The Complexity and Danger of Platonism or Infatuation with Universal Truths


The Cave

The visual I wanted to use is too complex for this space, but I promise that going to the following URL will be rewarding in terms of putting you into contact with the many forms of anti-Platonism.×768-wallpaper-i-made-of-the-six

Monotheism tends to encourage dogmatism.

Nationalism tends to germinate wars.

Loyalty to Plato’s contention that abstractions exist in a singular universal form disrupts openness to claims originating from multiple thoughtful perspectives. Leave the cave, and see the real.

In short when we believe we have seen or can see with “god’s eye”, we understandably feel pity and contempt for those who do not see with the clarity and accuracy that we claim. We want to repair them.

In the natural world within particular definitional systems and in identical contexts, we humans can arrive at truths that should be accepted by Asians and Europeans, men and women, rich and poor, young and old, and those with any sexual preference. In other words, in that scenario, statements that can comfortably bear the weight of universal reality can and should be respected. Some chemical combinations are simply more useful in treating strep throat than others. And the distance to the moon from a particular point in space at a particular time is best understood as one distance and not an array of dozens of possible distances.

But leave the orderly part of our experience and the arrogance of claims of universal truth pollute our efforts to listen and understand.

Consider 2 examples, one contemporary and one from right after the death of Socrates.

1. Michael Shermer is a generally literate and incisive scholar. He is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a regular columnist for Scientific American. In a recent diatribe about alleged tendencies in the humanities in the June, 2015 Scientific American, he praised the work of a particular humanist for joining him in working toward “our understanding the true nature of things.” How does a person who devotes his life to debunking spurious claims reach a point where he feels comfortable referencing a belief in a “true nature of things”? Robert A Burton’s work gives us some insight into how to answer that question. The certainty associated with faith in universal truth claims comports well with tendencies in our neurological processes.

But Shermer’s confidence in “true natures” leads him astray in ways that he would have been quick to recognize were he less grandiose in his worldview.  For example, the piece in Scientific American begins with a denunciation of postmodernism as the curse of the humanities. But the condemnation demonstrates precisely the dangerous proclivity of someone who walks in a world of certitudinous claims. The postmodernism he detests is an extreme version of postmodernism, but in Shermer’s eyes it IS postmodernism. Surely had he been less eager to arrive at the true nature of things, he would have read more postmodern thought and thereby have encountered that set of ideas in a more pluralistic form.

One more illustration of the danger of Platonism surrounds Shermer’s claims about the extent of inequality in the world economy. That he is aligned against a flood of careful studies that have documented the growing epidemic of inequality may be a sign of his intellectual courage in opposing even the Republican candidates for the Presidency who by now have concludes that “yes, we must address the dangers of growing inequality.”

But Shermer the chronicler of universal truths is not a generic observer of the relevant data.  He wears his libertarianism on his sleeve when writing about inequality(Don’t overlook the many comments following his 2014 Scientific American critique of the idea that inequality has damaged the American Dream.) For him to think that he can lay it aside and process income and wealth data from the perspective of Thomas Nagel’s “man from nowhere” is daunting.  As Nagel argues, we should try to observe from nowhere, but we cannot. We carry our subjectivity with us as we create a narrative relying on interpretations of our world. Libertarians are unlikely to believe that redistribution is desirable. Addressing inequality requires redistribution.  To avoid action by the hated democratic state, libertarians will tend to see inequality as a chimera. We should listen to their views about inequality, but rather than universal truths, their arguments are but another instance of managed reasoning where the conclusion was in sight long before the observations were completed.

2. Socrates had many disciples who carried his work forward after his death. Plato, for example,  used Socratic thought to buttress his understanding of truth. But I want to call your attention to the post-Socrates work of 2 other groups of thinkers-the Cyrenaics and the Cynics- who argued that they and not their opponents had the true understanding of Socrates’ methods and conclusions. But is it really all that surprising to learn that the Cyrenaics and the Cynics had opposite understandings of what Socrates REALLY said about virtue?

Would it not be sad to hear someone give a lecture about what Socrates REALLY said? By all means we should be curious about different ways to organize the meaning of what Socrates said, but past that curiosity reside only additional questions.And yet, when I spent a couple of hours reading about the differences among the disciples of Socrates, I encountered scholar after scholar who armed with Platonistic arrogance forcefully stated that “certain disciples of Socrates did not spend enough time with Socrates to gain the true understanding of what he was saying”, or “this school of thought was confused about what Socrates said because it had its roots in the teaching of Gorgias” , or “These post-Socratics misinterpreted Socrates because they failed to study the entirety of his work.”  

Plato and his complex gift to us appeals to our dichotomous drive to be right in all things and never wrong. If our world does not provide the raw material for those urges to be fulfilled, all the worse for that world. Wewill proceed with unfailing confidence nevertheless.



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