Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.48

Alan Silverman, The Dialectic of Essence. A Study of Plato's Metaphysics.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2003.  Pp. 393.  ISBN 0-691-09179-X.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by S. A. Burgess, British School at Athens (
Word count: 1768 words

The Dialectic of Essence A Study of Plato's Metaphysics (hereafter DE) is an impressive, lucid and highly enjoyable work which is clearly written and well referenced.1 Alan Silverman (hereafter AS) approaches the problematic and difficult topic of Platonic metaphysics by following the development of Plato's views of essence from the Meno and through the middle period dialogues onward. AS traces the development of Plato's theory of Forms, moving from the elements of Platonic metaphysics in the definitional properties of Socratic elenchus to the arguments of the Phaedo and Republic, where Forms (simple entities that Are) are distinguished from particulars (complex entities that partake) and from each other. AS then proceeds to the Parmenides and the Sophist and the questions surrounding the interrelation and increasingly complexity of Forms (that now themselves partake of or participate in certain other Forms), and, after drawing our attention to Plato's distinction between conceptual and metaphysical notions fundamental to the very nature of metaphysical inquiry, he concludes with a detailed study of the extensive and rich account of the status and nature of (material) particulars in the Philebus and the Timaeus. DE consists of a three-fold analysis of Plato's metaphysics which addresses the questions surrounding Forms, sensible particulars and the broader Platonic interest in what it is to practise philosophical inquiry. Following an introduction and very useful précis of the work, DE is divided into seven relatively well balanced and clearly structured chapters followed by a conclusion, appendix, bibliography and indices (locorum and general).

This book as a whole presents an extended and comprehensive treatment of a central aspect of Plato's metaphysics, and, throughout the seven chapters of DE, the author constructs a thematic unified exposition of the Platonic conception of the nature of ousia (translated throughout as "essence"). It is the study of this essence, AS reasonably contends, that offers the greatest possibility for the "reconstruction" of Plato's metaphysical system. Thus the bulk of DE revolves around three central and related questions which concern those items which may be said to have essences, the ontological relation between the essence and that which possesses it (and whether the two must be identical) and the relation between the (ontological) nature of an essence and the way we learn about (and define) it. AS focuses his reading of Plato's metaphysics on the central tenet (established in the Phaedo) that Forms and particulars enjoy two different types of being. Forms Are what they are in virtue of themselves and so are related to and are the primary bearers of (their) essence (a relationship which may be characterised by the term 'Being') whereas particulars participate (a relationship characterised by the terms having or partaking) and exist only through their connection with Forms. AS demonstrates that Platonic particulars are "dependent entities" and as such lack essence; though the Timaeus and Philebus do offer a far richer account of the nature of material particulars this basic difference is nonetheless maintained throughout. Having separated Forms from particulars he continues to detail the separation of Form from Form (which arises from the distinction between Being and Identity) and then the separation of mind (and the conceptual realm) from what is known (the metaphysical realm).

In chapter 1 AS conducts a comprehensive survey of the philosophical background to and overview of the central elements of Platonic metaphysics and epistemology. Chapters 2 and 3 trace the emergence of the theory of Forms and culminate with the account of the Republic. In chapter 2 AS draws attention to the problematic metaphysical status of certain elements of the Socratic method, and especially Socratic definitions, in order to create a historical picture of the emergence of Plato's middle period metaphysics, using these early works as a source of Plato's "initial" ontological thoughts. AS begins chapter 3 with an exposition of the arguments using Forms in the Phaedo before moving to the more developed theory of the Republic with concise summaries of key sections of books V and VII, where he stresses the model and (imperfect) copy relationship between Forms and physical particulars. AS concludes what he admits is a "fairly orthodox" reading of these passages with an interpretative reconstruction of the metaphysical system of the middle period theory of Forms which includes a discussion of 'copies' of Forms and their role in participation. The chapter finishes with a well rounded review of modern interpretations.

Chapter 4 considers the challenges faced by the theory of Forms and the investigation of the nature of metaphysics conducted in the Parmenides. AS concentrates on the apparent modification, or refinement, of the unitary status of Forms (where it is now seen that no Form can be so simple as to be unrelated to any another Form) and the grounds on which they are separated from particulars (as bearers of essence Forms are susceptible to definition whereas particulars, which lack essence, are not). The chapter also contains a close consideration of Plato's views concerning the relation between Forms and particulars and concludes characteristically with a balanced survey of modern readings.

