Platonism: An Abuser’s Guide

by Dave Maier

In my recent post on Nietzsche I referred to Platonism as “the ancient enemy,” and criticized certain kinds of naturalism for not overcoming it, or for even, ultimately, amounting to it themselves. In this post I consider the sense in which a robust anti-Platonism is a philosophical imperative for our post-medieval era.

Plato and AristotleLet me be clear (as our President likes to say): Plato deserves his exalted place in the philosophical pantheon. He's a terrific writer, and Platonism was a brilliant and timely synthesis of Pythagorean, Parmenidean, and Socratic ideas into the very backbone of European philosophical thought for some 2000 years. And I have nothing against the medieval worldview either, except what is entailed by the simple if as yet poorly understood fact that it's not the 13th century anymore.

But we cannot afford complacency. Modernity is stuck, and while Nietzsche's own construal of the problem as that of “nihilism” in the wake of the “death of God” is in many ways unhelpful, he was spot on in his perception of its urgency. What is right in Platonism must be detached from what is no longer useful in it, or we will never understand the ways in which, by now at least, we have torn ourselves apart. What is no longer useful in Platonism is what I call the “ancient enemy”. Our problem is that we can no longer see it for what it is. We see it when it is not there, and look right through it when it is.

Naturally I am taking some interpretive liberties to make my point, which can be made in other ways. In fact one of the difficulties here is that once you get that point, you could perfectly well present it as just as much a victory for Platonism as a defeat. (And that would even be okay, if the point stuck; but for reasons I will try to make clear, that seems most unlikely – so anti-Platonists let us be.) This makes the problem very difficult to state, so please bear with me as I display its difficulty in the most direct way: by struggling.

Hardly anybody today admits to being a Platonist. To do so invites the assumption that one subscribes to Plato's most well-known doctrine, the Theory of Forms (or Ideas), which literally no one does anymore. Here's the Philosophy 101 version of that theory. Each particular horse differs in many ways from each other horse; but what they share is that they are all horses. To be a horse is to “participate” (metekhein) in the Form or Idea of Horse, which (here's the weird part) is itself a horse – the perfect Horse, with none of the imperfections of merely physical horses. The Form of Horse is of course identical with itself, which is by definition the closest you can get to Ideal; so it must be a horse too, even more so, if you like, than any of the others.
Consider some particular horse, say Secretariat. We think he's a real horse. We can see him, ride him, and so on; what more do you want? Of course he's real. But as Socrates tells it in the Republic, we think this way only because we're stuck in the Cave. We don't encounter the really real with our senses; we grasp it with our minds. Only by abstracting away from individual horses do we uncover the real essence of Horse; that is, do we understand what it is to be a horse in the first place, and see how – while they are indeed horses, due to their participation in the Form – the horses we see and ride are merely pale shadows of reality.

We hear more about this in the part about the Divided Line, which uses triangles as its example. Here Socrates discusses four levels of reality: images of physical figures, the physical figures themselves, individual abstract triangles, and at the top, the Form of Triangle. The Line makes it clearer that the physical/sensual vs. mental/intellectual distinction is only one aspect of the problem, the central distinction being that between universals (or essences) and particulars (or individuals). Naturally we can't see essences; but even when we get into the mind, and consider, say, a 30-60-90 triangle, we are still talking about a particular (type of) triangle.

Once you get on this train it's hard to stop. Plato continues his story by telling us what happens outside the cave, where we are blinded by the Sun. In other words, even the philosopher's mind, only newly freed from the Cave, cannot grasp the ultimate reality. If to be a particular sort of thing is to participate in the Form of that thing, then since the Form of X is the perfect, abstract X, then the Form of Forms is Perfection itself, or the Good.

So construed, the regress stops there. Perfection = the Ideal in every sense: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. But their (its) very perfection puts this rarified level of reality beyond our grasp, surrounded as even philosophers are with merely particular, individual things (even abstract ones like triangles). Yet it is in that direction that we must direct our every effort: in reasoning, in acting, in being. Not to do this would be to deny our very nature as human beings (= rational animals) and return to the level of beasts.

