The Theory of the Forms is one of the more complex of Plato’s thoughts. While it is also not widely accepted among modern philosophers, the theory warrants at least brief study as it does still have modern applications, particularly in philosophy of religion. It is likely, however, that Plato never intended this teaching to be used in the study of the God of monotheistic religions, but that is something to unpack in another course.
Plato believed that for everything that existed on earth, there was a perfect version or blueprint or plan of that thing on a higher level of existence. We simple humans can only conceive shadows (see Allegory of the Cave) of such things, thus we merely experience those that participate in their perfect forms.
The Theory Applied
The best way to understand Plato’s theory of the forms is look at it using examples we see around us every day.
Below, we see three photos of cars: an Audi, a BMW, and a Ford Mustang. Though they have many similarities in design, engineering, technology, and functionality, each is its own unique machine.
Driving each one is a different experience; they even look different in shape, color, and detail. Yet we can point at any of these three vehicles and say with complete confidence, “car.”
These are not identical vehicles, yet they are all cars. So, Plato would ask, what makes such individual machines all fall under the proverbial umbrella of “car”?
The all have carness. Moreover, they participate in the form of car. According to Plato’s theory–as applied today–there is a perfect concept of car on higher level of existence. The things we consider cars are imperfect objects that just have carness. They have the essence of car.
Let’s examine another example. Consider your phone. You might be reading this article on it. Below are three things we call “phone.”
These are even more different than the cars we compared, but each is a phone. While radically different, each has phoneness, the essence of phone in it as it participates in the higher form of phone.
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