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Plato from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509
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Plato's theory of Forms or theory of Ideas asserts that non-material abstract (but substantial) forms (or ideas), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. When used in this sense, the word form or idea is often capitalized. Plato speaks of these entities only through the characters (primarily Socrates) of his dialogues who sometimes suggest that these Forms are the only true objects of study that can provide us with genuine knowledge; thus even apart from the very controversial status of the theory, Plato's own views are much in doubt. Plato spoke of Forms in formulating a possible solution to the problem of universals.
The Greek concept of form precedes the attested language and is represented by a number of words mainly having to do with vision: the sight or appearance of a thing. The main words, εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea) come from the Indo-European root *weid-, "see". Both words are already there in the works of Homer, the earliest Greek literature. Equally ancient is μορφή (morphē), "shape", from an obscure root. The φαινόμενα (phainomena), "appearances", from φαίνω (phainō), "shine", Indo-European *bhā-, was a synonym.
These meanings remained the same over the centuries until the beginning of philosophy, when they became equivocal, acquiring additional specialized philosophic meanings. The pre-Socratic philosophers, starting with Thales, noted that appearances change quite a bit and began to ask what the thing changing "really" is. The answer was substance, which stands under the changes and is the actually existing thing being seen. The status of appearances now came into question. What is the form really and how is that related to substance?
Thus, the theory of matter and form (today's hylomorphism) was born. Starting with at least Plato and possibly germinal in some of the presocratics the forms were considered as being "in" something else, which Plato called nature (physis). The latter seemed as "wood", ὕλη (hyle) in Greek, corresponding to materia in Latin, from which the English word "matter" is derived, shaped by receiving (or exchanging) forms.
But what were the forms? In Plato's dialogues as well as in general speech there is a form for every object or quality in reality: forms of dogs, human beings, mountains, colors, courage, love, and goodness. Form answers the question, "What is that?" Plato was going a step further and asking what Form itself is. He supposed that the object was essentially or "really" the Form and that the phenomena were mere shadows mimicking the Form; that is, momentary portrayals of the Form under different circumstances. The problem of universals – how can one thing in general be many things in particular – was solved by presuming that Form was a distinct singular thing but caused plural representations of itself in particular objects. Matter was considered particular in itself.
These Forms are the essences of various objects: they are that without which a thing would not be the kind of thing it is. For example, there are countless tables in the world but the Form of tableness is at the core; it is the essence of all of them. Plato's Socrates held that the world of Forms is transcendent to our own world (the world of substances) and also is the essential basis of reality. Super-ordinate to matter, Forms are the most pure of all things. Furthermore, he believed that true knowledge/intelligence is the ability to grasp the world of Forms with one's mind.
A Form is aspatial (transcendent to space) and atemporal (transcendent to time). Atemporal means that it does not exist within any time period, rather it provides the formal basis for time. It therefore formally grounds beginning, persisting and ending. It is neither eternal in the sense of existing forever, nor mortal, of limited duration. It exists transcendent to time altogether. Forms are aspatial in that they have no spatial dimensions, and thus no orientation in space, nor do they even (like the point) have a location. They are non-physical, but they are not in the mind. Forms are extra-mental (i.e. real in the strictest sense of the word).
A Form is an objective "blueprint" of perfection. The Forms are perfect themselves because they are unchanging. For example, say we have a triangle drawn on a blackboard. A triangle is a polygon with 3 sides. The triangle as it is on the blackboard is far from perfect. However, it is only the intelligibility of the Form "triangle" that allows us to know the drawing on the chalkboard is a triangle, and the Form "triangle" is perfect and unchanging. It is exactly the same whenever anyone chooses to consider it; however, the time is that of the observer and not of the triangle.
The English word "form" may be used to translate two distinct concepts that concerned Plato—the outward "form" or appearance of something, and "Form" in a new, technical nature, that never
...assumes a form like that of any of the things which enter into her; ... But the forms which enter into and go out of her are the likenesses of real existences modelled after their patterns in a wonderful and inexplicable manner....
