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


Mind extended into things

I think better on paper than I do in my head. When I read, I don’t just scan with my eyes but actively annotate with my ever ready mechanical pencil. If I am trying to develop an idea that has many moving parts, I have to write it out in list form and I only see the unifying theme when I can reduce it all to a single synoptic page. My work is very much in my mind when I am sitting at my (admittedly messy) desk, but almost completely out of mind when I am away from it. My mind spills out of my brain and becomes suffused with the things around me and by manipulating those things, I can make discoveries in thought. Here a few thoughts to chew over:

1. My mind is embodied but is located neither solely in my brain nor my body but extended through my tools and material touchstones.

2. ‘We have no power of thinking without signs’ (Peirce) but it makes little difference whether the signs are in my internal imagining or present in the form of external signs. My mind ‘spills out’ into the world.

3. My mind is indeed a whole of some kind, but not a whole in the sense of a delimited thing with size, shape or physical boundaries.

4. A mind is a “form of activity” in the Aristotelian sense. A mind is a “realization of form” in the Platonic sense.

5. The material substrate of this activity is brain+body+prosthetics.

6. I have noticed in some of my older, now deceased relatives, that their minds declined precipitously when they were moved from their homes into a sterilized, hospital-like environment, such as a nursing home. Although there are many explanations for this phenomenon, it is at least consistent with the notion that their minds weakened by age depended on the physical cues in their home environment, that their homes and the ordered stuff were invested with Proustian memory and know-how. They literally lost part of their minds in being displaced.

7. Back when I was a Naval Aviator, I noticed that much of my know-how was “stored” in the physical architecture of the airplane I would fly. If I were removed from the cockpit, procedures that were second nature to me could only be recalled with effort and then only by imagining myself in the cockpit reaching for knobs and switches. Once I was having all kinds of difficulty remembering my call-sign during my radio calls (the sign was always based on the tail-number of whatever plane I happened to be flying). I couldn’t understand the source of my difficulties until I discovered that a piece of electrical tape was partially obscuring an engraved plate that had as its last two digits the specific tail number of the plane. As soon as I removed the tape, my difficulties went away. Until then, I was totally unaware that I relied on this visual cue for knowing my call sign. I always assumed that I had always just remembered it from our initial plane assignment and/or seeing the number on the tail when I approached it. Instead, it seems that my mind outsourced this function from the brain to the environment. Again, there was no conscious strategy on my part.

8. I am reading two books dealing with the issue of technological mind extension: a cyber-punk novel called Accelerando by Charles Stross and a philosophical argument for extended mind called Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark. The former, which explored the potential of neural implants, seemed slightly crazy to me until I read the argument of the latter. Here is a link to an essay co-written by Andy Clark and David Chalmers called “The Extended Mind,” the argument of which is the basis of Clark’s book.

9. See this article about a blind climber given a device that allows him to “see” with his tongue. Pretty amazing.

10. See an article about inversion goggles and how the mind fairly easily adapts to a change in data presentation as long as the new presentation is functionally equivalent. It reminds me of how easy it turned out to be for me to adjust to driving on the left-hand side of the road in Japan. My brain found that the American “right” is the equivalent is looking across the car and “left” is equivalent to looking away from the car. After a little while, the translation was effortless.

11. Michael Polanyi’s example of using a hammer or a blind man’s stick as examples of the to/from nature of embodied existence:

The way we use a hammer or a blind man uses his stick, shows in fact that in both cases we shift outwards the points at which we make contact with the things that we observe as objects outside ourselves. While we rely on a tool or probe, these are not handled as external objects. We may test the tool for its effectiveness or the probe for its suitability, e.g. in discovering the hidden details of a cavity, but the tool and the probe can never lie in the field of these operations; they remain necessarily on our side of it, forming part of ourselves, the operating persons. (Personal Knowledge, p. 59)


This is just grist for the mill. Later, I will bring this back to Plato/Aristotle and the ideas that (1) the necessary material of thought is whatever is capable of receiving the governing form, and (2) forms are forms of wholeness that govern activities, including thought.

