The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

Many terms that are colossal in meaning sound unassuming: God, beauty, truth; none is more deceitfully humdrum than form.

The theory of the Forms is one of the most celebrated ideas in all of Western philosophy. Most of us recall vaguely that it’s something to do with Socrates, and a superior plane where abstractions exist, and something about making fun of people chained in a cave for being stupid. To fully understand it, let’s place it in a little historical context: Plato was active mainly in the fourth century, but the roots of his theory lie two hundred of years earlier, in the intellectual flowering* known to us as pre-Socratic philosophy.

Pre-Socratic philosophy began in the sixth century BC in Ionia.* The term philosophy did not, at the time, indicate solely what we mean by it (the study of being and causality, logic and the laws of thought, etc.), but was a quite general term; the word is literally translated “love of wisdom.” These ancient philosophers discussed mathematics, business, astronomy, medicine, the gods, you name it.

This new pastime soon spread everywhere that Greek-speakers lived, which brings us to our two key players for the theory of Forms: Heraclitus, a native of Ephesus, and Pythagoras, who spent most of his career in southern Italy. Heraclitus is famous for his saying “No one can step in the same river twice,” sometimes with the added explanation: “the second time, it’s not the same river, and he is not the same man.” This illustrated his doctrine of flux, that everything was incessantly changing—a doctrine which seems oddly vindicated today by quantum mechanics. He also set forth the idea of the logos,** a rational substructure (or perhaps mind?) that sustains the universe. Pythagoras is famous for saying that “Number is all,” and other things that seem equally befuddling. He most likely meant that everything is measurable in terms of numbers, which the Pythagoreans considered “divine”—a word that, to the Greeks, chiefly meant immortality, and thus by extension eternity. Both Heraclitus and Pythagoras flourished in the later half of the sixth century BC, and perhaps into the fifth. A hundred-odd years later, along comes Plato, trained to respect both of these great thinkers—but that poses a problem. If everything is measurable in terms of the divine, how can everything also be in ceaseless flux?

Cue the Forms. Plato set the theory forth in some of his most important dialogues, like the Republic, Phaedo, Timaeus, and Phaedrus. (These are mostly thought to date to the middle of Plato’s career, roughly ca. 380–360 BC.) He proposed a set of changeless, immaterial entities, occupying a higher plane of existence proper to their transcendent kind of being; earthly objects are the shadows of, or participate in, these higher realities. The word Form (from the Latin forma, “shape”) became standard to indicate this real but very limited resemblance between the transcendentals and our material plane. When we stop to smell the roses, we do not really smell roses as such, but material imitations or reflections of the Rose. The Rose corresponds to the divine, and satisfies the Pythagorean half of the problem, while the material plane is what exists in never-ending Heraclitean chaos.

But if we have only ever seen pale copies of the Rose, how do we even know what a rose is? Simple: by recollection. In a previous existence (Plato picks up the idea of reincarnation from Pythagoras as well), we ourselves occupied a more exalted plane, and there learned about the Rose; our memory now is dimmer, but can be enhanced through the practice of rationality and mysticism—a pair which, strange though we may find it, was perfectly harmonious to the Greeks. As for these material imitations, they were the work of the demiurge. This was a benevolent spirit, powerful and insightful enough to create the material world, but by no means the sum of all perfections or the origin of all being. (Centuries later, some Gnostic sects would use the name of the demiurge for a spirit they considered basically evil, or at least stupid. Neither idea agrees with Plato’s use of the term.)

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

Plato’s immediate successors did not adopt the doctrine of the Forms: the “Middle Platonists,” who reigned over the Academy† from the late fourth century BC to the early third AD, were mostly skeptics. But in the third century, neo-Platonism arose, reviving the central body of Platonist ideas; this was taken up by Christian theologians as they entered the philosophic world, and later on by Jewish and Muslim theologians as well. St. Augustine in the fifth century and John Scotus Eriugena in the ninth were both exemplary neo-Platonist Christians. They did not take up Plato unmodified; his dim view of creation, matter, and the body counted against him. But the doctrine of the Forms was picked up, and their vaguely-defined “higher plane of being” received a new and definite interpretation as the mind of God. The Forms were sometimes renamed as well: since both they and the material world were the work of an omniscient and all-powerful Creator, not of a finite demiurge, the agreement or participation between them could be far more complete and beautiful than a mere shape. Archetypes, relating to the Greek word αρχή (archē) which had meanings like “beginning,” “source” or “origin,” and “governing principle.” The relationship of archetypes to their terrestrial ectypes (material particulars) was more robust than Plato had allowed, since his demiurge was not omniscient or almighty.

The Islamic Golden Age and Scholasticism both moved again in a more Aristotelian direction, as exemplified by Averroës or St. Thomas. Still, a handful of theologians—mostly Franciscans—maintained the old neo-Platonic outlook. Of these, another Scotus,‡ this time named Duns Scotus, suggested a very interesting addition to the scheme of archetypes and ectypes: hæcceity, or “this-ness,”§ which today we might refer to as identity. You and I are both ectypes of the human archetype, and what distinguishes us from one another are our hæcceities; put another way, what we are is the same, but who we are is where we differ.

