Aristotle and Plato on the Subject of Forms
Plato and Aristotle, two of the most influential philosophers of Ancient Greece, laid the foundation for what we now know as Western philosophy. Their writings are still studied by philosophers today, and are still as fascinating and sometimes confusing as they were in Plato and Aristotle’s time. One fact about these two renowned philosophers that readers may not have guessed from their writings is that Plato was Aristotle’s teacher. Though Aristotle learned much of what he knew about philosophy from Plato, his ideas grew so far removed from his teacher’s that he directly countered many Platonic ideas in his writing. In Book VII of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, he makes the claim that Platonic ideas are useless for explaining “coming to be,” or how and why things exist (p. 291). He specifically mentions the theory of “forms” which Plato introduced in his text, The Republic. Aristotle then proposes his own theory of forms, which is quite different from Plato’s. Though both philosophers have carefully constructed theories about forms, the best definition of a form ends up being a combination of both their ideas.
Aristotle defines philosophy as “the science that studies being insofar as it is being, and also the properties of being in its own right” (Metaphysics p. 244). The main subject of philosophy is being, or existence. “It is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences,” he goes on. “For none of them considers being quite generally, insofar as it is being; rather, each of them cuts off some part of being and studies the relevant coincident of that part…” (Metaphysics p. 244). The difference between philosophy and other sciences is that other branches of science study only one aspect of being. For example, botany “cuts off” the aspect of being that has to do with plants, and studies only that. Philosophy, on the other hand, studies being in the most general sense—the nature of existence. Both Plato and Aristotle recognized that there are two critical elements that compose all things that exist: the form, and the matter in which the form manifests itself. However, Aristotle’s consideration of being lead him to disagree with Plato on the relationship between form and matter.
Though both Plato and Aristotle mention form as one of the main components of things that exist, their ideas of just what form is were quite different. In Plato’s The Republic, narrator Socrates explains the “form of the good” to his friend Glaucon as “what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower” (The Republic p. 204). He might just be giving his definition of “good,” until he goes on to say that “the good is not being, but something yet beyond being, superior to it in rank and power” (The Republic p. 205). He compares the form of the good to the sun, saying that the form of the good is “sovereign of the intelligible kind and place, [as is] the [sun] of the visible…” (The Republic p. 205).
This strange proposal of Plato’s is difficult to comprehend. He is saying that there is an “intelligible realm” where the forms of things such as justice, good, and beauty, that can only be conceived of with the mind, exist. The representations of these things on Earth, according to Plato, are just weak reflections of the perfect forms in the intelligible world. He believes that the goal of a philosopher is to come to know and understand these forms. However, Plato’s forms are not just ethical concepts. He also notes that students of geometry “use visible forms and make their arguments about them, although they are not thinking about them but about the things that they are like” (The Republic p. 206). For example, you can draw a square with a diagonal and argue that the diagonal divides the square in half, but you aren’t really talking about what you’ve drawn, you’re talking about the concept of a square and diagonal—or as Plato would say, their forms.
As Aristotle systematically studied what it is to be, he drew conclusions that lead him to reject Plato’s theory of forms. Aristotle tells us that “a thing comes to be from its privation, or from its subject which we call the matter” (Metaphysics p. 289). What he means is that all things must have matter, or material, from which they come into existence. A chair might come to be from wood, which is why we call it “of-wood,” or “wooden.” However, another thing must be present for anything to come to be: the form. Aristotle defines a form as “whatever the shape in the perceptible thing ought to be called” (Metaphysics p. 290). Wood might take on the form of a house, for example, or concrete might take on the form of a sidewalk, or a seed might take on the form of a tree. Aristotle says that “the form […] does not come to be and there is no coming to be of it” (Metaphysics p. 290). Both form and matter are necessary for anything to come to be, according to him, and when things come to be it is not a matter of creating one or the other, but of combining them. For example, a shoe might be created by forming leather into the correct shape, but the shoemaker creates neither leather nor the shape of the shoe. She merely combines these two elements of being.
The consideration of the roles of form and matter lead Aristotle to ask whether there could be any such thing as a form apart from matter. “Is there, then, some sphere apart from these <perceptible ones>, or a house apart from bricks?” (Metaphysics p. 291). Contrary to Plato, Aristotle says that there is not. “If there were, then surely there could never have been any coming to be of this” (Metaphysics p. 291). This is his way of saying that it is impossible for a form to exist without matter, for both must be there for anything to come to be. There can be no form of a table without any existing tables. One could talk about a table apart from its materials, but “it is not a this and something definite” (Metaphysics p. 291). In other words, it is not an actual table. “It is evident, then,” Aristotle continues, “that the forms, construed as some people habitually construe them, as things apart from particulars, are useless as causes, at any rate of comings to be and of substances; this role, at any rate, is no reason for these forms to be substances in their own right” (Metaphysics p. 291). Aristotle’s “some people” is clearly a not-too-subtle reference to Plato, dismissing his forms as “useless.”
Not only do Plato’s and Aristotle’s arguments seem contradictory, but Aristotle went so far as to almost directly point out that his theory discredits Plato’s. However, careful consideration of both Plato and Aristotle’s arguments shows that they do not necessarily contradict each other. Aristotle countered Plato’s ideas by saying that forms without matter could not be “something definite;” they could not actually, physically exist. Plato never claimed that forms were anything “definite,” though. In fact, he specifically said that forms reside in the “intelligible realm.” If we take Plato’s intelligible realm to be not some parallel universe that the perfect forms of everything reside in, but rather the realm of our own thoughts and ideas, then in a way both philosophers are correct. As Aristotle said, form cannot really exist without matter. There is no “house apart from bricks.” However, the ideas of things can be thought of and talked about because we have a mutual understanding of the forms of objects and ideas. This seems to be what Plato really meant when he described forms. Students of geometry can discuss squares with perfectly equal sides and right angles, even if they cannot draw a perfect square, because they all understand the form of a square.
Both Plato and Aristotle present carefully thought out arguments regarding the nature of forms in objects. It was probably inevitable that Aristotle countered Platonic ideas in his writings, for philosophy, like all sciences, is the process of continually challenging previous beliefs in the search for knowledge. At first glance, it is not apparent that Plato and Aristotle’s arguments are not truly contradictory, especially when Aristotle so readily and openly denounces Plato’s theory. However, it is often the case with two opposing viewpoints that the best solution is some combination of the two, and this may be true for the question of forms. Although it is true that forms do not exist without matter in the physical world, having an understanding of forms as perfect conceptions of things we find in the physical world may be necessary for understanding and talking about the world around us.