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Plato’s Argument: Art is an Imitation of

an Imitation
Plato (427-347 BC) has had an enormous influence on Western philosophy. His teacher
was Socrates, who was condemned to death for his so-called “subversive influence” on
the youth of Athens. Socrates appears in many of Plato’s dialogues.

In his great work, The Republic, Plato describes his idea of the ideal state, which would
be organised into the Guardians, ie. the governing class, and the Auxiliaries, ie. the
soldiers. Through these classes, the state would control the masses.

This important Greek philosopher had little respect for art or poetry.

Plato’s Views on Art

Art can never truly represent reality, for life itself, of which art is merely a copy, does not
represent reality, according to Plato. Our world “…as we experience it, is an illusion, a
collection of mere appearances like reflections in a mirror or shadows on a
wall.” (Quoted by Rosalind Hursthouse in “Truth and Representation,” Philosphical

For Plato, the only true reality is the unchanging world of the Forms, created by God, for
example, the perfect form of the cat, the bird, the table, the chair. There is just one
perfect copy of each of these Forms. We need to “escape from the cave and see…the
real objects, the Forms… and gain true knowledge,” quotes Hursthouse.

Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s Cave Allegory (or story with a hidden meaning) concerns people chained up and
facing the blank wall of a cave. The people see only shadows of forms on the wall,
projected from a fire burning behind them. This is the closest the people can come to
perceiving reality. The philosopher, however, is like a person freed from the cave, who
perceives that the shadows are not reality. The philosopher sees the true reality rather
than the shadows.

Plato asks us to accept the concept that even apparently man-made objects like beds
and chairs have an original form belonging to a changeless, eternal world of Forms
created by God, leading to his conclusion that life, and art itself, is not a reality.
Therefore, for Plato, artistic representation is at best a third remove from reality; the
removes counted inclusively by the Greek method.

In order to represent God’s truth or reality, restrictions must be placed upon


The difficulty is that Plato’s premise that “God is perfectly good, and therefore
changeless and incapable of deceit,” as described in The Republic, is not provable.

From the above follows Plato’s second premise, that nothing good is harmful or can do
harm. Therefore, God cannot be responsible for everything as is commonly said, but
only for a small part of human life. Therefore, Plato argues, we cannot make God
responsible for the evil in the world. We must find some other way to account for evil.

Plato’s third premise is that since badness cannot be God, it is an illusion. From this it
follows that evil represented in art is an illusion. It is not God, it is not real and should be
treated with caution in artistic representation.

Dewey’s Pragmatism
In fact, unlike the other pragmatists, Peirce the logician and the
psychologist James, Dewey has covered most areas of philosophy, from
logic to politics. Dewey’s logic is actually a ‘theory of inquiry’, the survey
is an ability common to all living things, man as animal. Living things
have continued to experience a situation forming a unified whole, but in
case of breakage, they undertake to restore the unity and balance the
situation through an investigation. In this way, a situation initially
determined, but which is disrupted by a failure to become permanent, is
transformed into a new position determined by a survey.
The ethics of Dewey rejects the conventional opposition between ethics
(based on the rule and duty) and teleology (oriented towards an end and
happiness). In addition, he said, a trial practice is reflective, not just an
impulse or a habit again, a value-judgment is constitutive (unification of
an activity), relational (relationship between means and consequences)
and exploratory ( use of Action for the assessment of the consequences
of value). For Dewey, the model of reasoning for a fixed and limited
survey means is not adequate, because the ends are also the causes of
consequences that require evaluation of their value.
Finally, the policy of Dewey opposed the doctrine of liberalism based on
the notion of negative liberty (the absence of constraints) and supports
the positive freedom (the power of being an individual self). The
realization of individual freedom in an industrial society requires in his
participation, consultation and deliberation of the people and a smart
political control of political institutions. Democracy for Dewey is a political
system whose purpose is to protect the interests of the people in respect
of a ruling class made up of experts. The method of democracy is the
social survey designed to explore the issues in debate and resolve
Dewey is one of the founding fathers of pragmatism to have made a
significant contribution to the philosophy of technology. He developed a
particular philosophical history of technology, identifying three types of
objectification. In the case of Aborigines, for example, there is no
scientific interaction with their environment, so that the objectification is
minimal. In the case of Greek thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, the purpose
of the experiment are abstract, and are reduced to objects of eternal
knowledge, so that objectification is impossible. However, in the modern
age, instrumentation and moving from observation to experimentation
makes the objectification not only possible, but maximum. Thus, the use
of technical methods in science involves handling and reduction,
suggesting that once reduced (eg reduced water H2O), the properties of
a thing can be manipulated to use more wide.
Dewey also defends a broad conception of technology, embracing both
art than science. He rejects the hierarchy of knowledge and certainty
that ranks first theoria (knowledge), followed by praxis (action) and finally
the poiesis (production). Moreover, he refuses the divorce between
theory and practice, which are only different phases of a survey
intelligent: the theory is ‘best act’, the practice is ‘the idea made’. Dewey
describes science as a kind of productive technique involving trials and
tests, including abstract mathematics. He rejects the opposition between
‘fine art’ and ‘Arts and Crafts’ which is actually the product of the
distinction between ends and means. Technology is an activity twice as
Dewey technical and social adjustment in the world, science-based and
designed to meet human needs. However, Dewey was aware of the gap
between two cultures, the impact of science on society through its
technical developments. That’s why he felt such a threat requires
counterparties, which he called the name of ‘moral technology’.
Later, the technology took a much wider meaning, becoming
synonymous with the method of the investigation. Nevertheless, to
Dewey, all that men do does not necessarily mean an adjustment to their
environment, so much so that all human activity is not technology.
Ultimately, philosophy, or rather, the philosophies of pragmatism,
reflections of the American ‘spirit’, appear as a major trend and
recognized in Western philosophy, as well as a significant contribution to
contemporary philosophy of technology. Pragmatism has built America
into a genuine philosophical tradition, in opposition to that of Europe long
dominated by the categories and hierarchies inherited from Aristotle. The
major contribution of pragmatism is surely the transformation of relations
between theory and practice, which was strongly resented some
representatives of European philosophy, which rated it ‘philosophy for
engineers’. The reason for this denial is too central position granted to
engineering design (effects of the action), at the expense of a more
conventional design epistemic (cognitive causes). Pragmatism opened
the way for a kind of techno-centrism based on the general criterion of
utility, which seemed to contradict an aesthetic ideal of beauty and
freedom dear to some European philosophers. In fact, pragmatism
shows a different but common commitment to experimentalism and
instrumentalism, but Dewey is the only one to have developed a genuine
philosophy of technology.

