Plato famously thought that knowledge was only of non-perceptible forms, which do not have bodies and are not anywhere. About perceptible things, which have bodies and are somewhere, we can have only beliefs. Yet Plato also obviously thought that our knowledge of forms would improve our cognitive grasp of perceptible things. The project explored this connection.
Jonathan Beere argues for a new interpretation of Plato’s views about the metaphysics of bodies in the Timaeus. Are bodies made of or in the so-called Receptacle? In “The Receptacle as a Material Base for Bodies in Plato’s TIMAEUS” he argues that the interpretation of the Receptacle has suffered from confusion about the notion of matter. The matter of something is a constituent of it. The Receptacle plays some of the theoretical roles that are played by matter. Most importantly, it endures through changes, including the coming into being and passing away of elementary bodies. However, it is not matter because it is not a component of those bodies. The bodies are in it and, more importantly, the bodies are in it in virtue of certain properties that the Receptacle has. Nevertheless, the bodies are not made of Receptacle. The Receptacle is in no sense part of them. This relationship between bodies and the Receptacle both explains why the bodies are not properly knowable – due to their dependence on the Receptacle, which is not properly knowable – and also why a grasp of the forms improves our understanding of bodies – because they are properties, which are imitations of forms, in the Receptacle.
Jonathan Beere takes another approach in a forthcoming paper on Plato’s Sophist. One role for knowledge of forms, he argues, is to explain which contradictions are genuine and which are only apparent. This is of crucial importance for Plato, because Plato thinks that it is the basis on which to distinguish genuine wisdom from the phony wisdom of sophists. In the Sophist, Plato gives a definition of the sophist’s skill, which has, according to Beere, been poorly understood. The sophist has a skill of exploiting the appearance of contradiction, without any real understanding of contradiction. Only someone who had knowledge of the forms – that is, wisdom – would reliably recognize genuine and false contradictions.
In a further major piece of work, Jonathan Beere is writing about the possibility of the ideal city described in Plato’s Republic. Is this city possible or not? In what sense is it possible or impossible? Why does Socrates doubt whether it is possible? And what is at stake for Plato in the question whether it is possible? Beere argues that the political significance of Plato’s depends on the possibility of the best city. But we have to distinguish between two senses of possible: naturally possible and possible for existing cities. Socrates leaves unanswered the question whether the community of women and children is naturally possible. But he insists that the philosopher-king is both naturally possible and possible for existing cities. For this reason, on Beere’s reading, the community of women children, whether or not it is naturally possible, is an ideal that existing cities can become like. This sheds light on how we are to act, in the political contexts in which we actually live. We may well withdraw from political activity in the ordinary sense, but we will not withdraw from political activity as Plato understands it.
the value and nature of knowledge for Plato
Joseph Bjelde has explored the value and nature of knowledge for Plato. It is often thought that, for Plato, knowledge has greater value than belief because knowledge is more reliable than belief. On this view, the abilities to justify and explain in speech are no more than a byproduct of knowledge acquisition. Joseph Bjelde argues instead that, for Plato, knowledge is much more closely connected to such verbal abilities and it is these abilities that make knowledge more valuable than true belief. In particular, knowledge is closely tied to an ability to teach. Knowledge is teachable because to know just is, for Plato, to have an ability to teach others what you know. This ability consists in a number of other abilities that are, broadly speaking, dialectical abilities: for instance, abilities to explain why alternatives are wrong or less likely, to answer objections, or to give structure to complicated facts so that they are more easily understandable. Such dialectical abilities are on display not only in Plato’s dialogues, but also in Xenophon’s Socratic writings, and in Aristotle’s handbook on dialectic (the Topics), so Bjelde has also considered how these texts bear on the dialectical abilities that come with knowledge. (Since understanding these abilities is crucial for understanding what knowledge is, for Plato, it is also crucial for understanding what knowledge can be of. Just as a carpenter’s abilities do not simply transfer from wood to metal, allowing them to make furniture from metal as well as wood, so also the abilities which are criterial for knowledge may not apply to spatial objects.)