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I am author of the books Political Internet(Routledge, 2017), Intimate Speakers ( Fingerprint! 2017), has finished the typescript of three books—first, on Internet and sexuality; second, on the negative impacts of social media; and third, a novel—and is presently working on a narrative non-fiction with the working title Lovescape: Why India is afraid of love.

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Platonic Idealism




The quickest and most efficient way of coming to understand Idealist ontology is to go directly to the forefather of all Idealists - Plato. In The Republic, his major treatise on the ideal state, Plato has given us the famous Allegory of the Cave.
Imagine, he suggests, a group of people sitting in a dark cave chained down in such a way that they can look in only one direction, toward the expanse of wall on one side of the cave. Several yards behind them is an open fire providing light, and between the fire and where they are sitting is a raised runway along which figures move, casting their shadows upon the wall. The individuals, chained so that they face the wall, cannot see the fire or the figures, but only the shadows. Now, if we imagine them confined to this position for their entire lives, we must expect them to consider the shadows as real, genuinely existent beings. Not knowing anything else, having no three-dimensional beings to use for comparison, these prisoners in the cave would come to believe that what they saw before them represented true reality.
          Well, then, suggests the allegory, here we humans are in our own cave - the world as we see it with our five senses. It looks real enough - rocks and trees and birds and men. But it is actually only a world of images, three-dimensional “shadows” of another, more genuinely real world - a world of pure ideas - standing “behind” this world we see and hear and touch. And this realm of pure ideas or “pure mind” is so absolute in its perfection, so superlatively complete in every way, as to possess an intensity beyond the reach of the human mind. Like the sun that blinds our eyes, the “Absolute Mind” completely overwhelms our feeble intellects; and we turn away from it, as we turn our eyes from the sun, bedazzled and “injured” by our attempt to perceive it. And so, preferring a more manageable and comfortable existence, even if less genuinely real, we retreat to our “cave,” the world of sense perception, permitting our intellects only occasional and fleeting glimpses of ultimate reality.
Eternal truths exist in the realm of Ideas ("Idealism" = "Ideas") rather than in what we would call the natural, physical world.  These eternal Truths can exist in your mind, but they can not be observed or perceived out in the physical world (think for a minute what "physical world" refers to: that world that operates on the laws of physics, or that world of objects with mass); that is to say, Truth does not exist in the world that we can see with our senses: sight, sound, etc.  Plato calls this not true world the "sensible" world, meaning "the world perceived by the senses". 
One way to understand this theory is to grasp that it is in most ways the opposite of scientific thinking, which is founded on the assumption that the natural, physical world is the "real" world and the only one that we can truly understand. Here's a good way of understanding why Platonists believe this:
Every person you see and spend time with will some day die, but the concept or idea of “person” is unchanging or (relatively) eternal.  Thus the physical, living people we see in the natural world are transitory but the concept -- the idea of -- "people" is eternal.
There is no single person who encapsulates the entire concept or idea person  or “human being” – yet the idea “human being” describes all human beings: so the idea is more complete and thus “truer” and everlasting, compared to the people who live and die in the natural world.
This is true of everything else in the physical world: there is no one example of any thing (a tree, a piece of fruit) that perfectly represents all trees or fruit) and every physical thing is transitory: it changes.  Meanwhile the concept of tree or fruit are eternally unchanging. (I'll make more sense of this, below, with circles and triangles, so hold tight and read on if you're confused.)

The Sensible and the Intelligible:

Our knowledge is divided between that which we gain through our senses, or sensible [or sensory] knowledge – what I can see and hear etc. – and that which we know intellectually, intelligible knowledge or the realm of ideas, that which I think.  In Plato’s hierarchy, sensible/sensory knowledge is faulty and a mere shadow or representation of True knowledge. 
 "The Allegory of the Cave": what we see in the physical world, compared to true, intelligible knowledge, is like shadows compared to the "reality" outside the cave, but even this reality is a mere shadow of the sun itself.

Innate Knowledge and the Soul: 

At this point, Plato’s philosophy takes a definite turn toward mysticism or religion: since the truth of forms is not found in the natural world, how do we come to know them?   Well, we must be born with them, and they must precede our own existence (because they are eternal), so knowledge is innate and we in fact recollect or remember or uncover truths.   The method for doing so is through the type of philosophizing or contemplation practiced in the Socratic dialogues: attempting, largely through logical analysis (like math) to establish eternal truths.  Think of the type of Socratic questioning or skepticism practiced by Socrates as an attempt to strip away false impressions and reveal the true Form of an idea. 
The "Platonic Ideal" or "First Principle" or "The Good" or "The Form Of The Good": 
Plato and his translators used many different terms to refer to this same/similar concept:  all true ideas, or “the ideal forms” originate from The Ideal or The Good or The Form of The Good (represented by the sun in “The Allegory of The Cave”).  This seems to be a single metaphysical agent from which all good and true Ideas emanate – including mathematical and factual truths and things like justice, virtue, honor etc. 
Clearly at this point we have left the realm of philosophical reasoning and have entered mystical religion.  It is this mystical aspect that will so greatly appeal to Hellenized Jews, and then Christians.

The Soul: Essence, Descent and Ascent:

The True essence of man is located in our souls, not our bodies -- remember that sensible knowledge (knowledge gained through the body's senses) is faulty.  The soul descends from the "The Form of the Good" -- from eternal truth or "The First Principle" -- and is thus in a "fallen" state in this imperfect, shadow-world (represented by the cave). The soul desires to return to the eternal Form Of The Good, and this is why we desire wisdom.  Too much attention to sensible information (smell, touch, taste etc.) distracts us from the good: the pursuits of the soul, or gaining intelligible wisdom.

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