Let me begin by noting what we don't touch on here – the Pre-Socratics, so called. Clearly they had a strong influence, especially on Heidegger but there is also Nietzsche’s influential love of Heraclitus and Marx’s attachment to the Atomists but they are beyond our scope. I will speak a bit about them when we work through these more contemporary figures but clearly they cannot be anti-platonic even if they are un-Platonic – in the sense that they could not be Platonic due to the very form of their discourse. But sometimes it’s more complicated still for it is the case that Aristotle identifies Plato contra Socrates as a Heraclitian, and so pre-Socratic.
Anyway, we visit with the ancients here because as is the way with philosophy we are dealing today with questions and problems philosophy is always tasked to deal with. There are things which are always part of its remit, whenever it appears and certainly it deals with these same things differently in different epochs, which is what accounts for the changes in terminology, concepts, categories, affiliations and hatreds and so on.
Thus we could perhaps say what philosophy is, is what deals with these certain things – being, appearing, movement, stasis, truth, knowledge, one and many, language and subject – and not at all necessarily with every-thing. I wont go into this but let me note that as part of what he calls his Platonic gesture, Alin Badiou, in his Manifesto for Philosophy, broaches this very assumption about philosophy being what exists to have the last word on everything and finds in fact that philosophy itself, always thought under condition, is thereby not at all either the end of all thought or the singular and thereby absolute locus of it.
It does not speak on everything nor indeed is it tasked too. It’s certainly true that Plato and philosophy moreover have treated with all forms of discourse and example – technical as much as everyday. But what becomes clear here is that there is that which philosophy treats as itself, so to speak, and what else is there that it treats and there is the relation between them.
So, for philosophy, there is more than just philosophy. This makes ironic some of the criticism of Plato by the skeptics, cynics and stoics; that he reserves for philosophy or at least metaphysics – their distinction is part of the problem – the possibility of speaking definitively on everything or with regard to some notion of the ‘all of thought’ or life or practice and so on and that to do so is to do so from the perspective of the eternality of the Forms, approachable only as intelligible and not finally as sensual or delimited or practical. But we’ll come to this.
I was thinking of beginning by a basic run through of the Forms but really any such run through is already Aristotelian. What I mean is that in order to even get a handle on the Forms as a thinkable concept in Plato, Aristotle has to draw up a balance sheet of them, to categorise their appearance. But Plato doesn't work like that. As Gail Fine puts it, albeit in analytic style language:
As is well known, Plato never sets out a theory of forms in systematic detail. Sometimes, to be sure, he offers arguments, or fragments of arguments, whose conclusion is that there are forms; and sometimes he argues that forms (which are assumed to exist) have various features. But he is vague about the precise range and characteristics of forms. For example, it is often thought that in Rep. 10 (506a) Plato offers a one over many argument according to which 'there is an Idea answering to every common name'. But elsewhere Plato says that forms 'carve at the natural joints' (Phdr. 265; cf. Pol. 26ab), and not every predicate [a non-Platonic term] does that. The argument from compresence [Fine’s term] adverted to in, for example, Rep. 10 (523) does not even seem to yield forms for every predicate that carves at the natural joints. The one over many argument is sometimes thought to posit forms as the meanings of general terms. But when forms are said to carve at the natural joints, they seem to be properties conceived in realist fashion. Yet meanings are generally thought to be quite different from properties conceived in realist fashion. Although forms sometimes seem to be properties conceived in realist fashion, and so a kind of universal, they also seem to be separate, self-predicative paradigms; and it is often thought that if forms have these features, then they are particulars. Yet—or so Aristotle insists—nothing can be both a universal and a particular (see e.g. Met. io86bio-i3).
And thus when you look about at the various efforts to think about the Forms they generally follow either Aristotle’s categorisation or indeed they take on his determination that this is needed – which is already interesting. And clearly in this example from Fine, speaking about the very lack of Plato’s conceptualisation, we see terminologies and thus conceptualisations imposed on the text in order to describe what is supposed to not be there in any coherent way.
To me, what is interesting is that proceeding in this way is essentially to say that thinking the lack of these in this type of conceptualisation is philosophically impossible or at least illegitimate. Thus in one way or another order must be imposed. And so clearly this order is a non-Platonic one.
I’ll return to this.
