Life as Non-totalizable Wholeness

A quote:

“All living beings are in effect characterized by a movement, which nothing can cause to cease, a movement that largely exceeds what is required by the satisfaction of needs and that, because of this, bears witness to an essential incompleteness. This incompleteness reveals that life is originarily bound to a world. Because the world to which the living being relates is essentially non-totalizable and unpresentable, living movement can not essentially complete itself. Thus, in the final analysis, life must be defined as desire, and in virtue of this view, life does not tend toward self-preservation, as we have almost always thought, but toward the manifestation of the world.”

From the abstract to “Life, Movement, and Desire” by Renaud Barbaras, Research in Phenomenology, Volume 38, Issue 1 (2008)

Living things are necessarily incomplete. Incompleteness is kinetic (“characterized by a movement”) and erotic (“defined as desire”) since it is in-complete only against the intuited backdrop of an encompassing whole. Barabaras is correct to say that this relation is “essentially non-totalizable and unpresentable” — to represent it would require completing it and to complete it would strip it of life. Plato is not just reticent to write deepest truths (e.g. discussions in Phaedrus and 7th Letter) — he is incapable of it. But what he can communicate is the incompleteness, the felt absence of the whole that is the source of movement and desire.

I am reminded of Socrates’ longing to bring the city-in-speech of the Republic to life:

“I should like, before proceeding further, to tell you how I feel about the Polis which we have described. I might compare myself to a person who, on beholding beautiful animals either created by the painter’s art, or, better still, alive but at rest, is seized with a desire of seeing them in motion or engaged in some struggle or conflict to which their forms appear suited; this is my feeling about the Polis which we have been describing.”  — Socrates in Plato’s Timaeus, 19b-c

To present a “living city”, as I believe Plato attempts in the Republic, must be to present it as incomplete but as containing the seeds of its striving in the recognition of that incompleteness. To read that work requires that we read it defectively. If he were to succeed in writing a satisfactory account, then it will be be inscribed not on paper but rather into living souls of his readers.

Some Meno quotes bearing on the difference between opinion and knowledge

I am at work on a precis of my entire argument and hope to a have a rough draft of it in a few weeks. (This is why my posts have been few and far between of late.) Currently I am at work on the section dealing with the nature of doxa, i.e. opinion. To state my nutshell opinion on opinion: while it certainly differs from knowledge, as the quotes listed below make clear, it is not a matter of knowledge instead of opinion as much as knowledge through opinion. Opinion is the proper medium of knowledge and the trick that Plato would have us learn is to employ it as a means and not the end of thought. Opinion is not enough to satisfy a healthy intellectual eros — it is defective — and the thought that encompasses both opinion as satisfying belief and dissatisfying doubt is a lens toward the noetic light that illumines knowledge.

Anyway, here are some quotes from Plato’s Meno that bear partially on my thesis. (The translation I am citing is that by Anastaplo and Berns, published by Focus Philosophical Library, 2004.) Feel free to comment on any of these.

1. True opinion, therefore is no worse a guide to right action than prudence. (Meno 97b)
2. He who has knowledge would always hit the mark, whereas he who has right opinion would sometimes hit it sometimes not. (Meno 97c)
3. True opinions, for as long a time as they should stay put, are a fine thing and accomplish all kinds of good things. Yet much of the time they are not willing to stay put, but run away out of the human soul; so that they are not worth much until someone should bind them with causes by reasoning. And this, my comrade Meno, is recollection, as we agreed before. And whenever they have become bound, first they become knowledge and then steadfast. And this is why knowledge is worth more than right opinion, and by its binding, knowledge differs from and excels right opinion. (Meno 97e-98a)
4. I too speak, not as one who knows, but as one who makes images and conjectures. But I certainly do not think I am making images or guessing this, that right opinion and knowledge are different things. But if there is anything I could affirm that I know, and there are few that I could affirm — one of those at any rate which I set down that I know is this. (Meno 98a-b)
5. If…true opinions will exist within him [i.e. the slave boy], after which being aroused by questioning become matters of knowledge, then will not his soul for all time be in a condition of having learned? (Meno 86a)
6. And in what way will you seek, Socrates, for that which you know nothing at all about what is? What sort of things which you do not know are you proposing to seek for yourself? Or, even if, at best, you should happen upon it, how will you know it is that which you do not know? (Meno 80d)
7. I would not assert myself altogether confidently on behalf of my argument; but that in supposing one ought to seek what one does not know we would be better, more able to be brave and less lazy than if we supposed that which we do not know we are neither capable of discovering nor ought to seek — on behalf of that I would surely battle, so far as I am able, both in word and in deed. (Meno 86b-c)
8. Inasmuch as all nature is akin and the soul has learned all things, there is nothing to prevent someone who recollects (which people call learning) one thing only from discovering all other things, so long as he is brave and does not grow tired of seeking. For seeking and learning therefore consist wholly in recollection. So that one should not be persuaded by this contentious argument. For it would make us lazy and is pleasant only for fainthearted people to hear, but the other argument makes us both ready to work and to seek. Trusting in this one to be true, I am willing with you to seek for whatever virtue is. (Meno 81d-e)

A defective reading of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

The “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke is a poem of great power. (Here is a link to the Stephen Mitchell translation, which I recommend you read before proceeding with the rest.) The surprising shock of the final words (You must change your life.) always seem new and true to me, no matter how many times I read it. The poem at once shifts from a detached aesthetic gaze to a hard ethical demand (i.e. subjectivity in Kierkegaard’s sense), from potency to actuality. (It is not surprising to discover that Rilke studied Kierkegaard intently in the years leading up to writing this poem.) Let’s begin by taking the title apart:


The trifling knowledge of Socrates

As I listed in a previous post, Socrates (in the Platonic dialogues at least) claims to know only a few things:

(1) erotic matters;  (2) that there is a difference between knowledge and right opinion; (3) many small/trifling things; (4) his own ignorance.

