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 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.

The Cardinal Virtues and the Divided Line

Picking up again an earlier discussion (here and here) about the Divided Line image from Republic, Book VI, which I have argued is the hermeneutic key of the organization and aim of the entire dialogue, let me lay before the definitions of the four cardinal virtues that are given provided there. It is important to contextualize these definitions within the terms of Book IV — they are based on a tripartite psychology (434d – 441a) consisting of a “desiring part” (epithumia), a “spirited part” (thumoeides), and a “calculating part” (logistikon), which correspond to money-makers, auxiliaries and guardians in the city. Later parts of the dialogue will disturb this threefold organization, but it is background to the last stated definitions of the virtues given in the dialogue. The Divided Line opens them up further, but not explicitly. It is up to the reader of the dialogue to grasp the necessity for the line and determine for his/herself how the virtues could be explored further by its help.

For now, I am just going to present the definitions of the four virtues, slightly different for city and soul, next to the corresponding segments on the Divided Line. See if you can grasp the morphological kinship. (All of the quoted texts are from Allan Bloom’s translation of the Republic, Basic Books, 1968.)

JUSTICE (Dikaiosyne)

Justice-in-the-city definition — “Minding one’s own business and not being a busybody.” (433a)

Justice-in-the-soul definition — “As far as ruling or ruled are concerned, each of the parts in him minds its own business.” (443b-c)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to eikasia, which means the ability to grasp an image as an image and not mistake it for reality.

 

COURAGE (Andreia)

Courage-in-the-city definition — “Power and preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what is not.” (430b)

Courage-in-the-soul definition — A virtue in which one’s “spirited part preserves, through pains and pleasures, what has been proclaimed by the speeches [of the guardians] about that which is terrible and that which is not.” (442c)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to pistis, which means trust, belief or confidence

 

MODERATION (Sophrosyne)

Moderation-in-the-city definition — “Unanimity (homonoia)…an accord of worse and better, according to nature, as to which must rule in the city and in each one.” (432a)

Moderation-in-the-soul definition — A “friendship and accord of these parts — when the ruling part and the two ruled parts are of a single opinion that the calculating part ought to rule and don’t raise faction against it.” (442c-d)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to dianoia, the thinking through opinion toward noetic insight; thinking towards the whole by means of the parts.

 

WISDOM (Sophia)

Wisdom-in-the-city definition — “A kind of knowledge belonging to some of the citizens that counsels not about the affairs connected with some particular thing in the city, but about how the city as a whole would best deal with itself and the other cities.” (428c-d)

Wisdom-in-the-soul definition — Possession of the knowledge of that which is beneficial for each part [of the soul] and for the whole composed of the community of these three parts.” (442c)

DIVIDED LINE — Noetic insight; understanding of the whole that forms the animating union of the parts; grasp of form (eidos)

 

Just food for thought:

One of the defects of the presentation of the virtues is that Socrates proceeds as if there are four and only four virtues, without providing a ground for this number. His discovery of the virtue of justice depends on there being four and only four. But in at least one other place I know (the dialogue Protagoras), piety is listed a fifth distinct virtue. Shall we leave ourselves open to the possibility that the omission is both important and intentional?

PIETY (Eusebia)

Piety-in-the-city — Not given explicity

Piety-in-the-soul — Not given explicitly

DIVIDED LINE — No equivalent segment. Ties to the “Good Beyond Being” perhaps?

On political agnosticism

I am a political agnostic, or at least I try to be.

Let me put this agnosticism in personal context. Just like anyone else, I have my political opinions and habitual reactions to political happenings. I like everyone else suffer from biases that color my view of the world: I “see” more acutely confirmatory evidence for my opinions and can glaze over those that call them into question. I enjoy polemics against leaders from other political persuasion. I can point out evidential support for my beliefs, but such “evidence” is within the context of my prior opinions. However much I would like to attribute my opinions to a superior intellect or access to better information, I simply can’t. I meet intelligent people of varying stripes: those whose opinion agree with mine and others who disagree.

Beliefs are not knowledge. In fact political beliefs can be the very impediment for becoming knowledgeable about that which we tend to overlook or discount. So while I have beliefs, I don’t credit them as being knowledge. They simply are not.

Note that by claiming to be an agnostic, I am not therefore what is called an independent or moderate. For however those labels may take a stance of agnosticism toward parties and partisanship, neither is shy about professing and acting upon their beliefs as if they were knowledgeable.

