Plato (c.427-c.347), a classical Greek philosopher born in Athens; he was a student of Socrates and helped to create the foundations of the Western philosophy. His dialogues are widely used in teaching various subjects, including ethics, mathematics, logic, philosophy, and rhetoric (Rickless, 2006).
The theory of forms insists that there are two distinct levels of reality. The visible world of sound sight that we inhabit and the intelligent world of forms that is above the visible world. For example, humans are able to identify a beautiful thing such as an object because we all have a general conception of the abstract; hence all the beautiful things we identify become manifested in the general forms of beauty (Chappell & Plato, 2005). This form of beauty is eternal, unchanging and invisible, unlike other items in the visible world that can age and lose their beauty. Simply put, the theory envisions a world that exists outside of space and time where beauty, courage, justice, temperance exist unaffected by the imperfections and changes of the visible world.
In supporting his argument, Plato argued that Forms can be witnessed independently of items that participate in them. He discussed several notable properties of the Forms: Self-Predication: The Form of Beauty is beautiful and every beautiful thing is beautiful since it participates in Form of Beauty. Beauty can be relayed to things that participate in it. Independence from particulars: each form defines its own essence and exists independently of any object participating in them. It is unnecessary to its existence that it becomes exemplified in particulars. A Form does not exist in either a particular time or space as indicated in all particulars exemplifying it. Perfection: a form is a perfect example of itself. There is no way that the Form of Beauty is not beautiful. All specific things only approximate to the property of beauty that becomes possessed perfectly by the form.
Permanence: Forms do not change. The Form of Beauty cannot stop being beautiful; any change would be a change away from being beautiful, as this is impossible, Forms do not change. Simplicity: Plato constantly labelled Forms as one. Each Form has one property which is the Form. The Form of Beauty is only beautiful.
On the other hand, particulars are more imperfect, changeable and complex. This explains the reason why the Forms and particulars exist differently while the existence of Forms is superior. Particulars only exist through participating in the Forms. While particulars are materials, they contain properties that are copies of the Forms. A particular can lose its property or even cease to exist. For example, a rose can become ash. Thus, a particular can only exist through participating in the Forms (Rickless, 2006).
He maintains that one can achieve a state of perceiving Forms directly, by employing the method of dialectic, by: developing skills, in discerning abstract qualities, common to ideas and a group of things by realising that things are merely hypotheses and finally using the mind’s eye. Thus, we are able to construct a hierarchy of forms that would heighten the principles and attain a state of human, true knowledge. Although forms are invisible to the eye, souls have engaged into the eternal world of forms before inducing incarnate in the physical body and retaining the memory of the same. Moreover, he asserts that all learning is but a recollection, of what the soul already knows. He suggests that enquiry is worthwhile and can uncover innate memory. We cannot recognize something unless we already knew about the thing.
The theory of Forms represents a Plato’s attempt to engage capacity for abstract thoughts. Since psychology was a new invention during Plato’s day, it competed with mythology and epic poetry as amongst primary ways through which individuals could make sense of their position in the world. Mythology and Art appealed to desires and emotions while Philosophy appeals to the intellect. Thus, the theory of Forms enables us to differentiate between the abstract worlds of thoughts and the world of senses. According to Plato, this enables one to attain greater knowledge (Chappell & Plato, 2005).
He continues by stating that things are what they are only transiently and relatively. There cannot be knowledge of them, since knowledge needs more certainty and permanence. Knowledge is all about truth. The Form of beauty is pure beauty; it is possible for us to acquire knowledge of the Forms. We can have knowledge of the forms, but not the knowledge of objects of sense experience. Knowledge and opinion must have different objects and powers. Therefore, that about which we have opinions cannot be the same thing as that about which we have knowledge? Knowledge relates to the world of the Forms while opinion relates to the world of the senses. Forms must exist differently from particular things.
