Category: Philosophical theories

Collection and Division of the Forms

The method of collection and division indicates the final stage of Platonic dialectics. By employing this method, the philosopher attempts at determining the mutual relations of the Forms, and their eligibility to associate with each other.

The evolution of Platonic dialectics

Platonic dialectics first appears in the philosopher’s early dialogues as a means of developing philosophical problems through questions and answers, that is, through dialogue. Plato carries on with a practice that was introduced with Socrates and the Sophists by the end of the 5th century B.C., according to which the method to philosophize did not rely on dogmatic expositions, but on conversation. The distinctive feature of the early platonic dialectics is its orientation towards the art of living, and the essential refinement of the philosopher's soul.

In the dialogues of Plato’s middle period, dialectic denotes the communication between akin souls. The dialogue, still important, plays out among friends, who share an interest in truth, that is, in ascending unto the realm of the Forms.

When we come down to the late dialogues, we see that the essential characteristics of dialectics are retained. All the dialogues of this period are direct, and therefore the methodology of dialectics are conveyed to the reader through the very dialogical style itself, which resembles a philosophical seminar or a lesson in philosophy, since it plays out between a teacher and a precocious student. Dialectics amounts to a shared effort, by a teacher and a student, to explore the realm of the Forms. The transition from a generic Form to a more specific one is designated as “division”, and the reverse course as “collection”. The dialectician is exactly he who can collect and divide the Forms according to their true nature.

Well, Phaedrus, I am myself a lover of these divisions and collections, so that I may be able to think and to speak; and if I believe that someone else is capable of discerning a single thing that is also by nature capable of encompassing many, I follow “straight behind, in his tracks […].God knows whether this is the right name for those who can do this correctly or not, but so far I have always called them “dialecticians.”’. Phaedrus 266b
‘Aren’t we going to say that it takes expertise in dialectic to divide things by kinds and not to think that the same form is a different one or that a different form is the same?’. Sophist 253d
The “interweaving” of Platonic Forms

Argumentative disputation is an essential feature of platonic philosophy. Platonic philosophy is not a rigid and dogmatic system, but an open sum of propositions. This is obvious both in the way Plato exposes his theories, and also by the intellectual independence of his students, and his successors in the head of the Academy. The necessity for a critical appraisal is indicated by Plato himself in his transitional dialogue Parmenides, which he devotes to a criticism of the theory of Forms. In this dialogue, the elder Parmenides points out to young Socrates some of the basic weaknesses of the traditional theory of Forms. He targets against the so-called “participation” of the sensibles in the Forms, and against the absolute autonomy of the Forms. Plato appears to understand that the Forms cannot be independent, stable beings; instead, they “weave together” (Sophist 259e), that is, they are semantically related to each other. This “interweaving” creates the condition for speech.

Already in the early dialogue Eythyphro, “piety” is defined as part of the generic notion of “just” (11e ff.). Obviously, an essential relation between the Forms of piety and just is here at work. It is also mentioned in the Republic that those who quarrel do not genuinely discuss “because they are unable to examine what has been said by dividing it up according to forms” (454a). In the late dialogues, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Plato brings forward the issue of the association of the Forms, and attempts to establish a network of relations among them by employing the method of collection and division. His divisions always yield dichotomies: a generic Form is divided into two subsumed Forms; one of them is, in turn, dichotomized and so forth. This is the method that allows us to set out from general Forms and attain unto more specific ones. The reverse course will ascend us from specific to more general Forms. Aristotle will, later, follow a similar method of discrimination between genus and species. The Aristotelian definition consists in the genus and the “differentia specifica” (e.g., human= animal that walks on two legs. Plato would say that the Form of animal contains the Form of man).

It is worth noting that platonic divisions and collections are not an easy task; neither is it a methodological passkey. The philosopher’s adequacy and competence is measured against the correctness of his divisions. As Plato puts it in the Phaedrus: we ought to “be able to cut up each kind according to its species along its natural joints, and to try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do” (265e). If the dichotomies are successful, then we assume that dialectics can map out the whole realm of the Forms, and of their mutual relations. This map could assist us in discerning the possibility of a Form to “weave together” with another Form. In one word, the map could provide the criterion from telling what is true from what is false.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Dixsaut, Μ. Metamorphoses de la dialectiquedans les dialogues de Platon. Παρίσι, 2001.
  • Gill, M.LCharles, D. ed. . Definition in Greek Philosophy. Οξφόρδη, 2010.
  • Stenzel, J. Plato’s Method of Dialectic. Οξφόρδη, 1940.
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