Life as Non-totalizable Wholeness

A quote:

“All living beings are in effect characterized by a movement, which nothing can cause to cease, a movement that largely exceeds what is required by the satisfaction of needs and that, because of this, bears witness to an essential incompleteness. This incompleteness reveals that life is originarily bound to a world. Because the world to which the living being relates is essentially non-totalizable and unpresentable, living movement can not essentially complete itself. Thus, in the final analysis, life must be defined as desire, and in virtue of this view, life does not tend toward self-preservation, as we have almost always thought, but toward the manifestation of the world.”

From the abstract to “Life, Movement, and Desire” by Renaud Barbaras, Research in Phenomenology, Volume 38, Issue 1 (2008)

Living things are necessarily incomplete. Incompleteness is kinetic (“characterized by a movement”) and erotic (“defined as desire”) since it is in-complete only against the intuited backdrop of an encompassing whole. Barabaras is correct to say that this relation is “essentially non-totalizable and unpresentable” — to represent it would require completing it and to complete it would strip it of life. Plato is not just reticent to write deepest truths (e.g. discussions in Phaedrus and 7th Letter) — he is incapable of it. But what he can communicate is the incompleteness, the felt absence of the whole that is the source of movement and desire.

I am reminded of Socrates’ longing to bring the city-in-speech of the Republic to life:

“I should like, before proceeding further, to tell you how I feel about the Polis which we have described. I might compare myself to a person who, on beholding beautiful animals either created by the painter’s art, or, better still, alive but at rest, is seized with a desire of seeing them in motion or engaged in some struggle or conflict to which their forms appear suited; this is my feeling about the Polis which we have been describing.”  — Socrates in Plato’s Timaeus, 19b-c

To present a “living city”, as I believe Plato attempts in the Republic, must be to present it as incomplete but as containing the seeds of its striving in the recognition of that incompleteness. To read that work requires that we read it defectively. If he were to succeed in writing a satisfactory account, then it will be be inscribed not on paper but rather into living souls of his readers.

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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?

Ignorance vs. stupidity

Socrates
But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before [118b] that you are not only ignorant (ἀγνοεῖς) of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

Alcibiades
I am afraid so.

Socrates
Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity (ἀμαθίᾳ) my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, [118c] except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

— Alcibiades Major, 118a-c, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 8 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1955. Public domain edition available on the Perseus Project website.

In this passage, Alcibiades confesses to lacking the kind of wisdom that he has already admitted is necessary to achieve his political ambitions. Like most who rule, Alcibiades has concerned himself not at all about the proper aims of politics, but has obsessively focused on the means of gaining and maintaining political power. Socrates claims he is “wedded to stupidity” and in what follows, I would like to articulate the difference between ignorance (agnoia) and stupidity (amathia).

Ignorance (agnoia) is simply the state of not knowing something that is knowable. We are born ignorant, and although we are all successful in replacing ignorance with insight in many arenas of life, all of us are still well acquainted with it. There is nothing shameful in this as such — it just points to our limitations as finite human beings. Where ignorance does become shameful is when (1) we are presented with evidence of our ignorance, (2) the matter about which we are ignorant is of great importance,  (3) we make no effort either to cure or mitigate the consequences of our ignorance, and, (4) we continue acting as if we were not ignorant. This more shameful kind is of the type of which Socrates is accusing Alcibiades — the disease of amathia, which our translation rightly renders as “stupidity.”

A-gnoia means literally “not-knowing”; a-mathia means literally “not-learning.” Amathia can mean just the coarse state of being uneducated. However this type of amathia doesn’t really fit Alcibiades, a wealthy aristocrat who has been given access to the finest educators in Greece (including Socrates himself). In addition to the type of amathia that is an inability to learn, there is another form that is an unwillingness to learn. This later state can disguise itself with all the trappings of cultivated speech and manners, and yet still maintain itself in ignorance.  The former type is brutish; the latter, since its owners are otherwise capable and ambitious, can be brutal.