He reiterates that to gain knowledge of the forms an individual must be re-oriented from getting caught up within the world of the senses to looking straight at the reality. Dialectic establishes both the nature and existence of the Forms. Mathematics help to understand how one is the real essence. It establishes the necessary properties that triangles should have in common. Triangles share the essential properties of the Form of the triangle. Dialectic searches for the unifying account for each and every thing (Rickless, 2006).
The significant logical strength of the theory of form is that, it is a theory capable of adapting to all criticism. In the dialogue, Cratylus, he states that only God calls things or people with their correct names. Many of the terms used by men are incorrect and are merely hypotheses. Thus, any use of words written in the dialogue can be easily misinterpreted. The theory of Forms consists of a hypothesis proven by the process of inference. It is a wider image that identifies levels of metaphysical functionalities and reality that Plato insisted must exist to make sense of the world.
Plato regards life as an expression of an impetus that is not purposeless, and would be directed towards the end qualifying it as an aspiration. For Christianity love is the desire of the soul for the good. The highest love is of a person namely God. However for Plato, the object of desire even though ideal, is impersonal. Christianity agrees that love is one of the main root impulses of life while Plato represented a physical desire as an incomplete manifestation of a spiritual impulse. For Plato, perfectionist is the ultimate principle of reality, thus to desire an object is to desire the good (Chappell & Plato, 2005).
Plato also believed that the greatest form is the Good. This is because it illuminates all other Forms and all the other forms are dependent on the Form of the good. Plato was a moral absolutist; he asserted that there is an absolute Good that is unchanging and eternal and can be discovered by reasoning. According to him, once an individual understands the Good there will be no moral differences across cultures about what is correct or incorrect.
Plato states that the subjective images we perceive often deceive us. We only see or contact these objects through subjective images. They always change taking up different properties from time to time. For example, if individual knowledge that an asterisk s a particular thing, he or she cannot understand as much as he or she gets an idea that it is star shaped, made of ink or it is black. Plato’s arguments from relativism were negative, holding that relativism could be false because of a number of reasons: relativism is self defeating and that we discuss and argue about concepts such as justice, truth and beauty.
His Theory of Form acted as an answer for his earlier two opposing theories of thoughts; Heraclitus who viewed reality as a constant motion and continuously changing whereas permanence is an illusion. Parmenides, on the other hand, held that reality is permanent, all change motion and was an illusion. He combined these two operating theories to further his own answer to the nature of reality. By creating the visible world that included constantly changing physical objects he satisfied both the Parmenides and Hericlitean perspectives (Engel et al., 2008). He further postulated that there is an intelligible world that contains eternal forms that never change.
The theory depicts an idealistic view of what it is. The ideal of the essence of what is good or beautiful makes an individual view the absolutes as things to strive for. Hence an individual might be influenced to make an assumption, that there is something considered better that is not available in the present world. What is required is a relationship between the body that senses, feels and intuits with the mind that theorizes and intellectualizes.
Bertrand Russell criticised Plato’s theory of forms, according to him, Plato’s ideas when taken to its extreme fall into a bottomless pit of nonsense. According to Plato, every object or idea in the world corresponds to its form in the world of ideas. This meant that there is a perfect form of like such as Cockroach and Hair. Moreover, Plato himself appeared to struggle with the implications of his theory. Stating that there is a Form for everything but at times contradicts himself and seems unsure (Engel et al., 2008).
The notion of ‘the reason’ is crucial in understanding Plato. He makes it clear that reason is higher and wider than intellect. The hypothesis is a creation of imagination while the logic follows after the image and device explanation. The greatest strengths of the theory of Forms are on its notion of levels of reality and human faculties. It identifies the need to exist if life is so intelligible.
Plato’s thoughts have an intimate and personal quality, which makes it impossible to convey in a general exposition. He combines specific and genuine insight which he unites with honesty of thoughts and analysis. The history of philosophy has been the continuous recurrence of exceptionally well defined points of view, such as rationalism, mysticism, idealism, realism, and empiricism. Through these, the minds have passed through a final insight into the situation of things with the possibilities of explaining the universe.