Astronomy and observation in Plato's republic

Plato's comments on astronomy and the education of the guardians at Republic 528e ff have been hotly disputed, and have provoked much criticism from those who have interpreted them as a rejection or denigration of observational astronomy. Here I argue that the key to interpreting these comments lies in the relationship between the conception of enquiry that is implicit in the epistemological allegories, and the programme for the education of the guardians that Plato subsequently proposes. We have, I suggest, been too eager to stress the similarities here, when recognition of the differences may supply us with the tools required for a better understanding of 528e ff, one that to a large extent disarms the anti-empirical critique. My discussion proceeds in three stages. Firstly, Plato takes great care to place his comments on astronomy in the context of the preceding epistemological allegories. Is there any evidence here, where Plato might be thought to discuss enquiry in general, that he rejected or denigrated observation? I argue that even if Plato advocated a 'Two Worlds' (TW) ontology, he still envisaged a dynamic process of enquiry, interrelating sensibles and intelligibles, the investigation of each being necessary but not sufficient to achieve the overall aim. Secondly, Plato appears to be deriving how we ought to go about educating the guardians from how we ought to conduct our enquiries. While the two are intimately related there are important differences, recognition of which turns the supposed rejection of observation into an affirmation of the need for an initial empirical approach. I contend that this makes good sense of the internal structure of 528e ff, and of its relations to other parts of the Republic. Thirdly, I discuss the Republic in relation to the evidence offered by later works on the question of astronomy and observation, and raise the question of whether Plato's views on the imperfection of the sensible world necessarily lead to the denigration of careful and prolonged empirical work.
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DOI 10.1016/0039-3681(96)00062-3
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References found in this work BETA
Gail Fine, Knowledge and Belief in Republic V-VII. Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie.
D. T. & F. M. Cornford (1937). Plato's Cosmology. Journal of Hellenic Studies 57 (1):276.

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