Extract – Bertrand Russell’s Criticism of the Forms

August 15, 2018
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II. A Critique In Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon Schuster, 1972), pp.126-130.

(NB: The word “idea” can be used interchangeably with “form.”)

Plato’s doctrine of ideas [forms] contains a number of obvious errors. But in spite of these it marks a very important advance in philosophy, since it is the first theory to emphasise the problem of universals, which, in varying forms, has persisted to the present day. Beginnings are apt to be crude, but their originality should not be overlooked on this account. Something remains of what Plato had to say, even after all necessary corrections have been made. The absolute minimum of what remains, even in the view of those most hostile to Plato, is this: that we cannot express ourselves in a language composed wholly of proper names, but must have also general words such as ‘man,’ ‘dog,’ ‘cat’; or, if not these, then relational words such as ‘similar,’ ‘before,’ and so on. Such words are not meaningless noises, and it is difficult to see how they can have meaning if the world consists entirely of particular things, such as are designated by proper names. There may be ways of getting round this argument, but at any rate it affords a prima facie case in favour of universals. I shall provisionally accept it as in some degree valid. But when so much is granted, the rest of what Plato says by no means follows.

“In the first place, Plato has no understanding of philosophical syntax. I can say ‘Socrates is human,’ ‘Plato is human,’ and so on. In all these statements, it may be assumed that the word ‘human’ has exactly the same meaning. But whatever it means, it means something which is not of the same kind as Socrates, Plato, and the rest of the individuals who compose the human race. ‘Human’ is an adjective; it would be nonsense to say ‘human is human.’ He thinks that beauty is beautiful; he thinks that the universal ‘man’ is the name of a pattern created by God, of whom actual men are imperfect and somewhat unreal copies. He fails altogether to realize how great is the gap between universals and particulars; his ‘ideas’ are really just other particulars, ethically and aesthetically superior to the ordinary kind. He himself, at a later date, began to see this difficulty, as appears in the Parmenides, which contains one of the most remarkable cases in history of self-criticism by a philosopher.

“The Parmenides is supposed to be related by Antiphon (Plato’s half-brother), who alone remembers the conversation, but is now only interested in horses. They find him carrying a bridle, and with difficulty persuade him to relate the famous discussion between Parmenides, Zeno, and Socrates. This, we are told, took place when Parmenides was old…Zeno in middle life…and Socrates quite a young man. Socrates expounds the theory of ideas [forms]; he is sure that there are ideas of likeness, justice, beauty, and goodness; he is not sure that there is an idea of man; and he rejects with indignation the suggestion that there could be ideas of such things as hair and mud and dirt — though, he adds, there are times when he thinks that there is nothing without an idea. He runs away from this view because he is afraid of falling into a bottomless pit of nonsense…

“Parmenides proceeds to raise difficulties. (a) Does the individual partake of the whole idea, or only of a part? To either view there are objections. If the former, one thing is in many places at once; if the latter, the idea is divisible, and a thing which has a part of smallness will be smaller than absolute smallness, which is absurd. (b) When an individual partakes of an idea, the individual and the idea are similar; therefore there will have to be another idea, embracing both the particulars and the original idea. And there will have to be yet another, embracing the particulars and the two ideas, and so on ad infinitum. Thus every idea, instead of being one, becomes an infinite series of ideas. (This is the same as Aristotle’s argument of the ‘third man.’)  (c) Socrates suggests that perhaps ideas are only thoughts, but Parmenides points out that thoughts must be ofsomething. (d) Ideas cannot resemble the particulars that partake of them, for the reason given in (b) above. (e) Ideas, if there are any, must be unknown to us, because our knowledge is not absolute. (f) If God’s knowledge is absolute, He will not know us, and therefore cannot rule us.

“Nevertheless, the theory of ideas is not wholly abandoned. Without ideas, Socrates says, there will be nothing on which the mind can rest, and therefore reasoning will be destroyed. Parmenides tells him that his troubles come of lack of previous training, but no definite conclusion is reached…

“There is one respect in which Plato’s metaphysic is apparently different from that of Parmenides. For Parmenides there is only the One; for Plato, there are many forms. There are not only beauty, truth, and goodness, but, as we saw, there is the heavenly bed, created by God; there is a heavenly man, a heavenly dog, a heavenly cat, and so on through a whole Noah’s ark. All this, however, seems, in the Republic, to have been not adequately thought out. A Platonic idea or form is not a thought, though it may be the object of a thought. It is difficult to see how God can have created it, since its being is timeless, and he could not have decided to create a bed unless his thought, when he decided, had had for its object that very Platonic bed which we are told he brought into existence. What is timeless must be uncreated. We come here to a difficulty which has troubled many philosophic theologians. Only the contingent world, the world in space and time, can have been created; but this is the every-day world which has been condemned as illusory and also bad. Therefore the Creator, it would seem, created only illusion and evil. Some Gnostics were so consistent as to adopt this view; but in Plato the difficulty is still below the surface, and he seems, in the Republic, to have never become aware of it.”


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