Confused about Plato’s theory of forms

Jessica asked:

I am confused with Plato’s Forms? When he says that the Forms have their own world where does that put us? Is this where he talks about shadows in the cave or am I confusing two different things?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Plato’s Theory of Forms works like this:

All things in the world can be grouped. There are cats and trees and men and women. Now each of these groups has particulars (individuals) in it, and they all differ from each other in some way. E.g some humans are big, others are small, others fat and others thin. Some are boys, some girls, some are young, and some are old.

When we put such items into a group we have choices. We can put all humans into one basket. Or we can put all fat boys into one basket and all skinny girls into another.

It all depends on what kind of qualities we recognise the best.

We make up these group because it helps us to recognise the particulars in a group.

But of course this is an idea. When you look into the world, you see beautiful things, but you cannot see Beauty, because Beauty is an idea.

So this idea is what Plato calls a ‘form’.

The form is the idea of a perfect original on which all particulars are based.

There is no actual world anywhere where all these forms exist. It’s a purely hypothetical existence. I know this is difficult. But if you have an idea, you might say ‘it’s in my mind’. Well, where exactly is your mind? And if you go for a walk, does your ideas walk with you?

The same applies to Plato’s forms. They don’t ‘exist’ in reality. They are something altogether ideal.

However, they can acquire actuality in the world in an imperfect way. That’s why every particular shares features with others in its group.

The Cave allegory proves the point.

It says that we are all trapped, as if in a cave, by our senses. What we pick up from the world with our senses are all imperfect particulars. Therefore we never see perfect beauty, or perfect anything.

But to give you an example of what he means, let us look at a triangle. You can draw one with pencil on paper. It will be very wobbly (especially if you see it under a magnifying glass). But in your imagination you can visualise a perfect triangle. This is the idea of a triangle.

Now triangles are simple. Most ideas are very complex things that we cannot imagine visually. The message of the cave is this: that if you could really see e.g. the perfect form of truth, you would be dazzled and blinded. That’s because are not used to it. We know very little about truth.

One thought on “Confused about Plato’s theory of forms

  1. Plato doesn’t believe his forms exist ‘hypothetically’. He believes they are more real than the world around us. The world of the forms isn’t some thought experiment, he genuinely believes in it’s existence as the true reality. It’s the foundation of Plato’s belief.

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