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Adam Smith
STS.002, Fall 2004
Paper II

Plato’s Allegory – Unclear or Unknown?

“[This study] forces the mind to arrive at pure truth by the exercise of pure

thought.”

– Plato, The Allegory of the Cave1

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 and

evaluate a modern historian’s attempt to clarify it. We will argue that Plato likely

intended to communicate the following: reasoning based on observation will yield faulty

results, 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 the

statements above as best fit solutions to the ambiguities. Next, we will describe how

David Lindberg2 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 Allegory, the character of Socrates tells an allegory to Glaucon. The

story describes beings chained to the wall of a cave. The beings can only see the

1
See, Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave,” in Science & Culture in the Western Tradition, edited by
John G. Burke (Scottsdale, Arizona: Gorsuch Scarisbrick, 1987), pp. 7-9.
2
David C. Lindberg, The 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, results

in confined thinking and confused conclusions, as illustrated by the beings confined in

the cave. The other path, the one Plato endorses, advises that something closer to reality

can be achieved through a more abstract style of thinking. We will now discuss each path

individually, focusing on the ideas that seem unclear.

Figure 1. The two main claims in Plato’s argument. In (a), reliance on empirical observations
yield undesirable results. In contrast, the progression in (b) depicts the achievement of glamorous
ends through some notion of “pure thought.”

The progression in Figure 1a begins with the use of observation when reasoning

about 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 the

senses results in inaccurate conclusions. It is easy to see the dynamic being played out in

Plato’s allegory; the chained beings’ observations are inherently limited, and thus a

reliance on such observations results in inaccurate conclusions (i.e., that the shadows are

real). Plato does not show that human observation is similarly unrepresentative of reality

this 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 the

aid of other sources is to assume that everything Plato says in the second causal link is

the inverse of its equivalent in the first causal link. That is, rather than leading to

falsehood, the exclusive use of reasoning leads to truth. We will call this argument the

inversion hypothesis. Let us begin by discussing the possible meaning of the first bubble

in 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 exercising

thought 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 with

an eye to the meaning of “pure.” Without that recourse, however, we turn to Bowen,3

who said that “Inference or Reasoning is the act of Pure Thought whereby one Judgment

is derived from another, or from two others.” This definition corroborates the inversion

hypothesis, 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 used

in 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 mathematical

axioms; therefore they do not have a nature. A more abstract line of reasoning about

Plato’s intentions might conclude that the author intended to mean logical inference,

3
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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similar to our conclusion about the meaning of “pure thought.” This discussion is still

weak, though. Unfortunately, the other phrases are not clear either; they leave much

room for interpretation. Thus, the best interpretation is the inversion hypothesis.

Now we will consider the second bubble, which follows from the first in Plato’s

allegory. These phrases (e.g., “Form of Goodness”) are the most unclear of those made in

Plato’s work. “Pure truth” (interpreted here to mean ideas which are completely true)

seems to be the most definitive description of the author’s intended meaning. Our

definition seems to fit well with the inversion hypothesis. However, it is not clear that

loose interpretations of the other items in the bubble can equate to our interpretation, i.e.

truth. When Plato says that the result is the “cause of [..] right and good,” we would have

to agree that truth is the cause of right and good. However, it is not obvious that truth is

the “parent of intelligence.” Indeed, it might be more accurate to state that intelligence is

the parent (i.e. cause) of truth. Unfortunately, once again there is not an interpretation of

Plato’s exposition that seems to be a better fit than the inversion hypothesis.

We will now evaluate the ambiguities of the causal link between the cause and

effect in Figure 1b. That is, if we assume that the inversion hypothesis is correct, does it

follow that exclusive use of thought leads to truth? This case is only somewhat clear in

the allegory. The caveat is that it might not be possible for the chained beings to induce

correct ideas about reality, since they might not have enough information available inside

the cave. For example, if there are no shadows of ducks in the cave, it would be

impossible to reason about the ideal form of a duck. Therefore we must say that

reasoning is only the best way to discover reality from inside the cave. This hole in

Plato’s reasoning grows when he tries to apply the allegory to humans on Earth, saying
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“The ascent to see the things [outside of the cave] you may take as standing for the

upward journey of the soul into the region of the intelligible.”4 As before, explaining the

causal link is left as an exercise to the reader, and is thus a mild ambiguity.

To summarize our ambiguity analysis of Plato’s work thus far, we created a best

guess interpretation of the author’s main points. Our interpretation is that reasoning

based on observation results in false conclusions, while reasoning based on thought alone

(i.e. pure thought) results in true conclusions. The first clause to the interpretation is

fairly clear from the original work, but the second clause is induced using our inversion

hypothesis. However, we cannot be sure that this hypothesis is representative of Plato’s

intentions.

