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Plato versus Aristotle: Theory of Forms and Causes

Plato imagined that there existed an ideal or perfect world beyond our own physical earth.

Plato was a philosopher who had been a student of Socrates. He formed the first known “university” called the Academy. Plato’s most widely known work is The Republic and his most famous idea is the Theory of Forms1-3.  Plato in his Theory of Forms believed that while one’s present life (experience) was varying, realistic and definite, the ideal forms were static and real. The Forms were universal and constituted the real world. What we see are particulars (mimics of the real thing). Plato believed there was an enormous divide in our perception of reality a. To Plato, reality was the exact opposite of what we perceive our earth to be. In essence, Plato’s theory emphasized a Form of recognition rather than cognition.  One has to be aware that from Plato’s viewpoint, all Forms were hidden from view and that the Ultimate form was the Form of Good 4.

Firstly, what Plato believed about reality was very different from Aristotle’s ideology. Plato imagined that there existed an ideal or perfect world beyond our own physical earth. Our earthly world is full of unevenness, imperfections, and impurities which have been copied from the true ideal world which is beyond us. Plato further believed that our physical world and its Forms participate or imitate the real Forms in a disorderly way. He claimed that there was a relationship between the realm of Forms and our world. This relationship revealed to us mortals the forms and brought order to life 5.

Aristotle objected to Plato’s view, arguing that one cannot know the type of interaction which is occurring between the two Forms. If the “real or ideal forms” are eternal, pure and unchanging then how do they relate to the material objections or Forms on earth with all their physical imperfections? This participation or imitation link between the real and the imaginary (which Plato claimed existed) is erroneous thinking as no one can/has established such a link – real or otherwise. And even if a link is established it fails to explain all the Forms in the material world. At some point Plato fails to explain how this greater Form was controlled- how can Form control things? Was there energy in “Forms”?

Aristotle’s assumption of the Theory of Forms was intimately integrated with his belief that we develop some type of biological and scientific wisdom of a primary substance (be it plant, animal, rock, etc) only when we know what are usually called its “causes.” The

a.The name of this aspect of Plato’s thought is not modern and has not been extracted from certain dialogues by modern scholars. The term was used at least as early as Diogenes Laertius, who called it (Plato’s) “Theory of Forms:” Πλάτων ν τ περ τν δεν πολήψει…., “Plato”. Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book III. Paragraph 15.

Greek word, aitia, which is translated as “causes,” is probably better rendered as “that which explains.” What that means is that our knowledge of something only occurs once we have ascertained why the “thing” is there and what its uses are (the primitive scientific method). Thus, if the essence of being a humanoid includes being a biped, we are able to explain our two legs by appeal to the form of humanness which is in us. So knowledge of the form or essence is in effect knowledge of the thing’s causes, of what explains why it is what it is. In this way Aristotle’s theory of knowledge was integrated with his metaphysics or scientific method 6.

Plato postulated that once the humans rose above their physical environment, they would understand the Forms which were present in the invisible world b. Whether he meant this would occur after death or during life remains a mystery. Aristotle on the other hand believed that everything was right here on earth and one could find the Form if one developed a scientific method to apprehend it 7.

I believe the Forms which Plato believed in were not real. He claims that what we see on earth are mimics of the real thing, only with a lot of imperfections. In his Allegory of the Cave, outlined in The Republic, he called mimics artificial replicas of the real thing. In real life all that is seen is an illusion (smoke) of the real thing 8.

On the other hand, Aristotle believed that our natural world itself was real and physical. Aristotle, having studied some biological and physical phenomenon during his work as a teacher, came to understand that our world was made up of many natural Forms, even though not all of the Forms were ideal, pure or perfect. He argued that with our sense(s) we could identify all the natural Forms on earth. The big question which Aristotle and everyone else asked about Plato’s theory of Forms was ‘what are the two separate realms and what do they mean and how do they explain life as it is?’

