Friday, 8 April 2016

Is Plato's Ontology False?

An extract from the book J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being, which was published as an eBook on April 4, 2016. Available from Itunes, Barnes & Noble, Blio, Kobo, Inktera etc. Not currently available from Amazon. The extract is presented here without the footnotes:

Section Eleven

11.1. We now turn to examine what can be inferred of the nature of the ultimate reality (Being) as conceived by Plato, given the limitations of our intellectual tools.

11.2. Ultimately there must be a point of contact between the formal cause and the maker of the universe: this however, as is well known, is not an easy matter to disentangle in Plato. As he says at Tim 28c, "... to discover the Maker and Father of this Universe were a task indeed..." Elsewhere the ultimate root of reality is spoken of as the form of the Good. It is spoken of as fully knowable, capable of apprehension by the reason alone. The difficulty of knowing it appears to be a matter of intelligence, of discerning it as the universal among the particulars of the sensible world. It is the eternal and unchanging.

11.3. Yet it turns out that it cannot be fully known: reality is always beyond any description, any categorization we employ to define it. As we rise through the Forms it remains as far distant as ever, eluding any attempt to know it: when it turns out that the Real necessarily participates in the world of change, it is necessary to postulate that reality embraces both the changing and the changeless at the same time. It is thus a paradoxical matrix, for the Forms participate in Not-being as well as Being, and are all around us: the division between the realm of intelligibles and sensible form has broken down.

11.4. Is this a problem of epistemology only? Thus far the major distinction between the realms is that whereas we can conceive of a form of the Bad, such a notion is not given a formal reality by Plato since it is regarded as an absence of Good. Yet when it is shown that the intelligibles must be subject to change and to participate in Not-being, it cannot be argued that there is a clear distinction between the epistemological and ontological realms. Are we then to say that, after all, Plato confused epistemological and ontological categories? This however would be to presume that it is reasonable to make an absolute distinction between the epistemological and ontological worlds: to presume that they are not inextricably bound up with one another. Naturally if both the Forms and sensible objects possessed of souls and reason owe their "existence" to a single substrate of reality (whatever that might be), at some point they must be in contact with each other and to show formal resemblance. However, although in practice things said about the Real are drawn from the categories of our knowledge, we can only say that Plato projected one into the other if his final definition of the Real is apprehensible within the categories of knowledge. Since the Real is apparently beyond our capacity to know, though the argument is carried out with epistemological weapons, using subjective categories, Plato's ontology ought to be beyond a mere projection of the categories of knowledge.

11.5. The ultimate reality, whether it be termed the form of the Good or given another necessarily inadequate name does not reside in space - in fact the notion that things have a place is described as "a kind of bastard reasoning": we dimly dream and affirm that it is somehow necessary that all that exists should exist in some spot and occupying some place, and that which is neither on earth nor anywhere in the Heaven is nothing*[76].

11.6. In the Phaedrus *[77] Socrates speaks of the region above heaven,
never worthily sung by any earthly poet:

It is, however, as I shall tell; for I must dare to speak the truth... the colourless, formless*[78], and intangible truly existing essence, with which all true knowledge is concerned, holds this region and is visible only to the mind...*[79].

11.7. At Cratylus 424 we find that shape is not to be admitted. Frazer's remark that "it is impossible for us to accept the Platonic theory of causation, because it depends on Plato's fundamental error, the bestowal of objective existence on subjective abstractions"*[80] is thus virtually unfathomable. Whatever the nature of Plato's theory of causation might be, it is increasingly clear that his notion of reality bears no resemblance to that implicit in Frazer's critique. A reality which apparently admits of no qualities and quantities which might be apprehended through sense and known by intelligence, has no point of contact with a theory of knowledge except at the point where that theory breaks down: That is to say, it is a reality arrived at as the result of a theory of knowledge being extended to the point of the collapse of its integrity. It is not a reality established by an epistemology whose explanatory power is refined to the ultimate degree: the Platonic reality is known through the bankruptcy of the theory of knowledge*[81].

11.8. The implication of an ultimate reality beyond any human categorization except identity with itself*[82], which nevertheless cannot be spoken of as unchanging is that, for analytical and practical purposes, all the possible categories of knowing are contingent and relative; and likewise, all attempted descriptions of the nature of its Being. The nature of reality is forever beyond our capacity to know on the one hand, and on the other, it is itself beyond any possible self-definition, not because it does or does not change, but because it embraces the all of which both change and the unchanging are illusory substrates.

11.9. Reality, in short, if it is to be described at all, must be conceived of as an absolute collapse of all possible categories, both of knowing and of being. All space, all time, all possibility resides here, in no place, at no time, beyond all conception, all manifestation. It is simply whatever it is. If we knew it fully the knowledge would be meaningless to us. And what we can say we know of its nature isn't really knowledge*[83]

11.10. The idea of the Form of the Good therefore, is necessarily simply another device in Plato's armoury of likelihoods. Reality, as the ultimate categorical collapse (we have to give it some useful description), if it resembles anything at all within our experience, anything which supplies a concrete image to the conception, must closely resemble chaos - at the extreme of its nature it is forever beyond ordered interpretation.

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