The Theory of Ideas

The thing about ideas is that they can be practical (the idea that everyone should stand on the right on escalators), clever (an idea for a new business, filling a gap in the market), creative (a totally awesome idea for a birthday present), or they can be purely curious.

A purely curious idea is the type that pushes the boundaries of human thinking, a general wondering that posits a question and looks forward to some sort of an explanation, even if it can never be confirmed. For example, is it the whole that matters or the many components? Or, how do we know if the blue that I see is the same as the blue that you see?

An idea that has given me much pause for thought is the idea that there exists another plane in which there are perfect ‘forms’ of everything that we encounter in this world: Table, hair, blue, horse, beauty. Bear with me, this is going somewhere.

Look at the table in front of you. It is riddled with minute imperfections and peculiarities that distinguish it from your colleague’s table. But, clearly it is a table and we know it is a table because both your table and your colleague’s table are aspiring to be that same thing: Table.

This might be easier to comprehend with something more abstract. Like beauty. There are many things and people that in some way or another are beautiful and we call them such because we are able to recognise in that thing or person the ‘idea’ of beauty. But, no one could assert that beauty itself, the perfect form of beauty that is beauty and only beauty and nothing else, exists in this world. If we recognise it as an idea though, beauty itself (in philosophy, we say beauty qua beauty) must exist somewhere else.

This is Plato‘s ‘Theory of Forms’, also called the theory of ideas.

As far as ideas go, this one is a biggy and despite being difficult to accept in reality it actually makes perfect sense. Consider goodness as an idea. How do we know what it is and what it looks like when someone is good? We all recognise goodness and yet there is no such thing as pure ‘good’.

Next time you pick up a blue biro (for instance), hold it next to your colleague’s black fountain pen and ask yourself “How come I know that both of these things that look so different are ‘pen’?”………

Just a little something to get you all thinking.

One thought on “The Theory of Ideas

  1. Wow.
    I did ancient philosphy once. The thing that really cooked me was the idea that motion didn’t exist – something to do with lengths of time and halving the duration that had already passed so you never caught up with anything. Or something.
    Like the theory of ideas though!


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