Part 5

The Theory of Forms and Numbers

by Aristotle Icon

How do the Forms contribute to sensible things, either eternal or non-eternal?

The Forms cause neither movement nor any change in those things. But again they help in no wise either towards the knowledge of other things (for they are not even the substance of these, else they would have been in them), or towards their being, if they are not in the individuals which share in them.

Though if they were, they might be thought to be causes, as white causes whiteness in a white object by entering into its composition.

This argument was used first by Anaxagoras and later by Eudoxus in his discussion of difficulties. This is very easily upset; for it is easy to collect many and insuperable objections to such a view.

All other things cannot come from the Forms in any of the usual senses of ‘from’. And to say that they are patterns and the other things share in them is to use empty words and poetical metaphors. For what is it that works, looking to the Ideas?

Any thing can both be and come into being without being copied from something else, so that, whether Socrates exists or not, a man like Socrates might come to be.

This might be so even if Socrates were eternal. There will be several patterns of the same thing, and therefore several Forms; e.g. ‘animal’ and ’two-footed’, and also ‘man-himself’, will be Forms of man. Again, the Forms are patterns not only of sensible things, but of Forms themselves also; i.e. the genus is the pattern of the various forms-of-a-genus; therefore the same thing will be pattern and copy.

It would seem impossible that substance and that whose substance it is should exist apart; how, therefore, could the Ideas, being the substances of things, exist apart?

Phaedo explains forms:

The Forms are causes both of being and of becoming. The Forms exist, still things do not come into being, unless there is something to originate movement. Many other things come into being (e.g. a house or a ring) of which they say there are no Forms.

Even the things of which they say there are Ideas can both be and come into being owing to such causes as produce the things just mentioned, and not owing to the Forms.

But regarding the Ideas it is possible, both in this way and by more abstract and accurate arguments, to collect many objections like those we have considered.

Part 6: The Pythagoreans

Some say that numbers are separable substances and the first causes of things.

If number is an entity and its substance is nothing other than just number, it follows that either

  1. There is a first in it and a second, each being different in species,-and either

(a) this is true of the units without exception, and any unit is inassociable with any unit, or (b) they are all without exception successive, and any of them are associable with any, as they say is the case with mathematical number; for in mathematical number no one unit is in any way different from another. Or (c) some units must be associable and some not; e.g. suppose that 2 is first after 1, and then comes 3 and then the rest of the number series, and the units in each number are associable, e.g. those in the first 2 are associable with one another, and those in the first 3 with one another, and so with the other numbers; but the units in the ‘2-itself’ are inassociable with those in the ‘3-itself’; and similarly in the case of the other successive numbers. And so while mathematical number is counted thus-after 1, 2 (which consists of another 1 besides the former 1), and 3 which consists of another 1 besides these two), and the other numbers similarly, ideal number is counted thus-after 1, a distinct 2 which does not include the first 1, and a 3 which does not include the 2 and the rest of the number series similarly. Or (2) one kind of number must be like the first that was named, one like that which the mathematicians speak of, and that which we have named last must be a third kind.

These kinds of numbers must either be separable from things, or not separable but in objects of perception (not however in the way which we first considered, in the sense that objects of perception consists of numbers which are present in them)-either one kind and not another, or all of them.

These are of necessity the only ways in which the numbers can exist. And of those who say that the 1 is the beginning and substance and element of all things, and that number is formed from the 1 and something else, almost every one has described number in one of these ways; only no one has said all the units are inassociable. And this has happened reasonably enough; for there can be no way besides those mentioned.

Some say both kinds of number exist, that which has a before and after being identical with the Ideas, and mathematical number being different from the Ideas and from sensible things, and both being separable from sensible things; and others say mathematical number alone exists, as the first of realities, separate from sensible things.

The Pythagoreans believe in one kind of number-the mathematical. Only they say it is not separate but sensible substances are formed out of it. For they construct the whole universe out of numbers-only not numbers consisting of abstract units.

They suppose the units to have spatial magnitude. But how the first 1 was constructed so as to have magnitude, they seem unable to say.

Another thinker says the first kind of number, that of the Forms, alone exists, and some say mathematical number is identical with this.

The case of lines, planes, and solids is similar. For some think that those which are the objects of mathematics are different from those which come after the Ideas; and of those who express themselves otherwise some speak of the objects of mathematics and in a mathematical way-viz. those who do not make the Ideas numbers nor say that Ideas exist; and others speak of the objects of mathematics, but not mathematically; for they say that neither is every spatial magnitude divisible into magnitudes, nor do any two units taken at random make 2.

All who say the 1 is an element and principle of things suppose numbers to consist of abstract units, except the Pythagoreans; but they suppose the numbers to have magnitude, as has been said before. It is clear from this statement, then, in how many ways numbers may be described, and that all the ways have been mentioned; and all these views are impossible, but some perhaps more than others.


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