Lesson 3: Plato's Theory of Forms

The Socratic Method

In the early dialogues, Socrates is often shown in the company of someone who professes to know something Socrates himself claims not to know. One of the therapeutic functions of the Socratic method is to bring out the fact that many pretend to knowledge they do not in fact have. Removing a false claim to know clears the way for a humbled pursuit of knowledge.

One who says he knows what virtue is will often reply, when prodded by Socrates, to give instances of virtue. What is virtue? Well, courage is a virtue and so is temperance. And Socrates will reply that he did not ask what things we say are virtues. He wanted to know what these things possess that leads us to called them virtues. In short, Socrates wants a definition, not a list of things to which an undefined term applies.

This insistence (that knowing what a thing is is not simply to be able to mention other things that share a name with it) is not made only when it is a question of types of a thing. If for example, in reply to the question "What is virtue?" I should answer, "Well, bravery is a virtue" and Socrates would continue, asking "What is courage?" and I replied by giving examples of courageous acts, he would be equally dissatisfied. What do these instances have that leads us to call them acts of bravery?

We can recognize the individual things around us and notice that some of them share a common term or name. There are lots of acorns on the lawn. What is an acorn? One of those things lying on the lawn. But my mother-in-law is also lying on the lawn, and she and my wife would object to her being classified as a nut. Socrates presses his interlocutor to tell him what things are. Not, again, the individuals that share a common term, but what there is about them that earns them the right to be so called.

The Theory of Forms

Knowing is thus revealed as centering on what individuals have in common. It bears on the answer to the question, "What is it?" That question is triggered by experience of the individuals but is not a question about the individuals as individuals. 1,2,3,4,5 etc. are numbers, but when we ask what a number is we don't want to be told that 1,2,3,4,5 etc. are numbers. We already know they're called numbers. But why are they called numbers and other things not?

Reflections such as these led to the notion that since what the individuals are is not simply an enumeration of individuals of the same name, the What was other than, apart from, the individuals. This is reenforced by the recognition that the answer to the question "What is it?" of a present set of individuals will apply to a future set when all the present ones have ceased to be. What is a tube-rose? To know the answer to that question is to know something to which all tube-roses, past, present and yet to be relate. The independence of the What or Form of things from the things themselves seems inescapable.

Yet further reenforcement for the emerging view is had by reflection on what goes on when we are said to learn something. In the Meno, Socrates offers to show that an uninstructed servant boy has a head chock full of knowledge. (The reverse of this scene is found in Remains of the Day when one of Lord Darlington's haughty guests demonstrates the ignorance of the masses by quizzing the butler Stevens about arcane economic matters.) By a series of questions, Socrates elicits from the boy the fact that the diagonal of the square is incommensurate with any of its sides. How is it possible that the boy seemed already to know this truth though he had never thought of it or uttered it before? Socrates' surprising suggestion is that the boy is remembering what he knew but which has fallen into forgetfulness.

The point is strengthened by another example. If the boy were sent into the yard to fetch two equal sticks and did so, the sticks on examination would be seen to approximate equality, not exhibit perfect equality. Are there any two physical objects that are absolutely equal? It seems easy to agree that all such pairs will only approximate equality. How then did the boy know what to look for when he went into the yard? He is looking for two equal sticks and now we are agreed that neither he nor we have ever seen two perfectly equal sticks. Whence comes the idea of equality? It cannot be derived from the sticks, since they do not exemplify it. So why not say the boy brought to the sticks in his search an idea of equality he already had and which was not derived by experience of any material or sensible things?

This leads Plato to construct a myth explaining human origins. Once the soul lived in proximity to the really real things, the Forms that answer to the question "What is it?" Then the soul knew beauty and truth and other ideals by direct acquaintance. But for reasons unexplained, perhaps some primordial prenatal fault, the soul is placed in a body on this earth. The body darkens the eye of the soul so that it forgets the realities it once had known. Bodily appetites draw it to the things of this world, and thus ever further away from the really real. Only by overcoming this attraction of the passing pleasures and delights of this world and recalling the really real can the soul ready herself to be restored to her original condition at death. No wonder Plato says the the point of philosophizing is learning how to die.

The Human Soul

Such considerations as the foregoing ground Plato's conviction that the human soul is immortal, that it survives death. Since he is committed to the view that the soul pre-existed its placement in the body, it is relatively easy to argue that it cannot cease to be simply because its body does.

The things of this world can trigger off memories of their really real counterparts elsewhere. Growth in knowledge, or toward knowledge, is had when the mind rises above the changeable things with which the senses deal. There is a moral as well as an epistemological dimension to this weaning from the sensible. It is not simply that, because of our senses, our minds are flooded with thoughts of changeable things. These sensible things also promise pleasure and threaten pain. Our attraction to them, our pursuit of them, dulls the appetite for the truly good. Thus, moral virtue, in the sense of the overcoming of our appetitive attachment to the sensible, goes hand in hand with the mind's ability to lift itself to the really real.

