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On The Categories As A Response To The Platonic Theory Of The Forms

This paper will focus on Aristotle’s categories, specifically discussing the conclusions which they raise as an argument to the detriment of the Platonic theory of the forms. The main category in question is Substance. The categories are as follows: Substance, quantity, quality, relation, place where, time when, position, state, acting and being acting on. Substance is the primary category of which without, none of the other categories could exist. Plato holds that there is a realm of the forms in which the perfect universals of everything actually exists. Particulars that are out in the world are what they are, (being imperfect), insofar as they take part in their universal. What makes a chair a chair for Plato, what they all have in common which makes them all chairs, is that they all are imperfect representations of the universal/form Chair which exists eternally. From the categories, it would seem that Aristotle would argue that what all chairs have in common is that we call them chairs. Taken aside from the rest of Aristotle’s works, namely the Metaphysics, his work entitled categories does present a persuasive objection to Platonic Forms. Before moving forward, it is necessary to present the reader with a basic understanding of Plato’s theory of the forms. The Platonic theory of the forms suggests that the reality which we experience is not the real world. It is a wax stamp impression of the real world which is populated by the forms. The forms are the perfect representations of each thing. Those wax stamps in reality are only what they are insofar as they are representations of the original. The forms are eternal, and unchanging. They are the supreme and perfect type of which all tokens are a part. For Aristotle, something is said to be a certain thing because it is of the same genus as the other things which are similar to it. For Plato, something is said to be, if it is an imperfect representation of something perfect which exists outside of reality. As an example before we delve into this further: a basketball for Plato is a basketball because there is a perfect ‘form of’ [a] basketball, and this particular basketball is similar to the form of THE basketball, but is an imperfect representation of it; much like a wax stamp, or a shadow of a tree on a wall of a cave. For Plato, not all basketballs are the same, they are imperfect, and we sense them imperfectly. If this is so, then we must have some idea of the perfect, therefore the perfect exists. Aristotle however, would say something along the lines of: a basketball is a token of a particular type. Not all basketball’s are the same, but they are all basketballs because they belong to a category of say sports balls with a particular function, which then belongs to bouncy balls, then to balls, then to spherical objects, etc. Basketball’s are then basketballs. Because they are all individual tokens that belong to a particular type, because they all belong to the same type, they all take part in that type, and are therefore each tokens of that type, as each particular can not be a universal. “The species in which the things primarily are called substances are, are called secondary substances, as also are the genera of these species. For example, the individual man belongs in a species, man, and animal is the genus of the species; so these both--man and animal--are called secondary substances.” A kind of universal then appears for both Aristotle and Plato, but for the latter this is an actual thing. For Aristotle there is not a perfect representation of man of which a

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man is an imperfect part, but a man is man as he is part of the same levels of category as other men. A primary substance is what I have been calling a token. An individual example is a primary substance, such as Descartes. Secondary substances are the genus and species. Descartes is of the species of particular men, and their genus is animal. Aristotle says: “if the primary substances did not exists it would be impossible for any of the other things to exist.” So if Descartes did not exist, it would be impossible for anything else, i.e the form of Descartes/man to exist. It seems however that the realm of the forms exists and would exist without Descartes/ primary substance, or anything at all. According to Plato the forms are everlasting, they are unchangeable and eternal. This leads to some strange consequences, such as: in the time of dinosaurs there was a form of car. According to Plato, there is now a form of everything that was, and everything that will be. To Aristotle, and I, this seems farfetched. Suppose that sometime in the future a device is invented which can combine two different animals into one new animal. Let us call this device the xanator. There can not be a form of the xanator, because an example of the xanator does not exist yet. Without that primary substance, there can be no form. If the form of the xanator exists then a token xanator must also exist because in order for there to be a perfect representation of something, that thing must actually exist, otherwise there could be no form of it. Since the xanator does not exist (or whatever invention in the future) there is no form, therefore the forms do not exist. I am not saying that if one xanator does not exist, the form does not, I am saying that if there are no tokens, there can be no type. If there are no men, there can not be a perfect man: “animal is predicated of man and therefore also of the individual man; for were it not in some individual body it would not be in body at all”. This applies to the Descartes example above as well. Aristotle says that we should start with what is most knowable/general to us. The forms are not like this. What is, is that all things are ordered, in such a way that everything belongs to a particular species of which all have a genera, which themselves have one too, until the regress comes to an end. What makes an ant an ant is that we call it ant, because it falls under the same species as other things which we also call ant. We notice through observation similarities between things, and we are able to create a species of which all ants are apart. Now there may be other things which are not ants specifically, but have similar existence, of which they are another species, and the genus which both fall under would be insects. There is no perfect insect of which all other insects of different sorts are an imperfect representation of, nor is there a form of earwig, or form of red ant, of which individuals are an imperfect copies of. There is however a species of earwigs, of which the same hierarchy of things apply which allows us to call a thing an earwig of the species earwig, of the genus insects, etc. “Whenever one thing is predicated of another as of a subject, all things said of what is predicated will be said of the subject also.” The individual man is that of all men, but men is a predicate of animal too, and then two legged animal, and then perhaps one that is rational, or can cry. For man is all of these things. A man is both man and animal. He is not man insofar as he is an imperfect particular of the universal man, but is man insofar as he shares these qualities with other men. Man is not some quality which is in him, it is the classification in which describes what type of thing he is. Descartes is of the type Man. As was stated above, if there were no men, then the universal of Man would not exist. The same goes for Aristotle’s example of whiteness, in Schwartz 2

