Academic journal article Analysis and Metaphysics

Ontological Symmetry in Plato: Formless Things and Empty Forms

Academic journal article Analysis and Metaphysics

Ontological Symmetry in Plato: Formless Things and Empty Forms

Article excerpt


This paper explores the evidence for ontological symmetry in Plato's metaphysics.1 The symmetry in question is that between Forms and things:2 never one without the other. Is such symmetry necessary? Is it possible? Is it justified? Is it there? Is there anything outside the reciprocal ontology of the Forms from which things draw their essence (or get their name) and the things of which they are Forms?3

Imagine the relationship between Forms and things in terms of the admittedly imperfect metaphor of a river. What can we say about the water alone? What about the channel through which the water flows? We can reasonably say that the water can exist without the channel and the channel without the water. We may find each useless or incomplete without the other, but we do find each without the other. What about Forms and things? Are they ever found alone, one without the other, or are they useless, perhaps meaningless, possibly even inconceivable, without one another?4

To put it in philosophical rather than practical terms, must we hold with Kant that "concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts chaotic" and with Taylor that this is exactly what Plato had anticipated with Forms and particulars (1926: 188)?5 Taylor's position is that we must indeed hold this with Kant and that we must therefore reject both Formless things and empty Forms in Plato.6 Is he right? Does Plato allow nothing without a Form and no Form without a thing?

The questions have been with us for a while. But the answers have yet to inspire a consensus.7 This is partly because the questions are not as clear as they might seem and partly because the evidence is not as strong as would be desired. The combination can be a formidable obstacle, especially when the questions are taken up not as focused studies but as possibilities to be considered in the course of addressing other issues, usually concerning the relationship between Forms and particulars as opposed to the correspondence or correlation between them.8 But even with clear questions and complete dedication, the nature and extent of the evidence remains a problem. The direct evidence, limited to the Platonic corpus, is inconclusive at best, arguably not even there at all. We get some help from Aristotle but not enough to make up for what is missing in Plato. The purpose of this paper is to determine and demonstrate the best we can do with the evidence we have.

The best we can do begins with the least we can do: clarifying the questions. There are two: one concerning Formless things, the other concerning empty Forms. A preview now of the answers formulated in due course may help follow the clarification process building up to them.

The answer to the first question (section 3) is that Formless things are a matter of what we mean by "Form," a matter, that is, of what counts as a Form. To elaborate, working out the possibility and reality of Formless things requires accounting for fundamental differences among types of Forms, the variegation in which precludes a single answer covering all the reified universals familiar from the canonical corpus. The examples in the dialogues come with differences in kind admitting of categorization, and, in fact, requiring it. The question of Formless things depends ultimately on whether we are prepared to count all of these as Forms. The answer developed here happens to draw on my earlier work on the relevant differences and the proper categorization, but no familiarity is presumed or required.9

The answer to the second question (section 4) is that empty Forms are possible, with the possibility, either practical or conceptual, being determined by factors other than the nature of the Form in question. Instantiation could, for example, be interrupted by accident or prevented by necessity.10 The reality of empty Forms, however, beyond the bare possibility, depends on whether Forms that would be empty if they existed actually do exist. …

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