Rethinking Recollection and Plato’s Theory of Forms



Rethinking Recollection

and Plato’s Theory of Forms

Lydia Schumacher


Since the late Medieval period, philosophers have tended to think of Platonic Forms as totalized mind-and-language independent realities that subsist in their own ‘Platonic heaven’: fixed essences, after which physical objects are inferiorly copied.  Accordingly, many have understood the recollection of Forms as an act that involves summoning innate ideas of the Forms up from the recesses of the mind that perceived them before birth.  In order to retrieve a Form from the intelligible realm of immutable ‘being’, it is generally believed that the mind must shun and see past those mutable instances of the ultimate essences that clutter the sensible realm of ‘becoming’.  Only in this way can the human intellect conceive a thought that corresponds to the way things really are.

Although this ‘essentialist’ or ‘ontologizing’ interpretation of Platonic Forms and the understanding of recollection that goes along with it has long gone uncontested, it is by no means standard in the history of philosophy.  Recent research has shown that an essentialist interpretation of Forms and the concomitant theory of knowledge by correspondence did not become popular until the early thirteenth century, when members of the Franciscan intellectual tradition appropriated them from the recently translated works of the Arab scholar Avicenna.[1]  Through late Medieval Franciscan thought, which set the stage for early modern thought, an essentialist reading of Plato came into circulation, and before long, it became the common view.

In recent years, scholars have started to question the viability of this inherited reading of Forms and recollection.[2]  Of special interest in this context is the work of Chrisoph Helmig, whose inquiry into Plato’s Phaedrus led him to conclude that the knowledge of Forms the mind possessed before birth was not knowledge of individual, totalized entities, but knowledge of all things in unity with the divine source, namely, the One.[3]  What the mind remembers when it recollects, on Helmig’s account, is the very ability to think in unifying terms, or to make generalizations.  Effectively, then, the work of recollection is that of abstraction, which Plato’s student Aristotle most famously described.  As Plato’s own words in the Phaedrus confirm, recollection consists in, “bringing many perceptions together into a reasoned unit”[4] orseeing together things that are scattered about everywhere and collecting them into one kind.”[5]

Following Helmig’s lead, I strive in this article to rethink recollection along the lines of abstraction, with special though not exclusive reference to Plato’s Phaedo and Parmenides dialogues.  This reevaluation of the nature of the knowledge of Forms, I will explain, helps show how Plato’s account of Forms and recollection can evade the philosophical problems that arise for it when Forms are construed in an essentialist sense—problems which lead many to pronounce the account outmoded, their general recognition of  Plato’s ingenuity notwithstanding.  At the same time, moreover, the effort to reassess recollection serves to reconfigure the ontological status of Forms and elucidate the function the Forms perform in promoting an ethical life.  In these ways, the present inquiry throws the tenability of Plato’s philosophical perspective into relief.  In the same instance, it hints at the continuity of the Platonic and Aristotelian systems of thought.


Plato’s mid-career dialogue Phaedo is typically thought contain his earliest explicit account of Forms and recollection. Speaking through Socrates, Plato observes that acts of recollection are instigated by encounters with empirical objects that exhibit similar or dissimilar traits.[6]  These experiences incite the mind to secure a concept or know a Form through which it can class similar things together and distinguish things that differ and thus “give an account of what it knows.”[7]

When the mind registers experiences of equal and unequal objects, for instance, it is prompted to recollect the Form of ‘Equal Itself’.[8]  Although it is clearly not unthinkable to read this as an attempt to retrieve an infallible innate idea from the mind, as the common conception of recollection confirms, it is equally plausible to understand the cognitive effort described in the Phaedo as one in which the mind “refers its sense perceptions”[9] of equal objects to a universal concept of Equal, which it forms of its own accord.  By contrast to a fixed and final concept of some reality that precludes awareness of material instances of that reality, this concept acquired through abstraction is a provisional one that both allows the mind to comprehend the equal and unequal objects that are presently in view and that can be employed in future efforts to make sense of empirical data.

