The Problem with Philosopher-Kings

Unless either philosophers become kings in their countries or those who are now called kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for wisdom; unless, that is to say, political power and philosophy meet together, ... there can be no rest from troubles...
In these words from "Book V" of the Republic, Plato defines the smallest possible change necessary to generate the ideal Republic he outlines in "Book IV." This requires Plato to identify just what a philosopher is, and then explain how to recognize those who manifest this quality sufficiently to act as the kings who not only have the "genuine desire for wisdom," but who have also achieved this wisdom. In his quest to define a philosopher, he must necessarily define wisdom, and this generates the Platonic epistemology consisting of the forms, the four stages of cognition and the notion of faculties and their fields of objects.

Unfortunately, while Plato offers a very concrete and well defined method for producing potential philosopher-kings, he seems somewhat vague in his explication of how we would go about testing them to assure ourselves that they had achieved the wisdom necessary for them to function adequately. The dialectical discussion is key to both the education of the philosopher-kings and also to testing them, but Plato tells us even the great Socrates claimed not to know the Forms: "I cannot be sure whether or not I see it [truth] as it really is..." Explicitly Socrates is claiming to be unsure of his vision of Truth, but this quote is taken from the allegory of the cave, and here the truth Socrates is after is the Forms.

Perhaps Socrates and Plato were unsure of their knowledge of the Forms precisely because their model of knowledge was based on analogy to sight. "If a man is to believe in something, there must be something before his mind; he cannot believe in nothing, can he?" This insistence upon knowledge being something like a vision which one can fix before the eye of one's soul, leads inevitably to Socrates saying:

In a faculty I cannot find any of those qualities, such as color or shape, which, in the case of many other things, enable me to distinguish one thing from another. I can only look to its field of objects and the state of mind it produces, and regard these as sufficient to identify it and to distinguish it from faculties which have different fields and produce different states.
To continue in the same vein as Socrates, and to propose the smallest possible change which might free Socrates and Plato from this quandary, one might offer that if there were a faculty whose field of objects was faculties themselves, then Plato and Socrates could be ontologically assured of knowing their potential philosopher-kings either had knowledge of the Forms themselves, or did not.


For Plato a faculty was a way of knowing, and each faculty had its own unique field of objects. The highest and most fundamental faculty was noesis/episteme (Intelligence/Knowledge) and its field of objects is of the Forms themselves. Dianoia (Thinking) is the second faculty and its field of objects is our concepts of the Forms. Pistis (Belief) and eikasia (Conjecture/Imagining) have for their fields of objects the individual and particular instances which manifest the Forms, and imitations or reflections (paintings or sculptures for example) of instances manifesting the Forms, respectively.

The latter two faculties and their fields belong to the World of Appearances and are objects of the real world which are illuminated for the eyes by light. The former two, noesis and dianoia, are explained by analogy to sight - sight was felt by the Greeks to be unique amongst the five bodily senses in that it alone required some intermediate to convey its field of objects to the organ of sensation. For the eyes to see the objects around them, to perceive their shape and color, the eyes need light1. For noesis and dianoia, the illuminator was the Good, but the analogy was carried to the point where the Forms and the concepts of the Forms were images which could be contemplated as such.


In a system in which knowledge is explained through an analogy with vision, a faculty is a somewhat problematic object. If we are to be successful in helping Plato and Socrates out, we must work our proposed Faculty, whose field of objects is faculties, into the existing epistemology. For reasons that may or may not be clear later, let us call this proposed faculty dialectia. Where then would this new faculty, dialectia, fall in the order of the other faculties?

To answer this question we must look to its field of objects - what does a faculty look like? It has no substantial being which can be observed. Indeed, it is like a Form, an insubstantial entity of which we can see only as a shadow or reflection twice removed from its true being. Plato says:

I can only look to its field of objects and the state of mind it produces, and regard these as sufficient to identify it and to distinguish it from faculties which have different fields and produce different states.
But it is because he cannot know with ontological certainty which field of objects is being contemplated in the first place that we are proposing the faculty dialectia. In speaking of "the state of mind produced," Plato has named the field of objects we have proposed: faculties, that is, a way of knowing or state of mind.

