In the last two essays, we have discussed the patterns or structures that our minds latch onto and that we have called “the intelligibles.” Those familiar with Platonism will by now have noticed that I have studiously avoided using the term “Form.” When we speak of “Plato’s Theory of the Forms,” students often have some mixed up ideas about what this means. They often imagine perfect versions of things here on earth floating off in some kind of heaven. Sometimes I find out that this is what they were explicitly taught by a non-specialist professor in a freshmen philosophy class. When they do this, they are imagining Forms as basically things, the same kind of object as ordinary sensible objects, just super-sized and shiny. The very way that scholars tend to talk about “the Forms” only reinforces this tendency to thingify what are emphatically not things.

Despite all the talk of “Plato’s Theory of the Forms,” Plato himself rarely uses any of the Greek words that mean “form,” and there are no passages in any of the dialogues in which he straight-forwardly sets out a theory. Confusingly, there are three different words that are usually translated as “form,” and Plato does not regularly use any of them in a technical sense.

The first word is εἶδος (eidos). This noun is derived from the verb εἴδω (eido), which is a common verb for “seeing,” “looking,” or “investigating.” Many languages use words originally referring to vision to communicate acts of knowing or understanding. Think, for example, of the way we say in English, “Ah, I see now,” or “Don’t you see?” A similar linkage between seeing and knowing can be found in the whole cluster of Greek words related to this root.

In its basic, non-philosophical usage, then, εἶδος refers to the “appearance” or the “look” of something, as when we say in English, “I like the look of this one; I’ll buy it.” When discussing a person, εἶδος can be translated as “looks” or “physique,” usually in a positive sense. When discussing architecture or pottery, εἶδος refers to the “decorations,” “patterns,” or “shapes” that beautify the surface of things. Far from being an abstract, rationalistic, or technical term, therefore, the word εἶδος is rooted in the daily sensuous experience of seeing shapes and patterns all around us.

The second word is ἰδέα (idea), from which we get the English word “idea.” This comes from the same root verb since the infinitive form of εἴδω is ἰδεῖν (idein). Because of this word, you will sometimes encounter an older generation of scholars speaking of “Plato’s Theory of Ideas” instead of “Plato’s Theory of Forms,” but I avoid this language completely because students automatically think of the English word “idea,” and assume that we are discussing notions within our own mind, i.e. “concepts,” rather than objective patterns out there in the world. Plato himself typically uses this word interchangeably with εἶδος, but the later tradition tends to distinguish them in a way we will discuss in a later essay. The important thing to remember is simply that ἰδέα in Greek does not mean “idea” in English. The Greek word refers to an objective character that things really possess rather than a subjective notion we might form when we recognize and think about the objective character.

The third word is μορφή (morphe), of uncertain etymology, which is the word preferred by Aristotle, and it refers to the “shape” of something as opposed to the material that has been sculpted into that shape. Later Platonists adopt Aristotle’s form-matter distinction as congenial to the whole Platonic line of thinking, but it is important for the English-speaking student to realize that this is a different Greek word being used even though it has a very similar sense.

Returning, then, to εἶδος and ἰδέα, we must now make clear that they do not refer to some super-object in another world. Instead, they refer to the “look” of things all around us, what we grasp with our minds when we see and understand what things are. We might translate both these words as the “character” of something, the qualitative whatness that we take in with a single glance. More poetically, we could also translate both words as a thing’s peculiar “style,” its distinct way of being that makes it different from other kinds of thing.

In Latin, we have a similar etymological connection between the “look” of things and the categorization of things into different kinds. Just like in Greek, the Latin word species comes from the verbal root spec-, as in specio and specto, which means to “look at,” “watch,” or “behold.” So something’s “species” or “kind” was originally connected to identifying things by their different ways of appearing.

In both Greek and Latin, then, we find a natural bridge between the physical act of looking at something and the mental act of recognizing what it is. This bridge is natural because, in the very structure of the world, the patternedness of things is everywhere, continually presenting itself to all our senses. We could similarly talk about the “sound” of birdsong or the “feel” of a summer’s breeze. All such language refers to the directly experienced “character” of something in the world by which we are able to recognize it and form a concept for that kind of thing. The “look,” the “sound,” or the “feel” of something is not itself the concept or idea that we form subjectively in our own head. Instead, it is the objective pattern in the thing we encounter without which we could not form a concept in the first place.

Moving forward, then, I will sometimes lapse into the typical scholarly vocabulary and speak of “the Forms,” but I will also simply leave the word eidos untranslated as a reminder to think carefully about what it means. The plural of this word, I should mention, is εἴδη (eide), and philosophers, especially in phenomenology, sometimes use the adjective “eidetic.” In the next essay, we will see this word and its synonym ἰδέα put to use in the context of two relatively early and well-known Platonic dialogues. I hope all this background work, however, will make our first encounter with Plato’s actual writing much more profitable.