The Lonely Philosopher

lonely-philosopherLet us have a moment to ponder the philosopher. His title tends to conjure images of stuffy anchorites bent before desks of dusted verbiage, of old men waxing lyrical on what is right and what is real. These associations are not entirely inaccurate: we paint such images from faded portrayals of classical philosophers, as caricatures intent on capturing the eccentric wisdom of history’s greatest thinkers. This is not to say these hackneyed depictions bear any resemblance to philosophers in general, however—and to this the philosopher is to take no offence: the masses picture him so just as they picture the chemist perpetually goggle-clad and peering into combustible test tubes. As much as anyone else, the philosopher ought to remember that our conceptions of foreign disciplines are more often amusing than they are offensive, and more often ludicrous than they are credible.

We might nonetheless explore the public image of the philosopher for curiosity’s sake. Atop his many perceived qualities sits his isolation from his scholarly brethren; we appear to conceive of him somehow distanced from the scientist, the historian, and the poet. This disparity is for some based in philosophy’s purported lack of substance, manifest in its scholars’ deficiency in anything by the way of economic utility. What benefits are we to claim in ruminating the nature of knowledge, or the mysteries of human consciousness? What is to be gained in theorising right from wrong, in deciphering real from unreal, in plucking the beautiful from the grotesque? Such judgements question academia’s worth when it is no longer a lucrative exercise. What use is the Ivory Tower, after all, if it cannot be dismantled and sold for its parts?

Others sequester philosophy for less hostile yet equally uninformed reasons, its persistent interest in the supernatural being a ready example. Some hear the term ‘metaphysics’ and think not of Hume’s theory of causation or Plato’s theory of the forms, but of some sort of mystical pseudoscience concerned with arcane knowledge. Here the philosopher is pictured playing the role of the incense-burning lunatic gazing wildly into the ether, the shaman to his tribe of befuddled followers. With each of these associations the ground no doubt shakes as revered philosophers squirm in their coffins, a flagrant insult to a discipline very much dedicated to the pursuit of truth. The person of philosophy is an ever-questioning, ever-rational nit-picker with a voracious thirst for the right and good, and there are very few who could match him in his reluctance to accommodate superstition. He is right to begrudge such misunderstandings of his pursuits.

Misconceptions do not account for every explanation of the philosopher’s isolation, however: we might consider his natural dissatisfaction with our conceptions of truth. He asks questions where others do not, and fidgets awkwardly in the presence of facts others are keen to espouse. This is not to discredit the captious natures of his scholarly brethren—surely a good scholar of any sort is a pedantic one—but rather to highlight the expansiveness of the philosopher’s general inquiry. In the face of ‘concrete’ evidence he would pester the scientist on the limits of empirical knowledge; to the mathematician he would question the basis for necessity; and with the artist he would ponder the nature of art and its nebulous qualifications. He is prepared to relinquish his every assumption through fear of taking something for granted, the sort of behaviour that leaves him vulnerable to accusations of being over-inquisitive. In response to such statements as ‘X is true’ the philosopher would no doubt question the nature of X and then the nature of truth—and some consider this inappropriate and useless at best and distracting and harmful at worst.

This alleged over-inquisitiveness might justify the philosopher’s abovementioned reputation. If his only perceived role in society is that of the twittering sceptic it is no wonder he is deemed a nuisance, and indeed an unnecessary one. His incessant questioning threatens our security and dilutes our claims to truth. It leaves us with an icy feeling of nakedness as we are laid bare to the perils of uncertainty. It is this tentative environment that propagates the philosopher’s false associations with the supernatural: some mistake his scepticism for a desire to displace science with fantasy, misreading his intent to refine our search for truth as a desire to divert it. In each of these views it is clear that the philosopher is marked an enemy of human enterprise, as an enemy of the truth. This may raise questions regarding our own intentions: do we honestly crave the truth, or are we compelled simply by answers that happen to fit the bill? Any such commitment of sincerity would necessitate the ever-questioning philosopher as a valuable tool, not discard him as any sort of hindrance. That which has been validated can only remain so as long as it endures scrutiny, and that must surely include the scrutiny presented by philosophical arguments.

It is important that we do not conceive of the philosopher in purely negative terms. In truth he does more than expose the faults of neighbouring disciplines—he paves the very way for their advancement. Many would dispute this claim and offer as a rejoinder a reproachful comment regarding philosophy’s alleged obsolescence: it is a field superseded by science. It would, however, take but the briefest glimpse into the past to realise the falsity of such animadversions; for asking questions about the present has always been the first step to approaching the future. Method and experiment costs time and money—resources which are not themselves inexorable—and the determination of the most fruitful itinerary requires the direct application of philosophy, whether in the form of logic, metaphysics, or simple critical thinking. The same is true beyond the realms of science: law is based ultimately on ethical code, the ponderings of moral philosophers; art swings gracefully from the discipline of aesthetics; and the living of a happy life requires philosophy of the most personal sort, that of self-contemplation. We would do well to remember that philosophy works always in humanity’s interest, for there is nothing more natural to it nor more conducive to its success.

Let us conclude our brief consideration in constructing an understanding of the philosopher he would not resent. In doing so we ought to respect both his utility in tempering others and his quintessential importance to innovation. In analogy we might liken him to the human conscience. The brain in an exceptionally powerful machine capable of performing extraordinary feats, and in this it mimics modern science. With the use of our brains we hold the capacity to store vast amounts of information, to decode intricate puzzles, and to make accurate predictions of the future. Alone, however, this remarkable machine remains just that—a machine. The moment it longs to become more than a mere set of empirically adequate models it requires something else, namely consciousness. Consciousness allows for self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-projection—capacities brought to academia by the philosopher. He safeguards humanity from its own hubris while also allowing it to envisage its possible futures. He is what reminds it of its limitations, and what urges it to marvel at what lies beyond them. Though there is no doubt that the philosopher is isolated from his scholarly brethren, he is nevertheless their trusted friend and cohort—he is where they began, and where they must all eventually end.