Chapters 5 and 6 are largely, though not entirely, concerned with the arguments of the Sophist. Building upon a survey of the modern literature on this dialogue, chapter 5 analyses the increasingly complexity of Plato's later metaphysical theory. From this point, AS argues, as the concept of Participation is used by Plato to characterise relations between all subjects (as particulars participate in Forms, so too Forms participate in Forms) the role of Being comes to occupy a central position (since, he continues, it is only Forms that can participate in Being itself). AS concentrates on the relation between Forms themselves and between language and Forms in a detailed study of the Sophist's interweaving of Forms and on the roles of Unity, Sameness, Difference and Being in the characterisation of any Form qua Form. Chapter 6 addresses some topics that emerge from reflections on method, language and thought, and the discussion of false statement. AS first turns to the treatment of not-beings in the Sophist and to the increasingly evident tension between metaphysical (Forms) and conceptual notions (thoughts). Such tension is illustrated in particular in problems surrounding the possibility of so-called negative Forms and whether there in fact exists a Form of Not-Just which may be correlated with the predicate or term not-just. The second part of the chapter investigates the Method of Collection and Division and the degree to which it is applicable to the ontological interrelation of Forms.

From the interrelation of Forms and the status and nature of philosophical inquiry AS turns, in Chapter 7, to the less familiar status of material particulars in the Philebus and the Timaeus, which AS takes to be one of Plato's last works. This last, and longest, chapter is concerned jointly with the Philebus and the Timaeus, which contain the most sustained and detailed accounts of this topic. AS demonstrates the seriousness and complexity of Plato's account of the material particular and its properties and indicates the rehabilitation of the status of these particulars as entities which may play an admittedly limited role in the acquisition of true knowledge. After blending key passages of the Philebus with the Timaeus AS draws his conclusion that despite this elevation the particulars themselves remain without essence; indeed, with the introduction of the receptacle of becoming in the Timaeus, particulars of the traditional varieties cease to exist at all.2 Thus, even though Timaeus' discussion of the particulars of the physical world goes beyond any other dialogue it ultimately remains consistent with the metaphysics of the middle period. This last chapter concludes the study of forms, particulars and the nature of inquiry and AS's analysis of how Plato has separated Forms from particulars, Forms from Forms and then Forms in themselves, in terms of being, from Forms as objects of inquiry and knowledge.

Although DE is aimed, as is stated in the introduction, at the specialist reader AS also manages, through frequent overviews and summaries and by consistently cogent explanations in clear prose, to make Plato's metaphysics generally reader-friendly for the "relative newcomer" for whom the book will be most rewarding. For example, AS's practice of following the orthodox line in his readings of some of the dialogues, and certainly those of the middle period, both makes DE more accessible and allows the author to pursue, and the reader to follow, his exposition of Plato's metaphysics around the issue of essence. The slight disadvantage with this approach is that some topics or issues are not addressed. For example, in chapter 2 AS's decision not to engage with the question of the extent to which the early Socratic dialogues may in fact represent genuine Socratic tenets, the subject of masterly studies by Kahn and Vlastos3 does allow his argument concerning the emergence of Plato's metaphysical system to progress smoothly but almost brings him into line with the views of Taylor.4 AS himself acknowledges this selective approach in his introduction where he states his intention to avoid the metaphysical questions surrounding Plato's ethics, teleology, epistemology (as far as is possible), the general nature of soul (and the topic of soul-body interaction) and certain questions concerning his philosophy of science. In addition, it could be argued, given the fact that AS has a clear view of the development of Platonic thought (as his intention is to follow Plato's metaphysics from its "origin" in the Socratic dialogues to its "conclusion in the Timaeus" he admits that "chronology does have some implications" for his argument), that the book would have benefited from further analysis of the chronology of the dialogues and especially the Timaeus, which is treated at the end and as a development of the Philebus. It is also the case, however, that an extensive discussion of dating would have detracted from the general purpose of the book and its direct and engaging style.

In conclusion DE represents a significant, substantial and original addition to Platonic scholarship and provides a coherent and approachable explanation of the development of Plato's metaphysical system which would be most useful for students of Plato's later metaphysics. This contribution is evident in his discussion of the status of 'copies' of Forms and their intermediate role and is nowhere more clear than in the extended analysis that is devoted to Plato's views on the status of sensible particulars.5

In terms of appearance, DE is a clearly presented and well produced volume although it would have been helpful to have references as endnotes inserted at the end of each chapter rather that at the end of the book and after the appendix. An index of Greek terms would also have been useful.


1.   The topics addressed by AS are also considered by T. A. Blackson in Inquiry, Forms and Substances: A Study in Plato's Metaphysics and Epistemology (Boston 1995) See also H. Thesleff, Studies in Plato's Two-Level Model (Helsinki 1999).
2.   The receptacle or Chora has been the subject of much recent interest. See J. Sallis Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus (Indianapolis 1999).
3.   Cf. G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge 1991) and C. F. Kahn Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (Cambridge 1996).
4.   In his Socrates (Edinburgh 1932) A. E. Taylor ignores the difficulties of interpreting the Socratic dialogues which he treats as Platonic creations.
5.   For an extended discussion of substance in Plato see E. Ostenfeld, Matter, Body and Mind (The Hague 1982), for a more recent study see A. Gregory, Plato's Philosophy of Science (London 2000).

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