One of the major questions of philosophy has always been the nature of the soul, what it is, where it resides, where it comes from, how it is developed, and for what purpose. This abiding interest like the human being from a philosophical rather than physical standpoint is evidenced as early as the ancient Greeks as Socrates and others debated on these questions and others. With a full pantheon of gods and goddesses to turn to, the ancient Greeks were no closer to an answer regarding these questions than we are today.
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However, this did not stop them, nor us, from trying to reason out what some of the answers might be. In his Theory of Recollection argument found in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates presents his logic regarding the nature of the human soul, indicating his belief in its immortality and drawing distinctions between the types and reasons for knowledge.
Essentially, Socrates argues that the soul is immortal because of an innate memory of concepts such as equality and justice. Instead of learning these concepts, Socrates suggests that we are merely remembering them. This process of recollection occurs in four stages. First, the individual perceives something. Socrates provides the imagery of a log for purposes of demonstration, but the ‘something’ can be anything. Next, that individual thinks of something else – they recollect it – such as another log that they’ve seen for example. Because no two things can be the same either in reality because they cannot occupy the same space at the same time in the same way without being part of the first thing or in concept because the individual perceiving the two things cannot focus on every element of both things at the same time, the knowledge of the second thing indeed has to be different in some way from the knowledge the individual has of the first thing. Based on the knowledge the individual has of the second thing, they evaluate the first thing, such as identifying it as a log, perhaps even a log that is approximately equal to the other log that exists in one’s memory. Thus, Socrates concludes, he has successfully proven that learning is a process of recollection rather than a process of becoming acquainted with new knowledge. There is always something there first, always a memory by which the new thing can be compared. For there to be a memory, there must have been something to precede the memory, thus the soul is immortal and both precede and follows death in the physical body.
To help support his argument, Socrates pulls in Plato’s Theory of the Forms, suggesting that to determine things that are equal or unequal, we must first have an idea of what equal means. We cannot gain this idea from life because in life we never encounter anything that is precisely equal, thus we cannot learn this concept. As a result of our ability to make this distinction, we must therefore have a preconceived notion of what equal means, thus we have an idea of the perfection of forms that exist outside of the human realm of existence. Similarly, we have an idea of what a perfect form might be – a perfect square or a perfect circle, for example – but, until very recently, this wasn’t even a possibility among humans. Even with the advent of the computer which can draw perfectly measured shapes, there is still an argument to be made as to what exactly entails a ‘perfect’ square or circle. How does the conception in our heads match with the form that the computer can draw? Where do we get this conception? This is exactly where Socrates takes his comfort and his proof that the soul is immortal.
There are some major flaws with this logic though as it remains unexplained why we are not able to employ this information of the perfect forms from the moment of our birth if it is information that was easily accessible and understandable to our souls. It is insufficient for Plato to explain that we lose this information through disuse during the latent infant period when we are unable to utilize it and then must go through the process of remembering it as we become more capable of using the information we once knew because of the concept of knowing remains so obscure. At the same time, just because we can make comparisons between something we encounter and something we remember does not mean the information we remember was acquired before birth. We may by desert-dwelling people who come across a tree for the first time and we will not consider this object a tree, we will instead label it a large bush and marvel at its incredible height. This suggests we are not ‘remembering’ the perfect form for a tree, but instead suggests that we are relating what we encounter to the experiences we’ve had throughout our lifetimes. We have learned what things are through experience, not through knowledge acquired before birth.
Another argument against Socrates is that our ideas of concepts such as equality or justice, which he claims must be based upon pre-birth knowledge of the perfect forms, are themselves imperfect. We cannot fully or accurately define these ideas to ensure that each one of us is thinking of the same thing when we use these words, regardless of how much study and how much care, we put into the effort. Therefore, there is no means by which we can accurately compare these concepts to determine whether there is a perfect form in existence for us to understand. In other words, our judgments are always based on relative terms, how one thing compares with another, rather than on objective terms such as how one thing compares to a perfect ideal.