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Limit and unlimitedness in the Philebus: an argument for the Gadamerian reading.

1 Introduction

In his article 'The Limits of Being in the Philebus', Russell Dancy argues that two essential metaphysical discussions in this dialogue, the 'Heavenly Tradition' (which reveals a procedure for collection and division) and the 'Fourfold Division' (which classifies 'all that exists' into four kinds) cannot be read coherently. He provides four arguments for this: (1) that the Heavenly Tradition speaks of apeiron (unlimitedness) and peras (limit) as constituents of beings, whilst the Fourfold Division refers to them as classes or categories of beings; (2) that the term apeiron means something different in each; (3) that Forms do not come into being according to the Heavenly Tradition, but do according to the Fourfold Division; and (4) that all beings have both apeiron and peras according to the Heavenly Tradition, whereas some beings are said to possess one, but not the other in the Fourfold Division. Dancy is led by these arguments to reluctantly conclude that 'the Philebus is literally incoherent.' (1) This reluctance is exacerbated by the fact that he is at a loss for a compelling explanation of why this might be the case. In the conclusion of his essay, he tosses out Poste's suggestion that the Philebus is actually the result of a less than careful pasting together of two independent dialogues, but Dancy admits that 'I'm in no position to assert this; I can't even say that I believe it.' (2) Whilst Dancy is clearly quite uncomfortable with his conclusion, he sees no way around it. Thus, he rightly decides that it is better to accept a contradiction in the text than to force upon it an internally consistent interpretation that it cannot support.

This paper aims to assuage Dancy's anguish by suggesting that a 'phenomenological' reading of the Philebus, such as that provided by Gadamer in his Plato's Dialectical Ethics and in a number of essays, leads to a way out of the problems Dancy has identified. Although he cites Gadamer in a footnote, thus suggesting his familiarity with this reading, Dancy nevertheless fails to include it among the interpretative options he considers. This oversight is important, because it renders his conclusion, that no reading of the Philebus can be both textually accurate and consistent with itself, unjustified. Whatever objections Dancy has to Gadamer's reading, he fails to voice them. Although we do not know what Dancy's specific objections are, presumably they would amount to the claim that the text does not support Gadamer's reading. Thus, as we proceed, I will attempt to show that the phenomenological reading escapes the contradictions that Dancy points out as well as identify some specific places in the text that lend credence to it.

2 The Meaning of Apeiron

We begin by addressing Dancy's second argument--that apeiron cannot be read as having the same meaning in both the Heavenly Tradition and the Fourfold Division--both because he admits that his first argument is inconclusive, and because our discussion of this term puts us in a better position to address the third and fourth arguments. On the surface, Dancy's difficulty here may seem less significant than what he makes it out to be. If he is correct that apeiron is used in two different ways in this text, it would certainly not be the first time that equivocity showed itself in Plato. In this case, should we not allow Plato a little terminological wiggle room, especially with a word whose semantic range is as broad as that of apeiron? Dancy gives us good reason to withhold such leniency. He points out that, with respect to apeiron at least, the Heavenly Tradition and the Fourfold Division are not two separate discussions; instead, they are two parts of the same one. When Socrates introduces the four kinds at 23c, he states that he is 'taking up some of what has been said before', and a few lines later he claims that the first two kinds 'are the ones I referred to just now, the unlimited and what has limit', clearly hearkening back to the earlier discussion (24a). (3) Dancy is right, then, to insist that apeiron must be found to have the same meaning in both of these passages--he just does not think it can.

For Dancy, it seems, the meaning of apeiron in the Fourfold Division is fairly straightforward. He writes, 'the members of the Unlimited kind in the Fourfold Division admit the more and less; that is, it makes sense to speak of them as more or less.' (4) The Heavenly Tradition, however, is a different matter. He lists two possible interpretations of apeiron in this passage, argues that only one of them does justice to the passage itself, and then claims that neither means anything like 'admitting of the more and less'. The first of these interpretations, which he identifies as the 'consensus' reading of the passage, (5) claims that the Heavenly Tradition is a discussion of Forms, and that apeiron refers to the unlimitedly many particulars that fall under a Form. The second interpretation, the first articulation of which he credits to Crombie, understands apeiron to refer to the unlimitedly many 'different, but not significantly different subkinds' that fall under an infima species. (6)

