Are Forms Necessary for Discourse? An exploration of the relationship between the theory of forms and discourse in Plato’s Parmenides

Essay, 2016

4 Pages, Grade: 73


Q. In Parmenides 135a-d, and after an extended critique of his own Theory of Forms, Plato has Parmenides say that, irrespective of any problems that the Theory of Forms may be subject to (i.e. the problems he has just been articulating), Forms are necessary for discourse (the Greek for 'discourse' is dialegesthai: 'to engage in dialogue', 'to engage in dialectic'). Critically consider this claim - that Forms are necessary for discourse . In doing so, you may also consider whether this claim helps us to establish a link between the Theory of Forms and the early dialogues.

To critically consider the claim that forms are necessary for discourse I will outline firstly the two interpretations of discourse that I will consider. I will then show that by its very definition my first interpretation is mutually reliant with the Theory of Forms showing that forms are necessary for this interpretation. I will then argue that my second interpretation of discourse is not reliant on forms given certain situations and qualifications. However this level of discourse is limited and in order to transcend a lower form of information exchange and discuss classes of objects, generalities and concepts, then, knowledge of a standardizing Theory of Forms is necessary. I will then discuss just how these findings establish a link between the Theory of Forms and the early dialogues with a focus on Hippias Major and how these findings aid the elucidation of the Theory of Forms that underlies the dialogue.

I will first outline the two interpretations of discourse that I will then use to investigate whether forms are necessary for discourse. F.J. Gonzales in a discussion of Plato’s dialectic of Forms suggests that forms are “ontologically independent of their instantiations” asserting that forms can exist without sensible instantiations or realisations in our empirical world (Welton 37). This in turn suggests that, should forms be necessary for discourse then it is possible for discourse to exist apart from both from the empirical world and the grasp of a philosopher. This establishes the bifurcation between two interpretations of discourse. Crombie describes how “for Plato dialegesthai and dialektike carried the connotation, not only of conversation which is sincere and characterised by give and take, but also that the purpose of such conversation is to see each thing separately in its true nature” (Crombie 563). I propose to name the first ordinary ‘give and take’ kind of discourse as (a) and the second more technical and theoretically orientated interpretation as (b). On one hand we have discourse in an ordinary sense, the ‘sophistic’ practice of holding dialogue, simply as a means of communication. However Plato has accomodated the term for his own intentions for (b). Blackburn tells us that interpretation (b), as outlined in the Republic, offers an approach to understand "the total process of enlightenment, whereby the philosopher is educated so as to achieve knowledge of the supreme good, the Form of the Good" in contrast to the ordinary communicative nature of (a) (Blackburn 99).

Plato’s Republic further enhances our understanding of (b). In order to attain knowledge and become philosophers and thereby rule Plato’s hypothetical city of justice, Plato maintains that children must study mathematics and philosophical dialectic, two subjects, we hear, that draws humanity from the sensible realm to the realm of what ‘is’, the realm of forms (Rep 521e-). We hear how mathematics is the preparation for dialectic, which is the ultimate form of study, that which is involved with true knowledge through interaction with the world of universals ( Rep 525c). Now if we were to take (a) as Plato’s interpretation of discourse, it is not clear whatsoever how mathematics prepares us to communicate, in fact it is extremely possible to communicate without having any mathematical capabilities whatsoever. Plato here is undoubtedly using interpretation (b). He writes:

(i) “when a man tries by discussion – by means of argument without the use of his senses – to attain to each thing itself that is and doesn’t give up before he grasps by intellection itself that which is good itself, he comes to the end of the intelligible realm just as that other man was then at the end of the visible” (532b).

This defines (b) as a discussion involving a form of argument that eliminates the use of one’s senses in an attempt to attain in “each thing itself that [which] is”, i.e. the true universal forms of things. Interpretation (b) is simply a non-empirical discussion which pursues forms. The definition of (b) as a dialectic, is therefore inextricably linked with and based upon forms. This interpretation will therefore forever rely upon the Theory of Forms. Furthermore Plato has told us above that the ultimate form to apprehend of the intelligible realm is the form of the good which is grasped through ‘intellection itself’. Plato proposes the form of the good as the first principle. He analogizes it with the sun therefore enabling us to apprehend all other forms (508 a–c). However the intellection that Plato mentions that allows us to grasp “good itself” is equitable to interpretation (b). Glaucon questions the nature of the outlined process in (i). “Don’t you call this journey dialectic?” to which Plato replies “of course” (Rep 532b). Therefore just as (b) by its definition depends on forms, forms themselves conversely depend on (b). They are mutually-reliant. It is worth noting that necessitation does not of course imply the existence of discourse or forms although their actuality is not the focus of this paper.

