A cave and a tree

September 25th, 2011



Journalist Sydney J. Harris (1979) wrote, “An idealist believes the short run doesn’t count. A cynic believes the long run doesn’t matter. A realist believes that what is done or left undone in the short run determines the long run. According to the two pieces read for this blog post, Plato’s Return to the Cave and Emerson’s OverSoul, this description seems to be apt for idealists. Idealism, as described in our text and modeled by our readings, holds to these ideals;

A real spiritual world

In Plato’s Cave the mortal world seemed to be represented by the cave; a dark, jail-like world. The spiritual world was represented by the outside light, a world where enlightened humans were able to see the relationships between things, their ‘true-essences’.

In Emerson, his connection between the mortal and spiritual world lay inside the individual’s soul. Each soul, he theorizes, has a connection to the greater soul.

A macrocosm (the creator) and a microcosm (in essence, us)

Plato’s macrocosm came from that world outside the cave with enlightened those who were able to adapt and accept it. Possibly represented by the sun.

Emerson spoke of a more familiar “God” when discussing that a soul is connected with “God”. (This God, to the best of my knowledge, seems to mostly reflect the Christian God).

The existence of prior knowledge in people

When ‘we’ were chained in the cave, people saw the shadows of knowledge and thought but were unable to realize them. When unchained, those who could accept it were able to ‘unlock’ their ‘prior-knowledge’ and enter the outside world.

Emerson talks of the soul being connected to all the other souls of the world. Each soul contains God and so with correct action and thought one is able to access knowledge through what is already in God.

However, there was a difference I noticed between our text description and the pieces read. Language, in the description of idealism, seems to be an important component of the idealist philosophy. Leading questions, probing thought, and discussion are major roles of the instructor. However, both Plato’s and Emerson’s writing seem to take a negative view of language and its power and instead call on the reader to seek action, a thought that seems more applicable to the description of the pragmatists. In the Republic by Plato he talks of returning to the cave after being in the light, “and he had to compete with in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still week….would he not be ridiculous?” (3).  The man who brings back knowledge, yet is unable to explain it to people who have not been able to experience it, is seen as stupid and may even be “put to death”.  Emerson’s Oversoul similarly   is unable to use language to describe what he is trying to convey, “Language cannot paint it with his colors”. He also discusses how we can ask questions about eternal affairs but that they will not be answered with language but instead those who act morally will succeed in their goals of immortality. (Emerson, 1841).


If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it; would it make a noise?

In Realist theory, yes, it would very much make a noise. According to our text, realists believe that nature exists completely outside of human beings (Ornstein, 174). Whether or not a human hears that tree, it exists, and when it falls and hits the ground its existence makes a noise; even if it is just heard by nature. In fact, if a human was there, the sound the tree made wouldn’t depend on his presence, instead the human’s perception of what the ‘sound of a tree falling’ is would be constructed by what he ‘records’ using his senses.

This categorizing based on sensory input seems to be a major tenant of realist theory in education. If a student is given an object that he does not know he is able to observe it using his or her senses. Education gives ‘categories’ and comparisons for them to compare it with. Then the student is able to acquire base knowledge about something simply by drawing on knowledge of similar objects.  By accumulating information based on sensory observation, students are able to classify events around them, even those that are outside their current knowledge. They don’t have the knowledge already stored but are given tools to form their own understanding. However, just as that tree, it is important to note that the natural world exists without our understanding it.


Here is a ‘graphic organizer’ comparing and contrasting idealism and realism in education, prepared from readings from our text and class notes.

Blue: Idealism  Green: Realism


Ornstein, A., Levine, D., Gutek, G. (2011). Foundation of education (11th Ed.). Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth.

Dick, P. (1978). How to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later. Retrieved from: http://deoxy.org/pkd_how2build.htm

Burnham, D. (2005). Leibniz’s Metaphysics. Retrieved from : http://www.iep.utm.edu/leib-met/

Reflection Of Plato “The Allegory Of Cave”. Anti Essays. Retrieved from: http://www.antiessays.com/free-essays/107238.html

Emerson, R. (1841). The Over-Soul. Essays; First Series.  Retrieved from: http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/oversoul.html 

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