Duck DodgersIt's a powerful picture, not least because it's so relentlessly consistent. All the arrows point in the same direction: up. (We laugh at Duck Dodgers's announcement that he will start his trip to Planet X by going “33,600 turbo-miles due Up” thanks only to our post-Copernican perspective on such matters.) And we surely recognize the relentless, dispiriting force of earthly gravity, so to speak, pulling us away from what we naturally think of as our better, higher selves – or at least the effects of same on others. It's a struggle to be rational, to be good, to be … well, not beautiful, but either to create beauty oneself or to find really timeless beauty among merely superficially sensuous pleasures. What should one strive for if not an ideal?

Still, that bit about the Forms sounds funny. Even after hearing about the Cave, it's hard to think of that horse right there as being less real than some abstract-but-real Horse cantering about in Plato's Heaven with the Form of Triangle and whatnot. This is why (on the standard story) we see in Raphael's famous allegorical painting The School of Athens (above) that while Plato points up, Aristotle is either (depending on whom you ask) pointing down or making a horizontal gesture, in either case supposedly indicating his contrasting emphasis on the particular things of our world over the Forms of another.

In fact, Aristotle is often thought to have refuted Plato's theory via what is called the “Third Man” argument (no time to explain; must press on – but see here for a compressed version). So what's the problem? Why worry about Platonism today?

The enduring strength of the Platonic picture comes from its truth. Following Parmenides, Platonism rightly separates what we have subsequently come to understand as the conceptual truths of logic and mathematics from those of ordinary empirical inquiry. Yet this insight was just as fragile as it was important. The gap between the two realms needed to be propped open for the proper approach to each, and their relation, to become clear. Without this, modernity's signature achievements (most obviously, the “scientific method” of modern science) could never have happened. Plato's expedient was the idea of a “transcendent” reality, higher than, and yet informing, our own.

As we've seen, it worked. But the means to that success – the idea of ontological transcendence, with all the accreted cultural baggage of two millennia – has taken on a life of its own in the interim and will not leave the stage (workshop, whatever). And neither empirical science nor its child the Enlightenment can achieve the proper distance from it to push it off. Think about it: Enlightenment discourse is chock full of universal truths, eternal values, and the formal perfection of mathematics and logic – and why not? In the sense in which we moderns are children of the Enlightenment, we want to keep those things around. But we cannot find a way to do so and cut the Platonistic cord to the pre-modern era and thereby fulfill the promise of modernity.

But what alternative could there be? Surely “post-modernism” is a cruel joke; and indeed contemporary pre-moderns point to that sorry spectacle as modernism's self-contradictory heresies come home to roost – the inevitable result of cutting oneself off, in the name of “progress”, from the source of Being in the Platonic logos. We can't adjudicate that little spat here; but it does point to a characteristic dilemma, a Gordian knot we cannot simply cut with a single stroke.

Gerson on AristotleThe anti-Platonist must walk a very fine line. If your criticism isn't fundamental enough, you simply swap one version of Platonism for another. This is what Aristotle did, which is why the medieval version of what I (if not they) call Platonism is fundamentally Aristotelian. But in order to get at the real problem – to pull the weed out by the roots, as you would thereby see yourself as doing – you concede the very ideas at issue. This is why the best “post-modernism” can do, once it has conceded a fundamental distinction between (let's say) order and chaos, is to come down boldly on the side of chaos rather than order. This approach too has its merits, I must concede; but it tends to smack of desperation (or worse), and – perhaps by design, not that that helps – has little staying power.

