Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Platonic Forms

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


Evan writes,

Hey PB, I was wondering what the deal was with Plato's metaphysics- especially platonic absolutes. How is there a concept of desk-ness that neither my desk, nor any other can live up to? Isn't a desk a desk?
Oh man. Platonic absolutes. One of those things in philosophy that Plato came up with that leaves this absofuckinglutely resounding legacy.

So let's start with what the Forms are. Plato thinks the Forms are what really exist; they're true knowledge. When we're studying shit, we're really just trying to figure out when the Form of that shit is - for example, when we do geometry, we're really just trying to figure out what the Form of the triangle is really like. But it's not just cut-and-dry bullshit like triangles: political science is the study of how to best approach the Form of the city-state, epistemology is how to best approach the Form of knowledge, and so on. To Plato, everything, all study, is trying to get to the Forms. So everything we see, everything that we interact with? It's just random bullshit trying to approximate the Forms. In the Allegory of the Cave, the Forms are outside the cave, the real trees and stuff, and we're trapped in this world of shadows, trying to figure shit out.

Look, what makes your desk a desk? Is it how you use it? I took three pieces of wood, stacked one across the other two, and that's where my computer is. Nothing holds the wood together; it's free standing. When did this thing start being a desk? I'm using it as a desk, but I could just as easily use it as a dining table or as a frame for a blanket fort. Chicks dig blanket forts. Why a desk? Chicks don't dig desks. I mean, they're nice and all. But. They're no goddamn blanket fort.

Plato's solution is that there is this Form of a desk out there in what we've affectionately termed The Platonic Heavens, and the closer a thing corresponds to that Form, the deskier it is. So my ad hoc construction is a little bit desky, but it's also kinda tablish and just the slightest bit blanket-fortesque. Plato thought you needed these Forms to be able to ascribe properties to anything, like deskness; otherwise, there's no way to judge similarity. Strictly speaking, what you have isn't really a desk at all; it's an approximation of The Desk.

There's also no way to judge perfection. When you draw a circle on a whiteboard, you probably draw it all wobbly and shit. Your hand gets in the way, you get to that awkward part near the bottom where your wrist has to come over the top of you pen so you have to stop and start again, but by then you've lost your momentum... it's just a fucking mess, amirite? But you look at it and you know what's wrong with it; you know what it's supposed to look like. That image of the perfect circle, that's your grasp on the Form of Circles.  

Okay, problem. I actually have a three-drawer desk. My bro only has a two-drawer desk, which is the kind of a desk a bitch would have. Otherwise, though, it's a perfectly good desk, if you're into that sort of thing, I guess. So which more closely corresponds to the Form of desks? I honestly have no idea how many drawers the Form has. 500 would be too many, but a one-drawer desk is an absurd travesty, meaningless in its existence. So which is the better desk? Which is deskier? It's impossible to judge that. Plus, what if I took that shitty three-plank desk and added three shoeboxes? Now I've got a three-drawer desk, kind of. Is there a separate Form of three-drawer desks, in addition to the Form of the desk? And does that Form also participate in the Form of the desks? Are there Forms of Forms?

And that's why Aristotle was like, "Holy. Fuck. Plato. You need to chill the fuck out right now." Forms get out of hand so fast - we were only talking about one kind of concrete object and already we were losing track of shit. It's okay to admit that that last paragraph was crazy. Happened to me too. No shame in it. Even Aristotle was like, "Wait a second. If there's a Form of the Forms, then what Form does that correspond to? There has to be a higher Form. There's always a higher Form. FUCK." If you have a man, and the Form of a man, there has to be some other Form that explains why a man and the Form of a man are both men. Holy shit a third man. So you've got the man and this new Form of a man, and now you need a new Third Man to make that go away. And so on. Forever. It's a problem.

Plato didn't do himself any favors, either. He was all gung-ho about Forms of abstract objects, too. If he'd been like, "Nah, bro, just Forms of concrete things." then maybe he would have had an easier time. But he had shit like Form of the Good, and that's just insane. I mean, consider a normal day for me. Let's start in the middle: I play an excellent game of beach volleyball - I've got my shutter-Aviators on, Kenny Loggins is playing in the background because I can't play without that - and I go on this fantastic service run and people are like, "Good serve, bro!"  So of course we win and all the ladies are like, "He's soo good at volleyball!" After that, I go inside and have what I judge to be a deliciously good beer while I watch some My Little Pony, because it's a good time of day for that, and I'm like, "the dialogue is so good"... think of all the different kinds of things I've just judged to be 'good'. An activity, a skill, a human production, a conversation, a time of day for fucksake - in what sense do all these different things partake in the Form of the Good? How can a time resemble the same thing as a volleyball player?

So Evan, it's not as simple as 'desks are just desks, and that's that.' Plato would be like, "How do you know it's a desk?" And you'd be like, "Look at it! It does all the shit a desk does! It's a great desk!" And then Plato'd be like, "Are you sure it's not an abacus?" You'd look at him all confused and shit - "if this is an abacus, it's a fucking terrible abacus." and BAM. You've walked right into that smarmy fuck's trap. You only know that thing is a desk and not an abacus because it does not, at all, resemble the Form of an Abacus. This is part of the problem of Universals, a problem which hasn't gone away. And, as with so many other ideas, philosophers generally divide into two camps: Platonists, who believe in abstract, universal properties that really exist, and Aristotelians, who don't believe in those abstract properties. Aristotle would hold the line - it's just not a fucking abacus, alright, bro?