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University

Leontion: The Lost Woman Philosopher

Who was this brash, intelligent, ancient philosopher Leontion? We do know she was a woman that garnered both respect and vitriol from her peers. Epicurus praised her. Cicero disapproved. If we only knew why.

Lost but not completely forgotten.

women-thinking-smIt is beyond doubt that the paragons of philosophy’s history, so recalled for their wondrous scholarship, were in custody of a marvellous intellect, and were in no way meek in their expression of it. Among the philosophical schools of Ancient Greece the virtues of wit and erudition were borne with a particular pride, viewed so they were as direct means of wealth and success. This was, of course, a vanity from which women were expected to abstain, and not least since intelligence was, if anything, a serious hindrance to the common ambitions of an Ancient Greek woman.

That said, women bold and brash existed amid the philosophers’ ranks, though most are remembered somewhat disdainfully. Back in 300BC there lived a woman philosopher about whom we have admittedly little information, yet whose scholastic presence is painted clearly in the way she offended her contemporaries. Leontion was a follower of Epicurus, a renowned philosopher whose school welcomed the unlikeliest of sorts: foreigners, slaves, and—almost more surprisingly—women.

Historical accounts of Leontion tend to concentrate upon her status as a hetaera, a highly-cultured courtesan typical of Ancient Greek society.[1] The sources that remain to describe her, however, can be questioned in this keen focus, since it was a trend among Greek historians to tell of women through the lives of men. If Leontion was as truly gifted as her reception suggests, a concentration on her being a ‘nonrespectable woman’ would have served as convenient means of detracting from this.[2]

Whether a hetaera or not, Epicurus seemed rather fond of her—and not in the usual way in which a man might be fond of a woman. ‘By Apollo, my dear little Leontion,’ wrote Epicurus, ‘with what uproarious applause you filled us as we read your letter.’[3] As this correspondence indicates, Leontion held both wit and cheek in spates; and it was this intelligence, combined with her philosophical acumen, that granted her such disfavour among her milieu. Her daring to contend with Theophrastus, a student of Plato and further successor to Aristotle, was at the heart of her reputation. At a time when women kept quietly to their confines, the learned Leontion took the liberty to script a censorious treatise in retort to Theophrastus’s works, an act which soured the hand of reporting historians.

Cicero makes clear his disapproval of Leontion’s audacity in one of his philosophical dialogues: ‘Was it on such dreams that Epicurus and Metrodorus and Hermarchus relied in speaking out against Pythagoras, Plato, and Empedocles? Or the little prostitute Leontion in daring to write a treatise against Theophrastus? Of course, she writes in fine Attic style, but really! Such license the Garden of Epicurus allowed!’[4] It is to great regret that nothing remains of Leontion’s treatise, but the impact it had upon those who read it suggests it was a respectable piece of work. If even Cicero, so determined to smirch her name, felt somehow obliged to commend her skills, it would hardly strain inference to suggest her writings were of good quality. How else could it have spurred the Greek patriarchy to recoil so?

Unfortunately this all but exhausts what is known of the ambitious Leontion, since women of the classical era so rarely took themselves to scripture, and were in no way encouraged to do so by their male counterparts. The only vestige we have of her brazen intellect is the dropped jaws of her male onlookers, and the admiring words of Epicurus. Yet in some ways this might seem appropriate. Not only does our lack of understanding create, about Leontion, an air of mystery and intrigue that would certainly have been present during her lifetime, but also a distinct frustration with the Ancient Greeks for suppressing her. Is it not perfectly exemplar of the classical world that the Greeks aspired so much to wisdom and knowing, yet recklessly neglected what could have been vital resources (i.e. their women philosophers)?

In any case—whether a hetaera, a prostitute, or a well-versed scholar—nothing remains of Leontion’s ideas, only the impressions they made upon those who stole a glance at them. If the remarks of Cicero and Epicurus are anything to go by, however, we can safely assume they were well worth reading.


[1] Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, xiii. pp. 588-93.

[2] McIntosh-Snyder, J. (1991). The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Southern Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press. 103.

[3] Ibid. 104.

[4] Ibid. 103.

What Can Be Learned from Bertrand Russell’s Life as a Philanderer? Part III

III­. A Frantic Quest for Identity?

There is a severe deficit of literature describing Russell’s third marriage to the young Patricia Spence, who was twenty-two to Russell’s sixty-four years when they tied the knot in 1936. She was an ‘attractive’ Oxford undergraduate with whom Russell fathered his second son, Conrad, who later became a prominent historian.[1] Patricia, too, must have been something of a scholar, cited as a major contributor to Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, among his most popular publications. Given her age and lack of experience, Russell’s third wife must have contrasted Dora in just about every way; and this could well be considered his motivation for pursuing the relationship. Their bond spanned thirteen years, ending cacophonously in 1949. The subsequent rift between lovers foiled Russell’s relationship with Conrad, who did not again see his father until the winter of 1968, a meeting which, for both of them, caused a permanent breach with Patricia.[2] Though small affairs surely thrived amid Russell’s third and fourth marriages, his flight from Patricia began the summation of his career as a womaniser, which, at eighty years, might warrant remark in itself.

