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An Explanation and Critique of Platonic Arguments from Opposites and Recollection found in the Phaed

In the Phaedo Plato argues for the immortal soul by invoking arguments from opposites, recollection, and scattering. Considering only Plato’s arguments from opposites and recollection, an explanation and critique are given. I suggest that the argument from opposites adequately establishes the necessity in opposing adjectives generating one from another, but reject this notion for nouns. This is a problem for Plato in that he is dealing with the nouns “death” and “life”. I suggest that this may be accounted for by a first-person account of life, which may be established by Plato’s argument from recollection. However, this argument, relying on the existence of the forms, does not establish this. In order to grasp the concept of absolute such and such, a person merely needs their imagination, opinion, or definition.


The Phaedo surrounds the moments leading to Socrates’ death; considering this, it is not too surprising to find that much of the conversation that ensues concerns the nature of one’s soul. Seemingly in a hopeful[1] manner, Socrates insists that the life of a philosopher is merely a preparation for death (61c-e; 64a; 67e). He justifies this claim by suggesting that death is “simply the release of the soul from the body”, which allows him to expect to enter into the presence of “other wise and good gods” and “of men now dead who are better than those who are in this world now” after his own death (64c; 63c). Socrates further justifies his claim suggesting the philosopher should not concern her- or himself with bodily pleasures, e.g. “smart clothes and shoes”, “food and drink”, sex, etc., in order to free her or “his soul from association with the body, so far as possible” (64d-65). These pleasures, along with the body in general, hinder the soul in its quest for the “acquisition of knowledge” since truth is obtained in reflection, i.e. truth is not found in food, drink, fancy apparel, sex, etc., it is found in reflecting upon oneself (65a-c). Socrates holds that reflection can best be achieved when bodily hindrances are ignored; therefore the philosopher attempts to disregard the body in order to focus completely upon the soul, which relays truth (65c-d). Thus, “in despising the body and avoiding it, and endeavoring to become independent—the philosopher’s soul is above the rest”, and such a practice seems to essentially be a practice of separating the soul from the body, which is here defined as death (65d; 64c). Though this may seem sound, there is one major underlying assumption that seems unfounded, the existence of an immortal soul[2]. If the immortal soul cannot be accounted for, it seems that Socrates has carelessly established a worldview in which he will remain alive after his death[3]. But even if the above is accounted for, it seems that Socrates’ notion of a dualistic life, i.e. a distinct non-material soul within a material body, may still be unfounded. Below, I aim to delve into following passages in the Phaedo in order to explain how Plato establishes the existence of an immortal soul. I will focus on the argument from opposites and recollection, ignoring the argument from scattering[4]. I will describe these arguments, following each with a critique.

Plato’s Arguments for the Immortal Soul

Opposites: Socrates wishes to establish “whether it is a necessary law that everything which has an opposite is generated from that opposite”, i.e. whether everything in existence is or has been generated by an opposite (70e). Socrates asks if a thing becomes bigger, must it have not been smaller first; if a thing becomes smaller, must it not have been bigger first; a faster thing must have been slower first; etc. (71a). He then establishes all opposites have “two processes of generation”, e.g. increase and decrease accompany bigger and smaller, heating and cooling accompany hot and cold, etc. (71b). Following this Socrates asks “is there an opposite to living, as sleeping is opposite to waking?”, in which Cebes, a member of Socrates’ audience, replies “[b]eing dead” (71b). Socrates then establishes that “waking comes from sleeping and sleeping comes from waking” and “the processes between them are going to sleep and waking up” (71c). He then suggests that death comes from life, in that the dead come from the living; Socrates finally asks “what…comes from the dead?”, in which Cebes replies, “it is the living” (71d). Therefore, since everything is generated via its opposite, life must also be generated by its opposite, which is death.

Plato seems correct in establishing necessary existence of opposites when considering adjectives, e.g. slow and fast, hot and cold, living and dying etc. Here, it is true that opposing adjectives usually require one to occur before the other. For an object to be moving faster at a particular time, it must have been moving slower first; an object must have been smaller before it became bigger; been sleeping before it became awake, etc. Thus, it is possible to ascribe a contradictory term to most, if not all, adjectives; it is also usually possible to deem one adjective necessarily occurring before another. By definition adjectives qualify nouns[5], e.g. x is fast, y is cold, z is dead, etc, which is to say adjectives describe properties of nouns. Therefore, when considering adjectives in a sentence, if x is moving fast, y feels cold, z is dead, it is safe to conclude that x must have been moving slowly at a time before x was moving fast, etc. This is a product of the nature of adjectives; they are capable of describing the states nouns find themselves. However, nouns do not share such a property with adjectives. When stating a particular noun, e.g. velocity, thermodynamics, death, etc., it is rarely possible to attribute a contradictory term to it. Nouns describe only the object itself, but seem incapable of being generated from any contradictory term, they are merely the object being described at a particular instance in time, e.g. if velocity is being discussed; only a particular object’s slowness or fastness at a particular time is being conferred; in discussing thermodynamics, only an object’s energy state at a particular time is being described, etc. Thus it seems nouns are the state an object finds itself in a particular point in space and time. Therefore, with the above considered, Plato has only established that there is usually a necessity in opposite adjectives generating one another, but this cannot be concluded with nouns. Nouns are simply the state of existence an object is at a particular time and place.