Far from a retrieval of a priori ideas, in other words, recollection as Socrates describes it involves the use of an a priori cognitive capacity to form an idea on the basis of experiences of similar things, which serves in turn to relate and unite those things in the mind.  Through further experience, the original concept of equality can be revised and expanded to include more equal things.  By these means, the mind’s idea of the Form of Equality can grow to match the Form of Equal that encompasses all instances of equality.  In sum, it can learn to conceive of all equal things together in unity as they are perceived in the realm of the gods.

When the recollection of Forms is construed in this way, certain problems commonly associated with the account are implicitly resolved, such as its alleged tendency to undermine the indispensability of empirical knowledge and promote a dualistic division between the sensible and intelligible realms that makes it difficult to determine how exactly recollection allows one to intellectually breach the divide between them.  Although Plato admittedly states that the Forms cannot be grasped “with any of our bodily senses,”[10] this claim need not be taken to imply that the sense faculties are inferior or irrelevant to the intellect, if recollection is conceived as abstraction.

According to that interpretation, Plato’s distinction between the knowledge of particular equal objects and Equal Itself highlights the fact that the perceptive faculties are not suited to accomplishing the mind’s abstractive work, just as the intellect cannot perform its abstractive function without empirical input.[11]  In this instance, the difference between sensible and intellectual is not the difference between an imperfect sensible object and a perfect intelligible one, located in incommensurable ontological realms.[12]  Rather, it amounts to a difference between two ways of knowing, namely, the sense perception of an empirical particular and the intellectual apprehension of a universal that cooperatively enable the mind to grasp equal things in the world, and therefore take priority each in its own way.

In addition to highlighting the role of empirical knowledge and its relatedness to the work of the intellect, the definition of recollection as abstraction reveals how the doctrine of recollection solves the notorious aporia of learning Plato poses in the earlier Meno dialogue, as Plato insists it does.  The problem raised there concerns how it is possible to come to know X if X is not already known, given that one could not identify X upon encountering it if one did not already know it, and one would not need to learn X if one already knew it.[13]

The solution to this problem is fairly straightforward if recollection is likened to abstraction, for the following reason: when the mind abstracts, it infers a universal concept from images of related objects that have been formed on the basis of sense experiences.  Those images as well as ideas previously abstracted represent the mind’s stock of latent knowledge, or the information it brings to bear in efforts to render new experiences intelligible.  Whenever the mind is stimulated by some new experience to offer an explanation for that experience, it draws on this store of information to do so. 

Anytime it accomplishes the feat of knowing, or successfully engages in recollection, the idea that results is one that was effectively waiting to be discovered.  In producing this idea, the mind transforms the potential for understanding its existing knowledge created into actual understanding.  That distinction between potential and actual knowledge is what makes it possible to say without contradiction that the mind already knew what it came to know before it came to know it, and also that it did not know what it came to know until the very moment of discovery. 

One of the more significant points about recollection that can be learned from the Meno, incidentally, concerns the frame of mind that fosters this activity.  In his dialogue with Meno’s uneducated slave boy, Socrates makes it clear that the success of recollection depends upon an attitude of open-mindedness.  Interestingly enough, the slave boy’s acute awareness of his inadequacy to answer the difficult question that Socrates posed to him at the outset of the discussion is precisely what put him in the position to work towards an answer to that question in a step-by-step fashion, through efforts to answer more basic questions that simply required him to connect ideas he already had, that is, to transform his potential into actual knowledge.[14] 

In Plato’s earliest dialogues, which are marked by Socrates’ ‘search for definitions’, the same point about the importance of open-mindedness is stressed.  In the Euthyphro, for example, Socrates asks Euthyphro to identify the form that makes all pious actions pious, “so that I may look upon it, and using it as a model, say that any action…is pious.”[15]  At the start of the discussion, Euthyphro over-confidently asserts his ability to definite piety.  As Socrates questions him further, however, he only proves able to offer examples of pious actions.  In each instance, Socrates responds with counter-examples, which prove that the definitions of piety Euthyphro has presented fail to exhaust the meaning of piety.

