McDowell on Plato and Empiricism

‘What figures in plato as a distance between mere appearance and reality is not the distance that generates the characteristic anxiety of modern epistemology. Perhaps both Platonic and the Cartesian conceptions can be captured in terms of an image of  penetrating a veil of appearance and putting ourselves in touch with reality, but the image works differently in the two contexts. In the Platonic context, appearance does not figure as something that after all constitutes access to knowable reality, although it takes philosophy to show us how it can do so. Philosophy in Plato does not show how to bridge a gulf between appearance and an empirically knowable reality: it does not picture appearance as an avenue to knowledge at all. Correspondingly, the acknowledged and embraced remoteness of the knowable in Plato is quite unlike the threatened, but to be overcome, remoteness of the knowable in modern philosophy. Plato is nothing like a Cartesian sceptic or a British empiricist.’ (John McDowell, ‘The Engaged Intellect’, p. 207)


4 thoughts on “McDowell on Plato and Empiricism

  1. PeterJ September 25, 2015 / 6:31 am

    If true, then I wonder if this is the whole problem with the tradition of thought that arose from Plato, since it would entail the outright rejection of the knowledge claims of mysticism for something like ‘mysterianism’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • whitefrozen September 25, 2015 / 8:17 am

      I doubt that, given the mystical traditions that have come from Platonism.


  2. Michelle Joelle September 25, 2015 / 5:57 pm

    Is it too oversimplified to say that Plato doesn’t show us how to bridge the gap between appearance and empirically knowable reality because there /is/ no difference between the two? Anything we can learn from the senses is actually just our discovery of the hidden truth in which the thing we sense participates, and does not offer anything more than appearance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • whitefrozen September 25, 2015 / 6:41 pm

      Hmm. It seems that there is a difference between appearance and reality in Plato, if only one of degree, which would mean that what the senses tell us isn’t just the hidden truth of the form in what is sensed- what you’re suggesting almost seems like a form of reductionism (e.g. ‘just discovery of truth in appearance).


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