Home Login Free Newsletter Contact Us Contact Us
Toll-Free: 888-288-9642
View Shopping Cart
Site Map

Issue I

Platonic Epistemology
and the Nature of Philosophical Activity:
A Comparison with Indian Philosophy
by Marc Felenz

The ways of knowledge in the ancient philosophical systems of both Greece and India make a distinction between experiences of the external world (such as sense perception and logical thought) and experiences which originate in internal consciousness. For Plato, the latter experience, the direct perception of forms or ideas by the "eye of the soul," is the highest form of knowledge, as exemplified in Diotima's discourse on love in the Symposium [201d-212a]. The mechanics of the dialectical opposition of internal and external experiences are explicitly shown by Plato to be the means to the knowledge of the "good." This process is comparable to the Indian philosophical systems of Samkhya and Yoga, as found in the Samkhya Karika and the Bhagavad Gita. The following comparison of Plato with Samkhya and Yoga will hopefully reveal what each tradition perceives to be the human condition and the nature of philosophical activity itself. Let us begin with the Symposium.

"Love is also a philosophy" [204b].1 Thus speaks Diotima to Socrates during their first discussion, and hence the reader is given a clue that her insights into the geneology and nature of Eros also speak to the geneology and nature of philosophy itself. Socrates wisely inquires about the parentage of Eros [203a] and in Diotima's response, we find a powerful revelation concerning the character of Eros. Eros was born of the gods Poros (freedom, blissful resource fulness)and Penia (determinate necessity, need, or poverty) [203b-c]. Consequently the nature of Eros lies in a vast, chaotic middle ground: Eros is a homeless seeker, having "no shoes, nor a house to dwell in; on the bare earth exposed he lies under the open heaven, in the streets, or at the doors of houses,taking his rest," [203c-d] "he is in a mean between ignorance and knowledge," "he is by nature neither mortal or immortal" C203e7, Eros is a daimon (spirit) whose function is one of interpretation ((daimonion)ermerevon from ermenello), mediation between the heavens and earth: "he is the mediator who spans the chasm which dwindles them " [202e].

However, the lover of wisdom, the practitioner of the philosophical activity,finds himself in the same circumstance the philosopher lacks the complete wisdom of the gods, but is aware of this and spends his life in quest of this wisdom -yet he is superior to the ignorant who are not conscious of their own inferior situation [204b]. The philosophical activity, therefore, is also the interpretive activity performed by Eros; the love of wisdom in man is manifested as an attempt to interpret the perfect wisdom of the gods - to make that wisdom human.

Plato is saying more about the human condition in the short sections we have examined thus far. "As his (love's)parentage is, so also are his fortunes" [203c-204a]; such a geneology necessarily renders Eros "homeless" between heaven and earth. However, we may ask: from where does the philosopher derive his character? What is the origin of man himself? It seems to be Plato's assertion that man shares similar origins to those of Eros, that man also partakes both of Poros and Penia, but never of either completely, and hence man also experiences a state of "lostness," of being without a defined nature. This being the condition of man, the philosophical activity is necessarily a human one. Paraphrasing Socrates in Symposium [205a], in loving wisdom, we are all the same.

Let us review what has been said thus far. Eros is a peculiar spirit, the child of the universal extremes of determinate necessity and resourceful freedom, lost between the two. However, such is also the condition of man; here in the Symposium, Plato brings to life a popular theme of the Greeks, i.e. that the human condition is one of tragic instability.Here we find, stated with literary richness, what the modern existentialist movement has preached quite simply:man has no nature. But rather than falling into relativism or naive humanism as others who have made this same claim have, Plato offers us something concrete, a specific activity for man to perform to make his condition inhabitable - philosophy. As Eros is a lover of wisdom, so must man be, and it is this loving activity which binds the loose threads of the human fabric. The specifics of this activity must be our next point of discussion.

First, the goals of this activity are made very clear:1) "birth in beauty" [206b], and 2) "as far as possible to be everlasting and immortal" [207a]. However, these two goals are strangely equated; hence, for Plato, it is in giving beautiful birth, in bringing forth the good that one can experience the immortal. In being the instrument of revelation one is consumed in the wholeness of the immortal and escapes the indeterminateness of the "gray" (human) region between heaven and earth. In 205a-b, we see again that the loving activity is fundamentally the human activity; all men desire the good,and all the forms which human activity takes are forms of "(poesis, attempts at bringing forth the good, the experience of immortality.2 However, while all the various disciplines of man are loving activities, Plato seems to emphasize a single activity, a human process expressly aiming for the revelation of the good. Of course, inasmuch as wisdom is the highest virtue of the spirit, the goal of every genuinely creative act, C206a7 this activity is philosophy. "For god mingles not with man but through love all the intercourse and converse of god and man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of the arts and handicrafts, is mean and vulgar" [203a].

