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An Introduction to Plato’s Theory of Forms

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 (also called his Theory of Ideas), which 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. However, 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)

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.

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, so 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.

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.

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.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber

Comments

Camille Guirre on March 11, 2020:

interesting

Connie Hearin Anderson on December 21, 2019:

Very interesting subject but did not make sense until I read the second person's comment, which made sense to me

AnAspiringPhysicist on December 03, 2019:

“We’re not all marveling at the universe all the time. But occasionally in my work, and these are the moments that keep one going, you do encounter something that really inspires awe in a serious way. For many people, the way it comes about is some fact about nature that’s discovered in an experiment, and that can happen for me too. But as a theorist, another way it really comes about is when some fact about nature, or at least a toy model of something that could be seen in nature, turns out to also have a really deep and fundamental origin in pure mathematics, which as far as I can tell is the closest thing to pure Platonic thought that we have as humans.”

-Shamit Kachru, Theoretical Phsicist

AnAspiringPhysicist on December 03, 2019:

I hope this is'nt offensive, but this is honestly some of the simplest theory ive ever read, which lends to its beauty. However I do not understand how people do not understand this lol. This author makes it quite easy really. Simply close your eyes and envision a square, maybe add a black chalkboard with calculations flying by in the background and make it mathematical, or just picture it glowing if your more spiritual. Regardless, when you envisioned that square, it did not exist in space or time, it was not a real or physical thing, but is instead metaphysical. It was, to your knowledge, simply a perfect square. You did not need to look at a square first to construct that image in your brain. This (to me) implies that we think in forms, but nobody will ever truly know what one looks like because that is its nature. while im sure i have gone a long way in confusing many more people with this comment, my main message is this. Struggling to comprehend something like this is likely due to you overthinking, not underthinking. Remember plato was alive a very long time ago when he came up with these ideas, if he can COME UP with this stuff, im sure all of us today can at the very least comprehend it.

Axmi khattak on October 19, 2019:

It's difficult to understand omg i am trying to understand it but cann't

Judyjpratt@yahoo.com on March 22, 2019:

My mom has dementia. I think she is describing forms. “ like a person or thing that is kind of like a picture imprinted then absorbed by my brain “ speaking of the things she sees that I may not. She describes actually seeing them be absorbed. It’s very strange she says.

Marie on March 07, 2019:

This is seriously very difficult to get into the mind

Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on August 09, 2018:

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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