Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What are we to do with Plato?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on how I see nominalism as being the source of most of our modern heresies.

Knowing that the event of an intellectual idea is never isolated, I pondered as to what could be the source of nominalism. It didn't just pop out of thin air. It is true, of course, that new ideas come about, some good (St Thomas' distinction between Being and Essence), and some not so good (Descartes' I think therefore I am). But they don't flow out of thin air. For example, both St Thomas and Descartes studied Aristotle extensively, they are not pulling this out of their own minds. But they both had radically different interpretations of Aristotle.

I was blessed to have some visitors with me this weekend from St Joseph's Seminary in Edmonton. Wonderful guys with a great zeal for Christ. One of them was a Platonist to the core (or so he seemed to say). I used to be there, back when I was his age (ie 2 years ago). I saw Plato as the be all end all of Philosophy. No one did it better then Plato! But this past year, I have had the opportunity to study St Thomas in more detail and to see his (and usually Aristotle's) amazing simplicity in regards to their understanding of the truth of things.

Now, I'm not denying the value and wonder of Plato with what I am about to say, but I do wonder about one theory of his. It is, unfortunately, his less elucidated theory, one which sort of baffles most philosophers. But I think there may be some weight to my attempt at an insight.

Plato believed in universals. This cannot be denied. He believed in the reality of the forms, that objective reality in which the universal really and truly exists. When we see a cup on a counter, that is a specific (and thus imperfect) instantiation of the form "Cup". What gets interesting, however, is Plato's epistemological outlook. He says that because the Forms are perfect and the instantiations are not perfect, and because we too are not perfect instantiations of various forms, we cannot truly know the essence of things. This is part of the reason he was so vague on the topic. He knew, really, that he could not speak about the Forms (and this we can attribute to his mystical outlook of reality). He knew that no matter what he said, he would not be able to grasp the true reality of a thing and thus it is never truly knowable, it is knowable only in an imperfect way. It seems too that Plato is denying that there is an intrinsic essence to each particularity that exists, instead saying that the material realm is only a particularization of the true reality.

Now, briefly, Aristotle (and St Thomas) do say that we can know the essence of things. Each particularity has its essence innately. This is what makes it both particular and universal at the same time. Epistemologically speaking, our mind "abstracts" from what we receive in our senses. We see a particular thing and are able to immediately comprehend its essence, what it is, and that it can share this nature with other particularities as well.

Now, what does this all have to do with Nominalism? Well, if we recall that, speaking simply, nominalism denies that there are essences to things and that we cannot know particular things, I think we are able to see a correlation between Plato's theory of Forms (or whatever you wish to call it) and the theory of nominalism. I do not think that Plato would fall into this heresy though, because he admits to the reality of universals, but that they are unknowable, that we can only be pointed towards the forms and discover them for ourselves. The nominalist would deny any reality that is non-material in that sense (though not necessarily deny non-material beings, which is a different matter). Plato is what I would call a "light nominalist" in that since universals can't be truly known, we have to come up with ways of identifying them according to our nature. Aristotle, though, I think, takes a much more phenomenological approach. He understands that subjective experience of universals and how we come to abstract them. He understands, really, in my opinion, the human condition. Plato is much more poetic, but Aristotle has a better grasp of the truth.


1 comment:

Christian said...

Thankyou for your blog! :) God Bless You