12 April 2005

The Third Man: One or Many?

“Philosophy always buries its undertakers”—one of my two favorite lines from Étienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience. (The other: “There are lots of good reasons for being a Descartes, but none whatsoever for being a Cartesian”--or something to that effect.)

Might we say that the Third Man too, despite his age, ends up being more spritely than we had imagined, and ends up burying those who would pronounce him dead? Here is an essay by Julia Annas, saying that this poor fellow “eventually died down out of exhaustion”. But then a reader of Dissoi Blogoi, Sam Rickless (UCSD), writes in and calls attention to his article on the Parmenides in Phil Review 1998 ("How Parmenides Saved the Theory of Forms")—and, I at least, in reading it, think I hear someone (or is it many?) shouting, “Not dead yet!”

The article is ambitious, offering an interpretation of all of the Parmenides, not just the Third Man Argument, and with that an account, too, of the changing fortunes of what Rickless calls Plato’s Middle Period Theory (ouch!) of Forms.

I’m not in a position yet to discuss intelligently the more ambitious claims of the article, but I do want to consider the interpretation of the Third Man that Rickless favors. The argument is meant to show, he says, that any Form, taken on its own, will be both one and many: one, because (by hypothesis) it is a single Form; many, on the grounds (Rickless claims) that it participates in each of an infinite number of Forms, the existence of which is shown by the Third Man regress. Rickless maintains that this interpretation best matches the plain language of the passage, and it is to be recommended on other, philosophical grounds as well. (See his comment on Annas' construal here.)

What should we hold about this?