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Topic #D37

Plato, Parmenides


3 December 2001

Scribe: Nina Novo


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Monday’s lecture focused on ‘the theory of forms’, which is discussed in Plato’s construal of a dialogue between young Socrates and Parmenides, accompanied by Zeno.


Professor Hutchinson began the lecture by bringing to mind the ‘odd coincidence’ of this dialogue having mentioned a person by the name of Aristotle, as this occasion must have taken place at a time before the birth of the Aristotle we are familiar with. Socrates died before Aristotle was born; yet, it is still likely that Plato did in deed make a reference to the Aristotle that became worldly known.  Upon this discussion, the professor further explained the relationship between Plato and the young Aristotle.  He claimed that Aristotle is recognized for his ingratitude toward his teacher, and expressed his bear resemblance to a foal that ‘sucks from the mare, then turns around and kicks it’:  Aristotle acquired all of his philosophic knowledge from Plato, and in turn, he addressed crucial criticism toward the theories of his teacher.  Moreover, Plato and Aristotle worked together for twenty years: Aristotle’s first twenty years into philosophy, and Plato’s last ones.  The ‘theory of the forms’, the ‘heart of Plato’s originality’, emerged around 367 BC, when Plato must have been in his early sixties and Aristotle was still a teenager.  Hence, odds are, according to Professor Hutchinson, that Plato’s mention of someone named Aristotle is not merely a coincidence, and that he was intentionally making a reference to his student Aristotle, the one that most people are familiar with.


The structure of this dialogue is necessary to decipher. There are essentially four levels to this discourse and Plato remains exactly at the core of it.  It is the following: Plato is criticizing his own work, shown by Socrates, through his spokesman, Parmenides, who requires a ‘training partner’; one who is young and who is most likely to say what he thinks – Aristotle.  Hence, Plato carefully crafted a fictional dialogue here that would best show the idea of the forms and its criticisms.


The dialogue begins on the discussion of Zeno’s book.   Professor Hutchinson told the class that both Parmenides and Zeno showed their appreciation toward the theory in the book and that Plato and Aristotle did not accept the theory of forms; they were trying to ‘sort things out’.  Hence, Parmenides and Zeno were essentially Plato’s allies in this dialogue.


Professor Hutchinson told the class that an authoritative interpretation is necessary for the reader.  Plato intended to show the purpose of complex things in Zeno’s work and he suggested that there could be a map, a ‘tree-like’ one, made of the arguments in his book. He said that you propose two hypotheses and work out their consequences until you achieve a large-scale tracing of the elaborate conceptual connections.  Professor Hutchinson then proposed two views: 1. It is extremely difficult to do ‘conceptual geometry’ and, 2. Unless we have high degree of knowledge, we will not be able to get a clear conception of certain leading concepts in the conceptual structure.  The use of the language ‘leading concepts’ is necessary to show the abstractness of the area of knowledge we are discussing.


The next part of Monday’s lecture led into Zeno’s discussion with Socrates.  Professor Hutchinson commenced this by quoting when Parmenides questions Socrates about the forms: “Tell me.  Have you yourself distinguished as separate…certain forms themselves, and also as separate the things that partake of them?  And do you think that likeness itself is something, separate, from the likeness we have? And one and many and all the things you heard Zeno read about a while ago?” (Plato, Complete Works; p.364: 130b).  Socrates has a theory of the forms separate from the things, but not every form is separate from the things, as in mud and hair; there are no forms of human beings or of individuals either.


The major criticism against Socrates’ theory that Parmenides reveals in this dialogue is that these leading concepts are of such a nature that one cannot work with other concepts:  how many there are and how they relate, he says, is irrelevant, because these are abstract questions.  A weakness in Socrates belief that Parmenides seizes is that the difference itself is a leading concept, thus is hard to decipher what is the difference between the concepts.


Professor Hutchinson then brought us to another quote that maintained one last thing before the need for a transition.  At 135b, one can understand that some version of Socrates’ theory must be true otherwise a person will not have a way in which to turn his thoughts.  Thus, this presupposes a condition for knowledge and this is that things must be there in order to have knowledge of them.  For each thing there is a concept that is the same and we must be able to apply the concept of the same.  Parmenides provides us with the main dimensions in these leading concepts.  Professor Hutchinson outlined these in class: motion, like, unlike, being, not being, and all things that apply to being as being because anything is going to come under the qualities of things, although they are abstract ideas.  Professor Hutchinson mentioned that dialectic training would do this.


He then brought up the reference to a poem in the dialogue.  He stated that there were many sexual undertones in this poem and that it is about one’s doubt of masculinity.


The last part of our lecture is probably the most valuable for the students.  Professor Hutchinson outlined several criticisms against the theory of forms.  He first points out that the thesis gets into difficulty because of the concept of the separate, as long as you accept that one is separate from the other one.  A student did not understand why separateness causes difficulty.  Professor Hutchinson explained that if you look at the sequence of this, you would acknowledge that the solution must have to deal with the conception of the relation with other things, and not with the conception of separateness.


He then outlined the first major problem found at 131d, the ‘sail argument’.  The suggestion is that, there is me and then there is a form of a human being.  If it is separate and we are the same in form (under the sail), there is no way to see this unless things are divisible, and Socrates simply does not acknowledge this.


Professor Hutchinson claims that there are five more essential criticisms in this dialogue, but he focuses on the third main argument that was invented by Aristotle.  This is found at 133a: “Therefore, nothing can be like the form, nor can the form be like anything else.  Otherwise, alongside the form another form will always make its appearance, and if that form is like anything, yet another; and if the form proves to be like what partakes of it, a fresh form will never cease emerging”.  Professor Hutchinson further explained this argument by suggesting that if he has a form of a man and that form shares with others, it will eventually go back to infinity.  Hence, you cannot explain why one thing has a form.


He ended the lecture by showing the relation of Parmenides to other works such as Sophists.  In the Sophists, the theory of the forms is further thought out and Plato tries to establish new ideas on negation: from what is not, one acquires a conception of the truth.