Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part II
Pushing beyond appearances, Plato now addresses the real issue: what do we mean by "same" and "different"?
In order to distinguish, separate, or discriminate between two types of things, we need to be able to identify some differences between them. What, then, are "differences?" How can we be sure that we have correctly identified real differences (and not merely apparent differences)?
Plato is not nit-picking here. There are many ordinary circumstances where people fail to perceive differences or perceive differences too largely. For instance, people from one culture sometimes claim that people from another culture "all look the same." This occurred recently when a sheriff in Glasgow Scotland claimed that "all Chinese people look the same" which made it easy to misidentify a suspect (see 'Chinese look same' claim backed, BBC, Monday, 23 October 2006). In defense of the sheriff's claim, a chairwoman of the Scotland-China Association added; "From my point of view, when I look at local people - the indigenous Scottish people - at first glance all of them look the same to me."
Of course, to say "all Scots look the same" is different from saying "all Scots are the same." The first claim is about appearances, the second claim is about reality beyond appearance. In fact, Chinese people do not all look the same, nor do Scots. When someone makes the "they all look the same" statement about people of a culture, they are only expressing their lack of acquaintance with those people. A few days spent in China, Scotland, Africa, or Nebraska will quickly dispel just about anyone's lack of perception of difference between individuals.
So, there are real and meaningful issues about the concepts same and different. These issues are central to Plato's entire philosophical project. Like Socrates before him, Plato was primarily concerned with whether and how human beings could arrive at meaningful definitions of our concepts. A meaningful definition would allow us to separate and distinguish things that are really different from one another, as well as to group and connect things which are essentially the same. This is the problem of the Socratic Definition, which is the heart of the Platonic dialogues. Without meaningful definitions, Plato maintains, we can have no genuine knowledge.
The problem of definition, whether we truly know what makes things different or the same, is being invoked in Book V of The Republic. Read the passage again;
The issue is not only sameness and differences, but sameness and difference of nature. By "of nature," Plato is speaking of the set of attributes that define a certain kind of thing. Another word for "nature" here is "essence". Socrates and Plato argue that to know a kind of thing (i.e. to know what justice is, to know what love is, etc.) is to know the essence of that thing. Consider the following example;
Triangles are different from circles. Triangles have three angles. It is the nature of a triangle to have three angles. Circles have no angles. It is the nature of circles to have no angles. But triangles and circles also have some things in common. They are all shapes, they all have area; in these regards they are the same. But triangles and circles have essential differences (no circle is also a triangle). In Plato's terms, triangles and circles have different natures.
If this level of investigation seems deep or perhaps excessive and over-analyzing to you, then that is just a indicator of how serious Plato was about getting to the truth. He wanted to leave nothing to mere assumption or prejudice. He sought to examine every premise in the belief that reason would bring out the truth. Anything less is a tendency to accept appearances and to take the existing state of things for granted just because it seems to be so. This is a common tendency. Perhaps it is intellectual laziness, perhaps it is resistance to change, or perhaps it is an honest reliance on common-sense; but it is not the genuine and relentless pursuit of truth that Plato and Socrates insisted upon.
The relevance of this metaphysical inquiry to the question of gender equality is this:
So the all important question is:
Next, as he so often does, Plato illuminates this fuzzy philosophical problem with a clarifying example.
|2002© Jon Dorbolo|