Last Friday, Jan. 27, Whitney Schwab gave a talk about his article “Towards the Forms” in the Phi Beta Kappa room in Schaffer Library. Schwab teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County where his work is concentrated in ancient philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics and ethics.
His paper “Towards the Forms” acknowledges that scholars have noted an absence of a clear argument for the existence of the Forms despite their centrality in many of Plato’s Socratic dialogues.
He attempts to reconstruct the argument that Aristotle makes to explain Plato’s belief in the “Forms” by looking at concepts of existence from his philosophical treatise “Metaphysics” and a variety of Plato’s dialogues such as the “Theatetus,” “Republic,” “Symposium,” “Meno” and “Phaedo.”
Before diving into Aristotle’s argument, Schwab provided some background on Plato’s theory of Forms. “It’s an essential tenant of Plato’s Metaphysics that reality we inhabit contains two main kinds of objects. There’s what he’ll call perceptible objects, the things we can touch, taste, smell … but he also thinks that in addition to those kinds of things we also need to think of what are sort of purely intelligible entities.”
He cites a definition in the “Republic,” book 7: “Glaucon says these are things which will allow only of being thought about and can be latched onto in no other way.” According to Schwab, these are the entities that we can only access with our mind, and these are the entities that Plato famously refers to as Forms. “The idea is that we can’t account of the universe we live in … just thinking that all it has are objects we can touch, taste, hear and smell. You have to think that there are other kinds of things that inhabit the universe.”
In the “Republic” and “Phaedo,” these Forms are presented as essential to reality; they are the fundamental existence and the proper objects of knowledge.
“Symposium,” Plato’s famous treatise on love, claims that we should love the form of Beauty itself. Despite the importance the Forms play in a multitude of Plato’s texts, he never seems to give a formal argument for them; he never presents premises that reach the conclusion that the Forms must exist. In the dialogues, characters simply assume they exist and describe them or put them to use to make other philosophical arguments.
In his “Metaphysics,” Schwab explained, Aristotle points out an argument that he posited was the reason for Plato and others to first begin believing in the Forms. He chooses to focus on this particular argument, he explained, because the way that Aristotle presents it as “the first initial intellectual impulse” to believing that there are things beyond the sensory experiences we have.
In premise-conclusion form, Schwab summarized Aristotle’s argument which he attributes to Plato: “Episteme can’t be had of flowing things/Perceptibles are flowing things/Therefore, if episteme is going to be of something, entities beyond perceptibles exist.” Schwab believes that Aristotle is not referring to a singular Platonic work, but is referring to Plato’s views more generally.
Episteme is a Greek word, commonly translated as knowledge, science or understanding, which Schwab translates as “grasping explanations.” He quotes, “We build up from a true opinion to episteme by working out why the true opinion is true.” The term “perceptibles” refers to those objects we experience with our senses.
Objects flow in terms of movement, but Schwab points out Aristotle may be using this term to refer to stationary objects changing properties. The conclusion is that we have knowledge of perceptible objects, which are moving and have changing properties, but we also have knowledge of non-perceptible objects such as mathematical principles.
Because we have a concept of what numbers are or what a square is, despite being unable to sense them in the same way we do perceptible objects, it is necessary to conclude that we have knowledge of things beyond physical or sensory perception.
Plato and Aristotle calls these imperceptible concepts or principles “Forms,” because these are the principles that are fundamental to physical or sensory objects that “flow” in the world.