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Cambridge University Press
Plato's Introduction of Forms

Plato's Introduction of Forms

by R. M. Dancy
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521037181
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 05/21/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

R. M. Dancy is Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He is the author of Sense and Contradiction: A Study in Aristotle (1977) and Two Studies in the Early Academy (1991) and editor of Kant and Critique (1993).

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Plato's Introduction of Forms
Cambridge University Press
0521838010 - Plato's Introduction of Forms - by R. M. Dancy



There are lots of divisions among Plato scholars, but two of the biggest are these.

Some think that Plato's dialogues proceed from a single view throughout: that there is no question of a development in Plato's thought. Their opposite numbers think that there is development to be seen in the dialogues. The first view is sometimes referred to as "unitarian,"1 and the second could be labeled "developmental."2

Then again, some scholars see in the dialogues dramatic creations, and so the technique they favor in understanding them is literary analysis. Their opposite numbers see in the dialogues a lot of abstract argumentation, and so their favored technique is that of logical analysis. The first of these two approaches we may call "literary," and the second "analytic."3

This latter opposition would be unreal if either position were understood as exclusive of the other: obviously the dialogues contain both drama and argument. The question of which approach to take is, then, one of emphasis. But there are extremes, and the extremes are in opposition.

This book is a defense of a developmental view with an analytic emphasis.4

It is confined to the dialogues commonly regarded as early plus the Phaedo and Symposium, and to what in those latter dialogues pertains to a certain metaphysical theory, commonly referred to as the "Theory of Forms."

The idea that a development can be discerned in Plato from a stage in which the Theory of Forms is not in play to a later stage in which it is in play is not a new idea.5 But it has come under attack recently,6 so much so that "developmentalism" has become a term of reproach.7 What is missing in the literature is a detailed defense of this two-stage theory. This book provides such a defense, by considering certain arguments of the dialogues assigned to the first stage to show how, from them, the arguments that appear in dialogues of the second stage emerged.

Even a purely "literary" approach would lack a good deal if it did not take account of the arguments: the dialogues contain a lot of (more or less abstract) argumentation that is an essential part of the literature.8

There are, however, many other aspects of the literature contained in Plato's dialogues: the dialogues are dramatic, employing many different characters, in many different settings; there are images, stories, myths; there is humor. It is perfectly possible to study these and pay less attention to the arguments, and to say interesting and important things.9

But the arguments are the part of the literature on which this book concentrates, somewhat fiercely. No objection is being raised against the literary approach. The reader will find very little of that in this book - not because it isn't interesting or shouldn't be done: it just is not being done here.10

Frequently, representatives of the literary approach emphasize that Plato wrote, not treatises, but dialogues, and that he does not himself take a part in those dialogues. More often than not, the lead character is Socrates. But, the literati rightly point out, the idea that Socrates is speaking for Plato is an inference.11 Some who are aware of this are prepared to make the inference.12 I see no very good reason not to make it.13 But I do not take it as a presupposition that Socrates is Plato's "mouthpiece." The train of thought I want to bring out coheres in a way that makes it extremely difficult to believe that it is not Plato's. So this book is a sort of argument in favor of the inference in the case of this train of thought rather than one that presupposes it.

That does not mean that absolutely everything Socrates says in every dialogue is precisely what Plato was thinking at the time of writing. First, Plato no doubt thought more than he wrote, and the dialogues would be unreadable if in them he had recorded every reaction he had to every argument put in the mouth of Socrates. And second, many of the presuppositions that we shall uncover may have been ones of which Plato was unaware, so, in that sense, he may have thought less than he wrote.

So when I speak of "Socrates" I shall mean the character in the dialogue under discussion, not Plato.

A related point has to do with the "Socratic question": do the supposedly "early" dialogues represent the thought of Socrates? It seems to me that the evidence of Aristotle (§ 1.2 below) makes it quite plausible that they do.14 Things seem different to others.15 I need not commit myself on this score to get what I want across. So, for yet another reason, by "Socrates" I shall mean the character in the dialogue under discussion (except in § 1.2) as opposed to the historical Socrates.

As for the question of development, with at least one caveat everyone would agree that the dialogues were written in a certain order. The caveat is that Plato may have gone back to rewrite earlier efforts after later insights. Besides, there may have been overlapping writing. But, broadly speaking, the chances are that he worked on the dialogues in some order or other.

To unitarians, that doesn't matter. Each dialogue is a partial view of the block of thought that is Plato's philosophy; there are no ineliminable discrepancies.

Sometimes it is made to sound as if there were some a priori reason for favoring such a view: as if there were a principle of methodology that dictated that charity required explaining away apparent discrepancies. Sometimes it is made to sound as if Plato would be inferior as a philosopher if he ever altered his views about anything.16 I think, on the contrary, that changing one's mind often is something any self- and other-respecting philosopher can be expected to do: the questions are far too difficult.


This book is concerned with a development in Plato's thought. But it does not depend on a particular chronological scheme.17 The development in question is in the first instance a logical one. The most natural way of thinking of this development is as a chronological one as well, and I know of nothing against this, but if Plato's biography turns out to be more complex, so be it.