In Plato's method of producing potential philosopher-kings, dialectical discussion was key: "Dialectic [discussion] will stand as the coping-stone of the whole structure; there is no other study that deserves to be put above it." Plato describes a process through which one becomes capable of noesis: first one begins by contemplating the physical manifestation of the Form Beauty: a beautiful body. Then through dialectical discussion one learns to contemplate the concept of Beauty, and even though Socrates claims not to have himself, our philosopher-king candidates finally learn to grasp the Form of Beauty itself.

What we are speaking of here is a process. A faculty is likewise a process, that is a way of knowing or a way of thinking. Each faculty is its own way of knowing, or process of thinking2, and thus generates its own way of behavior. For noesis we are talking about the process of dialetical reasoning. If it is nothing more than this process, then it has is an algorithm that I might write down on a piece of paper - and thus we have an imitation of a behavior, just as a painting of a beautiful woman is an imitation of a beautiful woman.

As we have described them, faculties are insubstantial, but clearly they produce visible manifestations: and in the case of dianoia, the behavior is that of dialectical discussion. From this behavior we might construct a theory of the behavior, that is a concept of the behavior, and out of this theory we might generate algorithms of the behavior, that is, imitations of the behavior. This seems to imply that the faculty is itself a Form.


It would appear then that a faculty is a Form, and the faculty of dialectia is superfluous as we already have Plato's faculty of noesis for which the Forms are the field of objects, and "... it is the nature of a different faculty to have a different field..." And thus we understand why it is even the great Socrates did not know how to recognize a faculty: because he had no sure knowledge of the Forms.

What we then find is an interesting little "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" paradox. We find that if Socrates had had ontological knowledge of the Forms, he would have known that he had ontological knowledge of the Forms, because, as it would appear the faculties are themselves Forms, he would have then known the faculties in such a way as to know which faculty was in operation when he contemplated something.

Unfortunately for Plato, this makes his programme3 of producing philosopher-kings problematic because only they would be able to judge if they knew the Forms in the manner necessary for them to be philosopher-kings. The people of the Republic would have to trust their leaders when they, the leaders, said they knew what they doing. It is doubtful that Plato had the United States of America in mind when he was thinking of a ideal Republic - but then it might only be coincidence that we suffer from the same malady Plato's Republic seems doomed to endure, that is to trust politicians.



1...the eyes need light...
It is interesting to note that while it is not unreasonable for the Greeks not to have known that sound waves could not be propagated without air, one would suppose that they would have ample knowledge of the usefulness of being upwind from animals one's prey. In this 'sense' at least, vision and the sense of smell are similar. Looking at the problem from another perspective, sight, smell, and hearing are senses that "operate at a distance" - that is they can sense objects at distances greatly removed from the sensing organ. Taste and touch, however, must be in contact with the object to be sensed. This is all to show simply that vision is not so unique as Socrates and Plato would like to have presented it. Even so, it is clear that vision is the paramount information gathering sense for humans. What effect this non-uniquness has on the epistemology is another question. (return)

2...process of thinking...
It would be an interesting excursion into functionalist theories of the mind and/or behaviorism to propose how the different faculties differ algorithmically, but this would be beyond the scope of both this paper and its humble author.

3...his programme...
One might comment that the dialectic through which the philosopher-king would gain a knowledge of the Forms is a form of inductive reasoning. As stated, the philosopher-king would start by contemplating specifics - individual beautiful bodies, and would then contemplate beautiful bodies in general, thereby forming a concept of Beauty. This discussion of the concept of Beauty would result in some sort of leap in understanding which would yield the Form of Beauty itself. The problem here is, as in any form of inductive reasoning, if one tries to write up an algorithm of the process, there will always be a line of the code that says: "And then a miracle occurs." - the miracle of understanding.
I don't put this bit in the main body of the paper because I'm not sure how a functionalist would respond. On the face of it, this would appear to make the concept, behavior, and algorithm (the fields of objects of dianoia, pistis, eikasia generated by the Form of a Faculty) problematic. One would have to look at each of the other three faculties as well. For each of the faculties to be Forms, they would each have to generate a behavior which could be conceptualized and then reduced to an algorithm. How would one write an algorithm for eikasia, the faculty of Imagining or Conjecturing, if noesis itself is problematic?