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Plato on the relation between objects and forms


To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on the relation between objects and forms
Date: 14th September 2010 13:53

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 2 September, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics BA module, in response to the question, 'Does Plato have an intelligible and consistent account of what it is for something to participate in a Form?'

This is a very good essay, which sticks close to the claims (sometimes inconsistent) that Plato makes about the Forms, in various places in his dialogues, leading up to the destructive critique in 'Parmenides'. If you were answering this question in an exam, you would get credit for mentioning specific dialogues, such as 'Phaedo' where Socrates talks about 'the equals themselves' etc. or 'Meno' where Socrates introduces the theory of recollection, implying that Forms are something that the soul is able to 'see' with its capacity for intellectual vision.

The One-over-many doctrine appears at the beginning of your essay, where you make a disparaging comment to the effect that any set of objects conforming to a given description/ predicate such as 'non-tables' ought to have a corresponding Form. Then at the end of your essay you suggest that the best response to the 'Third Man Argument' in Parmenides is to give up the one-over-many doctrine in order to maintain the two important properties of non-identity and self-predication.

Yet it is interesting to observe Parmenides' ironic comment to Socrates, who when asked denies that things like hair or mud or dirt could have Forms - 'You are still young, one day you will not despise these things.' To me, this is a very strong hint that we can't just keep Forms for 'inspiring' things like Beauty and Justice. What about boring old tables and horses - are we still going to let these have Forms?

The way I would approach this - without deviating too far from the requirement that one keep to the evidence of the dialogues - would be to generalize about the kind of problem, which we would recognize today, to which the theory of Forms is put forward as the solution. One problem concerns our ability to apply any general term. What is it to know the meaning of a general term X? What kind of knowledge is this, and how is it acquired? Take a homely thing like a table. How on earth are we able to decide that a flat surface balanced precariously on one leg is not a table, unless the leg is sufficiently short and/or fat, that a mile-high object resembling a table isn't a table, and so on? Or take horses. What is a horse, how does it differ from a pony or an ass or a donkey or a zebra?

Yet, I find it utterly fantastical to suppose that the Form of a table is a TABLE or that the Form of a horse is a HORSE. Are we really supposed to take self-predication this literally? And, if not literally, then how?

One dialogue which you don't mention is the 'Sophist' where Plato for the first time puts forward his theory of the 'blending' of Forms. If Forms can blend, then this provides a possible way of reducing the number of basic Forms, as potential constituents of more complex ideas. So we can have one-over-many, but in a modified form. The 'one' needn't be a pure Form, it can be a blend of more basic forms. As, perhaps, 'injustice' is a blend of Justice and Negation. You don't need a Form of Injustice to explain the existence of unjust actions, you only need a Form of Justice.

In other words, many kinds of objects are what they are because they participate in several Forms, not just one. This has the advantage of considerable ontological economy, as well as justifying the young Socrates' reluctance to posit a Form for every single thing.

The other requirement concerns objective standards for evaluative statements, concerning the ethical, the just, the beautiful etc. It is still not clear to me, however, that in order for Forms to do this work, self-predication must be literally true. Plato goes to great lengths in 'Republic' to describe his vision of Justice, in terms of the 'ordering' of the soul and of the city. Justice exists, not just as a notion in our minds but as a metaphysical reality. But that reality is something which one can only metaphorically describe as a 'perfect example of justice'.

I don't know how serious a 'problem' Plato regarded the Third Man Argument. It is true that Aristotle uses it, which implies that the argument has real force. But it is quite possible that Plato didn't see this as an insuperable obstacle, but rather a valid training exercise for his students - on a par with the mind-boggling logical acrobatics of the second part of Parmenides. But that's just my impression.

All the best,