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Form-Particular Resemblance in Plato's "Phaedo"

Author(s): David Sedley

Source: Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 106 (2006), pp. 311-327
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The Aristotelian Society
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by David Sedley
ABSTRACT This paper is a critical re-examination of the argument in Plato's
Phaedo for the thesis that all learning is recollection of prenatal knowledge.
Plato's speaker Socrates concentrates on the case of 'equal sticks and
stones', viewed as striving without complete success to resemble a
the Equal itself. The paper argues that (a) this is a rather special case,
focused on geometry; (b) Plato is at pains to emphasize that the Form-
particular relation need not be one of resemblance at all, a concession which
he insists would not, if made, damage his theory of recollection; (c) even
if resemblance is assumed to be the correct account of that relationship,
the 'striving to be like' gloss is not an integral component of Plato's
Plato often speaks of particulars in the sensible world as
gaining their properties in virtue of an imperfect or unstable
resemblance to the appropriate Forms. Correspondingly, Forms
themselves are often treated as the paradigms that particulars
imperfectly mimic. The beautiful things we witness are never as
beautiful as the Beautiful itself; they are nevertheless beautiful
precisely in so far as they resemble it.
The Phaedo is a classic forum for this particular metaphysical
thesis. For there, in his defence of the doctrine that learning is
recollection of prenatal knowledge, Socrates makes extended use
of the admittedly puzzling idea that equal sticks and stones that
we perceive are striving to be like a Form, 'the Equal itself',
but fall short of it. It is partly by noticing that deficiency of
resemblance, according to Socrates, that we are led by the sight
of equal sticks and stones to recollect the Equal itself.
Before coming to the example of equality, Socrates' first task
has been to establish the criteria for what is to count as a case
of recollection: otherwise we will have no guarantee that the
equality case is such a case. At 73c5-d2 the criteria that can
*Meeting of the Aristotelian Society, held in Senate House, University of London,
on Monday 8 May 2006 at 4.15 pm.
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enable us to recognize an authentic case of recollection, or 'being
reminded', are established as follows:
(a) On perceiving x you recognize x and think of something
different, y (especially if you had forgotten y);
(b) x and y are objects of different knowledge.
Socrates next (73d3-74a8) illustrates how the appropriate
'reminding' relations can be many and various. You might be
reminded of y by seeing x regardless of whether x is a possession
of y, a friend of y, a likeness of y's possession or friend, or, more
simply, a likeness of y. It is however the last case that attracts
Socrates' special interest, with the example that seeing a painting
of Simmias might make you recollect Simmias.
At this point Socrates asks:
'Doesn't it turn out, in this range of cases, that recollection arises
from similar things, but also arises from dissimilar things?'
'It does.' (74a2-4)
When recollection arises from similar things, as in the case where
Simmias' portrait reminds you of Simmias, it is the similarity
relation that does the reminding. When recollection arises from
dissimilar things, it is of course not the dissimilarity relation that
does the reminding.1 Rather, the formulation means that whereas
some reminding is done by similarity, other reminding is done
by connections other than similarity. This latter kind has already
been exemplified by the ownership relation and the friendship
relation,2 and no doubt there are plentiful others.
Socrates does not consider cases where x is only accidentally
similar to y, as when, for example, a cloud formation reminds
you of a hippopotamus. There is no reason why these should
be excluded, but the important point is that when, as he now
does, he goes on to focus on similarity cases, the only ones he
1. Cf. J. L. Ackrill, 'Anamnesis in the Phaedo: Remarks on 73c-75c', in E. N. Lee,
A. P. D. Mourelatos and R. Rorty (eds), Exegesis and Argument: Essays in Greek
Philosophy Presented to Gregory Vlastos, Amsterdam: van Gorcum, 1973, pp. 177-95,
at pp. 188-9.
2. The complex cases involving a combination of likeness and, for example,
ownership (73e5-74al) also belong under this latter heading; see Ackrill, art. cit.,
pp. 189-90.
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is interested in are those where x is not merely like y, but is
a likeness of y, that is, where x stands to y as copy to original.
