Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and the Distinction between Knowledge and Understanding

There will be two parts to my analysis of Plato: a summary of the text and my interpretation of “Knowledge” and “Understanding.”

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: A Summary 1

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” applies a situation involving prisoners chained together in a cave to show that people must explore the world themselves to truly acquire knowledge. Socrates, the main speaker, equates the prisoners to any human who only believes what they see and hear. The prisoners see shadows across the walkway and they assume the shadows are reality because that is all they know. The prisoners cannot comprehend that the shadows are not real because they have not moved across the wall into the other world. The prisoner who gains his freedom struggles initially to find his place in the new world, because he has only known his evidence in the shadows. He represents a philosopher because he is seeking knowledge outside of his bubble, which is his position in the cave. The journey for the liberated prisoner is long and laborious, because he first must have an awakening where he realizes what he has perceived as reality is fake before he can begin to understand the complexities of the world around him. 2 If the prisoner were to return to the cave, he would find the remaining prisoners mocking him because they do not trust him as a philosopher. They still believe that the shadows are the entirety of reality. They are also scared of learning anything beyond what they think they know. The prisoners would rather mock the new intellectual than try to pursue his perspective. The fact that the released prisoner fails to transmit his new knowledge to his peers shows how people cannot truly acquire a full understanding of reality without experiencing the world on their own accord. 3

“Knowledge” versus “Understanding” 4

I. Definitions:


-Acquired through research, reading, and listening.

-Allows for a person to sympathize but not empathize with others.

-Anyone through intense studying can learn knowledge about something, but only through experience can someone have a chance to acquire understanding.


-Acquired from direct experience in the world.

-Allows for a person to empathize with others.

-People who have lived through similar events or the same time period can connect with each other through their shared experience.

II. Explanation of the Definitions with an Example:

Example: The Civil Rights Movement

How do I apply to the knowledge/understanding model?

Knowledge- I can learn about the Civil Rights Movement through reading, listening to lectures in class, and going to museums and places in the country where Civil Rights activism was at the forefront. Through my personal research, I acquire knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement.

Understanding- I cannot understand The Civil Rights Movement because I was not alive during that era. Only people alive during the era and activists within the movement can have some understanding. However, even some people alive during the era may not have a full understanding. 5

The idea of the implausibility of a full understanding of the human experience relates back to my humanities definition, where I discuss how the work of the humanists is never fully complete. Even people within the same time period can misunderstand each other’s perspectives.

The prisoners in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” listen apprehensively to the philosopher who has returned from experiencing the world, and mock his new understanding. However, they only understand the shadows they see, because that is their reality. 6 The only possibility for understanding for the other prisoners is if they ventured out into the world and experienced it for themselves. 7



  1. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave Republic, VIII 514, a, 2 to 517, a, 7 Translation by Thomas Sheehan download text (here) 
  2. Socrates describes a liberation process that is a procedure involving three stages. A person cannot immediately start to perceive the new world around them as reality. The prisoner struggles with the new light he sees but eventually is able to overcome the pain to have a full enlightenment.
  3. My interpretation is based on the following quote by Socrates:  “Now if once again, along with those who had remained shackled there, the freed person had to engage in the business of asserting and maintaining opinions about the shadows — while his eyes are still weak and before they have readjusted, an adjustment that would require quite a bit of time — would he not then be exposed to ridicule down there? And would they not let him know that he had gone up but only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined — and thus it certainly does not pay to go up.” (pg 6)
  4. Prof. Paul Studtsmann in his lecture discusses Plato’s Latter of Love. As context to the ladder, he discusses Plato’s theory of the ‘real,’ which describes the idea of the world of the ‘forms’ or ‘ideas’ being the more real, permanent world as opposed to the impermanence and unreliability of the material world. Plato’s ideas were likely acquired through his experience with the world. People who have not had life experiences that model his would know his theory, but without the experiences, cannot understand it.
  5.  If a person did not experience the struggles in the civil rights movement while being alive during the era, then they would not understand the purpose of the movement. An example would be a child in an upper-class white family that is sheltered from the movement occurring around them. As they grow up, they gain knowledge about the movement, but without experiencing it firsthand, they cannot understand it either.
  6. My interpretation here is based off the following quote from Socrates: “And now what if this prison also had an echo reverberating off the wall in front of them
    [the one that they always and only look at]? Whenever one of the people walking behind those in chains (and carrying the things) would make a sound, do you think the prisoners would imagine that the speaker were anyone other than the shadow passing in front of them?” (pg 2)
  7. Plato may also be implicitly critiquing the modern education system, which emphasizes classroom instruction over promoting personal enlightenment through real world experience. One question I have is the type of education that Plato prefers possible in today’s modern society?