Is it not the case that if we add up all the viewpoints, all we are getting are more viewpoints?

Many will agree that we can know only aspects, that we can never know THE Truth. It can certainly seem this way. Imagine the number ‘6’ drawn on a page. From one angle, it’s a six; from another angle, it’s a ‘9’. And thus we appear doomed to a conflict of competing interpretations. Life is just a point of view directed upon the universe. This position leads to relativism, perhaps even nihilism. It’s really the postmodernist viewpoint, which is the dominant epistemology of our day.

Diametrically opposed to this worldview is Plato’s position, which I am advocating for, and endorsing.  He maintains that reality is that which doesn’t change. The truth of things can’t be found in a world that is constantly changing, he contends. Plato distinguishes three levels of knowledge of reality:

  • that which exists and which can be absolutely known – being.
  • that which does not exist, and which can’t be known – nonbeing.
  • and things which don’t exist absolutely, but which don’t not exist either (i.e., objects in this ever-changing phenomenal world).

The first can be labelled knowledge, the second ignorance, and the third opinion.

‘Phenomenal’ reality is the manifest world of change and movement and multiplicity. We see that things come into existence and things pass out of existence. We experience the comings and goings of men. Nothing is constant or permanent. Everything is ephemeral. It seems so real but is only relatively real. Why? Because it gives the illusion of permanence and stability and unity which it doesn’t possess. But what is ultimate is being not becoming. Being is what is; it is not (just) what appears to be. Becoming is change; more precisely, it is the movement from potential to actual being so that a caterpillar is potentially a butterfly, and a butterfly is an actualised caterpillar. If Socrates changes, becomes sick, for example, Socrates is still Socrates – the substance of Socrates is the same. Change is accidental, devoid of primary reality, whereas substance is essential.

Science describes this world of becoming and behaving very well. Philosophy, by contrast, concerns itself with being as being, with what is ultimate, therefore. In a way, the debate can be seen to be one between Platonists who believe in ultimate reality and postmodernists who don’t.

Take, as an example, a few blindfolded men surrounding an elephant. One touches the tail and proclaims the thing he is feeling is rope; another touches the skin and proclaims it to be leather; while a third touches the tusk and is convinced that it is ivory. These men know only aspects of a thing, not the thing itself, which is an elephant. But the elephant exists! The elephant is the truth or reality; the viewpoints are subjective perspectives on objective reality.

For Plato and for Eastern philosophy, especially the branch of Indian thought called Advaita Vedanta, the phenomenal world is ultimately illusory (maya). It is a deceptive prison-house, only relatively real. What is relatively real is that thing which depends on another for existence. Our bodies are relatively real too because they need food, water, and oxygen from outside to sustain them. We don’t have independent or ultimate existence. We have relative or ‘contingent’ existence because I didn’t create myself. However, every relative assumes an ultimate. The ultimate, by definition, can exist by itself without support. So contingent beings such as us obtain existence from non-contingent or necessary being, that is to say, from an ultimate source whom some might want to call God, or the Absolute. If the contingent is that which exists but need not have existed, ‘necessary’ being is that which has to exist, that which cannot not exist. A contingent truth is one that is true but could have been false, while a necessary truth is one that must be true.

So is Plato denying that objects such as tables and chairs exist? No, but they don’t have absolute reality/existence because they are not permanent. It’s like we are all prisoners in a cave (Plato’s analogy) or cage of our own construction.

In a sense Plato comes across as a dualist, believing in this world of change and corruption and the intelligible world of universal forms but he’s not. This world is copy, an image, a mirage of the really real world of Ideas. Plato is really a monist – he holds a unitary view of reality – that all is one. How so?

Let’s take as an example three beautiful objects: a book, a sunset, and a human face. They’re all different (at the level of manifestation).

A question for you: are there three different beauties?

Or would you say there are, rather, three different objects that partake in beauty?

Is beauty different or the same?

If it’s the same, we’re talking of the Idea of beauty, of Beauty Itself, of what Plato calls the Form of beauty. This isn’t seen in the world but grasped by the intelligence. Couldn’t we say that they’re beautiful because they participate in Beauty Itself? The idea is like the idea a painter has before he paints; the painted object is a mere reflection – a copy or imitation – of the Idea.

Men and women are different but they both partake of Humanity.

But where, I hear you ask, do these ideas exist? Let me answer with a question. Can you draw a perfect circle? (No).

Do you know what a perfect circle is? (yes).

My instruction to you to draw a perfect circle presupposes you know already what a perfect circle is even if you have never seen it.

Is a perfect circle different from one to another or the same? (It is the same for all – one substance. one source).

You all have an idea of a perfect circle – you understand this, even if you have never seen one and even if you can’t draw one. But a perfect circle doesn’t exist in empirical reality. Indeed, lots of things exist that we can’t see as I said, from gravity and time to electricity. Speaking of electricity, let me give another analogy.

