Plato’s Theory of the Forms?
Plato was born in the fifth century and is seen as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. After spending a period of time travelling, he returned and founded his school – ‘The Academy’ – where he taught both male and female students until his death at 81. During this time, he founded the concept of ‘The Forms’, which could be seen to have developed into the idea of religions with heaven and having an innate. This is based on the ideas of Socrates, who disagreed with the way in society was run, leading him to question the importance of rulers, and whether what is presented is the truth or false perceptions of a small world. Plato continued to theorize these ideas after Socrates death, keeping memory alive and defending him against discrediting rumours. Much of today’s knowledge on Socrates is known through the works of Plato. Many say that philosophy is simply ‘footnotes to Plato,’ despite not being able to answer most of his questions with definitive answers, the issues he raised still divide opinion today.
Firstly, Plato theorized that society was only following what was put in front of them giving them false perceptions of the world, this is what triggered the creation of a theory on universal forms. These ‘Forms’ are described as ‘Perfections of particulars’ such as ‘beauty’ or ‘justice.’ For example, one would say a flower was beautiful, but this may vary from another perspective, who may say that a different flower is perfect. Due to this, Plato created the theory that there is a parallel world called ‘The World Of The Forms,’ which includes the perfections of every particular in our world. An example of this is in an episode of ‘Wizards of Waverley Place,’ when one of the characters creates a painting which adjusts to each individuals idea of perfection. In this painting, one may see a cat and one may see a landscape but it is perfect to both eyes, these forms are everyone’s perfection put into one and therefore, will please everyone. However, we cannot reach this world due to not being able to understand it.
To understand this world of the forms, Plato used an allegory of the cave. This was where prisoners were kept in a cave staring at a wall with a fire behind them seeing figures and objects on the wall, yet these perceptions were created by guards using their hands. The prisoners did not know this and were safe and happy just seeing what was in front of them, continuing without knowing the truth. One prisoner escaped after questioning life beyond the cave, he soon found the journey tough as he was blinded by the sun before him. Once clear, the prisoner went back to share the ideas of knowledge from the real world, but the prisoners threatened to kill him as they were comfortable and safe with the world they were living in. To fully perceive the allegory of the cave, we have to split the story apart. The shadows are the false perceptions in society, the prisoners are society and unconsciously following elite orders. The escapee is Socrates who goes on a journey to discover the true knowledge leading to the world of the forms, the sun resembles all knowledge which is blinding at first but then is understandable once he has philosophised. We can then understand that when Socrates goes back, this is a reference to when him being killed after sharing his ideas on the society of orders.
The allegory of the cave is meant to contrast those who depend solely on their senses (the prisoners) and those who are able to discern the world through pure reason (the escapee). Mathematics is based on reason rather than using ones senses. It should therefore provide some insights into the realm of Forms differing from the realm of appearances. We can know truths such as 2+2=4 without having to check our experiences in the material work. It is possible to see how mathematics helps us understand the realm of Forms simply by considering a circle. The definition of a circle is ‘an infinite series of points, all at the same centre.’ Yet, when we draw this circle, we cannot have a perfect circle with the infinite amount of points because our knowledge does not comprehend this ‘pure perfection’ and therefore relating to the forms, Plato would say that there is a perfect circle in this changeless but in an ideal realm which can only be known by reason because it would soon lose its imperfection when coinciding with our transitive world.
What is interesting about the world of the forms is that Plato said ‘the general terms of our language are not “names” of the physical objects that we can see. They are actually names of things that we cannot see, things that we can only grasp with the mind.‘ From this, we can comprehend that Plato is referring to the idea of having universal laws to keep order in our world, but we continue to name things from the individual ideas in our mind. However, due to our world being full of varied societies and cultures that are constantly changing, we don’t know what these objects actually are and we don’t see what they actually do. These objects are just reflections of their changeless perfect form which we as humans cannot see as it cannot be translated into our material world without losing its perfection. Following on, we can then understand that we cannot philosophise to gain full knowledge of ‘The Forms‘ and therefore, we cannot fully interpret our world if we don’t know what the true forms are. This is something many disagree on due to the fact that Plato suggests that only the elite can ever come close to these forms. It is argued that there is no point in even considering the theory as well as questioning why we should believe in a world we cannot access. This is something that Aristotle came to question, forming his own theory where the forms are accessible in our own world if we search for a substantial time with successful philosophising.
In addition, Plato also believed in a concept that all these universal forms came from a hierarchy called ‘The Form of the Good‘. An example of ‘The Form of the Good‘ would be when we see a flower growing, this is the form concept that it will one day be beautiful and have a purpose regarding the nutrient cycle or any form of purpose. We then take the seed that created this beautiful flower – this is The Form of the Good – every form then stems from this. This idea draws parallel to the concept of God, and how He has these omni-qualities that allowed Him to create our world, and also the concepts of it. This is similar to The Form of the Good which has qualities stemming from itself for these perfect forms of the constantly changing objects in the world. It is argued that our world can’t be perfect because we are constantly changing, so even if God is perfect we, as humans, are not capable of accessing true perfection until death where our soul is supposedly reunited with God. This has also stemmed from other theories by Plato; how we as humans cannot access the forms due to not being capable, and only our innate can access the true forms due to having true knowledge. This is similar to the theory that only our soul knows knowledge, the trick is to be guided towards it so can we access the forms through our innate – this is rather like the soul and God. It is possible that this was a reference by Plato that there has to be something that created our world – such as The Form of Good – yet due to the period of time, the concept of something such as ‘God’ was too far fetched so the Forms were created as they were more understandable. Taking this into account, it would seem that Plato was the first human to believe in a religion of some kind.
In conclusion, Plato believed that our world is parallel to another called ‘The World Of The Forms.’ This is a perfect, never changing world where forms exist that are ideal perfections of particulars in our world that don’t ever change, inaccessible to humans. Although Plato’s theory of the forms makes sense, there is little proof to prove it’s authenticity. It can be argued that these forms are just ideas passed on through family and friends and we are therefore, brought up with the idea of perfection in our minds. It is also necessary to take into account that if we do have had these ideas of perfection, and each of us has our own individual personality and perception, then these ideas of perfection would have had to stem from somewhere. At one point in time, there would have had to be a perfect form of something to create a continuation of this perfection, and then to stem various different aspects of that ‘first perfection’ rather like The Form of the Good. Plato quotes, ‘if particulars are to have meaning, there has to be universals,’ when talking about the forms. Finally, in addition to this, if our minds did make up our own version of perfection, where does the idea come from? Is it just an invention of the mind that has had various different factors added to make up an overall opinion, or has it stemmed from a perfect form of the imagination? Is there then a form of imagination? This is the key problem with Plato’s theory of the forms, there are too many questions left unanswered.