Having been dreadfully obsolete for several hundred years, it is a tragedy that Plato’s theory of ideas is still being taught as if it were fact. Plato’s influence might have been good in the past, but today it is destructive.
While all education is based on concepts, students rarely get to study the nature of concepts as such. They need to understand the distinction between terms, concepts and phenomena. We humans use terms (especially in the form of single words) to refer to concepts, and we use concepts (especially in the form of categories defined by being distinguished against each other) to comprehend phenomena. Terms and concepts are created, developed and reproduced in human brains and cultures. They are subjected to neurological quirks of human brains, as well as to all kinds of quirks of social dynamics. They are socially constructed: Terms and concepts is something that humans DO, they are active discursive actions.
We need to distinguish between physical reality outside us, internal realities inside us and social realities between us. While many phenomena exist in the physical world, the concepts we use to understand these phenomena (as well as the terms we use to refer to these concepts) exists only in our multitude of internal and social realities. The places where terms and concepts exist are the places inside us and between us.
Yet, Plato’s theory of ideas teaches us something completely different. It teaches that concepts comes from outside and above, not from within and between. It is an authoritarian theory, and Plato uses it to argue in favor of imposing a harsh dictatorship upon mankind: A theocracy of philosophy, where philosophers take the role of priest-kings. Philosophers set to interpret the true concepts, just like priests and oracles were set to interpret the true will of the Gods. Plato was an enemy of democracy, an enemy of intellectual freedom. Based on his theory, it is all but impossible to reach any other position.
Yet, this absurd theory is still taught as fact. Be it grade school, high school or university: If any theory of the nature of concept is taught at all, it is usually the pre-Kant theory of Plato that is being taught, rather than Kant’s far better theory regarding “the thing in itself” or any post-Kant theory.
As destructive as this may be, it is a modern problem. The pre-Kant world can’t be blamed for refusing to spread ideas that hadn’t been invented yet.
My question, then: What did Plato’s idea of “the world of ideas” truly contribute, in its own age?
Did it (A) discover the basic truth that phenomena and concepts need to be distinguished from each other?
Did it (B) strongly contribute to establishing philosophy as separate from religion?
Something else (E)?
If A or B or even C, then Plato’s contribution to mankind is truly remarkable. Personally, I’m most inclined to believe in D.
Did Plato truly discover the concept of “concept”? Surely the basic realization that our concepts about things are separate from the things themselves must be much older than a mere 2.500 years? There were other philosophers in Greece, and no matter how much western culture loves to deny it there were also philosophers elsewhere during and before the same era. Yesterday I read a book which sort of attributed this breakthrough to Plato. At this point I remain unconvinced, but I can’t disregard the notion that it might actually be true. If it is, then he did indeed contribute one of the greatest breakthrough in the history of human civilization. Far greater than the discovery of the number “zero”.
Did Plato really lay the groundwork for secular philosophy? Well, this can be seen in two very different ways. One is what his idea in itself contributed, while the other is what social acceptance of his idea contributed. To me, the concept of a “world of ideas” being located above and outside of us humans seems like a way of neutering secular philosophy, bringing it back into the fold of theocratic thinking while merely replacing the concept of “Gods” with the concept of “Ideas”. Then again, this kind of neutering may very well be what was needed to get theocratic civilizations to accept philosophy. Giving philosophy an excuse to exist, and thus a chance to grow into something that could eventually liberate itself from dogmatism.
Regardless of this, Platonism must have done wonder for many intellectuals self-esteem if not for their actual thinking. Elevating them to the status of being the true oracles, the ones who has the power to reach the World of Ideas.
One book I once read claimed that Plato wasn’t actually regarded as a very good philosopher by his own peers. In his own age more famous for arguing that the books of rival philosophers should be burned than for his own contribution, having been elevated to the status of The Greatest Philosopher of All Times only after many centuries had passed.
Me, I don’t know. But I want to know more. As deeply embedded in western cultural identity as Plato is, historical fact is even harder to distinguish from propaganda in a case like his. Please tell me if you have any good sources to recommend.