Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Notes on Aristotle and Plato: Objections to the Forms

The following is a record of a few notes that I have taken, for a research project that I am working on. It is not as immediately interesting as other things I have thought about recently (e.g. metaphysics of symbols), but it is in fact quite relevant to them in the long run. Central to the question of symbolism is the tension and interplay between the transcendence and immanence of the intelligible. In symbolic knowledge, one must, so to speak, penetrate to the interior of things in order to get at what lies, indeed, beyond them. The tension of transcendence and immanence is central to the dialectic between Plato and Aristotle.

My current research project is to examine Aristotle's objections to the Forms of Plato, specifically those objections in which he questions the causal and explanatory utility of the Forms. Aristotle is observing that Plato’s Forms seem to be ambiguously straddling the line between separate and intrinsic causes, i.e. between 1) efficient/final causes on the one hand, and 2) immanent formal causes on the other hand. With respect to 1) separate/extrinsic causes (i.e. efficient and final), the Forms fall short in virtue of lacking a) an explanation of the beginning of motion, and b) an explanation of the why or that-for-the-sake-of-which of things; and it is unclear how the character of paradigm, or the description of participation, fits with either of these requirements. With respect to 2) immanent formal causes, the Forms are precisely not immanent – at least as Aristotle understands them; and thus they do not fulfill the requirement of formal causality, which is to be an immanent essence.  These objections are summarized in Metaphysics A.9, 991a8-991b9. I present the text in bold, divided in the manner proposed by Dorothy Frede (in an article from the Symposium Aristotelicum on Book A), following more or less the division of Sir W. David Ross (the great Oxonian translator and editor of Aristotle's works), with a bit of my own commentary on each paragraph. 
[991a][8]Above all we might examine the question what on earth the Forms contribute to sensible things, whether eternal or subject to generation and decay; for they are not the cause of any motion or change in them. Again, they are no help towards the knowledge of other things (for they are not the substance of things, otherwise they would be in things), nor to their existence, since they are not present in the things which partake of them. If they were, it might perhaps seem that they are causes, in the sense in which the admixture of white causes a thing to be white; but this theory, which was first stated by Anaxagoras and later by Eudoxus and others, is very readily refutable, for it is easy to adduce plenty of impossibilities against such a view. 
1. Throughout his whole corpus, Aristotle is very concerned about motion; for this reason, he may be said to have reestablished the dignity of natural philosophy after Plato rejected the rather naive attempts of the pre-Socratics. Though he shares with Plato a certain critical attitude towards the pre-Socratic natural philosophers, Aristotle is evidently even more critical (at least in the amount of attention he pays) towards Plato himself, whose doctrine he finds to be the most competitive (and thus the most promising) rival to his own system - since, indeed, they share the most in common; yet he regards Plato as having fallen short in very important ways. Whether Aristotle is correct in this judgment remains to be seen (in fact, determining whether this is so is largely the aim of my current research). In any case, one way in which Plato falls short, in Aristotle's mind, is precisely that he failed to account for the reality of motion as such, which is as much an aspect of the real world as are those things which are permanent and unchangeable. Plato sought, not to explain motion, but to escape from it, as it were. The Forms are so abstract that they do not account for motion as such - either the eternal motions of the spheres, or the generative/corruptive motion of the sublunary world. In other words, the theory of Forms does not adequately include any notion of efficient or agent causality. 

The first question that comes to mind: what about the Demiurge of the Timaeus? Can this be considered as a cause of motion - specifically of generation? Is there enough evidence in that text for such an interpretation?

2. The Forms are posited by Plato to account, not for motion as such, but for the essences of things. Essence, for both Plato and Aristotle (inasmuch as this notion is common to both of them), is a principle of both the being and the knowledge of things. Aristotle points out that the separation of the Forms cannot allow them to function in precisely the way that Plato intended: as causes of either being or knowledge - unless this were in the manner of a mixture, as Anaxagoras and Eudoxus taught. But this latter has already been refuted by Aristotle, and it is not quite the doctrine of Plato to begin with. So it seems there is no way to maintain that the Forms, if they are separate, can succeed at truly accounting for the being and the intelligibility of the world. 