According to Dancy, each of the instances of apeiron within the discussion of the Heavenly Tradition itself is capable of supporting either reading. However, he argues that an earlier passage tips the scales in favor of the consensus interpretation. Before recalling the method handed down to him by the gods, Socrates reminds Protarchus of the many varieties of the problem of the one and the many. Those that deal with the simultaneous unity and multiplicity of particulars, he claims, are 'commonplace' and ultimately 'no longer even worth touching' (14d). At this point, Socrates seems to think philosophy has advanced far enough that it knows not to worry about such quibbles. However, there is another group of one-many problems that poses serious philosophical difficulties. Socrates claims that 'when someone tries to posit man as one, or ox as one, or the beautiful as one, and the good as one', that is, when we are discussing the unity of Forms, 'zealous concern with divisions of these unities ... gives rise to controversy' (15a). These legitimate arguments arise when unlimitedness is discovered within the Forms themselves, that is, when the oneness of a Form 'is afterwards found again among the things that come to be and are unlimited, so that it finds itself as one and the same in one and many things at the same time' (15b). Here, Dancy claims, the meaning of apeiron is fairly obvious; 'the term "unlimited" in 15b5 pretty much has to refer to the particulars that fall under the Form rather than its insignificant parts ... It's pretty clear that the unlimited things are particular men, particular oxen, particular beautiful things, and particular good things.' (7) Dancy is a little careless with his language here, for what Socrates describes as apeiron in the passage he is referring to are not particular men and oxen, but to 'man' and 'ox'. Apeiron is predicated of Forms, not particulars. What Dancy means to say, it seems, is that Forms are apeiron by virtue of their having unlimitedly many particular instantiations.

Dancy argues that this is significant for our understanding of the Heavenly Tradition, because Socrates presents this tradition as a solution to the very one-many problems discussed in 15b. From this, Dancy concludes that 'the Unlimited here [in the Heavenly Tradition] has to be the Unlimited we encountered back there [in 15b]: the unlimitedly many particulars that fall under a Form' (49-50). Given the fact that the instances of apeiron in the Heavenly Tradition could go either way between the consensus interpretation and Crombie's, this requirement has to be the deciding factor. 'Our only handle' on the passage, Dancy says, 'is 15b' (50). Thus, the question now has to do with whether or not we can make this reading fit the Fourfold Division.

In the Fourfold Division, as we have said earlier, the meaning of apeiron is spelled out fairly clearly as the admitting of 'more and less', 'gentle and strong', 'hotter and colder', and other such terms that characterise an entity in an indefinite way. (8) This, Dancy claims, 'plainly isn't the same' as the kind of unlimitedness we saw in the Heavenly Tradition: being a particular (55). He writes, 'men and oxen (to take two of the examples to which the comments in 16c must apply: see 15a4-5) aren't more or less men or oxen; they are just plain man and oxen' (55). Even if we adopt Crombie's reading (which Dancy thinks we should not), the difficulty remains. The fact that a thing admits of descriptions like 'hotter and colder' has nothing to do with whether or not it can be divided into further, unimportant subkinds. The Fourfold Division, Dancy points out, does not say anything at all about the division of kinds into subkinds. Thus Socrates' claim that the apeiron and peras he brings up in the Fourfold Division are 'the ones I referred to just now' (24a) in the Heavenly Tradition seems to be just plain wrong. He is not talking about the same thing at all, but simply using the same word to describe something completely different.

