Saturday, September 26, 2015

3 Arguments against the Forms in Plato’s Parmenides and Aristotle’s critical remarks on the Forms

Forms as thoughts

In Parm. 132a1-5 Socrates agreed that because he saw that many things shared one and the same character, he thought they did so by virtue of participating in one Form. Parmenides then showed him that on this way of thinking he would have to acknowledge that the Form and all the individual things sharing in it would do so by virtue of jointly sharing in the same character, which would necessitate postulating another Form, and thus ad infinitum 132a5-b2. (See my previous post)

Next, Socrates attempted to parry Parmenides’ argument by thinking the Forms to be nothing but thoughts. Socrates: ‘But may not each of the Forms (Alla mê tȏn eidȏn hekaston) be just a thought of these things (êi toutȏn noêma), to which it would appertain to be nowhere else (kai oudamou autȏi prosêkêi engignestai allothi) than in souls (ê en psuchais). For in this way each would be one (houtȏ gar an hen hekaston eiê) and would no more suffer (kai ouk an eti paschoi) what was said just now (ha nundê elegeto).’ Parmenides: ‘What then (Ti oun)? Is each thought one (hen hekaston esti tȏn noêmatȏn), but thought of nothing (noêma de oudenos, ‘but thought of not even one [thing]’)? Socrates: ‘But that’s impossible (All adunaton).’ Parmenides: ‘But a thought of something (Alla tinos)?’ Socrates: ‘Yes (Nai).’ Parmenides: ‘Of something that is, or of something that is not (Ontos ê ouk ontos)? Socrates: ‘Of something that is (Ontos).’ Parmenides: ‘Is it not of something that is one (Ouch henos tinos), which that thought thinks to be on all (ho epi pasin ekeino to noêma epon noei), to wit a Form which is one (mian tina ousan idean)?’ Socrates: ‘Yes (Nai).’ Won’t this then be a Form (Eita ouk eidos estai touto), to wit this which is thought to be one (to nooumenon hen einai), always being the same on all (aei on to auto epi pasin)? Socrates: ‘Necessarily, again, it appears so (Anankê au phainetai).’ Parmenides: ‘What then (Ti de dê)? Is it not so by the necessity that compelled you to say that things participate in the Forms (ouk anangkêi hêi t’alla phêis tȏn eidȏn metechein), or does it seem to you that each thing is composed of thoughts (ê dokei soi ek noêmatȏn hekaston einai) and that all think (kai panta noein), or being thoughts (ê noêmata onta) they are unthinking (anoêta einai)?’ Socrates: ‘But this does not make sense either (All’ oude touto echei logon).’ (132b3-c11)

On my translation Parmenides suggests three possibilities of taking Socrates’ suggestion that the Forms are just thoughts: 1) Socrates’ suggestion that the Forms are nothing but thoughts leads to his original conception of Forms ­– ‘Is it not so by the necessity that compelled you to say that things participate in the Forms?’ (132c9-10) ­– which implies the infinite regress (dubbed by Aristotle as ‘the third man argument), as shown at 132a1-b2; 2) ‘or each thing is composed of thoughts and all things think’, 3) ‘or being thoughts, things are unthinking’.

On Cornford’s and Allen’s translations Parmenides offers only two possibilities of how to take Socrates’ suggestion, that is the last two in my translation, and even more seriously, their translation suggests that Socrates’ original conception of the Forms led to one of those two possibilities. On the margin of my copy of the Parmenides I noted Cornford’s translation of 132c9-11: ‘And besides, said Parmenides, according to the way in which you assert that the other things have a share in the Forms, must you not hold either that each of those things consists of thoughts so that all things think, or else that they are thoughts which nevertheless do not think?’

Allen translates: ‘Really? Then what about this, said Parmenides: in virtue of the necessity by which you say that the others have a share of characters, doesn’t it seem to you that either each is composed of thoughts and all think, or that being thoughts they are un-thought?’

Cornford and Allen in their translations misrepresent this argument. To make this clear, I must take recourse to the un-transcribed original. In the brief exchange at 132b7-c2 Parmenides compels Socrates to admit that every single thought (e4n e3kaston tw~n nohma/twn) is a thought of something (tinoj), of something that is (o!ntoj). Then he asks whether it is not a thought of something that is one, which that thought thinks as being on all those things, a single character: Ou0x e9no/j tinoj, o4 e0pi\ pa=sin e0kei=no to\ no/hma e0po\n noei=, mi/an tina\ ou]san i0de/an; When Socrates agrees (Nai/), Parmenides presses the point, asking whether this single character (mi/a tij i0de/a) won’t be a Form, always one and the same on all: Ei]ta ou0k ei]doj e1stai tou=to to\ noou/menon e4n ei]nai, a0ei\ o2n to\ au0to\ e0pi\ pa=sin; When Socrates answers that it must necessarily be so ( 0Ana/gkh au] fai/netai), Parmenides asks him whether it is not the same necessity that made him say that things that bear the same character participate in the Forms (if so, the infinite regress obviously applies), and then he puts in the other two possibilities: Ti/ de\ dh/; ei0pei=n to\n Parmeni/dhn, ou0k a0na/gkh| h|{ ta}lla fh\|j tw~n ei0dw~n mete/xein h2 dokei= soi e0k nohma/twn e3kaston ei]nai kai\ pa/nta noei=n, h2 noh/mata o1nta a0no/hta e]nai; Socrates admits that none of this makes any sense:  0All ou0de\ tou=to e1xei lo/gon.

It appears that Aristotle had the Parmenides in front of his eyes when he wrote in the 1st book of Metaphysics: ‘According to the assumption on which our belief in the Ideas rests (kata men tên hupolêpsin kath’ hên einai phamen tas ideas), there will be Forms not only of substances (ou monon tȏn ousiȏn estai eidê) but also of many other things (alla pollȏn kai heterȏn) for the thought is one (kai gar to noêma hen) not only in the case of substances (ou monon peri tas ousias) but also in the other cases (alla kai kata tȏn allȏn esti).’ (990b22-27, tr. W. D. Ross, with one exception; Ross translates Aristotle‘s to noêma hen ‘the concept is single’, which obscures the relation between Aristotle’s passage and Plato’s argument in the Parmenides).

In connection with Parmenides 132b3-c11, R. E.  Allen in his ‘Comment’ refers to Aristotle’s De anima III 429a21-31 (R. E. Allen, Plato’s Parmenides, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 176). The following passage in Aristotle’s De anima is relevant: ‘And those spoke well who said that the soul is the place of Forms (kai eu dê hoi legontes psuchên einai topon eidȏn), except, neither the whole soul (plên hoti oute holê), only the intellective soul (all hê noêtikê), nor of the Forms in actuality, only in potentiality (oute entelecheiai alla dunamei ta eidê).’ (429a27-29)

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