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Essay on Plato's theory of forms


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on Plato's theory of forms
Date: 28 February 2006 12:35

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 11 February, with your Essay for the University of London Ancient Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'In what manner may the form F explain what it is for things to be F?'

The key question to ask here is what does it mean to assert that Forms 'give an explanation of things having the characteristics they have'?

For example, I have the characteristic of frizzy hair. One kind of explanation of my having frizzy hair would be in terms of the genetic makeup which I inherited from my parents. This explanation is in terms of cause and effect.

I also have the characteristic of having two eyes and two ears. If you believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, the explanation for this is also in terms of cause and effect. However, if you believe in the doctrine of Creationism, the explanation is in terms of God's design, i.e. 'final' rather than 'efficient' causes.

Finally, you can ask about my characteristic of being a philosopher. This could be understood in the sense of efficient causes, or final causes. However, there is another question one can ask about this and the previous cases, namely, with reference to the concept 'philosopher' what is it that makes me an example of a philosopher? (or similarly, with reference to the concept 'frizzy', 'two', 'eye', 'ear', ....).

We know that the answer must have something to do with the concept, 'philosopher'. I have what it takes (or fail to have what it takes) to meet the conditions for being a particular example of the kind, 'philosopher', whatever those conditions may be.

This is the kind of explanation which invokes, in Aristotle's terms, 'formal causation'.

The question is, why does Plato hold that in order to give this kind of explanation it is necessary to posit the Form of a Philosopher which 'ceaselessly exists' (better, would be 'timelessly' as 'ceaselessly' implies that Forms exist in time), 'independent of human conceptions' etc. etc.?

This leads immediately to the question, *how* do non-physical objects which exist timelessly accomplish this? What must Forms be in order to fulfil their function of providing explanation in terms of 'formal causation'?

In the terms laid out here, it is not so easy to see why there are, as you claim, 'two types of relations between Forms and objects that partake in Forms'. If I derive the property of being a philosopher from the Form of Philosopher, then surely, how well I measure up to the ideal of the philosopher will be explained in the same way. To give a complete explanation of what it is, formally, to be F involves saying what it is to be a good or a not so good example of an F. From the Form of F we are able to derive a paradigm of F-ness.

The answer seems to like in how Plato conceived of a 'paradigm'. The form of the Philosopher gives us a picture or blueprint of the ideal Philosopher, to which existing philosophers measure up more or less imperfectly. So far so good. However, it seems to be implied that the Form of Philosopher *is a philosopher.* But this is absurd. If the Form of Philosopher is a philosopher, then it philosophizes. But Forms do not exist in time. You can't ask the question, 'What is the Form of Philosopher thinking about today?' There is no bibliography of the works written by the Form of the Philosopher.

Your example of the form of Large and Small leads to the same conclusion. It does seem bizarre to say that the form of Small is small. How small is small? What on earth could it mean to say that an object is 'perfectly small'?

The Third Man argument, which you explain very clearly, does require that forms are self-predicating in the literal sense which would require that the Form of Philosopher is a philosopher. I find it difficult to believe that Socrates or Plato ever literally held this. What seems more plausible is that Plato was tempted by the idea that there is something we 'see' when we contemplate the Form of Philosopher which is akin to perception of an object - the perfect philosopher. However, this merely describes the subjective aspect. What the Form of Philosopher is objectively in itself cannot be explained in such literal terms. It is beyond words, to be sure. The inconclusiveness of Plato's dialogues seems to show that whatever we say is never enough. But what 'more' Forms are is difficult to fathom.

In answering this question, you would gain marks by pointing out the distinction between efficient, final causation even though this is an essay about Plato and not Aristotle.

The examiner would also gain the impression (correct me if I'm wrong) that you have not done a lot of reading of Plato's dialogues - like the Phaedo, Parmenides, Sophist. Hopefully, you will get the time to do this.

All the best,