Paradigms, patterns, and forms.

Recently I had the pleasure of taking our kids to Legoland in Denmark. What a wonderful place it is and it beautifully expresses what seems to me to be true Platonic Realism. It is amazing how many things you can build using lego blocks and a lively imagination combined with an almost visionary technical insight. It is a fact that no parent escapes legoland without purchasing at least one legobox per child. It was to be so for us too.


Figure 1

One of the lines of lego products is Star Wars. My oldest son really wanted – needed in his own mind – a particularly large and expensive lego Star Wars item. Now as we all know lego products do not usually come assembled. Part of the fun is to assemble it yourself. In doing so we need a ‘pattern’ or ‘paradigm’ we could use to produce the starship displayed in figure 1.


I can imagine several ways in which such a paradigm or pattern could be given. The first way would be to provide an already assembled starship such is in figure 1 and to have the buyer build his own version as a copy of the pre-assembled one that the lego company could have provided. Especially with less complicated designs such a method could be used. In this case the lego company provides a already assembled version together with a bunch of lego blocks in a bag out of which the buyer must assemble his own. The buyer is essentially copying a model and must produce another.

If that is how we approach Plato’s forms this leads to all kinds of problems. Plato goes into some detail about what problems this leads to in his Parmenides and Aristotle famously ridiculed this interpretation of forms with his ‘third man argument.’ But what Eric Perl is suggesting in his Thinking Being is that is not in fact what Plato is suggesting at all. Forms are not models in the sense described above. Form as a paradigm or pattern is to be understood as the design the creator had in mind with this particular lego product. This design is reflected in the booklet of instructions and in the lego starship once it is built. The design the creator or designer has in mind is the real lego starship. It has no physical properties but it can be ‘seen’ in each model of this starship.

Such a paradigm, as not any sensible thing but rather an intelligible pattern, may be considered ‘separate’ from its images in that it is another kind of reality, prior to, independent of, and irreducible to them. At the same time, this pattern, this one same intelligible content, is the very identity that they have and display, and thus is the wahtness, the reality, of them.

Separation, then, is simply a spatial meaphor for the radical ontological distinction between intelligible identities and the things that have and display, but are not, these identities.

Eric D. Perl, Thinking Being, p. 30.

The transcendent and immanent are not to be understood as contradictory in Plato’s theory of forms. Rather the forms are ‘what is presented to thought’ in things. These forms, identities of things, can be known itself by itself. To think of forms as itself by itself is to consider them not as they appear in their instances but as one same idea the common look, they display.

The ‘theory of forms’ is not the postulation of ‘another,’ abstract world, but it is concerned with our level of cognition, our mode of grasping reality: do we grasp the intelligible identities, the reality of things as unitary ideas, ‘themselves by themselves‘, or do we apprehend them only as they show up to us in the experience of this or that instance?

Eric D. Perl, Thinking Being, p. 31.

In other words, even insofar as forms are paradigms or patterns they are not to be understood as mere models. Nor are they to be understood as ‘existing on a higher plane.’ Forms are the identities, the whatness of their instances available for thought. The distinction between pattern and instance is real, but it does not imply a two world dualism where the transcendent and the immanent are contradictory. Trancendence and immanence are spatial metaphors as are the terms ‘separation’ and ‘distinction’ when they are used of forms. They are not to be taken in a crude and literal sense.

Fr. Gregory Wassen



About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
This entry was posted in Anglican Breviary, Platonism, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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