January 1, 2017

Plato’s Theory of Forms: Cohesion Through Metaphysics


Plato’s Theory of Forms pervades several of his writings, rather than being clearly established in a single document. Consequently, it has often been misunderstood as being rudimentary, overly mystical, or incomplete when only one writing is analyzed out of context from the whole body of work; the theory’s overall cohesion when put against such myopic criticisms is not easily realized. Nonetheless, the theory’s essential content and structure not only endures critique via unity found in a comprehensive approach to Plato’s writings, but it also inherently develops itself into a unified model of metaphysical cosmology;1 the full theory itself being a rich seed already containing all the necessary components to mature beyond Plato’s particular dialectic uses of it.2  This richness and its culmination is best understood through the lens of simple analogies, as demonstrated throughout the essay.
In Phaedo and Republic, in particular, we meet the Forms most explicitly with their qualities of distinction, self-predication, individuality, etc. At face value, one could draw conclusions that Plato merely assumed the existence of otherwise unperceivable Forms by necessity to support argumentation3or that the simplistic and abstract nature indicated a philosophical “relapse” into a sort of Pythagorean mysticism.4 Here I will argue not only for the theory’s intended strength and coherence, but for its potential for further growth beyond Plato’s original scope.


Historically, the most prevalent challenge among many critics is how to reconcile the existence of Forms with each other,5 as each one is distinct and separate from one another and seems to lack a governing body of logical composition within the “realm of Forms”.6  For example, if we assume that my office chair participates in the Form of “Chair,” which is perfect in every way as we can understand any chair to be, and exists only in the intelligible realm of the Forms (Phaedo 74-76), then is Chair superior to the Form of “Office Chair,” which my particular chair more immediately participates in? Furthermore, if Office Chair is simply a species of the Chair genus, is it then inferior to the Form of “Furniture,” which is a broader family of Forms? Since the realm and diversity of Forms is supposedly expansive (if not infinite) then we could conceivably trace the lineage of the Form of the Chair up until we find its ultimate source, which we can only logically determine to be the “One” or the “Good” (Republic 509b). Even Aristotle, who wrote more favorably in the way of sense perception against Plato’s abstractions, commented on the One being the first cause of other Forms (Metaphysics I.6).  This modest commentary offers, perhaps unintentionally, a credit to Plato’s theory insofar as one thinking in Aristotle’s line of argumentation could.  The compatibility of abstraction and empiricism will be lightly touched upon later by way of physics correlations.


To say that Forms are ideal or perfect also tends to lead one astray into lofty skepticism, but this concept is merely a device to define the Forms’ nature insofar as we can perceive it. The perfection of Forms speaks to the unphilosophical person’s method of apprehending their existence7 in that we see only imperfect particulars all around us and most often use their similarities to connect them via categories and their deficiencies to evaluate their participation in their respective categories8 (Phaedo74d). The first human to observe  the female velvet ant9 very likely named it so because of its most obvious characteristics (i.e., small, red, ant-like morphology - participating in the Form of “Ant” in a satisfactory way), and distinguished it so by observing its deficiencies in the ideal Form of Ant (i.e., larger than average, furry, solitary, etc.). It isn’t until closer scientific examination that this human would discover that this creature is actually a unique participant in the Form of “Wasp” but in no less satisfactory a manner as any other common wasp, particularly when he encounters a winged male, which is more obviously wasp-like in appearance as we would expect. This example serves not to push Forms into pure abstraction as a conceptual device, but to put them in their proper place which is beyond a set of sensible qualities (e.g., to say “all wasps have wings”). It also demonstrates a thesis that Forms must commune by way of a system of hierarchies10 or tiered emanation from a source.
Plato did not directly make reference to a structure of emanations per se but merely hinted at such. The Allegory of the Cave largely demonstrated the most rudimentary basis of this way of thinking about the Forms (Republic 514a–518a). In this comparison Plato acknowledges that all Forms reside in subordinance and dependence upon the Form of Good for not only their definition, but their very existence. The theologian is tempted to equate this Form of Good to “God” and, in a general manner, may not be wrong to do so, as Plato’s allegories loosely define the Good as transcendent of other Forms while being participated in by them to the effect of their contingent being (508c-e). This is also not to discount the purity of subsequent Forms by saying the Good is “better” than its subordinate Forms, but rather to say the Good encompasses all under the umbrella of excellence (or Aristotle’s telos - PhysicsII.8) and being, and that subsequent Forms are, rather than  inferior in quality or excellence, more distinct in a descending cascade of increasing specificity. That is to say that my particular office chair relies on its participation in the Form of Office Chair (to excellently be useful in an office), which then relies on Chair for its being and general design (to excellently hold a person in a sitting posture), which in turn relies on Furniture, and so on until we reach upward to the first cause of the Good or the One.


