What is the point of Plato’s allegory of the cave in Book Seven?
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
If you search ‘Ask a Philosopher’ you’ll find several answers on this topic. Plato’s Allegory of ‘the Cave’ can be found in his dialogue Republic. Many generations of commentators have interpreted this as a metaphorical account of the difference between ordinary knowledge of the world of phenomena and philosophical knowledge of ultimate reality, which Plato conceives as the Form of the Good, metaphorically the ‘sun’ that is the source of the illumination that reaches us only indirectly, as shadows cast on the wall of the cave.
I am very conscious of the cave, ‘Living in the dark’ as I described it in my latest YouTube video https://youtu.be/8W17F1lpPWM. Painfully so. My question is whether, in fact, there is anything outside the cave, or, if there is, or must be, whether there is any possibility of coming to know anything about that ‘something’, by using the methods of philosophical inquiry or otherwise. In my video, I describe the world in which I find myself as ‘Plato’s cave without the Sun’.
Is this a tenable position? Is it even bearable? I mean, to think of Reality with a capital ‘R’ as something totally beyond any possibility of knowledge or human comprehension. Not to mention the highly questionable claim that it is in some sense ‘good’, or indeed the ultimate Good with a capital ‘G’. At some time not too far in the future, I will be dead. And I will have died, never having discovered an answer to that question. The comforts of religion don’t interest me, they seem like fairy tales. The claims of philosophers, Plato included, seem baseless and even arrogant.
Whether in fact Plato did believe that knowledge of the Good is possible is itself unclear. He describes his ‘dialectic’, or the correct method of philosophical inquiry as directed towards knowledge of the Good, but nowhere does he claim that he, or anyone else, has ever reached this goal. Reading his dialogues, the strong impression is that the Good is merely posited as the ‘best explanation’ of how dialectic itself is possible. But who is to say that it is the only possible explanation?
Kant, similarly, draws a distinction between the two worlds of phenomena and ‘noumena’, claiming that while the human capacity for reason is capable of discovering a priori truths relating to the world of phenomena or appearances, there is yet ‘room for faith’ about the noumenal world, including the existence of God, human freedom and everlasting life as conceived in the Christian religion.
F.H. Bradley, by contrast, conceives of his Absolute not so much as a second ‘world’ but rather as a way of grasping reality as a single whole, free of the contradictions inherent in human thought. Again, a kind of ‘faith’ is brought in to bridge the gap that human beings are incapable of crossing by means of thought and reasoning, although we have an intuitive vision of the Absolute in the unbroken wholeness of ‘immediate feeling’.
Plato and Kant were geniuses, and if they couldn’t prove that there is anything outside the cave, then I certainly am unable to do so. All the wondrous discoveries of science are unable to do so, they merely describe in more detail the walls of the cave. The laws of nature are just rules that we posit hypothetically in order to account for observation and the results of experiment. We don’t even know what it would mean to say that these rules are ‘true’, let alone the ultimate Truth. To even raise that question goes beyond science and the experimental method.
Maybe enlightenment is just realizing that ‘this is all there is’ and the very desire for more is a mistake, or illusion, maybe even a necessary illusion. In my book Philosophizer I wrote of a ‘horizon that recedes as I advance’. The fact that I see, or seem to see a horizon ahead of me implies the existence of a place I can never reach, however long I travel, just as one never reaches the end of the rainbow.