Here’s some writing that I found on Plato’s Theory of Forms written by Ian Bruce; I researched most of this while I was working on my series of small scale sculptures but hadn’t gotten around to posting it until now.
Plato expounded his Theory of Forms over a writing career of some forty years. The theory was being refined over this period and is never fully explained in any one dialogue. Thus, any explanation of the theory, involves piecing together fragments as they appear throughout Plato’s writings, and recasting the earlier statements in the light of the metaphysical framework developed in the later works.
General Statement of the Theory of Forms
The theory basically postulates the existence of a level of reality or “world” inhabited by the ideal or archetypal forms of all things and concepts. Thus a form exists, for objects like tables and rocks and for concepts, such as beauty and justice. In the dialogue Meno, Plato describes a form as the “common nature” possessed by a group of things or concepts. Speaking of virtue he says:
And so of the virtues, however many and different they may be, they have all a common nature which makes them virtues; and on this he who would answer the question, “What is virtue?” would do well to have his eye fixed.
The forms are eternal and changeless, but enter into a partnership with changeable matter, to produce the objects and examples of concepts, we perceive in the temporal world. These are always in a state of becoming, and may participate in a succession of forms. The ever changing temporal world can thus, only be the source of opinion. Plato likens the opinions derived from our senses, to the perception of shadows of real objects, cast upon the wall of a cave. True knowledge however, is the perception of the archetypal forms themselves, which are real, eternal, and unchanging.
Whilst the forms are invisible to the eye, our souls have participated in the eternal world of forms prior to being incarnate in a physical body, and retain a memory of them. Although this memory is not readily accessible to the conscious mind, its presence is sufficient, to enable our limited perceptions. Plato maintains however, that the philosopher can achieve a state of perceiving the forms directly, with his mind’s eye, by: developing skill, in discerning the abstract qualities, common to groups of things and ideas, in the temporal world; by realizing these are merely hypotheses; and by employing the method of dialectic, to categorize and group the qualities in their correct relationships and order; using these hypotheses as stepping stones, to further hypotheses. Thus reason is able to construct a hierarchy of forms, to scale to the height of first principle and attain a state of true knowledge.
All learning Plato maintains, is but recollection, of what our soul already knows. In the dialogue Meno, Plato agrees that enquiry is impossible, because, unless we already knew something, we would not recognize, the subject about which we were inquiring. But adds, that enquiry is worthwhile, in that it can uncover our innate memory.
An Assessment of the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Theory
In assessing the Theory of Forms it is important to remember that Plato was a profound language theorist. In the dialogue Cratylus he states that the Gods call things by their correct names, but the names given by men are not always correct. As there is meant to be a form corresponding to every name, or concept used by man, the notion of correct, or incorrect names, becomes extremely relevant. He notes that an important aspect of the dialectician’s art is the giving of names. Although, as he notes in The Republic, the names or categories derived by dialectic are merely hypotheses, which the reason can use as “steps and points of departure” into a world which is above hypotheses. Thus the use of words in the dialogues can be easily misinterpreted.
The great logical strength of the Theory of Forms is that it is a construction capable of adapting to all criticism: whilst there are archetypal forms that correspond to all terms used by man, many of the terms used by man are incorrect; only the Gods use correct names consistently. Whilst Socrates may be presented as agreeing with his interlocutors, this is usually a step in demonstrating their state of ignorance, and indeed that of Socrates. For in the true Socratic tradition the recognition of one’s own ignorance, is seen as an advancement of knowledge. What is more, if a discussion results in confusion and seeming contradiction, then that too can be seen as the theory at work, for Plato develops in Philebus and Phaedo the notion that because the world of the senses, the “seen” world, is compounded and finite, the one archetypal form (the “unseen”) gives rise to apparent opposites on that level.
It is important to realise that the Theory of Forms is an hypothesis that is proven by the process of inference to the best explanation. It is a grand image that identifies levels of reality, and metaphysical functionalities that Plato reasoned must exist, to make any sense of the world. The actual mechanical processes involved are only defined in a very abstract manner, but even here, the theory has a counter, in that man cannot presume to conceive of the physiology of the Gods.
Because the Theory of Forms is an inference to the best explanation, its true strength or soundness must be gauged by its continued use over time. The abstract nature of its definition makes it compatible with many systems of thought: some derived from Plato, others developed independently; some arising after Plato’s time, others predating him. If we ask the question of why in the two thousand years of suppression of ideas and burning of books that has been the Christian era, Plato’s dialogues have survived intact, we must answer that Plato’s theories are fundamentally supportive of basic Christian doctrine.
Whilst the details of the mechanics are scanty, Plato’s notion that the power to abstract and perceive the commonalties in apparent opposites is our “step and point of departure” to true knowledge, is a theme we can discern in all the great systems of human thought.
Finally, the notion of “the reason” is crucial in understanding Plato. Plato makes it clear that the reason is a higher, vaster faculty than intellect. The Theory of Forms is itself an hypothesis. The intellect and logic may follow after the image and devise explanations, but the hypothesis is firstly a creation of the imagination, “the logician can provide no rules for the formulation of an hypothesis”.
Thus the great strengths of the Theory of Forms are the notions of levels of reality and human faculties, it identifies as existing, or needing to exist if life is to be intelligible. Its weaknesses spring from, and illustrate the inadequacies of human words and concepts to approach a description of the infinite or timeless. The theory still stands as a beacon after two and a half thousand years, attesting to the vast sweep of mind Plato was able to attain, using the simple means he found in himself and the strength he found by the acknowledgement of his own weakness.