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Critically Assess Platos Theory of Forms

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Plato's theory of forms can be seen as an answer to objective knowledge. Like Heraclitus he believed that the world we live in is in a state of flux. This provides a problem for epistemology as if everything is constantly changing then we can never know anything absolute. However, forms exist in an unchanging perfect reality, the world of forms and so escape the state of flux. Objective knowledge is seen as possible because particulars in this world gain their properties via participating in immutable unchanging forms. The main focus of this essay will be how a relation between forms and particulars can be conceived, drawing on the criticisms put forward in Parmenides. For, if the relation is problematic, what reasons can be given to posit forms or indeed that it is possible to have objective knowledge?

In the earlier dialogue Phaedo we are given a 'safe' explanation of why beautiful particulars are beautiful; they participate in the form of beauty (Phaedo 100c3-8) and in doing so are caused to be beautiful . However as discussed In the Parmenides what this participation entails is vague. If a post-box is red, is it red in virtue of possessing the whole of the form of red or a part of it?1 . If the former is accepted then the form becomes separate from itself by being- as a whole- in separate objects in separate locations at the same time; it is not shareable . If the latter is accepted then forms are divisible, and things that partake in forms only do so in part. The form can thus no longer be seen as simply one but many .

This creates a huge problem for forms of quantities1. If largeness is itself large, and an elephant is large in that it participates in part of the form of largeness, the elephant is also small. This is because it participates in a part of the form of largeness. A part is smaller than the whole and so it seems the elephant partakes in two contradictory forms, the large and the small. This may not be too problematic, as Socrates in the Parmenides does in fact use forms to explain the compresence of opposites1. Perhaps more problematic is to say that the form of small is itself large as it's a whole, yet also small because that's its proper nature1. If a form is simple it can not itself be comprised of opposites as it would fail to explain opposites in particulars. Small particulars can also not be seen to be smaller than small itself by being a part of and not the whole of smallness3.

Yet what Plato states is that a form can be in a number of things 'if it were like the day, which is one and the same in many places and nonetheless not separate from itself' (Parmenides 131b3-4)1. Perhaps, as Sayre (1996, cited in Conners, 2007) suggests this does not imply a spatial definition of participation, of which Parmenides whole- part dilemma rests on, but a temporal relation3. For example, a day can be in Durham and London at the same time without being separated from itself and is thus not divided3. We perhaps could also note that a form is a universal and not a physical substance; it is in its nature to be present in a number of things at the same time without being spatially confined to sensible objects.

There is also another obstacle to tackle known as the third man argument; this is linked to self predication of forms. The argument goes as follows, we recognise certain sensible objects to be large and group them together. The fact that we group them together is because we recognise they all participate in the form of largeness. Largeness itself must bare some relation to particulars and so it is itself large. It can then be grouped with the large things due to sharing a common predicate. We can then place another form (form two) to explain the shared characteristic of large things and form of large (one). Self predication can thus lead to an infinite regress of forms being created to explain the common characteristics present in sensible objects and their relation to forms2. This means a simple explanation of why things look similar (they all participate in the same form) thus becomes ridiculously complicated3.

However a form is not a particular, it is the cause of the predicate in the particular and stands independently of its participation. What it means for largeness itself to be large, as a universal, can not be treated analogously to what it means for a material thing to be large1. Perhaps we can see 'largeness is large'

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