At the end of the post listing the actual texts, I asked whether or not there may be anything that these bits of knowledge have in common. Let me give a stab at collecting them together within a single logos:

1. Erotic matters. Can we love something that we know anything at all about? Mustn’t we have some precognition of what is moving us to longing? In an early post in this blog, I discussed a phenomenon known as “felt absence” in which we are aware of something missing. I think this awareness of absence is at base an erotic phenomenon. [Perhaps I should note here that “erotic” does not mean narrowly “sexual” as it does in our culture. Eros can refer to any strong desire for consummation that is fueled by a sense of one’s own lack.] I may not yet “know” what it is I am after, particularly in the regime of intellectual eros, but I have at least a presentiment of knowledge that (a) makes the lack of knowledge present to me in a dynamically effective way, (b) guides my pursuit by strengthening or weakening as I get closer or farther from the object of desire, and (c) indicates a difference between what I have and what I want. Such knowledge is far from “trifling” to a philosopher, but is so to those who value fullness over lack.

2. The difference between knowledge and opinion. Notice that Socrates doesn’t claim to know what the difference is, only that there is such a difference. The fruit of Socratic virtue is to cultivate a dissatisfaction with mere opinion. The goal is not to jettison any opinion that fails to rise to knowledge for that would be to jettison all thinking. The goal is not to cultivate dissatisfaction as an end in itself, but as a goad toward that knowledge of which it is the presentiment. It is to cultivate a dissatisfaction specific to the opinion at hand, as an avenue for exciting an eros for the knowledge that it already intends yet lacks. The effect of the difference between knowledge and opinion is eros, an eros directed toward and hungering for a consummating knowledge. Knowledge of the difference between opinion and knowledge is a desire for knowledge growing out of dissatisfaction for a particular opinion.

3. Many small/trifling things. Clearly we can be sure that Socrates does know many things, that the sun is or is not shining for instance. All such things are true but not existentially urgent, i.e “trifling.” But I think there are other things Socrates knows that are trifling to those who consider ignorance a trifling matter, easily dismissed. Most prefer a strong opinion to the hesitations of doubt. But opinion is always partial. To the extent that opinion intends knowing, this partiality is always subordinate to some animating, comprehending whole. Desire for knowledge of the whole, which is the root of philosophical eros, is reflected in every still-partial opinion. There is felt difference between an opinion and the knowledge that would perfect it. Socrates “knows” an ignorance correlative to every bit of opinion he holds. For each opinion, there is a knowledge of specific ignorance related to it. 

4. His own ignorance. We have already seen how knowledge of ignorance informs every other nontrivial claim to knowledge that Socrates makes. Self-knowledge of his own ignorance is at the root of all of his other claims to knowledge.

My root hypothesis is merely speculative, but at least plausible: that Socrates had ignorance-seeking-knowledge in mind when he made his various claims to knowledge. Socrates prefers the desire for knowledge to the satisfaction of mere opinion. The former is better because it has a potency for knowledge that the latter lacks. His desire is not directionless, but is informed in each case by the defects peculiar to his best available opinion. To describe his profound knowledge of ignorance as “trifling,” is just as ironic as to call ignorance “knowledge” in the first place.

A Defective Reading of Descartes’ Third Meditation

The subtitle of Descartes’ Third Meditation is “Concerning God, that He exists,” but the meditation doesn’t really originate in the question of God’s existence. It actually begins with an epistemological question, not a theological one. Descartes admits that he “previously admitted many things as wholly certain and evident” that [he] later discovered to be doubtful.” He must therefore interrogate whether/when the “natural light” that is the marker of evident truth is really true. Only then does he turn to asking about the nature and existence of God, as an originator of this “natural light” that makes truths “clear and distinct” so that his understanding can be trusted. Notice that a feeling of certainty, taken by itself, is defective as evidence for Descartes. These interior markers (natural light, clarity and distinctness) need to be perfected to be fully accepted.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about the difference between a meditation and an argument. Although Descartes will make logical arguments for his position, their logical validity will not make them true unless the premises are also recognized as true. Don’t therefore rely on Descartes’ testimony if you are interested in determining the real meaning of his argument. You, the reader must look within yourself and independently verify that the matter is as Descartes reports. So take a look at what Descartes is asking you to verify:


The testing of souls

I still ascribe to the quaint notion that philosophy is ultimately about living well. Everything else — epistemology, ontology, ethics, metaphysics, etc. — is valuable to only to the extent it is interesting, since interest points us toward what is vital in life. A corollary (too often neglected) is that each of us should apply ourselves to abstract notions of living well only to the extent they illuminate the concrete act of living well. (This is why I shrink from teaching classes in ethics — the academic concern tends to overwhelm the performative.) Whatever habit formation is required to translate from abstract philosophical theory into the concrete cultivation of practical wisdom is also part of philosophy, in fact, its most important part. Let me therefore distinguish the theoretical component of philosophy from its performative component. The former can be inscribed with ink on paper, but the latter can only be inscribe on a living soul and is not reducible to ink.

I can, by own admission, therefore only point or gesture toward this difference. One of the first things to understand both (more…)

The Dialogue as Icon

By far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from [the fact that] . . . those things which strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible.” — Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism 50.

What characterizes the material idol is precisely that the artist can consign to it the subjugating brilliance of a (more…)