The mechanics of this activity, as related in Symposium210a-212a, are intriguing; far from resembling structured logical thought, they seem reminiscent of the mystery religions(hence Diotima speaks of "the mystery of Eros" and the "initiation" into this mystery [see 209e-210a]). The process of the initiation into this mystery is a progressive set of meditations on beauty. The candidate begins with the beauty ofone body or form, "bringing forth the expression" (logouskalous) of the beauty of that body [210a-b]. This process is expanded, taking as its object, in order, "the beauty of form in general," [210b] "the beauty of institutions and laws," [210c]and finally, "the beauty of the sciences" [210c-d]. Having exhausted the possible objects for this meditator, the candidate experiences a state of passivity; no longer does he control the course of his experiencing, but rather, a vision of beauty comes to him, independent of any object. This revelation will not be "in the likeness of a face or hands or any part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven,or on earth, or in any other place " [210e-211a]. It is this revelation which is the goal of the activity, and ir is in manifesting this spiritual"child"within oneself that one experiences human immortality [212a].

To many readers, this text will appear strange, perhaps as poetic, or mythical, a metaphor for something else; but we cannot simply assume this without some indication from our author,who in this case often makes clear to his readers what is philosophy and what is fiction in his writing. We have no indication that this text is fiction, but taking it as truth, it strikes us as vague and in need of clarification. While I shall not attempt to interpolate or extrapolate with respect to the initiation process itself, the text does supply enough information for us to draw conclusions about the epistemological attitudes it represents. Let us expound them.

The pivotal term in this text is "bringing forth" the beautiful; this is a translation of the Greek verb tikto, to bring forth, to beget. From an epistemological perspective,one may ask two questions: 1) what is the epistemological origin of what is brought forth, and 2) what is the human faculty which performs this bringing forth.

To the first, we see, as quoted above (Symposium 211a)that the knowledge revealed by the loving activity transcends both sensory perception and science, and hence, is non-empirical, non-logical, and non-cognitive. What these forms of knowing have in common is externality: they all entail the cognition of externally received sensations or the manipulation of such cognition using logical or interpretive structures which have their origin in the experience of the external world(e.g. pure mathematical/geometrical reasoning such as that of Descartes necessarily implies a framework of space and time,which in turn originates from the experience of the external world, and therefore such reasoning is grounded in an external epistemological criterion). Hence, the knowledge which Plato is describing must be completely divorced from external experiences; it must have internal experience as its origin, not simply the reproduction of external sensations through the use of memory or imagination, but experience originating entirely in internal consciousness.

We see here a clear distinction that is implied by Plato between two types of knowing, two types of epistemologies. We see that in the initiation process, it is only after all externally originating objects of knowledge have been meditated upon that the knowledge of pure beauty (internal) is revealed, This epistemological distinction is also found in Plato's Phaedo,wherein we find his famous description of philosophy as "practicing death," the attempt to achieve complete separation of body and spirit (external and internal).3 In this text, we find another account of what the philosophical activity entails and the scope of epistemology, and it seems to reiterate and clarify the passage in Symposium which we examined. We see here that Socrates makes clear to his audience that the philosopher must direct his energies away from external sensations,those originating from the body's contact with the world, and toward the internal consciousness of the soul,4 for it is with this consciousness that man most closely approaches truth,5 Also, we may note that in Phaedo 69b-d, Socrates explicitly relates this activity to the initiations of the mystery religions,verifying our assertion above (see p. 27) and explicitly linking philosophy to mystical practice.

More importantly, however, the Phaedo clarifies Plato's epistemological attitudes, making clear the distinction between external and internal sources of knowledge and the relation of the two, In Phaedo 72e-76a, Socrates expounds the well-known Platonic position which equates learning with recollection. In short, the position holds that the knowledge obtained from sensory experience and logical thought does not originate with the experience of perception or thought, but rather points back to ideal internal experiences of truth, experiences felt before the body and the mind began to cooperate in perceiving the world, before birth. External experiences are epistemologically useful as memory points which take one back to primitive internal experiences, hence, the learning gained from corporeal experience is actually a recollection of spiritual experience.