Russell’s third and final divorce was finalised in 1952, almost six decades after his first marriage in 1894. Oddly enough it was by the remains of his relationship with Alys that Russell happened upon his fourth marriage, the only one he appeared loathe to abandon, discounting the great departure of death. Russell first met Edith Finch in the early 1930s: they shared a mutual friendship with a woman named Lucy Donnelly, an acclaimed teacher of English whose countenance he had met by Alys’s introduction. Edith and Lucy had been very close, having taught together at Bryn Mawr College following Edith’s graduation from the University of Oxford. They lived in a house they themselves had built in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, to which Russell paid regular visits until Lucy’s death in 1948.[3] An operose and well-qualified woman, Edith continued to work as a New York editor well into her old age, having already published two biographies and a pensive philosophical work entitled Strange Humanity.[4] Russell encountered Edith again in 1950, having flown to New York to deliver the Matchette Foundation lectures. Their relationship developed quickly and they married two years later. Whether poised by the temperance of age or the result of ‘true love,’ their marriage was to bring ‘great happiness’[5] to both, and failed to imitate Russell’s previous relationships. They worked together, campaigned together, and lived together in what seemed to be absolute harmony. Russell’s later years strayed far from the halcyon days of the classic retirement, and with time he was met with more and more adversity; but handlocked with Edith he seemed no longer to heed the frantic capers of the lost child within him, a tendency which would—had it been present—surely seen her cast to the wind. The pair can be seen today immortalised in black and white, standing side-by-side at political demonstrations and cocktail parties alike, captured by the ironically youthful serenity of old age. Redeemed from the self-addled rancour of his youth, Russell was free to enjoy himself—neither in Edith’s shadow nor his own—in a way he had not previously allowed. Gone seemed to be Russell’s fanatic thirst for discovery: his letters with Edith discussed the weather, books read and unread, travel plans, and even groceries—mundane topics of everyday life imbued with a love for which he had spent many decades searching. They moved to Penrhyndeudraeth, north Wales, where they lived their final years together, saluting current affairs where necessary, but mostly overlooking the great wild fells of the British countryside.

What could have caused such a drastic change in Russell’s temperament? His sudden resignation to complacency was a vicissitude for which there appeared no prior warning. The sceptic would likely put his change in attitude to a result of old age: he no longer had the time or energy to pursue his capricious desires, and in that scarcity huddled into a comfortable marriage sufficient enough to die in. Could this be true? Could what seemed a happy ending have been nothing but the forfeit of an old man? Inference from the evidence would suggest otherwise. Though incessantly lost within them, Russell was certainly one to express his emotions, with no qualms in allowing his feelings to manifest at the expense of himself or others. Suffering quietly was therefore something he was unlikely to perform very well, let alone as a consequence of old age: the amounting years did little to temper his personality throughout his youth; why would they suddenly gain sway in his elderly years?

No—it would seem, given the observations made above, that something changed in the way Russell viewed himself from within his relationships. His and Edith’s marriage was functional and healthy in its deficiency of whatever infiltrated his previous experiences with women. Could this malignant catalyst have been his frantic quest for identity? It would certainly make sense: with each succeeding relationship Russell assumed a new identity, carrying with him new values and ambitions. He entered his first marriage with hopes of becoming the seemly Christian husband, both proper and suitable given its occurrence in the late nineteenth century. Once these efforts miscarried and culminated in divorce he fell into the hands of Lady Ottoline, who impregnated him with the desire to become a tortured artist. In this he failed, moving into his second marriage, which saw his already progressive views challenged by Dora, whose heavily liberal attitude forced him to become more progressive than ever before. Unable to keep up with her, Russell divorced Dora in favour of a woman whose youth and compliance conferred him the most prosaic of identities, the classic husband, wealthy and venerable. This, too, failed to make Russell happy, and true to his expressionist ways he left Patricia—an act which, considering his age at the time, plays testament to his unwavering commitment to the pursuit of happiness.

Could it be said that Russell and Edith’s marriage was not corrupted in this way? It would be overly romantic to suggest their relationship went unblemished by Russell’s tendency to seek essence in his relationships; but it is clear that any remnants of such failed to derail them. Together they endured intense hardship—including the mental decline of both Russell’s son and his granddaughters—with no evidence of a broken link between them. He seemed not obliged to reinvent himself for her, perhaps due to an inner sense of self he had before lacked. There was no self-estrangement, no bitterness, no competition: Russell simply fell in love with Edith, plain and simple, with no intent to alter or further himself in any way. Had this been the answer to Russell’s problems? It would seem so; the ensuing marriage seemed all but perfect. His Autobiography, a compendium of his entire life’s experience, was lovingly dedicated to her, to Edith, a woman for whom he had spent eighty years searching:

Through the long years
I sought peace
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness,
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.

Now, old & near my end,
I have known you,
And, knowing you,
I have found both ecstasy & peace
I know rest
After so many lonely years.
I know what life & love may be.
Now, if I sleep
I shall sleep fulfilled.[6]

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[1] Barrette, P.. (1997). The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family. Available: www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~bertrand/family.html. Last accessed 31/01/14.

[2] Monk, R. (2001). Bertrand Russell: 1921-1970, The Ghost of Madness. New York: Free Press. 306.

[3] Turcon, S.. (1992). The Edith Russell Papers. In: russell: the Journal of the Bertrand Russell Archives. Hamilton, Ont.: McMaster University Library Press. 61-2.

[4] Ibid. 63.

[5] Ibid. 62.

[6] Russell, B. (2009). Autobiography. London: Routledge. Ded.

What Can Be Learned from Bertrand Russell’s Life as a Philanderer? Part IV

Bertrand Russell may have learned at the end of his life something that may have given him more peace and identity had he learned it earlier. His seeming inability to maintain a solid, loving relationship with a single woman was a symptom of a much more significant issue. By looking at his life, we possibly can save our own.

IV. We Are What We Love

Now to answer the questions of how this relates to Russell within academia, and what can be learned from his resolutions. While the demons Russell spent much of his life wrestling are made most perspicuous by his romantic life, they were present, too, in his scholarship. Through the course of his career he wrote on every major area of academic philosophy (with the exception of aesthetics[1]), concentrating mostly on metaphysics, logic, mathematics and epistemology. He dabbled in more-or-less very sphere available to him, never quite settling enough to merit the branding of a specialist. Beyond philosophy he was yet more fickle, alighting every subject from politics to literature, all with a firm aversion to truly committing himself to any one of them. It would seem that, despite the significant contribution he made to the twentieth century, Russell was unable still to place himself within the world of academia. He often described his lifelong ‘search for knowledge,’[2] the search for a domain that could sustain him—a quest which went, for the most part, unsatisfied. Whether Russell’s inability to discover his true raison d'être came at the expense of his work is neither here nor there; what should be taken from this is that he lived his life in torment and self-discontent, desperate for a place to belong, as a result of his own personal philosophy. Though he eventually found happiness in some areas of his life, he may well have had more success—and indeed more happiness—had he instead revised the way he looked at things.

