The "Forms" and the "Third Man"
1. Why the "Forms"?
a. Background. The "forms" ("ideas", eide;
singular=eidos) appear in Plato in several contexts and are
characterized in several ways. In some dialogues where they
appear, such as the Republic, there is a fairly elaborate
account of them; in others there is just a mention or brief
description (Euthyphro, Phaedo). Sometimes the
Socrates character acts as though he thinks (or wants people to
think he thinks) that the "forms" exist; other times he asks about
whether a certain "form" exists, or whether we should take it that
they exist in general. There is no clear answer to the question of
what the importance of "forms" was in what was taught in Plato's
Academy. Apparently there was quite a bit of discussion on the
topic of "forms", so it seems that Plato did feel there was
something about them that it was important to investigate. Whether
Plato held a "Doctrine (or Theory) of Forms", and what if anything
he finally decided they were, are not at all evident. We can say,
based on the fact that Aristotle reports that "the forms" were
discussed a lot in Plato's school, as well as the fact that there
was some interest in Plato on the part of Pythagoreans of his time
(eide have much in common with Pythagorean numbers, and
this was noticed), that the forms posed problems or were involved
in problems that Plato was interested in. After Plato's death, his
nephew Speusippus took over as head of the Academy, and Speusippus
and his students focused a great deal of attention on the "forms".
Speusippus seems to have been convinced of the viability of the
b. What is a "form"? Generally, a "form" can be
characterized as that which all things of a certain kind have in
common that makes them things of that kind, and which these things
do not have in common with things that are not of that kind. (see
e.g. Euthyphro 5d and 6d; but again, there are a variety
of different descriptions of "forms" in Plato, and it may not be
the case that all are compatible with each other.) For example, if
there is a Form of Largeness (or Form of the Large, or Large
Itself, or Form Large), it would be that which all large things
have in common that makes them large. This Form of Largeness/Form
of the Large/Large Itself would be something that is not shared by
non-large things: small things, for example, and things that have
no size, would not share it.
It may be objected here that "large" is or can be a relative
term (a "large" cat is not as large as even a "small" elephant,
e.g.); that there is or may be a subjective element in our
judgments as to whether a thing is large; that whether a thing is
large may be ambiguous or not sharply defined (we may not be able
to pinpoint where the line between "medium" and "large" should
fall). These are important issues, but the fact that these
objections can be made does not affect the viability of the notion
of "forms". Whatever it is that we might think is large, all the
things we think are large must get that description for a reason.
That is, we call certain things "large" in virtue of something
about them, and it is this something, this meaning, that the eidos
Large refers to or addresses or is.
Sometimes a character in Plato suggests that there are forms not
only of things like good, just, large, equal (or goodness,
justice, etc.), but also of things like human, horse, and so on;
after all, 'human' names a class or a kind of thing just as much
as 'equal' does. In this case, it would be said that the Form
Human is that which all humans have in common that makes them
human, and that non-human things don't have.
c. Why the "forms"?
---(1) We say that there are kinds of individual things,
or that individual things fall into classes, or that they can be
classified. In virtue of what, though, do we say that there are
kinds of things, or even that two things are similar?
------(a) If there is nothing that is common to all things that
are said to be of a particular kind, or if classifying them as
belonging to one kind is arbitrary or random or randomly
changeable, then we have no way of communicating the meanings of
the kinds, or the qualities of the things, to each other. We have
no way of telling whether a new thing that we encounter is a
member of any familiar kind; we have indeed no way of
------(b) Thus in order to communicate and to try to make sense
of our environment, we take it that things have recognizable
similarities, and that although the things themselves may change,
there are stable meanings. A thing that is hot may cease to be
hot, but what it is to be hot, we say, does not change.
And we can characterize things according to whatever stably-meant
features they appear to exhibit or "have". What it is to be hot is
in some sense that which makes hot things hot, and it is that
which all hot things are supposed to have in common. The Form
"Hot" would be something that would have this function.
---(2) The other reason for proposing Forms has to do with this
function of explanation. We try to explain things in terms of what
makes them be as they are, and "as a thing is" includes
characteristics that are supposed to be shared (or at least
recognizable, so that the meaning or identification of a
characteristic used in an explanation is something we're aware of
independently of our awareness of a particular thing). We can't
explain anything, given our normal modes of explanation, if we
don't know the meanings or natures or identities of
We also can't explain anything if we do not take it that the
characteristics we say we're aware of, or conceive of, exist "in"
things. That is, for an explanation to be taken to be an
explanation, we must take it that what we say that things are like
is in fact what they are like.
"Forms" are supposed to fulfill both of these requirements: they
are supposed to be stable recognizable features of the universe;
and they are supposed to be entities that are both "in" our
awareness and "in" things (and what we are aware of is supposed to
be exactly what is in the things).
2. The "Third Man"
There is some debate over exactly what Aristotle is referring to
as the "Third Man" problem. (In some of the secondary literature,
it's said that Aristotle is offering "the Third Man Argument"
against the "forms", though it's not clear that he thinks that
what he's offering is fatal to all claims about "forms"; and it
may be that Plato's school recognized that there was a problem and
tried to address it.) What he seems to be considering is this:
--According to the claims about "forms" that A. associates with
Plato and the Academy, all things of a particular kind - men, for
example - will have some aspect in common (they are all men).
