Socrates, the Senses and Knowledge: Is there Any Connection?

by Moya K. Mason

Today we live in a world which is so full of sights and sounds that it is almost overwhelming. With the onslaught of the Internet and its global repercussions, our lives are dictated by our ability or inability to take advantage of the new innovations that have gripped our planet. Our information base, especially in the twentieth century, is built from our use of sensory observations to learn a whole range of new material that is now possible; made possible by super-powerful telescopes, computers, diagnostic equipment, and three-dimensional microscopes that are connected to virtual reality devices that enable scientists to walk among the cells and through the body's arteries. Telephones now allow you to see the person you are talking to on a screen. Who would have thought that as we grew up watching Captain Kirk looking at who he was speaking to on a large screen, that one day we also would have the same technology in our homes? Not I. Inventions such as these continue to open our eyes and ears, and use our sense of touch to discover dimensions most of us never dreamed of: helping us to discover knowledge, even wisdom in innovative ways.

So much of our knowledge seems to come from scientific observations, such as Fleming's endless investigations with his microscope, searching for the combinations he needed to bring us the magical medicine that we still use to treat bacterial infections. Information gained in all sorts of study gives us knowledge. Is all of our knowledge based on empirical observations? Most of us would argue that the combination of our sensory abilities with our brain's ability to compute and understand information is the process that brings us the joys of learning and knowledge. The more we try to learn and internalize, the better our brains seem to get at helping us with the series of actions and reactions that bring us wisdom. Does everyone agree that the senses are an integral component in the search for wisdom? Plato and Socrates are two people who would not.

In the Phaedo, Socrates argues that the senses do not grasp reality in any way. He believed that a philosopher's "concern is not with the body but ... [with] the soul."(1) To the ancient Greeks the word 'philosopher' had a different meaning from today's and it denoted a lover of wisdom or knowledge. Socrates was a philosopher who spent his entire life searching for the truths -- the simple, uncomplicated, and indestructible truths that make up knowledge. Socrates believed that there was a division between the body and the soul,(2) and that the body played no part in the attainment of knowledge.(3)

The body is only concerned with pleasures such as food, drink, sex, material acquisitions, and wealth.(4) To Socrates, the body with all its needs was an obstacle in the "search for knowledge," and never gives us an accurate account of anything.(5) That no two people will ever hear or see the same thing in an identical way and consequently, will never perceive sensory information in the same way either. Socrates' contention was that human beings cannot rely on their senses in any way as a source for knowledge because information from them varies.(6) Knowledge to Socrates was never changing, but concrete and eternal. He thought that we will never learn the reality and truth of anything if we continue to rely on our senses.(7) Socrates would give an example to prove his point: if you put a straight stick halfway in the water, it will look bent. Take it out, it looks straight again. Is the stick really straight? Our senses try to trick us.

To Socrates, the body is of the imperfect, sensible world, while the soul is of the perfect, real world.(8) The sensible world is what we see all around us, but it is only an illusion. The real world is invisible to us, but it is where the Forms exist. The Forms are entities that provide us with standards. They cannot be seen or felt, but they make up reality. These forms are perfect, unchangeable, and eternal and are the standards by which we recognize things in this fluctuating, illusionary world. The Forms make up the real world. But for most of us, what we see around us is all there is -- what we can see in our material existence. For Socrates and Plato, this is not the real world, this is the sensible world. It could not be real because it is always changing, always in flux. The world is constantly deteriorating and things get worse with time; things just do not last in this life. Take a chair, for example, no matter how well it has been made, it will eventually fall apart and one day it will not be here at all. Even objects made of precious metals will change and tarnish, but the real world, the world of Plato's Forms, cannot be changeable.

Life is a fusing of a body with a soul, but to philosophers like Plato and Socrates, this combination is not the best one for acquiring Knowledge. The body with all of its necessities and desires "keeps us busy in a thousand ways because of its need for nurture."(9) If we get sick, this also stops us from concentrating on what should be our lifelong, singular goal -- knowledge.(10) The body with its sensory-based system is what causes "war, civil discord, and battles,"(11) and our preoccupation with these pursuits keep us from wisdom.(12) If we want knowledge, Socrates would say that we must not pay attention to the sensible world(13) because it is not all that different from a dream, and we all know how fast they can change. If things are constantly changing, how can we learn about them anyway?

Once something is learned about a particular thing, there is a good chance the object has already changed. We always end up playing catch up. For Socrates, the body is, in theory, an evil tomb that imprisons our "Goodness,"(14) and will try to fool it at every opportunity it can. Most of us would say that on a clear summer day the sky is blue, but what about the people who have colour blindness? Is the sky really blue to them? Or what about someone with jaundice? For them, sense of sight seems to be tinted yellow. Will the sky be blue to them?

Socrates saw many such examples and came to the conclusion that by their very nature, our senses do not grasp reality. Of things that are changeable and imperfect, there can never be knowledge.(15) No reality is possible from sensible objects, and therefore, they cannot be what we seek in our search for truth. Our reality is impeded by them.(16) Reality and knowledge can only be found in our souls and with the Forms.(17) As objects of knowledge, the Forms cannot be known by using our senses because they can only interact with things that are less than perfect. The Forms are eternally perfect and are known only by the soul. Knowledge of them is not found through exercising our senses, but in the exercising of our souls. We may be able to recognize different kinds of things through our senses, but that is only because we have previous knowledge of the Forms.(18)

Socrates claimed that in another life, our souls existed with the Forms in the real world and from participating with them, our souls gathered all of the knowledge that is possible to possess. Perhaps due to trauma of our births,(19) we lose most everything we learned in the other world. But recognition is possible. For example, we will be able to understand that an object is triangular, because all triangular objects participate in the Form of Triangularity. We are able to see the resemblance because of the participation and because of our previous knowledge. When one hears of a person going into a burning building because they heard a child crying for help, we are able to recognize this behaviour as courageous. We are able to because all courageous acts participate in the Form of Courage -- not because our senses tell us so. However, the senses can at least remind us of the True Forms.

