Plato’s Theory Of Knowledge: The Most Comprehensive Review

January 4, 2024

plato theory of knowledge

Plato’s theory of knowledge is a massive challenge to most students because it involves a lot of introspection.

Not many modern students have the time to sit around brooding and meditating, given how fast-paced the academic life is today. So we're here to help you understand what this is all about. 

This guide covers: 

  • Plato's theory of knowledge
  • Plato's definition of knowledge
  • The cave theory
  • Plato's theory of forms
  • The divided line theory
  • Platos view on knowledge
  • Plato’s four levels of knowledge
  • Plato’s true knowledge

Among others. Let’s get to it.

Background: About Plato

Estimated to have been born in 428 or 427 BCE, Plato was a remarkable student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle who went on to become the most influential philosopher of all time. He was the son of a Greek aristocrat named Ariston, who claimed lineage going all the way to the god Poseidon; his mother was called Perictione.

As a student of Socrates, Plato was heavily influenced by the former’s instruction as well as the circumstances of his life and death. We know much about Socrates, who never wrote, through prolific students of his such as Plato.

Understand that Plato is different from Gettier. His style of reasoning and conversation is certainly Socratic, and in this manner he was able to deduce and develop his best known philosophical contributions. These include the theory of Forms, Platonic realism, ethics, philosophy of religion, and many more. He essentially gave us the definition of what we today know as philosophy.

The writings of Plato are generally accepted to have been done in three distinct time periods: the early, middle, and late writings or dialogues, as they are known. Our excursion will start with Plato’s definition of knowledge.

What is Plato's Theory of Knowledge?

Plato believed that truth is objective and that it results from beliefs which have been rightly justified by and anchored in reason. Thus, knowledge is justified and true belief. We can draw several conclusions from this statement:

  • Beliefs and knowledge are distinctly different but related.
  • Truth is a result of logical reasoning, but itself may result from ideas or Forms beyond conscious understanding.
  • This idea, or proposition, must be believed, true, and supported by good reasons in order to be considered knowledge.
  • There must be a subject to apprehend this knowledge.

Plato also believed that true knowledge is buried deep within our subconscious, and that we draw upon this knowledge when knowing Forms such as Beauty, Equality, Justice, etc.

That’s because, according to him, these are things that cannot be taught but each man is born with. This is a direct consequence of his belief in:

  • A higher plane where all the Forms exist in a pure, eternal, non-immutable state.
  • Reincarnation. Upon death, a soul passes through the higher plane and has knowledge of Forms in their pure state. When that soul is reborn, it draws upon this knowledge to rediscover the image of the Forms as perceived in this world..

Plato loved to use allegories and stories to carry his ideas across. Consider this story where, when one of his disciples asked him to furnish proof of immortality, Plato used it as an allegory. Note that this doesn’t mean his reasoning was correct.

Plato’s Concept of Equality as Proof of Immortality

Imagine that you have two line segments. These line segments are equal - or rather, you believe them to be so. What is the basis of your belief that they are equal? He deduces correctly that you must first have some information about the size of the segments, which you acquire through evaluating information provided by your senses.

The problem, however, is how you know the concept of equality. Were you taught it? It cannot be, because senses are non-eternal, and prone to error. On the other hand, Equality, as one of the (good) forms, is eternal and cannot change. More about Plato’s Forms in a bit.

Thus, if the concept of Equality is changeless, the only way you can know it is if you have experienced it before in a plane where Equality as a Form is present, truthful, eternal, and changeless. Thus, the soul is immortal and passed through such a plane and retained knowledge, albeit unconscious and hidden, of the Forms.

While Plato believed in reincarnation at the time of the middle period of his writings, it is to be noted that he changed his mind on some of his fundamental beliefs as indicated in his later works. Having already mentioned Plato’s Forms of knowledge in passing, it is time to get an indepth look into the concept of Plato’s Forms.

Plato’s Knowledge and Forms

Plato’s philosophical doctrines rest upon a few distinct doctrines, one of the biggest being the concept of Forms. Knowledge is based on real things about which we come up with true propositions in the process of acquiring knowledge. These ideas or objects are universal in that they can be applied to a wide range of real objects to describe or characterize them.

The definition of the word form is “appearance” or “shape”. According to Plato, Forms are the real essences of what a substance or object really is, being the answer to the question, “what is that?” He further goes on to say that what we actually experience through the interaction of our senses is a mere image of the true essence of the substance. Taking this viewpoint, he goes on to say that this world is flawed and full of error, preventing us from really seeing and understanding the true Forms.

