Mary-Jane Rubenstein on Plato's cave allegory at The Immanent Frame
Now, the source I find most helpful and most frustrating for re-thinking this infamous allegory is Martin Heidegger. In his two interpretations of Plato’s cave—one in a 1931 lecture series on Plato and the other in an essay written in 1947, after Freiburg University’s denazification committee had forbidden him to speak in public—Heidegger’s great insight is that truth does not reside in the brilliance of the Forms, but rather in the transitions from the cave to the sunlight, and from the sunlight back down to the cave. This is to say that truth and shadow open through one another, or to push Heidegger a bit further than he allows himself to go, the cave and the sunlight are not two separate spaces at all. They are, rather, different modes of seeing the same world. The sunlight opens through the cave. I think this is a fair extension of Heidegger because it echoes one of the central claims of Being and Time, which is that authenticity is not some realm set apart from the everyday—it is merely a modified way of apprehending everydayness itself. The true, the authentic, the space of freedom is folded into and only emerges by means of the ordinary, untrue, and unfree state of things.
So, where are we? Weren’t we talking about secularism? We will recall that the Euro-American secularist construes “the religious” as an escapist or tyrannical privilege of the space outside the cave over the cave itself. As a remedy, she offers the space inside the cave as the only space there is, leaving us, as far as I’m concerned, cut off from anything that truly differs from the rather intolerable way things are. The pseudo-Heideggerian interpretation I have offered here weaves itself somewhere between the religious other-world and the secular this-one, not only refusing to privilege either over the other, but, more radically, reading them as thoroughly interwoven. So, if the religious standpoint lodges itself in the extraordinary as such, and the secular perspective roots us in the ordinary as such, I am pressing here for some way of seeing the extraordinary in and through the ordinary.
To remain a bit longer with Heidegger, there is a name for this attentiveness to the extraordinary in and through the ordinary. Plato called it thaumazein, a word most often rendered in English as “wonder.” In his reading of Plato’s Theaetetus, which claims wonder as the origin of all philosophy, Heidegger explains that unlike curiosity, amazement, or stupefaction, wonder (Erstaunen) wonders not at the extraordinary as such, but rather, at the strangeness of the everyday. As Heidegger puts it, “precisely the most usual whose usualness goes so far that it is not even known or noticed in its usualness—this most usual itself becomes in and for wonder what is most unusual.”