Can it be said that we should not look for identity in the things we do? Would Russell have been happier had he adopted the attitude of his eighty-year-old self from the very beginning, free of all neuroses and expectations of self-discovery? I would support such an idea. Those who search for themselves within something else—whether that be a lover or a scholastic interest—are forever bound to disappointment, for in the search’s necessity alone they are lost. A nameless proverb has circulated the Western world for a long time: WE ARE WHAT WE DO. Is this fair? Is this even true? Is the waitress a waitress and nothing more? Am I, for writing this very article, a philosopher and a philosopher alone? Am I to be classified in this way, as accords my choice in degree? This idea I would not support; and I believe it was this way of thinking that compelled Russell, and so many others, to spend their lives in pursuit of something that was never missing. In the preface of his Autobiography Russell described how his life was governed by three passions: his longing for love, his search for knowledge, and his unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.[3] Could there be a more noble set of passions in governance of a man’s life? Indeed it would seem not, but Russell’s avid determination to fit perfectly into these moulds rendered him bitterly unhappy for eight decades. He sought to see himself cemented in these goals, sublimely coalesced, as to avoid feeling unworthy of them. This, I believe, was unwise of him. We seek to find ourselves in what we do, as a means of finding somewhere to belong, and I believe this to be tragically misguided. I would proffer an alternative proverb, one which instead insists that WE ARE WHAT WE LOVE. I am a philosopher, yes, but if I were to tirelessly scour the discipline in search of myself I would die an unhappy man. Instead I would characterise myself as one who loves philosophy, one who is passionate about philosophy, and one whose identity may be comfortably characterised by my feelings towards philosophy. Here we leave no question of my identity, an identity which is in no way contingent on an infinite procession of qualifications, such as those Russell set himself. Had this been the way in which Russell approached his life from the very beginning, in the way of his marriage to Edith, I believe he could have enjoyed great happiness in concurrence with phenomenal success. He was a wonderful man, a marvel of brilliance, and ought to be remembered for his love of what he did, and not the things he was all too human to achieve.

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[1] Ibid. 84.

[2] Thomas, M.. (2011). Bertrand Russell Autobiography - Poem With Distinction. Available: http://allpoetry.com/contest/2570623-Bertrand-Russell-Autobiography---Poem-With-. Last accessed 01/02/14.

[3] Russell, B. (2009). Autobiography. London: Routledge. Preface.

What Can Be Learned from Bertrand Russell’s Life as a Philanderer? Part I

 

Young Bertrand Russell

I. The Young Russell

A dislike of Bertrand Russell must be an onerous burden to bear, be the focus on his work, his personality, or even his reputation. Born to British nobility positively knee-deep in precocity, Russell’s life story is strewn with achievements both bright and bold. Not a moment of his long life was wasted: in his ninety-seven years he wrote over seventy books, hundreds of essays and several thousands of letters. In the way of the Renaissance figures before him, Russell was hardly provincial in his talents: as well an acclaimed philosopher, historian, and hardboiled political figure, he was in some ways a beacon (or perhaps an epitaph) to a breed of academic that was by the twentieth century fading into obsolescence; and for these reasons he is regarded as one of the most important Western philosophers since Immanuel Kant.[1]

Russell springs to mind hunched over a cluttered bureau, suckling the temples of his spectacles in deep coitus with a battered tome, caring not for what might lie beyond its pages. This image is not, however, entirely accurate; he was not so musty and desolate in the way of his pigeonhole. He is remembered grandly as a philosopher, a mathematician, a revolutionary—but by no means least as a philanderer. The list of women he bedded is extensive, and indeed the relationships he had with them controversial. But of what possible relevance could Russell’s private life have to those whose attention is drawn to his academic work? Rather a lot, I believe. We trust our scholastic paragons to hold dear to them their works, and accordingly they often do. This internal truss often results in their scholarship being incubated in suffocating adjacency to their romantic life, breeding strange similarities between the two. In interest of these similarities this series of papers will take a look into Russell’s romantic life, and posit his issues with commitment to be not only analogous with his vagabond-like attitude within academia, but also representative of a degenerate personal philosophy. In what follows I will argue this personal philosophy to be the cause of Russell’s feelings of absence within the world he spent his life working to understand.

Russell’s Autobiography describes how he first began to question religion at the age of fifteen, something to which he had been heavily exposed since moving to live with his grandmother. By eighteen he had come to flout the existence of God entirely, along with the very concepts of free will and an afterlife.[2] He was, in modern terms, what one would describe as a fully-fledged atheist, embracing a sceptical mode of thought redolent of his late parentage. For these reasons one may find it curious that, at age twenty-two, he agreed to marry Alys Pearsall Smith, the high-minded American Quaker with a ravenous lust for tradition and conformity. The daughter of two strictly religious parents, Alys lived a life such that any transgression of her family’s wishes may have left her an anathema among her community. Indeed her older sister, Mary, led just such a ‘flamboyant’ lifestyle, marooning her husband for a famous historian and immersing herself in a life of ‘indulgence’ and ‘defiant behaviour.’[3] She seemed determined not to be led astray in the way of her sister: she stipulated a purely religious ceremony, to be conducted by the unwavering baton of tradition. Though acquiescence to such demands would not seem particularly unusual in your average nineteenth-century groom, Russell’s deference comes as a surprise considering his radical conceptions of faith and religion. He had known Alys from the age of seventeen, having spent much time travelling the continent with her family,[4] which may have provided them good time to consolidate some of their biblical differences, but this scarcely explains Russell’s inane adherence to her demands despite their conflict with his own values.[5] The relationship nevertheless spanned six soporific years, a period in which Russell appeared to achieve very little considering the tremendous success of both the years prior and subsequent. It was by the whims of an exultant bicycle ride that the marriage was brought to ruin: Russell, having come to the realisation that he no longer loved his wife, quite frankly announced his reformed affections and instigated a period of separation that bridged two decades. From what can be seen this was the beginning of Russell’s destructive appetite for self-alienation. In assuming an identity clearly incongruent with his own he had found himself in an environment that could not sustain him (wedlock with a woman who neither understood his work nor cared for it). His self-extrication was inevitable. He left unburdened with anything by the way of a guilty conscience, while, true to her Victorian ways, Alys remained silently devoted to her husband.[6]

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[1] Berumen, M.E.. (2009). Bertrand Russell: A Man in Full in Brief. Available: meberumen.blogspot.co.uk/2004/05/bertrand-russell-man-in-full-in-brief.html. Last accessed 31/01/14.