So obviously Aristotle is a big topic and we can’t be concerned with anywhere near the all of it. Being somewhat reductive, let me say that really, what the entire history of philosophy comes down to is the problem of the Forms – whose basic form Aristotle will give us – and the consequences of going one way or another in regard to them. Not only ‘is there’ or ‘isn’t there’ Forms, but also if there is how can we think such a thing and if there is not, what’s left to thought or even, how is thought possible if there is no form of what is thought and so on. Is it really true that without forms no discourse?
The thinking of the Forms is also critical to the ongoing speculations or even the refusal of such speculations on the question of the relation between the one and the many, the whole and parts, the infinite and the finite or even in some sense being and appearing.
So it’s all there, as is the question of the truth of this division or this relation and of the subject too, for if we admit forms-appearances or universals-particular (and again are Forms universals and is there a difference etc?) are all in the mix, then we need to think what effects and what supports the intersection or transition from one to another and what type is that relation; if the forms are the basis of knowledge, of what we need to know to know knowledge as such, as is said in the Parmenides, then what knowledge is that which is not a knowledge of the forms that makes knowledge possible and thus how do we know one, the other or both and so on, and if the forms are the basis of knowledge how does one (and who or what is that one that can) come to them given they are not given in the world of appearance or ordinary knowledge, precisely because there it is ‘all change’?
As we will see, Aristotle recognises all these problems and tries to resolve them in such a way that there is a logic to the relation of (what are for him) universals to what is manifest and which establishes their separate existence but is also the expression of their underlying, natural unity.
So we will look at Aristotle’s criticisms cum delineation of the forms as they appear to him to be said in Plato. This is indeed part of what’s at stake because Plato does not speak in the same way Aristotle does. He doesn't categorise and repeat. He uses different language to say similar things and changes terms. He is dialectical and so in some ways subject to the movement of the discourse in his conceptualisations – if we can even call it that.
In Plato, as noted in the introductory lecture, what we see is really the thought at work: so if what’s at stake is the Forms, then it is the Forms as thought through, in and by dialogue and relevant to who is speaking, who they are, what they profess to know etc., and thus what is being spoken of. And the dialogue form itself performs this movement of thought from sensibles to Ideas of them.
But Aristotle’s critique is by no means simply a dismissal even if it is an overcoming of what is for him a fundamental aporia in Plato – albeit one he categorises for us.
Let me note that Aristotle is actually aiming at a universal form, which he basically thinks Plato, stuck with the problem of division, cannot achieve in his thinking, even if that is what he aims at. What Aristotle wants is a universal without the separation or division between Form and nature or essence, let’s say, or rather, as I’ll suggest, he essentially sees lived knowledge as the proper expression of a universal form. This is what teleology is for him, that forms the core of his work across the various things he treats with – biology, logic, psychology, ethics etc. – and this teleology – which is a unity or a One- universal at the core of all being – influences theology across the centuries. In a certain sense we can say we have a sort of clash of universals here: for Plato, the universal as structured in division we might say; for Aristotle, the universal as the telos of being appearing as such.
For Stanley Rosen, this is where the much vaunted to be destroyed history of Western metaphysics begins ‘in its so called rationalist or ‘Aristotelian’ tradition, as [Aristotle] shifts it via predication to the pursuit of knowledge, not of essences but of separate substances. Metaphysics thus, in the Aristotelian sense is already a concealment of metaphysics in the Platonist sense. Aristotle is thus the first step in the repudiation of Platonism, not the crucial stage of its transformation into the history of Western philosophy.’
So let’s start with Aristotle’s delimitation of the Forms.
I am going to work not from the Metaphysics, which is the site of Aristotle’s most well known critique of the Forms but from a smaller text called Peri ideon or On Ideas. It contains a more extensive delimitation and says nothing not in the Metaphysics and a bit more. In this essay, Gail Fine notes, ‘Aristotle presents and criticises arguments for the existence of Platonic forms, and sketches his alternative … it characterises Forms, and sets out arguments for their existence, more systematically than Plato does or than Aristotle does elsewhere.’
And this is what we want. But let me note how Aristotle sums up the failings in Plato in the Metaphysics because it does contain in it what the Peri Eidon elaborates:
…of the ways in which we prove that there are forms, none appears to succeed, (i) For from some no valid deduction necessarily results, and (ii) from some there are also (kai) forms of things of which we do not think there are any forms, (i) For according to the arguments from the sciences, there will be forms of all the things of which there are sciences; and according to the one over many there will also be forms of negations; and according to the (argument) that we think of something when it has perished (there will be forms) of things that have perished, for there is an image of these, (ii) Further, of the more accurate arguments, some produce ideas of relatives, of which things we say there is no in-itself genus (kath' hauto genos), and others introduce the third man. (99obg-i7 = 13. 4,107934-13.)