It seems that Aristotle does not attend to the many texts throughout the dialogues where Plato seems to admit of a distinction between transcendent and immanent forms. The texts in which he speaks of immanent forms are indeed too many to list here, although a fairly comprehensive list has indeed been compiled by Ross, and many texts have been noted by other authors.  For example, in the Phaedo at 102d, Plato speaks of both separation and immanence:  "I think it is evident not only that greatness itself will never be great and also small, but that the greatness in us will never admit the small or allow itself to be exceeded." It is also notable that Plato anticipates, in a certain form, the very objection which Aristotle makes here, in the Parmenides 134d-e, where Parmenides puts to Socrates the objection that if the Forms are separated from this world, it would follow that we could have no communion with that realm - and, even more impiously (and Aristotle doesn't mention this!) the gods themselves would have no knowledge of our world! (This reminds me very much of the Thomistic doctrines of divine and angelic knowledge of the world.) Plato is thus acutely aware of the tension in his theory. Does he have a solution, either explicitly or implicitly?

Aristotle goes on:
Again, other things are not [20] in any accepted sense derived from the Forms. To say that the Forms are patterns, and that other things participate in them, is to use empty phrases and poetical metaphors; for what is it that fashions things on the model of the Ideas. Besides, anything may both be and become like something else without being imitated from it; thus a man may become just like Socrates whether Socrates exists or not, and even if Socrates were eternal, clearly the case would be the same. Also there will be several "patterns," and hence Forms, of the same thing; e.g. "animal" and "two-footed" will be patterns of "man," and so too will the Idea of Man. Further, the Forms will be patterns not only of sensible things but of themselves (e.g. genus in the sense of genus of species), and thus the same thing will be both pattern and copy.  
1. The first sentence of this paragraph refers, most likely, to Aristotle's own enumeration of the six senses of "from" (ἔκ) in Δ.24, 1023a26-1023b12. Those six senses are a) from matter, b) from a moving (efficient-agent) cause, c) from matter and/or form, 4) from the parts of (immanent) form, 5) from parts of an origin or principle, or 6) “from before” as in temporal succession. Aristotle's objection is that none of these six senses of "from" corresponds to the relation of particulars to their Forms, in Plato. It is a somewhat strange objection, as Plato does not tend to use the word ἔκ ("from") in describing this relation. In any case, I wonder if there might be a possible (it is not certain) avenue for reconciliation in sense c), since there Aristotle likens form to the final cause of generation: "for the shape [or form-μορφή] is an end, and that is a complete thing which has attained its end." But there is no clear solution here, as yet; and the question of final cause in Plato is itself a complex one. 

2. Aristotle's objection to the term "participation" is famous for its ridiculing tone. Earlier, in chapter 6, Aristotle explained that this term was merely as another word for "imitation," being equally inadequate to describe the kind of causality possessed by the Forms. "With regard to the "participation," it was only the term that he changed; for whereas the Pythagoreans say that things exist by imitation of numbers, Plato says that they exist by participation—merely a change of term. As to what this "participation" or "imitation" may be, they left this an open question." (A.6, 987b10-13). If participation is indeed merely imitation, Aristotle nonetheless insists that there must be some sort of efficient cause which brings into being those things which are imitations of the Forms. Again, it is surprising that he does not seem to recognize the Demiurge of Timaeus as such a cause - perhaps this should be the next text to consult carefully.

3. Perhaps Aristotle does not explicitly mention the Demiurge because he still cannot see how, even had Plato posited such an efficient cause, the Forms would indeed be necessary; for it is not necessary that a model exist in order that something come into being which is like the original model. Socrates could come into being, by the power of an agent cause, even had there not been an original and "eternal" Socrates. Aristotle seems to be here taking Forms and particulars to be synonymous kinds of beings, but with Forms possessing the added attributes of "eternal" or "intelligible," as if the Forms were merely intelligible and eternal duplications of the visible world. Indeed, Aristotle makes this precise accusation at the very beginning of chapter 9, and the famous "Third Man" argument - also acknowledged by Plato in the Parmenides - essentially hinges on this presupposition of synonymy. But it seems that this is not a necessary interpretation of the Platonic doctrine (as we have learned from Syrianus). This could be argued on the basis of Plato's texts, or even simply on the basis of the inner logic of Plato's Forms, and the functions which they fulfill as paradigms or standards. A measurement is not predicated of the thing measured in the same way that it is predicated of the standard of measurement itself; the former predication signifies a comparison to the standard, while the latter simply indicates that the standard contains that measure in itself in a primordial way. (This is argued very clearly by R.E. Allen in an article in The Philosophical Review, in 1960.) However, this being granted, it could still be asked how, as intelligible paradigms or standards, the Forms of Plato would fit within Aristotle's own fourfold framework of causes, if at all. 

