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Meg Strauss

Professor Paul Trembath

9 December 2016

Final Paper

The Theory of Forms and Semiology:

The Relationship from Plato to Saussure

Platos ideas have been foundational in societys thinking for over 2000 years. In regards

to literature, Plato has dominated the ways in which writing is interpreted. In fact, Plato was the

first to ever examine literary texts. It was not until 1915 that a new philosopher, Ferdinand de

Saussure, revolutionized traditional Platonism thinking. In his book Course in General

Linguistics, Saussure truly lays the groundwork for overturning Platos linguistically-themed


Platos Theory of Forms has laid the foundation for all of Western thought. In this theory,

Plato states that all things have substance and that it is the core quality of all things that provides

identity. The Theory of Forms consists of three separate parts: forms, imitations, and imitations

of imitations. Plato describes forms as being ideas, imitations as being words or objects, and

imitations of imitations as being writing. Plato feels as though forms, or ideas, depict the truest

and most pure sense of reality. Thus, writing and art, or what Plato calls the imitations of

imitations is used as a block from identifying true reality.

Plato uses the Allegory of the Cave to represent his ideas on forms. The story is about

people that have been imprisoned inside of a cave since the time of birth. They are forced to look
only at the wall of the cave in front of them. On this wall, the prisoners see shadows of people

walking behind them. Plato states that if a prisoner were to escape, he would immediately run

back to the cave, as the cave is the only thing that the prisoner knows to be true. Plato writes, It

would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to

look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him. In this

allegory, the cave represents the form, since it possesses the highest form of reality. The

shadows, on the other hand, represent the imitations since they are merely imitations of the

prisoners reality.

Saussure and Plato both agree in the sense that they feel that words or object have

meaning due to other underlying structures. Saussure, however, defines his theory of mean-

making as semiology.

While Plato argues that words or objects have meaning because of ideal forms, Saussure

argues that words or objects have meaning because of underlying structures. Saussure invents

structural linguistics. In structural linguistics, Saussure describes the component of language as

the sign, which is made up of a signifier and a signified. In comparison to Plato, the signified

represents the word, while the signifier represents the thing.

According to Saussure, a chair is not a chair because it is called a chair. Rather, he feels

that the relationship of the word chair and the thingness of the chair, or chairness, is

complete arbitrary. Saussure feels that what gives a signifier meaning lays in how it is compared

to other signifiers. In Course in General Linguistics, Saussure states, Language is a system of

interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous

presence of the others. He goes on to describe, The conceptual side of value is made up solely
of relations and differences with respect to the other terms of language, and the same can be said

of its material side.

In other words, Saussure feels that parole, the rules of language, and langue, the language

itself, are entirely made up of differences.

Both philosophers ultimately agree that true and pure meaning lies above language.

However, there are extreme dissimilarities between Plato and Saussure, and it is through these

dissimilarities that Saussure, in Course of General Linguistics, prepares to overturn Platonism


Plato ultimately believes that meaning derives from an idealist state of reality, one that he

defines as beauty and goodness. For Plato, meaning is found in a transcendental and

metaphysical reality that one must find through the rejection of material objects, words,

language, and written wordor, as Plato calls it, the imitations and the imitations of the


For Plato, finding reality and the purest form of imitations can lead to one truly

understanding a singular meaning of an object or word. However, as Saussure points out, a

meaning cannot be singular, as it is pinpointed by a system of linguistic differences. Finding

meaning, in other words, is not as simple as deciphering what a thing truly is. Rather, Saussure

states that meaning comes from deciphering what a thing is not.

Works Cited
Plato. The Republic. New York: Basic, 1968. Print.

Saussure, Ferdinand De. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.