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Interpreting Plato

by D.R. Khashaba

[This is an edited version of the first section of the Introduction to my newly published Plato: An Interpretation.] [1]

Our understanding of Plato and our understanding of the nature of philosophy are two sides of a coin. The dominant academic conception of the nature of philosophical thinking vitiates both our understanding of philosophy and our interpretation of Plato.

The sorry plight into which philosophy has fallen, was the result of philosophy having been expected, and its being deluded into claiming, to serve the same ends as science. It was expected to, and foolishly claimed to, seek true and certain factual knowledge. This is a snare philosophy has to extricate itself from. Unfortunately, this pernicious confusion of philosophy with science has confounded all the terms needed for discussing the question: 'knowledge', 'truth', 'understanding', 'reason', etc., all of these terms suffer ambiguity and can lead to much obfuscation and misunderstanding unless we pay careful attention to the special usage of an individual writer. Because I aim at a radical revision of our understanding of these terms I am painfully aware of the fact that I am especially liable to be misunderstood when using them.

Just as facts about the natural world cannot be quarried from within the human mind, so understanding cannot be found outside of the human mind. If we choose, as is reasonable, to confine the epithet 'truth' to the ascertainment of facts, then since, as Kant saw, no factual knowledge can be derived from pure reasoning, we can say that pure reasoning is not concerned with truth. Our factual knowledge cannot extend beyond our experience, as Locke and Hume rightly insisted. On the other hand all meaning, all intelligibility, we 'find' in the given phenomena of experience, is infused into the phenomena by the mind. It is only then that they turn from blind and brute experiential stuff into ordered, meaningful facts.

Furthermore, the mind not only projects patterns that give meaningfulness and intelligibility to the content of experience, but goes on to create second-order and third-order ideas and ideals that have their whole being in the mind, and have reality (as, in my usage, opposed to existence) in the special sense of constituting a plane of being realized in active, creative intelligence. 'God', 'the soul', moral ideals and values, as creations of the mind, are fictions or myths if you will, but they constitute the reality of the spiritual plane of being that is the peculiar characteristic of humankind.

Religion is wrong when it represents these as facts and houses them in space and time. Science is wrong when it discounts these realities because they fail the criteria of objective verifiability. Philosophy is wrong when it thinks itself obliged to choose between siding with the irrationality of religious faith on the one hand and accepting the reductionist verdict of objective science on the other hand.

Philosophy should see itself as a species of poetry, rational poetry, creatively and coherently dreaming, mythologizing, unfolding the realities of the spiritual life, soberly confessing its outpourings to be dreams, fictions, and myths, but dreams, fictions, and myths that constitute our proper, true, and most precious realities. This, I believe, was the profound insight and vision of Plato, and this, I believe, was the essence of Kant's outlook, though Kant was too much under the influence of the rationalism of his age to give full, clear, and consistent expression to his basically true outlook.

At one point in the Phaedo (84c-88b) both Simmias and Cebes raise objections to Socrates' initial argument for the immortality of the soul. In responding to Cebes, Socrates begins by giving an account of his experience with philosophical thinking, the famous 'autobiography' (96a-101e), which amounts to renouncing not only all objective knowledge but also all demonstration or proof in philosophy. This is what I refer to as the Socratic principle of philosophic ignorance.

In philosophy we do not seek, and can never have, proven conclusions: we seek intelligibility, understanding, a coherent vision. We approach that goal when we have a system or network of concepts, ideals, values, that is internally coherent and harmonious and has the virtue of infusing the various phases and aspects of our life-experience with meaningfulness and value. That is how philosophy, and only philosophy, can take over the role that religion formerly played in human society. As I have been repeatedly saying, a philosophy creates a universe of discourse which brings into being a domain of intelligibility in which the mind can have its proper life as active, creative intelligence.

This poses a philosophical dilemma. If there can be no finality in philosophical thinking, if no philosophical conclusions can be definitive or certain, how can we avoid thoroughgoing relativism in morals and scepticism in general? At this point in the Phaedo (88c-91c), Socrates warns his audience against losing faith in reason in words that superficially sound like a reversal of the Socratic principle of philosophic ignorance. But only superficially, for Socrates finds assurance in the self-evidence of the intelligible form. In the end, we find the only secure ground in the reality of the active, creative nous; we find that phronesis is the whole of virtue and the whole of reality.

