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The Flower: A Language Game Showing Plato’s Inductive Fallacy

How and why did Plato invent the Theory of Forms?

The “How” part of the question leads to a linguistic process (from the perception and naming of an object to the “perception” and naming of a Form) by which Plato commits a fallacy that leads to his Theory of Forms. For purposes of expedience, a single attribute (beauty) is used for this brief analysis. Plato commits an inductive fallacy regarding the existence of the Form for that attribute (the Form of the Beautiful). The same analysis could be applied to all attributes and objects to which Plato ascribes a Form.

The “Why” question leads to a brief psychological inquiry, treating the Theory of Forms as myth, similar in structure to Greek Mythology. The two have a similar psychological derivation which comes to light in an analysis of Plato’s invention of and experience with the Forms. First, the linguistic analysis will answer “how,” then a brief psychological analysis will provide an explanation “why.”


Socrates sees a flower. He considers its beauty, and how it is heightened by the beauty of the early morning, and the dew on the petals. He considers the beauty of the chance of circumstances that made him happen upon this flower on such a beautiful morning. The beauty of the morning diversifies in the cool morning breeze.

Later in the day Socrates converses with Plato. Socrates points out the beauty he finds in conversation. He says conversation is even more beautiful than his morning’s experience, and proceeds to give Plato an account of that experience so that Plato will understand what he is saying. This leads Plato to inquire,

“If we had been in conversation this morning, on that same path, would all of the beauty you beheld have been redoubled by the inclusion of our conversation, or would all of that beauty you just described to me have been made paltry and ugly by comparison with the beauty of our conversation?”

Socrates responds,

“Your theory from relativity should not be invoked here. We are talking about different kinds of beauty, and therefore they cannot be compared. One beauty would not make the lesser beauty ugly. The pleasure of experiencing different kinds of beauty at once would have increased the level of experience.”


Plato pursues this train of thought,

“It seems then that combining all these different kinds of beauty in an experience stimulates one to reflect upon beauty itself, a predicate that evokes reflection on the higher, more general Form. That is, the accumulation of the many manifestations of beauty, objects participating with beauty in different ways, begins to approximate something ultimate, the Ideal Form of the Beautiful. In fact, it is The Beautiful we unknowingly refer to when we talk about each manifestation of beauty in our experience.”

Socrates left Plato in this reverie.

Plato, deep in thought, did not notice that a very young man had been passing by, and had stopped to listen in on the conversation. The man wore a long black coat and rubbed his chin in a troubled manner. Wittgenstein approached Plato and introduced himself, and made the following comments.


“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. Now how can we refer to that which we do not really know? I mean, if I refer to beauty in a flower, I think I really mean the beauty only as it appears to me in my perception of that flower at that time. Yet you seem to say that unknowingly I refer to a Form, the Beautiful, from which this flower gets its beauty. But I know nothing of this Form, and yet somehow I refer to it. Perhaps if I can delineate the steps between your perception of an object and your supposition of the Theory of Forms, and what those steps entail, I will be able to point out where you have made a mistake. I believe we will find an inductive fallacy.”

The steps may be seen as forming a circle, beginning at the top of the circle with the hypothesized “object in itself” and ending with the “Form in itself,” superseding the original “object in itself” back at the top of the circle.

“Firstly, we never perceive the ‘object in itself.’ At most, we hypothesize the ‘real’ flower from our perception of qualities that we associate with flowers. These qualities are only those accessible to our senses. Part of our shared game in language is referred to as ‘naming.’ When many people point to the same object and say the word ‘flower,’ they share a language game for flowers. When many people point to the same object and say it is beautiful, they share a language game for beauty.

“The object in itself is remote from us, so we begin with our object-perception. We take a kind of attribute that in some way strikes us as attractive, or appeals to our senses in a certain way, and we name that attribute ‘beauty.’ After a series of object-perceptions, and attendant sensations of beauty (like those in Socrates’ morning experience), we build a variety, or ‘repertoire,’ of diverse characteristics of beauty. We now have double groupings of language games working together: e.g., ‘flower’ hooks into the flower-like object-perception; ‘beautiful’ hooks into an attribute that appeals to our senses in a certain way and is part-and-parcel of the flower-perception. I will call this an attribute-perception. Many people may share the new compound language game ‘beautiful flower.’


“Naming the ‘beautiful flower’ is like asserting a proposition as follows: ‘the object-perception I call flower and the attribute-perception I call beautiful occur in the world, and further, in the thing I’m pointing to.’ Thus, naming the ‘beautiful flower’ involves applying a (compound) language game which entails the above (complex) proposition. The language game is true if the name hooks into the real world (the described state of affairs corresponds to the state of affairs in the world). In other words, the language game is true if the proposition it entails is true. So, after experiences with many object-perceptions with attendant attribute-perceptions (‘beautiful’), we accumulate the above-mentioned repertoire of manifestations of beauty. We accumulate this repertoire from a series of true complex propositions, or a series of compound language games where we apply the name of the attribute ‘beautiful’ to a variety of object-perceptions. As a result, Socrates accumulated those non-comparable manifestations of beauty this morning. Each one involved a new language game and became part of his repertoire of ‘beautiful.’

