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Plato’s Theory of Forms

Lecturer: Bernard Lewin

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 2 2021

The teaching of Plato in today’s universities is so impoverished that it is nigh impossible for the student to see in Platonic formalism a credible alternative to modern Analytic Philosophy. The cartoon cut-out version invariably dished out to undergraduates only mimics Aristotles’ original ham-fisted critique. And it serves the same purpose, which is to launch inquiries in an opposite direction on assurance that, whatsoever misgivings may surface along the way, there is none so absurd as that left behind.

Just how neglected is Plato’s ‘theory of forms’ in the modern academic discourse is demonstrated by 20th century continental philosophers coming to similar conclusions as Plato and yet not realising it; indeed, some will see themselves in direct opposition when in fact there is close affinity. This course is set to remedy this situation, at least for our students, by offering a step-by-step introduction to the formal philosophy expounded by Plato in his dialogues.

Course Outline

Part I Socratic Forms

1. Introducing Plato

  • Plato’s historical context and influences
  • The dialogues
  • The Academy
  • Scientific mysticism
  • Reception ancient and modern

2.  Scepticism and wisdom

Reading: Apology p. 20c-23e | Theaetetus p. 149a – 151e | Ion

  • Scepticism of materialist epistemology
  • Scepticism of linguistic method
  • Wisdom, enthusiasm and knowledge from within
  • The formal (mathematical) approach

3. Introducing the Forms

Reading: Aristotle Metaphysics Bk I p. 187a-193a | Plato Euthyphro p. 5a-6e | Phaedo p. 100b-107a

  • The distraction of Aristotelian reception of Platonic formalism
  • Forms as insensible, timeless, and opposite
  • The other-in-the-same and generation as othering
  • From the forms of virtue to mathematical formalism

4. Learning-as-recollection and formal participation

Reading: Memo p. 80d-86c | Phaedo p. 73a-77a

  • The mind’s eye
  • The problem of reference in materialist epistemology
  • The form of sensible experience
  • The observed object as an internal construction of mind
  • How internal construction does not deny external causation.

5. The allegorical section of the Republic

Reading: Republic Bk VI, p. 487b to Bk VII p 521b

  • The allegorical method of exposition and mysticism
  • The sun-sight analogy
  • The divided line analogy
  • The allegory of the cave

6. The Pythagorean Plato

Reading: Republic Bk VII p 521c – 531d

  • Distortions and confusions in the reception history
  • The mathematical education program
  • The original, seminal One (not-none)
  • The geometric ratio (logos) and mathematical emanationism

Part II Eleatic Forms

  1. Mythos and Logos

Reading: Republic Bk II p. 376d-p.398b | Phaedo p. 107c-114d | Phaedrus p.229b-230a | Theaetetus p. 187a – 190e. | Luc Brisson Plato the Myth Maker Ch 9.

  • Poetry and representational art in Plato’s ideal society
  • From noble lies to lullabies for the dying
  • Mythos, logos and falsification
  • The problem of false belief and the regress into scepticism
  1. The Eleatic challenge

Reading: Theaetetus p. 151e – 184a

  • The historical Parmenides and Zeno
  • Theaetetus between Parmenides and Heraclitus
  • The Parmenidean One
  • The problem of non-being and regress into scepticism
  1. Plato’s Parmenides

Reading: Parmenides p. 126a – 155b

  • Enigmatic and varied reception
  • The critique of the theory of forms
  • Plato’s use of enigma and contradiction
  1. The higher dialectic and the method of division

Reading: Republic Bk VII p. 531d – 534e | Sophist p. 216a – 236e

  • Destroying hypotheses: the higher dialectic of the Republic
  • Destroying hypotheses in the Parmenides
  • The method of division in the Sophist
  1. Answering Parmenides

Reading: Sophist p. 236e – 268d

  • The elementary forms
  • The being of not-being
  • The triumph over Parmenides

12. Plato’s Scientific Mysticism

  • Scientific Practice as seeking the generative ratio (logos) of truly distinguish things
  • Knowing as a true account (logos) of things
  • Being as found behind the form of experience