On Defective Reading

I call my project the “Defective Reading” of Platonic philosophy. My working hypothesis is that defects can only be experienced as defects if there is at work an anterior/immanent norm of completion or wholeness. The defect is “seen” by the “light” provided by the sense of wholeness/completion animating the beholder. The light is not seen, but seen by. Once one become aware of a defect, in an argument for instance, an inner norm becomes energetic and operative. Defects excite such norms, whereas self-satisfied opinions depress them. Moments of such defective awareness thus present the best chance to catch a glimpse of these norms in action, norms which cannot be fully expressed but can be fully inhabited.

Once one becomes aware of this phenomenon, it is almost impossible not to see it on every page of Plato. Most facile rejection of what Plato seems to be saying comes from failing to understand the protreptic function of the defective. Plato signals over and over that the flaws in his dialogues are known to be such, and yet this point is missed again and again. We advance by following the trail of the *felt absence* of completion/wholeness made noticeable by incompletion or lack of wholeness, i.e. defect.

Allow me one example from the Republic to make my point. In Book IV, the argument seems to reach a kind of consummation. Socrates and his interlocutors have just “finished” constructing a “city in speech” for the purpose of making justice evident. The ultimate aim is to find justice in the soul, with Socrates having proposed earlier that they could more easily find justice in the larger entity, the city, as an aid to its discovery in the smaller, the soul. This generation of cities in speech, this poleogony, results in what seems to be clear definitions of justice and the other virtues. First the various virtues are found in their political versions in 427d to 434c. (Note: all citations are from the Grube/Reeve translation of Plato’s Republic, Hackett Publishing, 1992.) To highlight a single example, courage/andreia is found there to be based on the auxiliary guardians’ fixed dedication to the true opinions laid down by the city founders. After each of the virtues is discovered in the city, the logos turns to the individual soul and uses the city paradigm as a guide of where to look in the soul (427d – 434d). Courage/andreia in the individual soul is defined to be “the preservation through pains and pleasures the declarations of reason about what is to be feared and what isn’t.” Wisdom/sophia is defined in the soul as “knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul, which is the community of all three parts.” Moderation/sophrosyne is defined as “the friendly and harmonious relations between these same parts [the parts being appetite/epithumia, spiritedness/thumoeides and rational/logistikon], namely, when the ruler and the ruled believe in common that the rational part should rule and don’t engage in civil war against it.” Finally, justice/dikaiosyne is defined as not allowing “any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other.” Given that the goal was the discovery of what justice is in the soul, it would seem that we are at a place of conclusion. And yet, if we look closely, we will begin to notice that our perfectly shaped chrysalis has some developing fissures. I will highlight two:

First, the very strategy of discovering justice in the newly formed city in speech is peculiar. Socrates describes the strategy this way:

Therefore, as with any other four things, if we were looking for any one of them in something and recognized it first, that would be enough for us, but if we recognized the other three first, this itself would be sufficient to enable us to recognize what we are looking for. Clearly, it couldn’t be anything other than what’s left over.” (428a)

I have already spoken to the animating power of implicit wholes. Socrates is exploiting the felt absence in the presence of the not-quite-complete. His notion is that what remains when 3/4 of the whole is present, the missing fourth, will be justice. This presents some obvious problems: why is assumed that the other three are better known than justice, which unlike the others was, as Socrates says (432d-e), “rolling around at our feet from the very beginning”? How do we know that the vague remainder still to be discovered when the other pieces are found will not itself be comprised of multiple parts, justice and piety perhaps? What accounts for the Rule of Four, the notion that completed virtue is a fourfold phenomenon?

I am convinced that Plato was aware of these questions, aware of the defect they express. I believe he chose this defective strategy to emphasize defective reading as such. This strategy of focusing on a remainder, a residuum, can also be found “rolling around at the beginning” — a beginning not just of the city-in-speech but in the Republic itself. We find it in Cephalus’ haunted sense that he might still owe someone something, in Polemarchos’ willingness to carry on when his definitions prove inadequate, in the response of the sons of Ariston that something is missing in Socrates refutation of Thrasymachus, a recognition that requires the dialogue to continue. The first iteration of the city-in-speech arises in need/chreia, in the recognition that human beings are not self-sufficient. The second civic iteration arises in recognition of the absence of “relishes,” i.e. the absence of a place for any desire/eros that exceeds bare need. And so on. Socrates, in the transition form building the city-in-speech to the search for the virtues, that he and his interlocutors must “get an adequate light somewhere…so as to look inside [the city] and see where the injustice and the injustice might be in it…” Perhaps the whole point of the Republic is to kindle that light.

A second defect is the thinness of the discovery of wisdom in the city in Book IV. A reader of the dialogue has been prepared for the arrival of the other virtues by the natural development of the city. The “one-person/one-job” rule set the stage for the justice definition. The predation/defense needs of the “luxurious city” established the courage requirement for guardians. The need to moderate the aggressive thumos of the guardians was the problem that the third city and its gymnastic/music educational program set out to solve. But wisdom/sophia appears on the scene without a city of its own. Socrates describes it as atopon, a word that Grube/Reeve translates as “odd” but which literally means “place-less.” The civic definition of wisdom is given in 428c-429a as the knowledge that “doesn’t judge about any particular matter but about the city as a whole and the maintenance of good relations, both internally and with other cities.” But have we really seen this account of knowledge before? Book III ends with the “noble lie” of the Phoenician Tale and its inculcation of the belief in the brotherhood/philia of the citizens and a description of the communal life of the guardians. The are denied private property in an effort to hold in abeyance the spirited drive (thumos) for excelling at the expense of others, and to encourage them to devote themselves to the good of the whole city. The desire for wholeness encouraged in Book III points to its defect — the absence of the kind of knowledge prerequisite to satisfying this desire.  The city as handed from Book III to IV has created a concern for the whole, but has done nothing to impart the odd, place-less knowledge that is the special concern of wise rulers. Socrates’ discovery of wisdom/sophia at 428a-429a is apparently extemporaneous and ungrounded and is almost the discovery of new question (not yet taken up) than an answer. Such provocations set the stage for the arrival of the philosopher ruler, whose particular form of education will be devoted to satisfying the lack indicated — a knowing attunement to the whole as such — so that power and philosophy can be finally coincident. And his special technical skill will be an ability to attend to the felt absence of the whole mediated by defective formulations of it. Such attention is called, among other things, phronesis, practical wisdom.

Let me conclude with a statement that Socrates makes about music, almost an aside:

These are the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music is most important. First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is harmful, hating it while he is still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of kinship with himself.” (401e-402a)

My tutor at St. John’s College, Eva Brann, named her essay on Plato’s greatest dialogue, “The Music of the Republic” (This is the finest essay I know on the dialogue as a whole, and wholes, remember, are our proper business.)  Allow me to riff off her title and claim that the Republic’s intended effect is musical: to permeate the soul, fill it with grace and lay down a pattern of attending to the felt absence of the whole animating each defective attempt at virtuous life. Philosophy takes its stand in the peculiar defect of self-aware ignorance and in openness to the light of the Good that makes such awareness possible.

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