Favorite Undergrad Papers: Truth and Reality According to Plato, Calvin, Descartes, and Rorty

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Not my proudest work here. This was my final paper for the Honors class “The World of Despair & Hope.” I turned it in late and incomplete. It reads more like a research proposal than a finished paper, and there is not much of a conclusion. (I think I also used EasyBib.com for the citations, which is a big no no for a guy who worked at the campus Writing Center, as is using phrases like “big no no.”) But I like the way I explained certain things, and for what it was my professor gave it some very high praise. So while it is a stark reminder of a lapse of responsibility on my part, it still makes the cut as one of my favorite papers.

Timothy Fowler

Dr. Joeckel

Honors 3103

27 April 2018

Truth and Reality according to Plato, Calvin, Descartes, and Rorty

One of the startling features of Rorty’s philosophy (though perhaps he would not like to call it philosophy) is that he acknowledges reality yet denies truth. Now to be sure, that he denies truth is not to say that he denies the usefulness of evaluative claims; rather, it is only the usefulness of evaluative claims that he thinks is important. That truth is absolute or fixed is what he denies, and so if in any sense he does believe in truth, it is a fundamentally different formulation of that term. His formulation of truth and reality comes at the end of a long tradition of changing formulations of truth and reality. From Plato to Calvin to Descartes to Rorty, truth and reality have been defined in relation to each other in vastly different ways, and Rorty’s formulation is rather unique as compared to those other thinkers since he believes that truth and reality are distinct both in terms of essence and function (Hall 90).

The traditional or classical understanding of truth and reality goes back to the father of metaphysics, Plato himself. Plato believed that truth is of the same essence as reality but gradationally superior to reality.

Granted he did not use the modern terminology of truth and reality. He articulated his philosophy largely in terms of images and allegories, but should he still live today and speak the vocabulary of today, he would most certainly have identified his “Forms” with truth. After all truth, both before and after Rorty, has been thought of in terms of evaluations of reality; that is, evaluations of the material world. (Rorty may deny the absoluteness of any such evaluations, but not even he denies that truth consists in evaluations.) Before Rorty, furthermore, truth was thought of as a higher “reality,” so to speak, which stands independently of the material world and without which the material world cannot be properly known.

This is precisely how the Forms function in Plato’s philosophy. For Plato, the Forms exist independently of the material world. They exist in another world, which he pictures in the Phaedrus as located above this world. The Forms exist in the higher world of Forms, independently of the material world, and the material world cannot be known properly apart from prior knowledge of the Forms. In fact, according to Plato, the material world cannot be understood at all apart from prior knowledge of the Forms. Therefore, should Plato translate his vocabulary into that of today, truth would most certainly correspond to his Forms.

With that said, some key features of truth (or Forms) for Plato are that truth is absolute and immutable and that it is known innately. Absoluteness and immutability can hardly be separated since a changing absolute is no longer absolute, but they are nonetheless two different attributes. Absoluteness emphasizes the comprehensive authority of truth. The evaluations of the Forms are supreme and their supremacy is impregnable since they exist above and beyond where they can be touched or moved. Immutability emphasizes that their condition of authority will never be moved, neither by outside manipulation nor by any essential motion because the Forms are essentially motionless.

For Plato, truth is absolute and immutable, and it is also known innately. Everybody in the material world has complete knowledge of the Forms because everybody once lived in the world of Forms before being incarnated with physical bodies. Plato does not deny that there is an epistemological process. On the contrary, he believes it is the grand calling of the philosopher to participate in the epistemological process, but for Plato, the process is a progression from amnesia to remembrance rather than from ignorance to knowledge (White 93). The full and perfect knowledge of the Forms is already within the soul of each person; incarnation merely causes one to forget the majority of that knowledge. There is an epistemological process of remembering the Forms through rational discourse, but the knowledge is already there.

