Thursday, February 27, 2014

Normative Relativism in the Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s allegory of the cave is extremely well known throughout western cultures; people who have had almost no direct exposure to the study of philosophy are still fairly likely to be aware of it. I first read it in middle school, in a history class with a teacher who had a passion for classical thought. Since then I have read it and written on it many more times, and each time I find myself drawn to the same subjects: the epistemic ideas about our limited perception and struggle against it, the Jungian psychological underscore, and the like. This time, though, I want to write on the very end of the passage.

            The end of the allegory relates the return of the newly enlightened person to the cave. In the gloom, he is subjected to the criticism of his peers over his lost eyesight. They have been trying to understand the shadows and fancy themselves to have expertise in them. The enlightened man has seen the true nature of the figures casting the shadows, but his eyes have been impaired by the lack of light, so the inhabitants of the cave disdain his attempts to reveal anything. Because they have no evidence or even contextual grounds (other than the complete abstract) for comprehending his experience, they reject it for their truth, the truth of the cave. Here is where I find an interesting epistemology (which I think Plato disagrees with) coming through: a normative relativism of truths. The relativistic aspect is that there exist here two different truths: the enlightened truth and the truth of the shadows. I think that Plato is making a point to say that there IS a better truth (the former), but that the denizens of the cave, or the unenlightened, will not accept it. Perhaps it requires direct experience to comprehend it. This is why the enlightened must return the cave and help the inhabitants, even though they do so against what is true.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


What strikes me most about Empedocles is that the nature of many of his writings is very religious. In fact, a lot of his thoughts seem to be less philosophical and more theological. He believes the root of existence to be in the Gods Zeus, Hera, Nestis and Aidoneus, but dominating existence are the four elements (fire, water, air, and earth) and two opposing forces, Strife and Love. Love is fairly close to our conception of it; Empedocles parallels it with joy and says that it causes peaceful and just acts and kindness. Strife is the more interesting force because Empedocles believes it is an active evil and that it causes mortals to commit bloodshed.

     He writes that in an ancient decree set down by the Gods it is mandated that "whenever anyone pollutes his own dear limbs with the sin of bloodshed... commits offense and swears a false oath..." he is made to live changing forms of mortal life for thirty thousand years, returning to the Aither, an ethereal, omnipresent force that regenerates mortals and gives them "an alien garb of flesh" upon reincarnation. He writes that these must place their faith in "raving Strife." For this reason, Empedocles seems to condemn sacrifice to the Gods and the subsequent feasting. he refers to cases of sons killing and eating their parents, not knowing who they once were, and to a father sacrificing his son who has been reincarnated from the Aither as a beast. It is not clear if he condemns eating meat at all (since any animal might well have been another human, maybe even acquaintance), but it would seem to follow that he does. This interpretation of reality is a grim one, but appears oddly similar to some eastern religions with regard to reincarnation based on sins committed. It also appears that transcending this system is the goal, possibly something that Empedocles believes he has accomplished, hence his referring to himself as immortal, which would mean not eligible for reincarnation.


Socrates on Anaxagoras

In the section of the Phaedo dialogue we read for today, it appears that Socrates agrees with my opinions on Anaxagoras’ concept of Mind: he doesn’t like it. He says this about how he had hoped Anaxagoras would help him understand the way Mind acts on the world: “I never thought that Anaxagoras, who said that those things were directed by Mind, would bring in any other cause for them then that it was best for them to be as they are.” (98a). However, he discovers that Anaxagoras does not give an explanation of the Mind’s relation to the world. Instead, he “made no use of Mind, nor gave it responsibility for the management of things, but mentioned as causes air and ether and water and many other strange things.” (98c). This is about the same issue I have with Anaxagoras: his theory of everything explains the world nicely and is many years ahead of its time, but his vagueness when it comes to Mind’s role in it is a serious problem. The Mind is both something that began the revolution of the world, but also some kind of soul-like quality possessed by all living things in equal portions? That seems entirely implausible, and does not mix well with his other theories. Socrates takes issue further with the fact that Anaxagoras attributes the actions of people to physical things instead of the Mind. “He would mention other such causes for my talking to you: sounds and air and hearing, and a thousand other such things, but he would neglect to mention the true causes…” (98e).  I take issue with the vagueness of his Mind concept, while Socrates disagrees with his ideas concerning the root of human action.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Parmenides and the Truth

      Perhaps I am a little bitter in my thoughts on Parmenides, but I'll spill them all the same. He seems to me to be inaccessible compared to the other ancient philosophers we have explored, possibly simply because of his writing in poetry, but I think it goes beyond that. The limitation of poetry would not force him to be at times so repetitive and in the same breath so vague with what he means. The subjects of his thought are far removed from their descriptions and so are hard to track down, and he changes his drift seemingly mid-thought sometimes.
     All those grievances being aired, I will say that there are things I appreciate. His idea about the seeming incorruptibility of truth is interesting. He clearly has a conception of an objective truth, one that exists transcendent of the reality it dictates, that cannot be altered. This truth has no beginning or end, but simply is. Nor can it suffer any rival non-truth to rise beside it, because such a competitor would emerge from mortal conception and thus would immediately be lesser than the objective truth.     
     Parmenides' truth reminds me of the idea of a transcendent code of morals found throughout history, but takes everything one step further. Most cultures throughout time that have left enduring marks have had a relatively close scheme of morals, often believing that the existence of the code was a manifestation of some transcendent truth, be it a God, an afterlife thought, or whatever. However, I am not so sure Parmenides feels that a divine or otherworldly existence is the root of the truth he describes. No, it seems to him that the truth does not transcend in a divine manner, but rather in a metaphysical one; the truth is not God or a universal soul, but a framework upon which our perceived reality lies.