laps name lilies

AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

The Theory of Forms and the Relation between Knowledge and Power

After having laid out the scheme of education and life proper to the guardians Socrates, at the end of Book V, is strongly challenged by Glaucon to show that the ideal city is possible (471c). The first answer that Socrates gives is that even if it were not possible, it provides an orientation for practice. He will repeat this view at the end of Book IX.  Instead of demonstrating positively that the ideal can exist in the here and now, Socrates proposes to examine the least, smallest change that would bring the ideal within sight of realization. This is the famous proposal  that knowledge and power coalesce, that politics and philosophy be united. The city will have no respite from evils, says Socrates, until philosophers become kings or until kings genuinely philosophize.

But what is the wisdom , the knowledge that philosophers have and of which the city stands in need? Plato’s answer to this question will come in the form of the parables and myths of  the ship of state, the divided line, the sun and the cave.  I will discuss here only the parables of the divided line and the sun. The other two, especially the parable of the cave, can be reserved for class discussion. These parables/myths are an attempt to convey to the layman, the non-philosopher or not-yet philosopher Plato’s theory of “forms”.

Plato describes the philosopher as one who possesses knowledge beyond and opposed to mere opinion. Opinion or belief can be either true or false, and is in fact constantly changing. It is sometimes true, sometimes false because it depends upon  and perceives only the constantly changing objects of sense. Knowledge, on the other hand, would be invariant and infallible because it is of unchanging and eternal objects that have a real existence independent of individual human minds.  Knowledge would be of intelligible principles or patterns, principles or patterns that are themselves conditions of the objects (including actions and intentions) that we perceive with our senses.  We will see more about these objects in a moment.

To Adeimantus’ objection that in fact philosophers are useless or worse in terms of what the city needs, Socrates responds by differentiating strictly between Sophists and true philosophers like himself.  He uses the metaphor of the ship of state to indicate that it is the many who cannot recognize the usefulness that philosophers have because, in their ignorance, they have no idea in what his science consists. They have never allowed the scientific navigator to give directions and instructions to the ship’s pilot.

The science that a true philosopher has is ultimately the knowledge of  the Good in itself, or the Form of the Good. That is, the philosopher, whose rule is the condition for a just society, has immediate and certain knowledge of the ends that all public and private life should aim for and of the pattern to which individual and social life  should conform.  Plato’s theory of forms is thus the cornerstone of his response to the relativism and skepticism of the Sophists. Rather than each individual being the best judge of what is good for him; rather than there being as many goods as there are individuals, with no way of deciding between them, Plato believes that there are objective, universally valid, eternal truths in morality and in politics. These truths can be discovered by human reason. In fact they can be discovered by human reason only when it is detached from the senses and the passions of individuals mired in what is their own. More than that, these truths, once discovered and perceived, have the power to alter and influence human conduct and the direction of human striving. Once conduct is adjusted to the illumination these truths provide, we as individuals and as a society, must be better and happier.

Plato’s theory of forms is closely, if not essentially, tied up with what is sometimes called a “dual-world theory of reality”. Reality is not summed up in or exhausted by what we can obtain through sense perception. The world of sense-perception is of physical objects in space and time. For Plato the objects of sense-perception are real as well. (This is not always the case with all philosophers – e.g. Parmenides,  mentioned earlier, regarded the world of sense perception as a pure illusion) But in addition to the world of the senses another world or realm, according to Plato, that is different from, though related to the first. This realm or world is non-spatial, non-temporal, indeed non-physical. It is an “ideal” world, that is it is a world of what Plato in Greek called “ideai” or “eide” – which is best translated as “forms”. These are not the simple equivalent of  “ideas” in English. “Ideas” in English carries the strong connotation of something invented by or produced in the knower.

