maandag 22 juni 2015

Plato disproved?

“About a perfect world we know nothing. Plato, who still believed in it, has been disproved already long ago”, Rob Schouten wrote recently. Schouten sees the shedding of Plato as a stage of maturity, and I agree with him. But I do have my doubts about the taken-for-grantedness and carelessness with which he posits this refutation as a fait accompli.

In the Jewish tradition, Plato actually is not present in a disturbing way, but probably there he never was. Judaism has good testimonials when it comes to a non-Platonic, more realistic view of good and evil in this world, without however losing hope of a messianic time. The realization that earthly life must be lived fully, and is not inferior compared to our spiritual existence, is from the outset deeply rooted in Judaism.

But other institutions that once were strongholds of Platonic thought, are still so as much today as ever, in my view. I think of such diverse entities as the Catholic church, the world of management and organization, and philosophical practice.

In the church the superiority of the spiritual over the physical was from the start so strong that the image of human perfection for the church was inextricably linked to sexual abstinence. For both men and women this meant that the state of virginity was superior to marriage. Of course marriage was not forbidden, because reproduction was important, but the Platonic hierarchy was clear. To my knowledge, this is, unlike Schouten suggests, still the official line of the Catholic Church.

In management and organization there has always been, from the time systematic thinking  about organizations developed, a strong emphasis on a separation between thoughts and actions, policies and practices, with priority control for thinkers and policy makers. For the founders of organization theory, such as Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol, this was taken as an obvious starting point for achieving the highest efficiency and effectiveness. In essence, this primacy of thinking over doing is a Platonic reflex. And though this principle is regularly challenged, it is very firmly anchored in our organized life.

Regarding philosophy, to the extent it is attracted to ‘ivory tower’ work, it is a Platonic affair. The things going on there are supposed to be ‘deeper’ and more ‘fundamental’ than in other scientific disciplines, and therefore to represent a truer reality. The corresponding ideas of philosophy as ‘a constant spiritual exercise, where thinking reflects without a preconceived goal on timeless questions’ or exclusive involvement in epistemology are still largely prevalent. There too, there are voices that call for less Platonic isolation and for thinking more about concrete matters. But those voices have certainly not won yet.

The refutation of Plato, therefore, has not be completed yet. As I said, I do think that Jewish tradition plays a leading role here, and already for centuries so. That does not always produce neat arrangements or systematic constructions, let alone a perfect world. But anyway, one is less affected by Plato’s life-hostile schemes there.

Also see Plato at the workplace