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Sample Compare and Contrast Paper: Descartes and Plato
Philosophers interpret philosophical topics differently which can create different schools of thought and approaches. Epistemology is one of the topics that allow thinkers, such as Locke, Kant, Plato, Descartes, and Russell, to establish varying interpretations, leading to both similar and contrasting ideas. This compare and contrast essay will discuss the similarities and differences between two particular approaches–Plato’s and Descartes’ epistemology. These two approaches to epistemology share some similarities, however, they vary greatly in their goals as Plato attempts to define knowledge while Descartes seeks to understand the acquisition of knowledge.
Before discussing the comparison between Plato’s and Descartes’ epistemology, it is essential to first define the topic. Epistemology, in simple terms, is the study of knowledge. It encompasses the origin, characteristics, definition, and other aspects of knowledge. This field of study includes the investigation of logic, belief, senses, justification, language, science, and more (Silverman, 2022). Anything that relates to knowledge, from acquisition to manifestation, is a topic under epistemology. Since epistemology is concerned with every aspect of knowledge, philosophers can approach the topic through various methods. They can focus on defining knowledge, understanding its nature, discovering its origins, or learning how it can form. It is important to note that philosophers agree with this definition of epistemology and only differ in their approach and interpretation of the aspects of knowledge.
Major Difference in Approach
To start the comparison between Plato and Descartes, it is best to begin with their approaches. Plato approached epistemology by focusing on the definition of knowledge (Silver, 2022). He wanted to understand what knowledge is, which led to his conclusion that it is “justified true belief” and an unchanging subject (Stroll & Martinich, 2021). Plato raised questions and established requirements that determined how an individual can claim that they have the knowledge and that this knowledge is true. Since Plato approached epistemology by defining the main topic of the field, his inquiries became integral in other epistemological discussions and interpretations.
Alternatively, Descartes approached epistemology by attempting to understand the acquisition of knowledge. Descartes’ epistemology focuses on organizing knowledge like an edifice to assess whether it is true (Newman, 2019). In Descartes’ approach, he acknowledged Plato’s definition that knowledge is “justified true belief” and utilizes this to understand how knowledge forms or how to effectively acquire knowledge without preconceived opinions. While Descartes’ approach and goals differ from Plato’s, some of the former’s ideas share similarities with the latter’s.
Platonic Theory of Knowledge and Descartes’ Perfect Knowledge
As mentioned earlier, Plato defined knowledge as justified true belief. This definition came from the Platonic Theory of Knowledge which focused on investigating unchanging objects and discussing the objects’ existence through reason (Stroll & Martinich, 2021). Plato’s allegory of the cave is the best depiction of how his theory works. In the allegory, there are unchanging objects representing knowledge. There are prisoners in a cave who can only see the shadows and distorted images of said objects. When one of the prisoners escaped the cave and perceived real objects, he understood, through reason, that the objects that they previously saw were shadows. Through this allegory, as well as in Theaetetus, Plato established that knowledge must have justification through investigation of the objects. The investigation will then give way to the establishment of reason, creating a justified true belief.
Similar to this, Descartes discussed the topic of “perfect knowledge” as a way to define knowledge. As mentioned earlier, Descartes utilized the “justified true belief” definition in his epistemology. However, he also established his own definition which was very similar to the Platonic Theory of Knowledge. Descartes stated that knowledge is a conviction based on an absolute reason (Newman, 2019). He discussed that knowledge comes from a conviction that is impossible to doubt and reason that an individual cannot refute. Furthermore, there is also Descartes’ foundationalism and method of doubt that established an approach to acquiring knowledge. Foundationalism shares a similarity with Plato’s investigation and discussion of unchanging objects through Descartes’s firm foundation and superstructure. The method of doubt, however, is a unique method wherein Descartes doubts everything in an attempt to establish unbiased and accurate knowledge.
The Doctrine of Recollection and Innate Ideas
Descartes’ and Plato’s epistemological approaches both deal with metaphysics. Plato introduced the doctrine of recollection which states that humans possessed all knowledge before they entered reality (Silverman, 2022). Plato discussed that since Forms, which are objects of knowledge, are present outside the physical world, then human souls may have interacted with them in the metaphysical realm. This interaction then implies that human souls, before birth, possess all knowledge and that learning in the physical world is simply the recollection of knowledge.
Descartes had a similar discussion to the doctrine of recollection in the Meditations. Descartes stated that the process of learning was similar to remembering and that the human mind already possesses intellectual concepts or innate ideas, independent of experience (Newman, 2019). The mind, without experience in the physical world, possesses ideas regarding math, logic, science, metaphysics, and other topics. Even the senses require innate ideas to understand what they are sensing. For instance, human babies possess the innate idea to cry when they need something as a way to communicate. In topics, such as math and logic, individuals may perceive patterns or innately understand certain subjects.
Plato and Descartes approached epistemological discussion differently, focusing on certain aspects which made their inquiries independently significant. Plato aimed to identify the meaning of knowledge and establish its definition while Descartes wanted to investigate the acquisition of knowledge by doubting and discarding preconceived opinions. While their approaches are different, the two philosophers had some similarities in their conclusions and ideas. This can be due to Plato’s influence on the field of philosophy, causing Descartes to base most of his inquiries on the former’s works. Despite this, the two approaches establish a good foundation for modern discussions.
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Moss, J. (2020). Is Plato’s Epistemology About Knowledge? Routledge. Available at https://as.nyu.edu/content/dam/nyu-as/faculty/documents/Is%20Plato's%20Epistemology%20About%20Knowledge_.pdf. Accessed: August 15, 2022.
Newman, L. (2019). Descartes’ Epistemology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=descartes-epistemology. Accessed: August 15, 2022.
Silverman, A. (2022). Plato’s Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=plato-metaphysics . August 15, 2022.
Steup, M. & Neta, R. (2020). Epistemology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=epistemologyhttps://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=epistemology. Accessed: August 15, 2022.
Stroll, A. & Martinich, A. (2021). Epistemology. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/epistemology. Accessed: August 15, 2022.