Gadamer's reading of the Philebus asserts that apeiron is not simply a 'component' or 'aspect' (9) of something full stop. Rather, both apeiron and peras describe possible ways that a thing can appear when we think or talk about it in a certain way. There are a number of passages in the text that support such a reading, one that I will refer to as the 'phenomenological' interpretation. (10) In 15d-e, just after he discusses the important one-many problems that relate to the Forms, Socrates claims, 'it is through discourse that the same thing flits around, becoming one and many in all sorts of ways, in whatever it may be that is said at any time, both long ago and now.' The fact that a thing can 'become' one and many as a result of discourse indicates that Plato is not operating within a strictly ontological framework here. Although the thing stays the same, it nevertheless 'becomes one' or 'becomes many' as a result of our choosing to describe it in a particular way. This is to say that, depending on what concepts we employ, it appears in terms of its oneness or manyness. Similar language is found in the discussion of the Heavenly Tradition. Socrates complains that the undisciplined 'clever ones' 'make a one, haphazardly, and a many, faster or slower than they should; they go straight from the one to the unlimited and omit the intermediaries' (17a). These 'wise guys' (11) do not make a one or a many by tinkering with the ontological makeup of things; they do so precisely by thinking or talking about entities in a conceptually sloppy way. We should remember that the discussion of apeiron in the Heavenly Tradition is in the context of a lesson on method. Socrates' point here is that we should avoid indefinite, sloppy conceptions of things (e.g., 'pleasure') by carefully determining the precise infima species that we are talking about. Thus, whatever Socrates is saying in this passage, it has to have at least something to do with the way we think and talk about things, because our acts of thinking and talking are exactly what the method should refine. (12)

Both interpretations that Dancy entertains leave out this crucial phenomenological aspect of the meaning of apeiron. The consensus interpretation, as we have noted, asserts that to be apeiron is to be a Form that admits of unlimitedly many particular instantiations. For Crombie, to be apeiron is to be an infima species that admits of unlimitedly many unimportant subkinds. If we add the phenomenological element into our understanding of the term, we find that these cases of unlimitedness (both of which Socrates does seem to have in mind at various points in the dialogue) can be integrated into a single definition. For the phenomenological reading, for a thing to be apeiron is for it to escape comprehension due to its appearing in terms of an indefinite plurality, rather than a defined (limited) unity. Thus, on one hand, a Form appears as apeiron whenever we start thinking or talking about the multitude of particulars that participate in it. On the other hand, an infima species appears as apeiron when we think about the innumerable subkinds that could potentially be distinguished within it. In both cases, this unlimitedness troubles us because it seems to threaten our comprehension of the item in question. If comprehending a thing entails recognising its definite unchanging unity (and this is just what Plato seems to take comprehension to mean) then realising the unlimitedness of something we formerly thought is simply a unity might make us think that we do not, or even cannot, comprehend it. The method handed down by the Divine Tradition is designed to help us deal with this uneasiness. It helps us determine when unlimitedness poses a real threat to knowledge and when the threat is only apparent and should be ignored.

The Heavenly Tradition thus suggests that there is a distinction to be made between cases of the knowledge-prohibiting malady apeiron. The first set of cases includes those that are injurious but treatable. In these instances apeiron indicates a lack of conceptual clarity. The undisciplined 'clever ones' who jump too quickly from the one to the unlimited--those who make it seem like the one itself is unlimited and that knowledge is impossible--are suffering from the injurious form of this disease. For them, the god prescribes a strong dose of slow, careful thinking. If they listen to doctor's orders, Socrates says, they might find that, in fact, the one is not 'unlimited', but consists of a finite plurality of infima species. This procedure, however, cannot do away with all unlimitedness that may be encountered. The injurious cases simply give way to a second kind of case, one that is incurable but benign. Even a well-defined infima species is capable of appearing as apeiron insofar as it admits of unlimitedly many particulars and unlimitedly many arbitrary subkinds. For example, having identified within the 'one' of pleasure the two species, 'true pleasure' and 'false pleasure', we can nevertheless recognise that there are unlimited possible actual instances of true pleasures. We might feel compelled to make a distinction between 'true pleasures that happen on weekdays' and 'true pleasures that happen on weekends.' This unlimitedness indicates, as did the injurious type, a lack of comprehension. We cannot comprehend the innumerable possible subtypes, and we cannot know the particular qua particular. However, the impossibility of this kind of knowledge does not entail the impossibility of all knowledge of the object. We can know an entity insofar as it participates in a Form, and we gain this knowledge precisely when we understand it as belonging to a well-defined infima species. Thus, this unlimitedness, whilst real, is acceptable, for it does not prohibit us from comprehending the object as the specific kind of object that it actually is. As Socrates instructs Protarchus, 'we must not grant the form of the unlimited to the plurality before we know the exact number of every plurality that lies between the unlimited and the one. Only then is it permitted to release each kind of unity into the unlimited and let it go' (16de). The method 'permits' us to 'let go' of this unlimitedness because it is inessential to the being of the thing we are considering. When we understand what kind of thing an entity is (and if this 'kind' is a natural kind, such that it has no more joints at which it can be divided) we understand its essence or its being. Whatever diversity is hidden beneath this is indeed unknowable, but it is also unimportant. As Gadamer explains,
   Only at the end of this path of explication--only when the ultimate
   'respect' under which the entity is seen is indissolubly unified in
   itself ... does definability come to an end and the respect of the
   apeiron (boundless, undefined) come into its own, which of course
   in itself means the impossibility of all definition and
   comprehensibility but also, positively, that this indefinably
   manifold thing means the same thing for Dasein [the human being],
   that it is indifferent to the manifold of the particular things
   that belong to it. (13)

