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  1. Plural of form


  1. third-person singular of form

Extensive Definition

Plato's Theory of Forms asserts that Forms (or Ideas), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Plato spoke of forms (sometimes capitalized in translations: The Forms) in formulating his solution to the problem of universals.


Terminology: The Forms and the forms

The English word "form" may be used to translate two distinct concepts with which Plato was concerned—the outward "form" or appearance of something (Greek eidos, είδος, and idea, ιδέα, in their conventional, nontechnical senses, or other terms such as morphē, μορφή), and "Form" in a new, technical sense, apparently invented by Plato (esp. eidos, idea). These are often distinguished by the use of uncapitalized "form" and capitalized "Form," respectively. In the following summary passage, the two concepts are related to each other: Suppose a person were to make all kinds of figures (schēmata, σχήματα) of gold...—somebody points to one of them and asks what it is (ti pot'esti). By far the safest and truest answer is [to say] that it is gold; and not to call the triangle or any other figures which are formed in the gold "these" (tauta) as though they had existence (hōs onta)... And the same argument applies to the universal nature (phusis, φύσις) which receives all bodies (sōmata, σώματα)—that must always be called the same; for, while receiving all things, she never departs at all from her own nature, and never...assumes a form (morphē) 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 (mimēmata) of real existences (tōn ontōn aei) modelled after their patterns (tupōthenta) in a wonderful and inexplicable manner.... The forms that we see, according to Plato, are not real, but literally mimic the real Forms. In the Allegory of the cave expressed in Republic they are called the shadows of artificial replicas of real things. That which the observer understands when he views the mimics are the archetypes of the many types and properties (that is, of universals) of things we see all around us. They are not located in the object, which as far as Plato is concerned, is mere smoke and mirrors situated in space (which also is real).

What are the Forms?

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, (eidos) and (idea) come from the Indo-European root *weid-, "see". Both words are 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 "in" something else, which Plato called nature (phusis). The latter seemed as a "mother" (matter from mater) of substances by receiving (or losing) forms.
But what were the forms? In Plato 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 the 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 held that the world of Forms is separate from our own world (the world of substances) and also is the true basis of reality. Removed from matter, Forms are the most pure of all things. Furthermore, Plato believed that true knowledge/intelligence is the ability to grasp the world of Forms with one's mind.
A Form is aspatial (outside the world) and atemporal (outside time). Atemporal means that it does not exist within any time period. It did not start, there is no duration in time, and it will not end. It is neither eternal in the sense of existing forever or mortal, of limited duration. It exists outside 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.
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 pure land

The Forms exist in a rarefied sector of the universe. But the true earth is pure (katharan) and situated in the pure heaven (en katharōi ouranōi) ... and it is the heaven which is commonly spoken by us as the ether (aithera) ... for if any man could arrive at the extreme limit ... he would acknowledge that this other world was the place of the true heaven (ho alethōs ouranos) and the true light (to alethinon phōs) and the true earth (hē hōs alēthōs gē).
In comparison to it our earth is "spoilt and corroded as in the sea all things are corroded by the brine." There the colors are "brighter far and clearer than ours; there is a purple of wonderful lustre, also the radiance of gold and the white which is in the earth is whiter than any chalk or snow."A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that he may venture to think ... that something of the kind is true.

The ideal state

Plato 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 of Plato is not a modern democracy. Many of its institutions and values have been tested in world affairs and have been condemned. Plato could not have known the future impact of his thought, but even in the Athenian democracy in which he resided Socrates was considered anti-democratic. After his star pupil Alcibiades, later a general, went over in disgust at democracy to the Spartan enemy in the Peloponnesian War, as a result of which Athens lost the war, the rump state turned on Socrates and condemned him for "corrupting the youth" (namely Alcibiades).
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 which is 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. It was customary in such instances to receive a constitution from an elected or appointed lawgiver; however, at 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. Plato 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." This remarkable doctrine usually attributed to the "survival of the fittest" of Charles Darwin appears to be much more ancient; however, nothing at all in Greek medicine so far as can be known supports the airy (in the Athenian view) propositions 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 small pension from the state. None of these items are consistent with an unknowable Good. Socrates seems to know very precisely what is 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."
All ideal beliefs are all fixed and universal, and living in the ideal world called: Hyperuranium

Evidence of Forms

Plato's main evidence for the existence of Forms is intuitive only and is as follows.

The argument from human perception

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 an idea 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.

