Psychotherapy in the Cave

The prisoners have lived in the cave their whole lives. Shackled to rough stone, they are forced to stare at dancing shadows projected onto the wall ahead from shapes held before a fire. There is nothing else to see. For them this cruel puppet show is life itself. Since shadows are all that they have ever seen, shadows are what they take for the world: they mistake the projections for the reality which they represent. Like the Lady of Shallot in her tower, they are doomed to see a simulacrum of a world, which lacks the depth and complexity of reality.

Suddenly one day, one of them (somehow) realises that he can escape. After breaking from his chains, he dwells for a time by the fire, staring into the flames, and witnessing how the illusion of a world had been created for him and his fellow prisoners. Eventually, he leaves the cave. We can picture him inhaling a breeze sharp with vegetable scent, feeling wet grass between his toes, squinting in confusion in the sunlight. Initially blinded by the intensity of the light, he slowly comes to see the world as it is: the delicious colours and twisted stems of plants, the ethereal motion of the butterfly, the complex weatherworn faces of other people, the joyful dance of sunlit waves, and all the glorious objects of creation, illuminated by a sun that makes this vision possible. As time passes, he even finds that he can look at the sun itself.

He returns to the cave full of excitement, keen to enlighten his comrades so that they can secure their own liberation, but he finds that he is as blind in the darkness as he previously was when entering the light. His eyes are clouded with swirling phosphenes, and he can see nothing of the cave or its inhabitants. The remaining cave-dwellers, noting his blindness, conclude that the world beyond the cave has impaired his vision, and decide that they are better off where they are.

This is the famous allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. The shadow-play stands for the flat distorted ideas of a mind that is unenlightened. When we do not really look at what is around us, we mistake projections for reality itself, and really looking is a difficult business. The process of escaping from the cave is the journey to become a lover of wisdom: one who can see the world as it really is. The allegory is intended as an illustration of what philosophy can do: through becoming wise and applying reason, we gain a clear and undistorted view that is free from projections.

This is a (very flattering) portrait of philosophers: how many working philosophers today imagine themselves involved in a process of this kind? My suspicion is that as philosophy has become increasingly segmented and specialised, we may have moved away from visions of this kind.

Since October last year, I have been training to become a therapeutic counsellor alongside running my fledgling philosophy business. Over the past few months, it has occurred to me that the image of the escape from the cave is strikingly similar to many descriptions of the process of therapy: proponents of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) talk about overcoming cognitive distortions to gain a more realistic view of things; the Adult ego state in Transactional Analysis is described as allowing a person to make an accurate appraisal of reality; and Freud talks about the triumph of the reality principle over the pleasure principle. In all these approaches, at least part of the aim of the therapeutic process is to gain a clearer conception of reality as it is, and in all cases this involves overcoming distortions and projections that come from within the human mind. Many therapists are in the business, one way or another, of helping people out of the cave.

This is not always the stated aim of therapy. Besides clear realistic vision, there are a host of other goals, often overlapping, and sometimes competing. To take a few examples, therapists speak of achieving self-actualisation; living authentically; gaining autonomy; overcoming ‘mental blockages’; developing talents; integrating the personality; becoming resilient; attaining happiness, well-being or inner peace; or finding or creating sources of meaning in life. How does escaping from the cave fit with these goals? What, for example, does clear vision have to do with happiness or well-being, or getting our thinking unblocked? If therapy is in the business of helping people to live authentically and create meaning in a meaningless universe, to what extent can this be compatible with the idea of a clear objective vision of things unclouded by our own projections? Where do human values fit in this picture, and to what extent should a therapist even take a stance on these questions?

These are huge questions, touching on the fundamental questions of both philosophy and psychotherapy. Since the early days of psychotherapy, it has always been in a complex dance with philosophy. At times, especially when the focus in Anglo-American philosophy turned away from questions of significance and the well-lived life, it sometimes seemed as though psychotherapists were more philosophical than the philosophers. At the same time, it sometimes seems as though there have been important philosophical developments that therapy has missed. There is great scope, for example, for a conversation between philosophically-minded therapists and philosophers working within the virtue-ethical tradition. My psychotherapy textbooks contain numerous references to Sartre, Buber, and Kierkegaard, but I have not yet seen a single mention of Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, or Alasdair MacIntyre, all of them fascinating scholars of human flourishing.

This post is terribly vague, and has mostly posed questions rather than suggesting any answers, but I’m very excited about bringing these two sides of my life together and seeing where it can go.