In this essay I will be attempting to explain what Plato’s theory of forms is and whether or not it is a coherent theory. As I do, my own conclusions will become clear.
So to begin with, what is Plato’s theory of forms? There are forms, particulars and universals, but I will begin with forms. A form is a metaphysical ideal, a perfect version of that thing, almost like a spirit or soul in a divine plane. A form can be discovered and seen by the mind with reason alone. The only thing that is subjective about a form is how clearly we can perceive it for ourselves, but the form itself is unchanging and perfectly itself. ‘Beauty, for example, is beautiful in virtue of its own nature, and hence is eternally and changelessly beautiful without any trace of its opposite, ugliness.'(1) Forms are rationale, unchanging and perfect, so the source of all beauty comes from the form, it is absolute. Which raises the question is ugliness a form or a negation of beautiful? According to Plato, everything has a form.
A particular is an imperfect copy of the form. So a beautiful man will be an imperfect copy of the form of beauty and man. He is participating in both, but is not perfect either as that is impossible due to our imperfect reality. In this way, particulars imitate the forms. Universals make the particulars, meaning they are a grouping system. Such as human is a universal, while an ugly man and a beautiful man are particulars of that universal.
The problem with this idea of everything having a form is if they are perfect and absolute while still being rationale, what of such things as hatred or ‘evil’? Are they perfect and rationale forms that when you act upon them you’re participating in? Or are such things as hatred the lack of the form of love? Which is nonsensical, because to lack love, does not equal hate. To lack malice does not mean you wish good onto that person or even treat them anything other than neutral. The lack of a form, if anything, would be just that and have no negative. If you lack love or liking of someone, it is not considered malice. Malice itself is a positive form in the way that it has to exist in and of itself, it is something participates in. If you didn’t partake in the form of respect of love with someone, that in no way would be malice. It requires its own form to make sense, which makes the idea of forms being perfect and rationale a nonsensical view unless only the ‘Good’ have forms. But then what exactly does ‘good’ even mean? There is not a single path to what we consider good, and I don’t think ignorance is the reason that we all have different conceptions of it.
I will try to further my point with three very short examples:
First of all, if a man was to protect a child, then I assume him to be participating in the form of Justice and care. But consider a Knight that protects a corrupt king. He is partaking in care but not justice. He is partaking in a corrupt form of both. He is participating in a near exact imitation of the form of injustice. There seems to be no clear way of defining what he is doing according to the forms and that brings up the question of negative forms and whether or not they exist.
Second of all, a man is genetically half man and half woman, man possessing the XY and women possessing the XX, while a woman is genetically a complete and full woman. Man participates in the form of man and woman, by being half of each. He would also be an imperfect form of woman but that would be to say that the form of man does not exist or that the form of man is half woman. Also to add to this problem, he would of course be participating in the universal of human and be a sub-category of that called man, but the sub category of man, is half woman, but woman is not in any way man, so woman is not a sub-category of man but is completely human. This seems to make literally no sense when considered with Plato’s theory of forms.
Third and lastly, if this plane is an imitation of a perfect plane then what of the form of reality? Is this life a corruption of the form of reality? If everything is this way, then why or how did we come to be separated from our true selves and perfect reality? It seems unreasonable to say that reality is participating in the true reality and that we are striving towards that ideal state of perfect reality but will never achieve it. Further still it seems absurd to say that reality is objectively a corrupt form of reality, apart from our perception of it. Reality is not a changing or subjective thing. Just because we open our eyes more to the truth of it has nothing to do with reality changing.
Plato’s theory of forms is a very rationalist and idealist idea and for that exact reason, it does not work. I personally think that Plato has got it the wrong way around; that we created the forms to represent and symbolise the particulars, then the form is subjective and not perfect. Particulars create the universals, universals create the forms, but they are not metaphysical or of another perfect, idealistic plane, they are physical ideas of this plane. The universals participate in the particulars, but only the particulars truly exist as perfections of themselves.
To conclude: Plato’s theory of forms is metaphysically based, which is to say it is based on an assumption. It contains many gaps as well as many explanations for the way things are. Especially things like self-improvement and evolution striving towards a better, ideal form. But unfortunately (Or fortunately) we know this not to be true with the blind watch maker like manner of life and progress. The way the world is and works, each individual will be perfectly themselves, creating their own form of themselves to fulfil. While as a whole, there is no such thing.
1. C.C.W. Taylor (ed), From the beginning to Plato: Routledge history of Philosophy, Vol.1 (London & New York: Routledge, 2003), Ch.10, Plato: Metaphysics and epistemology, P.359
– C.C.W. Taylor, From the beginning to Plato, (London & New York: Routledge, 2003)