3. Plato’s Forms and the Truth, Part 1

A note of caution: the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BCE) wrote dialogues not treatises. These dialogues show the life of the philosophical mind at work: questioning, arguing, speculating, imagining, wondering, struggling, and understanding. They do not show finished results that we can confidently attribute to Plato himself. Rather, they are invitations to join the dialogue and engage with the issues ourselves. So whenever we talk about an issue or idea in Plato’s work—in this case the Forms—we must be sensitive to the dramatic context out of which these ideas and issues come. That said, it is often helpful to isolate certain ideas suggested by Plato’s characters for consideration. This is what I want to do here: I want to point out a few important passages where some character argues for, rather than just describes or discusses, the existence of the Forms. We can then consider the soundness of these arguments. Just remember that there is no clear “theory of the Forms” (as it is often referred to by scholars) nor can we be sure what Plato thought of these arguments.

In his dialogue Timaeus, Plato has his character Timaeus tell Socrates a “likely story” (eikôs muthos) about how our cosmos came to be. We learn that there was a very powerful and very good divine Demiurge(craftsmen for the people) who sought to bring unruly chaos into cosmos (order). According to Timaeus, working from an imperfect model results in a poor work of art. Therefore the Demiurge looked to perfect entities called Forms (eidei) so his creation would be as perfect as possible. Despite the word ‘form’, they are not shapes of some sort: they are, as Francis Cornford put it, “the essential properties which constitute what the thing, by definition, is.”[1] These essences are eternal, unchanging, and completely objective. Plato has his character Socrates describe the Form of Beauty this way in the dialogue Symposium:

“He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)-a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and-foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. He who from these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.” (translation by Benjamin Jowett)

In Plato’s dialogues we encounter various inquiries into the Forms and it is repeatedly postulated that there are Forms for physical objects as well as moral, mathematical, and aesthetic ideas.  It is also repeatedly asserted that the Forms cannot be known with the five senses.  Rather, they can be known only through the rational aspect of the soul making contact with them.  If contact with such entities is possible then we could argue, contrary to what relativists and sophists think, that there is an objective foundation for all human inquiry—we would have found entities that could be eternally true because they are eternally the same.

This philosophical vision of the Forms has been an inspiration to many great thinkers over the centuries.  But is there anything true about it?  Plato seems to think so and presents at least two powerful arguments for the Forms in his writings. In this blog we will look at one; the other argument will come in part two of this series.

We have seen that the Forms, according to the grand myth of Plato’s Timaeus, were used by the Demiurge as models for creation. But this is not their only function.  Timaeus also tells Socrates that the Forms are necessary to make sense of the distinction between opinion and true knowledge. Consider this passage:

“If mind and true opinion are two distinct classes, then I say that there certainly are these self-existent ideas [i.e., Forms] unperceived by sense, and apprehended only by the mind; if, however, as some say, true opinion differs in no respect from mind, then everything that we perceive through the body is to be regarded as most real and certain. But we must affirm them to be distinct, for they have a distinct origin and are of a different nature; the one is implanted in us by instruction, the other by persuasion; the one is always accompanied by true reason, the other is without reason; the one cannot be overcome by persuasion, but the other can: and lastly, every man may be said to share in true opinion, but mind is the attribute of the gods and of very few men. Wherefore also we must acknowledge that there is one kind of being which is always the same, uncreated and indestructible, never receiving anything into itself from without, nor itself going out to any other, but invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and of which the contemplation is granted to intelligence only. And there is another nature of the same name with it, and like to it, perceived by sense, created, always in motion, becoming in place and again vanishing out of place, which is apprehended by opinion and sense.” (Translated by Benjamin Jowett)

What we have here is a metaphysical dualism—two entirely different types of reality—being postulated as a means of grounding truth. One class of objects will be uncreated, invisible, eternal and accessible through reason rather than the five senses. The other class will be created, visible, changing, and accessible with the five senses. The former class can be known and the latter class cannot be known. Timaeus’ argument can be formulated as follows:

Premise 1: If there is a difference between opinion and true knowledge then there must be Forms.

Premise 2: There is a difference between opinion and true knowledge.

Conclusion: Therefore, there must be Forms.

The argument says that without these two classes of objects we simply cannot make sense of our distinction between opinion and knowledge.  After all, it is sensible to say that the truth doesn’t change: if something is true then it always was, is, and will be true. To be sure, our estimations of the truth change but not the truth itself. We may, of course, never know the truth. But knowledge is not the same as truth and our lack of it shouldn’t undermine the view that truth is unchanging. So if truth is unchanging then whatever it is we come to know as true must be unchanging as well. However, everything in the physical world is always changing; therefore, we must, to make sense of the truth, postulate things that don’t change. These things are the Forms. Consider the following passages from Plato’s dialogue Cratylus:

SOCRATES: Then let us seek the true beauty: not asking whether a face is fair, or anything of that sort, for all such things appear to be in a flux; but let us ask whether the true beauty is not always beautiful.

CRATYLUS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And can we rightly speak of a beauty which is always passing away, and is first this and then that; must not the same thing be born and retire and vanish while the word is in our mouths?

CRATYLUS: Undoubtedly.

SOCRATES:  Then how can that be a real thing which is never in the same state? For obviously things which are the same cannot change while they remain the same; and if they are always the same and in the same state, and never depart from their original form, they can never change or be moved.

