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 Class Forums - Spring 2013
 PHIL 200-001 - Sokrates and Plato
 Platonic Forms
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Fraser Fontane
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2 Posts

Posted - Mar 01 2013 :  12:51:31 PM  Show Profile  Reply with Quote
This is kind of a massive rant so I apologize in advance. Okay!

I know this isn't exactly what we are talking about in class right now, but ever since you brought it up, it has been bothering me. I have a better understanding of these forms now, but I'm still confused. It's funny that you see me as a skeptic about these forms, and I certainly think you have reason to come to that conclusion about me, but upon further investigation I find myself uncertain about my position.

As I understand it, these forms are the essences of things. On the class wiki, in the lecture on Philosophy and Reality you discuss all those abstract nouns and explain how defining what they stand for is not the same as defining the object. As confusing as that is, I think I have a grasp of it, and I think I can even provide an example of a form that does make sense to me.

My example would be numbers. I'm not certain if they are examples of Platonic forms, but at least they seem to be in the same playing field. The number two, for example, could have am empirical relational definition (e.g., one apple next to another apple is two apples) but the essence of the number two seems to be only conceptual. Twoness exists only in concept but the concept can be applied to the nominal world or to other numbers. For this reason, it seems that the essence of the number two is more than just being higher than one and less than three. If the number two is a Platonic form, I would commit to saying that I believe twoness is a real thing.

My logic is dependent on the notion that the number two has an essence that is separate from the way we could define it. Socrates, however, is interested in finding the forms of such things as justice and holiness and when it comes to these, I'm inclined to believe there isn't a Platonic form. When we talk about finding the essence of justice, it seems impossible to locate without coming to a consensus about what justice is. This would be through a process of definitions but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are talking about the essence of justice. That would seem to presuppose that justice existed independently of our attempts to define it. That seems to me to be impossible because justice seems to me to be culturally defined. Is there something that all conceptions of justice have in common, and is that the essence, or is that merely the byproduct of humans defining justice in the way we have.

It just seems to me that the way we use a word gives it its meaning, and that the meaning can't exist independently of the way the word is being used. This is where one might argue that the concepts of numbers and logical relations do exist independently of the way people may use the expressions that designate them. It even seems necessary to understand what twoness means, but it doesn't seem necessary to know what the essence of justice means.

I'm not certain if numbers have Platonic forms, but if they do, I would be more comfortable in saying they exist conceptually, independent of the way we use the words. With such words as "justice" and "holiness" however, it seems you can't escape the definitions we give them. If we ask what makes an act holy, how can we know without knowing what definition of "holy" we are using is? If there's no way to know what makes a holy act holy, then how could we observe it? How would we know that a competing definition for holiness was any more or less accurate as a description of the essence of holy?

I know that this has been a big, long rant, but this has been on my mind, and I'm excited to hear your feedback so you can help clarify this confusing question for me.

[Lightly edited to enhance readability -TT]

Tom Trelogan
Forum Admin

1439 Posts

Posted - Mar 03 2013 :  2:44:48 PM  Show Profile  Reply with Quote
I assume, Fraser, that this post is addressed to me -- that I'm the person from whom you're asking for "feedback." If I am, you certainly don't need to apologize to me for the length of what you've posted. I really like nice detailed questions! I also don't think you need to apologize to anyone else. I think all of us -- everyone in the class -- has got the time (the skholê) to discuss this in as much detail and at as much length as the matter itself might turn out to require.

As you've probably already been able to tell (I think I've indicated this in a great many ways both in class and in my online lectures), I don't like to use the term "Platonic forms" to designate what's up for discussion when we're talking about, say, being two in number or being just or being holy. The reason I don't is that I think that such questions as, for example, "What is it to be two in number?", "What is it to be just?", and "What is it to be holy"?, are really interesting questions whether or not anything exists "outside the mind" (or in any "realm" whatsoever) that would fit the description most people would give if they were asked to describe Platonic forms -- entities that are eternally existent, uncreated, indestructible, unchanging (indeed incapable of change), and such that absolutely every one of them is the one thing that all individual things of some identifiable kind "share" or have in common that can be described in both of the following ways: (1) those individual things having it in common is what is responsible for their being things of their kind, and (2) our familiarity with it is what enables us to identify them as things of that kind.

