On deep agreement

Here is Rene Girard in an interview with David Cayley describing his first discovery of the phenomenon of mimetic desire:

I went to Indiana University with a student visa. And I was doing a PhD in history because I was more of a historian than I was a — I was not at all a literary man — and I was teaching the French language at Indiana University and very quickly they gave me some literature to teach — novels: Balzac…Stendhal…Proust, you know — and much of the time I was just a few pages ahead of my students [laughs]. You know, I hadn’t read the books and I didn’t know what to say. And I decided that I should look — very deliberately — that I should look for what made these books alike rather than for what makes them different from each other, which is what literary criticism, even in those days, was after. You know, a book was a masterpiece only if it was absolutely one-of-a-kind, if you could find nothing in it that would be in another book, which is complete nonsense of course! So I became interested in human relations in the novel, you know — how the vanity in Stendhal, how close it is to the snobbery in Proust…

— From the CBC IDEAS radio show. Here’s a link to the whole series produced by David Cayley called “The Scapegoat.”

What I find interesting is Girard’s decision to look for similarities in novels, rather than differences, as a way of getting at something that would be lost if one fixated on differences. There is a common tendency, one to which Girard alludes, to treat the essence of a thing as that which makes it different from other things. In the history of ideas, we think we understand a thought best when we set it against another — Plato vs. Aristotle or Catholic vs. Protestant — when in fact, the similarities probably greatly outweigh the differences in such pairings.

(Aside: I stumbled across a book at the book store a few weeks ago called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. It is pretty much as bad as it sounds. I maintain that while there are many differences between Plato and Aristotle, in both style and emphasis, they are in basic agreement concerning what most matters to each. To take Mr. Herman’s approach is to mostly miss what can be discovered in exploring their deep kinship and thus to fail to understand either.)

Let’s entertain the hypothesis for a moment that when it comes to the truth of an idea, deep agreement with other ideas is more vital than open disagreement. Perhaps kinship and commonality are where the real power lurk within ideas. If so, there are two important things to be said:

  1. Such agreement makes communication possible. Diverse minds can only understand one another when they have access to a common reality. As Heraclitus writes “To be thoughtful is common to all.  (Fragment 113: Xynon esti pasi phronein.)  To take a hard perspectival (Protagorean) view and deny that we share a common mental reality is to deny communication at all — a self-contradictory sharing. And since the vehicle of communication is the medium of thought, i.e. the logos, we are attempting to meaningfully deny meaning, another performative contraction. Again we turn to Heraclitus and his concept of to xynon (“the common”): “The logos is common, most live as though they have a private wisdom.”
  2. But where there is agreement, no communication is really necessary. Therefore, what is deeply common usually doesn’t get expressed at all. Common understanding is tacitly assumed and therefore never becomes an object of open reflection or communication. What do get voiced are points of disagreement, which assume the common noetic reality, without ever really expressing it. We notice the points at which we disagree and fail to notice the more fundamental places where we are in unshakable agreement, just our vision is alert to things that move but become inured to what never does. Alfred Whitehead once remarked that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” What is tacitly assumed, but not spoken of because too obvious, is perhaps more definitive of a society that whatever verbal formulations it may entertain concerning itself. The Platonic/Socratic challenge to adequately define virtue, in concert with all the failed attempts to do so, points toward tacit possession of what cannot be voiced.

All of this relates to my project of defective reading. If the common is usually not summoned in to speech, it underlies all our speaking such that we can recognize that something is wrong/missing in a verbal account without being able to give adequate voice to it.

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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!

Mind, truth and commonality

I want to discuss a feature of ancient Greek thinking that is certainly alien to the metaphysical presuppositions of our age: namely, that mind/nous is not a faculty of our individual minds but a single, transcendent, common ground on/toward which our various intellects participate/relate. As thinkers we participate in it as much as we do our environing physical world. While each of us may hold distinct opinions about this or that, different knowers know the same thing and not just identical replicas of the same thing. Knowers live in a common (zynon) world, joined as they are to a common mind.

Think for a moment of how we might communicate the meaning of a word like “banana” to someone who doesn’t speak the language: Tarzan, let’s say. We would hold up the common object, the physical banana, pronounce the word “banana” and hope that Tarzan grasps the link between word and thing. A hard matter to accomplish, but certainly possible. Now, imagine trying to communicate the meaning of the word without the physical banana present in common between us. Try to teach Tarzan over the telephone without common access to a world of things. Now we can say “banana” to our heart’s content and never advance one iota toward communication. An ability to communicate presupposes commonality: either the commonality of objects between two people who don’t share a language or the commonality of language (which itself must originate in a common world.)

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