Well, what to do? How ought I participate in a democratic process? The essence of injustice for Plato is to act upon another without knowledge of the sphere in which they operate, without appropriate respect for the immanent law/nomos of the good in which they know how to effect. Justice is “doing one’s own work and not meddling in the proper work of another.” I cannot see how voting or assuming political office in our current system is consistent with that conception of justice. (See my earlier post “On Tyranny” for some background to my thinking on this.) The positive side of justice to “do one’s own work,” i.e. to accomplish what one knowingly can, obedient to the immanent laws of the production of good in the world. The baking of the baker and the carpentry of the carpenter are positive expressions of just action. But the presumptive meddling of the carpenter in the baking of the baker (or vice-versa) is unjust. Our system is unjust in the Platonic sense of being institutionalized meddling, whether Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Libertarian, etc.

The most heretical-sounding position toward which my philosophical education leads concerns voting. The world is complicated and not reducible to sound-bites and political platforms. Those who pursue zealously the opportunity to rule over others, despite their manifest ignorance concerning the mass of this complication, are hubristic in the extreme. To choose right-wing hubris over left-wing hubris or vice-versa is akin to choosing the color of the whips and chains used against others. Can we really vote knowingly when candidates must practice every form of disguise and keep us diverted from the fact of their own ignorance? Professions of ignorance and doubt are punished at the ballot box. Confident-sounding opinions are extravagantly rewarded. I don’t vote not out of apathy, but in open acknowledgment of my ignorance. I would like to know, but find that I don’t. I am still waiting for the barest evidence of knowledge (even knowledge of ignorance) in those who would presume to rule me and others.

To practice the “political art” of Plato and Socrates in modern America requires, or it seems to me, the following:

1. To pursue excellence in one’s craft.

2. To respect the excellence and autonomy of the other’s craft.

3. To acknowledge that where the other is expert, the other is authoritative for me.

4. Not to participate in systems of meddling, nor act as an authority where one is not — which includes not voting.

5. To pursue political knowledge and work to cure one’s own political ignorance.

6. To question the claims to political knowledge of those who would presume to rule, perhaps leading them or others into pursuing a more just course, such as a humble life in pursuit of excellent work.

7. To acknowledge openly and inquiringly my own ignorance, submitting it to whatever would cure me.

So — in the light of number 5, 6 and 7 above, feel free to correct me in the comments where you find me in error. Make clear to me political obligations that my ignorance keep me from seeing. I truly want to be a good citizen and contribute as I can to a just political order.

Any thoughts?

The Republic’s cast of characters and the Divided Line, Part II

This in the continuation of an earlier attempt to assign the major characters of the Republic places on the Divided Line:

DIANOIA
Thrasymachus (dianoia as skeptical apistia)Dianoia is the power of grasping the insufficiency of opinion as such. Opinion must be ultimately grounded in a higher order reality or it will wither under skeptical dianoia. Thrasymachus takes the cynical point of view that justice is an arbitrary invention of those in power. In doing so, he grasps the conventional/contingent/malleable nature of opinion as such, which is a defining feature of dianoia. Mapping him on the Cave Allegory, Thrasymachus sees that the puppets are not the realities the credulous masses believe them to be and wants to be a puppeteer. He even thinks Socrates’ “method” is exactly that, and consists of tricks to mold and generate self-serving beliefs in his interlocutors. (338d) Thrasymachus is faithless, i.e. suffers from apistia, and does not see the beliefs as defective images of some higher level reality. His dianoia is downward looking, a means of critiquing (others’) beliefs in order to undermine them and replace them with self-serving substitutes. Yet, his notion of “advantage” must be based on a criterion other than mere opinion in order to provide the infallibility his notion of justice seems to demand (341a). Advantage cannot itself be a product of arbitrary will, if will is to be well-guided by appeal to advantage.