Finally, Euthyphro admits that, “it is a considerable task to acquire any precise knowledge of these things.”[16]  In the face of his inability to perfectly define piety, Euthyphro finally flees the scene of the discussion, where is counterparts in Laches, Lysis, Charmides, simply resorted to admitting that they did not know how to give the definition Socrates sought.[17]  In reaching this conclusion, Socrates’ interlocutors acknowledged what they should have recognized from the outset, namely, that human beings are not omniscient and that they will always have more to learn about piety and everything else.

Because Socrates himself was willing to admit, “I do not know,”[18] when appropriate, he was pronounced “the wisest man on earth” by the Oracle of Delphi.[19]  By accepting his finitude, Socrates came to terms with the provisional nature of his ideas and put himself in a position to revise them and grow in wisdom.  The wisdom he seems eager to pass on in the early dialogues is that anyone wishing to inquire into the nature of piety, courage, friendship and so forth, must adopt a similar attitude of receptiveness.  Ironically, then, it would seem that motive behind his search for definitions was not to achieve exhaustive definitions of different virtues, or to impose a set of doctrines or philosophical concepts, but to encourage interlocutors to relinquish pride and preconceived notions and therefore help them learn how to learn, which is just what they consistently refused to do. 


Like the Phaedo, Plato’s Parmenides dialogue is considered to be a key text on Forms, but for the unfortunate reason that it is generally taken as a sign of the philosopher’s mature decision to abandon the theory.  The dialogue consists of two main sections, the first of which lists a number of fatal criticisms of the theory of Forms.  The second section goes through a series of dialectical exercises. 

The theory of Forms criticized in part one is an essentialist one, and it is for this reason that readers who assume this view was Plato’s own suppose that the theory is being rejected.  For the same reason, many find it difficult to discern the relationship between the two parts of the dialogue, and so conclude in many cases that the parts are not purposefully connected.  In the following analysis, I interpret the Parmenides on the assumption that recollection is abstraction.  By these means, I demonstrate that the two halves of the dialogue are not unrelated, but comprise a two-part effort to clarify and confirm Plato’s longstanding views on Forms and recollection in the face those that wrongly interpreted them, as per part one. 

The Parmenides opens with a conversation between Parmenides, Zeno, and their young unstudied pupil Socrates regarding the relationship between unity and diversity.  According to the elder interlocutors, it is necessary to posit that one Form exists and that it can be known in order to affirm the possibility of knowing the many particular instances of that Form.[20]  The juvenile Socrates is clearly under the impression that the Forms to which his teachers refer are totalized ontological entities that must be known in totality if they are to be known at all. 

The interlocutors all agree, however, that such an interpretation of Forms undermines the belief that Forms are knowable, for if Forms must be fully known in order to be known in any sense whatsoever, it is impossible to account for the observable fact that people have different and limited ideas about what certain Forms are.[21]  If Forms exist in their own separate realm, moreover, and human knowers are confined to the realm of physical objects that are merely inferior copies of Forms, then it becomes difficult to show how they can access to the realm of Forms in order to truly know.[22]

With these problems in view, Socrates remarks: “how great the difficulty is if one marks things off Forms, themselves by themselves.”[23]  In spite of the challenges that have been mentioned, Parmenides insists that it is necessary to affirm that there are Forms for things, lest human learners lose a place to ‘turn their thoughts’ and so destroy the possibility of knowledge.[24]  If Socrates only had more training, Parmenides argues, then he would be able to grasp what Forms are, what it means to know them, and why the aforementioned problems are not genuine problems for the theories in question.  In response to this, Socrates inquires what manner of training Parmenides has in mind.[25]

The training, Parmenides explains, is training in the art of dialectical reasoning, which involves forming hypotheses that are based on and account for experiences, and testing those hypotheses by setting them against counter-arguments, revising them in the process.[26]  Since this brief explanation does not seem to bring Socrates any closer to seeing what it means to know the Forms, Socrates asks Parmenides to lead him through some dialectical exercises.[27]  At that point, Parmenides calls upon the young Aristotle to participate with him in the series of dialectical exercises that comprise the second part of the dialogue. 