For the Form-particular relationship on which his argument will
concentrate is of just this kind.
Socrates now continues as follows:
'But when it's from similar things that someone is reminded of
something, mustn't the following further thing necessarily happen
to him, namely that he think about whether this thing does or
does not fall short, in respect of its similarity, of that thing of
which he has been reminded?'
'It must.' (74a5-8)
What motivates this further specification? Uncontroversially,
Socrates is looking forward to the equal-sticks-and-stones
example that will follow, where it is alleged that we do inevitably
notice such objects to be deficient likenesses of the Equal itself
(74d4-75b3). But precisely what epistemological point is being
One possible approach is to say that what matters is simply
noticing that x, the reminding item, is
from y, the object
recollected. For otherwise it would not be a case of x reminding
you of y, but of your mistaking x for y. If so, in the example
of Simmias and his portrait, the falling short need not consist
in representational shortcomings such as inaccurate colour or
contours. It will lie more fundamentally in the recognition that
the portrait is two-dimensional and inanimate, while Simmias
himself is three-dimensional and animate. And this radical
difference between copy and original will have its counterpart,
when it comes to the sticks-and-stones case, in the fact that
sensible equals are of a quite different order of being from the
Equal itself sensible as opposed to intelligible.3
There are difficulties about this approach, however. What we
are said inevitably to notice is whether x falls short of y in its
similarity or does not. By clear implication, there could be an
authentic case of reminding in which the subject noticed no
shortfall of resemblance whatsoever. Given, further, that the
3. Cf. J. C. B. Gosling, 'Similarity in Phaedo 73B seq.', Phronesis, 10, 1965, pp.
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example in the reader's mind at this point is that of Simmias
and his portrait, the most natural reading seems to be one
appropriate to the way a portrait resembles its subject: a portrait
might or might not fall short of its original in terms of similarity.
One that did not fall short of its original would not have to
be a hologram or perfect double (as in Plato's celebrated 'two
Cratyluses' argument),4 but simply an entirely accurate two-
dimensional representation, with virtual photographic qualities.
The implication for the metaphysical case to follow is that, on the
one hand, the equal sticks and stones do fall short of the Equal
itself in terms of likeness, because, whereas the Equal itself is a
model of pure unadulterated equality, they are only imperfectly
or unstably equal; but that, on the other hand, there might in
principle be a participant in the Form which in no way fell short
of it in terms of likeness-just as there might in principle be a
perfect (albeit two-dimensional) portrait of Simmias.
That Plato acknowledged such cases of perfect likeness to
Forms should not, I think, be in doubt. Since both god
(Theaetetus 176b8-cl) and the ideal city (Republic IV 427e7) are
perfectly just, neither falls short of the Form of Justice in terms
of resemblance to it.' Yet neither is plausibly held to be itself
a Form. The ideal city is rather a perfect (because idealized)
exemplar of the Form of Justice, as indeed it is of the Forms
of the other virtues. Plato undoubtedly holds that no perceptible
city, occupying time and space, could ever possess justice without
the compresence of injustice, but he imposes no such restrictions
on an idealized, intelligible city. There is no reason why thinking
about god, or about an ideal city, should not be said to remind
you of Justice (indeed, in Plato's eyes, what better way to be
reminded of it?), and these would be cases where, after due
reflection, you would conclude that the reminding items do not
fall short of the Form in their resemblance to it.
4. Cratylus 432b4-c6.
5. The ideal city is never itself called a Form. As Myles Burnyeat illuminatingly
observes ('Utopia and Fantasy: The Practicability of Plato's Ideally Just City', in
J. Hopkins and A. Savile (eds), Psychoanalysis, Mind and Art. Perspectives on Richard
Wollheim, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, pp. 175-87; reprinted in G. Fine (ed.), Plato 2:
Ethics, Politics, Religion, and the Soul, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp.
297-308), in Plato's imagery the ideal city is laid up in heaven, whereas the Forms
are not in but beyond the heaven.
