Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 2. Forms, embodiment, and particularity

I. Forms, Embodiment, and Particularity
We need in this context to consider Plato’s famous (or infamous) notion of forms.[1] His critics often see his alleged anti-body views as inextricably tied up with his ideas about forms. Plato, we are told, aspired to get away from the body and to escape into the timeless, spaceless world of ideals. In this way he disparaged the world of the senses and of bodies and longed for the perfect, disembodied world. But is this really what Plato thought? I shall argue that it is a misleading caricature of his philosophy.
The words translated as “form,” eidos and idea, relate to the appearance of something to an observer’s gaze. For different particulars to have the same “form”—to be beautiful or to be wise, say—is for them to have a common appearance, for different things to convey the same idea to an observer.[2] Forms are the intellectual paradigms and patterns that make particulars what they are—that enable them to be anything at all, that give them their identity. “Far from stripping the sensible world of all intelligibility and locating it ‘elsewhere,’ Plato expressly presents the forms as the truth, the whatness, the intelligibility, and hence the reality, of the world.”[3] They are what Eric Perl calls “ideas-in-things”—that in things which can also be present in thought.[4] In Plato’s thinking, to deny forms would be to estrange thought and being and hence to deny the possibility of thinking or speaking about anything in the world (Parmenides 135b-c).
Now Plato is very clear that forms are “separate” from their instances. This has misled many to think that Plato imagines them existing in another realm, a higher world that is better than this cruddy sensory world. This is arguably to misunderstand the notion of separation (chôrismos). Clearly, if one considers a range of particulars that all share the same form, that form must be distinct from, must transcend, any of its instances (Meno 74b-e). A just ruler, for instance, cannot be justice itself.
Forms are intelligible appearances that are “perceived” by thought, not by sight. You can see sensory particulars but not forms—you can see the just ruler but you cannot see justice itself, you can see a healthy dog but you cannot see health itself (Phaedo 65d-66a, 74a-b). “Forms are ideas, not in the sense of concepts or abstractions, but in that they are realities apprehended by thought rather than by sense. They are thus ‘separate’ in that they are not additional members of the world of sensible things, but are known by a different mode of awareness. But this does not mean that they are ‘located elsewhere,’ or that they are not, as Plato says, the very intelligible contents, the truth and reality of sensible things.”[5] “[T]he sensible beauty we perceive in things is the intelligible form of beauty manifest in time and space; in other words, it is to say that sense experience is the expression of a meaning . . . .”[6]
Some propose that Plato thought of forms as perfect models that particulars copy. Now forms understood as perfect models are open to the so-called “third man” objection[7] made famous by Aristotle,[8] but already anticipated by Plato himself in the Parmenides (132c–133a). However, arguably Plato did not conceive of forms in this way and used the Parmenides to shoot down that way of interpreting his notion of forms.[9] It is better to think of forms as like a recipe. “The information that the chocolate cake about to be served has been made in accordance with a certain recipe does not leave us expecting the cake to be a copy, likeness, image, representation, reproduction, imitation, or semblance of the recipe.”[10] Forms are what Plato calls paradigms (paradeigmata), in the sense of being intelligible patterns (Euthyphro 6e). Such patterns are not discernable with the sense perceptions but with the mind, for they are pure idea, pure thought-content. But these intelligible patterns show up in particular sensory objects as their intelligible structure—that by virtue of which the particulars are what they are.
So here is a fundamental tension that Plato works hard to maintain: the intelligible pattern that is a form can be seen in particulars, but if the pattern is considered “itself by itself”[11] then we must acknowledge that it cannot be reduced to any particular. Forms are both immanent in the sensory world but also transcend it. Forms considered apart from their instances are separate, not in that they exist in another world, but in that they are of a different ontological order.[12] “Where among all the beautiful things in this world, is beauty? Everywhere and nowhere: everywhere, because wherever a beautiful thing is, there is beauty, as a property which it has and by which it is beautiful; nowhere, because we cannot point to any one of them and say, ‘There it is!’ as if it were identical with or confined to that one instance.”[13] Beauty is thus both immanent and transcendent. Transcendence is not to be confused with being somewhere else, except in a metaphorical sense. The forms are “in” the sensible world but not “of” it, not objects in addition to oranges and monkeys and ice skates. Thus, the world of sensibles, by virtue of its intelligible structures, points “beyond” itself to the forms in which it participates: “it is by the beautiful that all beautiful things are beautiful” (Phaedo 100e). This is what is sometimes referred to as a participatory ontology in which the world of the senses is utterly dependent on and “suspended from” a more fundamental reality.[14]
The key thing is this: the forms are not somewhere else, in another world that we need to go to. The forms are in their instances, but cannot ever be reduced to those instances.[15] They ever transcend each and every particular. Therefore, a beautiful river really is beautiful; a just city really is just; a good ruler really is good.[16]  This immediately shows us that those who claim that Plato thought of the sensory world as somehow bad or evil are way off track! On the contrary, it was good and beautiful.
It is a mistake to infer from the fact that Plato considers the forms to be “real”[17] that the world of the senses is irreal or illusory. The ontological status of particulars is that of being in between being and non-being, something and nothing (Republic 478d). For Plato reality (which he identifies with intelligibility) is not something that is only “on” or “off,” but something that comes in degrees.[18] Forms, as pure intelligibles, are completely real; particular sensory things have reality to the extent that they participate in forms.[19]
The dialogues often speak of the ascent of the soul to the forms, but these ascents need to be understood as epistemic ascents—the “ascent of the mind” (Rep. 517b)—not as literal ascents out of our world into another, spiritual world.[20] They are, rather, cognitive ascents from one way of apprehending the world (through the senses) to another (through the intellect), from appearance to reality. These cognitive states come with “degrees of clarity, corresponding to the degree of truth possessed by their subject-matter” (Rep. 511e). That this is so can be seen in the famous divided line illustration from the Republic (509d–511e).

