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Plato’s Allegory – Unclear or Unknown?

Plato’s Allegory – Unclear or Unknown?



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Published by Adam Smith

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Published by: Adam Smith on Dec 15, 2006
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Adam SmithSTS.002, Fall 2004Paper IIPlato’s Allegory – Unclear or Unknown?“[This study] forces the mind to arrive at pure truth by the exercise of purethought.”
The Allegory of the Cave
Plato’s words have rhetorical appeal. He offers the reader a path to pure truth – which nobody would object to achieving. A more detailed analysis of the statement,though, leads the reader to several questions. After all, what is “pure truth?” In this paper, we will discuss some of the ambiguities in Plato’s
 Allegory of the Cave
andevaluate a modern historian’s attempt to clarify it. We will argue that Plato likelyintended to communicate the following: reasoning based on observation will yield faultyresults, and inversely, reasoning based only on thought will result in truths. In support of our argument, we will first highlight the ambiguities in Plato’s writing and arrive at thestatements above as best fit solutions to the ambiguities. Next, we will describe howDavid Lindberg
confirms our interpretation, but does not clearly define “imperfection.”We will conclude with an interpretation that attempts to resolve the remaining ambiguity by defining imperfection as variations from the median.In Plato’s
the character of Socrates tells an allegory to Glaucon. Thestory describes beings chained to the wall of a cave. The beings can only see the
See, Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave,” in
Science & Culture in the Western Tradition
, edited byJohn G. Burke (Scottsdale, Arizona: Gorsuch Scarisbrick, 1987), pp. 7-9.
David C. Lindberg,
Beginnings of Western Science
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1992).
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shadows of the real objects behind them. Since these beings cannot see anything other than projections on the cave wall, they are led to believe that the projections are reality.Socrates describes two causal paths to Glaucon. One path, depicted in Figure 1a, resultsin confined thinking and confused conclusions, as illustrated by the beings confined inthe cave. The other path, the one Plato endorses, advises that something closer to realitycan be achieved through a more abstract style of thinking. We will now discuss each pathindividually, focusing on the ideas that seem unclear.
Figure 1.
The two main claims in Plato’s argument. In (a), reliance on empirical observationsyield undesirable results. In contrast, the progression in (b) depicts the achievement of glamorousends through some notion of “pure thought.”
The progression in Figure 1a begins with the use of observation when reasoningabout the nature of the world or cosmos. Perhaps the clearest component of Plato’s work is his notion of observation, or the human senses. Plato hypothesizes that reliance on thesenses results in inaccurate conclusions. It is easy to see the dynamic being played out inPlato’s allegory; the chained beings’ observations are inherently limited, and thus areliance on such observations results in inaccurate conclusions (i.e., that the shadows arereal). Plato does not show that human observation is similarly unrepresentative of realitythis exercise is left to the reader, and thus Plato’s allegory is mildly ambiguous.
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The second causal link, offered to the reader as a recourse for the failure of observation, is more ambiguous. The simplest way to decipher the argument without theaid of other sources is to assume that everything Plato says in the second causal link isthe inverse of its equivalent in the first causal link. That is, rather than leading tofalsehood, the exclusive use of reasoning leads to truth. We will call this argument theinversion hypothesis. Let us begin by discussing the possible meaning of the first bubblein Figure 1b. “Pure thought” is similar to the term exclusive use of reasoning--from our inversion hypothesis above. However, by “pure thought” did Plato mean exercisingthought alone, or was he referring to a specific type of thinking? Such ambiguity could potentially be resolved by a historian who could translate Plato’s original manuscript withan eye to the meaning of “pure.” Without that recourse, however, we turn to Bowen,
who said that “Inference or Reasoning is the act of Pure Thought whereby one Judgmentis derived from another, or from two others.” This definition corroborates the inversionhypothesis, that “pure thought” means exclusive use of thought (i.e., absent of observations or axioms). To bolster this conjecture, perhaps other items in the causal bubble from Figure 1b are clear.For example, if the astute reader can understand the meaning of “the real nature of number,” then that understanding can be used to infer the meaning of other phrases usedin its place throughout the work. Unfortunately, the meaning of “the real nature of number” is not clear. Numbers are arbitrary objects defined by a set of mathematicalaxioms; therefore they do not have a nature. A more abstract line of reasoning aboutPlato’s intentions might conclude that the author intended to mean logical inference,
See Francis Bowen,
 A Treatise on Logic 
, (Cambridge, Mass.: Sever and Francis, 1864), vi. pp.148; as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary

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