On at least one occasion, Plato champions the view that knowledge is virtue, that is, for one to know what he ought to do is to do it. In the text in question, the Protagoras, he likens moral knowledge to the art of perspective. If we did not correct for distance, we might think that a lighthouse is smaller than my thumbnail since by lifting my thumb before my eyes I can blot out the lighthouse a mile or so off on the craggy cliff. Of course, I know that as I approach the lighthouse, it will look high above me. The art of perspective then enables us to judge correctly of the relative size of bodies by taking into account their distance from one another and from the observer. A similar art is required for correct action.

Imagine that the moral task comes down to choosing correctly as between pains and pleasures. We have a tendency to rank a present pleasure above any future pain consequent upon its pursuit, and similarly a present pain above any pleasure consequent upon enduring it. The art of moral perspective corrects for time, in the way in which the art of perspective corrects for distance. Such an art enables us, so to speak, to place present pleasure and consequent pain and present pain and consequent pleasure in the same tense, as if they were presently before one. Then, the pleasure associated with wine, women and song would be seen side by side with the discomfort in the morning, the disruption of one's domestic happiness, and so forth. Side by side, there is no contest. Could another pint of Guinness counterbalance all that grief? Similarly, placed side by side, so to say, the discomfort of a visit to the dentist and the robust dental health it insures, make action easy. No pain, no gain, as it were.

Bad action is taken to be the result of not having such knowledge, the art of moral perspective. Thus, bad action is due to ignorance, our not having the means of knowing the true relationship between present pains and pleasures and the future consequent. By contrast, good action is taken to follow on the possession of the art of moral perspective. How could it not? The intellect is what is chief and most powerful in us and it makes no sense to say, as some do, that it could be dragged about by appetite and sense desire.

Aristotle, as we shall see, took exception to this notion that knowledge is virtue -- at least in part. In some sense, it must be so, unless action is just a happening unrelated to knowledge.

Since you as soul existed prior to your existence in the body, the body is not really part of what you are. Humans seem identical with souls in Plato and the soul is united with body as one thing to another thing. Plato uses the metaphor of the soul as the pilot in a boat. This is another point on which Plato and Aristotle part company.

The Fate of the Ideas

Because Aristotle raised his own philosophical account on the wreckage he made of the Platonic Ideas -- to overstate the case -- we may be tempted to think that the distinctive Platonic doctrine went unquestioned within the Academy. That this is not so is shown dramatically by the opening discussion of Plato's Parmenides. Here the youthful Socrates confronts the eminent Parmenides who raises a whole series of difficulties for the doctrine of Ideas. We can assume that Aristotle, like other members of the Academy, would have been familiar with such difficulties. Indeed, it seems to have been one of the exercises in the Academy to confront the difficulties that could be leveled against the central theory. It is not the critique that is new with Aristotle, but the direction he took from it.

As for Plato himself, although he did not diminish the difficulties raised by the Ideas as he had presented them, these difficulties merely stimulated him to search for an uncontroversial version of the Ideas. The effort launched by the Parmenides is continued in The Sophist and The Statesman. He could not give up on the ideas; they were the guarantee of human knowledge. If there were not such fixed unchanging referents of our knowing, we cannot account for the undoubted success of mathematics.

In the early dialogues, in the Republic, there is a serene confidence in the Ideas. They enable Plato to sweep away any number of problems. And the theory is universal. "Wherever there is a common name we posit an Idea answering to it." Parmenides would later embarrass Socrates by asking if there is an Idea of mud. At first all the ideas seem to be of equal status, out there, one at a time. This alters slightly in the Republic when the Idea of the Good is given status over the others, being like the sun in the light of which the others are seen. The magnificent allegory of the cave conveys the theory at this point in an unforgettable way. In the post-Parmenides dialogues, the notion of sharing or participation is transferred from the relation of sensible particulars to their Idea to relations among the Ideas themselves.

Plato and Philosophizing

If Plato and Aristotle are the two most important philosophers of pagan antiquity, the difference between them is first suggested by the writings that have come down to us. We know Aristotle through treatises, that may have been lecture notes, but Plato we know through his dialogues. (There are several letters as well.) While some dialogues are more dialectic than others, the literary genre conveys what Plato took philosophy to be. It was a vital human activity and could not be reduced to a written state (Letter 7). It could only be engaged in by give and take, question and answer, objection and response. Plato spoke of the soul's conversation with itself, thinking of thinking on the model of the verbal exchange between interested inquirers. This is doubtless why the reading of the early dialogues remains the best introduction to philosophizing. The neophyte is introduced to, and the grizzled elder is reminded of, the ever ongoing character of philosophizing.

Writing Assignment

Write a brief essay on one of the two following:

1. What is Plato's doctrine of Forms or Ideas and what led him to adopt it?

2. Write a review of Plato's Meno.


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