Plato’s Third Man Paradox: its Logic and History

Archives Internationale D’Histoire des Sciences 59 (162):3-52 (2009)
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In Plato’s Parmenides 132a-133b, the widely known Third Man Paradox is stated, which has special interest for the history of logical reasoning. It is important for philosophers because it is often thought to be a devastating argument to Plato’s theory of Forms. Some philosophers have even viewed Aristotle’s theory of predication and the categories as inspired by reflection on it [Owen 1966]. For the historians of logic it is attractive, because of the phenomenon of self-reference that involves. Bocheński denies any possibility of correct logical reasoning before Aristotle. In particular, he flatly declares of Plato that “correct logic we find none in his work” [1951, 15]. In this line, many papers have been written that call attention to the violation of a metalogical principle – the type rules – because of the Third Man Paradox. The problem of interpretation of the paradox raised many discussions, since the 50’s, and the literature devoted to this topic is today enormous. Nevertheless, many points in Plato’s reasoning remain obscure. Hitherto, it is commonly believed that the paradox was simply stated by Plato in his "Parmenides", but not actually solved. Even more, it is believed that it is hardly possible for Plato to have suggested a solution, because he confused the categories of substance and attribute. B. Russell has also argued that Plato violates in his arguments the restrictions imposed on language by the theory of logical types. This view is encouraged by the linguistic difficulties, which Plato has faced in his attempt to formulate an ontology of abstract entities, i.e. that in Greek language abstract and concrete terms are formally indistinguishable [Kneales 1984]. In this paper, we analyse the logical structure of the argument in an attempt to give a systematic consistent reconstruction of the text appealing to methods and concepts of modern logic and semantics. Already in 1954 G. Vlastos had noted in his seminal paper “The ‘Third Man’ Argument in the Parmenides” that “if any progress … is to be made at this juncture it must come from some advance in understanding the logical structure of the Argument”. Accordingly, our analysis is primarily focused on the line of logical reasoning, rather than the metaphysical underpinnings and philosophical implications of the paradox for Plato’s theory of Forms. We divide the Platonic text into three parts, presenting apparent thematic coherence: a) Formulation of the Third Man Paradox (132a-132b). The central issue of this part is a step-like generation of Forms that can continue ad infinitum. b) Discussion of the paradoxical situation (132b-c), by passing to the use of terminology echoing Eleatic philosophy. The concept of “thought” and the underlying semantics of Eleatic origin are central in this passage. c) Solution of the paradox (132d-133a). In our view, this part contains not only a resemblance regress, as most interpretators con-sider, but also the solution of the paradox by the introduction of a sound definition of the concept of “similarity”. We should note that the name ‘Third Man Paradox’ never occurs in Plato, who, strictly speaking, formulates a ‘Third Large Paradox’. The name ‘Third Man Paradox’ appears in the works of Aristotle and the commentators of the Peripatetic tradition. Later commentators have identified Aristotle’s Third Man with Plato’s Third Large Argument. In our paper, we also examine other testimonies about the Third Man Paradox found in the works of commentators in order to illuminate the logical structure of the argument. Although the vocabulary used in these versions is different, they do not affect its logical structure, but rather reveal different understandings by the ancient authors. These testimonies are divided into two main categories: those met in Neo-Platonic authors, notably in Proclus’ "Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides", and the versions of the Third Man Paradox found in texts of the Peripatetic tradition (Eudemus, Aristotle, Alexander). From our discussion, it becomes clear that the approaches to the paradox by the various scholars of antiquity are different, depending also on their participation in the one or the other campus of philosophical thought. We show that the Peripatetic authors are aware of the source of the paradox. However, the first scholar of antiquity who explicitly ascribes a solution to Plato seems to be Proclus.



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Ioannis Vandoulakis
Open University of Cyprus

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