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A question about Plato's theory of Forms. From what I've read, a Form is said to

A question about Plato's theory of Forms. From what I've read, a Form is said to be something that is 'ideal' and 'perfect' due to being unchanging and that no object in the physical world (of mimes) can absolutely mimic it to the nth degree. If a Form is 'ideal' or 'perfect' does that mean 'ideal' or 'perfect' in the normative, value-laden sense of those words, or does it mean ideal as in 'abstract' and perfect as in 'precise'? With this in mind, would a person who commits immoral acts have any less of the Form 'humanness' than a person with a good moral compass? Would this apply to other attributes such as intelligence?

This question is on to something important. The language is a bit inexact, as people’s language tends to get when they discuss Platonic Forms, but that is partly because Plato himself uses broad and sometimes shifting terminology to capture the essence of the Forms. To say the Forms are “ideal” could mean too many things; and Plato doesn’t often say they are “perfect.” More often he’ll talk about “the beautiful itself,” “the large itself.”

This absolute character of Forms does not follow from their unchanging nature – although you are quite right that Plato thinks they are unchanging. If anything, their quality of being unchanging follows from their “perfect” possession of whatever attributes they have. If the Form of the Large is large, and it’s absolutely large, then it can’t change, for change might make it larger or smaller. And if it became larger, then it hadn’t been abs0lutely large to begin with; if it became smaller, it would cease to be largeness as such.

Objects we can perceive are sometimes said to imitate the Forms, more often said to have the Forms in them; to “participate” in the Forms; to have a “share” of the Forms. But whatever language we use, it’s clear, as you say, that the Form of any quality is not among the objects of our experience.

So far so good. Now you move in toward your point. Is a Form “good” in the sense of how well it encapsulates its quality, or is it morally good? If we say less about “ideal” and “perfect” Forms and more about “absolute qualities,” then you can imagine that the question doesn’t quite come up in the same terms. And yet, even without Plato’s theory, we can articulate similar questions about any standards or ideals. We call a lot of things “good” to praise them; does this way of being good have anything to do with morality?

Well, sometimes the answer seems to be a clear Yes and sometimes a clear No. If you call someone a good political leader, you’re making a normative statement. You might also be saying that the person exactly fits the definition of a political leader, but fitting that definition exactly is morally loaded.

On the other hand, if you have a pipe wrench that works exactly as it’s supposed to and you call it a good wrench, even a perfect wrench, you don’t seem to be engaged in a moral claim.

To make things more complex, other cases could be taken either way. If someone is a good soldier (fits the precise definition of what soldiers are and do), are you always praising that person? Is that a normative claim? What about a good tax attorney?

Especially in some dialogues, Plato seems interested in making the Forms function in both ways you describe, as the most exact bearers of properties we know from experience, and in some manner as normative standards. In other dialogues he doesn’t pursue this double goal with the same sharp focus.

As for your final question, which seems to be your reason for writing: Would an immoral person have less “humanness” in them than a moral person?

I hope the answer doesn’t sound like a nit-picking appeal to what is and is not found in the dialogues, but it’s not always clear that Plato thinks there is a Form of the Human. And he doesn’t speak as if an immoral person were less human. He does speak of them as corrupted versions of what the human being could be. But the link you propose feels a little too easy, as well as too counter-intuitive, namely to think that somehow the performance of wicked deeds makes a person less of an example of their species.

Dear Philosophers,

Dear Philosophers, Can someone recommend a biography of Baruch Spinoza? Thank you

Would Plato have supported fascism in its twentieth century incarnations? Isn't

Would Plato have supported fascism in its twentieth century incarnations? Isn't his fascism implied in his strong support of the idea of the nation state and the rule of philosopher kings?

This is an old question about Plato’s Republic, and it’s something of an evergreen, because every serious contemporary reader who goes through the Republic’s proposal for a better state will notice the similarity between some features of that proposal and features of modern totalitarian states. The guardians are subjected to a life without property or privacy that calls communism to mind. The organic unity of the state, which your question alludes to, might sound like modern fascism.

But the question is a complex one, with too many elements to be handled in this space. Let me say a few words and then direct you to a place where I consider more aspects of the issue, chapter 10 of the third edition of my Guidebook to Plato’s Republic. There I ask about paternalism, individual autonomy, and other features of the Platonic state that are relevant to the question you have raised.

The trickiest part of your question is the first word: “Would.” You aren’t asking whether Plato did describe fascism, but whether – given the political system that he did describe – he would approve of modern fascism. This question is more likely to be answered “Yes” than the anachronistic one about whether Plato described an actual fascism; but it’s also harder to settle in a conclusive manner, because we have to speculate a bit.