“What I mean by each one involves a new language game is as follows: the things beautiful are beautiful in this way and in that way, each attribute-perception ‘beautiful’ being different, for which each language game hooks into the world in a different way (beautiful glimmer from the dew, beautiful color, beautiful shape, and so on). Each experience of a new manifestation of beauty develops a new language game and contributes to Socrates’ repertoire of ‘true meanings’ of beauty (remembering the above-stated conditions of ‘true’).

“Now that the repertoire of language games is built, one may be far from any flowers and utter the compound name ‘beautiful flower’. The utterance of the name in the absence of the object/attribute-perception referred to, conjures up an object of reflection or mental image of what the name refers to (the referent). To review, perception first triggers development of a language game in the naming process, and, in turn, later uttering the name triggers the language game which evokes the mental image of the thing named.

“This latter process, this utterance/language game/mental image process, occurs countless times every day. Also, in the case of Socrates reflecting on the varied manifestations of beauty of his morning’s experience, each mental image will carry ‘true meaning.’ The pattern, by countless repetition, becomes entrenched in the mind, almost an automatic assumption, that these mental images of things beautiful carry ‘true meaning,’ because they are evoked by names that trigger language games that are true (which hook into the world of object- and attribute-perceptions). Through this chain, each mental image is a true picture of a part of the world. Through the ongoing repetition of occurrences of this chain, a pattern is established that mental images are generally true, over and over again. From this pattern, induction leads us to believe that our mental images will always be true, just as induction leads us to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, is true.

“Now, Plato, you have your repertoire of ‘beauty’ language games just as Socrates has his. The amalgam of ‘beauty’ language games taken together in contemplation causes a sort of set intersection. You extract and keep only the one general element they all have in common—’appealing to the senses in a certain way’—you project the element, create an abstraction, and name it ‘The Beautiful.’ By definition now, ‘The Beautiful’ can never not appeal to the senses in that certain way. Now you are working with an abstract amalgam in your mind of all things beautiful. So instead of starting with the object/attribute-perception in the world, you now start with your amalgamated mental image (your created abstraction). Now you are not naming anything in the real world (e.g., beautiful flower), instead, you are naming something entirely in your mind (i.e., beauty). But you treat it as you would treat an object/attribute-perception from the world. You name it (‘The Beautiful’) and develop a language game which triggers a mental image. Now when you utter ‘The Beautiful,’ the language game triggers a mental image of an amalgamated abstraction. You trigger a language game that hooks back into only your created abstraction in your mind, not in the world. It does not hook into any object/attribute-perception in the real world. But by induction you subconsciously take for granted that the language game will act the same for your created abstraction, that it will always be true.

Because the language game functions in a familiar way, you assume it is a true language game. You assume the compound name (Form of the Beautiful) represents a true complex proposition (an object ‘Form’ exists and furthermore, that object possesses ultimate Beauty which is beyond the beauty that any single object in the world can possibly possess). You have named ‘The Beautiful,’ so by induction you think your mental image must refer to something that must exist.

“The former language game (qua object/attribute-perception) hooks into the world—the latter language game (qua created abstraction) does not: it does not, because you claim the status of objectified reality for your Realm of Forms, not merely a reality of mind or conceptualization. The latter language game, false though it is, may be a powerful language game because it represents the link between, and the rarefied characteristic of, all the ‘beauty’ language games in your repertoire. It is the essential something that appeals to our senses in a certain way (by definition making it ultimately appealing), waiting for an object-perception to participate in it and take on the participatory form of attribute-perception.

You have not only a mental image, but a powerful mental image, and by induction as stated above, you conclude that this mental image (the Beautiful) is true, by which you conclude that ‘the Beautiful’ is true. This might be called the Platonic Inductive Fallacy of the Theory of Forms.

Thus you conclude that your mental image’s name ‘the Beautiful’ must entail a true language game, which we have seen is not the case. The language game fails because one can’t find an object/attribute-perception in the world that the name ‘the Beautiful’ hooks into. One only finds perceptions of particular combinations of types of beauty. That the language game fails, shows that ‘the Beautiful’ does not represent what is the case in the objective, real world.