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Neither these nor any other perfect participants play a role in
the Recollection Argument, but we might nevertheless point to
Plato's background commitment to them as accounting for his
insistence that at any rate the sensible participants considered
in the Recollection Argument are in fact imperfect likenesses of
the Form in which they participate, and that our noticing this
deficiency is an integral part of the process whereby they remind
us of those Forms. For his project in the Recollection Argument
is specifically to show how an embodied soul's use of the senses
can lead it to recollection of Forms.
I do,
concede a weakness in the interpretation
I am advocating.6 Socrates and Simmias agree that in cases
of recollection from similars it is 'necessary' that the subject
notice whether there is a falling short or not (74a6, 8). The
interpretation which I have rejected did at least have the merit
of explaining this necessity: noticing the qualitative difference
between x and y was according to that reading a necessary
condition of being reminded by x of y rather than simply
mistaking x for y. On the more commonsensical reading which
the portrait analogy itself favours, according to which the subject
must think about how good a likeness it is, it is not at all obvious
why this component in the thought process should be deemed
'necessary'. Mightn't I see a photograph of you and be led by
it directly to thinking about you, without for a moment pausing
to ask myself how good a likeness it is?
I cannot find a convincing defence of Socrates' assertion that
this intermediate phase is actually 'necessary'. Nor is the use of
'necessary' here a mere slip, because the same modality recurs
later.7 But in mitigation it can be said that the remainder of the
argument need not depend on its being strictly necessary. He
might have said no more than that such evaluations of likeness
are a typical feature of the experience of being reminded through
resemblance, and even that would have helped to confirm that
when we notice equal sticks and stones falling short of the Equal
itself we really are undergoing the experience of being reminded
6. Cf. Lee Franklin, 'Recollection and Philosophical Reflection in Plato's Phaedo',
Phronesis, 50, 2005, pp. 289-314, at pp. 298-303.
7. 75al 1: 'we are obliged (dei) to think ...' (for full context see p. 321 below).
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by resemblance.8 Instead, Socrates goes one step further and
makes this typical feature compulsory. But the argument is not
going to be badly weakened for readers who prefer to substitute
(for example) 'normal' for 'necessary'.
We now move on to the main argument for Recollection,
based on the example of seeing equal sticks or stones and being
led by these to think of something distinct from them, the
Equal itself. There has been much discussion of what kind of
experience this is meant to be, and of whether it is in principle
a universal human experience or one limited to an intellectual
elite.9 Constraints of space permit me to do no more than sketch
my own assumptions on these questions.
When in the Phaedo Socrates maintains that learning is recol-
lection (72e3-4, b4-5, 75e5-7, 76a6-7), he means exactly what he
meant when saying the same thing in the earlier dialogue Meno.
The entire spectrum of theoretical studies consists in recollection
of innate knowledge. This ranges from simple mathematics
at one extreme as illustrated by the experiment in the Meno
of teaching geometry to a slave boy all the way up to the
extremely rare and difficult discipline of ethics, founded on the
definition of value Forms such as those of goodness and beauty.
Maybe no one but a handful of Platonic philosophers has learnt,
that is, recollected, those Forms (hence Simmias' later suggestion
that nobody at all apart from Socrates knows them, 76b4-c3),`0
but anyone who has learnt some basic mathematics has at least
to some extent resuscitated their innate knowledge of the Forms
relevant to it, and these latter, as we shall see, importantly
include the Form of a basic geometrical concept, equality.
Such a conviction, that virtually everybody either does or
could do some recollection through study, is important to
Socrates' argument, because the soul's ability to recollect is his
8. Cf. C. J. Rowe, Plato. Phaedo, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993,
p. 167: 'all the argument will require is that we can do so'.
9. I have been much influenced here by Dominic Scott, Recollection and Experience:
Plato's Theory of Learning and Its Successors, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1995, Ch. 2, although he argues for a considerably narrower restriction-to
an elite of Platonic philosophers than I favour.
10. Since some Forms, such as Equality, have been recollected by Simmias himself
and others (74a9-d3), I agree with Scott, op. cit. pp. 67-8, that the more pessimistic
remarks at 76b4-c3 are occasioned by the intervening addition of Good, Beautiful
and Just to the list of Forms (76clO-d4).
