Contact ANTC

Life in Oxford 2013


Please note: We can adapt to the exam board that suits you.

These Philosophy essays are organized historically from the more recent to the more distant past. They are from the AQA syllabus. We hope you find them useful and inspiring.

1. Descartes

2. Plato

AQA Unit 3

What is the doctrine of innate ideas as understood by Descartes?

- Innate ideas are ideas that are necessary a priori

- They exist prior to our experience of the world

- Of course they do not exist entirely independently of experience – this would be a nonsense. They could have no meaning.

- Descartes was wary of a posteriori- tendency to deceive

- Rationalist view is that our experience of the world must be understood by a mind that is independent of sense to a very considerable degree.

- A pure intellect. ‘bodies are not really perceived by the senses or the imaginative faculty, but only by the intellect; that they are perceived, not by being touched or seen, but by being understood’.

- Mathematically reducible motions– ‘the reasons of astronomy’. These were the tools of Descartes’ knowledge. Much could be discovered without human observation, and indeed this had to be the foundation of knowledge.

- Closer to home – the wax. Physical property of the wax known only by the mind. The properties change but the concept of what the wax really is - it’s physical property is only appreciated by the mind.

- Radical view of the doctrine of the innate ideas. The world is only known by the extended notions of physics discovered in the intellect. It is not ‘really’ perceived.

- Descartes is convinced that his view is not an illusion or a psychological introversion of reality. It is in fact a symmetry of the real world:

- There is much that he doubts since he recognises a tendency to wander into territory that he cannot grasp, yet what he does know he knows most assuredly since it is God that underlies this knowledge:

‘…whenever I restrain my will in making judgements so it extends only to those matters that are clearly and distinctly shown to it by the intellect, it can never happen that I err, because very clear and distinct perception is surely something. Hence it cannot derive it’s existence from nothing; rather it necessarily has God for it’s author- that supremely perfect God, I say to whom it is repugnant to be a deceiver – thus the perception is surely true’. Meditations 4 (closing remarks).

How philosophically significant do you consider it to be?

a)     Historically

- Foundation of western learning – an enormous impact. Frequently cited as beginning of modern era.

- Can appreciate the freshness of discovery e.g. Descartes knows via astronomical and mathematical calculation that the sun is not extremely small. One can understand how he might be confident of discovering more via this method.

- This approach is used to today in banking, economics, architecture, science. The senses are distrusted to arrive at the right judgement with focus on the mind.

- Radical programme of doubt has denied Descartes the opportunity of an integrated knowledge of perception and intellect.

- Upholds the God of the Christian faith as far as the intellect is concerned, yet appears to deny the importance of the body, also created by God.

- Perhaps more influenced by Plato in this respect


b) in our day

- The empiricist approach has gained a great deal since Descartes

- Immediate objection would be idea that senses deliver knowledge in themselves (Locke), radical doubt denies perceptual apparatus

- A method of scientific deduction that denies role of experiment

- All ideas are experienced – innate ideas do not exist

- Ideas in the intellect are an abstraction. ‘Idea’ as understood by Locke is immediately present to the perception.

- Problem of ‘spirit’. If there is no spirit within man he cannot have knowledge of art, music and relationships. This reduces the significance of Descartes thought very considerably

- Radical denial of the world overall means a considerable reduction of the role of experience in the arts and experiment in the sciences


The doctrine of innate ideas is a clear statement of rationality and a persuasive account of the importance of the intellect. Without understanding the world through the application of reason, and without the language of mathematics progression and development would be in major difficulty. Nevertheless, the programme of radically doubting all other types of knowledge, other than that specifically known to Descartes is emphatically untenable as is the idea of necessarily dispelling experience in the discovery of knowledge. Having said this Cartesian philosophy does check the tendency to rush towards experience.

AQA Unit 4

Is Plato’s claim to have knowledge of a world beyond sense experience doomed to failure?

Plato claimed to know the world of the forms – a world of ideals, an eternal world that contains the prototypes of reality. This he discovered through his academic endeavours and in particular through the rational discipline of Mathematics. He assumed this to be a world whose underlying premise was the Form of the good. This question assumes that there is a purpose towards which this knowledge was directed, which is likely to have been understood by Plato in terms of the divine craftsman or Demiurge as he understood him. So is Plato’s theory doomed to fail?

First of all we can see there are a number of strengths to Plato’s theory – perhaps this is why it has stood the test of time. The theory of the forms enables us to grasp the difference between the transcendent and the immanent, the eternal and the temporal. It assumes that there is a knowledge that is true regardless of the different types of sense experience that we may encounter down the years. It may therefore lead to the type of education that can prepare the philosopher for the challenges of politics, as indeed it has been seen to so do. Supporting this is the underlying moral purpose of the simile of the cave that Plato used to describe Athenian society. The illusion of ignorance combined with poor moral concept do have some hope of being cured through a knowledge of reality – the world beyond. This is the message of Plato’s cave.

Secondly, from a more educational rather than societal point of view – Plato’s theory can help us distinguish between opinion and knowledge. Plato believed there to be a form of goodness, justice and beauty. This was predicated on the unqualified concept of the forms rather than being a changing aspect of the experience of particulars, which are all qualified by personal subjectivity and opinion. A true knowledge can only be gained by knowing the Good, and this can be found in the world of eternity beyond. This enables us via comparison to properly know our experiences of goodness and justice.

On the other hand there are some more controversial aspects of Plato’s theory such as the reference to necessary knowledge being via the forms. For example science can quickly understand particulars through observation and sense experience without necessarily having to go through the process of contemplating the forms. For example it would not make sense for a scientist to have to go via mathematics to examine the human cell. A sufficiently powerful microscope would suffice. This illustrates the problem of Plato’s divisional theory. Knowledge may well be projected towards a realm of ideals that lie in the future. Analogies are used to describe this world. But in fact because of the vast spatial and time differences involved they may keep us from developing discoveries today. This is not to say that the forms don’t exist in some way, but rather that they may be more dynamically interactive with the world of sense experience.

Another issue that began to be identified was one of person. Although Plato does have a concept of personal reality in connection to the Forms, (the Demiurge or the divine craftsman we have mentioned) there is little development of this notion in his thought in the Republic, which relates more to abstract knowledge that has no definite human nature. How then can it be a knowledge that succeeds if it does not relate to human nature in someway? In as much as Plato’s thought is pure abstract knowledge that relates to an undefined transcendence it is doomed to failure. Augustine began to address this point in developing a Christian theology and western psychology. Because of the way in which Christ the second person of the Trinity remained both transcendent as God and yet shared our experience and time as a man with a human nature, then knowledge of a world beyond can have a successful outworking today. To a modern world of greater possibility Plato’s theory might also be understood to be intrinsically unjust since it asks us to base society on a world that is intelligible but not sensible. How can an intelligible realm succeed in creating a just society if the concepts it believes itself to be founded upon are not rendered sensible to people in some way? This must surely be one of the most serious political objections to Plato’s theory of the forms.

In conclusion, Plato’s theory of the forms has had undoubted success in helping to create an intellectual climate for the modern world. Since Plato believed that particulars can at least in principle participate in the Form of the Good he provides hope for some kind of successful future. However, because of the divisional and hierarchical character of the theory it lacks a clear personal apprehension of human nature derived from a world beyond. As in the past so in the modern day a Christian theology is required to enable Plato’s theory to make sense today.