The Exploration of Inner Space III: What Plato’s got to do with it

chimborazo-3Chimborazo, Ecuador

WHEN I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

Turner’s poem is called ‘Romance’ and it records an experience most of us have felt at some point in childhood, the enchantment that arises from the potent combination of exotic names and far-off places, usually the result of reading books. I first heard it (my father was a great reciter of verse and lodged many poems in my head long before I ever read them, though I think it may have been my brother made me aware of this one) when I was still at primary school and I remember being perturbed by the second verse:

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

How could that happen and he not notice? I wondered. The fourth verse resonated with me: in those far-off days, we thought nothing of walking considerable distances to school, and being the youngest, I was often on my own, my brothers having moved on to the Big School, and I was certainly a dreamer:

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school—
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

volcano-popocatepetl-by-jakub-hejtmanek-wallpaperShining Popocatapetl, Mexico – photo by Jakub Hejtmanek

This poem came to mind on my morning walk when I was trying to recall when I first read Plato. I was about fourteen; it was a summer holiday in Barra, with no television. We learned to play cribbage and I read Plato’s Republic. So, not the misty heights of the South American volcanoes but a golden land of a different sort, the bright morning sunshine of the Mediterranean and ancient Greece, ‘when all the world was young’ – and not Romance, but Philosophy.

I say it was not Romance, and yet I wonder. For all his stern strictures on the ‘deception’ of art and poetry (which he would banish from his ideal state, unless it could be used for propaganda purposes) Plato is at his most persuasive when he is at his most poetic: the Simile of the Cave, where the prisoner starts out shackled in darkness, watching the play of shadows on the wall, but escapes to the upper world and gazes at last on the Sun of Truth, remains one of the most potent invitations to the study of philosophy.

Central to Plato’s thought is his Theory of Forms (or Ideas). This posits a world of immutable Forms which are what really exists – that is Reality; the world we perceive with our senses is deceptive Appearance, a mere shadow, whose contents stand to the World of Forms as the copy to the original. Thus, there are many tables, but each is an instance or expression of the single Idea or Form, ‘Table’.

As a teenager I found this beguiling, but I think an ambivalence was always there: although Plato plainly states that this World of Forms can be apprehended only by the intellect and not by the senses, his own presentation of it is so vivid (The Simile of the Cave and the Myth of Ur, which is an account of metempsychosis, following the journey of the soul after death into the timeless world of Forms thence to rebirth in another body, where its ‘acquisition’ of knowledge is actually ‘anamnesis’ or remembering its sojourn between death and birth) that it lends it the quality of concrete reality; to my teenage mind it was super-real: it had all the the vividness of the sensible world, only more so; as such it was a continuation by other means of fairyland and all the mysterious realms that had succeeded it in the stories of my childhood – it was the secret realm that lies hidden behind everyday reality, attainable only to the fortunate few.

(Another strand that was important to me was the compatibility of Plato’s thought with my religious beliefs – which should be no surprise, given that Platonism was the first big philosophical influence on Catholic thought, long before Aquinas assimilated Aristotle)

It has taken a good four decades and more for my perspective on Plato to shift. I think his way of looking at things retains a great deal of potency but is mistaken (or rather misleading) in two key particulars. The first of these is the elevation of the intellect with a concomitant denigration of the senses. I am beginning to think that this may have been a major wrong turning in Western thought and that its effects have been almost wholly pernicious. Plato may not be the first but he is certainly the foremost in establishing the antithesis between Appearance and Reality, effectively relegating the senses (and with them the emotions) to an insignificant and untrustworthy sideshow: the senses cannot be trusted; the intellect alone apprehends Truth. That is something that has bedevilled Western thought ever since; it could be summed up as the triumph of Head over Heart.

The second fault is not in his description but his labelling of it. There is a world that is apprehended by the intellect and a world apprehended by the senses, but it is the latter that is Real and Original, the former that is artificial and derivative.

(At this point, a curious things happened. Casting about for a suitable image to convey that Plato’s way of looking at things was a complete inversion of how they actually are, I recalled a particular optical illusion, where a hollow mask is rotated and we see it as a positive, convex face whichever side we see, and to accommodate this, we reverse the direction of its rotation. I recalled that I had used it in a previous piece I had written (Force of Habit) but when I checked, the link was broken. Searching for another version I came on this but what really excited me was the note at the end:

‘this illusion often fails to work on people suffering with schizophrenia; they are able to see the hollow mask for what it is. In this case the raw visual information (bottom-up processing) is not over-ridden by higher cognitive processes (top-down processing). Some psychologists believe that this dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality.’

Top-down processing suggests that we form our perceptions starting with a larger object, concept, or idea before working our way toward more detailed information. In other words, top-down processing happens when we work from the general to the specific; the big picture to the tiny details.’

Screenshot 2015-03-23 13.13.06

This, couched in different language, is just what Plato proposes in his Theory of Forms: the Form or Idea is general, and specific instances are derived from it (interestingly, it was Plato’s pupil Aristotle who devised the system of classification using Genus and Species, where things are grouped together according to their common or general characteristics, and subdivided according to their specific or detailed differences – a way of looking at things that seems so ‘natural’ that we forget that it was an invention).