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key evidence for its capacity to exist outside the body, and if
only a tiny handful of philosophical souls had that ability his
conclusion would be severely jeopardized: it would remain not
only possible but even plausible that the vast majority of souls
did not exist before their present incarnation, and that that is
why they cannot recollect.11 So the necessity that the 'learning'
in question be universally attainable by human beings is one of
the keys to the argument.
That basic geometry is a universally attainable discipline in
Plato's eyes is well attested by the Meno experiment. And
equality, as I have already indicated, is itself a geometrical
concept. I say this because in Plato equality standardly func-
tions as a size relation, intermediate between large and small
(cf. Phaedo 75c9,12 Sophist 257b6-7), rather than, for example,
as a numerical relation intermediate between 'many' and 'few'.
It is therefore primarily germane to geometry, and its choice as
a sample object of recollection strengthens the impression that
recollection is once again, as in the Meno, being presented as
universally attainable.
The following consideration lends further confirmation.
Largeness, Smallness and Equality are an interdependent triad
of Forms which Plato considers to be easily mastered (much like
another basic mathematical concept, 'speed', at Laches 192al-
b4): largeness and smallness are, respectively, the power to exceed
and the power to be exceeded.13 These assumed definitions are
apparently at work in the background at Phaedo 102b3-d4, and
are more or less formally set out at Parmenides 150c6-el. Their
status as familiar and simple truths is well evidenced at
Major 294a8-b4, where even an interlocutor as dim as Hippias
is expected to accept without argument a virtual definition of
'large' along these same lines, one which is then, following the
familiar Platonic pattern, meant to serve as a model for defining
the elusive and highly problematic value term 'beautiful'.
11. At 107c8-d5 (and likewise at 72d 1O, read without the arbitrary excision editors
have imposed), the primary moral consequences of the soul's immortality depend on
the bad souls as well as good ones being immortal.
12. Here the comparatives 'Larger' and 'Smaller' must be read as mere variants
on 'Large' and 'Small', Plato rightly seeing no difference between 'large (in relation
to x)' and 'larger (than x)'.
13. Cf. my 'Platonic Causes', Phronesis, 43, 1998, pp. 114-32, at pp. 127-8.
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Since largeness is the capacity to exceed, and smallness the
capacity to be exceeded, equality must be the capacity to neither-
exceed-nor-be-exceeded. Thus equality is as easy and accessible
a concept as largeness. This consideration might suggest that
at 74b2-3, where Socrates secures Simmias' agreement that 'we'
know of the Equal what it is, 'we' means all rational beings.
However, the pronoun's range is likely to be somewhat narrower
than that, since Socrates' ensuing series of questions, about how
we acquired our knowledge of equality, implies that we have
actively thought about it and consciously distinguished it from
sensible equality.
This narrows the field, no doubt, but still for reasons
that will become clearer soon-allows it potentially to include
anybody who has studied geometry. These may in turn be
taken to represent the group later in the passage described as
undergoing recollection: 'those we speak of as "learning"' (76a6).
It certainly need not exclude those who happen not to subscribe
to the theory of Forms. Indeed, it potentially includes all human
beings, slaves included.14
These learners are said to become aware on the one hand
that the equality of the sticks or stones before them resembles
the Equal itself, but on the other that this is a defective
resemblance. Their experience thus closely fits the previously
established profile of being reminded 'by similars', illustrated by
the Simmias-portrait example. But the precision of the analogy
between the two cases is not, unfortunately, matched by the
clarity of the new description in its own right. How any such way
of thinking about equal sticks and stones could be presented as
a common human experience remains opaque. I shall return to
the problem only towards the end.
Before that we must consider the topic of resemblance. I
have not so far questioned the equation between a particular's
participation in a Form and its being a resemblance or copy of
it. But how wedded is Plato to this interpretation of the Form-
particular relationship? Not nearly enough has been made of the
fact that, in the Recollection Argument, Socrates and Simmias
emphatically and repeatedly agree that it makes no
14. Cf. Catherine Osborne, 'Perceiving Particulars and Recollecting the Forms in the
Phaedo', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 95, 1995, pp. 211-33, at p. 230.
