On the Discrepancies in Socrates’ Argument of What Truly Is in Plato’s Republic

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  • Topic: Plato, Sense, Perception
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Polina Vulakh
William Mullen
First Year Seminar
09/29/2012
On the Discrepancies in Socrates’ Argument of What Truly Is in Plato’s Republic
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates presents us with the notion that there exists an entire realm of what truly is:
That someone who’s a lover of learning in his very being would be of such a nature as to strive toward what is, and wouldn’t linger with the many particular things that have aseeming of being, but would keep going and not blunt the edge of his erotic desire or let up from it until he gets hold of the nature of what each thing itself is.

Nothing in this realm changes. Its contents are accessible only to “the eye of the soul.” If this “eye of the soul” dismisses auditory and visual aids, through which of the senses does it perceive what truly is? How can a seeing, hearing human being blatantly disregard the very senses that characterize his entire conscious existence? Something can be entirely unchanging only if it is hypothetical. This implies that the specific realm of objects in their purest forms is conceptual; it is the perfection of these concepts rather than the actual itselves that is or should be “the highest object of the philosopher's contemplation,” yet even this is fundamentally unachievable.

Though the sciences of optometry and audiology were virtually nonexistent in Socrates’ time, one could understand how visual and auditory aids would skew one’s vision of what truly is. Human beings are born with eye and ear defects, and therefore perceive objects differently from one individual to another. Thus, Socrates rightly dismisses these two fragile senses since our interpretations of reality would differ based on the condition of these senses within our bodies. Because what we see and hear seems a certain way to us, we are essentially accepting the seeming by receiving images and sounds. There is no way to arrive at what truly is without referencing what we have accepted, and what we accept is always a seeming rather than a truth. Socrates believes that the true philosopher can overcome this human habit, but here he believes the impossible. Although our minds are technically free to wander off – to imagine what a specific object truly is – our minds are influenced by what we have seen and heard of this object throughout our lives – that is why the philosopher’s “true” task is virtually unachievable, unless this philosopher was born deaf and blind. Let us look at Helen Keller’s The World I Live In, since she is the closest we have to a deaf and blind philosopher. She, never being subjected to the influences of the visual and auditory worlds, has a mind which can be likened to a clean slate. With it, she discerns that “the bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction” that we reach through “the use we make of them [our senses]…with which we seek wisdom beyond the senses.” Although Keller is given the chance to perceive what truly is in Socrates’ sense, free from the encumbrances of two main human senses, she opposes him by suggesting that man seeks pure knowledge through a usage of the senses rather than their dismissal.

In demonstrating that there exists a true itself of any specific object or concept, it is peculiar that Socrates chooses the beautiful itself to pose an example. When one believes that there is a beautiful itself, he characterizes this as knowledge, whereas when another believes that a thing is beautiful, he characterizes this as opinion. While I understand the latter part, how does the philosopher acknowledge the beautiful itself? Since we have eliminated sight and hearing as a means of discernment, how does the philosopher recognize a beautiful itself? Beauty is aesthetic appeal. We perceive it by using our senses. The brain releases specific endorphins when it recognizes something particularly pleasing to the eyes or ears, such as a harmonious face or a mellifluous melody. The senses, however, have been taken away. What...
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