Friday, October 28, 2011

Plato's, REPUBLIC: In defense of the "A Priori Method"

Recall that Peirce identified four methods for the fixation of belief: tenacity, authority, a priori, and science. Plato is the undisputed king of the a priori method, therefore it's worth looking into the epistemological assumptions that underlie Plato's ideal state. As you dive into "Book 1" of the Republic, it becomes immediately evident that Socrates is playing an active role in guiding the conversation toward a conclusion. Plato called this process of "questioning and answering" the dialectic, which is known today as the basis of all human inquiry. In the early going, the main question to be addressed is clearly identified: "What is justice?" Of course, the underlying assumption is that it is possible to "know" what justice "really is" and whether this knowledge has some kind of a foundation, and whether this knowledge is accessible to everyone. Throughout history, philosophers have defended one of two alternative "foundations" for human knowledge: the empirical foundation and the rational foundation. Empiricist philosophers anchor human knowledge in the observation of either: an exterior material world that resides "outside" of the human mind; or, an interior world of ideas that lies "inside" the human mind. Today, most philosophers and scientists are empiricists in the materialist tradition. Since Plato, rationalism has been associated with with the reality of this internal world of a priori ideas.

Plato grounded his rational foundation in a priori knowledge; that is, knowledge that exists "before human experience." In other words, Plato believed that the human mind comes front-loaded with a body of knowledge. Plato and subsequent rationalists tend to identify "real knowledge" with timeless universality. However, according to Plato, if you want to gain access to this vast body of timelessly, universal Truth you must possess both innate intelligence (nature) and many years of training and education (nurture). Plato argued that stable political regimes must have leaders that possess timelessly universal knowledge. Thus political science is mostly about identifying naturally intelligent leaders and educating them. One of the necessary conditions for entering the a priori world is the natural ability to learn mathematics and geometry. Therefore, before any student could enroll in Plato's school, "The Academy," they had to know mathematics and geometry.

What's so special about mathematics and geometry? Well, they both provide access to timelessly, universal truth; that is, 7+5=12 always was and always will be true...everywhere in the universe! Therefore, knowledge of mathematics and geometry provides students with an initial glimpse into this internal world of a priori truth.  Now...back to justice! If you want to answer the question "What is justice and how do you come to know it?" There are two possibilities. You can "look out" at instances of justice in the material world, or you can "look in" at the idea of justice. Obviously, if you look at material world, you'll probably find more "injustice" than "justice," therefore that's not a very promising strategy. Therefore, Socrates chooses to explore the ideas of "justice" and "injustice." Socrates argues that the concepts of  "justice" and "injustice" possess a timelessly, universal form that transcends all human languages. Unfortunately, not all of us are capable of knowing the difference between justice and injustice, therefore we must acknowledge (and trust) the authority of those naturally gifted, well-trained experts. So in an ideal political regime, authority must be based on the possession of privileged, timelessly universal knowledge that only a few can possess. Followers must be taught to submit to the authority of this naturally gifted, carefully groomed "class" of "philosopher kings."

Now in Book 1, Thrasymachus argues that "justice is in the interest of the stronger." Most of his arguments, and Glaucon's and Adeimantus' subsequent arguments are based mostly on empirical observation of how powerful humans, in fact, behave in the "material world." But does the apparent fact that the unjust tend to fare better than the unjust, necessarily imply that injustice is preferable to injustice? Interestingly, over the next nine books, Plato attempts to prove that the unjust do not, in fact, fare better than the rest of us. now you're you're probably wondering, "What is justice?" Well, you'll have to read the rest of the book. As you read, pay close attention to "Gyges Ring" and the "Allegory of the Metals" (gold, silver, and bronze).                   

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Plato's, REPUBLIC: Introductory Remarks

For the next few weeks I'll be using the Freedom's Philosopher blog to post supplemental reading for my philosophy courses. The first few entries will be on Plato's Republic.

Although there is very little agreement among contemporary philosophers...about anything! I suspect that most of us agree the Plato's Republic is the greatest and most important work in all of Western Philosophy. It has, without a doubt, exerted a profound influence on the subsequent development of both Western philosophy and political science. It's certainly one of those timelessly universal classics. At times, you'll get the sense that Plato is writing directly to those of us living in the twenty-first century. Although it was written in 375 B.C., I want you to read the Republic as if it were written in 2011. What kinds of questions does Plato ask? What are his answers? Are these questions and answers relevant today? Can we learn anything from this ancient Greek philosopher?

Well...who was Plato? Actually, we know a lot about him. There are many references to Plato made by ancient philosophers, historians, and other writers. Plato also left behind and astonishing body of philosophical work, about 35 dialogues that address a wide variety philosophical questions. In these dialogues, Socrates is the main character. We also know that Socrates was, in fact, the "teacher" of Plato and his brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon and that Socrates, apparently, never wrote anything. Therefore, most of what we know about him and his philosophy is from other sources. One might question whether Plato's dialogues accurately document Socrates' thought, or wheter Plato merely used Socrates as the main character in his own dialogues to articulate his own views. I'm not particularly interested in that question.

