Philosophy of Religion

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Plato’s Realm of Forms

Plato’s theory of forms (or ideas) lies at the heart of his philosophy. It follows on directly from his allegory of the cave and understanding reality. One of the problems that philosophers tried to answer in ancient Greece was that of relating the many to the one. For example when we see a particular chair for the first time how do we know it is a chair? The particular example of the chair we are presented with might not bear any resemblance to any other chair we have seen before yet we know instinctively that it is a chair!

Socrates had insisted that we must attempt to answer the question ‘What is X?’ before we can say anything meaningful about X. To answer this question Socrates asked the question ‘What is the one thing common to all the many instances of examples of X?’ Socrates was primarily interested in the consequences of this problem for ethics (not chairs!). He was interested in questions such as ‘What is justice?’ He reasoned that in order to define what justice is all you needed to do was look at examples of justice in the world around you and note down the similarities. However, despite all his philosophical inquiry, Socrates was unable to come to any conclusion.

Plato’s Conclusion to Socrates

Following on from this, Plato sought to find out why Socrates’ reasoning was inconclusive. Going over Socrates’ philosophical method, Plato concluded that all instances and examples of X were unreliable.

Plato held that in interesting cases such as justice and goodness and beauty every instance of X will also be an instance of the opposite of X.

Plato concluded that there must be an unambiguous example of justice. This unambiguous example cannot be found in this world but only in another. He believed that as well as the transitory material world that we all experience here and now, there was also an eternal world of concepts or forms. This eternal world is more real than the world we experience through the senses, and it is the object of knowledge, not opinion.

Heraclitus’ constantly changing world

The world of sense experience is subject to constant change. This was a popular topic for discussion in Greek philosophy; how can the truth be known, if the world never stays the same from one moment to the next? Heraclitus, a philosopher who lived about one hundred years before Plato, had considered this idea. He was famous for the saying ‘It is not possible to step into the same river twice’. According to Heraclitus, everything in the world is in a constant state of flux. Things come into the world, they change all the time that they are here, and they go away again. The objects we perceive are not eternal ‘things’, they are processes. Heraclitus believed that there is nothing in the world that is reliable and unchanging, and nothing that we can hold up as a certain, unchanging truth.

Plato’s Realms of Forms

Plato had a different view. He believed that the answer to this question was that there is certain truth, but that this material world cannot reveal it. It can only present appearances, which lead us to form opinions, rather than knowledge. The truth is to be found elsewhere, on a different plane, in the non-material world of ideas or forms. For Plato, in order for something to be real, it had to be permanent and unchanging. Reality and perfection for Plato were closely related.

When Socrates asked ‘What is justice?’ or ‘What is beauty?’, he was not just trying to find a good definition of the words. He was asking about the nature, or essence, of these qualities. Plato believed that the qualities had a sort of universal existence, a reality of their own. When we see examples of justice in the world, we recognise them as such because we see that they reflect the nature of True Justice, or the Form of Justice. When we call something beautiful, it is because we have an innate knowledge of True Beauty, or the Form of Beauty.

Whether we are thinking about justice or beauty what we see in the world around us is always imperfect. Even though we have never seen perfect justice or beauty, we know what they are because knowledge is a kind of recollection. We have an instinctive understanding of the Forms; so we can say to each other ‘Her eyes are too close together’ and know that this means that she fall short of true beauty, which we understand as a concept even though we have never seen a perfect example of it.

Plato’ s Realm of Forms and the Pre-existence of the Soul

Plato reasons that because we have concepts of the Ideal Form, without having experienced them (e.g. Justice or Beauty), our souls must have known the Forms before we were born. This leads him to the belief that people must have immortal souls. Contemporary Greek thought was a belief in reincarnation.

Plato’s Realm of Forms and Language

Plato’s concept of a realm of forms is directly related to the way in which we use language. When we use words and apply them to particular objects we make reference to the world of Forms. Bertrand Russell gives the example of the use of the word ‘cat’:

There are many individual animals of whom we can truly say ‘this is a cat’. What do we mean by the word ‘cat’? Obviously something different from each particular cat. An animal is a cat, it would seem, because it participates in a general nature common to all cats. Language cannot get on without general words such as ‘cat’, and such words are evidently not meaningless. But if the word ‘cat’ means anything, it means something which is not this or that cat, but some kind of universal cattiness. This is not born when a particular cat is born, and does not die when it dies. In fact it has no position in space or time, it is ‘eternal’.

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

When we use a word such as ‘cat’ to describe the particular animal we see, Plato believed that we are not just classifying it (c.f. Socrates attempt of relating the many with the one). We are actually referring to some particular quality or essence that it shares with all other animals that also are described as ‘cat’; they all share something of the Form of Cat. Plato went further than this: he also claimed that, in the world of Forms, there is an Ideal Cat, created by God. The cats we see as we go about our daily lives are inferior instances of this Ideal Cat. They are constantly changing, they are born, and they die; but the Ideal Cat is eternal, depending on nothing for its existence, and is the object of knowledge, not opinion.

Plato’s Realm of Forms and Mathematics

Plato’s theory of Forms can also be understood in terms of mathematics.

Plato held the study of mathematics in high regard. Above the entrance to his Academy there was a sign that forbid anyone ignorant of mathematics from entering. Mathematics was held in high esteem because it was a discipline which depended on pure reason.

The allegory of the cave is meant to contrast those who depend solely on their senses (the prisoners) and those who are able to discern the world through pure reason (the escapee). Mathematics is based on reason rather than using ones senses. It should therefore provide some insights into the realm of Forms unhindered from the realm of appearances.

We can know truths such as 2+2=4 without having to check our experiences in the material work.

It is possible to see how mathematics helps us understand the realm of Forms simply by considering a circle. The definition of a circle is… ‘an infinite series of points, all at the same distance to a given fixed centre’. This is in effect what you are trying to do when you use a compass! It follows on from this that no one has ever actually seen a perfect circle. No draftsman (or woman), no matter how deft he was with his pen could ever produce enough infinite dots that were expertly measured out from an infinitely small centre point.

When we see a circle that has been drawn well what we are actually seeing is a close approximation of a perfect circle. In fact a perfect circle could not be seen at all. Infinite points which make up its circumference do not take up any space, they exist in logic rather than in a physical form. As soon as someone tries to draw it, even if he uses the most sophisticated computerised equipment, it becomes imperfect. But although the Ideal Form of a circle has never been seen, and never could be seen, people do know what a circle is, they can define it while at the same time accepting that it cannot be translated into the material world without losing its perfection.

For Plato, therefore, the Form of a Circle exists, but not in the physical world of space and time. It exists as a changeless object in the world of Forms or Ideas, which can be known only by reason. Forms have greater reality than objects in the physical world both because of their perfection and unchangingness, and because they are models. As Ideals, they give ordinary physical objects whatever reality they have, because of the ways in which the physical objects resemble any kind of existence because of resemblance to their corresponding physical objects. Circularity, squareness, and triangularity are excellent examples, then of what Plato meant by Forms. An object existing in the physical world may be called a circle or a square or a triangle only to the extent that it resembles (‘participates in’ is Plato’s phrase) the Form ‘circularity’ or ‘squareness’ or ‘triangularity’.

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