Plato is most famous for his Forms but what exactly he meant by them is confusing. It took me a lot of reading to get to this amazing fact, that Plato himself differed in what he meant by his Forms!
To re-cap the old story: Plato [or was it Socrates? — it is the ‘Socratic Problem’ that we are never sure which, see here] was bothered by the status of words like ‘cat’, ‘dog’ or ‘tree’, that we give to individual things with similarities to each other. He was eventually of the opinion that these ‘concepts’, ‘generalities’, ‘universals’, actually exist in an ideal form as entities in some kind of heaven! The mind boggles that anyone ever took this seriously, instead of accepting that conceptualization is something we do inside our heads. But this ‘Problem of Universals’ carried on in Philosophy till the Middle Ages and perhaps till the present day. (Perhaps I am so alienated from philosophical thinking that I haven’t even got the term ‘concept’ or ‘universals’ right, but it’s the best I can presently do.)
I was also amazed by Plato’s naivety in his prescription for how to arrange politics – you put the brightest lads into a school where they are taught Philosophy and Politics, and this fits them to be the future rulers! He too didn’t have any inkling of Sin — that even the wisest of us have a natural inclination to look after Number One. The people who wrote the Bible and invented the mono-God of altruistic ethics, did at least know that.
To return to his Forms, Wikipedia tells us that what Plato meant by them differed between his many Dialogues, and in some respects he never fully explained it. And that in his Republic, his Forms were the basis of many of his arguments but he didn’t explain precisely what they were, or argue the validity of his Theory of Forms. Plato even criticized himself for his ambiguity in his dialogue Parmenides, using Socrates to do so, see here.
So, many aspects of his Forms gave rise to different later interpretations.
I will go into what Plato’s Form is conventionally understood as meaning. What follows is an explanation based on what is in Wikipedia here, as well as a criticism. It may help others with minds similar to my own in their initial disbelief at what Philosophy has given us through the millenia.
Socrates-Plato wasn’t satisfied that things in the world are what our senses tell us they are. Perhaps this was because the same thing can appear different at different times. For example, water can be snow or ice; and there is the well-known later example from Descartes of honey being thick when cold, and runny when warm, yet still the same thing. So Socrates-Plato thought there had to be an Ideal Form, of ‘dog’ or ‘tree’ or ‘water’, existing beyond time and space in some kind of heaven, of which the dogs and trees in this world are imperfect images.
He wrote, in his dialogue Timaeus (from here), a further description of a Form: “…. that which keeps its own form unchangingly, which has not been brought into being and is not destroyed, which neither receives into itself anything else from anywhere else, nor itself enters into anything anywhere, is one thing…” . This comment from Plato is apparently on the topic of ‘participation’ (see below) but I don’t see the connection.
Later writers added slight variations, from here: (i) that Forms are perfect examples on which objects and properties of the world are modeled; (ii) that Forms are Universals such that the Form of Beauty is that quality that all beautiful things share.
Perhaps (ii) in the last paragraph means that Forms are ‘stuffs’,see here — the conglomeration of all instances of a quality in the visible world, so that there is a little beauty in one person, a little beauty in another, and that all the little bits of beauty in the world add up to the Form of Beauty. (That idea, that the Universal of Beauty is the sum of all the beauty that objects in the world have, sounds so potty that I am not sure I have got it right. And I don’t understand what ‘stuffs’ means.)
Yet some more ways in which Plato defined ‘Form’, in Wikipedia again, is that the phenomena we see in the world are mere shadows mimicking the Form; i.e. momentary portrayals of the Form under different circumstances. In other writings, he seems to have used the term archetypes to define the Forms of the many types and properties (that is, of universals) of things observed. (But then I can’t find out what exactly ‘type’ means in this context.)
Here come my own inabilities to pin down what exactly the Forms are in the literature.
Firstly, I remain not completely certain whether Forms are only of objects, but of their qualities too. ‘Plato said that every object or quality such as dogs, human beings, mountains, courage, love, colours, and goodness, has a Form.’ (I don’t know now where I got this statement but I think it is generally accepted.) It seems to mean that each object has a Form, but also that each quality that objects have, such as yellowness or roundness, has a Form too. Surely such a basic thing, that qualities have Forms too, should have been crystal-clear from the start.
To make matters worse, it sometimes seems that the ‘Universals’, which are in reality the Forms, are only of qualities, and not of objects! (Perhaps I am so alienated from philosophical thinking that I haven’t even got the confidence that I’ve understood ‘Problem of Universals’. But it’s the best I can presently do.)
Later philosophers added that Plato’s Forms are the essences of objects: that the Form of a thing is that without which this thing would not be the kind of thing it is. For example, there are countless tables in the world but the Form of tableness is at the core — it is the Essence of all of them (from here again).
