Plato’s Parmenides (Theory of Forms)

plato's parmenides
Theory of Forms

YouTube: Plato’s Parmenides (Theory of Forms)

Welcome to a special lecture focus on Plato’s Parmenides.  Plato’s Parmenides is a famous dialogue where Plato attempts to articulate the “Middle Period” of his “Theory of Forms”.  The Theory of Forms is meant to demonstrate the relationship between Sense-Perception of the world, and Logical Form, or the content of our abstractions.  Most philosophers interpret Plato’s Parmenides as a logical exercise to extract the space of possible Universes or Beings, the genesis of Form.

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Overview 1

The dialogue is a critical analysis of the Theory of Forms (or Ideas) that takes place between Socrates, Parmenides, and also Zeno.  Socrates attempts to explain the Theory of Forms, the Theory of Oneness or Unity, what brings coherence-consistency to the sense-perception of things.  Socrates attempts to put Zeno’s position, that there cannot be a multiplicity; and Parmenides position, that there is only One (the monistic impulse), into his own Theory of Forms.

Socrates articulates the theory as a relationship between the “suprasensible ideas” and “sensible things”.  For example, when we find “sensible things” “beautiful”, Socrates would say that is because these things are “participating in the Idea of Beauty”.  For Socrates, the “Idea of Beauty” is transhistorical, or eternal, and the “beautiful things”, are temporal, sensible and fleeting.

Thus, when sense-perception partakes in Ideas, it can give “true form” to sense content, where otherwise there would just be a chaotic multitude.  One can think about this relationship between suprasensation or Ideas and sensation or the world of things, as a type of formal loop between sense-perception and logical form.

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Parmenides Deductions

Parmenides, however, in the dialogue, suggests that the theory is inconsistent and contradictory, precisely because it does not take into consideration movement into the forms (or the Oneness-Unity).  From the perspective of Plato’s use of Parmenides as a character, this can be seen as a type of Platonic irony, considering that the actual-historical Parmenides is known for his static conception of Oneness.  Thus, the fact that Parmenides introduces movement in the dialogue is a type of irony.

Another interesting thing about the dialogue is that it is untypical of a Platonic dialogue for Socrates to be the one undermined in the course of the dialectic.  Socrates is usually the figure who brings out contradictions and inconsistencies in other characters.  In other words, Socrates normally functions as point of negativity, and not a positive source of knowledge.  However, in this dialogue, the roles are strangely reversed:  Socrates claims to have knowledge, and Parmenides is the point of negativity.  In other words, Socrates articulates his Theory of Forms, and Parmenides says, “wait, hold on, there are inconsistencies and contradictions” because the Forms do not have movement.

In this motion of the point of negativity, where contradictions and inconsistencies are pulled out from underneath a historical subject as a figure of knowing, one can interpret this as a motion in Lacanian or Žižekian terms as the “collapse of the big Other”.  Parmenides is a function of collapsing Socrates “big Other” in terms of “Eternal Forms”.  Parmenides then attempts to do what is referred to as “dialectical gymnastics”.  Parmenides moves through all the possible relations between Ideas-Forms and Being-Sense.  In other words, Parmenides moves through all possible relations between Eternity and Temporality.

He approaches this dialectical gymnastics under the presuppositions that the One is a Unity and that Being is a Multiplicity, or Otherness to the One, and that the possible relations between One and Multiplicity is that of presence and absence.  To state it simply: if the One is, if the One is present, what are the possible consequences for the Others in Being and Time?  On the other hand, if the One is not, what are the possible consequences for the Others in Being and Time?

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Standard + Counter Interpretations

The standard philosophical interpretation of this exercise is one of two options.  Either this work is simply a language game, a logical exercise, with no real meaning or connection to Being and Time.  In other words, it is totally impractical, but nonetheless interesting to do from the point of view of logic in-itself.  Another point of view is that this is a work of negative theology.  In other words, the One is in the end unsayable and unspeakable.  We can not really have a positive answer on the status of the One and its relation to Others, but nonetheless it is an important theological exercise.  These two interpretations can be classified as postmodern, everything is a language game, a logical exercise with no real practical relationships to Being; or traditional, there is a One and it is important to think about its theological implications, but we can never have a rational or linguistic grasp on the One.

