Third man argument

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The third man argument (commonly referred to as TMA; Greek: τρίτος ἄνθρωπος), first offered by Plato in his dialogue Parmenides (132a–b), is a philosophical criticism of Plato's own theory of Forms. This argument was furthered by Aristotle (Metaphysics 990b17=1079a13, 1039a2; Sophistic Refutations 178b36 ff.) who used the example of a man (hence the name of the argument) to explain this objection to Plato's theory; he posits that if a man is a man because he partakes in the form of man, then a third form would be required to explain how man and the form of man are both man, and so on, ad infinitum.

Principles of Plato's theory of Forms[edit]

Plato's theory of Forms, as it is presented in such dialogues as the Phaedo, Republic and the first part of the Parmenides, seems committed to the following principles:

"F" stands for any Form ("appearance, property"). Plato, in the Parmenides, uses the example "largeness" for "F-ness"; Aristotle uses the example "man".[1]

  • One-over-many: For any plurality of F things, there is a form of F-ness by virtue of partaking of which each member of that plurality is F.
  • Self-predication: Every form of F-ness is itself F.
  • Non-self-partaking: No form partakes of itself.
  • Uniqueness: For any property F, there is exactly one form of F-ness.
  • Purity: No form can have contrary properties.
  • One/many: The property of being one and the property of being many are contraries.
  • Oneness: Every form is one.

The argument[edit]

However, the TMA shows that these principles are mutually contradictory, as long as there is a plurality of things that are F:

(In the following sentences, large is used as an example; however, the argumentation holds for any F.)

Begin, then, with the assumption that there is a plurality of large things, say (A, B, C). By one-over-many, there is a form of largeness (say, L1) by virtue of partaking of which A, B, and C are large. By self-predication, L1 is large.

But then we can add L1 to (A, B, C) to form a new plurality of large things: (A, B, C, L1). By One-Over-Many, there is a form of largeness (say, L2) by virtue of partaking of which A, B, C, and L1 are large. But in that case L1 partakes of L2, and by Non-Self-Partaking, L1 is not identical to L2. So there are at least two forms of largeness, L1 and L2. This already contradicts Uniqueness, according to which there is exactly one (and hence no more than one) form of largeness.

But it gets worse for the theory of Forms. For by Self-Predication, L2 is large, and hence L2 can be added to (A, B, C, L1) to form a new plurality of large things: (A, B, C, L1, L2). By One-Over-Many, there is a form of largeness (say, L3) by virtue of partaking of which A, B, C, L1, and L2 are large. But in that case L1 and L2 both partake of L3, and by Non-Self-Partaking, neither of L1 and L2 is identical to L3. So there must be at least three forms of largeness, L1, L2, and L3.

Repetition of this reasoning shows that there is an infinite hierarchy of forms of largeness, with each form partaking of the infinite number of forms above it in the hierarchy. According to Plato, anything that partakes of many things must itself be many. So each form in the infinite hierarchy of forms of largeness is many. But then, given Purity and One/Many, it follows that each form in the infinite hierarchy of forms of largeness is not one. This contradicts Oneness.


Some scholars (including Gregory Vlastos) believe that the TMA is a "record of honest perplexity". Other scholars think that Plato means us to reject one of the premises that produces the infinite regress (namely, One-Over-Many, Self-Predication, or Non-Self-Partaking). But it is also possible to avoid the contradictions produced by the TMA by rejecting Uniqueness and Purity (while accepting One-Over-Many, Self-Predication, and Non-Self-Partaking).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "No proper exposition of Plato’s Third Large Paradox appears in the surviving texts of Aristotle. There are only scattered references in the text to an argument that Aristotle calls the "Third Man" (Metaphysics 84.23-85.3, 93.1-7, 990b 17=1079a 13, 1039a 2, 1059b 8; Sophistic Refutations 178b 36), which is commonly considered essentially the same argument", [1], retrieved 2008-01-18

Further reading[edit]

  • Cohen, S. M., "The Logic of the Third Man," Philosophical Review 80 (1971), 448–475.
  • Gazziero, L., "Kai hoti esti tis tritos anthrôpos," Rhizai 7 (2010), 181–220.
  • Kung, J., "Aristotle on Thises, Suches and the Third Man Argument," Phronesis (1981) 26, 207–247
  • Lascio, E. di, "Third Men: The Logic of the Sophism at Arist. SE 22, 178b 36 – 179a 10," Topoi 23 (2004), 33–59.
  • Owen, G. E. L., "The Place of the Timaeus in Plato's Dialogues," Classical Quarterly n.s. 3 (1953), 79–95; also in Studies in Plato's Metaphysics, ed. by R. E. Allen (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), 313–338.
  • Peterson, S., "A Reasonable Self-Predication Premise for the Third Man Argument," Philosophical Review 82 (1973), 451–470.
  • Sellars, W., "Vlastos and the Third Man,” Philosophical Review 64 (1955), 405–437.
  • Strang, C., "Plato and the Third Man," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Suppl. vol. 37 (1963), 147–164.
  • Plato: A Collection of Critical Essays, vol. 1, ed. by G. Vlastos (New York: Anchor, 1971), 184–200, and on reserve in OUGL.
  • Vlastos, G., "The Third Man Argument in the Parmenides," Philosophical Review 63 (1954), 319–349; also in Studies in Plato's Metaphysics, ed. by R. E. Allen (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), 231–263.
  • Smith D., Nicholas (ed.): Plato: Critical Assessment, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, New York, 1998.

External links[edit]