"The Forms" redirects here. For the band, see The Forms (band).
The theory of Forms or theory of Ideas is Plato's argument that non-physical (but substantial) forms (or ideas) represent the most accurate 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 objects of study that can provide knowledge; thus even apart from the very controversial status of the theory, Plato's own views are much in doubt. However, the theory is considered a classical solution to the problem of universals.
The early Greek concept of form precedes attested philosophical usage and is represented by a number of words mainly having to do with vision, sight, and appearance. The words, εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea) come from the Indo-European root *weid-, "see".Eidos (though not idea) is already attested in texts of the Homeric era, the earliest Greek literature. This transliteration and the translation tradition of German and Latin lead to the expression "theory of Ideas." The word is however not the English "idea," which is a mental concept only.
The meaning of the term εἶδος (eidos), "visible form", and related terms μορφή (morphē), "shape", and φαινόμενα (phainomena), "appearances", from φαίνω (phainō), "shine", Indo-European *bhā-, remained stable 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, and began to ask what the thing that changes "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 carved "wood", ὕλη (hyle) in Greek, corresponding to materia in Latin, from which the English word "matter" is derived, shaped by receiving (or exchanging) forms.
The Forms are expounded upon in Plato's dialogues and general speech, in that every object or quality in reality has a form: 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. For example, Parmenides states, "Nor, again, if a person were to show that all is one by partaking of one, and at the same time many by partaking of many, would that be very astonishing. But if he were to show me that the absolute one was many, or the absolute many one, I should be truly amazed.":p129 Matter is considered particular in itself. For Plato, forms, such as beauty, are more real than any objects that imitate them. Though the forms are timeless and unchanging, physical things are in a constant change of existence. Where forms are unqualified perfection, physical things are qualified and conditioned.
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.
Intelligible realm and separation of the Forms
Plato often invokes, particularly in his dialogues 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. 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).
According to Plato, 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 shadows, an imitation of the real one  Just as shadows exist only because of the light of a fire, our world exists as, "the offspring of the good". Our world is modeled after the patterns of the Forms. The function of humans in our world is therefore to imitate the ideal world as much as possible which, importantly, includes imitating the good, i.e. acting morally.
Plato lays out much of this theory in the "Republic" where, in an attempt to define Justice, he considers many topics including the constitution of the ideal state. While this state, and the Forms, do not exist on earth, because their imitations do, Plato says we are able to form certain well-founded opinions about them, through a theory called recollection.
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 philosophers educated by the state, 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 institutes individuals 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.
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 conception of Forms actually differs from dialogue to dialogue, and in certain respects it is never fully explained, so many aspects of the theory are open to interpretation. Forms are first introduced in the Phaedo, but in that dialogue the concept is simply referred to as something the participants are already familiar with, and the theory itself is not developed. Similarly, in the Republic, Plato relies on the concept of Forms as the basis of many of his arguments but feels no need to argue for the validity of the theory itself or to explain precisely what Forms are. Commentators have been left with the task of explaining what Forms are and how visible objects participate in them, and there has been no shortage of disagreement. Some scholars advance the view that Forms are paradigms, perfect examples on which the imperfect world is modeled. Others interpret Forms as universals, so that the Form of Beauty, for example, is that quality that all beautiful things share. Yet others interpret Forms as "stuffs," the conglomeration of all instances of a quality in the visible world. Under this interpretation, we could say there is a little beauty in one person, a little beauty in another—all the beauty in the world put together is the Form of Beauty. Plato himself was aware of the ambiguities and inconsistencies in his Theory of Forms, as is evident from the incisive criticism he makes of his own theory in the Parmenides.
Evidence of Forms
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.
Plato believed that long before our bodies ever existed, our souls existed and inhabited heaven, where they became directly acquainted with the forms themselves. Real knowledge, to him, was knowledge of the forms. But knowledge of the forms cannot be gained through sensory experience because the forms are not in the physical world. Therefore, our real knowledge of the forms must be the memory of our initial acquaintance with the forms in heaven. Therefore, what we seem to learn is in fact just remembering.
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?
Criticisms of Platonic Forms
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:
- Nay, but the idea may be like the day which is one and the same in many places at once, and yet continuous with itself; in this way each idea may be one and the same in all at the same time.
