Philosophy of Beauty (PHIL 332)

Text by the instructor, John H. Brown


As you will soon discover, many of our troubles with beauty are linguistic. Therefore it is essential to explain one's terms, a process that will continue throughout the text as we meet new parts of the subject. As a first installment it is appropriate to say something about the terms for our entire subject: aesthetics, theory of beauty, philosophy of art.

All these terms have a somewhat relaxed character. Thinkers use them variously and sometimes interchangeably, and everyone knows that this is so. No momentous consequences result from this looseness of usage, but it is good to know what the author you are reading means by them. I take aesthetics to include theory of beauty as a proper part. Besides beauty, there are other aesthetic values: sublimity, expressiveness, humor, picturesqueness, prettiness, cuteness, comfiness, neatness, and so forth. I don't have a complete list, and I don't know of anyone who does. Furthermore it is an open question, in my mind, just how many values can be construed as forms of beauty. Only a complete theory of beauty can answer that question. But prima facie there seems to be a family of aesthetic values of which beauty is one. Hence aesthetics is a wider study than the theory of beauty.

Aesthetics overlaps with philosophy of art because many artistic values are aesthetic ones, including of course beauty. But some artistic values seem not to be kinds of beauty (though again one must reserve final judgment). For example, originality and creativity are central artistic values, but are they kinds of beauty? Are they even aesthetic values? Does a work's originality matter in assessing its beauty? Does it affect its aesthetic value? Not obviously. They may well be aesthetically neutral. Also, some aesthetic values may not be artistic ones, for example lesser aesthetic values such as cuteness. Further, some art, especially in our time, seems to make a virtue of being not only unbeautiful but counter-aesthetic in general. And of course many of the things which aesthetics pays attention to, such as health and bodily vigor, do not seem to apply to art works. Therefore it seems likely that the realms of the artistic and the aesthetic extend outside of each other. The domain of philosophy of art seems only to overlap with those of aesthetics and theory of beauty, not to be a proper part of either of them (nor they of it).

As a tentative first approximation, then, we have theory of beauty falling within aesthetics and aesthetics overlapping with philosophy of art. This can be shown by a diagram of their respective domains:


At least this is a reasonable first approximation concerning the three domains. The ultimate adjustment of terms to meanings will depend upon the achievement of a complete and generally convincing theory of the three. Uncertainty about how things will turn out is a big part of the reason for the looseness of usage already mentioned.

Another distinction worth making at the outset is between the philosophical and the psychological treatment of the three fields just mentioned. Psychological aesthetics is the empirical study of the phenomena falling within that field, especially with actual preferences and aversions and the conditions that influence them. Our subject is philosophical rather than psychological. We use the data provided by psychology but, to put the matter briefly, we seek out what should be valued -- what is valuable -- rather than what is in fact valued. So for the philosophical theory of beauty, the core subject is that value itself, not the degree to which it is recognized and appreciated. At certain points psychological concepts directly enter the analysis of beauty, as for instance in theories which define beauty partly in terms of human response. But always psychology plays a supporting role rather than a leading one. By the same token no psychologist would suppose his field sought to answer the standard philosophical questions about beauty.

This leads on to questions about the positive nature of a theory of beauty, to which I now turn.

What is a (philosophical) theory of beauty?

A theory of beauty, like any theory worth the name, is a set of statements purporting to set forth truths which collectively give an understanding of a subject. In this respect a theory of beauty is like the theory of gravity or cell reproduction. Beauty, more specifically, is a value, like justice. A theory of beauty, like a theory of justice, must identify the value, ideally by a definition; must explain how that value can be recognized, how disputes about it can be rationally settled; and must set forth in general terms the properties that make things beautiful. The main activity a theory of beauty seeks to facilitate is the judgment of beauty in particular cases, just as a theory of justice seeks mainly to facilitate judgment of the justice or injustice of acts, social arrangements, and persons. Making such judgments in the light of the theory is to apply the theory. Such application falls into the category of practice rather than theory.

Theories of beauty or justice are in certain ways abstract. They deal with the value in question as a whole. They seek an analysis which will hold in all cases. Thus they must seek general truths -- "universals." To be sure, testing a theory of beauty plunges one into the concrete, for a theory true of all cases must be true of each. But having checked a given case, one must move on, and on. One's basic orientation must be global. Further, one must cover all conceivable cases, not just all actual ones. One cannot be bounded by actuality when one's subject is an ideal. In this way too, a theory of beauty is abstract in the sense of visionary. The theory's application, in contrast, yields statements about individual cases, which in the terminology of logic are "singular" rather than "universal".

