Philosophy Anti-Philosophy Plato

Plato 1: What precisely were his Forms?

Plato, like all the philosophers who followed him, was an example of human insensibility to human life, of reductionism of human life  and of the sensory experience that forms our lives, of severe abstractionism and generalization.

These terms I have used in the above paragraph come straight from F.R. Leavis.  I don’t even understand them completely but they are the closest I have yet found to expressing my exasperation with philosophers.  I haven’t yet found my own plain and concrete understanding.  Leavis himself didn’t write specifically on Plato and wasn’t against philosophy.  He was writing, as I remember, simply on the differences between literature and philosophy (see here to start with).

This subject, of what exactly Plato meant by his Forms, is confusing and consists of several different story-lines, and so does this post; it starts anew over and over again.  Plato wasn’t constant himself in what he meant by his  Forms.  And on top of that, his word eidos (for Form) was translated into different words in different languages whose meanings were somewhat different, and were also different according to context.

According to here, Plato or Socrates (we don’t of course know which one; see The Socratic Problem, here) wasn’t satisfied that things in the world are what our senses tell us they are.  Perhaps they had noticed that the same object could appear different at different moments.  There is for example ice, snow and water, but it’s still the same thing; and of course Descartes’ later example of honey being thick when cold and runny when warm, but still the same thing.  So Plato/Socrates thought there had to be an ideal concept, a Form, of things like ‘dog’ or ‘tree’ existing beyond time and space, of which dogs and  trees in this world were imperfect images.

Another slightly different way of seeing it is that Plato was bothered by  words like ‘dog’ or ‘tree’ that we give to individual things with similarities to each other.  He thought that these ‘concepts’, ‘generalities’, ‘universals’ or ‘types’ actually existed in an ideal form in heaven.

The mind boggles that anyone ever took this seriously, instead of accepting that conceptualization is something we do inside our heads.  But this ‘Problem of Universals’ (or is this a somewhat separate idea) carried on in Philosophy till the Middle Ages and perhaps till the present day.  (Perhaps due to my mental alienation from Philosophy, I haven’t got the confidence even that I’ve got words like ‘concepts’ and ‘Problem of Universals’ quite right.  But it’s the best I can presently do.)

I  tried to get a complete understanding of what Plato actually meant by his ‘Forms’.  But Plato doesn’t give it to us! and this takes a lot of reading to get to.  Wikipedia for instance tells us that Plato’s conception of Form differed between his Dialogues, and in some respects he never fully explained it!  In the Republic, Plato relied on his Forms as the basis of many of his arguments but didn’t explain precisely what they were, or argue the validity of his Theory of Forms.  So it is no surprise that many aspects of the Forms were open to interpretation.   And then there are also difficulties created by the words themselves in different languages and at different periods.

Here is a statement: ‘Plato said that every object or quality such as dogs, human beings, mountains, courage, love,  colours, and goodness, has a Form.’   That seems to mean that each object, and each quality or property of objects, has a Form.  That’s a basis to roughly start with.

But also: later philosophers said that Plato’s Forms are the essences of objects: that the Form of a thing is that without which this 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 (from here again).    (With my stupid head, I think this, or the way I have put it,  is confusing the  essence of the concept ‘table’ which only exists inside our heads, with an actual concrete table.  The latter can exist without the former.)

It is very muddling, to unearth what exactly Plato meant his Forms to be.  So, to start all over again, on top of what I have said above:  I have read Plato’s Theory of Forms from many sites, but the one  from Wikipedia here  gives a good summing up  I can understand.   What follows below is an explanation to myself based on it, as well as  a criticism.  It may help others with similar mental inadequacies to my own, which have led them to being astonished at Philosophy and Philosophers.

Firstly, the words used by Plato/Socrates in Ancient Greek and their translations into other languages such as Latin, English or German, mean different things in the different languages; and, within each of these languages, they mean different things in different contexts.

So:  the English word “form” has two different meanings in English—usually it means the outward form or appearance of something;  but also “Form” in Plato’s sense, which is the actual heavenly reality of a thing, which is virtually the opposite.

The  word Plato  used was ‘eidos’, which in  Latin and German was and is translated not as ‘Form’ but as ‘Idea’.  Hence in German it became ‘Platons Ideentheorie‘. 

But in English, ‘idea’ doesn’t refer to Plato’s Forms but to something purely in the mind.

Plato’s word ‘Eidos’ itself came from the Indo-European root for “see”, and had already been used for centuries in Greek to mean ‘appearance’ or ‘visible form’, but Plato used it to mean the the actual heavenly reality of a thing, which is virtually the opposite.

To make things even more difficult, Plato sometimes used not eidos but  morphē  and parádeigma and also génosphýsis, and ousía.   ‘Morphe’ had used to mean ‘shape’, and the ‘pheno’ of ‘phenomenon’ to mean  ‘shine’ or ‘show’, but Philosophy added specialized meanings to them.

