Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine

Plato distinguishes between the written word and the spoken word; between the branches of knowledge and the light that is kindled in the soul; between understanding and vision.

This “vision” alludes to a sort of knowledge that can be had without words. But how is this possible? In order to address this question, we need to be a little acquainted with the history of commentary on Plato’s unwritten doctrine. Here below is a little introduction.

Aristotle’s Testimony

Aristotle records an account of Plato’s unwritten doctrine in which Plato delivers a lecture on the Good to a small class of students and philosophers. This unwritten doctrine, so called because it was never written down, identifies the Good with Unity, or the One.

However, there is another sense in which we can understand Plato’s unwritten doctrine: the sense given in the quote from Plato’s Seventh Letter in which he identifies another kind of knowledge, a light which is “kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.” Such knowledge does not lend itself to expression in the language of words, though the path to its discovery is prepared by the use of words–by “much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together.” Therefore, the power of the word is real.

The Power of the Word

What compares with the power of the word? It is the word which represents our interior thoughts and desires, our going forth to explore reality and all its facets, our quest for knowledge and understanding, it is the word which documents the rise and fall of theories, speculations, and civilisations, which connects us to one another, to the search for meaning, and, finally, it is the word which communicates our deepest thoughts and most cherished affections to our loved ones. Thus it is the word which both engenders and unites all the branches of knowledge, on one level or another.

In other words, the word is the basis of all the branches of conceptual knowledge. All the branches of knowledge are united, at least on this level: the level of articulate knowledge that can be known, written, taught, spoken, communicated.

But do these branches of knowledge enjoy an even greater degree of unity? Can they be joined together or integrated in such a way as to comprise a unified understanding of the cosmos? One might suspect so if one studies the dialogues of Plato, for he manifests a consistent tendency to “branch” from one kind of enquiry to another, from one branch of knowledge to another.

Plato’s Written Doctrine

In fact, in his dialogues Plato weaves all the branches of knowledge together seamlessly. Metaphysics, epistemology, soul, ethics, politics, education, logic, aesthetics, mathematics, cosmology and science are not treated as though they were unrelated subjects but as threads of an overarching and unified vision of reality.

The Unwritten Doctrine

All of this is still on the level of conceptual knowledge–sometimes identified with the level of the “understanding”. But the soul can potentially take a “leap” from the understanding to the level of “vision”, the realm of inarticulate knowledge, or the knowledge that is had without words. This is, in the ultimate sense, the “unwritten doctrine” because it is communicated in a language without words.

Now we might be in a better position to understand the quote from Plato’s Seventh Letter: “For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.”

Philosophy Theology and Science

On this site you will find various excursions into the worlds of philosophy, science and theology, an introduction to Plato’s thought, as well as some of the greatest thinkers that ever lived, and a few speculations and thoughts of my own.

See also: Science Grounded in Philosophy