Thus far I have traced how and why forms are necessary by way of definition for interpretation (b). We are now left to examine if forms are necessary for interpretation (a). I will begin by outlining the reasons why Plato asserts forms are necessary for (a) in Parmenides. In Parmenides, Plato outlines his metaphysical Theory of Forms. He describes the existence of universal forms that enables us to categorise objects of the empirical, sensible world thus being able to use them in discourse. He proposes that the sensible phenomena which we come across empirically are shadows and instantiations of their true forms which exist in separate realm. Sensible properties are metaphysically linked someway to their perfect form. We hear how the property for example of ‘like’ comes to be “by getting a share of likeness, large by getting a share of largeness, and just and beauty by getting a share of justice and beauty” (Prm. 131e, p364). This, according to Plato enables us to have (a) because if we were to discuss for instance a table we would only ever be able to recognise it and therefore have a coherent discussion if the essence of table existed in a universal form of table-ness.

In Parmenides Plato depicts a scene in which Parmenides outlines criticisms of the Theory of Forms seemingly ending in aporia. However at the end of these criticisms where we might expect a concluding statement that the forms therefore cannot exist Parmenides instead states:

“If someone, having an eye on all the difficulties we have just brought up and others of the same sort, won’t allow that there are forms for things and won’t mark off a form for each one, he won’t have anywhere to turn his thought, since he doesn’t allow that for each thing there is a character that is always the same. In this way he will destroy the power of dialectic entirely” (Prm. 135b-c).

Parmenides is saying that without the Theory of Forms it would be impossible for us to turn our thought to anything. Without an allowance “that for each thing there is a character that is always the same” it would be impossible to recognize anything. All objects would be in a Heraclitean state of flux and no substantial discourse would be possible (Prm. 135b8–c2). Any efforts to maintain (a) be unintelligible. We would forever need to be asking ti esti questions in order to ascertain meaning, however you could not even convey those necessary questions of the ti esti kind as all language would become meaningless.

In the Republic Plato divides all existence into three categories. (1) That which is completely knowable (i.e. forms), (2) that which is in no way knowable (i.e. objects of ignorance) and (3) that which both is and is not knowable (i.e. sensible phenomena). Telling us that the only things that you can have knowledge of are Plato’s forms. Sensible particulars both are and are not, they are one and many. Table is, in one sense, as it is a copy of the universal form ‘table-ness’ however it is not in another as it is not part of the world of forms. Particulars participate in forms while forms merely inhere in the particulars. In Parmenides we hear Zeno discuss how things might be both like and unlike and be both one and many (Prm. 127d6–128a3). This emphasizes the plurality of sensible objects. For instance if you say a woman is beautiful it is possible to then a brief moment after that she is not beautiful in comparison her to a goddess. She is both beautiful and not beautiful. What we might confuse as knowledge of the woman cannot be knowledge as it must change in accordance to the changing aspects of the sensible object that is the woman. Knowledge can never apply to the changing properties of the empirical world. It is limited to that which is stable and forever constant. Plato writes in the Republic:

“Many people think they are conversing rather than being contentious, through inability to divide what is under investigation in their discussion according to forms. Instead, they chase after verbal contradiction of what is said in terms of words alone, and use eristic against one another instead of dialectic” (Rep. 454a).

This passage underlines the fact that dialectic is only meaningful if the language it uses points to something beyond it, something real. An eristic argument, focused on disputing another’s argument as opposed to searching for truth, does not qualify as discourse (a) or (b). The objects of discourse need to be in some way substantial in order for (a) to actually take place otherwise it is just meaningless noise. However Gonzales disagrees stating that that Plato’s claim “that if each form exists “itself in itself” it cannot be “in us” with the result that the forms can be related only to one another and not at all to things in our world” (Welton 38). Then consequently (a) can only relate to other worldly things i.e., the universal world of the forms. He holds that it is impossible to discuss our world using the Theory of Forms and therefore forms are not necessary for discourse.

On one level Gonzales’ assertion that we can hold discourse without the Theory of Forms does seem plausible. For instance, it is possible to refer to sensible particulars without the use of forms. You do not need to know the form of an object in order to refer to it. For example, should a mysterious alien object appear in front of someone they would be able to refer to the particular object using any word, sound or noise, even an imaginary made up word. For instance take the invented word ‘glomtom’. Without the knowledge of or the existence of ‘glomtom-ness’ one would be able to refer to the unusual object with this word thereby taking part in coherent communication. However for this to qualify as meaningful discourse it may involve a malleable interpretation of (a) but it definitely qualifies in some instances for example meeting Crombie’s aforementioned ‘give and take’ qualification. In contrast to this Samuel Rickless states that “refusal to acknowledge the existence of forms would destroy a human being’s ability to engage in discourse or conversation” (Rickless 98). Rickless does not seem to make the distinction between (a) and (b). In this case then, Rickless’ assertion is defeated by the sensible, particular ‘Glomtom Case’. However it does seem necessary for a system of standardisation and recognition in order to transcend a communication about sensible particulars. To do so one needs a system that recognises commonalities in things and allows general agreement and naming of properties allowing us to have a functional method of (a) which transcends simply communicating about particulars. The Theory of Forms meets the requirements of this system but it is duly worth noting that it is the knowledge of and faith in the existence of the Theory of Forms, not knowledge of forms themselves which is necessary for (a).