4. Aristotle notes next that there would have to be many Forms of one particular, if they are taken to be paradigms or patterns; for many things can be observed and said about any given particular, which belongs not only to its proper species but also to various tiers of higher species-genera. There will have to be a hierarchy of Forms, those more universal containing or informing those more particular. I must admit that it is not quite clear to me how Aristotle sees this as a problem; although nor is it quite clear to me how Plato himself conceives of Forms of greater or lesser universality in relation to each other, as paradigmatic causes of a single particular. Certainly he does have a notion of different degrees of universality; but I will have read more carefully dialogues such as the Sophist, the Philebus, and the Statesman, in which, I am given to understand, Plato at least touches upon this problem. I am reminded again, however - though this is somewhat extraneous to my project - of the later doctrine of the angels and angelic knowledge, as put forward by St. Thomas Aquinas. The knowledge of the angels is by way of progressively greater universal species, which are unlike the intelligible species of the human intellect (according to Aristotelian epistemology) in being more real and more determinate than the things know by way of them. There is almost, in the doctrine of angelic hierarchy approaching the simplicity of God, a doctrine very closely analogous to the later polytheistic metaphysics of the Neoplatonists, though not without significant modifications. 
[991b][1] Further, it would seem impossible that the substance and the thing of which it is the substance exist in separation; hence how can the Ideas, if they are the substances of things, exist in separation from them? It is stated in the Phaedo that the Forms are the causes both of existence and of generation. Yet, assuming that the Forms exist, still the things which participate in them are not generated unless there is something to impart motion; while many other things are generated (e.g. house, ring) of which we hold that there are no Forms. Thus it is clearly possible that all other things may both exist and be generated for the same causes as the things just mentioned.
The first part of this paragraph is more or less repeated from earlier: how can the Forms ("Ideas" is probably the safer translation) exist separately from things if, indeed, they are meant to explain substances as formal causes of them? Moreover, the Forms are insufficient to account for both existence and motion, because even assuming they exist as the real paradigms or exemplars of things which come into being, nonetheless they cannot themselves bring such things into being; there must be some other cause of motion. Then Aristotle adds a third point, for contrast: not only are the Forms insufficient for motion; but they are also not even needed in some cases (according to conventional Platonism), e.g. for objects of art. The Forms thus seem not only insufficient but possibly superfluous. 

I will probably not focus too much on the question of artefacts - although that is something  fairly controversial within Platonic discourse. Rather, I would like to focus once more on the question of the moving cause. I wonder whether the Demiurge of Timaeus is not such a cause. I also wonder, however - especially since Aristotle refers here to the Phaedo - whether we should not take into consideration Socrates' discussion of Anaxagoras, when he describes the "voyages" of his intellectual journey (in this marvelous passage). There, Socrates describes how, being frustrated with the explanations of the natural philosophers, he initially hoped to find a true account of causality in Anaxagoras, who proposed Mind as the true cause of all things. (97c-99d) Socrates expected an explanation according to which Mind dis-posed and caused all things according to true conceptions of the good of all things, both particularly and universally. Alas, Anaxagoras did not fulfill Socrates' expectations; but I wonder if it is possible to take this passage as indicative of Plato's own thought: are Mind and the Good a sort of causal framework within which we should understand the Forms? Is the Mind anything other than the Demiurge? Cannot the Good be understood as the final cause, in order to which all things are arranged in harmony and hierarchy? Plato does not settle this definitively, but the mere fact that he expects Anaxagoras to give such an explanation indicates it is generally his own thought on the subject. The discussion of Mind and the Good suggests, perhaps, a new understanding of efficient and final causality. Things are caused not simply by the conditions in which they find themselves – these are like “secondary” or “instrumental” causes – but above all by the prior intelligible causes named as Mind and the Good. Things are caused more principally by causes of a higher order than by causes of their own "horizontal" order. 