--This commonality is associated with a "form" in some way:
depending on what version of the "forms" story you're using, the
individual men will all have or share (Euthyphro), or
imitate or strive for or resemble (Phaedo), or participate
in or partake of - whatever that means (Republic), the
"form" "Man". In most versions, the "form" is that in virtue of
which each thing (each man) is the kind of thing it is (a man).
(I'm capitalizing the first letter of 'man' because that's how one
usually sees it in English translations of discussions about
"forms"; but Greek does not capitalize except for the first letter
of a proper name.)
--What then is the relationship between the "form" and the thing
that exhibits or participates in or imitates (or whatever) it? In
the "participates in/partakes of" version and the
"imitates/resembles/strives for" version, it seems that the "form"
and the things are supposed to have something in common, or
resemble each other. (It's not clear what the relationship is, and
whether we can tell - which could be another problem - in the
vaguer "has" version.)
--Thus it looks as if not only do all men have something in
common [that makes them men], but also all men and the "form"
"Man" have something in common [that makes them what they are?].
What is that something: a third "man"? (The individual man was the
first in the example; the "form" "Man" was the second...)
The question then arises as to exactly what Aristotle takes the
problem here to be. One possibility is that he finds an infinite
regress here: that he thinks that in order to identify what the
man, the "form" "Man", and that which ties them together have in
common, you'd have to find a fourth thing, which you'd have to
relate to the other three by means of a fifth thing, and so on.
That might not be too terrible, except that the "forms" were
offered in part as an explanation, a cause; and we can't tell if
that's what they are if we can't follow them out to their
foundation because they don't have one. Also, if the "forms" were
supposed to be causes, and there is all of that other stuff (the
third, fourth, fifth, etc. "men") involved, why are the "forms" in
particular cited as causes?
Another possibility is that Aristotle thinks that these versions
of the "forms" story do not solve a problem that they seem to have
been designed to solve; at best, they merely move the problem.
That is, the "forms" were supposed to be what accounted for a
thing's being the kind of thing that it is, and for the
resemblance between things that are supposed to be of the same
kind. But that leaves the question of the relationships between a
"form" and the things it is supposed to be the "form" "of", and
the "form" itself doesn't explain that. Thus saying simply that
there are "forms" does not account for the similarities between
things, nor for why things are as they are.
Yet another possibility is that Aristotle is troubled by the
fact that the things are called "men" and the "form" is called
"Man" (and whatever may link them is also to be associated
fundamentally with "man", or "man-ness", itself). What then is
"man"? How does the term or notion or whatever is involved apply
to both (or all three, etc.)?
Another problem that arises, though I don't know that Aristotle
has it in mind at this point, is that "forms" don't tell you
anything about what makes one thing one. And certainly
being one is part of being a man.
* People who have read Wittgenstein's Philosophical
Investigations might object that when a group of things is
called by one name, or when a group of things is said to be a group
of things that are of one kind, it is not necessary that all of the
things in the group have some single aspect or characteristic in
common. They might instead, Wittgenstein proposed, be related as by
"family resemblance". But this does not affect the viability of the
notion of "form", nor does it eliminate the reasons that would make
a notion like "form" seem necessary or desirable or plausible, nor
does it solve the problems that result from the adoption of the
notion of "forms" as explanatory. Here's why:
Wittgenstein's suggestion was that in a group of things that are
said to be things of the same kind, or things that are related in
some way, it isn't always the case that all the things in the
group have some single aspect in common that is characteristic
only of members of that group. An example he gives is members of a
family: there may be no single characteristic that all members of
a family share, that is characteristic only or mainly of members
of that family (let's forget DNA testing here since it's not
always available). Yet, it may be possible just by looking at
people to determine who is a member of that family and who is not.
Let's take a group of 4 sons, A, B, C, and D. (They're in the
Witness Protection Program so I can't give their real names, OK?)
A and B (but not C or D) might have the same hair type and be of
similar height; B and C might have the same build which is not
that of A or D; C and D (but not A or B) might have similar noses
and mouths; D and A might have similar eyes and voices which B and
C don't share; A and C might have similar hands; B and D might
have the same shape face; etc. Thus A, B, C, and D might be said
on meeting them to belong to the same group (sons of a certain
family), without all of them sharing a single perceivable
characteristic. (If you've ever seen a picture of any four of the
Marx Brothers together, you've seen an example of this.)
Another example of Wittgenstein's is games: all games have
rules, but so do many non-game things (parliamentary meetings,
restaurant dining, wars); games usually involve winning or losing
(but not always, if you count children's "let's pretend" as a
game), but so do other things (wars, lotteries, elections).
Wittgenstein felt that there was no one thing that all games had
in common that non-games did not.
But there still remains the problem of what makes a game a game,
and what games have or are or do that non-games don't have or are
not or don't do. And this would be something that "forms" could be
called in to explain. Even if you said that there might be a
complex of inter-related characteristics that are involved, still
you would need to show what it is that makes each thing that is
called a game a game, and what it is that ties all of these things
and all of these aspects together. Otherwise, it seems, you are in
danger of saying that what counts as a "game" is determined
arbitrarily and without reasons, in which case it is not clear
that 'game' has a meaning, or that the term can be used to explain
anything or to convey meaning in descriptions. H.S. Thayer has
proposed that one might reasonably think of "eidos" as
"meaning" - not just linguistic meaning, but also meaning as in
"meaningfulness" or "what something means in your life" (I am
paraphrasing him here).
"Forms" and the "Third Man" by Rose
Cherubin is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.