In my last post I explained that being a Platonist in my vocabulary just means that I believe in the Forms. On the one hand, this position is thicker than a mere rejection of nominalism because the doctrine of the Forms gives a sophisticated, meaningful account of how the world outside our heads has the qualities that it does. On the other hand, this position is thiner than a commitment to the whole body of various doctrines found in the historical Platonic school. In that post, I defined Platonism like this:
- We understand the world by grasping (i) real, (ii) eternal, (iii) immaterial, (iv) intelligible structures, called Forms, which exist beyond any individual instances, called participants, that embody them.
In this post, I would like to dive into these four attributes and explain what I mean by Forms. I should note that this is what I mean by Forms, rather than a textual commentary on what Plato means by Forms. I’m obviously getting most of the ideas from Plato’s dialogues, but I’m mainly concerned with figuring out how reality is actually structured rather than figuring out which interpretation of Plato is correct.
We can start by using the Form of the Beautiful as an example. Both the beautiful sunset and the beautiful symphony exhibit an internal structure, a pattern, a kind of inner logic. Although a symphony is a very different kind of thing than a sunset, we nevertheless recognize something in common between the two: both have a diversity of elements arranged in such a way that the whole achieves a particular harmony, a harmony that manifests an inner radiance. (St. Thomas defines this succinctly as the splendor formae.)
This structure, the structure of harmony-yielding-radiance, is the Beautiful. When we say “the Form of the Beautiful,” we simply mean this structure that appears repeatedly in the world. This structure is just what it means for something to be beautiful. In general, we can say that “The Form of \(X\)” is a shorthand of saying, “What it means for something to be \(X\), the structure that something must participate in for it to be \(X\).”
This structure is “intelligible,” rather than “visible” or “audible,” because it is the kind of thing that we come to understand with the mind rather than something that we see directly with our eyes or hear directly with our ears. What we see in the sunset or hear in the symphony are colors or sounds. The pattern, however, that these colors or sounds exhibit is not something that our eyes and ears are equipped to recognize. Instead, we come to recognize the patterns in these things by applying our “intelligence,” and we are “intelligent” beings because we have this ability.
At this point, we can make a distinction between two abilities that we have, which will help us see a crucial distinction when it comes to Form. We are able both (i) to recognize the inner structure of the sunset itself, the particular harmony that obtains between reds, yellows, and deep blues at this particular moment and we are able (ii) to recognize a further structure which shows up in both the sunset and the symphony. The structure we recognize when we do (i) is the particular instance of the deeper structure we recognize when we do (ii). The former structure we may call “immanent form,” while the latter we may call “transcendent Form,” and mark the latter sense with a capital-F. We could not be intelligent beings if we did not have this ability to detect a deeper pattern which keeps showing up in our world of experience again and again, haunting us in songs and in faces, in poems and in landscapes.
When we say that this structure is “intelligible” we mean that it is the kind of thing that can, in principle, be grasped by a mind, not that anyone in particular has grasped it. This distinction is important because we frequently fall into the error of identifying the Form of something with our own idea of it. We may argue at great length whether the description of the Beautiful that I just gave really captures the structure that we perceive in the sunset and the symphony, but the point is that we are arguing about something, something real that we perceive in the world. We judge, or ought to judge, one another’s theories and definitions by the standard of reality which exists outside our conversations.
Likewise, I have a particular concept in my own mind that I have formed after years of thinking about beauty, but this is not beauty itself. The concept is my own attempt to capture something out there in reality. I may do this well, in which case the structure inside my head will mirror closely the structure out in the world. Or I may do this poorly, in which case the structure inside my head will fail to capture accurately the structure out in the world. Again, the objective reality of the Form in the world stands in judgment over my subjective concept. All these other things (theories, ideas, words in our language, concepts) point at something real that we are striving to understand and is there to be understood.
Finally, when we say that these structures are “immaterial” and “eternal” we mean that they are not like the physical objects of our ordinary experience. We can only touch the beautiful sculpture; we can never touch the Form of Beauty. It makes sense for me to ask, “Where can I find some beautiful things?” You might point at something and say, “Right here.” But it does not make any sense for me to ask, “Can you point me in the direction of the Form of Beauty itself?” The category of spacial location simply does not apply to this kind of thing.
Just like space, the same idea applies to time. Questions like, “When did the Form of Beauty happen?” or “How long will the Form of Beauty be this way?” are nonsense questions because the category of time does not apply. The pattern that shows up over and over at different places and at different times in its various participants transcends those participants and is one and the same structure wherever and whenever it appears.
All this leaves many difficult questions unanswered. For example, we can give the link between lower-case-f form and upper-case-F Form the name of “participation,” but we have not explained exactly how this works. How does a transcendent, eternal Form come to be manifest in the inner logic of this sunset right now? For a Christian, even more difficult questions readily present themselves: If these Forms are supposed to be transcendent and eternal, what relation do they have to the One, Eternal God? Are they things He timelessly created or are they somehow intrinsic to his own nature? We can only hope to make progress on these questions, however, if we have clearly in view the kind of thing we are talking about, and I hope that this post has focused our attention in that direction.