The Four Levels of Cognition in Plato


Plato’s bust in the Louvre by an unknown artist in Paris in 1842

The Four Levels of Cognition in Plato (From a paper written 
by Ken Finton in January 1967)

There has been much controversy in the interpretation of Plato’s allegory of the cave and the four systems or levels of cognition symbolized within this parable. This passage and the thoughts relating to it have done more than any other of Plato’s writings to establish him as working within a mystical understanding of the world process and have given rise to the transcendentalists and neo-platonists.

However, such controversy is only controversial to the non­-mystical minds that find that they themselves are caught in one or more of the under levels of cognition to which Plato refers and have to bring the highest level down to their own level of understanding in order to comprehend the whole, thus lowering the entire scale of Plato’s thought.

The mystic will implicitly understand Plato’s implications and will in­terpret them according to the prevailing understanding of his own time.

Plato first established that the Sun can be understood and symbolized as the Good. One will notice that there is no corresponding state of mind for this understanding. “You will agree,” Plato said, “that the Sun not only makes the things we see visible but also brings them into existence and gives them growth and nourishment; yet, he is not the same thing as existence.” (Chapter 23, p. 220, The Republic)

What reaches us from the sun is but light itself in its varying and dif­ferent forms? Elementary science shows us that the sun is responsible for all of the life energy processes on earth, directly and indirectly, from photosynthesis in plants to the completion of the life cycle in the animal kingdom. How then are we to understand that the Sun is, as Plato said, light, yet is not the same thing as existence?

A scientific understanding of this basic mystical intuition was not possible until Einstein made his tremendous discoveries about light and relativity. If we understand existence to be made of a material body and having a place in space and time, then we can understand how light itself hovers on the edge of existence, encompassing infinity, yet not being quite the same as existence itself because it has no place in space and time. A ray of light leaving the sun requires sixteen minutes to reach the earth from our observations; yet, would that ray of light have a conceptual mind it would have no consciousness that any time had elapsed but would think that it arrived at the moment it left. With Einstein the speed of light is absolute. [See, for example, a book on rel­ativity such as, “The ABC of Relativity” by Bertrand Russell.]

No material body can ever be pushed with the speed of light for as the speed increases the mass increases proportionately and could the speed of light be reached the mass would then become infinite.

Light itself, one can see, hovers on the edge of mystical unity and the mystical mind by directly experiencing light has understood what Plato meant by establishing the sun as a divinity. The ancients were more prone to give worship and credit to the basic energies than a modern man who takes their being for granted. The very term enlightenment signifies that one has directly experienced and understood the sacred power and qualities of light.

Light itself is a common denominator of all religious and mystical experiences. Christ said, “I am the light of the world!” By identifying himself with the light he said that he was the firstborn, the first cause, the original creation, and all things came into existence through him. Literary and religious symbolism throughout the world plays with the obvious connotations of light against darkness. Notice also that painters in representing spiritual transcendence play with the subtleties of light in its infinite variety of expressions. Plato identified light with The Good and in his levels of cognition noesis or intelligence appeals only after the understanding of the Sun and The Good.

Noesis is a Greek word referring to the perception of the mind, what the nous does. Dianoia (Greek: διάνοια) is a term used by Plato for a type of thinking, specifically about mathematical and technical subjects. It is the capacity for the process of, or the result of discursive thinking, in contrast with the immediate apprehension that is characteristic of noesis.]

Noesis is not “thought” but that understanding which is higher than thought, spontaneous rational intuition, an immediate act of vision that can only be grasped by the enlightened mind and is not to be confused with reasoning from premise to conclusion. The unenlightened attempt at this form of know­ledge is called rationalization, the sticky trap into which the majority of men fall. Rationalization is not so much in noesis as it is in the lowest state of cognition, eikasia, which we will refer to in a moment. The term eikasía (Ancient Greek: εἰκασία), meaning imagination in Greek, was used by Plato to refer to a human way of dealing with appearances. It is the inability to perceive whether a perception is an image of something else.

Below noesis, the spontaneous reaction to the vision of God is the level of dianoia or thinking. Dianoia is the conceptual mind within the subject-object relationship, aware of isolation, division, paradox, and seeming contradic­tion. This includes reasoning from premise to conclusion which always falls short of perfect knowledge and understanding.

