Reading about Plato’s theory of the Forms tonight. The central books of the Republic are such an enigma; it is very hard to know how to evaluate them, and all the time you’re trying to figure out just what the Cave is all about, because you realise how powerful it is, but aren’t quite sure why.

One strange thing is that in no dialogue does Plato actually argue for the existence of the Forms as, say, an explanatory device. So to say that they are an attempted solution to the problem of universals that fails isn’t fair; only a weird part of book 10 of Republic suggests that, but this doesn’t fit with the central books of Republic where we get the famous images etc. This is something I had never thought of before.

Annas suggests that reason for this is that Plato doesn’t think the Forms are something you get at purely through argument; to some extent you just have to accept it, a bit like any kind of realism: there is no argument for the external world or for the objectivity of ethical values, really, we just come to agree with these through a discussion of the concepts involved on both sides:

Hence Plato does not make it appear that our acceptance of Forms hangs entirely on our accepting certain arguments. For we might go through the proof perfectly and still fail to grasp the point of it. This is a very important point for Plato, and one to bear in mind, because here he differs considerably from modern philosophers. We should be careful not to rush to the other extreme and confuse Plato’s procedure with an easy anti-intellectualism which claims that profound truths are grasped only by direction vision or intuition, and that mere reasoning is impotent. No-one has more respect for reasoning and argument than Plato. But he is still convinced that on its own it will not produce a philosopher. —J. Annas, An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, p. 237


It does not matter what metaphor we use, as long as we realise that Forms are not the end of a journey of faith, beaming out certainty and security to a passive audience. They are the beginning of an intellectual quest, calling on all one’s resources to search for the truth, a journey that Plato will describe in the Cave figure as a breaking out of passive conformity to intellectual liberation. —ibid., p. 240

This is pretty cool. A philosopher is required to have a certain faith in the power of dialectic to do what he does—not in the arguments themselves, but in the approach to life that involves constantly trying to figure these things out. I am currently thinking a lot about the place of faith and reason; how much must we end up using the first—is it the case that the proper thinker (a) accepts that faith must always be playing a role (hence things like abrahamic religion end up on a similar tier to philosophy), or (b) we should always be working to eliminate any reliance on faith—though the point is that this is very hard to maintain as e.g. things like realism.

I am also reminded of J.D. Kenyon’s article Doubts about the Concept of Reason (in PAS I think) in this connection which I should probably go and read again.