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whether x, which reminds us, and y, which we recollect, are
similar or dissimilar:
'But from these equals, although they are different from that
Equal, you nevertheless have thought of and acquired knowledge
of it?'
'That's quite true,' he replied.
'It being either similar to them or dissimilar?'
'It makes no difference,' he said. 'So long as, upon seeing one
thing, from that seeing you come to think of another, whether it
be similar or dissimilar, what has happened must necessarily be
recollection.' (74c7-d2)'5
'For this turned out to be possible-upon perceiving something,
whether by sight, by hearing or by some other sense, from this
thing to think of something else which one had forgotten, and
with which the first thing was connected, being either similar or
dissimilar ...' (76al-4)
Commentators sometimes suggest that being reminded by
dissimilars here is meant to allow for the fact that the equal sticks
and stones to some extent fail to resemble the Equal itself.16
But I do not think that can be right. The distinction between
being reminded by similars and being reminded by dissimilars has
already been aired at 74a2-4, and, as I noted earlier, it amounted
to the distinction between being reminded by x of y because x
resembles y, as in the case of Simmias and his portrait, and being
reminded by x of y because x has some connection with y other
than one of similarity, for example, that of being y's possession
or friend. It was there admitted that in the similarity cases there
may also be some dissimilarity, but this was catered for by the
'falling short' provision which was said to apply only in the
similarity cases (74a5-8). Thus the equals case, which involves
some similarity and some falling short, is located squarely under
the heading of being reminded by similars, and not dissimilars.
15. 74c 1 1-d3 (the last three components of this exchange) has been excised by
many editors, including most recently Theodor Ebert, Platon: Phaidon, Gottingen:
Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2004,
213-15, to whom I refer for a full statement of
the case. I agree with him that the lines fit imperfectly into the run of the argument,
but remain in no doubt that they are by Plato.
16. Kenneth Dorter, Plato's Phaedo: An Interpretation, Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1982, pp. 60-1; Rowe, op. cit. pp. 170-1; Osborne, art. cit. pp. 226-8.
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Why then does Socrates repeatedly remark that, so far as
concerns its being a case of recollection, it makes no difference
whether the reminding is from similars or dissimilars? I can find
only one credible explanation. Although the equals example is
in fact being presented as a case of being reminded by similars,
Socrates is at pains to stress that his argument for recollection
of Forms in no way depends on the relevant Form-particular
relation turning out to be one of resemblance. Any evident
connection linking the reminding item to the corresponding
Form will suffice much as any evident connection between an
object and a person may enable the object to remind you of that
person.'7 Indeed, only when we recognize this do we begin to
see why Socrates, in explaining what recollection is, prefaced the
Simmias-portrait example with a whole string of cases where the
reminding relation was not one of direct similarity (73d3-e8).
Those everyday cases of being reminded opened with the
You know, don't you, that lovers, when they see a lyre or cloak or
something else that their beloved is in the habit of using, have the
following experience? They find that they have both recognized
the lyre and got in their minds the appearance of the boy whose
lyre it is. And that is being reminded. (73d6-9)
Plato's decision here to make his first example one where a
lover is reminded of his beloved upon seeing a lyre tends to
confirm, if confirmation were needed, that it is constructed with
Form-recollection in mind. For the theme that the philosopher's
relation to Forms is fundamentally an erotic one is a thread
running through such diverse dialogues as Symposium, Republic
and Phaedrus, as well as putting in an appearance early in the
Phaedo itself (66d7-e4).'8 Here then is a clear indicator that the
various examples of reminding by non-resemblance connections
at 73d3-74al were, just as much as the focal case of Simmias
and his portrait which concluded the list, meant to symbolize
various versions of the Form-particular relation.
17. I say 'any evident connection' rather than simply 'any relation', because the
latter might include, for example, being different, co-existing in the same universe,
and other relations with no power to remind.