Wikipedia has a great page on the Platonic Forms, including a list of the Dialogues in which Plato discusses the Forms. 

Plato's Republic contains extensive use of the Forms in argumentation.

Also see the SEP article on platonism for a discussion of the contemporary legacy of the doctrine of the Forms.


  1. Interesting read, but I do have one critique. Isn't a desk basically just a human concept, not some kind of higher form? It's a vague set of properties coupled with an equally vague purpose, which we've artificially defined. It's not an abacus because it doesn't have all of the basic properties associated with an abacus. But that doesn't mean a desk is so narrowly; a desk with two drawers and a desk with three both fit the definition of a desk equally.

  2. *Narrowly defined, sorry.

  3. This is fucking brilliant. I've been letting people know via facebook that this site is amazing. I'm an apologetic Philosophy major, but I honestly believe this site is an incredible teaching tool. I recommended PB to my philosophy adviser for future classes. Keep up the good work guys.


  4. In response to Spencer, Plato believed that there were forms of objects that were created by humans. In the Republic he used the example of a couch to talk about forms.

  5. Spencer: I didn´t read Plato, just Bertrand Russel´s Summary in the excellent "History of western Philosophy"
    and the way i understood it, is that he tried to figure out why we have general therms (universals) in our language like "human". When I use that word we all know i don´t have a certain bro in mind,yet we instantly picture a generic, perfect human, an ideal we won´t see in nature, because bros tend to be imperfect ( ever been to a nudist beach? Trust me you will never ever again utter the prase "created in god´s image ").

    I believe a good follow up would be a look at linguistic philosophy,at how speach affects a bro´s thinking.

    Hey Obi Bro Kenobi , what say thee? How about a short disscusion of the problem of universals? As a humble padawan, I would really appreciate it

  6. The whole issue with the Forms getting out of hand too quickly doesn't seem anymore problematic to me than the capacity for mathematics to always accommodate an additional level of iteration for any of its operations. I guess the big difference between how most people see math vs. how Platonist philosophers would see the Forms is that the former is as abstraction (ie the numbers *follow* the objects that share the quality of "being" any given number) while the latter is as a source and/or backdrop of/for concrete reality (the Forms precede the objects that participate in them).

    I think the lack of modern evolutionary theory probably fueled a lot of the Platonist argument since coincidence detection and the reinforcement of decisions that successfully lead one to reproductive age seem sufficient to explain the apparently mystical inborn knowledge that precedes active education (with math, at heart, being one incredibly deep elaboration on the basic concept of a coincidence-- as in, the second time early man saw a 40 oz of Steel Reserve and realized it was related in some way to the first 40 oz of Steel Reserve he had seen, the idea of the number two came into existence due to it having become useful as a way to keep track of how shitfaced he was.

    Non-useful ideas, just like non-hardy lifeforms comes into existence too, but they tend not to persist. The privileged status of persistence is what makes certain mathematical answers correct, which in retrospect gives off the illusion of design, though in actuality, having some things work/persist and other things not work/not persist seems about as mundane and non-designed as a universe could get.

  7. what is the essence of a paperweight?
    is a rock that i threw on top of my memoirs a paperweight? or is it just a rock?

  8. @ El Jefe:

    I don't know about Plato, but Aristotle would hold that it's both, with no problems. It all comes down to his Hylomorphic system, which states that any created thing has to fulfill one or more Causes to exist:

    1. Material cause (matter): that from which something is made e.g. the bronze of a statue
    2. Formal cause (form): the shape that the matter takes, and which we use to describe it e.g. the Neptune-shape that the statue takes.
    3. Efficient cause (causal agent): the agent of the thing’s creation. This is not just the creator as such e.g. the sculptor, but also the desire to create the statue, and the knowledge of the art of sculpting which resides in the sculptor’s head.
    4.Final cause (purpose): the reason for the thing’s creation e.g. to create a fitting centrepiece for a fountain.

    In this model, the rock/paperweight is a paperweight with regards to its Causal Agent and Purpose, and a rock as regards its Matter, Form and Causal Agent. Its causally a rock because of the chemical processes which made it, and a paperweight because you wanted it to be one and knew it would be a suitable object (I think).

    So, according to Aristotle, it's both. Which we knew already.

    As far as essence is concerned, the a paperweight is only such if it is used as one.

  9. I'm digging the explanations, bro. I feel this one is kind of leaving out some background that helps to explain Plato's inspiration behind the Forms. Plato was very much also into geometry and mathematics. Learning about Pythagorus' ideas of numbers and music (basically frequencies) create reality. If you treat the Forms like numbers, it provides the logic and dimensions for infinite Forms within Forms; microscopic to macroscopic.

    It then comes down to the individual now possessing knowledge (or an idea) of such Forms, and deciding whether to appropriately hold reality to such a standard.

    Everything else I've read (including this) has been enjoyable, and hilarious. Well done, bro.