A Critique Of Plato’s Cave

It is not self-evident to me that Plato’s Cave should have become so strongly associated with Cartesian dualism, and the modern victory of logical positivism over phenomenology. Consider a different interpretation of the allegory. The problem is that we have kept both the physical figure behind the fire, as well as the shadows cast on the wall, within the constraints of the physical world, amenable to the laws of physics, in this case, light and space. But perception and apperception are not confined to the physical world, they are an internal Lebenswelt produced by consciousness, which is less the observer of the shadows than the fire that causes the shadows. If one is able to split that part of consciousness which is known, observed, and awake, from consciousness as a whole, we arrive at the distinction between the observing mind which sees the shadow, and the consciousness itself which is the fire producing the shadows.

In such an allegory, the shadow does not exist in the physical world, but in the orthogonal world of the Lebenswelt. It is an emergent property just as music is emergent from pitched frequencies, only the latter of which exist in the physical world, explicable by physical laws and reducible to causes, effects, and numbers. The idea of music is important, because while in both of these analogies (shadow and music), there is a derivative quality to the emergent phenomenon and a more raw, pure, or true quality to the underlying mechanics, they come with very different emotional coats. The shadow is somehow a lie, inferior, hollow. Looking at the shadow is to lose sight of what really matters, the real figure who has cast it. But music is true, beautiful, and transcendent. Looking instead at the pitched frequencies that underlie music would be to lose sight of what really matters, the emotional experience that music creates.

Why this reversal of emotion occurs with music but not shadow is perhaps because music is an autotelic activity, it has inherent value and exists purely for itself. If the Biblical Original Sin is considered to be a very specific sort of self-knowledge, ie knowledge of the self as an object and not as a subject, then the fall of Man is his fall from a purely subjective realm to one of objects, where suddenly the world must be categorized into objects that I desire and must have, and then other objects that are either tools to help me or obstacles to be overcome. Other subjects, humans, similarly fall in my eyes, to become mere objects to use, attain, or overcome. Through autotelic activities like music, we are reminded of the superiority of this Lebenswelt over the world of objects, and temporarily distracted from our pursuit of what is useful to instead pursue what is good and meaningful.

It is this playful, objective-less aspect of music that can reverse the allegory of the cave. Traditionally, the allegory of the cave fills us with an anxiety, a mystery that must be solved, and the feeling of smallness in the face of unknowable truths. There is something ominous about the fact that there are figures out of sight, of whom I can glimpse only shadows, knowing nothing more than what can be gleaned from these incomplete and two-dimensional representations. In a world of objects and facts, the rational intellect will seek explanations and descriptions of the shadow, working its way back to some sort of first cause, in the process uncovering knowledge that it can use.

Orthogonal to the direction of this inquiry of the rational intellect, however, is the experience of the shadow. Though it may be doubted that the shadow is an independent quantity, what cannot be doubted is that the shadow itself is real. By the petards of physical laws can the rational intellect itself be hoisted. For it is a truth of reason, not a truth of fact, that a figure will cast a shadow. In all possible worlds. That makes it true. Given the fire of consciousness, it is a truth of reason that the physical world casts an orthogonal shadow of experience in the Lebenswelt. As the observor of the shadow then, there are two normative questions, not one. The first is the one we know well, to identify the cause, mechanism and nature of the underlying figure. The second is that which separates music from pitched frequencies, the capacity of the shadow to have an inherent value that is separate, different and incommensurable from the figure that created it.

During a blackout, we make shadows on the wall with our hands using candles, looking only at the shadows on the wall and never at the hand itself. It takes a highly anxious mind to look worriedly for the cause of the shadows, studying the hand behind the candle, and repeatedly convincing itself that the shadows on the wall aren’t real. As vulnerable creatures in a dangerous world, it is entirely possible we are wired not to relax and enjoy the show of shadows on the wall until we establish beyond doubt that the figures responsible, the hands and candle, are benign or benevolent. We establish this using the rational intellect, that investigates the causal chain until it is satisfied with the objective qualities of the phenomenon we are now free to experience. The problem is the line of certainty beyond which the rational intellect is satisfied about the threat is neither clear nor in many cases possible to reach. This already presupposes something about the Lebenswelt, because the method of the rational intellect is scientific inquiry, which is constructivist or analytic in nature, ie it begins with hypotheses and then seeks evidence to prove or disprove the hypotheses. The generation of the hypotheses though are merely facets of the Lebenswelt, ie different versions of the shadow cast by the fire onto the wall, depending on the angle at which the observer stands.

Based on perspective, the shadows can go from menacing and evil, to benign and harmless, to benevolent and good. I suggest this is the essence of faith and God, a marriage of Plato, Kant and Leibniz, ie a particular perspective of the Lebenswelt that is the perfect possible version of the shadow cast on the wall. Remaining with the spatial metaphor, the task is significantly simplified for the devout observer within the cave, ie to always reposition himself in the cave such that the perspective of the shadow cast on the wall is the most perfect possible one, ie the face of god. Doing so, he is able to have his cake and eat it too. The rational mind can question the cause of the shadow, but the subjective mind can enjoy the show, as it would hand-shadows on the wall, or the experience of music separate from the mathematical and logical notations of its constituent pitched sounds. Currently we do neither, we assume the shadow’s physical qualities to be unreal and unimportant, while simultaneously elevating it to the supreme importance in all the wrong ways, ie its emotional qualities of ominous threat. The fact of friend vs foe is a knowable fact about the real world, testable and falsifiable by the rational intellect. Whereas the experience of friend and foe, like the experience of ‘sad’ vs ‘triumphant’ music, is not knowable by the intellect. These are two parallel processes, and it seems to me that their contagion sits at the heart of the misinterpretation of Plato’s allegory and its resultant neuroses.

A novel insightful exercise to determine the pragmatic difference in intellectual payoff between a novel insight and an obvious fact mistaken for novel insight.