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 [in review] This paper presents a new account of "Platonic causes" — that is, the kind of cause under investigation at Phaedo 95e–107b. As I stress, a proper account must explain why Plato believed that a cause of F-ness cannot itself be un-F, since this principle is crucial to the proof of the immortality of the soul at 105c8--e7, which is the entire reason the Phaedo's investigation into the cause is set in motion. To this end, I argue that the Platonic cause of an object's being F is that which has been added to it, such that it is now F – what I call the "mereological" cause. Consequently, this account challenges the conventional assumption that Platonic causes are a radical departure from the causes of Plato's predecessors. 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 demonstrate how to identify that same kind of cause aright.

The method of hypothesis throughout the Phaedo [in review] This paper presents a new interpretation of Socrates' famous "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 show 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 of its fundamental nature and purpose emerges. Specifically, I demonstrate that the method of hypothesis in the Phaedo 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. How does Socrates respond to Callicles in the Gorgias, and what is Plato thereby telling us about how the moralist can respond to the immoralist? I propose that a proper answer to these questions must start by looking at Callicles' critique of Socrates' way of life. I argue that Callicles' critique rests on two theses: a "Psychological Thesis" that we all fundamentally desire to have more; and a "Motivational Thesis" that we ought to do only what we desire to do. Since Socrates' way of life inevitably involves being taken advantage of by others and thereby having less, Callicles contends that we have no reason to live it. I then show how Socrates responds to this critique: by presenting himself as someone who does not share the "fundamental" desire to have more, thereby disproving Callicles' Psychological Thesis and nullifying his critique.

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 contemporary aesthetics. Moralism is the thesis that, in some cases, our moral evaluations of artworks should have a direct effect on our aesthetic evaluations of those works. In the paper I argue that moralism is false – or, at least, so implausible as not to be believed. As moralists themselves emphasize, if a case for moralism is to be made, it will be with regard to the perspective a work endorses. I distinguish two ways in which a perspective can be morally inflected: with respect to its content (being morally "abhorrent" or "admirable"), and with respect to its form (being morally "sensitive" or "obtuse"). In neither case is moralism defensible. With respect to the former, a morally abhorrent or admirable perspective simply has no aesthetic value on its own, either positive or negative; the perspective's aesthetic value is determined by other, aesthetic aspects of its work. With respect to the latter, a morally sensitive perspective does indeed have positive aesthetic value, and conversely for an obtuse perspective; however, this value holds in virtue of just its sensitivity, and not in virtue of its being a moral sensitivity. Thus, the aesthetic relevance of a morally inflected perspective is either nonexistent or incidental to the perspective's morality. Therefore, the case for moralism cannot be made.

© 2017 willie costello