Plato's Metaphysics Research Proposal

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¶ … Validity of Plato's Theory of Forms

Plato's theory of forms combines previously devised concepts and theories of science, of the Sophists and of Socrates. I intend to show that the amalgamation of these previously mapped principles lends enough credibility to Plato's theory of forms to make it valid. While there are certain points of contention to be made, as is so with any theory, Plato's insights into the metaphysical universe are, on the whole, convincing.

Concepts Derived from Science, Sophists and Socrates

Scientific Support for Plato's Theory of Forms

At the core of Plato's theory of forms are the dichotomous issues of permanence and transcendence. These dual states of existence can, according to Plato, only be reconciled by the human mind by dividing the universe into two distinct realms: material forms and non-material forms. Scientists had made similar observations regarding permanent forms and non-permanent forms, which Plato infused into his own theoretical musings. Scientists place their focus on the laws of nature and enduring patterns, suggesting that human beings derive meaning from the permanence of objects. For example, if I see my computer in the same place on my desk every day, then I begin to attach meaning to the notion of permanence of forms, because scientific logic dictates that it will not suddenly disappear without some type of intervention. However, this type of permanence is not attached to everything that we see. I may see a flower that is thriving one day and is dead the next. This can occur without any human intervention. Therefore the issue of permanence becomes incomprehensible to man, regardless of science and logic (or perhaps because of it). As such, we cannot legitimately claim that any object or form is "real" because in order to be truly real, it was have to be explicable. Thus in Phaedrus, Socrates asserts:

"I must dare to speak the truth, when truth is my theme. There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul. The divine intelligence, being nurtured upon mind and pure knowledge, and the intelligence of every soul which is capable of receiving the food proper to it, rejoices at beholding reality, and once more gazing upon truth, is replenished and made glad, until the revolution of the worlds brings her round again to the same place."

In Plato's view, in order for something to be truly real, it must also act as a permanent and enduring fixture over time. He considered reality to be more deeply connected to the final state of being, rather than the process which perpetuates that state. However the "enduring fixture" component is not enough to change the reality. Moreover, there are some true beliefs that even when they are logical in nature, cannot be legitimately referred to as knowledge.

Consider the following example: I am expecting to watch my favorite weekly television show and truly believe that it will be on, based on my prior knowledge that the show has aired every week for three months at the same time, on the same day. But if the television show does not air as expected, my knowledge is true (in that I know the show should be on) but my belief is false because other factors that were not originally considered (e.g., a sporting event that went into overtime, canceling of the show or a special broadcast event). Therefore the key question I must ask myself is "what elements need to be added to true belief to make it translate into knowledge?"

Plato obviously considered reality to be more deeply connected to the final state of being, rather than the process which perpetuates that state. However, in regard to the example of the anticipated television show, the "enduring fixture" component is not enough to change the reality that on this particular day the show did not air. Even if the show had aired consistently for ten, or even a hundred years, the possibility would always exist that one day, it may not.

To account for such phenomena, Plato turned to our dichotomous existence. As Banach (2006) elucidates, "By detaching ourselves from the material world and our bodies and developing our ability to concern ourselves with the forms, we find a value which is not open to change or disintegration" (1). This brings us to the Sophist elements of Plato's theory of forms, which centered on the permanence and transcendence of language as a symbolic attachment to meaning.

Sophist Support for Plato's Theory of Forms

Sophists emphasized the manner in which languages shapes reality and the subsequent need for stability and permanence in meaning. While acknowledging that our existence is in a constant state of flux, Sophists still recognize the human need for continuity in the meanings we attach to forms., Robert Brumbaugh provides the following explanation:

"We can use a word repeatedly with the same 'meaning' each time; and 'meanings' are permanent and public in a way that physical processes are not. Although each time I pronounce the word "two," the sounds I make are made in a new context and on a new occasion, the number two, which is "what I mean," is the same. There must be such meanings that stay put if communication is to be possible at all, and if we like we can call these referents of words 'forms'" (64)

Plato illustrates this concept allegorically in his dialogue with Socrates in Meno. In a poignant exchange of dialogue about virtue, Socrates and Meno, after a protracted match of verbal ping-pong, finally come to a mutual conclusion. However before this can occur, Socrates gets Meno to agree to many false conclusions in preparation for the final discovery. The philosophers' assumptions towards the beginning of the text conclude that if something can be taught, then it is knowledge, and reciprocally, if something is knowledge, then it can indeed be taught. Once Socrates reviews the premises with Meno and comes to the conclusion that they are false, he essentially negates the assumption that knowledge can guide good action.

Socrates additionally concludes that in order for something to be teachable, both teachers and learners must exist. The assessments he makes later in the text however, do not support this conclusion, and with good reason. The fact is, some subjects can be learned which have neither a teacher nor someone to teach them. One example is that in Darwin's time, genetics existed, but had not yet been discovered. Thus genetics was a teachable subject, however no one during that time period was equipped to teach it or learn about it.

Socrates not only shows Meno how to identify the flaws of their earlier reasoning, but he also demonstrates exactly what he is trying to convey to Meno in that their learning process on this subject just occurred through teaching and exploration of knowledge.

Socratic Support for Plato's Theory of Forms

To Socrates, wisdom is based on self-interest. Socrates also believed that wisdom is something that every man believes he possesses but that none of us truly do. This conjecture highlights the portion of Plato's theory of forms that David Banach refers to as "Plato's Principle." According to Banach, this principle is relevant to the transience of forms (including wisdom and knowledge) in the sense that "We already believe that the more objective a concept is, the more real the thing it represents. We show that we believe this by the way we use objectivity to distinguish appearance and reality" (1).

Plato's understanding of forms as compilations of essences lends credibility to the connection with Socrates' perceptions of wisdom and knowledge. Plato views objects as capable of autonomous meaning, noting that they do not need to be perceived in relationship to other objects to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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