(What follows in the next dozen or so paragraphs down to the horizontal line, is even more unclear to me, either due to my confused mind grasping at straws or to confusion in the philosophers themselves. I have included them for the sake of some degree of completeness. )
Wikipedia here says, as I interpret it: We call the sky and blue jeans, blue. But the blueness of the sky is not constant between different places or times. And the billions of blue jeans differ in their blueness. Yet somehow we have a consensus of the basic Form Blueness as it applies to them. (What exactly does that last sentence mean? Did Plato make the assumption there was one Form of Blue, and one Form of Dog rather than separate Forms for the different shades and different breeds?)
This site also says: ‘Forms…were properties or essences of things…..They were …. independent of ordinary objects that had their being and properties by ‘participating’ in them.’ (That particular excerpt from Plato makes it seem that the word ‘properties’ applies to what makes up the essence of the object, rather than to non-essential qualities like its colour. And then it also seems that Plato’s Forms applied only to properties, and not to things! Were these Forms of properties also called Universals? Yes, I think they were, but I’m floundering.)
Plato-Socrates added to difficulties by also using the term ‘participation’ for how things or properties in the world were related to their Forms. But, as this Wikipedia site states: ‘The concept of “participate”, represented in Greek by more than one word, is as obscure in Greek as in English’ !!
Here is how Socrates, according to Plato, explained ‘participation’: ‘Nay, but the idea may be like the day which is one and the same in many places at once, and yet continuous with itself; in this way each idea may be one and the same in all at the same time.’
But what on earth does that mean?– that the day is everywhere and the same and at the same time, and so is the Form? What does that mean? The Wikipedia site itself states that the meaning of Socrates’ explanation is unclear.
The Wikipedia site continues: ‘The solution [to what exactly ‘participation means] calls for a distinct Form, in which the particular instances, which are not identical to the Form, participate; i.e. the Form is shared out somehow like the day to many places.’ (Does this mean that the Form is distinct but gets shared out somehow to particular instances which are separate from it?)
‘Participation’ made some later philosophers troubled by The Third Man Argument (TMA) which briefly is as follows: that if there are many examples or imitations in the world, as well as the real thing in which they participate, then there has to be another real thing, another Form, beyond all of them.
This TMA, see here , which I must confess to not understanding, consiste of step-by-step philosophical logicking containing concepts like ‘infinite regression’. I haven’t yet succeeded in working through it. (I noted this reference too.)
Apparently Socrates-Plato took the position against the TMA that particulars do not really exist but just imitate the Forms. This is ‘representatialism’ apparently, see here, and there is some more mind-breaking logic against that too, see here.
In addition to difficulty in understanding what Socrates-Plato and their interpreters meant by Form, there is also the linguistics or semantics of ‘Form’ and other words. Plato’s word that we translate into English as Form was eidos. It was translated of course into different words in different languages, whose exact meanings were somewhat different, and also varied with time and context.
Plato’s word‘Eidos’ came from the Indo-European root for “see”, and had already been used for centuries in Greek to mean ‘appearance’ or ‘visible form’, but Plato used it to mean the heavenly reality of a thing, which is virtually the opposite.
In Latin and German, ‘eidos’ is translated into ‘idea’, not ‘Form’. So in German we have ‘Platons Ideentheorie‘. In English of course, ‘idea’ isn’t used to translate Plato’s Forms but refers to something in the mind.
The English “form” has two different meanings — usually it means the outward form or appearance of something; but it can also mean Platonic “Form”, the heavenly reality of something, which is virtually the opposite.
To make things even more impossible to nail down, Plato sometimes used not eidos but morphē, parádeigma, génos, phýsis, or ousía. Morphe had earlier been used to mean ‘shape’, and pheno to mean ‘shine’ or ‘show’, and Philosophy added further specialized meanings to them.
The word Forma itself is Boethius’ translation (in about 500 AD) of Plato’s εἶδος (eidos).
Two more comments:
Socrates-Plato said that Knowledge, Intelligence, Wisdom (which all seem to mean the same thing), is one’s mental grasping of the eternal Forms. This cannot be gained through sensory experience in this world because the Forms are in some kind of heaven. But, before we were born and incarnated into our bodies, our souls were in heaven where they became acquainted with the Forms. Therefore, real knowledge is a recollecting of the Forms in heaven. What we learn, is in fact just a remembering.
Was Plato’s Theory of Forms the foundation for the Christian concept of heaven that Paul developed? This concept at last gave meaning to the life of the individual on Earth, and gave him life after death too, which the down-to-earth collectivism of Hebrew religion failed to do. I’ve probably compressed and ignored a lot of difficulties into that last comment, but it’s a start to a topic that makes one’s head swim.