BMCR 2006.08.29

Plato’s Introduction of Forms

, Plato's introduction of forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xii, 348 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521838010. $75.00.

The Great Plato still intrigues contemporary philosophers and, while works devoted to him usually fall in the field of classics, his concepts are often discussed in terms of analytical philosophy. The book by R. M. Dancy is an excellent example of this approach. Actually, in this very illuminating monograph the author prefers to go beyond “literary” and “analytic” approaches, and presents us “a defense of a developmental view with an analytic emphasis” (p. 1).

The initial intention is clear enough. Dancy attempts to follow the development of Platonic theory from the earliest dialogues to those of the middle period, to wit the development from the Socratic concept of definition to the Platonic theory of forms, and to establish a logical connection between them. It is worth noticing that Dancy suspends his judgment in the question of Socratic or Platonic origin of a given idea: he simply traces the line of argument in dialogues taking Socrates as a “character in the dialogue”. The content and development of thought in the dialogues written by Plato are his sole concern.

The book is divided into three parts, subdivided into numerous chapters. The structure of each part is uniform: a specific thesis, proposed in the beginning, undergoes a thorough analysis in the rest of chapter and is illustrated by numerous examples taken from various dialogues of Plato. This form of presentation is convenient for the reader and, thanks to carefully selected examples, is perfectly suitable for didactic purposes.

In the Introduction Dancy says that his study can be classified as both “developmental and analytic”. He mostly deals with the early dialogues plus the Phaedo and the Symposium. Dancy argues for a twofold division of the dialogues: Socratic (subdivided into the definitional and nondefinitional) and Doctrinal. The book contains three parts. Part I, the longest and most interesting as it seems to me, is dedicated to a Socratic theory of definition; the last part concerns the Platonic Forms, while the middle one deals mostly with the Meno and entitled ‘Between definitions and forms’.

The first part is of interest to specialists in the theory of definition. It will also be of interest to the historians of philosophy, since the philosophy of Socrates (not Plato!) is given here a logical content: in addition to maeutic and irony the author tries to identify in Socratic thought a theory of logical argumentation, which is of course instructive.The theoretical basis of Socratic inquiry is analyzed in the following chapters of the first part: 2.3 (The Intellectualist Assumption), 4 (Socrates’ requirements: substitutivity), 5 (Socrates’ requirements: paradigms), and 6 (Socrates’ requirements: explanations).

Unfortunately, it is not possible to describe this complicated analysis in any detail here. A short outline must suffice. The first part, “A Socratic theory of definition”, opens with an analysis of Socrates’ demand for definitions. Socrates did not employ the term ‘definition’ (p. 23) but used a series of other terms instead in order that ultimately a definition be constructed rather then postulated. According to Socrates, definitions are useful none the less, although any attempt to ‘define’ is connected with another question, usually of a practical nature (e.g., What is the purpose of life?), which renders any metaphysics and methodology impossible. Dancy considers Socratic questions of this sort in detail: what is courage (the Laches), what is a sophist (the Protagoras), what is temperance (the Charmides), what is the beautiful (the Hippias Major), etc. The theory of forms was originally designed as an attempt to meet difficulties in defining things. This could lead some people to think that the theory of forms is secondary to the theory of definitions. Dancy argues that it is wrong, employing what he calls “The intellectualist assumption” (ιἀ, vital for his future argument. For answering our question we must first of all form certain assumptions about the thing. In its strong form it is: To know that F, one must be able to say what the F, or Fness, is (IA). But to answer “what is Fness” means to define the thing, therefore we have to form a weaker form of the same assumption, (IA1), where “be able to say” is replacing “to know”. (IA) consists of (IA1) and (πἐ, principle of expressibility: One can always say what one knows. In other words, I cannot say what the book is, despite the fact that I know what sort of things the books are (p. 36-38).