18. My thanks to George Boys-Stones for this point.
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The conclusion looks inescapable that, in emphasizing that
non-resemblance relations can underlie recollection, Plato is at
pains to avoid tying his whole argument to the choice of re-
semblance as the correct account of the vexed Form-particular
relationship. Remember his later dialogue the Parmenides,
whose critique of the theory of Forms is, as has often been
remarked, focused especially on the version of that theory found
in the Phaedo. There, as the young and inexperienced Socrates
makes one retreat after another, resemblance turns out to be
just one of the possible interpretations of the Form-particular
relationship, and a problematic one at that.19 Here in the earlier
Phaedo, then, Plato's caution may be judged far-sighted. It
is often said to be at IOOd5-6 of the Phaedo, in the Second
Voyage passage, that Socrates displays his agnosticism about
the Form-particular relationship, but there his point is I think
a rather different one, that so far as the role of Forms as
causes is concerned it does not much matter via what precise
Form-particular relationship one supposes them to be doing
the causing.20 It seems to me to be the Recollection passage
that really displays to best effect Plato's current avoidance of
dogmatism on the Form-particular relationship.
In the remainder of the Recollection Argument Socrates
will nevertheless proceed to treat the equals case as one of
being reminded by similarity. That will enable him to apply
an extra check on his findings, invoking the additional criterion
established earlier that in cases of being reminded by similarity
one must also think about whether the reminding item falls short
of the original. For that is exactly the point that he goes on
to develop-that in the learning experience already recounted
with the example of equality we do indeed notice how the
sticks and stones fall short in their emulation of the Equal itself
(74d4-e8). He thus enriches the profile of his chosen example
as an authenticated case of recollection. The subtlety of this
argument illustrates the merits that Plato found in his hypothesis
that sensibles are related to the corresponding Forms by
19. 132cl2-133a7, to be read with the analysis of Malcolm Schofield, 'Likeness
and Likenesses in the Parmenides', in C. Gill and M. M. McCabe (eds), Form and
Argument in Late Plato, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 49-77.
20. 1 argue this in art. cit., p. 116.
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resemblance, even if it also now appears that he was not, at this
stage of his life, prepared to wager all his money on the thesis.21
Whatever the difficulties raised in the Parmenides, the
resemblance of particulars to Forms is favoured by a variety
of considerations. One is that the definition of a Form must be
truly predicable of the particulars that fall under it too. If both
Equality itself and sensible equality are 'the power to neither-
exceed-nor-be-exceeded',22 it would be most surprising if it were
not the fact of their sharing that essential characterization that
enabled the one to remind us of the other. And what better
resemblance could there be between two items than their sharing
an essential characterization. Another consideration in favour
of resemblance, this time one distinctive of the Phaedo, lies in
Plato's twin convictions there that (a) Forms are causes of the
properties of particulars (cf. esp. 00d3-e3), and (b) a cause must
itself possess the property it causes.23
To judge from his persistent adherence to it in both Republic
and Timaeus, the resemblance model is the one on which Plato
eventually settled. But we can now see that behind the scenes,
for a period long enough to take in both the Phaedo and the
Parmenides, he must have remained sensitive to the difficulties it
Despite this continuity between dialogues, in one respect the
Phaedo may appear to work with a unique version of the
resemblance model. Particulars are not merely deficient likenesses
of Forms, it seems. They are, more explicitly, striving to be like
them and partly failing in that attempt:
'Don't we agree that when someone, upon seeing something,
thinks "This thing I am now seeing wants to be like some other
21. At 76d7-e5, from the conjunction of the premisses (a) that Forms exist and (b)
that we 'liken' sensibles to them it is said to follow that our souls pre-existed. If
on the other hand it is false that (a) Forms exist, Socrates adds, the argument for
pre-existence fails. Note how the second conditional fails to add 'or (b) that we liken
sensibles to them'-a further subtle indication that the likeness relation was never
essential to the argument.
22. Calling the Form 'Equality' is licensed by 74cl-2. If instead we call it 'the
Equal itself' (or 'the Equals themselves'), i.e. the equal qua equal, my point could be
reformulated as follows: the equal qua equal is what neither exceeds nor is exceeded;
likewise, sensible equals are those which neither exceed nor are exceeded.