From Parmenides’ perspective, these exercises seem to illustrate clearly the process of knowing Forms and the plausibility of the theory of Forms more generally.  While this is genuinely puzzling if one operates on the definition of Forms that was rejected in the first part of the dialogue, one can see why Parmenides comes to his conclusion if recollection is roughly interpreted as abstraction.  According to this interpretation, knowing Forms entails participation in the activity of producing universal concepts.[28] It involves thinking about related things in unifying terms, or including them all under one concept, which gives the mind somewhere to ‘turn its thought’ whenever it encounters a new instance the object in question.[29]  Through such encounters, the concept is revised and the mind improves at the skill of knowing the relevant Form.  

So defined, the process of recollecting Forms does not involve knowing totalized ontological entities, but is much akin to the process of dialectical reasoning, which involves forming, testing, revising, and expanding hypotheses formed on the basis of experience.  The dialectical exercises performed in the second part of the Parmenides save the theory of Forms that was criticized in the first part, because they illustrate that the knowledge of Forms differs from what it is there assumed to be.  Far from precluding differences in perspective and the possibility of growth in knowledge or requiring recourse to a realm that is inaccessible to human minds, recollecting Forms involves engaging in an abstractive mode of reasoning which makes it possible to comprehend the real world order, and to do so in increasing measure. 

Although the interpretation of recollection as abstraction helps disclose the connection between the two parts of the Parmenides, it does not entirely explain why the criticisms mentioned in part one were originally raised.  A study of the context and peculiarities of the dialogue provides this explanation.  In discussing these matters, Lloyd Gerson points out that what I have called an ‘ontologizing’ view of Forms had arisen in Athens among those to whom Plato refers in his Sophist as “friends of the Forms.”[30]  These false ‘friends’, possibly some of Plato’s own students, either failed or refused to recognize that “Forms never were ultimate entities.”[31] 

Perhaps there was a legitimate reason for their mistake.  As Nicholas White has pointed out, Plato frequently exhibits a tendency to “assimilate the claim that a term is meaningful or significant with the claim that there is an entity in the universe that it in some sense stands for or picks out.”[32]  In other words, he sometimes makes Forms sound very much like great, big, perfect ‘things’, which is not really what they are.  When Plato raises problems for this understanding of Forms in the first part of the Parmenides, Gerson contends, he is not rejecting his own account of Forms but the one that the so-called friends were espousing. 

Gerson bolsters his contention by noting that for centuries Neo-Platonists, “universally supposed that Plato did not regard the arguments [in Parmenides] as fatal to Forms as he conceived them”[33] but that such “arguments were used in the Academy to separate inadequate from adequate understandings of Forms.”[34]  Pieter d’Hoine likewise situates Parmenides in this illuminating context.[35]  The upshot is that the criticisms of Forms presented in part one do not apply to Plato’s own view of Forms but rather to a common misinterpretation of it.

In addition to the external evidence Gerson mentions, there is internal evidence that supports this point, which arises from the special features of the Parmenides dialogue itself.  The most striking peculiarity concerns Socrates’ role in the discussion.  The vast majority of Plato’s dialogues depict a mature Socrates in dialogue with members of other philosophical schools.  Normally, Socrates is found challenging opponents to examine the validity of their assumptions, ones the reader might suspect Plato regards as untenable. 

In the Parmenides, however, Socrates is depicted as the unlearned pupil of Parmenides and Zeno, philosophers Plato regarded as his own forerunners.  Atypically, Socrates is represented as the over-confident advocate of the view being challenged in the dialogue.  This seems to signal that the Parmenides, unlike other dialogues that mainly relate interschool debates, is a conversation amongst proponents of Platonism itself.  As Gerson contends, it is a pedagogical text that was composed to help students of Platonism differentiate between accurate and inaccurate versions of Plato’s Theory of Forms—and it is not insignificant that Aristotle, the master of knowledge by abstraction himself, is called onto the scene to help explain what knowing Forms really means. 

