Opinion and Intellectual Eros

Another post on the path through opinion toward knowledge.

At the core of all opining (doxa) is eros. Opinion answers an implicit question, a question which expresses a desire to understand and to know. But intellectual eros is fully satisfied by noetic truth alone. Any answer assumed by opinion, its seeming-true, is always partial. All opinion confronts a residual remainder of unsatisfied eros, which opinion confronts in various ways. By nature, the residual eros is a nagging opposition to the seeming-true of opinion. This remnant of unsatisfied eros is polymorphous: doubts, anxieties, qualms. In the Republic, there are four chief dispositions of intellectual eros, each of which may be either personal or communal:

(1) In ignorance/aporia, eros constitutes the entire content of cognition, i.e., felt absence that expresses specific ignorance (eikasia). All frustration is born of desire. In the state of aporia, one is blinded not by darkness but by light, i.e., eros that finds no imaginative expression. This creates the anxiety and paralysis associated with aporetic ignorance.

(2) Belief (pistis) offers relief from the frustrations of aporia. But eros is only partially satisfied by belief and its remainder confronts the opinion as an alien threat, the aftershock of the ignorance that belief thinks it has overcome. The bifurcation between opinion and its erotic residue creates the illusion of an inside opposing an outside. Vigilant defense of the seeming-true requires countering the threat of relapse into the discomforts of ignorance. All offense against another is an encounter with one’s own alienated eros. One is not offended by what doesn’t sting, and the sting comes from tacit recognition of the justice of the other’s criticism.  Opinion then becomes a lust to assert one’s rightness and pursues victory over the critic as a sufficient proof of its truth, to silence (even if not answering) the critics both within and without. This stage is dominated by sentiment and myth when considering its own belief and polemical bluster when countering the alienated eros.

(3) In thinking (dianoia), the residue is a positive provocation, allying with the seeming-true of opinion in a drive toward noetic wholeness. Thinking is always dual and dialogical. There is still a bifurcation, as there was in belief, but the seeming-true of opinion and the residual eros now assist each other in pursuing the truth. Doubt takes the form of a thematic question. In thinking, opinion elicits aid from the doubt, and the doubt from the opinion. Eros is blind without opinion and opinion is provincial and partisan without the leaven of a disturbing eros. Let’s call this comportment, paraklesis, a summons to aid.

(4) Noetic wholeness (noesis) is the transcendent goal of all thinking, the satisfaction of eros in true knowledge. Noesis is the full integration of doubt and belief. All relevant questions are answered and satisfied, without remainder.

Aporia, alienation, paraklesis, integration: corresponding to the four segments of the Divided Line.

NOTE: In a previous post, I related the stages of opinion to the parts of the tripartite soul. As threatening shadows reflect off the walls of our political caves, it may be worth pondering which mode of thinking dominates the public discourse where we are. Shall we resist or assist?

More on Protagoras

I want to continue some thoughts about what may be gleaned about Protagoras’ reputation in preparation for reading the dialogue named after him. (Link to previous Protagoras post.) The dramatic date of the Protagoras is around 433 BCE. Since the character Protagoras was probably the most famous intellectual in the world at the time, an adequate reading of the dialogue demands that we review what has been said about Protagoras outside the text itself, even if the source material is somewhat dubious. What follows are a few quotations from Diogenes Laertius’ “Life of Protagoras” along with my comments on them. Of course, it must be remembered that Diogenes Laertius lived 600 years after Protagoras, so these passages should be taken for what they are — legendary vestiges of popular rumors:


1. He was the first person who asserted that in every question there were two sides to the argument exactly opposite to one another. And he used to employ them in his arguments, being the first person who did so.

COMMENT: The sophists were notorious for being willing and able to defend either side of an argument. Protagoras was accused of “making the weaker argument stronger,” a charge often leveled at Socrates as well. But all genuine thinking must (more…)

Good and bad motives for argument

One of the most important distinctions in Plato is that between dialectic and eristic, two forms of arguing. Roughly, I would define them this way:

Eristic is a competitive disputation in which opponents battle to defeat their disputants. Each side is convinced of the rightness of its own opinion and of the other side’s error. Notice that eristic always involves the assertion of mere opinion as the truth. Typically the dominant emotion is anger, and each side will argue using the most uncharitable construction of what the opponent is saying. Both sides suspect the other of bad motives and reject any argument which reaches a conclusion different from the claim they are defending. Therefore, neither side opens themselves up to refutation. The disagreement offends both parties, and the only form of agreement that is acceptable is the surrender of the other. The eristic mindset is governed by a simple heuristic: a friend is one who agrees with me, an enemy one who disagrees.

Dialectic is a cooperative search for the truth beyond opinion. Lack of agreement is a welcome opportunity to test one’s own opinions/beliefs for error. Common agreement is sought and it doesn’t matter to either party which initial opinion is closer to the agreed-upon conclusion. Anger is not a characteristic of dialectic. Thoughtful consideration of the other’s beliefs and arguments, even when they would put one’s own at risk, is the chief characteristic. Each side is willing to state their true beliefs and expose them to the hazard of refutation. Friendship is no longer contingent on agreement/disagreement but is based on a mutual willingness to help the other and be helped by him/her.

What makes eristic frustrating is that the attempts to persuade the other often seem so counterproductive. Eristic is essentially scandalizing, a scandal being a situation in which attempts to remove an obstacle makes it more entangling. Opposing an eristic opponent increases, rather than decreases, the strength of their opposition. The spirited/competitive part of the soul, the thumos, is excited by opposition and becomes all the more determined to win supremacy.

