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The Pathology of American Thinking:

How Plato Might Have Helped Us Avoid an Iraq Debacle

John Uebersax, PhD

This short article will explain how Plato's division of human knowledge into four kinds relates to the disordered thinking--public and governmental--that led to America's Iraq problem.

First we dismiss the idea that Plato is too esoteric a subject for the average person. Quite the opposite--unless we raise the level of public discourse, worse things may be ahead. In any case, our interest here is Plato the astute observer of human behavior, not the philosopher.

Plato laid out his epistemology neatly in an amazingly short passage--the Divided Line analogy, which comes at the end of Book 6 of the Republic. This analogy, along with the more famous Cave Allegory, arguably comprise the best psychological theory we have about the nature and variations of human knowledge.

Speaking through the character of Socrates, Plato divides human knowledge, and its related cognitive activities, into four categories. From poorest to best, these are: eikasia, pistis, dianoia, and noesis .

This article aims to explain: (1) what these basic categories of knowledge are, using examples related to the Iraq war; (2) how the collective thinking that brought America to its injudicious Iraq involvement reflected the poorest kind of knowledge; and (3) how we might avoid similar situations in the future--and instead accomplish positive things--by greater attention to superior forms of knowledge.

We consider below Plato's four kinds of knowledge and relevant examples of each:


This Greek word literally means "picture-thinking" (from the root eikon. It's not far from our modern word, imagination, but somewhat broader in meaning. Eikasia reflects the knowledge and thinking that derives not from objects, but their images--in particular, the images in our own minds.

Even casual self-observation by the reader will verify the vast amount of thinking that is of this kind. Doubts, worries, fears (except for dangers immediately and physically present), anxieties, wishes, daydreams--these all relate to eikasia. In nearly every case, one can, if alert, detect the presence of specific images or imagined scenes from which a train of thought proceeds.

Eikasia thinking is related to the idea of fictional finalisms in the system of psychologist Alfred Adler. Adler noticed how extensively human beings are motivated by specific imagined scenes that determine and direct our actions. A characteristic of fictional finalisms is that we proceed as if they were real events, even though they are only imagined. At a sub- or unconscious level, we tend not to make the cognitive distinction between an imagined idea and an actual fact.


  1. Americans basically "imagined" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). There was no direct, empirical evidence--and all the available direct, empirical evidence (e.g., the repeated protests of chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix) suggested otherwise. Further, the supposed weapons were imagined to pose a threat to the United States-- when, in fact, had they existed, their intended target would have more likely been Iran. The point is not whether Iraq had WMDs, but that Americans acted as if they existed without evidence; they failed to distinguish between fact, hypothesis, and imagined reality.
  2. Americans wanted to secure their interests (a phrase still, incredibly, in use) concerning Iraq's oil. This rests on the imagined premises that: (a) Iraq's oil is indispensable for the US; (b) we have a right to demand access to it; and (c) a war would succeed in securing the supposed interests. These premises derive neither from observed fact nor rational theories, but are all wishful thinking.
  3. Americans believed they could win a war in Iraq with reasonable effort and in a timely manner. Again, there is no obvious reason why American should have believed this. Our actual experience in Vietnam should have informed our thinking about the difficulties of pitting our organized military against highly adaptable, decentralized resistance. Moreover, military intelligence, combined with basic sociological models, should have made us expect the situation would deteriorate into a chaos of internecine, sectarian violence sans the presence of strongman Saddam Hussein. Agitation by Iran and Syria would have also been predictable. Again, Americans consulted neither their common sense, powers of observation, nor behavioral or sociological theories, and instead plunged into war based on chimerical thinking.

Several factors may have contributed to the collective lack cognitive ability: (1) fear and emotional arousal following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (eikasia thinking is promoted by fear); (2) the near endless cascade of graphic, violent images of television news and motion pictures; (3) a political scene dominated by extreme polarization, argument, and bitter acrimony; and (4) generally high levels of stress, anxiety, and alienation in the public prior to 9/11 and the Iraq war.


Pistis is knowledge based on sense experience of real-world things and the practical skills that relate to them. Building a house is a pistis-based activity.


  1. Satellite images unambiguously showing WMD facilities etc. would have provided relevant pistis knowledge. So also would have been eyewitness testimony by Iraq military defectors before the war.
  2. Our inability in Vietnam to defeat de-centralized insurgents, already mentioned--something based on actual experience--is another example.

Dianoia corresponds to what we ordinarily mean by scientific, mathematical, and logical reasoning. It proceeds from initial hypotheses or _first principles, using specified rules, to logical conclusions. It gives knowledge superior to eikasia and pistis, but has the limitation that it rests on untested and often untestable initial hypotheses.