The objects that are seen, according to Plato, are not real, but literally mimic the real Forms. In the allegory of the cave expressed in Republic, the things that are ordinarily perceived in the world are characterized as shadows of the real things, which are not perceived directly. That which the observer understands when he views the world mimics the archetypes of the many types and properties (that is, of universals) of things observed.
Plato often invokes, particularly in the Phaedo, Republic and Phaedrus, poetic language to illustrate the mode in which the Forms are said to exist. Near the end of the Phaedo, for example, Plato describes the world of Forms as a pristine region of the physical universe located above the surface of the Earth (Phd. 109a-111c). In the Phaedrus the Forms are in a "place beyond heaven" (huperouranios topos) (Phdr. 247c ff); and in the Republic the sensible world is contrasted with the intelligible realm (noēton topon) in the famous allegory of the cave.
It would be a mistake to take Plato's imagery as positing the intelligible world as a literal physical space apart from this one. Plato emphasizes that the Forms are not beings that extend in space (or time), but subsist apart from any physical space whatsoever. That is, they are abstract objects. Thus we read in the Symposium of the Form of Beauty: "It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself," (211b). And in the Timaeus Plato writes: "Since these things are so, we must agree that that which keeps its own form unchangingly, which has not been brought into being and is not destroyed, which neither receives into itself anything else from anywhere else, nor itself enters into anything anywhere, is one thing," (52a, emphasis added).
Socrates postulated a world of ideal Forms, which he admitted were impossible to know. Nevertheless he formulated a very specific description of that world, which did not match his metaphysical principles. Corresponding to the world of Forms is our world, that of the mimes, a corruption of the real one. This world was created by the Good according to the patterns of the Forms. Man's proper service to the Good is cooperation in the implementation of the ideal in the world of shadows; that is, in miming the Good.
To this end Plato wrote Republic detailing the proper imitation of the Good, despite his admission that Justice, Beauty, Courage, Temperance, etc., cannot be known. Apparently they can be known to some degree through the copies with great difficulty and to varying degrees by persons of varying ability.
The republic is a greater imitation of Justice:
Our aim in founding the state was not the disproportional happiness of any one class, but the greatest happiness of the whole; we thought that in a state ordered with a view to the good of the whole we should be most likely to find justice.
The key to not know how such a state might come into existence is the word "founding" (oikidzomen), which is used of colonization.[clarification needed] It was customary in such instances to receive a constitution from an elected or appointed lawgiver; however in Athens, lawgivers were appointed to reform the constitution from time to time (for example, Draco, Solon). In speaking of reform, Socrates uses the word "purge" (diakathairountes) in the same sense that Forms exist purged of matter.
The purged society is a regulated one presided over by academics created by means of state education, who maintain three non-hereditary classes as required: the tradesmen (including merchants and professionals), the guardians (militia and police) and the philosophers (legislators, administrators and the philosopher-king). Class is assigned at the end of education, when the state sets individuals up in their occupation. Socrates expects class to be hereditary but he allows for mobility according to natural ability. The criteria for selection by the academics is ability to perceive forms (the analog of English "intelligence") and martial spirit as well as predisposition or aptitude.
The views of Socrates on the proper order of society are certainly contrary to Athenian values of the time and must have produced a shock effect, intentional or not, accounting for the animosity against him. For example, reproduction is much too important to be left in the hands of untrained individuals: "... the possession of women and the procreation of children ... will ... follow the general principle that friends have all things in common, ...." The family is therefore to be abolished and the children – whatever their parentage – to be raised by the appointed mentors of the state.