Epistemic mode:
Four “states of mind” (pathêmata)

Focus of the soul
Knowledge (episteme)
dialectic (noesis): thinking which is “through forms, to forms, and finishes with forms”
The Good
Intelligible reality
reasoning (dianoia), towards forms from sensible objects
Opinion (doxa)
trust (pistis)
sensible objects (natural and manufactured)
The visible image of intelligible reality
Imagination/guesswork/illusion (eikasia)
images of sensible objects (e.g., reflections and shadows)

The divided line is built around the picture of reality and its image. Socrates starts with the relation between objects in the sensible world (L2) and dim images of them (L1)—reflections in water or polished surfaces, or shadows. This becomes the paradigm for the relation between the sensible “realm” (L1–L2) and the intelligible “realm” (L3–L4): the world we see around us is a dim reflection of a more real world. It is a shadowland. So ontologically speaking the direction is down, from reality to image—from the Good to the forms to the particulars, their images. But epistemically speaking we need to proceed backwards, from image to reality (from L2 to L3 to L4).
“Despite its divisions, the Line represents the integrity of the Whole . . . : the intelligible and visible domains are now depicted as parts of one and the same line. . . . Plato emphasizes the interconnectedness of all levels of human experience.”[21] We have a single reality, a single line (L1–L4), which can be divided according to different modes of perception—two modes of sensory perception and two modes of intellectual perception. The ascent up the line (from L1 to L4) is an ascent described in terms of different modes of perceiving.[22] The physical world that we can see is “nothing but meaning made tangible.”[23]
To understand the perceptible world aright one must understand it in terms of the higher reality in which it participates and which enables it to be. To do that one must be able to ascend in one’s mind from the ever-shifting sensible world of perceptions—what we see and hear—to perceive the forms “themselves by themselves.” To ascend from seeing beauty, say, in this or that particular thing to seeing “beauty itself.”[24] This philosophical ascent is presented as a separation of soul and body; an indifference to the body and its needs, as far as that is possible (Phaedo 64c–65a; 67c-d). This, according to the simile of the cave, is the painful, disorientating, and prolongued cognitive journey of moving beyond the particular instances (perceived by the body) to the universal forms (perceived by the soul). Having done this we are enabled to return to this sensory world seeing it and understanding it afresh, better able to live with wisdom and in tune with the nature of reality. Here is how Socrates describes the return of the philosopher to the cave: “You must therefore each descend in turn and live with your fellows in the cave and get used to seeing in the dark; once you get used to it you will see a thousand times better than they [the prisoners, who have never been outside the cave] do and will distinguish the various shadows, and know what they are shadows of, because you have seen the truth about things admirable and just and good” (Rep. 520c).
Must one die to see the forms aright? From the Phaedo one may suspect so (66d–67a). However, the Republic suggests otherwise. With many years of hard training, the philosopher rulers of the Republic are said to be able to achieve knowledge of the forms, even of the Good,[25] while fully embodied. Indeed, it is precisely this perception of reality that enables them to be good and wise rulers on their return to the cave, able to discern which actions are truly courageous, temperate, and the like (Republic 484c-d; 500d; 519c–520e; 540a-b).
So Plato’s theory of forms does not provide any basis for despising embodiment. Indeed, it can be construed in such a way as to provide the very basis upon which the value of the body can be established.

