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Plato And The Theory Of Forms

 
 
Reply Wed 24 Oct, 2007 08:26 pm
[CENTER]"Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato, -- at once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add any idea to his categories. No wife, no children had he, and the thinkers of all civilized nations are his posterity and are tinged with his mind."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Plato; Or The Philosopher"[/CENTER]


[CENTER]"The Platonic idealist is the man by nature so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests..."
-- George Santayana, Egotism In German Philosophy[/CENTER]





I. Theory of Forms

"All western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato," Alfred North Whitehead once said famously. And with much justification, if indeed philosophers can be judged as much by the influence they have wielded as by anything they wrote or taught. Plato cast the widest philosophical net and ensnared many minds of varying temperaments and proclivities: among them, Aristotle, Plotinus, Philo, St. Augustine, Avicenna, St. Bonaventure, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Emerson, Wittgenstein, G.E. Moore, and Santayana. Platonism inspired and informed the earliest teachings of the Christian Church; crept into the thinking of various medieval scholastics; figured mightily in the doctrines of certain Renaissance thinkers; invigorated a sect of influential philosophers in Britain in the late seventeeth century (known as the "Cambridge Platonists"); elicited the hatred of Nietzsche and his many nihilistic followers in Europe; and affected innumerable artists, mystics, poets, and prophets over the ages.


The linchpin of Platonism is the theory of forms, a doctrine which receives surprisingly scant treatment in the dialogues but which nevertheless undergirds Plato's approach to ethics and metaphysics, aesthetics and epistemology. The theory is taken up in Book X of The Republic, is discussed in the Phaedo, taken apart in the Parmenides, and revisited in two later dialogues, the Timaeus and Laws. Below is an excellent adumbration of the theory.



ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY, VOLUME 6:

"What was this Theory of Forms?
It originated out of several different and partly independent features of the general ideas or notions that constituted the recurrent themes of dialectical disputations.

Definitions. Every discussion of a general issue turns ultimately upon one or more general notions or ideas. Even to debate whether, say, fearlessness is a good quality is to work with the two general notions of fear and goodness. Two disputants may disagree whether fearlessness is a good or a bad quality, but they are not even disagreeing unless they know what fear and goodness are. Their debate is likely, at some stage, to require the explicit definition of one or more of the general terms on which the discussion hinges. They may accept a proferred definition, but even if a proferred definition is justly riddled by criticism, this criticism teaches what the misdefined notion is not. If "fearlessness" were misdefined as "unawareness of danger," the exposure of the wrongness of this definition would by recoil bring out something definite in the notion of fearlessness. The Socratic demolition of a proferred definition may be disheartening, but it is also instructive.


Standards of measurement and appraisal. Some general notions, including many moral notions and geometrical notions, are ideal limits or standards. A penciled line is, perhaps, as straight as the draftsman can make it; it deviates relatively slightly, sometimes imperceptibly, from the Euclidean straight line. The notion of absolute straightness is the standard against which we assess penciled lines as crooked or even as nearly quite straight. Rather similarly, to describe a person as improving in honesty or loyalty is to describe him getting nearer to perfect honesty or loyalty.


Immutable things. Ordinary things and creatures in the everyday world are mutable. A leaf which was green yesterday may be brown today, and a boy may be five feet tall now who was two inches shorter some months ago. But the color brown itself cannot become the color green, and the height of four feet, ten inches, cannot become the height of five feet. It is always five feet minus two inches. A change is always a change from something A to something else B, and A and B cannot themselves be things that change.


Timeless truths. What we know about particular things, creatures, persons and happenings in the everyday world are tensed truths, and what we believe or conjecture about them are tensed truths or tensed falsehoods. The shower is still continuing; it began some minutes ago; it will stop soon. Socrates was born in such-and-such a year; the pyramids still exist today; and so forth. But truths or falsehoods about general notions such as those embodied in correct or incorrect definitions are timelessly true or timelessly false. Just as we cannot say that 49 used to be a square number or that equilateral triangles will shortly be equiangular, so we cannot say, truly or falsely, that fearlessness is now on the point of becoming, or used to be, indifference to recognized dangers. If this statement is true, it is eternally or, better, timelessly true. We can ask questions about fearlessness or the number 49 but not questions beginning "When?" or "How long?"