For example, we know that totalitarian states take advantage of and control the latest technology in order to control their populations. Plato had no technologies of mass communication or mass observation available to him even to imagine. Nor did he have tanks or machine guns. Would he have approved of video cameras on street corners and automated patrols of phone conversations and the Internet? The reality of such intrusions into people’s lives might have appalled him; or he might have thought it was the quickest way to achieve the just state. How you answer this pedestrian-sounding question about Plato and modern technology will have implications for how much of a totalitarian you take Plato to be.

To take the point further we need to cite more than one or two features of one kind of totalitarianism. In general you can say that totalitarianism 1) restricts speech, 2) denies its citizens participation in government, 3) subjects the young to an indoctrinating education, 4) selects a self-perpetuating ruling class or cadre, and 5) enforces its rule by punishing any citizens’ acts of disobedience or subversion. And there’s no denying that many of the same features do appear in the Republic’s city. The philosophers' knowledge of the Form of the Good licenses their complete domination over the other citizens' lives. Free constitutional debate makes no more sense to Plato than asking children to vote on the multiplication table. As every government does, the guardians will make laws about contracts, libel, and insult, will levy taxes and regulate trade (425c-d). But we also see them lying to the people about their births (414d-415a), and to the guardians about their breeding partners (460a); planning the reproduction of the guardians in accord with eugenic theories (459a-e); restricting the speech and poetry permitted in the city; indoctrinating young guardians. Of the five characteristics listed, these clearly account for (1)-(4).

A lot of these points of similarity are made possible by the philosopher kings. In my opinion it’s fair to say, therefore, that Plato has described an authoritarian state, and more than that a paternalistic one. Totalitarianism is a kind of paternalistic tyranny, so totalitarianism and the Platonic state do share certain features. The leader’s knowledge is presumed superior to the citizen’s, so that the citizen’s main virtue consists in obedience. The laws promulgated by the leader are said to be for the good of the citizen. If citizens like the idea of private property, that is too bad for them under totalitarianism, if totalitarianism objects to private property. Citizens will just have to be weaned from their old ideas.

But totalitarianism is more than paternalistic, inasmuch as it is imposed tyrannically. In more or less Platonic terms I would call tyranny a concentration of power for the benefit of the ruler. Totalitarianism is sustained by force, as characteristic (5) above says: It enforces its rule by punishing any citizens’ acts of disobedience or subversion.

Here we find a significant difference between the Republic and modern totalitarianism. Plato says that a good state bases its legitimacy on persuasion, not force (548b, 552e). Even the loyalty that the good city expects is not supposed to be blind loyalty. If the philosophers living under existing regimes do not owe their cities public service (520b), political obligation must be something earned by the city. Indeed Socrates says one owes loyalty only to the well-run city, or to the model of it in one’s soul (591d-e). Sensible people won’t pay attention to political affairs in cities as they are (592a-b). A theory that calls for civic sentiment only in the best of all states is not a theory demanding irrational obedience.

“Ah, but would Plato accept the kind of philosophical rule that is imposed by force, if he sees no other alternative?” This hypothetical question, unlike the question I raised about Plato and modern technology, has a clearer answer: No. For Plato knew of at least one state in his own time that resembled the one he described in the Republic, with one major difference that it sustained its government by force. This was the state of Sparta, likewise divided into a large population and a small effective army, but with the army constantly terrorizing the serf population (known as Helots). Plato did not want to duplicate Spartan government in his city. Besides anything else, he knew that such a state was always vulnerable to revolts. His aim to persuade the public is not window dressing for his political philosophy, in other words, but an essential element of it; and it seems to me this element distinguishes him decisively from totalitarian thinking.

Finally let me point out that the most intrusive regulations within the new city only apply to its governing classes, the philosophical rulers and the soldiers who support them. I can’t think of one modern totalitarianism that likewise controls the lives of its ruling classes while leaving the mass of the population living as they had been, pursuing prosperity as they see fit.

I just can't get my head around what Kant means by "transcendental" in the term

I just can't get my head around what Kant means by "transcendental" in the term "transcendental idealism". Can you help? Also, Kant CAN"T be serious suggesting that we create space and time! If I create it, how did YOU get in my space-time and I in yours? After all, we're talking to, and recognizing each other. (Not sure I'm even understanding this really). Also, idealism seems, as Popper says somewhere, very anthropomorhic. We think we are so special, so crucial to reality. My, we are quite full of ourselves.---Baffled.