This greatly clarifies the description of the loving activity in Symposium: in "bringing forth the beautiful" of various external experiences, one is taking these experiences as points for memory, exhausting their external significance to bring one back to an original internal experience. With the repetition of this process, externally originating experiences are no longer necessary, and internal experiences of truth, goodness, beauty all occur with facility.

This is Plato's philosophical activity; while encompassing rather than negating sensory experience and the natural sciences,it transcends them by the inclusion of a different science, one based on different epistemological suppositions and goals. Consequently, however, this science must employ a different methodology and a different human faculty. How is it that one calls forth the beautiful? Through the use of what faculty are internal sensations perceived? Of course, it can neither be simple perception nor cognition, for these faculties take only external objects for their operations. In Symposium, we have no explicit statements concerning what this faculty may be. We get our only clue in Symposium 212a, where Diotima speaks of employing "the eye that sees the beautiful" (oronti o oraton to kalon). The term"eye" connotes passivity, being open to the appearance of a revelation, We may also infer that this activity entails the use of memory and imagination (the Greek phantasia, the power of the mind to produce an appearance), applied, however, to internal rather than external sensations. While we cannot be conclusive here, it is obvious that Plato's epistemology entails more than reflexive thought, cognition, giving epistemological status to internal experiences and the knowledge which they reveal, hence extending the domain of human activity to include performing operations upon these experiences, and implying that man possesses appropriate (i.e. other than cognitive) faculties to do so.

Let us now conclude our discussion of Plato. While nothing has been added to what his writings state, hopefully the manner in which they have been presented above will shed a different light upon his philosophical and epistemological concerns,such that they will be open to a much broader interpretation. We have seen what Plato perceives as the human condition; man is unbound to an essence of his own, and his status is free to levitate between the universal limit points of perfect fullness and perfect emptiness. However, it being difficult to stay afloat in this vast, unstable sea, man engages in various activities which aim at attaining wholeness; the most efficient of these activities is philosophy. The essence of this activity is the recovery of primitive experiences which originate in internal self-consciousness, as opposed to those experiences originating in thought or perception of the external world. Having these experiences is not a solipsistic enterprise, however; it is only in "giving birth" to these experiences, bringing them forth into the human world, manifesting them as human, that one experiences the immortal wholeness which the activity aims for. We have seen also that the philosophical activity is one of interpretation; hence it must be in this manifesting, this humanizing of divine wisdom that interpretation occurs. It is this philosophical interpretation which is the essence of all genuinely human creation; it is the link between the hungry human soul and the abundance of the divine.

Comparison With Indian Philosophy

In this section of the paper I shall attempt a comparison of the elements of Platonic philosophy expounded above and the Samkhya and Yoga systems of India; however, let it be clearfrom the outset exactly what is being compared, The range of this project is quite specific: to demonstrate that the epistemologies of both the Platonic and Samkhya-Yoga systems incorporate the knowledge revealed by experiences originating in internal consciousness, that both systems present the philosophical activity as the means to recovering these experiences, and that both hold that this activity is a necessary one for man,given his condition. One must admit that differences in cultural and social aspirations and intentions prevent these systems from being identical, but this is not what concern sus here; I hope only to make clear that the fundamentals which underlie these systems at a radical level are open to comparison,Let us now examine the system of Samkhya.

One of the principal texts of Samkhya is the Samkhyakarika of Isvarakrsna, and I will make this text the emphasis of my discussion . The concerns of this text are made clear in the opening stanzas:1) the suffering inherent in the human condition; and 2) knowledge, specifically that knowledge which alleviates suffering. Similar are the fundamental concerns of Plato, who preached the philosophical activity as the means to encountering the knowledge of "the good," man's "salvation" from the torments associated with attachment to corporeal existence and the indeterminateness ("homelessness") of his condition. Underlying the system which the Samkhyakarika offers in answer to these problems is a highly sophisticated and detailed philosophical anthropology, one very different from those encountered in Western thought. Let us look at this anthropology in brief.6

The fundamental components of the Samkhya ontology arepurusha and prakriti. The Sanskrit noun purusha translates loosely as "man" or "self," but it takes on a specific technical meaning within the linguistic context of Samkhya. Purusha is the essential core of human consciousness, the free, non-agentative "witness" of human experiences [19].7 The purusha is individual, yet is not reflectively self-identifying; hence purusha functions essentially, not as the self, but rather as an inactive witness. Prakriti is the world, all that is not purusha, including all that is manifest and temporal and agentive or possessed of will; within Samkhya, prakriti usually connotes the world/instrument of perception (the body's sensorium)/cognition taken as a continuum. Prakriti is permeated by the three gunas, the unmanifested agents of all actions which determine all that is manifest or willful within prakriti; the three are sattva, the agent of exuberance or lightness, rajas, the agent of motion or super-activity, and tamas, the agent of inertia and slothfulness.