Socrates in certain dialogues produces arguments to defeat proposed definitions without committing himself to the idea that the things being defined are to be found in an eternal, unchanging, and ontologically pure realm. In other dialogues definition takes more of a back seat, and Socrates does commit himself to that metaphysical view. The metaphysical view is the Theory of Forms.

The dialogues I am going to consider18 fall into two groups: they are those frequently (see n. 17) taken to be the "early" and "middle" dialogues, but, since I am emphasizing argument rather than date, I have preferred the labels "Socratic" and "doctrinal." Both labels could be misleading: the first because it suggests that the historical Socrates is in view and the second because it suggests that things are written in stone. Neither implication is intended here.

The groups in question are as shown in the table below. I am not going to be trying to discern development, whether logical or chronological, within the group of Socratic dialogues.19

Socratica Doctrinalb

Definitional Nondefinitional
Charmides Apology Meno
Euthyphro Crito Phaedo
Hippias Major Euthydemus Symposium
Laches Hippias Minor
Lysis Ion
Republic I Protagoras

a Within each of the two groups, in alphabetical order (except for the Gorgias: see below).
b Alphabetical by coincidence: see below on the Meno.

The dialogues that count as "Socratic" and "definitional," as I am using the terms,20 are those in which

(1) Socrates is the main speaker;
(2) the main task is that of defining something, with the object of resolving some practical issue (not simply for the sake of pursuing a theoretical puzzle);
(3) that task is not performed by the time things are done; and
(4) Socrates professes no significant positive view other than one or another of the "Socratic paradoxes" (and in particular nothing by way of metaphysics).21

By the "Socratic paradoxes" I mean the following interrelated claims:

(SP1) No one does wrong voluntarily (or knowingly, or intentionally);
(SP2) the supposedly distinct virtues (courage, self-control, justice, etc.) are really one;
(SP3) virtue is knowledge (or wisdom).

These claims will often be at the margin of subsequent discussions in this study. A great deal has been written about them,22 but all we need here is a rough grasp of the interrelationships among them. So, briefly: (SP3) tells us that knowing what to do is all there is to being virtuous, which means that the one thing that all the supposedly separate virtues are is knowledge, which is (SP2), and that departure from virtue can only come of ignorance, which is (SP1).

The important part of feature (4) is not its positive part but what it denies: typically, Socrates professes no doctrine; indeed, he often professes to know nothing about the matters into which he inquires. In Theaetetus 149a-151d, he describes himself as a philosophical midwife, and midwives, he says, are barren:23 he has no ideas of his own, but is an assistant at the birth of the ideas of others. The characterization of Socrates as a midwife occurs nowhere else in the dialogues, but within this passage, in 150e-151a, he seems to be referring to the conversation dramatized in the Laches as one in which he played that role, and the characterization certainly fits with what Socrates is made to say of his "teaching" activity in Apology 21b-24b. So it is natural to generalize this to the other Socratic dialogues, and I shall call feature (4) the "midwife requirement."24

In determining whether a certain dialogue satisfies the midwife requirement, I am going to take Socrates at his word. If he ends a dialogue without endorsing a position, that does it. It may be that we can see, there or elsewhere, reason why Socrates or Plato might have preferred to adopt one of the positions discussed. But if Socrates doesn't actually adopt it, I shall pass him on the midwife requirement.25

We are concerned primarily with the development of Plato's metaphysics, so it is in particular this subject on which Socrates' failure to commit himself is important for our purposes. And, more particularly, the doctrine to watch for is the metaphysical one that comes to dominate the Phaedo, Republic, and others: the Theory of Forms.

The dialogues that share features (1)-(4) are those in the first column plus the Theaetetus. But the Theaetetus is very much a special case.26 In fact, it would make little difference to my story if we counted the Theaetetus among the Socratic definition dialogues. But it would make a difference to a subsequent story I'd like to tell, so I've left it out. That at least shortens the work.

Certain entries in that first column are no doubt more controversial than the others.

The Hippias Major has been rejected as spurious by eminent scholars,27 but I find their reasons less than compelling. So I shall follow current orthodoxy, and count in the Hippias Major. That raises another problem: according to some commentators,28 it contains some substantive metaphysics, and so would fail to meet the midwife requirement. Others too would fail it under this sort of interpretation,29 but I am going to be rejecting such interpretations.

Book I of the Republic has often been thought to have originated as a separate dialogue,30 which would have been called Thrasymachus31 in the absence of the sequel, which was attached later. I find this view quite attractive. But it is not important here that it be correct; what is important is the fact that Republic I, regarded on its own, does not require completion by Republic Ⅱ-Ⅹ any more than any of the other dialogues in our group requires completion. And there is a startling break in continuity between I and Ⅱ-Ⅹ.

