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BY OBAID HASAN GONDAL
Introduction and overview of theory of forms
Man is inquisitive by nature. He has been trying to explore the reality since his creation. All the religious doctrines, philosophical ideas and scientific theories are outcome of the curiosity of man. The journey of exploring the reality must be quite old, but as per preserved history Greek civilization appears to be its starting point. Greek philosophers, much before the birth of Socrates, had been trying to explore the reality. They were trying to comprehend the real behaviors of the universe. They were using their sensual and mental abilities, but some of the behaviors were beyond the capacity of their senses. The most important of the questions was that of permanence and change. They were boggling their minds that why the word appeared to be both permanent and changing? Why the word perceived through the senses seemed to be always changing and the word perceived through the mind seemed to be permanent. Which one is the most real and why it appears both ways?1 These questions caught the attention of all pre-Socratic philosophers but they were unable to give a satisfactory answer. Parmenides, for instance, believed that everything was eternal and change was only an illusion. Heraclitus, on the other hand was of the view that everything was in a constant state of flux. 2 These questions stirred Plato's mind too and thus these questions and their unsatisfactory answers became a reason of Plato's theory of forms. As gale fine says Theory of forms was the first rational and the most logical answer to the questions of permanence and change.3 To answer the above mentioned questions and to develop a system to comprehend the reality, Plato splitted the existence into two realms: the material realm and the transcendent realm of forms. Splitting the existence into two realms solved the problem of permanence and change. We perceive a different world, with different objects, through our mind than we do through the senses. It is the material world, perceived through the senses, that is changing. And it is the realm of forms, perceived through the mind that is permanent and immutable. It is this world that is more real; the world of change is merely an imperfect image of this world.
Plato: An Introduction By Paul Friedlander, p. 127 The Cambridge companion to early Greek philosophy By A. A. Long, p. 88 On Ideas: Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Theory of Forms by Gail Fine, p. 29
In opinion of Gale Fine platonic forms were: 1. Transcendent - the forms are not located in space and time. For example, there is no particular place or time at which forms like redness exists. 2. Pure - the forms only exemplify one property. Material objects are impure; they combine a number of properties such as blackness, circularity, and hardness into one object. A form, such as circularity, only exemplifies one property. 3. Archetypes - The forms are archetypes; that is, they are perfect examples of the property that they exemplify. The forms are the perfect models upon which all material objects are based. The form of redness, for example, is red, and all red objects are simply imperfect, impure copies of this perfect form of redness. 4. Ultimately Real - The forms are the ultimately real entities, not material objects. All material objects are copies or images of some collection of forms; their reality comes only from the forms. 5. Causes - The forms are the causes of all things. (1) They provide the explanation of why any thing is the way it is, and (2) they are the source or origin of the being of all things. 6. Systematically Interconnected - The forms comprise a system leading down from the form of the Good moving from more general to more particular, from more objective to more subjective. This systematic structure is reflected in the structure of the dialectic process by which we come to knowledge of the forms.4
Image courtesy: http://www.anselm.edu 5
On Ideas: Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Theory of Forms by Gail Fine http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/platform.htm
ARISTOTLE'S CRITICISM ON THEORY OF FORMS
Aristotle thought that Plato's theory of forms with its two separate realms failed to explain what it was meant to explain. That is, it failed to explain how there could be permanence and order in this world and how we could have objective knowledge of this world. By separating the realm of forms from the material realm, Plato made it impossible to explain how the realm of forms made objectivity and permanence possible in the material world. The objectivity and permanence of the realm of forms does not help to explain the material world because the connection between the two worlds is so hard to understand. Aristotle and the Aristotelian philosophers used logic to criticize the theory. Gail fine went to an extreme to say: The theory of form is an unnecessary proposal. There is no need to split the world up into two separate realms in order to explain objectivity and permanence in our experience.6 Aristotle elaborated this general criticism into two more particular objections:
1. The obscurity of the notion imitation: According to Plato, material objects participate in or imitate the forms. It is in virtue of this relation to the realm of forms that material objects are knowable and have order. Yet, Aristotle argues, it is almost impossible to explain what exactly this participation or imitation is. The properties that the forms have (eternal, unchanging, transcendent, etc. ) are all incompatible with material objects. How, for example, can a white object be said to participate in or copy the form of whiteness? Is the form of whiteness white itself? How can there be whiteness without any thing which is white? What can a white object and the form of whiteness be said to have in common? It seems that the metaphor of imitation or participation seems to break down in these cases because of the special properties that Plato ascribes to the forms. The only link between the realm of forms and the material world, then, breaks down. The forms cannot explain anything in the material world. 2. The third man argument: This argument was first given by Plato himself in his later dialogues. It is related to the first objection, but is a more technical way of getting at the main problem with the theory of forms. The resemblance between any two material objects is explained by Plato in terms of their joint participation in a common form. A red book and a red flower, for example, resemble each other in virtue of being copies of the form of redness. Because they are copies of this form, they also resemble the form. But this resemblance between the red object and the form of redness must also be explained in terms of another form. What form does a red
On Ideas: Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Theory of Forms by Gail Fine,
object and the form of redness both copy to account for their similarity? Whenever someone proposes another form that two similar things copy, we can always ask them to explain the similarity between the form and the objects. This will always require another form. The notion of imitation or copying used in the theory of forms, then, runs into logical difficulties. The theory of forms really explains nothing about the similarity of objects; another form is always needed beyond the one proposed. Thus to explain the similarity between a man and the form of man, one needs a third form of man, and this always requires another form. The explanation of the original similarity is never given; it is only put off to the next level.
This criticism paved the way for further criticism. As there was no logical connection between the transcendent forms and the material world, so many critics raised a question about the epistemological dimensions of this theory. Plato was of the view that real knowledge was knowledge of form and the ideal destiny of a man was to reach the realm of forms. But he didn't mentioned how to reach that realm. As it was above this material world, so whether there was a way to reach that realm in one's life or only death could take a man in that ideal realm. The idea of forms was very abstract and it wasn't clear enough to be accepted, un criticized. Plato didn't write much about his theory of forms and most of the written work was also not preserved. Pheodo was the first book to have this theory and later on in republic he explained it a bit. But this explanation was too little to make the theory clear. So the explanation was mostly rendered by the commentators of the theory. This became the major source of criticism on this theory. The criticism of Aristotle and Aristotelian philosophers, on this theory, is mostly of explanatory type. Had Plato written more or his books had been preserved, there might not have been that strong criticism on this theory. Even then the theory was powerful enough to split the philosophy and philosophers in two parts. Though a group of philosophers don't agree with the content of the theory but even they accept that this theory provided human beings with s new way to think and perceive the universe.