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.

“Metaphysical Desire in Girard and Plato”

That’s the title of a paper that I presented at the 2010 Colloquium on Violence and Religion at Notre Dame — a version of which was published in the journal Comparative and Continental Philosophy (Volume 2.2, 2010). Here is a link to the Notre Dame version, which I introduce in lieu of a substantive post: Metaphysical Desire in Girard and Plato.

I mention it so that I can segue from a detour into Peirce & Girard back to my (still Girardian) reading of Plato. Now that I have discussed the importance of mimetically-mediated shared attention in human meaning-making through a discussion of Peirce and Girard, I would like to now emphasize its importance in Plato through this paper, particularly the way philia/friendship works to shape such attention. I also want to gesture toward a way out of the violent foundations upon which most of human meaning-making is unfortunately and unintentionally based.

The issue of “positive mimesis” is a controversial one in Girardian circles. On the one hand, the pessimist/realist camp of Girardians tend to dismiss most talk of positive mimesis as forms of  mythological disguise manifesting a Pelagian avoidance of the hard truths of mimetic desire and scapegoating (and it can tilt that way in practice); on the other hand, the optimist/romantic camp observes correctly that Girard himself accepted that mimesis is not all bad, that there are (and must be) positive forms of it, as in the Imitatio Christi. I admit to a sympathy for both points of view and in developing my own (dialectical?) version of positive mimesis, I pray that I don’t overlook the true insights of the “realist” side, a side to which I belong by disposition (I am a Calvinist after all.) I guess my claim would be that while our cosmology/anthropology should be realist, our eschatology/ecclesiology had better not accept current reality as fated necessity. Human beings must live in a “tension of existence” between these two poles of realist acceptance and eschatological aspiration — see Soren Kierkegaard and Eric Voegelin as champions of this point of view.

What Girard missed in Plato

One of the pleasures of being a member in good standing of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion is that every so often I am sent a pile of books by Michigan State University Press by Girardian authors. Yesterday’s surprise included two new books by Rene Girard himself: When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer and The One by Whom Scandal Comes. What a treat!

However, one of the chapters of the Conversations book has the title “Mimetic Desire: Shakespeare rather than Plato.” (You can picture my grimace if you’d like.) There are really only a few terse mentions of Plato in the chapter from which I will quote. Note that the book is an extended interview and “MT” is Michel Treguer and “RG” is Rene Girard: (more…)

Scandal and story-telling

One of my favorite podcasts is the New Yorker Fiction Podcast in which a published New Yorker Magazine story author picks another author’s story from the archives, reads it out loud and discusses it with a New Yorker editor. Listening to that podcast a few days ago, I chanced upon the story “Adams” written by George Saunders and read by Joshua Ferris. (Here is a link to that podcast reading and discussion. Here is a link to the text of the story from the New Yorker archives if that works better for you.) I mention it because Saunders’ story is a near perfect (more…)

Upcoming posts

Here are a few posts that you can look forward to over the coming weeks/months:

1. A continuation of my introduction to Mimetic Theory, including the following topics: the gospel unmasking of sacrificial myths, the apocalyptic situation that results from this unmasking, the notion of “structural innocence”, the “interdividual” status of human beings, the mimetic origins of occult phenomena, hominization and the birth of meaning, and (more…)

The Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard, Part 1/3

(This is the first of three connected posts. If you would like to read all three parts in a single post, click here.)

The Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard is a chief source of insight for me both personally and academically. Since my book project will make constant use of Girardian ideas in interpreting Plato, I think its necessary to unpack this subject a little for the uninitiated  so that what I write later can make sense. For those who are already initiated in Girardian thought, I lift up my interpretation to your critical review in gratitude and humility so that you can help me distinguish between Girard’s theory and my interpretation of the same. This will take a few posts to get through, but here is a first attempt: (more…)