This is not so much an idea as the seed of an idea. Plato is a large object in Western philosophy; more needs to be said, and ideas often need development to reach their full potential. But I am impatient, and have found that writing often leads to more writing, whereas patient silence in cultivating an idea to its fullest potential (as full as I can make it, that is), often results in incompletion. So here is a seed:
Plato’s most prominent contribution to Western philosophy is his theory of forms, which holds that the ideas of things are, in a sense, more “real” than the things in themselves; that the concept of a chair is more real than the wooden chair in which you sit. This is because the physical chair is an imitation of the idea of chairs.
To Plato, an imitation is inherently inferior to the thing which it is imitating. A modernist might say that this has something to do with “authenticity.” An original is more authentic than a copy, and one cannot really get a good grasp on what the world truly is if you are only looking at images and shadows of objects, rather than on reality itself.
But when we consider the way in which the human species — or animals, or plants, or ideas, or virtually any complex entity we can imagine — comes into existence, it is clear that virtually everything is a copy, an “imitation” of something else. As humans, we are genetic imitations of our parents, just as the blackberries in our backyard are imitations of other blackberries. There is an implication of degeneration and entropy in Plato’s conception of imitation, and we can all imagine situations in which this is applicable (the arts, fashion, and affects of speech and behavior come to mind). But reproduction — the act of maintaining continuity of existence across generations — is an imitative act: It recreates what already exists.
Even the situations above where the entropy we associate with imitation may sometimes actually result in an improvement through imitation. Even ideas can improve in such a fashion. Anselm’s ontological argument for God was weak, but was improved upon by Descartes, Gödel, Kant, and Plantinga to the point that it became something formidable. Imitation, then, was not a process of degeneration, but of generation and growth in the direction of truth.
What we are essentially describing here is the process of evolution — not necessarily by natural selection, but in the broader sense of ‘change over time.’ Generations imitate each other, but the imperfections in the imitation are not only sources of decline, but also improvement.
Within this context of genetic continuity, the concept of a “form” which is the progenitor-concept from which all categorically-similar beings emerge appears ridiculous. Is a palm-tree an inferior or superior form of tree than a spruce? Is there truly a platonic form of a “tree?,” or must each individual species have its own — a “palm form” and a “spruce form,” respectively? What of spruces in differing contexts? Might there be a “form” of a spruce above the tree-line, as distinct from that below the treeline? And might such differences in climate result in a complete split and speciation which will now require two forms for two divergent species of spruce?
Life continues by reproduction, and reproduction is imitative. This imitation is — as Plato noticed — imperfect, but it is by no means inferior because of this imperfection, for this would imply perfection at the outset. If “perfection” is to mean anything in an organism, it must mean perfect adaptive advantage within its context: a perfect tiger would be one that is a peerless hunter, but which has wasted no superfluous energy on traits for hunting animals which are not within its territory. Its immune system is similarly efficient, fighting off the diseases likely to endanger it, but not those it will never encounter. Its camouflaged fur is similarly contextual. Should any of these environmental factors change, the perfected, average, ideal, “formulaic” tiger would cease to be perfect. Would it then no longer be the “true” form?
Platonism is tacitly individualistic; it seems plausible when looking at individual specimens. It is easy to see individual failings, and imagine how these failings represent a kind of divergence from an ideal form. But as soon as we consider the relationship of generations to each other, how they shift and change with the shifting and changing environment they occupy (and create), the entire concept of forms — and the negative insinuations surrounding “imitation” — falls apart.
Evolution disproves Platonism. Or, just to stay within the Hellenic world, Heraclitus disproves Platonism:
No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.Heraclitus
This Post Has 3 Comments
QuisUtDeus26 May 2020
I think it will help a discussion if some clarifying principles are laid out.
1. The Forms do not (and cannot) exist in the material world. They never change – they are immutable and exist outside of time. They are never “created” to match new things; rather the Form pre-exists and is discovered by us.
2. The Forms can be thought of as blueprints for things. Just as a builder can wander away from the architect’s blueprint, so can an instance of a Form (e.g., a specific tiger) wander from the Form (e.g., the tiger-form). C.f., Plato’s concept of the demiurge vs. nous
3. There is a perfect form for each intelligible thing. So besides a tree-form, there is a spruce-form and a palm-form.
4. The Forms are not equivalent to Essence. Essence is “what something is”. The Forms are the intelligible ideas of things in the physical realm. The Essence of something cannot change, what Form something approximates can and does change in degree.
“Is a palm-tree an inferior or superior form of tree than a spruce? Is there truly a platonic form of a “tree?,” or must each individual species have its own — a “palm form” and a “spruce form,” respectively?”
The answer is yes to all of the above.
If we can hold something in our intelligence, there is a true Form of it by definition. So if we can hold the concept of a spruce and a palm, there is a true Form of each.