Socrates believed that all people had to do to know everything again, was to remember. Try to remember all that has been forgotten.(20) Socrates used his dialectic method to help extract the knowledge from the soul. In questioning his audience, Socrates usually proceeded by asking them for a definition of a concept, a moral concept such as justice or piety were often chosen. He tried to use this method to prove that knowledge is inside of our souls and is independent of our sensory capabilities.(21)

So for Socrates, the senses do not grasp reality in any way and try to detour us from our path to wisdom. He believed that our bodies are useless in the process of acquiring knowledge and deceive the soul when it tries to learn the truth. The only way the soul can truly know anything is when it is by itself, and for that reason, Socrates believed that philosophy is best achieved when one tries to separate the body from the soul as much as possible.(22) The object being the Forms, not the materialistic sensible world. The further away from the body and the sensible world you are, the closer you will get to the world of Forms and Knowledge. Socrates said:

Then he will do this most perfectly who approaches the object with thoughts alone, without associating any sight with his thought, or dragging in any sense perception with his reasoning, but who, using pure thought alone tries to track down each reality pure and by itself, freeing himself as far as possible from eyes and ears, and in a word, from the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom whenever it is associated with it ... that man [will] reach reality ... if anyone does.(23)

Many people are under the assumption that civilizations that existed in the centuries before us were somehow backward and ignorant. This of course is not true. For example, some of the world's greatest thinkers lived during the Pentakontateia in the Greek world. Socrates and Plato were two of them. For these men, Knowledge was possible through recollecting the world of the Forms. That is the goal. Things in the sensible world resemble the Forms and our senses do help us to recollect them, however, we must learn to distrust our senses because we all too often overvalue sense experience and neglect to look beyond to the reality they only imitate. To acquire knowledge, we do not have to appeal to some external activity, we do not have to go to somebody to ask for this knowledge. We must look inside ourselves, and try to remember. These were Socrates' beliefs. But in many ways, existence during their lifetimes was archaic compared to ours. One can only wonder what Socrates would say if he lived in a world like ours. Would he still contend that truth and reality can never be transmitted through our senses? I think he would.

Today it is customary for us to make distinctions between categories such as factual, mathematical, historical, moral, and geographical knowledge. The ancient Greeks would have just called it knowledge. It is certainly true that Socrates and his students were interested in mathematical and factual fields of study, but it seems that moral philosophy was more important than the others. Morality was their overriding concern: what is Justice? What is Piety? For them, it was not a question of what is the case, but 'what ought to be.' People are born unequal, but they ought to be treated equal in courts of law. They were concerned with standards: the Forms. Their Forms were evaluative standards of what is right or just in behaviour. They were primarily concerned with the judgement of the goodness or badness of human action and character. For example, Socrates may have asked 'what is justice?' The answer offered could be: 'justice is to give each person what is their due.' If you borrow something, it is just to return it. But what if you have borrowed a weapon, and the person who lent it to you has now gone mad? According to the definition, you should give it back, regardless. But do you? The person may get hurt or may harm others. That cannot be justice. Therefore, the definition must be wrong, and people do not know what justice is.(24) This is the kind of knowledge that Socrates was searching for. This sort of knowledge seems to be within us somehow, and has nothing to do with our sensory ability or inability to grasp moral knowledge.

For most types of knowledge, the senses play a major role in the acquisition. Our ability to read the written word or to be able to look at things around us really does help us to learn. To be able to hear sounds and songs of birds and other creatures certainly helps researchers to gather new information: information that can give a clear reading of the reality of a section of the Amazonian rainforest, for example. To be able to look at maps or through telescopes gives us the opportunity to learn many new things. The ability to read Plato's dialogues provides us with knowledgeable insight into a very important philosophical movement. The sense of touch is extremely important for the blind person learning Braille, which has opened up a whole new world of knowledge for the seeing-impaired.

In Socrates' day it was even difficult to get a good copy of a book. They had no photocopiers, and no matter how careful the scribe tried to be, the original could never be duplicated. Anyway, Socrates would say that any book written on any subject was only an individual's opinion, not the truth. He was only interested in the Truth. For him, Goodness was the most important of all -- somehow acting as a beacon for the others.(25) Even if Socrates was among us today, surrounded by the most advanced scientific equipment available, he would probably look around and ask what it all has to do with Goodness or Beauty. Socrates was most interested in Forms of moral properties, but was also interested in Forms of physical properties, such as Health and Size, especially in how they affected morality.

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1Plato. Phaedo, 64e.

2Plato, 64c.

3Plato, 65b.

4Plato, 65d.

5Plato, 65b.


7Plato, 66a.

8Plato, 79c.

9Plato, 66b.

10Plato, 66c.


12Plato, 65a.

13Plato, 66e.

14Plato, 67a.

15Plato, 65b.

16Plato, 65a-b.

17Plato, 79d.

18Plato, 75b.

19Plato, 75e.

20Plato, 72e.

21Plato. Republic, Book I.

22Plato. Phaedo, 67c-e.

23Plato, 65e-66a.

24Plato. Republic, Book I.

25Plato. Republic, Book VI.

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