[1] For a general introduction to the theory of forms and the difficult interpretative issues involved, see T. H. Irwin, “The Theory of Forms,” in Gail Fine (ed.), Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 143–70. For the idea that we can trace a clear line of development from early dialogues with a Socratic interest in definitions towards middle-period dialogues with a distinctively Platonic interest in forms (with the Meno and a hinge text between the two phases) see R. M. Dancy, “Platonic Definitions and Forms,” in Hugh H. Benson (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 70–84; Allan Silverman, The Dialectic of Essence: A Study of Plato’s Metaphysics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). Be that as it may, the later Platonic thought is a clear and continuous development from the earlier Socratic project.
[2] My basic anti-two-worlds-interpretation of Plato is heavily shaped by the work of Eric Perl. See, for instance, “The Presence of the Paradigm: Immanence and Transcendence in Plato’s Theory of Forms” The Review of Metaphysics 53.2 (1999) 339–62; Perl, Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2014), ch. 2. “What Plato presents in the middle dialogues, then, is not two worlds, a world of sensible instances on the one hand and a world of transcendent forms on the other, but rather one world, that of intelligible form, and the appearances of that world which constitute sensibles” (Perl, “Presence of the Paradigm,” 351).
[3] Perl, Thinking Being, ch. 2.
[4] Forms are “in” (en) (Euth. 5d; Lach.191e, 192a) or “through” (dia) (Lach. 192c; Meno 74a) or “occupy, fill” (kataschê) (Phd. 104d) their instances. Plato can also speak of the communion (koinônia) of forms and particulars or the “presence” (parousia) of forms in things (Phd. 100d).
[5] Perl, Thinking Being, no pages.
[6] D. C. Schindler, The Catholicity of Reason (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 125.
[7] The basic idea is that if a particular (e.g., a particular man, Socrates) is explained in terms of reflecting a perfect, non-sensory particular (the form of man) then we have a problem. This is because the form of man is itself a particular man and one must then ask how to explain the particular form, and one must postulate a form behind the form (a third man). But this, of course, sets us into an infinite regress of forms and we discover that we have explained nothing at all. On the much discussed third man arguments see, for instance, S. Marc Cohen, “The Logic of the Third Man,” in Gail Fine (ed.), Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology, 275–97; All this said, the notion of forms-as-perfect-models can be configured to get around third man objections. On which see Sarah Broadie, Nature and Divinity in Plato’s Timaeus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 74–75. But this is not relevant to us, because we are not thinking of forms in this way.
[8] See Gail Fine, On Ideas: Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 217–32.
[9] This is how I am strongly inclined to understand the perplexing text of the Parmenides. Plato’s language does sometimes suggests the notion of forms are ideal, non-sensible particulars. For instance, particulars may be spoken of as “images” of forms. However, we must note that for Plato an image is not the same as a copy (Crat. 432b-d).
For a very helpful guide to the exceptionally difficult text of the Parmenides, see Arnold Hermann, Plato’s Parmenides: Text, Translation, and Introductory Essay. Translation in collaboration with Sylvana Chrysakopoulou (Las Vegas: Parmenides, 2010).
[10] Broadie, Nature and Divinity, 62.
[11] Phd. 66a; 78d; Symp. 211b; Parm. 129d.
[12] Forms, unlike particulars, are timeless and changeless (Phd. 78d-80b; Rep. 479a, e; 484b; 500c; Tim. 28a). However, as Stephen Clark notes, this distinction is helpful: “If ‘Beauty’ were only what we have so far seen as beautiful, worship would be the kind of conservatism beloved of bureaucrats: that nothing be allowed to change. It is because Platonism does not equate Beauty with particular beauties that we can be reassured: change need not be an evil, because Beauty is realized in indefinitely (infinitely?) many ways.” S. R. L. Clark, How to Think about the Earth: Philosophical and Theological Models for Ecology (London: Mowbray, 1993), 66.
[13] Perl, “The Presence of the Paradigm,” 344.