Transcendental idealism does not mean that we create our own ideas, but that we can only apply them to our experience. That is, we can only know they apply to our experience, since what counts as objective knowledge is defined in terms of them. We cannot say whether those ideas extend anywhere beyond our experience, that would be transcendent realism, and transcendental idealism is far less ambitious. It just claims that what we call an object has to be characterized by particular categories of thought and those categories can only be used by us to describe experience, nothing else.

It is anthropomorphic in the sense that the rules of what counts as an object for human beings is indeed limited to human beings. We are not crucial to reality, but what we call reality has to be based on our ideas of it. It is in fact a very restrictive and limited principle. We cannot say whether what we call objects really exist outside of our approach to the world, since our ideas stop at experience. Not a lot to be smug about there, I think.

How is Nietzsche's Will to Power related to his notion of Eternal Recurrence?

How is Nietzsche's Will to Power related to his notion of Eternal Recurrence? Wikipedia suggests a connection, but does not elaborate. thanks PS: I am not a student and this is not a homework assignment.

For a lot of people who study Nietzsche it’s not clear that a connection exists. Nietzsche himself considered these his two most important contributions to philosophy, although I’m not aware of any explicit attempt on his part to unite them. And you have to bear in mind that even though he thought these were his most important ideas, it doesn’t follow that they were. I find much deep and valuable philosophical thinking in Nietzsche’s works, but not always where he thought the best ideas were.

For instance, Nietzsche has an extremely high opinion of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, while he treats On the Genealogy of Morals as if it were a mere appendix to Beyond Good and Evil. Other readers may disagree with me (although plenty do not), but in my own opinion On the Genealogy of Morals is his greatest single work, one that yields up more insights on every reading; while Thus Spoke Zarathustra is uneven and at most a supplementary part of Nietzsche’s oeuvre.

But that’s just an example, by way of illustrating the point that Nietzsche’s readers do not always consider most important within his thought what he sees as most important. The Will to Power – which we all wish Nietzsche had said more about – is a remarkable effort to steer philosophical theories about human motivations away from simple theories of self-preservation, which before Nietzsche had been the furthest that “tough-minded” philosophers like Hobbes had gone in their analyses of human action. For Nietzsche, self-preservation is too limited. We act in order to achieve, to impose our wills on our surroundings. We desire not simply so that we can attain what we desire, but because we desire the act of desiring. (This is why, in “On the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life,” Nietzsche refers to “life” – what he will later call the will to power – as “self-desiring.”) To have desires and satisfy them is what the Will to Power craves, not merely to be done with desiring.

The Freudian libido bears some resemblance to the Will to Power in its excessiveness, libido being the desire that does not aim in an accountable way merely for the continued existence of the desiring creature.

While the Will to Power is a new, modernist idea, the Eternal Return or Eternal Recurrence is almost an antiquity by comparison. It is a self-conscious reappropriation of Stoic and some pre-Socratic ideas about a universal cycle. Maybe Nietzsche uses the Eternal Return only as a test we apply to our lives – this is one interpretation of it – i.e. that life is worth living if and only if we are willing to have every moment of it return. Or maybe he literally believes that it is a true cosmic assertion. Either way it is an attempt to achieve some of the effects of immortality, like the thought of one’s continuing existence, without reference to an otherworldly afterlife. If Nietzsche puts the doctrine forward as literal truth, then he thinks we do have this form of immortality available to us. If he proposes it as a test for life, it brings some of the consolation of immortality to those rightly oriented toward their own lives.

On the reading of the Eternal Return as a test, it can be connected with the Will to Power, on some understandings of the Will to Power. Wanting this life in all its ups and downs to recur eternally is a sign that you are, as it were, expressing your Will to Power; not stopping it up. But I feel the need to say “as it were” in connection with such a sentence, because I don’t really think that Nietzsche believes the Will to Power can be stopped up. There’s no better or worse manifestation of the Will to Power; if there were, then it wouldn’t be the explanation of all actions in the way that Nietzsche thinks it is. But if all actions are Will to Power, then no test is going to differentiate between exhibitions of the Will to Power and repressions of it.

For my money, the Will to Power is irreplaceable. I read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, at least one great insight on every page, and I can see it as an explanation (among other things) of how human actions have thus far been misdescribed, not to mention human ethics. I find that book fully consistent with the Will to Power although it’s not a book about that doctrine. The Eternal Return, by comparison, is not needed for understanding Nietzsche’s Genealogy and might even contradict its closing image of a decisive new human understanding about truth and values. And if one of the two doctrines lies at the heart of what I find Nietzsche’s greatest book, while the other is quite marginal to the book, I can’t in all consistency say the two are related doctrines.