I assume that Plato was profoundly influenced by not only Socrates, but also by other historical forces. For example, we know that the dialogue depicts a fictional conversation that took place between 431 and 411. We know that Plato was deeply influenced by the Pelopponesian War (431-404) between the city-states (and empires) of Athens and Sparta. Therefore, we know that most of Plato's political thought responds to the political arrangements of those warring city states: Athens was a Democracy, Sparta was an Oligarchy. We know that Socrates served honorably in that war, and that although he was a stone mason by trade, he spent most of his time teaching philosophy to the "youth of Athens" (young men).  Finally, we also know that Socrates was put to death in 399 by the Athenian government, for "corrupting the youth of Athens" and "worshipping false Gods" and that Plato wrote a series of dialogues that depict the trial and death of his teacher.  (Apology, Crito, and Phaedo)

The over-riding theme of the Republic is established in the Book 1, where Socrates is invited to a party, where the conversation eventually converges on the question: "What is justice?" After Socrates effectively dismisses several incomplete theories, Thrasymachus (a local sophist) argued that justice is "nothing more than the interest of the stronger." Although, Socrates initially presented Thrasymachus with several semi-plausible counter-arguments, Thrasymachus left the discussion rather abruptly, and Plato's brothers took over the argument. Throughout the next nine books, Socrates attempts to convince Glaucon and Adeimantus that Thrasymachus' views is wrong. As you read the Republic be aware of the following elements: "Justice is in the interest of the stronger," Gyges Ring, The Divided Line and the Allegory of the Sun (Plato's theory of knowledge), the Noble Lie (gold, silver, bronze), three part division of the soul and the state, tyranny, democracy, oligarchy, timocracy, and aristocracy, and the Myth of Er. Our class discussions will focus on these elements. My next blog will outline Plato's theory of knowledge and how it relates to the refutation of Thrasymachus.           

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Is Bigger Really Better?" Part 2

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, we now live in a world dominated by large, complex, impersonal, and ineffective social institutions: corporations, schools, hospitals, and a variety of governmental entities. At the moment we're just now beginning to realize that governmental entities such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are in dire need of reform. The U.S. military has been on a functional losing streak here recently, despite the fact that we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Interestingly, we rarely conclude that these entities are just too large and complex to be functional. Instead, we vacuously argue that all they really need is a little reform; that is, we believe that we need new and more effective rules and/or more intelligent, dedicated, monitors and enforcers. However, when we look large-scale exemplars of functionality that might serve as a models for other large institutions, we find ourselves at a loss. My point here is that we've all been blinded to large scale dysfunctionality by an ideology that tells us, repeatedly, that "bigger is better," despite an enormous body of evidence to the contrary.
So how has most of Western civilization been infected by an ideological disease that has led to our prevailing epidemic of institutional dysfunctionality? Much of it can be explained by human nature. The fact is that human beings have an uncanny ability to "identify" with groups. Throughout most of human history we identified with small groups: families, clans, and tribes. The agricultural revolution led to the formation of much larger groups (cities, empires, and nations) that were held together not by face-to-face personal relationships but by the imposition of abstract rules and laws. The belief in the sanctity of laws led to a corresponding belief in the sanctity of lawmakers. In fact, many large-scale rulers still rule by "Divine Right." Today, we still teach our children to "respect" leaders, especially their parents, teachers, religious leaders, and government officials. This demand for respect for formal authority was "backed up" by systems of monitoring and enforcement. As the number of formal rules increased, so did the number of monitors and enforcers. And of course, those "bureaucrats" really do not produce anything of value, but nevertheless draw paychecks. In fact, not only do they draw paychecks, they now draw heftier paychecks than those who actually produce something of value. Thus, today we have a growing number of highly-paid bureaucrats and a dwindling number of lowly-paid producers. Ironically, under this cultural anamoly, when we get "promoted" it usually means that we take on more "responsibility" in terms of monitoring and enforcement, but produce less value.

Now let's be honest! This is not a mere cultural anamoly, it's a full blown epidemic. Today we're faced with the realization that our lives are shaped by more rules and laws than we can possibly know, and more monitors and enforcers than we can afford to pay. And of course, as the number monitors and enforcers increase, the number of innovators declines proportionately. Unquestioned rule compliance, therefore,  invariably leads to a stagnant society of obedient followers led by non-substantive, ineffective, inefficient leaders. Although, I blame the "bigger is better" ideology for our current epidemic of dysfunctionality, we must ultimately blame ourselves for believing it.