This conclusion fits well with what Socrates has already said about the problem of the one and the many--that it is intractable. This problem is endemic to discourse and, therefore, to philosophy itself, and it 'will never come to an end, nor has it just begun, but it seems to me that this is an "immortal and ageless" condition' (15d). The Heavenly Tradition thus offers only a treatment, not a cure for apeiron. It is not supposed to solve the problem of the one and many, but help us cope with it. Making the distinction between the injurious and benign cases is part of how it accomplishes this.

This interpretation thus helps us see how the Heavenly Tradition is related to the discussion of the Forms in 15b. These serious problems are, perhaps, not so serious as Socrates first suggested. The divine method tells us that the manyness of the Forms--the fact that they include many particulars--does not negate their ability to make the sensible world intelligible. This, after all, is the point of postulating the Forms in the first place. Whilst Forms inevitably admit of apeiron, they only admit necessarily of the benign instances. When the injurious kind shows up, this is not inherent to the nature of the Form, but to our overly hasty conceptualization of it. By slowing down and employing the divine method, we can cause its symptoms to subside.

Fully responding to Dancy's concern requires that the definition of apeiron (i.e., the phenomenological reading provided for the Heavenly Tradition) should also apply to the Fourfold Division as well. Employing our definition here would entail that the first two 'kinds' (the apeiron and the peras) are different ways in which members of the third, 'mixed' kind can appear. Socrates describes members of the mixed class as gegenemene ousia (beings-that-have-come-to-be). These beings have an ambivalent ontological status. They are not Forms, for they have come into existence, (14) but neither are they pure becoming. These beings show up on the scene when the Hericlitean flux of becoming has been arrested and is caused to remain in a state of enduring identity through time by the introduction of peras. As Socrates tells Protarchus,
   Wherever they [the 'more and less'] apply, they prevent everything
   from adopting a definite quantity; by imposing on all actions the
   qualification 'stronger' relative to 'gentler' or the reverse, they
   procure a 'more and less' while doing away with all definite
   quantity. We are saying now, in effect, that if they do not abolish
   definite quantity, but let quantity and measurement take a foothold
   in the domain of the more and less, the strong and mild, they will
   be driven out of their own territory. For once they take on a
   definite quantity, they would no longer be hotter and colder. The
   hotter and equally the colder are always in flux and never remain,
   while definite quantity means standstill and the end of all
   progression. (24cd)

Again, the phenomenological character of Socrates reflections asserts itself here. 'Limit' is not a being that runs around, imperially conquering the 'territory' of the unlimited; rather, it is nous, the cause of the mixture (30c), that brings about the mixed being by establishing--amidst the flux of the apeiron something unchanging and definite that endures. When we approach an entity in terms of limit (i.e., in terms of one of the clearly defined concepts that the Heavenly Tradition has taught us to develop), this entity appears not simply as an incomprehensible becoming, but as a being-in-becoming or a being-that-has-come-to be. Thus, Apeiron here carries the same meaning it did in the Heavenly Tradition--it refers to the incomprehensible appearance of a being that results from our recognition of an indefinite plurality. Specifically, the kind of plurality Socrates has in mind here is the plurality of the 'more and less'. 'Hotter,' for example, is a plurality in the sense that it is not a definite temperature, but an indefinite range including an unlimited number of determinate temperatures. It is also important to note that apeiron here is an instance of the injurious and treatable kind of unlimitedness that the Heavenly Tradition taught us how to deal with. To speak or think of a being in terms of 'more and less' is not to have true knowledge of it, for such discourse fails to identify the unchanging essence of the thing. However, this indeterminacy can be overcome ('driven out of its territory') by the identification of the infima species to which the entity belongs. Once we have done this, we no longer need to speak of a thing in terms of 'more and less', for we now know exactly what it is.