Robert Musil in an essay called “On Stupidity, distinguished between two forms of stupidity, one he called “an honorable kind” due to a lack of natural ability and another, much more sinister kind, that he called “intelligent stupidity”: 

In life one usually means by a stupid person one who is “a little weak in the head.” But beyond this there are the most varied kinds of intellectual and spiritual deviations, which can so hinder and frustrate and lead astray even an undamaged innate intelligence that it leads, by and large, to something for which the only word language has at its disposal is [still] stupidity. Thus this word embraces two fundamentally quite different types: an honorable and straightforward stupidity, and a second that, somewhat paradoxically, is even a sign of intelligence. The first is based rather on a weakness of understanding, the second more on an understanding that is weak only with regard to some particular, and this latter kind is by far the more dangerous.

–Quoted in “Voegelin’s Use of Musil’s Concept of Intelligent Stupidity in Hitler and the Germans” by Glenn Hughes, The Eric Voegelin Institute, 2007. I commend to you all three: the Hughes essay, the Musil essay and the Voegelin book cited within.

It is clear that Musil is talking about the two forms of amathia that I just articulated. He makes a strong moral case against the second, intelligent kind:

The higher, pretentious form of stupidity stands only too often in crass opposition to [its] honorable form. It is not so much lack of intelligence as failure of intelligence, for the reason that it presumes to accomplishments to which it has no right; . . . . This higher stupidity is the real disease of culture . . . and to describe it is an almost infinite task. It reaches into the highest intellectual sphere . . . . Years ago I wrote about this form of stupidity that “there is absolutely no significant idea that stupidity would not know how to apply; stupidity is active in every direction, and can dress up in all the clothes of truth. . . . The stupidity this addresses is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself.  (Ibid)

It is stunning that a problem like amathia can remain mostly invisible in a culture, given its serious consequences. (Note to the wise: it is still very much with us!) To call it out often requires real courage. Musil wrote his essay in 1937 in Austria. Obviously he had the Nazis very much in mind. On Musil’s reading, the disease of Naziism was due not a lack of intelligence. There were plenty of intelligent and accomplished Nazis. He accused them instead of the sin of stupidity, a moral deafness to the learning they had already received. This points to a real problem in dealing with amathia: since it is not due a lack of intelligence, amathia cannot be cured with “more education” but requires something akin to an existential conversion. Hughes writes in his essay:

[S]ince the “higher stupidity” consists not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings. Considering Voegelin’s analysis, we may say that the reversal of a spiritual sickness must entail a spiritual cure. It will involve a conversion: from a posture of closure toward the full scope of reason and the reality of spirit, to an existential openness toward the divine ground. And this cannot occur without an anxious and humble renunciation of the pride, the presumptuous hybris, that motivates and sustains existential closure toward the divine ground of being. (Ibid)

Our society is generally allergic to thinking that our ethical problems may be resistant to an increased educational effort and that the cure may require something as religious-sounding as “conversion”.  But Plato, having close access to the prototypical amathic type, i.e. the Sophists, knew better. More teaching of the usual sort just translates into greater forms of cunning and rationalization. As the Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.”  (Assuming bewilderment means the humility that follows upon “aporia”)

The uses of aporia: the torpedo-fish analogy in Plato’s Meno

 

MENO: Socrates, I certainly used to hear, even before meeting you, that you never did anything else than exist in a state of perplexity (aporia) yourself and put others in a state of perplexity. And now you seem to be bewitching me and drugging me and simply subduing me with incantations, so that I come to be full of perplexity. And you seem to me, if it is appropriate to make something of a joke, to be altogether, both in looks and other respects, like the flat torpedo-fish (narkē) of the sea. For, indeed, it always makes anyone who approaches it grow numb, and you seem to me now to have done that very sort of thing to me, making me numb (narkan). For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you. And yet thousands of times I have made a great many speeches about virtue, and before many people, and done very well, in my own opinion anyway; yet now I’m altogether unable to say what it is. And it seems to me that you are well-advised not to sail away or emigrate from here: for, if you, a foreigner in a different city, were to do this sort of thing, you would probably be arrested as a sorcerer. (Plato’s Meno 79e-80b This and future citations will be from the translation of Berns and Anastaplo, Focus Philosophical Library, 2004)

In this passage, Meno likens Socrates to a torpedo fish, a likeness with respect both to appearance (i.e. Socrates’ famous snub nose) and to his numbing effect on those who come into contact with him. Socrates accepts the aptness of the analogy with the proviso that the numbing shock of his questioning be understood as applying to himself as well. Given that Socrates has sanctioned the comparison (albeit in an amended form), how is one to understand it? Is it simply Socratic doubt that is at issue or is the analogy revelatory of other aspects of what Plato is up to in this dialogue?

