Ancient & Medieval Philosophy: Plato’s Philosophy (Part 1)

History of Western Philosophy: Ancient Philosophy, Plato’s Philosophy
(based on Greg L. Bahnsen’s lecture series)

Theory of Forms
Moral absolutes and epistemological certainty were most important to him. He felt there was no real reform of politics without a reform in metaphysics. H learned from Parmenides that knowledge requires a permanent, stable and unchanging object. If you know something, the object that you know cannot be in constant flux and alteration; it must be an unchanging object of knowledge. This
poses a problem because in our natural experience everything is changing. Knowledge must be of an object that is unchanging, but every object in the natural world is changing. Where then must be the object of knowledge? It must be in another world.

Our senses tell us one realm, but reason tells us about another. The object of knowledge is going to be something that reason apprehends and it what apprehends must be outside of the perceptible world of time and space. Plato is a metaphysical and epistemological dualist. He believed that there is a natural realm that is always changing and another realm apart from the physical world. He called the objects of knowledge “forms” or “ideas.”

There are three fruits on the table: an apple, orange and kiwi. The object of knowledge is not actually the three fruits; those are just what you perceive. What you actually know is the form of ”fruitness.” What he meant by “form” might come closer to what we mean by a formula. There is a formula that expresses what is essential to that concept/universal. The objects of knowledge could also be called “idea.” We have the idea of “fruitness.” It’s not that we just have the idea, but we have an idea that is ideal and perfect. The objects of knowledge exist apart from the physical world. We have two metaphysical realms:

Realm of Form and Ideas
Realm of Time and Space

The upper realm is inchanging, whereas the lower realm is always changing. The upper realm is Parmendian and the lower realm is Hericlitian. The upper realm is known by reason, whereas the lower realm is known through the senses.

Plato says there is only one form of a particular thing; these are singularities or ”Ones.” There is one “fruitness”, “humanness”, or “duckness.” Down in the realm of time and space there are many of the particular things. This is the realm of ”Manys”, such as apples, oranges and kiwis.

The upper realm can be called the Realm of Universals and the corresponding lower realm can be called the Realm of Particulars. The upper realm is the realm of ultimate being and goodness. The form of the good is the highest of all forms. Ethical notions of ideal existence; every instance of goodness that we experience will be somewhat imperfect. We see good acts and intentions but they all fall short of perfection. The perfect paradigm of goodness that every particular action of goodness shares is found outside of time and space in upper realm of ideals. Goodness is the highest form. Every other form somehow participates in the highest form of goodness.

The lower realm is the realm of becoming– the realm of change and alteration. Pure matter is evil; forms known by reason is good. The world in which we live in is a combination of the two. We live in a realm of “informed” matter. An apple is material, but it is not pure material– it is in a certain form. The form has been put into the matter of the apple. The good life for Plato is a life of philosophical contemplation because matter is evil and ”informed” matter is not as good as the pure form found outside of time and space.

How do the two realms relate to one another? First of all, what is man? Plato believes that man has a soul and a body, but the body is not as good as the soul. Plato held that the body was the prison house of the soul. The soul is eternal and existed previously. The soul is sent into a human body and because the body is material, the body then becomes the prisonhouse of the soul. Secondly, how does man know the ideas/forms? Plato told the story about men living in a cave. Men who live in a cave can’t go outside of the cave and can only see shadows from the light coming from behind them. Someone leaves the cave and goes outside and sees the true bodies that form the shadows. Man and his experience of the world sees shadows of reality. Man’s senses perceive shadows. Shadows and their objects have in common the forms. When man with his senses sees the shadows of reality, he recollects from his previous life the idea which is the shadow. There was a time the soul existed outside of the body. The soul of man dwelt in the realm of forms.
What corresponds to the shadows are the physical objects that we see. For example, we see an apple, but what we see is only the shadow of ultimate reality. The senses perceive the realm of becoming. To know the object is to have your reason recollect the ideal of the apple. The learning process amounts to recollection– it is a reminding process. Our senses remind us of the ideas with which we were familiar with in a previous life. The Phaedo and Meno deal with Plato’s view of the soul and knowledge. The Republic incorporates those in his political treatise.

Philosophy, according to Plato, studies the forms. Philosopher therefore know ultimate reality, but laypersons only know the shadows. Philosophers should rule over other men. Philosophy is a preparation for death because when man dies, the soul which has been imprisoned in the body is set free to return to the realm of ideas. Philosophers, before their bodies die, study the realm of ideas
to prepare their souls to go when they die.