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 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 then 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. 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 that 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 something like a contradiction: Forms existing as the objects of science, but not-existing as non-substance. Scottish philosopher W.D. 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.
Dialogues that discuss Forms
The theory is presented in the following dialogues:
- 71–81, 85–86: The discovery (or "recollection") of knowledge as latent in the soul, pointing forward to the theory of Forms
- 389–390: The archetype as used by craftsmen
- 439–440: The problem of knowing the Forms.
- 210–211: The archetype of Beauty.
- 73–80: The theory of recollection restated as knowledge of the Forms in soul before birth in the body.
- 109–111: The myth of the afterlife.
- 100c: The theory of absolute beauty
- 402–403: Education the pursuit of the Forms.
- 472–483: Philosophy the love of the Forms. The philosopher-king must rule.
- 500–517: Philosopher-guardians as students of the Beautiful and Just implement archetypical order.
- Metaphor of the Sun: The sun is to sight as Good is to understanding.
- Allegory of the Cave: The struggle to understand forms like men in cave guessing at shadows in firelight.
- 589–599: The ideal state and its citizens. Extensive treatise covering citizenship, government and society with suggestions for laws imitating the Good, the True, the Just, etc.
- 248–250: Reincarnation according to knowledge of the true
- 265–266: The unity problem in thought and nature.
- 129–135: Participatory solution of unity problem. Things partake of archetypal like and unlike, one and many, etc. The nature of the participation (Third man argument). Forms not actually in the thing. The problem of their unknowability.
- 184–186: Universals understood by mind and not perceived by senses.
- 246–248: True essence a Form. Effective solution to participation problem.
- 251–259: The problem with being as a Form; if it is participatory then non-being must exist and be being.
- 27–52: The design of the universe, including numbers and physics. Some of its patterns. Definition of matter.
- 14-18: Unity problem: one and many, parts and whole.
- 342–345: The epistemology of Forms. The Seventh Letter is possibly spurious.
- ^Modern English textbooks and translations prefer "theory of Form" to "theory of Ideas", but the latter has a long and respect tradition starting with Cicero and continuing in German philosophy until present, and some English philosophers prefer this in English too. See W. D. Ross, Plato's Theory of Ideas (1951).
- ^The name of this aspect of Plato's thought is not modern and has not been extracted from certain dialogues by modern scholars. The term was used at least as early as Diogenes Laertius, who called it (Plato's) "Theory of Ideas:" Πλάτων ἐν τῇ περὶ τῶν ἰδεῶν ὑπολήψει..., "Plato". Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Book III. p. Paragraph 15.
- ^Plato uses many different words for what is traditionally called form in English translations and idea in German and Latin translations (Cicero). These include idéa, morphē, eîdos, and parádeigma, but also génos, phýsis, and ousía. He also uses expressions such as to x auto, "the x itself" or kath' auto "in itself". See Christian Schäfer: Idee/Form/Gestalt/Wesen, in Platon-Lexikon, Darmstadt 2007, p. 157.
- ^Forms (usually given a capital F) were properties or essences of things, treated as non-material abstract, but substantial, entities. They were eternal, changeless, supremely real, and independent of ordinary objects that had their being and properties by 'participating' in them.
- ^"Chapter 28: Form" of The Great Ideas: A Synopticon of Great Books of the Western World (Vol. II). Encyclopædia Britannica (1952), p. 526–542. This source states that Form or Idea get capitalized according to this convention when they refer "to that which is separate from the characteristics of material things and from the ideas in our mind."
- ^Watt, Stephen (1997). "Plato: Republic". London: Wordsworth Editions: xiv–xvi. ISBN 1-85326-483-0.
- ^"*weid-". American Heritage Dictionary: Fourth Edition: Appendix I. 2000.
- ^Possibly cognate with Sanskrit bráhman. See Thieme (1952): Bráhman, ZDMG, vol. 102, p. 128."ZDMG online". .
- ^"*bhā-". American Heritage Dictionary: Fourth Edition: Appendix I. 2000.
- ^Liddell, H.G.; Scott, R.; Whiton, J.M. (1891). A Lexicon Abridged From Liddell & Scott's Greek-English Lexicon. Harper. p. 725.
- ^"matter". American Heritage Dictionary: Fourth Edition. 2000.