Take, for example, the concept of Beauty. Plato would say that Beauty in itself is a real, active, perfect, and eternal essence that isn’t just a characteristic of an object, but a quality it gains by interacting with the Form Beauty. Thus, Beauty is both a characteristic and an essence in itself capable of interaction. That is the concept of self-predication.

In this illustration, Beauty Itself is utterly and solely beautiful and exists apart from these other objects that partake of it. In the Phaedo, Plato's theory of knowledge emphasizes this nature of the Forms and calls them monoeides. Thus, all other objects are of a lesser degree of beauty than Beauty, which Itself is completely beautiful. However, there are differing opinions about whether beauty is a characteristic of Beauty itself, or that the Form and essence of Beauty are the same thing.

In any case, Plato solved the problem of universals, an ancient philosophical question about whether the characteristics of objects, such as color and shape, exist beyond the objects themselves.

In addition to Beauty, the other Forms are:

  • Justice
  • Goodness
  • Equality
  • Bigness
  • Likeness
  • Unity
  • Being
  • Sameness
  • Difference
  • Change
  • Changelessness

Plato would go on to dedicate significant effort to each of these Forms in his later dialogues, believing that the philosopher gains true knowledge by grasping the world of Forms with his mind despite the only evidence of reality being poor and perhaps erroneous copies of the Forms.

Today, we can define Plato’s Forms as unchanging abstract representations of the universe around us. These archetypes are the true nature of reality, or at least the little of it that we know. In other words, these images are a representation of the True Forms, though we see them in poor light. This concept is best understood through Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Plato’s Cave Theory

Suppose that there are people in a cave, chained to its wall. They are unable to turn their faces, and all they can see is the wall of the cave. There are shadows dancing on the walls because of a fire that burns behind them, illuminating various objects in passing. However, because they are unable to turn their faces, all the people can see are mere shadows.

This very basic illustration of the cave allegory services to describe the theories that follow. The prisoners - for that is what the people are - have no other reality except what they can see in the shadows on the cave wall. They can hardly perceive there being any other reality than the one they can see, thus mistaking appearance for reality.

Plato then posits a question: when the prisoners are talking about the things they see on the wall, what are they talking about? For example, were they to see a car in the shadows and said, there is a car. What does the word “car” refer to; the shadow on the wall or the real car illuminated by the fire? The former must be correct, because the prisoners can’t see the real car.

Thus, by extension, the names we attribute to objects in our worlds are not their actual names, but rather just the names of the shadows. Only by being released from our chains can our understanding be freed to see the real Forms behind the shadows.

The Game

The chained prisoners start a guessing game to predict what image will come next. If, by chance, one of them predicts correctly, he will be praised by the others as being clever and intelligent. Thus, empirical knowledge of the world around us is praised and desired.

The Escape

Suppose that one prisoner is freed, so that he is able to turn around and see what is behind him. He would see the fire, and it’s intense light would initially blind him. However, as his eyes adjust to it, he would see and realize that what is on the cave wall are mere shadows of other objects. However, as you can see, he would first need to climb a steep incline to find the fire and the real objects, or Forms.

Just beyond the fire, the prisoner would see the light of the sun filtering into the cave. He would then realize that there is a much greater and better Light, and he might follow it to the outside of the cave where the whole world awaits. However, having been so long in the cave, the bright sunlight would dazzle him, perhaps even blind him temporarily. He might be forced to go back into the cave to which he is accustomed out of fear, in what is termed as The Return.

Plato then says that only the truly courageous philosopher makes it out of the cave to face the Light - the truth of reality, as it is. And, if by chance he were to attempt to free the other prisoners and show them this truth, they would think that he were “infected” or become sick because of going outside the cave, turn against him, and kill him. This is, of course, in reference to Socrate’s forced suicide after he was accused of “polluting the youth of Athens.”

Platos Four Levels of Knowledge

In his dialogue titled “The Republic,” Plato gives us another peek into his ontology and how he defines the various levels and types of knowledge in his divided line theory. The dialogue is held between Glaucon, Plato’s brother, and Socrates.

It comes immediately after the analogy of the Sun, where the freed prisoner has left the cave and seen the immediate world. Being illuminated by it, Plato then says that man has four levels of knowledge which he called affections of the psyche.

Think of them as increasing levels of reality to truth to belief and finally to the purest state of being. It is highly metaphysical in nature and is best described in the following ascending line imagery.

Plato’s Divided Line Theory

Take a line which has been divided into two unequal parts, then divide each of the parts again in the same proportions. Suppose that the two main divisions represent the visible and the intelligible parts of reality respectively. Now allocated each of the four sections by their clearness. Drawing the line, we come up with something like this.