The Christian church has been influenced by this idea. Many Christians believe that piritual reality is better than physical reality, although God created both body and soul. God also took on a physical body in the person of Jesus Christ, which showed the body is not evil and irrelevant. Christians mistakenly have the idea that engaging in worldly affairs is evil, which leads to asceticism and separatism.

Additional commentary:

Sensible World
Let’s say you only see a picture of a horse and have never seen one in real life, would it be correct to say that you know horses? Yes, somewhat, but it is not as full as a direct and personal experience with live horses. Sensible things is the actual horse themselves.

World of Forms
Most of the forms and ideas are in the Mathematical Forms division, but they are not as good as the Highest Form– The Good.

Christian Response:
1. Where does the soul fit into all of this? We are supposed to how only ideas and physical objects. The soul is not a physical object; it inhabits one. The soul is not an idea either; it knows the ideas, so what is the soul? Do we know the soul? If we know the soul, it needs to have a form. How does the soul know the form of the soul? Where does the soul come from?

2. How do the forms get impressed into the physcial world of matter? Plato resorted to a myth. A Demiurge put the eternal realm of matter and the eternal realm of the forms/ideas together. He just takes pre-exisitng matter and ideas and places them together so that we gets particular things in the world. It really isn’t sophisticated for him to resort to an ungrounded and arbitrary myth.

3. Lets say we have an experience of two objects which are apples. We call the objects apples because they resemble the form of apples. They resemble one another and participate in the form ”appleness”. The particulars in natural world participate in that which is common to them– “appleness.” The many supposedly are harmonized into one, but it doesn’t. Plato will now have to account for what participation is. Plato explained that actors participate in a role; when an actors plays a role, he participates. Is participation a relationship? Yes it is between the form and the informed (theidea and physical object). Why do we say then that this apple participates in this form of “appleness”? There needs to be a resemblance between them, but if there is a resemblance between the apple and “appleness”, then that must mean the idea and the apple participate in something. They must participate in the idea of “appleness #2.” How then do “appleness #1″ and “appleness #2″ participate? They must participate in a higher form, so we must have “duckness #3.” What right do we have to bring together “duckness #2″ and “duckness #3″? That is because they participate in “duckness #4.” This will go on for infinity. Plato came up with the Theory of Forms in order to account for how we can know a particular object in the world. So in order for us to know a particular object “apple” our mind must recollect “appleness”, but it turns out that we need an infinite series of forms. The bottomline is that in order to know anything, we must know an infinite series of things.

4. His theory is arbitrary because he says that disgusting things like filfth and dung dont have forms.

5. His theory appears to give us hope for certainty, but what is left out is the possibility of any motion at all. How do things change?


Below are additional and some of the same critiques of Plato, which my friend took notes of in Greg Bahnsen’s A Biblical Introduction to Apologetics lecture series.

1.) Let’s have a hypothetical conversation with Plato….

Christian:What is the relationship between the three ducks and duckness on the pond? I’m not putting words into Plato’s mouth when I say that he would see this as a very difficult question.

Plato: It’s a relationship of participation. The three ducks participate in the idea of duckness.

Christian: But how does the physical participate with the non-physical? What does it mean to participate?

Plato offered figures of speech. About the best Plato came up with was….

Plato: In the same way an actor or singer participates in a part, so the duck participates in duckness.

Christian: Can you tell me if participation is a relation? Is participation a thing, or a relationship?

Plato: A relationship of participation between duckness from outside this world and the three ducks inside the world.

Christian: Are all participation relationships the same, or are they a class of things? And how many classes of participation are there?

He would say that the participation of a duck in duckness is different than the participation of a dog in dogness, because things are defined by their relationship to the form. And so there are as many relationships as there are things in this world, each one having its own particular kind of relationship to the form. Two different people both have two eyes, a nose and a chin, and both participate in humanity. But they’re not the same, because they both have a different participation in humanity.

Christian: Ok, I follow you so far, Mr. Plato. What I want to know now is, how do I know this relationship of participation?

Plato: Knowledge is always of a form or idea.

