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Theory of Knowledge: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

We See and Understand Things Not As They Are But As We Are

The assessment of knowledge as a subjective or objective entity can be seen as a question that is haunting humanity since the ancient times. Taking Plato’s allegory of the cave, where people chained since childhood to watch the shadows played on the wall, perceived these shadows as their reality, while for the prisoner who escaped the cave the reality outside was different. In that regard, such statement as “We see and understand things not as they are but as we are” investigates knowledge issues that can be linked to Plato’s allegory, with the exception that in the case of the allegory, the way people saw and understood things was wrong, and thus the main issue can be seen in the extent to which such statement can be true and to which Areas of Knowledge it is applicable. In that regard, the statement apparently requires further investigation, specifically in the context of such aspect as the real nature of things, and its relation to understanding.

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In order to analyze the statement in this paper, it should be outlined what ways of knowing are meant. Seeing and understanding cannot be related to only the physical sense of sight, while understanding can be seen as a broad term in that matter. Perception can b e defined as the response of the organism to senses. In that regard, although “see” is derived from only one sense, the meaning implied is attached to all the sense, forming the perception.

Analyzing the perception and subjective or objective reality, an example of differences between people as agents, can be demonstrated through cultural context. For example, taking such animal as a cow in Hindu culture and in the western culture, the anatomical and the physical essence of what the cow represents remains the same. However, the perception of the animal is changed due to changes in ourselves, where for some it is a holy animal, while for others it is a provider of milk and meat. In both cases the nature of knowing is a significant factor, i.e. faith and belief in the case of Hindu culture, and knowledge in the case of western culture.

Other examples related to perception, which might lead to differentiation of its matter between different people, might include a symbolic, seen by other as a symbol of peace and for others as a symbol of war, a word, implying different meanings for different people, a smell and etc. It can be seen that such differentiation can be linked to the limitations of perception, which makes it a subjective way of knowing in itself, and accordingly the differentiation in the range of the sensory capabilities of the people as well as the differentiation in their background and their culture.

Linking perception to the allegory of the cave, the real nature of the object was shadows resulted from moving dolls in front of a fire, while theses shadows were perceived differently. The prisoners saw the shadows as reality, while the escaped prisoners saw them as they are, i.e. shadows. In that regard, the true nature of the objects did not influence the reason of such difference. Thus, taking the first part of the statement of seeing things differently, such claim cannot be more agreed with and understood.

Understanding things can be related to another ways of knowing, which is reasoning and logic. Reasoning can be seen as a chain of arguments that support or lead to the knowledge. In that regard, rephrasing the statement in this paper, it can be said that differences in who we are makes us use reasoning differently and accordingly obtain different knowledge. Following such statement, it can be said that an examination of the factors that influence the way the arguments used can be helpful. In using logic the main basis is put on two factors, which are innate ideas and a priori knowledge. Innate ideas can be defined as those that are present since birth, and does not require proof, such as food fending off hunger, the changing sequence of day and night, etc. A priory knowledge can be defined as the existent knowledge used in the argument, and which was acquired prior to the experience. In that regard, differences in a priori knowledge can lead to different reasoning and accordingly to different results, assuming that the innate ideas are similar.

Linking to the allegory, the difference between the prisoners in the cave and the prisoner who escaped in the knowledge the a priori knowledge that they have. The escaped prisoners know that there is a fire, he knows that putting an object in front of the fire will send a shadow on a nearby surface, therefore he concluded that the shadows on the wall are merely reflections. Similarly, the prisoners only see the shadows, the do not know of the fire, therefore their knowledge and conclusion differ. Accordingly it can be stated that the preference for reasoning is not only dependant on the existence of certain knowledge or its absence, but also on personal characteristics, based on which the inclination toward the reasoning process implemented, i.e. generalization, assumption deduction, etc.

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A pessimistic person and an optimistic person will differ in their chain of logic in reaching a conclusion, a simple example can be seen in the consideration of whether the glass is half full or half empty. The same can go for the culture, age, religion, mood, and other factors, which might the phrase “as we are “ constitutes. In all of these instances the reached conclusion will be true, regardless of the true nature of the objects, and will remain true unless proven otherwise.

Applying this statement to different ways of knowing, the analysis might require applying different meanings of the word “things” the statement. For example, if the knowledge implies characteristic of an object, a theory in science, etc. If taking a basic kind of knowledge such as description of a visual object, it can be stated that differences in visual perception will lead to different perception of the object itself. Optical illusions, terminology of the colors, personal characteristics and other factors will lead to that the object will be perceived differently. If taking a history as an example, the same can be true, where the same historical event can be interpreted differently, and stated as a fact.

In the case of the latter, an example can be seen in wars, where belonging to a certain side nationally, a person might justify and accept the knowledge that supports his/her side. The Arab-Israeli conflict can be used as an example in that matter, where there are certain known or unknown facts that happened historically, whereas the knowledge on these facts differs substantially between each party. Accordingly, the differences might be seen in such aspect as nationality, geographical location, religion, and even ethnicity.

All of the aforementioned can be applicable to such areas of knowledge as history, and even arts. Taking such are of knowledge as natural science the meaning of “things” in the statement might imply theories, scientific findings and other related areas of scientific knowledge. It can be argued that the proven theories were facts and thus, the differences in the way “we are” would not have changed such facts.

However, it should be stated that in addition to that many theories were either modified or proven wrong, a process that continues with each new detail of knowledge acquired, the scientists themselves are people who differ among themselves, and thus the human factor is inevitably present in each theory proven or finding reached. The same human factor was used in the any of the ways of knowledge used to reach a specific conclusion, whether it was perception, reason, or others. If fallacies that can be made in the way knowledge is perceived are different from person to person, then knowledge reached can differ as well.

Another type of “things” can be seen in ethical questions, where there is no absolute certainty in whether a specific statement is true or false, in that regard, the statement “not as they are but as we are” is true, specifically considering that they way the “things really are” is not defined. For example, a moral dilemma in such aspects abortion and euthanasia will have different opinions regardless of the area of knowledge related to such subject. Thus, it can be stated that the nature of the objects examined and observed does not influence the way we see and understand things as much as the differences in ourselves.

It can be concluded that in every case examined, that differences in people influenced the way the knowledge is perceived. Although, in many cases the nature of the object itself did not alter such difference, it can be stated that the knowledge for the people in general is influenced by both the nature and the people. Plato’s allegory is a good example in showing the distinction in which objects can be perceived, as well as showing that such question represents an old philosophical debate. Showing different ways of knowledge it can be seen that in both of them the human factor was an influence, where such influence can be related to personal characteristics, differences in culture, and even differences in the people’s mood and state of mind. Nevertheless, the statement that “we see and understand things not as they are but as we are” does not necessarily imply that the reality is a variable, rather than that the reality can be differently perceived.

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Works Cited

Kreis, Steven. “Plato, the Allegory of the Cave”. 2000. The History Guide. Web.

PhilosophyOnline. “Innate Ideas and a Priori Knowledge”. 2009. Philosophy Online. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 23). Theory of Knowledge: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/theory-of-knowledge-platos-allegory-of-the-cave/

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 23). Theory of Knowledge: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. https://studycorgi.com/theory-of-knowledge-platos-allegory-of-the-cave/

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Theory of Knowledge: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave'. 23 November.

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