23. Cf. H. Teloh, The Development of Plato's Metaphysics, University Park, PA:
Penn State University Press, 1981, pp. 119-25.
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thing that there is, but is lacking and incapable of being like it,
and is inferior," the person who thinks this must necessarily in
fact have previously known the thing which he says it resembles
but in relation to which it is lacking?'
'Well have we, or have we not, ourselves had that kind of
experience concerning the equals and the Equal itself?'
'Then we must necessarily have known the Equal before that time
when we first saw equal things and thought "All these things are
striving to be like the Equal, but are lacking in relation to it?"'
'Yet from our perceptions we are obliged to think "Everything
in our perceptions is striving for that thing, what-Equal-is, but is
lacking in relation to it." Or what is it we say?'
'Just that.'
'Then before we started seeing and hearing and using the other
senses we presumably must in fact have possessed knowledge of
what the Equal itself is, if we were going to refer perceived equals
to it, thinking that all such things are eager to be like it but are
inferior to it.' (75al1-b8)
The talk of striving here is extraordinarily emphatic. The equal
sticks and stones 'want', 'strive', and 'are eager' to be like the
Form of Equal. They also, at 75bl-2, 'strive for ... what-Equal-
is'. This last formulation is no doubt functionally equivalent
to the others, but unlike them avoids any overt use of the
resemblance model-perhaps once again a sign of Plato's keeping
his options open.
We cannot safely dismiss such psychologizing talk as a set
of more or less dead metaphors.24 That the metaphors are, if
nothing else, live ones follows from the fact that they deliberately
exploit the dominant portrait-original model of recollection. Just
as Simmias' portrait is an attempted likeness of him, whose
degree of success can be evaluated only if it is recognized as
such, so too the equal sticks and stones are to be evaluated in
terms of their success in a supposed attempt to be likenesses of
the Form of Equal.
Nevertheless, that the psychologizing talk requires some
deliteralization can hardly be doubted either. The sticks evidently
24. Cf. Rowe, op. cit., p. 172.
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have no mental faculties that would permit them to do any literal
desiring. Nor is it easy to believe that some presumably divine
agent, analogous to the painter, has made them as equal as it
could manage: to make sticks and stones maximally equal to
each other or to some further thing would be a bizarre project
for either god or anyone else to undertake.
When we have removed the animistic aspect, are we at least left
with a picture according to which particulars do somehow natu-
rally and systematically tend towards maximal likeness to Forms?
Such an interpretation has often been favoured by those who
consider the methodology of Socrates' 'Second Voyage' (Phaedo
99c8-102a3) to retain, in its use of Forms as causes, the teleolog-
ical aspiration manifested in his youthful flirtation with physics
that has come to be known as his 'First Voyage' (96a4-99c8).5
The interpretation in effect ascribes to Plato an anticipation of
the Aristotelian model, whereby form, as actuality, is the object
for which everything naturally strives (cf. Aristotle, Physics I 9).
But is such a model intelligible when the range of 'forms'
aspired to includes relative properties like Large, Equal and
Small, the property range most emphasized in the recollection
passage? While Goodness, Beauty and Health might plausibly
be thought of by Plato as ideals teleologically structuring the
development of those things capable of participating in them, it
will be much harder to believe the same about these size-Forms.
Everything spatially extended participates in both Largeness and
Smallness, and (at least reflexively) in Equality too. Even the
idea that a stick aspires to be (either absolutely or in relation
to something) as large as possible or as small as possible, or for
that matter to be as equal (to something) as possible, would make
little obvious sense as a teleology. The further idea that the stick
simultaneously aspires to all three of these goals would border
on nonsense. Nor, if we take instead the internal size-relations
of a set of two or more sticks, is there any reason to think that
their equality to each other is a normative property, one that is
somehow preferable to mutual inequality.