One last word. While a lot of readers would agree with what I say, many would not. I’m offering this answer as a way to think about Nietzsche, but you should not take it as a decisive claim about what everyone believes about him. You asked a good question; which means, there is no one good answer to it.

What does Plato mean (in The Republic) when he identifies that moderation (in

What does Plato mean (in The Republic) when he identifies that moderation (in the case of the city in speech) is identified with the agreement over who rules the city? Where is the moderation in that? I really don't understand that word in the context of this metaphor.

Plato has a number of things to say about moderation in the Republic, but I think the most important one is where he associates moderation with the proper functioning of the appetitive part of the soul. The good news about that part is that it is responsible for the basic functions that keep us alive, such as eating and drinking, and also make us inclined to reproduce. The bad news is that the appetites have a tendency to excess, which--if not prevented by the ruling part of the soul (the reasoning part)--will lead us to do things that are not all things considered really good for us. Hence, moderation in a person will be the result of the "agreement" on the part of the appetitive part to the rule of the reasoning part. The same goes in a city: left to themselves, the craftsmen will have a tendency to excess and dissolution, but when ruled by Plato's philosopher-rulers, the proper functioning of this "appetitive" class of people will allow the whole state to become moderate. Unless and until they agree to allow the best rulers actually to rule, there will always be a high degree of risk that the state will slide into immoderation.

I hope this helps!

Hello there. Some contemporary philosophers say that Aquinas' arguments for the

Hello there. Some contemporary philosophers say that Aquinas' arguments for the existence of God are good arguments (eg John Haldane), whilst others think they are no good. Lots and lots of philosophers and philosophy books seem to not understand the arguments properly (I can remember being taught the arguments in the philosophy department of one of the most prominent universities in my country where, looking back, with hindsight I am pretty sure the teacher did not understand the arguments well at all). So who to believe?? Any suggestions would be interesting! Thank you in advance.

I go on to recommend some other texts below and address the topic of philosophical disagreements and consensus, but first a comment on Stephen Maitzen's observation about not being under any obligation to believe either side in a dispute over theistic arguments. I am not disagreeing with Stephen on this, but I do wonder about the general point of when one might be obligated to come to terms (oneself) in believing one side or another in a philosophical debate.... Here is a suggestion:

Let's say you have been appointed the task of establishing a university in a developing nation in which there are different religious communities (Christian and Islamic or Hindu and Buddhist, for example). You have enough funds to establish sound programs in engineering, the sciences, languages...and now you are considering how much to devote to a philosophy department and, perhaps more specifically, you must decide whether that department or a religion department should include scholars who are well trained and are excellent in teaching who would be able to engage students (undergraduate and graduate) with arguments for and against theism or Monism, beliefs in Karma, philosophical investigations of faith and reason.... Imagine the decision is wholly up to you and (for some reason) there is no body of neutral "experts" you can consult. I think that under THOSE conditions, you may well have an obligation (as part of your task in establishing a university) to sufficiently inquire into the debates to see whether they can be carried out with fairness, skill, openness to listening and considering carefully to both sides. I suppose this is not at all a disagreement with Stephen, for I am not arguing that under those circumstances you would have an obligation to believe one side or the other. But you might have an obligation to inquire further into the debates until you are able to form a reasonable overview of the terrain...

In terms of further reading on theistic arguments, I would recommend the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entries on Philosophy of Religion as well as entries on specific arguments like the Cosmological argument. Oppy's book on Arguing about gods (recommended by Stephen) is brilliant in many respects, but I think it would be tough reading on your own; it is sometimes highly technical. There are some good recommendations in the SEP. I also co-edited The Routledge Companion to Theism (which Oppy contributed to) and this contains lots and lots of (what I hope you will find) interesting entries.

As for your general point about disagreements in the case of theism, I suggest that some disagreements in philosophy can stem, not from vigorous "objective" and "impartial" reasoning in which philosophers have enough time and energy to patiently review all the relevant arguments and objections. In this matter, theism is no different as a topic than, say moral realism (the conviction that there are moral facts that are as 'objective' as the fact that I am posting a reply to you now). Actually, topics in religion and ethics can be a bit more vexing than, say, philosophy of language, because the stakes are a bit high. Imagine that a philosophical argument in environmental ethics gives you convincing reasons to change how you live and what you eat and wear or whether you have children or adopt, etc... In matters of religion, some of those who grow up to become professional philosophers have had backgrounds in religion that are unfortunate (they were told to believe X on the basis of authority rather than good reasons) and this can taint one's interest in philosophically exploring religion as adults. So, background, time-constraints, patience or lack of patience... can all come in to account for there not being consensus (yet) in philosophy of religion and, I believe, in ethics, political theory, philosophy of mind and some other areas.

