Plato’s Cave, Inside Out


The original story of Plato’s cave can be summarized as this: A group of men are bound inside a cave with a wide entrance, though which the sun streams, projecting shadows on the back wall of the cave. The men’s shackles force them to face that back wall, so that all they can see are the shadows, moving back and forth across the wall. They are watching a kind of shadow play, which however they take for reality, as it is the only thing they can see. One day, the men are set free and dragged out of the cave into the sunlight, where they can see for the first time that the shadows they took for reality were cast by other men walking back and forth in front of the cave, carrying various objects as they went about their business. For the first time in their lives, these former prisoners realize that what they had believed was real were merely insubstantial silhouettes of the actual things that cast the shadows.

This parable has traditionally been understood to explain Plato’s philosophical Idealism, that is that the objects of the world as we perceive them are imperfect embodiments of the ideal Forms, which are the real things of the Cosmos. Thus, for example, that table in the dining room is a representation, so to speak, of the ideal form of “Table” which, unlike your dining table, is immaterial, perfect, eternal, and the “idea” that informs all tables—dining and kitchen, coffee and end, writing and conference, etc. All specific things of the material world are likewise merely expressions of their ideal forms. Thus, the “idea” of a thing is its truth—the material embodiment of the idea is imperfect, temporary, and therefore in a sense “false.”

The task of philosophy is to contemplate the ideal forms, not the imperfect expressions of them; this puts the “idea” above everything. One can see why Plato’s view has a great deal of appeal to philosophers and other types of intellectual, including all too often, ideologues, for whom an ideology (“a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy”) trumps practicality (and oftentimes, morality). Whether or not Plato and his legion of descendents believed in a literal heaven of ideal forms, in practice they have behaved as if their ideas were in fact perfect, eternal, “self-evident,” and true, truer than experience and superior to the stubborn resistance of material things to being shaped according to these truths. For these types, reality is a sin against reason.

So let us attempt to correct Plato’s parable: The prisoners in the cave are not trapped in the material world, but in the confines of their own mind; they are contemplating the flickering shadows of their own thoughts, stripping away the particulars of individual objects and constructing vast theories on the basis of these one dimensional, flat, featureless cutouts. (It is worth noticing that shadows are also dark, i.e., the blocking out or absence of light, as being in the shadow of a tree or building.) Once the prisoners are freed, they can see that what they thought was real (their own thoughts) were not real at all.

It is the material world of particular objects, particular individual persons for example, as well as trees, vases, tables, songs, flowers, dogs, etc., that is filled with real things, the ideas of which are figments piled on figments unto confusion. Ideas uninspired and uncorrected by reality can lead us very far astray.

A relevant quotation:
“I ran out of interest in my own consciousness around 1990, but there’s no reason ever to run out of interest in the world.” –Crispin Sartwell, “Philosophy Returns to the Real World,” The New York Times, April 13, 2015

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