The Platonic Conception
Of Philosophy

The passages below have been excerpted from the article "Philosophy" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 6 (Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1967), pp. 217-218:

"According to a tradition deriving from Heraclides Ponticus (a disciple of Plato), Pythagoras was the first to describe himself as a philosopher. Three classes of people, he is alleged to have said, attend the festal games: those who seek fame by taking part in them; those who seek gain by plying their trade; and those ('the best people') who are content to be spectators (Diogenes Laertius, De Vita et Moribus Philosophorum I, 12). Philosophers resemble the third class: spurning both fame and profit, they seek to arrive at the truth by contemplation. Pythagoras distinguished between the sophia sought by the philosopher (knowledge based on contemplation) from the practical shrewdness of the businessman and the trained skills of the athlete. Whether or not these distinctions date back to the historic Pythagoras, they can certainly be found in Plato, who was much preoccupied with the question of what philosophy is and how it differs from other forms of inquiry. Some of Plato's contemporaries had thought of his master, Socrates, as a sage, some thought of him as a Sophist, and some thought of him as a cosmologist. In Plato's eyes, Socrates was none of these; he was a philosopher. But what made him different?

"The Platonic conception of philosophy. For Plato, the first characteristic of philosophical wisdom is that it can face the test of critical discussion. As is suggested in the Apology (22), this criterion at once rules out almost every type of what is ordinarily called wisdom. Neither the statesman nor the artisan nor the poet can explain why he is doing what he is doing; none of them has formulated a clear, articulate, discussible system of ideas and principles. That a man sometimes does the wise or right or beautiful thing is no evidence that he possesses philosophical wisdom; he must be able to give grounds for his action that will stand up to cross-examination.

"Second, philosophy, according to Plato, makes use of a method peculiar to it, which he calls 'dialectic'. The exact nature of the Platonic dialectic is obscure, but this much is clear: philosophy proceeds by criticizing received opinions. Even mathematics, the most developed of the sciences, is subject to philosophical criticism. According to Plato, mathematics rests on inarticulate assumptions, and it is the philosopher's task to bring these into the open and examine them critically. Philosophy is the highest form of inquiry, just because it alone involves no presuppositions.

"Third, Plato suggests, the philosopher has direct access to 'true Reality,' as distinct from the ordinary world of ever-changing things. That is precisely why he can offer the final criticism of received opinions. Having direct access to reality, he has no need of assumptions or guesswork. Philosophy concerns itself with the relationship between eternal and unchanging entities -- the only entities about which it is possible to have 'knowledge,' as distinct from mere belief or 'opinion'. Hence, the philosopher seeks wisdom of a very special kind -- certainty about the true nature of reality.

"Fourth, to apprehend the true nature of reality is to know what everything is for. To understand the real nature of man, for example, is to know toward what ideal it is man's nature to strive. In the Phaedo (98-99), Plato suggests that the Ionian cosmologists did not possess philosophical wisdom, precisely because they had no understanding of purposes. They could not explain why, for example, Socrates did not run away from prison; to understand Socrates' behavior they would have had to take account of Socrates' ideals, as distinct from the structure of Socrates' body.

"Fifth, it is on account of his knowledge of ideals that the philosopher knows how men ought to live. The Sophists professed to teach their pupils how to make immediate gains, how to win friends and influence people. This, Plato says, cannot be done. The art of making immediate gains is not a form of knowledge; it involves quick wits and rapid judgment. In such contexts the philosopher may well look like a fool. But when it is a question of understanding the general nature of man -- and, in consequence, of human society -- men must turn to philosophy. That is why the ideal ruler would be a philosopher."

Further Reading

What Philosophy Is.

Plato And The Theory Of Forms.