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allegory of the cave: the dialectic of the image is thus

Plato: The Line. From The Republic of Plato (Cornford translation, Oxford University Press). We can credit Plato with the idea of “seeing is believing,” as he placed Visible Things in the World of Appearances squarely into the category of Belief.

I first read Plato’s Republic in high school during my senior year, just months before I moved to the East Village with some friends back in the late 1970’s. It was a great entry to so many things: philosophy in general; political philosophy in particular; ideas about government; ethics—and a fascinating look into the politics of the past. It sparked many lively discussions among us 17 year olds.

Since, I’ve reread the Republic many times in whole and in part. Most recently with a study group where we read it aloud to each other while we compared and debated the meaning among our various translations. Through the differences in the translations, we tried to imagine the meaning that lay behind the original archaic Greek (not that any of us sitting there could even attempt the Greek, mind you). We persisted with our various translations, even though we realized that this was an impossible task: we live in a very different culture and live in such different times. Hasn’t the meanings that underpin the language changed? Hasn’t the culture that informs us gone through radical transformations? But still, on the other hand, how much has human nature really shifted through these short millennia? And when we looked closely at the text and tried to discuss a close reading of it, how quickly does contemporary language itself become slippery and evasive? Meeting once a week for an hour, it took several years to complete the task of going through the entire book. I still could not claim to be expert in its contents.

In the preface to my book Oculus, I spend a bit of time talking about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which appears in The Republic. I would like to share that excerpt here with you:

II  Images and Knowledge

We commonly say, ‘seeing is believing.’ And while this may be true, to see or recognize something is not to know the thing itself. Images and the visual world they reference are only a start, an entry point towards cognition—a seduction that can eventually lead us towards an idea. Over two dozen centuries ago Plato offered that we live in a world of appearances and the dancing shadows we perceive mask a true reality beyond the image of things. Plato understood our lives to be full of illusions; what we see of the world should not be taken at face value. A chair may look like a chair and we may all identify it as a chair, but another, different looking chair is also called a chair. A chair could take an infinite number of shapes and still clearly be a chair. This is true because we have a mental image of a chair apart from the appearance of any one particular chair. Plato believed that this knowledge of ‘chair-ness’ is purer and more ‘true’ than any chair that could possible be created to exist in the world. We recognize it as a chair only because it mimics an aspect of the pure form of the idea of what a chair is. Plato believed everything exists in its pure form in the realm of ideas, but we perceive only an aspect, a glimmer of this ‘world of forms’ reflected in the material world that surrounds us. His allegory of the cave takes this concept further. It equates our existence to that of someone in a dark cave, chained to a rock, able to see in only one direction. It is from this confined place that we see the light of the ‘true’ world projected as images—dancing shadows—thrown onto a wall in front of us. We only know of the other unseen world of ‘forms’ from its moving shadows. And this shadow-image-world we believe to be reality, only because we know no other. To Plato, the visual world, the world of images, the world of appearances, enslaves us. This metaphor can be useful, if we don’t take it too literally. An image of something doesn’t function as the thing itself; it is a referent, pointing us in a direction towards an idea. We needn’t fixate solely on the image, but strive to understand the idea that the image points us toward. In this reading, we can see the image take the guise of Flusser’s ‘image as map.’ To believe solely in the image is to believe in a falsity, a phantom, and a mirage. I’ve included a graphical representation of Plato’s allegory of the cave at the back of this book.You will note that Plato laid out plainly, centuries ago, that ‘seeing is believing,’ but knowing is something of quite a different order.(see the graphic at the head of this blog entry)

And so, here we are, centuries later, still postulating our conceptions. The difficulty, it seems to me, is to know exactly where the image ends and knowledge begins. This I know for certain: that surety will never arrive, and the question of knowledge will be an ongoing and personal project. Images will constitute a large part of that discussion, if only because man is the measure of most things, as well as the one doing the measuring. Image creation is such an innate part of our humanity I’d say it’d be nearly impossible to conceive of an experiential universe without also being at its conceptual center, projecting and inhabiting images that we use to negotiate the world with, and, quite honestly, delight in. So the understanding of our waking world, a world complete with dreams and illusions that insinuate themselves into our psyche, which are incessant, insistent and inconsistent; that torture us and give us hope, is the world we are compelled to decipher. That is our human reality and our human condition: The reality that presents itself to us, as well as the reality that has meaning for us, is a world inclusive of its images.

