The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

First time I learned about Plato's Forms

When I was a young Freshman in college, taking my very first philosophy class, I was introduced to Plato's idea of the forms. But, it wasn't by any professor, but instead by a drunken recent alum at a party.

Before getting to that, let explain a little bit of Plato's theory of the Forms. This theory is an example Greek "hylomorphism." Hylomorphism is a theory of matter that was common in Ancient Greece, and it basically refers to theories that posit that the matter (hyle in Greek) and the form (morphe in Greek) of something are two genuinely distinct, real things. The form refers to, say the function, design or shape of a thing, and the matter refers to the material stuff that comprises it, like say bricks (matter) being shaped into a house (form). Modern philosophy rejected hylomorphism, believing that only matter is really real, and that the form isn't something real or distinct. When we talk about bricks being fashioned to form a house, we don't think of the form of the house as something apart from the physical house. Plato, on the other hand did. In fact, he believed that not only are the forms separable, but they exist in some other realm that we can only see with our mind. The matter, such as the brick, which is sensible and touchable, can be a house because it participates in the non-sensible and non-touchable form of a house. The word "participate" is usually the word that is used to describe this rather difficult to imagine relationship between form and matter, which both exist in entirely different realms. Additionally, our soul is of this realm of the forms, and it is trapped in this material body, but when it is freed by death, it will be able to commune with an observe the Forms unadulterated. And so on.

I could go on. It's a rather elaborate theory with many pieces and many hard to entangle intricacies of interpretation. But, as one can easily imagine, when I was first introduced to this theory at a party from a drunk man, he wasn't so articulate as I am. It was more like: "You see you got this chair. And the only reason that the chair is a chair is because it participates in the form of a chair, which is somewhere out there and you can only see it with your mind's eye."

It was rather early in the semester of my Freshman year at Goucher college, and I decided to go to a party in Gretel's room, with a few other people. Gretel, interestingly had met two former Goucher students, who had only just graduated the previous year, and were just visiting the campus to check the place out. They'd gotten to talking with Gretel and she'd invited them by for the party. When I started talking to one of them, he asked me about classes I was taking, and when I mentioned I was taking a philosophy course, he was off on a long monologue. He explained to me the theory of the forms, then he talked about his biggest complaint with philosophy students: "When you ask them what they think, they're always like, 'Well, Aristotle says on that topic, and Descartes says," and then you're like, 'no, what do you think?' and then they're like, 'Well, Kant says, and Heidegger says,' and then, 'no, what do YOU think?' and they just can't answer."

After studying philosophy for some 13 or 14 years since then, I can't say I agree with him on the nature of philosophy students, many of them are very opinionated, though we may frequently use other people's ideas to articulate our thoughts. But I can say that his explanation of the Plato's Forms, crude though it was, was accurate. It's a long distance from a scholarly monograph on the Forms, but one could do worse than that to explain the theory to beginning philosophy students.

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