Turning around

About one third of the way through The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (2009), Alison Gopnik cites the famous cave allegory in Book VII of Plato’s Republic. She does so in order to raise a couple of illustrative questions:

So how can we really know anything about the outside world? Where do our theories of the world come from and how do we get them right? (pp. 76-7)

These queries follow her claim that The Matrix (1999) “used much the same image” and “with the same impact” (p. 75). To me this is a mistake, and a telling one at that. Although Gopnik’s questions do indeed make sense in light of The Matrix, the movie makes sense as a story not because it bears a straightforward relationship to Plato’s most famous philosophical metaphor, but rather because it draws upon the dualism between mind and matter which has been a major part of modern philosophy since René Descartes and the scientific revolution. While Descartes’ spiritual-meditative rechercher de la vérité has some Platonic parallels, it seeks to establish a methodical empirical certainty over radical doubt through primary solipsistic reflection on human consciousness (the cogito). This pursuit is alien to Plato. For the mind-body problem as conceived by Descartes is a modern conundrum, not an ancient or medieval one. That explains why, in her discussion of causation, Gopnik’s references are to thinkers who followed in Descartes’ wake, such as David Hume, and not those who predate him, such as Aquinas or Aristotle.

Well, so what? Why does such precision matter? To see what I’m getting at here, perhaps a brief foray into the history of skepticism will help. First off, we must recognize that radical skepticism about the knowability of the “outside world” has a particular resonance in the modern period which makes it qualitatively different from its premodern precursors. The relationship between an individual person, society, and the world, was construed in a much more integrated, holistic, multi-levelled way in the premodern cosmos. As insufficient as this adumbrated characterization is, something like it, i.e. a sketch of the ontological background or metaphysical horizon of human existence, is necessary if we’re to make full sense of, for example, the Apostle Paul’s reference to an ecstatic experience in which he was taken to the “third heaven” in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (12:1-4). It is likewise necessary to keep a similar background in mind when trying to grasp the via negativa of mystics from pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite to Julian of Norwich. Plenty of non-Christian, non-European examples could be readily cited too. A similarly sacred cosmology is still operative for many Hindus in India. In the words of one scholar, “everything is part of a living, storied, and intricately connected landscape” (Diana Eck, India: A Sacred Geography, 2012, p. 2).

By the time we get to Descartes in seventeenth-century Europe, a series of important shifts have begun to take place, moving it further away from the ancient and medieval picture of the cosmos. To put it all too briefly, let’s say the individual was starting to become more distinguishable and detached from his or her social and cultural connections, more sharply divided from the variegated spiritual and ethical forces of the cosmos. Additionally, the imaginative conception of the cosmos was in the process of being reshaped and rearranged: it became less and less integrated, less and less hierarchical, less and less like a metaphysical version of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral, more and more immanent, more and more homogeneous, more and more governed by impersonal laws of nature, which might be controlled and manipulated and productive of industrial structures such as the Crystal Palace (built for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851). A drastically shorthanded way of putting this would be to say the sacred cosmos had become a secular universe.†

Something like the symbolic contrast this abridgement involves is at play in the fiction of Feodor Dostoevsky. The Crystal Palace is featured in the musings of the protagonist in Notes from Underground, and in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov visits a cafe called Palais de Cristal (Part II, Chapter VI). Having perused the Victorian monument to industrialization and progress when he travelled briefly to London, and after seeing it be celebrated by radical contemporary socialists with whom he vehemently disagreed, such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky seized on the Great Exhibition’s structure as the expression of much of what he detested about Europe and its Russian admirers. His troubling adherence to a nostalgic, nationalist, and even anti-Semitic vision of the history and apocalyptic role of holy Orthodox Russia, rooted in his belief in the superiority of peasant faith to the rationalism of the Westernized intelligentsia (as embodied by his literary rival Ivan Turgenev), which plays itself out in the plots of his mature novels, including especially Devils and The Brothers Karamazov, can be viewed as an oblique, if overblown, testament to the level of sacred disenchantment in nineteenth-century European secular culture.

