Rob van Gerwen's | Welcome | Teaching | Research | Contact | Weblog | Sitemap | Consilium Philosophicum

Research: | Bibliography | Resume | Directions | Download | Dim Lit Philosophy
Weblog | Dim Lit Philosophy | Kort Commentaar | Teaching | Technical

Rob van Gerwen

December 12, 2011

Index Supervenience Agency Lanzmann's ban Propaganda Cave Gaze
Grammar Memory Schopenhauer Art practice Music Art's Morale Issues

Philosophical Directions
The effort of understanding

Plato's Cave

Abstract of the argument on this page

Plato's myth of the cave is standardly interpreted as metaphorically presenting the reality of the world of Forms, as well as a scepticism regarding the world of appearance and opinion.

One day I would like, instead, to analyse it as a curious description of how real people perceive the world, and of how doing that polymodally (i.e., with all the senses one is equipped with) proves the reality of the perceived.

Philosophers' goodwill undue

For some time now I have been wondering about the goodwill Plato's myth of the cave has encountered among philosophers: as if the myth had provided a nice illustration of people's flawed cognitive access to the world.
I do not, here, argue with Plato's overall theory of the Ideas, of his psychology of knowledge. Yet, it seems to me that this myth grossly fails its purposes.

Embodied perceivers

All that the cave myth seems to illustrate is that we perceive the world more fully and, therefore, more adequately, when we confront it with as much sense modalities as possible, i.e. when we confront it as embodied perceivers.
We might nowadays want to tell the myth with reference to the distinction between autist (posing as the captivated, sensorily restricted) people and 'normal' perceivers who see, feel, smell, hear, touch, and taste reality in five distinct modal aspects.

Primary and secondary qualities

Plato, too, if we take his myth of the cave on face value, seems to be arguing that the full-blooded perceiver sees the real world, and knows that it is real what he thus perceives, due to his polymodal access.
I am thinking, in this context, of the arguments John "Plato had an autist outlook, or did he?Locke provided in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to distinguish between primary and secondary qualities, and of the use made of these arguments by Ian Hacking in Representing and Intervening.

But he isn't

Interstingly enough, though, Plato does not apply the myth as a case in point for polymodal access to the world. In fact, the myth of the cave is exemplary of the infelicitous counterfactual. Plato left out any and all details which would enforce a different analysis from the one he wanted to get (which is, that the real world is the world of ideas, not the one of perception, and that, the philosopher who reports this alleged fact is bound to meet disbelief by plain people, aggression even).
A non-biased analysis of the myth of the cave produces the insight that only with the help of all our perceptual bodily functions --both cognitive and muscular-- are we going to produce real knowledge about the world. Literally, there is no hint in the myth of reasoning faring better in this than the senses do, on the contrary. It is not difficult to realize how much those who are in chains will have to reason to make sense of the lack of coherence in what they are perceiving, as opposed to the one who is liberated, who merely has to get to grips with the input of his senses.
Plato, in this myth, dug his philosophical grave,


The idea that access to some event from the point of view of more than one of the sense modalities proves the reality (not the nature) of the event perceived, comes from the realization that each of our senses structures reality in incompatible manner. The space of sight is what is in front of one's seeing eyes and it is restricted to the first impermeable "Olfactory space is a cloud surrounding our headsobject encountered. Visual space can be as large as the starry heaven, but let us take the restricted space of a room as our example. Hearing structures space in a miraculously distinct manner: we do not hear most of the things that we can see, such as the walls or the ceiling, let alone the colours of things. Only few things reside in audible space, but they are not bound to the space of our room. We can hear cars on the street, and hear in what direction they are passing, even though they are invisible. Audible space will not be as large as the starry heavens. Most of what happens even in our solar system is inaudible. Olfactory space is a cloud surrounding our heads, so it is very narrow. On top it is sticky, it tends to move along with your head. It is therefore difficult to use the smells that reach our noses to locate certain events. What might help is input from the tactile sense from, e.g. the direction the wind is blowing. The tactile sense tells us things about the narrow space our body is taking in: the floor under out feet, the pen in our hands. Tactile space is not sticky. Lastly, the taste of our mouth is instructive only when something is taken in literally: the space of tasty food is confounded to the space of our mouth, it must conform to that space, only then to be consumed.

