Plato’s Cave Allegory

I’m into chapter three of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, which is about the classical Greek philosophers. It’s a somewhat different take on them than I got from my college courses in philosophy, so very interesting.

So she brings up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which I haven’t thought much about since college, which was 25 years ago. I didn’t really know what to make of it back then and haven’t thought much about it since. To refresh all our memories, here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

Plato imagines a group of people who have lived chained in a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Plato, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to seeing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not constitutive of reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

So far, so good. What most of us think we see is not reality, I can get behind Plato on this part of it. It’s the next part I now find, in my current middle-aged state, that I don’t buy so much.

The Allegory is related to Plato’s Theory of Forms, wherein Plato asserts that “Forms” (or “Ideas”), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Only knowledge of the Forms constitutes real knowledge.

If I understand Plato right here, he’s saying that you’ve got this oak and that oak and that other oak, and all these oaks are not real, they are only “shadows” of what is real, which is the Ideal Form of an Oak. I can sort of see that point of view. There are all these things in the world, but running through them all are patterns that we can try to discover, by means of observation, scientific experiments, intuition, and so on. Understanding those patterns is what enables us to understand and manipulate our world.

But my immediate reaction to reading about Plato’s Cave the other day was, No, that’s backward. It isn’t the case that most people see the individual oaks and not the Ideal of the Oak. It’s the other way around: Most people look at the individual oaks and they see only the idea of “oaks”. Or more likely just the idea of “trees”. Our minds interpret everything immediately in terms of categories, but in reality the categories don’t exist. There’s no such thing as the Ideal of the Oak, that’s something our minds projected onto the world around us so that we could analyze things and talk about them and manipulate them. There are only really these temporary concentrations of matter, constantly changing into something else, that we’ve drawn circles around and named. And the human condition is that nearly all of us spend nearly all our time in this invented world in our heads. We look at the oak and we think “That’s an oak” and that’s pretty much the extent of our interaction with it.

But in the reality that exists outside our heads, things don’t have names or categories. They just are. Or rather, it just is, because the division of the universe into things is just as much an invention of our minds.

Which is why my reaction to thinking again about the Cave Allegory was that Plato had it backward. He thought the patterns and forms and ideals were what was real and the shapes we actually see are only shadows of those forms projected onto the world around us. I think the great indivisible whatzit of the universe is what’s real, and the patterns and forms and ideals we think we see are shadows that our minds project onto the world around us.

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