The emergent longing for wholeness

I have long been interested in the emergent effect of complexity, particularly in human affairs. It seems that any coordinated relation of parts tends to summon some whole which becomes an actor in its own right independent of any particular decision. All of us adapt ourselves to wholes without realizing what we are doing. Think of how each group that stays together develops a specific character, almost a personality, and this quasi-independence of the emergent whole often seems resistant to any of the actor’s attempts to change it: a corporate culture or the ethos of family, tribe or nation. Some of these emergent effects can seem bad, whether on Wall Street or unhappy workplaces or dysfunctional athletic teams, but I wonder if the integrity that each emergent whole makes present is not at heart a good thing that only becomes perverted by resisting the full summons of the encompassing whole’s drive toward a greater integrity. Wholeness is normative and the source of all that is truly desirable. Human beings long for community/koinonia, a longing that has as its engine the encompassing whole that is transcendent to each participant but immanent within the larger body of participants.

Here are two citations from Plato that point to what I am groping to convey:

Parmenides 157c-e (Perseus project translation): “But the whole must be one composed of many and of this the parts are parts. For each of the parts must be a part, not of many, but of a whole.” “How is that?” “If anything is a part of many, and is itself one of the many, it will be a part of itself, which is impossible, and of each one of the others, if it is a part of all. For if it is not a part of some particular one, it will be a part of the rest, with the exception of that one, and thus it will not be a part of each one, and not being a part of each one, it will not be a part of any one of the many. But that which belongs to none cannot belong, whether as a part or as anything else, to all those things to none of which it belongs.” “That is clear.” “Then the part is a part, not of the many nor of all, but of a single form and a single concept which we call a whole, a perfect unity created out of all this it is of which the part is a part.”


Symposium (Jowett translation): “[H]uman nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called Eros.”

The part must relate to the whole to be what it is. The part has no life as the part it is without subsuming itself to its whole. Every part, to the extent it is a part, essentially desires to be integrated into its defining whole. This relation to the whole is ontologically prior to every other relationship. The part’s participation in the whole cannot be achieved without the co-participation of the other parts. Human beings long to be themselves and yet this longing unsettles any presumed independence. The deficiency out of which human eros springs is a lack of wholeness. (Partial) participation in the whole excites a part toward full participation. One can only fully participate by coming into relationship with other parts of the same ordering whole. One part cannot fully relate to the whole without cooperating with the other parts in achieving their relation to the whole. I cannot be what I ultimately want to be unless the other has also achieved his/her proper fulfillment. Our longing for wholeness is thus necessarily a mutuality of aspiration. I cannot enter the human whole, the koinonia of the one, without loving the others enfolded within the same whole as me. Any interest of mine that interferes with the neighbor’s own true interest must be self-deluded.

The whole must agree with all its parts; the parts must agree with each other; each part must agree with the whole. This trinity of agreements is the basis of all true integrity, community and desire.

What I think I understand about Platonic form

My title is tentative, I know, and so is what follows. But we always must begin with the tentative, in its etymological sense of stretching — stretching toward what we don’t yet fully know and yet which grips us by means of anticipations present in the desire to know. I want to write a straightforward statement of what I believe forms to be in Plato. I have no book in front of me and so will not cite any texts. My purpose is to lay bare my own pre-understanding so that I will have a sample to test against the texts themselves. The dialogues are the testing-stone, the basansos, that I can measure myself against when I do return to them, and measure myself without evasions. (It is as if I write what follows in answer to a kind of subpoena from a divine judge — I will really try not to perjure myself!) (more…)

The Relation between Knowledge and Understanding

Knowledge and Understanding are intimately related, and yet different, operations. In my post on The Phenomenon of Questioning, I made the claim that “Knowledge is parasitic on understanding — we can’t really know what is not meaningful to us…One may certainly have another type of relationship to someone/something that isn’t understood, but that relationship is not knower-to-known.” As a follow up, I want to explore a bit the differences and relationship between knowledge and understanding. I will be relying on some of the insights from my (more…)