The history of human beings has been characterized by different kinds of philosophers who sought to understand different issues that concerned knowledge in the society and life of human beings in general. These philosophers worked either with each other, thus supporting the theories that were put forth by one another or worked against each other, hence opposing the theories of one another. As a result, different schools of thought emerged with each presupposing that its theories in regard to knowledge and wisdom were the correct ones. Among the philosophers that viciously opposed each other’s theories are Plato and the Sophists.
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The Sophists were philosophers who had an origin outside Athens and were commonly referred to as the traveling philosophers. These philosophers developed theories that argued that things that happened in nature could not just be attributed to divine causation but rather were as a result of rational issues behind nature. These philosophers were known for their character of selling their wisdom in exchange for money (Guthrie 36). Among their most profound work is the theory of relativism. On the other hand, Plato who was Socrates’ student worked by developing theories that were against those of the Sophists whereby he argued against the wisdom that nature is driven by relativism. Among these theories is the Theory of Forms, whereby Plato describes the essence of nature and the happenings in it to be a result of abstract Forms that propels things in nature to happen the way they do (Hergenhahn 41).
There have been arguments that the Theory of Forms as used by Plato was a direct way of counteracting the theories of relativism as proposed by the Sophists. In this theory, Plato began by describing Forms that are arguably things that cause the world to behave the way it does. He argued that a Form was a discrete distinct, outstanding object or thing that had a character of duplicating itself in such a way that it was manifested as the abstract object in different images yet with a distinct origin. For example, in providing an example to explain what a Form is, Plato argues that animals such as lions, were a representation of an origin abstract Form of a lion. He argues that what is seen in nature as a lion is just but a Form or image of a true lion that was there before. Therefore, there is an original pure Form for everything that is seen in nature (Hergenhahn 41).
The Theory of Forms as was presented by Plato is contrary to the ideas presented by the Sophists that nature is relative and thus what is seen by one person may be totally different from what is seen by another person. The Theory of Relativism is based on the fact that what one person could be seeing in nature is totally different from what another one sees i.e. the perception of people is different and therefore, what one sees is the truth for that particular person. Thus knowledge is relative (McCoy 148). For example, if Plato stood side by side with the Sophists philosophers, there would emerge an argument whereby Plato would propose that a lion was a representation of pure abstract Form that cannot change but can only duplicate itself. However, the Sophists would argue in this case that a lion as seen by one person may as well be a large cat as seen by another person.
The Theory of Forms therefore played a critical role in opposing relativism as proposed by the Sophists. This theory is based on the fact that there is nothing that is relative in nature. Similarly, the Theory of Forms argues that knowledge is not relative (Nash 61). Instead, both knowledge and nature has an origin from a pure form which has the ability to represent itself in multiples or duplicates. For example, while the Sophists might argue that a human being to one person may as well be a baboon to another person and both these positions in regard to human being are correct, to Plato, this is unacceptable and therefore not true since there is an abstract pure form of human being that cannot change and as a result, he remains a human being no matter the perception a person may have towards him.
Furthermore, to explain clearly his arguments on the Theory of Forms, Plato uses an Allegory of the Cave whereby fictitious prisoners who saw images of travelers who carried objects that left prisoners speculating what they were. However, when these prisoners were released, they came face to face with reality and understood that what they had been seeing were shadows but in reality, these shadows had an origin i.e. ‘form'. To Plato, a shadow has an abstract pure form that represents the actual things which is real. This cannot be relative. Similarly, knowledge is not relative. Plato therefore continue to argue against relativism by stating that if one person referred to one as ‘Y’ and another person referred to the same thing as ‘X’, both cannot be right. One of them must be wrong, an issue that disqualifies the theory of relativism (Nash 61).
The Theory of Forms therefore played an important role in helping Plato to respond to the theory of relativism that had been proposed by the Sophists. His arguments that an abstract form of something is pure and cannot change but only possessed the ability to duplicate itself, helped him to discredit the arguments that everything in nature was relative and therefore right according to the eyes of the beholder.
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