An Introduction to Plato’s Theory of Forms

Updated on August 7, 2018
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Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

An Introduction to Plato’s Theory of Forms
An Introduction to Plato’s Theory of Forms

What is Plato’s Theory of Forms?

One of the most challenging aspects of Plato's philosophy is his Theory of Forms. Plato’s Theory of Forms (also sometimes called his Theory of Ideas) is the idea that non-physical (but substantial) Forms (or ideas) represent the most accurate reality. For many modern thinkers, it is difficult to think of these “Forms” as being separate from the objects that they represent in the real world, and that there are no perfect examples of any form that exist in the real world.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)
Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) | Source

What Are Platonic Forms?

The Platonic Forms, according to Plato, are just ideas of things that actually exist. They represent what each individual thing is supposed to be like in order for it to be that specific thing. For example, the form of human shows qualities one must have in order to be human. It is a depiction of the idea of humanness. But no actual human is the perfect representation of the form human. They are similar, but every human is different, and none are perfectly human.

According to Plato, every object or quality in reality has a form: dogs, cats, humans, oceans, tables, colors, beauty, love, and courage. Form answers the question "What is that?" Plato went a step further in asking “what is Form itself?” Plato assumed that an object was essentially or "really" a manifestation of the Form and that the phenomena were mere shadows that mimicked the Form. This means that objects in reality are momentary portrayals of the Form under varying circumstances.

The “problem of universals,” or how can one Form in general be many things in particular, was solved by presuming that Form is a distinct singular thing that causes multiple representations of itself in particular objects.

According to Plato’s Theory of Forms, matter is considered particular in itself. For Plato, Forms are more real than any objects that imitate them. Though the Forms are timeless and unchanging, physical manifestations of Forms are in a constant state of change. Where forms are unqualified perfection, physical objects are qualified and conditioned.

The Forms, according to Plato, are the essences of various objects. Forms are the qualities that an object must have to be considered that type of object. For example, there are countless chairs in the world but the Form of “chairness” is at the core of all chairs. Plato held that the world of Forms is transcendent to our own world, the world of substances, which is the essential basis of reality.

Though no one has ever seen a perfect circle, nor a perfectly straight line, everyone knows what a circle and a straight line are. Plato uses this as evidence that his Forms are real.

A representation of Plato's Allegory of the Cave: Left (From top to bottom): Sun; Natural things; Shadows of natural things; Fire; Artificial objects; Shadows of artificial objects; Analogy level.
A representation of Plato's Allegory of the Cave: Left (From top to bottom): Sun; Natural things; Shadows of natural things; Fire; Artificial objects; Shadows of artificial objects; Analogy level. | Source

Perfect Examples of Forms Do Not Exist in Reality

Forms are the purest representation of all things. Plato believed that true knowledge or intelligence is the ability to grasp the world of Forms with one's mind. It is difficult for many thinkers to understand the concept of perfect forms. If there are no perfect examples of the forms, how we can know what the forms are, exactly? If there are no perfect humans, and we can't see the Form human, how do we know what the Form actually looks like? And if we don't know what it looks like, how do we know that no human is a perfect representation of that Form?

Forms are aspatial (transcendent to space) and atemporal (transcendent to time). Forms do not exist within any time period, but rather provide the formal basis for time. Neither are they eternal in the sense of existing forever, nor mortal, existing for only a limited duration. Forms exists transcendent to time altogether, according to Plato’s Theory of Forms. Forms have no orientation in space, nor do they have a location. They are non-physical, but they are not in the mind. Forms are extra-mental ideas, meaning that they are real in the strictest sense of the word.

Because the Forms exist independently of time and space, they can be said to exist only as ideas in people's minds. The Forms are objective "blueprints" for perfection. They are considered perfect themselves because they are unchanging. For example, if we have a square drawn on a blackboard, the square as it is drawn is not a perfect representation of a square. However, it is only the knowledge of the Form "square" that allows us to know the drawing on the chalkboard is meant to represent a square. The Form "square" is perfect and unchanging. The Form “square” is exactly the same no matter who thinks about it.

A sculpture of Plato.
A sculpture of Plato. | Source

Hypothetical Forms

If there is a Form for everything, and Forms know no time or space, could there be a Form for objects that don't yet exist? If there is a form for everything that could ever exist, are there also Forms for things that people will never think of? Are there Forms that will never be realized?

The Forms are thought to be perfected ideas of things that exist independently of the actual objects. If no one has ever thought of it, then can it exist as a Form, or idea? If everything with the potential to exist does exists as a Form, where does the idea for the Form whose physical object does not yet exist come from?

Since forms don't exist in time or space, where do the forms actually exist? If they aren't in the physical world or only in our individual minds, is there some other place that humans can't even comprehend where the Forms reside? These questions make Plato’s Theory of Forms difficult for the average person to comprehend.

A bronze stature of Plato.
A bronze stature of Plato. | Source

Plato’s Theory of Forms: A Difficult Philosophical Concept to Grasp

Plato’s Theory of Forms is a difficult concept to grasp because it requires one to think in abstract thought about concrete objects. No object is a perfect representation of the idea it represents, according to this theory. Each object in the real world is a mere flawed representation of the perfect Forms they represent. Because the Forms are perfect versions of their corresponding physical objects, the Forms can be considered to be the most real and purest things in existence, according to Plato.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jennifer Wilber

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      • The0NatureBoy profile image

        Elijah A Alexander Jr 

        8 days ago from Washington DC

        My comprehension of form is like Plato's except from my perspective all forms are perfect for an intended purpose. No two manifestations are exactly alike but are alike in a general way. That is because every life-force has to, by reincarnating, experience all of those variances in order to become the fulfillment of them all. The purpose of earth's plane. Not only do life-forces incarnate as human but as every type of manifestation earth is composed of to include eventually being earth's life-force. Not only is that true concerning earth but every type of manifestation in the "Zeroverse" most human call universe. Eventually every life-force within existence becomes the life-force forming the zeroverse or existence as the one true form. That is the same as is said in the Christian religion, "I am in the father and the father is in me."

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