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Self-predication in Plato's theory of forms


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Self-predication in Plato's theory of forms
Date: 24th June 2009 10:10

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 21 June with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'How best is 'self-predication' to be understood in Plato?'

Several commentators have invoked criteria for the requirements that an account of self-predication in Plato should meet, and you offer the valid suggestion that the main issue concerns the ontological difference between forms and particulars. I think this is crucially important. Forms are real, and in an important sense 'more real' than particulars. They are not mere 'concepts' or 'abstract objects'. They are part of the ontological scaffolding of reality.

You also invoke the principle of charity, 'we need to start from the [intended] work forms [are required] to do', which seems an eminently reasonable approach.

However, it seems to me that you have missed the most important issue -- possibly you were worried about its relevance, or perhaps you thought it too obvious to need stating -- which is the controversial role self-predication plays in the 'third man' argument in the dialogue Parmenides.

If the form of Man is a man, then by the principle of 'one over many' we shall need a 'third man' to account for the fact that men, together with the form of Man, all satisfy the predicate, 'is a man'.

Notwithstanding the fact that Aristotle also invokes the third man argument (in putting the case for his own 'immanent' view of forms), I don't think Plato (or, at least, the mature Plato) was seriously troubled by this argument.

It doesn't need a complicated dialectical argument to show that the idea that the form of Man 'is a man' is absurd. However, as you explain, we need to pay heed to the crucial difference between forms and particulars, which is that in particulars many properties are 'co-present'. A man is material, forms are not material. A man fills a region of space, forms are not in space. A man moves, forms to not move, and so on.

In addition to the constraints imposed by the third man argument, we also need to consider two attributes of forms that you mention: the fact that the form of the Beautiful is the 'cause' of girl's beauty, and the idea that particulars 'participate' in the forms.

The causation here is of course 'formal causation' in the sense noted by Aristotle: Samantha is beautiful because she has beautiful parents (so it's in here genes). That's a matter of efficient cause and effect. However, if you ask of an eminently beautiful girl, 'Why is Samantha beautiful?' the correct answer is, 'Because that's just what beauty is.' (In other words, if you don't know that Samantha is beautiful then you don't know what it is to be beautiful, you don't know what beauty is.)

In these terms, why must Platonic forms be self-predicating? Plato gives an indirect answer to this question: forms function as paradigms, our (more or less implicit) knowledge of the forms enables us to judge things like equality, or beauty, or justice. To be a competent judge of beautiful particulars, you need to know Beauty itself.

Why must particulars 'participate' in the forms? Logically, there are only two alternatives if you take a realist view: either forms are in particulars (Aristotle) or not in particulars but nevertheless in some way metaphysically connected to them. The term 'participation' fills that gap. One has to guard against an over-literal reading of 'participate' wherein we picture forms as emitting some kind of quasi-physical/ non-physical flux or radiation: Samantha acquiring her beauty by being 'breathed on' by the form of Beauty. Plato may have toyed with this idea but it is not required by his theory (once again, if we attend to the most important passages e.g. in Phaedo and Republic where the nature of forms is discussed).

Putting all this together, the form of F is the distilled recipe for judging whether or not a particular is F, a matter which one can investigate dialectically, or just simply see, depending on the property in question. Is the form of F, F? It is not *an* F (the form of Man is not a man).

I don't have a view about Nehamas, or Cherniss, or Heinaman. The very idea that something can 'be F' without being 'an F thing' is sufficiently problematic to make it difficult to say that forms are 'self-predicating' simpliciter. They are, in a sense. But not in the sense which generates a 'third man'.

As it stands, your essay is knowledgeable and well constructed, and you will get credit for that.

All the best,