However, as mentioned above, nouns rarely can be assigned a contradictory term, and an adjective rarely cannot be deemed necessary to occur after its opposite; in considering the nouns life and death and the adjectives dead and alive, Plato seems to be dealing with one such instance. While both death and life adhere to his qualification of being opposite to one another, there is only evidence that establishes death coming after life, not life coming after death. Above, it is shown that Plato’s argument stems from the analogy: sleeping is to waking as death is to life (71c-d). Also, as suggested above, Plato is correct in establishing sleeping and waking as opposites that must come from one or the other, i.e. a person must be asleep in order to become awake and vice versa. However, this analogy fails to hold in that sleeping and waking are adjectives describing properties of life, while death and life are nouns merely stating a person’s state of being. It seems that evidence for the existence of a person’s life depends upon the properties that are found within their life itself, i.e. sleeping and waking, running and walking, dancing and sitting etc., which may only be described from a first-person viewpoint; evidence that a person’s death has came from his or her life seems to be the once prevalent properties that were capable of describing life, which have become nonexistent, i.e. death seems to result in a lack of properties a person is able to describe. But properties like those able to describe life do not seem accessible in death, i.e. a person who is dead can’t describe death. It seems that death can only be described by those that are still alive, through a first-person view; the person who is dead cannot describe death through their first-person view. So, if no adequate, first person description can be given of death, it seems that there is little or no sufficient evidence that one still exists in death. Though death is the result of life and death is the opposite of life, Plato doesn’t seem to show life is the result of death in that the person has no means of relaying information about their own death. However, such correspondence may seem a little unfair, considering that a dead person has no means of corresponding to the living, in order to relay a first-person description. But Plato still fails in establishing that all opposites, namely nouns, are necessarily generated from one another, and since he is dealing with the nouns “life” and “death”, at most he has described that the noun life happen before the noun death because there is no manner in which a person can in death relay that they were once alive. This is due to nouns only being able to establish the state an object exists in time and space.

However, Plato may have an answer for the above rejection. His defense may rest in his argument from recollection discussed in the following. It seems that in order for this above argument to hold, Plato must successfully establish his following argument.

Recollection: In order to add evidence for Socrates’ above claim that the living come from the dead, Cebes mentions an argument in which Socrates has previously suggested, “what we call learning is really just recollection” (72e). This argument suggests that “what we recollect now we must have learned at some time before, which is impossible unless our souls existed somewhere before they entered human shape” (72e-73a). Cebes suggests that one good argument for this notion is when asking a person a question, “if the question is put the right way they can give a perfectly correct answer”, which he states is impossible without “some knowledge proper and a proper grasp of the subject” (73a).[6] Following, Socrates suggests that there exists a thing such as absolute equality, which is beyond what we typically think of as equality (74b). Socrates claims “that equal stones and sticks sometimes…appear equal to one person and unequal to another”, i.e. they are not absolutely equal (74b). Everything physical falls short of absolute equality in some manner, but a person is able to recognize this short coming, thus has knowledge of absolute equality without ever physically experiencing it (74d-e). This holds also for beauty, goodness, uprightness, holiness, and everything else “which we designate in our discussion by the term ‘absolute’” (75c). Socrates therefore concludes that the knowledge of these absolutes are acquired before a person’s birth, and lost at the moment of birth, and later regained “by the exercise of our senses upon sensible objects”, i.e. a person merely recalls his or her knowledge rather than learns (75e).

Here, Plato appeals to the soul’s existence in some nonphysical realm outside of the body previous to a person’s present life. This claim seems to be based on imagination, i.e. does not offer any physical evidence, since a person loses knowledge gained before birth at the moment of birth, only later to recollect it[7] (75e). Plato describes the existence of “absolutes”, e.g. beauty, piety, equality, etc., that the soul observes in this nonphysical world, which are later recalled when the soul reaches the physical world. Plato argues that this offers evidence for the existence of a nonmaterial soul because, though there are no absolutes prevalent in the physical world, a person has knowledge of them in the physical world. However, since Plato imagines the soul’s separation from the body and the soul’s existence in a nonmaterial realm, why is it not also possible also to imagine the existence of absolutes, i.e. why must the soul leave the body to gain knowledge of the like, discarding the whole notion of “recollection”?

