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6243Re: Origin of the Theory of Forms

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  • vaeringjar
    Mar 13, 2014
      A very big subject, to say the least, even if focused on an origin of the theory itself. Not sure anyone can really answer that question, but you can start from Aristotle, who says in Metaphysics A that Plato was prompted with frustration of the flux of the sensible world and then was encouraged by Socrates' search for definition in matters moral:

      "After the systems we have named came the philosophy of Plato, which in most respects followed these thinkers, but had pecullarities that distinguished it from the philosophy of the Italians. For, having in his youth first become familiar with Cratylus and with the Heraclitean doctrines (that all sensible things are ever in a state of flux and there is no knowledge about them), these views he held even in later years. Socrates, however, was busying himself about ethical matters and neglecting the world of nature as a whole but seeking the universal in these ethical matters, and fixed thought for the first time on definitions; Plato accepted his teaching, but held that the problem applied not to sensible things but to entities of another kind-for this reason, that the common definition could not be a definition of any sensible thing, as they were always changing. Things of this other sort, then, he called Ideas, and sensible things, he said, were all named after these, and in virtue of a relation to these; for the many existed by participation in the Ideas that have the same name as they. Only the name 'participation' was new; for the Pythagoreans say that things exist by 'imitation' of numbers, and Plato says they exist by participation, changing the name. But what the participation or the imitation of the Forms could be they left an open question.

      "Further, besides sensible things and Forms he says there are the objects of mathematics, which occupy an intermediate position, differing from sensible things in being eternal and unchangeable, from Forms in that there are many alike, while the Form itself is in each case unique.

      "Since the Forms were the causes of all other things, he thought their elements were the elements of all things. As matter, the great and the small were principles; as essential reality, the One; for from the great and the small, by participation in the One, come the Numbers.

      "But he agreed with the Pythagoreans in saying that the One is substance and not a predicate of something else; and in saying that the Numbers are the causes of the reality of other things he agreed with them; but positing a dyad and constructing the infinite out of great and small, instead of treating the infinite as one, is peculiar to him; and so is his view that the Numbers exist apart from sensible things, while they say that the things themselves are Numbers, and do not place the objects of mathematics between Forms and sensible things. His divergence from the Pythagoreans in making the One and the Numbers separate from things, and his introduction of the Forms, were due to his inquiries in the region of definitions (for the earlier thinkers had no tincture of dialectic), and his making the other entity besides the One a dyad was due to the belief that the numbers, except those which were prime, could be neatly produced out of the dyad as out of some plastic material." (Ross' tr.)

      I found Ross' book very helpful, some years ago, to name but one: Ross, W.D. 1951, Plato's Theory of Ideas, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

      There is such a large bibliography on this - take a look at the Stanford page on Plato's Middle Period, which also discusses the Forms:


      Gail Fine's book, On Ideas, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, I am sad to say personally I never got through entirely - Prof. Gerson's review of it you might find helpful in general too:


      I have, but have not read yet Prof. Dancy's new book:


      I am sure others could address this big question better!

      I am curious exactly where in Simplicius you encountered that comment. I ought to know that...my own opinion, for what it's worth, I would say it was a mixed influence of  Socrates and the Pythagoreans, but starting just as Aristotle says, with the frustration at the flux of the sensibiles.

      Dennis Clark
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