Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Philosophical Idealism and Educational Theory

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_1


Among ancient discussions of Greek education, philosophical idealism makes its first appearance in Plato’s Republic, within his formulation of an ideal state. Here the mathematical sciences and dialectic are presented as affording the student a path to the apprehension of unmediated reality, which, in Platonic theory, is education’s supreme goal. Most subsequent discussion or activity among Greeks and Romans which attempts to integrate philosophical idealism either develops or responds to Plato’s thinking on this subject. Plato’s speculation also succeeded in finding accommodation in more widespread views about ancient educational curricula and in the thinking of some modern educationists.



An ancient tradition records that above the entrance to Plato’s Academy was displayed the inscription, “Let no one enter who does not know geometry.” The earliest surviving evidence for this inscription is in a work by the Emperor Julian (Against Heraclius the Cynic 237d), written some 750 years after Plato established his school, and there is good cause to believe that the story is apocryphal. Nevertheless, the tradition reflects important realities about Plato, his philosophical priorities, and his educational goals both in theory (in his writings) and in practice (in the Academy itself). Drawing philosophical inspiration especially from his Pythagorean predecessors, Plato looked to mathematical sciences (arithmetic, plane and solid geometry, astronomy, harmonics) as providing the most compelling evidence for intelligible, immaterial, unchanging reality – the transcendent “Forms,” which he considered to be the student’s highest object of study.

Plato describes and discusses his theory of Forms in numerous dialogues, but it is in his most famous work, the Republic, that he applies their contemplation to the system of education which he formulates for his Utopian society. Here, in Book 7, Socrates explains at length the shape which education takes for the “Guardians” of this ideal society and the purpose of this education (Annas 1981, pp. 272–293). The Guardians have already completed their cultural and physical training when they come to the study of numbers, which they will pursue to the age of 30. This study serves the general purpose of developing the intellect and training people how to think, but much more importantly (in Plato’s view) it turns the mind away from our world, the world of becoming (genesis), towards truth and reality (ousia), the world of Forms (525a–c). Numbers are not Forms, of course, but in our world of becoming their study is the closest that we can come to Forms themselves (Cornford 1932, pp. 38–39). The order in which the mathematical subjects are studied is important too. Arithmetic prepares the way for geometry, which requires us to think in two and three dimensions. Astronomy comes after geometry; now the student’s eyes are raised up from the earth towards the heavens. The celestial bodies, nevertheless, are material and of this world. The heavenly music which they create (originally a Pythagorean belief), however, brings us closer to immaterial reality, and it is direct, unmediated apprehension of reality that should be the goal of education.

Just how can the student achieve this direct contemplation of real, unchanging goodness, justice, courage, and so on? To answer this question Plato invoked his doctrine of anamnesis, “recollection,” which presupposes that the soul, in discarnate state, has had direct apprehension and knowledge of the Forms before a person’s birth. Its subsequent incarnation and contact with the body cause the person in whom the soul has been embodied to forget this knowledge, but it can be “recollected” when this person is given the right promptings, especially through skilful questioning. A problem with the doctrine of anamnesis, however, is that it explains why, not how, people are able to gain access to the Forms. More problematic still is that the doctrine requires proof of the soul’s immortality. Plato therefore saw greater potential for explaining how the study of numbers could lead to apprehension of reality in the application of dialectic (Republic 532a–535a), which Socrates calls “the capstone of the curriculum” (534e) (Annas 1981, pp. 276–293).

The use of dialectic to accomplish this goal (and its concomitant potential to exemplify recollection) is demonstrated most vividly in Plato’s dialogue Meno (81e–85d). Here Socrates interrogates a young, unschooled household slave who has no previous knowledge of mathematics. Through a long series of carefully framed questions he leads the slave to the correct solution to the problem of doubling the area of a square. Socrates conducts the interrogation as one who (like the slave) does not know the answer to the problem he has set, in other words, as an “intellectual midwife” who possesses no body of knowledge himself but is expert in bringing to birth the intellectual offspring conceived by others (cf. Theaetetus 150b–151c). The inquiry is therefore viewed as a nonempirical “common search.” Its success is achieved through a solution that is based not on variable opinion (doxa), about which people may well disagree, but on secure knowledge (epistêmê), which is derived from immutable numerical truths. Dialectic, moreover, elevates the particular geometrical solution which Socrates coaxes from the slave to a general truth whose existence does not rely on the senses.