Imagine a fridge, a TV, and a music system. They are all different objects but the source that runs through them – which is electricity – is the same for all. The substances are many; the source is one. It’s limited not in itself but by the substance it’s working through. There is the same consciousness (animating life force or electricity in this analogy) in a tree, a dog, and a fridge. The electricity is not affected by the fridge or what’s in the fridge or where you bought the fridge or even if it’s working; in fact, the fridge could be big or small, broken or in full working order. Reality is consciousness.

Let me pose another question – really, it’s the same question:

Can you have two without one? (No).

Can you have one without two? (Yes).

-One single substance – this is primary; in a way, this is all there is.

Two only has contingent existence; one, by contrast, exists independently. There is just ‘one without a second’ (which is the meaning of ad-vaita). Not two.

Mind can be compared to water. Water can exist in three states: solid, liquid, and gas. In the solid state, water is called ice; in the liquid state, it is water, and in the gaseous state, it is vapor. Three seemingly different things; but in truth only one.

My watch is gold, so are my mother’s earrings. Seemingly two objects but one substance uniting them – gold.

Waves and ocean are one; they are both water. There is no substance called Ocean or Sea. It’s just water. We can distinguish between subjective reality – all our perceptions, and thoughts and feelings; empirical reality – the world of appearance; and ultimate reality – the one consciousness running through and permeating – suffusing – all things, what Wordsworth calls a ‘presence’ – ‘a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky and in the mind of man – a spirit that impels all thinking beings, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things’.

One final question:

-Can you have a lie without the Truth? Can a lie exist, in other words, without the Truth? (No).

-Can you have Truth without a lie? Does Truth exist, in other words, without a lie? (Yes).

So, what’s the difference between Truth and a lie, would you say?

-Truth exists independently; a lie has only contingent existence. There are things that definitely exist while other things seem to exist but don’t exist absolutely, like a lie. The sceptic’s denial of the truth presupposes the existence of the truth to be denied. An absurdity results. It’s like the relativist (who, by definition, is one who denies the existence of absolute truth) saying ‘all truth is relative’, which is an absolutist statement!

Let’s raise an objection to my Platonic position: Does anything more than Plato justify Plato? A contemporary critic might say: aren’t your so-called Platonic Ideas merely your ideas? How can they be part of the real world? The modern view is that the real word is just the world we see and touch, known by science – the so-called objective world. The inner world of personal thoughts and feelings is the subjective world. But both worlds change and are imperfect. They have relative existence.

So, what follows from all this theorising?

We see the Forms (essences) with the eye of the mind but they’re not in the mind any more than rocks are in the eye. We might say: the choice between believing that the world outside the cave (which is Plato’s analogy for our world of opinion) is only subjective or believing that it is objective is itself only subjective! But if that’s true – if our choice is purely subjective not objective – then there’s no real reason why I should believe any one idea rather than any other, including that idea! If there are no Platonic Ideas, only my ideas, then no idea I have can ever be known to be either true or false. If Mind is only subjective and Reason only how my brain works, why should I think the computer, or its software, corresponds to reality? If reason is only subjective, then that piece of reason is only subjective too: it’s only subjective that it’s only subjective. It refutes itself, like the examples I gave above which have us going round and round the Mulberry bush in circles.

Reason must be in touch with objective reality – sometimes at least. If it weren’t, we could have no standard for judging when it wasn’t. In other words, if there’s no real money, we have no right to judge that any money is counterfeit. So some kind of thought/reason must get us outside the cave. Plato’s Ideas are not subjective psychological entities but objective realities.

There is a world of eternal, objective, universal truths outside the cave of our sensations and opinions and their material objects. How so? We experience it! Our minds bump up against the objective and unchangeable reality of ‘2 + 2 = 4’ or ‘triangles always have 180 degrees’ or ‘justice is a virtue’ or ‘effects must have causes’ all of the time. Where do we discover this? In the world outside the cave. How do we discover it? Through reason. Now, reason is not cleverness. Reason is wisdom.

And wisdom is understanding, insight into the Forms.

If all holy men disappeared, holiness would still be, and redness too (though nowhere in the universe). The whole world we see is an image of a world we do not see.

Beasts have senses better than us. Computers can do reasoning quicker than us. What can we do that neither cats nor computers can do? We can understand eternal truths. We can know the essential nature of things. That’s what it means to get out of the cave and into reality, into that which is.

One final point: Carl Jung’s archetypes are Ideas in the Platonic sense. This is where Plato’s Forms ‘go’ in the twentieth century. That’s why, just as Plato is the greatest philosopher, Jung is the greatest psychologist, because they reveal the truth of things. Both of them want us to get in contact with the primary Reality behind the (secondary) reality.

Permit me to conclude:

What finally gets us out of the cave, for good? Death. Presumably that is why Plato described philosophy as learning how to die.

In the year 399 BC Socrates, who inspired Plato, was executed by hemlock. In Plato’s dialogue called the Phaedo, he relates Socrates’ last conversation with his friends. Socrates addresses them just before he dies from poison, thus: ‘To fear death is to be unwise, because it is to think you know what you do not know: namely, that death is something bad. Who knows that death is not perhaps the very best thing?’

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