Plato’s theory of forms, also called his theory of ideas, states that there is another world, separate from the material world that we live in called the “eternal world of forms”. This world, to Plato, is more real than the one we live in. His theory is shown in his Allegory of the Cave (from The Republic, Book VII), where the prisoners only live in what they think is a real world, but really it is a shadow of reality. According to Plato, to the prisoners in the allegory and to humanity in the material world “truth would be literally nothing but shadows” and he believes us to be as ignorant as the people in the cave. Plato followed the belief that in order for something to be real it has to be permanent, and as everything in the world we live in is constantly changing, he assumed there must be something else. In his eternal world of forms, there is an ideal form of every object there is in this world. Plato answers the question “what is beauty?” by discovering the essence of true beauty. The reason one recognises something has being beautiful is because we have an innate knowledge of something that is beauty, i.e. we know of the form of true beauty in the eternal world of forms, and everything we see compares to that. Something is only beautiful if it shares characteristics with the form of beauty in the other world. The most important form is the form of the good, portrayed by the sun in the allegory of the cave.
Aristotle was Plato’s main critic and was once a pupil of Plato. Aristotle and many other philosophers who came after Plato criticised Plato’s view that these ideal forms had an independent existence. Many people believe that there must be something to which we compare all objects and something that makes something what it is and not something else. But that doesn’t mean that it exists separate from our bodies. Plato does not prove, or even try and prove that these perfect forms are self-evident. It is Plato’s disability to prove this that causes people to criticise his theory. As Aristotle was one of his pupils, he does not totally reject Plato’s theory but argues that it may not be the only logical reason towards how something is classified.
Another criticism made by Aristotle. Linked to the previous one is that Aristotle does not believe that there can be an ideal form of Disease, or Dirt, or anything bad. If these things are unwanted then how can there be a perfect form of these? A perfect form of disease would be one that does not harm anybody, and doesn’t cause death or suffering. Some concepts fit Plato’s system in better ways than others. For example, mathematical concepts are easier for us to understand than others. How are we to know what the ideal dog is like? Is it tall, short, fat, or skinny? The perfect form of a circle fits into his theory as we know what a perfect circle would be like. It is hard to believe that there is a perfect form of a piece of paper, or a plastic bag. But, as can be seen, this criticism is again not totally dismissing Plato’s theory but is finding loopholes in it.
Another problem with his theory, which is again related to the last, is how far the ideal form relates? Plato does not make it clear whether the perfect form in the other world is very specific or whether it isn’t. If we take for example a dog; is the form in the eternal world of forms just an ideal animal, or an ideal dog? Perhaps it goes further to the breed of dog, or even whether it is male or female. As Plato doesn’t elucidate this, we could go on and on until we have a form of every animal, so a shortsighted, over-weight, female dog. This means that the forms are no longer universal and therefore end up having no meaning.
If both Aristotle and Plato were aiming to reach the highest from of the good then they should both agree on how to reach it. Plato claims that the highest form of the good is like the sun, “seen only with an effort”, and is the one thing that makes other things the way they are as it is “the universal author of all things…and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual”. Goodness is something that cannot be defined, when asked, different people have different ideas about what is good, or right and wrong, whereas if everybody was asked to point to the sun they all would. This disproves his theory as not everybody has a true understanding of the Form of the Good.
Plato fails to set out his theory clearly and allow the reader to realise it is a theory. Nowhere in his dialogues does he state that he is describing a theory of forms, and so people may have misunderstood his writing s and he may not have meant it to be a theory at all. He has elements of his theory in many different dialogues and is inconsistent. In Book I of the Metaphysics Aristotle claims that Plato had a “system” to the effect that “the many sensibles which have the same name exist by participating in the corresponding Forms.” This quote from Aristotle’s work suggests that Plato did have a theory of forms but this is not believed by all people.
None of these criticisms totally disallow Plato’s theory but argue against it and suggest other possibilities. Although there are many critics of Plato there are also many people who follow him, and even in this day and age Plato’s ideas are understood and followed and he has ended up being one of the most influential philosophers although his Theory of Forms is slightly over the top and hard to understand.
To a certain extent these criticisms are valid, but in other ways they are not. In my opinion they are valid as far as criticisms are concerned but are not valid if they are meant to oppose Plato’s theory.
In my view they are invalid to go up against Plato’s theory of forms because they do not supply us with any other options but simply point out the flaws of his arguments. For example, Aristotle’s criticism that these ideal forms do not have to exist independently from this material world is valid. But he does not give us a reason why it is impossible for them to be self-evident or explain to us how they could exist in this world. This causes the criticisms to be less valid in my view as there is no significant reason for Plato’s theory to be untrue.
Likewise with the second criticism about how there cannot be an ideal form of dirt. I believe there can be. Just as good things can have ideal forms, bad things also must have something to which we compare them. The form would produce a definition of disease and there is no reason why this cannot exist. When Plato talks about something ideal, he does not mean it is ideal in the context we want it and need it, but just that it is the form to which we will compare things and it is the perfect form of a bad thing. Although people criticise Plato’s because it is hard to believe that there is an ideal form of some things that aren’t mathematical concepts, it doesn’t mean they are not true just because we don’t understand it. I therefore, do not think that this criticism is valid, as I do not see a reason why it cannot be true.
One criticism I do think is valid is that Plato does not make it clear about whether the ideal form is of a certain animal, a species or breed. But, Plato may not have thought it necessary to make this clear to us as he may have thought it obvious. This, however, is really giving Plato the benefit of the doubt, and so I think this is a valid criticism.
Even if Plato and Aristotle were both aiming for the same thing, in my view it does not mean they have to do it in the same way. Aristotle did believe many of the things Plato taught him, but just expanded his ideas a bit more. I do not believe this to be a valid criticism as there are always many ways to reach an end and not everybody has to follow the same path to reach their goal.
Plato criticises his own theory a few times but eventually reaches answers to the things he criticised. This can either cause other people’s criticisms to be more valid or less valid depending on the way you look at it. Often, when people criticise their own work before somebody else does, it lowers the value of the criticism as it shows Plato already knew people would criticise him for that. On the other hand, it makes me think that there is reason to criticise if he himself criticises his theory. This causes later criticisms of his theory to be more valid.
There are many reasons for the criticisms to be valid, and many why they are not. I personally think that most of them are not valid and if even nowadays many people believe Plato’s theory then there must be some truth in it.
*Foundation for the Study of Religion – Libby Ahluwalia
*Plato – R.M.Hare
*Philosophy: an Introduction – Mel Thompson
*Encarta – Plato