Academic journal article Trames

Plato on the Rationality of Belief. Theaetetus 184-7

Academic journal article Trames

Plato on the Rationality of Belief. Theaetetus 184-7

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Christopher Bobonich (2002) and Hendrik Lorenz (2006) hold that an essential difference in Plato's later work from that of his earlier dialogues is that what it is to form a belief (doxa, doxazein1) is later understood to be a rational capacity, i.e. a capacity necessarily involving the rational part of the soul. In elucidating Plato's notion of 'rationality', Michael Frede (1996:6-14) points out that the Greek notion of reason and rationality differs from our modern conceptions in two important ways. First, the Greeks thought of reason as endowed with pre-existing knowledge, and second, as having desires and aims of its own (most notably the desire for truth and the desire for good). Both aspects of rationality are particularly prominent in Plato's philosophy. Bobonich and Lorenz focus on the first aspect of rationality, suggesting that Plato, in his later writings, thinks that the formation of beliefs requires a prior grasp of intelligibles (Forms2, concepts). In focusing on this second aspect of rationality, I will argue for an alternative account of the nature of belief formation in Plato's later work, namely that the formation of a belief is a rational activity because it is a goal-directed activity aiming at truth.

First, I lay out the standard view of the nature of belief formation and argue that it fails to explain certain features of the notion of belief in Plato's later dialogues and show that it lacks sufficient textual support. Theaetetus 184B-187A3 is most often cited to justify the standard view. The bulk of this paper consists of an analysis of this rather difficult passage. This passage is predominately interpreted in one of two ways. The Conceptualist Reading of Theaetetus 184B-187A supports the standard view of belief formation, whereas the Realist Reading, I will argue, supports the view that belief formation is an intrinsically truth-directed activity for Plato. The standard view is correct in that later Plato indeed regards belief formation as a rational activity, but it is mistaken as to why belief is rational for later Plato. Even in later Plato, Forms should not be understood as semantic entities, apprehension of which enables belief formation. It is the goal, rather than the cognitive preconditions, that makes belief formation a rational activity. That is to say, the truth-directedness of forming a belief explains certain significant features of Plato's characterization of belief in later dialogues; most notably, it helps to explain why Plato thinks that belief formation includes a surprising amount of reasoning and deliberation.

2. The standard view

Bobonich and Lorenz are by no means the first to hold a version of the standard view of belief formation, as a classical version of the standard view was held in the Old Academy by Xenocrates, and then later in antiquity by Proclus. (4) The classical version of the standard view maintains that already in the middle dialogues (e.g. in the Phaedo) belief formation and ordinary (non-philosophical) thinking require the grasp of the intelligibles (Forms). For example, when a non-philosopher forms a belief that something is beautiful, she is grasping, albeit confusedly, the Form of Beauty (say, by recollection). The classical version of the standard view has been challenged in recent decades by Dominic Scott (1995) who argues, I believe correctly, that Platonic recollection is a demanding activity in that it can only be accomplished by philosophers. Furthermore, Gail Fine (esp. 1993 and introduction to 2003) has argued that Forms, in Plato's middle dialogues, are not introduced for semantic reasons at all, but rather for epistemological (and metaphysical) purposes. Forms are thus real definitions (as opposed to nominal definitions) or corresponding explanatory properties and are apprehended by someone who has the relevant knowledge. That is to say, Forms remain outside the cognitive reach of non-philosophers, just as the underlying structure of water is outside the cognitive reach of one never introduced to the study of chemistry. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.