Suffice it to say, then, modern skepticism differs from its ancient ancestor because of the intervening history, which includes a whole host of intellectual, cultural, social, and political changes, such as the scientific revolution, the Protestant reformation, the Enlightenment, and so on. This (partly) explains why Hume was a modern skeptic and not an ancient one. Hume’s skepticism was mediated by the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, by Michel de Montaigne and Pierre Bayle. He was not (just) Sextus Empiricus redivivus any more than Martin Luther or Jean Calvin reanimated the Apostle Paul unsullied. Although he was certainly inspired by ancient skepticism, what differentiates Hume from his Greek and Roman predecessors (among other things) is the fact that he also inhabited an empirical philosophical perspective. He tried to follow after both Locke and Newton by employing the “experimental method of reasoning in moral subjects,” as the subtitle of the Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) puts it. Such contextual discrepancies between ancient and modern skepticism are crucial to keep in mind. If Hume was not simply Sextus speaking English, nor was he simply a ventriloquist for Cicero. No matter how intensely he admired and sought to imitate his favoured “Tully” (as early moderns called Marcus Tullius Cicero), whose eclecticism sometimes enabled him to avow Academic skepticism (as at the end of De natura deorum), Hume’s Enlightened, “mitigated” reinvigoration was similar but not the same. A failure to see the dialectical difference that the intervening history makes forecloses on the possibility that there is a major discrepancy in these rival ways of understanding and explaining human nature and human development. This is not only of historical interest but is supremely relevant to contemporary life—including how we conceive of childhood development.

So even if some ancient Greek forms of skepticism were indeed derived from the Academy Plato founded—hence “Academic”—this should by no means lead us to approach the cave allegory as if it were primarily concerned with the philosophical warrant or investigation of sense-perception, certainly not where sense-perception is related to the mind as in Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, or Locke. Yet that is precisely what Gopnik does in The Philosophical Baby. Her takeaway from the cave allegory is first and foremost a lesson in empiricist epistemology. That is not to say that perception is not relevant to the cave allegory, of course; but even then I would argue other dialogues are more pertinent, such as the Theaetetus, which not only raises the question of how one knows whether or not one is sleeping or awake in the context of a discussion of sensory perception, but, perhaps even more relevantly, uses two other fascinating metaphors for the relationship between perception and knowledge, depicting the soul as a lump of wax and as a kind of aviary. Reading the cave allegory solely or largely in empiricist terms is as anachronistically and contextually misleading as doing the same thing with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (which from the outset subjects empiricism to dialectical critique). Both the Republic and the Phenomenology are about the pilgrimage of the human soul writ large. Neither work is sympathetic to the notion that human nature can be properly or fully grasped along empiricist lines.

The inaptness of the Matrix comparison is therefore symptomatic of a wider failure of historical and philosophical imagination on Gopnik’s part. I use the word “imagination” quite intentionally, since so much of her otherwise very interesting book is dedicated to its role in childhood development. For even fairly conventional readings of the cave allegory usually situate it in the wider Platonic program of political and philosophical education (paideia), which Socrates refers to as a kind of “turning around” (581c-d), and in which the role of dialectic is essential. After all, even a casual reader of Plato can see that Socrates spends most of his time talking to curious young adult men such as Glaucon and Adeimantus, his main interlocutors in the Republic. Frequently the nature of Socratic cross-examination is determined by the people present for the dialogue, be they the rhetorician Gorgias, the philosopher Protagoras, or Cephalus, the father of Glaucon and Adeimantus, who is subtly encouraged to leave the circle of discussion early on in the Republic, thus freeing Socrates to be more frank with the remaining interlocutors. Books II and III see Socrates narrow the circle further, silencing Polemarchus and making Thrasymachus blush in shame for being caught in a logical contradiction. Once Socrates has used the various other figures in the dialogue to make various philosophical points, he returns again to the themes of those earlier discussions, just as, once he has the full and focused attention of both Glaucon and Adeimantus, the ideal city they found in speech, which aims to embody justice, is founded and then re-founded several times. Since Gopnik’s book is about education and development and invokes Plato for the purposes of illustration, it really should have paid much closer attention to the dialectical way his dialogues are written and the more general philosophical orientation they employ.

