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Plato and Descartes: Comparing their Thoughts on Knowledge and Learning - Essay Example

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From a philosophical perspective, the idea of learning can fall under the heading of epistemology, which refers to the study of the origin, nature, limits, and methods of knowledge.1 How can we know How can we learn something new What is the source of knowledge The complexity of how humans learn is illustrated in the following excerpt from Plato's Meno (427-347 B.C.):
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Plato and Descartes: Comparing their Thoughts on Knowledge and Learning
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Download file to see previous pages Actually, there are two positions on the origin of knowledge and its relationship to the environment: rationalism and empiricism. In varying degrees these positions are recognizable in our present learning theories. Rationalism is connected with the idea that knowledge derives from reason without aid of the senses. The distinction between mind and matter, which figures prominently in rationalist views of human knowledge, can be traced to Plato, who distinguished knowledge acquired via the senses from that gained by reason.3 Plato believed that things (e.g., houses, trees) are revealed to people via the senses, whereas individuals acquire ideas by reasoning or thinking about what they know. People have ideas about the world, and they learn (discover) these ideas by reflecting upon them. Reason is the highest mental faculty, because through reason people learn abstract ideas. The true nature of houses and trees can be known only by reflecting upon the ideas of houses and trees.4
Plato escaped the dilemma in Meno by assuming that true knowledge, or the knowledge of ideas, is innate and is brought into awareness through reflection. Learning is recalling what exists in the mind. Information acquired with the senses by observing, listening, tasting, smelling, or touching constitutes raw materials rather than ideas. The mind is innately structured to reason and provide meaning to incoming sensory information. On the other hand, empiricism refers to the idea that experience is the only source of knowledge. This position derives from Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who was Plato's student and successor. Aristotle drew no sharp distinction between mind and matter. The external world is the basis for human sense impressions, which in turn are interpreted as lawful (consistent, unchanging) by the mind. The laws of nature cannot be discovered through sensory impressions. Rather, they are discovered through reason as the mind takes in data from the environment. Unlike Plato, Aristotle believed that ideas do not exist independently of the external world. The latter is the source of all knowledge.5
However, it is on the emphasis of the idea of the Self, as something primary in experience and providing the basis of ontology, may be said to be the keynote of modern as contrasted with ancient and medieval philosophy. It was this that Descartes had the merit of being the first to bring into prominence, and thereby of making "the greatest philosophical discovery since the age of Plato and Aristotle".6
More likely, the rationalist doctrine is evident in the writings of Ren Descartes (1596-1650), a French philosopher and mathematician. Descartes employed doubt as a method of inquiry. By doubting, he arrived at conclusions that were absolute truths and not subject to doubt. The fact that he could doubt led him to believe that the mind (thought) exists, as reflected in his dictum, "I think, therefore I am." Through deductive reasoning from general premises to specific instances, he proved that God exists and concluded that ideas arrived at through reason must be true. The major premise "whatever thinks exists" might be learned from our own case. One possibility is that our own case serves as a single piece of evidence that supports the premise by inductive enumeration, in the way that an observer might try to form a generalization ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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