The Socratic principle of philosophic ignorance in Plato develops into the dialectic that destroys its own hypotheses. To overcome Pyrrhonism, ancient and modern, and out-and-out relativism, we need a conception of dynamic rationality, where reason is constantly alive and active and never static. Antisthenes and Wittgenstein equally suffered for want of such a dynamic conception of reason.

The Socratic conception of the intelligible is the foundation of Platonism. The intelligible is born in the mind. No idea comes to us from outside. No sensation is in itself intelligible. The idea of equality is not derived from experience. We might see a million equal things a million times and still not have the idea 'equal' until it flashes in the mind: "Of course, these are equal!" And it is not necessary to see many equal things to form the idea 'equal'; a single pair of equal things seen only once can be the occasion for the creation of the idea. Again, we can have the idea 'equal' and apply it to many equals without having the idea 'equality', which we should not call a higher abstraction but a higher-order idea.

And this is not true only of imperceptible things like the idea 'equal'. We can see trees and have no idea of a tree until we single it out of the nebulous totality of seen things and give it a distinctive character. My seeing a tree is an event. But my calling it a tree, my knowing it for a tree, is a rational act, a creative act of the mind, by which the tree becomes to me, not a given thing, not an impression fed into me from outside, but a meaning. This is the essence of Socrates' distinction between the intelligible and the perceptible.

Socrates, because of his preoccupation with morals, did not speak of the ideas of physical things, but only of ethical notions. But the extension and development of the idea is true to the Socratic insight. Scholars, failing to appreciate the revolutionary originality of Socrates' conception of the intelligible realm and of the creativity of the mind, and seeing the Platonic 'separate forms' and 'separate soul' as novel doctrines without foundation in the Socratic quest, make Socrates into a tame preacher of common morality and Plato into a foolish advocate of indefensible doctrines.

A philosophical problem opens up for human thought a domain for creative conceptual exploration. That is the principal thing that an original thinker contributes to the human cultural heritage. A 'solution' to the problem is a mapping of the domain from a particular perspective. Thales gave us the problem of the universe. Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Whitehead (to pick up names at random) gave their various mappings of the Problembereich (to use a happy German word). Socrates gave us the problem of the intelligible realm and the problem of the eternity of the soul (camouflaged in Plato's works as the immortality of the soul). Parmenides gave us the problem of Reality, of which Plato gave the grandest, sublimest mapping in the vision of the Form of the Good. These are all creative conceptions that you cannot find in or derive from anything outside the mind.

I have repeatedly put forward the view that philosophy is a creative endeavour, oracularly proclaiming ideas and ideals that confer meaning and value on the givennesses of experience and on human life. In philosophical thinking we start from a given, more or less chaotic whole, and proceed to a creative, imaginative re-presentation in a more coherent whole. The representation is creative — no formal rules can make it necessarily derivable from the initial whole — and being a representation it is necessarily a falsification. Not being necessarily derivable, the derivation can always be challenged. Being necessarily a falsification, the representation can always be refuted. This is the explanation of the endless controversies of philosophers. However carefully framed the premises, however astutely guarded the derivation, the consequence brings in something that is only there by grace of creativity. It is an impostor, though a divine impostor.

An original philosopher, who will not merely re-state the views of others, finds a new way of looking at things. That philosopher then presents her/his view, expounds it, elucidates it, exemplifies it, sings paeans in its praise. All of that is as it should be. But then s/he goes on to say that all other views are wrong, which is bad enough, but what is worse is that s/he does not stop at that but goes on to 'prove' that all other views are wrong by showing that they fail to reveal what her/his vision reveals, not realizing that the 'truth' thus revealed is the product of the peculiar way of looking at things. This is the source of all philosophical feuds. Philosophers should realize that every philosopher creates — strictly speaking — a whole new intelligible universe that does not negate other intelligible universes.

