Monday, May 14, 2012

Plato's Receptacle

Suppose you are Plato and you've been pushing your concept of the Forms for ages. Everything comes from these perfect ideas that can be comprehended up there in the firmament beyond the rim of heaven. Ordinary things that you and I see, the perceptions and particulars, are not reality but opinion, true belief.

But if you were Plato you might worry a bit about how you get from the perfect Forms to the everyday sensible particulars. So Plato pops behind the curtain and briefs his alter ego Timaeus on a quick and dirty fudge, a half-way house between the Forms and the particulars: The Receptacle.

You can think of this Receptacle as a kind of wetnurse. Or you can think of it like gold: Gold is gold, but you can manipulate it into all kinds of shapes. Or you could think of it as the mother, the receptacle of the father's seed or Form, which incubates the offspring. Or you could think of it as a plastic, impressionable stuff, or you could think of the receptacle as the odorless liquid that is used as the base for a fragrance.  You see the point.  Plato reckons he needs something more substantial than Forms upon which to hang the everyday impressions of moment to moment sensation.

In our modern science we have a similar concept, for we understand that the sensible particulars we detect with our eyes are in fact the result of electromagnetic radiation emitted from a lattice of atoms and molecules, which don't necessarily have sensible properties by themselves but emit signals to us that we interpret as red and yellow, hard and soft, solid and liquid.

Let us take an example: a left shoe. First of all, the left shoe comes into being in a Receptacle, as an instance of the Form of shoe in a process of shaking disordered elements into order, producing the particular instance of left shoe. On the gold analogy, it would be the combination of elements shaped and molded into a shoe. On the mother-father analogy it is the offspring of the Form of a shoe incubated by a lactating mother. On the plastic, impressionable stuff, it is the Form of shoeness impressed upon plastic stuff into the particular of a shoe. Or the receptacle is shaken and stirred, like the pieces in a kaleidoscope into the instance of a shoe from the Form of shoeness. On the reflection metaphor, the left shoe is a projection into a certain space or site of the Form shoenessness.

In part, the Receptacle is meant to represent stuffness, the place where Form is manifested into stuff; in part, according to another interpretation, the Receptacle is the space, the place, the room where an instance of a thing comes into being and then, in time goes out of being.

But what happens when the left shoe moves? Perfectly simple. We have the shaken-and-stirred analogy to account for that. The shoe is shaken from its original position and moved, for the Receptacle is not just stuff but a space, a site of stuff. Or it is gold, moved and remolded into a new shape in the Receptacle. Or it is switched from one breast of the wetnurse to the other.

There is no doubt that, the more specific you get, the more incoherent the analogies become that Plato uses to illustrate his Receptacle concept. But there is no shame in that.  Our modern science is barely free from incoherence. We have the action-at-a-distance problem with the notion that a single photon can seem to go through two slits at once and interfere with itself. And what really do we have in a solid lattice of molecules, or a soupy wetland of a liquid? We have our likely story, our true belief about what is going on that is developed by persuasion and we have our understanding, our theories of relativity and quantum mechanics that are communicated to young physicists by years of instruction.

What does it all mean? Ask Plato about that.

1 comment:

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