The fish in question is the crampfish, or electric ray, which administers a paralyzing shock upon would-be predators as a means of effecting its escape. It is this latter aspect of its shock, the purpose of evasion, that Socrates perhaps finds objectionable in the the original analogy. On the contrary, Socrates admits to being as perplexed as his “victim.” Rather, it is Meno himself who, soon after drawing the analogy, attempts a “paralysis-and-escape” gambit of his own with his “contentious argument” (eristikon logon, 80d6-10). Socrates accuses Meno’s argument — that one cannot inquire into that which one does not already know — of creating the same kind of torpor attributed to the torpedo fish, an argument against which he contrasts his own theory of recollection:

So then one must 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. (81d-e)

Socratic questioning, unlike the shock of the torpedo fish, is not a means of evasion. On the contrary, Socrates’ shock has other uses — uses that get to the very essence of learning itself.

The Greek name for the torpedo fish is narkē, so called because of its power to benumb (narkan). This latter Greek word is the source of our English word, “narcotic.” A narcotic induces numbness and paralysis if applied is sufficient measure and Meno complains of just such symptoms:

For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you.  (80 a-b)

Indeed, his mouth has been paralyzed; he is at a loss to give the kind of speech about virtue he given before to some acclaim. He incorrectly infers however that his soul also has been numbed by Socrates’ questioning. Meno has assumed too close a linkage between voice and soul. He is quite correct to feel his soul numb, but it is the feeling and not the numbing that is the result of the Socratic shock. We may speculate that it is only when he is prevented from talking that he notices the paralysis of his own soul. Meno’s name means in Greek, “I remain.” Meno is the one who stays put, who fails to move, the one who is, in a deep sense and at the level of the soul, paralyzed — paralyzed by its own self-concealed ignorance. The encounter with Socrates makes such ignorance manifest; it forces Meno to “feel” his soul’s paralysis, perhaps for the first time.

Another English word descended from the same root is “narcissism.” Lest this connection appear spurious, notice how Socrates immediately responds to Meno’s torpedo-fish analogy:

SOCRATES: I’m aware of why you portrayed me in a likeness.
MENO: Why, indeed, do you suppose?
SOCRATES: So that I would make a likeness of you in return. And I know this about all beautiful people, that they delight in having images made of them; it pays for them. But I will not make an image in return.  (80c)

This is not the first time in the dialogue that Socrates has remarked on the physical beauty of Meno — he repeatedly invokes a stereotype of the Beautiful One, pampered and indulged by others. Meno the narcissist approaches the Socratic pool with a view to acquiring a reflected glimpse of himself through the reaction of a potential admirer. Indeed, Socartes reflects back quite a lot. We have already seen how Socrates reveals Meno’s torpedo-fish comparison to be a perverse reflection of Meno himself, a Meno who paralyzes inquiry through eristic arguments in an attempt to evade being refuted. But Meno also sees reflected back a person finally ignorant about the deepest concerns of humanity, a reflection painful and yet potentially redemptive. Indeed, Socrates proves to be a crueler mirror than Meno had hoped by so exposing the real man, and not the superficially handsome aspect he had expected.

One of the chief aspects of the dialogue is to warn against what may be called a “narcissism of learning.” The narcissist is one who tries to love without entering into a relationship with someone or something other. His comportment toward other beings is one of possession rather than relation. This carries over even in his approach to wisdom. Wisdom is an object of possession, something that he appropriates with the purpose of making him shine before others. Meno’s admiration of the sophist Gorgias and his adoration of his own speeches has little to do with the substance of what is said, but rather with its cosmetic value and the effect it has on an enraptured audience. The sophist is one who claims to possess wisdom, whereas the philosopher is the one who claims to love it, relate to it, and to submit to its claims. The style of speech that characterizes the sophist is the monologue, an essentially non-relational form in which the speaker is always in command of what is said. The philosopher, on the other hand, engages in dialogue, a relational give-and-take in which no one participant may claim to be in charge, in which each must adopt a posture of submission to the other and to truth when it appears. The slave-boy proves to be a better learner than Meno precisely because he knows what it means to submit; his learning is in no way bound up with narcissism.