A better strategy is to give up on the single decisive stroke and to play the long game, even given, or perhaps because of, the high stakes. We can't pull up the big weed all at once, but we can pull up one little weed after another, and say, each time, “see, here's another one”, carving out an anti-Platonistic practice an inch at a time. But to do this we must decide: what, finally, is the problem with Platonism, and when and how should we object to it? It's all very well for philosophers to reject Plato's “transcendent” reality, but what does that mean for our actual practice of weed-pulling? Argh: see how it works? Even in vowing to avoid the Platonistic pull toward abstraction, we find ourselves bound to generalize. All we can do here is to remind ourselves that generalization itself is not the problem, and press on.

Remember what I said above about Platonism's strength: all the arrows point in the same direction, giving it the tremendous internal coherence necessary for the very real intellectual advances of Athenian philosophy to take hold. This is where we will find its characteristic flaw. Consider an artificially pure example to get the sense of it. Your basic pre-modern Platonist, whether contemporary or historical, assimilates all phenomena to his hierarchical model (Ideal at the top, toward which all things aspire in their way; humans caught in the middle, struggling to swim; merely physical nature pulling us down). Reason is pure contemplation of the eternal; empirical observation depends on the here-and-now. Real morality is a reflection of the good-in-itself, not utilitarian expedience. Happiness itself extends beyond mere physical health [notice how easy it is to run truisms together with tendentious metaphysics] toward spiritual communion with (again) the eternal. Real beauty too is eternal, and true art an attempt to capture it or at least point us toward it, while contemporary fads, whether empty conceptual games or decadent wallowing in mere sensuality, pull us down toward the material world and our animal nature.

And so on. We moderns may (or may not) regard those particular attitudes as outdated, and I have used the appropriate language to suggest this; but it is the pattern that we are concerned with here. (Again, our paradoxical lesson: to overcome Platonism we must knowingly risk it in ourselves – compare Nietzsche's complex and ambivalent attitude toward the “will to truth”.) It's not so much that each point here is false, but instead that they are basically thought to be ultimately the same one: up toward transcendence. Indeed, this lesson itself is that same point again: up toward Up. In seeing it we take another step into the light, letting our blinking eyes adjust to it as we ascend toward the Sun.

It is this conceptual conflation – not so much the horizontal conflation of truth and goodness and beauty, but the vertical one, e.g. of truth with Truth – at which we may point our figurative weed-killers. This can take some real work, not least because to the extent that we allow our preconceived idea of the target – here, a tendency toward conflation, against which we must deploy an ability to make proper distinctions – to dictate our procedure, we allow it to slip our net. For what seems a conflation in one case is manifested in another as an untenable conceptual dualism. (And, as we might expect by now, vice versa.)

Not incidentally, in allowing our preconceptions, however necessary, to dictate our method of combating Platonism, we once again succumb to Platonism itself. Platonism tells philosophers to use right reason to arrive at stable doctrine – to describe the world rightly, the way it really is, not simply how it appears or how we would like it to be. If we once get things right, philosophically speaking, our doctrine will be ideally stable, as the eternal verities are called just that for a reason: they don't change. Surely we can't decide that things are one way and then switch to another way of talking when we feel like it – that's what sophists do, which it was the whole point of Socrates's early philosophy to reject.

In other words, our resistance to these conflations could – to the extent that we thought of our criticisms as true, or of ourselves as acting rightly, philosophically speaking, even in the absence of doctrine – be spun not as a rejection of Platonism, but as an affirmation of truth qua Truth. And yet that Platonism always buries its detractors in this way – that at the end of every skeptical road the dogmatist lies waiting to package up the result into a shiny new doctrine – is the very reason we must ultimately reject it, if we are to stand, as the first moderns demanded we do, on our own feet. This, not subjection to “transcendent ideals”, is what it is to be the rational animal.


And so we have barely begun. (I told you we might have to play the long game.) For next time consider this. We know – we know – that skepticism is false. We have plenty of knowledge. But at least skepticism gives us the leverage to hold truth at arm's length – neither too near nor too far. In one sense this is why it is false: even in its most defensible forms, it is inconsistent in the way that relativism is (which is why we might start there sometime instead). But it also creates a space to plot our next move.