Neo-Platonism saw another revival during the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment, contributing to what we now call idealism. This is a philosophical school, or really a collection of schools, that consider thought, mind, and perception to be fundamental elements of reality, and that there can be no such thing as … anything, apart from them. Christians and Deists have characteristically taken this view, from René Descartes to Alfred North Whitehead; Descartes’ attempt to reconstruct reality on nothing but inferences is a standard example of an idealist approach. (Idealism contrasts with realist philosophies, which tend to take the things we think about and experience as primary. John Locke is a good example to set beside Descartes.) Immanuel Kant is probably the most influential idealist of the last three hundred years or so; Hegel, Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Wittgenstein are all exemplars of idealism too.

But it would be misleading to wrap up this glance at the history of the Forms on a “triumphalist” note. The doctrine has its problems—the Middle Platonists and Averroists had good reasons to turn away from it. It may yet be possible to salvage the theory (modern Platonists certainly think so!), but salvage is required, so to speak.

One longstanding issue is, a little embarrassingly, how the Forms are supposed to work, i.e. fulfill their “function” of being the reality that underlies particulars. Plato described this with words like participation, reflection, or shadow. Obviously these are metaphors. But the point of a metaphor is that we should be able to strip it away and get at the unadorned fact; for instance, if we speak of “chocolate eyes,” we can simply dispense with the metaphor and say “brown eyes.” If we remove the metaphors about how the Forms imbue their material ectypes (e.g. “participation” as if in a vote or “reflection” as if in a mirror), what, in plain language, is going on? Most thinkers, Plato apparently included, do not feel that Plato’s works answer this question satisfactorily. This is closely related to another critique, often called the “third man” problem: if everything we know is what it is by having a Form, then is there a Form of forms? If there is, does that too need a “backup” Form in order to make sense? Infinite regress clearly looms in the offing; even those of us who will not positively commit to Aristotle’s assertion that no infinite regress can really exist seem to have an instinctive distaste for the idea, as the notorious “turtles all the way down” hypothesis exhibits.

We lack time and space to consider Aristotle’s critiques of his master’s theory, or the scientific materialist view that remains popular today and naturally clashes with the concept of non-material planes of being. However, one further criticism merits mention, one as practical as it is theoretical. How do we distinguish between genuine archetypes, which communicate a higher reality to their ectypes, and merely conventional ideas which human beings invented and can change at will? The language of color furnishes us with some very handy examples. Take these four versions of the color blue alone.

  • Ancient Chinese culture didn’t always distinguish between blue and green. (The word 青 [qīng] is often rendered blue, azure, or blue-green in English.)
  • Russian has distinct terms for sky blue versus dark blue, as English has for pink and red (a distinction Russian lacks in turn).
  • The English word blue seems originally to have meant sky blue, since Newton felt it necessary to say “indigo” in order to indicate what we now typically call the blue part of the visible spectrum.
  • Gaelic, like Russian, has multiple words for blue: gorm mainly means “blue” but is also used to describe the color of grass, while liath can mean grey, pale blue, or lilac!

This problem was highlighted by the Medieval school called nominalism, which dismissed all archetypes as mere conveniences and, objectively speaking, nonentities. This is not the same as the modern idea of social constructs, but there is some (limited) similarity between the two. If there is a Pythagorean plane full of archetypes out there, I suppose we must be glad that they are at least safe there from our Heraclitean history.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Metaphysics
Plotinus, The Enneads
John Scotus Eriugena, On the Division of Nature
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

*Ionia was a region in modern Turkey, roughly the center of its western coast on the Ægean Sea, which had been colonized by Greeks. Cities such as Ephesus, Miletus, and Smyrna were Ionian colonies.
**An irksome word to translate! Λόγος (logos) comes from λέγω (legō), “to say,” and is often translated “word, speech.” But in Greek thought, it could also indicate reason, structure, logic, etc.
†The Academy was the name of the school Plato founded (hence our word academy). Despite Aristotle’s prominence there, its leadership was handed to others when Plato died, and Aristotle founded his own school the Lyceum.
‡Originally, Scotus was the Latin word for the Irish or Scottish ethnicity. It later narrowed to mean Scotsmen in particular. Incidentally, John Scotus Eriugena came from Ireland, while Duns Scotus was from Scotland.
§Pronounced hex-say-ih-tee. Latinists may recognize the initial hæc- there as the feminine nominative singular of hic, hæc, hoc, meaning “this, this here.”


Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance writer and CLT’s editor-at-large; he lives in Baltimore. He has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a proud uncle to seven nephews.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy our Great Conversation pieces on ideas like humor, infinity, and the will; or take a look at our series on the men and women of our Author Bank, covering figures like St. Gregory the Great, Margaret Cavendish, and Henry David Thoreau. Thank you for reading the Journal!

Published on 2nd March, 2023. Page image of “The School of Athens” (1511) by Raphael Sanzio.

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