Notes on an objection to Platonism

This whole article was good, even this objection, though I strongly disagree with it:

Still, despite its clean lines and long history, Platonism [about numbers and universals- ed.] cannot be right either. Since the time of Plato himself, nominalists have been urging very convincing objections. Here’s one: if abstracta float somewhere outside our own universe of space and time, it’s hard to imagine how can we see them or have any other perceptual contact with them. So how do we know they’re there?

-Plato himself gives a clear answer to this in the Phaedo, sc. because we saw them before we had bodies. This might, however, be taken as proving the point – if our epistemology calls for pre-existence, it will certainly have a hard time convincing almost everybody nowadays.

-That said, Plato proves the pre-existence of soul from our intuition of abstract objects. The intuition itself is manifested from other sources. As odd as it seems to talk about “manifesting an intuition” (since intuitions must be, if anything, seen in themselves) it nevertheless has a clear sense in Plato. The sensible world is a cause of remembrance, but it is still a necessary cause. Plato’s theory of knowledge requires that knowledge begin with sensation, but this sensation is a principle of recalling, not of abstracting.

-In a word: Plato denies that we now know universals and ideas by direct intuition of another world. We now depend on sensation, and know by sensation first. Plato does not have a theory of intuition of universals, but of recollecting them.

-So if Plato, just like the Nominalists, agree that the sensible world is the given starting point, how do we decide between abstraction and recollection? Plato’s answer in Phaedo seems to be that abstraction requires that the thing we abstract the form from be like the form abstracted, but we do not always form ideas from things that are like the idea. We sometimes get a very clear idea of justice by witnessing at a flagrant injustice, a clear idea of the infinite from the finite, or of eternal things from contingent things. For that matter, we get an idea of the abstract from the concrete.

-Again, abstraction is, at the same time, an end result of a group of particulars and the governing concept that causes them to be grouped together in the first place. So is the universal initially just formed by chance? Is it implicit in sense knowledge alone? Even if the latter is true (and even animals have some rudimentary universals from sense alone) is it always so implicit?

-Plato’s argument, considered formally, does not require the pre-existence of the soul but any transempirical intuition (though this intuition, as we now exist, is knowable only by recollection). It is extraordinarily hard to avoid these all such intuitions. At the bare minimum, it’s hard to avoid them with respect our knowledge of our own selves, and if of ourselves, we have some knowledge of all that belongs essentially to the self- being, goodness, freedom, contingency, etc.


-Even if we pre-existed, this pre-existence does not account for transempirical intuition. The sense is that, without a body, mind would know in the way proper to it, as opposed to having to recollect.

-“Recollection” for Plato is just when, seeing one thing (whether alike or similar to another) we are caused to know that other. The parenthetical makes the difference between recollection and abstraction.

-I try to correct my students when they speak of “abstractions”. This is a theoretical account of the genesis of ideas or universals.




  1. grodrigues said,

    April 12, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    “This whole article was good”: I surmise a link is missing in the “This”?

  2. Daniel Propson said,

    April 15, 2014 at 5:38 am

    “Plato denies that we now know universals and ideas by direct intuition of another world. We now depend on sensation, and know by sensation first.”

    This is a hard sell, for some of the Forms. I don’t believe Plato ever said that we see particular instances of justice (or injustice), and these particular instances help us form a judgment about the Form of Justice. Rather, he seemed to suggest that we cannot ever know the Form of Justice unless we are raised properly, do not engage in dialectic as a youth, have the ability to retain true beliefs about justice, etc. None of these steps involve sensations of justice — or indeed, sensations of anything.

    I would say that there are two things that instigate a realization of a Form: (1) Sensation, and (2) Dialectic. The second is a much more crucial step, and for many Forms (especially the virtues) sensation is not needed at all.

    As far as recollection goes, I think Plato himself, later in his career, had in mind something more like Kantianism than straightforward anamnesis. The notion was that our souls have a certain structure, and that this structure allows us to know certain objects — and, perhaps, to not know others. (The followers in the train of Hera, in the Phaedrus, aren’t capable of knowing the Form of Wisdom, for example). Plato constantly talks about us grasping the Forms with that part within us which is akin to the Forms. This sort of theory gives the same results as a theory of recollection, but it doesn’t have the same sort of strange historical thesis attached to it.

    • April 15, 2014 at 8:45 am

      One support for your argument would be that, in the Phaedo, the argument for recollection turns on the idea that sticks are sometimes equal and sometimes not whereas equality itself is not. One could not just substitute the justice in for equality and get the same argument – it would lead to exactly the sort of relativism that the theory or forms was developed in opposition to. Certainly Plato would not want to argue for just acts being sometimes unjust.

      But it is strange to pit sensation against dialectic, as though Plato has to pick between one of them. There is no need to read Plato as saying that sensation suffices to recollect form, or that it suffices in every instance. Our own experience with recollecting things (in the everyday sense of remembering) shows that there is more to it than that, or at least that there is often more than that.

      I’ve never been all that into the contemporary patois that speaks of the earlier and later periods of a thinker. It might all be true, but it tends to be taken as a reason to ignore most of what the person says. There are certainly moments where thinkers change their mind, but we’re too quick to see any variant expressions as indicating this. Complementarity is a better sort of development than revision, and one that we should be more eager to look for.

      I don’t see any reason to describe Plato’s later account as Kantian – even in the loosest and broadest sense – unless we’re claiming he’s given up on a foundation for knowledge that transcends the soul. I do not read Phaedrus or any other Platonic text like this.

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