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  • 7/28/2019 Sellars Platos Third Man


    Philosophical Review

    Vlastos and "The Third Man"Author(s): Wilfrid SellarsReviewed work(s):Source: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Jul., 1955), pp. 405-437Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical ReviewStable URL: .

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  • 7/28/2019 Sellars Platos Third Man


    VLASTOS AND "THE THIRD MAN"IN HIS recent article on "The Third Man Argument in the

    Parmenides"'Professor Vlastos raises anew the classic questions:"Is the Third Man Argument a valid objection to the Theory ofForms?" "Did Plato believe that it was valid ?"2 He reminds usthat "one can find acute and learned critics on both sides of boththese questions"3 and soundly concludes that "if any progress inagreement is to be made at this juncture, it must come from someadvance in understanding the logical structure of the argument."4He proposes, therefore, to "pursue its analysis further than Ithink anyone has yet found it profitable to push it."5 And heproceeds to give us what must be admitted to be a patient andpainstaking reconstruction of Plato's argument. Furthermore, ifthis reconstruction is sound, and if we allow him one or two addi-tional premises of reputable standing, Vlastos has struck a rich veinindeed. It not only yields clear-cut answers to the questions withwhich he began, but also reveals for our admiration and wonder aPlato who faced an intellectual, indeed spiritual, crisis in a manner"absolutely without parallel in the pages of Western Philosophy."6

    There is much in Vlastos' paper with which I should like to takeissue, for in the course of a rich and complex argument he takes astand, to my mind not always a wise one, on many of the moreexciting issues of Plato interpretation. On the present occasion,however, I shall limit myself to criticizing (i) his reconstructionof the Third Man Argument, (2) his conception of the place ofwhat he calls "Self-Predication" (Triangularity is a triangle) inPlato's later metaphysics, and, consequently, (3) his interpreta-tion of Plato's frame of mind when composing the first part of theParmenides.

    IVlastos opens his assault on this Everest of scholarship byquoting Parmenides I 32a i-bi, which he translates as follows:"I suppose this is what leads you to suppose that there is in every

    1 Philosophical Review, LXIII (95i4), 3 19-349 id., P. 319.3lbid. 4Ibid. 5lIbid. 6Ibid., P. 349.405

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  • 7/28/2019 Sellars Platos Third Man


    THE PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEWcase a single Form: When several things seem large to you, itseems perhaps that there is a single Form which is the same inyour view of all of them. Hence you believe that Largeness is asingle thing."'

    He calls this passage "the first step of the Argument"8 and tellsus that it "may be generalized as follows: (Ai) If a number ofthings, a, b, c, are all F, there must be a single Form, F-ness, invirtue of which we apprehend a, b, c, as all F."9 He explains the"generality" of (Ai) by saying that " 'F' stands for any discerniblecharacter or property."10 He adds that "the use of the samesymbol, 'F,' in 'F-ness,' the symbolic representation of the 'singleForm,' records the identity of the character discerned in theparticular ('large') and conceived in the Form ('Largeness')through which we see that this, or any other, particular has thischaracter.'"11

    Now (Ai) as formulated by Vlastos tells us that the role ofF-ness is that of making possible the apprehension of a, b, c as all F.But surely the point of the Theory of Ideas is that F-ness makespossible the apprehensionf, say, a, b, c as F, because F-ness is thatby virtue of which (i.e., by virtue of participating in which) a, b, call are F. Thus, at the very least, (Ai) should read "If a numberof things, a, b, c, are all F, there must be a single Form, F-ness, byvirtue of which a, b, c are all F and can be apprehended as such."But does a reference to our apprehension of a, b, c as F belong in(Ai) at all? Granted that the text reads "when several thingsseem large to you, it seems perhaps that there is a single Formwhich is the same in your view of all of them," can we not takethe "seeming" and the "viewing" to pertain to the discovery f theprinciple which is to function as a premise of the Third ManArgument, rather than as constituent elements in the principleitself? Why does Vlastos think that the reference to apprehensionbelongs in the principle? The answer is that Vlastos, like Taylorbefore him, sees that even if the Third Man establishes an infiniteseries of Largenesses as a consequence of the Theory of Ideas, this

    I Ibid. p. 320. At no point does my criticism of Vlastos' reconstruction hingeon a difference in translation. As a matter of fact, his translation avoids atleast one pit into which others have fallen. See below, n. 22.

    8 Ibid. 9 Ibid. 10 Ibid. 11 Ibid.406

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  • 7/28/2019 Sellars Platos Third Man


    VLASTOS AND "THE THIRD MANJ"fact as such would not suffice to refute the Theory in the strictsense of showing it to be logically absurd.12 For there is no logicalabsurdity in an infinite series as such. On the other hand, if thisseries could be shown to involve a viciousregress, the job wouldindeed be done. But would not Plato himself have regarded theinfinite series as already unacceptable, and sufficient to refute theTheory if it could be shown to be a consequence of it? Vlastosrecognizes that this is the case,13 but since he thinks that Plato isanyway committed to an epistemological principle which, whencombined with the infinite series of Largenesses, does yield avicious regress, he feels justified in putting it into the argument.14This principle, which Vlastos nowhere carefully formulates, is tothe effect that we apprehend an item as F in virtue of apprehend-ing the F-ness in which it participates as being what it, in turn, is.Thus, on the assumption that all F-nesses are F, the principlebecomes: We apprehend an item as F in virtue of apprehendingthe F-ness in which it participates as also F. But while F-ness mustindeed be apprehended to play its epistemological role, need it beapprehended as beingF? There is an important distinction betweenthe apprehension of X, and the apprehension of X as so-and-so.And if Vlastos sees this distinction, but is convinced that the formercannot take place without the latter, he has given no reason forfoisting this conviction on Plato.15

    But whether or not Plato (however "implicitly") mobilized anepistemic premise to insure the unacceptability of an infiniteseries of Largenesses, it is clear that it is not necessary to the esta-blishing of the series itself. And in his reconstruction of this aspect

    Ibid., p. 328, n. I2. 13Ibid.14 Ibid., p. 327. "Wei could thus get a bona fide infinite regress, logically

    vicious, since it is assumed that we discern F particulars in virtue of F-nessF-ness in virtue of F1-ness ..., and so on ad infinitum, the discernment of eachsuccessive Form being required for the discernment of its immediate prede-cessor, a requirement which can never be fulfilled, since the series is infinite."15 That Vlastos is on dangerous ground is shown by the fact that even atheory of Forms or universals which d-nies that F-ness is F (e.g., Russell's inThe Problems of Philosophy) would yield a vicious regress when combined withVlastos' epistemic principle. For eveni if F- Imss is not F, it is at least changeless.And if in order to apprehend a particular az F one had raot only to apprehendF-ness but also to aDprehend it a Iei g -vhat it is, e.g., changeless, one wouldindeed be faced with a task that c; ill never be begun.


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