The Theory of Forms maintains that two distinct levels of reality exist: the visible world of sights and sounds that we inhabit and the intelligible world of Forms that stands above the visible world and gives it being. For example, Plato maintains that in addition to being able to identify a beautiful person or a beautiful painting, we also have a general conception of Beauty itself, and we are able to identify the beauty in a person or a painting only because we have this conception of Beauty in the abstract. In other words, the beautiful things we can see are beautiful only because they participate in the more general Form of Beauty. This Form of Beauty is itself invisible, eternal, and unchanging, unlike the things in the visible world that can grow old and lose their beauty. The Theory of Forms envisions an entire world of such Forms, a world that exists outside of time and space, where Beauty, Justice, Courage, Temperance, and the like exist untarnished by the changes and imperfections of the visible world.

Plato’s conception of Forms actually differs from dialogue to dialogue, and in certain respects it is never fully explained, so many aspects of the theory are open to interpretation. Forms are first introduced in Phaedo, but in that dialogue the concept is simply referred to as something the participants are already familiar with, and the theory itself is not developed. Similarly, in The Republic, Plato relies on the concept of Forms as the basis of many of his arguments but feels no need to argue for the validity of the theory itself or to explain precisely what Forms are. Commentators have been left with the task of explaining what Forms are and how visible objects participate in them, and there has been no shortage of disagreement.

Some scholars advance the view that Forms are paradigms, perfect examples on which the imperfect world is modeled. Others interpret Forms as universals, so that the Form of Beauty, for example, is that quality that all beautiful things share. Yet others interpret Forms as “stuffs,” the conglomeration of all instances of a quality in the visible world. Under this interpretation, we could say there is a little beauty in one person, a little beauty in another—all the beauty in the world put together is the Form of Beauty. Plato himself was aware of the ambiguities and inconsistencies in his Theory of Forms, as is evident from the incisive criticism he makes of his own theory in the Parmenides.

In essence, the Theory of Forms represents Plato’s attempt to cultivate our capacity for abstract thought. Philosophy was a relatively new invention in Plato’s day, and it competed with mythology, tragedy, and epic poetry as the primary means by which people could make sense of their place in the world. Like philosophy, art and mythology provide concepts that help us to understand ourselves, but art and mythology do so by appealing to our emotions and desires. Philosophy appeals to the intellect. The Theory of Forms differentiates the abstract world of thought from the world of the senses, where art and mythology operate. Plato also argued that abstract thought is superior to the world of the senses. By investigating the world of Forms, Plato hopes to attain a greater knowledge.

Popular pages: Selected Works of Plato