3 Forms and Genesis

Dancy's second argument is somewhat more difficult to deal with than the first one. It rests on Socrates' statement in the introduction of the Heavenly Tradition that 'whatever is said to be consists of one and many, having in its nature limit and unlimitedness' (16d). Insofar as Forms are things that are 'said to be' (and Plato says that they are quite often), this means that these consist of limit and unlimitedness as well. We have already seen in what sense this is the case; Forms are unlimited because they admit of unlimitedly many particulars and of division into unlimitedly many unnatural subkinds. Thus, according to the Fourfold Division, Forms would belong to the third, mixed class, since this is the class of things that have both limit and unlimitedness. However, as we have seen, Socrates describes the members of this class as beings-that-have-come-to-be, and Forms--as the rest of Plato's corpus tells us--do not come-to-be but are eternal. In fact we do not even need to look elsewhere in Plato to realise this, for at 15a Socrates expressly says that 'man', 'ox', the Good', and 'the Beautiful'--the Forms--do not 'come to be or perish' (15a). Taking the two discussions seriously, then, seems to lead us to a blatant contradiction.

Solving this difficulty requires returning to what we said above. We noted that, according to the Heavenly Tradition, there are two kinds of cases of apeiron. The first, injurious kind results from sloppiness and haste; it posits a state of unlimitedness where, in fact, there is only a finite multiplicity of unities (of infima species). These cases can be treated by an application of the divine method. The second, benign instances are inherent to discourse and, therefore, cannot be overcome, but pose no real threat to intelligibility. The cases of apeiron that we encounter when dealing with Forms (provided that these Forms are themselves infima species), we noted, belong to the second kind. This distinction of the two kinds of unlimitedness suggests a way of escaping the difficulty we have identified. If we posit that the reference of the term apeiron is limited to just the injurious cases in the Fourfold Division, then Forms would turn out not to fall under the use of unlimited operative here; thus, we would not be forced to conclude that they are mixed. There seems to be good reason to think that it is indeed only the injurious cases that Socrates has in mind here. We are forced to speak of a thing in terms of 'more and less' only when we lack the definite understanding that comes with a recognition of the infima species. The apeiron that Socrates identifies in the mixed being is precisely the kind that can be overcome, for it is only by overcoming the unlimitedness 'driving it out of its territory' through the imposition of limit that the mixed being arises at all. Although there is a sense in which mixed beings also admit of the benign sort of apeiron, insofar as they are ultimately unknowable qua particular, this does not seem to be what Socrates is referring to here. (15)

This shift in reference, can be seen as a correlate of the shift in subject matter that has occurred between the Heavenly Tradition and the Fourfold Division. In the former, Socrates is speaking specifically about Forms, whereas in the latter, he is speaking specifically about particulars. Although both discussions can be applied to both Forms and particulars, Socrates is, actually, applying each of them only to one in these passages. Though benign cases of apeiron can be detected in our dealings with particulars, these are not typically the ones that catch our attention (as they do so readily with Forms). Moreover, it seems plausible that when Plato turns to discuss particulars, this benign reference falls out of view for him, and he ends up thinking of and referring to only of the injurious cases. Certainly, there is no way to prove what was going on in Plato's head while he was writing this dialogue, but this hypothesis at least provides a possible explanation of why the scope of his reference changes from one passage to another.

