This is not so much an idea as the seed of an idea. Plato is a large object in Western philosophy; more needs to be said, and ideas often need development to reach their full potential. But I am impatient, and have found that writing often leads to more writing, whereas patient silence in cultivating an idea to its fullest potential (as full as I can make it, that is), often results in incompletion. So here is a seed:
Plato’s most prominent contribution to Western philosophy is his theory of forms, which holds that the ideas of things are, in a sense, more “real” than the things in themselves; that the concept of a chair is more real than the wooden chair in which you sit. This is because the physical chair is an imitation of the idea of chairs.
To Plato, an imitation is inherently inferior to the thing which it is imitating. A modernist might say that this has something to do with “authenticity.” An original is more authentic than a copy, and one cannot really get a good grasp on what the world truly is if you are only looking at images and shadows of objects, rather than on reality itself.
But when we consider the way in which the human species — or animals, or plants, or ideas, or virtually any complex entity we can imagine — comes into existence, it is clear that virtually everything is a copy, an “imitation” of something else. As humans, we are genetic imitations of our parents, just as the blackberries in our backyard are imitations of other blackberries. There is an implication of degeneration and entropy in Plato’s conception of imitation, and we can all imagine situations in which this is applicable (the arts, fashion, and affects of speech and behavior come to mind). But reproduction — the act of maintaining continuity of existence across generations — is an imitative act: It recreates what already exists.
Even the situations above where the entropy we associate with imitation may sometimes actually result in an improvement through imitation. Even ideas can improve in such a fashion. Anselm’s ontological argument for God was weak, but was improved upon by Descartes, Gödel, Kant, and Plantinga to the point that it became something formidable. Imitation, then, was not a process of degeneration, but of generation and growth in the direction of truth.
What we are essentially describing here is the process of evolution — not necessarily by natural selection, but in the broader sense of ‘change over time.’ Generations imitate each other, but the imperfections in the imitation are not only sources of decline, but also improvement.
Within this context of genetic continuity, the concept of a “form” which is the progenitor-concept from which all categorically-similar beings emerge appears ridiculous. Is a palm-tree an inferior or superior form of tree than a spruce? Is there truly a platonic form of a “tree?,” or must each individual species have its own — a “palm form” and a “spruce form,” respectively? What of spruces in differing contexts? Might there be a “form” of a spruce above the tree-line, as distinct from that below the treeline? And might such differences in climate result in a complete split and speciation which will now require two forms for two divergent species of spruce?
Life continues by reproduction, and reproduction is imitative. This imitation is — as Plato noticed — imperfect, but it is by no means inferior because of this imperfection, for this would imply perfection at the outset. If “perfection” is to mean anything in an organism, it must mean perfect adaptive advantage within its context: a perfect tiger would be one that is a peerless hunter, but which has wasted no superfluous energy on traits for hunting animals which are not within its territory. Its immune system is similarly efficient, fighting off the diseases likely to endanger it, but not those it will never encounter. Its camouflaged fur is similarly contextual. Should any of these environmental factors change, the perfected, average, ideal, “formulaic” tiger would cease to be perfect. Would it then no longer be the “true” form?
Platonism is tacitly individualistic; it seems plausible when looking at individual specimens. It is easy to see individual failings, and imagine how these failings represent a kind of divergence from an ideal form. But as soon as we consider the relationship of generations to each other, how they shift and change with the shifting and changing environment they occupy (and create), the entire concept of forms — and the negative insinuations surrounding “imitation” — falls apart.
Evolution disproves Platonism. Or, just to stay within the Hellenic world, Heraclitus disproves Platonism:
No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.Heraclitus