Book I shows us a Socrates with a massive midwife complex: since he does not know, at the end of that book, what justice is, he doesn't even know whether it is a virtue, much less whether someone who has it is happy or not (which question dominated the latter half of the book). This is what he says at 354bc. But then, after Glaucon and Adeimantus have in book Ⅱ elaborately motivated the question whether justice brings happiness, Socrates does not say (at 368c): "By the dog, Glaucon and Adeimantus, admiring your zeal for discussion as I do I can feel nothing but dismay over the incredible weakness of your intellects. Either you weren't paying attention or you've forgotten in the space of a Stephanus page: I just went out of my way to explain that I don't know this, since I don't know what justice is." Rather, for book after book he tells them and us what justice is and why it makes its possessor a happy man. The questions are still those of book Ⅰ: Ⅱ-Ⅹ are trying to show us what book I apparently did not, but it is a different Socrates who has taken over.32 Unlike that of the Socratic dialogues, this Socrates has the definitions in his back pocket, and produces them. And there is no shortage of other doctrines over which he waxes enthusiastic: in particular, the Theory of Forms.

And lastly, in the leftmost column above, the Lysis is counted as a definition dialogue, although it is borderline:33 half of it (203a-212a) is preamble to the main question, and when that question is raised, it is not in the characteristic form of a definition question, but reads (212a8-b2): "When someone loves {φιλῇ} someone, which becomes the lover of which, the one who loves of the one who is loved, or the one who is loved of the one who loves? Or does it make no difference?" Still, at the end of the dialogue, Socrates says (223b7-8): "we've turned out unable so far to find out what the lover {ὁ φίλος} is," and that gives it the form of a definition question.34 Going on the latter formulation, I have included the Lysis among the definition dialogues, although the connection between the two questions is not terrifically clear.35 I think there is not a great deal at stake here.

The second column lists dialogues that closely resemble the definition dialogues but fail to pursue singlemindedly the task of defining something, and so lack features (2) and (3). But they often accord crucial roles to definitions: it is not difficult to recognize the Socrates of the definition dialogues in Protagoras 360e-361d. So we might say: we encounter attenuated versions of features (2)-(3) in these dialogues.

The Crito comes in only for incidental mention in what follows; that is fortunate, since it signally fails the midwife requirement by propounding a theory of political obligation of some complexity.36 The fact that this theory is put in the mouth(s) of the Laws of Athens may mean that, formally speaking, the Crito passes the test,37 but this is too much a surface consideration even for me. Still, there is not a trace of metaphysics in the theory propounded. So I have classed it where most people would, among the Socratic dialogues.

The Gorgias is a rather more interesting case. Plato "brings Socrates on in the Gorgias asserting and making the answerer agree with his questions," says the anonymous Neoplatonist who wrote the Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy,38 and he or she is right. Like the Crito, the Gorgias shows us a Socrates relatively unembarrassed about expressing convictions, and so gets a low grade in midwifery. For the most part, the views Socrates expresses are, like those expressed in the Crito, untainted by metaphysical considerations. But there is some strong language, metaphysically speaking, and this we shall have to look into, if only in passing. Besides, Socrates here plumps for the immortality of the soul, which surely does count as a piece of metaphysics and is elsewhere closely associated with the Theory of Forms. In fact, Socrates' attitude toward this issue in the Crito had shown a bit more in the way of positive thinking than the optimistic agnosticism registered in the Apology.

For this reason, I am inclined to think that the Gorgias ought to be classed as a "transitional" dialogue along with the Meno.39 But the tradition of thinking of the dialogue as Socratic is strong. So I have compromised, and placed it, out of alphabetical order, at the end of the Socratic group.

The Socratic dialogues contrast with the Meno, and, more sharply, with the Phaedo and Symposium. In each of the latter, Socrates is the main speaker (but this characterization is a bit of a stretch in the case of the Symposium). But none of them has as its primary object the obtaining of a definition. And in each of the latter two, Socrates is made to express a metaphysical doctrine, most importantly, the Theory of Forms.

The Meno begins as a definition dialogue whose question is "what is virtue?" But this attempt aborts at 79e-80e, at which point Socrates launches into an exposition of and argument for a doctrine.

This doctrine is not the Theory of Forms,40 but the "Doctrine of Recollection," to the effect that what we call "learning" is really recollecting things we already knew. The only piece of metaphysics this theory directly involves is the claim that the soul existed before embodiment. But the theory of recollection is going to be connected closely with the Theory of Forms in the Phaedo. So, just as the Gorgias stands, in my ordering, at the end of the Socratic group, the Meno stands at the beginning of the doctrinal group.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Preface; Note on the text; Abbreviations; 1. Introduction; Part I. A Socratic Theory of Definition: 2. Socrates' demand for definitions; 3. Fixing the topic; 4. Socrates' requirements: substitutivity; 5. Socrates' requirements: paradigms; 6. Socrates' requirements: explanations; 7. Socrates' requirements: explaining by paradigms; 8. Explaining: presence, participation; the Lysis; Part II. Between Definitions and Forms: 9. The Meno; Part III. Platonic Forms: 10. Phaedo 64-66: enter the forms; 11. Phaedo 72-78: the forms and recollection; 12. The beautiful in the Symposium; 13. Phaedo 95a-107b: forms and causes; 14. Conclusion; References; Index of passages cited; General index.

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