Their genetic fitness is to be monitored by the physicians: "... he (Asclepius, a culture hero) did not want to lengthen out good-for-nothing lives, or have weak fathers begetting weaker sons – if a man was not able to live in the ordinary way he had no business to cure him ...." Physicians minister to the healthy rather than cure the sick: "... (Physicians) will minister to better natures, giving health both of soul and of body; but those who are diseased in their bodies they will leave to die, and the corrupt and incurable souls they will put an end to themselves." Nothing at all in Greek medicine so far as can be known supports the airy (in the Athenian view) propositions of Socrates. Yet it is hard to be sure of Socrates' real views considering that there are no works written by Socrates himself. There are two common ideas pertaining to the beliefs and character of Socrates: the first being the Mouthpiece Theory where writers use Socrates in dialogue as a mouthpiece to get their own views across. However, since most of what we know about Socrates comes from plays, most of the Platonic plays are accepted as the more accurate Socrates since Plato was a direct student of Socrates.
Many other principles of the ideal state are expressed: the activities of the populace are to be confined to their occupation and only one occupation is allowed (only the philosophers may be generalists). The citizens must not meddle in affairs that are not their business, such as legislation and administration (a hit at democracy). Wealth is to be allowed to the tradesmen only. The marketplace must not be regulated but left up to them. The guardians and the philosophers are not to own fine homes or cash reserves but receive a pension from the state. None of these items are consistent with an unknowable Good.
Perhaps the most important principle is that just as the Good must be supreme so must its image, the state, take precedence over individuals in everything. For example, guardians "... will have to be watched at every age in order that we may see whether they preserve their resolution and never, under the influence either of force or enchantment, forget or cast off their sense of duty to the state." This concept of requiring guardians of guardians perhaps suffers from the Third Man weakness (see below): guardians require guardians require guardians, ad infinitum. The ultimate trusty guardian is missing. Socrates does not hesitate to face governmental issues many later governors have found formidable: "Then if anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the state should be the persons, and they ... may be allowed to lie for the public good."
Plato's main evidence for the existence of Forms is intuitive only and is as follows.
We call both the sky and blue jeans by the same color, blue. However, clearly a pair of jeans and the sky are not the same color; moreover, the wavelengths of light reflected by the sky at every location and all the millions of blue jeans in every state of fading constantly change, and yet we somehow have a consensus of the basic form Blueness as it applies to them. Says Plato:
But if the very nature of knowledge changes, at the time when the change occurs there will be no knowledge, and, according to this view, there will be no one to know and nothing to be known: but if that which knows and that which is known exist ever, and the beautiful and the good and every other thing also exist, then I do not think that they can resemble a process of flux, as we were just now supposing.
No one has ever seen a perfect circle, nor a perfectly straight line, yet everyone knows what a circle and a straight line are. Plato utilizes the tool-maker's blueprint as evidence that Forms are real:
... when a man has discovered the instrument which is naturally adapted to each work, he must express this natural form, and not others which he fancies, in the material ....
Perceived circles or lines are not exactly circular or straight, and true circles and lines could never be detected since by definition they are sets of infinitely small points. But if the perfect ones were not real, how could they direct the manufacturer?
Plato was well aware of the limitations of the theory, as he offered his own criticisms of it in his dialogue Parmenides. There Socrates is portrayed as a young philosopher acting as junior counterfoil to aged Parmenides. To a certain extent it is tongue-in-cheek as the older Socrates will have solutions to some of the problems that are made to puzzle the younger.
The dialogue does present a very real difficulty with the Theory of Forms, which Plato most likely only viewed as problems for later thought. These criticisms were later emphasized by Aristotle in rejecting an independently existing world of Forms. It is worth noting that Aristotle was a pupil and then a junior colleague of Plato; it is entirely possible that the presentation of Parmenides "sets up" for Aristotle; that is, they agreed to disagree.
One difficulty lies in the conceptualization of the "participation" of an object in a form (or Form). The young Socrates conceives of his solution to the problem of the universals in another metaphor, which though wonderfully apt, remains to be elucidated:
But exactly how is a Form like the day in being everywhere at once? The solution calls for a distinct form, in which the particular instances, which are not identical to the form, participate; i.e., the form is shared out somehow like the day to many places. The concept of "participate", represented in Greek by more than one word, is as obscure in Greek as it is in English. Plato hypothesized that distinctness meant existence as an independent being, thus opening himself up to the famous third man argument of Parmenides, which proves that forms cannot independently exist and be participated.
