06 February 2008

The Theory of Forms

I want to consider the question of whether we should attribute a theory of Forms to Plato, as this is raised in Palmer's review.

It might be considered a frivolous point, to observe that there are dozens of books, articles, and encyclopedia entries on Plato's theory of Forms, so that, even if Plato did not hold such a theory, or even a theory (at all), still, an argument which supposed that he did would most appropriately be evaluated by the granting, for purposes of argument (indeed), of that premise.

That is, it would have been easy--and I think most responsible--for Palmer to express briefly his own doubts that Plato ever held a theory, then proceed to discuss Rickless' interpretation on the widely-granted premise that he does. Someone unable for the purposes of a review to reason on that premise should probably simply decline to review Rickless' book -- just as, say, someone who thought the phenomenological method had little merit should probably decline to review a book on Scheler or Ingarden.

You might be thinking, "This is too simple. It's not that Palmer denies that there is any theory of Forms in Plato; he rejects Rickless' way of stating it."

Actually, no. Palmer argues that there is no theory of Forms in Plato, and that Rickless' attempt to find or reconstruct a theory leads him inevitably to distort Plato's views. I'll deal with the question of distortion later. Let's look now at Palmer's arguments that there is no theory.

I won't dwell long on the paragraph which begins:

The systematizing impulse driving Rickless's reconstruction of the theory of Forms is reminiscent of that found in Russell Dancy's Plato's Introduction of Forms.
and which concludes:
Out of it came his first publication in ancient philosophy, "How Parmenides saved the theory of forms" (The Philosophical Review 107 [1998], 501-54), which this monograph now supercedes. Rickless perhaps does not altogether appreciate the depth of Dancy's influence on his approach to the problems he tackles here. The very impulse to systematize is an important case in point.
except to say that I personally find it obnoxious that Palmer in effect claims that he understands Rickless' motives and method better than Rickless does. And isn't it human that he misspells a word as he adopts this untenable posture?

Next Palmer says:
Rickless never doubts that the middle-period dialogues contain a fully-developed theory of forms.
This sentence I think suggests dogmatism and inflexibility. Yet in fact, we don't know whether Rickless spent years puzzling over the question of a theory before finally arriving at his view, and whether he did or not is irrelevant. Note also the fudge-term, 'fully developed'. Is it that he reconstructs a theory which is the problem, or a 'fully developed' theory?

It might be useful to define terms. What is a theory after all? A view? The belief that Forms exist together with (as must be the case) some beliefs about what Forms are like? Note that although, clearly, Rickless is fond of formalism (and we can argue about the advantages and disadvantages of formalization and rational reconstruction), the views he attributes to Plato are actually not very complicated. Perhaps in some sense it's puffery to call it a 'theory' even on Rickless' formalization.

But here is Palmer's argument:

In actual fact, however, the existence of certain imperceptible forms in which sensible particulars participate is typically presented as no more than Socrates' favored hypothesis. This status is especially clear in the Phaedo, where it enters the third argument that the philosopher should welcome death as something Socrates and his interlocutors already agree upon (65d4-7), and where it is likewise presumed without further argument in both the recollection and affinity arguments for the soul's immortality. Socrates' recap of the recollection argument marks the existence of forms as an unargued [sic] and as yet unsecured hypothesis (76d7-e7), and he makes it perfectly clear in his subsequent account of his method that the forms' existence has merely the status of a hypothesis (100a3-b9). Rather than a fully developed theory of forms, the Phaedo gives us a theory under construction, and much the same holds true of the Symposium and Republic. A crucial feature of the method of hypothesis as described in the Meno, Phaedo, and Republic is that it eventually becomes necessary to go beyond just considering what accords with one's hypothesis by examining the hypothesis itself, with a view to ultimately grounding it in an unhypothesized first principle. The Parmenides is best understood as conducting the projected examination of Socrates' favored hypothesis.
Since the "theory of forms" is more accurately a hypothesis under development in the Symposium, Phaedo, and Republic, Rickless's attempt to furnish a systematic reconstruction of the "theory" in would-be definitive fashion not only is misplaced but also makes it more difficult than necessary to understand what to make of Parmenides' criticisms.
I'll put aside Palmer's use of the Phaedo, which seem to me faulty. What I wish to emphasize instead is that his argument contains ambiguities and false contrasts. Palmer uses the word 'hypothesis' in two ways: (i) as contrasted with 'conclusion' and meaning a premise, and (ii) as contrasted with 'definitive' and meaning provisional. On neither meaning does something's being an hypothesis exclude its being a theory, since theories may be both posited and provisional (as it seems all scientific theories are). So these paragraphs do nothing to defeat the claim that Plato held a theory. Perhaps Plato never held a theory, but Palmer gives no reason for this claim.