- ^Kidder, D. S. and Oppenheim, N. D. (2006), The Intellectual Devotional, p27, Borders Group, Inc, Ann Arbor, ISBN 978-1-60961-205-4.
- ^Cratylus 389: "For neither does every smith, although he may be making the same instrument for the same purpose, make them all of the same iron. The form must be the same, but the material may vary ...."
- ^For example, Theaetetus 185d–e: "...the mind in itself is its own instrument for contemplating the common terms that apply to everything." "Common terms" here refers to existence, non-existence, likeness, unlikeness, sameness, difference, unity and number.
- ^The creation of the universe is the creation of time: "For there were no days and nights and months and years ... but when he (God) constructed the heaven he created them also." — Timaeus, paragraph 37. For the creation God used "the pattern of the unchangeable," which is "that which is eternal." — paragraph 29. Therefore "eternal" – to aïdion, "the everlasting" – as applied to Form means atemporal.
- ^Space answers to matter, the place-holder of form: "... and there is a third nature (besides Form and form), which is space (chōros), and is eternal (aei "always", certainly not atemporal), and admits not of destruction and provides a home for all created things ... we say of all existence that it must of necessity be in some place and occupy space ...." — Timaeus, paragraph 52. Some readers will have long since remembered that in Aristotle time and space are accidental forms. Plato does not make this distinction and concerns himself mainly with essential form. In Plato, if time and space were admitted to be form, time would be atemporal and space aspatial.
- ^These terms produced with the English prefix a- are not ancient. For the usage refer to "a- (2)". Online Etymology Dictionary. They are however customary terms of modern metaphysics; for example, see Beck, Martha C. (1999). Plato's Self-Corrective Development of the Concepts of Soul, Form and Immortality in Three Arguments of the Phaedo. Edwin Mellon Press. p. 148. ISBN 0-7734-7950-3. and see Hawley, Dr. Katherine (2001). How Things Persist. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Chapter 1. ISBN 0-19-924913-X.
- ^For example, Timaeus 28: "The work of the creator, whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern, must necessarily be made fair and perfect ...."
- ^"No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them..." (Phd. 114d).
- ^"there is no Platonic 'elsewhere', similar to the Christian 'elsewhere'." (Iris Murdoch, "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals" (London, Chatto & Windus 1992) 399).
- ^Plato's Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology
- ^Cf. the Analogy of the Cave, Rep. 514a–520a.
- ^Republic, 508b trans. Grube
- ^cf. Phaedo, Meno, Phaedrus
- ^Paragraph 420.
- ^The word is ethnos, "people". For the full range of meanings consult the American Heritage Dictionary online under ethnic.
- ^Paragraph 399e line 5.
- ^"Types" (genē) rather than the English economic classes or the favored populations of the real Greek cities.
- ^Paragraph 424.
- ^Paragraph 407.
- ^Paragraph 410.
- ^Paragraph 412.
- ^Paragraph 389.
- ^Cratylus, paragraph 440.
- ^Aristotle in Metaphysics Α987a.29–b.14 and Μ1078b9–32 says that Plato devised the Forms to answer a weakness in the doctrine of Heraclitus, who held that nothing exists, but everything is in a state of flow. If nothing exists then nothing can be known. It is possible that Plato took the Socratic search for definitions and extrapolated it into a distinct metaphysical theory. Little is known of the historical Socrates' own views, but the theory of Forms is likely a Platonic innovation.
- ^Kidder, D. S. and Oppenheim, N. D, (2006), The Intellectual Devotional, p27, Borders Group, Inc, Ann Arbor. ISBN 978-1-60961-205-4
- ^Cratylus, paragraph 389.
- ^Parmenides 131.
- ^The name is from Aristotle, who says in Metaphysics A.IX.990b.15: "(The argument) they call the third man." A summary of the argument and the quote from Aristotle can be found in the venerable Grote, George (1880). "Aristotle: Second Edition with Additions". London: John Murray: 559–60 note b. (downloadable Google Books). Grote points out that Aristotle lifted this argument from the Parmenides of Plato; certainly, his words indicate the argument was already well-known under that name.