There are, then, two stages in the process by which, to Plato’s thinking, the student may apprehend pure reality: first, the study of the mathematical sciences, and then, the learning and application of dialectic (Cornford 1932, pp. 173–190). We know from surviving evidence that the practice of dialectic – the processes of collection, division, and classification – was an activity central to Plato’s Academy.


In his research and teaching, Aristotle pursued the dialectical activity of classification with great energy. As is well known, however, he broke decisively from his teacher Plato by rejecting the theory of Forms. Unlike Plato, he was an empiricist, unwilling to exclude the role of perception and the senses from the acquisition of knowledge. Aristotle observed that experience and memory enable us to collect related instances of things and events, and “from many notions that come from experience, one universal supposition about similar things is produced” (Metaphysics 981a5–7). The procedure which leads to this result is called induction; through its application people are able to apprehend universals which, when analyzed, yield first principles. But our discovery of first principles depends on sense perception, so disputes may be expected to arise over the authenticity of a first principle. In these cases, it is the task of dialectic to defend (or disprove) its authenticity (Topics 101a25–b4). According to Aristotle, the knowledge of first principles and first causes is “clearly” sophia, i.e., “wisdom” (Metaphysics 981b25–982a3).

The fact that Aristotle refused to endow these first principles with their own separate existence is of fundamental importance for understanding his break from Plato and their disagreement over the goal of education. For Plato, apprehension of first principles – of his Forms, in other words – is impossible when the soul is incarnate, since it is then in contact with the body, which is implicated in fallible sense perceptions. For Aristotle, it is only through the sense organs that first principles can be apprehended.

Precisely where Aristotle’s thinking on ideals belongs in his educational activity is far from clear, but the evidence of ancient commentators on his works (writing mainly between the second and the sixth centuries A.D.) may provide some help. Some of these commentators distinguished two kinds of Aristotelian writings, the exoterikoi and the enkyklioi “discussions” or “arguments” (logoi). Just what the adjectives exoterikoi and enkyklioi refer to in these phrases is open to some basic disagreement. Many have believed that exoterikoi logoi are popular works which Aristotle intended for wider consumption, especially philosophical dialogues not unlike Plato’s, whereas enkyklioi logoi are works which were not meant for publication but, being of a more technical nature, reflect the teaching which took place in his school. But there are flaws in this argument, and an alternative proposal has been put forward (Bos 1989, pp. 111–152): exoterikoi logoi are discussions which deal with the things outside (ta exo) the physical realm, while enkyklioi logoi deal with physical reality, the things within (en) the circle (kyklos) of the universe. These latter logoi, being nearer to the experience to which people can easily relate, are the subject matter for the preliminary stage of education, which would later acquire the name enkyklios paideia, an important designation often translated as “standard education.” The former logoi are the concern of advanced students, whose object of investigation would be philosophia, which is concerned with transcendent, theological principles.

Later Platonists and Early Christians

It remains difficult to determine how far Aristotle may have been dependent upon Plato – even if only by reaction against him – in formulating an educational curriculum which was designed to bring the student to the contemplation of immaterial existence. About numerous other ancient thinkers, however, we need not be in any doubt (Hadot 2005, pp. 263–293). For instance, the Alexandrian (Jewish) Platonist Philo (ca. 25 B.C.–ca. A.D. 40), best known for his commentaries on the Pentateuch, often referred to enkyklios paideia, especially the mathematical sciences, as an important but preliminary stage in the curriculum, subordinate to the pursuit of philosophia; hence his characterization of this early stage as the “handmaid of wisdom” (Intercourse with the Preliminary Subjects 73–76). Yet just as enkyklios paideia contributes to the pursuit of philosophy, so philosophy then contributes to the possession of wisdom (sophia), which is the knowledge of divine and human matters and their causes (79). Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–ca. 215) adopted Philo’s evaluation of the relative places of enkyklios paideia, philosophia, and sophia (even quoting Philo), but Clement went further by defining wisdom as “knowing God” (Miscellanies–2). Lactantius (ca. 240–320) characterized wisdom in a similar way but denied that the path to sophia ran through philosophia, since “knowing God” is something that all people – not only philosophers but “workmen, peasants, women, and all who have human form” – are capable of by nature, and these people should therefore receive instruction (The Divine Instructions 3.25–26).