Yet suppose the point of these paragraphs is the notion that Plato's views were always changing throughout the 'middle period' dialogues, so one cannot pin down and state a single theory that covers all of them adequately. Even if that were granted, it's not clear that this would imply problems for the truth of Rickless' interpretation (I don't say how he understands his interpretation; I say its truth), since it seems that it would suffice to say that Rickless' reconstruction captures one position that Plato adopted, or a favored position, or the strongest position, or a representative position -- and that the Parmenides is best viewed as reflections which take that 'snapshot' of a developing theory as their starting point.

Actually, given the odd, logic-chopping character of the Parmenides, who is to say that as advance work for the dialogue, Plato didn't try to throw his thoughts into a more formal cast than he required of himself before? Surely we would be justified in suspecting systematic thought about the Forms in connection with the Parmenides if anywhere.

But as to whether the Parmenides is indeed best viewed in such a way -- to examine that question, we would (surprise, surprise) need to look at the actual interpretation of the dialogue which Rickless gives.


Eric Brown said...

This seems to me unnecessarily nasty. You claim to have concluded that words such as 'flat-footed' are inappropriate in a review. How can you now permit yourself such a dismissive tone? How is 'fudge-term' acceptable if 'flat-footed' is not? How is '(surprise, surprise)' acceptable?

It also seems to me, if I may make a more trivial point, that if one is going to object pointedly (for the second time) to the spelling 'supercede', which spelling has appeared in respectable English work for centuries and which a responsible lexicographer could count as an acceptable variant, one should remind oneself of the generally observed distinction between the possessive 'its' and the contraction for 'it is'.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Thanks, Eric. I've corrected that mistake (I had "it's truth").

As regards 'supercede', my own view is that the lexicographer you mention would be irresponsible, since, whatever the reason for spellings in centuries past, in current English the misspelling in most cases arises from ignorance (of Latin) and confusion (with very different word forms).

Anonymous said...

It may be that Michael is being unnecessarily nasty. It may be that he isn't. Whichever is the case, I personally think Michael's blog is infinitely more interesting when its focus is primarily on philosophy or on the views and arguments of ancient philosophers than when its focus is primarily on the idiosyncracies of what might be termed the "politics" of contemporary scholarly commentary, e.g. when it focuses on the minutiae of reviews of commentaries of the views of ancient philosophers. One post on such things is tolerable. Four is not. I'd be interested to hear what Michael has to say about Plato or even what he has to say about what Rickless or Palmer has to say about Plato, but not what Michael has to say about what Palmer had to say about what Rickless said about Plato - and especially not when the comments have mostly to do with style and propriety. But that's just me....

Anonymous said...

"One post on such things is tolerable. Four is not. I'd be interested to hear what Michael has to say about Plato or even what he has to say about what Rickless or Palmer has to say about Plato, but not what Michael has to say about what Palmer had to say about what Rickless said about Plato"

Well said, Anon. Quite well said indeed.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Friends, you are doubtless right. It's time to move on. I may still post on some issues in the review, such as the significance of the 'compresence of opposites', but if so I'll do this without polemics and in abstraction from the context.

I should add by way of conclusion that Rickless has shown me a reply he has written to the review, and he is willing to share this with anyone who is interested; simply write to srickless AT ucsd DOT edu.


Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

Many thanks for blogging on the subject of Palmer's dismissive review of my book.

For those who are interested, I've posted a detailed response to Palmer's review on my website:


best wishes,


Anonymous said...

I wonder, Michael, if you’ve thought of becoming an editor, since it seems these posts are begun more on account of the fact reviews such as Palmer’s have slipped past ignorant and/or somnolent editors. Someone of your intellectual caliber could certainly elevate the quality of these reviews.

Also, to make a belated, trivial point: I agree with Michael that the lexicographer by adopting ‘supercede’ would be quite careless and incorrect. The word comes from the Latin sedere, to sit, not cedere, meaning to move or to give way. The Latin supersedere turned into the Old French supercedere, hence the confusion and misspelling of the word as it passed from Old French into English.

So it might have been correct to say, in effect, that the publication “How Parmenides saved the theory of forms” cedes ('gives way to') the current monograph which supersedes ('takes the place of', or 'sits above') it.

All that being said -- I find Rickless' book quite engaging, thorough and thought-provoking.


Michael Pakaluk said...


I probably do more than my fair share of editing, reviewing, and ... book reviewing. What I sometimes attempt to do on the blog--in its 'muckraking munus'--is, so to speak, to keep the profession honest. I've found that the reviews in NPDR, in particular, vary wildly in quality, which is a shame, because as an e-journal it should insist on even higher standards than those that govern the best print journals.

I'm sure that those good words about Rickless' book will not go unappreciated.