The argument from perfection

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 expess this natural form, and not others which he fancies, in the material ....
Perceived circles or lines are not exactly circular or straight, 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 his 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 was overcome later by Aristotle, but not without rejecting the independently existing world of Forms. It is debated whether Plato viewed these criticisms as conclusively disproving the Theory of Forms. It is worth noting that Aristotle was a student 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.
The 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 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 then they contain a form that is the same and others that are different. Thus if the Form and a particular are alike then there must be another, or third, man or greatness by possession of which they are alike. An infinite regression must result (consequently the mathematicians often call the argument the Third Man Regression); 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.
Plato's 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. Unfortunately the hidden world can in no way be verified in this lifetime and its otherworldness can only be a matter of speculation (in those times before the knowledge of revelation and faith). 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.

Aristotelian criticism

The topic of Aristotelian criticism of Plato's Theory of Forms is a large one and continues to expand. Aristotle did not just criticise Plato but Platonism typically without distinguishing individuals. Moreover, rather than quote Plato he chose to summarize him often in one-liners not comprehensible without considerable exegesis and sometimes not then. As a historian of prior thought Aristotle often uses the prior arguments as a foil to present his own ideas. Consequently, in presenting the Aristotelian criticisms it is necessary to distinguish what Aristotle wrote, what he meant, whether Plato meant that, whether valid and what the relationship to Aristotle's concepts: a formidable task extending over centuries of scholarship. This article presents a few sample arguments addressed by a few sample scholars. Readers may pursue the topic more fully through the citations and bibliography.
In the summary passage quoted above
Despite Ross's objection that Aristotle is wrong, that Plato considers many non-substances to be Forms, such as Sameness, Difference, Rest, Motion, the criticism remains and is major. Ross's summary dismissal: "We need not concern ourselves with Aristotle's argument" is hasty. Plato did not know where to draw the line between Form and non-Form. As Cornford points out, things about which the young Socrates (and Plato) asserted "I have often been puzzled about these things" referring to Man, Fire and Water, appear as Forms in his later works, but others do not, such as Hair, Mud, Dirt, about which Socrates is made to assert: "it would be too absurd to suppose that they have a Form."
Aristotle's thought distinguishes between accidental and essential form. Neither man suspected in any way that after the study of essential form reached a crescendo with Thomas Aquinas the major advances in civilization would come from the detailing of accidental form: the "little things" of Plato, to which we might add cells, molecules and the various entities revealed by the microscope.
Another argument of Aristotle attacked by Ross Aristotle points out that proof rests on prior knowledge of universals and that if we did not know what universals are we would have no idea of what we were trying to prove and could not be trying to prove it. Knowledge of the universal is given from even one particular; in fact, the inductive method of proof depends on it.
This epistemology sets up for the main attack on Platonism (though not named) in Metaphysics. In brief, universal and particulars imply each other; one is logically prior or posterior to the other. If they are to be regarded as distinct, then they cannot be universal and particulars; that is, there is no reason to understand that universal from the objects supposed to be particulars. It is not the case that if a universal A might be supposed to have particulars a1, a2, etc., A is missing or a1, a2, etc. are missing. A does not exist at all and a1, a2, etc. are unrelated objects.

Dialogues that discuss Forms

The theory is presented in the following dialogues:
  • Cratylus389-390: The archetype as used by craftsmen439-440: The problem of knowing Form
  • Laws721: The Form of man immortal
  • Meno71-80: Partial discovery of Forms and impossibility of knowing them wholly
  • Parmenides129-135: 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.
  • Phaedo73-80: The soul before birth in the land of Forms109-111: The pure land
  • Phaedrus248-250: Reincarnation according to knowledge of the true265-266: The unity problem in thought and nature
  • Philebus14-18: Unity problem: one and many, parts and whole
  • Republic
    • Book III402-403: Education the pursuit of Forms
    • Book V472-483: Philosophy the love of Form. The philosopher-king must rule.
    • Books VI-VII500-517: Philosopher-legislators guardians of the Beautiful and Just implement archetypical Order. Metaphor of the sun: sun is to sight as good is to understanding. Allegory of the cave: struggle to understand Forms like men in cave guessing at shadows in firelight.
    • Books IX-X389-599: 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.
  • Seventh Letter342-345: The epistemology of Form
  • Sophistes246-248: True essence a Form. Effective solution to participation problem. Being is effective power.251-259: The problem with being as a Form; if it is participatory then non-being must exist and be being.
  • Symposium210-211: The archetype of Beauty
  • Theaetetus184-186: Universals understood by mind and not perceived by senses
  • Timaeus27-52: The design of the universe, including numbers and physics. Some of its patterns. Definition of matter.



  • Plato and Parmenides
  • On Ideas: Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Theory of Forms Reviewed by
  • Plato's Theory of Ideas

External links

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forms in German: Ideenlehre
forms in Spanish: Mundo de las ideas
forms in French: Théorie des Idées
forms in Icelandic: Frummyndakenning
forms in Japanese: イデア論
forms in Finnish: Ideaoppi
forms in Swedish: Idévärld
forms in Turkish: İdealar kuramı
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