Within the human, the link between purusa and prakriti is the buddhi faculty. This faculty, having no equivalent in Western anthropology, performs the servile act of representation for purusha, presenting the whole world-body-mind matrix to purusa consciousness [23,36]. The faculty which holds this matrix together within the individual is the ahamkara (literally"the 'I' maker"). The ahamkara functions by concretizing a specific mutual sensitization of body and world, and it is this sensitization which manifests itself as habits, tastes, personal preferences, etc. which constitutes the self in the Samkhya system. Interestingly, there is no cognitive faculty in this anthropology; rather, Samkhya proposes a cognitive sense, manas, which synthetically constructs a unified sensorium for the ahamkara out of the individual sensitizations of the other five senses [27].

Correlative to this sophisticated anthropology is an equally sophisticated epistemology, one dramatically similar to that of Plato. The Samkhyakarika explicitly distinguishes between external and internal sensations and the faculties involved in both. In the ordinary perception of an external object, one of the senses, manas, ahamkara, and buddhi all act cooperatively, presenting the perception to purusha. Internal perception involves the use of buddhi, ahamkara, and manas,and it takes as its material "previous perceptions [30]". There are two possibilities as to what these "previous perceptions"may be: 1) an external experience, now represented in memory or imagination, or subjected to logical operations, or 2) the experience of purusha itself, In the first case, the situation does not differ epistemologically from external perception,originating in prakriti and determined by the gunas. In the second, however, is a unique form of knowledge (ñjana, discriminating knowledge); in experiencing purusha itself, one isolates oneself from the determination of prakriti and the ahamkara's self-identifying within prakriti and recovers the primitive purusha perspective, that of the involved witness [59-68].

External perception begins with this interacting of the sensitized body with the world, reversing the process detailed above, ending with the purusha's pure witnessing. However, the ahamkara and sensorium having been established by the manifestation of the original purusha experience, remain stable across all subsequent external perceptions, hence, each perception is a mere reiteration of the original manifestation, Herein lies a danger: with the repetition of this structure of experiencing comes the loss of memory of the original purusha experiencing and the false self-identification with specific ahamkara/sensorium. This identification is the origin of suffering, and this suffering can only be removed by the recovery of the original purusha experience, an internal experience .The isolation from external experiences for the sake of recovering the original internal experience of purusha is the process of yoga meditation. Let us now examine the process of yogaand the epistemological implications of this process.

There are numerous texts within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India which explain and demonstrate the process of yoga meditation, but perhaps none of them do so as clearly and eloquently as the Bhagavad Gita. The opening chapters of this text paint the picture of a man who has fallen into the above-mentioned "danger" of the human condition; Arjuna, a warrior by birth, steps onto a field of battle, as he has countless times before, but finds himself unable to act, to fight and kill his enemies that stand before him. As chapters 1 through 5 of this text explain in detail, Arjuna has reached his point of crisis as a result of becoming attached to the external mode of perception and having forgotten the original purusha experience which enabled him to stand and fight as a warrior.8 There upon the field the stifled Arjuna is met by a visitation from Krisna, the deified embodiment of the purusha experience, and he begins to lead Arjuna through a meditation. In chapters 6 through 11 of the Bhagavaa Gita, as Krsna leads Arjuna to the recovery of the primitive perspective which he has lost, we see the mechanics of yoga in action. Let us now examine these chapters.

In the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the "Yoga of Meditation" (dhyanayoga), Krsna initiates Arjuna into the process of meditation. We read that the process is one of disciplined concentration, an isolation from external sensations for the sake of promoting the recovery of internal consciousness, the experience of Krisna himself [VI,2l].9 With the perfection of this discipline, one becomes detached from external perception:thought ceases [VI,2O]; one is visited by an experience of great happiness; and this experience is non-sensory, but rather perceived by the buddhi faculty [VI,2l]. The result is a"bridging" between externality and internality; having recovered the internal purusa (Krisna) experience, this experience is renewed with each subsequent external experience:

The one whose self is disciplined by yoga,
Sees the self abiding in every being
And sees every being in the self;
He sees the same in all beings.

