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On Philosophizing Part III

In the last instalment, we presented a preliminary thesis on the meaning of philosophical peripeteia in the context of our reading of Plato’s allegory of the cave.  It was stated that the peripatetic turning toward the Truth (of what is, of being) is the turning of true philosophy (the truthful turning to Truth).  The last instalment ended with the need for the elucidation of the distinction between the way in which the fettered prisoner ‘sees’ the Truth and the way in which the liberated prisoner ‘sees’ the Truth of the day.  This distinction itself is brought into relief through an examination of the difference between the ‘day that is a kind of night’ and the ‘true day.’

It is worth noting that the ‘photo-optic’ distinction between light, shadow and the ‘night-like day’ is not unique to the Republic.  The distinctions played out in the allegory appear also in the stranger’s (the xenos) exposition of the difference between true things and copies of true things (either material or ‘dream-like’ fabrications) in Plato’s Sophist: ‘They’re shadows when darkness appears in firelight, and they’re reflections when a thing’s own light and the light of something else come together around bright, smooth surfaces and produce an appearance that looks the reverse of the way the thing looks from straight ahead’ (Sophist, 266c).  It is also worth noting that even in his later dialogues, Plato privileged the ‘day’ as the realm in which the truth of being shines most beautifully: ‘what can we behold more beautiful than day?  Later, when we come to see the night, everything appears different to our vision’ (Epinomis, 978c-d).

The point I want to underline here is the specific distinction between this ‘darkness’ that ‘appears in firelight’ – which itself is transcoded into the allegory in the form of the ‘day that is a kind of night’ – and the conjunction of the ‘thing’s own light’ with the ‘light of something else’ – which itself is echoed in the notion of the ‘true day.’  The specificity of the distinction is first based on the rejection of clear, so-called ‘binary oppositions’: the stranger and Socrates do not speak of ‘day’ and ‘night’ or ‘light’ and ‘dark’, which is to say, of unequivocal and pre-established oppositions or contradictions.  Rather, what we have are two forms of the same phenomenon; in the allegory, Socrates speaks of two kinds of day, one which resembles the night and one which is true.

Accordingly, there are two ways in which the ‘day’ is experienced.  Despite appearances, this means neither that there are two distinct days nor that there is one undifferentiated day.  It suggests that there are two ways of turning to the day.  To keep one’s thinking locked within the ‘day that is a kind of night’ does not simply amount to being imprisoned in a state of non-philosophical thinking, that is to say, to fail to engage in the task of grasping the Truth of the ‘true day.’  The prisoner that looks on the shadow (that one who observes ‘the way the thing looks from straight ahead’, as the stranger in the Sophist puts it) does not look upon the objects before him as shadows.  Rather, they look upon the Truth itself: ‘the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth (alethes) is nothing other than the shadows of those artefacts’ (ibid. 515c).

Accordingly, what is seen in the context of the night-like day (which, within the imagery of the allegory, is the cave itself) is not pure ‘error’ or pure non-being (the shadow is after all there).  It is rather the revelation of the Truth as Truth in its more simple articulation.  The distinction between the shadowy Truth and the Truth of the true day is disclosed by the thinking that can sufficiently turn toward the Truth truthfully.  The fettered prisoner fails to know the Truth since he (quite literally) cannot turn: they ‘see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning (periagein) their heads around’ (ibid. 514b).  The prisoners of the cave more, precisely, cannot turn peripatetically; and they do not, by extension, think peripatetically (if we consider Socratic peripeteia as the mode of the thinking that turns toward the truth).  And yet they nevertheless see the Truth.  This is not simply a ‘contradiction’ that Plato must overcome.  Socrates’ point here is I believe that true philosophy first emerges from the simple looking of the prisoner who takes what is given as Truth pure and simple.  This implies that true philosophy is immanent to the prisoner’s experience in the cave; it forms and unfolds in the umbrageous context and not something simply against and oppositional to the context of the ‘cave’ as a strictly enclosed reality.

From this the following can be posited: the ‘true day’ is not preliminarily the day that is merely outside the cave (although this is how it is employed allegorically) in the sense that the cave is an exclusively internal realm.  (Again, the reader must not reduce the understanding of the allegory in terms of mutually exclusive oppositions.)  The actuality of the cave itself is irrelevant in the context of the formation of the idea of peripatetic turning that I am trying to disclose.  This is implied at the very beginning of book seven.  Notwithstanding the strange and fabulous tableau the allegory sketches out, Socrates at the very outset of his telling of the tale reminds Glaucon that the prisoners are very much ‘like us’ (ibid. 515a).  The prisoners are undifferentiated from ‘us’ in that we do what they do; or more precisely: they do what we do in so far as the allegory is not a purely fantastical tale absolutely external from the reality of everyday life.

Our own thinking is, according to Socrates, internally bound up to the drama the allegory is trying to sketch out.  We are then all prisoners in a certain respect.  And the beginning of the thinking of the true day consists in the breaking free from the state of imprisonment that all thinking begins with, which is to say, the first or preliminary mode of thinking.

By Hammam


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This entry was posted on October 19, 2013 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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