To this conceptual difficulty one may add an argument from
silence. Nowhere else in Plato's works, even the Phaedo itself,
25. Notably David Wiggins, 'Teleology and the Good in the Phaedo', Oxford Studies
in Ancient Philosophy, 4, 1986, pp. 1-18.
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does the idea recur that particulars participate in Forms in virtue
of striving to be like them. It is to be found neither in the Republic
nor in the Timaeus, despite the fact that both dialogues heavily
emphasize the role of Forms as paradigms. Importantly, the
notion of a paradigm does not in itself entail that its copies
are trying to be like it: it is enough that the paradigm of F-ness
should be the standard by which we judge which things are F
and which are not, and at which we aim when we are trying to
make something F.
These considerations throw us back on the specific context
of the Recollection Argument. The talk of particulars aspiring
to, but failing to achieve, complete likeness to the Forms is
best explained as a live metaphor dictated by the dominant
model of recollection, based on portraiture. But why, if so,
does Plato consider the metaphor transferable from the case of
portraiture to that of equality? As I have emphasized, because
equality functions for him as a size relation, geometry is the
most obvious discipline in which it would be studied.26 Try, then,
imagining the equal objects in his example to be ones whose
sides are selected by a geometry teacher or student to serve as
an approximate square, isosceles triangle or other figure with
at least two equal sides, or as a pair of corresponding sides
in two similar triangles.27 These might sound to us implausible
thoughts to entertain about sticks and stones, but we should not
be misled by the mere expression. 'Sticks and stones' regularly
serve Plato as a cliche for mundane physical objects in general (cf.
Alc. 1llbI2, c2, Gorg. 468a2, Euthyd. 300b4, Hipp. Ma. 292d2,
Parm. 129d3, Tht. 156e6), and hence 'either sticks or stones
or other things that are equal' (Phaedo 74b5, cf. 74a1O-1 1) is
simply his way of speaking generally of physical instances of
Only when we assume a geometrical context, it seems to me,
does the role of 'striving to be like' begin to make sense. For
in geometry we do indeed have to learn early on that the size-
relations among the sides in drawn or otherwise constructed
26. Cf. Socrates' opening questions to the slave at Meno 82b-c2: '... do you know
that a square area is like this ... with these four lines equal?'
27. Diagrams were mentioned at 73bl in the summary of the Meno argument, and
may have remained uppermost in Plato's mind.
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or observed figures function as no more than imperfect visual
representations of ideal size-relations (cf. Republic VI 51OdS-
511 a3), and that the visible equality we see exemplified in a
pair or set of such sides is on no account to be mistaken for
actual mathematical equality, whose properties (for example,
its transitivity) we know quite independently of any sensory
evidence. The reason why 'striving to be like' makes sense in
a context like geometry as well as in portrait-painting is that
in both alike the striving resides in a purposive agent, working
with or on a would-be likeness of some original. If the striving is
attributable to the likeness itself as well, that is by transference
from the purposive agent's intentions.
I am not suggesting that the equality example invoked by
Socrates is meant to be limited to geometry lessons. He is fairly
explicit that, once we have arrived at the insight in question,
we come with hindsight to think in the same way of all the
'equals' we have ever perceived, namely as defective imitations
of the Form (74e6-75c3). That intended universality no doubt
helps explain why he chose at the outset to refer to 'equal sticks
and stones', rather than simply to equal lines in a diagram:
the mathematical imperfection of diagrams is extendible to the
entire contents of the sensible world. But it makes excellent sense
that Plato should mean to assign to the context of geometrical
learning our first realization that sensible equality is no better
than a defective mimicking of pure equality.
As soon as the portraiture model, and with it the primarily
geometrical 'equals' example, are left behind, the 'striving to
be like' metaphor will disappear from Plato's ontology. I
therefore submit that the teleological interpretation of Plato's
metaphysics in terms of particulars' striving for a paradigm has
been misleadingly encouraged by the examples discussed in the
Recollection Argument, and should be henceforth abandoned.28
Christ's College
Cambridge CB2 3BU
28. My thanks to audiences at Edinburgh, UC Davis and Oxford for helpful
discussion, and to Gail Fine and Inna Kupreeva for valuable written comments.
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