Both Adeimantus (Dianoia trying to secure a better pistis) and Glaucon (Dianoia leading upward to noesis), brothers of Plato, accept that Thrasymachus’ cynical account of justice has some sort of force. They understand and raise questions about the contingent genesis of belief, even their own beliefs. But, unlike Thrasymachus, neither is willing to abandon their belief about justice. The two essentially beg Socrates to help them secure their belief on a securer basis against Thrasymachus’ threat. Both trust that justice must be more than an arbitrary product for the self-service of those in power. Their willingness to expose their own beliefs to testing is evidence of the dianoietic virtue in them. But there is an important difference between the two brothers. At one point in the dialogue while discoursing about The Good, Adeimantus essentially gives up looking up toward noesis and requests an adequate opinion from Socrates:

Adeimantus: But, Socrates, you must tell us whether you consider the good to be knowledge or pleasure or something else altogether.
Socrates: What a man! It’s been clear for some time that other people’s opinions about these matters won’t satisfy you.
Adeimantus: Well, Socrates, it doesn’t seem right to for you to be willing to state other people’s convictions and not your own, especially when you’ve spent so much time occupied with these matters.
Socrates: What? Do you think it’s right to talk about things one doesn’t know as if one does know them?
Adeimantus: Not as if one knows them…but one ought to be willing to state one’s opinions as such.
Socrates: What? Haven’t you noticed that opinions without knowledge are shameful and ugly things? The best of them are blind — or do you not think that those who express a true opinion without understanding are any different from blind people who happen to travel the right road?
Adeimantus: They’re no different. (Grube/Reeve, 506b-d — I have added the character names before each line.)

At this point Adeimantus drops out of active participation until Book VIII, while it is Glaucon who participates in the very heights of the dialogue: the Sun Allegory, the Divided Line and Cave Allegory. Adeimantus is ultimately downward-looking, using dianoia to hone and sharpen belief but never advancing beyond this honing. Glaucon, on the other hand, is upward-looking and never abandons the upward quest towards noetic truth.

Socrates (Noesis) — I am the least confident here, since Socrates continually refuses to own any claim to knowledge and knowledge is located at the noetic stage. But Socrates continually maintains noetic openness to his lack of other knowledge. He is never satisfied with mere opinion as such and never confuses opinion with knowledge. I think that Socrates, in denying any claim to knowledge is really denying any ability to adequately express his knowledge in a way understandable to others. Any logos of knowledge will be only a ready-to-hand opinion, however true. But I am unsure whether Socrates is just the highest stage of dianoia or a full participant in noesis. The Republic, after all, never advances beyond the dianoietic level. It’s claims are all hypothetical, defectively pointing toward realities that it is unable to express directly.

The Republic’s cast of characters and the Divided Line, Part I

This is a continuation of a series arguing for the importance of the Divided Line in understanding the Republic. In an earlier post, I gave some indication of the mapping of the Divided Line quarternity (eikasia, pistis, dianoia, noesis) onto features of the larger dialogue. One of those mappings was of the speaking characters in the dialogue, which can be expanded in the following manner:

EIKASIA
eikasia — Cephalus

 

PISTIS
pistis (right opinion) — Polemarchus
pistis (wrong opinion) — Cleitophon

 

DIANOIA
dianoia (downward-looking, undermining belief, cynical) — Thrasymachus,
dianoia (downward-looking, establishing belief) — Adeimantus
dianoia (upward looking toward noesis) — Glaucon

 

NOESIS
noesis — Socrates

 

Let me begin to point out the grounds of these homologies:

Cephalus (Eikasia) — The segment corresponding to eikasia on the Line is the region of images and shadows. Cephalus has been freed from the tyranny of desires (a type of shadow) but is afraid of the shadows of injustices that he may have committed in life:

[When] someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. It’s then that the stories we’re told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there — stories he used to make fun of — twist his soul this way and that for fear they’re true. (Grube/Reeve, 330d)

His fears take shape in the theater of his dreams:

If he finds many injustices in his life, he awakes from sleep in terror, as children do, and lives in anticipation of bad things to come. (Grube/Reeve, 330e – 331a)

His obsession is with overcoming injustice (which can only be a shadow of some unspoken working notion of justice) but he never gives voice to justice as such. Socrates tries to turn him toward some belief in justice, even puts words in his mouth, but Cephalus departs the scene without pursuing justice. In the Cave Allegory, Cephalus would be like one who is turned from the shadows toward the fire, but finds the light too confusing and dazzling and so turns back to his fears and dreams. His concern is thus fully for images, not the higher reality of which they are the images. He is aware that his fears are shadows of realities, but the realities he pursues are his prior acts of injustice toward which he attempt to make recompense to gods and offended persons.