Such abstractness is characteristic of philosophy as a whole. The orientation of the philosopher must in this way be different from of the artist or even the art-critic, both of whom are appropriately absorbed in a particular art project or a particular range of styles. The insights of artists and critics become data for the philosopher, not conclusions. The philosopher's conclusions must be tested against these insights, but they cannot be read off from the insights alone.


So, on the level of theory, in a world of ideas and statements, what specific sorts of statement do we encounter? Let us try to make a rough classification of the statements to be found in theories of beauty.

First, the statements comprising a theory of beauty can be divided into three categories: ontological statements, epistemological statements, and statements of normative criteria. This division corresponds exactly to the different sorts of questions a theory of beauty seeks to answer.

Within this classification there is also a distinction of semantic "level" to be observed. Normative criteria are first-order statements about beauty, whereas ontological and epistemological statements are second-order statements.

Let us begin with normative criteria of beauty and the idea of first-order statements. Normative criteria are statements about what properties tend to make things beautiful. So they have some such form as:

Anything which has P (e.g. unity) tends to be more beautiful than it would be otherwise, other things being equal.

Logically, this is a simple generalization of (non-theoretical) judgments about particular cases: A has unity and thereby is more beautiful than it would otherwise be, other things being equal, B has unity and is thereby more beautiful... Judgments about particular cases are as basic a form of judgment as one can get, the sort which exists prior to theory and for the sake of which theory is sought, hence reasonably called first-order. Their distinctive mark is to use beauty in its adjectival form (beautiful): they ascribe beauty to things either in particular cases (non-theoretical singular statements) or in general types of cases (normative criteria).

In contrast, 2nd-order statements about beauty do not ascribe beauty to anything. Rather, they speak about beauty itself. For instance, ontological statements say whether beauty is a property or a relation, whether it exists independently of human perception and feeling, and so forth. These are called ontological from the Greek word to be, since they are questions about the sort of being beauty is (or has). Thus they concern what is being ascribed to things when those things are said to be beautiful. Hence the idea of their being second-order statements; that is, statements about the first-order statements. The distinction is thus quite general and quite precise:

1st-order: statements (questions) about things being beautiful
2nd-order: statements (questions) about statements (questions) about things being beautiful

The same can be said of epistemological statements. These concern questions of how beauty can be known, if it can be known at all. They too are second-order, since they concern the grounds on which it is valid to assert a first-order statement about beauty.

Central epistemological questions deal with the structure of our knowledge of beauty. Is knowledge of the beauty of an individual ultimately based on knowledge of general principles, called normative criteria above, in the fashion of mathematics, as Plato thought? Or is our knowledge of particular instances more fundamental and all generalizations inferences or hypotheses projected from the "data" as laws in the natural sciences are, which is more in line with what Hutcheson believed? Or is some other model closer to the truth about our knowledge of beauty?


In particular some thinkers have believed that there can be no strict criteria of beauty, no valid generalizations at all; and that there can be no explanation of individual cases, all our "knowledge" of them being based on unanalyzable feeling or intuition.

The big 2nd-order questions often combine, and are sometimes ambiguous between, ontology and epistemology. Consider for example the question concerning the objective reality of beauty. Upon inspection this question divides into two. On the one hand it is, perhaps primarily, an ontological one: is beauty a real property of things or is it only a fiction, a projection, so to speak, of our aesthetic pleasure? But for many it also has an epistemological side, amounting to: Is there any way of obtaining objectively valid knowledge of beauty? Ontologically one could believe in the reality of beauty and yet be sceptical of our capacity to know it. Indeed some thinkers in the past seem to have held this view, especially during the ages in which beauty was connected with the mysterious divine. For such a one, human belief about what is and what is not beautiful would never be more than mere opinion, though some opinions might be true and others false.

Another big question that combines, and is also ambiguous between, our categories of statement is whether beauty can be defined, and if so how? In one sense of the term (one side of the ambiguity), a definition is a statement of equivalence of meaning, as for example the definition of "bachelor" as "unmarried marriageable man". This is a statement about terms, not about bachelors, and hence is a 2nd-order claim. Similarly with definitions of beauty. When Hutcheson (as interpreted herein) defines the beauty of an object as its capacity to produce a beauty-experience in an optimum percipient under optimum conditions, he is making a claim about the meaning of the term "beautiful". (Definitions can also be regarded as about concepts or essences -- viewed this way they assert that two concepts or essences, beauty and enjoyability, or beauty and the capacity just cited, are identical.)

