Plato’s Theory Of Forms and Notes On It

Digging more into this philosophy pass time of mine, I found what is perhaps one of the most profound theories I have come across. Plato is perhaps the most influential philosopher in the history of the world and his teacher Socrates and his student Aristotle make up the famed three most revered philosophers that have ever been born. I had to read Plato’s theories because they are so thought provoking and insightful.

Note : This is a heavy read.

Plato’s recurring fascination was the distinction between ideal forms and everyday experience, and how it played out both for individuals and for societies.

A brilliant mind and a fascinating take on life.

So let me see how I can summarize this concept in the best way possible. If you want to read the full text it is here. But trust me, it’s perplexing.

Plato’s Theory of Forms

I don’t know how many people have read this theory or fully understand it. I myself find it one of the most intense theories I have ever read.

First let’s understand what problems this theory is meant to solve ->

1. The Ethical Problem – How do humans live happily and content in a constantly changing world where everything they see and attach themselves to can be taken away from them?

2.  The Problem of Permanence and Change – How come our world appears both permanent and changing? Firstly according to Plato – The world we perceive through our senses is always changing. Secondly – The world we perceptive with our mind is permanent and unchanging.

For example the Ocean – When we look at the ocean we can see it change, the waves keep changing their size and keep hitting the shore at different speeds. But we know the properties of the ocean remain the same – The chemical composition, the density, the depth where we stand etc. These are finite and quantifiable. This is the difference between perceiving through the senses and perceiving through the mind.

Understanding this is very important because it makes you capable of distinguishing the concepts that Plato puts forward later.

For this he splits up the world into two realms – The realm of materials and the realm of transcendent forms.

Now what is a form? According to Plato – A form is an abstract property or quality. Take any property of an object; separate it from that object and consider it by itself, and you are contemplating a form.

This right here is profound! It makes you change the way you look at everything! A form can be anything – it can be a colour, a shape, a weight etc any property of an object expressed by itself is a form.

The example we see in this particular text is that of a basketball – The basketball has many properties – it’s roundness, it’s colour, it’s weight. If we take the roundness by itself and separate it from the basketball. We are then thinking of the form i.e roundness by itself.

Now this is the main thing – Plato says that this property of the object exists by itself as well. This property existed apart from the basketball, in a different mode of existence than the basketball. The form is not just the idea of roundness you have in your mind. It exists independently of the basketball and independently of whether someone thinks of it. All round objects, not just this basketball, participate or copy this same form of roundness.

Now going a bit deeper, what are the properties of forms?

Forms are  –

1. Transcendent i.e they do not exist in space and time.  A material object, a basketball, exists at a particular place at a particular time. A form, roundness, does not exist at any place or time. The forms exist, or subsist, in a different way. This is especially important because it explains why the forms are unchanging. A form such as roundness will never change and it does not even exist in time. The form of roundness can be found in many particular spatial locations, and even if all round objects were destroyed, the property of roundness would still exist.

2. Pure – Forms are pure i.e  they are pure properties separated from all other properties. A material object, such as a basketball, has many properties: roundness, ballness, orangeness, elasticity, etc. These are all put together to make up this individual basketball. A form is just one of these properties, existing by itself apart from space and time. Roundness is just pure roundness, without any other properties mixed in.

3. Archetypes – forms are the archetypes or perfect models for all of the properties that are present in material objects. The forms are the perfect examples of the properties they instantiate. The material world is really similar to the more real world of forms. The form of roundness, for example, is the perfect model of roundness. All round material objects are merely copies or imitations of this most real form.

Thus his conclusion is that –
Thus it is the forms that are ultimately real. Material objects are images or copies of these more real objects.

4. Ultimately Real – The forms are the ultimately real entities, not material objects. All material objects are copies or images of some collection of forms; their reality comes only from the forms.

5. Causes – The forms are the causes of all things. (1) They provide the explanation of why any thing is the way it is, and (2) they are the source or origin of the being of all things.

6. Systematically Interconnected – The forms comprise a system leading down from the form of the Good moving from more general to more particular, from more objective to more subjective. This systematic structure is reflected in the structure of the dialectic process by which we come to knowledge of the forms.

