‘Philosophy’ has never been Wisdom. Chapter 4. Plato, his Universals and Forms

‘Philosophy has never been Wisdom: 4, Plato’s Universals and Forms

(The ‘Socratic Problem’ is that Socrates never wrote anything down.  All we have is what Plato wrote as having been said by him.  So we don’t really know what of it was Plato’s own thinking or that of Socrates.

Plato ascribed the theory of Universals and Forms to Socrates, but it is usually ascribed to Plato.)

The nub of this particular subject (the Universals and Forms of Plato-Socrates) is down to the first horizontal line. The rest elaborates on it.  

To help others with disbelief like mine at what Philosophy has given us from its start, I shall first go into what the Universal or Form of P-S is conventionally understood as1

P-S found it problematic that individual things with similarities to each other are given a common word or concept like ‘cat’, ‘dog’ or ‘tree’.  The individual things as they are became known as Particulars; the common concepts as Universals2.    

Particulars are for example that sausage-dog over there.  Now that dog also has properties or qualities such as its colour of brownness and its shape of sausage-ness.  These are particulars in that dog; but they are also Universals.

And Plato-Socrates also thought that these ‘universals’, ‘generalities’, ‘concepts’, actually exist in an ideal form as entities in some kind of heaven!  These are the Forms

Perhaps it is the same heaven that our souls had inhabited before we were born.  P-S thought that Knowledge, Intelligence, Wisdom (all meaning for him the same thing) consists of remembering the ideal Forms we had been familiar with before we were born.  What we learn is just a remembering!

Was Plato’s Theory of Forms the foundation for the Christian concept of Heaven that Paul created, that gave purpose and meaning to the life of the individual on Earth?


The mind boggles that anyone ever took the Universals/Forms of Plato-Socrates seriously, instead of accepting that conceptualization is something we do inside our heads.

That last seems to be what Bertrand Russell said: that particulars are individual instances of sense-data, whereas universals are concepts that apply to many objects so sensed. 

But this ‘Problem of Universals’ carried on in Philosophy till at least the Middle Ages!

And it seems, astonishingly, that Plato wasn’t constant in what he meant by his Universals/Forms.  Their aspects differed between his Dialogues and between his interpreters!  Yet Universals/Forms were the basis of much of his Republic

Plato even criticized himself for his ambiguity about his Universals/Forms, in his dialogue Parmenides, using Socrates to do so1.   In some respects, he never fully explained them.


It has taken me years of reading source after source, to get an overall understanding of Plato’s Forms that satisfied me for its logical coherence.


More explanation of Plato’s Particulars and their Universals/Forms:

Here is how Plato’s Theory of Forms is put here3, step by step:

Plato argued that all sensible objects are related to some universal entity, or Form.

For instance, when people recognize some particular book for what it is, they consider it as an instance of a general type (books in general).  

He saw that people don’t directly experience general types, only particular things—so Plato asked how could people have this experience of particulars being of some universal type?

Plato’s answer was that these Forms are separate and more fundamental parts of reality, existing outside the realm of sensible objects. He claimed that people must have encountered them prior to their birth into the sensible realm. He saw the particular objects that we normally experience as being like shadows – shadows of the Forms.  

Plato thought that the Forms were ontologically (in their being) more basic than particular objects. He thought that Forms could exist even if there were no particulars related to them, i.e. that some Forms/Universals were “uninstantiated.” 


Some later philosophers also used the term Essence for what Forms/Universals also are.  The Essence of an object is that without which this thing would not be classed under the Universal type that it is.  For example, there are countless tables in the world but the Form of tableness is the Essence of all of them.  


Plato-Socrates then added to difficulties of understanding, by saying that particulars (things and properties in the world) are independent of the Forms but participate in them1.

[But the concept ‘participate’, represented in Greek by more than one word, is as obscure in Greek as in English.  Let me go into it:

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.’  

Did Socrates mean that a Form is shared out somehow like the day to many places2.  Or what did he mean ?

Then came The Third Man Argument (TMA) of later philosophers:  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.  (I don’t grasp that.)