- ^Analysis of the argument has been going on for quite a number of centuries now and some analyses are complex, technical and perhaps tedious for the general reader. Those who are interested in the more technical analyses can find more of a presentation in Hales, Steven D. (1991). "The Recurring Problem of the Third Man"(PDF). Auslegung. 17 (1): 67–80. and Durham, Michael (1997). "Two Men and the Third Man"(PDF). The Dualist: Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy (Stanford University). 4.
- ^Plato to a large extent identifies what today is called insight with recollection: "whenever on seeing one thing you conceived another whether like or unlike, there must surely have been an act of recollection?" — Phaedo, paragraph 229. Thus geometric reasoning on the part of persons who know no geometry is not insight but is recollection. He does recognize insight: "... with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem ..." (with regard to "the course of scrutiny") — The Seventh Letter 344b. Unfortunately the hidden world can in no way be verified in this world and its otherworldness can only be a matter of speculation. Plato was aware of the problem: "How real existence is to be studied or discovered is, I suspect, beyond you and me." — Cratylus, paragraph 439.
- ^Paragraph 50 a–c, Jowett translation.
- ^ abRoss, Chapter XI, initial.
- ^Pages 82–83.
- ^Parmenides, paragraph 130c.
- ^Posterior Analytics 71b.25.
- ^Book III Chapters 3–4, paragraphs 999a ff.
- ^See "Chapter 28: Form" of The Great Ideas: A Synopticon of Great Books of the Western World (Vol. II). Encyclopædia Britannica (1952), pp. 536–541.
- Alican, Necip Fikri (2012). Rethinking Plato: A Cartesian Quest for the Real Plato. Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi B.V. ISBN 978-90-420-3537-9.
- Alican, Necip Fikri; Thesleff, Holger (2013). "Rethinking Plato's Forms". Arctos: Acta Philologica Fennica. 47: 11–47. ISSN 0570-734X.
- Alican, Necip Fikri (2014). "Rethought Forms: How Do They Work?". Arctos: Acta Philologica Fennica. 48: 25–55. ISSN 0570-734X.
- Cornford, Francis MacDonald (1957). Plato and Parmenides. New York: The Liberal Arts Press.
- Dancy, Russell (2004). Plato's Introduction of Forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521037-18-1.
- Fine, Gail (1993). On Ideas: Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Theory of Forms. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-198235-49-1. OCLC 191827006. Reviewed by Gerson, Lloyd P (1993). "Gail Fine, On Ideas. Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Theory of Forms". Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.25. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
- Fine, Gail (2003). Plato on Knowledge and Forms: Selected Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-199245-59-8.
- Patterson, Richard (1985). Image and Reality in Plato's Metaphysics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-915145-72-0.
- Rodziewicz, Artur (2012). IDEA AND FORM. ΙΔΕΑ ΚΑΙ ΕΙΔΟΣ. On the Foundations of the Philosophy of Plato and the Presocratics (IDEA I FORMA. ΙΔΕΑ ΚΑΙ ΕΙΔΟΣ. O fundamentach filozofii Platona i presokratyków). Wroclaw: WUWR.
- Ross, William David (1951). Plato's Theory of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-837186-35-1.
- Thesleff, Holger (2009). Platonic Patterns: A Collection of Studies by Holger Thesleff. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing. ISBN 978-1-930972-29-2.
- Welton, William A., editor (2002). Plato's Forms: Varieties of Interpretation. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7391-0514-6.
|Look up εἶδος in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
Theory of Forms: Criticism
I. Plato's Own Criticism In The Parmenides
II. Aristotle's Criticism In Metaphysics
III. A Critique In Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy
I. Criticism In Plato's Parmenides
The Parmenides is one of Plato's later dialogues. It recalls a meeting that Socrates, Parmenides, and Zeno had in Athens sometime around 450 B.C., when Socrates was about 20 years old and Parmenides was well into old age (possibly 65, according to the dialogue). Parmenides was one of the greatest of the pre-Socratic philosophers -- someone, as Socrates put it, with "a glorious depth of mind."
The first half of the Parmenides exposes some of the weaknesses in the Theory of Forms; the second half amounts to a long-winded, rambling soliloquy, with Parmenides meticulously explaining what the 'one' is and isn't. The reader is subjected to such passages as this:
"So sameness will never be in what is different, nor difference in what is the same. And if difference will never be in what is the same, there is nothing that is in which difference is present for any length of time, for if it were in something for any length of time whatsoever, during that time difference would be in what is the same. And since it is never in what is the same, difference can never be in anything that is, and consequently neither in the 'not-ones' nor in the one."