[14] Alternatively: “I suppose that if I had to give a kind of portmanteau name to the view of things I find most convincing, it would be the ‘metaphysics of eminence’—borrowing the scholastic notion that the lower reality is always ‘more eminently’ or ‘virtually’ contained in the higher realities, while the higher is participated in and expressed by the lower. . . . [B]eautiful things are caused by, among other things, transcendent beauty. Whatever one calls it, however, and however dependent it is on the clearly inadequate spatial metaphors of the above and the below, it is a vision of reality in which the higher is not the epiphenomenal and largely illusory residue of the lower—down there where reality is really real, as it were—but a causal order in its own right, comprising the forms and ends and rational harmonies that shape and guide and explain the world. Then, beyond all those forms of causality, comprehending, transcending, pervading, underlying, and creating them, is that which is highest and most eminent of all, the boundless source of all reality, the infinity of being, consciousness, and bliss that is God.” David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 83.
[15] The claim that forms are “in” their instances is a contested claim in Plato studies. Plenty of scholars would defend it, but it is not universally agreed. See, for instance, Daniel Devereux, “Separation and Immanence in Plato’s Theory of Forms,” in Gail Fine (ed.), Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 192–214. Some postulate metaphysical entities intermediate between forms and particulars. For example, Allan Silverman distinguishes between forms and form-copies (or forms-in-things). See, Silverman, The Dialectic of Essence.
[16] On the claim that sensible things really are good, beautiful, just, etc., see Alexander Nehamas, “Plato on the Imperfection of the Sensible World,” in Gail Fine (ed.), Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 171–91.
[17] What he calls “really real reality” (ousia ontôs ousa) in Phd. 247c, “completely real” (pantelôs on) and “purely real” (eilikrinôs on) in Rep. 477–79, and “perfectly real” (teleôs on) and “really real” (ontôs on) in Rep. 597.
[18] See Gregory Vlastos, “Degrees of Reality in Plato,” in R. M. Bambrough (ed.), New Essays on Plato and Aristotle (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), 1–19.
[19] The relation of forms and particulars is not symmetrical. It is not unintelligible to think of forms without particulars, but particulars cannot be anything at all without forms—the notion of particulars without forms is literally unthinkable. (Thus, strictly speaking, philosophical materialism is an impossible notion to a Platonist.) So particulars depend on forms in order to be, but forms do not depend on particulars. Whether or not this means that forms could exist without necessarily being instantiated is a different issue. Plato may or may not have thought that forms have to be instantiated in particulars at some point in time. Gail Fine argues that Socrates takes no stand on the issue either way. See Gail Fine, “Separation,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 2 (1984) 31–87.
[20] The myths that Plato uses can lead readers to take his comments in literal terms. He will talk in terms of ascending to “the place above the sky” (Phd. 247), for instance. But he very clearly flags his myths as myths, heuristic stories that are not to be taken at face value (e.g., Phd. 265c). The notion of the forms existing in a realm outside the cosmos is a myth, not to be taken literally. The same can possibly be said about the notion of knowledge of the forms as “recollection” of what we knew in an earlier disincarnate life. The heart of the story is not about the literal reality of disembodied life but rather the claim that “the truth of beings is already in the soul” and hence knowledge of it is non-empirical (Meno 86b). “The capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind” (Rep. 518c). On this interpretation of knowledge-as-recollection, see Perl, Thinking Being, section 6.
[21] Jacob Howland, The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy (Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2004), 127, 131.
