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THE THEORY OF FORMS (476b-480a)
What is the spectacle of truth that delights true philosophers and absorbs their attention? What is the whole of wisdom that they seek to know? These questions are difficult ones and not easily answered. In fact, Plato spends a considerable part of the remaining books presenting his theory of knowledge (epistemology). Embedded in his theory is one of his most famous doctrines, sometimes called the Theory of Forms. In the final section of this book Plato introduces the problem of knowledge. Here his treatment of the Forms is in no way complete and you may find it confusing. But in the coming images of the Analogy of the Sun, the Divided Line, and the Allegory of the Cave, Plato will present a much more thorough account of the whole of wisdom.
Now Socrates distinguishes opinion from knowledge. Those people-amateur philosophers, for instance-who believe in beautiful things but not in the idea of beauty itself, are living in a dream world of appearances and opinion, which is "the mistaking of resemblance for identity." On the other hand, those few people-true philosophers-who approach the idea of beauty and contemplate it in and by itself, apart from particular sensations, are very much awake because they are functioning in the mental state of knowledge.
Socrates then points out that to know is to know some thing; thus, knowledge must have objects. Likewise, to believe (to have opinions) is to believe some thing; therefore, belief also must have objects. What, then, is the difference between knowledge and belief?
Socrates argues that knowledge is infallible, that is to say that one cannot falsely know anything. To know some thing entails that the thing known exists, that it is. Further, he says that the objects of knowledge are unchanging and eternal. Belief, however, may be true or false. The objects of belief may or may not be real, may or may not exist.
NOTE: Plato is making an important distinction between the faculties of the mind (such mental states as knowing and believing) and their domains as objects. Sometimes the mental faculties are described as the subjective realm of cognition, and the objects of cognition are described as the objective realm. In other words, the subjective realm is the internal ways in which people perceive some thing. The objects of the intellect-ideas-are external (objective) in the sense that these ideas exist apart from any one individual's cognition. The ideas exist no matter how you think about them. Indeed, the ideas exist even if you yourself aren't thinking about them at all. They can be grasped by people today as well as they were by the people of ancient Athens.
Also implied in this discussion is the distinction between the actual (the objects of opinion and sensation) and the ideal (the objects of knowledge and intellect). This distinction is crucial to Plato's Theory of Forms. There are forms of things (actual objects and experiences) and forms of thought (the way one thinks about the things of the world, the ideas one has about them). The philosopher seeks to understand the forms of thought-the idea of beauty, for example. However, to understand beauty in itself, one must see that the many actual instances of beauty all participate in the single idea of beauty. That is, beauty in itself is an idea (an intelligible form) that makes it possible to recognize beauty in the myriad things that come to be and pass away in the actual world. For instance, some things that are beautiful today (say, a vase of roses) may, over time, cease to be beautiful (shriveled, decaying roses). But the idea of beauty never decays, and always excludes its opposite, ugliness. Particular, beautiful things can become ugly, but the universal idea of beauty remains.
In this passage Socrates is telling Glaucon that true philosophers seek not the many spectacles of beauty, as do the amateurs. They pursue the single idea of beauty. The many examples of beauty belong in the realm of opinion and belief, of becoming. The Form of beauty, beauty in itself, belongs to knowledge and being. The objects of sensation-flowers, paintings, theatrical productions, and the like-come and go. The objects of knowledge-beauty, justice, velocity, and the like-are universal and permanent. If everything was constantly in a state of becoming, as the things of the world are, then there could be no knowledge. But true being exists in the form of the objects of thought which are, also, the objects of science and philosophy. Thus, knowledge of the Forms is the knowledge that true philosophers seek. In other words, one of the philosopher's tasks is to ask what can be truly known (not simply believed), and how it is that anyone comes to know anything.
Later, in Books VI, VII, and X, Plato will elaborate on and clarify the theory of knowledge that he introduces here.