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The Allegory of the Cave and Lived Experience

I’ve always felt that the best philosophy isn’t just telling us about our world or giving us interesting ideas at the conceptual level, but explains a way of living. I’ve been baffled by those who related to philosophers from Socrates to Descartes and didn’t realize that there was an emotional world that these people were trying to communicate as well as an intellectual one.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is one of those ideas that I think has been chronically misunderstood.

For those of you who don’t know (or slept through honors English), the allegory of the cave goes something like this: Imagine a group of prisoners in a dark cave, chained to a wall. All they can see is a blank wall in front of them. They see shadows reflected from people passing in front of a nearby fire and hear distant sounds from outside the cave.

The point Plato was trying to make is that these prisoners’ experience is horrifically degraded. They can barely understand reality as it actually is. All they see are the shadows of real things, the echoes of an actual world outside tem.

A prisoner that managed to escape from this cave would be blinded. She would be in agony for some time. She wouldn’t understand everything from social norms to Facebook to what a tip at a restaurant is.

If she ever managed to adapt to reality, and tried to return to the cave, her former compatriots in the cave would be perplexed. They may reject the escaped prisoner as insane, or simply be frustrated at their inability to understand. They may even feel that the difficulty of escaping the cave would not be worth their benefits of their freedom. Besides, they’re launching a new series on the wall next summer that might be pretty good.

Plato thought about this as an analogy for education. He felt that the philosophically educated could see parts of reality that others could not, and saw a richness to life that the uneducated would never experience.

Yet Plato, and the people in his lineage like Aristotle and Socrates, clearly thought about education as being more than simply learning conceptual and intellectual ideas. They thought about it as the development of moral and emotional resources too.

I’ve always thought the allegory of the cave wasn’t very compelling. If you tell someone with poor mathematics skills how calculus works, they may be confused, frustrated, or annoyed, but they won’t react as if their reality is being undermined. If I tell you something like, “Mertonian strain is a theory that tries to explain deviant and criminal behavior by referring to the tension between society’s expectations and its normative means of achieving it”, it’s fairly unlikely to actually transform your knowledge of reality. At most, it might make you question aspects of your society or political beliefs you may have had, questioning certain convictions. But your idea of how the world works might not change.

Intellectual concepts rarely change the core of who we are or the way we view the world. It’s experience that does. Rene Descartes, the great French philosopher who gave us “I think, therefore I am”, and Socrates both found that their understanding of the world that they had been given as members of their society didn’t hold up when they saw the outside world. It’s life as we live it that makes us change, not concepts.

A lot of my writing in Skillful Means has been trying to communicate to people how impoverished the experience of those who have been traumatized or who have struggled with addiction or depression can be.

It’s in that difference in emotional reality that I think the allegory of the cave actually applies.

When I’ve tried to explain to some people feelings like true and unconditional love, or joy at adversity, or smiling so hard one’s face hurts, or taking horrible tragedies as reasons to fight, they would often fail to understand.

When I’ve tried to explain how it is possible to hold many loves dear in one’s heart, many wondered if I was trying to trick them.

When I’ve tried to explain that even the people in our lives who leave us by their own volition can still have touched our lives and be cherished inside of us, they were baffled.

When I’ve tried to communicate what ideas like duty and being a true knight and being a superhero feels like to me, I often get at best limited understanding.

When I’ve tried to put into words what it is like to feel a joy that washes away one’s sense of self and reality and simply allows one to be, as if a warm tidal wave were obliterating us, they would look at me as if I was insane.

And, to be fair, the same applies to me. I am in my own cave when it comes to the true traumas and horrors of life. There are aspects of the experiences of a sexual assault victim, or a torture victim, or someone grappling with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, that I may never fully understand.

In fact, in a sense, the reality is far lonelier than Plato described. We are often trapped in a cave by ourselves, no prisoners to share the experience with us.

This may be one of the most important things for people who want to help others to understand: Sometimes, when we have a positive experience of life, it is beyond their ability to comprehend. Their experience is so degraded or lacks so many of the antecedents of ours that we have to be able to go down to the very basic level. As I explain in the Imaginable Horizon, sometimes all we can do is slowly and patiently change their perception of what is possible. (And, in the process, learn more about the different ways others experience life, which can amplify our empathy, galvanize our passion to help, and facilitate our own counting of blessings).

Still, just as Plato felt it was possible with education to overcome the cave, so too do I believe that empathy fundamentally can defeat our different experiences. I believe that we can arrive at a level of understanding about the diversity of life that allows us to choose the best paths for ourselves and help those we care about find the same quality of path.