Now I will consider how my findings help us establish a link between the Theory of Forms and the early dialogues using Hippias Major as my primary example. Critic Gonzales notes an “absence of a Theory of Forms in the dialogues” (Welton 36). He is not implying that the Theory of Forms is inconclusively absent from the dialogues but that it is not explicitly outlined. Furthermore Vlatos claims the “most important difference between the Socrates of the early dialogues and the Socrates of the middle dialogues… is that the latter, unlike the former, has a grandiose metaphysical theory of separately existing forms” (Welton 37). However the dialogues’ fundamental composition does suggest the Theory of Forms. The frequent posing of ti esti question and the subsequent aporia suggests Plato’s overarching metaphysical Theory of Forms. If forms are necessary for discourse then the Theory of Forms presupposes every single early dialogue that seeks the definition of an example. The fact that you need dialectic to establish forms (see (b) above) and to discuss more than mere particulars (see (a) above) leaves us with an unusual picture whereby forms are necessary to the Socratic dialogues and yet the dialogues are seeking forms. During the dialogues Socrates and his interlocutor faff about, attempting to ascertain definitions such as justice, courage or wisdom, when all the while they themselves are utilizing the Theory of Forms. Furthermore the knowledge that forms are necessary for discourse helps us to recognise the subtle suggestions of Plato through Socrates of his metaphysical world of universal. Take for example the ‘Hippias Major’ which describes Hippias’ and Socrates’ attempts to define beauty. Hippias proposes “a beautiful girl is a beautiful thing” (HP. 287e). Now Socrates’ response seems to keep in tandem with Zeno’s plurality ideas in Parmenides. He discusses how a beautiful pot might be both beautiful and not-beautiful. He offers the transcending idea of a beautiful goddess that suggests that at the head of the one-over-all conception reigns a form (the goddess) who is not of this world. Form’s necessity to discourse helps us elucidate suggestions of form in Socratic dialogues. Aids the interpretation of Hippias Major that what Socrates is hinting at is the Theory of Forms and that any example driven system of defining will inevitably end in failure due to the fact true knowledge lies in the forms.

In conclusion, the answer to the question whether forms are necessary for discourse depends on multiple various interpretations. In this essay I have used Parmenides and the Republic to outline Plato’s Theory of Forms in order to adjudicate whether they are essential for discourse. I have used the same sources to establish Plato’s two separate interpretations of discourse, (a) and (b). I have then subsequently shown that as a requisite of its definition interpretation (b) depends on forms for its occurrence due to its mutually reliance on the Theory of Forms. However for interpretation (a), things are a little more complicated. Depending on the strictness of interpretation (a) forms can be shown to be both necessary and unnecessary to communicate about particulars. However I have shown that to surpass this limited communication and to discuss as they do so in the early dialogues using commonalities and concepts, a standardizing Theory of Forms must exist to comprehend what each interlocutor is referring to. Finally I have outlined just how this establishes a link to the early dialogues in elucidating the underlying Theory of Forms. The fact that forms, generally speaking, are necessary for a more elaborate communication enables us to ascertain more meaning of the forms themselves from the dialogues and comprehend more strongly the method and goal of the ancient Socrates and his Socratic method of inquiry.


Welton, William A. Plato's Forms: Varieties of Interpretation. Lexington Books, 2002.

Crombie, I. M., An Examination of Plato's Doctrines: Plato on Knowledge and Reality, Volume 7. Routledge, 10 Sep 2012.

Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oct 2005.

Plato. Plato: 'The Republic'. Cambridge University Press, Sep 2000.

Plato, John M. Cooper, D. S. Hutchinson. Complete Works. Hackett Publishing, 1997.

Rickless, Samuel C., Plato's Forms in Transition: A Reading of the Parmenides. Cambridge University Press, Nov 2006.

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Are Forms Necessary for Discourse? An exploration of the relationship between the theory of forms and discourse in Plato’s Parmenides
Trinity College Dublin  (Department of Philosophy)
TSM Philosophy
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ISBN (eBook)
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theory of forms, plato, discourse, parmenides, the republic, socrates, philosophy, ancient philosophy, Hippias Major, aporia, interpretation, ti estie
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Mark Costello (Author), 2016, Are Forms Necessary for Discourse? An exploration of the relationship between the theory of forms and discourse in Plato’s Parmenides, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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