On Concepts and Society

Medium Reads, Politics
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Plato is perhaps the most well-known philosopher to be associated with an essentialist position. He maintained that everything we have a name for has an ideal essence of which we did have knowledge that we subsequently forgot. He maintained that there was the ideal essence of the object of which we have knowledge and contrasted it with the representations of objects to be found within the real world. It is precisely the contrast between representation and essence that we’ll analyse and that will reveal to us what Plato thought and affected his thinking.

Due to his influence there has been a catch-all term for all the philosophers that came before him. We have generally called them the Presocratics. The problem is that while we have Plato’s whole philosophical corpus, the philosophy of the Presocratics has only come to us through fragments. Nevertheless some of the fragments, and the discussions of their thoughts by later philosophers and historians, does provide us with a viewing of what they thought.

The main question that was asked during that time what the fundamental substance was out of which the whole universe was composed. This was the main question asked and answered by the Milesian school. Then later the Eleatic school and Heraclitus both asked what change was and came to conclusions that contradicted with each other. Both of these questions have indeed been elegantly answered by Plato. The fundamental thing out of which the universe is composed are reflections of forms. Change, meaning the transformation of one form to another, can happen because these reflections can change the form they are being referenced to.

In a similar vein the time when Plato was alive was also a time when mathematics and geometry were the only things that generated some predictable power. It made sense at the time to see sciences that involved an abstraction of reality as superior to sciences that investigated reality as such.

It is within that mentality that we should approach the Republic, which is perhaps the first written work of Western political philosophy. As a part of his large body of work it consists in asking what justice is and thus what a just society would be like. At the end of the first chapter of the republic, after answering why other conceptions of justice are mistaken, Plato answers that rather than seeing justice as a transaction, skill or power relation, that one should instead see it as a thing in and of itself that is inherently good.

The above propositions are then what would give rise to his defence of hierarchy. If one were to state that a true definition of the object justice exists, that its knowledge would give rise to something that is inherently beneficial to everyone and that not everyone has equal access to that knowledge hierarchy is nothing but the most logical conclusion.

Our modern society seems to have developed to a more individualist understanding of the world. Today it is pretty much a given that society has to start at the individual level to then understand what we can really know about the world given our perception of it. Whilst the philosophical traditions of ancient Greece emphasized an external object that made perception possible the modern philosophical tradition emphasizes perception through which external objects are to be viewed.

In a similar vein scientific disciplines studying reality, such as physics and chemistry have come to be seen to be as factual and objective, if not more so, than mathematics. Where the ancient Greeks put more emphasis on abstraction than on reality our world has at least since the Renaissance started to put more emphasis on reality than on abstraction.

Given that we have to deal with both of those things it is unsurprising that liberal politics have made themselves extremely popular with us. The individual is believed to be transcendental and his decisions are not to be submitted to an external principle. In a similar vein we have started to prefer concrete political action over idealized political philosophies. This might be why the political thought of Plato has been so shocking to figures like Popper. The contrast between how they thought and how we think is rather large. Both in this case do so because they are informed by a social surrounding that has conditioned them in such a way to value certain things over others.

One can thus consider that our conceptual understanding has changed over time and that that has lead to a different understanding of how society is to be organised. In that sense one can thus say that a certain political cycle can be put into motion. First one defines concepts, then one makes of those concepts a political organisation. That organisation will then give rise to concepts that make sense within that organisation and transform the organisation according to the concepts given to them. This is what one could consider to be the conceptual cycle of political organisation. From that it is self-evident that one will see the rise of more and more conceptually robust systems over time. That is to say that the conceptual understandings within a given environment will be given at a continuously much more pervasive degree to later generations so that current political groupings persist longer.

It is evident that this has to be done together with other measures in such a way to promote control. The fact however is that every successful long-lasting society will encourage conceptual uniformity. It is in that sense that new political systems of government are written off with scepticism. The concepts underlying a new system of government simply sound too alien to us to warrant implementation.

In light of that information one could maintain, as Nietzsche did, that different ways to organise concepts are possible. That thus one should accept that different groups have different values and that everything within that set of values is worth it at least for the group it is valuable to. Learning to understand the concepts through which your surrounding environment understands itself and how to act according to your own concepts and taking theirs into consideration seems like the first step towards a self that will rise above others.

Thus we can thus end by quite simply stating this: Manipulation by your environment to accept a certain understanding is real. That manipulation can be accurate, but never perfect. It is by understanding what concepts you are disposed to understand differently and learning how to contrast yourself through those concepts that you can truly become an independent person on your own.

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