J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being (2016)



When he was only twenty-four years old, James Frazer won a Cambridge fellowship with an essay on the development of Plato's theory of the Forms or Ideas (eidos). In this essay he argued that there was no overarching theory of Being in Plato's mind before he embarked on the writing of his dialogues, and that consequently differences in approach and discussion apparent in his work are the result of the development of his thought. He also argued that the very idea of Being is a barren notion, in that nothing can be predicated of Being. As a result Plato made a mistake, effectively conflating an epistemology with an ontology. 

Though the essay was written in 1879, it was not published until 1930, after much of his later work was done. 

Frazer became famous for his monumental study The Golden Bough, which explored a vast range of ancient and primitive myth and ritual. Here too he found intellectual processes founded in error. 

What was Frazer's intention in re-interpreting Plato against what Plato himself said, and his wholesale restructuring of ancient thought by reducing much of it to a pattern of error?

In sixteen sections, with prefaratory material and a conclusion. Over 23 thousand words, a preface, select bibliography, and extensive notes. Published Spring 2016. 

A couple of blog posts explore J.G. Frazer's discussion of Plato, and the implications for the writing of The Golden Bough. The two articles are synthesised together in a third article: Frazer and the Association of Ideas.

This is a summary of the sixteen sections: 

Frazer excluded from the Golden Bough - without argument - all discussion of the relationship between magic and religion on the one hand, and theories of Being on the other. Both Magic and Religion are treated as phenomena explicable entirely in terms of the association of ideas. This essay explores the reasons for this, largely through his essay on The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory, and examines whether or not the texts support his case.

In Section One we considered the question of whether or not there was a programme of research at the the Athenian Academy: there is no evidence for this - we know only that ontology and epistemology were discussed. We know that the theory of Ideas or Forms was eventually demolished in the Sophist, but this is not evidence that there was a programme of enquiry at the Academy.

Section Two explored Frazer's assertions that the "earliest philosophers were philosophers of Being", and that "reflection" began with Socrates. Frazer argued that both Socrates' and Plato's concern with epistemological matters in addition to questions about Being, distinguished them from the pre-Socratic philosophers, in that the new philosophical approach was subjective, concerned mainly with the apparatus of perception and judgement. Frazer's view is that Socrates investigated the faculty of generalization, whereas for Plato and Aristotle epistemic notions were converted into a theory of Being. This was Plato's "great error", since "induction is the road to knowledge, not Being".

Section Three questioned Frazer's characterization of Socrates as a pioneer of epistemology. Frazer himself was uncomfortable with it in the course of his 1879 essay, observing that epistemic notions (without predicates) are as barren as terms of Being. Socrates, he argues, sought universals in moral subjects, but in fact both Socrates and Plato used generalization as a tool. Both in fact, according to the Frazerian analysis, were dealing with notions rather than ascertainable truths.

Frazer's remarks on the significance of inductive reasoning in science are largely irrelevant because he is talking of practical knowledge, not the pursuit of general truths. Frazer's use of induction in science to explain the Socratic activity is based on a lack of clarity of how induction in science functions in practice. Frazer's engagement with the subjective idealism of Locke and Hume was explored, and it was observed that he was attempting to substitute a "public neutral reality" behind appearances for Plato's supersensible reality, in order to support his initial characterization of Socrates. Plato made a quite different set of judgements about the structure of the world. Frazer's use of Xenophon to support his characterization of Socrates was argued to be problematic.

Section Four looked briefly at the question of whether or not Socrates, Plato and Aristotle distinguished their epistemological and ontological structures. Aristotle's Ethics features an Anabasis of the soul; theTimaeus also features a similar hierarchy of Being based on moral action. Did the three men fail to distinguish the subjective and objective realms? Or are these worlds tied together together by some substrate? The Final Cause is suggested as the common substrate.

Section Five considered the Interchangeability of the Forms, which appears in the Timaeus. Discussion of the function of the dialogues as dialectical excursions from Plato's "assumptions"; the "starting points" in an ascent to the final principle of everything, using nothing in the sensible world, but only movement from "form to form". This practice seems to imply some mysterious inductive and acausal process, not fully discussed in the Platonic Corpus.

Section Six reviewed some of the other dialogues: their arguments do not lead to consistent epistemological conclusions. Taken together the dialogues support only the contention that knowledge is not attainable through sensibles, nor through the organs of sense.

Section Seven noted the introduction of Pythagorean elements into the Timaeus: if these were introduced after the collapse of the Ideal Theory, this eclectism might be some kind of evidence towards there being a programme of research at the Academy. The absence of any significant discussion of the divine in the Timaeus was also mentioned. More than once Plato stresses that the accounts of the creation contained in the Timaeus are mere likelihoods.