We can hardly help regarding definitions of beauty in this sense as partly ontological and partly epistemological. Ontologically Hutcheson's definition implies that beauty is a capacity of a certain kind, which makes it objectively real. But it also implies that to verify a beauty claim we must have a "beauty-experience" analogous to our experience of color or sound. Hence epistemologically beauty is like sensory properties.

But the term definition in a looser, nontechnical sense for what we can call a normative definition of beauty. That will boil down be the full statement of a person's or culture's normative criteria. For instance, a lover of classical music is sometimes spoken of as defining musical beauty in terms of clarity, order, dignity, etc. and a lover of jazz as defining it in terms of syncopation, dissonance, liveliness, etc. I believe it is better not to use definition for this, since the term already has a standard use in logic and a different term, criterion (plural, criteria) is available for this other meaning. But it is important to be aware that the term is often so used. Criteria of this kind are also often called standards.

A (first-order) criterion in this philosophic sense means a strongly indicative mark of beauty. The conjunction of all a person's criteria will give his total criterion (in the fashion of the competing criteria of musical beauty just given). Criteria are also properly thought of as rules, since if a property is a criterion of beauty it will be safe to follow the rules: if something has that property, judge it (likely to be) beautiful, and, if you want to make a thing more beautiful, see if you can give it more of this property without disturbing any of its other beauty-making properties.


Thus far we have set forth the following sorts of statements which are "about beauty" in one sense or other.

1st-order statements 2nd-order statements
Singular statements about particular things No singular statements about particular things
-citations of a beauty-making property in a particular case (supervenience-identifications)  
General statements (normative criteria) General statements
-individual criteria - ontological
-total package of criteria ( normative "definition") - epistemological
  - definitional (strict sense)

Truisms about beauty

We have spoken about various aspects of our subject, and explained some of the terms of our discourse. But so far we have given no explanation of the main term, beauty. We have used the word as if the reader knew what it meant. We must now come to closer grips with it.

We can do this by running through some commonplaces about beauty, to remind the reader of how much everyone already knows about beauty. There is quite a bit. What everyone knows about it constitutes the core of the "logic" of beauty-claims, on which the very existence of the subject depends. The facts about the basic logic of beauty don't touch the big substantive questions, but clarity about these facts is essential if we are to avoid confusion about the big questions. Rehearsing these "truisms" is therefore an indispensable part of one's orientation in the subject.

1. There is a casual, exclamatory use of "beautiful" which is almost entirely empty of meaning, amounting to no more than an expression of a favorable attitude. People exclaim "beautiful" meaning only "great" or "wonderful" or "I like that a lot." When I say it is empty I mean the kind of favor is left completely open. It could be aesthetic or it could be any other sort: moral, intellectual, economic, etc. We can use "beautiful" to express our relief when freed from a danger (it was beautiful when the police burst in to disarm the terrorists), the provision of shelter, news of a football victory or any other welcome event. This use of "beautiful" is jarring because the word is more properly restricted to aesthetic value. Thus people who regularly use it unselectively seem frivolous because they seem to have reduced all values to a single kind, and one which is the least weighty. The moral, the medical, the nutritional and the generally practical rightly claim priority over the aesthetic, which can be roughly equated with the delightful to contemplate when free from more pressing matters. To exclaim "beautiful" indiscriminately for welcome news seems not just undiscriminating but sappy.

Serious, discriminating use of the term maintains the distinction between beauty and other values (moral, practical, intellectual, etc.). That there is such a use is obvious from the selectiveness with which traditionally the term is used: beautiful but not good, beautiful but not moral, beautiful but impractical, and so forth. From now on I shall assume we are talking about this use.


2. Every beauty-claim implies aesthetic praise. Beauty-claims are commendations (straightforward beauty-claims are -- ironic or sarcastic uses of "beautiful" don't count as real beauty-claims.) Thus beauty claims are a subset of a larger class of aesthetic evaluations covering not just commendation but also condemnation and indifference -- roughly, ugliness-claims and claims that things are neither beautiful nor ugly (blandness-claims). These evaluations seem plainly to imply a continuum running from beauty down through blandness to ugliness.