The dialogue ends without a resolution. The reader is left to wonder whether Plato rejects the Theory of Forms, or whether the theory can be salvaged if the problems Parmenides highlights can be addressed. Most commentators believe that Plato didn't demolish his forms, and point to the fact that later dialogues such as the Timaeus take up and defend the theory. Some, however, dispute the date in which the Timaeus was composed, suggesting it may have been written before the Parmenides. Nearly all are agreed that the dialogue reflects Plato's keen desire always to get at the truth, even if this means subjecting his own cherished views to the most relentless scrutiny (as Bertrand Russell puts it, the dialogue "contains one of the most remarkable cases in history of self-criticism by a philosopher"). There is in the dialogue a moral expressed mid-way through: Parmenides the old sage tells the young Socrates that he must, if he wishes to advance far in philosophy, learn to think out the consequences of his statements and cultivate an appreciation for what can be said always on the other side.
So what are the weaknesses in the theory?
It is important to recall that Plato sees a form as the ideal essence of something, a transcendent entity that is perfect, immutable, indivisible. The things of our everyday world are imperfect copies of the forms; they are multiple, but the forms themselves are one. For example, there are many different kinds of cats: some have black fur, some grey, others orange. There are many different breeds, and cat owners might say that every cat has his own distinct personality. There is, however, something that all cats have, namely, cat-ness. According to Plato, the many cats are merely a facsimile of the form Cat. We call all the different cats in the world by one name because they have that form in common.
Plato believed that Forms exist as essences in a transcendental, or 'supralunar,' world. They are apprehensible rather than sensible, and constitute the objects of our knowledge.
The chief problem, Parmenides says, is figuring out the exact relationship between the form and the particular. How does a particular partake in the form? How is the form incarnated in the particular? Consider again the example of cats. How can the form Cat be infused in each individual cat while remaining indivisible and one? How does the perfect ideal intermingle with its imperfect copy?
A second problem is one of limits. Of how many particular things in the world can it be said that there's a form? Socrates would say that there is a form for beauty, for truth, virtue and justice, and for any number of other things (fire, water, cats, dogs). But Parmenides wonders if there's also a form for hair and mud and dirt. Socrates concedes, "I have often been puzzled about those things, Parmenides, whether one should say that the same thing is true in their case or not."
At one point Socrates suggests that "these forms are as it were patterns fixed in the nature of things. The other things are made in their image and are likenesses, and this participation they come to have in the forms is nothing but their being made in their image."
"Well," Parmenides says, "if a thing is made in the image of the form, can that form fail to be like the image of it, in so far as the image was made in its likeness? If a thing is like, must it not be like something that is like it?"
"It must," says Socrates.
Will not, Parmenides says, "that in which the like things share, so as to be alike, be just the form itself that you spoke of?"
"Certainly," Socrates replies.
"If so," Parmenides concludes, "nothing can be like the form, nor can the form be like anything. Otherwise a second form will always make its appearance over and above the first form, and if that second form is like anything, yet a third. And there will be no end to this emergence of fresh forms, if the form is to be like the thing that partakes of it."
[The Parmenides can be found in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, published by Princeton University Press, 1989. The quotes can be found on pp. 924, 927, and 930. Werner Heisenberg, a twentieth-century physicist, wrote a chapter in one of his books defending Plato's idealism against a materialist view of the universe. Those interested in his argument should see chapter 4 of Ken Wilber, Quantum Questions (Boston: Shambhala, 1985).]
II. Aristotle's Criticism In Metaphysics
The following passages have been excerpted from Aristotle's Metaphysics, as found in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), pp. 706-708, 711. This is but a glimpse of a long and thorough critique. (NB: Aristotle is here using the words "Forms" and "Ideas" interchangeably.)
"...of the ways in which we prove that the Forms exist, none is convincing; for from some no inference necessarily follows, and from some arise Forms even of things of which we think there are no Forms. For according to the arguments from the existence of the sciences there will be Forms of all things of which there are sciences, and according to the 'one over many' argument there will be Forms even of negations, and according to the argument that there is an object for thought even when the thing has perished, there will be Forms of perishable things; for we have an image of these. Further, of the more accurate arguments, some lead to Ideas of relations, of which we say there is no independent class, and others introduce the 'third man'...
