Plato’s Theory of Ideas

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Topic: Plato’s Theory of Ideas

Student: Milena Sadžak

Date: december, 2001

Author’s introductionary remark:

Still innocent and so naïve, the common human consciousness slowly began to raise itself, giving birth thereat to great men, who will forever remain in the hearts of the “consecrated”. One of those great men was Plato.

Plato as a philosopher. Plato as an artist. Plato as the birth of concsiousness of its own limitedness. Plato as my own flight from reality.

Being young and inexperienced, and having read one small but important part of Plato’s great treasury of dialogues, I stood lost and confused. It is impossible for a philosopher to believe in the existence of two simultaneous worlds. But that is what his words are saying to me. Did he truly believe that our souls had existed in that perfect world, prior to their birth? Being certain that Plato did not think so, and having realized the boundaries of my understanding, I’ve consulted people who dedicated their lives to this great philosopher. I must admit that it was just then that my confusion reached its utmost point. I have never seen so many confronted opinions on the same topic. Well, we have the dialogues right in front of us, what is the thing that’s keeping us from realizing Plato’s thought as it is, and at least reduce the number of confrontations? I know what my obstacle is: youth, lack of experience, lack of knowledge, but what is theirs?

CONCLUSION: The young common human consciousness created a genius, but a young one, such as itself. Youth as such carries with it the impossibility of valid thought-word transmission. The space is too big. In time, the young common consciousness perfects itself. Its improvement implies the improvement of individual consciousness. The possibility to validly transmit thought-word is greater, therefore the interspace is reduced, and the number of dissacords in interpretations of philosophical works is reduced as well. Plato still belongs to the young common consciousness, therefore, we have inummerable explanations of one and the same thing.

Theory of Ideas

Nowadays, Plato is rightfully considered the originator of idealism. To explain in details what the concept of idealism means represents a great difficulty and demands great effort, so I will merely define idealism as a philosophy which reduces all existence to forms of thought, or in Plato’s case, idea.

The word “idea” originates from the Greek word “eidos” which literally means “appearance, image”.

In Plato’s thought, “idea” represents the first principle, cause, form, shape, essence.

The very title “Theory of Ideas” points to observation, contemplation of the first causes of all things. Contemplation represents a mental/spiritual condition which consists of deep reflection, not related to any action, through which a man forgets about himself and his surroundings (Svetislav Maric, Dictionary of Philosophy). The theory of Ideas literally means a deep reflection related with the first cause of things.

In the following passage, I will try to explain Plato’s theory of Ideas the way my mind has concieved it, emphasizing my limitedness due to my youth and lack of experience and knowledge.


According to Plato, Ideas, i.e. generalia, represent the only truth. What is true, actually exists. What is true isn’t subject to decay. Generalia actually exist. Generalia are reality, actuality. Reality and actuality doesn’t decay. Reality exists because there are generalia; generalia constitute reality.

On the other hand, a question arises: what is that which is true and not subject to decay in the being of a human. It is certainly not the body. It is the soul. The soul, as the thinking part of human’s being. The soul as that which is thinking.

But we arrive to a contradiction:

The reality is the only truth.

The soul is the only truth.

According to the principle of contradiction, only one of these propositions can be true. Plato’s dialogues claim that generalia which constitute reality, are true, not subject to decay, but on the other hand, the same dialogues claim that the soul is true and not subject to decay. The only way we can avoid the problem of contradiction is to identify the soul and reality.


The ultimate purpose of the soul is to think itself, to think generalia. The soul, thinking itself, will percieve reality as it is and we can then say that the man who has directed his soul towards this goal has the true konwledge.


We already stated that generalia actually exist, that they are the only truth, that they constitute reality. The soul learns about generalia by reflecting itself. But in the process of knowledge, the lower cognitive power in relation to the soul, is sensuality. Man’s senses cover up the true essence of things. It’s necessary to reach the essence, but sight, hearing, touch give to the understanding the information about objects that is not in concordance with what those objects really are, because senses can not reach the essence of things. Senses register only “relative features” (variable characteristics due to which the objects of the same category mutually differ) of things, they do not register the things’ Ideas which are permanent and stable. As the ideas are the only truth, and what we see are not ideas, it follows that we see the un-truth, falsehood. Relity corresponds to the truth, illusion corresponds to falsehood.