3. Every ascription of beauty to a thing presupposes that there is something about the thing which makes it beautiful. "Makes" is used in a special sense here. What is meant is not causal production (as when a coat of varnish makes the colors richer), but rather a more intimate sort of "making", as when one color's harmonizing with another makes a painting or a room beautiful (in respect of its color). "Makes" in this sense is very like "is". If color relationships make an ensemble beautiful then they are what is beautiful about it. Put in terms of is, the truism is this: every beauty-claim presupposes that there is something about the thing that is beautiful. In this way beauty requires a basis. The technical term for this relation is supervenience: beauty must supervene upon other properties.

Another way of putting the point is this: given two things identical in shape, color, texture, etc., if one is beautiful then the other must also be. No two objects can be such that one is beautiful and the other one not, without there being some other difference, a difference of shape, color, texture, etc. in virtue of which the one is beautiful and the other not. The beauty (or ugliness) of anything derives from its other properties. In this specific respect beauty is not an autonomous property but a supervenient one.

4. Equally it is clear that things can be beautiful in some respects and unbeautiful in others. Some beauty-claims concern only a specific aspect of an object, e.g. the color of a person's hair not its texture, or a melody of an aria not the orchestration. Such beauty-claims are aspect-specific. They only say the thing is beautiful in respect of this or that aspect.

5. Besides such aspect-specific claims there are claims concerning beauty overall. These purport to sum up the good and bad points of a thing and reach an overall assessment.

6. A beauty-claim may be more or less restrictive as to the degree of beauty which is being claimed. Some speakers hold to high standards, using beautiful only for the uppermost part of the continuum referred to in 3 above. Others are more liberal, allowing a larger segment of the continuum to be beautiful. They indicate the higher part of this segment by adverbial qualifiers such as really, very, exceedingly, terrifically, transcendently, supremely, absolutely, which the high-standard elitists scorn to use because they want "beautiful" by itself to have great force (though even they distinguish some degrees of beauty). Our linguistic conventions are not very restrictive in this respect. All that is required is some substantial limit on the portion of the plus segment of the continuum which counts as beautiful. Accordingly "faintly beautiful" or "slightly beautiful" are misuses. For the lower regions of the plus part of the continuum "nice", "O.K.", "not bad" are the accepted forms, just as mildly negative parts of the continuum are just "unattractive", not "ugly". That understood, the other differences of usage -- high versus liberal standards -- are a matter of individual preference. Nothing substantive follows from adopting one linguistic practice rather than another. But many misunderstandings result from one party not knowing what threshold the other is employing for the term "beautiful".

There are some who regard beauty as less than the highest segment of the continuum. For them "sublimity" or some other term designates its uppermost reaches. "Beautiful" will then have a ceiling as well as a threshold. Since this is a minority usage, historically as well as in our time, I will say no more about it.


From this it follows that beauty-claims carry a tacit relativity --they say that a thing is beautiful relative to a given threshold. But this relativity, it should be noted, implies nothing whatever about the subjectivity of beauty. (More on this in 8 below.)

7. There is another kind of harmless relativity. A beauty-claim may tacitly carry a restriction to a given grade of competition. For instance the beauty of children's art is usually assessed on different standards than the art of adults, just as are qualities such as cleverness, agility, and strength of children and adults. Value-assessments of all kinds typically occur in the context of some competition. Some comparison-class is presupposed, explicitly in formal competitions (e.g. dog or flower shows) and elsewhere tacitly and generally vaguely.

Naturally this complicates the hearer's task. She must gather the comparison-class from the total context. Typical cues are phrases in which "beautiful" functions attributively rather than predicatively, as in "beautiful daisy", which only means the flower is beautiful for a daisy, not for flowers in general, let alone for things in general (in the universal competition, so to speak).

Here again the relativity is completely neutral regarding the subjectivity-objectivity issue. But as in threshold-relativity it is essential to know what competition is presupposed by a given beauty-claim.

8. Some forms of relativity are consistent with objectivity. The two sorts of relativity just discussed are harmless because any disagreement caused by different thresholds or different competition-classes disappears once the specific relativities come to light. The art teacher praises the child's work as beautiful. The casual viewer out of context judges it not very beautiful. When the viewer knows it is a child's work he too may judge it beautiful -- relative to that comparison-class. Similarly for the finicky high-threshold speaker in relation to the more generous medium-thresholder. To the extent that their difference is just a matter of threshold, it is a simple problem of translation, not a disagreement about aesthetic value.

