Plato’s cave and the shadows of reality

Abdullah asked:

Plato will argue that what is “outside the cave” are the true realities – Ideas which are eternal and unchanging, and that when we reflect we have access to these Forms, and that the Forms are therefore what we can know for certain, while the shadows in the cave are mere illusions, and con only yield opinion, a very low form of knowledge indeed.

What might you think of such a scheme?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I would first of all say to you, Abdullah, that in philosophy one must be extra careful with words, because we humans have only a few means of intercommunication possible to us. We can speak and sing, paint and sculpt. The best way is evidently, if we can use one means of expression helping to illuminate the same communication in different ways.

Therefore the parable of the cave — the literary type of Plato’s discourse in this instance — comprises the transplantation of a philosophical conception into the artistic (poetical) medium of story telling, with a view to rendering the conception more readily comprehensible to intuition. The story illustrates some philosophical proposition which is extremely difficult to render without a special apparatus of technical terms; and you must now bear in mind that Plato had to make do with a very limited resource of such terminology — meaning, that he still relied to a large extent on the vocabulary spoken in the streets and the theatres, on the farm and in the households of the people.

In such circumstances, the plasticity of his intellect, equally capable of rigorous forms of analysis and poetical expression, is still to us a marvel to behold. But also an invitation to avoid reading too much (or too little) into his stories. His allegory of the cave is therefore not an exposition to be intended as a precise articulation, but a device which enlists the visual imagination of the reader, to make an appropriate connection to the discursive faculty and thereby to compensate for the dry and brittle theoretical type of discourse in which philosophical ideas are normally couched. (I might in parentheses point to the parable of sour grapes as another specimen of the transplantation of observable human foibles from a moralistic discourse into a neat poetical capsule).

At the same time as it does not disguise its limitations. And so the parable is not simply re-translatable back into the dry prose with which you describe it in your question. Not avoiding this danger, your description commits the fatal error of mis-stating the essence of the theory of forms and for thinking of it as a ‘scheme’. I consider it possible that you have not acquainted yourself with some other Platonic dialogues (e.g. Symposium, Phaedrus) that are indispensable for clarity on this subject matter. Therefore taking the three issues where you went wrong one by one, we have

“What is outside the cave are the true realities”. Outside there is the sunlight shining on the world of nature; but this is relevant only in the context that the cave is a place of shadows cast by the objects of nature. You forgot that this reality is already a world of secondary reality, i.e. the reality of the senses.

“When we reflect we have access to these forms”. This is altogether wrong. The whole point of forming a cast of guardians in this book (i.e. “philosopher-kings”) is that access to the reality of the forms is an exceptional state of mind, a momentary ecstasy of recognition ensuing upon deep study and resulting in an inspiration that can be made productive (e.g. by creating a new law to enhance justice in the state).

“Forms are therefore what we can know for certain”. We cannot know the forms at all, since as mentioned they are ecstatic visions. But we have the capacity of remembering such moments of insight and teaching the knowledge gained from it (source of Plato’s theory of recollection which resembles in some ways the theory of innate ideas that became fashionable in the early modern West).

In a word (to use another metaphor) with your assumptions are too quick off the block, like a sprinter starting to run before the umpire has fired his pistol. Or, in ordinary prose, you derived your conclusions from an illustrative metier and took it literally as a set of propositions. I hope you can see from the above why this leads to contradictions rather than a resolution!

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