‘Worldviews’ as ‘psychic prisons’ – the parable of Plato’s cave

I was thinking about the concept of ‘worldview’ the other day. It’s a word that’s used a lot now, but I can’t help wonder if people mean different things by it.

For me, all human beings suffer from a kind of ‘locked in’ syndrome. We process information about the world (in particular, how we perceive and understand other people) through our societal, cultural and familial lenses. The social construction of our moral logic begins from the day we were born. It is through this discourse that we interpret the world.

It stands to reason, therefore, that all our perspectives are limited and partial. If this sounds a bit too post-modern, how about the verse in the bible that tells us that we all see through a glass (lens) darkly (1 Cor 13:12)?

I love the potential behind the concept of ‘worldview’. This is because it offers us a way of transcending the opaque glass of our understanding. One way of doing this, is simply by enquiring into the perspectives of others.

Gareth Morgan talks about this in his book Images of Organisation:

“The idea of psychic prison was first explored in Plato’s Republic in the famous allegory of the cave where Socrates addresses the relationship among between appearance, reality and knowledge. The allegory pictures an underground cave with its mouth open toward the light of a blazing fire. Within the cave are people chained so that they cannot move. They can see only the cave wall directly in front of them. This is illuminated by the light of the fire, which throws shadows of people and objects onto the wall. The cave dwellers equate the shadows with reality, naming them, talking about them, and even linking sounds from outside the cave with the movements on the wall. Truth and reality for the prisoners rest in this shadowy world, because they have no knowledge of any other.

However… if one of the inhabitants were allowed to leave the cave, he would realise that the shadows are but dark reflections of a more complex reality, and that the knowledge and perceptions of his fellow cave dwellers are distorted and flawed. If he were then to return to the cave, he would never be able to live in the old way again, since for him the world would be a very different place. …if he were to try and share this new knowledge with them, he would probably be ridiculed for his views. For the cave prisoners, the familiar images of the cave would be much more meaningful than any story about the world they had never seen.” Morgan 1986

In this sense, our worldview can be a kind of psychic prison.

Plato’s cave stands for our ‘worldview’ and the journey outside represents the potential to transcend our limited understanding of the world.

Accepting that our perspectives are partial – and developing a curiosity and appreciation about how others see the world – can begin to help us see beyond the limits of our own socialisation.

3 thoughts on “‘Worldviews’ as ‘psychic prisons’ – the parable of Plato’s cave

  1. Yes! Naturally speaking we are constrained by our upbringing, our schooling and our general ethnic and cultural ethos. However we ae enabled by God to move out of these constraints since though we do not have absolute knowledge we do have some true truth about the world and the universe.
    This true truth is given us in the Bible. God was there at the begining, He was the beginnign. He is also the end and being God clearly knows the end. He is also both inside and outside the universe at the same time. Therefore His perspective is a perfect one and an absolutely true one.
    We can therefore have access to true moral truth, true truth about ourselves, about God and about the world. We have in the Bible the absolutes which Plato did not have and which need to function as beings created int he image of God.
    Plato only had an inkling of what was needed. We were all taught the cave in the Republic as a picture of the educational process when in teacher’s college. Reading The Republic for myself I found that Plato in fact was an elitist who denied to all but a few the benefits of a proper education.
    He did, however understand that we needed absolutes in order to understand the truth about things. We need therefore a vision of the Good.
    We have that but Plato did not he only saw but dimly, as through a glass darkly.
    Paul in wiritng about that said that would be until, “that which is perfecdt is come”. Now what is that. Most Christians suggest it is the coming of the Lord Jesus. However He is not a ‘that’. I know He is referred to as ‘that’ perfect thing when in the womb but I do not think that invalidates my argument.
    The perfect thing must be ‘The Word’, the Word of God’ which puts everything in its proper perspective and which Plato did not have and so was led astray by his own upbringing as a descendant of Kings and by his admiration of Sparta which made him a traitor to his own Athens. He also had other less likeable ideas.
    I know not everyone will agree with me. Perhaps if they read my Simple Man’s guide to Plato’s Republic, it may help to clarify my criticism of The Republic and of Plato.

  2. What people mean by the term ‘worldview’ no doubt depends on their worldview! No intent to be clever or sarcastic I promise. Sometimes it seems to me to be used as a shortcut for ‘cultural norms’ rather than something deeper about how our whole context and experience shapes not just our thinking but the very way we think. We can only begin to appreciate others perspectives by enquiring and recognising however hard we try we are always going to be applying our interpretation and mental models to what is being said

    Love the blog Patrick and hope life is treating you well

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