9. Beyond all these moderate uses of beautiful however there is a sense in which beauty is an ideal, which is to say that the maximum degree of beauty is rarely if ever attained. Sometimes we call this degree absolutely beautiful, meaning supremely beautiful, so beautiful that there could be nothing more beautiful. (The phrase absolutely beautiful may also be used for flawlessly beautiful even when the flawlessness doesn't confer supreme beauty, just the highest beauty of things of its sort. A ultra pure tone may be flawlessly beautiful without being as beautiful as, say, Beethoven's Third Symphony.

Two consequences

From the preceding emerges a consequence of some importance. What really matters in disputes about the beauty of things is the comparative ranking assigned to them on the beauty-ugliness continuum. If two persons agree on all comparative rankings, they have the same aesthetic values regardless of where their beauty-thresholds are or what comparison-class they have in mind on a given occasion. In this sense beauty is an essentially comparative concept, as are other values. Perhaps this consequence is a bit too deep to be a truism. But it does seem to be a point on which any reasonable person will agree if given a brief explanation and time to think it through.

From this consequence we are led on to another. Even if the mildly positive and negative degrees of the beauty-ugliness continuum do not entitle things with those degrees to be called beautiful or ugly, they seem to differ from the strong degrees only in degree. That is, they are fainter degrees of the same underlying value. Hence it is natural, and from the standpoint of theory useful, to call all positive degrees of the continuum degrees of beauty, all negative ones degrees of ugliness. Though speaking this way may deviate somewhat from ordinary usage, it is by far the simplest way to express the commonality present in the continuum. I will adopt this usage.


Beyond truisms: objectivity versus subjectivity (Realism versus Anti-realism)

1-9 are noncontroversial. Further, they are entirely neutral regarding the question whether beauty is an objective reality or only a subjective fiction (a "feeling", as it is often put). With the next point, however, we come to a matter of the "logic" of beauty that is deeply controversial. Aesthetic realists, who believe in the (ontological) objectivity of beauty, will regard it as a truism.Subjectivists about beauty will have reservations about it and wish to substitute another statement for it. I mark the alternative principles with suffixes.

10(obj). A beauty-claim is essentially the claim that the thing in question is worthy of being aesthetically admired. The term "worthy" carries the implication of its being correct to admire, wrong or neglectful not to admire, the thing. It asserts that the thing has a valid claim on our admiration. Now the subjectivist is apt to feel uncomfortable with this implication. For like others he finds himself using the term "beautiful" but he does not want to suggest that anything has a valid claim on his admiration. So he is apt to prefer a replacement for 10(obj) that is free of that suggestion. The usual substitute is 10(subj).

10(subj). A beauty-claim should always carry an implied to x, the x standing for the person, circle or culture whose aesthetic taste is expressed by the claim. In the old days, the basic issue was sometimes debated on a linguistic level. In the 18th century Kant could argue that attaching to x or for x produced an absurdity because beautiful implied that the value was not relative to persons or circles or cultures. In our more relativistic day language has been stretched to permit the sceptics to express themselves by the to/for x rider. One hears "beautiful to me (him, them)" in the best circles. We must now rephrase Kant's statement to apply only to aesthetic realists -- it would be inconsistent for them to attach that relativizing phrase to their claims.

Even here a qualification is required by one of the linguistic wrinkles that confuse so many discussions of beauty. To/for x can be used in the sense of in x's opinion, which need not imply subjectivity at all. First, beautiful in my opinion is perfectly consistent with belief in ontological objectivity -- in beauty being a reality. Second, opinions can be epistemologically objective. They are so when they are firmly based as opposed to casual, off-hand, or in some other way ill-founded. So the realist can consistently speak of something being beautiful to him if by that he means beautiful in his opinion. In such cases in my opinion is mildly "concessive", acknowledging either the existence of disagreement or the speaker's uncertainty about the correctness of his opinion, or both.

Subjectivist views raise many interesting problems, one of which is whether beauty for a given person or culture is time-relative. If something is beautiful to/for x at one time, must it be beautiful to/ for x eternally? Put the point another way: if at time t I declare the thing is beautiful and later declare it not beautiful, must one of these claims be false? Radical subjectivists say no, while moderate subjectivists may say yes. More of this distinction later.