These two interpretations, the postmodern and traditional interpretations, are a result of the fact that, from this Parmenides logical exercise, there is no positive result, there is no “one hypothesis”, that we can say conclusively structures the relationship between Ideas and Being.  Thus when we go into each of the 8 positions, all 8 of them have contradictions and inconsistencies.  That negative feature, the fact that all 8 positions have contradictions and inconsistencies, can be turned into a positive feature.  In other words, what if we work from the idea that the One itself is a contradiction, that the One itself is only accessible by playing with contradictions, and seeing the deeper pattern in the contradiction itself.

One might call this an esoteric reading of Plato against the standard Idealist reading, and a parallax shift on the status and nature of Ideas.  The fact that there is no positive result in terms of our knowledge and our understanding of the One, the universal negativity of the status of the One, is a sign that ideas are in a becoming against their own absolute knowledge.  Or the negative result is itself absolute knowledge.

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Two Parts

The dialogue itself is structured as two parts.  The first part is the Socrates hypothesis.  The second part is the Parmenidean theses, the 8 logical deductions.  In the first part, Socrates attempts to resolve the status of Ideas as eternal by claiming that paradox, contradiction and opposition are a part of temporal being, that in our temporal being, our lives are structured by paradoxes, contradictions and oppositions, irreducibly.  However, Ideas in-themselves, according to Socrates, are not paradoxical, not contradictory, and not in opposition.

As stated earlier, Parmenides rejects this idea and says it is flawed because the Ideas in-themselves need to have motion.  He suggests the only way to allow the Ideas themselves to have motion is that if they are contradictory.  Parmenides then further suggests that only when this is achieved can be collapse the distinction between Being-Time and Ideas-Form, as part of the same process.

The consequence of this is that Parmenides dialogue is a logical exercise or language game, but it is also a part of the eternal ideas.  In other words, the eternal ideas resolve themselves as time.  We still need the logical forms to understand temporal Being, but we do not need the distinction between sense-perception and logical form, the meditation of logical form to sensual being is the process by which eternal ideas make sense of themselves.

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8 + 1

Thus, the 8 hypotheses are not a opening to a postmodern plurality of universes where anything goes and everything is truth and all universes are possible.  Rather, the different forms or plurality, or the matrix of plurality, as a meta-structural logic that can be discerned by understanding the logic of contradiction.  In this case: the logic of eternity in or as time.  Thus, the impossibility at work in the Ideas is their symmetry with Being and Time.  There is a gap between Ideas and Being.  Ideas cannot reconcile Being and Time.  There is Being and Time, and Ideas and Forms that attempt to make sense of them, give order, coherence and consistency, but they cannot do it absolutely.  This leads to a type of fracture or gap of different possible interpretations between the One and Being.

It is only possible in hindsight, with historical retroactivity, to understand that there might be a possible 9th hypothesis of the matrix itself.  In other words, all 8 hypotheses are in some sense valid, part of the One-Idea as eternally changing.  This collapses the meaning of the difference between logical-form and Being and Time.  The One-Idea is nothing but the process of Being and Time.

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8 Hypotheses

Now let’s run through all the 8 hypotheses to understand their internal logical form, coupled with a meta-interpretation of the 9th hypothesis.

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Neo-Platonic One

Thesis 1: There is a One (super-essential eternal absolute).  All temporal logical forms a reflection of this eternal form.

This One, however, does not participate with Being and Time.  Consequently, our reason and language cannot grasp the Oneness or Unity.  There is always a distance between our language and reason, and It.

Thus, there is a multiplicity of possible philosophical positions, or rational linguistic stances.  Unity of the One can never really be achieved in language and reason.  There can never be a universal coherence of positions.  Unity with the One can only be achieved in a type of mystical ecstasy, or a non-rational, non-linguistic space.  Thus, we cannot define, perceive or know the One, not in reason or language; not in Being nor in Time.

However, there still is a One, and this is typically the position of what we could consider the neo-Platonic interpretation or the Mystical interpretation.  These historical subjects believe there is a One, but do not believe it can be communicated rationally or linguistically, that it has to be experienced mystically.

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Naturalist One

Thesis 2: There is a One (super-essential eternal absolute).  All temporal logical forms a reflection of this eternal form.