There is, as you can see, 5 delimitations.
The first is the argument that for every set (my word) of sensible particulars there is its Form: basically for all the varieties of horses there is its Form; Horse – in common language, then, all the various sensible particulars which are horses participate (a very tricky notion) such that there are such things as horses in the Form Horse, which is everlasting and a paradigm of the things that come to be within that science. Take science here as knowledge – it’s not ‘our’ science (whatever that is). Moreover, then, what these sciences or knowledges are knowledges of ‘are’. Which means that there is knowledge of the things – so horses – and these things are determinate and particular relevant to it but there is then also the Horse, which is not determined by this same knowledge, and so is the Idea or Form.
Thus we have the particulars and the Forms – two things or something and an other. Aristotle gives examples of medicine and geometry, too. Thus if ‘geometry is the science not of this equal and of this commensurate but of equal without qualification and of commensurate without qualification, there will be some equal itself and some commensurate itself’. Again, these ‘itself’ and so without knowledge are the Forms. (Let’s note that the last argument will return to this in the guise of the third man argument)
Now for Aristotle, the arguments Plato gives for these don't finally prove there are Ideas such as these – hence without knowledge, insensible, and so on but what they do prove, he says, is that there are things or ‘there’ is something beside sensible and particulars.
Note how we have sensibles – thus of perception or communicable by a specific knowledge – AND we have particulars and so instances of something greater than it. So a single instance within a plurality linked to some One or whole of which it is a part. It’s critical for us to note the way in which Aristotle is framing what’s at stake – already this set up is not what one finds in Plato even if the subject under consideration and the elements of its argument may well be.
It’s this shift I am particularly interested in – the framing of what we need to know in Plato that is in Plato as element in an un-Platonic way. So collecting this element up, so to speak, into a framework which is not its own. This is both how you can build a Platonism and knock it down at once. Can this movement be avoided? We’ll suspend the question.
As Fine put’s it: ‘Aristotle contends that it does not immediately follow that if there are some things that are besides the particulars, they are ideas; for there are the common things (ta koina) besides the particulars, and we say that the sciences are in fact (kai) of them.’ So not an idea of Horse but that horse is the common of all instances of horses. ‘Horse’ is a proper name, basically. And so a vet who learned how to treat a horse could treat all horses, which is of course true. Aristotle introduces a simple empirical objection which he draws from the arguments themselves.
He then goes on to say: ‘if this is so then not only do we have such an instance of the common in the sciences but also – and why not – the crafts’; which, he says, ‘Plato didn't want to be considered as form giving’. But for Aristotle, the same logic would apply. Thus: ‘every craft also refers the things that come to be by its agency (hup' autes) to some one thing; and the things the crafts are crafts of, these things are, and the crafts are of some other things besides the particulars.’
And you can see where this is headed and I’m sure you know this problem does occur in the Parmenides when the young Socrates is confronted with the question of treating the forms of justice, the beautiful and the good the same as those of such ‘things as may seem absurd’, as Parmenides says, as hair, mud and dirt. In the Parmenides what follows is an extremely difficult argument by Parmenides to affirm that there is such Forms but it involves ultimately a subtracting of everything ‘muddy’ – that is, everything which pertains to actual mud; the muddy part of it – from mud such that the form of mud would not be muddy as such and so would be a ‘clear idea of mud’, which at the same time is not at all a contradiction with the idea that, for example, the Form of equality is itself equal – which is another argument we’ll get too.
But Aristotle argues that this latter idea of Forms – of crafts and so of bed, of bench and so on – the actual things that the crafts deal with – is not what they want and insofar as Plato breaks with the Parmenidean ontology of the One which underpins his Idea of the Forms, Aristotle is tracking correctly. Thus he is insisting that Plato must divide knowledge from craft or even science from techne, along the lines that the former has Form and the latter does not – thus setting up a clear hierarchy with regard to any possible truth of something. But how? This is the question Aristotle wants to know and it’s partly a rhetorical question in the sense he doesn't think it possible in the way Plato goes about it.
Lets note that Aristotle is not really interested in refutation here – more that Plato mistakes the route to what he aims at. An important distinction, which I’d even say is platonic.