Philosophy of Beauty: Part One

Ancient Theories of Beauty

1. The Greek word for beauty

At the outset a question arises about the use of our term beauty to translate the Greek word kallos. Scholars, being a disputatious lot, take different positions. The orthodox view is that, really, there is not much of a problem here. As J.J.Pollitt says (The Ancient View of Greek Art, p.193), "The semantic range of kallos is as simple or as complex as beauty, Schoenheit or any other word denoting the same quality. It is probably correct to say that beauty is the quality most commonly looked for in and demanded of a work of art both by the average man and the presumed connoisseur. All claim to be able to recognize it; few attempt to. define it." Yet Pollitt refers in a footnote to the very different view of Charles Seltman, who roundly declares (Approach to Greek Art, p. 29) that "The Greeks, whose thinking was both clear and simple, had no such confused concepts as Beauty and Beautiful." Seltman's reason is that the "wretched word 'Beauty' [is] the most ill-defined and indefinite word in the language...' (p. 28), embracing as it does the truly aesthetic case of beautiful cathedral, the loose slang of beautiful shootin', and the common and normal case of sexually attractive. Seltman prefers the less common word fineness to translate the Greek kallos. Not only does it stress the idea of exact fit or appropriateness, as opposed to loose agreeableness, but it avoids the low-brow connotation of sexiness.

What are we to say to this? I suggest that the range of things to which Greeks refer as beautiful (i.e. kallos) plausibly is just as wide as our range of beauties. Sexiness is not excluded, though it is also not given any special prominence (but it is not really in ours either). The more high-minded of the Greeks doubtless laid stress on the more refined kalloi; but likewise the more high-minded among English speakers give preference to the more refined of our beauties. Our ordinary social usage is marked by many preferences and reticences which any theory of beauty must shave away. For example, male heterosexuals are often disinclined to call men beautiful, whereas ancient Greeks had no hesitation at all in calling them kallos. But this seems a trifling semantic wrinkle, such as may occur between equivalents in different languages. Moreover the alternatives available, e.g. fineness, are no more satisfactory. How, for instance, can we speak idiomatically of a bull as "finely powerful" or of velvet as "finely smooth"? But it is natural to refer to such things as beautifully powerful or smooth. Fineness seems a variety of beauty rather than a replacement for it. It may also characterize the best of Greek art, as Seltman believes, but that doesn't justify substituting that term for beauty in general, across the board. So, without denying the imperfections of the conventional terminology, I think it best to stick with tradition regarding the word beauty. Similar remarks apply to the relation between our beauty and the Latin words pulchritudo (forma also functions adjectivally for beautiful) .

2. Plato's theory of beauty: the core ideas introduced

The first philosopher in the West to develop a theory of beauty which has come down to us is Plato (427?-347B.C.) although a number of other writings on art and beauty are reported prior to him. Plato discusses beauty not in a systematic treatise but in dialogues in which Socrates, his mentor, is the protagonist. The dialogues record supposed coversations at dinner parties, at encounters in the public spaces in Athens and among groups of intellectuals gathered for that purpose in someone's home. Often beauty comes into a conversation whose main topic is something else, for example love or justice. Since Plato does not speak in his own person, there is sometimes some uncertainty as to how his main speaker's views relate to his own.

Still, his writings on beauty are our major texts on the subject for ancient Greek culture, and they have exercised enormous influence over all subsequent treatments. They present the elements of a theory of beauty which is so simple and in a way compelling that it is hard not to think that if Plato had not developed it, someone else would have had to. Thus it makes a good starting point for our study even apart from its historical priority.


Platonic "Forms" or "Ideas"

The central concept of Plato's theory, and of his philosophy as a whole, is that of a "Form" or "Idea" (herein capitalized to distinguish Plato's usage from the ordinary ones). This notion is a great stumbling block for modern readers, so I will spend some time introducing it before giving you passages from Plato's writings. Anyone who becomes impatient may jump into those writings forthwith. If you do, I recommend that you come back to these pages. Otherwise you will probably not get the right idea of Plato's doctrine.

A Form may be said to be (roughly) a property or quality as opposed to the individuals which have it. It corresponds to an abstract noun, beauty for instance, as opposed to the adjective beautiful, which corresponds to an individual's possession of the property. Ontologically a Form is conceived of as an independently real, abstract object, an "essence" which exists apart from whatever concrete exemplifications of it there may be. Beauty, justice, courage, equality, squareness, greenness, humanity, etc. on this theory exist in themselves regardless of whether there are any concrete particulars which are beautiful, just, courageous, etc. and regardless even of whether anyone has ever thought of such things.

