Category: Philosophical theories

Plato’s theory of Forms

The heart of Plato’s theory of Forms is that there are certain self-subsistent, changeless and intelligible entities, the “Forms”, beyond the constantly changing sensible reality. The objects of the sensible world owe their existence and truth to their relationship to the Forms. The theory of Forms is Plato’s foundation for his entire interpretation of reality.

What are Platonic Forms?

Plato holds sensible data to be completely untrustworthy. He asserts that the sensible world is a constantly changing universe, which lacks stability. Our human senses are by definition subjective and they are sources of deception. If there can be any certainty, this should be sought in thought and in language – in the “logoi”. Plato’s Forms are the objects of pure thought.

”After this, he said, when I had wearied of investigating things, I thought that I must be careful to avoid the experience of those who watch an eclipse of the sun, for some of them ruin their eyes unless they watch its reflection in water or some such material. A similar thought crossed my mind, and I feared that my soul would be altogether blinded if I looked at things with my eyes and tried to grasp them with each of my senses. So I thought I must take refuge in discussions and investigate the truth of things by means of words [logoi]” Phaedo 99de

Plato’s Forms possess original being, they are apprehended through reason, and are eternal; without beginning and imperishable; unmoving and unchanging. All moral norms are Forms: virtue, justice, courage, temperance, piety and all other relevant norms. Mathematical concepts and entities also belong to the Forms: equality, unity, multiplicity, number, point, line, shape, solid; so are natural kinds: animal, plant, man, water, fire, gold, etc. Hence, there are many Platonic Forms: “we customarily hypothesize a single form in connection with each of the many things to which we apply the same name” (Republic 596a).

An elementary linguistic sentence includes a subject and a predicate. In contrast to the subject, which is something individual, the predicate is general, universal. Plato claims that the predicate, the quality, refers to a self-subsistent Form and, therefore, what simple sentences signify is the relation of a sensible being to a Form – the Form of justice, of teaching, of a square. In Plato’s words, for Socrates to be just, he must “participate” in the Form of justice. There must be community between his actions and the absolute ideal expressed in the Form of justice.

Plato’s Forms possess original being, they are apprehended through reason, and are eternal; without beginning and imperishable; unmoving and unchanging. All moral norms are Forms: virtue, justice, courage, temperance, piety and all other relevant norms. Mathematical concepts and entities also belong to the Forms: equality, unity, multiplicity, number, point, line, shape, solid; so are natural kinds: animal, plant, man, water, fire, gold, etc. Hence, there are many Platonic Forms: “we customarily hypothesize a single form in connection with each of the many things to which we apply the same name” (Republic 596a).

Thus our world is divided. On the one hand there is the unclear and chaotic reality of our everyday experiences, with which everybody is familiar. On the other hand there is the constant universe of the eternal Forms, the existence of which very few people are suspecting. The former is the world of sense-perception and of human opinion (“doxa”) and the latter is the world of reason and of truth

Participation and imitation – the hierarchy of Forms

Plato holds that sensible objects “participate” in the corresponding Forms and that they “imitate” them. “Participation” and “imitation” are two ways of communication between what is sensible and what is intelligible. Participation is a logical relation, the relation between what is universal and what is particular. Imitation is a hierarchical relation, the relation between original and copy, model and image. Both of these relations need to be understood, if Platonism is to make any sense.

One can accept participation even while rejecting the existence of Forms. The relation between universal and particular is constitutive of thought and language. But when Plato claims that sensible beings imitate the Forms, the point is the former’s imperfection with respect to the latter, their inferiority of sensible beings to the Forms, their problematic existence. Belonging to the core of Platonism is the conviction that attaining the Forms does not only involve cognitive progress, but moral improvement; attaining the Forms is the path to eudaimonia.

Plato subscribes to the Socratic claim that virtue is knowledge, but he also accepts its reversal: knowledge is virtue. This is why there is a hierarchy within the Forms, why at the top of the pyramid of Forms one finds the moral Form par excellence, the Form of the Good. Plato heralds his own philosophy, Platonic dialectic, which is reason’s ascent toward the Good, the “unhypothetical first principle of everything” (Republic 511c), and the organising of the entire realm of Forms based on the Good – in his later dialogues Plato further develops the method of “collection” and “division”, i.e. the systematic mapping of the terrain of Forms and the study of the relations between them.