When regarded as an intraschool discussion and pedagogical text, the Parmenides emerges as a mature restatement of the account of Forms and recollection Plato had already articulated in places like Phaedo, rather than a mid-career rejection of it.  Plato offers his restatement through the example of the dialectical exercises.  In presenting these, his primary concern as ever was not to impose actual philosophical positions but to communicate what would help the willing student learn how to learn.

All this evidence notwithstanding, some readers may still insist that Plato abandons the theory of Forms at this stage in his career on the grounds that he virtually eliminates all references to Forms in later dialogues.  In the subsequently composed Theaetetus, for instance, Plato makes no appeal to Forms whatsoever.  Though this is true, one need not conclude that he abandons his ideas about Forms and recollection if one conceives of recollection as abstraction, for one can see that the concept of knowledge he espouses in the later texts is consistent with the one propounded in earlier works.

In the Theaetetus, for instance, Plato indicates that there are no innate ideas—only an innate capacity for knowing—as he likens the human mind to a birdcage that is empty at birth.[36]  On his account, one forms ideas in the mind in the way one might gather birds into a cage: originally, “one has none of them; it is only that one has acquired a certain power with respect to them,”[37] that is, a power to get them under control and enclose them.  At times, Plato writes, the effort to enclose an idea is not entirely straightforward; in grasping at ideas as they fly about, in hopes of gaining some desired understanding, one may seize hold of something that does not actually satisfy that desire.[38]  For this reason, it is often necessary to make numerous attempts to gain understanding before the sought-after understanding is actually obtained. 

Whenever anyone captures a concept in this cognitive ‘pen’, Plato states, “we should say the this one has learned.”[39]  Having done so, one “has the power to hunt for any idea one likes at any time, to take it and have it whenever one chooses, and let it go again.”[40]  The idea that has been formed is a permanent resource readily available to aid in future efforts to gain understanding. 

Although Plato fails to mention the recollection of Forms in this context, it seems obvious that he is not rejecting that theory but only explaining in a new way the process of discursive reasoning he described elsewhere under the rubric of recollecting Forms.  While there are readily detectable alterations in terminology and methodology from the early to the middle to the later dialogues, there does not appear to have been any monumental change in the basic structures of Plato’s thought.  From start to finish, he conceives of cognition along the same lines.  The ‘doctrines’ of Forms and recollection he put forward in the middle of his career were not philosophical positions to be accepted or rejected so much as they were means to explaining how to engage in an abstractive mode of cognition. 

That is the approach to cognition that is taken in the search for definitions in the early dialogues, and it is the one that Plato describes in terms of perceiving unity in difference or even in terms of bird cages in the later dialogues.  Although it is true that Plato rephrased his account of recollection in these works, he only apparently did so in the interest of highlighting the true contours of his account in the face of those ‘friends of the Forms’ who had misunderstood it.  Far from revising his views on how to learn how to learn, Plato spent his career looking for fresh and effective ways to explain the method of inquiry that was the hallmark of his thought.


Already, I have intimated that the interpretation of recollection as abstraction I am espousing tends to reconfigure the ontological status of Forms.  On this interpretation, ‘going to the Forms’ or knowing them means forming universal concepts, which become even broader or more universal as knowledge is accumulated.  Accordingly, the Forms themselves are those intangible entities whereby things of a similar sort are related and united.  Rather than free standing, fixed entities to which thoughts must exactly correspond, Forms are ‘henological’ entities, after the Greek word for ‘one’ (hen),[41] which exist inasmuch as they exhibit unity, and which are known to the extent that the human mind encompasses all that the Form itself includes.