With this in mind, we turn to the treatment of the allegory given by a modern

historian, David Lindberg, in his The Beginnings of Western Science.5 As we shall see,

Lindberg confirms the inversion hypothesis. According to Lindberg, “The senses are

chains that tie us down; the route to knowledge is through philosophical reflection.”6

Philosophical reflection is absent of empirically driven experiments, and is thus the same

as exclusive use of thought. Therefore, our attempt to interpret Plato’s ideas, based solely

on the original work, was correct. That is, Plato was indeed supposing that reasoning

based on observation leads to falsehood, and reasoning based only on thought will lead to

truth. From this, we can deduce the meanings of any of the previously ambiguous

phrases in Figure 1.

However, ambiguities remain with respect to the justification, or lack thereof, of

the causal links (i.e. the “Why?” questions in Figure 1). Fortunately, these ambiguities

4
Plato, “Allegory,” pp. 8
5
Lindberg, Beginnings, pp. 35-39
6
Lindberg, Beginnings, pp. 37-38
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are resolved by Lindberg’s general treatment of Plato’s works, including the world of

forms. Lindberg relates Plato’s idea by describing two worlds. The first is the world of

forms, which contains ideal images of objects. The second world is the real world, in

which instantiations of these forms are less perfect in some way. The two worlds map

directly to the allegory; the shadows on the wall are imperfect renditions of the objects

outside the cave. Since Plato believes the theory of the world of forms to be true in the

real world as well (i.e. on Earth, outside of the allegory), it serves as a level of indirection

to map between the allegory and the real world. This logical connection is illustrated in

Figure 2, below. This explanation, unfortunately, creates one more ambiguity. In the

world of the allegory, the images on the wall are imperfect because they come from

statues and cause two dimensional projections. The meaning of “imperfect”7

instantiations, however, is not clear in the real world. Lindberg elaborates:

Figure 2. Resolving ambiguities concerning the truth of the causal links in the real world, outside
of the allegory

“In a passage in one of his dialogues, the Republic, Plato reflected on the

relationship between the actual tables constructed by a carpenter and the idea or

definition of a table in the carpenter’s mind. […] No two manufactured tables

are alike down to the smallest detail, and limitations in the material (a knot here, a

warped board there) insure that none will fully measure up to the ideal.”8

7
Lindberg, Beginnings, pp. 36
8
Lindberg, Beginnings, pp. 35-36
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In Plato’s carpenter example, wood is less perfect than its ideal form because it might

have a knot or be warped. Furthermore, a table that a carpenter builds might not be true

to its blueprints. These are all illustrations of the same general idea; they are all examples

of imperfection. It is still not clear to the reader of both Plato and Lindberg, however,

how imperfection is defined. For example, if someone’s coffee is imperfect to them

because it is too hot, it might be just right for me. There does not seem to be a universal

formula. This is the single ambiguity that remains from a reading of both authors.

The final section of this paper discusses my personal interpretations of Plato’s

work. I agree with Lindberg’s discussion on the points that it covers. Lindberg confirms

the hypothesis drawn from the original work, and expands on it using strictly factual

information about Plato’s world of forms theory. On the issue of the final remaining

ambiguity, I can devise two competing explanations.

The first possible explanation of the remaining ambiguity is that, under a modern

and informed perspective, Plato’s conception of an ideal is an embodiment of the

commonalities of an object across a large random sample pool of that object. For

example, the carpenter’s wood will not always have knots, and therefore the ideal wood

also does not. Now, each individual item in the sample probably differs from the ideal

we have defined in some way.

The second explanation supposes that something is imperfect if it differs from its

maker’s intentions. This definition works well for the table example; if a carpenter’s

output differs from the blueprints, then it must be imperfect. It does not work so well for

the wood case; if there is an actual creator of wood, then it must be nature (or some other

similar being), and we cannot be sure that nature does not intend for wood to have knots.
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Between the two hypotheses given above for the definition of imperfection, I

prefer the first. It does not require a maker, which makes it applicable to more cases. It

also avoids the measurement of intent, which could be hard to quantify even if we knew

the maker. It does not seem clear what Plato exactly meant; he took the definition of his

ideal forms to be axiomatic, almost provided by an intuition of what would be the best

possibility.

In conclusion, we discovered a number of points in need of interpretation in

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.9 Using the inversion hypothesis, we generated a guess at

Plato’s intended meanings based only on his original work. A modern historian’s

exposition related to Plato’s work confirmed our inversion hypothesis and cleared up the

justification for the causal links from Figure 1. One point of ambiguity remained, for

which two possible interpretations were given and discussed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Plato. 1987. “The Allegory of the Cave.” In Science & Culture in the Western Tradition,
ed. John G. Burke. Scottsdale, Arizona: Gorsuch Scarisbrick.

David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago


Press, 1992).

Francis Bowen, A Treatise on Logic (Cambridge, Mass.: Sever and Francis, 1864).

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Plato, “Allegory”