The Meno Paradox and the the Intentional Remainder of desire

(Another post on trying to articulate Plato’s use of the term “doxa”, i.e. opinion. I hope you will forgive me!)

Opinion can be used in either a pejorative or positive sense. On one hand, opinion can be a dead end, a idolatrous substitute for knowledge, dampening concern for the desire that informs it. On the other hand — assuming that one’s beliefs/opinions are the expression of a desire to know what is true — then opinion can function as a bridge between ignorance and knowledge. In either case, opinion is intentional. (There is also the fact that opinion informs all of our practical behavior; we couldn’t function without it.)

What do I mean when I describe opinion as “intentional”? An opinion is the expression of a movement toward some telos, which in the case of intellectual eros, is to know the real. Opinion is a first attempt to satisfy the intellectual eros — although it never fully can. Its proper end is never mere appearance but something true and good. Eros is the root of the kinesis toward the real. Every eros aims at the good of truth and opinion provides a provisional satisfaction of that aim. Socrates makes the point again and again that every desire really desires what is good — not an apparent good, but a real one. Socrates directs attention to the inadequacy of one’s doxa to satisfy the demands of intellectual (noetic) eros. The difference between real and apparent is for Plato also an epistemological question: “What is really so?” Intellectual desire intends knowledge of the real. Of course, most of the time we allow ourselves to be satisfied with mere appearance. This creates a difference between (A) the satisfaction that we think satisfies our desire and (B) that which is really good but which we don’t yet recognize as such. The difference between these (B-A), i.e. the difference between the real and the apparent, is what I shall call the “intentional remainder”.  It remains as a haunting reminder, the felt absence of the satisfaction of eros which is not yet fully realized in opinion.

The Meno Paradox is at the core of my thinking — the question: how can we search for what we don’t know? If we don’t already know what we are looking for, then seeking is impossible. And yet if we do already know, then seeking is unnecessary. So, the paradox implies that seeking is either impossible or unnecessary. Obviously, seeking is both possible and necessary, as we all know from experience. The apparent paradox implies a strict either/or that is inconsistent with the both/and/neither/nor essence of seeking. All desirous seeking must anticipate its end and be able to recognize it when reached. Every desire includes the criterion of its own satisfaction. This criterion is a heuristic anticipation of what would fulfill the intention. Meno’s notion of learning is that there is nothing in-between ignorance and knowledge. Self-satisfied with the appearance of wisdom and frightened by the appearance of ignorance in his soul, he fails to grasp the in-between character of intellectual eros.

A comparison between what one doesn’t know and what one wants to know haunts every stage. Any hint that a search is getting close is sufficient to generate strong feeling. I have often noticed a thrilling rush of emotion that precedes my discovery of an answer. This everyday phenomenon of seeking ought to alert us that the emptiness or lack of desire is not altogether separated from noetic insight. Desire has three components: (1) felt absence, (2) anticipation of fulfillment and (3) a movement from lack toward intended fulfillment — two poles and the erotic bridge between them. Each of these components is generated by noetic insight: (i) Socrates asks for a definition, which provokes a desire to know — felt absence is dominant. (ii) The respondent answers with a definition that seems to satisfy that desire — the anticipation of fulfillment is dominant. (iii) The definition is shown to be faulty, making the intentional remainder dominant. The question is reasserted, which reasserts the intellectual desire and its demand for full satisfaction. Making an implicit noetic insight explicit is the process that Socrates calls anamnesis: the criterion of the satisfaction of intellectual desire precedes the actual fulfillment and drives the search. Each stage is at least partially a product of the light of noesis. At each successive stage, the light of noetic insight ought to increase.

(A slight aside. If the term “following your heart” has any meaning it is this — that you must not ignoring the promptings of the intentional remainder when a comfortable pseudo-satisfaction has been reached.)

Socrates both asks for a definition and infallibly demonstrates its inadequacy — in doxa, there is always a remainder. Definitions have remainders and the generation of remainders is a definition’s most important work. The remainder is, in fact, not incidental to the attempt to define, but is an effect of the attempt, perhaps its chief effect. The search for definition produces in the soul a proper intellectual eros, which fourth question shapes and refines. What Socrates is trying to create is not just a true definition, but even more importantly a property oriented intellectual eros. It is the definition that is incidental!

