Plato And The Theory Of Forms

"Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato, -- at once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add any idea to his categories. No wife, no children had he, and the thinkers of all civilized nations are his posterity and are tinged with his mind."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Plato; Or The Philosopher"

"The Platonic idealist is the man by nature so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests..."

-- George Santayana, Egotism In German Philosophy

"All metaphysics including its opponent positivism speaks the language of Plato. The basic word of its thinking, that is, of his presentation of the Being of beings, is eidos, idea: the outward appearance in which beings as such show themselves. Outward appearance, however, is a manner of presence. No outward appearance without light -- Plato already knew this. But there is no light and no brightness without the opening. Even darkness needs it. How else could we happen into darkness and wander through it?"

-- Martin Heidegger, On Time And Being

I. Theory of Forms

II. Criticism of the Theory

III. Comment

IV. Suggested Reading

I. Theory of Forms

"All western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato," Alfred North Whitehead once said famously. And with much justification, if indeed philosophers can be judged as much by the influence they have wielded as by anything they wrote or taught. Plato cast the widest philosophical net and ensnared many minds of varying temperaments and proclivities: among them, Aristotle, Plotinus, Philo, St. Augustine, Avicenna, St. Bonaventure, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Emerson, Wittgenstein, G.E. Moore, and Santayana. Platonism inspired and informed the earliest teachings of the Christian Church; crept into the thinking of various medieval scholastics; figured strongly in the doctrines of certain Renaissance thinkers; invigorated a sect of influential philosophers in Britain in the late seventeeth century (known as the "Cambridge Platonists"); elicited the contempt of Nietzsche and his followers in Europe; and affected innumerable artists, mystics, poets, and prophets over the ages.

The linchpin of Platonism is the theory of forms, a doctrine which receives surprisingly scant treatment in the dialogues but which nevertheless undergirds Plato's approach to ethics and metaphysics, aesthetics and epistemology. The theory is taken up in Book X of The Republic, is discussed in the Phaedo, taken apart in the Parmenides, and revisited in two later dialogues, the Timaeus and Laws. Below is an overview.


"What was this Theory of Forms?"

It originated out of several different and partly independent features of the general ideas or notions that constituted the recurrent themes of dialectical disputations.

Definitions. Every discussion of a general issue turns ultimately upon one or more general notions or ideas. Even to debate whether, say, fearlessness is a good quality is to work with the two general notions of fear and goodness. Two disputants may disagree whether fearlessness is a good or a bad quality, but they are not even disagreeing unless they know what fear and goodness are. Their debate is likely, at some stage, to require the explicit definition of one or more of the general terms on which the discussion hinges. They may accept a proferred definition, but even if a proferred definition is justly riddled by criticism, this criticism teaches what the misdefined notion is not. If "fearlessness" were misdefined as "unawareness of danger," the exposure of the wrongness of this definition would by recoil bring out something definite in the notion of fearlessness. The Socratic demolition of a proferred definition may be disheartening, but it is also instructive.

Standards of measurement and appraisal. Some general notions, including many moral notions and geometrical notions, are ideal limits or standards. A penciled line is, perhaps, as straight as the draftsman can make it; it deviates relatively slightly, sometimes imperceptibly, from the Euclidean straight line. The notion of absolute straightness is the standard against which we assess penciled lines as crooked or even as nearly quite straight. Rather similarly, to describe a person as improving in honesty or loyalty is to describe him getting nearer to perfect honesty or loyalty.

Immutable things. Ordinary things and creatures in the everyday world are mutable. A leaf which was green yesterday may be brown today, and a boy may be five feet tall now who was two inches shorter some months ago. But the color brown itself cannot become the color green, and the height of four feet, ten inches, cannot become the height of five feet. It is always five feet minus two inches. A change is always a change from something A to something else B, and A and B cannot themselves be things that change.

Timeless truths. What we know about particular things, creatures, persons and happenings in the everyday world are tensed truths, and what we believe or conjecture about them are tensed truths or tensed falsehoods. The shower is still continuing; it began some minutes ago; it will stop soon. Socrates was born in such-and-such a year; the pyramids still exist today; and so forth. But truths or falsehoods about general notions such as those embodied in correct or incorrect definitions are timelessly true or timelessly false. Just as we cannot say that 49 used to be a square number or that equilateral triangles will shortly be equiangular, so we cannot say, truly or falsely, that fearlessness is now on the point of becoming, or used to be, indifference to recognized dangers. If this statement is true, it is eternally or, better, timelessly true. We can ask questions about fearlessness or the number 49 but not questions beginning "When?" or "How long?"