Now Aristotle moves to the ‘ontological argument’ – the One and Many argument – which he says Plato has recourse to. Effectively, he is saying that what Plato does is take a whole class of things – say humans or animals – and he says that ‘there is something predicated of all of these animals or humans which pertain to that class and not to each individual thing.’ So ‘there is not a predicate specific to each individual but each individual of that class pertains to the same predicates. The predicate as the same is One thing and the members of its class many things. And the One thing is separate and distinct from the many things, which it predicates.’
Again predicate is not a word you’ll find in Plato, it’s not a way of thinking he indulges. And of course it is specific to the very form of logic that Aristotle introduces and so we see again how this reading of Plato is also the construction of a Plato which is not inaccurate per se but is at a least a re-construction of Plato. But in Aristotle’s own terms this logical reconstruction would be the effective realisation of what truly exists of Plato – the ends of Plato, as it were.
He says then: ‘what is a One in addition to (epi) many, separated from them, and everlasting is an Idea. This pertains to negations and to things that are not too,’ A says: for example, ‘the not-man is predicate of all sorts off things – horses, dogs, monkeys etc. thus not man is the Idea of all these which are not it … and for this reason it is a one over (epi) many and is not the same as any of the things of which it is predicated and it always remains as such.’
Now this is where it gets really interesting, for Aristotle objects strongly and says: ‘This is absurd. For how could there be an idea of not being?’ Again the problem of not-being is treated in the dialogues – especially in the Parmenides and Sophist so Aristotle is neither importing or embellishing that it is a problem. The problem for him is that ‘nothing’ cannot be a predicate, for that means that nothing has being and not only that, that nothing has a sort of priority over something – it is the being of things that are.
In the Physics he says, ‘Absurd (out of place) (to suppose) that the point is void.’ Which really comes down to saying that the void excludes movement which would mean that it can effect nothing or can have no effect, thus is not a cause – in this he is sort of Empedecleon who gave us this nice verse: ‘Nought of the whole can be void; whence then could any be added’.
Aristotle will admit a certain notion of the void insofar as it is absolutely not actualisable but can denote a certain space of potential – as it might mark something that inheres in a thing but has not been made manifest but is as of that thing. Thus I am void of driving off a cliff is the same as saying I have the potential to do it. But if I do, it won’t be this not-being that I actualise but that which I have not yet done whose being I thus manifest as the creature able to do it, given that I conform to a certain predicted capacity to do so.
This is also why and where A ushers in, in categorical form, the impossibility of the actual infinite and suspends all metaphysics (and anti-metaphysics too) up to today in the dictatorship of potential. Thus for him, ‘potentiality must be actualised but not, so to speak, exhausted; i.e., it must be actualised qua potentiality and thus potentiality is the name of being we can say, from which all possible actualisation draws infinitely. As one commentator says, ‘designed for the ongoing operations of the natural world, the Physics’ definition of change does not cover the generation and corruption of substantial items themselves. Rather, his basic stuff is uniform elemental matter, any part of which is divisible into smaller such parts.’
Because nothing that is actually infinite can exist, it is only in principle that matter is always further dividable. So while countenancing the potential infinite, Aristotle squarely denies the ‘actual infinite.’ This dictatorship of potential – a logical and not a mathematical necessity note – is a cave from which we are still to ascend – except in the case of Badiou, who takes the mathematicians seriously when they prove the actuality of the infinite and thus its pluralisation, which requires in turn a new logic.
Anyway. Aristotle’s specific objection is fair enough. He says, paraphrasing, if there is the Idea of not being then we get this weird thing where there is an Idea of what are essentially infinite differences: so ‘not- horses’ means there will be under this One idea – line and man or seal and number say. So it unifies what cannot possibly, actually, be unified and if so it cannot be a real universal for Aristotle, which must not contradict what exists, so to speak.
Moreover this leads to problems of a temporal nature; for example under this Idea ‘there will be things which last and those which don't – a triangle is ‘not-horse’ but so is a dog; and under the idea there will also be marked the same things which are’, A says, ‘primary and secondary’; so a man as primary and an animal as secondary – again qualifications Plato doesn't use. And again it leads to an Idea of things which no-one wants there to be, an ideal or form of – pigs and monkeys, let’s say, in honour of Plato’s mockery of Protagoras: except that in that dialogue Plato equates them with man given it is absurd that he be the measure of all things.
