Jan asked:

Who claimed that forms reside in physical objects?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Jan, it seems to me that the philosopher whose approach to forms best meets your requirements is Aristotle. As you probably know, Plato held that the world we live in is the world of appearances. The ultimate reality is the world of Ideal Forms. Things we experience through the senses derive their reality, he says, from this ultimate world of ideas. Whilst Plato`s approach can be seen as metaphysical, or even ontological, Aristotle`s approach can be said to be scientific. Although taught by Plato, Aristotle rejected his master’s concept of a realm of Ideal Forms removed from that of the physical or material world. Reference to this different approach to can be seen in Rafael’s painting, The School of Athens, in which Plato is shown pointing to the heavens, whilst Aristotle is pointing towards things much closer to hand.

For Aristotle then, the ‘form’, or ‘idea’, is simply a mental image of something we have experienced in the perceptible world. For example, the idea we form of a dog is drawn from our experience of seeing a number of dogs. The idea, says Aristotle, has no existence on its own – it does not exist in a metaphysical realm detached from this physical or material world. For Aristotle the ‘idea’ or ‘form’ of something is made up of that thing’s characteristics. These characteristics define what a thing is – or what species it belongs to. That is, the form or idea of something consists of those characteristics common to all similar things. For example, the form of a cat consists of those characteristics which are common to all cats: it has whiskers, four legs and a tail, and it mews. Aristotle, then, disagrees with Plato when he says that the form comes before the physical entity.

Aristotle’s investigation into the principles of matter (that is, of things physical) leads him to draw an important distinction between form and matter. A classic example that illustrates this distinction is that of a bronze statue: bronze is the matter, whilst the figure of the statue is the form. Neither matter nor form can exist independently – for form is the idea that informs or gives shape to the physical or material thing. Even a crude lump of bronze would have some form, though the form would be less distinctive than that of the statue. Similarly, it would not be possible for form to exist without some physical matter to take on that form.

Thus, although Aristotle agrees with Plato that there are forms, and that these forms are universals, he holds that the concept of universals derives not from the world of Ideal Forms, but from empirical experience. For Aristotle ‘nothing is found in the intellect which was not found first in the senses’ (‘Nihil est in intellectu quin prius fuerit in sensu’).Therefore, while, for Plato the world of Ideas is the ultimate reality, of which everything that we experience in this world is but an inferior copy, for Aristotle, the concept of universals is a posteriori – they derive from our experience with the natural world. In sum, for Plato, things in the physical world are copies of ideas which have their original, or archetypes in the metaphysical realm of Ideal Forms, while for Aristotle, forms are ideas that derive from empirical experience.