For Plato, it is not merely Forms but all things that exist to the extent that they exhibit unity, and there is nothing that fails to do so.  Natural objects, for example, manifest oneness in the sense that they have essences that hold their parts together and dictate how those parts should cooperate to perform particular functions, by means of which the beings become the beings they were made to be.  Although natural objects are united in this way, they do not manifest a unity that gives them power to encompass other things.  For this reason, they exist ‘less’ than the Forms that do have this unifying power.  The Form of Beauty, for example, is so abstract as to be able to include many other things in its ‘henological’ category.  Because this Form exists and includes all conceivable manifestations of beauty, Plato writes in the Phaedo, it is possible for embodied beings to be beautiful in different ways, to different degrees, and to grow in their distinct ways of being beautiful.[42] 

Just as human ideas about Forms improve as the mind situates more of its objects under the conceptual categories it has crafted, so objects participate in Forms the more they exhibit the qualities whereby the Forms unify similar things, that is, the more they encompass all that the Forms by definition include.  Participation in a Form does not involve any one-to-one correspondence, however shadowy, between an instance of an essence and the essence itself, consequently.  Rather, it is a matter of greater and lesser degrees.   

Insofar as Forms are henological entities, they are not ends of knowledge in themselves, as is presupposed in the essentialist model, according to which a successful attempt to know a Form ends with a thought that fully corresponds to it.  Far from cognitive termini, Forms point beyond themselves to the higher Forms or levels of unity in which they themselves are included.  The Form of a tree, for example, is a Form that can help one make sense of one’s experiences of many kinds of vegetation.  Yet that Form itself points towards others that are even more encompassing, such as the Forms of ‘brown’ and ‘hard’, which include not only trees but all sorts of other beings.  The Form of Brown, in turn, is included in the Form of Color, which is included in the Form of Beauty. 

The higher Forms precontain the lower ones because they always already include that which exists to a lesser degree.  To know the higher Forms, consequently, is to implicitly know the lower ones, their functions, limitations, and their proper places with respect to one another.  To be a successful knower of Forms is not to regard Forms as ontologically totalized ends of knowledge in themselves but to see them as steps towards the knowledge of higher Forms.

The higher a Form, the more it unites, exists, and is akin to the one Form that includes and unites all other Forms and objects that participate in Forms like Colour by variously manifesting beauty.  This Form is the Good, which is the source of the specific sort of unity that all sensible and intelligible things have and that therefore causes them to be and to be good in a finite respect.  The Good exists more than anything else because it includes more than anything else: everything.  Because it unifies all things, it is the proper object of all efforts to consider things in unifying terms.

The point of Plato’s Symposium is apparently precisely this, namely, that what is ultimate is the true goal of all knowing; and that for this reason, one should proceed past narrow-minded ideas of, in this case, beauty, in the way one would climb the rungs of a latter and gain a broader perspective on what is below, gradually acquiring a more inclusive concept of what is beautiful that allows one to see the beauty in all things.[43]  The first rung of the ladder represents the ability to discern the beauty of a particular body.[44]  By refusing to fixate on this body as if it were the only beautiful thing, one can come to the realization that there is beauty in many bodies.[45] 

This experience may lead to the discovery that there is beauty in human souls that is more precious than the beauty of bodies, which may in turn enable the knower to identify the beauty in a wide range of perspectives, customs, activities, and so on.  If one finally forms a habit of finding the beauty in not just one or a few but in all things, then one comes to know the Form of Beauty Itself, which is not to gaze on some ontologically totalized thing in itself but to acquire the skill of seeing every single thing inasmuch as it is beautiful.[46]

The goal of knowing particular Forms, according to Plato, is to achieve this broad-minded perspective: the awareness of the universal that makes sense of particulars.  Contrary to what is commonly supposed, then, coming to know the universal Form, for Plato, does not mean abandoning the physical world or denigrating the senses.  To the contrary, it mean obtaining for the first time the level of understanding at which one can see things in the physical realm in their proper places with respect to one another and show appreciation for them accordingly.

