PLATO’S WORLD OF FORM OF ABSOLUTISM: AN APPRAISAL
Background to the Study
Plato was a philosopher who was both a rationalist and an absolutist in ethics. He was a rationalist because he believed that people can discover knowledge or justification by reason alone and for no circumstances that the knowledgecanbewrong(http://philosophy.tamu.edu/~sdaniel/Notes/plato.html). Plato held the belief that human reasoning ability is the condition that allows people to approach the Forms (in Greek, idea). For Plato, human beings live in a world of visible and intelligible things. The visible world is what we see, hear and experience. This visible world is a world of change and uncertainty which means that we have to seek for it only in the realm of the mind in order to find any absolute certain knowledge. Plato’s rationalism dissimulates his absolutism. He was an absolutist, in that he believed that there is “one and only one good life for all to lead” since goodness is not dependent upon human inclinations (Popkin, Stroll, 1999, p.4). It is an absolute and exists independently of mankind. Thus, this had made him believe that “If a person knows what the good life is, he/she would not act immorally” (Philosophy Made Simple, 1999, p.3). In order to live the ‘good life’ people must be schooled to acquire certain kinds of knowledge. This training will give them the capacity to know the nature of the ‘good life’, since evil is due to lack of knowledge.
Before Plato’s world of Forms is addressed directly, Plato’s metaphysical and epistemic framework will first be laid up from the bottom up. Plato makes a distinction between the sensible world and the supersensible world; he calls the former the “visible” and the latter the “intelligible.” The visible is further divided into shadows or images and their corresponding objects; for example, the shadow, reflection, or painting of a tree and the tree itself. He divides the intelligible into mathematical objects and the Forms; for example, conceptual ideas of circles are located in the former, and the ideal, universal circle is located in the latter. (Hackett, 1997)
There is a faculty of the soul or species of cognition corresponding to each of these. Plato links images with imagination and perception (eikasia); objects with belief (pistis), mathematics and logic with thought and hypothesizing (dianoia); and Forms with understanding and dialectical reasoning (noesis). It is important to note that the above distinctions, as intimated before, are both metaphysical and epistemic: the visible corresponds to opinion and the intelligible corresponds to knowledge. The degree of reality also increases as we move from images to Forms. Said differently, the Forms are what is true and real, therefore the Form of tree has more reality than an actual tree which, again, has more reality than its reflection.
The Forms, then, are universal, eternal, and unchanging. They are perhaps best understood as concepts or essences. Take, for example, the concept dog. Plato would say that each particular dog that we encounter in the visible world participates in the Form of dog; there are many particular dogs, but there is only one Form of dog. The fact that we employ the word “dog” implies that there is something common to all dogs, that is, some kind of dog-essence. Even though particular dogs are born, live, and die, the concept dog remains eternal and unchanging. For Plato, we can only have beliefs, and not knowledge proper, of dogs in the sensible realm. In order to get beyond beliefs of particular dogs we would need to employ dialectical reasoning to acquire real knowledge; and knowledge, as we will see, is reserved for the Forms only. So, to have knowledge of dogs would be to have knowledge of the Form of dog. Let’s now look at several arguments or metaphors that Plato provides to help us understand the Forms.
Plato could well contend for the title of most celebrated Western philosopher, and the theory of Forms is probably his most celebrated theory. Yet even for historians of philosophy it is no easy matter to say just what a Platonic Form actually is. If the expression ‘Platonic Form’ has any current meaning for most of us, it is something like ‘perfect exemplar’. Once in an undergraduate lecture Plato’s own question was mentioned, is there a Form of everything, however ignoble? For example, I said, is there a Platonic Form of scum? ‘Yes’, shouted a girl in the audience, ‘I’ve met him.’
The aim here is to present a conspectus of the theory, designed fora broad readership. If you are a specialist, you will not need telling that a lot of what is said is controversial, even if the fact is not been mentioned continuously. The interpretative literature on Plato’s metaphysics which will stay in the background on the present occasion – is huge, diverse, and riddled with controversy. The term Absolutism, on the other hand, may refer to philosophical stances which promote notions of absolute truth, involving contentions that in particular realms of thought, all statements in that domain are either absolutely true or absolutely false; in ethical philosophy such can include forms of moral absolutism, asserting that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are either good or evil, regardless of the context of the act, or graded absolutism, the view that a moral absolute, like “Do not kill,” can be greater or lesser than another moral absolute, like “Do not lie.” In social theories it can refer to autocracy (also known as “political absolutism”), involving political theories which argue that one person should hold all power, thus including systems of absolute monarchy, forms of government where the monarch has the power to rule their land freely, with no laws or legally organized direct opposition in force, and enlightened absolutism, the policies of absolute rulers who were influenced by the Enlightenment of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe. It can also indicate ideas of absolute space, in theories holding that space exists absolutely, in contrast to relationalism, which holds that space exists only as relations between objects, as well as to the absolute idealism of ontologically monistic philosophies, such as that attributed to Hegel in his accounts of how being is ultimately comprehensible as an all-inclusive whole. In rational and political contexts, many absolutist assumptions and stances are vigorously opposed by those of relativism and assessments and arguments of absurdism and anarchism which can involve implicit or explicit acceptance of both absolute and relative aspects of Reality or values within it. (Nikolai, 1939).