Plato, a student of Socrates, was an ancient philosopher well known for his dialogues and other recorded works such as “Republic”. But one of Plato’s most notoriously confusing concepts is that of the theory of forms.
The theory of forms is often oversimplified or over complicated, depending on who is writing on the topic. This article will reamin more in the category of the former, simply due to its shorter length and the varied levels of philosophical background knowledge among readers. With that said, let us now delve into the world of the theory of forms.
The original idea for the theory of forms, on which Plato based much of his work, is accredited to Socrates. Socrates believed that humans had some intrinsic ability to recognize the true form of an abstract concept, such as equality. An example of this is given in Phaedo, one of Plato’s works featuring Socrates. In this example, Socrates explains that when we examine two people, we are able to discern if they are of equal heights. But even if we were to say that they were of roughly equal heights, we would have to admit that some small difference must exist between them. As such, this is not true equality, but only a shade of the concept. Since we know that it is not true equality and thus we must have some idea of what the concept of equality is in its purest form, though no one has implicitly taught us this.
Plato took this idea even further. While agreeing that there were ideal forms of abstract concepts (liberty, equality, justice), there were also ideal forms of ordinary objects such as tables or beds. The objects we encounter in our day to day lives are simply imperfect and changeable versions of their perfect forms. These perfect forms are memories that we can recall from a previous time in our existence. Plato argues that knowledge from our immortal soul bestow us with those memories. A chair, therefore, is simply an imperfect version of a perfect chair that we recall from before our birth. Only a select few with the proper training and natural ability are able to discern the true nature of some objects.
This is merely the basics of the concept and further discussion can be found throughout Plato’s writings. “The Allegory of the Cave” is a notable example of this discussion, and there is a wealth of information available regarding both the allegory and its relation to the theory of forms.