[2] Russell, B. (2009). Autobiography. London: Routledge. 35-6.

[3] Turcon, S.. (1983). A Quaker wedding: the marriage of Bertrand Russell and Alys Pearsall Smith. Russell: the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies. 3 (2), 104.

[4] Barrette, P.. (1997). The Bertrand Russell Gallery, Family. Available: www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~bertrand/family.html. Last accessed 31/01/14.

[5] [5] See Russell’s adherence to Alys’s marital demands in Turcon, S.. (1983). A Quaker wedding: the marriage of Bertrand Russell and Alys Pearsall Smith. Russell: the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies. 3 (2), 104-7.

[6] Stangroom, J.. (2012). More On Loving Bertrand Russell. Available: blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6148. Last accessed 31/01/14.

The Third Man Argument: Part 2

II

thirdmanAlthough Plato did not refer to the Third Man Argument as such in his dialogues it was a name given to the theory years later by Aristotle, who briefly discussed the idea in his Metaphysics and Sophistical Refutations.[12] This particular argument of the Parmenides, according to Vlastos, seeks to exposes two “inconsistent premises” within the Forms which together lead to the theory’s alleged infinite regress.

The character of Parmenides endeavours to establish this in two different ways, though each aims to present the same absurdity.[13]

The first of these works on the understanding that for all things that display F-ness—say, A, B and C—there must be a Form F by virtue of which we comprehend A, B and C as F. This is a standard interpretation of Plato, and one he himself appears to sanction. The issue arises when one considers the nature of F. Parmenides uses the example of ‘Greatness’ (‘Largeness’ in other translations) to illustrate this problem: For all things that are large (A, B and C) there must be a Form of Largeness by virtue of which we see A, B and C as such. The Form of Largeness is immutably perfect, and therefore the perfect archetype of largeness; but if F is itself large, and thereby an example of F-ness, it must, by the above understanding, require its own explanation, namely a partaking in another Form by virtue of which it is large. This Form can be called F2. This continues ad infinitum—into F3 and F4—with each set of F things consuming F and requiring a further F to serve as cause of their F-ness.[14]

The second version of the Third Man Argument works in a similar way and reveals the same glitch in the uniqueness and intelligibility of the Forms. This argument was well expounded by Pelletier and Zalta in their example of ‘Loveliness’:[15] If all things lovely become such and acquire their loveliness by virtue of partaking in the respective Form of Loveliness, then they must themselves be ‘like’ that Form. Following from the “symmetry of likeness” it can be said that the Form must, then, be ‘like’ the objects which partake in it. If this is true, the Form of Loveliness and the lovely objects must resemble one another by virtue of a further Form, of which they both partake. This, again, continues ad infinitum, creating Forms interminably to explain the likeness of the Form to its instantiations.

In the simpler terms used in the previous explanation, this argument can be understood as the following: If A, B and C each possess F-ness by partaking in F, they must (in their F-ness) resemble F. From the “symmetry of likeness” it follows that F must resemble A, B and C. This incurs the requirement of a further Form (F2) by virtue of which F resembles its instantiations—ad infinitum.

Though they have different approaches, each of these arguments depend on the same premises and threaten the Forms in the same way. The above account of the Third Man Argument relies on two distinct features of the Forms: First, Non-Identity, which demands that if something has a certain property it cannot be the same as the Form by virtue of which we understand that property (If X has F-ness, then A cannot be the same as F). Second is Self-Predication, which states that any Form partakes of itself (F has F-ness). These qualities of the Forms are drawn from a number of Plato’s dialogues in which they are discussed, and are essential to the Third Man Argument’s refutation. They do, however, remain questionable, as the following section will expound.

Literature on the Third Man Argument is expansive and “voluminous,”[16] but in all its versions the reproach threatens the uniqueness of the Forms and, in its subsequent infinite regress, their claim to being knowable and the only true basis for knowledge. The importance of the Forms’ uniqueness is described first in the Phaedo, and can be fathomed as a simple requirement of the Form to be the only one of its sort. This condition is linked with the Forms’ immutability: Plato states that those objects and properties that are “composite”—in other words, not unique—are “naturally liable to be decomposed.” Immutability is a requirement of the Forms because they would be otherwise susceptible to the change and decay of time, and would thereby become imperfect; so Plato concludes that “it is most probable that things which are always the same and unchanging are the uncompounded things.”[17] If the Forms were not unique, as the Third Man Argument proposes, then they are neither immutable nor perfect—and it is by these very qualities, among others, that Plato defines the Forms. How, after all, could F be the perfect example of F-ness if there are multiple Fs?

Where the question of the Forms’ value is concerned, the Third Man Argument provides us with strong reason to abandon them altogether. Plato claims in the Cratylus that the Forms alone may ground our knowledge, that everything else—that is, their transient instantiations—are wholly unreliable and in a constant state of “becoming.”[18] As far as Plato was concerned, everything but the Forms was in a perpetual state of flux—unknowable, untouchable—where the Forms themselves remained intact, able to provide a basis for our beliefs about the world and all that within it. But how are they able to serve as such a basis in view of the infinite regress presented by the Third Man? How, by our understanding of the Forms, are we able to acquire knowledge of the ultimate if that understanding leads us straight into an infinite regress?