The next sensible inquiry to follow would be how the various conceptual Forms can fall under one heading. Since we now know that the velvet ant participates in Wasp and that our sensory idea of what Wasp is seems to fall short of its actual nature (since Wasp isn’t necessarily a winged insect with a smooth carapace), we can intellectually dissect this animal further and inquire about its “Red-ness” or its “Six-legged-ness.” Plato explored the topic of Forms combining (Sophist 259e) and interweaving (251d), but was more concerned with whether or not they could combine rather than how they combined.11 Based on the claims thus far, the various component Forms can not only combine but also can, in an analogous manner, stack. The velvet ant participates primarily at some step of the Form hierarchy in Wasp, while each particular velvet ant also has various interwoven participations, such as the eastern velvet ant participating in Red-ness while the thistledown velvet ant participates in White-ness and both species participating in Six-legged-ness. It stands to assume that the compatibility of Forms is simply based upon a system of practical complements and contradictions, such as to say that Six-legged-ness cannot combine with Eight-legged-ness any more than Motion can combine with Rest,12which are all contraries.


To return to the notion of emanation, the world of Forms, hitherto having become something of a mental construct to aid in observational analysis, regains its existential footing through physics. How do Forms connect with and influence particulars, which are said to rely on them for their being and structure? This seems to be a sort of metaphysical gulf that is difficult to bridge. Take the structure of the hierarchy of Forms as similar to a pyramid shape with all the innumerable subsequent Forms converging upwards through their superiors to the pinnacle of the Good and superimpose this framework onto the concepts of matter and particles. This correlation was well investigated by C.E.M. Joad who, even writing at a time when quantum physics theory was still in its infancy, said that “matter is a hump in space time” and a “wave of probability” that some physicists regard as an emanation from the mind.13While the wording may be dramatic and the theories it’s built on subject to various scientific debate, the basic point is that physics now largely rejects the material substance of matter in place of “emanations from a locality.”14 This is to say that what we know of physical matter is merely the result of the radiation and vibrations of subatomic particles, making “matter” less “material” than conventionally thought of and more of an external result of internal processes, similar to the sensations of heat and color.15
Looking at basic wave and particle physics, in very generalized terms, we see that nature repeats itself, as it so often does, by operating in a microcosm. Subatomic particles, by their movements and plurality, dictate the behaviors and composition of their next outward emanation, the whole atom. Atoms by their vibrations and composition relative to other atoms dictate the molecules of matter, and so on until we realize that material substance as we know and sense it is dictated by, reliant upon, and designed by a composition of insensible movements and energies amidst a vast void of empty space. As such, all of these individual components are virtually undetectable by themselves save through measuring their mathematical effects and influences on the resulting substances that we can sense.16Plato would have likely found some ironic humor in fielding criticisms against his theory if he had knowledge of what science would later reveal to be the essential properties of our sensible substances. It would not be unjust to compare all of their components in their microscopic infinitude to a model of Forms as emanating from a first cause in a “non-spatiotemporal”17 realm of existence extending all the way out to those imperfect material particulars that we can measure with our imperfect senses and instruments.


