Plato's Theory of Forms:
Plato was born, the son of Ariston and Perictione, in Athens, or perhaps in Aegina, in
about 428 BC, the year after the death of the great statesman Pericles. Pursuing an
opportunity to combine philosophy and practical politics, Plato went to Sicily in 367 to
tutor the new ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius the Younger, in the art of philosophical rule.
The experiment failed. Plato made another trip to Syracuse in 361, but again his
engagement in Sicilian affairs met with little success. The concluding years of his life
were spent lecturing at the Academy and writing. He died at about the age of 80 in
Athens in 348 or 347 bc.
Plato's writings were in dialogue form; philosophical ideas were advanced, discussed, and
criticized in the context of a conversation or debate involving two or more persons. The
earliest collection of Plato's work includes 35 dialogues and 13 letters. The authenticity of
a few of the dialogues and most of the letters has been disputed.
The dialogues may be divided into early, middle, and later periods of composition. The
earliest represent Plato's attempt to communicate the philosophy and dialectical style of
Socrates. Several of these dialogues take the same form. Socrates, encountering someone
who claims to know much, professes to be ignorant and seeks assistance from the one
who knows. As Socrates begins to raise questions, however, it becomes clear that the one
reputed to be wise really does not know what he claims to know, and Socrates emerges as
the wiser one because he at least knows that he does not know. Such knowledge, of
course, is the beginning of wisdom.
The dialogues of the middle and later periods of Plato's life reflect his own philosophical
development. The ideas in these works are attributed by most scholars to Plato himself,
although Socrates continues to be the main character in many of the dialogues.
Theory of Forms
At the heart of Plato's philosophy is his theory of Forms, or Ideas. Ultimately, his view of
knowledge, his ethical theory, his psychology, his concept of the state, and his
perspective on art must be understood in terms of this theory.
Plato believed that there exists an immaterial Universe of `forms', perfect aspects of
everyday things such as a table, bird, and ideas/emotions, joy, action, etc. The objects and
ideas in our material world are `shadows' of the forms (see
Plato's Allegory of the Cave
This solves the problem of how objects in the material world are all distinct (no two
tables are exactly the same) yet they all have `tableness' in common. There are different
objects reflecting the `tableness' from the Universe of Forms.
Theory of Knowledge
Plato's theory of Forms and his theory of knowledge are so interrelated that they must be
discussed together. Influenced by Socrates, Plato was convinced that knowledge is
attainable. He was also convinced of two essential characteristics of knowledge. First,