"And in general the arguments for the Forms destroy the things for whose existence we are more zealous than for the existence of the Ideas; for it follows that not the dyad but number is first, i.e. that the relative is prior to the absolute -- besides all the other points on which certain people by following out the opinions held about the Ideas have come into conflict with the principles of the theory.
"Further, according to the assumption on which our belief in the Ideas rests, there will be Forms not only of substances but also many other things (for the concept is single not only in the case of substances but also in the other cases, and there are sciences not only of substance but also of other things, and a thousand other such difficulties confront them). But according to the necessities of the case and the opinions held about the Forms, if Forms can be shared in, there must be Ideas of substances only. For they are not shared in incidentally, but a thing must share in its Form as in something not predicated of a subject (by 'being shared in incidentally' I mean that e.g. if a thing shares in 'double itself', it shares also in 'eternal', but incidentally; for 'eternal' happens to be predicable of the 'double'). Therefore the Forms will be substance; but the same terms indicate substance in this and in the ideal world (or what will be the meaning of saying that there is something apart from the particulars -- the one over many?). And if the Ideas and the particulars that share in them have the same form, there will be something common to these; for why should '2' be one and the same in the perishable 2's or in those which are many but eternal, and not the same in the '2 itself' as in the particular 2? But if they have not the same form, they must have only the name in common, and it is as if one were to call both Callias and a wooden image a 'man', without observing any community between them.
"Above all one might discuss the question what on earth the Forms contribute to sensible things, either to those that are eternal or to those that come into being and cease to be. For they cause neither movement nor any changes in them. But again they help in no wise either towards the knowledge of the other things (for they are not even the substance of these, else they would have been in them), or towards their being, if they are not in the particulars which share in them; though if they were, they might be thought to be causes, as white causes whiteness in a white object by entering into its composition. But this argument, which first Anaxagoras and later Eudoxus and certain others used, is very easily upset; for it is not difficult to collect many insuperable objections to such a view.
"But, further, all other things cannot come from the Forms in any of the usual senses of 'from'. And to say that they are patterns and the other things share in them is to use empty words and poetical metaphors. For what is it that works, looking to the Ideas? And anything can either be, or become, like another without being copied from it, so that whether Socrates exists or not a man like Socrates might come to be; and evidently this might be so even if Socrates were eternal. And there will be several patterns of the same thing, and therefore several Forms; e.g. 'animal' and 'two-footed' and also 'man himself' will be Forms of man. Again, the Forms are patterns not only of sensible things, but of Forms themselves also; i.e., the genus, as genus of various species, will be so; therefore the same thing will be pattern and copy.
"Again, it would seem impossible that the substance and that of which it is the substance should exist apart; how, therefore, could the Ideas, being the substances of things, exist apart? In the Phaedo the case is stated in this way -- that the Forms are causes both of being and of becoming; yet when the Forms exist, still the things that share in them do not come into being, unless there is something to originate movement; and many other things come into being (e.g. a house or a ring) of which we say there are no Forms. Clearly, therefore, even the other things can both be and come into being owing to such causes as produce the things just mentioned...
"In general, though philosophy seeks the cause of perceptible things, we have given this up (for we say nothing of the cause from which change takes its start), but while we fancy we are stating the substance of perceptible things, we assert the existence of a second class of substances, while our account of the way in which they are the substances of perceptible things is empty talk; for 'sharing,' as we said before, means nothing."
III. A Critique In Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon Schuster, 1972), pp.126-130.
(NB: The word "idea" can be used interchangeably with "form.")
"Plato's doctrine of ideas [forms] contains a number of obvious errors. But in spite of these it marks a very important advance in philosophy, since it is the first theory to emphasise the problem of universals, which, in varying forms, has persisted to the present day. Beginnings are apt to be crude, but their originality should not be overlooked on this account. Something remains of what Plato had to say, even after all necessary corrections have been made. The absolute minimum of what remains, even in the view of those most hostile to Plato, is this: that we cannot express ourselves in a language composed wholly of proper names, but must have also general words such as 'man,' 'dog,' 'cat'; or, if not these, then relational words such as 'similar,' 'before,' and so on. Such words are not meaningless noises, and it is difficult to see how they can have meaning if the world consists entirely of particular things, such as are designated by proper names. There may be ways of getting round this argument, but at any rate it affords a prima facie case in favour of universals. I shall provisionally accept it as in some degree valid. But when so much is granted, the rest of what Plato says by no means follows.