In book VI of The Republic (509d), Plato’s trying to explain, through Socrates’ words, the distance between illusion, i.e. things that our senses show us, and the truth. The difference is so great, that the Ideas as such (involved in all things, as their essence) and things, whose relative features we register by our senses, can be observed as “two separate worlds”. To make it clear, all objects have their Ideas, but we can not reach those Ideas through our senses. What our senses are telling us is far from the truth that only the soul can reach. What is, and what appears to be, seem to be two separate worlds.


We have already stated that Idea is the greatest truth. We will show on an example what is the thing that’s most distant form the truth.

The Idea of man is the greatest truth. But we do not see the Idea. That Idea of man (the same one for all men), together with individual “relative features” will give us the individual man. Considering we have moved away from the truth, that individual man is an illusion. The greater degree of illusion is a picture of that individual man. Through the picture, we are the the farthest from the truth, from the Idea, because in this last case we don’t have the truth covered up with lies, but the picture of the truth covered up with lies, i.e. with relative features. Therefore, the soul still isn’t thinking itself, it hasn’t got that ability; her only ability is pictorial representation – εικαςία, i.e. the ability to guess. The soul, having seen the pictures, i.e. εικονες of plants, animals, machines, shadows, will be far from the truth, from real knowledge. Man, whose soul has the ability to guess possesses only opinions – δόξα. It takes a lot more then senses have to offer to obtain knowledge.


Idea, generality, essence of man, together with relative features (the variable characteristics we register through our senses due to which people mutually differ) constitutes the individual man. Relative features hide his real essence, hide the truth. Therefore we are still dealing with illusion. The soul still isn’t thinking itself. Her ability is on a higher stage in relation to εικαςία, her ability is faith, experience, trust – πίςτις. The soul still isn’t reaching real knowledge, observing plants, animals, machines. Man possesses only opinions – δόξα.

What can be concluded? Namely, if we rely on our senses as the only cognitive power, we will never arrive to real knowledge, because that which is visible is also untrue, false.

In Plato’s theory of Ideas, besides the Ideas that are invisible, there is another group of objects that are also invisible. There’s a lot of these objects, similar and equal ones, and it is therefore impossible to assign them under the category of “generalia”; since those objects can not be registered by senses, we can not consider them an illusion of the region of visible things. Those objects are mathematical objects, namely, numbers, lines, triangles,... they do not exist in nature by themselves, but we can relect them. In addition to the fact that they represent forms of our thought (as, let’s say, we can reflect a “man”), they also have their Ideas.

These mathematical objects are:

(invisible) Numbers by themselves (unity, duality, trinity,...)

(invisible) Geometrical entities (points by themselves, lines by themselves, squares by themselves, diagonals by themselves,...)

Thus a mathematician, while solving a problem, will go in this order (as Russel explains, in his History of western philosophy):

“Let the traingle ABC have equal sides...”

For the sake of easier assertion, the mathematician draws a picture of the triangle. He reflects the triangle by itself, not the Idea of the triangle. The mathematician will prove the fictitious equal-sided triangle, and not thereat bring into question whether ABC is equal-sided. Because of that, even if the mathematician doesn’t deal with pictures, mathematics will never tell him what he is, because he starts with the assumption “Let...”, it will only tell him “What would be if...”

That’s why Plato doesn’t permit that mathematicians have true knowledge, but – released of senses and led by understanding – the mathematician is the closest to the ideas, much closer than the common man led by senses and experience.

To repeat the ability of the mathematical soul – her ability is understanding – διάνοια, but it does not reflect itself, it doesn’t reflect ideas, but mathematical things – υποθέςεις – hypothesis.


Ideas – άρχαι, essences, substance, generalia, true beings, causes, principles, are the truth. The Idea of Good heads them, and has a special place in Plato’s philosophy. The problem related to it will have to be put aside.

Ideas of: ANIMALS, PLANTS, MACHINES, NUMBERS (unity, duality, trinity,…), GEOMETRICAL ENTITIES (point, diagonal, square,…)

Ideas have actual existence, they are reality and enable its existence.

The soul learns of reality by reflecting itself. Its ability is meditation - ν ό η ς ι ς, - i.e. intutition (latin: intuitio – inner vision).

Now we’re discussing real knowledge, true learning of reality, something pure, unsoiled by subjectivity.

Is everyone capable of knowing reality?

