The third man argument

The most popular version of the Third Man argument is that Platonic forms cannot exist because If there is a separate man that accounts for he likeness between John and George, then there is another separate man to account for te likeness between , say, John and the first separated man, and so on ad infinitum.

The argument, it seems fails at the first inference. We might posit a separate “Blondness” to account for the likeness between Barbie and Thor, but no one has ever suggested that Thor is like blondness. It’s hard to see what this would even mean.

That said, Plato does want to preserve a way in which beauty itself is beautiful, and the form of Good is itself desirable and good. But here again there is a clear need to divide this, and it seem like one of the main efforts of the Symposium to divide goods – which are loved and therefore, as Plato sees it, involve lack- and the Good itself, which terminates all desire and so terminates love.

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5 Comments

  1. Kristor said,

    June 6, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    But it wouldn’t be “so on ad infinitum,” would it? Between an angelic Adam Kadmon at the top of the formal hierarchy of human types and the form of a particular man there are only a finite number of steps. Even if the size of the bottom level of the hierarchy – particular men – was infinite, this would still be so, in just the same way that there can be one form common to all integers.

  2. June 6, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    The argument, it seems fails at the first inference. We might posit a separate “Blondness” to account for the likeness between Barbie and Thor, but no one has ever suggested that Thor is like blondness. It’s hard to see what this would even mean.

    Indeed Thor is not like Blondness qua Thor but neither is he like Barbie qua Thor. Thor is like Blondness and Barbie qua blond rather than qua Thor. However, even if you are right, then that would mean the third man argument doesn’t hold for accidental forms, but it seems it would still hold for substantial forms such as “Man” and “Animal.”

    • June 7, 2014 at 9:23 am

      I don’t see the problem. John is like Joe qua man, and Plato has a separate thing account for this likeness, but he does not think that this same likeness obtains between, say, Joe and the form. He neither thinks the form of man is just another man nor that the man is identical to the form.

      More simply, the third man argument seems to assume that Plato tries to explain likeness by positing nothing but another example of the exact same sort of likeness one is trying to explain. But this strikes me as an almost comically bad reading of the argument. It’s the epistemological version of explaining the stability of the earth by putting it on the back of a turtle.

      • June 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm

        Okay. Perhaps that is the error in my reading. I’ve always understood the separate form to be the exemplar instance of what it is the form of. It sounds strange to me at least to say that the separate existent “Man” is not a man.

        However, it strikes me as particularly odd, if you are right, that Aristotle, the student of the master for so many years, made such a comically bad reading of his master. But perhaps I’m also missing reading Aristotle’s argument as well.

      • June 7, 2014 at 8:12 pm

        Scholars are less impressed with the “Aristotle was in the Academy so long, he must get Plato right” argument these days, especially after it suffered a devastating critique by H.F. Cherniss in his Aristotle’s Critique of Plato and the Academy. Aristotle likes to tell stories about how all things lead up to him, and he may have even believed them, but they don’t stand up to close scrutiny- in fact, few of the popular structural narratives of philosophical progression ever do.


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