Of course, this benefit of the intentional remainder depends on the intention. If what is being sought is the appearance of truth or a reputation for knowledge, the intentional remainder will not direct thinking in the correct direction. Only if the desire to know becomes the prime criterion of satisfaction does the intention, and its intentional remainders, have epistemological value.
For instance polemical situation tends to derail opinion from its kinesis toward truth, because it shifts the object of desire from a desire for knowledge to a desire for victory. Then the opinion that is a seeming-true confronts a counter-opinion that is a seeming-false. The victory motive of thumos replaces the intentional object from truth to overcoming the other’s pretension to superiority. Stubborn opinions usually have polemical support. Opinions are pliable and receptive when truth is the goal, but a desire to assert oneself competitively can derail advance toward knowing the real and harden our striving into dogma.

The duality of opinion

All opinion is partial. It always treats as the whole true an aspect that seems true. But other aspects are always possible. A particular opinion is prone to wander away from its seeming-true to reveal another face of reality. Opinion harbors a residue — a marker, usually some nagging feeling like doubt or hesitancy — of what has been abstracted away in order to make opinion seem true. For belief there is focal confidence and excluded, affective doubt. In thinking, both confidence and doubt are included and made focal. In any case, opinion is a dual phenomenon — it is always only ambiguously true. This duality is often masked from the one who holds the opinion. It takes a special effort to “see” what is outside its frame.

Socrates often refers to those moments in experience where the repressed other of opinion becomes unveiled and duality revealed. The paradoxes of optical illusions provide good examples. But even our everyday experiences harbor dualities. In one passage in Republic, Book VII (523c-e), Socrates turns to an experiment that I like to call the “three-finger exercise.”  Look at three fingers of your hand: specifically the pinky, ring-finger and middle-finger. Compared to the other fingers the pinky is small and the middle-finger large. This seems so-far unambiguous. But now look at the ring-finger. Is it small or large? It is either small and large, depending on which of the other fingers serves as the ground of comparison. “Large” and “small” are definite features of appearance, and yet they depend on their context, on what is proximate to them. Another favorite example of Plato’s is the one and the two: each of a pair is a one, but within the pair it is a half. Each one only brings oneness to the table, yet when combined with another one, there are emergent properties of two-ness and half-ness.

These examples may seem uninteresting, but they are special cases manifesting the ambiguity present in all opining. Usually, what appears true *seems* to be a property of the focal thing, but the property shifts when the thing is placed in different contexts. These thought experiments of Socrates demonstrate that something else is going on, that seeming depends on context. The examples Socrates gives are trivial, no doubt. However, if we turn our attention to debatable (and debated) social goods like justice and goodness, isn’t it likely that something similar is going on — that what *seems just* from our perspective, may *seem unjust* to another and vice-versa? And isn’t it also clear that the criterion of “seeming-just” is not sufficient to adjudicate between these competing visions? Could it be that we are just adroit at repressing aspects that disturb our comfortable self-assessment?

Socrates calls moments of paradoxical appearance (as in the three-finger exercise), parakletikai, “provocatives”, in that they provoke thought to one’s aid:

The experiences that do not provoke thought are those that do not at the same time issue in a contradictory perception. Those that do have that effect I set down as provocatives (parakletikai), when the perception no more manifests one thing than its contrary, alike whether its impact comes from nearby or afar. (Rep. 523b-c)

Our usual dealings with the world hide duality behind a veil of taken for granted belief. Aporia and paradox are useful for bringing thinking to bear on an issue:

“Yes, indeed,” he said, “these communications to the soul are strange and invite reconsideration.” “Naturally, then,” said I, “it is in such cases as these that the soul first summons (parakalousa) to its aid the calculating reason and tries to consider whether each of the things reported to it is one or two.” (Rep. 524b)

Thinking is the attempted adjudication between competing visions of the true. Thinking begins by summoning into focal presence the otherwise tacit aspects of opinion. The duality that haunts opinion and is avoided in belief (pistis) becomes thematic in thinking (dianoia). Perhaps Socrates has so much interest in sophists because they are expert in exploring this duality and relativity present in all opinion. (The Euthydemus is a particularly good dialogue to take as an example.) Skilled sophists are able to manipulate the seeming-true of opinion by creating the contextual conditions for their preferred seeming-true to gain force. Manufacturing opinion is particularly easy when the job is simply to reinforce the seeming-true of the vulgar, since only a patient exercise of difficult thinking is sufficient to dislodge it. The mob doesn’t think. If it did, it wouldn’t be a mob.