So let me set aside the whole question of whether there are any such things as Platonic forms -- things that would fit the description I've just given (I'm inclined myself to say that there aren't any such things, because it seems to me that quite in general, being is not a being) -- and let me just ask you this for starters instead, just to see if we can get this discussion going with something about which we're both on the same page: do you think, as I do, that it makes sense to ask such questions as these: "What is it to be two in number?", "What is it to be just?", and "What is it to be holy?"*
_____________
*These, I'd argue, are the non-misleading ways of asking the questions: "What is twoness?", "What is justice?", and "What is holiness?" Those ways of asking these questions seem to me to be misleading precisely because they seem to many people to suggest that we're asking in each case for some sort of description or characterization of a certain being -- a certain entity -- when what we're actually asking for is some sort of articulation in words of what it is to be a this or a that (a thing of some kind) or what it is to be thus or so (a thing having a certain characteristic or feature).
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Fraser Fontane
Newcomer

2 Posts

Posted - Mar 03 2013 :  9:12:22 PM  Show Profile  Reply with Quote
Your second paragraph certainly offered me a richer description of what these forms are supposed to be than I had ever been given before. That detailed explanation led me to try to re-think what might be meant by talk about the essence of the number two, holiness, or justice even more carefully, but, as you might imagine, I still found myself feeling confused.

This brings me to your question at the end of your final paragraph concerning whether I think "it makes sense to ask such questions as these: 'What is it to be two in number?', 'What is it to be just?', and 'What is it to be holy?'" I agree with you that the way you phrased the question is certainly less misleading, and I can see how asking the question about twoness, for example, might presuppose that there definitely is something separate from the way we define the number two written within the question. At the end of the day I don't think it does make sense to ask those questions. I'm certainly happy to pursue a metaphysical truth if it exists, but I can't help feeling that these questions are bound to lead directly back to the way we use the words, leading me to believe that talk about essences can't make sense.

I appreciate your feedback, and I can feel us honing closer in to my understanding the question in a richer and more detailed way. These "essence" questions have shown up in my epistemology course as well as in my personal identity course, so my investment in understanding them is actually helping me in a few other courses! :D

[Lightly edited to enhance readability -TT]
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Tom Trelogan
Forum Admin

1439 Posts

Posted - Mar 04 2013 :  08:11:35 AM  Show Profile  Reply with Quote
The question about essence isn't, at least to begin with, a question about the essence of such things as twoness, holiness, or justice. It's a question about the essence of pairs of things, holy things, and just things. If it were a question about the essence of such things as twoness, holiness, or justice, it'd be a question about the essence of essence (since when we speak of twoness, holiness, and justice, we're already speaking of essence), and if essence is being (and I think these two terms mean the same thing), then that would imply that being is itself a being -- and that's exactly the view I myself want to reject. I think that Plato may have held some such view. At the very least, he often makes his Sokrates speak as if he holds such a view. But if Plato did hold such a view, then on this matter, I want to distance myself from Plato. I don't think being is a being. Do the two of us see eye to eye at least about this? Is being a being?

At the end of your second paragraph, you say "I can't help feeling that these questions [i.e., questions such as "What is it to be two in number?", "What is it to be just?", and "What is it to be holy?"] are bound to lead directly back to the way we use the words, leading me to believe that talk about essences can't make sense." First, what makes it impossible for you to avoid feeling that these questions are bound to lead directly back to the way we use these words (the words "two," "just," and "holy," I presume)? And second, how or why does feeling that that's the case lead you to believe that talk about essences can't make sense? I assume that in each case, it's some argument that persuades you. Can you lay out these arguments?
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Josh Barreras
Fledgling

6 Posts

Posted - May 07 2013 :  12:46:27 AM  Show Profile  Reply with Quote
While I know this is an older conversation, I'd like to put in my two cents worth.

The reason that would seem that these things, twoness, holiness, justice -- and anything else like this -- seem to be limited to the way we define them is that the only way we know them is by their definition. On top of that these things seem to exist only because of language. Without language, it seems, we would have no concept of any of these things.

And yet they would still in fact exist. There would still be pairs of things; there would still be forms of justice (for example, if someone did something that made us mad we would no doubt try to make it right by doing something we viewed as equally offensive in return); and holiness would probably still exist in some form (consider the artifacts we find that seem to have been sacred to the people of times long past: we assume these would have been considered holy if they could have been described). This must mean that such things really can exist outside of language. While this seems to be a sound argument, I'm not sure how to take matters any further and actually explain what the existence of such things actually is.

[Lightly edited to enhance readability -TT]
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