A third English derivative from narkē, besides “narcotic” and “narcissism,” is “narcosis,” a word associated with sleep and drowsiness. After Socrates completes his dialogue with the slave boy, he discusses with Meno the advantage of the narcotic shock to the process of recollection:

SOCRATES: And now those very opinions have just been stirred up in him, like a dream. But if someone were to ask him these same questions many times and in different ways, you know that he will finally understand them no less precisely than anyone else. (85c)

Socrates says that the advantage of the shock is that it agitates the opinion, that it induces a dreamlike state in its patient. Indeed, the myth of recollection, with its cyclical notions of life and death, suggests that one’s life may be a sleep from which one must awake. The difference between opinion, even true opinion, and knowledge corresponds to the difference between dreaming and wakefulness:

SOCRATES: If then both during the time in which he is and the time in which he is not a human being, true opinions will exist in him, which after being aroused by questioning become matters of knowledge, then will not his soul for all time be in a condition of having learned? (86a)

However if the ascent to knowledge is likened to the process of waking up, what is the value of the shock of the narkē, the shock that stirs up opinions as in dreaming? Aren’t dreaming and waking contraries?

There are two ways at least advantages of the sleep-inducing narcotic that Socrates peddles. First, dreams can be a fertile repository of notions that the conscious mind has either failed to see or actively repressed. Consciousness, guarded by an army of opinions, filters experience into a manageable shape. This filtering works perhaps to eliminate those aspects of experience that give rise to the anxiety of not knowing what to do or how to act. A consciously-held opinion is that which allows the agent to act without the paralyzing arising from a complete consideration of those things abstracted from. Consciousness so conceived is designed not to cure doubt but to eliminate it, to bar its disruptive entry into the polis, even, metaphorically, to bar Socrates. When Meno complains of the Socratic shock that paralyzes his soul, perhaps what has been paralyzed is the filter of consciousness. As long as consciousness is given free reign, no new idea is allowed to interrupt the self-satisfied, self-loving torpor of the narcissistic soul. The narcosis introduced by Socratic questioning is an enticement to reverie, which serves as a womb for the birth of rival hypotheses. It is a tiptoed entry into the soul’s garrison past the sleeping guards of consciousness.

Another way of thinking about the kinship between Socrates and narcosis is that the shock is not one that induces sleep but rather makes it evident — the victim of the shock is already asleep, but becomes aware of it after the sting — just as we described the encounter with paralysis. This idea harmonizes with the previous contrast between opinion/sleep and knowledge/wakefulness. The shock does not wake the victim, but facilitates an awakening and it therefore places him in an intermediate position between knowledge and naive opinion — a state of having an opinion that recognizes itself as mere opinion. Thus, the narcosis that Socrates induces serves not only to inspire new potencies for knowing, but also to put one beliefs into question, to ascend from a tenuous belief (pistis) to a self-interrogating hypothesis (dianoia). The shock doesn’t force the abandonment of one’s opinions (since it is clear that one can on act on their basis), but calls them into question, and invites in rival opinions.

There are then, within this one comparison, three different paths of what the aporetic shock of the narkē may make known:

i) numbness, which is (ironically) a sensitivity towards the paralysis of one’s own soul;

ii) narcissism, which has its cure by means of a (again ironic) mirroring effect that Socrates reflects back to his interlocutor; and

iii) narcosis, which is the dream-state (ironically also an awakening) that allows one to detach from the fictions that rule one’s behavior in preparation for new habits of cognitive engagement.

The shock of the torpedo-fish is not an end, but a beginning, which overcomes a complacent fixity of belief that has no occasion for beginning and therefore can strive toward no end. True opinion can only arise if one loosens one’s grip on the false. But in the ascent to true knowledge, once must even release one’s grip on true opinion. The “tying down” of knowledge is an effect finally not of possession, but of relationship.

 

 

 

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.