Collecting the Letters

Phronesis 43 (4):291 - 305 (1998)
Abstract
In this paper I reexamine Plato's method of collection and division, and specifically of collection. If collection and division are simply methods for mapping out genus-species trees, then it is hard to understand why Plato is so excited about them. But a close study of Plato's examples shows that these methods are something broader, and shows why Plato would regard collection as an important tool for coming to know "elements" in any domain of inquiry. In the first section I focus on a notoriously problematic example of collection from the "Philebus," Theuth's discovery of the letters of the alphabet; I show how Plato interprets this discovery as a process of collection, and draw conclusions about what Plato takes collection to be. In the process, I try to bring out Plato's analysis of what is involved in learning to read and write a language, which he takes as paradigmatic for other knowledge. In the second section, stepping back from the "Philebus" passage and applying its lessons, I describe the function of collection and division, for the late Plato, in coming to know "elements," including the Forms, or the most basic Forms. Reflection on Plato's use of collection suggests a (relatively non-mystical) account of what it is to know non-complex intelligible entities, and of how we can come to know them. I also use Plato's descriptions of collection and division to suggest a Platonic context for the notion of the separation of the Forms, to which the late Plato remains firmly committed.
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