There are propositions which any human being worth his salt will be willing to fight for and die for, but not — if s/he be a true philosopher — assert as definitively literal truth. In philosophical discussion, a conclusion is only anagkaion ek ton homolegemenon, a phrase we meet with frequently in the dialogues: what is necessary is only necessary as proceeding from what has earlier been agreed; but what has been agreed can always be questioned, and must always be questioned, if we are not to be enslaved by our own creations. In philosophy no statement is ever good for good, simply and without qualification. Plato is never forgetful of this. Those who speak with assurance of Plato'a theory of this and theory of that should remind themselves of this.

It is a paradox of human thought and human communication that we are necessitated to carry out our thinking and our intercourse in ambiguous terms. The Leibnizian dream of a perfect language is a chimera. Except within systems of purely formal, abstract symbols, which, however enormous may be their practical utility, are of strictly restricted applicability, all living thought and discourse, all thought and discourse relating to (I am at a loss for an epithet) 'concrete', 'real', 'organic' situations, can only be carried out in fluid, ambiguous, hazy terms. Otherwise they would fail to be relevant to the ever-changing, never-static, actualities of life.

That is why in poetry and in philosophy at its best, language is most indefinite and most inspirative. When people are oblivious of this, individual thinking is dogmatic, bigoted, intolerant, and conversants throw all kinds of accusations at each other. If and when we are aware of this insight which Socrates and Plato never tired of disseminating, we can humbly and patiently work continually towards more and more clarity in our understanding of ourselves and towards more mutual sympathetic understanding with our fellow-humans.

Plato more than once speaks of giving a logos alethes when he is about to offer a muthos. The two are inseparable: the logos alethes can only be embodied in myth. This is the lesson about the nature of philosophical thinking that we should have learned from Plato, but which we are too clever to grasp.

Plato gave us the profoundest truths about ourselves and about Reality in winged myths — the eternal forms, the immortal soul, anamnesis. Our learned scholars turn the myths into silly dogmata, into transparently erroneous doctrines, and all is lost: the inspirational core, the inspired insight, is dissipated when its housing shell of myth is shattered.

Thus scholars find in Plato's works theories that they proceed to prove untenable, and since those theories are all they see in Plato, or all they are interested in, with their demolition are lost all the insights he clothed in those 'theories' — insights that have enriched humanity, that have in truth translated humanity into a new plane of being. Our life has been so much the poorer because we insist on being so much the cleverer. We have become materialists instead of idealists, and we tell ourselves that it can't be helped, that otherwise we would be fooling ourselves. And why is that so? Only because we have fallen to the scientistic delusion: we think that our philosophy must be true to and of the world. We fail to see that theoretical materialism and theoretical idealism are nothing but ways of looking at things and that it is entirely up to us to adopt this or that view. Our philosophy has nothing to do with the way the world is and has everything to do with what life we choose to live.

It is futile to subject the writings of Plato to the rigour of logical analysis, whether to refute him by showing him to be inconsistent or to vindicate him by discovering consistency underneath the apparent inconsistency. Plato does not give us a neat philosophical system. Plato gives us insight and inspiration that help us look into our own reality to which we may then give expression in philosophical positions of our own making. The harmony and unity in Plato's overall philosophical positions come from the unity of the radical insight into that one reality, our own reality as intelligent beings, which then flows and meanders in many streams that may diverge or criss-cross without disowning their common source.

Scholars torment themselves needlessly in trying to hammer Plato's various views and positions into a well-ordered and consistent system. He was not giving an account of objective actualities but giving mythical expression to ineffable realities, and was at liberty to modify his images and imaginative descriptions. You don't ask a painter who paints several landscapes of a favourite location to make copies of his own work, or one who paints more than one portrait of a single person, even at one and the same period of his subject's life, to produce identical portraits. It is our confusing the nature of philosophy with that of science (which alone is concerned with objective actualities), that is at the root of interminable scholarly controversy and endless futile attempts to force the thought of great creative philosophers into nicely set moulds. Plato only provides the most remarkable illustration of this because he is the most highly creative, but it is true in the case of all great philosophers, the more so the more profound and original a philosopher is.

So, to each her or his own Plato. Accordingly, I present my own Plato. I ask no one to say that I am right, but let no one say that I am wrong. akoue de to emon onar, eite dia keraton eite di' elephantos eleluthen: hear then my dream, be it coming through the horn or through the ivory gate. (Charmides, 173a).


1. Plato: An Interpretation (2005), published by Publishing. See

© D. R. Khashaba 2005