The opinions on education of St. Basil of Caesarea (329/330–379) demonstrate a profound Christian engagement with Plato’s writing on the subject and deserve special attention. Early in his essay To the young, on how they may benefit from pagan literature (2), delivered ostensibly before an audience of youths, Basil makes a basic point emphatically: Christians consider this life and its goods to be nothing, and believe the soul to be infinitely more valuable than the body.

So long as you are unable, because of your age, to understand the depth of the Holy Scriptures’ meaning, in the meantime … we give a preliminary training to the eye of the soul …. We must recognize that a contest is set before us, the greatest of all contests, to prepare for which we must do everything and perform every task, as far as we can, and we must associate with [the writings of] poets, prose-writers, orators, and all men from whom we are likely to derive some benefit for the care of the soul. Just as dyers first prepare by certain treatments that which is going to receive the dye, and then apply the colour, whether it be purple or some other shade, in the same way will we, if the glory of the good is destined to abide with us as indelible, then understand the sacred and mystical teachings after we have received preliminary initiation by those external [i.e. pagan] means. And like those who have become accustomed to seeing the [reflected] sun in water, so will we direct our eyes to the light itself.

The dominant theme here is that of “preparation” for apprehension of the ideal: Our study of pagan authors helps us to prepare for the greatest of all struggles. Pagan literature is like the unseen preparatory material that dyers use before they apply the glorious color that is the Holy Scriptures; it provides a preliminary initiation, but the Scriptures are sacred mysteries. The Scriptures are the light itself; pagan literature is reflected light that prepares us to look upon the real thing. These images all trace their origin back to Plato’s Republic (Döring 2003): the “eye of the soul” which is raised up through dialectic (533c–d), the simile of dyers and their wool (429d–e), and the progress from the vision of reflected images to contemplation of the light itself (515e–516b). Basil’s assumption is that intelligible, unchanging reality is contained in the Scriptures, not Plato’s world of Forms; the “eye of the soul” gains understanding of the Scriptures through ascent up a pedagogical ladder. Basil’s work was widely read and admired throughout the Middle Ages where Greek was understood; from the fifteenth century on it gained enormous popularity in western Europe through the Latin translation of Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444).

St. Augustine (354–430) similarly believed that the products of pagan learning could be presented to students in order to prepare them to acquire knowledge of “the one God himself” (On Christian Teaching 144). The liberal arts, especially the mathematical subjects, condition the student for contemplation of higher things (On Order 2.12–16). The influence of Plato, crucial in Augustine’s conversion to Christianity (Confessions Bks. 7–8), is evident everywhere in his writings. Like Basil, he applied Plato’s image of “the eye of the soul” to describe the apprehension of intelligible reality (Various Questions 46.2).


Philo’s goal to “know divine matters,” and the aspiration of learned Christians to “know God,” both reflect a view about philosophy that traces its origins to Plato’s Theaetetus, where Socrates tells his interlocutor Theodorus that “we must try to escape as quickly as possible from here to there,” and that this escape is “assimilation to god, as far as possible” (176a–b). Assimilation to god, or “divinization,” is an ideal that was understood and sought in different ways by different ancient people. Early Christians, for instance, could strive for it through life in the desert or in the monastery. For Platonists from the third century A.D. on – i.e., Plotinus and his Neoplatonist successors – divinization was the supreme goal, progress towards which was afforded by the study of texts.

