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Critique on Plato’s Theory of Ideal Forms

Plato is one of the most important philosophers in history. His Theory of Ideal Forms is the base of his philosophy. Plato’s ideas about religion, music, poetry, justice, politics, government and all other subjects are according to his Theory of Ideal Forms. For him, reality consists of two realms. First, there is the physical world, the world that we can observe with our five senses. And the other world is made of eternal perfect ideal ‘forms.’ Plato believes that the eternal forms are perfect, non-degrading, static and indivisible. And they are the reflection of the material objects in our world. They are more real than the physical objects you see in the world because they contain the ideal essence that objects of this world do not have. Hence, the objects of this world are material, particular, and so they degrade. For example, a chair in your house is an inferior copy of a perfect chair that exists somewhere in another dimension. A horse you see in a stable is really an imperfect representation of some ideal horse that exists somewhere. In both cases, the chair in your house and the horse in the stable are just imperfect representations of the perfect chair and horse that exist somewhere else. All the horses and chairs on earth, no matter how different, share the sameness because of the fact that there is an ideal form of all these, just one form, that represents all these imperfect chairs and horses.

In Plato’s book Parmenides, we see a few weaknesses relating the theory of forms. Plato writes:

“So sameness will never be in what is different, nor is difference in what the same. And if difference will never be in what is the same, there is nothing that is in which difference is present for any length of time, for if it were in something for any length of time whatsoever, during that time difference would be in what is the same. And since it is never in what is the same, difference can never be in anything that is, and consequently neither in the ‘not-ones’ nor in the one.”

This passage keeps us wondering if Plato criticized his own theory of forms or did he try to bring in Parmenides criticism to resolve and improve his theory. According to this passage Plato shows Parmenides belief that all is one. Since all is one then ideal forms will not be required. The forms are one and the copies on earth are numerous but this passage proves that earth is continuous and one. Plato was of the view that forms are apprehensible rather than sensible, and constitute the objects of our knowledge. The chief problem, Parmenides says, is figuring out the exact relationship between the form and the particular. How does a particular partake in the form? How is the form embodied in the particular?

A second problem is one of limits. Of how many particular things in the world can it be said that there’s a form? Socrates would say that there is a form for beauty, for truth, virtue and justice, and for any number of other things like cats, horses, etc. However, Parmenides questions id mud, dirt and the tiny atoms have forms too. Socrates r, “I have often been puzzled about those things, Parmenides, whether one should say that the same thing is true in their case or not.”

Socrates tries to further resolve the question that Parmenides puts forward for him. “These forms are as it were patterns fixed in the nature of things. The other things are made in their image and are likenesses, and this participation they come to have in the forms is nothing but their being made in their image.”

Parmenides comes up with another problem with Plato’s theory and says if a thing is just a reflection of the form, can that form fail to be like the image of it, in so far as the image was made in its likeness? If the object is a reflection of the form, should the form not be like the object; just as degradable and imperfect? Parmenides continues by saying that if two things are like each other, they have a relationship and that relationship has to have a form too. And if this relationship connects the form to the object, there has to be another intermediate relationship between the fist relationship and the object or the form. This implies that there are more relationships and even more that are intermediate to them. Hence, there are infinite relationships between objects and objects, objects and forms and for all these there are ideal forms.

In my study I have come to the conclusion that Plato never answered this important problem. Are there infinite forms then? If there are infinite forms then what is the use of ideal forms? Ideal forms were to make things easier; one representing the trillion objects on earth but if forms are in trillions too then the theory stands weak.

Another critical analysis of the Theory of Forms was given by Bertrand Russell, a great English philosopher of his time, on this matter. Plato wrote the Republic and yet failed to justify a major point of his theory. Even though Russell was an agnostic he raised the issue that a theologian should have raised. According to Plato the forms are eternal and what is eternal is obviously timeless. Now the question that arises is that who created the forms that are timeless. It is difficult to see how God could create the forms. Anything timeless and eternal cannot be contingent and what is not contingent cannot be created. All the things that are created come after God and he causes them to exist so they are contingent. Hence, the theory is somewhat suggesting that God only created an illusion. The rest was already there, eternal and timeless. Either that, or there is no God at all. But then theologians have a lot of counter arguments to that.


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This entry was posted on May 24, 2011 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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