  1. Sociological and basic systems theory would predict sectarian conflict after the removal of Saddam Hussein. (This issue was, in fact, raised as a justification for not forcibly removing Hussein following the 1990-1991 Gulf War.)
  2. The Iraq Study Group Report, released in December 2006, 3 1/2 years after the war's start, contained at least some semblance of dianoia thinking -- to the extent that it was based on reasonable and scientific models. But why wasn't there such a report _before_ the war, especially since America was under no time constraint to commence hostilities?

Noesis--or as it is sometimes called, Wisdom--is knowledge of a completely different order than the other forms. It is direct mental apprehension of timeless and unchangeable entities. It applies in particular to moral and spiritual issues. But in the case of a war not motivated by an obvious and immediate need for self-defense, the primary issues are in fact moral and spiritual.

It is the faculty of noesis that sets us apart from animals. We are Homo sapiens (wise man) and not Homo sciens (rational man); other animals show of "rational" activity--using tools, etc., but only we can consider things like Wisdom, Justice, Beauty, Truth, and Virtue.

It's peculiar that when it comes to collective political decisions we behave as though these things, and the faculty that reveals them, do not exist. Yet, at the personal level, these are what give life meaning.

The meaning of noesis will be made clearer in the "prescription" section.


    Before the war, citizens should have pondered its basic morality, asking questions like What is Justice? What is Duty? What is Brotherhood? As these are real things, and as they refer to realities that are imprinted in our souls, then, through persistence and genuineness of inquiry, eventually the answers may emerge from the fog of ignorance as sudden, inspired flashes of intuition.

How strange and foreign to modern thinking it sounds to suggest that before we enter into a voluntary war we should contemplate, What is Virtue? But that is exactly what we should be doing, and to do otherwise is to act without virtue and to deny our nature as virtuous people.

Plato's Prescription

Plato constantly returned to the theme of noesis and how to attain it. Noesis, wisdom, and another Greek word, sophia are basically synonymous. The Platonic ideal is for a citizen to become a philo-sopher, a lover of wisdom. He described several strategies for accomplishing this.

Socratic Ignorance

From his teacher, Socrates, Plato learned that wisdom begins with the admission of ignorance. This opens ones mind, frees one from the burden of pretension and folly, and halts eikasia thinking. Further, the recognition of ones ignorance is itself a noetic act--an actual fact, directly perceived.

From Argument to Dialectic

Plato's main tool for attaining noesis is the dialectical method. For Plato, dialectic means a refined, intelligent dialogue, in which participants pose hypothetical answers to a question like, What is Justice?, and then examine the answers' flaws.

All participants become respectful partners in a collegial search for truth. What a far cry that is from the harsh and attack-based argument that characterizes modern political discourse! Contemporary debate inevitably takes the form, "I am right because you are wrong"--making the goal not to find truth, but to disparage ones opponent. This must stop.

Intellectual Training

While logical, scientific, and mathematical thinking alone do not produce noesis, training in these areas are, for Plato, steps in the right direction. They promote mental discipline and accustom one to seeking intellectual answers. No government could plunge the country indiscriminately into war were the populus sufficiently intelligent and attendant to the principles of logical critical thinking.

Piety and Virtue

For Plato, noesis is inseparable from a pious, devout, and virtuous life. An undevout person may be intelligent, but not wise. Our Judeo-Christian heritage agrees with Plato on this. "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom" (Proverbs 4:7). But "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalms 111:10), where fear of the LORD here means not servile fear, but a mind directed to God and things holy--that is, a devout life.

The Way Forward

If we are to meet the present world challenges and thrive as a society then we must become a noetic or sapiential culture. Most of all this requires a mental change at the individual level. "Be transformed by the renewal of your thinking," (Romans 12:2) St. Paul says.

First, we must reduce eikasia thinking. It is not hard to do this, once one understands the issue. A word is a powerful conceptual tool. Modern psychology has no general term that includes fantasy, daydreaming, wishful thinking, anxious rumination, doubt, and greed- or fear-based thinking. The term, eikasia, supplies that. Perhaps we should bring it into usage, or else come up with a better alternative. Armed with the knowledge that eikasia exists, one can learn to notice it, and then to stop it.

Second, we must stop the dominant model of confrontational argument that radically polarizes public opinion. We need new paradigms based on mutual respect, genuine collegiality, and joint search for truth.

Third, we must re-acquire recognition--public and private--of the role of Virtue.


The noble democratic experiment of America was based on the principles of the The Enlightenment. Somehow the ideals of The Enlightenment have faded over time--perhaps an inevitable consequence of the ebb-and-flow of history. But, despite the many challenges that face us, we are free to choose our destiny. Humankind should choose a new Age of Sapience, and America can choose to lead the way.



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Copyright © 2007 - John Uebersax PhD
rev. 24 Jan 2007

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