Plato’s Theory of Forms

Following on from Plato’s Allegory of the cave, we should discuss the Theory of Forms.

Plato suggests that the world we live in is a world of appearances but the real world is a world of ideas that he calls Forms.

The thinking behind the Theory of Forms

  • Plato believed that what we can see around us is a world of appearances, the material world.
  • He asks, what does it mean to be a tree or an animal?
  • In the material world, things like trees and plants and animals will all die out
  • The world of Forms, Plato suggests, holds the true Form of everything in our world and these cannot die

 The Forms

  • A Form is the idea about what a thing is
  • For example, there are many types of trees but when we think of a tree there are certain characteristics we assign to it – it has branches, it has leaves etc.
  • So, there must be an ideal tree in the world of forms. An ideal, which every other tree imitates.

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Plato’s Forms

  • Plato was not concerned with trees, however, he was concerned with the ideal Forms of concepts such as Beauty, Truth, Justice and the Good
  • He observed that the term beauty may be applied to different objects and people.
  • However, there are many types of beauty
  • Plato suggests that underlying all of these is the real Form of beauty
  • And some part of the idea of beauty is imitated by all the different beautiful things.

 The Form of the Good

  • The most important form is the Form of the Good. In the material world we can label things as good, but this does not tell us what goodness is.

 The World of Forms

  • Plato says that there must be somewhere where these Forms exist
  • As a form is unchanging as it is not a physical object and it can never die, so it cannot be in the material world
  • Plato suggests that in our world there are only shadows and images of the Forms
  • When we are born, we have some recollection of what the Forms are – he suggests evidence for this is that we all have a basic understanding of what beauty is without being taught it
  • However, through our lives we lose the idea of the True forms
  • The Philosopher is someone who tries to escape the material world and see the Forms that lie behind it
  • In his book, The Republic, Plato suggests that it is the Philosophers who should rule in society.

 How does the Theory of Forms fit with the Allegory of the Cave?

  • Plato uses the Allegory of the Cave to demonstrate his theory of Forms
  • The trapped prisoners represent the regular people who can only see the shadows of the true forms
  • The escaped prisoner represents the Philosopher who is trying to reach the world of Forms
  • The outside world represents the world of Forms, where the true form of beauty lies
  • The sun represents the form of the Good, as it is the source of all other forms.
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