The ontological status of concepts in Plato and Shankara

Concerning the theory of Forms or Ideas in Plato – and by extension that of perception – we can find an interesting parallel in the account given by Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta. The Idea of ‘the Good’ (the supreme Idea in Platonic metaphysics) would correspond to the highest ontological principle in advaita: Atman-Brahma; in fact, there is only one ontological principle, one primary, or ultimate, reality, in both philosophers.* Objects of external perception are illusory in both accounts. In Plato they are only images (ikones) of Ideas, which alone are real, whereas in Shankara these objects are also just representations in the mind, phenomena, and described as ‘names and forms’. For example, ‘pot’ is just a name, its underlying ‘substance’ being only clay (this is only an analogy or illustration, since there is no talk of substance in Shankara’s philosophy). There are no objects, and no world, having a separate (objective!) existence, the only reality being Atman-Brahman.

* This makes of Plato a non-dualist, which is contrary to the commonly-held idea that he was a dualist, due to the emphasis given throughout the ages to his doctrine of the two Worlds, Intelligible and Phenomenal (or ‘World of Appearances’).

Tom McFarlane (writing in Quora): ‘What concepts really are is a philosophical question about their ontological status. The answer will depend upon the philosophy you adopt. A materialist would regard concepts as ultimately reducible to the functioning of the material brain, while an idealist would regard concepts (and matter) as ultimately reducible to mind or consciousness.

The most famous idealist account of concepts was given by Plato in his theory of forms. According to Plato, a concept (or form) is a general abstract pattern that has various sensory objects as specific instantiations. The concept of a tree, for example, is an abstract idea that makes it possible for us to experience trees, as such. Without the concept of a tree, we may have experiences of images but they are not recognized as being an experience of a tree without the concept of a tree. In Plato’s view, the concept of the tree is more fundamental than any particular tree because the concept is a necessary precondition for trees to exist as objects of experience. Plato called the experiences of trees as instantiations of the concept of a tree. For more discussion, see What is a form in Plato’s metaphysical theory?’

2 thoughts on “The ontological status of concepts in Plato and Shankara

  1. Thanks Martin.

    This recalled for me this extract from Raphael’s ‘Initiation into the philosophy of Plato’, quoting Plotinus:

    “But the way out is denied to us above all because knowledge of Him cannot be obtained either by means of science or of thought . . . but only by means of a presence that is worth far more than science. Indeed the Soul experiences separation from its own unity and does not remain completely one, as soon as it acquires scientific knowledge of something; science in fact is a logical process, but a logical process is multiplicity. Thus it departs from unity. It is therefore urgent to pass science quickly by and never deviate from our unitary being; it is necessary to abandon both science and the knowable, as well as all other manifestations however beautiful, because any beauty is posterior to Him and derives from him as the light of day totally derives from the sun. That is why of Him one cannot speak or write. Meanwhile we speak and write directing to Him, to awaken from the sleep of words and into the awareness of vision, merely as to point out the way to those who wish to contemplate a little.
    “Frankly the teaching does not extend beyond this limit of pointing out the way and the journey; but the vision is indeed a wholly personal doing of he who resolved to contemplate.”

  2. Thank you Venkat. I have that book, though I didn’t read it completely so far; it is quite reliable in its covering of both Platonic and Shankarian doctrines. A few days ago I contributed – in Quora – the following, as my answer to a question concerning both Plato and Sufism:

    ‘… two different accounts of the significance (epistemological) and import (metaphysical or spiritual) of this duality or dichotomy: exoteric or religious, and esoteric or spiritual/metaphysical. In both accounts the distinction represents the aspects: unmanifest-manifest or higher-lower or inner-outer (batin-zahir) respectively. In the esoteric realm there is a clear correspondence between Sufism and Platonic metaphysics and epistemology. It is well known that there has been an influence of Neo-Platonism in Sufism.

    The Platonic Dividing Line shows that there are two distinct but related realms (each one divided in turn into two sub-sets). The superior realm is placed above the lower one, which last is below the line. This lower realm is composed of 1) images (eikones) of images such as reflections in water, and 2) images, that is, natural or material objects. Correspondingly, we have – in the epistemological or cognitive area: apprehension (eikasia), and belief (pistis), from bottom up.

    Above the line – the Intelligible World – we have 1) Universal Forms (circles, triangles), and the corresponding cognitive faculties of hypotheses-making or generalizations provided by the Intellect or reason, and 2) universal Ideas or Principles arrived at by intuition (noesis). These are the four stages of cognition in an ascending order. The highest ‘Form’ or Idea is the Good (Good itself, Beauty itself), and, correspondingly – in the cognitive order – pure perception or true knowledge (noesis) leading to contemplation.

    You will be able to see above the connection with Sufi experience and teaching: the division between empirical truths or facts, and spiritual or metaphysical truths. Ultimately, however, the former are to be subsumed under the latter, else the ‘vision’ or orientation, both Platonic and Sufi, would not be a unifying, non-dual one.’

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