No matter how one analyses Plato’s theory, it simply fails to explain our physical world, its evolution and the order of things. Why some things are permanent remains a central question in his philosophy c. How was the knowledge about our own world derived from the “ideal Forms”? One can understand that genetic traits can be passed on to future generations of humans and animals, but how does this information pass on to inanimate objects like the stone, rock, sand or water? How could these physical properties with no “Brain” understand the ideal world? I can understand that perhaps some humans may have ESP and perceive (with a lot of good luck) the past or the future, but how can a rock know that it was a rock in the ideal world first and now is a manifestation of the rock in our world?

b Plato to a large extent identifies what today is called  insight with recollection: “whenever on seeing one thing you conceived another whether like or unlike, there must surely have been an act of recollection?” – Phaedo paragraph 229. Thus geometric reasoning on the part of persons who know no geometry is not insight but is recollection. He does recognize insight: “… with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem …” (with regard to “the course of scrutiny”) - The Seventh Letter 344b.

c Fine, Gail (1992). On Ideas: Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms. Oxford University Press.  “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources/0198235496″ ISBN 0198235496.  Reviewed by Gerson, Lloyd P (1993).  http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1993/04.05.25.html http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1993/04.05.25.html Gail Fine, On Ideas. Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms (html). Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.25. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

Another argument against Plato’s theory of Forms is the resemblance of two objects. Plato explains that those two objects look like each other due to their cooperative

contribution in a common Form. A black dog and a black book, for example, resemble each other in goodness by being copies of the “Form” of black. Because the dog and book are copies of the form black, they also bear a resemblance to this form. But this resemblance between the black object and the form of blackness must also be explained in terms of another form. What form does a black object and the form of blackness both copy to account for their similarity? Is everything black a book or is everything black a dog? One quickly gets the idea that Plato’s theory of Forms falls apart 9.

Since Plato never did write down what he meant and a lot of the material is lost, the translation of his thoughts have taken many meanings. The major evidence for Plato’s theory of Forms has always been limited primarily to intuition, and is not grounded in anything apprehensible.  Aristotle wisely judged the efficacy of Forms on their use and matter of Particulars. He believed in the scientific method in a reverse process.  However, even Aristotle’s philosophy leaves some questions unanswered.  What if something was non existent and needed to be developed? What happens then? Humans only have a limited capacity of senses and many discoveries are made serendipitously. Neither Plato nor Aristotle explains the role of chance in their Form theories.

In conclusion, Plato’s imaginary “Real Forms Theory” remains speculative at best. It is difficult to believe that life exists in the Forms postulated by Plato. We live in a practical world where we have learned to employ our reason, we use methodology to explain and discover things, we reason to think of what can and will happen, we understand the scientific method and when the experiment is done- we understand the process. The majority of us believe in the Greater being, but this does not prevent us from thinking on our own. What we create is controlled by us and not by someone else or a Form.  We live in a different era of time from Plato and Aristotle. We have accomplished a lot in the past 50 years.  We have traveled further, climbed higher, seen more moons and stars (and even visited one), have developed ingenious technology and have become practical individuals with the ability to think scientifically.  When it comes to theories- they are just that. There is no right or wrong, just personal beliefs and not everything has to be psychoanalyzed. I personally believe that neither Plato nor Aristotle is right or wrong- they just had different beliefs and ideology.

References for Further Reading

1. Fine, G. “The One Over Many.” The Philosophical Review 89, no. 2 (April 1980):

197-240.

2. Fine, Gail (1992). On Ideas: Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198235496.  Reviewed by Gerson, Lloyd P (1993). Gail Fine, On Ideas. Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms (html). Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.25. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

3. White, NP, “Plato’s Metaphysical Epistemology.” In The Cambridge

Companion to Plato, edited by Richard Kraut. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

4. Silverman, Allan (June, 2003).  HYPERLINK “http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-metaphysics/”Plato’s Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology (html). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysical Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University.

5. Watt, Stephen (1997), “Introduction: The Theory of Forms (Books 5-7)”, Plato: Republic, London: Wordsworth Editions, pp. pages xiv-xvi.

