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What is to participate in a Platonic form?


To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is it to participate in a Platonic form?
Date: 7th December 2010 12:11

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 27 November, with your essay for the University of London Greek Philosophy: Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Does Plato have an intelligible and consistent account of what it is to participate in a form?'

This is not a bad essay. The main problem, however, is that you raise various issues with Plato's various forms, among which is his account of participation. But the question specifically asked about participation. The examiner doesn't want you to offer a general survey of Plato's theory of forms and the various criticisms that might be made about it.

I can't stress strongly enough the importance of focusing on the question. In this case, the examiner has been very specific: Is Plato's account of what it is to participate in a form intelligible? and is his account consistent? Potentially, therefore, there are four answers to this question: That the account is intelligible and consistent; or neither intelligible nor consistent; or intelligible but inconsistent; or consistent but unintelligible. (However, we can discount the last, since I have no idea what being 'consistently unintelligible' would mean!)

Is Plato's account consistent? The implication here is that Plato says various things about forms and how things participate in them in his different dialogues, and that there is, or may be, a problem in making the various things he says consistent with one another. Here, besides mentioning the Timaeus and the Parmenides, you should have mentioned other key dialogues where the forms play a significant role, e.g., the Phaedo and the Republic (at the very least).

Obviously, I can't write the essay for you, but one of the major issues which bears on Plato's account of participation in the forms -- and which you don't mention at all -- is the role of the forms as objects which we seek knowledge of by means of engaging in the Socratic dialectic, that is to say, seeking definitions of things like virtue (Meno), justice (Republic) etc. Forms are meant, in some way, to account for the very possibility of philosophical analysis (as one would now say), whether we actually reach this end-point or not. Here, the crucial property, which you do mention, is the notion which Aristotle terms 'formal cause'.

I like your suggestion that 'forms are like blueprints', which takes much of the pressure off the third man argument deployed in the Parmenides. The point, however, of forms as 'formal causes' is not just that they are blueprints 'for' some human craftsman or super-human demiurge, but that they represent knowledge attained through the dialectic. To 'know the form' of justice is to know what it means to say that an action is just or unjust.

It is true, however, that forms appear to play more than one role and this is a potential source of inconsistency. If one is seeking to defend Plato on this score, the question is whether there is a 'core role', such as the one suggested above, which in some sense explains or accounts for the others. Consider the Phaedo. Human beings are immortal, Plato argues through the mouthpiece of Socrates, because we can know the forms, and this is possible only because what is essential to us is in some sense 'akin' to the forms. We are not just material beings but something more. (In the Phaedo, there is also an argument which quite specifically that a form, e.g. of equality must exist, otherwise we would be unable to make judgements about what is equal or unequal.)

You do raise the issue of which things have 'forms'. In the Parmenides, the older philosopher criticizes the young Socrates for not believing that there are forms of such things as mud, hair and dirt. 'When you get older, you will learn not to despise such things'. If Plato's account of participation is taken literally -- a thing is correctly described as 'F' if and only if it participates in the form F -- how can hair or mud fail to have a form? (There's a possible answer to that but I'll leave you to work it out for yourself.)

Is Plato's account intelligible? You state at one point that Platonic forms are what we would term 'universals'. Many philosophers (including Bertrand Russell in his 'Problems of Philosophy') have considered the notion of universals to be essential to accounting for the possibility of judgement. (According to Russell, we are 'acquainted' with sense data and with universals; these are the ultimate 'constituents' of judgments.) So one way of posing the question would be to ask, in what way forms do more work than universals? Assuming the idea of a universal to be intelligible, is it possible to understand the extra work that forms are meant to do?

The key idea is that forms serve as paradigms. This becomes especially important in the case of value judgements. You mention this in your essay. We can't make judgements about which of two objects is more 'beautiful' than the other unless we have knowledge of the form of beauty, which serves as the ultimate standard of what is beautiful or not beautiful. But how exactly is this meant to work?

As I said, you have not written a bad essay, and many of the points I make here are implicit in what you say. But you do need to be more sharply focused on the question.

All the best,