The dialectic of the image is thus: Just as images can be expansive, they can become limiting as well. Just as they can point us in new directions, they can close us off to understanding the realities we must confront. Just as they can allow us to see that which was not formerly apparent or approachable, they can blind us to the truth and isolate us. They contain an implicit promise of both falsity and possibility. And it is up to each of us to decide what the image signifies, for even a single image can contain all possibilities, all at once.

Plato saw images as a step beneath the world of visible things. More from Oculus:

The Line: the four stages of cognition (illustration top of the page) by Plato:

The chart is divided down the center: on the left are objects, which have corresponding mental states, found on the right. The bottom half of the chart concerns the visible world and the top half of the chart concerns aspects of intelligent thought. As we move up in the chart, each realm of cognition represents a deepening clarity over the preceding stage of cognition. The first two stages of cognition occur in the visible realm, The World of Appearances, with images being the lowest form of cognition. Imagining, found on the right side of the chart, is a corresponding mental manifestation of images. As we go up, visible things whose mental correspondence is Belief, as in, ‘seeing is believing,’ follow this. Higher, we enter into the realm of abstract thinking, The Intelligible World, with no direct correspondence to the visual world. The first of these is Mathematical objects. We know what numbers are, can identify amounts, yet numbers are an abstraction and only exist as mental objects (even if we can ‘manipulate’ them). Thinking is the mental state that corresponds to Mathematical objects. The highest stage of cognition is Forms. When we understand the form of an idea, we have knowledge of that thing. The example I gave in the preface was the idea of chair-ness, as opposed to the physical manifestation of a chair. Intelligence or Knowledge is the deepest comprehension we can have and represents the highest form of cognition.

The Allegory of the Cave elicits all kinds of odd interpretations and treatments. Here are a few that I found on Youtube—that time suck repository of animals doing cute things: one an animated version narrated by Orson Welles, one a discussion of four dimensional hypercubes in a ten dimensional universe by an adherent of superstring theory, and if you haven’t heard of the three minute philosophy series—I think it’s quite a funny treat… You get the idea. The Allegory of the Cave is a metaphor that’s proven compelling over the centuries. Its meaning has been debated and interpreted countless times.

Three Minute Philosophy: Plato

Animation narrated by Orson Welles

Fourth dimensional hypercubes and the allegory of the cave


Allegory of the Cave in the Matrix

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is retarded by zombiemouse

awesomeness, eh? More about Oculus.

About kenschles

Ken Schles is the author of Invisible City (1988; reprint 2015 and 2016), The Geometry of Innocence (2001), A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads (2007), Oculus (2011) and Night Walk (2015 and 2016). His work has been nominated for the Deutsche Börse Prize, exhibited by The Museum of Modern Art, noted by the New York Times Book Review, cited in histories of the medium (Parr/Badger, Auer & Auer, 10x10 American Photobooks) and issued by some of the foremost publishers of our time (Steidl, Hatje Cantz, Twelvetrees Press). They're considered “intellectual milestones in photography” (Süddeutsche Zeitung), “hellishly brilliant” (The New Yorker). Ken Schles’ work is included in private and public collections such as The Museum of Modern Art, The Rijksmuseum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museo d"Arte Contemporanea (MACRO) Testaccio Museum, and more than 100 other museum and library collections world-wide. 
 Ken Schles is a NYFA Fellow. http://www.kenschles.com


7 thoughts on “allegory of the cave: the dialectic of the image is thus

  1. Dear Ken; good to catch up and see your zones of thought. Looking forward to seeing Occulus and other publications I may have missed.

    Posted by Stephen Lack | August 2, 2011, 4:02 pm
  2. You could certainly see your enthusiasm in the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

    Posted by pozycjonowanie stron | January 28, 2012, 1:37 am
  3. Very interesing blog.

    Posted by zegarki Tissot | February 6, 2012, 11:34 am
  4. I do believe all the suggestions you’ve presented for your post. They’re quite convincing and can undoubtedly work. Still, the posts are very quick for novices. Could you please lengthen them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

    Posted by Sandy Orndorff | February 8, 2012, 8:28 pm


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