The word Forma itself is  Boethius’ translation  (in about 500 AD) of Plato’s εἶδος (eidos).


Let us sweep aside the above difficulties from language and try to get back yet again to  what Plato/Socrates themselves meant by εἶδος, eidos, Form.

To my surprise, I found that Plato was very changeable about what he meant, and that he even criticized himself for this in his dialogue Parmenides, using Socrates to do so, see here.

Something very elementary is whether Plato’s Form applied not only to objects like dogs and cats, but also to their properties such as blackness.   Surely such a basic thing should have been crystal-clear from the start.  But to me it still isn’t absolutely so, and in Philosophy it should be.  Sometimes it seems that ‘Universals’ are only of properties.

Wikipedia here also says, as I interpret it:  We call the sky and blue jeans, blue. But the blueness of the sky is not constant from place to place or from time to time.  And blue jeans differ in their blueness in the billions that exist.  Yet we somehow have a consensus of the basic form Blueness as it applies to them.  (So, I wonder, presumably Plato thought there was one Form of Blue.  Did he then think there was one Form of Dog rather than separate Forms for the different breeds?)

This site also says:  ‘Forms…were properties or essences of things, treated as non-material abstract, but substantial, entities. They were eternal, changeless, supremely real, and independent of ordinary objects that had their being and properties by ‘participating’ in them.’   (That particular excerpt from Plato makes it seem that his Forms applied only to properties, and not to things!  Were these Forms of properties also called Universals.  Oi! )

Plato-Socrates added to difficulties by also using the term ‘participation’ for how things or properties were related to their Forms.  This Wikipedia site states: ‘The concept of “participate”, represented in Greek by more than one word, is as obscure in Greek as in English’ !!  What follows are some attempted explanations of what ‘participation’ means:

Socrates, as Plato writes, explained it with a metaphor:  ‘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.’

So what on earth does that mean?– that the day is everywhere, and the same, and at the same time, and so is the Form?  The Wikipedia site itself states that the meaning of this ‘day’ metaphor is unclear.

The Wikipedia site continues: ‘The solution [to what exactly ‘participation means] 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.’  (Does this mean that the Form is distinct but gets shared out somehow to particular instances which are separate from it?)

This ‘participation’  made some people at the time and later to be troubled by what was called The Third Man Argument (TMA) against Plato’s Forms, which summarizes as follows:  that if there are many examples or imitations in the world, as well as the real thing in which they participate, then there has to be another real thing, another Form, beyond all of them.

In the Third Man Argument there is step by step logicking, typical of philosophers through the ages, and containing  concepts like ‘infinite regression’.  I haven’t yet succeeded in working through it.  (I noted this reference too but on looking at it again, I don’t know if it is good.)

Apparently Socrates-Plato themselves took the tack against the TMA that particulars do not really exist but just imitate the Forms. This is ‘representationalism’; and there is some mind-breaking logic against that too; see here.

To finish with ‘participation’ but to make matters more complicated still, Plato wrote, in his dialogue Timaeus, (from here)a further description of what Forms are: “…. that which keeps its own form unchangingly, which has not been brought into being and is not destroyed, which neither receives into itself anything else from anywhere else, nor itself enters into anything anywhere, is one thing…” .  

Later writers added what are perhaps slight variations of what Plato meant:  (i) that Forms are perfect examples on which objects and properties of the world are modeled;  (ii) that Forms are Universals (see below), such that the Form of Beauty is that quality that all beautiful things share.

Perhaps for (ii), an interpretation that seems to have been made is that Forms are ‘stuffs’ –the conglomeration of all instances of a quality in the visible world, so that there is a little beauty in one person, a little beauty in another, and that all the little bits of beauty in the world add up to the Form of Beauty.  That sounds so potty — that the Universal of Beauty is the sum of all the beauty that objects in the world have — that I am not sure I have got it right,

Yet another way with words with which Plato defined  ‘Form’, see Wikipedia again, is  that the phenomena  we see in the world are mere shadows mimicking the Form; that is, momentary portrayals of the Form under different circumstances.  In other writings, he seems to have used the term  archetypes to define Forms of the many types and properties (that is, of universals) of things observed.  (But then I can’t find out what exactly ‘type’ means in this context.)


Plato/Socrates said that Knowledge, Intelligence, Wisdom, is one’s mental grasping of  the eternal Forms.   This  cannot be gained through sensory experience because the Forms are in some kind of heaven.  Before we were incarnated into our bodies, our souls were in heaven where they became acquainted with the Forms. Therefore, real knowledge is a recollecting of the Forms in heaven.  What we learn, is in fact just a remembering.

Was Plato’s Theory of Forms the foundation for the Christian concept of heaven that Paul developed?  The latter at last gave  meaning to the life of the  individual, and gave him life after death too, which the earthly collectivism of Hebrew religion failed to do.  I’ve probably compressed and ignored a lot of difficulties into that last comment, but it’s a heady start.




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