Platonic Forms

Aristotle describes Platonic forms as just like the things of sense, only eternal. This is true but Aristotle stumbles by assuming that eternity means existing indefinitely in time whereas for Plato this Aristotelian description is of something existing, well, in time.

Admittedly, Plato’s account of forms was unclear, problematic even to him, and shifted significantly over his life, but his account of eros in Symposium requires temporality to be a middle state which cannot characterize anything absolute or of-itself. If eros is incomplete because it lacks future perfections it still desires to have, anything with a future will have the same incompletion and so could never be a thing-in-itself.

On this account the eternal is just what Plotinus said it was: to have all goods, so that the “eternal man” is not some crystaline celestial biped but that which possesses all possible goods of humanity. Such a being could never be a human individual since there are essentially diverse perfections that cannot be all possessed by some individual, which is why the goal of the Republic is not to make all persons into philosopher kings or guardians or souls of bronze, etc. Plato didn’t seem to see this far, but all the principles are there to form the conclusion, and it shows the emptiness of Aristotle’s critique that an eternal white would be no more white than one that lasts a day. If white is a true type, then the white itself is that which transcends the multiplicity of all shades while being present in all of them. Clearly, this isn’t eggshell, macaroon, Scotland road, snow-white…

The form of X is therefore not a stripped-down being containing only the essential, but a transcendent totality that can only be imperfectly realized in matter, requiring a multitude of material individuals. At the limit of this is the one as such requiring the multitude as such, or the singular exhaustive logos of creation and the multitude of material creation in all given individuals throughout time.

There is a complete division between the logical universal and the form of something. While many logical universals have corresponding things in themselves, not every logical universal has a corresponding form, which Plato discovered late in life in Statesman. It’s possible there are Greeks and so the “Greek itself”, but “barbarians” is a junk-drawer concept with no “Barbarian itself”. Figuring out what has a form and what doesn’t is an ongoing work and even to discover such a correspondence does not make the logical predicate identical with the thing in itself.

The thing in itself is related to the logical predicate as giving it foundation or substance in reality. Norsemen and Chinese are “barbarians”, and various illnesses are “cancer”, but the unity of the predicate is not based in the world but in an ens rationis. Though many predicates are like this, not all can be such, at least not so far as declarative speech is a vehicle of insight and is not, as Nietzsche claimed it was, just the continual reassertion of tautologies constructed out of power and nothing.



  1. Kristor said,

    August 2, 2017 at 7:40 pm

    And there’s the précis of your book. Please.

    • August 3, 2017 at 7:10 am

      While you’re waiting for me to write it, read H.F. Cherniss, “Aristotle’s Critique of Plato and the Academy”.

  2. MaestroJMC said,

    August 3, 2017 at 10:01 am

    Have you read Lloyd Gerson’s “Aristotle and Other Platonists”? Gerson has done some interesting work trying to seek harmony between Plato and Aristotle, rather than the conventional reading of disharmony. I think there is much to be said for it.

    • August 3, 2017 at 6:38 pm

      I love Gerson.

      It’s clear that Plato saw the theory of forms needed a lot of work, and to a large extent Aristotle can be seen as just trying to finish the job (my one hesitation is in his critique of the form of the Good in Nic. Ethics.). It’s clear that the naive account of forms was not going to work and it deserved the criticism it got in Plato’s Parmenides and Statesmen, and which Aristotle picks up on in Metaphysics. The medievals didn’t have Plato and so they critiqued a “Plato” who was frozen in amber through A’s critique, but STA developed his own theory of participation from Metaphysics II and from commenting on Dionysius (the Fourth Way is a straightforward appeal to formal participation). It’s clear that A’s answer was to shift the forms in one sense to the universal causes (cf. Metaphysics II and XII) and in another sense to the intellect of De anima III.5.

  3. William Farris said,

    August 3, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    Where did Nietzsche make the claim? As for trying to establish forms from non-forms it seems so arbitrary. There are hierarchies (barbarians is a higher set that Norseman, Europeans higher still, humanity higher still). Things are forms if a thinker declares it, or predicates such, it would seem. Your point is that in order to be a form, and not a mere ens rationis, there must be instantiations in material reality (concreta) of elements of the form the aggregate of which makes up the Form as a “transcendent totality.” The problem is, I can think of a thing that does not exist now but may exist later, or not. This would make Forms dynamic in a sense. It seems hard to separate a purely mental form – a possible world where God does not exist, say – from an abstract object that does exist – the number 12. Existence privileges forms which brings us back to the timelessness problem.

    • August 3, 2017 at 6:24 pm

      Where did Nietzsche make the claim?

      In his account of universals in “Truth and Lie in a Non-Moral Sense“. Lines 161-170

      Your point is that in order to be a form, and not a mere ens rationis, there must be instantiations in material reality (concreta) of elements of the form the aggregate of which makes up the Form as a “transcendent totality.”

      This is the opposite of what I am claiming. Why would I claim that the absolute depends on the relative, or the thing in itself on the participated?

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