We all just have to be patient with each other, and hope that we can help each other find a better world.

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2 thoughts on “The Allegory of the Cave and Lived Experience

  1. It’s interesting how you made the person in the cave overwhelmed by reality a “she” … might want to think about that attitude right there.
    I’m not saying people suffering from some kind of trauma might not need help. I have my own trauma(s) to deal with, I’m not denying that. I’m also not denying that I have needed help in the past or may still even be in need of help now and then.
    However, assuming these people automatically have a diminished, degraded experience, a warped view or understanding of reality is (or at least can be) insulting. Every person trying to be a “helper” has to keep that in mind. A trauma victim’s reality might be different than yours but it still is THEIR reality. Maybe they want it to change, maybe they don’t. Maybe they need it, at least right now.
    In my opinion the first lesson they should teach at “helper academy” is respect. Telling people to change is an intrusion – maybe a necessary one, yes, but it remains an “assault”. All the skills still don’t teach respect, in fact they can even take it away because the “helper” thinks they know so much better.
    Accept that you’re eventually, maybe even inevitably, incapable of understanding a victim’s reality. It’s just as valid as yours. Understand and respect that before you do anything else.

    • arekexcelsior says:

      Haha! Got you! When I wrote the piece originally, I wrote “He”. Then I consciously changed it to “she” because I assume the feminine! Booya!

      As for actual substance:

      I’m explaining my experience, not just making assumptions. In my experience, I’ve routinely seen people respond to the idea of a better world, one I experience daily, with befuddlement. They honestly don’t think I experience what I say I do. I think the allegory of the cave helps explain that.

      Moreover, I mention quite specifically I have my own caves. Everyone does. We’re all limited by our imaginable horizon. Truly great learning of any kind, whether it’s experiential, philosophical, literary, artistic, etc. expands that imaginable horizon.

      Of course someone’s reality, and not just a victim of trauma (interesting that you assume that when I make quite clear drug addiction or depression or other issues are part of it too), is valid in the sense that they experienced it and that’s how they feel. But what happens is people start to make erroneous deductions about the nature of reality. Again, everyone does this. I may sometimes be too optimistic about people as a result of my imaginable horizon. When I face that dilemma successfully, I learn how to moderate my optimism to be more realistic.

      Victims routinely think that all they can find is the abusive man, even when that’s not true. Addicts routinely think they can’t overcome their addiction, even when it’s not true. People suffering from PTSD and flashbacks think they’ll be saddled with it forever, even when faced with an overwhelming literature of recovery.

      Our cave denies us empirical reality. And when someone’s perceptions prevents them from actually understanding other peoples’ behavior or feelings, or sociological fact, THEN that experience is degraded. They’re making a bad deduction from limited evidence and they’re not being humble enough to correct or question that deduction. THAT’S always the issue I have, not their conceptual starting point.

      Everyone’s conceptual starting point should be respected. Their twisting skein of life experiences should be respected. But then, when we sit down and start discussing, some people will find that their perspective is not letting them create useful contributions. At that point, their perspective has to adjust at least somewhat.

      And here’s the big point. If you want to say that I can’t at the end of the day understand a victim’s reality, then one of two things has to be the case.

      Either it doesn’t go both ways, and a victim can understand my reality, which is horseshit and just as unfair to me as the inverse is to the victim or the person suffering from a psychiatric condition…

      Or it does go both ways, and then the victim can never be happy, because they will never understand my happiness and my world.

      Both of those deductions are COLOSSALLY problematic. I don’t think they’re true, and they’re certainly not very fair or nice. They impute a superior understanding to suffering which, as you well know, is a myth.

      I think everyone is, at the conceptual beginning, trapped in a cave. But I think everyone can learn, with mutual feedback, how to step out of that cave. They can learn how to understand each others’ experiences. Maybe not perfectly, maybe not fully, but I truly believe as Greg Graffin says in Anarchy Evolution that we can surpass our limited mind and engage with each other’s.

      Now, as to whether or not people NEED to change: That’s obviously a complicated discussion, and it’s almost useless talking about it in the abstract because it’s obviously specific to an individual dyad (one person trying to help and another person reacting to that).

      When people are hurting each other, they should stop. There, the impetus is moral and also self-interested.

      But when someone’s unhappy? It’s not a matter of changing for other peoples’ experience, but so they are happy.

      Human beings want to be happy. We want to be fulfilled, serene and calm. We want to have our needs met. When we can’t do that, that’s a problem and we should work on fixing it.

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