Does Imagination Depend on Exposure?

(Just so you know, this was written in 20 minutes, so please excuse any mistakes).

On Monday, Anya and I read “Allegory of the Cave” by Plato out loud and then found various responses to it so we could see how other besides ourselves viewed it. Sometime people talked about education, or religion, or even what exactly “truth” is. Today, she and I had a discussion about the things we found and some of our own thoughts on these ideas.

I find the discussion on what exactly “truth” is really interesting. I’ve heard that a long time ago, “truth” was defined by the community’s reality. Fast-forwarding a few hundred+ years, “truth” was defined by an individual’s thoughts. Fast-forwarding even more and “truth” is defined by the knowledge available to us, and we are starting to move back into what a community’s reality is.

In “Allegory of the Cave,” Socrates presents a situation where prisoners of a cave see shadows every day on the cave wall they are facing, but can’t see their source. When one of the prisoners is freed, he has to adjust to life outside of the cave, and when he comes back to the cave and tells the prisoners what he saw, they don’t believe him.

Some of the discussions around this piece say that when the prisoner is freed, he becomes educated. Others say that life in the cave is symbolic of Earth and the life outside the cave is symbolic of heaven. Others say the people inside the cave know one truth, and the people outside of it know another, and neither is wrong.

I like the last one the best, I think, because of the idea that truth is totally circumstantial and dependent on personal experiences. I have a friend who once talked about how a word might mean one thing to one person, and a totally different thing to another, which is why we have definitions. I see this idea more literally in the Swedish and Estonian languages. Grammatically, they are very similar, and they share a lot of words, but those words mean totally different things in those two languages.

Anya and I also discussed the idea of can you ever imagine something you’ve never been exposed to? And does that mean we should expose students to more situations and thoughts so they can have more imaginative ideas? Maybe that’s why education needs to change: we need more experiences to allow for more creative solutions to the problems we face.

Authors are a good example of this idea of being able to imagine something you’ve never been exposed to: there are tons of books out there with completely different story lines, but there’s still a basic understanding about what a human is and what a dog is and what a barn is. As a global community, we’ve developed words and their means that we can share – even with the different languages we speak – and still be able to communicate, so how crazily imaginative are the different story lines authors create? Or are they crazily imaginative because we have these constraints of language?

I’m going to stop there and maybe come back to this later, but that just got way too meta and I need to think about this more. Until next time!

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