One over many. It is often the case that we can find or think of many so-and-so's or the so-and-so's, for example, of the numerous chimney pots over there or of the prime numbers between 10 and 100. Things, happenings, qualities, numbers, figures, can be ranged in sorts or characterized as sharing properties. Hence, where we speak of the so-and-so's -- say, the storms that raged last week -- we are talking of storms in the plural, and we are thereby showing that there is something, some one thing, that each of them was -- namely, a storm. Or if there are twenty idle pupils, there is one thing that all twenty of them are -- namely, idle. Sometimes we do not and even cannot know how many leaves, say, there are in a forest, and we may ask in vain, How many leaves are there? But however many or few there are, there must still be one thing -- namely, leaf -- which each of them is. It is one or singular; they are many or plural. We have not seen and may never see all or most of them. But it, that which each of them is, is in some way known to us before we could even begin to wonder how many leaves there are.


Intellectual knowledge. For our knowledge of, and our beliefs and opinions about the things, creatures and happenings of the everyday world, we depend upon our eyes, ears, noses and so on, and what our senses tell us is sometimes wrong and is never perfectly precise. There is nobody whose vision or hearing might not be even slightly better than it is. On the other hand, our apprehension of general notions is intellectual and not sensitive.


Conceptual certainties. Last, but not least in importance, dialectical debates are concerned only with general ideas, like those of fearlessness, goodness, danger and awareness. The answerer's thesis is a general proposition, such as "Virtue is (or is not) teachable" or "Justice is (or is not) what is to the advantage of the powerful." When such a thesis has been conclusively demolished, something, if only something negative, has been conclusively established about virtue or justice. In the domain of general ideas or concepts certainties, if seemingly negative certainties, are attainable by argument. About things or happenings in the everyday world no such purely ratiocinative knowledge is possible.


Ontology of Forms. Most of the above ways of characterizing general ideas or concepts has been brought out severally or together in Plato's elenctic dialogues. Yet his Socrates did not in these dialogues put forward the Theory of Forms. The Theory of Forms, as first fully developed in the Phaedo, is a unified formulation of these several points, but it is also more than this. For Plato now proffers an ontology of concepts. A general idea or concept, according to this new doctrine, is immutable, timeless, one over many, intellectually apprehensible and capable of precise definition at the end of a piece of pure ratiocination because it is an independently existing real thing or entity. As our everyday world contains people, trees, stones, planets, storms and harvests, so a second and superior, or transcendent world contains concepts-objects. As "Socrates" and "Peloponnesus" name perceptible objects here, so "justice," "equality," "unity," and "similarity" name intellectually apprehensible objects there. Furthermore, as the human mind or soul gets into contact, though only perfunctory and imperfect contact, with ordinary things and happenings in this world by sight, hearing, touch and so on, so the human or soul can get into non-sensible contact with the ideal and eternal objects of the transcendent world. We are ephemerally at home here, but we are also lastingly at home there. The immortality of the soul is proved by our ability to apprehend the everlasting concept-objects that Plato often calls the Forms. . ."

-- By Gilbert Ryle




IV. Suggested Reading
Plato: Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. (All the dialogues the great man wrote, along with various epistles.)
Plato's Theory of Ideas, by W.D. Ross.
Platonism And The Spiritual Life, by George Santayana.

University of Washington: An Overview of the Theory of Forms.

An Old, Tricky Question.
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Type: Discussion • Score: 1 • Views: 7,734 • Replies: 47
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Arjen
 
  1  
Reply Thu 25 Oct, 2007 11:49 am
@Pythagorean,
That was very well writ. I am just sorry that the allegory of the cave isn't presented here as well. By the way: Who is Gilbert Ryle?
Pythagorean
 
  1  
Reply Fri 26 Oct, 2007 10:29 pm
@Arjen,
From theWiki entry:


Gilbert Ryle (born August 19, 1900 in Brighton, died October 6, 1976 in Oxford), was a philosopher, and a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers influenced by Wittgenstein's insights into language, and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine".
Anthrobus
 
