Dissertation: "From causes to Forms: The Phaedo and the foundations of Platonic metaphysics"

Plato's metaphysics is distinguished by its recognition of Forms. Plato also believed, notoriously, that Forms were causes — viz., the causes of ordinary objects' features. ("All beautiful things are beautiful by the Form of the Beautiful", as the slogan goes.) Philosophers since Aristotle have criticized this claim, arguing that Forms cannot be causes in any legitimate sense, and that their alleged causal role can be performed by other things. Correspondingly, philosophers interested in elucidating Plato's metaphysics have tended to downplay the Forms' causal status. Here I oppose this tendency. I show that there is a legitimate sense in which Forms are causes; that this sort of causality is fundamental to what Forms are; and that this understanding of the Forms' status as causes offers new insights into their other contentious features.

Full Abstract (PDF) | Introduction (PDF)


Papers in Progress

Platonic causes, in context. This paper presents a new account of "Platonic causes" — that is, the kind of cause under investigation in the "Final Argument" at Phaedo 96–107. I propose, specifically, that Platonic causes are "mereological" causes: the Platonic cause of an object's being F is that which has been added to it, such that it is now F. This interpretation, unlike its alternatives in the literature, can account for all of the text's peculiar causal remarks, including the all-important principle that a cause of F-ness cannot itself be un-F. Yet more significantly, this account challenges the conventional assumption that the Phaedo represents a radical break from Plato's predecessors in its causal theorizing. As I argue, Plato's goal is not to show that his predecessors were after the wrong kind of cause, but to show that they identified their sought-after cause incorrectly, and then to show us how to identify this kind of cause aright.

The method of hypothesis throughout the Phaedo. This paper proposes and defends a new interpretation of Socrates' famed method of hypothesis in the Phaedo. Whereas existing analyses of this method have been based exclusively on its employment in the Phaedo's final argument, I demonstrate that the method is in fact employed throughout the Phaedo, in all of its major arguments. By attending to the ways in which the method of hypothesis is employed in these other arguments, a new picture emerges of its fundamental nature and purpose. Specifically, I argue that the method of hypothesis is primarily intended, neither as a positive method of inquiry nor as a critical method of verification, but rather as a principled means of combatting doubt and uncertainty.

The real dispute between Socrates and Callicles in Plato's Gorgias. This paper seeks to clarify how Socrates is shown to respond to Callicles' infamous "immoralist's challenge" in the Gorgias. Existing scholarship on this issue has focused primarily on Socrates' critique of Callicles' way of life. This has had the effect of de-emphasizing another, equally important aspect of their debate: Callicles' critique of Socrates' way of life, and how (if at all) Socrates defends himself against this critique. By explicitly attending to this overlooked aspect, I demonstrate just how critical it is to our understanding of the entire Socrates–Callicles debate — and show, further, that Plato has a novel answer to the classic question of what the philosopher has to say to the immoralist.

The self-predication of Platonic Forms & causes. This paper presents a novel interpretation of the infamous thesis that Platonic Forms are self-predicative (i.e., the thesis that the Form of F-ness "is F"). As I emphasize, this thesis is a direct consequence of Plato's more general ideas about causation, since, on Plato's view, the Form of F-ness is a cause of F-ness, and any cause of F-ness must itself be F. Yet Plato did not believe that a cause of F-ness "is F" in the same way that an ordinary F object "is F". As I show, the Phaedo sets forth a distinction between two ways in which a property can be truly predicated of a subject: a cause of F-ness "is F" in that the definition of F-ness is true of it, and an ordinary F object "is F" in that there is something added to it which is F in the first sense. This interpretation challenges the common view that Plato did not develop such a distinction until late in his career (viz., in the Parmenides and the Sophist), and offers a new account of what his later semantic innovations actually were.

Plato on what can and cannot be perceived. Plato, on a number of occasions, divides all beings into two basic types: perceptibles and imperceptibles. But what did Plato mean by the terms 'perceptible' and 'imperceptible'? Readers of Plato have generally just assumed that Plato's talk of perceptibles and imperceptibles is meant to signal his recognition of two radically distinct kinds of beings, wholly unlike and separate from one another, as if occupying two distinct metaphysical planes of existence. This interpretation is not implausible; nonetheless, it should not be attributed to Plato — or so I argue in this paper. As I demonstrate, through a careful study of Plato's use of perception language throughout the corpus, whether or not something is perceptible is not an ontological matter about the kind of object it is, but an epistemological matter about what our human perceptual faculties can accurately grasp.

What moralists in aesthetics must (and yet cannot) prove. This paper challenges the dominant "moralist" view in the contemporary literature on aesthetics concerning the relation between our moral and aesthetic evaluations of works of art. Moralism claims that moral defects are aesthetic defects at least in those cases where the moral defect involves the perspective the work manifests, recommends, or endorses. I argue that, although moralists are correct to focus on this sort of defect (as it is the only sort of moral defect of potential aesthetic relevance), they have failed to show that it is the immorality of the perspective itself that we object to aesthetically in such cases — and that until this is shown, the case for moralism has not been made.

© 2017 willie costello