"In the first place, Plato has no understanding of philosophical syntax. I can say 'Socrates is human,' 'Plato is human,' and so on. In all these statements, it may be assumed that the word 'human' has exactly the same meaning. But whatever it means, it means something which is not of the same kind as Socrates, Plato, and the rest of the individuals who compose the human race. 'Human' is an adjective; it would be nonsense to say 'human is human.' He thinks that beauty is beautiful; he thinks that the universal 'man' is the name of a pattern created by God, of whom actual men are imperfect and somewhat unreal copies. He fails altogether to realize how great is the gap between universals and particulars; his 'ideas' are really just other particulars, ethically and aesthetically superior to the ordinary kind. He himself, at a later date, began to see this difficulty, as appears in the Parmenides, which contains one of the most remarkable cases in history of self-criticism by a philosopher.
"The Parmenides is supposed to be related by Antiphon (Plato's half-brother), who alone remembers the conversation, but is now only interested in horses. They find him carrying a bridle, and with difficulty persuade him to relate the famous discussion between Parmenides, Zeno, and Socrates. This, we are told, took place when Parmenides was old...Zeno in middle life...and Socrates quite a young man. Socrates expounds the theory of ideas [forms]; he is sure that there are ideas of likeness, justice, beauty, and goodness; he is not sure that there is an idea of man; and he rejects with indignation the suggestion that there could be ideas of such things as hair and mud and dirt -- though, he adds, there are times when he thinks that there is nothing without an idea. He runs away from this view because he is afraid of falling into a bottomless pit of nonsense...
"Parmenides proceeds to raise difficulties. (a) Does the individual partake of the whole idea, or only of a part? To either view there are objections. If the former, one thing is in many places at once; if the latter, the idea is divisible, and a thing which has a part of smallness will be smaller than absolute smallness, which is absurd. (b) When an individual partakes of an idea, the individual and the idea are similar; therefore there will have to be another idea, embracing both the particulars and the original idea. And there will have to be yet another, embracing the particulars and the two ideas, and so on ad infinitum. Thus every idea, instead of being one, becomes an infinite series of ideas. (This is the same as Aristotle's argument of the 'third man.') (c) Socrates suggests that perhaps ideas are only thoughts, but Parmenides points out that thoughts must be of something. (d) Ideas cannot resemble the particulars that partake of them, for the reason given in (b) above. (e) Ideas, if there are any, must be unknown to us, because our knowledge is not absolute. (f) If God's knowledge is absolute, He will not know us, and therefore cannot rule us.
"Nevertheless, the theory of ideas is not wholly abandoned. Without ideas, Socrates says, there will be nothing on which the mind can rest, and therefore reasoning will be destroyed. Parmenides tells him that his troubles come of lack of previous training, but no definite conclusion is reached...
"There is one respect in which Plato's metaphysic is apparently different from that of Parmenides. For Parmenides there is only the One; for Plato, there are many ideas. There are not only beauty, truth, and goodness, but, as we saw, there is the heavenly bed, created by God; there is a heavenly man, a heavenly dog, a heavenly cat, and so on through a whole Noah's ark. All this, however, seems, in the Republic, to have been not adequately thought out. A Platonic idea or form is not a thought, though it may be the object of a thought. It is difficult to see how God can have created it, since its being is timeless, and he could not have decided to create a bed unless his thought, when he decided, had had for its object that very Platonic bed which we are told he brought into existence. What is timeless must be uncreated. We come here to a difficulty which has troubled many philosophic theologians. Only the contingent world, the world in space and time, can have been created; but this is the every-day world which has been condemned as illusory and also bad. Therefore the Creator, it would seem, created only illusion and evil. Some Gnostics were so consistent as to adopt this view; but in Plato the difficulty is still below the surface, and he seems, in the Republic, to have never become aware of it."
- Return Home -