Plato’s Haze of Forms: A Look into Plato’s Views on What Forms Are

This paper will delineate what it is that Plato believes forms are and what roles they play in the views of Plato’s Socrates. It is necessary, before beginning, to explain how Plato arrives at his theory of forms. Plato states that knowledge has special objects and he states this because he asserts that we, as humans, know certain things, ideas, and theories without experiencing them. For example, in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo, Socrates discusses the comparison of two sticks and though they are the same length and width, and appear to be the same, they are, in fact, not equal (Phaedo 74). Furthermore, no two things in this world are equal, therefore, how does one learn this theory. Plato argues that we know these things through one of two ways; through recollection, as if when we are learning we are just recollecting, or we are born with these types of theoretical knowledge (Phaedo 76a). This is how Plato arrives at his conclusion that knowing the forms of something allows one a measuring stick to judge things in life.

Plato continues to discuss his logic of how he arrived at his idea that knowledge has special objects, which are forms. He does so through a step by step process. It begins; first, one must make the empirical judgment that the two sticks (objects) are equal. Next, one must make a deficiency judgment by pointing out something that the other lacks, therefore proving the two objects not “perfectly equal.” Beyond that, we understand that “perfectly equal” is never experienced in this world. Finally, the conclusion met is that the idea of “perfectly equal” is not learned through recollection and thus, must be pre-experiential (Phaedo 75b-c). It is from this chain of logic that Plato arrives at his conclusion about knowledge, that being that it must have special objects and those must be forms. Plato, by this idea of forms, means that knowing the forms of things allows one the ability to make judgments about them. Plato states that knowledge is a measurement and that forms are the standard of that measurement. Such as, knowing the form of equality allows one the ability to make a judgment of the equal states of the two objects in question. Plato argues that similarly, knowing the forms of justice, beauty, etc. will allow the same abilities as the knowledge of the form of equality. Plato’s thought is that knowledge of these forms will provide the yardstick by which to measure them.

Therefore, forms are the special objects of knowledge that allow one to make judgments within their lives. Knowing a form means knowing what is and is not the characteristic in question that is being judged in any given circumstance. It seems that Plato was expanding from the idea of comparing two sticks and in a sense saying that if one can compare empirical differences even down to the smallest minute detail and prove them unequal, then the same must be true for abstract things such as equality, beauty, justice, etc. The way Plato says one learns how to judge and weigh these things is through knowing the forms and the way one learns the forms is to learn what is and what is not. For example, the form of justice would be something that is always and only just and never unjust.

Plato expounds on his idea of measuring with knowledge of forms when he discusses “what is” within The Republic. It is critical to grasping this idea that one know what Plato believes knowledge encompasses, which is that knowledge is not only forms of the good, but is also understanding causality in a systematic fashion, this makes the forms the causes (Phaedo 99). Plato states that knowledge is of “what is,” furthermore, “what is” must be forms and unchangeable objects at that (Republic 475-480). Meaning, that sticks are not objects of knowledge. That is to say that, an object’s ability to be known lies not within the knower, but within the object. And an object of knowledge must be unchanging if it is to be known, for if it changes how is one to pin point what can be known about it. So, the forms of these unchanging objects are what allow us to know them.

It is here where Plato confronts an objection that has to do with confusion between opinion and knowledge. Plato states that you may know forms, but only have opinions of what is changing. However, Plato does state that one may have knowledge of change, but still maintains that one may only have opinion of things that are changing (Republic 477). Plato continues to define opinions in that one may have opinions about the particulars of an object, such as color, size, etc., but one may have knowledge of what is stable and infallible. The central objection here is why cannot one know that this chair is blue, or that this building is built of brick? Plato’s response would be in reference to what he believes is knowledge, that being the that forms, plus the understanding of causal systems constitute knowledge (Phaedo 99). Therefore, Plato would say that the chair and the building are not objects of knowledge, and as such, one may only have opinions of them. Everything is changing in this world, nothing stays the same, and thus, this statement furthers knowledge’s necessitation for special objects called forms.

Now, with all of this information having been spelled out, here is an example. Say one has the knowledge of the form of justice and said person comes along a situation when this person’s best friend is stealing money from a company and putting it into a Swiss bank. Millions upon millions of dollars are being taken from this company that supports over 5,000 employees and serves as the leading corporate philanthropic donor for the nation. With this knowledge, what might this person do? Plato would say that with this person’s possession of the knowledge of the form of justice the person would be able to weigh and measure the justness in the friend’s actions as well as the justness of the act to turn the friend in and stop the stealing. In addition, knowing that this situation was an object of knowledge by its mere necessitation of a form to come to a decision and that it explain the causal effects of a person’s actions the person would choose correctly. Plato would say that having done that, the person would arrive at the conclusion that the friend needed to be turned in and that it was the just thing to do. With this example it should be a little clearer as to what forms do, and what role they play in everyday life.

All of this being said, it is now understood that forms are the special objects of knowledge. They are the ways one can measure goods in their lives. They provide a tool to use in order to come to a conclusion about special objects in one’s life that cannot be explained or measured in simple empirical ways. They are derived from a knowledge of what is and what is not a piece of objects of knowledge, such as justice, equality, and beauty. It is now known that knowledge, as per Plato, is understanding causal systems by knowing forms as their causes. All of this goes into understanding what it is that forms are and what roles they play.

Works Cited

Hutchinson, D. S. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Boston: Hackett Company, Incorporated, 1997.

2 Responses to “Plato’s Haze of Forms: A Look into Plato’s Views on What Forms Are”
  1. chelekism says:

    wow.. excellent paper

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