One over many. It is often the case that we can find or think of many so-and-so's or the so-and-so's, for example, of the numerous chimney pots over there or of the prime numbers between 10 and 100. Things, happenings, qualities, numbers, figures, can be ranged in sorts or characterized as sharing properties. Hence, where we speak of the so-and-so's -- say, the storms that raged last week -- we are talking of storms in the plural, and we are thereby showing that there is something, some one thing, that each of them was -- namely, a storm. Or if there are twenty idle pupils, there is one thing that all twenty of them are -- namely, idle. Sometimes we do not and even cannot know how many leaves, say, there are in a forest, and we may ask in vain, How many leaves are there? But however many or few there are, there must still be one thing -- namely, leaf -- which each of them is. It is one or singular; they are many or plural. We have not seen and may never see all or most of them. But it, that which each of them is, is in some way known to us before we could even begin to wonder how many leaves there are.

Intellectual knowledge. For our knowledge of, and our beliefs and opinions about the things, creatures and happenings of the everyday world, we depend upon our eyes, ears, noses and so on, and what our senses tell us is sometimes wrong and is never perfectly precise. There is nobody whose vision or hearing might not be even slightly better than it is. On the other hand, our apprehension of general notions is intellectual and not sensitive.

Conceptual certainties. Last, but not least in importance, dialectical debates are concerned only with general ideas, like those of fearlessness, goodness, danger and awareness. The answerer's thesis is a general proposition, such as "Virtue is (or is not) teachable" or "Justice is (or is not) what is to the advantage of the powerful." When such a thesis has been conclusively demolished, something, if only something negative, has been conclusively established about virtue or justice. In the domain of general ideas or concepts certainties, if seemingly negative certainties, are attainable by argument. About things or happenings in the everyday world no such purely ratiocinative knowledge is possible.

Ontology of Forms. Most of the above ways of characterizing general ideas or concepts has been brought out severally or together in Plato's elenctic dialogues. Yet his Socrates did not in these dialogues put forward the Theory of Forms. The Theory of Forms, as first fully developed in the Phaedo, is a unified formulation of these several points, but it is also more than this. For Plato now proffers an ontology of concepts. A general idea or concept, according to this new doctrine, is immutable, timeless, one over many, intellectually apprehensible and capable of precise definition at the end of a piece of pure ratiocination because it is an independently existing real thing or entity. As our everyday world contains people, trees, stones, planets, storms and harvests, so a second and superior, or transcendent world contains concepts-objects. As "Socrates" and "Peloponnesus" name perceptible objects here, so "justice," "equality," "unity," and "similarity" name intellectually apprehensible objects there. Furthermore, as the human mind or soul gets into contact, though only perfunctory and imperfect contact, with ordinary things and happenings in this world by sight, hearing, touch and so on, so the human or soul can get into non-sensible contact with the ideal and eternal objects of the transcendent world. We are ephemerally at home here, but we are also lastingly at home there. The immortality of the soul is proved by our ability to apprehend the everlasting concept-objects that Plato often calls the Forms..."

-- By Gilbert Ryle

III. Comment

Plato's theory can also be elucidated by focusing upon certain experiences in life.

§ There are those times when we are aware of something more than fleeting sensations and ordinary moments -- when, in fact, we're acutely aware of something special or rare. For instance, a look on a child's face may grab us and leave us wondering about "the things that are important in life." Or the smile of a dog or the penetrating glance of a cat may arrest our attention. Or we may see a mountain range or a colorful sunset or a rainbow and once again be aware of that "special something" that seems to inhere in the object or appear in the experience of the object. What is that "something"? A Platonist might call it an emanation of the eternal or a momentary apprehension of a Form (say, of beauty or love).

§ Anyone who has been in a meaningful relationship knows that after so much courting, after so much time together, the "real person" in both people is manifest, and that "real person" is infinitely greater and more nuanced than the person with a particular shade of eyes and color of hair and figure and physique. Even hardened materialists would find it difficult to say that "the real person" they love is simply the sum of so many biological traits or biochemical processes. That "real thing" to which we allude is spiritual, not material, is the unseen nature or "soul" of the person, not the seen body. This very intuition is in its essence Platonic.

§ Separation can be frought with the deepest foreboding. A parent can be nearly depressed sending a child off to college, realizing that he or she is no longer a mere infant or child, no longer dependent; a sense of loss can naturally ensue. Or someone can be so enraptured by a relationship as to think, "I'll always love you, no matter what." The hardship of separation in the first example and of steadfast loyalty in the second are both instances of loving (and desiring) permanence and immutability. The heart of the Platonic creed is that the true and the beautiful are unchanging, that they are eternal and permanent and not subject to the flux of the material world.

What then is the meaning of amor platonicus, platonic love? Not, as is often supposed today, a relationship devoid of sex. It is, rather, a profound desire to immortalize the amorous feelings one has for another person (or people), to proclaim such feelings as an eternal fact in a transitory and sometimes seemingly indifferent world.

IV. Suggested Reading

Plato: Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. (All the dialogues the great man wrote, along with various epistles.)

Plato's Theory of Ideas, by W.D. Ross.

Platonism And The Spiritual Life, by George Santayana.

University of Washington: An Overview of the Theory of Forms.

An Old, Tricky Question.