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.

The pragmatic aim of Socratic/Platonic philosophy


The end of Socratic/Platonic philosophy is practical and not theoretical. Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia said,

“I am growing in goodness and I am making better friends. And that I may say, is my constant thought.”

There is a feedback loop in Platonic philosophy between theory and practice — each is judged against the other. The dialogue form, with its interplay between dramatic form and (partially) theoretical matter, exemplifies what I take to be Plato’s intention. Certainly one finds plenty of speculative metaphysics in the dialogues, but its primary purpose is to orient practice. Any criticism of Plato’s metaphysics, to the extent that one can be accurately discerned, must be contextualized always within its experiential, practical and concrete setting. To interpret Plato rightly, it is important therefore to reconstruct the engendering experience of metaphysical concern.

Take for instance anamnesis — the idea that learning happens through recollection of forms:

“Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things. For as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing—an act which men call learning—discover everything else, if we have courage and faint not in the search; since, it would seem, research and learning are wholly recollection (anamnesis).”  — Meno, 81c-d, translated by W.R.M. Lamb, Perseus Project edition

Taken by itself, it is an incredible doctrine: that we can supposedly understand learning in the concrete by appealing to an prenatal visit by our immortal soul to all the realms of heavenly knowledge. It even contains a contradiction — for if we explain learning by recollection, how is that we “learned” in our pre-bodily state? Why take a simple, mundane question and answer it though the circuit of a two-worlds metaphysics? It seems that we transformed a simple question into a kaleidoscope of complicated ones. Why then does Socrates invoke it?

Pay attention to what Socrates says next:

“So we must not hearken to that captious (eristic) argument: it would make us idle, and is pleasing only to the indolent ear, whereas the other makes us energetic and inquiring. Putting my trust in its truth, I am ready to inquire with you into the nature of virtue.” — Ibid., 81d-e

Socrates here points to the pragmatic consequences of “trusting” the doctrine. His only real claim for it is that it makes searching possible, whereas the assumptions about learning undergirding “Meno’s paradox” (that one can’t search for what what one doesn’t already know, since one must know what one is searching for in order to search for it at all) makes it impossible. Unless one is predisposed to deny the everyday experience of coming-to-know, then one must accept that not-knowing already somehow anticipates what-is-to-be-known. How it anticipates is an interesting question, and an interesting question makes us courageous and vigorous in searching for what we don’t know. Since metaphysical answers are always transcendent to the the questions that give rise to them, to hold such an “answer” is really to hold on to a perpetual question, restless and dynamic.

Notice also Socrates assertion in the first of these quotes, almost an aside, that “all nature is akin” so that everything can be discovered if any one thing is known. This gets to the heart of the phenomenology of anamnesis and points to what I call “defective reading.” To know anything in part is to anticipate the whole of which it is a part. That everything that can be known is subsumed under a larger whole must be what Socrates means by claiming that “all nature is akin.” The Greek work for kinship is suggenes (which we know in Latin as “cognate”) means literally “born together”.  A part is “born” with other parts, sprung from its common parent, i.e. the whole. If I know anything about what it is to be cold, I also know tacitly at least what cold is. If I know hot and cold together, I know something about opposition and difference, being and becoming, appearance and reality…the list goes on. Human knowing, to the extent it is *partial,*  is always haunted, whether in anxiety or desire, by the whole that gives it meaning and thus by the other parts. (Test the “doctrine” — Take a moment to consider any burning question in your life. Has it not been generated by your prior answers to other burning questions?)

I claim that before one can make metaphysical sense of a metaphysical doctrine, one must make experiential sense of it. Whatever is generically true of the experience of inquiry is by that measure metaphysically true in the only meaningful sense. My guess is that whatever metaphysical doctrine does not purchase increasing goodness and better friendship is of no interest to either Socrates or Plato. Metaphysics’ proper fruit is an eros toward truth; it has no other end.

Let me conclude with a profound passage in the anonymous 14th Century contemplation manual, The Cloud of Knowing that speaks to a similar understanding of things:

“Rational creatures such as men and angels possess two principal faculties, a knowing power and a loving power. No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge; but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

Excerpted from The Cloud of Unknowing by Edited by William Johnston Copyright © 2005 by William Johnston


The darkness is light enough

Let me begin with four examples of a curious phenomenon:

1. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the chief instrument of persuasion is the enthymeme, which is a defective syllogism. The defect is that one of the premises is withheld, so that the listener must provide or assume the missing premise. Aristotle:

The enthymeme must consist of few propositions, fewer often than those which make up the normal syllogism. For if any of these propositions is a familiar fact, there is no need even to mention it; the hearer adds it himself. (Rhetoric, Book I, Chapter 2, 1356a)

Why is a defective syllogism more persuasive than a complete syllogism? Why wouldn’t supplying the missing premise have more force?


2. Heraclitus claims in one of his fragments that:

ἁρμονίη ἀφανὴς φανερῆς κρείττων
(A unapparent harmony is more potent that an apparent one.)

Why isn’t an apparent harmony better?


3. In the John 20:29, Jesus tells Thomas: “You believe because you have seen; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Is this a similar phenomenon to the previous examples — that the potent harmony not-seen is greater than the one seen?


4. To use another verse from John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it.” Could “light shining in darkness” point to the same phenomenon: the greater power of the implicit over the explicit?


The core principle of Defective Reading is that defects/imperfections can only be experienced as such if there is operative within the soul a prior sense of wholeness/completion. We experience the defect first and yet can grasp on reflection that the immanent criterion must somehow be prior. Platonic philosophy is the struggle to direct our attention on this light that somehow always shines behind us.

This metaphorical light has two chief effects: shadows and reflections. Experiencing defect is the shadow of occluded light, whereas the seeming-true of opinion is the reflection. Shadow is an unapparent effect of light whereas reflection is an apparent effect, but both are effects. But beholding the reflected light is passive, whereas inferring the light behind the shadow requires an active and fuller understanding of the light’s power. We can allow ourselves to be satisfied with the dim light of reflection, but the felt absence of light can shake us from such small satisfactions. The understanding that grasps a defect, a shadow, a hidden harmony as deficient is one that is energetic (in Aristotle’s sense). Reflected light is more evident, but the inferred light is more potent. A fault-finding power also seems to be a protreptic power, guiding us to greater perfection.

Let me end with some lines from Wallace Stephens that should make perfect sense in the light of my theory of Defective Reading:

The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become,


And re-illumines things that used to turn
To gold in broadest blue, and be a part


Of a turning spirit in an earlier self.


Happy (belated) Easter, everyone!