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Direct Perception and Dialectic

“For every real being, there are three things that are necessary if knowledge of it is to be acquired: first, the name; second, the definition; third, the image; knowledge comes fourth, and in the fifth place we must put the object itself, the knowable and truly real being.” So said Plato in his seventh letter. To know the object itself is difficult. It requires a teacher, months or years, and a disciplined life free from bodily distractions.

The first four instruments have their limits. Each presents, “in discourse and in examples, what she is not seeking, and thus makes it easy to refute by sense perception anything that may be said or pointed out, and fills everyone, so to speak, with perplexity and confusion.”

In the end, it is only a good person, along with sustained dialectic, that can know the object itself. “Only when all of these things—names, definitions, and visual and other perceptions—have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy—only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can they illuminate the nature of any object.” And the illumination occurs “like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightaway nourishes itself.” I take this to mean that, once one is acquainted with the real object, one remains acquainted with it.

Plato places dialectic on an epistemological pedestal.

Buddhism places direct perception on an epistemological pedestal.

Certain truths about the world, for example that everything lacks inherent essence, can only be known through direct perception. Logical arguments, for example those presented in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, may lead you in the right direction, but they are imperfect representations of the truth.

My understanding is that this direct perception occurs suddenly. I’ve heard conflicting accounts as to whether, once known, the realization remains always known.

The path to direct perception, like the path Plato describes in his seventh letter, requires discipline and moral purity and can benefit from a teacher.

The parallels are interesting, as are the parallels between Buddha and Socrates—two charismatic individuals with long legacies living around the same century. By my analysis, direct perception is more deserving of its special place. While dialectic is powerful, capable of uprooting our intellectual weeds, why is it more capable then written arguments? Direct perception, on the other hand, if it’s possible, has natural metaphysical arguments to justify its place; it’s an alternative to language.