  1  
Reply Sat 18 Oct, 2008 10:08 am
@Pythagorean,
I fear that everything we know about Plato's theory of FORMs, and which in fact is Parmenides theory of FORMS, is untrue...
Anthrobus
 
  1  
Reply Sun 19 Oct, 2008 05:07 am
@Anthrobus,
I am going to be deliberately obscure here, but that which I am about to say is true of FORMS. Empedocles was a dualist : he believed in two prinsciples, LOVE and STRIFE. The question is this : if he was a monolist how would he have described LOVE and STRIFE. The answer is that he would not have been able to, but and that if he would or could have been able to, well then he would have been able to describe a FORM...
0 Replies
 
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Sun 19 Oct, 2008 09:32 am
@Pythagorean,
Plato was the first to discuss, in a thorough way, the problem of the one and the many. If one sees the Forms as universals or as Kant's transcendentals, Plato's contribution (whether he was right or wrong is unimportant) to the discussion which he himself initiated is impressive.
Anthrobus
 
  1  
Reply Sun 19 Oct, 2008 11:36 am
@jgweed,
First of all PLATO did not initiate anything, and second of all PLATO did not discuss the problem of the one and the many in a thorough way. That which our forefathers left to us is a mess, and a thorough one, and anybody who thinks differently is self-deceiving...
0 Replies
 
Anthrobus
 
  1  
Reply Sun 19 Oct, 2008 11:58 am
@Pythagorean,
so the human or soul can get into non-sensible contact with the ideal and eternal objects of the transcendent world...isn't there an error here...a complete and total difference between that which is transcendent and that which is transcendental...the latter can be known...but the former cannot ever be known...
0 Replies
 
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Sun 19 Oct, 2008 05:53 pm
@Pythagorean,
Granted, Plato did not expressly use the phrase "the one and the many" but wasn't that his meaning in Rep. 596a-b when he discusses tablehood-itself and the instances of different tables?
Phaedo 74-76, 100c-d also seems able to be understood in the same way. The whole doctrine of forms and participation is his solution to that problem, whether he used the phrase or not (Aristotle seems to have understood the Forms doctrine in that light).
0 Replies
 
Poseidon
 
  1  
Reply Sun 19 Oct, 2008 07:07 pm
@Pythagorean,
The way in which the forms of language rule the world we live in (and by implication all debates, and thus this debate) shows clearly that Plato's forms just cannot be denied. If you try and deny them, you must use the absolute forms of language to do so.

His understanding of politics; now that was full of falacies; his Republic has been the cause of misery for many peoples. It is illogical for a government to condone lies as an effective means to govern. Thus; much of the conflict in the world could have been avoided; as lying causes a violent response.
Anthrobus
 
  1  
Reply Mon 20 Oct, 2008 02:21 pm
@Poseidon,
If a FORM could participate in existence, and if we should nominate that FORM as being the LIKE : the FORM of the LIKE would have to be LIKe itself and LIKE an OTHER, and UNLIKE itself, and UNLIKE an OTHER, whereas the OTHER would have to be LIKE itself and LIKE the LIKE, and UNLIKE itself, and UNLIKE the LIKE. A BANNER situation would then arise with the LIKE UNLIKE the LIKE, and with the UNLIKE LIKE the UNLIKE, and with the LIKE UNLIKE THE LIKE, and with the UNLIKE LIKE the UNLIKE, and so on ad infinitum...a FORM however as nominated could not ever participate in existence...it always is what it is...period...this is the true explanation for the THIRD MAN argument in PLATO...
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Mon 20 Oct, 2008 03:31 pm
@Anthrobus,
Aristotle, in the Metaphysics (beginning at 990b), raises many objections of the theory of Forums to show that the various kinds of Forms are confusing and unclear, and that their existence (of sorts) is not sufficient to cause the existence or production of the corresponding physical object. In the case of numbers, for example, he argues that one must construct a further class of numbers which are to be the objects of arithmetic in addition to those required to handle objects.
Anthrobus
 
  1  
Reply Mon 20 Oct, 2008 04:33 pm
@jgweed,
Do FORMS have a corresponding PHYSICAL OBJECT : not if they can't PARTICIPATE in BEING...
0 Replies
 
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Mon 20 Oct, 2008 08:13 pm
@Pythagorean,
Whether the Forms have actual being or not is certainly an area of discussion and disagreement. But from the passages in Plato mentioned above, we can say with some certainly that physical objects participate in the Forms, and that this participation contributes in some way to their being-what-they-are.