Proving reality by polymodality

Polymodal access proves something's reality, as follows: it is impossible that two of our senses, assuming they structure space so vastly distinctly, can both be fooled in a singular manner by the circumstances, i.e. by such variously constructed spaces.

Polymodality is of the essence

Polymodality, the synchronous perception of the world through several of our senses, is of the essence of many things. Perception is by an embodied agent, and what is perceived is a reality an embodied agent can move in (Gibson, McDowell). Through it the reality of the perceived is proven (Locke and Hacking). The principle of acquaintance says that works of art, though they address a limited amount of our senses, and address it without implying the addressed to be morally required to interfere, are to be perceived by yourself (Kant, Wollheim): but why?


It has seemed that the reproduction of music (digitally, preferably) has emancipated music from the importance of performance: you do not need to see the musician to appreciate their music. Or, at a concert, performers may divert you from listening properly.
Yet, music might also be approached differently: from the point of view of sensuous synchronicity. Seeing a musician produce the sounds that make up the music teaches one exactly the visual, processual nature of sounds. Scruton argues for the importance of performance via an circuitous argument about the ontology of sound. According to Scruton we cannnot hear in the sound the event that caused it, because sounds are not in the space where the visual things are---such as the ones that cause sounds. (I have argued against this.)


Hearing the sound of a hammer, means hearing someone hammer something in something---small nails in thin wood, large nails in massive wood, bumps in metal, what have you. The sound informs us of the events that cause it. And listening to music while watching it being performed, teaches such synchronous connnections.

Farmed Out Perception

When we perceive, we perceive polymodally. When we farm out our perceptions to the world, we do it polymodally. When we retrieve what we once farmed out to the world, in a memory, in our associations, we do it polymodally. Only real-life polymodal perception, of course, proves reality. But the synchronicity of real-life polymodal perception is retained in our conceptions, in our blueprints of the world, those that we fill in with the details received through our sense organs.


Polymodality explains the difference between our reciprocal understanding of another's facial expression (as opposed to that of a depicted one, which is not perceived polymodally, but non-egocentrically), and, hence, it explains its crucial role in the evolution of a species.

Global Scepticism

We can be sceptical about our cognitive powers with regard to reality, but that is because cognition is conceived of as off-line, i.e. a processing of data, disconnected from the polymodally perceived. There is no similar need to be sceptical about polymodal perception. Our doubts should be asymmetrical.
Descartes argued that we cannot know for sure whether or not we are dreaming, perhaps he is right here. Yet, we can make out whether we are perceiving, because perception is polymodal, and the data provided by each of the senses synchronously fit those of the other.

Molyneux's Problem

William Molyneux (1656-98) responded to Locke's theory of primary and secondary qualities by sending him a puzzle about a man born blind gaining sight:
A Man, being born blind, and having a Globe and a Cube, nigh of the same bigness, committed into his Hands, and being taught or Told, which is Called the Globe, and which the Cube, so a easily to distinguish them by his Touch or Feeling; Then both being taken from Him, and Laid on a Table, let us suppose his Sight Restored to Him; Whether he Could, by his sight, and before he touch them, know which is the Globe and which the Cube? Or Whether he could know this by sight, before he stretched out his Hand, whether he Could not Reach them, tho they were Removed 20 or 1000 feet from him.
Locke's response is disappointing: he argues that the man cannot visually distinguish the two because vision works with two dimensional flat patches of light which must be correlated to tactile forms, and without touch he would have no clue how to do that. Berkeley argues that since "the ideas of sight and touch are radically heterogeneous, connected only by contingent correlations known through sense experience.'' (Lievers) the man cannot see the forms.
Leibniz argues how the man can work out which is which by comparing the geometrical forms.
Leibniz is phenomenologically more correct than Locke, it seems to me, but he seems not to say much about how he reconciles the distantial differences. (Of course, I would have to check his text to make sure). Apparently, the now seeing man would be troubled making sense of the measure of the objects if they were put in a far distance. He could not quickly deliver the reconciliation that comes with a distnatial sense such as sight. How would he know that the tree at the end of the lane is approximately as large as the one he is leaning against? Surely, he would perceive an immensely small tree?