However, this One actively participates in Being and Time, but as at the same time, different from Being and Time.  Thus, there is a Two, Eternal Ideas and Being-Time, but with no gap, everything is One.  Reason and language cannot differentiate Truth and non-Truth, because everything is Truth.  We can see the One in everything, all motion is infused with One, Oneness in the Tree, Moon, a grain of Sand, that all finite things are also infinite.

This leads to self-referential paradoxes or infinite regresses.  If infinity is in everything, all finite things, and there is no end and no beginning to anything, there is no way to discriminate between what is One and what is not.

This position is often taken up by Spinozan Naturalists or even Classical Physics, where everything is a part of the Absolute, but different from the Absolute.

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Classical Idealism

Thesis 3: There is a One (super-essential eternal absolute).  All temporal logical forms a reflection of this eternal form.

However, in this situation, Being and Time participates in the One as parts.  They do this, and know this, when they reach their internal limit, or gain direction, or find a structural wholeness.  In this way, reason and language touch the One, or are universalised by the One, when they work in relationship to limits, work in relationship to clear-coherent direction, and work in relationship to structural wholeness.

One acts as a limit to other humans, One acts in such a way as it allows humans to find internal and intersubjective organization in and as a One.  When they cannot participate in the One, they fall into and call it chaotic multitude.

The most obvious forms of historical subjectivities that identify with this position are Platonic Idealists or Conservative Transcendentalists, who are always in a battle between gaining internal order that reflects eternity, or falling into a chaotic multitude which they find as a sophistic language game.

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Absurdist One

Thesis 4: There is a One (super-essential eternal absolute).  All temporal logical forms a reflection of this eternal form.

However, this One has no relation at all to Being and Time.  Being and Time is a pure chaotic multitude.  Language and reason cannot be integrated or universalised, there can be no building up towards an understanding of unified knowledge or forms.  Humans cannot say anything about the One, nothing coherent, and there is nothing coherent about Being and Time either.  There is no true “aboutness” or ability for “predication”.

The most common interpretation of this metaphysical situation can be seen in the logic of “Absurdists”, that meaning is in-itself absurd, there is no “eternal meaning”, direction or wholeness; there is only chaotic multitude.  Or “Cynics”, who are negative about human motivations in civilization where the appearance of the One takes hold over individuals, and appearance of the One starts to overdetermine motion.  Or “Skeptics”, who are negative about any notion of eternal truth, or anything essential or supernatural about the world.

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Stoical Not-One

Thesis 5: There is not a One (no super-essential eternal absolute).  All temporal logical forms are a reflection of nothing at all.

In this situation One is not.  Being and Time, or our language games, can predicate it, but it is just a “true fiction”, there “really is”, just a multiplicity, without a One.  But the One nonetheless still functions as a fiction.  That is why the One “is not”.

The One can give coherence, and so forth even though it is not reflecting anything eternally true, or it is not reflecting any deeper substance.  Human ideas about Form and Unity and Oneness, are only a similarity to, but not actually a One, not a One as a One, but a One as non-Being.

What there is is just Being and Time plus the reflection of a Self as an immaterial surface.  The most common metaphysical interpretations in this position can be identified as “Stoics”.  Stoics do not have any relationship to eternal Ideas, there is only our sense-perception plus self-work.  We cannot have relationships to eternal Ideas as a way to obfuscate or hide real deep self-work.

In philosophy this could also be interpreted as Deleuze’s “sense and logic”, where a “sense-event” is a “pure surface”, not a deeper Idea or eternal reality.

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Sophistic Universe

Thesis 6: There is not a One (no super-essential eternal absolute).  All temporal logical forms are a reflection of nothing at all.

In this situation, the One is a total nonentity.  The One is not even a symbolic fiction.  Being and Time cannot predicate anything of a One.  The One gives no utility or validity.  Reason and language are only useful as a negation.  One is not even known in its non-being.

The most common historical subjectivity in this position could be “Nihilists”, who feel that there is no point to existence, not Oneness, just a chaotic multitude.  Or “Sophists”, who believe the truth of speech has no external guarantee, no connection or relationship to eternal substance.

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Buddhist Appearances

Thesis 7: There is not a One (no super-essential eternal absolute).  All temporal logical forms are a reflection of nothing at all.

The One is not.  Being and Time are just imaginary illusions.  Symbolic fiction is just a fiction of a fleeting coherence.  All there is is a fleeting substanceless appearance.  Humans are One in that they gain a temporal fragile consistency, but this is just a fleeting illusion.