TMA 1, 4 contained concepts like ‘infinite regression’, which I also haven’t succeeded in grasping the relevance of here.

Apparently, Socrates-Plato took the position against the TMA that particulars in this world do not really exist but just imitate the Forms. This apparently is ‘ Representationalism’5 and there is some mind-breaking logic against that too.1


Yet more words on Plato’s Particulars and Universals/Forms:

Plato in his dialogue Timaeus gave a further slant: that a Form keeps its own form unchangingly, that it is not brought into being or destroyed, that it doesn’t receive anything into itself from anything or anywhere else, and doesn’t itself enter into anything anywhere.1

Later writers added1: (i) that Forms are perfect examples on which objects and properties in the world are modelled; (ii) that Forms are Universals in that the Form of Beauty is that quality that all beautiful things share

P-S also saw the phenomena that we see in this world as being mere shadows mimicking the Forms1 – or, as my interpreter sees it, as momentary portrayals of the Form under different circumstances.  That seems straightforward, but then he seems also to have used the word Archetypes to define the Universals/Forms (and what exactly does ‘archetype’ mean in this context?)

There is also the idea of Forms as being ‘stuffs’1.   ‘Stuff’ seems here to mean an adding up of all instances of a quality in the world.  So, there is a little beauty in one person, a little beauty in another, and all the little bits of beauty in the world add up to the Form Beauty.   (The idea that the Universal of Beauty is the sum of all the beauty of objects in the world, sounds so potty that I am not sure I have got it right.)


An explanation for P-S’s motives in creating Universals/Forms, is that they weren’t satisfied that things are what our senses tell us.  Perhaps this was the same suspicion of their senses that Philosophers of his time and much later still had — that the same object can appear different at different moments: water can be snow or ice; plus Descartes’ example of honey being thick when cold, runny when warm. 

So Plato-Socrates thought there had to be an Ideal Form existing beyond time and space in some kind of heaven, of which the dogs and trees in this world are imperfect images.1


It sometimes seemed to me from my reading that P-S had been applying the word Universal only to qualities, at other times only to objects.

No, it stands to reason it must have been to both. Perhaps this difficulty over such a glaringly obvious issue was due to Plato-Socrates’ own inconsistency on the subject.

A further hurdle for me was that there are many breeds of cat and many shades of red, so surely there must also be a Universal or Form for each variety.  The whole matter is of limitless conceivability, as someone has said. 

For this latter matter is this view1, as I interpret it:  We call the sky and blue jeans, blue. But the blueness of the sky is not constant between different places in the sky and at different moments.  And blue jeans differ in their blueness.  Yet somehow, it is maintained, we have a consensus of the basic Form Blueness. 

This seems to say that P-S thought there was one Universal/Form of Blue and one Universal/ Form of Dog or of Cat, rather than different Forms for the different shades and different breeds. 



Here is yet another slant, using the concepts of Form and Matter, and using Mathematics, derived from here6.

Though Aristotle was the first to make explicit distinction between form and matter, it was already implicit in Plato’s Theory of Forms. For Plato, any particular material thing is subject to change; for instance, when a particular dog dies, it changes into dead matter. The Idea of dog (Dogness), however, does not change. It is eternal.

Thus, for Plato, the Idea or Form is of a higher ontological status. The particulars on this Earth (i.e. all actual dogs) merely participate in the one unchanging and eternal Form.

So, Plato contrasted all particular things (trees, cats, human beings) as perishable, while their Ideas or Forms are imperishable.

Whether Plato understood his Forms as actually existing in some higher Sphere is still a matter of controversy.

One can think of it in terms of mathematics, to which Plato often linked his theory. A perfect triangle is defined as a three-sided figure whose angles add up to precisely 180 degrees. But particular triangles drawn or constructed will always fall short of perfection. Precise instruments will reveal that their lines or angles are not quite exact.  So, particular ‘triangles’ are not real triangles; for they do not fulfil the definition. The only real triangle is the perfect or ideal one that one knows or defines in one’s mind.  