Extended Mind

This is the tip of the iceberg of how our mind is an Extended Mind. Extended Mind is not the use of utensils and artefacts that might be built in in some near future, such as calculators or notebooks (to be built in in the near future by implanting chips in the brain) (Clark). Extended Mind is not just the use of external vehicles of meaning, it is the expanding of whatever happens in our minds into reality, but in such manner that the expanding is no added on contingency, but an integral component of what we might conceive of as happening in the mind. More to follow.

Phenomenal awareness

This leaves out of the picture the phenomenal quality of what is thus proven to exist, since each of the senses is also characterized in terms of a specific and incompatible phenomenal awareness: colours for vision, tastes for taste, smells for the nose, sounds for hearing, and tactile data. There is no way we could translate something's colour into a sound, without first setting up some elaborate conventional system which merely proofs the point of intranslatability.

Synaesthetic perceptive powers

Olivier Messiaen, supposedly, was blessed with synaesthetic perceptive powers: he could hear the colours of things. Maybe. How could he explain to people who cannot hear colours what it means to hear a colour, let alone what sounds to hear in the case of a certain colour? In his case, no conventional system of translations could be of any help. I repeat that each of the senses is characterized by a distinct phenomenal awareness.

Being in the world

This, then, is how we are in the world. Through polymodal access, and the continuous process of proving the existence of things and events that surround us, and of continuous checking and re-checking the phenomenal nature of things so encountered. In all, as embodied perceivers.

Kosuth's One and Three chairs (1965)

Joseph Kosuth's One and Three chairs (orig: 1965) consists of a chair, a photograph of a chair and a text from a vocabulary defining 'chair'. Which of these three was the 'One' chair?
It is easy to interpret this work as a comment on Plato's dismissal of painting as at a double remove from the real world of the ideas (Politeia, book X). According to Plato, a carpenter, when manifacturing a chair, will try to apply his knowledge of the idea, the essence, of chair (his conceptual highness Chairness), however limited his insight therein, so as to produce a thing which actually "participates" in that Idea. The individual chairs that we see around us, are thus at one remove from the idea Chair; they are not real in the sense of eternally there. In contrast, individual chairs come and go and only their essence, the Idea chair, remains eternally the same. Only the idea is real.
A painter, it is argued, will pick merely one of those individual chairs and depict that: the result is at a double remove from the idea. [Schopenhauer thought that the artist, even more perhaps than the carpenter takes the idea into account---but that is a different story.]
Also, Plato argues, the artist is like one who holds up a mirror and, turning it around, thinks he is producing images of the world.

Plato's autistic model of perception

The autism which Plato attributes to the plain people that are chained to the floor---they necessarily fail to integrate the data of alll of their sensuous powers as embodied---provides a bad model for perception.
We, i.e. 'normal' perceivers, cannot sensuously separate the input of our distinct senses, we only can conceptually. [Think of the unperturbed autist with normal hearing powers, who is making a drawing when a gun is shot next to him, and does not even look up.];
we cannot have the data of a singular sensuous system (or: sense) enter our minds indiscriminately like a scientific measuring machine can: all equally loud or visible on a quantifiable scale [some autists have this 'capability', hence their fits of rage in situations with too much input of a certain kind, such as a noisy railway station hall.] When no semantic differentiation filters the data before perception, it becomes impossible to single out those data that are meaningfull to the organism. We find a similar autist outlook on perception in Daniel Dennett, and a critique similar to mine on that outlook in John McDowell;
we cannot process sensuous data irrespective of our linguistic competences [when we take in a landscape in order to draw it, and when, later, we draw it, we do not act as a scanner would---cf. Temple Grandin, who does. See: Oliver Sacks.] We cannot perceive meaningless dots and lines, or sounds, but immediately perceive buildings, cars, people. Perceiving people means attributing inherent lives to them, moral lives at that. Empathy is part and parcel of such linguistic competence.
The reason why our arts treat their audiences as if they were all suffering from autism, shows the origin of the arts in our representations.