Does this restriction of the reference of apeiron in the Fourfold Division reintroduce the very difficulty that we attempted to avoid in the previous section: a situation in which apeiron would mean something different in the two passages? Dancy himself provides the resources for asserting that this is not the case. He reminds us that 'Frege taught us that different references can be carried by a term with a single sense' and affirms that this sort of move would be allowable in the present case. (16) Dancy's second argument claims that the difference between the instances of apeiron in the Heavenly Tradition and those in the Fourfold Division are differences in sense, not simply reference, and this is where the difficulty arises. However, on the phenomenological reading I have argued for here, a single sense (the italicised definition given in the last section) applies in both cases; it is the scope of the reference that is different in the two passages. An illustration may be of some help here. Suppose that my father, a grocer, is returning from the soda warehouse with a van full of cases of Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, and Coke. I might call him, noticing that the shelves are bare, and say 'hurry up and bring me those sodas!' Later that evening, when we have returned home and are watching football, I might get thirsty and call to him whilst he is in the kitchen, 'hurry up and bring me those sodas!' referring to the case of Dr. Pepper that we brought home with us from work that day. Now, in the first case, the term 'sodas' referred to both a number of different individual cans of one kind of soda (lots of Dr. Peppers), and also to a number of different kinds of soda. In the second case, the term referred only to the multiple cans of Dr. Pepper, not to the plurality of different kinds of soda. In this case, I was not asking him to bring out an assortment of drinks to choose from, just several cans of the same one. However, we would not say that the term 'soda' carries two different senses here. It means the same thing in both cases, though the scope of its reference is broader in the first case than the second due to the particular nature of the situation in which the term is used. Plato, I am contending, does the same thing. Although apeiron carries the same meaning throughout the dialogue, in the Fourfold Division the term is intended to convey only one part of this meaning. Thus, the scope of its reference has been restricted, but its sense remains the same.

One more problem, however, must be dealt with here. The injurious cases of apeiron arise when what is posited as a 'one' turns out not simply to be a one, but to contain a multiplicity. The symptoms of unlimitedness will continue to show themselves until the treatment of the divine method is administered, and the apparent malicious unlimitedness is shown to be actually a finite plurality of infima species. Now, the reason Socrates launches into this discussion in the first place is that he feels just such a procedure is needed for (at least) one of the 'ones' that is pertinent to his discussion with Protarchus: Pleasure. He asserts repeatedly that this concept actually enfolds a multiplicity of kinds, and that they must be careful to distinguish these if the discussion is to make any headway. In itself, this does not pose a problem, for we have no reason to believe that Pleasure is a Form. Neither is it a mixed being, for it lacks limit and thus belongs to the first class (27e). However, Socrates wins Protarchus' assent to the project of determining the different unities that are included in the genus Pleasure only by reassuring him that Knowledge, which is a Form on the Platonic picture, will be subjected to the same procedure. Yet if Knowledge is susceptible to legitimate division, i.e., if it is a genus and not an infima species, then it would indeed be both an instance of limit and an injurious case of unlimitedness. Thus it is a mixture and a being-that-has-come-to-be. How are we to respond to this? One way is to point out that whilst Socrates admits that Knowledge might contain a multiplicity of infima species, he never says that it, in fact, does. He says, 'taken all together, the branches of knowledge will seem to be a plurality, and some will seem quite unlike others. And if some of them turn out in some way actually to be opposites, would I be a worthy partner in a discussion if I dreaded this so much that I would deny that one kind of knowledge can be unlike another?' (13e-14a, emphasis mine). In this passage, Socrates is not consenting to an actual division of Knowledge into kinds, only to an investigation of whether it could be so divided. His rhetoric here, combined with the fact that he never actually does distinguish kinds of knowledge, suggests that he does not actually think this is possible. If this is the case, then Knowledge would be clear from the charge that it contains injurious apeiron; indeed, it is already a natural kind--one that no longer requires further conceptual clarification.