For Plato, true knowledge comes from reason alone unaided by the senses, the latter leading only to opinion and error; this is the message of the Allegory of the Cave in the Republic (at the beginning of Book VII,514a-520a), where true knowledge is only gained by an ascent from the cave of mere appearance into the (intellectual) sunlight of the good-itself (or the good beyond being).
VideCorSpoon
 
  1  
Reply Mon 20 Oct, 2008 10:34 pm
@jgweed,
Off hand, I remember that platonic forms are like this. Picture the perfect example of a bronze sphere. All things on earth are imperfect emulations of that perfect form but unfortunately to not possess the perfect nature of that perfect form. Though I'm pretty sure there is more to it than this.

Aristotle does indeed bash platonic theory of forms. Especially from what I remember in Book Zeta of the Metaphysics. I'll have to look that up.. been a while since I picked up the metaphysics and Plato.
Theaetetus
 
  1  
Reply Mon 20 Oct, 2008 10:39 pm
@Pythagorean,
Here is a perfect video about Plato's theory of the forms. Enjoy!

YouTube - plato - The cave
0 Replies
 
Anthrobus
 
  1  
Reply Tue 21 Oct, 2008 03:45 am
@jgweed,
Under no circumstance whatsoever do FORMS manifest as physical objects. Listen to Parmenides, but and that if the SMALL would exist and gave of a part of itself, the part would be smaller than the SMALL, the SMALL would then have to grow smaller than the part, and at the same time would have to grow larger than itself, as nothing could be smaller than the SMALL, and if you would then have re-attached the part taken away from the SMALL to the SMALL, the SMALL would have to then grow larger and smaller than itself, and at one and the same time : and as nothing can grow larger and smaller than itself, and at one and the same time... the consistency of the FORM - that it is what it is - would be lost...FORMS do not participate in physical existence : they are FIXED entities...your understanding of FORMS is incorrect. Aristotle is not the master of FORMS...
0 Replies
 
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Tue 21 Oct, 2008 04:12 am
@Pythagorean,
Aristotle's discussion of Plato's Forms must be given some weight for two reasons. First, he was a philosopher of no mean intellect, and presumably would have thus be in a better position to understood the position than many contemporaries. Second, and most importantly, he was an important pupil of Plato himself; as such, he would have had an intimate knowledge of the doctrine through lectures and discussions with Plato that might not be adequately reflected in the extant Dialogues.

Indeed, the middle period dialogue Parmenides might be seen as reflecting at least in part such discussions between Plato and Aristotle,as well as other students, where Parmenides presents (in the first part, 130a-134e) some objections to the theory, and Plato-Socrates is unable to answer these satisfactorily (at least when the dialogue was composed) in the mysterious second part of the dialogue. It is interesting to compare Plato's position in this dialogue with what seems to be a revision in his thinking---some might even go so far as to say it is a new direction--- in the Sophist.
Khethil
 
  1  
Reply Tue 21 Oct, 2008 05:03 am
@jgweed,
I think this theory is interesting, titillating and significant as a ancient philosophical precept. But... that's about it.

P.S: Oh, and thanks for posting the cave-video. I've always gotten a kick out of that analogy/parable. It's been a long time
Anthrobus
 
  1  
Reply Tue 21 Oct, 2008 05:44 am
@VideCorSpoon,
Take the example of the BRONZE SPHERE : it would be perfectly SMOOTH in the ETHEREAL REALM, but in the physical realm it would have a slight INDENTATION. Now within that SLIGHT INDENTATION there would be another fractal like INDENTATION, and within that fractal like INDENTATION another again, and so on ad infinitum...who then could say that the BRONZE SPHERE has participated in the physical realm. The TRUTH is that it has not, and cannot. A series of infinite fractal like indentations do not and never can even approximate to the PERFECTLY SMOOTH...
0 Replies
 
 

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