28 February 2006

I Think, I See

You are at a party, in a room crowded with people, and someone who has just arrived asks you to pick out Simmias for him. You don’t think you know who Simmias is. So he shows you a picture of Simmias. Then you either:

(i) look around the room and, while keeping an eye on the picture, match the picture to someone in the room whom the picture resembles (albeit imperfectly so);

(ii) study the picture, put it aside, and, while keeping it in mind, search for and succeed in picking out Simmias;

(iii) look at the picture and realize that you had met that person before (“Oh, sure, I met that guy once—didn’t know his name was Simmias, though”), and then pick him out.

Only (iii) involves recollection. But note:

(a) it involves phenomenologically having an experience of something as a past experience by you;

(b) there needs to be a third thing besides the picture and Simmias, namely, your thought of having met the man called Simmias in the past; and,

(c) you couldn’t be making use of this past experience in this way, it seems, if Simmias were right before you, since then you would simply do (i), i.e. match the picture to the person.

The memory as intermediary becomes necessary, it seems, only when the person to be identified is not directly perceived.

These considerations, I think, lead to a difficulty in the doctrine of recollection in the Phaedo. There seems to be an inconsistency, in that dialogue, between two distinct notions of how we have access to the Forms. Let us call these: Forms as viewed versus Forms as recollected.

Forms as viewed is the notion which Socrates gives early in Phaedo, when he makes his ‘defense’. There he says that a true philosopher tries to free himself as much as possible from reliance upon the senses, because only then can he think about, view, and ‘touch’ absolute realities (65e-67b, passim). His language here suggests that we encounter the Forms through a kind of intellectual perception. We see them, but with the mind rather than with the senses.

But Forms as viewed cannot, it seems, be regarded as due objections of an operation of recollection. If we have access to Forms simply by seeing them, then sensible particulars, it seems, must play the role of simply picking them out (as in (i) above); the appeal to some additional process of recollection looks to be both unnecessary and impossible.

The point may be summarized with this argument:

  1. To recollect is to call to mind something that one is not perceiving directly.
  2. Thus, anything that one perceives directly is not an object of recollection.
  3. To think of a Form is to perceive it directly.
  4. Thus, no Form is an object of recollection.


Lucas said...

Isn't the point of the eclipsed sun analogy in 99ff (I don't have the dialogue in front of me) that direct perception of the truth about the beings, i.e. the forms, is impossible? Socrates claims that it is necessary to look for what really exists in the medium of logos. This means that perception of reality, whether by the senses or by the intellect, needs mediation via the method of hypothesis (a techne of logos) and cannot be immediate. Otherwise, wouldn't Socrates speak about a direct vision of the sun? The mysterious notion of what the forms are and how we have access to them undergoes several major revisions and clarifications in the dialectic of the Phaedo, so it should not surprise us if the above seems to contradict the preliminary defense given by Socrates (which of course was meant more to provoke than to persuade).

Sam Rickless said...


Here are a couple of thoughts.

Your argument as stated isn't quite valid. What follows is not that no form is an object of recollection, but rather that no form that is thought of is an object of recollection.

My memory of the relevant passages from the Phaedo is that the recollection of forms happens soon after birth, when we are reminded of them through the perception of other objects by means of the senses. For example, we recollect the Equal soon after birth when we perceive equal sticks and stones by means of the senses. Once we have recollected the Equal, we perceive it directly with the mind's eye. So now, many years later, we do not recollect the Equal: we perceive it directly. So I'm inclined to grant your premises and your (validly derived) conclusion only if they are applied to us now (many years after birth). That is, no form that is thought of NOW is an object of recollection. However, if we apply the premises and conclusion to a time shortly after birth (call it "T"), then I do not grant the (suitably rephrased) conclusion (namely, no form that is thought of at T is an object of recollection at T), and this because I do not grant the (suitably rephrased, to keep the argument valid) premise that to think of a form at T is to perceive it directly at T. At T, we think of the forms, but we do not perceive them directly.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Lucas,

What Socrates says at 99e4-5 is that he has rejected trying to view reality with his eyes and with the other senses. That wouldn't preclude his viewing intelligible reality, with his mind, through 'logoi'. In fact, one finds early in the dialogue, to describe thinking of Forms: skopein (65b10), theoreitai (65e2), skopei (65e4), and theateon( 66e1)--all connoting intellectual perception.

Dear Sam,

It seems to me that the difficulty is raised in your last sentence: "At T, we think of the forms, but we do not perceive them directly." My problem is that I don't see what thinking of the Forms is, in the Phaedo, except perceiving them, directly--and then we have something like my case (i).

Here's another way of putting the problem. As you are aware, Moore and Russell at one point argued for what has been called 'Platonic atomism'. They maintained that 'terms' or 'concepts' (not unlike Platonic Forms) were available directly to the mind. Yet, reasonably enough, no one ever thought that they were thereby committing themselves to the pre-existence of the mind!--just as no one suggests that sight had to pre-exist, because it succeeds in seeing visible things.


