Last time we noted that three interlocking principles inform ultimate reality for Socrates and Plato – “god,” “soul,” and the Forms. Having explored the first two we come now to the seemingly more obscure theory of the Forms. In this theory, Plato argues that each thing or aspect we experience in and of the world is an inexact and imperfect version of a perfect template outside the material world. The Forms then are ideal prototypes reflected incompletely in real life. The Forms have the characteristics of being: (1) absolutely true, (2) the measure and appraisal of any term (e.g. “straightness”), (3) immutable, (4) timeless, (5) singular, and (6) conceptually certain.2 They are most apparent in the case of mathematics and geometry; thus the equilateral triangle is conceptually indisputable and eternal despite being impossible in the physical world.
Plato proposes that the same kind of ideal Form exists for everything including a leaf or a horse, but more importantly for abstract concepts such as love or justice. The Forms of these latter concepts are revealed through a process of questioning, definition, and contemplation. These are functions of the mind or in Plato’s jargon, the soul. Plato goes further however arguing for an ontological existence of the Forms in a realm separate from physical reality. The reality of the Forms is approached through pure reason whereby the philosopher concludes the absoluteness of true ideas is in turn the logical demonstration of their independent existence as real entities in a kind of ontological argument.
Now the Form of a physical thing such as a horse is identified by the scientist via thorough study and analysis. Likewise the Form of abstract concepts is revealed by the careful dialectic of the philosopher. So for example just as the biologist tells us why a black horse and a white horse are both horses, the philosopher judges how a given act is virtuous or more accurately shares some portion of true virtue. The philosopher does not love knowledge out of a kind of “vulgar curiosity,” but seeks the ‘vision of truth.” He does not love beautiful things themselves – all of which have some features of beauty and some of ugliness – but ‘beauty’ itself. The sudden recognition of a “truth’ comes from apprehending the whole from study of the parts, leading to a clear intellectual vision wherein the soul acts like an ‘eye’ perceiving through reason the real rather than close instances in the world. (Consider your eventual but sudden understanding of a circle as not a shape drawn on paper, but the concept of the figure made by all points equidistant from a single central point.)
(further continued next post)
2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 321-322.
3Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4165-5477-6, pages 119-131.