6. Annas, J. “Aristotle on Inefficient Causes.” The Philosophical Quarterly 32, no. 129 (October 1982): 311-326/

7. McElroy S. A comparison of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. (2003) http://home.telepath.com/~wanderer/school/HSCI%203013%20- %20Plato%20vs %20Aristotle.pdf.

8. Oakes W. The Function of the Forms: Examining Plato’s Conception of Aitia Against the Criticisms of Aristotle. http://www.sewanee.edu/Philosophy/Capstone/2004/oakes.pdf.

9. White, F.C., “Plato’s Middle Dialogues and the Independence of Particulars.” The

Philosophical Quarterly 27, no. 108 (July 1977): 193-213.

Thanks to Siam for contributing this paper.

8 Comments on Plato versus Aristotle: Theory of Forms and Causes

  1. Doing my homework on this thingey-thing !

  2. Reading through this for a Term Paper I'm wondering what you mean by "Was there energy being 'Form's'?". For Plato, his Forms were ontos, or the Ultimate Reality of what the thing should be. For example: a plant can change as nature dictates, but it will never match up to the ultimate ideal of what its ontos is…or rather, its plantness. What we see is phenomena, what we know to be the best and perfect is ontos. Plato isn't saying that just because physical things don't meet expectations of ontos they don't exist…THEY DO EXIST..just not as perfectly as their essence should. For the Allegory of the Cave, the sun is ontos, what objects are reflected to our eyes (like a tree) are the phenomena. The "Black dog Black book" example confuses me as well. Just because they are the same color – black – does not mean they resemble the same form. Their primary substance (as Aristotle says) and even their ontos is different because they are in fact different objects all together. It's just primary quality (Aristotle) that connects them with the color black.

    Aristotle says (in Metaphysics & Phyics, some of De Anima as well) that things are made of Matter and Form. Sort of like Democritus.

  3. Reading through this for a Term Paper I'm wondering what you mean by "Was there energy being 'Form's'?". For Plato, his Forms were ontos, or the Ultimate Reality of what the thing should be. For example: a plant can change as nature dictates, but it will never match up to the ultimate ideal of what its ontos is…or rather, its plantness. What we see is phenomena, what we know to be the best and perfect is ontos. Plato isn't saying that just because physical things don't meet expectations of ontos they don't exist…THEY DO EXIST..just not as perfectly as their essence should. For the Allegory of the Cave, the sun is ontos, what objects are reflected to our eyes (like a tree) are the phenomena. The "Black dog Black book" example confuses me as well. Just because they are the same color – black – does not mean they resemble the same form. Their primary substance (as Aristotle says) and even their ontos is different because they are in fact different objects all together. It's just primary quality (Aristotle) that connects them with the color black.

    Aristotle says (in Metaphysics & Phyics, some of De Anima as well) that things are made of Matter and Form. Sort of like Democritus.

  4. he means just what he said there was energy in the forms
    black is a quality not a form
    a good exmple of a form is a ball ot is shaped round
    roundness is a form

    August

  5. Form, for Plato, is something which is beyond our senses. The reason is that when we perceive things, what we see is change, however, forms are not changing but rather permanent. What we see is just a reflection from the world of forms/ideas.

  6. Plato did not believe that particulars were mimics of the Forms as this article claims; in fact, he was forced to acknowlegde that mimicry was not a suitable explanation of the relationship between Forms and particulars. If we allege that particulars imitate Forms, we allege that they are like Forms in some way. For Plato, however, Forms and particulars are quite distinct, and are not "like" each other in all ways. This was the basis of objection from which Aristotle built his third-man argument around. I am just being a pedantic first-year, however, and will now resume my reading of this article :)

  7. Master Debater // October 12, 2011 at 11:30 am // Reply

    WHERE THE FUC IS THE HELPFULNESS? HMMMMMMMMM

  8. eatyourpuss4lunch // February 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm // Reply

    the rash on my fanny is outrageous exclaimed Mr. Phillbrick!

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