Interestingly, in this respect, Aristotle makes a similar objection to Plato’s theory of Forms to that which Plato himself directed towards Anaxagoras: an accusation of failure to really account for the true cause by which Intellect or Mind (νοῦς) operates. Aristotle makes this objection explicit at the end of chapter 9, in the midst of refuting the association of Forms with numbers. There his words are quite enlightening, aiming straight for what he perceives as the core weakness of Plato's doctrine: its neglect of efficient and final causality, and its failure to even account for essence by way of formal causality. (Note that in this text, Aristotle describes the Platonists as "we," thereby counting himself among them despite his reservations.) My brief comments in [brackets]:
In general, although Wisdom is concerned with the cause of visible things, we [the Platonists] have ignored this question (for we have no account to give of the cause from which change arises [namely the agent or efficient cause, as stated above]), and in the belief that we are accounting for their substance we assert the existence of other substances [the separation mentioned above, which prevents Forms from being the essences of things]; but as to how the latter are the substances of the former, our explanation is worthless—for "participation," as we have said before, means nothing. And as for that which we can see to be the cause in the sciences, and through which all mind and all nature works—this cause which we hold to be one of the first principles [here he is without doubt referring to the final cause, the end or goal, and the cause of all  causes]—the Forms have not the slightest bearing upon it either.
Both objections – Aristotle to Plato, and Plato to Anaxagoras – hinge around the notions of Mind and the Good, this latter under the explicit notion of final cause in Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle share the same concern: to resolve the being and becoming of things back to the causality of Mind and the Good. But they differ – or Aristotle supposes that they differ – in how they understand Mind and the Good to be causes. 

The sum of Aristotle's entire objection to Plato's doctrine might be found in this paragraph. It may be summarized thus: the Platonic Forms fit nowhere within the only causal framework of reality which Aristotle considers admissible. Earlier, in chapter 7, in the midst of recounting the various early attempts at discovering the causes, Aristotle likewise claimed that "[Plato] only employed two causes: that of the essence, and the material cause; for the Forms are the cause of the essence in everything else, and the One is the cause of it in the Forms." (A.7, 988a8-11.) Even this statement, Aristotle finds it necessary to qualify: "As for the essence or essential nature, nobody has definitely introduced it; but the inventors of the Forms express it most nearly." (988a30-988b.) We have already seen Aristotle claim that Plato neglected the moving cause, i.e. agent or efficient cause. His accusation that Plato neglects also the final cause - indeed, that the Forms have not the slightest bearing upon it - is crucial, as Aristotle regards final cause to be the first of all causes. In book 7, Aristotle had indeed admitted that Plato had perhaps seen something of the final cause, but not as such; the Good was admitted to be a cause, yet not as Good, but only accidentally to that which is most of all Form, namely the One - much as the other pre-Socratics (Anaxagoras and Empedocles) made it accidental to their notions of efficient cause. In none of them was the Good recognized under its own proper ratio, as final cause. I am curious which texts Aristotle is referring to here, and whether, even in those cases, this is an absolutely necessary interpretation - at least whether the notion of final causality is not even coherent with the notion of the Good, as Plato presents it. Aristotle's own philosophy is very congenial to a notion of the Good as something correlative to Mind: the First Cause is a cause as something intelligible and desirable. Intelligence operates with purpose - for the sake of something. This seems little different from the understanding which Plato briefly proposes in the Phaedo, in recounting the expectation of Socrates towards Anaxagoras.


What to make of all of this? My suspicion is that there isn't a single straightforward answer to the question of whether Plato and Aristotle are in harmony. But there are complex indications of possible harmony in certain respects, and Plato may have more to offer than Aristotle gives him credit for. In this dialectic, both the Platonist mind and the Aristotelian mind shall have to expand themselves somewhat, looking towards each other for new balance and complementarity, without necessarily changing the substance of their thought. 

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