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Until the mid 20th c. in most of philosophy related publications it was agreed that Plato and subsequent reasearch dealt with "Ideas" - a word adapted from his original Greek. Some 50 years later the usage has shifted to the use of a latin substitute "Form". Of course this happened in the English speaking world but now it is spreading elsewhere.

Is there a short meaningful explanation why this substitution has been made?

There is an obvious incongruity in the replacement as the latin "form" appears to be derived from the Greek "morphe" which is its exact equivalent. Aristotle is no less influential in philosophy and form/morphe is a key term in his work. Calling Plato's ideas 'forms' obviously creates confusion and problems for viewing and understanding all the subsequent tradition. Who benefits from it? (Currently in SEP one can read the literal nonsense: “hylomorphism”, a portmanteau of the Greek words for matter (hulê) and form (eidos or morphê).!)


PS. The Dictionary of Untranslatables (Cassin, 2014, p. 2729-2744) has a remarkable article "Species" which treats the Latin choices for Plato's terms. Also some 700 pages of proceedings from a Philosophie de la forme: eidos, idea, morphé dans la philosophie grecque des origines à Aristote, ed. A. Motte, et al (Louvain: Peeters, 2003). All this is fascinating but does not explain the abrupt contemporary change in terms.

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  • Are you sure about εἶδος (eidos) ? Maybe it is the other way: after Descartes and Idealism the modern term "idea" prevailed... Dec 12 '20 at 13:52
  • Plato was missing from the Western tradition until the Renaissance when his texts were translated from the original Greek. Early Modern phphy kept the difference and German philosophy and philology made it conspicuous. "Species" is an obvious Latin substitute, sharing the etymology of "vision". I dont remember any commentator of Aristotle using substitute for form/morphe..
    – sand1
    Dec 12 '20 at 16:14
  • 1
    The "why" may be because the English word idea describes a purely metal concept, whereas Plato's forms are not purely mental. Reference: the etymology section of Theory of Forms.
    – NWR
    Dec 12 '20 at 18:59
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA He is right. It is hard to find Plato's "theory of forms" before 1930 ("theory" or "doctrine of ideas" is used instead), but it spreads especially since 1950s, see "theory of forms" Ngram.
    – Conifold
    Dec 12 '20 at 20:28
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA -- indeed, "eidos" even sounds nothing like "ideas", not even close
    – silkfire
    Dec 13 '20 at 4:16
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Your intriguing question has two parts - why was 'idea' displaced as the standard translation of the Platonic εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα; and why was it replaced by 'form [Form]'?

The first part is straightforward to answer. 'Idea' in the post Cartesian/ Lockean tradition has psychological associations that are alien to the Platonic εἶδος and ἰδέα. When Descartes distinguishes between innate, adventitious and invented ideas (Med.III) and Locke defines an idea as 'whatsoever is the Object of the Understanding when a Man thinks' (Essay, I.1.8), 'ideas' are clearly 'in the mind'. The Platonic eide and ideai in contrast are emphatically not 'in the mind' in the Cartesian/ Lockean sense at all. They are self-subsistent, super-sensible entities occupying a different order of reality from, and independent of, the human mind that can come to know them.

As for the adoption of 'Form', one key to this is probably the role of the eide in the Timaeus as constituting the pattern or model by which the Demiourgos created the world. No word in English precisely corresponds to the sense of eidos or idea in Plato but since Late Middle English 'form' has according to the Oxford English Dictionary carried (among its multiplicity of meanings) the sense of 'model' or 'pattern'. This makes it an intelligible and apt translation which has the merit of not carrying the subjective associations of 'idea' which the latter has borne in Modern Philosophy.

The Plato popular translation industry really only got going in the late 19th century with Jowett and the Bohn translations. (Thomas Taylor was earlier, I realise.) 'Idea' was always capitalised and the context & commentary would have deflected from the psychological sense(s) of 'idea'. As the translations ran through increasingly less scholarly editions for a general readership, the risk of 'Idea's being misconstrued increased especially given that the psychological sense had passed into ordinary usage. I don't know who for English-speaking readers first used 'Form' to render 'eidos' and 'idea' but I am pretty sure Cornford's widely used 1941 translation of the Republic was decisive in establishing the usage. I have not checked Cornford's earlier papers to see when he first used 'Form'. It may, of course, and even quite likely have been first used by another scholar.

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  • Thanks, I mostly agree, but until the previous generation it seems that Theory of Ideas was a theory of (valid) knowledge, with the loan word 'idea' or 'idee' as blanket term for the two Greek words. Today Theory of Forms is seen with the same general sense without going into details.
    – sand1
    Dec 13 '20 at 18:03
  • Thanks. I was suprised to note that as late as 1951 Sir David Ross could publish a book titled, Plato's Theory of Ideas. My impression is that FM Cornford's widely used translation of the Republic (1941) played a major role in establishing 'Form' as the standard rendering.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Dec 13 '20 at 19:35
  • If the issue was with the Descartes's and Locke's conflicting use of "idea" it is odd that it took until 1930s to be displaced. This suggests to me the influence of Frege, Russell and/or positivists rather than of old empiricism. And "form" also has plenty of conflicting uses, starting with Aristotle's, so it is hardly an improvement in this regard. Maybe there was some influential new translation of Plato before Cornford's, in 1920s, that used "forms"? Did Russell or Carnap or Quine show preference one way or the other? Was there a similar displacement in German?
    – Conifold
    Dec 13 '20 at 19:39
  • The Plato popular translation industry really only got going in the late 19th century with Jowett and the Bohn translation. (T. Taylor was earlier, I realise.) 'Idea' was always capitalised and the context & commentary would have deflected from the psychological sense(s) of 'idea'. I don't know who first used 'Form' to render 'eidos' but I am pretty sure Cornford's translation was decisive in establishing the usage. I have not checked Cornford's earlier papers to see when he first used 'Form'.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Dec 13 '20 at 19:53
  • I am surprised that they did not plainly go for "eidos" (as Husserl did) if antipsychologism and distinctiveness were the issue. Russell still uses "theory of Ideas" in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), so he is off the hook, as do Germans (Ideenlehre) and Russians (Теория идей) even today.
    – Conifold
    Dec 13 '20 at 20:12

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