Naturally enough, the texts which they studied above all were the Platonic writings – not all of them but rather those that were considered most useful and relevant to their goal. Once agreement was reached on the identity of these fundamental dialogues, two further developments occurred: certain scholars proposed the “correct” organization and reading order of these Platonic writings, and commentaries on each of them were written in order to facilitate their study. The surviving evidence for these reading orders shows a clear desire to draw students progressively to works that deal with the contemplation of transcendental being, in particular the Timaeus and the Parmenides, which were (in that order) the final two in most reading lists (Koch 2013; Tarrant 2014). For a similar reason, Platonists also included some of Aristotle’s writings in their curriculum, most notably the Categories and Metaphysics.

The Later Tradition

Throughout the Middle Ages, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics preserved their role as preparation for the study of philosophy and theology. Boethius (ca. 480–ca. 524), who had confidence that these subjects could lead the student to comprehension of what really exists, appears to have been the first to apply the medieval title quadrivium to this set of subjects (Training in Arithmetic 1).

For 350 years after the reintroduction of Plato’s works into western Europe around the beginning of the fifteenth century, “Platonism” implied especially the emphases and preoccupations of the Neoplatonists of late Antiquity. It is unsurprising, therefore, to find that when the great Renaissance humanist Marsilio Ficino came to select and arrange the first ten works of Plato which he would translate into Latin and later incorporate into his 1484 edition (the first printed edition of Plato’s complete works in any language), this selection and arrangement aimed to provide for the ascent of the reader’s mind to the vision of God, just as the Neoplatonic sequences of late Antiquity had done (the Parmenides and the Philebus occupy the ninth and tenth places). Ficino makes this intention clear in his preface to the 1464 collection of these ten works which he addressed to Cosimo de’ Medici (Toussaint 2013).

It is a common belief that the Neoplatonic interpretation of Plato lost its dominance as a result of the translations and exegeses of the dialogues by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). This belief is overstated, but there is no question that these publications (1804–28) did mark a turning point in the study of Plato (Tigerstedt 1974, pp. 5–7). Yet it was central to Schleiermacher’s project, too, to determine the order in which the dialogues were composed and should be read (Lamm 2013). The sequence which he decreed would find no acceptance from any Platonic scholar today, but Schleiermacher’s purpose was a pedagogical one, and his solution demonstrates the same concern that much earlier thinkers had shown to raise the student’s mind through dialectic to contemplation of the ideal which truly exists. In the Republic, which is among the last dialogues that Schleiermacher prescribed, that object of contemplation is “the Good.”

At about the same time that Schleiermacher’s translations were first appearing, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), follower and interpreter of Immanuel Kant, published the Addresses to the German Nation which he had delivered in Berlin in 1806 when the city was under occupation by Napoleon. The second and third Addresses deal directly with education. Fichte’s idealism represented a radical development of Kant’s and is unmistakable in both of these Addresses, especially in his assertion of human freedom. Obvious too is the influence of Platonic idealism. Only one extract can be provided here, but many others, equally illustrative, could be presented without difficulty (Address 3, 29; trans. G.H. Turnbull):

[The student] is a link in the eternal chain of spiritual life in a higher social order. A training which has undertaken to include the whole of his being should undoubtedly lead him to a knowledge of this higher order also. Just as it led him to sketch out for himself by his own activity an image of that moral world-order which never is, but always is to be, so must it lead him to create in thought by the same self-activity an image of that supersensuous world-order in which nothing becomes, and which never has become, but which simply is for ever; all this in such a way that he intimately understands and perceives that it could not be otherwise. Under proper guidance he will complete his attempts at such an image, and find at the end that nothing really exists but life, the spiritual life which lives in thought, and that everything else does not really exist, but only appears to exist.

The effect of philosophical idealism on educational theory is apparent in other, mainly German, thinkers of the past 250 years (especially Kant, Hegel and Schelling). Nowhere, however, is it expressed so forcefully and directly as it is in these works, and never during this time did it exercise such influence as it did on the development of German nationalism through Fichte’s Addresses.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ManitobaWinnipegCanada