This is a flow chart of forms! made by Plato himself
form flowchart

So coming back, how does this solve the two problems.

This explanation gives us access to an unchanging world, invulnerable to the pains and changes of the material world. By detaching ourselves from the material world and our bodies and developing our ability to concern ourselves with the forms, we find a value which is not open to change or disintegration. This solves the first, ethical, problem.

Splitting existence up into two realms also solves the problem of permanence and change. We perceive a different world, with different objects, through our mind than we do through the senses. It is the material world, perceived through the senses, that is changing. It is the realm of forms, perceived through the mind, that is permanent and immutable. It is this world that is more real; the world of change is merely an imperfect image of this world.

III: Plato’s Arguments for the Theory of Forms

A. The general argument from objectivity:

The general structure of Plato’s argument is as follows:

1. We already believe that the more objective a concept is, the more real the thing it represents. This is a version of what we will call Plato’s principle: The more objective you get, the more real you get.

2. The forms are more objective than material objects.

Plato’s argument for premise 1: The world that we perceive with the senses often deceives us. It seems that all the objects we perceive with the senses are simply images or experiences in our mind. They are only subjective points of views on the real objects. For example, the world appears radically differently to a color blind person than it does to us. The objects that we perceive as colored, then, must not be the real objects, but just our experience of these objects that is determined by my particular subjective point of view and perceptual apparatus.

Which is brilliant yet again – Thus we intrinsically do not know the true nature of an object because it is subject to so many interpretations and subjective viewpoints. Except that it’s form is real.

Just as the sun illuminates and gives life: Going back to flowing from Good to lower. The form of the sun i.e it’s shape, it’s mass etc are the only things real about it, it’s temperature keeps changing so it’s not real but the heat by itself is. Now take heat aside. Observe heat. What can be said about it? All bodies contain it in some form or the other, they are just imitations of it. Thus heat is a form and is real. Can heat exist by itself – No. Heat does not exist in space and time. It is a property.

The fact that light flows from the source(Greater good) to the images it illuminates and gives life to i.e the objects you see around you – further illustrate the beauty of the flow chart of forms.

How does this apply to daily life?

Well Plato puts it brilliantly – Just as we search for objectivity to determine realness. And just as we isolate forms from the object itself. We must isolate our desires for objects and people in order to be free from suffering. Which coincidentally is what Buddha says.

1: We all realize that something that only makes us feel good for a moment, but which leads to pain in the future isn’t a real value. We determine what things are most valuable by seeing what values last the longest or are valued from the most points of view.

Thus, as long as we are attached to particular things and people we will always be open to pain; there will always be some point of view from which the value will disappear – which is detachment.


Now interestingly, How do we know Plato’s realm of forms exist?

Note: This is just an inference and could be wrong. I have applied Plato’s theory to quantum physics .

I dug this up! It is in quantum physics that we find that a realm of these forms exist.
Now as you know particles are also objects – correct? Yes they are. And they have properties – correct? Yes. So technically any property of a particle is a form. Whether it’s chemical composition, diameter, density, charge or magnetic spin.

Scientists have managed to isolate a form.
They have separated a particle from it’s properties and isolated and measured it.
It is a phenomenon or new quantum paradox called the “Cheshire Cat.”

Read this! ->

Thus by isolating the ‘magnetic moment’ and measuring it separately from the neutron i.e after it has passed the slit, they have proved that the ‘magnetic moment’ existed by itself, or in other words the form of this magnetic moment exists by itself in a realm not perceivable to the naked eye.

So I think Plato could be correct. Of course this is only my inference, I could be wrong.

But it does seem to me that a realm of only these forms does exist. How else can you explain the magnetic moment existing by itself without the neutron?

Well this is certainly perplexing and debatable. I could be right or wrong on this. I do not know.

Could there be a realm of these forms not perceivable to the human eye? I guess we will never know. It is interesting to think about nonetheless.

I hope you guys like this piece. In case you think I am wrong with any inference do comment and let me know. I am no expert on this and this is just my viewpoint.


Ok now I need a smoke 😀

Enjoy 😀




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