Seemingly, when two relatively equal objects are placed side by side, although they are not absolutely equal, it is possible to determine what they would look like if they were absolutely equal; that is, they would just be exactly the same. Another way of suggesting this is that “equality” is taken to mean “the same in every way”; by definition it seems that, though absolute equals do not exist physically, the idea may be constructed within a person’s mind, therefore they may exist mentally. Say two pens are placed side by side, one pen is purple and the other is yellow, the yellow is seven centimeters long and the purple is six and seven-tenths centimeters long. It seems that it is rather simple to imagine the yellow pen being purple and six and seven-tenths centimeters or vice versa, i.e. one becomes an exact replica of the other, which would establish each as being absolutely equal (of course in simplistic terms) . So, by definition it is possible to establish knowledge of absolute equality, seemingly via imagination. However definitional absolutes seem to be easy to imagine, does this work the same with things like absolute beauty, holiness, justice, etc., i.e. does this work with knowledge that is gathered or acquired as well? In the cases requiring gathering of knowledge, the same seems to hold true. When a person discusses something like absolute beauty, she or he seems as if they are simply stating their opinion of what they think is beautiful, thus taking their opinion to be the definition of beautiful. The same seems to hold for the rest, when considering non-definitional absolutes, it seems as if a person is merely taking their relative, personal definition of their ideal form of justice, beauty, etc. and suggesting that it is the absolute form. Thus imagining their ideal standard of beauty, justice, temperance, etc. and establishing somewhat of a personal definition of the like, using this standard as an “absolute”. Or simply taking a standard definition and using it for their understanding of “absolute” such and such. So, Plato seems to fail in showing that the soul must leave the body to acquire knowledge of absolutes; the like seem to be either based on definition or based on personal preference, which is established by a gathering of knowledge that becomes a person’s definition of the supposed absolute.

Thus, it seems that Plato does not adequately establish evidence for the necessity of an afterlife. If evidence had successfully been established, it would seem that one could sensibly relay an account of death while alive, which would establish evidence for the preceding argument.[8] However, this not being the case, it seems that Plato is wrong.


In the above, I have described both Plato’s argument from opposites and recollection, disregarding his argument from scattering. Following each argument I have attempted to refute Plato’s claims. For his argument form opposites, I suggested that he fails to account for the necessary that all things are a result of their opposite. However, Plato weakly established that most adjective adhere to this necessity, but he fails to show that nouns ever successfully follow such necessity. Also, I suggested that Plato fails to establish evidence for the possibility of death generating life due to the lack of description, namely in the first-person, someone who is dead may give to death. I suggested the like may be asking too much; however, if death generates life, it seems that in life a person could give such a first-person description. Plato’s reply to this may be found in his argument from recollection; he however suggests that a person forgets death during the trauma of childbirth. But I find it hard to believe that a person would not recollect such an event. For Plato’s argument from recollection, I suggested that the existence of “absolutes” do not depend upon the soul’s exit from the body, rather they may be formed in the imagination. Since a person’s memory of pre-life events is forgotten during child birth, Plato seems to base his knowledge of such an existence on imagination; since such imagination is possible, I suggest that this imagination also may exist for the notion of absolutes. However, certain absolutes seem to merely rest upon definition, which I eventually established that all hold to such. Since a person has some idea as to what they consider perfect beauty, holiness, justice, etc., it seems overwhelmingly possible for these ideas, formed in the imagination, to be transposed upon their definition of absolute such and such, thus merely establishing their opinion to be their absolute.


Plato. “Phaedo” (in The Collected Dialogues of Plato). Princeton University Press (1989).

[1] To be fair, I assume if I knew that my death was approaching, I would also make an attempt to justify my life; likewise, if a friend’s life had ended, I would attempt to justify their life as well. Thus, here I cannot claim Plato is completely out of line in his writings.

[2] Also, not to mention there is a place for this immortal soul to go after one’s death.

[3] As suggested above, considering that Socrates is doomed to die later that day, it seems reasonable for him to determine he will live on after his death. However, the hope thereof does not suggest that he actually will live continue life.

[4] This strategy is due to the seeming reliance the argument from opposites and recollection have upon one another, and the seeming “last-ditch effort” tone the argument from scattering conveys.

[5] This is also true for pronouns.

[6] In order for this to be used as evidence for an immortal soul, the questions asked need to be examined. If the questions fall under empirical questions, i.e. “What the molecular weight of carbon?” this may be impressive evidence for the like. However I suspect these questions lean more toward the analytic side, in which truths exist by definition. Such a distinction came later than Plato’s writings; therefore it is not fair for me to object in this manner.

[7] The loss of such knowledge seems to also destroy any type of first-person account a person may be able to give of death, unless this knowledge is able to be recollected. However, the latter doesn’t seem to be the case Plato makes here. Also, there is no evidence that this recollection isn’t merely imagination.

[8] However, such evidence would be subject to immense skepticism due to its lack of falsifiability.

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  • Nicolle Anne

    I am looking for your citations. where would I be able to find those? thank you.