CRATYLUS:  Certainly they cannot.

SOCRATES:  Nor yet can they be known by any one; for at the moment that the observer approaches, then they become other and of another nature, so that you cannot get any further in knowing their nature or state, for you cannot 
know that which has no state.


SOCRATES:  Nor can we reasonably say, Cratylus, that there is knowledge at 
all, if everything is in a state of transition and there is nothing 
abiding; for knowledge too cannot continue to be knowledge unless continuing always to abide and exist. But if the very nature of knowledge changes, at the time when the change occurs there will be no knowledge; and 
if the transition is always going on, there will always be no knowledge,
 and, according to this view, there will be no one to know and nothing to be known: but if that which knows and that which is known exists ever, and the beautiful and the good and every other thing also exist, then I do not think that they can resemble a process or flux, as we were just now supposing…(translation by Benjamin Jowett)

So Cratylus believes that everything is in flux—everything is always changing and nothing is fixed. Socrates is proposing that such a view would undermine both the reality of things and our ability to know them.  Let’s look closely at his claims:

(1) That which always changes is not real insofar as it is never the same.  A so-called beautiful face that is “born, retires, and vanishes” as we speak of it can hardly be real or absolute beauty.

(2) That which always changes is not knowable because it has no stable state that can be known.

(3) If everything is changing then knowledge would be impossible since knowledge, if it really is knowledge, abides and doesn’t change.

(4) If everything is changing then the knower himself is constantly changing and thus there would be no one there to know anything.

These interrelated claims help us see why Plato, in the Timaeus passage we considered above, felt justified in postulating the realm of the Forms.  After all, if Forms exist then they can be objects of knowledge since they exist outside the physical world and don’t change.  And, as we will see in later blogs under the soul heading, Plato will suggest (in his dialogue Phaedo) that our soul has an unchanging aspect akin to the Forms that enables it to be a stable knower. Right now it is enough to note that this vision of the Forms seems to make some sense of our experience of knowledge. After all, how could we have any stable knowledge if everything, including ourselves and our so-called knowledge,changes from moment to moment?  And isn’t everything in the physical world constantly changing? True, things change in degrees, some more so than others. There are stable orderings of changes that allow us to live the lives we lead. But can such stable orderings of changes really be known?  Plato doesn’t seem to think so.

For another one of Plato’s arguments for the Forms, go here.

[1]See The Republic of Plato. Translated by Francis MacDonald Cornford (New York: Oxford, 1945), p. 325.

4 replies on “3. Plato’s Forms and the Truth, Part 1”

  1. andrea abagnale on

    If a very good divine Demiurge created the forms, how are the forms perfect. Who said the Demiurge was divine?

  2. Dwight Goodyear on

    Thanks for your comment Andrea. The Demiurge, in Plato’s Timaeus, doesn’t create the Forms; they are eternal and are used as the perfect blueprints for the creation of a cosmos out of chaos. Plato refers to the Demiurge as divine; he creates intelligent soul, brings forth cosmos, is good, and has no jealousy. Lacking jealousy, he tries to make the chaos of matter as much like himself as possible, that is, as good as possible. The pre-existing matter that he doesn’t create resists this effort and thus we have a very good, but not perfect, cosmos. This is obviously very different from the common view that God is an all powerful being who created out of nothing. The Demiurge is not all powerful and creates out of something. This difference has serious ramifications for trying to reconcile God with evil.

  3. Matthew Traynor on

    I’ve yet to read the second post, or the rest of the book this essay is about, so forgive any misunderstandings directly attributable to that.

    None the less, I do think everything is changing constantly. If one considers all of the types of change anything can go through, there is nothing that will remained unchanged. For example, the advancement of time itself may cause changes.

    Additionally, are these forms subject to perception? If one’s soul must interpret these forms in order for us to comprehend them, then it stands to reason that perception would be in the way of true knowledge of the forms.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hi Matthew

      Good points. You say “I do think everything is changing constantly.” But I think Plato would ask: is your CLAIM that “everything is changing constantly” ITSELF changing constantly? To be sure, the material structure of the words is always in motion. But the proposition these words express, the claim that can be true or false, is THAT changing? If you say your claim is true, which appears to be what you are doing, then it would seem to be absurd to think it changes since the truth doesn’t change. Our estimations of the truth change not the truth itself. Now the topic of truth and its nature can certainly be controversial. But if we accept these points I have made about it, then Plato’s effort to postulate some kind of unchanging existence to ground the unchangeableness of truth makes sense. You then go on to ask whether, in perceiving Forms, our perception would get in the way of knowing them. Well, one thing to note is that Plato coined the term “eye of the soul” and thought that, when we apprehend a Form, we do so with this eye not our physical eyes. Indeed, he offers an argument for the soul based on this apprehension: if we didn’t have an immaterial and simple soul then we simply couldn’t contact the Forms which are drastically different from physical things like our brain. Now, this doesn’t mean you don’t have an important point. For Plato himself has Socrates say on multiple occasions that our search for truth is all too often thwarted by the body and our erotic attachments to things like honor and physical pleasure. But he also suggests that, if we are able to abstract away from such bodily temptations, we can enjoy a degree of access to the Forms – at least enough to know THAT they exist even if we have no pure access to WHAT they exactly are while our soul is embodied. Anyway, just some thoughts. Feel free to let me know what you think.

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