 

Polemarchus and Cleitophon (Pistis)Pistis means dedication to, and defense of, belief. Polemarchus begins by defending his father and the traditional belief about justice that is implicit in his father’s fears. He is characterized as loyal and courageous. The traditional version is that justice is a matter of “giving back what is owed” (331e); that what is owed are “benefit to friends and harm to enemies” (332d); that “friends” are those who are actually just and “enemies” are those who are actually unjust (334d). But Polemarchus is converted by Socrates to a truer belief about justice: that justice is always a benefit, that “it is never just to harm anyone” (335e). (Note that this amounts to a true belief about justice and not a true belief of justice — there is a difference.) Polemarchus commits to defending this modified opinion of justice. He becomes a loyal ally (i.e. “auxiliary”) of Socrates, and he commits to serve as his “partner in battle” (335e) against any version of justice that has been shown by the argument to be defective. Polemarchus later in fact comes to Socrates’ aid against Thrasymachus and his follower Cleitophon at 340a-b. The brief appearance of Cleitophon as a “believer” in the teachings of Thrasymachus show that pistis is also capable of defending a false belief (that it is “just to obey the orders of the rulers” — even presumably orders that harm the ruled (340a)) to the one unfortunate enough to follow the wrong teacher. In the Cave Allegory, both Polemarchus and Cleitophon are like those who measure the various shadows of justice in accordance with the puppets that produce them i.e. belief in a trusted authority such as tradition, family or teacher. Belief, at this level, is the highest standard of measure. Courage, spirit, steadfastness and loyalty are the virtues of this stage; Polemarchus is the paradigm.

 

(TO BE CONTINUED)

The Divided Line as “Protreptic Analogy”

This post is continuing a discussion of the Divided Line analogy. Earlier contributions were here and here.

The Greek word analogia divides into two roots: the prefix  ana, meaning “upward”, and logos, meaning “ratio”.  An analogia is the application of a ratio derived from something well-known in order to point toward some feature of a less known pair. A analogy has four terms and two ratios. The missing feature may be (1) a unexpected similarity of relation or a (2) undefined term. Let me explain them in turn:

(1) An example of analogy revealing a ratio is Wallace Stevens’ claim that “A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.” Put in analogy form, the analogy is

man:woman::poet:world

All four terms are known, but the surprising point seems to be in the equivalence of ratio, that the relation between poet and world should take the same form as the well known man-toward-woman relation. The analogy communicates Wallace Stevens’ experience of being a poet, which is otherwise invisible to untutored eyes. We can point to features of external experience, but must rely on ratio — which is invariant to perspective (*see below) — and analogy to communicate inner experience. The philosophical importance of analogy should be obvious, since philosophy wants to point out features that are subjective but non-arbitrary. The form of Stevens’ philosophical vocation is an inner-something to which he conforms (subjective) but which he lives into without being its creator (non-arbitrary.) This protreptic pointing can really only happen through analogy.

(*Let me give an example of the perspectival invariance of ratio. Imagine looking a person from a distance of 50′ and then again at 100′.  From the former perspective, the person will look taller and the latter shorter. Now imagine that the person is holding the same 12″ ruler in both cases. Although visually the two perspective differ in size, the ratio of length of ruler (e.g. 12″) to height of person (e.g. 72″) will be invariant in both cases. This is how measurement works, to allow the invariance made possible by ratio (logos).)

(2) Every analogy has four terms. If three are known and the ratios asserted to be equivalent, we can use an analogy to solve for the fourth term. The Divided Line is an analogy that guides the search for the fourth segment, e.g. noesis. The first two segments establish its guiding invariant ratio the difference between an image and that of which it is an image. We are then to apply this ratio to the third segment in order to find the fourth term. The Divided Line communicates a beginning point (the third segment, doxa-as-hypothesis) and a direction of search (an image calling forth its original, defined both by the first two segments and by the large division of the line as a whole) as a guide to understand noetic reality. It is protreptic, “forward-reaching”, since it frames an aspiration more than giving an answer. Noesis is what would be known if we are successful in following the guidance of the Divided Line analogy. The communication of noetic truth (immanent subjective criteria that are non-arbitrary) for someone who does not yet recognize it can happen no other way. Let me summarize my point with an analogy:

pointing : objects-in-the-world  : :  analogy : objects-of-inner-experience

The Divided Line is an invitation to look where Plato is pointing. It is less a conclusion than a task. It’s goal is the illumination of noetic experience for the willing seeker.