Truth for Plato is absolute, immutable, and known innately, and as for reality, this is best understood in terms of Plato’s shadows. After all, if truth is evaluative claims, then reality is the subject of those evaluations. Likewise, the shadows in Plato’s philosophy are subject to evaluation according to one’s knowledge of the Forms, and therefore, the shadows are Plato’s reality. More specifically, they are an image used to describe reality.

In his cave analogy, the shadows the prisoners watch are the shadows of the world outside (the world of Forms), and they are cast on the wall by the Form of Good. Within the bounds of the metaphor’s vehicle, the shadows are not of the same essence as the tangible objects to which they testify, but the tenor of the metaphor suggests the essence of the shadows is not entirely separate from that of the Forms. The shadows (the material world) emanate imperfectly from the Forms; that is, they are derived from the Forms and so partake in the essence of the Forms, though imperfectly. The Forms and the shadows can be thought of as occupying a spectrum (indeed, Plato does use an infinite line as an additional metaphor in The Republic to describe the Forms and the shadows), and on this spectrum, the Form of Good stands at the farthest stretch of infinity in one direction of the line. Other Forms lie near to the Form of Good, and the shadows lie much farther away. They share the same essence by virtue of occupying the same spectrum, but the Forms are gradationally superior to the shadows (i.e. truth is gradationally superior to reality).

Unlike truth, reality is changeable (hence, why Plato uses the image of flickering shadows, as does the Apostle James in describing why God does not change in James 1:17). Reality is not known in itself but is rather known through one’s innate knowledge of truth.

Reality and truth according to Plato are not entirely separate. Truth is superior to and preferable to reality, but reality neither exists nor is known independently of truth. The relationship between truth and reality in Plato’s scheme is one of spectrum and gradation, not one of separation and independence. There is, nevertheless, an asymmetry between the two that grants truth a normative function that reality lacks by extreme gradational distance.

As for John Calvin, he construes the relationship between truth and reality differently from Plato both in terms of essence and function (and to a lesser extent in symmetry). For Calvin, truth and reality are different in essence but complementary in function.

At the very beginning of the Institutes, Calvin writes of two types of knowledge, that of God and that of oneself. Later he also writes of a third type of knowledge, that of the created world outside oneself (Selderhuis 236). Calvin does well to distinguish self-knowledge from knowledge of the world outside, but since both ourselves and the world outside of ourselves are created things, there is a sense in which self-knowledge and knowledge of the world are both essentially one kind of knowledge—that is, knowledge of created things. The knowledge of God cannot be brought under this one category of knowledge, however, since God is not a created thing. Therefore, while it is appropriate for some purposes to speak of three spheres of knowledge (of God, of oneself, and of the world outside oneself), it is equally appropriate for other purposes to speak of two spheres of knowledge (of God and of created things).

Should Calvin have placed all knowledge into the categories of knowledge of God and knowledge of created things, he would likely have identified knowledge of God with truth and knowledge of created things with reality. After all, in his high view of Scripture and divine revelation, Calvin draws out from the knowledge of God many evaluations of the knowledge of created things. (Was it not his entire enterprise in the Institutes to make brief and lucid the evaluations of God for the laypeople in his city?) Knowledge of God, then, as the source of evaluations, is truth for Calvin. Knowledge of created things (both oneself and the world outside oneself) is reality to Calvin since it is the subject of these evaluations.

For Calvin the primary source of truth is the Holy Scriptures, and it is for this reason that he devoted so much of his life to expositing them. Like Plato’s Forms, the Word of God is absolute and immutable, a resource to be mined to the glory of God.

Calvin does not see reality (knowledge of created things) as belonging to the same essence as truth (knowledge of God). To suggest that they are of the same essence would be sacrilegious in Calvin’s scheme. Though Francis Bacon has famously suggested that God has written “two books,” the Bible and the world, Calvin would likely have hesitated to draw such a parallel, at least insofar as their essences are concerned. The Bible and the world do not exist on a spectrum, separated only by gradational distance, according to Calvin, as they are rather two entirely separate things. Nonetheless, he sees value in both of them. That is why at the start of the Institutes he devotes preliminary space both to the importance of the knowledge of God and also to the knowledge of oneself. Though essentially distinct, truth and reality are both valuable to Calvin because they correspond to one another. In that way, they mutually reinforce each other and are complementary in function though distinct in essence.