As long as we’re talking about ducks and human beings, that makes some rough & ready sense. But now I want to know how I can know that relationship, and he’s going to have to say that the relationship is an idea. That is to say, the relationship of a person participating in humanity canonly be understood as itself participating in an idea. The idea of a person participating in humanity. And to know a person as a human being is to know him as having a peculiar relationship to the concept of humanity. But to know him as such is not to know just the relationship, it’s to know the idea of the relationship.

So here’s the problem with Plato’s view: To know anything, you’re going to have to know not only the duck on the pond & the concept of duckness, but also its particular relationship and the form of it. But to know that form you’re going to have to have another form in which those forms participate. In short, he’s just created an infinite regress of forms and ideas. To know anything, you’d have to know an infinite number of things. Which is to say, to know anything, you’d have to know everything. Before you could know one thing, you have to know every form and relationship. This is always the problem in philosophy with idealism.

2.) Plato said that the form of “the good”is unchanging and absolute. So we should do good. But what is “good”on Plato’s view? Should we help the old lady across the street or run her over? Plato had no answer for these types of questions. He had general intuitions about the nature of goodness, he did not know what goodness was. He knew that knowledge had to have such-and-such a form, but he could never explain the relationship of those forms to the world in which we live.

3.) Plato said that the reason I know what an object (like a chair) is, is because, prior to my life here, my soul existed in the realm of the forms, and there it learned all the ideas, including the idea of chairness. So we come into this life with a foggy knowledge of ideas, but why is our knowledge fallible, imperfect and unchanging? Because I’m knowing the material world, and I’m only recollecting my previous life. So this assumes that we all existed before we were born in this world. In fact, the slogan was “Soma sema”(“The body is the tomb”). He taught that our souls which existed in the other realm were imprisoned in bodies, and that one day, when we die, our souls would go back to the realm of the forms. But how did the soul get into the body? Plato admitted he didn’t know. How did the things in this world get formed into ducks and humans and chairs etc? Plato admitted he didn’t know, but he offered a story, which he admitted was a resort to mythology. He told the myth of the Demiurge. He said the ideas exist for all eternity and that matter, this chaotic realm of change, has always been there. And the Demiurge came along and took the forms and imposed them on matter, and that’s where we got ducks and humans and chairs etc. Do you remember what I said previously about going after the arbitrariness of unbelievers? How did Plato know that the Demiurge did that? Plato admitted that he didn’t know, and that it was a myth. But there are even more problems. What was the Demiurge? Did it reveal itself? Is it a person? Does the Demiurge participate in the form of Demiurgeness? Is there a form for the architect of the world? If there’s not, then the architect of the world is unknowable on Plato’s system of philosophy.

4.) Plato said that certain things like hair, mud, filth, & dung don’t have forms. That’s a problem in itself. Plato said that in order to know anything about a thing, we must place it in its proper form. Don’t we know about those things?

5.) Plato made a real mistake. There are various types of pigs, with different physical variations. In every case of an idea, he said they are singular. There’s pigness, dogness, catness etc. The only thing in the other realm, on Plato’s, view, that is not singular, is the soul. There are many souls out there which have now been embodied in many bodies here and now. But does the soul have a form? If it does, how would Plato account for the multiplicity of souls? What individuates our souls in the other realm, and then coming into our bodies now? The only thing Plato could have said, if he were true to his philosophy, is that there is only one soul and we all share it, just like there’s only one pigness and all the pigs share it.

Plato’s philosophy is devoid of any value. It does not account for motion, change, or individuality in this world whatsoever. When all is said and done, it’s not even consistent with itself, because Plato has no way to account for the souls, which know the ideas, because he thinks there are all these souls running around.

Additional thought

• Let’s say we see a rabbit running. Is there a form for running rabbit, or is there a form for running, and a separate form for rabbit? Plato’s on the horns of a dilemma, I hope you can feel this. Whichever he answers, I’m gonna crucify him. If he says there’s a form for running rabbit, and a form for sitting rabbit, (1) for every question he’s just bumping to another world, in which case he’s not answered any problems at all, and (2) I’m going to ask what the relationship between all those forms are. Running rabbit on Tuesday, sitting rabbit on Wednesday, eating the rabbit on Thursday… do these forms relate to each other? If he goes the other way and says that there’s a form for rabbit, and a form for running, I’m going to want to know how rabbit and running participate in each other then. If the rabbit participates in the form of running, and the running has to participate in the form of running, and the rabbit in the form of rabbitness, then he’s just going to create another infinite regress of forms and never answer any problems. And you have to know everything to know anything anyway.


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