“Of course, the Beautiful must reside somewhere, epistemologically speaking, or we couldn’t utter the name, for we can only name that which we can experience in some manner. The Beautiful is pure concept. It is a small step from the subjective concept of the Form to an inductive conclusion of an objective Form of the Beautiful. From there, because we do not see The Beautiful in the real world of our normal acquaintance, it is another small step to positing a ‘realm’ that accommodates the objective, rarefied Forms. Such a realm would accommodate not just the Beautiful, but all significant object- and attribute-perceptions. I believe you have posited such a realm, and call it, ‘The Realm of Forms.’ Because this Realm is rarefied, unchanging, and pure, you ascribe higher value to it. Finding the Unchanging, or the Unchangeable, has long been an intellectual and emotional holy grail. Investing a superior objective reality into a Realm of Forms seems to be the necessary outcome of the one inductive leap to the objective existence of the Form of the Beautiful. You have a ‘more real’ place with ‘more real’ things which affords the luxury (albeit an illusion) of ‘more real’ language games. The language game for The Beautiful hooks into a ‘more real’ world, which we can’t see. So you might say that the language game is somehow ‘more true,’ so true we cannot even experience it, because the place hooked into is too refined for our paltry senses. Unfortunately these hooks must remain your hypothesis, hooking only in your mind.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful illusion indeed. The theory is constructed, the Theory of Forms is in place, and exists in a place. A question remains: Why did the fantastical, myth-like nature of the final product not alert you to the problems in your reasoning immediately?”

By this time a crowd had gathered around the two men. A man by the name of Carl Jung stepped forward from the crowd in response to Wittgenstein’s last question. The ensuing conversation began with Mr. Jung.

Carl Jung

“It may be that there is something more powerful yet at work behind the Theory of Forms. Deep in the unconscious, our myth-generating Archetypes contain information not available to conscious or rational thought. Primordial images were passed to us from primitive man, who lived in a preconscious state. These are myth-forming structural elements. The psyche wields such power that primordial images become reality, equal to or greater than the material world. They demand expression with metaphors borrowed from the material world. It might be said that myths are not invented, but experienced. They are thrust upon the conscious mind when the psyche reveals bits and pieces of an Archetype through metaphors provided by the conscious mind. The Realm of the Forms might have emerged from archetypal origins in Plato’s personal unconscious in much the same way that Greek Mythology emerged from Archetypes in the collective unconscious of Greek society. Ancient Greek culture is a setting amenable to the emergence of a Realm of Forms, an abstracted version of Mount Olympus. The mythical structure is similar as can be seen in the myth-structure of perfected beings/attributes: beauty perfected in Aphrodite is not far from the abstracted version in the Form of at least one type of Beautiful. Greek Mythology seems a likely influence in the structure of and experience with the Theory of Forms (‘experience’ as natural revelation from the Archetypal structure in Plato’s personal unconscious).

“Now consider the language game for the Beautiful—it hooks into a reality at least as substantial as the material world. Does this not make it ‘true’ given your conditions?


Wittgenstein was again rubbing his chin as he responded,

“No. The world to which language games must correspond is the world of object/attribute-perceptions. You may have hit upon a ‘substantial reality.’ Your ‘substantial reality’ is hypothetical and subjective in a way that the world of object/attribute-perceptions is not. A language game cannot be considered true when it hooks into a reality that is only psychological and therefore not directly demonstrable. But even if it could be considered so, the reality you suggest is not the reality Plato claims for his Realm of Forms. Plato asserts an objective realm outside of and independent of yours and my psyches.

“Your primordial reality is as insubstantial as Plato’s Realm of Forms in the following manner: We never see, hear, or know of an object-in-itself; only object/attribute-perceptions. Similarly, the primordial reality, as well as the Realm of Forms, relies on inference from metaphors presented in the world of object-perceptions. Yours is a speculation of what lies behind the perception, a thing-in-itself. We cannot get beyond the world of object-perception, because by definition what is beyond it is what we cannot perceive. In such areas we can only speculate.

If language games hook into nothing (the result of talking about that which we cannot perceive), then we are talking nonsense. We talk about that which can have no objective meaning in our language. In this sense, the Theory of Forms and the Realm of the Forms have no coherence. That is, their names hook into only images, images that have no corresponding direct referent. Meaning was ascribed to them as a result of the Platonic Inductive Fallacy of the Theory of Forms.

Wittgenstein turned again to Plato,

“Mr. Jung’s comments helped clarify the totality of your predicament. As long as you claim an objectified status for the Realm of the Forms, you carry the mental image of the Form of the Beautiful unavoidably into your Inductive Fallacy. Now, if you say that your Theory of Forms is true, and that it is true that a Form may be an abstract amalgam of your ‘beauty’ language game repertoire compiled by your psyche, generated by your primordial imagination, existing only in your mind, then I concede that your Theory of Forms is true. However, I have not heard you say that. Therefore, as shown by your Inductive Fallacy, and because of the failure of your language game for the Beautiful, the Theory of Forms must be false.”

Plato seemed a little troubled. But he looked upon a nearby rose and smiled, “Nevertheless, the flower has beauty.”


Jung, Carl G. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype.” In Essays on a Science of Mythology, pp. 70—100. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Plato. “Phaedo.” Translated by Hugh Tredennick. “Republic.” Translated by Paul Shorey. In Collected Dialogues, pp. 40—98, 75—844. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Notebooks 1914—1916. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, Edited by G.H. von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1961.