[22] Gail Fine has cogently argued against the two worlds interpretation of Platonic epistemology (“Knowledge and Belief in Republic 5–7,” in Gail Fine [ed.], Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology, 215–46). According to the two worlds interpretation, Plato believed that one can only know the forms, so there can be no knowledge of the sensible world, only belief. This account would flatly contradict the Meno, in which we are told that knowledge is true belief bound by an “explanatory account” (aitias logismos) (98a). According to the two worlds account, Plato believed that nobody could know that, say, any specific person or deed is just—one could only ever have beliefs about such things. Fine argues that the Republic itself, the basis on which the two worlds interpretation tries to get off the ground, fails to provide the support that it needs. After all, the good rule of the philosophers is predicated on their knowledge of the forms and their ability to bring that to bear in the world. Furthermore, the Republic states that it is possible to have beliefs about forms (506c) and knowledge of sensibles (520c). Fine makes the case that Plato “argues only that all knowledge requires (not that it is restricted to) knowledge of Forms; and that, restricted to sensibles, one can at most achieve belief. This, however, leaves open the possibility that, once one knows Forms, one can apply this knowledge to sensibles so as to know them too” (ibid., 216). When a person is a prisoner in the cave, seeing only shadows, then he has no knowledge, not even of what he sees. At best he has belief. But when he ascends from the cave to gaze at the sun, he knows the Good, and when he returns to the cave he knows the sensible things too (Rep. 520c). So there is no unbridgeable chasm between knowledge and belief, because there is no unbridgeable chasm between forms and particulars. One can ascend from the lower to the higher cognitive states.
[23] Schindler, Catholicity of Reason, 126.
[24] In terms of the story of the cave the philosopher is goaded into his troublesome journey towards the sun by the realization that the shadows on the wall are merely projected by humans. Interestingly, the sophist has exactly the same realization but reacts in the opposite way. He sees nothing beyond the manipulation of shadows and so spends his time teaching others how to manipulate shadows to their own advantage. Howland, The Republic, 137–41. The sophist sounds like some contemporary postmoderns: when truth disappears there’s nothing left but power and manipulation to make things work for us.
[25] The Good (Rep. 505a; 507c–509b; 511b; 516b) is the ultimate principle of relational unity in realty, “a relational absolute that orders other universals” (Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 2). It “is present in forms and [particular] things, positioning them in mutual, real relations. . . . [T]he Good ‘gives’ itself ecstatically in such a way that it infuses all things with goodness, and it is this generative presence in immanent things that enables them to participate in the universal forms and thus perfect their given goodness” (ibid., 32, 33). “[T]he Form of the Good is not a distinct Form, but the teleological structure of things; individual Forms are its parts, and particular sensible objects instantiate it” (Fine, “Knowledge and Belief in Republic 5–7,” 228). Unlike the forms, “the Good is not ousia but is beyond ousia, exceeding it in dignity and power” (Rep. 509b). Given that it is “beyond being,” what the Good is “itself by itself” cannot even be thought. We can only grasp the Good in relation to that which it originates and illuminates—i.e., the forms. (Note that in Platonic ontology, only forms are beings—“that which is always real and has no becoming.” Particulars occupy the metaphysical space between being and nothing—they are “that which is always becoming, but never has real be-ing” Tim. 28a)
It ought to be noted that Plato’s ontology is deeply relational. Particulars are only what they are because they of the way in which they relate to each other and to the forms in which they participate. Forms themselves are inter-related and “interweave” in complex ways (Rep. 510b; 511b; 517b-c; 519c-d; 526e; Theat. 206c–208b; Soph. 259e; 263e–264a) and are themselves in a relation of dependence on the Good. Indeed, “all forms are in virtue of the ecstatic self-exteriorizing ‘being’ of the Good. . . . [T]he Good governs all forms and actualizes all particulars” (Pabst, Metaphysics, 44). The binding, relational source of all is the Good. On Plato’s relational ontology, see Mary McCabe, Plato’s Individuals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Gail Fine, “Relational Entities,” in Plato and Knowledge and Form: Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 326–49; Pabst, Metaphysics, ch. 1.


Anonymous said…
I'm not a Plato expert, but I've always taken it for granted that Plato's theory of form anticipated the biblical view of the Law found in Hebrews 9:23.

"It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these."

At any rate, we're agreed that Plato doesn't see the body as inherently evil, and I imagine he'd say with Saint Paul that 'the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.'

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