Can You Please Explain Plato's Theory of Forms in Simple Terms? | by  Charles Gray | The Academy of You | Medium

As a premise, it does not make sense to believe that there was no existence at any reference. Logic dictates that something cannot come from nothing; therefore, something has always existed in some way, shape, or form. Plato’s theory of forms is an attempt to understand the nature of reality. Understanding the theory of forms is developed from an objectivist approach. Relativity from a philosophical approach is incomprehensible to Forms since relativism denies claims to ontology and objectivism. Theory of forms pre-supposes absolutes, universals, objectivity, ontology, truth, and knowledge. A denial of any truth claims becomes incompatible with Plato’s world view of forms. It would not make sense to suggest that existence has always existed while at the same time believing the idea valid ontologically only for whoever believes it. The concept itself becomes unintelligible and defeats the purpose of argumentation. A developed and comprehensible world-view is critical to understanding the nature of existence relating to thought and being. In addition, the theory of forms has become a philosophical vessel intended to provide general knowledge. This short essay intends to give a synopsis and interpretation of Plato’s idea of Forms and realize a reason for relevant application in daily lives.

A common misinterpretation of Plato’s Forms is that they exist in another world. In the Parmenides, Plato characterizes Forms as the reality of all things “Is there such a thing as health? Of course there is. Can you see it? Of course not. This does not mean that the Forms are occult entities floating somewhere else in another world, a Platonic heaven” (Perl 28). It is a sensible idea to think Forms exist in another world since Plato describes the existence of something people cannot experience in the physical world. Understandably, it is a difficult concept to grasp because Forms are not sensible to the senses but sensible to the intellect. Reason and rationality is the medium to make sense of the Forms. Forms are the essences of what exists. A Form is the essence of a physically existing object or idea. For example, a dog is an object, and “beauty” is an idea. There is not one Form for all dogs and one Form for all that is considered beautiful. Each Form has its specific essence. “The Special relationship between a Form and its essence is captured in two principles:

  1. Each essence is the essence of exactly one Form.
  2. Each Form has (or is) exactly one essence” (Silverman).

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines essence as “the basic or primary element in the being of a thing; the thing’s nature, or that without which could not be what it is (Blackburn 161). Thus, applying the definition of essence to Plato’s Forms reveals to the thinker that Forms are ontological. If Forms are ontological, then they must exist as immaterial, timeless, unchangeable, and perfect; therefore, Forms are the essential immaterial, universal standard of any physical manifestation. This definition is valid if one presupposes that all physical existence is an imperfect object, property, or idea. Actual knowledge is not gained by way of imperfection; therefore, the actual knowledge of a substance is learned in the idea of its Form. Physical existence then becomes a mere copy or imitation of its perfect existence found in its essential Form.

Plato’s cave allegory is a comparable practical reflection of imperfect reality existing concurrently with a perfect reality. The allegory describes a group of people who lived their lives chained to a wall. In front of them is a blank wall and behind them is a fire and in front of the fire is a lifted platform with people walking and carrying objects. The people walking in front of the fire create shadows on the wall facing the people chained to the wall, unable to move their heads. The chained group believes the shadows as they perceive them are actual reality, but their perception misrepresents the real world. A “Forms” interpretation of the cave allegory is that their reality is incomplete, but there is a higher level of reality they are unaware of; thus, there is an actual world outside the cave and real physical people depicted in its shadows.  In application, physical existence is comparable to the cave, and people perceive it as reality. In the cave allegory and theory of forms, Plato suggests a greater reality exists concurrently, and understanding is necessary for proper knowledge.

Plato’s theory of forms is a metaphysical and epistemological method of attempting to understand the nature of reality. The whatness of existence is a critical question for anyone seeking absolute knowledge. The theory of forms presents an intelligible method of examining the essence of all things and the nature of reality. Like the allegory of the cave, since the physical world is a mere shadow of a greater reality, the thinker is left to intelligibly analyze what the higher reality is and how it exists. The physical realm is imperfect and changing consistently, while the realm of forms is the perfect, unchanging standard of what our perception of reality is. Some may not recognize how critical Plato’s philosophy is. Yet, it is critical for any who desires to know why they believe what they believe to be true. The quest for knowledge is never in vain because knowledge is everything. Incorrect knowledge is not knowledge at all but a mere opinion. In closing, 20th century Western Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “what is the difference between knowledge and opinion? The man who has knowledge has knowledge of something, that is to say, of something that exists, for what does not exist is nothing” (120).

Works Cited

Perl, Eric. Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition, BRILL, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Silverman, Allan. Plato’s Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014.

Blackburn, Simon. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2016. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster. New York. 1972. Print.

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