Plato's Cave

Revision cards covering the Greek philosopher Plato, and his thoughts about reality, illusion and the role of the philosopher in the world.

All notes taken from OCR Philosophy & Ethics textbook.

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Virtual reality

- We are used to virtual reality, things which have the appearance of truth but are not real - computer games, cyber space, videos & television programmes.

- Think of a picture depicting people sitting on a sofa watching television being completely absorbed in the fictional exploits of the characters in a soap. Apart from eating fast food they do nothing, not even interact with each other.

- Outside their window are the real neighbours, but the TV viewers are totally unaware of them. If one couch potato does make the effort to heave herself up from the sofa and go outside, what will she see? Do you think she will realise how much more interesting it is to socialise with real people?

- Let's assume that after a stimulating encounter with her real-life neighbours, the girl returns to the darkened lunge where her friends remain totally engrossed in the soap. What sort of reception would she get?

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In the cave

- The ancient Greek philosopher Plato used a similar analogy to the one in the cartoon. His story was in a setting more familiar to his audience two and a half thousand years ago. The enclosed world he chose was a cave.

- A group of people are sitting deep in the cave facing the back wall. They have been here since childhood and are chained to prevent them from ever looking round to see anything. Above and behind them is a fire blazing at a distance.

- Plato goes on to say the because of the position of the fire, the shadows of passers-by appear on the back wall of the cave. The prisoners who sit facing the wall have spent their lives watching this shadow play. For them the appearance seems real because they have never seen anything else.

- Eventually one prisoner, who has spent a lifetime chained to the floor, breaks free and makes the slow painful journey out of the cave to the outside world. The first thing he encounters is the sun. After the dim cave, the sun's strength is blinding and his eyes hurt but gradually he gets used to it and can see a colourful world around him.

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In the cave continued...

- Later he looks up in the sky and sees the sun itself which he realises is the source of life. He begins to work out that the objects of the upper world represent the Forms and the cave was merely a pale shadow form of the reality. In other words, the material world of appearances is a poor copy of the realm of the Forms.

- He returns to the prisoners to tell them the truth about life but they think he is stupid and carry on watching the shadows on the cave wall.

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What is the big idea?

- Plato used the cave story to explain the importance of questioning everything like a philosopher does in order to distinguish between the unreal physical world and the real spiritual world lit by the sun.

- The prisoners in the cave are people who just accept everything at face value and never ask questions or try to understand. Their lives are empty and meaningless. The shadows aren't real objects.

- The one who breaks away and makes the journey out of the cave is the philosopher who wants to know what is really going on.

- In the outside world he discovers the sun, which he realises is giving life to everything: the sun represents the Form of the Good.

- When the person returns to the cave, he knows life inside is just a sham. The images on the cave wall lack colour. Nothing is clear or sharp. The sounds they hear are muffled and echo. The other prisoners, lacking the philosopher's enquiring mind, continue to live in a dark dismal world.

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What's in the cave analogy? - What is real?

- Everyone in the story is convinced what they are looking at is real. The prisoners' knowledge is based exclusively on their sense of sight and sound and they accept it without question.

- Plato's story is showing us that their empirical knowledge (which is gained from the senses) is flawed. It is not showing them reality. Appearances are deceptive. By contrast the prisoner has discovered reality.

- After emerging into the real world outside the cave, his power of reasoning leads him to a philosophical understanding of the truth. This is a priori knowledge of the reality is based totally on reasoning and not on the experience of his senses.

- Plato is pointing out the need to distinguish between the two realms of appearance and reality, although it is important to note that the simile of the upper world is a metaphor for the Forms and does not represent objects in the material sense.

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What's in the cave analogy? - How is truth known?

- The only person who succeeds in discovering the truth is the prisoner who escapes from the cave. He is prepared to make the long, difficult journey up to the mouth of the cave to reach the real world.

- It is no accident that the journey is uphill. You can think of lots of imagery to do with travelling upwards and moving from darkness into light.

- What Plato is saying is that only those escaping the artificial world of the senses, containing shadows, echoes and guesswork, can know the truth.

- Outside the cave, the prisoner discovers real objects whose shadows and echoes had formerly entertained him; these are the truth.

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What's in the cave analogy? - How should society b

- The cave represents a world where everyone is held back because they rely on sensory experiences. Our senses are like the flickering shadows on the wall, they are always changing.

- Although, like the prisoners, we try to understand what our senses tell us, it is futile.

- The best person to lead a society is the one who can break free of all this; the philosopher. By rejecting sensory experiences, he is open to reality and can apply his intellect to understanding the real world.

- Equally worrying in the cave analogy is the fact that when the released prisoner returns to help his fellow inmates, they reject him.

- They prefer ignorance. Some even want to kill him. Plato undoubtedly had in mind the fate of his own teacher, the philosopher Socrates, who had challenged the ideas of his day and was condemned to death.

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What's in the cave analogy? - Who is the best lead

- In Plato's ideal world, society is led by the philosopher who has no distractions such as a family or material possessions to divert them from the correct way forward.

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What's in the cave analogy? - Will the argument st

- Plato's argument is absolutist. It is fixed. He believed it to be true for all people in all places for all time, in other words universal.

- Those who criticise Plato's analogy point to the fact that there is no concrete proof that either the world in the cave or outside is real. Everybody in the story is convinced they are living in the true world. How can you prove who is right and who is wrong? Have you ever woken up from a dream that was so vivid that for a while you weren't sure whether any of it actually happened?

- In his book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle was critical of Plato's argument because he could not agree that the form of something has a separate existence over and above the particular. Other critics have pointed out the elitism of the cave and the rejection of the a posteriori.

- Plato's experience of democracy was very different from our modern representative democracies. So the main point of the allegory, that philosophers are best placed to rule since they have greater knowledge, may overlook the practical skills needed for ruling, by a reliance on an intellectualist approach.

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