Plato's Euthyphro and the Earlier Theory of Forms [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 25 (3):547-549 (1972)
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Abstract

This excellent book consists of a translation of Plato's Euthyphro, plus "interspersed comment" intended "partly as a help to the Greekless reader in finding his way, and partly as a means of embedding the discussion of the earlier theory of Forms which follows it." That subsequent discussion is a series of sections aimed at establishing "that there is an earlier theory of Forms, found in the Euthyphro and other early dialogues as an essential adjunct of Socratic dialect" and that it is not the same as the theory of Forms found in the Phaedo, Republic and other middle dialogues. In the Euthyphro Socrates' question of what holiness is assumes that there is a Form of holiness, "that this Form is a universal, the same in all holy things;... that that Form may be used as a standard, by which to judge what things are holy and what are not...; that it is an essence, by which or in virtue of which holy things are holy." As essences Forms are causes--formal, not efficient. They are "causes in the sense that they are that by which things are what they are. They therefore affect the career of the world, in that if they did not exist, the world would not be what it is." They "are not identical with their instances and [are] prior to their instances" and, hence, they are not in their instances. In fact, "Forms are as 'separate' from their instances in the early dialogues as they are" in the later ones. Do they not differ, then, from these latter Forms? Yes, because "of the way in which separation is conceived." In the Phaedo and other middle dialogues separation "involves something more than... nonidentity, independence, or priority. It involves the claim that instances of Forms are deficient imitations or resemblances of Forms.... To that theory was later conjoined, as a natural corollary, the theory that sensibles and Forms differ in their degree of reality, that Forms are more real than their instances." There are, in fact, "Two Worlds, Visible and Invisible.... The objects of the Visible World... are in a perpetually changing mortal realm, never the same with respect to each other or themselves. By contrast, Forms, the reality of whose existence we render an account in questioning and answering, exist always in the same way with respect to the same things, single in nature, alone by themselves, never in any way under any circumstances admitting alteration." This contrast between the Two Worlds is not drawn in the Euthyphro and earlier writings. Hence, between them and the middle dialogues there is a development in the theory of Forms. Of course, there also is "a unity to Plato's thought; but it is not the unity of a monument. It is the unity of growth and development, the unity of life." In these splendid pages one point remains unclear: how can a Form be universal and thus distinct from its instances and yet be their formal cause? Allen leaves no doubt that this is his position: "In Plato's early dialogues Forms are not the being of that of which they are Forms. A universal, being one, cannot constitute the being of a plurality--precisely why Aristotle was led to distinguish substantial form from universal. The Euthyphro does not imply that holiness is the being of any given holy thing or action as holy; it implies only that holiness is that by which holy things are holy. It implies, to borrow another bit of Aristotelian vocabulary, that holiness is a cause." But precisely in what way is a Form "that by which" something is what it is? Plato subsequently answers by distinguishing the Form itself, its character as participated by a particular thing, and the participant : the Form is that by which some thing is what it is through the participated character which the thing has. Is this answer implied in the Euthyphro? Or in what sense is a Form distinct from particular things? In what sense a formal cause? That puzzlement, though, is minor in the context of the entire book, which is valuable not only for the interpretation Allen gives of the early and middle dialogues but also for all sorts of unexpected bonuses. These are points either newly made or brilliantly reiterated--for example, the influence of Anaxagoras on Plato re the notion of essence and in philosophical vocabulary; Aristotle's abandonment of the contrast made in the Categories between primary and secondary substance; the crucial difference between genus/species in Aristotle and in Plato (enriched/impoverished; the analogy of a Platonic definition to mapping a field; the evaluation of Aristotle's interpretation of Plato's Forms, of his report on the "unwritten doctrines," of esoteric and exoteric teachings. This last culminates in a paragraph which all students of Plato should reflect upon constantly: "It is possible to treat Plato's text, not as evidence for something else, but as itself the primary object of historical understanding. The aim of the inquiry is then to interpret a set of literary documents, not to fathom the entertained beliefs of their author. It is reasonable, of course, to assume that the documents are a reliable index to the beliefs; but the connection, after all, is contingent, and as far as interpretation is concerned, unimportant. If Plato, in his heart of hearts, had been a nominalist, an atheist, a sceptic about immortality, and a hedonist, and had yet gone on to write the dialogues which he wrote for some obscure motive now unknown, this would not change the proper interpretation of what he wrote and privately disbelieved by one iota: when a man says what he does not believe, we may still perfectly well understand what it is he has said. The question, then, of whether Plato had beliefs he did not express, or beliefs contrary to what he did express, may be left to those with skill in the arts of divination; the historian may more reasonably limit himself to the study of texts and their meaning. If inquiry is construed in this way, it is self-referentially inconsistent to prefer the testimony of Aristotle to the evidence of Plato's text in the interpretation of Plato."--L. S.

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