Whereas Plato separated truth and reality by gradational distance and Calvin separated them by essential distinction, Descartes locates truth and reality in one essence again but without any gradational distance or metaphysical static between the two; that is, he collapses truth and reality into complete synonymity so that they are precisely one and the same.

First, Descartes adopts methodological doubt. He doubts all philosophical, theological, and scientific constructions that preceded him (G. Smith 23). He doubts the reliability of his empirical faculties (G. Smith 24). He doubts all things that he can doubt but then discovers that there is a limit to his doubt. The one thing he cannot doubt is that he himself is the one who is doubting and thinking, and if he is the one doubting and thinking, then surely he must exist. Methodological doubt precludes all things but his own existence, and it is in this axiom of self-existence that truth and reality are collapsed into one.

For he does not stretch out his own essence into an infinite line of gradation nor does he separate himself into two spheres of knowledge. There is, therefore, no distinction whatsoever between truth and reality. If either term is to be used in this Descartes’s philosophy, then they must be conjoined into the same meaning. The reality is that he exists, and the truth is also that he exists. Upon this conjunctional axiom, the whole content of truth and reality is derived without distinguishing one from the other. Whereas Calvin would think of the existence of God as a truth distinct in essence from reality, Descartes would see the existence of God as derived from the axiom of self-existence.

As with other Enlightenment thinkers, Descartes believed the world is rational and orderly and on that basis knowable. Yes, change takes place within the world, but all change occurs with respect to the rational orderliness of the world. The world is immutable in mechanism and structure, just as a clock is immutable in mechanism and structure, and the changes occurring in the position of its gears and hands are by extension immutable. Truth and reality, then, are together absolute and immutable, as they are collapsed into a single essence and a single location within that essence (not gradationally distant from each other by any means).

Three different formulations of truth and reality have been examined above. In the first place, Plato saw truth and reality as essentially the same but gradationally distant. In the second place, Calvin saw truth and reality as essentially distinct but complementary in function. In the third place, Descartes returned to the platonic view of truth and reality as essentially the same but eliminated the gradational distance and metaphysical static between them.

At the outset of the postmodern era, Rorty returns to a Calvinist view of truth and reality as essentially distinct. However, he differs from Calvin and the other two thinkers on several fundamental points.

First of all, for Rorty the relationship between truth and reality is unilateral rather than complementary. Evaluative claims can be made about reality (the material world), but the material world has no correspondence to offer in return (J. Smith 84).

Second, for Rorty truth is neither immutable nor absolute. Even for Descartes, who may be pointed to as a precursor to postmodern subjectivism, believed in an immutable and absolute reality and truth. Rorty, on the other hand, sees truth as being changeable and humanly constructed. Truth is important but not for its provision of absolute evaluations. There is no single, absolute truth. Instead there are many different truths (or “descriptions”) of reality that are important only insofar as they are useful. It is in this sense that Rorty is known as a pragmatist (Pettegrew 14). He is breaking new ground here in the great conversation, along with a small circle of friends that came shortly before him such as Nietzsche.


Hall, David L. Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism. State University of New York, 1993.
Pettegrew, John. A Pragmatist’s Progress?: Richard Rorty and American Intellectual History. Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
Selderhuis, Herman J., editor. The Calvin Handbook. Eerdmans, 2009.
Smith, Gregory B. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Transition to Postmodernity. University of Chicago, 1996.
Smith, James K. A. Who’s afraid of relativism?: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood. Baker Academic, 2014.
White, Nicholas. Plato On Knowledge and Reality. Hackett, 1976.

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