Section Eight is the first of the sections considering the Parmenides. It considers his well known view that the world of generation and passing-away does not participate in the world of Being. Consequently it is not at all possible to give a verbal account of Reality.

Section Nine introduced the difficulty of an "Idea of the Bad". Frazer's argument is that Plato converted a theory of knowledge into a theory of Being: that there is no Idea of the Bad suggests that this view is incorrect. Induction (epistemology) and generation (from Being) are contrasted - the former moves from the particular to the universal, while the latter moves from the universal to the particular. Plato's "Form of the Good" is presumed on logical, not epistemological grounds. Frazer's objection to the "Form of the Good" is not a logical one, but a matter of belief: he prefers to see Plato's objective reality as the "public neutral reality" behind appearance noted before, which may be approached by induction and experiment. Plato is thus presented as the failed antecedent of the empirical tradition.

Section Ten: In the Sophist the Ideas are suddenly and unexpectedly presented as capable of participating in each other, and to be compounded of both Being and Not-Being. The material world appears to be distinguished from the world of Being by its causal relations, whereas in the world of the Ideas participation is an acausal process. The question of whether or not knowledge is an action is discussed in theSophist - the problem it poses is as follows: is Reality altered by being known, and consequently subject to change, contrary to an earlier and axiomatic definition? The wider cultural context of the argument involved at this point is discussed - the point at which the argument in favour of the world of Ideas traditionally is brought to collapse. The conclusion adopted by the participants in the dialogue is a default position, which cannot be argued (i.e., it is a non-discursive apprehension) - Reality is both at once - it changes and is unchanging.

Section Eleven summarised Plato's view of the nature of the ultimate reality: it is always beyond understanding, unchanging, yet participates in the world of change - a paradoxical matrix. Is this a problem of epistemology? Is there no distinction between epistemology or ontology (since the world of change is what can be known)? Plato's ontology is shown to be beyond the mere projection of the categories of knowledge, since it is known at the point where the epistemology breaks down in contradictions. It is beyond all human categorisation. The Idea of the Good in the dialogues is simply part of the armoury of likelihoods employed by Plato - one of the assumed positions on the path to knowledge of Reality.

Section Twelve: Socrates (in Plato's words) is interpreted as holding this view of Reality (i.e., as a paradoxical matrix) beyond human comprehension. Further suggestions are made as to the nature of the Platonic "agrapha", and it is observed that parallels between Platonic formulations and pre-Socratic fragments are possible.

Section Thirteen returned to a discussion of Frazer, and discussed his equation of the savage and the ancient, his programme of understanding the past in terms of an great intellectual error in the human apprehension of the world's processes. This error involves mistaking contiguity for connection, and confusing similarity with identity (his theory of sympathetic and contagious magic). This theory assumes an intellectual basis of an association of ideas, rather than a theory of Being as a substrate. Frazer's proposed order of cultural development is: magic/religion/science. Theories of Being are simply not mentioned in the Golden Bough. Frazer argues that underlying the system is a faith in the ordered uniformity of nature (the "public neutral reality" once again). Explicitly he states that the magician "supplicates no higher power". Likewise Frazer argues that Religion also is not traceable to a theory of Being, despite involving belief in higher powers. Instead, the higher powers are the personifications of natural forces. The universal absence of a basis in a theory of Being for both Magic and Religion is questioned here, and it is suggested that Frazer found it necessary to imply this because of his pre-existing equation of the savage and the ancient.

Section Fourteen: considered Frazer's exclusion of the Parmenides from his discussion in "The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory": his behaviour here is very odd, for he argues almost simultaneously that its date is necessarily late, that its date is unimportant, that its arguments tell us little relevant to Plato's programme, and that he is not going to deal with the whole of it since he has not read it for some time. This despite the fact that it contains arguments fatal to the Ideal Theory, which would seem to make it essential material for discussion in his essay.

Section Fifteen: contemporary commentators recognised some of the fatal objections to the Ideal Theory in the Parmenides. The collapse of the possibility of discursive knowledge of the Real leaves the possibility of a non-discursive knowledge. This might suggest that the default position adopted by the speakers in the Sophist is in fact the goal of the whole Platonic enterprise. Evidence that Plato understood himself to be working within an already given ontology is discussed (from the Laws).

Section Sixteen: It is suggested tha the non-discursive technique might be what is referred to obliquely in some of the dialogues, particularly in those passages which seem to imply knowledge beyond what is contained in the texts.

Buying a copy of J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being

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[Page updated July 1, and August 12, 2017 (section summaries added)]. Links updated October 19, 2017)

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