It is clear that Plato formulated the Theory of the Forms not only to provide a solution to the problem of universals, but to also rescue the plight of knowledge from our seeming inability to truly ‘know’ anything. The Forms played an integral part in Plato’s epistemological, metaphysical and political philosophy, and without them many of his ideas would appear unfounded. The Third Man Argument challenges this theory, and therein a vital cornerstone of Plato’s thinking.

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Works Cited

(All excerpts from Plato’s dialogues taken between December 19th and 22nd 2013 from: www.perseus.tufts.edu/cache/perscoll_Greco-Roman.html)

· Beck, M.C. (1999). Plato's Self-corrective Development of the Concepts of Soul, Forms and Immortality in Three Arguments of the "Phaedo. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

· Cohen, S.. (2011). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy from Thales to Aristotle. In: Cohen, S. and Curd, P. Ancient Greek Philosophy . 4th ed. London: Hackett Publishing.

· Hales, S.D.. (1990). The Recurring Problem of the Third Man. Auslegung.

· Kraut, Richard, "Plato", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/plato/>

· Kung, J.. (1985). Aristotle on Thises, Suches and the Third Man Argument. Available: <www.stanford.edu/~mvr2j/sfsu12/reading/phil770_kung.pdf>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Lacewing, M.. (2007). Plato's Theory of the Forms. Available: <cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/A2/Plato/PlatoTheoryForms.pdf>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Macintosh, D. . (2012). Plato: A Theory of Forms. Available: <philosophynow.org/issues/90/Plato_A_Theory_of_Forms>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Pelletier, F.J. and Zalta, E.N.. (2003). How to Say Goodbye to the Third Man. Available: <mally.stanford.edu/plato.pdf>. Last accessed 20/12/13.

· Rickless, S.. (2012). Plato's Parmenides. Available: <plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-parmenides/>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Russell, B. (1972). The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Touchstone.

· Saburns, D.. (2009). Does the Third Man Argument refute the theory of forms?. Available: <http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0715e13.htm. Last accessed 19/12/13>.

· Sanday, E.C.. (2009). Eleatic Metaphysics in Plato's Parmenides: Zeno's Puzzle of Plurality. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. 23 (3).

· Santayana, G. (2010). Egotism in German Philosophy. Charleston: Nabu Press.

· Sharma, R.. (2005). What is Aristotle's "Third Man" Argument Against the Forms?. In: Sedley, D. Oxford Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

· Vlach, M. . (2012). Plato's Theory of the Forms. Available: <www.theologicalstudies.org/resource-library/philosophy-dictionary/158-platos-theory-of-forms>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Watt, S.. (1997). Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5-7). In: Plato: Republic. London: Wordsworth Editions.


[12] Sharma (2005) pp. 123

[13] Saburns (2009)

[14] Sharma (2005) pp. 132

[15] Pelletier (2003) pp. 12

[16] Hale (1990) pp. 67

[17] Phaedo, 78b-c

[18] Cratylus, 440a

The Third Man Argument: Part 1

Plato’s Theory of the Forms: A Response to the Third Man Argument

thirdmanWhat is the difference between myself and the desk at which I sit? Neither are anything but a simple assembly of atoms, floating about a universe of others. Where do I cease, in wake of something else? All possible distinctions made (though Parmenides and Zeno claimed these were not possible)[1] we are left still with the discombobulating question of what actually makes the desk before me what it is. How can we ascribe to two desks the same name despite their being comprised of different matters, fashioned into different shapes, and used in different ways? It would appear, from this standpoint, that the desks are entirely separate entities, unrelated in terms of anything we are able to observe objectively.

But this surely cannot be the case. The wooden form before me is a table, and I—should I have instead been made up of wood and nails—would certainly not qualify as a table of any sort. But how are we able to make these judgements without a basis for their necessary distinctions? This has been dubbed the ‘problem of universals,’ which Plato alleged to resolve with his Theory of the Forms, first proffered in the Republic.

“The Platonic idealist,” said George Santayana, “is the man by nature so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests.”[2] Here Santayana was referring to the Theory of the Forms, or at least its employers (Plato’s philosopher-kings, for instance). The Theory of the Forms, in the way above described by Santayana, claims to deal with the problem of universals in providing a basis for our conceptual discrepancies.

Plato did, however, seem as willing to dissect his own theories as others were to scrutinise them.[3] In the Parmenides, described by twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell as “one of the most remarkable cases in history of self-criticism,”[4] Plato refutes his own Theory of the Forms with a number of logical confutations. The Third Man Argument is perhaps the strongest among these, and an argument upon which for depth’s sake this essay will concentrate.

The aim of this essay is to defend the Theory of the Forms, and argue against the Third Man Argument’s criticisms—to effectively defend Plato from both himself and those who took up arms provided by the arguments posed by the Parmenides. In what follows I will present the Theory of the Forms, before moving on to explain the Third Man Argument as tendered by Plato’s self-evaluative works, concluding finally in how I believe the Third Man Argument relies on false premises and falls short of delivering a valid objection to the Forms.

I

Plato’s Theory of the Forms proposes that for every object or property in the world there is a perfect version, or Form, by virtue of which it is recognisable for what it is, and without which it would no longer be the sort of object or property we see it to be.[5] These Forms are immutable and absolute, and exist in a way very different to their instantiations, residing in “another dimension” as “ultimate reference points for all objects we observe in the physical world.”[6]

There is, for instance, a ‘Form’ for Beauty by virtue of which we recognise all its instantiations to be a part of the universal concept, despite how each one might exhibit the property in a different way. Many things can be said to possess beauty—a diamond, the sunrise, a piece of music—but none can be described as beauty itself in the way the Form of Beauty can. Beauty’s Form is that by which we are able to appreciate beautifulness as a whole, and is therefore vastly superior to any mere instance of beauty. Objects of the phenomenal world are partial to change and decay in a way that the Forms are not. They instead exist in an “abstract state,” separate from their instantiations and “independent of minds.”[7]

The Forms are necessarily perfect and immutable, and by definition paradigmatic of that which they constitute. They do not change and alter in the way of the physical world; for if they did they would no longer be perfect, and cease to be anything but yet another example of that which they truly are. Plato argued that “because the material world is changeable it is also unreliable,” and used this to build his conception of worthy knowledge coming only from an understanding of the Forms, and not their tangible instantiations. No one has, for example, drawn the perfect triangle, for the drawing of such a thing would require a level of precision the infinite reducibility of spatial measurements would render impossible. This does not, of course, mean that the perfect triangle does not exist: when we attempt to draw a triangle we are guided by our understanding of the Form of Triangle-ness, not of the imperfect demonstrations we have seen drawn before us.[8] The limits of the material world do not inhibit the Forms; the Forms are necessarily perfect, and the Form of Triangle-ness is perfectly triangular.