The chief discriminator between the two is the type of object that each one pursues:

You should not make such wholesale charges against the majority, for they’ll no doubt come to a different opinion, if instead of indulging your love of victory (philonikia) at their expense, you soothe them and try to remove their slanderous prejudice against the love of learning (philomathia), by pointing out what you mean by a philosopher and by defining the philosophic nature and way of life, as we did now, so they’ll realize that you don’t mean the same people as they do. And once they see it your way, even you will say they’ll have a different opinion from the one you attributed to them and will answer differently. Or do you think that anyone who is gentle and without malice is harsh with someone who is neither irritable nor malicious?

[The] harshness the majority exhibit towards philosophy is caused by these outsiders who don’t belong and who’ve burst in like a band of revellers, always abusing one another, indulging their love of quarrels, and arguing about human beings in a way that is wholly inappropriate to philosophy…     Republic, Grube/Reeve translation, 499d-500b

Both polemical disputants and dialectical participants are passionate, but oriented toward vastly different objects of desire. Victories cannot be shared without diminishment, whereas learning can. Philonikia (love of victory) is essentially scandalous, whereas philomathia (love of learning) is not.

This passage also contains one of the motives for Socratic irony. The distinguishing feature of Socratic rhetoric is its insistence on questioning and on its ironic detachment from answers. Socratic irony is a stance of surrendering the rivalrous philonikia, the desire for victory, in those win/lose situations that excite the thumos. In a competitive struggle for such goods — particularly for metaphysical objects like honors, power, popularity, fame — someone must be sacrificed/defeated to remove the scandal. Socratic irony is an act of removing the acquisitive mimetic postures that lead to mimetic rivalry and replacing them with the kenotic posture of ignorance and preemptive defeat. In a world of competitive polemical debate, to admit ignorance is to be defeated. To give up claim to the trophy or victory at the level of eristic clears the way for a common pursuit of a sharable good such as learning.

Rules for Socratic dialectic

From the Gorgias of Plato it is possible to extrapolate a set of rules for Socratic dialectic as it is used in the Gorgias and in the dialogues generally…A compendium of rules derivable from the Gorgias follows:

  • The answers must be short. When Socrates asks Gorgias a question, he answers with a long speech; Socrates requests that he keeps his answers short (448e)
  • Both participants must desire to understand what the argument is about; in this way they advance the argument (453b).
  • Both parties in the dialogue must understand that the one who asks the questions is speaking on behalf of the audience, many of whom are too shy to speak. In short, the questioner is interested not only for his own sake but also for that of people in general (455d).
  • Both speakers must have good will and must be consistent. If both parties are not alike in this respect, the conversation must be ended. If the answerer gets caught in a contradiction — an aporia (the Greek word means “a place of no exit”) — he must not become angry. To be caught in a contradiction is not a disgrace, if one’s answers were sincere; in fact, it is a blessing, for now he knows that what he thought was in error. And surely, Socrates says, no person wants to be in error (457d).
  • Each interlocutor aims at getting the other to be a witness to what the interlocutor has said: what the other is to be a witness to is the truth of what has been said, for such agreement means that the arguments square with reality. If such an agreement is not reached, nothing will have been accomplished (472b, 474a, and 475).
  • When such agreement is achieved, we have friendship. Truth has the power to unite human beings in friendship, but error and falsehooods do not (473a).
  • The dialogue must be between two people only. The practitioner of dialectic must speak with only one person at a time (474b).
  • Contradiction guarantees what is said is not true; if there is a choice between what is contradictory and what is not contradictory, what is  not contradictory, however absurd, must be true (480e).
  • There are three prerequisites of intellectual character for engaging in dialogue (487a): (1) knowledge: each participant must know something and recognize knowledge when he sees it; that is, he must recognize when words square with reality; (2) good will: that is, each participant must have his opponent’s welfare at heart; he must be arguing for truth, not victory; (3) that each must speak freely; that is, each must say what is on his mind and not hedge or equivocate or hold back (487a).
  • Each participant must be aware that repetition does not invalidate truth. No matter how familiar a truth may be to a participant, no matter how trite a truism may sound, he must acknowledge its truth and not turn away out of boredom, looking for something different out of a desire for novelty (490e).
  • Sincerity is essential in each interlocutor: each must say what he believes or the implied contract in the dialectical conversation is broken (495a).
  • Engaging in the dialogue is the greatest good in and for life, for this is to engage in philosophy (500c).
  • All people should compete in the pursuit of truth through this dialectic, for only from sincere, prolonged competition will truth emerge. And truth is a common good for humankind (505e).
  • If an argument is true, one must see what follows from it. In other words, the dialogue must go on, no matter where it leads (508b).

From “Appendix B” of Plato: Gorgias, translated by James A. Arieti and Roger M. Burns, Focus Publishing, 2007.

I think it is worth the effort to meditate slowly over this list and ask why each of these injunctions are important.

By the way, my absolutely favorite translations of Greek texts are those done by Focus Philosophical Library. Arieti and Burns’ translation of the Gorgias is an exemplary edition with a nice critical apparatus. Highly recommended. I just reread Joe Sach’s volume by Focus called Socrates and the Sophists and was delighted in its profundity, particularly Sachs’ introduction to the volume.