If universal and particulars – say man or greatness – all exist and are the same then the Form is not one but is multiple. If they are only like each other than they contain a form that is the same and others that are different. Thus if we presume that the Form and a particular are alike then there must be another, or third Form, man or greatness by possession of which they are alike. An infinite regression would then result; that is, an endless series of third men. The ultimate participant, greatness, rendering the entire series great, is missing. Moreover, any Form is not unitary but is composed of infinite parts, none of which is the proper Form.
The young Socrates (some may say the young Plato) did not give up the Theory of Forms over the Third Man but took another tack, that the particulars do not exist as such. Whatever they are, they "mime" the Forms, appearing to be particulars. This is a clear dip into representationalism, that we cannot observe the objects as they are in themselves but only their representations. That view has the weakness that if only the mimes can be observed then the real Forms cannot be known at all and the observer can have no idea of what the representations are supposed to represent or that they are representations.
Socrates later answer would be that men already know the Forms because they were in the world of Forms before birth. The mimes only recall these Forms to memory. Science would certainly reject the unverifiable and in ancient times investigative men such as Aristotle mistrusted the whole idea. The comedian Aristophanes wrote a play, the Clouds, poking fun of Socrates with his head in the clouds.
The topic of Aristotle's criticism of Plato's Theory of Forms is a large one and continues to expand. Rather than quote Plato, Aristotle often summarized. Classical commentaries thus recommended Aristotle as an introduction to Plato. As a historian of prior thought, Aristotle was invaluable, however this was secondary to his own dialectic and in some cases he treats purported implications as if Plato had actually mentioned them, or even defended them. In examining Aristotle's criticism of The Forms, it is helpful to understand Aristotle's own hylomorphic forms, by which he intends to salvage much of Plato's theory.
In the summary passage quoted above Plato distinguishes between real and non-real "existing things", where the latter term is used of substance. The figures, which the artificer places in the gold, are not substance, but gold is. Aristotle, stated that for Plato, all things studied by the sciences have Form and asserted that Plato considered only substance to have Form. Uncharitably, this leads him to a something like a contradiction: Forms existing as the objects of science, but not-existing as non-substance. Ross objects to this as a mischaracterization of Plato.
Plato did not claim to know where the line between Form and non-Form is to be drawn. As Cornford points out, those things about which the young Socrates (and Plato) asserted "I have often been puzzled about these things" (in reference to Man, Fire and Water), appear as Forms in later works. However, others do not, such as Hair, Mud, Dirt. Of these, Socrates is made to assert, "it would be too absurd to suppose that they have a Form."
Ross also objects to Aristotle's criticism that Form Otherness accounts for the differences between Forms and purportedly leads to contradictory forms: the Not-tall, the Not-beautiful, etc. That particulars participate in a Form is for Aristotle much too vague to permit analysis. By one way in which he unpacks the concept, the Forms would cease to be of one essence due to any multiple participation. As Ross indicates, Plato didn't make that leap from "A is not B" to "A is Not-B." Otherness would only apply to its own particulars and not to those of other Forms. For example, there is no Form Not-Greek, only particulars of Form Otherness that somehow suppress Form Greek.
Regardless of whether Socrates meant the particulars of Otherness yield Not-Greek, Not-tall, Not-beautiful, etc., the particulars would operate specifically rather than generally, each somehow yielding only one exclusion.
Plato had postulated that we know Forms through a remembrance of the soul's past lives and Aristotle's arguments against this treatment of epistemology are compelling. For Plato, particulars somehow do not exist, and, on the face of it, "that which is non-existent cannot be known". See Metaphysics III 3–4.
The theory is presented in the following dialogues: