Form Thinking

Essay 1: An introduction to form thinking

By Nathan Cheever

The strangest homework assignment I received in college was to go outside after class and burrow into the ground. I did not complete that assignment. The next day my biology professor asked if any of us tried it. Nobody raised their hands. He then explained why. “That’s because you don’t have the right shape for burrowing! But a mole, with their small bodies, their paws and claws, they’re quite at home burrowing. Now ask a mole to run away from a predator, and it won’t. It can’t. The mole is not designed for running or climbing the way we are and you can see this in its shape.”

That semester studying biology I learned that it wasn’t just body shape that mattered. Even down to the shapes of proteins, molecules, and atoms, how the thing was formed made almost all the difference. Shape and being were almost identical.

After that class, I continued to think about shape, but mostly relating to physical things. Only years later did I begin to see the idea of shape or form apparent in contexts beyond biology, math, and even art. I began to see the same point my professor made apply to ideas as well.

Luckily, I didn’t need a degree in topology to learn some of the basics about shapes1. This thinking is so intuitive and obvious at the surface that it doesn’t get much attention nowadays.2 We all know why we play soccer with spheres and not cubes. Why bother discussing it? Even if the sphere and the cube were made of the same material, had the same volume, weight, color, etc. it wouldn’t matter. The shape or form was wrong and when the form changes, the idea changes.

The reverse is true also. Within each shape we encounter – in common things like knives, wheels, kitchen utensils, tools – the human need for a job to be done precedes and governs the design of the thing. The things we make reflect what we value. Asking the question “Why did they make it like that?” points back to the answer to someone’s earlier question of “How can I do that?”. Common forms come from common needs and usually are quite easy to grasp. Just ask a child why they don’t eat their cereal with a fork, and you’ll likely get a puzzled stare, a giggle, or a simple answer. Perhaps all three.

Discussing the shapes of moles, soccer balls and knives is not terribly interesting. And if the extent of the implications of form was utility, then I wouldn’t bother writing further. Yet form goes beyond the scope of physical things and the concept of function. Form is not just a description of the thing, or a property of the thing. It is the essence of the thing, the “principle of [its] intelligibility”3.

That is why there is no such thing as a spherical knife. The form of a knife requires a certain shape. To be what it is as a knife it must deny any and all forms that are not its own, otherwise we lose the knife-ness of the knife. Form is the most essential component of a knife. It could be made from different materials, have different sizes or colors, different blade types, and each with different effectiveness or goodness towards the purpose of the knife. But a spherical knife is unintelligible because it simply doesn’t describe what a knife is. To be what it is, it must remain in it’s essential form.4

If this is true, and a thing’s essential nature is tied to its form – that which remains even when subject, matter, or other properties change – and form depends upon spaces of being and non-being, on boundaries, on definitions and limitation, on nuance and our ability to discern finely drawn lines in nature, then our grasp of form is our grasp on reality. We inherit all we can intelligibly remark and we are dispossessed of what we fail to define. Understanding form helps us hold onto reality.

Yet, for all the obvious pedestrian utility and intellectual potential of form, the idea of form itself is threatening to some. To declare that anything can be defined, and hence limited, has the form of oppression. Maybe it’s true, but if so, it is only because a defined form made it so. Even oppression itself has a form and limitations, otherwise the word would be meaningless. Without definition (which means to set a limit to, to affix an end to) the word is just noise, and could move around and become benevolence, mercy, or mangoes. A word that means anything means nothing at all. And that is what we are left with, nothing, when we lose touch with form.

Form thinking is an exercise in sanity. Holding that there are things that exist outside of our minds, that have a distinct being apart from us, if we cannot or will not think intelligibly about them, we deny ourselves participation in reality. How can we be free if we are ignorant of or hostile towards the most basic ideas of reality?

Thinking about form is a metaphysical exercise that discloses the fascinating and enlightening implications. It is a set of principles that allow us to look at a thing and come to understand it better. In these essays I will try to do is show what I’ve learned about form, how and why it works, and why it matters even in our daily lives. My goal in sharing these principles is to build a bridge of thinking about the language and logic of form in a way that translates faithfully from the world of spheres, planes, and houses, to the world of identity, character, and being.

I hope these essays will offer some valuable insights to you, and help you not only see the physical world differently – the world of moles, soccer balls, and skyscrapers – but the world of ideas too.

  1. And I hope the same tolerance will be granted for one to write about shape/form. ↩︎

  2. No major philosopher has dealt with the idea of form since the days of Immanuel Kant, so over 200 years. This is an unfashionable yet powerful idea. ↩︎

  3. Adler, Mortimer. The Great Ideas: A Synopticon of Great Books of the Western World. Volume I. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952. ↩︎

  4. I realize that this sounds Platonic. I’m not attempting a restatement of Plato’s theory of the Forms, that there is an eternal realm wherein the Forms of all things reside and that all things partake of. But I do believe that every intelligible thing has a form. ↩︎