Perhaps the feeling of explanatory power that modern science can give us has led Gopnik to be inattentive to this fact. I say that because she sometimes makes some rather hasty contrasts and comparisons which don’t really stand up to careful scrutiny. For what she is doing when she suggests that Plato and The Matrix are making a common point is nothing more and nothing less than offering an interpretation. She wants to say that both are employing a similar allegory. But this is a question of literary and historical and philosophical judgment. It is not a scientific observation, nor is it a testable hypothesis. It belongs to the kinds of investigations, arguments, and connections Aristotle made. I invoke Aristotle here because there is a crucial difference between his way of proceeding and Gopnik’s: Aristotle laid out how his natural philosophical activities fit within a larger metaphysical, ethical, and logical whole. He provided an overview as well as explicit links between the Physics and the Metaphysics, the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, the Organon and the Rhetoric and the Poetics. In keeping with an anti-Aristotelian strand of Enlightenment thought that remains quite influential today, it is significant that much contemporary popular science writing fails to do likewise.

Voltaire’s heroes, for instance, are either natural philosophers (scientists) like Newton or empiricist philosophers like Locke. At the same time, Voltaire repeatedly mocks systematic metaphysicians in the scholastic (Aristotelian) mould, such as Leibniz (e.g. Pangloss in Candide). He proclaims triumphantly that he, Voltaire, has understood human nature as it truly is, sans métaphysiques. That is how he puts it in the 1756 Preface to the Dictionnaire philosophique. The only metaphysics he countenances is an empiricist one, as he makes crystal clear in his Traité de la Métaphysique (written in 1734-5 but unpublished in his lifetime). Animated by a rather similar spirit, today science is often assumed to be or employed as if it has no metaphysical commitments. If it is admitted that it does entail certain operative assumptions (something Immanuel Kant took as a premise for his philosophy), they are regarded as being so evidently superior or objectively neutral that they don’t really stand in need of further critical investigation, only vindication (something which motivated Kant in his response to Hume—see the Preface to the Critique of Practical Reason). The problem with popular scientific writing when it manifests these tendencies has nothing to do with science per se (here Kant would agree), but rather with the fact that this way of talking about science too often and too easily slips over into scientism, into an implied ideology and assumed metaphysics which draws upon the present-day aura of scientific authority to bolster what is in fact a normative, contestable, historically contingent ethics. When this happens rival ways of envisioning the world are frequently labelled with evaluative terms whose negative rhetorical resonance belongs very much to the genealogy of Voltaire’s Enlightenment. Kant, ardent admirer of Rousseau that he was, himself sometimes succumbed to a certain level of shallowness in this regard, particularly in Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason (1793), which is full of standard Enlightened castigation of religious “enthusiasm,” “superstition,” and “fanaticism”. Gopnik invokes this register when she employs such words as “mystical” and “anti-evolutionary” and “relativistic” to interpretations she disagrees with (p. 69).

That anyone would draw attention to this kind of implicit metaphysical move, to say nothing of the morally mixed legacy of the Enlightenment conception of science—which played a role both in justifying and critiquing slavery, for instance—is presumably part of the reason why it has had quite a few anxious liberal defenders over the past 50 years or so: from Peter Gay’s classic The Enlightenment (2 vols., 1966, 1969), published during a momentous decade for liberalism, the 1960s, to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018), which, with its hard data and graphs, strives to vindicate the Voltaires and Humes of the world against their supposedly anti-scientific or anti-progressive critics.

Gopnik has no time or space for such considerations. That’s understandable given the aims of her book. Yet, her breeziness with respect to the history of philosophy manifests itself in other significant ways. At one point she refers to a study which examined video recordings of the podium ceremony as Olympians received their medals (p. 22). Without much hesitation she takes it for granted that the comparative happiness of the competitors can be confidently and objectively determined by a systematic reading their facial expressions. To me this is anthropologically dubious. And that’s putting it lightly.

