In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Plato’s Metaphysics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Investigations
  • Journals
  • Plato on Being
  • God and the Cosmos
  • One and Many, Parts and Wholes
  • Historical Background
  • Ancient Critical Reactions
  • The Unwritten Doctrines

Classics Plato’s Metaphysics
Francesco Ademollo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0160


A basic introductory account of Plato’s metaphysics that wished to steer as clear of controversy as possible might claim that Plato, at some point in his career, came to hold the following views. Whenever a plurality of sensible things are so-and-so (e.g., beautiful), they are so-and-so in virtue of bearing the appropriate relation (which can be variously described as “possession,” “participation,” or “imitation”) to an abstract object that explains or grounds their being so-and-so. If we adopt the convention of using “F” as an abbreviation for “so-and-so,” then this object can be referred to by such expressions as “the F itself” or “F-ness itself” (e.g., “the beautiful itself,” “beauty itself”), as distinct from ordinary, sensible F things (e.g., particular beautiful items). It can also be referred to as “the form of F” or “the form of F-ness” (e.g., “the form of beautiful,” “the form of beauty”). Forms are immaterial, changeless, and eternal; they constitute the realm of perfect Being; they are the primary referents of general terms (“beautiful”) and the proper objects of definition and knowledge. By contrast, sensible particulars are always subject to all sorts of change, can at most be the objects of belief or opinion, and are ontologically inferior to forms. The sensible universe as a whole has a rational, teleological order, in which everything contributes to an ultimately good purpose, and is arranged according to a mathematical structure. Now, this basic, generic account leaves room for plenty of questions and controversies. Does Plato conceive of forms as universals, that is, as properties or kinds which sensible particulars instantiate, or rather as perfect nonsensible particulars? What exactly is the relation between forms and sensible particulars? Did Plato’s views on these matters evolve through time or is it possible to identify at least a stable doctrinal core? What is the significance of the fact that the literary genre chosen by Plato to present these views is the fictional dialogue rather than, for example, the systematic treatise? To what extent was Plato influenced by Socrates and other contemporary philosophers? When Plato describes the universe’s order as having been brought about by a benevolent god, does he mean what he says? And so on. This article is meant as a guide to the various competing answers offered to such questions by Platonic scholarship. (Thanks are due to Roberto Granieri, who made helpful suggestions for the 2021 revision.)

General Overviews and Investigations

Allen 1965 and Fine 1999 are useful collections of studies, several of which have achieved the status of classics. Prior 1985 is a good and readable general introduction, as is Harte 2008 (which, however, is much shorter); Silverman 2014 is an easily accessible online encyclopedia entry. Fronterotta 2001 is a comprehensive treatment of Plato’s ontology. Code 1986 and Mann 2000 are stimulating inquiries (not for beginners) into Plato’s conception of universals and particulars in comparison with Aristotle’s.

  • Allen, Reginald E., ed. 1965. Studies in Plato’s metaphysics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Influential collection, several of whose articles are cited in the present bibliography. Recently reprinted (Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2013).

  • Code, Alan. 1986. Aristotle: Essence and accident. In Philosophical grounds of rationality. Edited by Richard E. Grandy and Richard Warner, 411–439. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This influential article, though centering on Aristotle and dealing with Plato primarily from the perspective of Aristotle’s interpretation, sets out a number of very general Platonic views on forms and particulars, casting them as a system of axioms and theorems. Very stimulating, but suited to advanced readers.

  • Fine, Gail, ed. 1999. Plato 1: Metaphysics and epistemology. Oxford Readings in Philosophy. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Collects several important studies, prefaced with an overarching introduction, and thus covers many of the most important issues in this area. Several of the individual chapters are referred to here.

  • Fronterotta, Francesco. 2001. Methexis: La teoria platonica delle idee e la partecipazione delle cose empiriche. Pisa, Italy: Scuola Normale Superiore.

    General presentation of Plato’s ontology, with a broader scope than the title might suggest. In Italian.

  • Harte, Verity. 2008. Plato’s metaphysics. In The Oxford handbook of Plato. Edited by Gail Fine, 191–216. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195182903.001.0001

    Cautious, balanced general introduction, followed by a bibliography.

  • Mann, Wolfgang-Rainer. 2000. The discovery of things: Aristotle’s categories and their context. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691221595

    In the context of an inquiry into Aristotle’s Categories, presents an innovative (and controversial) analysis of Plato’s conception of forms and particulars, arguing that before Aristotle no philosopher, including Plato, conceived of sensible particulars as objects endowed with properties. Suited to advanced readers.

  • Prior, William J. 1985. Unity and development in Plato’s metaphysics. London and Sydney, Australia: Croom Helm.

    Very good general introduction to the subject across the dialogues. As the title suggests, Prior tries to give an account both of the overall consistency of Plato’s views and of their evolution.

  • Silverman, Allan. 2014. Plato’s middle period metaphysics and epistemology. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

    A general presentation of the metaphysical and epistemological views in the dialogues of Plato’s so-called middle period, focusing especially on the Phaedo and the Republic. Silverman is also the author of a monograph entitled The Dialectic of Essence: A Study of Plato’s Metaphysics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains another entry that is relevant here: M. L. Gill’s “Method and Metaphysics in Plato’s Sophist and Statesman.”

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