He who sees me (Krisna) everywhere, and sees all in me
I am not lost to him, and he is not lost to me [VI,29-30].

The mechanics of this discipline, as displayed in chapters 7 through 10 of the Bhagavad Gita, are basically an inversion of the above situation: we saw above that the recovery of the internal experience leads to an alteration of external experiences, as they become occasions for the renewal of the internal experience; hence, as Krisna leads Arjuna through his meditation,he presents him with a number of externally originating perceptions from the memory of his own biography and cultural history and pairs them with an internal experience, a facet of Krsna himself. For example, Krisna says to Arjuna in chapter 7:

I am the taste in the waters...
I am the radiance in the sun and moon;
The sacred syllable (om) in all the Vedas,
The sound in ether, the manliness in men.

I am the pleasant fragrance in earth,
The glowing brightness in fire,
The life in all beings,
The austerity in ascetics [VII,B-9];

and in chapter 9:

I am the ritual, the sacrifice, the oblation, the medicinal herb,
The Vedic text, the clarified butter, the fire, and the offering.

I am the father of this world,
The mother, supporter, the grandsire;
I am the one to be known, the purifier,
The sacred syllable Om, (the verse, chant, and sacrificial formula) [IX,l6-17];

and in chapter 10:

Of purifiers, I am the wind;
Of warriors, Rama;
Of fish, I am Makara;
Of rivers, I am the Ganges.

Of creations, I am the beginning and the end, and the middle also, 0 Arjuna;
Of knowledge, I am self-knowledge; of speakers, I am the speech.

Of letters, I am the letter A; of compounds, the dual;
I am also imperishable time, and the dispenser facing all sides...
Of deceivers, I am gambling; of the splendid, the splendor; I am victory, I am resoluteness, I am the essence of the real [X,31-33,36].

In chapter 11, "The Yoga of the Manifestation of the World Form" (vishva-rupa-darshana-yoga) Arjuna, having succeeded in his meditation, beholds the form of Krsna directly, the terrible vision of the "primeval purusha," the original, primitive perspective on the world which he carried with him into his birth .This experience, so intense and powerful, is as stifling as the crisis of the first chapter; hence, in the remaining seven chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, Krisna trains Arjuna to assimilate this experience into his daily living.

I shall conclude this brief introduction to Indian philosophy and compare what we have seen with Platonic philosophy .Hopefully, the similarities between the philosophical and epistemological positions of the two will be obvious. Let us take each of the three points of comparison stated in the introduction in sequence.

1. The human condition.

We saw that in Symposium, Plato implies that man has no nature of his own, that his being fluctuates between perfect freedom (poros) and determinate necessity (penia). The same is implied in the Samkhya anthropology: the ahamkara, the faculty which generates selfhood, has no predetermined nature,but lies between the anthropological extremes of the free purusha and the determined physical being, and will formalize a self-identification which will vary to the extent that the individual embodies these extremes.

2. The philosophical activity.

Combining the concept of philosophy as "practicing death"in Phaedo with Diotima's "initiation" into the mystery of love,we arrive at the Platonic concept of philosophy, one which holds that the philosophical activity entails an isolation from sensory (external) perception and the utilization of previous external perceptions (retained in memory and imagination) for the recovery of internal sensations, pure experiences of goodness and beauty originating in internal consciousness. The method of yogic meditation which Krisna introduces to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita entails similar principles: the meditator is placed in isolation, and through disciplined concentration upon experiences relevant to his culture, these experiences are linked to a primitive internal experience, the experience of the original purusha perspective on the world.

3. Epistemology.

Finally, the central issue of this paper, epistemology. For Plato, true knowledge does not lie in sensory perception or logical thought; rather, the epistemological fruits of these experiences are yielded only when these experiences are used as memory points, occasions for the recovery of ideal internal experiences, the seeds of genuine knowledge embedded in internal consciousness. The same epistemological position is held in Yogic philosophy. In the Bhagavad Gita, we meet Arjuna, a man of sound faculties that knows the world around him, but has forgotten the original purusha experience, an internal experience, which held this world together. With the help of Krishna, the embodiment of this perspective, Arjuna is trained to link the things which he knows, through meditation, with their origin, the true knowledge of the "primeval purusha." In both epistemologies, the knowledge of internal experiences is super-rational, super-logical, and is grasped cognitive faculty (Plato's "eye" and Samkhya's buddhi).