Implicitly, Plato acknowledges that this level of understanding is difficult to achieve, as a result of the fact that human beings make first contact with the many different instantiations of Beauty and are therefore predisposed to take instances of Beauty as ultimate goods, rather than as signs of the existence of a Higher Good.  This tendency creates all kinds of problems in the polis, for it causes human beings to reduce the Form of the Good to some specific good and to stake all hopes for happiness on a finite good that is bound to be fleeting or hard to find in the realm of human experience. 

In overestimating the goodness of the finite good, human beings set themselves up for disappointment as well as for conflict with those who have different ideas as to what the ultimate good is.  The natural human resistance to seeing the good in any but a finite good, in summary, inhibits the ability to see what is good in all circumstances, and thus renders it impossible to be happy.  A keen awareness of this situation and its problematic political and practical repercussions seems to stand behind Plato’s efforts to point the way out of the situation as he does in the Republic.  The parallel metaphors of the sun, the divided line, and the cave he presents there illustrate how one can habituate oneself to attend from finite goods, first sensible, then intelligible to that Good which imparts the goodness of all good things, and thereby check the human tendency to fixate on the finite goods themselves as if they had infinite powers to bring happiness. 

According to Plato, this is the training that is required to become a philosopher-king, or a ruler of the city.[47]  While ordinary citizens and craftsmen are preoccupied with their particular line of work, and are prone to regard it as of utmost importance, a person who has relinquished all limited ideas of what is ultimately Good and has therefore formed a habit of finding the good in all things, is able to identify how to order the city in a way that works for the benefit of all.

The allegory of the cave is of course the most famous attempt Plato makes to teach his interlocutors how to do this.  In presenting it, Plato asks his readers to imagine a group of prisoners trapped deep inside a cave and chained such that they can only stare at a wall.  Behind the prisoners, a fire blazes, and between them and the fire, a variety of objects are carried back and forth so that they cast shadows on the wall.  Those shadows are the only reality the prisoners know.

If a prisoner manages to break free and turn around to face the fire, Plato writes, he is bound to be blinded by the light at first and thus unable to see the objects he previously perceived in a shadowy way.  At last, however, his eyes adjust; he can perceive the objects and proceed to make his way out of the cave into the light of day.  On arriving at the cave’s opening, the former prisoner is blinded once again by the brightness of a light that is too strong for his eyes to bear and that prevents him from seeing the objects that surround him. 

Once his eyes adjust again, however, he can see the world of Forms outside the cave by the light of the sun.  Ultimately, he can turn his gaze to the sun or the Good Itself and recognize that entity as the source of the light by which he had seen shadows, then shapes, and finally, the world outside the cave.  The one who reaches this point, Plato insists, is able, so long as he is willing, to go back down into the cave and bring his clear understanding of things to bear in efforts to help those that lack such knowledge see how to order their lives. [48]

Here in the Republic, as in the Symposium, the idea is not to denigrate the senses or to suggest that they must be transcended and abandoned if genuine knowledge is to be attained.  To the contrary, the point of the cave metaphor is to encourage readers to overcome narrow concepts of what is ultimately Good by checking the human tendency to think of finite things as though they are all-inclusive and all-important so as to gradually habituate themselves to see that there is good in all things, which is what it means to see the Good Itself.  Far from dividing sense from intellect and downplaying the former, Plato is explaining the only way to learn to appreciate and appropriately use all that the world has to offer.

By unlearning the tendency to regard specific things as ultimate goods and learning to see the ultimate Good in each specific thing, the philosopher-king acquires the skill required to order the city by coordinating its citizens and their unique contributions in a way that fosters the well being of all.  Here at last the practical and ethical importance of the theory of Forms comes into relief, inasmuch as the knowledge of the Form of the Good emerges as that which equips one to govern the polis Plato envisions in the Republic in a manner that promotes the Common Good, eudaimonia, or happiness of all.[49]


The primary objective of this essay was to rethink the nature of Platonic recollection in terms of abstraction.  The study of a number of relevant passages, especially in Phaedrus and Parmenides, confirmed that such a reading of recollection finds support in Plato’s writings.  At the same time, it highlighted the continuity of Plato’s thought on Forms over the three phases of his career.  The work that was done to reassess the meaning of recollection simultaneously re-construed Forms as henologizing or unifying entities that propel the mind through higher grades of universality until the ‘most universal’ universal, namely, Form of the Good, is grasped, such that the practical, ethical, or political goal of the theory of Forms can be fulfilled, which is happiness. 

