What is ‘real?’ Is the physical world the ‘real’ world? Or is there a deeper reality beyond the physical world? Plato offered an answer in his Theory of Forms. Read more about this theory below!
Definition of The Theory of Forms
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (420s-340s BCE) did a lot to change the way we think about the world, in everything from mathematics to ethics to logic.
But perhaps one of his most influential contributions to philosophy was the Theory of Forms. In basic terms, Plato’s Theory of Forms asserts that the physical world is not really the ‘real’ world; instead, ultimate reality exists beyond our physical world. Plato discusses this theory in a few different dialogues, including the most famous one, called ‘The Republic.’ It is also likely that Plato inherited some of this theory from his mentor, Socrates.Plato’s philosophy asserts that there are two realms: the physical realm and the spiritual realm.
The physical realm is the material stuff we see and interact with on a daily basis; this physical realm is changing and imperfect, as we know all too well. The spiritual realm, however, exists beyond the physical realm. Plato calls this spiritual realm the Realm of Forms (also called the Realm of Ideas or Realm of Ideals). Plato’s Theory of Forms asserts that the physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality of the Realm of Forms.So what are these Forms, according to Plato? The Forms are abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space; they exist in the Realm of Forms. Even though the Forms are abstract, that doesn’t mean they are not real. In fact, the Forms are more ‘real’ than any individual physical objects.
So, concepts like Redness, Roundness, Beauty, Justice, or Goodness are Forms (and thus they are commonly capitalized). Individual objects like a red book, a round ball, a beautiful girl, a just action, or a good person reside in the physical realm and are simply different examples of the Forms.
The Realm of Forms vs.
The Physical Realm: Examples
Let’s consider a specific example. Think of a square. Now draw a picture of a square on a piece of paper.
I will also draw a picture of a square on a piece of paper. Our pictures are likely a bit imperfect; maybe our lines aren’t exactly straight, or our angles aren’t exactly 90 degrees. In addition, your picture and my picture are likely a little different – different sizes, different colors, etc. To put it in Plato’s terms, our pictures of squares reside in the physical realm.Despite their imperfections and differences, though, there’s something about our pictures that unites them. So what exactly is it that makes both of our pictures squares? The ‘it’ that makes our pictures squares is the Form of Square. You and I share a similar concept or ideal of what ‘square’ is, even though our pictures of squares turned out slightly different.
To put it in Plato’s terms, the concept and ideal of Square resides in the Realm of Forms and is, therefore, perfect, abstract, and unchanging. Plato would say that this Form of Square is more real than our physical drawings of a square.Here’s another example. Look around your room for green objects. Maybe you see a green pen, a green notebook, and a green sweatshirt.
But do you ever see Green itself? I don’t mean a green marker or a green blob – ‘just Green.’ Green in and of itself does not really exist as its own entity in our physical world, even though we all know what Green is, and even though individual green things do exist. To relate it back to Plato, Green is an unchanging, ideal Form, while the green pen, green notebook, and green sweatshirt are all individual physical objects that take part in the Form of Green.
The Significance of Plato’s Theory of Forms
Plato’s Theory of Forms shaped many of his other philosophical tenets. For example, when it comes to ethics, Plato argues that we have a moral duty to use reason to pursue the knowledge of the Forms. Furthermore, the Realm of Forms contains not only truth but also the most important moral ideals like the Good. If we are to construct a good society, then we have a duty to know the Form of Good and enlighten others to the Good.
Plato did not deny the existence of the physical realm, but his Theory of Forms did insist that the Realm of Forms is ‘more real’ than what we see. The Forms themselves are unchanging and perfect; whatever happens in our chaotic, changing physical world, the Forms themselves will never change. Later philosophers and theologians were heavily influenced by this concept of the Forms. In fact, the idea that there is something beyond what we see – whether that’s God, paradise, etc. – is a relatively common belief.
Plato did not associate the Forms with any particular deity or religion, but his theory did offer many thinkers a profound, rational defense of this belief.
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Summarize the point of Plato’s Theory of Forms and discuss its significance to society
- Explain how the Theory of Forms defines the physical and the spiritual realm
- Describe what the Forms are