Plato’s Theory of Knowledge


Plato’s Theory of Knowledge is very interesting. He expresses this theory with three approaches: his allegory of The Cave, his metaphor of the Divided Line and his doctrine The Forms. Each theory is interconnected; one could not be without the other. Here we will explore how one relates to the other. In The Cave, Plato describes a vision of shackled prisoners seated in a dark cave facing the wall. Chained also by their necks, the prisoners can only look forward and see only shadows, These shadows are produced by men, with shapes of objects or men, walking in front of a fire behind the prisoners. Plato states that for the prisoners, reality is only the mere shadows thrown onto the wall. Another vision is releasing a prisoner from his chains, how his movements are difficult, his eye adjustment painful and suggestions of the effects of returning to the cave. The Cave suggests to us that Plato saw most of humanity living in “the cave”, in the dark, and that the vision of knowledge and the “conversion” to that knowledge was salvation from darkness. He put it this way, “the conversion of the soul is not to put the power of sight in the soul’s eye, which already has it, but to insure that, insisted of looking in the wrong direction it is turned the way it ought to be.” Plato’s two worlds: the dark, the cave, and the bright were his way of rejecting the Sophists, who found “true knowledge” impossible because of constant change. Plato believed there was a “ true Idea of Justice”. The Cave showed us this quite dramatically. The Divided Line visualizes the levels of knowledge in a more systematic way. Plato states there are four stages of knowledge development: Imagining, Belief, Thinking, and Perfect Intelligence. Imagining is at the lowest level of this developmental ladder. Imagining, here in Plato’s world, is not taken at its conventional level but of appearances seen as “true reality”. Plato considered shadows, art and poetry, especially rhetoric, deceptive illusions, what you see is not necessarily what you get. With poetry and rhetoric you may be able to read the words but you may not understand the “real” meaning. For example, take, again, the shadow. If you know a shadow is something “real” then you are beyond the state of imagination which implies that a person is “unaware of observation and amounts to illusion and ignorance”. Belief is the next stage of developing knowledge. Plato goes with the idea that seeing really is not always believing we have a strong conviction for what we see but not with absolute certainty. This stage is more advanced than imagining because it’s based more firmly on reality. But just because we can actually see the object and not just it’s shadow doesn’t mean we know all there is to know about the object. In the next stage, Thinking, we leave the “visible world” and move into the “intelligible world” which, Plato claims, is seen mostly in scientists. It stands for the power of the mind to take properties from a visible object and applying them. Thinking is the “visible” object but also the hypotheses, “A truth which is taken as self-evident but which depends upon some higher truth”. Plato wants us to see all things as they really are so we can see that all is inter-connected. But thinking still doesn’t give us all the information we crave and we still ask “why?” For Plato the last stage of developing knowledge, Perfect Intelligence, represents “the mind as it completely releases from sensible objects” and is directly related to his doctrine of Forms. In this stage, hypotheses is no longer present because of its limitations. Plato summarized the Divided Line with “now you may take, a corresponding to the four sections, these four states of mind, intelligence for the highest, thinking for the second, belief for the third and for the last imagining. These you may arrange in terms as the terms in a proportion, assigning to each a degree of clearness and certainty corresponding to the measure in which their object pose a reality”. When discussing the Divided Line, The Forms are the highest levels of “reality”. Plato concludes here that