The forms cannot be known by sense-perception alone, and they do not depend in any way upon the action of a knower. But they can be known by thought. In fact, they are really the only objects of thought. Simple sense objects are not yet thought objects.  The best examples for those of us not yet trained in Plato’s philosophy comes from mathematics. For Plato a geometrician is not producing or inventing something, he/she is discovering or recognizing something, and that something is already and is objective. About that geometrical object, certain things can be stated and proven to all, universally. The object of mathematical thought is not any physical illustration one might use to help talk about it. The object is a “form”, e.g. the triangle or square. The form clearly stands in some important relation to the illustration we might use to investigate it, but the form is not the illustration, and also the form is not a particular. The form is not this particular triangular structure or that one.  The form of the triangle has properties that are true universally. So this object is universal, non-physical, non-spatial, non-temporal. The form exists independently of any particular things that resemble it. And it is  accessible only to pure thought, as opposed say to imagining, perceiving, dreaming.

The forms discovered in thought are not only mathematical. According to Plato, physical objects as well as moral objects (such as courage, moderation, justice, etc…) “have” their forms. Natural science for Plato is not about individual beings. It is not, for example, about this dog Fido  -- who is constantly changing and who is different from that dog over there, Spot. The natural scientist does not investigate or pursue particulars, but sets of universal properties. The totality of properties and relations between those properties the possession of which makes Fido here a “dog”,  is the form – Dog.  The whole of the form Dog may not be present in all its purity in any particular dog, but it might be.  The forms are eternal and unchanging. Otherwise there would be no knowledge of them, but only shifting and unreliable opinions. Individual dogs come and go.

 The Divided Line is Plato’s illustration of this two-world theory and of the kinds of “knowledge” that goes with each world. You should remember that only the philosopher will have knowledge of all the four realms of experience into which Plato divides the line. The divided Line is also a way of introducing the forms, and the idea of the form of the good, through a set of analogies drawn from experiences available to everyone.  You will find one good illustration of the Divided Line in a footnote at the bottom of p. 164 of Grube’s translation of the Republic. I will offer a slightly different illustration below for the purposes of this discussion:


                                Shadows                things                        lower                                  higher
                                Reflections            objects                       forms                                                forms
                                images                     acts                       !
less real                  ---------------------!----------------------!------------------------!-----------------------  the Good  
less permanent     Spot’s                        Spot                     !  dog                                     (life)                        more
                                shadow                                                                                                                                 real

                                                A                             B                             C                             D

                                Appearance/Sensible world                               Reality/World of Forms


The sensible world stands to the world of forms and the two sub-parts of the world of forms stand to each other in the same way that A and B stand to each other.  The sensible world is a shadow of the world of forms and the lower forms are shadows of the higher forms.

This will begin to make sense if we break it down. First, observe that any shadow of the dog Spot tells us something about Spot himself. Some of these shadows tell us more than others, but none are perfectly reliable. (None, e.g., can convey to us the colour of Spot’s nose) A patient study and collection of Spot’s shadows will tell us more. Establishing an order to the passing shadows may allow us to even make some predictions about what Spot will do in a given set of circumstances. We would then have a crude, purely empirical science, like the one being pursued by behaviorist survey research. And we would have this science because of the real Spot who is casting the shadow.

Now transpose this relation to the way the world of the senses is connected to the world of forms.  The relation between the form Dog and all particular dogs is the same, for Plato, as the relation between Spot and all of his shadows.  By studying these shadows we may gain some insight into many useful relations for our purposes. But imagine, if after having studied only his shadows for a long time, you were suddenly to see Spot himself. All of a sudden, you would realize why it was that you were perceiving the shadows you saw and why the patterns were as they were. You would see the necessary order in the relations among all these shadows. In such a way, knowledge of the form illuminates and makes intelligible all of the particulars of which it is the form. You would see the why of all those phenomena.

[In such a way, all of the earlier definitions of justice are included in and made sense of by our knowledge of the form of justice, including the reasons why each of those earlier definitions was inadequate. Remember, there were basically four earlier definitions of justice offered by Cephalus (justice is repaying one’s debts); Polemarchus (it is defending one’s friends and harming one’s enemies); Thrasymachus (it is the interest of the stronger); Glaucon (it is the interest of the weaker). All of these are included in Socrates’ definition of justice, and at the same time each is shown to be only partial and inadequate.]