which he states that it must exist in a body. “Some are in a subject but are not said of any subject.” That is, that there can only be such a thing as being white if there are things which are white. Mentioned as well was that a kind of universal seems to exist for both philosophers. For Aristotle it seems that the universal exists within the thing itself, rather than separately in some other realm. When all tokens cease to exist, so does the type, since there is no longer anything to refer to. Simply put, there is no Canadian underwater basket weaving team (form, universal or otherwise) without any members. Remember that for Plato, the forms are unchangeable, eternal truths. Every object for Plato maintains its existence from its form. Descartes will only be a man insofar as he takes part in the universal Man. For Aristotle, this is the opposite. Rather than going from the token because of the type, we say that there is a type because of the token[s]. For both philosophers there are universals but for Plato the particulars are dependent on the universals, and for Aristotle the reverse is true, the universals are dependent on the particulars. Aristotle develops the categories to describe the ways in which a thing can be. The ways allow for the classification of everything. A chair gets its existence not from ‘chairness’, but from sharing in the same genus and species of other things said to be of the same type, they are of the same type do in part to the categories, but what makes the universal is that we call each token, a token of the type chair. We do not assign a different type of thing to each individual chair, but we call some things chairs, and other things couches, and further, other things tables. If there were no chairs in the world, if we did not call one or many things chairs, then the universal chair would not exist. It is only when there is chairs in reality, that the universal that all chairs have in common exists. That universal seems to be that we call them chairs and therefore universality exists within the objects themselves, rather than outside of reality. It seems that there might be an objection to the xanator (and the like) example[s] by saying that we can think of Santa Claus even though he does not exist. Similarly we can talk about dinosaurs, even though there are none left. For Plato the form Dinosaur would actually exist, there would really be a perfect dinosaur existing somewhere! For Aristotle though, this ability to talk about dinosaurs is merely due to the concept of such a thing existing in our heads. Perhaps because we have drawn conclusions about them from fossils and bones, so we are able to talk about them. We can not talk however, about something which we have never had any experience with, and when specifics of something do not exist, it is possible for the idea of them, or it, to remain, but an actual form does not exist eternally. There are no dinosaurs that form could refer to, or draw its being from. A possible objection to Aristotle’s view as presented in the categories is that the dependence of chairs, and perhaps good, and everything else is dependent on classification by humans. Before humans, presumably there were rocks. But without a human to say that this and this thing are of the same genus and therefore are both rocks, it seems that there will be many things, and each will be different since there is no one to come up with the term rock. I respond to this by saying that even without humans to name a thing, a rock shares certain traits with other rocks. There would still be the different types of rocks and all would be under the same genera. They might not carry a linguistic term, but they would still be the same species, and genera. It seems that it would be impossible to know how the world of the forms and our own world would interact if there were a realm of the forms. This argument is known as the third man Schwartz 3

argument. If a man is a man because he partakes in the form of man, then there needs to be another form to explain how both the token and the type are man, and so forth ad infinitum. The distinctions among the forms falls into this, among many other problems presented in other Aristilian works. In the scientific approach we know of real relationships amongst things without the forms. We know that there would still be a real distinction between things even if there were no humans to classify them. The sun would still be larger than Earth if there were never any humans, or animals or anything else asides from the two for that matter. Aristotle says we know this to be true because man comes from man. A man and a woman do not produce rocks, or anything else, other than humans. Dogs beget other dogs, not flowers. Beds do not make other beds, but we can still find relationships between different beds (things by art) through their function[s]. There are real relationships between things in the world. Aristotle’s categories are merely observations of what was already there. The categories contain a decent objection to the Platonic forms. It can not be that a thing derives its being through a form. A this does however have a universal, but that universal exists with the particulars and draws itself from them rather than the particulars drawing their being from a pre-existing and everlasting universal.


Aristotle and Jonathan Barnes. The Complete Works of Aristotle :The Revised Oxford Translation. Bollingen Series ; [Works.English.1984]. Vol. 71:2. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. A, Vella, John. Aristotle :A Guide for the Perplexed. Guides for the Perplexed. London ;; New York: Continuum, 2008.

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On The Categories As A Response To The Platonic Forms