In the foregoing the terms property and object must be taken in wide senses: property covers all sorts of abstract things, properties, qualities, relations, types, etc. Similarly object in the phrase abstract object covers everything which can be an "object of thought". There are many terms for various classes of abstract objects besides the four just used: attributes, characteristics, kinds, sorts, varieties, versions, etc. A standard philosophical term for them all is universals.

For some abstract objects we have an abstract noun in common use, such as poverty, envy, patriotism, equality, three. Others are designated by a common phrase: the isosceles triangle, the wages of sin. But many require a more elaborate phrase, such as being a first son of a tyrannical father. In idiomatic speech such circumlocutions are woven into our discourse so smoothly that we fail to notice that they refer to abstractions, as in "It's no fun to be the son of a tyrannical father". So it is common in philosophic discourse to invent -hood or -ness constructions, such as tablehood or treeness, to call attention to that reference. For ontological clarity we must learn to speak up boldly in an abstract style.

Abstractness and existence

As already stated, Plato conceives of these nonparticulars as abstract, that is, as what is common to all the different instances rather than as what individuates them. The Form humanity comprises only what is shared by all individual humans. Further, Forms need not be exemplified at all in order to exist or be. There is a Form (or Idea) for every conceivable ideal however far beyond realization it may be. Plato's belief that this is so was based on a reflection about truth. He was much struck by the fact that mathematical and ethical statements are entirely independent of the limitations of spatial and temporal existence (of what is commonly called reality or real existence). There are no physical objects which precisely instantiate a geometrical figure or a physical magnitude equal to pi and no societies which fully instantiate a perfectly just constitution. But indisputably there are truths about geometrical, mathematical and ethical ideals. But how could they be true if they were not true of something? There must be something of which they are true. This is to say that there must be a reality about which they speak the truth. Hence, corresponding to true, positive, abstract statements there must be real abstract things.

Once this principle is grasped it is obvious that it applies also to the case of Forms which are not unrealizable ideals, such as the Forms of the physical elements. For there are certainly full instances of iron, sodium and oxygen in space and time. And are these not elements general properties about which there are abstract propositions whose truth does not depend on there being actual instances, just as in the case of unrealizable ideals such as that of a perfect vacuum or a magnitude equal to pi? Thus there seems good reason for believing that corresponding to every abstract term there is a Form which exists in and of itself, "abstractly"; and that its being what it is, is what makes statements about it true or false.


Instantiation or exemplification

That accepted, a question arises about the relation between the Form and its instances or exemplifications. According to Plato a Form not only exists apart, but "participates" in its instances to the degree to which those instances meet its specifications. We speak of the individual as having or possessing a color or shape or character trait. The relation here is curious, since there is no way to explain it more basic than simply using the verb to be in the predicative mode: X is green, square; X is kind, courageous. All attempts to explain the relation of instantiation or exemplification via notions of possession, participation or imitation (the last a distinctively Platonic suggestion we will meet shortly) turn out to be merely metaphorical rephrasings of the simple predication.

One final point should be made about instantiation. The relationship can hold at all levels of. generality. By that I mean that virtually all Forms can be exemplified not just by particulars but also by other Forms. Consider a type of tree, say maple tree (type), which of course is exemplified by many individual trees. But it belongs to (exemplifies) more general types, for example, building material, a type of resource, and within that, renewable building material, a narrower resource-type standing in contrast to, e.g. asphalt product-types, etc. And it (the maple tree-type, that is) has sub-types, such as the sugar maple. Similarly the isosceles triangle exemplifies Euclidean figure, which exemplifies geometrical figure, and so forth.

Concrete particularity

Going in the direction of the specific, at the extreme we find exemplifications which are so un-general or particularized that they are not types at all. The maple tree in my yard is not itself a type, but only of a type. It is what is called a concrete particular. Its distinctive mark is its being particularized in space and/or time; it is individuated by its place in the world, and not simply by the types to which it belongs, the properties or qualities it has, etc. -- or in Plato's terms, the Forms it instantiates.

No division is more basic ontologically than that between concrete particulars and universals (Forms). The abstractness of Forms is precisely their lack of individuation by a place in the world, a location in space and time. They themselves are not in or of the world. They are ini themselves timeless and placeless (only their concrete instances exist at places or times). They are in the strongest sense "eternal". All this follows from the character of truths about them. No statement about things in time or space could affect the truth of statements about the intrinsic character of Forms. Consider mathematical statements. Their truth is completely independent of any empirical finding (empirical here means based on sensory observation, as in natural science). Mathematics is based on intellectual intuition and deductive demonstration. To establish the truth of any mathematical statement, we construct formal proofs. We do not engage in experimental observation.