Although Plato addressed the Good as the cause and source of the Forms, there was little to lead us to understand generation and destruction of Forms, save the proposition that they are eternal and immutable (Timaeus 28). Following the inherent logic of the theory, the immutability of Forms comes into question by way of their correlation to their particulars. At the risk of opening a philosophical can-of-worms full of “trees in the woods”18 we can look at the process of a sculptor creating a sculpture. A sculptor has an idea in his mind of a thing (X) that, to his knowledge, has never existed. He then takes clay and sculpts it into a likeness (Y) of X to best of his ability. Although the sculptor is highly skilled and has the appropriate tools of his trade, Y may be a very good likeness to X but due to the innumerable encumbrances of the physical world (e.g., budgetary restraints, time limits, incidental material defects, arthritis in his left hand, etc.) it will not be a perfect copy of X, no matter how good of a sculptor he may be. To take it one step further, if the sculptor decides to replicate Y he can construct a mold of it and reproduce multiple copies of Y, each appearing superficially identical but with very subtle differences, again resulting from the encumbrances of the material world (e.g., shrinkage of casting materials, air bubbles, defects, etc.) all slightly different from before, yet yielding similar results.
When the sculptor imagined X, which never previously existed, did he create a Form, or was there a preexisting Form of X which moved, perhaps by necessity, into the material cosmos to be created as a particular by the sculptor? In either case, if the sculptor destroyed every single Y he made, did he destroy the Form as well, or simply create a necessity somewhere else in the cosmos for X to manifest?
Though the question of generation and destruction is not as easily addressed a priori as the previous topics, it does give insight on how the mechanics of the Forms could operate. If there is a correlation between physics and Forms, then Plato’s concept of the demiurge (Timaeus) may not have been as simple as an artisan creating from preexistent substance after all, since a Form simply “emanating” could create matter as we perceive it. 19 Following that, the sculptor in the analogy then potentially takes the role of creator (perhaps even akin to one that creates ex nihilo) with his idea alone being enough to start the emanative creation process. That being the case, the clay as a substance is merely incidental to the creative process, just as to a Form the sensible matter that my office chair is composed of is merely a result of its design and (possibly subatomic) emanations. If we want to slide even deeper down the rabbit hole, we could ask if the sculpture’s idea (X) now holds (or always held) a place in the hierarchy subordinate to the Form of “Sculpture” which is already subordinate to the Form of “Art,” and so on. Furthermore, is his Y actually a particular of X or merely a flawed imitation of what a real Y should be?20


The theologian might argue that Forms come from God (or that the Form of Good is God). The philosopher might argue that the Forms are from the mind. The physicist might say Forms exist by necessity as subatomic vibrational patterns or pure energy. Are they any more or less “real” today, as we now understand “real” to be? At the very least, they are compatible with reality as we know it today and perhaps more coherently so now than in Plato’s time.


1. A model intended to explain the structure of the world’s existence with respect to all phenomena in space and time.

2. While we do not know for sure the exact chronology of Plato’s authorship, one can assume that he either developed the theory over time as he wrote his works or that he had already developed a more complete theory and simply utilized or revealed the necessary portions of it in each work to serve his purposes. While it could have been (and likely was, at least in part) a dynamic combination of the two, Aristotle’s commentaries on Plato’s public lectures suggest the latter.
3. R.E. Heinmann. “Communion of Forms.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, 83 (1982-1983): 184.
4. Frederick Copleston. Greece and Rome, The Doctrine of Forms. Vol. 1 of A History of Philosophy (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1960), 163.
5. Ibid., 167.
6. The location of Forms was generally implied by Plato not to be a physical “place” as such, but a different mode or dimension of existence altogether apart from the material world, i.e., the intelligible realm of Forms.
7. Naomi Reshotko. “Plato on the Ordinary Person and the Forms.” Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, 47, no. 2 (2014): 266.
8. Ibid., 272.
9. Wasps of the family Mutillidae. “Velvet ants” are wasps which, in the case of females, are wingless, hairy, and brightly colored (often red), leading to the common name of “ant.” Only males have wings and appear more like a wasp to a common observer. Apart from the presence or absence of wings and brightly colored hair, velvet ants exhibit more or less the same attributes of more common wasp species.
10. Heinmann, “Communion of Forms,” 179.
11. Ibid., 185.
12. Ibid., 181.
13. C.E.M. Joad, “Plato’s Theory of Forms and Modern Physics.” Philosophy, 8, no. 30 (April 1933): 144.
14. Ibid., 147.
15. Heat being the result of the rapid movements of the particles of a substance and color being the result of wavelengths of light reflecting from various substances- both resulting from interior activities and being subject to our perceptions.
16. Joad, “Plato’s Theory of Forms and Modern Physics,” 152.
17. Reshotko, “Plato on the Ordinary Person and the Forms,” 266.
18. The philosophical thought experiment originating from Bishop Berkeley, commonly known as, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" which posits whether or not reality is subjective to observation. 
19. Joad, “Plato’s Theory of Forms and Modern Physics,” 143
20. If one makes a particular sculpture of a horse (or any other real animal), it could essentially be thought of as a flawed imitation of a real particular horse (which happens to be a flawed participant in the Form of “Horse”), i.e., the horse sculpture would be a particular of Sculpture that just so happened to resemble a horse particular and, thus, inspire one to think of Horse.