But let us take the Divided Line illustration a bit farther. We can use the example of a car engine.  If I pop the hood of a car to look at the engine, what I see (given my knowledge of cars) is pretty much a shadow world. I can name a few of the parts and I have a dim sort of idea of what they do and how they are related to each other. In Plato’s terms my level of knowledge here is mere “recognition”.  A good mechanic, on the other hand, will not only know all the parts, how they fit and work together, but will know how to fix them. For him/her a certain rattle or squeek  might even lead to an immediate diagnosis of a problem. This sort of knowledge will be largely based upon many hours of experience and trial and error. A good deal of it will not be communicable. The mechanic “just knows”.  According to Plato, the mechanic has reached the level of “opinion”.  These days a good deal of what she/he knows would be called “tacit knowledge”. But the mechanic (as mechanic) does not have the knowledge of how to design and construct an engine. This would require these days an engineer (or a whole bunch of them). They would have knowledge of the chemistry of combustion, of metallurgy, of the laws of thermodynamics. The engineer and beyond the engineer the physicist and the chemist would see the engine as an example, one of very many examples, of general and mathematically statable principles  that express the properties of heat energy, the mechanics of motion and momentum, the strength of materials and many other things…

Each level of knowledge is “higher” than the others because it illuminates the experience of seeing the engine. And each level is more abstract and general than the last.

The relation of the world of the senses to the world of forms is also used to show by analogy the relations between the lower and the higher forms. For example, thermodynamics, about which the automotive engineer might know a fair bit,  is but a small part of physics. Each special science, like Euclidean geometry which was best known to Plato, has certain definitions and axioms from which it begins. Plato calls these “principles”.  The knower of the lower forms assumes such principles, often unconsciously, and goes on from there. But a still higher level of knowledge is possible, according to Plato, and this level works backwards, as it were, trying to prove the basic assumptions. Thus for Plato, all knowledge is conditioned by a relatively small set of demonstrable ultimate truths. (So, for example, all natural sciences, try to establish causal relations among the entities they focus on, and thus assume that every event has a cause. But none attempt to prove that. That is a task left to philosophy). Knowledge of area D on the Line would be the science of first principles. D would illumine and make meaningful C, just as C does B and B does A. Knowledge is therefore like a pyramid, with the base being more “conditioned”, and the apex being “absolute”. Eventually we reach a single point, travelling up the pyramid towards ever less conditioned truths, a point upon which everything else depends and which is itself  unconditioned. From the perspective of knowing this point, everything else would be illuminated and put in proper perspective.  This point, for Plato, is the Form of the Good. But as the myths of the Sun and the Cave try to illustrate, the Form of the Good cannot be explained to anyone who has not traveled  the long route of philosophical analysis and investigation he calls “dialectic”. That would be like trying to instantly explain all of physics and chemistry and the philosophy of science to some plain guy like me who just knows how to drive.

Plato does, however, offer something in the way of a metaphor to help begin to understand what he means by the Good and this is the metaphor of the Sun. Plato compares the Good to the Sun. Like the Sun, the Good is a source of illumination. The good illuminates, or makes meaningful, lower orders of knowledge. Like the sun, the Good, for Plato is not a cold and lifeless light, but has an active and creative power. Things depend for their existence on the good in the way that living beings depend on the sun. This creative power gives the Good the aspect of divinity. Also the Good has an affinity with our minds, in the same way that our eyes are attuned to sunlight. “Seeing” or intuiting the Good with the “mind’s eye” satisfies in a way similar to the way our physical eyes are satisfied by the light which allows us to see.  The Good, like the Sun, has an attraction for us. Plato is here alluding to, but not really explaining, the prescriptive power of ideas.  Remember, in all of this he is Socrates’ pupil, trying to extend the Socratic wisdom in new directions. And for Socrates,  the historical Socrates, knowledge is virtue and to know the good is to desire it.

Having gone over the line and the sun, we can now --- but in class, turn to the central metaphor of the Republic, the myth of the Cave.

Back to Lectures Schedule.

York University Copyright © - Asher Horowitz - All rights reserved