However, this responds only to the Form of Knowledge. To get all Forms off the hook, we would have to posit that no Forms are genera, but that to be a Form is precisely to be an infima species. Dancy himself mentions such a view and regards it as legitimate. (17) If we do not accept this view, and want to maintain that genera can be Forms, is there any avenue open to us? The solution in this case, it seems, would require yet another distinction, this time one within the class of injurious cases of apeiron. In the case of Forms, they can appear as injuriously unlimited only by virtue of a mistake on the part of the one considering them. If we regard a genus as unlimited, we are, in fact, wrong about it. This is because what we take to be unlimited is actually only a finite plurality. Thus, it is inappropriate--and even false--to describe a genus as unlimited, even though there is something true about it (the fact that it is not an infima species) that makes it susceptible to being falsely apprehended in this way. With mixtures, however, this is not the case. Mixtures really are 'more and less' or 'hotter and colder', and it is neither incorrect nor inappropriate to describe them in this way. Nevertheless, such a description is injurious because it does not identify the essence of the thing and, therefore, does not permit genuine knowledge of it. Hence, the treatment of the divine method works slightly differently in these two cases. In the first, the treatment is final; once we accurately identify the number of infima species in a genus, we will not and should not continue to speak of it as unlimited. In the second case, we still can and probably will talk about the mixture in terms of the more and the less. The identification of the infima species means simply that we no longer have to talk about it in this way. With the introduction of peras, we are now capable of having a determinate knowledge of the essence of the thing, and the possibility of such knowledge is all that the divine method promises. Thus, if we want to contend that some Forms are genera, we would be required to conclude that the reference of apeiron in the Fourfold Division is even narrower than previously indicated. We would have to say that apeiron here refers specifically to cases that are injurious but not false, that is, to cases in which apeiron does prevent knowledge of the essence of a thing, but is nevertheless appropriate to the thing because of the kind of thing that it is (i.e., a being-that-has-come-to-be).

4 Kinds of Being

Dancy's fourth argument (which restates the real force of the first) concludes that the Heavenly Tradition and the Fourfold Division contradict one another in their pronouncement of what kinds of beings there are. As we have seen, the Heavenly Tradition begins with the claim that all things that exist consist of both limit and unlimitedness. However, as Dancy argues according to the Fourfold Division, it is only one class of beings of which this is true. This passage claims that there are not only mixed beings, but also beings that possess only unlimitedness, as well as some that possess only limit. As Dancy explains, 'our division presupposes that we are starting from a bunch of things, the beings, that do not each contain both Limit and Unlimited.' (18)

The analysis we have already given provides us with a response to this. According to the phenomenological reading, the first two kinds are not on equal ontological footing to the third. Rather, apeiron and peras are aspects or modes of appearing of mixed things. Gadamer writes,
   What falls under the genus of the apeiron is being warmer--not an
   entity that has the quality of being warmer, that is, that is
   defined (or definable), as an entity, only as 'warmer than ...,'
   but rather the species of this indefiniteness itself. Similarly,
   what falls under the unity of the peras is not an entity that is
   always definite, and thus gives definiteness, as an entity; rather
   it is that very quality of conferring definiteness. (19)

This reading, however, seems to ignore Socrates' own description of the method when he says, 'let us make a division of everything that actually exists now in the universe into two [and, as it turns out, four] kinds emphasis mine' (23c). The phenomenological interpretation contradicts this only if we interpret 'exists' here to mean independent existence, and it does not seem to be necessary that it mean this. As Gadamer explains, 'there "is" the reality of the genus of things mixed from the peras and the apeiron [the reality of genesis] just as there "is" [the eidetic reality of] the peras and apeiron themselves (and just as there "is" necessarily a cause for the third, mixed genus).' (20) The members of the first two genera exist, but they do so precisely as modulations of what Gadamer calls the 'existential character', and what we have called the 'appearance', of a concrete entity. Peras and apeiron, therefore, 'are' for Plato just as form and matter 'are' for Aristotle. They exist, but not independently; their existence is one of being an inseparable ontological moment of something that does have an independent existence: for Plato, the mixture, for Aristotle, the composite.

Thus, whilst 'whatever is said to be ... [has] in its nature limit and unlimitedness' (16d), it is also true that, 'limit' and 'unlimitedness' can 'exist' as well, though it is certainly a different kind of existence than the independent existence of a concrete object (and, for that matter, than the ideal being of a Form). Dancy, it seems, should have recognised the dependent ontological status of apeiron and peras, for he refers to it specifically earlier in his essay. He notes that the items included in the first two classes of the Fourfold Division 'aren't "particulars" as we in philosophy use that term: they aren't peonies, people, or pebbles. They are aspects or features of such things.' (21) Dancy does not provide any explanation for his apparent change of opinion between this statement and his later claim that 'our division presupposes that we are starting with a bunch of things.' Regardless, insofar as the first interpretation is possible (and it seems to me that it is more than just possible, but is actually demanded by the text), then Dancy's fourth argument is defused.

