Plato, forms and caves

September 29, 2009

Today’s lecture touched upon Plato’s theory of forms and his allegory of the cave. It was only briefly mentioned, so in my blog this week I thought I would give a more detailed, yet easier to understand, explanation of his theory (this explanation is from my personal notes, it may not be precisely what is written in text books or on the internet, but will hopefully help.).

Plato’s theory of forms:

Plato believed there are two worlds, the imperial world in which we live in, and the realm of the forms. The world we live in contains imperfect copies of forms which are in the realm of the forms. A form is a perfect idea, object or feeling; for example in this world we have many different chairs, but in the realm of the forms there is one perfect, faultless idea of a chair.
We cannot ever correctly imagine a perfect form; however we can understand the concept of a perfect form. Plato states that when we die our souls exit our bodies and return to the realm of the forms where our souls can experience perfection and understand it. Our souls are then reincarnated into new bodies where we have no recollection of our past lives or of the realm of the forms. However, the journey our souls make through the realm of the forms does allow us to understand what perfection is, even if we cannot experience it.

The main criticism presented towards this theory is how much detail it actually involves. Is there a perfect form for everything? For instance, is there a perfect form for ever different tiger with different stripes? Is there a perfect form for every tiger with different stripes for green eyes? And so on. Another question which is usually asked is whether there are perfect forms of imperfect objects, such as a tiger with three legs. If there is a perfect form of everything, then how is it possible to have an imperfect form of something imperfect?

Plato explained his theory through an allegory, the allegory of the cave. The allegory starts off with prisoners chained up to one another in a cave, with their heads caged so they always look forwards. These prisoners have always been, from birth, until death, and know no other way of life. To them this is normal. The prisoners faced a wall of the cave in which shadows where cast. The shadows where cast by people walking on a catwalk with objects, with a fire burning behind them. The prisoners cannot see the anything behind them, and spent there days talking in their own language and making up names for the shadows cast on the wall.

One day a prisoners chains had loosened and the prisoner was able to escape. He tired to free the others, but they insisted that they where too scared and that he should explore for himself and come back and explain what he had learnt. So the prisoner went past the catwalk and fire casting shadows on the wall, and had a steep and rough climb towards the opening of the cave.
He emerged from the cave at night, and once his eyes adjusted while the sun rouse, he discovered the real world, and saw the real objects he had seen in the cave, and not just shadows of this. He rushed back to the cave to tell the other prisoners what he had discovered, but was mocked and not believed.

This allegory shows us ‘prisoners’ are living in an unfulfilling world where we only have a limited experience of the forms around us. Whereas the prisoner who escaped represents a philosopher, who has a tough journey to find and understand knowledge of the world of the forms, but once he has obtained that knowledge sees the world in a different light (the sun also represents knowledge). Plato also symbolises how our civilisation is ignorant; we do not want to learn and will commonly mock those with new idea’s. It is thought that Plato added this as his own ideas had been laughed at.

I hope this has helped you understand Plato’s theory better; if you have any questions or comments please comment this and I’ll reply ASAP. As I said, this may vary from other versions you could read, but this is the version I had been thought at A level :)


  1. This is very good Charlotte - you certainly know your Plato. The A-level will give you an advantage up until I suppose about Christmas by which time - I hope - everyone will have caught up. I think you mean Empirical (not imperial) to describe the material universe. We will come back to Plato and his political theories, which have been very influential - who guards the guardians, etc. Great to have some people with a formal education on philosophy on the course - others bring other things to the party. In some ways you can think of journalism (I think) as the applied form of philosophy as we are often interested in things like human nature (take the Rat Children story about the kids who harassed a mother to death) about human behavior, about politics, the nature of truth, the nature of proof - justice. Its all philosophy in action to a large extent I think.

    What do you think of Russell's book. What did you read mainly at A-level. HAve you got any more philosophy notes to share.

    This is a good youtube link on Plato, for more detail if this is an interest that you intend to maintain.

  2. Also please supply a photo so I can put a face to your name.

  3. That's very good Charlotte. I enjoyed reading it and it was full of important facts and info :)

  4. I'll Email you one now Chris.
    I have studied a very varied curriculum, which included the more traditional philosophers such as Aquinas, Plato, Descartes and so on, as well as more 'modern' approaches such as Hume. I also studied the problem of evil and the afterlife; but don't have my notes to hand to tell you every module. I wrote the notes about Plato off the top of my head, but will be visiting home soon and will bring up all of my philosophy and Ethics notes up with me to share with everyone else.

  5. Wow, this is great Charlotte! You really know your stuff!


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