Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Plato's so-called Theory of Forms

Comment in Bryn Mawr Classical Review http://www.bmcreview.org/2009/05/20090533.html#comment-form

The fault, to my mind, with all attempts to deal with Plato’s so-called Theory of Forms is that they start from the assumption that Plato had such a completely worked-out theory. If that were the case, it would certainly be strange that so much study of and so much research in the works of one who could think so clearly and could write so lucidly would fail to arrive even at an outline of the putative theory.

As I see it, Plato (1) inherited Socrates’ distinction between the intelligible ideas and ideals found only in the mind, on the one hand, and the sensible world on the other hand; (2) extended the scope of these intelligibles first to the mathematical sphere and then beyond that; (3) found in these intelligibles the answer to the Heraclitean challenge to the possibility of knowledge; (4) experimented with various modes of stating how the intelligibles are related to the sensibles, none of which modes he found satisfactory as is clear from the first part of the Parmenides; (5) lost interest in the thankless quest but never lost his faith in the primacy of the intelligible realm as the sole ground and home of true epistêmê and of the mind as the fount and begetter of the intelligible and all intelligibility, of phronêsis and noêsis. This is the position I maintain in Plato: An Interpretation (2005).

Because Plato never worked out a completed Theory of Forms the attempt to extract such a theory from his works remains a Holy Grail quest.

D. R. Khashaba

Friday, May 08, 2009



Our animal kin, as far as we know, live in, inside, within the natural world. We, human beings, somehow live apart from, outside, facing the natural world. This is our special characteristic. We live in the world and we know that we live in a world that somehow is other than we. The emergence of this realization is the emergence of the human being. And when we come to this realization or when this realization comes to us, it comes, if not with a shock, at any rate with a disturbing, irritating, nagging feeling. It creates a sense of pressing puzzlement. The world as we encounter it is chaotic, formless, meaningless. We need to organize it, pattern it out, make it mean something to us. The first level of this process must have been gone through long before the emergence of humankind. Without it a hare would not recognize a fox as a threat and the fox would not recognize the hare as a meal. At a lower level still in the biological sphere action and reaction perhaps takes place without recognition or awareness but at a higher level, I fancy, the normal run of life would not be possible without recognition. For human beings the differentiation of objects and their elementary classification in groups that serve various practical purposes is completed early in the individual’s life. Then comes the puzzlement, the amazement, the fear that demand a higher level of ordering to appease the puzzlement and the fear and instil a sense of being at home. At this stage humans create myths. Their myths give them comfort and something more than comfort; they give them a refined pleasure, akin to aesthetic enjoyment. In time most of the myths are known for myths. What then? To some the sense of puzzlement is dampened. They are content to live at the level of the ordering of the natural world into objects and classes of objects enhanced with the introduction of so-called laws of nature and a store of information about the way things behave. This is science, adequate for the material needs of civilized life. With others, puzzlement and awe refuse to go away with the dismissal of the primitive myths. They still need their comforting and enjoyable myths. They create new myths. In place of the old gods and demigods and powers of good and powers of evil they have abstract personae – substances and forms and first principles. They obtain their comfort and their intellectual enjoyment, even when the comfort is, as with a Schopenhauer, grim. Just as the creators of the old myths, having found rest in their myths, believed their myths, so the creators of the new myths tended to believe their myths, forgetting that they were of their own creation. And creators of varieties of these latter myths fought each other, each refusing to concede to others the right to find rest in their particular myths. The feuds went on until the party of those that had easily given up myths for good cried in their face: “Oh, you fools, don’t you see that all your blabbering is sheer nonsense, since it can neither be verified empirically nor demonstrated by reason? That it cannot be verified empirically you yourselves are bound to admit. That it cannot be demonstrated by reason, your in-fighting shows beyond a doubt.”

Thus far the detractors of the traditional kind of metaphysical philosophy, even though they may not very much like the earlier portion of what I have written, will give me a big Bravo! for the latter part. But wait: I do not deserve your congratulations; I am not entirely on your side.

Given that all metaphysics is myth-making, must we be content with living – to put it briefly – within the domain of fact? In some of us humans there is a deep-seated need to see things whole, to see all things ranged in an intrinsically coherent pattern. This coherent pattern can only be of our own creation and therefore a myth. But it gives us a life, a full life, of a certain quality, that only becomes a delusion when we forget that it is a myth of our own making. When I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or watch King Lear the experience I live through is real, is the fullest reality I know of, but it is not factual. In the same way, when I read Plato or Spinoza or Whitehead I live in a world that has a reality that nothing in the empirical world can match, and the experience I live through then is not a momentary experience as in the case of reading an epic or watching a drama, but gives me a vision that colours and moulds my whole life. And the mythical garb of the experience does not exhaust its reality, for the experience born of the metaphysical myth opens up to me my own inner reality, the reality of my subjective life. That is what I call the philosophic insight and that is what I mean when I say that philosophic insight can only be expressed in myth.

Human beings have been variously divided into opposed types. I propose to categorize human beings into physicals who are content with a world made up of what can be seen and touched and weighed and measured, and metaphysicals who are more at home with the creations of their minds and find there and only there what they deem to be real. I believe that the physicals miss a life of a fine quality. But the metaphysicals, when they take their myths too seriously, are enslaved to superstition, sometimes to the point of stultification. In this world things good are not only hard to achieve but they are also always hemmed with danger.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

World, Mind, Freedom

Comment on “Review: Providence Lost by Genevieve Lloyd” by Erik J. Wielenberg http://www.philosophypress.co.uk/?p=110&cpage=1#comment-36

I find the conception of an “order that does not depend on the will of any orderer” to be incoherent. This does not entail that there must be a personal (transcendent) orderer, a conception which is in turn riddled with insuperable difficulties, but it suggests that intelligence (mind) is an original dimension of reality. That is why I see the current evolutionist-creationist controversy as wrong-headed on both sides. The evolutionists equate their position with outright materialism and the creationists commit themselves to transcendent theism. In my view both these positions fail to give us an intelligible reality. Although I say that only an ultimately intelligent reality is intelligible, yet, at variance with other idealists, I do not consider this position to be demonstrable. But it gives me a vision of reality that is intrinsically coherent, within which I find room for values and for a meaningful life.

This position agrees with Spinoza except on the question of demonstrability. Spinoza, accepting without reserve Cartesian rationalism with its implication of stringent determinism left no room for free will. It is true that Spinoza’s conception of freedom as autonomy is superbly noble. But if we see determinism as an empirical hypothesis that works well in general and serves all our scientific purposes but does not rule out creative origination, we can have a broader conception of freedom – a freedom which is to be distinguished radically from choice. Freedom as creativity, I maintain, is a reality that we know immediately in the creativity of thought and the creativity of art – a reality that must be seen as more indubitable than all the empirical laws of natural science. This creative freedom of our inner reality Spinoza had to sacrifice because he needlessly accepted the shackles of Cartesian determinism. Kant moved in the right direction – but did not go the whole way – when he relegated causality to the phenomenal world and seated freedom in our inner subjective reality.