This assumption first appears in the Euthyphro, then the Hippias Major, the Republic I, the Laches, etc. But did Socrates really distinguish these types of argument? Dancy understands the problem and discusses it in the third chapter (p. 65). When Socrates introduces questions (for instance, Is there such thing as justice?), these “existential admissions later will be seen as admissions of the existence of forms”. “Precisely because they (existential admissions) carry that weight in the doctrinal dialogues, unitarians have seen them as importing that theory into Socratic dialogues, whereas I see them as merely ways of isolating the subject to be discussed” (p. 65).

According to the author, his interest lies solely in the arguments of the dialogues, regardless the question whether Plato believed in them or not. From the logical point of view, Socratic theory of definitions consists of three preliminary requirements: the Substitutivity Requirement, the Paradigm Requirement, and the Explanatory Requirement.

The Substitutivity Requirement (p. 80-114) is the following: its definiens must be substitutable salva veritate for its definiendum (the Laches, the Charmides; the Lysis, the Euthyphro). In the Paradigm Requirement its definiens must give a paradigm or standard by comparison with which cases of its definiendum may be determined (p. 115). “He wants an example that can be used as an exemplar, a standard, against which he can hold up putative cases of piety and determine by comparison whether they really are cases of piety” (p. 115). PR is connected with search for definitions and ‘self-predication” (“when a term such as the F or Fness itself is said to be F”) (p. 117). These type of sentence one can meet in, for instance, Euripides’ Hecuba: “The noble is always noble”. But Socratic self-predications (e.g. “The pious is through and through pious, i.e., pious and under no circumstances impious”) are something more then an empirical requirement. Explanatory Requirement: its definiens must explain the application of its definiendum (p. 80-81). In order to explain a thing we have to have a satisfactory definition with good “explaining content”. Dancy expresses the following interesting position: “Socrates’ demand that a definition explain content descends from the Intellectualist Assumption and from the roots of his definitional questions in the affairs of daily life” (p. 135). Then he illustrates this on the basis of the Euthyphro.

Chapter 8 is devoted to the terms of presence, participation, and partaking. Socrates uses a variety of terms for the relationship between a Form and the things, frequently talking of the relationship as one of presence (p. 186). But does this mean that in speaking of participation Socrates in the dialogues had already in mind a theory of forms according to which the forms are immanent to things? Dancy shows that Socrates instead simply plays a dialectical game, and it is possible to determine the theoretical content of these expressions, formalized as ‘transmitting presence’ and ‘nontransmitting presence’ (Charmides, Gorgias, Lysis) (p. 186-193).

The intermediate position between ‘definitions’ and ‘forms’ is discernible in the Meno. The dialogue starts as a definitional one but develops towards the theory of forms. An analysis of Meno’s paradox (p. 218-221) allows formulation of the doctrine of recollection. As usual, the logical structure of this transition is the main concern of the author. Terms like ‘temperance’, ‘justice’, ‘courage’, etc. are still not ‘the forms’, “but as “things pertinent to the soul” that are in themselves neither beneficial nor harmful, but become beneficial with the addition of knowledge. Nothing is done to signal to as that they have any special ontological status” (p. 240).

Finally Part III concerns the Platonic Forms and based upon the Phaedo and, partially, the Symposium. The key concept here is recollection in its relation with the theory of Forms. Dancy shows that the “Standard Interpretation”, according to which a certain connection between the concept of recollection and the theory of forms is already visible in the Meno, is wrong. In fact it is clearly seen in the Phaedo (p. 255-283). As a result we come to the basic difficulty of the later dialogues of Plato, the concept of relationship, but this is already another story.

The book ends with a short but informative Conclusion (p. 314-315), where targets for further studies are outlined. The text is enhanced by the References (p. 316-335), Index of Passages Cited and General Index. The book is well written and produced.

The book is a valuable attempt to show, by the means of the analytical method, the development of Platonic thought from the earliest dialogues to the later ones. This helps to understand many difficult lines of argumentation in the dialogues, although the question remains whether Socrates really meant all this and really was such a skilled logician. I think that the book by Dancy will be of interest for specialists in Analytic philosophy, rather than the historians of philosophy. It is certainly an important contribution for those interested in the theory of definitions, while a detailed analysis of the dialogues is a valuable tool for educators and students of Plato.