Inferior or superior relative to what? As you state: “If “perfection” is to mean anything in an organism, it must mean perfect adaptive advantage within its context: a perfect tiger would be one that is a peerless hunter, but which has wasted no superfluous energy on traits for hunting animals which are not within its territory.” It has to be within context. A badly drawn circle is more perfect than an expertly drawn triangle when it comes to discussing “circles”.
“Should any of these environmental factors change, the perfected, average, ideal, “formulaic” tiger would cease to be perfect. Would it then no longer be the “true” form?”
This question kind of mixes the question of function with form. Perfection with regard to Form is solely related to how close of an imitation the instance is of the Form.
So, if we have a near-perfect dinosaur, and a meteor hits and changes the climate, is that dinosaur any less perfect with respect to the dino-form? No. Absolutely not. Because those are two separate questions: 1) How close to the dino-form is the instance, and, 2) how well the instance performs in particular circumstances. I could have a near-perfect form of a bow and arrow, but it will lose every time to a crap-tier Chinese knock-off of an AK on the battlefield at 100m.
And when talking about evolving (which has a positive implication that isn’t always true – so let’s go with “changing”), Forms are immutable, instances of a form are mutable. But they are mutable in both directions. If we have a triangle made of wood it can warp and become further from the triangle-form. Or, it can be softened and pressed to straighten out and move closer to the form.
“as soon as we consider the relationship of generations to each other, how they shift and change with the shifting and changing environment they occupy (and create), the entire concept of forms — and the negative insinuations surrounding “imitation” — falls apart.”
I think this conclusion, in a round-about way, proves the opposite. If things shift and change, and they do, what do they shift and change with respect to? A baseline is needed. If we say an ideal temperature is 70 deg F, and the temperature changes, we say it gets colder or warmer with respect to 70. The current temperature is less imitative of the “perfect” temperature of 70 by plus or minus so many degrees. So if we say a tiger breed is shifting and changing via an evolutionary process, it needs to shift and change in comparison to something, and that something is the tiger-form.
Following that, distance or closeness to a Form by a whole group does not invalidate the concept. Say I’m a master chair-maker. I make the chairs closest to the chair-form. I have two students who learn from me and go on to make chairs of their own. Let’s call one Michelangelo and the other Dali. Michelangelo makes chairs as close to the chair-form as I do. Dali makes these kind of melty twisted things that he calls chairs but are barely recognizable as such. My school of chair-making has diverged. It has followed a path of “evolution” with Dali. Now there are mikechairs and dalichairs and also a Form of mikechairs and dalichairs has been uncovered (since Forms exist outside of time new ones are not created but pre-existing ones are discovered). And three generations down, one can see a mikechair and a dalichair just like one can see a spruce or a palm.
Knowing the divergence from the chair-form (because my chairs were almost perfect), we can see that mikechairs are more perfect to the chair-form and dalichairs are less perfect to the chair-form. Just as if we can define the tree-form, we can see if a palm or a spruce is more or less a perfect imitation of the tree-form.
Talking about perfection with regard to Form is not about what something “is” (that would be Essence) or how well something functions in particular circumstances (viability, appropriateness, etc). It’s solely how closely a material thing (object) imitates an intelligible thing (Form). The question is orthogonal to change. If there is a perfect “red” and a perfect “blue” mixing them to make a new color of purple doesn’t change the fact there is a perfect “red” and a perfect “blue” even if red and blue are never used again and the only color ever used is purple. Same with biological, cultural, etc., evolution (change).
One more (tangental) disagreement 😉
“Plato’s most prominent contribution to Western philosophy is his theory of forms”
I have to disagree. Plato’s most prominent contribution to Western Philosophy is everything he did.
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them”. – A.N. Whitehead
C.B. Robertson27 May 2020
This is one hell of a wall-o-text comment. It looks thoughtful, but I haven’t gotten a chance to read it closely yet. Will try to tomorrow at some point (thank you, by the way; these are my favorite kinds of comments).
My only point I’d make thus far, regarding your tangential disagreement, is that I would absolutely agree with you in that Plato set the agenda for what Western Philosophy would focus on, and he did this with the entirety of his body of work. However, if you were to ask ten philosophy students what Plato’s “big idea” was, I’d bet nine — if not ten — would say “forms.” None of them would say that was his only contribution, just happens to be the ones he’s most known for, despite his broad influence elsewhere… sort of like how Descartes is known for “Cognito Ergo Sum,” despite doing all kinds of other work which was actually a lot more profound. I think we agree on opinion here, it’s just a difference in emphasis.
QuisUtDeus30 May 2020
Apologies for the wall of text. I just find the topic extremely interesting. On the plus side, at least you know someone is reading your posts and that you are causing thought in them. 😉 Whether you have time to reply or not, thank you for reading my comments!