“Partiality” is when we privilege one aspect of this duality to the exclusion of the other. For instance, in giving reasons for a favored political policy, a partisan concentrates on the benefits of the policy to the exclusion of the costs. (Just listen to any partisan debate: one side will speak only of benefit, the other only of cost.) In evaluating our own virtue, our seeming-virtuous will be quite favorable if we contrast ourselves with the morally challenged. This is partiality. We tend to pay excessive attention to villainy, attention mirrored by the scandalizing obsessions of the press, in order to seem good to ourselves and others. Albert Camus wrote that “Each of us, in order to justify himself, relies on the other’s crimes.” There is also a bias called a “halo effect” in which a single fact or characteristic of a person or circumstance colors one’s opinion about the matter as a whole. Politicians who “look the part” have a leg up on the the one who doesn’t, even if the latter has superior political acumen. (We might also call this the Warren G. Harding effect.) Clearly, there are enormous political and moral implications at work here.

We can easily see the biases of others; we are much more blind to our own. This asymmetry creates the common-sense illusion that seeming-true is sufficient evidence for being-true. Thinking requires that we confront this bias, not just in others, but most importantly in ourselves. In order to have any possibility of overcoming the deficiencies of the seeming-true, we must account for our own self-deceptive tendencies. Transcendence of one’s opinion in favor of knowledge requires knowledge of our own biases. There is no knowledge of moral or political matters that can free itself from this demand for self-knowledge. What Plato claims we need is a “conversion” (metastrophe) away from accepting seeming-true as true and begin the slow process of liberating ourselves from our bondage to mere seeming. As Bernard Lonergan puts it, “Objectivity is the fruit of an authentic subjectivity” — i.e. a subjectivity that takes ownership of its own bias. We have to understand the chains that hold us fast before we can ever escape the prison of partiality.

FYI — One book that I have found useful for understanding the various forms of bias that plague our thinking is Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly. Most of the biases have their roots in the partiality of opinion as I have articulated above.

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?

The limits of skepticism

Skepticism is an important component of Socratic/Platonic reasoning, perhaps even its distinguishing part. (A later iteration of the Academy founded by Plato, an iteration which began with a shift of emphasis by its then director Arcesilaus around the middle of the 3rd Century BCE, was called in fact “The Skeptical Academy”.) It must be noted however that the root verb skeptsesthai means something more like “to conduct an investigation” than “to deny all positive assertions.” To be skeptical in the Platonic sense does mean to tease out the negative features, the defects, that haunt all honest attempts to assert what is true. But such skepticism, on discovering the dubious and defective, does not necessitate an unqualified denial. Thinking through opinion, a mode of cognition that Plato called dianoia, requires that we continue to hold the limited positive senses of assertions while remaining open to the anterior norms that make awareness of the negation possible. Opinion is an intermediate, a metaxy, between ignorance and knowledge. Participating in both, opinion always both reveals and conceals, indicates and detracts from knowledge. From the Divided Line, it is clear that as image stands to object, so in dianoia does opinion stand to truth. Both the positive anticipation and the nagging doubts are signs that witness to the true and “we have no power of thinking without signs” (C.S. Peirce).

A failure to understand a medium as a medium, a mistaking a means for an end, does enormous epistemological mischief. This failure is particularly acute when coupled with strong enforcement of the “Law of the Excluded Middle” — the “law” that claims that a proposition is either true or false simply with no third option. Descartes’ chief error is in restricting the realm of truth to those things that could be known with certainty, rejecting as false all statements that are in any way dubious. It is an error to reject as wholly false that which is in some sense true. But the realm of the excluded middle, the realm of what could be true but may not be, is a rejection of doxa as such, a rejection of the the only medium through which knowledge of the existentially vital may be approached. Although the abstract can be known with certainty, even this certainty breaks down when we attempt to apply it to the concrete world. Dianoia is a moderate position between rival errors: to reject as wholly false what is in some sense true, and to accept as uncritically true what is still open to doubt or error. Either of these stances is arbitrary and blind.

Thinking has a from-to character of the type that Michael Polanyi describes: “The subsidiaries of from-to knowing bear on a focal target, and whatever a thing bears on may be called it’s meaning. Thus the focal target on which they bear is the meaning of the subsidiaries.” (Personal Knowledge, p. 35)  To look *at* the opinion without looking *through* it (the “dia-” of dianoia) is a failure to understand what it is. (Plato’s hypothesis of the Forms is often a victim of this type of misreading.) In a Platonic examination — the skepsis of an honest opinion — the misgiving/doubt that inevitably results is not a bug but a feature.