Biological-Taxonomy

However, what excited me even more than this unexpected sidelight on Plato was how well the idea that the ‘dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality’ fitted with the notion I floated in my last piece  namely that some (perhaps much) ‘mental illness’ has its roots in an inability to learn the conventional way of seeing the world that most of us have adopted. Of course, from my point of view, I would insist on the inverted commas round ‘reality’ here, and I would resist the superiority implied in describing ‘top-down processing’ as ‘higher cognitive processes’.

In other words, Plato’s Theory of Forms – or ‘top-down processing’ if you prefer – is the very ‘carapace’ that we interpose between ourselves and reality, as discussed in my previous articles [here and here]. It is worth exploring this idea further.

The first thing to say is that we must remember, first and foremeost, that what we are discussing here are not actual things but ways of seeing – what Plato (and all who have followed) are offering is a way of looking at the world, a way of thinking about it – ‘seeing it as’ .

In saying this, I do not mean that before Plato no-one saw it this way and that since then everyone has learned consciously to do so. What Plato has made explicit and others (principally Aristotle) have refined is a technique, a way of dealing with the world, of operating in it, that was doubtless already implicit in much of our behaviour (though it would be interesting to know to what extent).

At the heart of this technique is abstraction, or the power to generalise, the trick of ignoring (superficial) difference and homing in on (underlying) similarity. This is certainly a very powerful tool: it enables us to use general terms, group things under the same head: ‘tree’ for all and any tree, ‘car’ ‘man’ ‘insect’ and so on. We can imagine that without it our mental processes might be very cumbersome; certainly our language would be. (I have discussed an aspect of this before, in relation to number, here).

I remember as a youth having an interesting discussion with an elderly Australian jesuit, Fr. John Flynn, an eminent islamic scholar among other things. His brother was a man of the same cut and had compiled one of the first dictionaries of the Australian Aboriginal tongue. One point that has stuck in my mind was that (apparently) they had no single verb ‘to wash’ but used a different word depending on what was being washed – the feet, the hands, the head, some article*. Fr Flynn cited this as evidence of ‘primitive’ thinking and I remember arguing that it might rather have been that, for them, more significance attached to the difference between the specific acts than to the similarity of the action, so that to suppose that washing the feet was like washing the face might strike them as ludicrous or possibly indecent.

This calls to mind what is said in the excerpt quoted above about one set of cognitive processes ‘over-riding’ another and the attitude this implies. We could say that the Aboriginal Australian (in the instance cited) has not developed the ‘higher’ cognitive processes that enable him to see that all acts of washing are essentially the same, share the same general form; but equally the Aboriginal Australian could retort that our debased ‘Western’ way of looking at things is a bit like having bad eyesight – we can no longer distinguish critical details. It is we who are deficient: we have forgotten how to see.

I find that idea exciting. It resonates with other things that I feel are bound up with this whole area of discussion, the question of what constitutes Reality and how best to perceive it. One is the celebrated ability of the Aboriginal Australian to ‘read’ the landscape and navigate without any of the aids that ‘Westerners’ require; when it comes to reading our surroundings, it is we who are illiterate. (When we lost this ability is an interesting matter to consider. There has recently been something of a revival in Britain of the idea of reading a landscape in this way (as here, for instance) and it is a commonplace that those who work close to nature and depend on it for their livelihood – shepherds, farmers, fishermen, say – are much more skilled in gleaning information from their surroundings.)

Another point of resonance is the experience of learning to draw, and developing skill in art generally; one of the first things you have to be aware of is the extent to which we allow concepts to interpose between us and the thing we are looking at. The simple exercise of drawing a familiar object – a cup, say – soon brings this home. We know what a cup is – we have the idea of it ‘in our head’: it seems superfluous to provide an example; we could draw one from our imagination. And to begin with, that is what we do. We fail to see the specific cup that is in front of us and draw our idea of it instead; we need to learn various techniques for seeing past the concept to the actual object, which is a pattern of light, shade and colour. (One such is the technique of ‘negative space’ where instead of attending to the object, you look at the space round about it (see some interesting applications here)).

Here I think we are approaching the heart of the matter, which is the possibility that we have evolved a way of seeing the world that has proved so useful and beneficial in so many respects that we have become blind to its shortcomings (it is, in fact, a form of elective indispensability, an idea I discuss in an earlier piece). The consequence is that when we experience difficulty as a result of these shortcomings – as I think is increasingly the case – we fail to recognise the source. We resemble, if you like, people who have become increasingly wearied and burdened by a heavy back-pack and try every method to make it easier to carry – walking sticks, different diet, improved fitness – save the obvious one of taking it off.

*I am open to correction here, as I am recalling something from forty years ago.

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3 Comments

Filed under philosophy

3 responses to “The Exploration of Inner Space III: What Plato’s got to do with it

  1. And we westerners have no simple verb for reading the landscape which maybe the australian aborigines have. The piece about washing fascinates me. In fact the whole post is an eye opener and a cause for much thought. Out of interest my sister (an artist by profession got me to sit down and draw negative space she chose a volcano kettle of which I am very familiar, Oh how my brain returned again and again to that familiarity. Thank you for this most thought provoking writ John..

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