Socrates explains that the theory which he regards as most certain, as least vulnerable to attack, is none other than the Theory of Forms. This is the theory that there exist as real entities such things as Beauty in itself, Goodness in itself, and Largeness in itself. Socrates hopes that his Theory of Forms will help explain causation, and ultimately give a proof for the immortality of the soul that will satisfy even Cebes.
Socrates posits Forms as the true reasons for things being as they are. For instance, something is beautiful because it participates in the Form of Beauty, and for no other reason. While others might try to explain the beauty of an object in terms of its color or shape, Socrates suggests that ultimately, the simplest and best explanation is given by the Theory of Forms.
This argument is clarified by reference to the claim that one man who is taller than another man by a head is taller by virtue of his participating in the Form of Tallness. The alternative explanation would be that the man is taller "by a head." Socrates has two arguments against accepting this explanation. First, the shorter man would also be shorter "by a head," and so the same explanation would be given for two opposite phenomena. Socrates' theory assigns a different cause for each phenomenon, explaining the taller man's being taller by the Form of Tallness and explaining the shorter man's being shorter by the Form of Shortness. Second, if the taller man is indeed taller "by a head" he would be made taller than the short man by something which is very short: a head. It would be odd to say that the cause of a man's being taller is something short.
Similarly, the Theory of Forms provides an answer to Socrates' earlier problem of explaining how one and one make two, and how one divided in two makes two. Rather than give an explanation in terms of addition and division (for how could there be two different causes for something's becoming two?), Socrates explains that both these cases yield two as a result of their participating in the Form of Duality.
Rather than try to give all sorts of reasons for different phenomena, Socrates suggests that in the poverty of our ignorance, we should just cling to the hypothesis we have, the Theory of Forms, and rely on that for our explanations. And rather than try to justify the theory in itself, we should ask only whether or not its consequences are mutually consistent. And in substantiating the hypothesis itself, we should assume whatever more basic hypothesis from which this hypothesis follows is the most plausible, and hold to that. In investigating hypotheses, it is important not to confuse the hypothesis itself with its consequences.
All present remark how convincing Socrates' theory is, and Echecrates also notes to Phaedo that he finds Socrates' explanation to be remarkably clear. Socrates proceeds to one final point of clarification. We might be inclined to say that if Simmias is taller than Socrates but shorter than Phaedo, then Simmias must at the same time be participating in the Form of Tallness and the Form of Shortness. But, Socrates explains, it is not Simmias himself who is tall simply because he is Simmias. Rather, it is because he has the attribute of tallness with respect to Socrates' shortness. Similarly, he has the attribute of shortness with respect to Phaedo's tallness. Thus, Simmias can be described as both tall and short.
This section is one of the most important in the Phaedo, and, frustratingly, it is very confusing. This confusion is not helped any by the fact that Echecrates and Socrates' interlocutors all agree with Socrates unreservedly. We noted this problem earlier--that in his middle dialogues, where Plato first introduces the Theory of Forms, he presents it as totally unobjectionable. (It is only in his later dialogues, such as the Parmenides, that the theory is subjected to scrutiny.) Here, Plato presents it without any kind of detailed or definitive background, assuming that we all understand and agree with what he's talking about. We are not given an explanation of what a Form is (and, we should note, Plato only once uses the word "Form"), we are just asked to agree that there is such a thing as, say, Beauty in itself.
Forms here are being used as causal explanations, something that might cause some confusion. Today, we think of a cause as acting upon something, being that which produces certain effects. Our paradigmatic example of cause-and-effect is one billiard ball causing another other to move. In ancient Greece, there were several different notions of causation, and Plato is mostly concerned with teleological causes. These causes do not explain the "how" so much as the "why" and the "what for." The teleological cause of the second billiard ball moving would not be that it was struck by the first ball, but that it is intended to fall into the corner pocket. Plato's interest in teleological causes explains his disinterest in the provision of addition as the reason that one and one make two. Addition may answer how one and one can combine to make two, but Plato is more interested however in the end goal of adding one and one together. His answer to this is Duality, or Twoness. The end goal of adding one and one is to make two.
Nowadays, we associate teleological causes with explaining people's actions: as Plato explains, the reason Socrates is in prison is best explained by the decisions of the Athenian court and of Socrates himself, not by some material explanation that appeals to his anatomy. Unlike our modern scientific desire to give material explanations for material facts, however, Plato wants to give similarly teleological explanations for the causes of non-human phenomena as well.
Plato explains the causal relationship between Forms and objects in the world by saying that things participate in the Forms. It is not entirely clear what he means by this, but there are three likely possibilities of what Forms are according to this claim. (1) Forms as paradigms: Forms are the perfect instance of whatever they represent. For instance, the Form of Justice is the paradigm of justice, the one, most perfect instance of justice in this world. All other things that are just are just only insofar as they emulate, or are similar to, this Form of Justice. (2) Forms as universals: Forms are that which all instances of the Form have in common. The Form of Justice is that quality which all just people have in common. According to this interpretation, one participates in the Form of Justice by sharing in that quality of justice. (3) Forms as stuffs: Forms are distributed throughout the world. The Form of Justice, under this interpretation, is not some separate thing, but is rather the sum total of all the instances of justice that we might find in the world. There is a little bit of justice in me, there is a little bit of justice in you, and if we were to gather all these little bits of justice together, we would have the Form of Justice. Thus, each one of us participates in the Form of Justice by having a bit of the Form in us, like sharing a small piece of a very big pie.
Mention should also be made of Plato's method of hypothesis. The method is actually quite simple and sensible. The idea, if one is having a dispute with someone, is to find a hypothesis that you both agree upon, and see what follows from it. For instance, Socrates and Simmias disagree about whether or not the soul is an attunement, but they agree about the Theory of Forms. The Theory of Forms implies the Theory of Recollection, which is in conflict with Simmias' argument of attunement. If the hypothesis itself comes into question, the two disputants need merely retreat a little to a new, simpler hypothesis upon which they can both agree. Here, the Theory of Forms is the common ground that everyone shares, and so it can serve as the starting point for a proof of the immortality of the soul.
In the commentary, the phrasing: 'Heraclitus [...] maintains that everything is in constant flux and that the only constant in the universe is change' is misleading. While purposeful for the Phaedo since this may very well have been Plato's interpretation of Heraclitus, it is not necessarily correct from an objective point of view. While Heraclitus probably held that 'you can not step into the same river twice', 'Πάντα ῥεῖ' or 'everything floats' (by extension, everything is in a flux), was probably added by his disciple Cratylus,... Read more→
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