I hope we have not discouraged you from doing your own exploring of the philosophical literature. A nice pairing of opposing philosophers can be found in the book Debating Christian Theism.

I was puzzled not to find any mention of "emptiness" (as expounded upon by

I was puzzled not to find any mention of "emptiness" (as expounded upon by Nagarjuna and Chadrakirti, not the feeling one blogger has when his relationships end.) Is that not an issue that our learned philosophical crowd seriously contemplates these days?

I have to say I think about nothing all the time, both in the sense of not thinking about anything, and in the sense of contemplating the concept nothing. P.L. Heath has a very fine piece on "Nothing" in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

On the other hand I suspect that śūnyatā is not really emptiness or literally nothing - śūnyatā is a kind of non-substantiality, certainly, but in Western metaphysics that does not mean a non-entity. The point is that śūnyatā is emptiness, but of the detritus of external influence, or void or outside dependence. It has its own quality. It is also like a kind of expectant fulness, empty as the rich expectation of a joyous future event is in an obvious sense empty (of the event) compared with the experience of the event itself. A quality however is an entity, though not a substance.

Can a person be a historian and a philosopher at the same time. I have a

Can a person be a historian and a philosopher at the same time. I have a passion for history and a joint passion for Philosophy? Nathan V.

Yes The clearest case of when you would need to be both a historian and a philosopher is when you write a history of philosophy. Expertise in both fields would also be highly valuable in writing philosophy of history. Apart from these two categories, the blending of philosophy and history (or the virtues of being both a philosopher and a historian) may vary.

Consider matters from the standpoint of history: When would a history (or a historian) be aided by philosophy?

Because one may write a history of any number of things (persons, events...) from a history of warfare to a history of agriculture, it may not be obvious when philosophy comes into play. Off hand, it seems that some philosophy will be inevitable in any history insofar as the history reflects a view (or a philosophy) of evidence, explanation, relevance, reasons and causes. But there are cases when philosophy seems more explicit as in a history of the French revolution versus a history of the first cities in the world.

From the standpoint of philosophy: When would philosophy (or philosophers) be aided by history? Some historical grounding seems important in even the most abstract philosophical matters (the philosophy of mathematics, for example), but there are philosophical questions that seem less sensitive to historical conditions. Arguably, questions about whether there can be an actual infinite does not depend (or depend significantly) on the time or place they are raised. Arguments about infinity are not merely of academic interest, but they have been employed by many philosophers (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) in arguments for the existence of God.

The philosopher, Rene Descartes, has said that it is possible to doubt all

The philosopher, Rene Descartes, has said that it is possible to doubt all things except the existence of oneself (cogito ergo sum); that it cannot be doubted, despite how hard one endeavors. However, I am often questioning if that proposition is "truly" "indubitable". I desire to know if there have ever been any well-known or ancient philosophers who had not "concurred" with Rene Descartes regarding the cogito ergo sum; or if there are modern philosophers with great reputation, prestige, or respect within the philosophical community, who believe that the cogito ergo sum is "not" indubitable? Otherwise stated, it is "possible" to "doubt" the existence of oneself.

There are plenty of philosophers who have not agreed with Descartes' line of thought here, though they are not "ancient" philosophers, as Descartes did not propound the "proof", if that is what it is, until 1637, in the Discourse on the Method and, in a slightly different form, in 1641 in the Meditations. You can find some interesting material in the "Objections" to the Meditations , for example the Fifth, by Gassendi, or the Fourth, by Arnauld. Hobbes too, in the Second Objection, makes of Descartes' argument a triviality. How (he asks) can I know that I am thinking? 'It can only be from our ability to conceive an act without its subject. We cannot conceive of jumping without a jumper . . .'. Through the centuries Descartes' dictum has come under even more fire from different directions, for example from A.J. Ayer in Chapter 2 of Language, Truth and Logic. Descartes was only entitled to say that 'There is a thought now,' not 'I think', i.e. 'There is an I and it thinks', because this proposition would make his conclusion a tautology; or it does not follow from 'There is a thought now.' Lichtenberg writes in The Waste Books, K18, that 'We should say it thinks, just as we say it lightens. To say cogito is already to say too much as soon as we translate it I think. To assume, to postulate the I is a practical requirement.' I also think you should take care to separate the questions whether Descartes proof is any good from the question whether the existence of the self is certain or can be doubted. So the phrase "otherwise stated" in your last sentence is not right. The two questions are distinct. Similarly, it is not the question whether the "cogito ergo sum" is indubitable, but whether the existence of the self is.

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