I’ve been reading Freud again recently (“Mass Psychology and Analysis of the ‘I”” and “The Future of an Illusion” in Mass Psychology from the Penguin series of new translations), and I’ve been thinking of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The allegory goes something like this:
Imagine prisoners who have been chained since childhood deep inside a cave. Not only are their limbs immobilized by the chains, their heads are as well so that their eyes are fixed on a wall. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way, along which men carry shapes of various animals, plants, and other things. The shapes cast shadows on the wall, which occupy the prisoners’ attention. Also, when one of the shape-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows. The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a gameâ€”naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of images.
Suppose a prisoner is released and compelled to stand up and turn around. His eyes will be blinded by the firelight, and the shapes passing will appear less real than their shadows. Similarly, if he is dragged up out of the cave into the sunlight, his eyes will be so blinded that he will not be able to see anything. At first, he will be able to see darker shapes such as shadows, and only later brighter and brighter objects. The last object he would be able to see is the sun, which, in time, he would learn to see as that object which provides the seasons and the courses of the year, presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some way the cause of all these things that he has seen…
Once thus enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would no doubt want to return to the cave to free “his fellow bondsmen”. The problem however is that they would not want to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner’s eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be inferior at the ludicrous process of identifying shapes on the wall. This would make his fellow prisoners murderous toward anyone who attempted to free them.
It occurs to me that, having gained his release through his own self analysis, Freud’s compromise in the face of this paradox was to not turn around and leave the cave. Indeed, in his published writings, he doesn’t seem to have concerned himself with what’s beyond the shadows on the wall (though Freud’s Requiem, a marvelous little book published last month, uses his letters and other secondary material to suggest that he did consider such matters outside of his published works). Instead, he sought to discover the workings of the shadows on the wall using only what could be seen and understood by the prisoners in the cave. Such efforts must inevitably point beyond the cave, but Freud resolutely refused to follow where his reasoning led.
On the one hand, this meant that Freud’s work could be used by his “fellow bondsmen,” but on the other hand, that work feels incomplete. In this sense, Freud’s work is a critique, describing only what’s wrong with the commonly held view of reality. It doesn’t really propose a fuller, more compelling view as an alternative. Consequently, Freud’s claims that things don’t work as most people think they do will always be susceptible to counterclaims that he doesn’t offer an explanation of how they do work.
Most sages, having gained their release from the chains of common delusion, have tended to venture beyond the cave, and those who have returned, have announced their return in one of two ways. Some have returned with wild-eyed and incoherent tales, as predicted in Plato’s allegory. I tend not to trust their understanding and insight. But others, from the Buddha to Wittgenstein (including Plato’s Socrates) have returned to say that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy and that though those things can’t be described, the sages can tell us how to find them for ourselves. I’m more likely to trust their insight and experiences.