Thus the historical subjectivities that relate to this metaphysical position most deeply are the Buddhists or cognitive scientists.  For Buddhists there is just the meditation of the inner Void that is privileged over temporal appearances, which are just fleeting illusions.  Or for modern cognitive science, where there is no “True Self”, there is no true knowledge, there are just appearances and no “homunculus”, or “point” (cogito) where you “reach the Truth”.

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Perspectival Universe

Thesis 8: There is not a One (no super-essential eternal absolute).  All temporal logical forms are a reflection of nothing at all.

In this situation the One is a nonentity, and Being and Time are also nothing.  What there is are perspectives of appearances, and everything is relative to these perspectives.

Not only is the One Nothing, and the appearances Nothing, but humans themselves are Nothing.  Nothing exists.  There is a multiplicity of multiplicities and the Void of the perspective.

The most common historical subjectivities that resonate with this view could be seen as a type of “perspectivism”, that Truth is relative to a perspective, or also “Solipsism”, that solipsists would state that there is no way to gain true knowledge outside of your perspective.

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Historical Matrix of Possible Beings

In summary, these 8 positions are a series of theses on the status of the One, and meditation on the different possibilities of the One as present or absent, coupled with its consequences for Being and Time, or the Others.  From neo-Platonic Mysticism, Spinozan Naturalism, Platonic Idealism, Absurdist Universe, Stoical Rationalism, Sophist Universe, Buddhist Appearances, Perspectival Solipsism, these are all like metaphysical “logical atoms” of “possible worlds”, derived from the presence-absence of the One and its consequences.

However, from a Hegelian historical perspective, or a historical phenomenological perspective, this doesn’t yet help us understand the matrix itself.

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Historical Phenomenology

In order to understand the matrix itself we might have to consider a 9th hypothesis.  In this 9th hypothesis we consider that the One is a synthesis of all logical positive and negative situations for the One, the contradiction in-itself.  As referred to earlier, Parmenides suggested that in order to get movement into the Ideas, we have to suggest that the Ideas are themselves contradictory, both positive and negative.  Thus, the eternal absolute essence both is and is not, including all 8 hypotheses, which correspond to 8 logical historical subjects.

This means that the One and Being-Time are the same thing.  Logical meditation of Being-Time is the One Form as a temporal appearance.  By placing contradiction into Ideas themselves there is no contradiction with the One that is and is not simultaneously.  Contradiction disappears as a negative feature, and is immediately the way in which you gain access to Truth.  One Form can give coherence, and Nothing can exist, function within a framework.  Both are True.

In relationship to an existentialist interpretation, human positivity, or Oneness, can emerge from negativity, a chaotic multitude, the way in which a Self comes to an internal feeling of “I am a Self”.  However, human negativity, not-Oneness, of falling apart, disintegrating, can also function as a neutral absorbing element, or a Void in the chaotic multiplicity.

The best example of a historical subject that works with this logic, could be a historical dialectical subject, where positive language/reason deploys itself as a One, only to destroy itself in Time.  Or psychic analysis, where an analyst’s neutrality allows for positive language/reason to destroy itself through coming to understand its own internal inconsistencies and contradiction.  The analyst is a Nothing within a positive framework.

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8 + 1

Thus, to summarise the matrix inclusive of the 9th hypothesis as a meta-historical perspective on the different logical forms of subjectivity in history, or a movement of the eternal Ideas, we get a logical sense of the very process in which historical subjectivity moves through time.  The conclusion that we can draw from this is that reality in-itself is nothing but a confused mess, 8 logical possibilities between Ideas and Sense.  In this ultimate meta-interpretation there is no realm of Ideas external to the Cosmos.  The One-All or the realm of Ideas is nothing but the eternal changes of Being and Time, and in the end there is nothing but this movement itself, as it deploys itself and destroys itself.

That was an overview of Plato’s Parmenides and his dialogue on the Theory of Forms.  I attempted to demonstrate the way in which Plato articulated the relationship between Sense-Perception and Logical Form.  This logical exercise was an attempt to extract the space of all possible Universes and Beings, the genesis of their Forms.

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Parmenides by Plato.  translated by Benjamin Jowett.  [1871] [link]

Plato’s Parmenides.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  [link]

Žižek, S. 2012. Less Than Nothing. Chapter 1 – Vacillating Semblances. p. 48-69.


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