Perfect knowledge cannot be communicated for to communicate is to bring it to another level of cognition. Dianoia or thinking recoils upon itself in a closed circle that can ap­proximate truth but never envelope or join it. A thought is countered by its opposing value or negative interpretation. A synthesis is formed between the two which is countered by another negative thought, thesis, and antithesis, until one looks up and finds that one synthesis puts him right back at his starting point and finds that thought has only brought him back to his beginnings once again. However, by going through the revolving circles of thought one comes nearer to the closer truth. A quick example would be in the abstract: A is +A. This is countered by +A is -A. This is synthesized by +A is both +A and -A. We ask then if +A is -A why talk about A? This is synthesized by the thought that this is so because +A is also -A.

The Greek word dianoia shows implicitly in its roots what happens with thought and why it is lower than enlightened intuition. Di– is a root word meaning “two” and ‘anoia’ is from a root word meaning mind. Dianoia is the process of viewing dually, the process of treating one’s own mind as though it is separate and distinct from the Divine Mind recognized by the mystic, the mind which is existence itself in all its past, present, and future possibilities, infinite and eternal in nature.

In Greek mythology, Pistis (Πίστις) was the personification of good faith, trust, and reliability. She is mentioned together with such other personifications as Elpis (Hope), Sophrosyne (Prudence), and the Charites, who were all associated with honesty and harmony among people.

Below the state of dianoia is the state of pistis which is similar to noesis in that it obtains the correct intuition, but the reason for that intuition and the understanding of it is not known. This is the state that assigns reality and existence blindly without attempting to define by thought (dianoia) the basic natures and reasons for actions and existence. Pistis is translated as belief, and as such, belief is insecure, destines to vacillate between its positive and negative state (doubt and belief) until the state of dianoia falls before noesis and liberation and mind control are brought about.

Plato calls the lower form of cognition eikasia. The difference between imagining and belief is one of degree. The lines between all states and levels are freely drawn and the human mind is free to pass through any or all at any given moment. The states themselves should not be viewed as constant, but shifting as man revolves around the circumstance of his being.

Imagining is an unsatisfactory translation of the Greek word eikasia. The root word is con­nected with eikon, image or likeness, reminding one of the English word ‘icon’, which has associations of blind, unquestioning acceptance of images, a worshipful idolatry that reveres the thing as it appears instead of the thing-in-itself that can be sought and clarified on the higher levels of cognition.

The historical unfolding of religious ideas I think best illustrates Plato’s objective ideas of knowledge. In the state of eikasia man’s worship is turned toward images and idols, not knowing that they are merely images and idols. In the state of pistis or belief man gives birth to definitions and concepts of a God and his faith swings back and forth between doubt and belief because he has made his concept so anthropomorphic that as his belief in himself ebbs, his belief in the mercy of a God goes through corresponding changes.

In the state of dianoia or thinking, man becomes aware of his isolation and the unfeeling process of the universe and the world-ground. Finally, denuding himself of conceptions, expanding his mind through thought, then vomiting the thought and standing naked in the presence of himself, man reached a state of enlightenment in which there is no mind-activity, a unity with light, and descending from this state into awareness of the outside world ho no longer marks off the world into rigid and separate categories and he is aware that he flows within the world-mind and is capable of entering into the highest state of human cognition, that of direct intuitive reason.

1.15.1967 Kenneth Harper Finton

2 thoughts on “The Four Levels of Cognition in Plato

  1. Love your twist on Plato’s Divided Line. The twist seems to run in the direction of the Buddhist precept of ‘no-mind’. The Western mind relates to physical light being a metaphor for the light of reason. These three being ‘the eye of flesh, the mind’s eye, and the eye of the spirit; respectively empiric, reason & intuitive. We flip here and there. Intergral unity produces a whole (holistic perspective). We live with multiple perspectives. An integral dynamic


  2. I would not call it a twist, but a new interpretation. Nor even new anymore, since I wrote this when I was 25, more than 50 years ago. Thanks for calling my attention to it once again.


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