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 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 structure of Plato’s Republic

I think the structure of the Republic is vitally important to understanding its meaning. Every dialogue, and especially this one, is an organized whole, and none of the parts will be fully understood if the nature of the whole is overlooked. Perhaps a first clue towards discovering this structure is in the obvious point that the dialogue is a drama, a type of play. If I were to divide Plato’s Republic into five acts as in a play, I would carve it this way: (more…)

On Defective Reading

I call my project the “Defective Reading” of Platonic philosophy. My working hypothesis is that defects can only be experienced as defects if there is at work an anterior/immanent norm of completion or wholeness. The defect is “seen” by the “light” provided by the sense of wholeness/completion animating the beholder. The light is not seen, but seen by. Once one become aware of a defect, in an argument for instance, an inner norm becomes energetic and operative. Defects excite such norms, whereas self-satisfied opinions depress them. Moments of such defective awareness thus present the best chance (more…)

Anatomy of Platonic Eros

There is a certain guidance each person needs for his whole life, if he is to live well; and nothing imparts this guidance — not high kinship, not public honor, not wealth — nothing imparts this guidance as well as love” [i.e. eros]  — Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, translated by Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff (Hackett Publishing, 1989), 178C-D.

In order to understand how eros can function as a guide for life, I think it is helpful to anatomize eros into four interrelated parts: 1) penia, 2) poros, 3) chorismos, and 4) kinesis (more…)

Felt Absence and the Quest for Virtue

In Book II of the Republic, Socrates lays out a strategy for determining the meaning of dikaiosyne, a word translated almost universally in Plato translations as “justice,” and just as universally in New Testament translations as “righteousness”. His strategy is peculiar to say the least: let’s make the soul large to our view by creating a city in speech; let’s look for the three (other) virtues of wisdom, courage and moderation; whatever virtue is left over must be justice. How can we take this method of discovery seriously? Questions abound: (more…)

Provisional Aims of My Book Project

I intend to write a book about Plato’s Republic, particularly about his notion of doxa (opinion/seeming) as it relates to the quest for wisdom. My working title is “A Defective Reading of Plato’s Republic.” A truncated list of the theses I intend to defend in my book and to begin airing out in my blog:

1) That knowledge is something above (not reproducible to) doxa and yet the communication of knowledge must be mediated by opinion/doxa.
2) That opinion/doxa is defective in relation to knowledge and its defect must become focal in order to ascend to knowledge.
3) That desire/eros requires an awareness of defect joined to an anticipation of satisfying what is missing, what I am calling “felt absence.”
4) That the question arising from the defect in opinion/doxa, that shapes a search, is properly erotic.
5) That the Divided Line is the interpretive key to the Republic and that its function is to establish a form of erotic exhortation/protrepsis to overcome the intentional defects of the dialogue.
6) That the constructions of the “city in speech” in the Republic is a concrete illustration of the groping toward Form schematized in the Divide Line
7) That the Platonic educational program is one devoted to the liturgical shaping of philosophical desire.
8) That dialogic irony is a rhetorical form that attempts to avoid the premature satisfaction of scandalized belief.
9) That the conversion/periagoge which constitutes the end of education cannot be reduced to doxa.
10) That forms are heuristic anticipations of the overcoming of doxic defect produced by nonrivalrous forms of mediation.
11) That friendship/philia  is an essential component of true philosophical praxis.
12) That the Republic is intentionally defective and its true teaching is not given in the dialogue itself.

I realize that these theses are too truncated and thus incapable in themselves of communicating my interpretation of Plato’s thought. (This incapacity of direct speech to communicate vital truth is something that I believe Kierkegaard learned from Plato.) But one can point, direct attention and provoke thought in a particular direction. One of the ironies of my book is the attempt to say directly what cannot really be said directly. Wallace Stephens wrote that “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” I am worried that my book will be all too successful in this resistance!