The ladder of true understanding

by Antonia Case on January 4, 2014

How well do you understand the world?

Do you think you’ve got a good grasp of reality or not?

Greek philosopher Plato famously offered a theory of knowledge that can be illustrated by a four-step ladder. Those who climb this ladder of clarity, advancing from one step to the next, building on the knowledge gained from the one below, can move from ignorance to true knowledge.

For Plato, illusion rests at the lowest rung on the ladder, and this means forming an opinion based on secondhand information. In modern-day society this would include photographs, newspapers, television and so forth. For example, you read the newspaper or watch television about an event and you form an opinion based on this. You haven’t seen the event first-hand, nor do you know for sure that it actually took place. You mistake the image for reality; you mistake the shadow or reflection for the physical object. Forming an opinion based on illusion, for Plato, is the lowest form of knowledge. It is pure ignorance.

One step up the ladder of knowledge is forming an opinion based on actual physical objects. For example, rather than learning about the world
through television and cinema, you learn by engaging with the real thing. You speak to flesh-and-blood people, you engage directly with nature, you stare at the stars in the night sky and contemplate your existence. Unfortunately, when we engage directly with physical objects we’re limited by our senses, the sense of sight, smell and sound, and these senses often deceive us. Furthermore, the physical world is forever changing so conclusions derived from it are unlikely to be exact.

It is not until we encounter the third rung of the ladder where true understanding begins. Here we move from the visible world – the world of physical objects and their reflections – to the intelligible world of abstract ideas, mathematics, geometry. Unlike the messy, changing world, abstract ideas have a fixedness and permanence that the physical world lacks. For example, think of it like replacing the visible house with its architectural drawing, including its mathematical dimensions, weight, geometric lines and so forth. However since mathematics is still based on assumptions we remain a rung away from the top.

How do we gain true understanding? How can we reach the very top of the ladder? Here, Plato imagines that true understanding arrives when
our knowledge is based on no assumptions at all; rather it is gained through philosophical understanding and is concerned with high-level ideas about nature as a whole rather than specific objects or beings. This knowledge then forms the basis for understanding all other levels. For example, you must understand the idea of justice to live a just life. Through philosophical reasoning we may grasp the Good, of which wisdom, courage, temperance and justice derive. “The form of the Good is the most important thing to learn about,” he writes. “Without the Good, we can’t grasp such concepts as truth and being.”

If we transcend from the bottom world of illusion to the world of philosophical reasoning, Plato believes that our mind may be capable of attaining true understanding about the world and our place in it.

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