Platonism and the Invasion of Iraq

By | October 4, 2010

I have argued in another posting against the view that Platonism should be our model for philosophy and for should guide our thinking on important matters. But even when we allow, for the sake of argument, that Platonism has something to offer in relation to our contemporary thinking, it requires an unsustainable ‘stretch’ to see how Platonism and the “higher” knowledge, called noesis, can help people avoid bad decisions and make good decisions with regard to challenges such as the U.S. government policy in invading Iraq.

However, John Uebersax argues for the contrary view and offers to show us the way. In an essay titled “The Pathology of American Thinking: How Plato Might Have Helped Us Avoid an Iraq Debacle,” Uebersax contends that Plato’s doctrine of the four levels of knowledge is a remedy for such “pathology.”

In this article, he

“. . . aims to explain: (1) what these basic categories of knowledge are, using examples related to the Iraq war; (2) how the collective thinking that brought America to its injudicious Iraq involvement reflected the poorest kind of knowledge; and (3) how we might avoid similar situations in the future–and instead accomplish positive things–by greater attention to superior forms of knowledge.”

His proposal is that Plato’s philosophy, as expressed in the Divided Line Analogy for the four levels of knowledge, with achievement of the highest knowledge (noesis) would enable us to avoid poor policy decisions such as the invasion of Iraq.

First, he summarizes the four levels of knowledge, starting with a short discussion of the lower types of “knowledge” –

Eikasia: This Greek word literally means “picture-thinking” (from the root eikon. It’s not far from our modern word, imagination, but somewhat broader in meaning. Eikasia reflects the knowledge and thinking that derives not from objects, but their images–in particular, the images in our own minds.

Pistis is knowledge based on sense experience of real-world things and the practical skills that relate to them. Building a house is a pistis-based activity.

He says the following us about “scientific, logical” knowledge:

Dianoia corresponds to what we ordinarily mean by scientific, mathematical, and logical reasoning. It proceeds from initial hypotheses or first principles, using specified rules, to logical conclusions. It gives knowledge superior to eikasia and pistis, but has the limitation that it rests on untested and often untestable initial hypotheses

There are reasons for questioning this division of “knowledge”; but I shall defer such a discussion, except to point out that characterizing ‘scientific’ reasoning as a form of deductive inference should set off our skeptical alarm bells. Moreover, it is not at all obvious why we should agree that “…. that dianoia (i.e., scientific, logical knowledge) rests on untested, initial hypotheses.” (This is false with respect to modern scientific reasoning.)

But setting those issues aside, let us consider what he says about the highest level of knowledge and how he thinks it can apply to our modern-day problems.

First he characterizes this higher knowledge as a “mental apprehension of timeless and unchangeable entities”:

“Noesis–or as it is sometimes called, Wisdom–is knowledge of a completely different order than the other forms. It is direct mental apprehension of timeless and unchangeable entities. It applies in particular to moral and spiritual issues

Then he tells us that

“If we are to meet the present world challenges and thrive as a society then we must become a noetic or sapiential culture. Most of all this requires a mental change at the individual level. “Be transformed by the renewal of your thinking,” (Romans 12:2) St. Paul says.”

The quote from Paul and other remarks indicate that Uebersax sees this “noetic” level of knowledge in terms of religious spirituality:

“ For Plato, noesis is inseparable from a pious, devout, and virtuous life. An undevout person may be intelligent, but not wise. Our Judeo-Christian heritage agrees with Plato on this. “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7). But “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10), where fear of the LORD here means not servile fear, but a mind directed to God and things holy–that is, a devout life. “

This is not much of a surprise, as Plato’s doctrines have been easily applied to various kinds of religions spirituality and theology throughout the centuries following Plato. However, this religiosity by Uebersax is not relevant to his claim that Plato’s doctrine regarding levels of knowledge can help us in dealing with twenty-first century dilemma.
But how exactly is this supposed to happen? First, it is not at all clear that anyone really achieves this state of noesis as an actual “mental apprehension of timeless and unchangeable entities.” People might think they do (surely religious spiritualists think they do) and Plato’s “Socrates” thought he did. But thinking does not make it so, especially when all this presupposes a very questionable metaphysical doctrine of a transcendent world of timeless, unchanging forms. So, two big problems present themselves:

1) What grounds are there for positing this transcendent reality?

