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Plato's Theory of Perception

Module Code: PI4035

Module Name: Perception and knowledge in Plato

  • ECTS Weighting: 5
  • Semester/Term Taught: Hilary Term
  • Contact Hours: 22 hours of lecture
  • Module Personnel: Lecturer - Dr. Peter Larsen

Module Content

It has become somewhat of a truism in the scholarship that, for Plato, perception cannot furnish knowledge, and that it is through the soul's rational activity, if anywhere, that knowledge may be achieved. In this seminar we will examine this view closely. Beginning with perception (aisthesis), we will bring together the passages in which Plato engages with this topic, and attempt to piece together a coherent and consistent view. Of particular interest for us will be Plato's thoughts on three aspects of perception: (1) the subject of perception - that which actually perceives; (2) the content of perception - that of which a perceiver becomes aware when she perceives; (3) the process by which a perceiver becomes aware of perceptual content.

Once we have considered Plato's position on the process and structure of perception, we will turn to his views on knowledge (episteme) and knowledge acquisition. In particular, we will investigate how perception either contributes positively to or impedes the pursuit of knowledge. We will ask first if, for Plato, the content of perception - the things we perceive - can be known. If it cannot, we will consider how, if at all, the perceptual capacity can contribute to knowledge. Along the way we will encounter a number of psychical capacities that are related both to perception and to knowledge. Therefore, through the course of the seminar we will also look closely at Plato's account of memory (mneme) and imagination (phantasia) and where they fit within his wider cognitive psychology.

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module, students will be able to:

  • discuss the elements involved in Plato's theory of perception;
  • critically evaluate the role that sense perception plays in the acquisition of knowledge;
  • understand the relation between perception, memory, imagination and knowledge in Plato's thought.