The Theory of the Forms offers a solution to the problem of universals by allowing a single object or property to partake in multiple Forms, even if one Form is contrary to another. By this conception it is possible for the Forms of Oneness and Plurality to coexist, for something to be both one and many without creating incongruity. To understand this one must first comprehend what is meant by ‘partaking.’ A particular object is not created in the image of a Form, as such; but rather partakes in the Forms that define its properties. An apple, for example, while partaking in the Form of Apple-ness, partakes also in the Forms of Redness, Food-ness, and even Solidness. This is to say that the object involves itself in the appropriate Forms in order to become the thing that it is. The Forms of Oneness and Plurality may coincide in the same way, as in how something may be both light and dark. A dimly-lit room, while partaking in the Form of Darkness (it may be darker than outside), partakes also in the Form of Lightness (for the room is lighter than, say, a cave’s interior).[9] This argument is described in the Parmenides by Plato’s portrayal of Socrates.

Oneness is but one of the many qualities Plato claims the Forms possess. Others, pulled from Plato’s texts, include uniqueness, separation, and being one-over-many.[10] The Parmenides utilises these qualities in its refutations, using them to support the view that the Theory of the Forms is self-contradictory. The Whole-Pie Argument, for instance, strikes confutation between the nature of oneness and the process of partaking, proposing them to be incompatible. The Third Man Argument, however, relies instead on presupposed properties of the Forms not explicitly featured in Plato’s dialogues but rather assumed from certain passage of the Phaedo[11]. The following section will explore the Third Man Argument, and outline its objection to the soundness of the Theory of the Forms.

Previous

Next



Works Cited

(All excerpts from Plato’s dialogues taken between December 19th and 22nd 2013 from: www.perseus.tufts.edu/cache/perscoll_Greco-Roman.html)

· Beck, M.C. (1999). Plato's Self-corrective Development of the Concepts of Soul, Forms and Immortality in Three Arguments of the "Phaedo. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

· Cohen, S.. (2011). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy from Thales to Aristotle. In: Cohen, S. and Curd, P. Ancient Greek Philosophy . 4th ed. London: Hackett Publishing.

· Hales, S.D.. (1990). The Recurring Problem of the Third Man. Auslegung.

· Kraut, Richard, "Plato", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/plato/>

· Kung, J.. (1985). Aristotle on Thises, Suches and the Third Man Argument. Available: <www.stanford.edu/~mvr2j/sfsu12/reading/phil770_kung.pdf>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Lacewing, M.. (2007). Plato's Theory of the Forms. Available: <cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/A2/Plato/PlatoTheoryForms.pdf>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Macintosh, D. . (2012). Plato: A Theory of Forms. Available: <philosophynow.org/issues/90/Plato_A_Theory_of_Forms>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Pelletier, F.J. and Zalta, E.N.. (2003). How to Say Goodbye to the Third Man. Available: <mally.stanford.edu/plato.pdf>. Last accessed 20/12/13.

· Rickless, S.. (2012). Plato's Parmenides. Available: <plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-parmenides/>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Russell, B. (1972). The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Touchstone.

· Saburns, D.. (2009). Does the Third Man Argument refute the theory of forms?. Available: <http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0715e13.htm. Last accessed 19/12/13>.

· Sanday, E.C.. (2009). Eleatic Metaphysics in Plato's Parmenides: Zeno's Puzzle of Plurality. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. 23 (3).

· Santayana, G. (2010). Egotism in German Philosophy. Charleston: Nabu Press.

· Sharma, R.. (2005). What is Aristotle's "Third Man" Argument Against the Forms?. In: Sedley, D. Oxford Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

· Vlach, M. . (2012). Plato's Theory of the Forms. Available: <www.theologicalstudies.org/resource-library/philosophy-dictionary/158-platos-theory-of-forms>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Watt, S.. (1997). Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5-7). In: Plato: Republic. London: Wordsworth Editions.


[1] Sanday (2009) pp. 209-10

[2] Santayana (2010) pp. 16-7

[3] Watt (1997) pp. 14-6

[4] Russell (1972) pp. 127

[5] Kraut (2012)

[6] Vlach (2012)

[7] Lacewing (2007)

[8] Macintosh (2012)

[9] Cohen (2011) pp. 644

[10] Rickless (2012)

[11] Cohen (2011) pp. 307

The Third Man Argument: Parts 3 & 4

III

thirdmanThough the reasoning of the Third Man Argument is certainly sound, whether or not it can provide an adequate criticism of the Theory of the Forms is another matter. The theory introduces problems for the Forms in its conjuring of a ‘Third Man,’ who himself entails a Fourth and a Fifth, ad infinitum. The introduction of a ‘higher’ Form of which the original partakes brings about an infinite regress, and demeans the very substance of Plato’s theory. But is the Third Man necessary, and are his antecedents valid?

As mentioned before, the Third Man Argument as posed by the Parmenides relies on two distinct qualities of the Forms: Non-Identity and Self-Predication. If either were to be disproven, as this section aims, then the logic of the Third Man would be disrupted and it would no longer proffer a legitimate repudiation. It is my belief, and that of others[19], that these premises are based on a misunderstanding of Plato’s Forms, namely of the distinctions he made between them and their particulars.