The visible world consists of shadows and reflections of physical things and the things themselves. The form of knowledge in this world is the illusion of ordinary experience and the belief (pistis) of discrete physical entities, of which the natural sciences are a part of.

The intelligible world also has two parts. In the first, the soul of humans uses mathematics and figures to understand the eternal as guided by the physical objects. In the highest level, it understands and views the state of being without the need of any figures.

It is said that Plato interacted with students of the great mathematician Pythagoras, which apparently made a big impression on him. Thus, as he says, mathematical reasoning lies beyond the physical world and helps us understand the real nature of things. The highest world is one above all these hypotheses and figures, and which one attains upon death. 

Plato’s Ethics, Virtue, and Happiness

Plato had a keen interest in ethics and justice, and many of his dialogues seem to have a direct bearing on them. For one, he believed that a happy soul is a moral soul, that is, one led by reason.

He also believed that the immortal soul is tripartite, consisting of the appetitive (appetites and urges), spirited (emotional), and rational parts. Each has to be in control and in harmony with the rest in order for good choices to be made. These good choices, in turn, result in happiness.

He also considered each of these parts of the soul to have excellences. These excellences are what forms virtue; the excellence of the soul as a whole is virtue.

  • The excellence of reason is wisdom
  • The excellence of passion is shown through attributes such as courage.
  • The excellence of spirit is temperance.

All three combined bring about an excellence called Justice, which arises from a harmonious relation of the three. He considered virtue to be a kind of knowledge of good and evil which all human desires aim to achieve. Plato named the ultimate good or virtue eudaimonia, bringing about Eudaimonism.

The Totalitarian State As Imagined By Plato

This virtuous individual had roles to play in society according to his/her greatest strengths. Those with strong appetites could produce more, thus were the Producers of the state. They are the farmers, labourers, merchants, service men, and similar others. Those with a strong spirit were the Protective/Warrior cadre, which includes soldiers and the police. Those with a strong reason/head are the Governing Rulers or Philosopher Kings, which are the intelligent, rational, and wise leaders of the community who make decisions on behalf of the others.

This perfect, totalitarian state was thus dictatorial. Historians can find the heavy inspiration drawn from the strict state of ancient Sparta. In his thinking, only a few are fit to rule on the basis of their virtue, education, and grasp of knowledge. It is to be noted that he was effectively rejecting the principles of democracy which ruled Athens at the time.

In line with this, Plato went on to describe an educational system which focuses on educating the rulers with the aim of producing Philosopher Kings who would have their reason, desires, and will in virtuous harmony to help decide objectively what’s best for the people of the state. Such a king would have a moderate love for wisdom and courage to enforce that wisdom.

Plato was effectively saying that it is better to be ruled by a tyrant, whether good or bad. That way, the evils of the state fell upon one person, instead of everybody as would be the case in a democracy. He also predicted that a tyrant state would decay into an aristocracy, to a timocracy, to an oligarchy, to a democracy, and back to a tyranny.

More About Plato

This brief summary on Plato's theory of knowledge covers only the most salient points that a student would have to cover in an essay about Plato. There is much more to say about this remarkable man and his extensive influence on modern science, mathematics, and even religion.

Plato’s concept of God as the One, the Good, and the Light is intricately linked to the Sun in his allegory of the cave and the divided line. Ancient religions, including Christianity, have close links between God and the sun, if only figurative ones.

Plato believed that just as the sun lights up, heats, and promotes the growth of everything in the visible world, so does Good illuminate the world beyond where the Forms exist in their richness and true nature. However, he believed that the creation was essentially an ordering of chaos into the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. These aggregated into the Body of the Universe.

Finally, Plato is of the idea that knowledge is not learned, but rather recollected. Thus, it comes from divine insight. He probably invented the word idea, which means “having seen.” Plato is credited with creating the first university called the Academy, which was just outside Athens. Above the entrance was written: “Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry.”

Help With Plato Assignment

By now, you realize that understanding Plato is a tough job, to say the least. If you have an assignment about Plato that has been giving you headaches, you can entrust it to our experts writers to do it for you.

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About the author 

Antony W is a professional writer and coach at Help for Assessment. He spends countless hours every day researching and writing great content filled with expert advice on how to write engaging essays, research papers, and assignments.

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    1. Thank you, Paul. We’re glad you found the post helpful. If you have a topic in mind that you’d like to cover, or you have an area of knowledge that you’re struggling with and would like to understand, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

  1. I liked much your work,is so understood,be blessed.But please may you help me my assignment about Morality as said by plato? I have only today to submit to my tutor

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