Plato, Metaphysics and the Forms (review)
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Reviewed by
Francis A. Grabowski III. Plato, Metaphysics and the Forms. Continuum Studies in Ancient Philosophy. London-New York: Continuum, 2008. 163 pp. Cloth, $130.00.

Grabowski, a self-described Platonic realist, argues against the "standard interpretation" of Plato's Forms as abstract universals in favor of the view that they are concrete particulars. He explains that the mistaken standard interpretation arises from a deeply ingrained habit of reading Plato's texts through the hermeneutical lens of the universals. Universals undoubtedly play a major role in the history of philosophy, though they were not Plato's primary concern in elaborating a theory of the Forms. "It is not that the problem of universals gives rise to the Forms, but that the Forms give rise to the problem of universals" (79).

According to Grabowski, if it can be shown that Plato never expunged the "model of acquaintance" from his theory of knowledge, then, strange as it seems, we can reasonably believe that Plato posited, or should have posited, the Forms as concrete particulars similar to those that exist in the sensible world, albeit bereft of any of the latter's "ontological deficiencies" (7).

Grabowski begins the task by constructing an argument for the "standard interpretation," only to show that this interpretation proves unpersuasive, if for no other reason than the paucity of evidence supporting it in Plato's texts. In chapter 2, Grabowski summarizes the epistemological views held by Plato's main predecessors, including Homer, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, showing how each of them compared knowledge to perception, conceiving the former as the consequence of a relationship between knower and thing known. Only in chapter 3 does Grabowski delve fully into the relevance of Plato's epistemology for his metaphysics, showing that Plato heavily favored the acquaintance model. Particularly important for Grabowski is Plato's notion that we become acquainted with the Forms by direct contact rather than by any discursive process.

Despite the alleged novelty of viewing the Forms primarily through the lens of epistemology, Grabowski formulates the question in ostensibly classical terms: how is it possible to know anything if everything is in a state of continual change? Plato wished to maintain that reality was indeed knowable, and he therefore had to posit something constant beneath the phenomenon of flux. From this epistemological premise, Plato attempted to draw a metaphysical conclusion that would account for both the fact that there is a similarity between knowledge and sense perception, and the fact that objects experienced, though perceived, cannot be known. Holding on to both would require the Forms to combine the invariable nature of mathematical truths and the perceptible nature of sensible particulars.

This invariably leads to the conclusion, Grabowski maintains, that the Forms are anything but separate, abstract universals—indeed, they are non-physical, concrete particulars. Notwithstanding his bold philosophical conclusion, Grabowski shows greater restraint when speaking historically. He claims only that Plato likely understood the Forms in the above-described way, though he also asserts that Plato should have understood the Forms in this way, lest his metaphysics and epistemology remain hopelessly irreconcilable. Grabowski also wishes to refrain from taking sides on the debate as to whether Plato radically modified his notion of the Forms at a certain point in his career, or even abandoned the theory altogether. Focusing exclusively on Plato's "mature philosophical years," Grabowski has opted [End Page 235] "not to address the issue of Plato's alleged philosophical development" (12). Evading this key issue, however, seems to betray the author's explicit intention to engage in a study of the history of philosophy rather than a study of metaphysics per se.

Therein lies both the strength and weakness of this book. Grabowski limits himself to a consideration of the way in which Plato's epistemology gives rise to the theory of the Forms, yet he does so at the expense of a critical evaluation of Plato's metaphysics. The Platonic texts he chooses to examine, together with those of Plato's predecessors, leads Grabowski to make strong claims concerning the nature of the Forms as concrete particulars, but apparently excuses him from directly confronting the question of how those concrete particulars...