5 Conclusion

The distinctions we have noted in Socrates' use of apeiron, which are distinctions of reference, as I have argued, allow us to read the Heavenly Tradition and the Fourfold division as employing a single, univocal sense of this term. Gadamer's phenomenological interpretation provides the framework in which this common meaning can be recognised. In drawing these distinctions, however, I do not mean to contend that Plato himself actually had them in mind whilst writing the dialogue. It seems much more plausible to suppose that the limitation of the reference of this term is a natural consequence of Plato's transition from a discussion of Forms to that of particulars--one that he did not consciously thematise. Perhaps the moral of this story is that Plato should have practiced what he preached. Had he applied the divine method to the term apeiron itself, he would likely have realised the varied distinctions hidden within the apparent simplicity of this term, and the difficulties that Dancy identifies would never have arisen.

DOI 10.1515/apeiron-2012-0014


Dancy, R.M. "The Limits of Being in the Philebus." Apeiron 40, no. 1 (March 2007): 35-70.

Frede, Dorothea. Introduction to Philebus, by Plato. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. "The Dialectic of the Good in the Philebus." In The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelean Philosophy, 104-125. Translated by P. Christopher Smith. New Haven: Yale, 1986.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Plato's Dialectical Ethics: Phenomenological Interpretations Relating to the Philebus. Translated by Robert M. Wallace. New Haven: Yale, 1991.

Plato. Philebus. Translated by Dorothea Frede. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

Greg Lynch: Department of Philosophy, Fordham University, 441 E. Fordham Rd., Bronx, NY 10458, U.S.A,

(1) R. M. Dancy, "The Limits of Being in the Philebus," Apeiron, 40, no. 1 (March 2007): 62.

(2) Ibid., 63.

(3) All citations of the Philebus taken from: Plato, Philebus, trans. Dorothea Frede (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993).

(4) Dancy, 54.

(5) Ibid., 42.

(6) Cited in Dancy, 42.

(7) Dancy, 46-7.

(8) Dancy refers to these terms as 'comparatives' (55). However, as Dorothea Freda points out, this is not entirely accurate, because non-relative terms 'such as the high and low, the fast and the slow', and so on, are also included in the unlimited class [Frede, Introduction to Philebus, by Plato (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993):19]. Nothing in Dancy's argument, however, hinges on this mistake.

(9) See Dancy, 40.

(10) This appellation is not intended to suggest that Plato is some sort of proto-Husserlian or Heideggerian. I have chosen it for two reasons. First, Gadamer's subtitle describes his work as the 'phenomenological interpretations relating to the Philebus'. Second, and more importantly, because this reading emphasizes the fact that Plato is talking about how a thing appears (phaino) to us differently depending on the concepts with which we approach it.

(11) Dancy, 51.

(12) It is important to point out that the phenomenological reading I am supporting here does not entail that apeiron relates only to our language about and concepts of things. Things are capable of appearing as apeiron or peras only because of something that is true of them ontologically. My point here is simply that the metaphysical nature of the object is not all that apeiron indicates. Hence, the role played by the knower who approaches the object with a particular sort of concept cannot be left out of our definition.

(13) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Plato's Dialectical Ethics: Phenomenological Interpretations Relating to the Philebus, trans. Robert M. Wallace (New Haven: Yale, 1991): 120.

(14) We will discuss this further below.

(15) The Heavenly Tradition, which is applicable to all beings, can be applied to mixed beings as well, and in doing so, their benign unlimitedness would become apparent. My point here is that this aspect of their unlimitedness is not what Socrates is pointing to with his use of apeiron in the Fourfold Division.

(16) Dancy, 48.

(17) Ibid., 54.

(18) Ibid., 61.

(19) Gadamer, Dialectical Ethics, 132.

(20) Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Dialectic of the Good in the Philebus," in The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelean Philosophy, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale, 1986): 112-113.

(21) Dancy, 39-40.
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Author:Lynch, Greg
Publication:APEIRON: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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