In contemporary philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, people use the term “Platonism” as a synonym for metaphysical realism in general. This often amounts to little more than the claim that universals are real. (This means that categories like tree or green are real features of the world and not merely human concepts that we project onto the world in order to organize individual trees and green things.) Mostly, this usage comes from an innocent need for a simple term to capture an important position. Sometimes, however, contemporary philosophers have little contact with actual historical philosophy and only took a few courses as undergrads or early in graduate school. They seem to have come away from these courses with the impression that “Platonism” in this sense exhausts the whole message of Plato’s theory of the Forms—that Forms are nothing but universals which are supposed to be real.
At the other extreme, there are a good number of contemporary scholars who work as specialists in ancient philosophy or on Plato in particular. For such scholars, “Platonism” has a technical meaning, referring to the ancient school of philosophy, centered around Plato’s academy (for certain periods of its history) and in competition with other schools such as the Stoics, Epicureans, and Aristotelians. For such scholars, “Platonism” involves a whole host of doctrines, including the theory of the Forms but extending to the tripartite soul, recollection, or the distinction between knowledge and opinion. One even meets at conferences every now and then a true believer in this kind of Platonism, and some scholars treat each line of each dialogue as the words of Holy Writ.
When I use the term “Platonism” or describe myself as a “Platonist,” I mean something between these two. Like those scholars who work in contemporary philosophy, I mean to describe a metaphysical position, that is, a view of how the world actually is, rather than a merely historical set of ideas that some people used to believe. I am also focused on the theory of the Forms. While I think that we can find many important insights in Plato’s theory of the soul or his depiction of the ideal city, these are not views that I would endorse. (Whether Plato himself endorses the ideas expressed by his characters is a discussion for another day.) Like other scholars who specialize in ancient philosophy, however, my conception of the Forms is more complex than the mere assertion that universals are real. In another post, I want to go into more detail about what this metaphysical position involves, but for now I can offer a working definition:
- The position that we understand the world by grasping (i) real, (ii) eternal, (iii) immaterial, (iv) intelligible structures, called Forms, which exist beyond any individual instances, called participants, that embody them.
We can distinguish this from the simple position that universals are real, because this claim does not necessarily mean that all universals have a Form. We might wonder, for instance, whether there are Forms for human artifacts, like chairs and iPhones. And perhaps some universals, such as individual numbers, are simply the playing out of a single deeper structure, such as Number. It may also be that we do project some categories onto the world and thus fail conceptually to carve the world at its joints. What matters is that some fundamental structures do exist and that we could not make sense of the world without some grasp of them, without some intimation of the eternal behind the familiar world of sensation.
In this sense and not the others, we may speak of nearly all the Fathers of the Church as “Christian Platonists.” I hope to see a revival of such Christian Platonism because I believe that a definite, nuanced, articulate account along these lines would counteract a great deal of the folly to which our age is prone.