Plato has shown us that the mathematician’s close to konwing reality, but has also pointed out his mistake. Therefore, there is only one possibility of learning the eternal truth, thereis only one way, one method.

In his dialogue The Republic (book VI, 511b), Plato speaks of that method:

“And when I speak of the other division of the intelligible,

you will understand me to speak of that other sort of knowledge

which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic (t ò δ ι α λ ή γ η ς θ α ι),

using the hypotheses not as first principles, but only as hypotheses--

that is to say, as steps and points of departure into a world

which is above hypotheses, in order that she may soar beyond

them to the first principle of the whole; and clinging to this

and then to that which depends on this, by successive steps she

descends again without the aid of any sensible object, from

ideas, through ideas, and in ideas she ends”.

That means that the first area of the invisible is the one of mathematical entities. The second area of the invisible can be reached by the mind (soul) alone.

Mind makes hypotheses, using the power of dialectic. Those hypotheses are not principles, tenets, they are not Ideas. They are only points of departure to the area of that which is without hypotheses. From the point of departure we reach Ideas, generalia, principles, tenets which exist by them selves and for themselves. The mind reaches them, conceives them and then goes down again, using thereat the very Ideas, and reaches them with their help. This method is called dialectic. According to Hegel, dialectic is the motion of thought; pure thought by itself and for itself moves only in such pure thoughts. Dialectic shows the necessary motion of pure concepts, it is a observation of pure thought by itself and for itself.

Thus, dialectic the key, the dialectician is the expert. Greek word δ ι α λ ε γ ω μ α ι literally means to converse, to discuss.

According to Plato, the dialectican is only he who sees things in their connections. Dialectic is some kind of “cornerstone for other sciences and it represents theor ultimate goal.” The dialectician is a philosopher, and as such, he alone conceives things as they are. He conceives reality and in it reflects his worthiness of being the ruler of the republic.

Only a philosophical soul reflects itself, it is the only one to conceive reality, and, for the sake of conjuring the distance of non-philosophers from reality, Plato gives a brilliant comparison of the state of non-philosophical consciousness with the state of the cave prisoners’ consciousness in book X of his Republic.

The non-philosopehr is the prisoner of the cave, and he is observing shadows (made by artificial light – fire), believing that they are real. He has no desire to escape from the cave. He is in the dark, but he enjoys it. “The caveman” needs the Sun to see the things as they are (the eyes are equivalent to the soul, which the philosopher observes with), i.e. the soul must be illuminated with the right consciousness of its own condition.

The exit of the prisoners from the cave onto the sunlight and observation of object illuminated by it is identical with philosophical revealing of reality through dialectic. The philosophical soul has the ability of meditation and it obtains true knowledge.

Naturally, this is only a subjective review of Plato’s theory of Ideas done by a freshman student of Philosophy. A multitude of difficulties was omitted. Considering that I’ve pointed out on the very beginning of this paper the problem og various interpretations of Plato’s philosophy, it would be illogical not to present, at least briefly, some other accounts of Plato’s philosophy, like the one of Branko Bošnjak, for example.

Namely, according to Bošnjak, Plato realizes that absolute equity, goodness, beauty as ideals can not survive in the society we live in, therefore there must be another world, an ideal world where these ideals also exist. The same case is with perfect geometrical images, which we can not find in nature. That means that they also exist in that perfect world. This is actually about pure dualism: on one hand there;s the perfect, ideal world, and on the other there’s the material, sensual world, which includes man. The world of Ideas is the Being, and the material world is the copy of that ideal Being. Plato, aware of that dualism, is trying to connect these two worlds in the following ways:

PRESENCE – ideas are in some way present in things as the general, essential element in them. If the presence of Ideas in things is greater, the more permanent and stable those things will be.

IMITATION – All things receive their shape from Ideas.

PARTICIPATION – Similar to presence: the greater the participation of things in the ideals, the greater is their degree of perfection.

The world of Man is not an ideal one, but it can approach the ideal and when it moves in that direction, it will obtain greater sense and permanence. According to Plato, there’s a multitude of Ideas, but they are alligned in a hierarchy, so that they make a system; on its top is the Idea of Good, as a basis of the entire system of Ideas.

This would be one of the numerous accounts of Plato’s philosophy. It is best to direct oneself to the very source, to draw from it, to persist, and in time, the image will appear on its own, and “the consecrated” can believe in it.

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"Plato’s Theory of Ideas." 26 May 2016

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