Plato's Theory of Innate Ideas

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  • 0:02 Plato
  • 0:50 Anecdote
  • 1:51 Sense vs. Form
  • 2:58 Table
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore Plato's theory of innate ideas. In doing so, it will highlight his concept of forms versus senses, while also using the famous table illustration.


Today's lesson on Plato and his concept of innate ideas is a deep one. For this reason, we're going to fill our time with an anecdote and an illustration of sorts. Hopefully this will help bring this rather esoteric concept down into our laps. To get things moving, we'll start with the easy stuff and a definition.

Known to most of us, Plato is credited as one of the founders of philosophical thought. Living in ancient Greece, he postulated all sorts of theories on reality and knowledge. One of his most famous theories is the existence of innate ideas. Stating it as simply as I can think to, innate ideas are concepts that are present in our minds at birth. They're things we just know, not things we've learned through experience.

To nail this down a bit, here's an anecdote.


Before I could walk or talk, I suffered a very bad burn from a kerosene heater. Even though I have no recollection of this odd accident, which petrified my parents, my mom tells me I spent the next year of my life screaming every time I got within seeing distance of a heater.

Of course, this makes complete sense. It doesn't take a philosopher to understand the experience of being badly burned by a heater could make anyone afraid of heaters. After all, our sense of touch, or our experience, tells us they're dangerous.

However, how do you explain how someone learns fear? Remember my burn came when I was rather small. I was a baby. With this in mind, how did I know that the rather elusive concept of fear is a fitting response to danger? A philosopher might answer, 'Nothing taught you. Fear is an innate idea. Simply put, you were just born with it.'

To break this whole concept down a bit more, we need to take a look at Plato's idea of senses versus forms.

Sense vs. Form

For starters, Plato believed that existence is made up of two different realms - senses and forms. Making the concept easy to understand, senses are things we learn from our experience. They're what we can see, touch, taste, hear, etc. It's our physical world.

On the contrary, forms are separate from our experience. Forms just are because they are. Not linked to our senses, Plato asserts forms exist in the realms of ethics and mathematics. For instance, fear is fear, 2 + 2 = 4, and a triangle is just a triangle. These are things that just are. Conversely, a triangle can never be a circle, and 2 + 2 can never equal 5. Using this argument, forms are linked to innate ideas; things we have known since birth, or as Plato would say, things we've known even before birth.

Making the concept even stickier, Plato argued that everything we can sense has a form behind it. To illustrate this one, philosophy teachers often use a table.


Think of it this way: a table is something we can recognize with our senses. We can touch it, and we can see it. If it's old, like mine, we can even hear it creak when people sit down. Our senses tell us it's a table.

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