 Experience occurs continuously; but only some experiences are complete and unified. When
“the material experienced has run its course to fulfillment”, then we might say, “That was an

 Now Dewey goes on to distinguish extrinsic from inherent meaning.

 Extrinsic meaning is the kind of meaning that words and mathematical symbols have. It is
arbitrary; by a conventional assignment, “dog” stands for a dog. But it could just as well stand
for a cat or a car. There is nothing in the letters or the sounds that connects them with a canine
(as “bow-wow” might, if that were the word for dog).

 Inherent meaning is the kind that art works have. It is built-in; it flows from the nature of the
thing. E.g. a flower, a snarling mouth, an embrace, a scream, even a jagged line.
Art is imitation This is a feature of both of Plato's theories. Of course he was not the first or the
last person to think that art imitates reality. The idea was still very strong in the Renaissance,
when Vasari, in his Lives of the Painters, said that "painting is just the imitation of all the living
things of nature with their colors and designs just as they are in nature." It may still be the most
commonly held theory. Most people still think that a picture must be a picture of something, and
that an artist is someone who can make a picture that "looks just like the real thing". It wasn't
until late in the nineteenth century that the idea of art as imitation began to fade from western
aesthetics, to be replaced by theories about art as expression, art as communication, art as pure
form, art as whatever elicits an "aesthetic" response, and a number of other theories.

So art is imitation. But what does it imitate? Here is where Plato's two theories come in. In
the Republic, Plato says that art imitates the objects and events of ordinary life. In other words, a
work of art is a copy of a copy of a Form. It is even more of an illusion than is ordinary
experience. On this theory, works of art are at best entertainment, and at worst a dangerous

A moment's thought will suggest a way of building a more art-friendly theory out of Plato's
philosophy. What if the artist is somehow able to make a truer copy of the Forms than our
ordinary experience offers? This theory actually appears in Plato's short early dialogue, the Ion.
Socrates is questioning a poet named Ion, who recites Homer's poetry brilliantly but is no good at
reciting anything else. Socrates is puzzled by this; it seems to him that if Ion has an art, or skill,
of reciting poetry he should be able to apply his skilled knowledge to other poets as well. He
concludes that Ion doesn't really possess skilled knowledge. Rather, when he recites Homer, he
must be inspired by a god.

The Ion drips with sarcasm. Plato didn't take the "art by divine inspiration" theory very seriously.
But many ancient, medieval, and modern artists and aestheticians have found it irresistible. After
all, aren't artists often inspired? Doesn't their creative genius often produce wonderfully
surprising results, about which the artist will say, "I don't know how I did that?" Most important,
don't artists show us the essence of things, and reveal truths that we wouldn't otherwise see?

The view of the artist as inspired revealer of ideal essences fits well with the spirit of
Plato's Symposium, a dialogue full of speeches in praise of Love, in which Socrates gives a
compelling picture of the ascent from sexual love, to the aesthetic appreciation of beautiful
bodies, to the love of beautiful souls, and finally to the the contemplation of the ideal Form of
Beauty itself. The same spirit fills much classic Greek art. Late classical sculpture presents gods
and heroes as ideal bodies, built in perfect proportions, and filled with a cool repose, as if they
inhabited a perfect and changeless divine world. The classical ideal of the artist as capturing an
essence has continued to exert great power, from the Renaissance rediscovery of the Greek
canons of proportion to the twentieth century sculptures of Constantin Brancusi, the paintings
of Piet Mondrian, and the color theories of Vasily Kandinsky and the Blue Rider (der Blaue
Reiter) group.