Sunday, 7 December 2014

What is Meant by the Platonic Term ‘Forms’?

by Phoebe Warren


The allegory of the Cave (Wiki Commons)
‘Forms’ is the name given by philosophers for the term ‘ideas’ that Plato founded his thinking upon. Forms, or ideas, are the perfect and true version of everything we experience in our world, yet they exist in a world separate to our own, in which everything is perfect, consistant and an absolute truth. However, Plato believed that not every aspect of life had a true form. For example, Plato wouldn’t believe there was a perfect, consistant form of a table. On the other hand, there are true forms of more profound aspects, ranked in a hierarchy, such as beauty, love, and above all, good.

The form of good takes the most important form, as Plato claims this is the foundation to all real explanation and hence all understanding. Despite admitting he doesn’t know what the Good is, Plato uses several analogies to display its nature. In the Cave analogy, the Sun represents the Form of Good. Like the fire in the cave giving sight to the shadows, in our world, the Sun gives sight to the true world of Forms; providing structure, order and the intelligence to enable us to know objects rather than simply see them. In this way, the Sun provides the essences to enable us to live; in the sense of nourishment and growth, thus the Form of the Good provides the structure to which everything exists, hence why it is the most important form. 

To illustrate what is meant by a Form, consider beauty as an example. Plato claimed a Form of beauty existed separately from our understanding. A beautiful person shares in beauty with all other beautiful things, but beauty itself is beyond our normal perception. If someone said “the person’s eyes are too far apart”, they recoginise when things fall short of beauty due to our prior knowledge, yet we can never really comprehend or experience a perfect, consistant true form of beauty.  We all have prior knowledge, as our soul remains in the real world of true forms before life and then returns after death. 

In the material world in which we live, aspects of the Particulars (the experiences which we perceive to be true now) are: transitory, relative, changing, impermanent, superficial, sensory, measurable and imperfect. In the world of forms, the Forms have the characteristics of being outside time and space, real and absolute, unchanging, permanent, not subject to opinion, immeasurable and perfect. 

In addition, Plato argued that a “perfect society will occur only when...philosophers become kings in this world, or until those we call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers...”. (The Republic 473d). In this way, Plato claimed the key to achieving ideal cities was to have wise rulers to make choices for the whole of the city. Such rulers would have to be kings made into philosophers, or philosophers made to be kings. Plato then explains what education is necessary for these leaders; the knowledge of the Good, and the concept of the Cave analogy and Forms. 

Furthermore, Plato used the Cave analogy to help explain what the forms meant, and where we stood in comparison to these. The analogy begins with prisoners chained facing a cave wall, where they have been placed all their life. There is a fire behind the prisoners, so when people and goods being transported move across the bridge behind the fire, their shadows are projected onto the cave wall. The prisoners believe the shadows to be the true forms of the objects. Plato uses this analogy to compare the prisoners to us in the sense of our understanding of Forms. This is because we are stuck in the empirical world; these senses are the only things accessible to us to make sense of our surroundings. We have learnt to develop and trust these senses, however we also know from studies such as optical illusions these senses can be easily deceived. Therefore, the things we believe to be true by measure of of senses are actually fragments of the true Forms, like in the Cave. However, since we only have limited understanding as through our empirical senses, it is impossible for us to branch out and experience the Forms. The simile of the prisoners are used in the Cave analogy to compare to us being trapped within ourselves in our limited understanding. 

Moreover, Plato’s analogy of the cave continues to describe one of the prisoners becoming freed. The freed prisoner sees the fire and has the belief that the objects that caused the shadows are all that is real. However, the objects are only representations of what is real. When the freed prisoner comes to see more objects more real than those inside the cave, he then has understanding; thus becomes aware of the Forms. In comparison to us, we have innate knowledge of the Forms as our soul is held in the real world before our life. Our knowledge of the Forms can also be developed by rational thought and reasoning, such as through mathematical logic. 

The final stage of the analogy is when the freed prisoner exits the cave and turns to face the sun. Here, the prisoner grasps the Form of the Good. She has come to see that humans accesses reality through intellectual realms instead of senses. However, when those who have seen the truth return to the uneducated to persuade others to seek a new outlook on life and reality, they feel threatened with the unknown and complexed prospect, so they reject the idea, preferring the comfort of their own knowledge and basic living as apposed to a confusing and frightening possibility of another world of Forms. In this way, Plato helps us to understand Forms as he uses the prisoners trapped in the cave as a simile for humans. We refuse to open our minds to another possibility of existence as their is no solid proof we can search for using empirical senses; we would much rather live in ignorance than in fear of the power of knowledge.


In conclusion, the Platonic term Forms helps open up another realm of existence, and thus broadens our perspective and outlook on life. He successfully uses analogies such as the Cave to enable us to comprehend the abstract ideas, and the simile of the sun and prisoners to help us establish our sense of place and belonging in the road to the Forms and true knowledge.  

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