In relating recollection and abstraction, Forms and universals, the knowledge of the Good and eudaimonia, I have hinted at the continuity of thought that connects the works of Plato and Aristotle.  Even more, I have suggested that Plato’s theory of Forms and recollection—far from an outmoded account of reality and knowledge—provides a viable explanation of what and how human beings go about knowing, which has the added benefit of instructing them how they may obtain what they want: happiness and harmony.



Institut Catholique de Paris

Paris, France 

About the Author

[1] See Dag Nikolaus Hasse, Avicenna’s De Anima in the Latin West (London: Warburg Institute, 2001).

[2] For example, Lloyd P. Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005); Nicholas White, Plato on Knowledge and Reality (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976).

[3] Christoph Helmig. “What is the Systematic Place of Abstraction and Concept Formation in Plato’s Philosophy? Ancient and Modern Readings of Phaedrus 249 b-c,” in Platonic Ideas and Concept Formation in Greek and Medieval Thought, ed. Caroline Mace and Gerd Van Riel (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2004), 83-105; in the same book, see also Richard Sorabji, “Aristotle’s Perceptual Functions Permeated by Platonist Reason,” 99-118.

[4] Plato, Phaedrus, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 249B-C.

[5] Ibid., 265D.

[6] Idem., Phaedo 74A.

[7] Ibid., 76B.

[8] Ibid., 75B.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 65C. cf. 66eE

[11] Ibid., 75B.

[12] Ibid., 74.

[13] Idem., Meno 80E.

[14] Ibid., 82-5.

[15] Idem., Euthyphro 6D-E.

[16] Ibid., 14B.

[17] Idem., Laches 199E; Lysis 223A; Charmides 176B.

[18] Idem., Apology 17A.

[19] Ibid., 23A-B.

[20]Plato, Parmenides 129B.

[21] Ibid., 132B.

[22] Ibid., 133C-34E.

[23] Ibid., 133A.

[24] Ibid., 135B-C.

[25]Ibid., 135D.

[26] Ibid., 136A.

[27] Ibid., 136C.

[28] See Leo Sweeney, “Participation in Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedo, Parmenides, Sophist, Timaeus,” in Divine Infinity in Greek and Medieval Thought (New York: Peter Lang, 1998).

[29] Plato, Parmenides 135B-C.

[30] Lloyd P. Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists, 216, 231. 

[31] Ibid., 219.

[32] Nicholas White, Plato on Knowledge and Reality, 9.  For examples, see passages like Timaeus 51C-D and Phaedo 75A.

[33] Lloyd P. Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists, 228.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Pieter d’Hoine, “Four Problems Concerning the Theory of Ideas: Proclus, Syrianus and the Ancient Commentaries on the Parmenides,” in Platonic Ideas and Concept Formation in Greek and Medieval Thought.

[36] Plato, Theaetetus 197E.

[37] Ibid., 197E.

[38] Ibid., 199B.

[39] Ibid., 197C.

[40] Ibid., 197D.

[41] Leo Sweeny, “Basic Principles in Plotinus’ Philosophy,” in Divine Infinity in Greek and Medieval Thought, 255: on the difference between ontology and henology.

[42] Plato, Phaedo 102B-D.

[43] Idem., Symposium 210A-12C.

[44] Ibid., 210A.

[45] Ibid., 210A-B.

[46] Ibid., 211A-D.

[47] Idem., Republic 519B.

[48] Plato, Republic 514A-20.

[49] Ibid., 327 & 514-20.