Martin Heidegger on Plato's cave

Some day, these thoughts on Plat's myth of the cave were to result in an article.
What set me back was the realization that Martin Heidegger had given a series of interesting lectures on the subject, in Vom Wesen der Wahrheit, Erster Teil, Frankfurt, 1997, pp. 21-148. His thoughts are so much in line with mine, and yet so distinct from them due to Heideggerianisms, that I felt obliged to first study this book, before embarking on my own article.

David Hockney's cave

Having said this, I shall keep sharing my dim lit thoughts on the subject.
For one, the documentary that was produced about David Hockney's recent book Secret Knowledge ends with two interesting shots. First, we are shown a sight from a subway driver's point of view; a sight constrained by a rigid linear perspective. [This comes after a long, sophisticated and well researched argument against the view on the world that is offered by linear perspective, and in favour of a view offered by the multiplicity of perspectives in - wrongly called - Flamish Primitives, such as Jan van Eyck]. Right after that, we are shown a black screen with a white rectangle in the middle. Under the guidance of Hockney's voice-over which relates of a bright future lying ahead, we are led into the blinding light at the end of the tunnel - much like what the escaped philosopher in Plato's cave myth was confronted with when he exited the dark cave to stare in the bright sunlight. Except, with Hockney, the argument seems to be exclusively about representation, not perception.

What Plato is up against

What Plato is up against in his objection to art, becomes clear in Politiea, Book X, 599a: he objects here against people who take a representation for what it represents.
[We can still connect with this objection as a warning at being too naive about news or documentary footage.]

Plato in practice

There is, also, something paradoxical about Plato's thinking. For one, his cave myth can be read as a Foucauldian tale showing how difficult it is when you have grown up bereaved of the right sorts of influences, to find a language to express your innermost thoughts. [This theme recurs, too, in Hume's parable of Sancho Panza's kinsmen]. Foucault put this struggle of the underprivileged for a language of their own centre stage. But Plato's cave men aren't socially deprived, but epistemologically.

Hence, on the other hand, Plato's succumbing to idealism. Hence, and here is the paradox, the pretence to return into the cave and show the others how things really stand. [this theme certainly does not recur in Hume---or Foucault for that matter.]

This is a philosophical paradox, though and a nice way to bring it out is by looking at contemporary musical platonism. (Kivy, Dodd).
What good is it, to argue that beautiful melodies, etc. are found, not created, and that they have an eternal existence (Dodd)? Surely that would mean that ugly melodies too, are already there, in music heaven, or what, and everything in between the good and the ugly ones. Composers who look to heaven to find the 'right' (?) melodies would still do nothing different from writing a composition.
One who denies that this is the case should provide a criterion to establish whether or not some piece already exists or not. Surely, referring to Platonic essences will not be of help, just because that merely begs the question.


Dennett, Daniel Clement. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. Dodd, Julian. 2000. “Musical Works as Eternal Types.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 40:424-40. Heidegger, Martin: Vom Wesen der Wahrheit, Erster Teil, 1-148. Frankfurt, Vittorio Klosterman, 1997. (Vorlesung, Wintersemester 1931/32). Essence of Truth: On Plato's Parable of the Cave (Athlone Contemporary European Thinkers) by Martin Heidegger, Ted Sadler (Translator) Hardcover - June 2002 Hockney, David: Secret Knowledge. Rediscovering the Techniques of the Old Masters.Thames & Hudson, 2001. (summary; a discussion forum) Hume, David. 1985. “Of the Standard of Taste.” In Essays Moral Political and Literary, 226-250. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. online. Kivy, Peter. 2004. “Platonism in Music: A Kind of Defense.” In Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. The Analytic Tradition, edited by Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen, 92-102. Oxford, etc.: Blackwell Publishing. McDowell, John. 1998a. “The content of perceptual experience.” In Mind, Value, & Reality, 341-58. Cambridge, Mass and London, England: Harvard University Press. Plato. 1988. Republic 10. Edited by Stephen Halliwell. Translated by Stephen Halliwell. Warminster, Wiltshire, England: Aris & Phillips Ltd.
Or check the Jowett translation, online Book VII (Cave myth), Book X (on Art).