It can be understood that the “primary function” of F is to “explain [or give being] to the F-ness of those particulars that partake of F.”[20] It is not said by Plato that F was able to explain or give being to its own F-ness because F is in fact “equivalent/identical” to F-nessF is self-defined, and an ultimate property of itself. This can be seen to cohere with others of the Forms’ qualities, viz. its absolute perfection: the Forms are self-defining in the way of a proven mathematical theorem, immutable, aspacial and atemporal.[21]

This meddles with the premises of the Third Man Argument in that they neglect this central understanding of the Forms and instead treat them as if they were particulars. The Non-Identity premise, for instance, states that if X has F-ness, then X cannot be the same as F. This is to say that if something possess a certain property it requires a respective Form to explain or give being to that property. This is certainly true of particulars, which necessitate the Forms to explain their qualities, but not so of the Forms: as aforementioned, the Forms give being to themselves; F is identical to F-ness, and does not require the vindication of a further Form to realise its own properties. So if X (a particular) has F-ness, then it indeed cannot be the same as F; but if F has F-ness, it most certainly can be the same as F, for they are necessarily one-in-the-same.

The premise of Self-Predication is subject to the same error. If something were to partake of itself in the style of a particular partaking of a Form, it would surely require a further Form to bring light to that property of which is being partaken. But the Form is not partaking of itself in the way of a particular, for it is self-defining and the property being predicated is therefore equivalent to the Form itself. An additional Form is not obliged, for the original brings about explanation on its own. This can be seen as the following: F, which is both F and F-ness, partakes of F and gives being to its own F-ness by virtue of F. Again, the solution emerges with the realisation that F and F-ness are one-in-the-same.

The Non-Identity and Self-Predication premises of the Third Man Argument are defenceless once this understanding of the Forms has been fully implemented. With the Form itself accounting for its own properties in a way which does not require succour, the Third Man becomes superfluous and indeed logically unfeasible. Of what would F1 be the Form if F-ness had been fully accounted for by F? It can be seen here that the criticisms of the Third Man Argument are built upon a parochial interpretation of Plato’s Forms, without which its premises are unable to support its argument.

IV

Though the remaining arguments of the Parmenides may well deliver a more satisfactory refutation of the Theory of the Forms, it is clear that the Third Man Argument relies too heavily on assumptions generated by a swift and unsophisticated interpretation of Plato’s thinking. Though to commit to the Third Man Argument’s premises is to perhaps acknowledge allusions made by Plato in some of his dialogues, it is also to overlook a great many more elsewhere.

The Third Man Argument undertakes the task of dislodging Plato’s Theory of the Forms in proving it to lead to an infinite regress out of which it is unable to break. Its subscribers since Plato have used its inclusion in the Parmenides to suggest that Plato himself no longer believed in the Forms, and was eager to refute their existence. But how could this be the case considering the characters of the Parmenides display a vitally limited understanding of the Forms? Why would Plato devise a complex theory of the Forms in his Republic and Phaedo just to deny it on a provincial basis in the Parmenides? Perhaps he struck an epiphany and no longer believed in the Forms, but this would not explain why Plato would confront them from the perspective of one who did not fully comprehend their nature. I would be as bold as to surmise that Plato wrote the Parmenides to test his students, to present them with the ill-informed criticisms of his work that frequented Athens at the time. Perhaps the Parmenides was a trial, conceived to emphasise areas of the Forms Plato believed were being overlooked.

Previous

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Works Cited

(All excerpts from Plato’s dialogues taken between December 19th and 22nd 2013 from: www.perseus.tufts.edu/cache/perscoll_Greco-Roman.html)

· Beck, M.C. (1999). Plato's Self-corrective Development of the Concepts of Soul, Forms and Immortality in Three Arguments of the "Phaedo. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

· Cohen, S.. (2011). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy from Thales to Aristotle. In: Cohen, S. and Curd, P. Ancient Greek Philosophy . 4th ed. London: Hackett Publishing.

· Hales, S.D.. (1990). The Recurring Problem of the Third Man. Auslegung.

· Kraut, Richard, "Plato", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/plato/>

· Kung, J.. (1985). Aristotle on Thises, Suches and the Third Man Argument. Available: <www.stanford.edu/~mvr2j/sfsu12/reading/phil770_kung.pdf>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Lacewing, M.. (2007). Plato's Theory of the Forms. Available: <cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/A2/Plato/PlatoTheoryForms.pdf>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Macintosh, D. . (2012). Plato: A Theory of Forms. Available: <philosophynow.org/issues/90/Plato_A_Theory_of_Forms>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Pelletier, F.J. and Zalta, E.N.. (2003). How to Say Goodbye to the Third Man. Available: <mally.stanford.edu/plato.pdf>. Last accessed 20/12/13.

· Rickless, S.. (2012). Plato's Parmenides. Available: <plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-parmenides/>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Russell, B. (1972). The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Touchstone.

· Saburns, D.. (2009). Does the Third Man Argument refute the theory of forms?. Available: <http://www3.sympatico.ca/saburns/pg0715e13.htm. Last accessed 19/12/13>.

· Sanday, E.C.. (2009). Eleatic Metaphysics in Plato's Parmenides: Zeno's Puzzle of Plurality. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. 23 (3).

· Santayana, G. (2010). Egotism in German Philosophy. Charleston: Nabu Press.

· Sharma, R.. (2005). What is Aristotle's "Third Man" Argument Against the Forms?. In: Sedley, D. Oxford Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

· Vlach, M. . (2012). Plato's Theory of the Forms. Available: <www.theologicalstudies.org/resource-library/philosophy-dictionary/158-platos-theory-of-forms>. Last accessed 19/12/13.

· Watt, S.. (1997). Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5-7). In: Plato: Republic. London: Wordsworth Editions.


[19] Kung (1985) pp. 225

[20] Saburns (2009)

[21] Beck (1999) pp. 148