Mathematics affords us an ideal entree into the theory of Forms because there our knowledge is firm and extensive. Plato confidently expected that the physical and biological sciences could also be developed in a somewhat similar fashion, with self-evident axioms and deducible theorems constituting their core, even though observation would be necessary for application of the theory to concrete cases. He also thought that genuine moral knowledge could be attained if social conditions could be managed so as better to educate philosophers (and power brokers). Such moral knowledge would give the essence of justice, courage, magnanimity and other virtues. It would not concern empirical matters having to do with the actual behavior of people.


Similarly Plato seems to have believed that the essence of beauty is in principle possible to apprehend and articulate in a theory. Again the theory would deal exclusively with the Form, the ideal, rather than with practical questions of how to produce beautiful things, which would be a technical rather than a theoretical matter.

Full vs. Perfect Instances of Ideals

A final remark is needed about the notion of an ideal, which has often appeared in the preceding explanations. As already mentioned Plato came to his theory of Forms partly from thinking about unrealizable ideals, that is, properties so perfect that they have no full concrete instances (the property of being a straight line, for example). That is one sort of ideal. And perfect (supreme, unsurpassable) beauty, beauty of the very highest degree, may well be one of these unrealizable ideals. But there are plenty of ideals which are not unrealizable, such as a perfect score in bowling. Reflecting about such modest ideals should lead us to realize that even in the case of higher values like beauty, in which perfection is (perhaps) not achievable, we can speak meaningfully of full instances, things which are really beautiful, and not just "approximations" that aspire to being beautiful without quite making it. For to be really beautiful a thing needn't be perfectly beautiful (recall our sixth truism). It only needs to get over the lower threshold, wherever that may fall. We call the property an ideal because

(a) its maximum degree is better than its threshold-degree, and
(b) its threshold is reasonably high.

The point is perhaps more clearly conveyed in terms of full membership as opposed to preeminent standing in a class. One can fully qualify as a professional (doctor, lawyer, plumber) even if one does not stand at the top of one's profession. On the other side, one can fail fully to qualify, and be a para-professional (para-medic, para-legal, plumber's assistant or apprentice) analogously to the things that approximate without quite being beautiful (things people tend to say are nice, pretty good, not bad, OK, but not beautiful).

Plato never fully works out these details. In general he speaks of Beauty and other value-Forms as if they were the highest degrees of their respective values. This is awkward, since it conflicts with the almost universal practice of calling actual things beautiful (just, courageous, etc.) which meet a lower standard. Plato's restrictiveness on this point seems to stem from an illicit association of practical unrealizability with ontological transcendence. That is, he seems to think that if there were perfect instances, the Forms' ontological independence from their instances would be in jeopardy. But in fact the two ideas are separate. Forms, being abstractions, are ontologically independent of even perfect concrete instances. For their independence is based on there being truths about them that are true even if they have no perfect instances. This condition, being hypothetical, can be satisfied just as easily where there are perfect instances as where there are none.

Here is a case where we should diverge from Plato's texts, in the interest of purging his theory of self-defeating confusions and errors. In our reconstructed Platonism, then, the Forms are ontologically transcendent even if they have perfect instances. In the case of ideals such as Beauty (Wisdom, Justice, Goodness, etc.) we will distinguish between the general Form of Beauty, which is realizable (that is, which has full even if no perfect concrete instances), and its unrealizable sub-Form of Perfect (Supreme, Unsurpassable) Beauty. Since no concrete particulars are supremely beautiful, Supreme Beauty will have no concrete particulars as full instances. The most beautiful concrete particular will be only an "approximation" to that Form.


This raises the following curious question: why can't concrete particulars be perfect instances of the Form of Beautiful Concrete Particular? Or more specifically, granting that sorts of concrete particulars -- say bronze statues -- may have inherent limitations as to beauty, why couldn't a very beautiful bronze statue perfectly exemplify the Form of Beautiful Bronze Statue? -- and likewise for limitless other Beauty-Forms of this sort? More on this in section 8 in Part 2 below.This will do for an introduction. Later we will return to these core ideas and deepen our treatment of them.