Theory of Forms

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Plato's Theory of Forms

What are Forms?

It was most famously described by the allegory of the cave in The Republic, an explication of a perfect society written by Plato around 300 B.C.  In this story the men are in a cave and see objects as shadows on the wall.  These shaowds conjure in each mans mind their ideal of that object.  These conjured image is the Form that Plato is speaking of.  In order to avoid confusion form in this sense is denoted with a capital 'F'.  The greek work from which form is derived directly translates to "having the sight or appearance of a thing."  It would simply be if you had to describe what is that and give a thought as a definition, the thought that you would choose.  Forms are by Plato's definition aspacial and atemporal, they do not exist in space or time but he is careful to clarify that they also do not exist in the mind, they are extra-mental.  In this manner of thinking all of the objects, people and emtions in our lives are just the 'shadows' of the perfect Forms.

The Ideal State

Socrates suggested that their existed an extraphysical realm, on top of ours, a world of Forms.  Our reality was nothing but the mimes and shadows of Forms in the more perfect world that mirrors ours.  In The Republic over the course of several books these philosopohers form what they believe to be the ideal state of a just society, trying to base it off of a Form.  Like many examples of Utopian Literature, Plato's republic has a very strict structure consdiering it is a "purged world of metaphysical objects."  He made grand sweeping and rather un-Atheninan claims in his book about a society where the diseased were left to die and all things were for the good of the collective.  This ideal state that he developed suffered from the Third Man weakness where there must be guardians for the populace and guardians for those guardians until the only one left to lie is the head of state, and then only for the good of the people.


Perception Argument

We can both agree that the sky and the ocean are blue, and yet in reality they are not the same color.  They are light at different wavelengths and each is constantly changing and shifting and yet we all agree on this concept of blueness.

Pefection Argument

It can be safely claimed that nobody has ever seen a perfectly round circle or a perfectly straight line and yet we know they exist.  Not only do we know that they exist but we can define them and yet we can still never create one.  


Aristotle criticized this argument arguing from a complex point that has come to be known as 'Participation'.  This is the idea that each individual object participates in the Form and in this way they are all the same, the Form is continuous, and yet it cannot exist.  How can it at once exist in all places, in many instances, and never exist at all.  The thinking goes like this.  If there are two men that are great then it stands to reason that there is a third that can also be alike.  This third man is the beginning of the abdptly named 'Third Man Regression' on to infinity where all men must be great.  They lack however, the one ultimate participant that can make them all great.  Socrates would later go on to argue that we are in the world of Forms before birth and that is how we know of them.

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