2) How can human cognitive faculties access this transcendent reality?

It does not help much to assume, as Plato does, that the immortal soul can apprehend this higher reality; for this only brings up the question: what grounds are there for positing this immortal soul?

But even if we set aside these philosophical difficulties with the higher state of noesis and allow that individuals who have achieved “wisdom” can see this transcendent reality, we can ask how this phenomenon would enable us to deal with the type of political-ethical issues that Uebersax mentions.

I suppose that if a sufficient number of Socratic mystics achieved this ‘higher knowledge’ of a transcendent reality, for example, a number of such individuals who have a direct vision of the essence of justice, and were in positions of authority or policy makers, then we would avoid many of the disastrous policies and actions that our governments too often perpetrate. (Of course, this presupposes that all these guys would have the same type experience and apprehend the same “truths.” This is a very questionable presupposition.) But this is surely presents a utopian dream. Most human beings are not Socratic mystics who directly apprehend a timeless, unchanging transcendental reality (I doubt that anyone really does!). Basing our hope for better policy decisions in the future on that utopian dream seems forlorn. It is somewhat like declaring that unless we have a vision of perfect justice we cannot have even a practical idea of justice and injustice in the world; but we can and we do recognize real world injustices, and all without any mystical vision of perfect justice.

The poor foreign policy that that led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq resulted in part from a lack of knowledge; but other contributing factors were a measure of dishonesty, false beliefs (e.g., the false belief that Saddam’s Iraq was connected with the 9/11 attacks), invalid inferences, deception, and even self-deception at the highest levels of U. S. decision making. The disaster could have been avoided had our policy makers possessed sufficient, relevant knowledge regarding the actual threat (or lack of a threat) posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; but it also could have been avoided had our government and military leaders been more honest about what was known and less anxious to engage in military invasion of another country. It is too much to hope that policy makers possess all knowledge necessary for making good decisions. Sometimes the best anyone can do is act on the basis of a very limited knowledge; the hope is that policy makers will gauge their action to the knowledge and reliable information they do possess.

But none of this requires that anyone adopt a Platonist view of genuine knowledge or a Platonist view of reality. Knowledge and well-grounded beliefs about the workings of the social world do not require that one adopt Plato’s four-part division of knowledge and reality, along with the claim that only the highest level, noesis, is effective in dealing with the great issues we face. In fact, John Uebersax seems to admit this point.

“While logical, scientific, and mathematical thinking alone do not produce noesis, training in these areas are, for Plato, steps in the right direction. They promote mental discipline and accustom one to seeking intellectual answers. No government could plunge the country indiscriminately into war were the populus sufficiently intelligent and attendant to the principles of logical critical thinking.”

In fact, if training in logical, scientific, and mathematical thought would prevent a government from “plung[ing] the country indiscriminately into war,” then it seems that we have a remedy for the “pathology” of thinking which our leaders suffered at the time of the Iraq war. But this does not require that we appeal to the Platonist notion of the highest knowledge, noesis.

Finally it doubtful that Uebersax’s analysis of the poor thinking and policy decision in terms of the “Divided Line Analogy” does anything to illuminate how people go wrong in their beliefs and actions.* Intellectual integrity and honesty about what we do know and what we do not know can be gotten on the basis of a common-sense philosophy emphasizing critical reason, a respect for scientific methods, and judicious use of the evidence available to us. This attitude in conjunction with a pragmatic, utilitarian ethic — which respects human dignity and human rights — would have improved the odds of avoiding foreign policy debacles like the war in Iraq.

* Even on a sympathetic reading, his claim that the Divided Line comprises the best psychological theory of human knowledge is an overstatement.

. . . . the Divided Line analogy, which comes at the end of Book 6 of the Republic. This analogy, along with the more famous Cave Allegory, arguably comprise the best psychological theory we have about the nature and variations of human knowledge.

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