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The Reflection of Metaphysics and Epistemology with Plato's Allegory of the Cave

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Plato, born circa 428 B.C.E, was a prominent ancient Greek philosopher. A teacher of Aristotle and student of Socrates, Plato’s writings explored justice, beauty and equality but also contained discussions of political philosophy and theology.

Plato’s most famous work is The Republic, a Socratic dialogue written around 375 BC and targets the questions “what is justice?” and “what is the relation between justice and happiness?”. Also, within the republic is Plato’s theory of the forms which is the “account of a realm of abstract reality to be apprehended by the intellect – a realm ‘above and beyond’ the ordinary world of particular objects that we perceive by the senses”.

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Within this theory, Plato conveyed the idea of two worlds, the finite world and the infinite world. Plato proposed that the finite world is one in which we reside, which is imperfect. In contrast, the infinite world is one which consists of all the perfect forms that exist, through reflections that are projected into the finite world. An example of this may be in the form of beauty, which could be reflected in the finite world as a flower. Essentially, the finite world aspires to reproduce the perfect infinite world. Plato also proposed that the recognition of the forms such as beauty in the finite world occurs because our souls have been to the infinite world before we are born into the finite world, this is also known as anamnesis. Therefore, it has been proposed that we recollect things and apply them to the finite world. There are many other forms which exist alongside beauty. These are in a hierarchal form, which includes the ‘good’ (the highest form), ‘higher forms’, ‘lower forms’, material objects and images.

To explain this theory in more depth, Plato hypothesised the ‘Allegory of the cave’ story. This is a narrated conversation between Plato’s teacher Socrates and his brother, Glaucon. In the allegory, the theory of forms is represented by prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads, subsequently meaning that they have not experienced anything beforehand. All they can see is a wall in front of them which is lit by a fire which burns behind them. Behind the prisoners is a walkway where puppeteers hold up puppets to cast shadows on the cave wall. The casted shadows and noises and echoes are coming from objects which they cannot see. These prisoners would perceive these shadows to be real, and in order to truly understand the shadows, one must escape and make the journey out of the cave. When a prisoner leaves the cave, they will see true reality in the form of the outside world and so have sought true knowledge – this is a metaphor for a philosopher which has access to knowledge. Whilst in the outside world, the prisoner gets blinded by the sun, the highest of all forms and is also the form of good as it makes things visible. Once the prisoner has adapted to the outside world they return, with the knowledge they have gathered with the goal of educating the other prisoners. However, upon return, the escaped prisoner is greeted with persecution by the remaining prisoners as being idiotic or speaking nonsense, this was emphasised by the fact that the escaped prisoner had difficulty adjusting to the darkness, this is a metaphor as to when truth has been found, it is difficult to go back to old ways of thinking.

This supports Plato’s theory of Forms because it shows that an escaped prisoner can understand reality, much like we as individuals can understand our world if we continue to pursue philosophical knowledge. However, those that have not experienced this and have not developed a new way of thinking will criticise the individuals who have. This is like the criticism Socrates experienced which he had to endure, ultimately leading to his death via execution.

Plato’s ontological and epistemological view of the universe can be described using a visual metaphor known as the divided line. This line is divided into two parts: the intelligible realm or world of the forms, and the visible realm or the world of appearances. Plato believed that the closer you were to the intelligible realm the closer you got to truth and reality, therefore, the closer you got to the visible realm, you were least likely to get to the truth and reality. Each of these two realms can be sub-divided giving us four realms of being and cognition. The visible realm can be split into the lower region which is belief or objects such as animals and man-made objects and the higher region is illusion which are images such as shadows and reflections. The intelligible realm consists of intelligence or pure ideas which includes philosophy and forms, and mathematical reasoning which includes geometry and mathematical forms. These four realms represent the ontological hierarchy of Plato’s metaphysics.

It is generally considered that Plato’s work has been the staple of philosophy ever since its creation. As a result, there hasn’t been many people that have opposed his fundamental ideas and theories. It comes as a surprise that the person who opposed Plato the most was his student Aristotle. Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s view of Forms and saw the existence of two worlds unnecessary for explaining our reality. Aristotle believed that the physical world is the real world and there is no need for a World of Forms to help us understand things, he believed that as we grow up, we develop an understanding of different theories and concepts. Aristotle also believed that we can divide the physical world into two things, these are Primary Beings and Secondary Qualities. For example, a tree is a primary being but the branches on the tree are secondary qualities.

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