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The cave

By Timothy Cocks Philosophy of pain 01 Jul 2016

Plato’s cave

“Plato imagines agents chained to a wall, able to see only the shadows cast as events unfold in front of a flickering fire. The imprisoned cave-dwellers are thus unable to directly perceive events in the world, and must instead guess at the world on the basis of the distorted shadows. 

The cave-dwellers are, notably, prisoners in the cave – they are chained to the walls, unable to intervene in the scenes they are watching. Human agents, by contrast, can act upon the world…” (emphasis added)

This is Andy Clark in Busting Out: Predictive Brains, Embodied Minds and the Puzzle of the Evidentiary Veil using Plato’s ‘allegory of the cave’ to highlight the fundamental importance of our ability to move and act in our very perception and engagement with the world. Plato’s allegory has been interpreted in various ways, but Clark’s use immediately brought to mind notions of pain, restricted action, reduced agency, and loss of active engagement with the world.

Chained to the walls

The idea of the cave dwellers being chained to the wall and only seeing shadows of the real world captures for me the circumstances that many people experiencing persistent pain have often described – a physical, emotional and social disengagement from the world, a reduced sense of self and control, and the feeling of moving through a seemingly insubstantial life that becomes increasingly harder to understand and engage with.

Escaping the cave

In Plato’s story, a cave dweller escapes and is initially overwhelmed by the bright lights and myriad new experiences, but with a wise instructor and careful exploration comes to know the world more truly. Alain de Botton and The School of life have made a wonderful short clip exploring Plato’s allegory further:


There is rich, transformative metaphor here – for Plato, education is analogous to escaping the cave, and for people experiencing chronic pain, education is perhaps the most powerful means by which their metaphorical chains can be broken, and re-engagement with the world commenced so that they can move “nearer to the true nature of being” for them.

-Tim Cocks


PS. There is only one song to listen to while contemplating all of this…




  1. Beautiful Tim,
    Maybe the reason one struggles so much to bring about change in the medical World is because it is rare to encounter beings who have a passion for thinking….The clinical challenge for us is to stimulate thinking within our patients…..

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