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What's the difference between form and shape?

I'm reading a philosophy book and these are used to denote different "things". I considered these words as almost synonyms.

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    It would help if you could give us an example of how the words are used in the text. – Zibbobz Aug 23 '13 at 19:30
  • It mentions "form and shape of light" often. – emirc Aug 23 '13 at 19:50
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    You forgot way. I'm sure everyone would agree that all 600,000 written instances of (not) in any way shape or form are "doubly tautological". – FumbleFingers Aug 23 '13 at 21:01
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    I am tempted to up-vote this question as I believe it is useful, but I can hardly call it "clear". The OP, for the sake of clarity, should include a direct quote from the text in his question. – Mari-Lou A Aug 24 '13 at 5:39
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    In art, I've seen shape used to indicate a flat appearance, and form for a volume (or the appearance of volume through shading). – Bradd Szonye Aug 24 '13 at 6:09
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You mention you are getting this out of a philosophy book, and I think the philosophical context is what might imply the difference. Philosophers might have a tendency to see "form" as reflecting the guiding principle of an object, or something connected with the meaning of it. "Form" used in this way carries a more or less vague linkage to the defining forces that cause a thing to be what it is. "Shape," on the other hand, is the more pedestrian, empirical identity, the recognizable structure of the thing.

This is also reflected in physics, wherein some "forms" of light might be (for example) ultraviolet or infrared, whereas a "shape" of light might be (again just for example) "a circle."

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In large part, there are both approximately the same. Form is usually a little bit more precise than shape though.

As an example, "He is roundish in shape, but has an otherwise refined form".

However, it's just as likely that "form and shape" is being used as an expression, rather than suggesting the two have any innate difference.

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    I think that last example would work with shape and form reversed. And I imagine it would have as much precise meaning that way, too. – John Lawler Aug 23 '13 at 20:42
  • You're probably right. They are almost perfect synonyms. I can make an argument for form being a more refined and definite form of shape, but there's not much evidence to support it. – Zibbobz Aug 23 '13 at 20:46
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    I think we're ignoring the fact that "form" also means "type" or "class." Visible light and invisible light are two different forms. Ultraviolet light and infrared light are also two different forms (each one invisible to the naked eye, as it happens.) Many other examples abound. – John M. Landsberg Aug 23 '13 at 21:56
  • Since AHD defines 26 polysemes / sub-polysemes for 'form' and Collins 29 (I can't be bothered checking 'shape' for you), I'm tempted to ask 'Shouldn't you first decide upon the difference between "form" and "form" (and "form"...)?' – Edwin Ashworth Aug 23 '13 at 22:02
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    The etymologies are interesting. Form comes Gk morphé 'the form by which a person or thing strikes the vision; external appearance', borrowed into Latin as form, same sense. Shape, on the other hand, comes from an old Germanic root that traces back to PIE (the Gk root for morphé is unknown outside Greek, like mint, and may be borrowed from some other language). The root for shape is from PIE *(s)kep-, glossed as 'Base of words with various technical meanings, including "to cut", "to scrape", "to hack".' There are many other English words from this root. – John Lawler Aug 23 '13 at 22:14
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It seems to me the words are used to indicate degree and relationship. My take on it is that form would be more essential and central to identity. Shape would refer to how that form manifests at the edges, how it is defined at the periphery. For example, you could have a form that looked almost like a star. When the edges of that form are further defined, the shape of a star emerges more clearly. Both are important in the observation and experience of the thing, but in slightly different ways.

However, philosophers can use terms in specific ways, with meanings that are different from those understood by the general public (and other philosophers). If that’s the case, you have to look to how the philosopher has set the meaning of those words (in the beginning chapters, at first mention of the words, or in other works).

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The answer to this will depend greatly on the particular philosophy being presented. For example, in Aristotelian and scholastic philosophy, "form" often means "substantial form" and is sometimes synonymous with "nature". It is everything that determines what an entity is, except for the prime matter composing it. In the case of human beings, the substantial form is sometimes regarded as the same as the soul. Obviously, this is very different from mere shape. But there are many other philosophical systems, which may give "form" very different meanings. [Experts on Aristotelian and scholastic philosophy are invited to edit this answer vigorously to improve my undoubtedly simplistic description.]

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    I'm tempted to say that shape is to form as shade is to color and as gesture is to motion, but that seems rather hollow. Perhaps the point there is that the words are very nearly synonymous. – Andreas Blass Aug 24 '13 at 5:25

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