___________________________________________________________________________Later philosophical attitudes towards Plato’s Universals/Forms:

Platonic Realism is the theory that I’ve covered above: that there is another world, a kind of heaven, where Universals (together with abstractions like numbers and perfect geometric figures) have real existence as Forms. So they are Ideals, but they are also real entities in ‘heaven’.

(I thought that what follows in the next five paragraphs should be easy but they actually leave me puzzled.)

The Nominalists (sometimes called anti-realists) said that a universal like ‘redness’ only exists in its particular instances, and that redness is simply the name of this property. (Isn’t this what Bertrand Russell was saying above?  Probably not according to real philosophers, but I don’t see it.)

Aristotle said that a Universal exists only in the concrete objects which share this property.  (So, think I, this seems to be saying that Aristotle was a nominalist; but puzzlingly no; he is considered a ‘moderate realist’.2)

Conceptualists say that the concept of redness exists only in the minds of persons who have grasped the concept of redness, which might exclude colour-blind persons.

Naive Realists think that what our senses give us is reality.  This is sometimes called the ‘copy theory’.

I don’t see that Plato’s dream of Forms in heaven is typical of Rationalism as is often said.


Linguistics/Semantics in Greek and other languages of the terms used.

This makes the whole subject even more impossible to disentangle. (I’ve lost the reference on which this paragraph is based.)

The word Forma is Boethius’s translation into Latin, at the very end of the Roman Empire, of Plato’s εἶδος (eidos).

Plato used the Greek word εἶδος, eidos, translated into English as Form, for a Universal.

Eidos was then translated into different words in different languages, whose exact meanings were somewhat different from each other, and these meanings also varied according to the context and the historical age.

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’ was translated into ‘idea’, not ‘Form’.  So in German we have Platons Ideentheorie.  But in English, ‘idea’ refers to something entirely different, actually to something in the mind, and is not used for Plato’s Form at all. The word Form is used.

The English ‘form’ usually means the outward appearance of something; but it can also mean Platonic ‘Form’, the heavenly reality of something, and this is virtually the opposite.

To make things even more impossible to nail down, Plato sometimes didn’t use eidos but used morphēparádeigmagénosphýsis, 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.


To mention something Bertrand Russell said, presumably within his Logical Atomism (which is in my fourth chapter on him):  ‘Russell contended that particulars and universals are atomic simples — that is, finite and individual and cannot be analyzed further.’  This statement may have come from here7.

I think it just means that Russell in his Logical Atomism considered particulars and universals to be finite and individual atoms that can’t be broken down further into even simpler statements. 

But surely the Universal or concept of redness for example ‘requires us to compare different objects and classify them as similar; so it is impossible for redness to be an independent entity.‘7 (I presume that ’independent entity’ is the same as ‘atom of meaning’.)

BR then goes7 into territory beyond me: ‘Ordinary language certainly permits the attribution of a common predicate to more than one subject: ” a is P ” and ” b is P ” may both be true. If only particular things exist, then a and b would be distinct, featureless beings whose likeness with respect to P could only be understood as a shared—and hence universal—property. If only universal things exist, then P would exist in two places at once, which would fail to account for the distinctness of a and b.  Thus, Russell argued, both universals and bare particulars exist; only a robust realism can explain both the sameness and the diversity that we observe in ordinary experience.’  (No, I don’t begin to understand that.)


I couldn’t resist mentioning Plato’s prescription for how to arrange politics because of its amazing naivety: – you put the brightest lads into a school where they are taught Philosophy and Politics, and this fits them to be the future rulers.  Plato didn’t have any inkling of Sin — that even the wisest of us have a natural inclination to self-interest, to looking after Number One.  The unphilosophic Hebrews who created the mono-God of altruistic ethics and who wrote the Bible, did at least know that.



  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_forms
  2. https://www.informationphilosopher.com/knowledge/universals.html
  3. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/aristotle
  4. https://www.philosophynews.com/post/2014/03/10/The-Third-Man-Argument-Part-1.aspx
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Representative_realism
  6. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Form_and_Matter
  7. http://www.philosophy-index.com/terms/type-token.php
  8. https://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/russell/section3/page/2/
  9. http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/6m.htm










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