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Problems for Plato's theory of Forms in the Parmenides


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Problems for Plato's theory of Forms in the Parmenides
Date: 15 February 2008 13:27

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 7 February, with your University of London Greek Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Can the difficulties raised for the Theory of Forms in Plato's Parmenides be overcome?'

As you are amalgamating past essays around this topic, it is possible that my response will be an (unintentional) amalgam of what I have written before. (I don't normally look, and haven't on this occasion.)

I will follow your convenient numbering.

1. The extent of the Forms. I partly agree with your answer here, which Socrates should have given when asked whether there is a Form for mud, hair and so on. The properties of sensible things are accounted for by multiple Forms. This would have been a perfect opportunity to mention the theory of 'blending of the Forms' in the Sophist.

However, we are still dealing with natural kinds (leaving aside mere mixtures, like mud) and it could be argued a la Kripke/ Putnam that natural kinds do indeed have an intelligible essence. In order to get 'human' from the blend you need the Form which accounts for the recipe for making a human, or mammal, or animal and so on.

2. The Whole-Part Dilemma. I'm not totally happy with your analogy of the song (Form) and the entertainment it provides (particulars participating in the Form). This is merely a species of the case of one case with multiple effects, whereas the relation between particulars and the Forms they participate in is much more intimate.

A better, although still flawed analogy would be a plan, e.g. the blueprint for a 1968 Ford Mustang Coupe. The problem is that Socrates wants to say that particulars get their 'reality' from the Form, not just their pattern. Sensible things have no existence 'in themselves'.

This relates to an issue which you raise in 5., whether or in what sense forms are the 'causes' of sensible things. A simple cause-effect model would make the thing caused as real as the thing that causes it, first there's the plan then there's the actual car. Whereas things for Plato aren't really real, only the Forms are.

3. The 'Third Man' Argument. A student could be forgiven for wondering whether any specious plausibility comes to Parmenides' argument here simply by virtue of the example. The Form of Greatness IS great. But the Form of Smallness is also great. All the Forms are great!

On second thoughts, let's forget the idea that the Third Man applies to all Forms. The argument would suffice if it only applied to some, or even one. So let's take a Form, any form, where self-predication is plausible. The Form of 'abstract object' is an abstract object. The Form of 'inspiration' is inspiring, and so on. (Because all the Forms are great, abstract objects, and inspiring, and so on.)

-- Any mileage in that, I wonder?

4. Forms as Thoughts. This section suggests that, 'raising difficulties with Plato's theory' is not the most accurate description of Plato's intention. It looks increasingly likely (as you note in your conclusion) that what we have here are exercises for the student which, as in the second part of the dialogue, are intended to train one's dialectical grasp of the Forms theory.

5. Forms as Paradigms. The idea that Forms have a 'causative role' is not one that you would get from reading Phaedo or Republic. Forms are formal 'causes', to use Aristotelian terminology, not efficient causes. In the Timeaeus, Plato posits a creative 'agent' who uses the Forms as templates. It is only in NeoPlatonism that Forms are conceived as having full-blooded 'creative' power.

I do think that Plato wanted to say that it is not the F-ness of F things that comes from the Form of F, but also, in some sense, their shadowy or illusive 'reality'. When contemplating ordinary things, we are in reality contemplating Forms, we just don't know it; just as the prisoners in the Cave mistake shadows for real things.

6. The Greatest Difficulty. But isn't there a real problem of explaining how we have knowledge of the Forms? OK, there's no knock-down argument that knowledge is impossible, but rather a challenge, to explain by what process the human mind succeeds in making contact with the world of Forms. How can you do this, just by talking in the market place?

I largely agree with your Conclusion, although I do think that Plato, as any philosopher would, viewed his own theory with a degree of scepticism rather than propounding it as dogma. It is a difficult theory to get one's mind around, surely Plato felt that difficulty too.

All the best,