Was Plato a Platonist: The Theory of Forms

My friend Virgilio A. Rivas over at Kafka’s Ruminations thinks I have reduced Plato to the tradition of Platonism, accusing him of being an Idealist. I was not the first, nor will I be the last to do so. It all hinges on Plato’s Theory of Forms. As Virgilio describes it:

The chief problem of reducing Plato to an idealist is the assumption rarely interrogated that Plato is Platonism. History should be our guide. Platonism is not Plato.

If anyone began the whole tradition of Platonism as Idealism it would have to be Plato’s prime pupil, Aristotle who described Plato in the first book of the Metaphysics  (Metaph. A6, 987a32–b10):

In his youth he [Plato] had become familiar first of all with Cratylus and with Heraclitean views to the effect that all perceptible things are always in flux, and there is no knowledge that relates to them. This is a position he later subscribed to in these terms. Socrates, on the other hand, engaged in discussion of ethics, and had nothing to say about the general system of nature. But he was intent on finding out what was universal in this field, and was the first to fix his thinking on definitions. Plato followed him in this, and subscribed to the position that definition relates to something else, and not to the perceptibles—on the kind of grounds indicated: he thought it impossible for there to be a common definition of any of the perceptibles, since they were always changing. Plato, then, called these kinds of realities “ideas,” and claimed that the perceptibles were something in addition to them, and were all spoken of in terms of them—what he said was that by virtue of participation, the many shared their names with the forms.1

This notion of imperceptible Universals (“ideas”, “Forms”: from Greek εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea)) as the organizing force of perceptibles is the central tenet of both forms of Idealism: the two-world theory based on abstract Universals, and the one-world or immanent theory based on Hegel’s “concrete universals”, etc. This notion that perceptibles (objects of the senses) were supplements to the “ideas” or properties and appendages of the ideas themselves is central to Aristotle’s conception of Plato’s theory of forms. This intermingling of form and property begins the whole battle of what I’ve termed substantial formalism and its traditions in Platonism.

But before we tease out the history of Platonism we need to understand first what Plato himself taught us in his own dialogues. I’ll admit that for me (not being a scholar of ancient Greek) a handicap, in that I usually depend heavily on both etymological understanding and the history of translations and transliterations of terms. To speak of Plato or Aristotle would be to have invested in an understanding of the terms they used, otherwise one is truly handicapped and not able to tease out the nuances of the linguistic signs that harbor specific flavors and colors (i.e., tropes of rhetoric, figures of thought or speech, etc.).

As we find even on Wiki the notion of form has a pre-history in its linguistic use (here):

The Greek concept of form precedes the attested language and is represented by a number of words mainly having to do with vision: the sight or appearance of a thing. The main words, εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea) come from the Indo-European root *weid-, “see”. Eidos (though not idea) is already attested in texts of the Homeric era, the earliest Greek literature. Equally ancient is μορφή (morphē), “shape”, from an obscure root. The φαινόμενα (phainomena), “appearances”, from φαίνω (phainō), “shine”, Indo-European *bhā-, was a synonym.

The point to be made here is that even for Plato there was a ready made concept floating in the language that he was able to appropriate and turn toward his theory of Universals (i.e., the notion of Forms has a history, and is not a neologism). Plato’s most explicit statement on the Theory of Forms (i.e., one finds in in many dialogues on Beauty, Goodness, Justice, etc., but implicit rather than explicit) comes late in his Republic where he describes the Allegory of the Cave.

In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. 

What Plato hints at is that these prisoners because of their place in the cave, unknowing of the real world behind and above them will mistake appearance (φαινόμενα (phainomena), shadows) for reality. They will take the shadows on the wall of the cave for the real, never knowing that it is the ideas casting their shadows on the wall. All of this comes to Plato’s point that when we speak of things we are wrong, when I point to a dog, the dog I point to is a shadow of the real dog lodged somewhere behind and above me in the real world of Ideas or Forms. My concrete dog in front of me is an illusion of the senses according to Plato.

If the prisoners are released Plato tells us, they can turn their heads and see the real objects. Then they realize their error. What can we do that is analogous to turning our heads and seeing the causes of the shadows? We can come to grasp the Forms with our minds he tells us. For Plato every appearance we perceive through the senses participates in these eternal Forms: what we see is a reflection of the Forms rather than their reality. Yet, we can never gain access to this eternal realm of ideas by way of the senses, but only through Reason and the arduous path of philosophy Plato tells us.

At the end of the Phaedo when Socrates confronts his friend Crito with the stark fact of his physical death, he reminds Crito that his corpse is not Socrates, that Socrates will continue on because his true Form is deathless:

I do not convince  Crito that I am this Socrates talking to you here and ordering all I say, but he thinks that I am the thing which he will soon be looking at as a corpse, and so he asks how he shall bury me. I have been saying for some time and at some length that after I have drunk the poison I shall no longer be with you but will leave you to go and enjoy some good fortunes of the blessed, but it seems that I have said all this to him in vain in an attempt to reassure you and myself too. Give a pledge to Crito on my behalf, he said, the opposite pledge to that he gave the jury. He pledged that I would  stay; you must pledge that I will not stay after I die, but that I shall go away, so that Crito will bear it more easily when he sees my body being burned or buried and will not be angry on my behalf, as if I were suffering terribly, and so that he should not say at the funeral that he is laying out, or carrying out, or burying Socrates.2

The point Plato makes here is that the Idea, the real Socrates, the Idea that is concrete (here and now) is not the physical appearance of Socrates, but rather the idea that immanently organizes and orders his speech and thoughts is the real Socrates, not the dead corpse (physis) that Crito will bury or burn later on. Rather it is this very soul, the essence, the very real eidos and substance of Socrates that will soon be sitting at the banquet table of the gods making merry, etc.

One could provide example after example to illustrate the point of the Forms, but now I need to turn to its reception and use within what my friend Virgilio calls “Platonism”. For Platonism is this very reception of the terms of Plato and their use or abuse in the long shadow of Plato’s infestation across the centuries within other followers and detractors of Plato’s Ideas.

I’ll take this up in another post… I need a break and a moment to walk my old bones, being a “lover of the body” rather than a “lover of learning” I like to wander among the shadows. 🙂

1. Fine, Gail (2008-07-16). The Oxford Handbook of Plato (Oxford Handbooks) (p. 50). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 3129-3136). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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