In the first afternoon session, Jeff Mason and Plato debate the reality of the ‘world of Forms’…
There is a timeless world that we can grasp; a world that doesn’t change; a world of universal and necessary truths. The objects of this world aren’t as far away as you might think. You encounter them first as the truths of geometry and mathematics. They are recognisable because of the fact that if you deny that they are true you end up contradicting yourself. This kind of necessity belongs to the Forms themselves, to justice, and to the highest Form of the Good.
Study of mathematics and geometry reveals a world of ideal objects, which don’t exist in time or space and are never perceived by the senses. There is a distinction between the intellectual world and the world of the senses. If you think of a triangle as a geometrical figure you realise that you can reason about triangles quite conclusively, but that you can never encounter one in your experience. A triangle put down on a blackboard is not perfect. Its lines will not be absolutely straight. Yet we can think about lines and triangles, and we can prove complicated things about them, without ever seeing them with our eyes.
This is amazing. Why should it be? Most of our knowledge comes through experience, but not this knowledge. There is more than one way to know things, and we know the world of necessary and universal truths in an a priori fashion. To know something a priori is to know it without the aid of sense experience. When you see a representation of a triangle, it reminds you of a perfect triangle, the one you will never see. You can reflect on a perfect triangle. Once you’ve done that, you are no longer thinking about a changeable world. You have entered the realm of Being, of truth, rather than the world of becoming. We might have to live in the world of becoming, but the world of Being is more true.
So how do we get to know the Forms? We are reminded of them in sense experience. Seeing an imperfect circle reminds us of the equivalent Form of a circle. Seeing a beautiful sunset reminds us of Beauty itself. All beautiful things partake of the Beautiful. Only through philosophical reflection can the mind come to knowledge of the Forms.”
Jeff Mason’s replies to Plato on the Forms:
We are in a realm of ideal objects, a higher reality than the one revealed through the senses. This is an important philosophical move, because it is the beginning of a dualism between the temporal and the eternal. When we say that the temporal is not really real, we are throwing away the flux of our lives and clinging to an idea of perfection that is timelessly true and perfect. Once we distinguish between becoming and Being, and realise that we’re in the world of becoming, then we also realise that it is hard, if not impossible to attain knowledge of Being. We can get close to it in mathematics and geometry, but because they both require unprovable presuppositions, they give us only the road to truth, not truth itself.
The theory of the Forms is attractive because it solves two main problems. The first is ‘How can many things become one thing?’ A chair is one thing, but it is many things. It can be broken into parts, so how can it be one thing? The answer is that the Form is one but there are many imperfectly instantiating instances. There is only one Form of justice but all just acts participate in this Form. The many just acts are one with respect to justice.
The second problem is change. How can something remain itself, whilst ceasing to be itself? In the state of becoming an object is not itself. The Forms seem to answer this question. They don’t change, but the things that copy the Forms change. The many beautiful sunsets succeed each other, but the Idea of the beautiful sunset is eternal.
As a young genius, Plato discovers the Forms and becomes devoted to them. He thinks they will solve all the main philosophical problems. But when he gets to middle age, he recognises that the rule of change is more important than he thought. He comes back around to a more modern idea. We see it in his writings, especially in Parmenides, where he criticises his own theory of Forms. Parmenides asks an awkward question about the relationship between the particulars and the Form in which they participate? If there is no relationship at all between the particulars and the Form, how can we ever know the Form? But if there is a relationship between them, then we need another Form to describe this relationship, and so on. Socrates does not know what to say and admits that he is ignorant and confused. Late in his career Plato sees theoretical problems with the Forms, as does his student Aristotle. (See other article)
We can criticize Plato’s dualism of higher and lower levels of knowledge, and his belief that the distinction between the Forms and the particulars will solve the main philosophical problems. But for sheer verve, the idea of the Forms is extremely powerful. It gives us a way to unify the world of experience while acknowledging the superiority of a higher knowledge of universal necessary truths. At the top, somehow ‘beyond Being’, is the Form of the Good, drawing the self into a unity while it illuminates the world of the Forms. Whether this dualism is necessary or even possible has been one of the enduring questions of philosophy.