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Plato''s Theory of Forms and Reincarnation

Updated on September 6, 2012
Plato | Source


Plato believed that the world was made up of Forms. Forms are not physical, but an abstract concept; they are the characteristics of an object that allow us to know what that object is.

Plato states that that our mind is the reality, whereas the physical world is the illusion. When we see the world, it is only an appearance, we can see it, and it is physically there, but it is not as real as what we imagine it to be.

For example: In our minds, we have an opinion of what a perfect circle looks like. We know what a perfect circle looks like. It is completely smooth, with no edges or creased curves. That is real, and we know it, but in the physical world, there is no such thing a perfect circle. Even using a protractor. It may look real, but that is only its appearance. If you took a microscope and looked at the circle then, it would be very rough.

Plato asks ‘What makes a cat a cat?’ We determine what a cat is by what it looks like, but Plato’s argument is ‘How do you know it looks like one?’ All cats look different. They come in different shapes, sizes and colours, so what is the one main feature that makes it a cat? It’s not its legs, because dogs also have four, it’s not its whiskers because rabbits also have whiskers. This is where his proposition for the theory of Forms comes in. To us we can tell after seeing a few cats the basic characteristics of them. They might all be slightly different, but the basic shape or mould is the same. Just like gingerbread men, being cut with the mould, but they still all come out differently to some extent, no matter how big or small a difference that is.

But how can it be that our mind is reality when everyone’s mind is different. No one in the world sees the universe in exactly the same way, so how can they call be realities?

Aristotle | Source


Instead of saying that we are born without knowledge and have to be taught it through education, Plato believes that there is life before birth, so we already have this knowledge within us. When we are born, we are actually more knowledgeable than adults. Although we have this knowledge, however, we are unaware of its presence. Education brings out the knowledge you already hold about the universe. We could never bring out all of the knowledge we have in our lifetime, which is why we are always learning.

Aristotle argued against Plato’s view of life. Aristotle knowledge came from a posteriroi, a term which means gaining knowledge through experience. Plato's theory of reincarnation, however, is a priori, a terming meaning to have knowledge before the event.

Plato believes we get our prior knowledge of the universe before birth. I agree with this to a certain extent; research has shown how children have an innate ability to learn language or recognise when we are in danger. My argument against Aristotle would be that we could not learn through experience if we have no knowledge in which to process it. As a child we are taught how to speak, but unless we had a prior understanding of how to speak then it would be impossible to comprehend how to perform such a task. Perhaps this knowledge comes from the experience of past lives.

Although I believe in reincarnation, I don’t think it happens to everyone. I am unsure why, but the fact that only a handful of people in the world who seem to have memories of a prior existence. This is most frequent in children; as we grow older the memories start to fade, which supports Plato’s theory that we are more knowledgeable as children than adults.

I agree with Plato for the most part, but there are a few things that I would question. For example, how is it possible for a child to have knowledge before it is taught if it looks at a coat hanger calls it a tree? In the child’s mind that might be reality, but in the physical world it is not true; even in the world of Forms a tree is a tree and coat hanger is a coat hanger.


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      Nicole B. 16 months ago

      Can I ask where did you get your resources from? Don't get me wrong, I just need it for my term paper.

    • profile image

      Themdena 2 years ago

      There's this thing called "instinct"

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      Matengu Clement 4 years ago

      I do agree with Plato, knowledge is inbuilt, who teaches a baby to cry when there is a change, or who teaches a baby to laugh? this give the whole theory a seal

    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 4 years ago from UK

      Cassie - I'm very glad I could help.

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      Cassie 4 years ago

      This article was really interesting. I was researching reincarnation because of the subject's involvement in the book I was writing, and I came upon a bit about Plato and his beliefs. I will probably use this as reference.

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      One might think about an integrated perspective. 'I feel' can mean 'I think'. 'I believe' can mean 'I think'. :)

    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 5 years ago from UK

      I'm afraid I don't quite understand what you mean. When it comes to the study of the brain, the knowledge we have now is far beyond what Plato had, so he could not apply the scientific knowledge of the brain we have today to that of his theory on forms or reincarnation.

      I don't see evolution as proof of reincarnation. At the moment, I don't think reincarnation can be proved. I'm just saying I believe in it.

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland


      If you study about the brain, you know that some 'already abstract forms' don't belong with the neural reality, simply speaking.

      I don't know why you would try to refer to me with a thought on a perfect language structure. I'm not an enthusiast of a 'finished tongue'; may things go on...

      (I mean the etymology, the Latin 'perfectus, a' meaning 'complete') :)

      You'd see evolution as a proof for reincarnation...?

      The ability to learn language(s) is inborn; every individual has to learn, or he or she can't speak.

      How would evolution in the sense of making generations provide for individuality? Could you be your parents or children?

    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 5 years ago from UK

      Buzzbee - Thanks for your comments. As for my last paragraph, I would say that it hard to justify that a child is more knowledgeable than an adult when they get things wrong so often. Plato says that the knowledge is buried and brought out with education. Wile that would explain them not being able to understand the knowledge they have till later in life, it does not explain why they get information wrong.

      Teresapelka - Forms are already abstract, so to have a form for a concept that is already abstract like language and speech does make things even more confusing. No one has an image in their mind of the perfect language because it is not a physical thing. I think rather than language having a perfect Form, Plato would say it has a perfect structure - it would be a universal language in the world of Forms that all souls waiting to be reincarnated would understand. Once that soul is reincarnated, they would have the innate ability to learn language, but the universal language itself will have been forgotten. We therefore have to learn language again, but it would be incomplete - I.E. one language that only one country/culture understands.

    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      I'm not really convinced, as for your explication de texte on Plato. I remain more interested in the rebel disciple. No, I don't care much for just rebels. Aristotle had a point.

      Plato's abstract nominalization would have left the humanity a valley unknown. 'Just forms': there are forms like 'ja' - the sound of them can be 'yes' in German and 'I' in Polish. You can't hope for too many yes-men on a river, do you?

      Plato's argument may be false with comparative studies.

      I don't quite see what you mean by a memory without the brain - saying that you believe in reincarnation, you say that 'memories' of previous lives wane with age.

      Do you mean memories could wane with brain maturation?

      No one actually could be happy with the birthday suit brain condition later in life...

    • Buzzbee profile image

      Buzzbee 5 years ago from The County of the Winkies in Oz

      A perennial topic in philosophy and one which I personally love to think about. The world of forms. How is it that they are universally recognized ? A puzzle. Interesting point in your last paragraph. I'd like it if you said a little more about that one.