Plato’s Theory of Forms

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  • Created by: Agata
  • Created on: 05-03-14 12:00

What is required?

Candidates should understand what Plato meant by ‘Forms’: the relation between concepts and phenomena; the concept of ‘Ideals’; what Plato meant by the Form of the Good and the other Forms. Candidates should also be able to describe criticisms of the theory of Forms, and be able to discuss whether such criticisms are valid.

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TWO WORLDS

For Plato there are two words; the eternal world and the material world. The eternal world possesses the object of knowledge and is more real than the material world which possesses the object of opinion.

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STATE OF FLUX

The material world when it is in a constant state of flux and therefore it is impossible to know the truth of reality - “You cannot step into the same river twice”

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THE REALM OF IDEALS

Perfect forms exist in the realm of ideals or forms, which possess the object of knowledge. Sense perceptions of material objects are simply objects of opinion, subject to constant change. Knowledge is innate, a recollection of the perfect forms.

“Her eyes are too close together” – we can recognize that she falls short of beauty and thus understand the concept of beauty, yet we have not ever experienced a perfect example of beauty.

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IMMORTAL SOULS

We have concepts of the perfect forms thus our souls must have known them before we were born (innate, ‘a priori’ knowledge) –evidence that we have immortal souls.

A circle is a 2D figure made up of an infinite series of points all the same distance from the centre. No one has ever seen the perfect form of a circle but instead imperfect copies, reasonable approximations of the true form. A perfect circle could not be seen or drawn even if one used the most sophisticated computer equipment. This is because, in its perfect form, the infinite numbers of points which make up the circumference don’t take up any space as they exist in logic rather than physical form. Yet although the perfect circle can never be seen, people can define a circle from their soul’s recollection of the true form from the realm of ideas.

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REALITY

Forms give physical objects what reality they have because of their resemblance. The shadows in the Allegory of the Cave only had any kind of existence because of their resemblance to their corresponding physical objects.

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GOODNESS

Goodness is the most important form. Like the sun in the Allegory of the Cave, Good illuminates all the other forms. Justice for example is an aspect of Goodness.

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HIERARCHY OF FORMS

(http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/platf001.gif)

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CRITICISM

Plato believes that our experience of the Form pre-dates our experience of the “real” object. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, was critical of this idea – he believed that the “Form” is developed through continued experience of physical things.


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CRITICISM-Is the World of the Form Reasonable?

  • It does not seem reasonable that we have access to this “World of Ideas”. It may be reasonable that there can be “perfect forms” of concrete objects, and those ideas can exist eternally, whereas the concrete objects are subject to constant change.                                                                 
  • There could be concepts of perfection – beauty, justice and the good – but Plato’s argument that there is a world where these concepts exist seems unreasonable.
  • Are these concepts simply a way of understanding the world around us? If this is so, they exist only in the realm of language, and not in a real “World of the Form”.
  • Plato argues that the World of the Form is “self-evident” – most people would disagree! Self-evident is usually taken to mean that there is evidence that is incontrovertible! Assuming there are Forms of all the things in the world –what are these forms like? If, as Plato claims, they are self-evident , then their nature should be self evident too.There would be no debate over the nature of the Form of the Horse – we would all know it.
  • Does the World of the Form also include the Form of the Cockroach and Smallpox Virus (etc.)?
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CRITICISM-How do things in the real world relate t

  • We can imagine there being a “Form of the Horse” to which the objects in the real world refer to.                                                                                         
  • Does the single Form refer to all objects, or does each object have its own form?
  • If the single Form of the Horse is perfect, are the varieties of horses different through their imperfections, or is there an individual form for every horse, mule and donkey ever to have lived?
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CRITICISM-How do things in the real world relate t

  • We can imagine there being a “Form of the Horse” to which the objects in the real world refer to.                                                                                         
  • Does the single Form refer to all objects, or does each object have its own form?
  • If the single Form of the Horse is perfect, are the varieties of horses different through their imperfections, or is there an individual form for every horse, mule and donkey ever to have lived?
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Criticisms

Plato believed that the highest form is the Form of the Good. He believed this Form to be like the sun in the Allegory of the Cave – it illuminates all the other forms. All the other forms are a derivation of the Form of the Good. We recognise things in our world which are “good”, but they are still oart of the contingent world and subject to change. We know they are good because wehave knowledge of the Form of the Good.

Criticisms:

How do we know what goodness is? There doesn’t appear to be complete agreement on this!

  •  There is an argument over relative and absolute ethics.
  •  Society’s values change – over time and also in different parts of the world. If Plato’s idea of the Form of the Good was valid, there would not be these disagreements.
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Criticisms

Plato believed that the Soul is like the driver of a car. The body is merely a vehicle for the soul on its journey through life. The body is the physical part of the person, and the soul is the immortal, immaterial part. The mind can access the world of the eternal. Plato also believed that there was conflict between the body and the soul. The soul was fixed on “higher things”, such as the Knowledge of the Forms, while the body was only interested in sensual things, such as eating and drinking.

  • Criticism: Obviously (!) Plato’s views on the soul will only work if youaccept his idea of the World of the Form.
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Criticisms

Is there a pre-existent soul that dwells in the body?

  • Basic to Plato’s idea are the concepts of a priori and a posteriori knowledge. Plato undervalues sense experience (a posteriori). He also has a low opinion of the body – he regards it with contempt.
  •  Is it reasonable to argue that the instinctive behaviour of a human being, which is essential to its survival, is more important than Plato gives credit.
  • Our senses give us data that we need to make our way through society. Physical experience is vital to this. Plato’s own teaching was conducted through a series of discussions – without the auditory sense experience of his pupils, he would have been wasting his time!
  • Plato’s beliefs about Justice are irrelevant if he is to argue that the body is unimportant. It doesn’t matter if the body is made to suffer injustice if the body doesn’t matter!
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