At another point Gopnik recites Socrates’ ban against poets and dramatists from his ideal city in the Republic. But she never once considers how this relates to the fact that Socrates himself employs poetic myth in that very dialogue (never mind all the others, such as the Timaeus, the Phaedrus, or the Symposium); she does not point out that the cave allegory is itself part of a poetic or mythical philosophical argument; and she does not notice that the Republic is an instance of a fictional dialogue which may itself be banned from Socrates’ ideal city. These are not mere curiosities. They are puzzles to be addressed by any attentive reader of Plato, who has Socrates repeatedly place special emphasis on just such perplexities (aporia) as being of central philosophical importance. Recall too that the city founded and developed in rational speech in the Republic is also supposed to be an analogy for the harmonious integration of the human psyche or soul. Given the way in which Plato “demythologizes” traditional Greek myth by multiple philosophical “remythologizings” (such as the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic), can one actually give an adequate picture of what the cave allegory is about without addressing this fact in some detail? without offering some account of how Plato (variously) depicts the relationship between the truth, the good, human development, perception, and art? If I were to put my criticism in Platonic terms, and somewhat overstating it for emphasis, I would say that lacking a wider, deeper, more dialectically complex account, Gopnik risks finding herself in the cave itself, holding up an image that casts yet another shadow on the wall of human illusions, though this time backed with the cultural power of science.

With such a grandiose, ambitious title for her book, the fact that Gopnik misreads a key passage of one of the most significant philosophical texts in such a narrow, flat, and historically uninspired way, illustrates the rather large gap between her aims and the at times limited scope of her interpretive imagination. That is not to say that there isn’t much fascinating and even fun material in this book. Gopnik makes some truly interesting observations and arguments, such as the connection she draws between causal thinking and counterfactuals in young children. However, the torch she uses to illuminate childhood development ends up leaving much of human nature and historical reflection upon it in the dark.

If Gopnik’s analysis of the cave allegory is a patina of interpretive rigour, the same inattentiveness ultimately applies to her invocation of The Matrix. The movie is based on the premise that who we are as human beings and persons is located “in” the mind. So long as our brains are hooked up to the right technological machinery, i.e. the artificial intelligence that is the matrix, reality as we know it can be replicated computationally. Linking this way of conceiving the relationship between reality and the mind to the cave allegory is not only wrong for some of the reasons stated above, it altogether fails to take account of the ways in which conceptions of human consciousness and personal identity have changed dramatically over time and differ between cultures. The parallel here is with my reference to the history of skepticism. Simply put, the way Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas construed human development and learning is not at all the same as that of Descartes or Locke or Voltaire or Hume. The Matrix does not share the same conceptual terrain as premodern philosophy. Medieval and ancient philosophers—to say nothing of the trenchant criticisms of modern and contemporary thinkers, from Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Hubert Dreyfus—would not have been able to grasp the plausibility of the assumption that “who we really are” as persons can be neatly equated with an organ in our head or that our identity could be disembodied, translated into ones and zeroes, and then downloaded to a computer.

As Iris Murdoch perceptively put it in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992, p. 83), the “classifications” and “analogies” we set up to enlighten this or that aspect of the human condition, i.e. the picture a certain metaphysical outlook gives us of what it is to be human, “may cast a shadow which makes another less visible.”

† Bibliographical note. For greater detail on the historical process of disenchantment and related matters, interested readers could start with the following list:

  • Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (1979).
  • Marcel Gauchet, Le désenchantement du monde (1985).
  • Amos Fukenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination: From the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (1986).
  • Michael Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987).
  • J. B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (1997).
  • Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self (2005).
  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2006).
  • Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (2008).
  • Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (2015).

Sign up to my occasional newsletter. Quality writing and photography that won't flood your inbox.


Sign up to my occasional newsletter. Quality writing and photography that won't flood your inbox.