The cryptic phrase “unhypothetical first principle of everything”, situated “beyond being” (Republic 509b), gave rise to the conviction that Plato developed an “unwritten” philosophy –of mathematical inspiration, solely for the initiated members of the Academy– in which the ontological priority of the Good (identified with the One) and the deduction of Forms from it played a central part. Nevertheless, situating the Good beyond being can also mean something simpler: that, according to Plato, all knowledge lies on moral foundations, that ethics precedes epistemology.

The path toward the Forms

In this divided Platonic world, man is ever trying to reach some balance. For the most part he is drawn to the sensible world and is, thus, changeable, impulsive, imperfect himself. The transition from the world of the senses to that of reason is the path of philosophy, a path demanding struggle and appropriate education.

In the Phaedo, dedicated to Socrates’ last hours, Plato seems to adopt the Pythagorean and Orphic doctrine of reincarnation. Philosophy is defined as a “study of death” (67e). Once released from its body, the soul is relieved of a terrible burden and can devote itself from that moment on to seeing the Forms unhindered.

In the Republic Plato puts a new distinction forward. What is more important than the opposition of body and soul is the opposition between the parts of the human soul. The soul is a complex unity with different parts and different impulses. Its three parts –“appetite”, “spirit”, and immortal “reason”– are in constant strife. The proper life and the achievement of eudaimonia depends on the parts of the soul being in harmony, which is only possible when reason rules over the lower parts of the soul.

The just man has prevailed over his desires, has tempered his passions and has thus cleared the road for the immortal part of his soul to communicate with the Forms. In this toilsome journey he will seek the help of an enlightened teacher, of a school of philosophy, of an organised republic. Yet he will also draw strength from an unexpected inner ally: eros, the most powerful and most complex of all human desires. Erotic attraction begins as an irrational passion, yet can be transformed into a kind of divine madness, impelling man to unite with the Forms.

Plato’s way to the Forms

Plato is especially astute in his observations on and his study of the human condition and his interest in solving real problems in people’s lives is profound. His conceiving of the Forms serves to answer questions Socrates had also raised. How is one to distinguish the just from the unjust man, the city’s just decision from the unjust? The Sophists’ answer was that there is no objective criterion for the distinction, therefore what matters is the opinion of the majority, the interest of the people in power or, at best, the persuasiveness of the arguments presented by the people involved. Plato suggests that the only possible response to the Sophists is the determination of an absolute criterion of justice. Such a criterion is offered by the Form of justice that, being beyond the world of change, is independent of any contingent majority or any people who happen to be in power.

Plato’s Forms sprang from the need for a satisfactory response to moral relativism. It is for this reason that moral norms are Forms par excellence. Instead of allowing philosophy to be mistaken for sophistry, Plato preferred to divide reality into two independent realms. The “otherworldly” Forms were thus offered as a solution for this world’s problems: problems of demarcating philosophy, but also problems of an explicitly political nature. The just republic is the only one realising the Form of justice, whereas those straying from this ideal are unjust.

Plato is fully aware that there is no way of proving the existence of Forms. Consequently he has no scruples about putting the Forms forward as a “hypo-thesis”, i.e. as a first principal supposition (Phaedo 100ab). The “hypothesis” of the Forms cannot be proven, but it can acquire persuasiveness and gain acceptance if its advantages become evident. Plato’s philosophical programme is precisely this application of the theory of Forms to every part of what can be known. Thus, in the Republic he makes an entire city come alive before our eyes in every detail, the way it would be constituted if his understanding of justice had prevailed. Moreover, he invites each reader to choose between his city and the world’s actual cities – this choice indirectly determines the reader’s attitude toward the Forms.



Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Fine, G. ed. Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology. Oxford, 1999.
  • Ferrari, G.R.F. "Platonic Love." Kraut, R. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Kraut, R. "Plato." Zalta, E.N ed. Stanford Encyclopeidia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato. 2013.
  • Ross, W. D. Plato’s Theory of Ideas. Oxford, 1953.
  • Vlastos, G, Platonic Studies. Princeton, 1973.
  • White, N. P. Plato on Knowledge and Reality. Indianapolis, 1976.
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