In a new series on this blog, I’m going to be covering very condensed versions of philosophical concepts. The idea is not to be rigorous or exact but merely to skim the concepts in the kind of detail sufficient that one could pass oneself off as being vaguely knowledgeable about them at a water cooler or on a first date. The ideas can then be dismissively consigned to the scrap heap of history or can be considered worthy of further investigation by doing a little more digging on the thinker behind it. So why not start out with the grand daddy of them all? Plato’s theory of Forms.
Elijah Wood states the case on Plato’s behalf in Ang Lee’s 1997 film Ice Storm:
Sandy Carver: [Sandy needs help with homework] Hey Mikey?
Mikey Carver: Yeah.
Sandy Carver: Geometry?
Mikey Carver: Sure, anything but this English.
Sandy Carver: How come you’re so good at Math, but not at English?
Mikey Carver: I’m not good at Math, just good at Geometry. It’s like you know when they say you have 2 squared, you think it mean 2 times 2 equals 4, but really they really mean a *square*. It’s really space, it’s not numbers, its space. And it’s perfect space. But only in your head, because you can’t draw a perfect square in the material world. But in your mind, you can have a perfect space. You know?
Sandy Carver: Yeah, but I just need some help with my homework…
[courtesy of IMDB]
Plato (424 – 348 BCE) was a bit of an idealist (literally). He held that what we see and touch is not the highest form of reality, but that there is a plane of existence superior to the one we mortals trudge about in. The germ for his idea begins with universality. We know that, for instance, every horse we have encountered is different from every other horse. Each of them are different sizes, shapes and colours, yet we instinctively recognize that they belong to the same category “horse” as though there is a mould from which all horses are produced. We’ve never seen this mould or ideal horse but we instinctively sense its reality.
The differences between the various individual incarnations of the horse are a sort of flaw – a deviation from the ideal concept of a horse. This ideal concept of the horse is what is called the Form. The Form is out there *somewhere* acting as a blue print for every subsequent replication.
Forms apply to just about everything. If you think about it, you’ve never seen a truly straight line. Under enough magnification, even a line drawn with a ruler has significant deviations from a perfectly straight line. We’ve never seen a perfect circle either, but in our heads we have a concept of the perfect circle when we are trying to draw one. The perfect circle must have some form of reality, because it is directing us as we try to imitate it. Inside each of us as individuals are all the forms of everything – we only need to remember them.
But in this world down below we are trapped are in the shadows of forms, trying to replicate them but never succeeding in matching their perfection. The whole physical world we experience itself is only filled with an imperfect replications of Forms.
As Bob Dylan would say two and half thousand years later “everything is broken”.
And that in water cooler form is Plato’s theory of Forms. The rest as they say… are footnotes.