"Compare and contrast Plato’s allegory of the cave (in terms of the concern with the difference between appearances and reality) with Descartes’ systematic doubt of external reality in the Meditations."
Descartes and Plato are two of the most influential thinkers within philosophy. The allegory of the cave and systematic doubt are also two of the most famous concepts within philosophy. Plato at the time of writing the cave allegory was trying to resist the growing influence of the Sophist philosophers who prioritised semantics and rhetoric over truth.1 Descartes by introducing radical scepticism to philosophy was challenging traditional scholastic philosophy which had dominated the philosophy for many centuries. While both pieces of writing are separated by different ages of time and space, they share many similarities as well as fundamental differences. This essay will attempt to compare and contrast these two bodies of work by firstly explaining what is Descartes’ systematic doubt and Plato’s Allegory of the cave before finally examining the similarities and differences between them in the final paragraph of analysis. Descartes in his first meditation introduces the concept of Radical doubt which similarly places suspicion on the senses and the appearance of things. This involves stripping away all one’s beliefs and preconceived notions in order to find the foundational bedrock of knowledge in which all sciences could then grow2. Descartes begins his first meditation by casting doubt on all his beliefs, if a belief can be even slightly doubted it must be discarded. He wants to ‘reject as absolutely false anything in which I could imagine the least amount of doubt3’ this is called radical scepticism where all beliefs must be challenged. Through this experiment Descartes conceded that the physical senses are not to be trusted as they have deceived him before, this is known as sensory deception and this revelation forces him to doubt any beliefs about the external world and knowledge that is gathered by the five senses. His examination also reveals that dreams states can be difficult to distinguish between waking life, this has happened before where he thought he was in bed but wasn’t. Henceforth one cannot truly know if they are awake observing reality or asleep enjoying a dream, this is known as the dream hypothesis. Descartes also uncovers the evil demon hypothesis whereby all external reality observed may be just an illusion that is perpetrated by an evil demon seeking to deceive him, also there is the problem that all previous memories about oneself could simply just be imagination and not grounded in any reality. The system of radical doubt leads Descartes into murky territory where he cannot believe in the existence of anything at all. This thankfully is changed when he discovers the cogito’ I think therefore I am’, his starting point which saves him from uncertainty, allowing him to prove that he exists. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, there are prisoners who are locked up within the depths of a cave. All day long, they are situated in front of a wall and behind them is a fire which reflects shadows on the wall. Unbeknownst to the prisoners, there are puppeteers who use the firelight to reflect shadows of their puppets upon the wall while making noises ‘the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows’4. The prisoners are unaware of this illusion and mistakenly believe these shadows are real images. One day, a prisoner is released from his chains and allowed to walk freely about the cave. Although it is confusing for him to see the puppets and fire, he is forced to accept this clearer version of reality and eventually ascents through the cave, spending a day and night under the sun and the stars. As he becomes familiar with the world above, he realises the sun is the giver of light, how it casts shadows and how his prior life in...
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