In the early days of the Philosophers’ Magazine, we quickly realised that the easiest and surest way to get attention for our little publication was to run polls. The first of these revealed another truth: when it comes to reputation, people prefer tearing down to building up. In coverage of the results, hardly anyone in the press reported that the philosopher deemed to have made the greatest contribution to the subject was Aristotle. Instead they gleefully dwelt on the list of the most overrated philosophers, topped by Derrida, followed by Marx.
I felt a little guilty about this use of click-bait avant la lettre. Nonetheless, calling out those whose influence on western thought has been too strong remains an important task. I’m not being ironic when I say that one such philosopher stands head and shoulders above the rest. He came second to Aristotle in our poll and his book The Republic topped a later vote on the greatest ever work of philosophy. He is, of course, Plato.
You could never call Plato overrated. He was clearly a genius of sorts. He set the terms of philosophical debates that have run for millennia and many of his own positions have lasted as long, albeit with revisions. But on virtually every point that mattered he was disastrously wrong, and his errors entrenched fundamental mistakes that would hamper philosophy and intellectual culture forever more.
Plato’s argument that the soul could survive the death of the body established a dualistic model of mind and matter that still hampers our thinking today. Descartes is often blamed for this, but by the time he was arguing cogito ergo sum the immaterial soul was already a mainstream idea. It was the Platonic influence on Christianity that led too many in the religion to lose sight of the Gospel accounts of a physical resurrection and to think of the soul as superior to and separate from the body.
Plato is also responsible for an unrealistic ideal of what true knowledge is. The Socrates portrayed by Plato is often thought admirable for his claim that he really knew nothing, but it is not modesty to announce that knowing this makes you the wisest person in Athens. Besides, the claim that “the only thing that we know is that we know nothing” only makes sense if the bar for knowledge is set too high, requiring absolute certainty. If we had paid more attention to the more modest aspirations of Aristotle we would not have got so sidetracked by sceptical concerns that true knowledge is impossible.
Plato also established the method of defining terms by necessary and sufficient conditions (although that terminology came later). So, for example, he considered the idea that knowledge is justified true belief, meaning that for a belief to count as knowledge it is both necessary and sufficient that it is true and justified. This kind of search for strict definitions has dominated western philosophy but we now know that this is not how language works. In different ways the psychologist Eleanor Rosch and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein both described how words are far more indeterminate and that the only way to understand their meaning is to understand how they are used. The philosophers’ search for precision in meanings is like trying to draw a clear line around a fuzzy object.
Another of Plato’s mistakes was his weird methodological assumption that it is obligatory to define what something purely and ideally is before even trying to achieve it. We’ve seen this with knowledge but it is also evident in his approach to justice. As Amartya Sen argued in his incisive The Idea of Justice, this is wrong-headed on virtually every count. If we wait until we all agree on precisely what justice means before trying to create it, we’ll be here until doomsday. Nor should we expect there to be one, single ideal of justice anyway. It has many dimensions, not always compatible with each other. But although we may not agree on what perfect justice looks like, we can easily agree on what counts as manifest injustice here and now. And that’s what we should focus on.
Even Plato’s celebrated Socratic method is more of a hindrance than a help. Many different organisations claim to use a version of this as a means of facilitating group enquiry. The method involves agreeing on a question, and then through relentless probing and dialogue finding a consensus about a provisional answer. It’s wonderful but has little to do with what Socrates is portrayed as getting up to in Athens. The original Socratic method is for Socrates to dictate the terms of the debate, explicitly or by cunning orchestration of the discussion, with the merely destructive goal of shredding whatever hypotheses his interlocutors propose. There is no real dialogue. The people he talks to generally say “yes, Socrates,” “no, Socrates,” “of course, Socrates” except in those moments when their ignorance explodes into frustration and they have the temerity to outline an idea that Socrates then carefully demolishes. Not just philosophy but much western intellectual culture has been modelled on this negative, adversarial model of debate.
The problem with Plato is not that he was stupid. Quite the opposite. No fool could have shaped the western mind as completely as he did. We’re paying the price for his brilliance because he made ingenious, compelling arguments for too many wrong ideas. It takes an exceptional intellect to make so many mistakes that have lasted so long.