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)

On “facile rejection”

One of my pet peeves is the facile dismissal of a philosopher’s entire corpus based on a criticism that can be summarized in a few lines or less. Let me call this the problem of “facile rejection.” For example, I continuously come across the same slogan-like criticisms:

  • Plato takes abstractions for realities and dismisses the concrete world;
  • Descartes tries to deduce the world from “I think therefore I am” and can never escape his head;
  • Kantian ethics are empty and formal and not applicable to lived existence;
  • Hegel is a sinister totalitarian who wants to reduce the other to the same;
  • Heidegger is a sinister totalitarian Nazi who couldn’t make room for “the other” in his being.

Obviously, I could go on…

Now there is something half-right in all of these criticisms. My objection to facile rejection is not directed against the criticisms themselves; it is that objections become outright rejections without redeeming what is still true in the philosophy. Here are some additional pointers toward what is wrong with facile rejection:

1. No philosophy cannot be entirely summarized without distortion, even by the originating philosopher. Only doxic versions of noetic insights are communicable and doxa is always defective in relation to noesis. (** Doxa is the word usually translated “opinion” and I discuss Plato’s technical understanding of the term here. **)

2. Understanding builds upon experience and it is important to try to reconstruct the experience that gives rise to the questions that the articulated philosophy tries to answer. An interpretation/criticism that is not grounded in the living question of the philosopher and the experiential background that gives rise to it fails to even engage the philosophy.

3. Since every work of philosophy as written must be written in the form of doxa, it must represent a middle ground between knowledge and ignorance. Doxa is neither true nor false but true/false. So a criticism that uncovers some evidence of ignorance cannot justly reject the entire doxa without making sense of the residual knowledge still indicated by it. I have found in reading the dialogues that rejected definitions by Socratic interlocutors often contain kernels of truth that haunt the rest of the dialogue. These bits of neglected truth glimmer in the dramatic developments, even if lost in the thematic ones.

4. The facile rejection of an entire philosopher’s work based on a single line of criticism is an indication that the one doing the rejection is probably stuck in a doxic mindset and that an adequate philosophy can be contained in a written doxa. This is a fallacy.

5. Although I have given examples of criticisms that have some merit, even if half-truths, many facile rejections are nothing more than rhetorical dismissals based on the latest philosophical fashion. Continental philosophy, more so than Analytic, tends to exhibit the facile rejection based on what is trending in the academy. (I say this as one who is generally more sympathetic to the Continentals than the Analytics.)

Interestingly, I learned most of this by studying Plato, the one who is lost in airy abstractions (per his facile critics). Isn’t it odd that Plato (by the standard facile rejection) is considered the most distant from concrete concerns and yet his philosophy is the most concrete in presentation?

The inescapablity of tradition

The greatest changes of all come not as a thief in the night, as the oak-tree from the acorn. The most radical of thinkers is soaked in tradition; he spends a lifetime bending ancient ideas to a slightly different use, and his followers soon revert to the familiar pattern while still mumbling the novel terms. And it is so: men can work only upon what they have inherited. Fresh experience and novel problems they must understand with instruments they have learned from those who came before them. New ideas they must grasp in the concepts they already know, for they have no others; new habits they must work slowly into the accustomed pattern of their lives.

— J. H. Randall, The Career of Philosophy, quoted in Kostas Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease


Some thoughts:

1. We cannot think in a vacuum. We never start from scratch. Even to reject a tradition is to be rooted in it.

2. A sentence is a vehicle of thought, a carrier of meaning, but the meaning of a string of written or spoken words is never confined to those words. Words neither initiate nor complete the meanings that they summon. Words have both histories and destinies, both of which are part of what the words “mean.”

3. Like any doxa, a tradition has both its satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The traditionalist is one who would remain comfortably ensconced in the satisfaction, against which the dissatisfaction is seen as threatening to his repose. The rebel would view the positive accomplishments of the tradition as excuses against participation in the energetic demands created by dissatisfaction. Both the satisfaction and dissatisfaction, affirmation and denial, are partial glimpses into the truth that tradition makes possible.

4. Fidelity to a tradition demands that we remain attentive to the dissatisfaction to which it gives rise. Every valid rejection is grounded in an affirmation that we have (perhaps unknowingly) inherited from our tradition.

5. We don’t reach truth by either simply rejecting or accepting doxa, but by thinking through it and by it.