Nov 16, 2019

The Greek word Dianoia literally means “thoroughly, from side to side” or to move from one side of an issue to the other, reaching “balanced” conclusions. Another useful phrase to describe Dianoia is “full-orbed reasoning”. 

All this sound like exactly what we see in a Philosothon. Young people engaging in dialogue from side to side, thoroughly exploring the issue. I love the phrase “full-orbed reasoning”; it seems to suggest a completeness, a desire to discover the truth in all its dimensions and to engage in that discovery together with people from all kinds of backgrounds and yet sharing a common humanity. 

In Plato’s simile of The Cave, which is always part of our teaching when we are trying to explain the purpose of philosophy, he includes the concept of Dianoia in a particular way which gives it a specific meaning. The prisoners in the cave are chained to face a wall.  People are carrying objects along a road behind them and there is a fire casting shadows of the people onto the wall in front of the chained prisoners; All the prisoners can see are images. If a prisoner is released and dragged away from the wall, he will see the people on the road and then the fire. When he is dragged (unwillingly because the bright light is painful) outside the cave – he will experience things as they really are, not as it seems in the cave. 

In the simile, the cave is the world of our senses and the prisoners are people who see and believe things second-hand, like newspapers, social media, other people’s opinions. Outside the cave is the real world. The way the prisoners look at the reflections on the wall is what Plato calls Dianoia. It’s a kind of reasoning on a journey of discovery; a way of thinking that tries to make sense of the secondhand information of newspaper articles, social media, (and now) deepfake news. We weigh things up, test them; sometimes alone, sometimes in groups.  

However, the ultimate goal is to be set free from “the cave” of shadowy secondhand understandings. The analogy or simile of the cave is about discovering the truth. But more than that, Plato was building an argument that only philosophers should rule. True justice in society, Plato argued, will only come when our rulers are educated as philosophers. And once they know what is good, they must be forced back down into the cave to rule.  

Father Mark Smith