Aristotle adds that logically or deductively this has the same problem as the argument above insofar as it doesn't prove Ideas only that there is a possible way to work out a commonality. You can see that Aristotle is committed to the idea that Ideas are separable in some really radical sense – that in fact they are things in themselves. The very same as Kant finds and which Nietzsche mocks as the only bloody thing philosophy has known since Aristotle – that it doesn't know the one key thing! Which is why Niezstche re-reads Plato to undermine Platonism, which for him Plato both is and is not.
Now whether Plato argues for this absolute separability is part of the very problem we have, and which is exactly what is immanent to Aristotle’s criticism and approach. In setting out the aporias in the argument – so in formalising them, so to speak; categorically and in order – he is basically saying, ‘for fucks sake Plato, you are all over the shop’. But what he is not looking at, I’d suggest, is whether or not this being all over the shop in relation to Aristotle’s taxonomy is conceptually critical to what Plato wants to say about the Forms or says about them, precisely? That is also to say that the way Plato speaks of the forms is crucial to them as Forms? Is this not the problem of footnotes after all – a giant, and in this case, historical apparatus of covering over?
Aristotle’s next argument in the same vein is that the claim that ‘what is predicated in common of a plurality of things (pleionon) is some one thing is actually established by negation as such’. It's a condensed little point, quite tricky, whereby he wants to show that in this argument negation and affirmation come to the same thing. So his example of a negation is this: ‘man is not white, horse is not white’. So someone denying the Idea of a plurality – thus its form – might do so by referring to some one thing. So the one thing is man, horse, and the Idea of a plurality is ‘not white’. So man, horse is not white etc. And the denier would be denying whiteness to all things man and horse. Then – he says, ‘someone affirming the same thing – not white – of a plurality of things will not be affirming something else (allo) in each case, but there will be some one thing he affirms — e.g. man—with reference to some one and the same thing – thus his not-whiteness.’
For as with negation, so with affirmation qua negation. So if Plato reasons by negation or that there is the form of negation as above, then the denial of the negation and the affirmation of the negation rely on the same predicate. This is linked, as you can see, to the logical problem that from a false premise anything is possible. ‘Therefore’ he says, ‘there is some other Being besides the being in sensibles which is the cause of the affirmation that is both true of a plurality of things and also common; and this is the idea.’ So the whiteness is not in the man or horse but somewhere else – the being of the Idea and not the being of the sensibles as such, which is to say, then, that ‘the Idea is true of all men and is common to them as cause.’
Note this, that Aristotle calls Idea here a cause. It is the cause of a particular knowledge – the affirmation of the truth – of a being and it is the same being whether it is affirmed or denied he says: ‘For in both cases (there is a reference to) the one (thing) in the same way.’ So the Idea is the cause of the same thing being affirmed or denied. You can see what he is getting at with this – questions of contradiction, of cause, of the causal relation of being and appearing, of how one thing is in an other, etc.
Next is what he calls the object of thought argument. That what we think of something – man etc. ‘is not a particular thing pertaining to him but a thinking of man without those particulars’. Thus he is speaking about the intelligible – that something thinkable without sensible and particulars and thus something which is not them or the sum of them etc. Importantly, note, that ‘when thinking about man as man – thus shorn of all particulars and sensibles (what pertains to him – he walks upright; and what is apparent – he has two feet) – we are thinking about something and not nothing’ – the Idea, he is saying, whatever it is, it is not-nothing. And thus this something, which we can think without recourse to what would be sensible of it or particular to it, is the cause of these other something’s, which are what is sensible and particular. Again, something causes something else.
Moreover the point Aristotle wants to bring up is that that if there is something thinkable which is so without recourse to sensibles and particulars then this thing should also be thinkable without what it causes coming into effect or being and thus also it should be thinkable if what it is the Idea of perishes or decays or goes out of existence. ‘There are ideas of perishing and perished things, and in general of particular and perishable things, such as Socrates and Plato. We also think of things that in no way are (ta med' holds onta), such as hippo-centaur and Chimaera’ – this of course, if we follow the logic that Aristotle says Plato is following.
Thus for Aristotle, this thinking of nothing – which is what he says it proposes – is not deductive proof of Ideas because there cannot be an idea of what is not. Or to put it in other words there can be no being for which there is no idea. Or if there is an Idea there must be the being it causes: thus if there is no Chimaera or no bloody Unicorn, to use the favoured example, then there cannot be an idea of it because it would be an idea of what is not – which is no Idea at all.