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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

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,


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
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Plato, “Allegory,” pp. 8 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

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Lindberg, Beginnings, pp. 36 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).


Plato, “Allegory”