Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Plato: Part One

The Birkbeck Philosophy Department.

I know that the number of hits on this blog drops dramatically when the subject is Philosophy - but hey, that's what mostly goes on with me these days. Today I handed in four essays...five more weeks of classes, four more essays and a dissertation - and the first year is done! I have decided to inflict a little more Plato on you - an explanation of his famous 'Forms', a metaphysical explanation of the world which has been called one of the richest and boldest metaphysical theories ever invented in Western thought’.

This bit of work below on Plato's 'Parmenides' was described by the professor to whom I submitted it as 'possibly useful as an introduction to one of the popular translations, or Wikipedia.' This I took, I think rightly, to be the greatest form of academic criticism possible, so I re-wrote the essay. The new one is full of stuff about the Third Man argument, tree predication and logical analysis, and I daresay you wouldn't find it entertaining at all. However, you might like what I now think of as 'the Wikipedia version' of Plato's 'Parmenides'.

Here is Part One.....enjoy. 


Why posit Forms?
Plato’s Forms are intended to explain the unchanging qualities in the phenomenal world which lie behind the changing features of that world. They are unchanging and eternal properties, which are understood through reason rather than through our senses. The Form of ‘Justice’, for example, explains what is universal about all just situations in the phenomenal world, although they may differ in many perceptible particulars. Similarly, the Form of ‘Beauty’ explains what is beautiful about many disparate beautiful objects in the phenomenal world.
Plato was influenced by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (and his disciple Cratylus) who considered that the sensible world was ever-changing and in flux: in a constant state of ‘becoming’. Observation of the phenomenal world seems to bear this out. But if the world around us is in constant flux, how can any object, concept or quality ever be defined or determined? So the theory of the Forms separates sensible things from their characteristics, and makes those characteristics unchanging and immutable, giving us a ‘yardstick’ of unchanging knowledge.

Very briefly indeed, reasons for positing the Forms may be arise from ‘moral intuition’ (that there must be a timeless, non-relative standard for ‘justice’ or ‘beauty’); an epistemic motivation (that there is one unchanging yardstick which explains the many particulars which partake of or reflect that yardstick); a metaphysical motivation (that the world is strangely composed of opposites that coexist and an explanation is needed to account for this). Clearly there is much to ponder about the nature of Forms and the ‘participation’ of particulars in them.

The objections raised in the Parmenides
In the Parmenides the dialogue occurs principally between young Socrates and the elderly senior philosopher Parmenides. The core of the first part of the dialogue has Parmenides raising a variety of objections to challenge young Socrates’ positing of Forms. I will discuss below the framework of the dialogue and its significance. Here I very briefly summarise the six principle objections raised by Parmenides’ challenge.
Firstly the scope of the Forms themselves is questioned. Socrates has proposed Forms of moral and aesthetic concepts and measurement, but Parmenides asks why there should not also be Forms of mundane items such as mud and hair. The questions centre around why Forms should be posited in some cases but not in others, and Socrates professes himself unable to answer.

Then the ‘whole-part’ dilemma is raised. In an attempt to explain the relationship between the Forms and the physical world (a question central to the whole dialogue) Parmenides asks Socrates if each thing that gets a share of a Form gets part of that Form or the whole of it. Socrates proposes the interesting thought that the Form is like a day, which is in many places at one time, but is nevertheless only one day. Parmenides manages to have the young Socrates accept the less useful analogy of a sail over many people, thereby leading to a conclusion that part of the sail is over each person, and therefore that the sail (or Form) must be divisible.
The third objection raised has been termed the ‘largeness regress’. Parmenides explores why Socrates assumes that a Form is one (and not many). With this argument Parmenides argues once again that a Form is many, this time by reduplication.The problem is that if there are phenomenal things which are (say) large, and a Form which is also large, then over this group would be needed a further Form to explain the largeness in all these – and so on, generating an infinite regress. Note that in order for this regress to occur, we must accept that Form as self-predicating – that is, that the form of Large is itself ‘large’, leading back again to the question of the quality and nature of Forms and the way in which the phenomenal objects participate in the Forms.

The fourth matter discussed arises from Socrates’ proposal that the regress could be avoided if Forms were thoughts. In this way, a single Form could be a mental item in many minds at one time yet indivisible; and could also avoid self-predication on the basis that the thought ‘Largeness’ cannot be itself large. Parmenides objects that a thought must have an object outside of the mind – the Form. He also reintroduces the problem of participation. If a large stone participates in the thought (Form) ‘largeness’ then it must either be considered to actively think; or to not think despite being composed of thoughts, both absurd conclusions.
The fifth discussion has been called ‘the Likeness regress’. Socrates now proposes a new response to the participation problem, suggesting that Forms are like patterns set in nature (outside the mind), and other things partake of them simply by resembling them. Gill points out that Socrates’ argument could be understood asymmetrically (e.g. a large stone may be a likeness of the Form ‘Large’, but ‘Largeness’ is not a likeness of a large stone’). Parmenides, however, takes the argument as symmetrical  (e.g. if a large stone is a likeness of the Form ‘large’, then the Form ‘Large’ is like a large stone). 

The sixth objection can be called the ‘Separation argument’. Because Socrates has not been able to adequately explain how the Forms and phenomenal objects participate, Parmenides proceeds on the assumption that there is no relation between them, and moreover that we have no intellectual access to them. There is no longer any causal link between the Forms and physical characteristics. Parmenides focuses on relational Forms, using the example of a master and a slave: the master is a master because of his relation to the slave, not because of participation in the Form ‘Master’. Not only has the argument become ‘bizarre’, as Socrates says, but it also raises the obvious thought (and the question with which we began): why do we need to posit Forms at all?

These arguments make up the core of Part I of the ‘Parmenides’. Part II consists of long, detailed and often puzzling thought exercises by Parmenides, without Socrates as an interlocutor. The purpose and effect of this section has been debated often. Gill proposes:

As I understand Part II, it highlights conflicts by means of antinomies and exposes errors based on invalid reasoning or misconceptions, and it challenges us, as readers, to notice what has gone wrong.

On this view, Part II is a training exercise – as it is indeed introduced – not only for the young student Aristotle who volunteers to be Parmenides’ interlocutor in Part II, but also for the reader.

To be continued.....

'Necessary and sufficient' for philosophising

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