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Plato's Analogy of the Divided Line

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  • 0:55 The Intelligible Vs.…
  • 2:25 Beliefs and Opinions
  • 4:10 Objects In Math
  • 5:31 The Forms
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll learn about an ancient and influential view of knowledge from the philosopher Socrates and his student Plato. Understand what state of mind they saw as most effective for gaining knowledge and which ones fall short.

Access to Knowledge

Of all of the school subjects you have studied, which is the most clear in your mind today? Is it history? Or math? How about science or art? Which do you consider the most valuable to have learned?

Plato looks at the topic of knowledge in his work The Republic, written in the 4th century BCE. However, he focuses on more than just subjects of study. In this text, Plato turns to specific ways of accessing knowledge, such as looking at the objects we see around us or having a conversation about a topic like justice.

From his perspective, some methods of understanding the world will give a far clearer picture of truth compared with others. In this lesson, we'll look at Plato's views on which methods are best for helping us describe reality and which methods fall short.

The Intelligible vs. The Invisible

In The Republic, Plato includes a description of how his mentor Socrates understood the world and what is true. In particular, his divided line analogy provides a way to visualize the distinction between different states of mind and to learn which states of mind are more reliable than others.

Similar to how you might consider which school subject has been most valuable to you and which is most clear in your mind, Socrates explored which states of mind are more accurate and useful than others.

He starts with a division between an intelligible world and a visible world. The visible world is understood with our senses, like when you walk down the street and take in your environment through seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling. The intelligible world, on the other hand, is not focused on our senses, but instead on our intellect and ability to reason, like if you were to sit down and work on a geometry problem.

It might seem natural to you to think of the world you experience as you walk down the street as more real and accurate a representation of reality than a math problem. But that's not how Socrates describes his understanding of the world. Let's dig deeper to see why not.

Beliefs and Opinions

Socrates describes the line for the visible world as subdivided into two specific states of mind. He says that one section is made up of reflections and shadows. In a shadow or reflection, you see a version of an object, like when you look into a pool of water and see a fuzzy and unclear reflection of your face. This form of accessing knowledge is the least reliable.

However, Plato was likely referring to more than just literal shadows and reflections. For example, this category also includes the kinds of ideas we get from hearing secondhand stories from others. Some even argue that Socrates would include some art forms, like theater, as part of this lowest category of knowledge. We can't be sure of everything that he thought would fit into this category, but we do know that Plato viewed this state of mind as less useful for understanding the world as it really is. The other state of mind in the visible world includes the observation of physical objects and ordinary things, such as we might experience as we walk down the street and take in the buildings, people, plants, trees, noises, and smells around us.

What's so inaccurate about observing what's around you as you walk down the street? Plato's view was that this type of knowledge is still very far from understanding the way the world really is. You're forming opinions about the world as you interact with it through your senses, but this, he thinks, falls short of the knowledge that can be gained by the intellect. What we consider to be the real world as we walk down the street isn't reality, he says.

Objects in Math

The intelligible world is another story. In the world of higher reason, so much more is possible, from Plato's point of view. While our understanding of the visible world is made up of opinions, the intelligible world can reveal knowledge.

His teacher Socrates breaks down the intelligible world into two parts. The lesser of the two ways of reasoning includes a subject area like geometry.

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