My title is tentative, I know, and so is what follows. But we always must begin with the tentative, in its etymological sense of stretching — stretching toward what we don’t yet fully know and yet which grips us by means of anticipations present in the desire to know. I want to write a straightforward statement of what I believe forms to be in Plato. I have no book in front of me and so will not cite any texts. My purpose is to lay bare my own pre-understanding so that I will have a sample to test against the texts themselves. The dialogues are the testing-stone, the basansos, that I can measure myself against when I do return to them, and measure myself without evasions. (It is as if I write what follows in answer to a kind of subpoena from a divine judge — I will really try not to perjure myself!) My four main inspirations are clearly Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Bernard Lonergan, and I will be interested in future study to tease out the degree to which the latter three influences may have caused me to deviate from Plato’s root sense. (I don’t necessarily mean “deviate” in a bad way — a deviation may be an improvement.) So what follows is an attempt to articulate (in eight propositions) my still-meager understanding of what Plato may mean by eidos/form:
1. Form/eidos is a form of possibility. Actualities may con-form with particular possibilities, but it is the possibility and not the actuality that constitutes the form.
2. Eidos is derived from a verb that seems “to see.” This seeing means something closer to recognition, in the way that we may say “I see what you mean” when we understand something. What we understand is this case is form. Insight is the actualization of formal recognition.
3. Possibilities “govern” the world of actuality in two ways: (i) as limiting what can be actual; (ii) as desirable possibilities that motivate actualities into being. The first sense is form as “possibility”; the second is form as “potency.”
4. Possibilities are not located in space and time, although their actualizations are. An evil tyrant can destroy every book on the planet and yet the possibility of a book abides. Forms are therefore eternal and “exist” independently of the actual world. They are “separate” from the world of things in this sense and this sense only. There are possibilities that do/have not become actualities, but there are no actualities that are not expressions of possibility.
5. A form/eidos is what would be known about something-in-some-way if we knew it. A form is both the objective of knowledge and the heuristic anticipation that guides that knowing. The form is already potent in the attempt to know and becomes actualized in full knowing.
6. Since form is eternal and since all thinking is being guided by form, thinkers already potentially know all things. This is different from actually knowing them.
7. Form becomes potency when it corresponds to some good of the actual. The good, which is “beyond being,” is not a form itself and so it is impossible to have an actual knowledge of it. The good is transcendent to every desire to comprehend it, but it is always present in any desire as the light and fire that drive it.
8. I understand “the form of the good” to be different from “the good itself.” The form of the good is fully potent when the good itself is an object of study, but since the good cannot be reduced to form, the good is always an object transcendent to its study.