Sam Rickless said...

"My problem is that I don't see what thinking of the Forms is, in the Phaedo, except perceiving them, directly."

My suggestion is that, soon after birth, we are reminded of the forms. Thereafter, we think of them directly (without needing to be reminded of them all the time by means of some sensible intermediary). It's not as if, now, at 41 (gasp! am I that old?), I need to be reminded of the Equal by looking at equal sticks and stones. When Socrates uses words connoting intellectual perception of the forms, he is talking about his relation to the forms at age 70, not his relation to the forms shortly after birth.

Think of it this way. You meet Simmias at a party in Hades. You talk philosophy, exchange cell phone numbers, agree to keep in touch, and (as inevitably happens) you later forget you ever met the guy. Then, a few months later, you run into Simmias's friend, Phaedo. Seeing Phaedo reminds you of Simmias (Case (iii): Recollection). Upon being reminded of Simmias, you realize how important that Hades philosophical conversation was, and thereafter never forget him. He is always on your mind. You don't need to look at something that reminds you of him in order to think of him. (Direct perception)

I'm not sure whether I've understood your Moore-Russell analogy. It's true that it would be fallacious to argue that our minds pre-exist on the grounds that we now directly perceive terms or concepts. But this is not how Socrates argues in the Phaedo. He argues that our minds pre-exist because (roughly) we are reminded of something shortly after birth.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Sam,

You write, "My suggestion is that, soon after birth, we are reminded of the forms. Thereafter, we think of them directly (without needing to be reminded of them all the time by means of some sensible intermediary)." Okay, let's take that time soon after birth: 'T', you called it. What happens at T? Someone sees some equal-looking things, and is led by them to think of Equality Itself. But what is it to think of Equality Itself, except to perceive it intellectually?--and then we have a case like my (i), and there is no need to say that Equality was recollected.

But I'm sure I'm misunderstanding you. I seem to keep missing your point.


Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

Perhaps we're stuck on Plato's conception of recollection and your conception of direct perception. As he puts it (roughly), X is reminded of Y by Z at T iff (i) X senses Z at T, (ii) X thinks of Y at T, and (iii) Y is not identical to Z. We could add a condition (iv) that relates (i) and (ii), to the effect that X's sensing Z at T makes X think of Y at T. We can think of this as a kind of triggered perception of Y. The fact that perception of Y needs to be triggered is what renders it indirect. This situation differs from your Situation (i). In that situation, the perception (or thought) of the relevant person is not triggered by the perception of the picture.

Perhaps the problem lies not here, but in Plato's inference that recollection (as defined above) entails prior knowledge, and hence pre-existence. But here I imagine Plato's putting his foot down and asking for an alternative explanation for the triggering of the thought of the forms. How could the sense perception of equal sticks and stones trigger intellectual perception of the forms in the absence of prior (intellectual) acquaintance with the forms?

I too worry that I'm missing something here. Forgive me. I've been thinking about Berkeley's arguments for idealism, and may have entered cloud-cuckoo-land without realizing it....

Michael Pakaluk said...


In my (i), the perception of Simmias is 'triggered' by the picture: one sees the picture and then recognizes Simmias, in the room, as corresponding to the picture.

In your story, you've added an extra element, the 'thought' of the Form, triggered by the sensible particular. But, again, I don't see what this 'thought' is, for Plato, except a intellectual vision of the Form.


Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

I don't see that in your (i), the perception of Simmias is triggered by the picture. When you look around the room, you see Simmias. There he is, in plain view. You don't need to look at the picture to see him. Perhaps you need to look at the picture to recognize him as corresponding to the picture, but that's another matter. Now think of the corresponding situation in the Phaedo. You do need to look at sensible sticks and stones to think of the Equal. You can't think of the Equal right off the bat. Isn't this a relevant disanalogy?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Sam,

I don't think Plato wishes to say that it is a necessary condition, of one's thinking of a Form, that one's thought be triggered by an instantiation of that Form, for instance, if seeing a pair leads me to think of Two, then presumably without looking at a quadruple I might nonetheless think of Four. (Let's assume numbers are Forms, for the example.)

It can't be, then, that we see the Form only in or through our perceiving the sensible particular. But, if so, then it seems to me that the way in which, in (i), the picture of Simmias 'triggers' the sight of Simmias ought to be enough--Simmias is there in the room to be seen in advance, of course, just as Forms are there to be thought, but we don't notice him, and we don't attend to them, unless first we are drawn to do so through something sensible that has an appropriate resemblance.

But perhaps I might shift course a little and put my concern in another way.

An account of recollection, I think, needs to appeal to three things: (a) something that jogs the memory; (b) something remembered, which is objective; (c) something internal, a 'thought' or 'memory', which represents to us our having encountered this object in the past.

My complaint has been that there is room, in Plato's talk of 'seeing' the Forms, for (a) and (b), but not for (c). We sense particulars; we 'see' intellectually Forms. But there is no third thing: e.g. my remembrance of my having seen a Form in the past.