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There would have been a Plato without Plato

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAugust 19, 2011 1:20 AM


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In the comments of my post "Platonism is useful only when it’s useful" several people made a few references to Plato, as well as Platonism. That is fair and makes sense. And there's a deep strain of anti-Plato sentiment amongst respectable people (e.g., Karl Popper). I assume of the two ancient Greek philosophers of renown, Plato and Aristotle, most readers would be more sympathetic to the latter. He may have gotten a lot wrong, but Aristotle's more empirical bent is probably more congenial to many moderns than Plato's greater reliance on abstract theory. But I don't think that we can put Platonism at the feet of Plato. There are deep human intuitions about the nature of reality, which Plato and his followers systematized at an early date. But this systematization would have happened at some point in history, and we would have termed it by some name, which would be reviled and lauded by intellectual partisans of a later age. Rather than inveigh against Plato, we need to be cognizant and aware of our own biases. The human cognitive toolkit seems to be a faulty statistical machine, and that's because it leans strongly on ideals. Archetypes, prototypes, whatever you wish to call them. The psychologist Paul Bloom has written about this topic for years, whether speaking of "dualism" or "essentialism." The details aren't important. The key is just to observe that some ideas, great or pernicious, are in the air around us, waiting to be clarified and made more precise by a man or movement of genius. But the ultimate root remains basic human nature quite, not the rational reflective mind.

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