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There are rather too many senses of this word in the language of classrooms, and it would be as well to ration them. Back at the beginning of philosophy, Plato suggested that the ideas (or ‘the Forms’) existed apart from any conscious beings, and were those defining entities of mind which, without any location, provided the perfect shapes of thought and being towards which human beings aspired but of which they could only see the flickering and unstable shadows. (This is Plato's famous metaphor of ‘the cave’.)

With the more or less modern theories of psychology and knowledge which begin in the seventeenth century, Plato's ideas were turned into something mental, and ‘idea’ was the name for any object of which one was conscious; this ...

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