Wily Socrates and the Witless Theorist: A Parable — Episode #1

[WE ARE READING PLATO’S WITTY LITTLE DIALOGUE ION, to help us freshly describe what all the arts & sciences hold in common, along with their distinctive strengths, & without succumbing to name-calling. We are fighting for truth, justice, & the American way — by asking the Greeks to mediate between the PoMos and the Geeks. Please join us! (Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton need not apply. You’ve had your chance.)]

One fine day, on an ancient street leading into Athens, Socrates spots an acquaintance arriving from another city. It is Ion, the great Homeric rhapsode, who is no doubt planning to participate in the splendid Athenean festival called the Panathenaea. We hear Socrates hail his unlucky friend, and we begin to entertain a delightful suspicion that Socrates is up to his old tricks. Of course, we think, he hopes to ensnare Ion in a conversation about what Ion actually knows….

Socrates: Welcome, Ion. Are you from your native city of Ephesus?
Ion: No, Socrates; but from Epidaurus, where I attended the festival of Aesculapius.
Socrates: Indeed! Do the Epidaurians have a contest of rhapsodes in (that god’s) honor?
Ion: Oh yes; and (contests) of other kinds of music [mousike].
Socrates. And were you one of the competitors; and did you succeed?
Ion. I – we – obtained the first prize of all, Socrates.
Socrates. Well done; now we must win another victory, at the Panathenaea.
Ion. It shall be so, please heaven.
Socrates. I have often envied the profession [techne] of a rhapsode, Ion; for it is a part of your art [techne] to wear fine clothes and to look as beautiful as you can, while at the same time you are obliged to be continually in the company of many good poets, and especially of Homer, who is the best and most divine of them, and to understand his mind, and not merely learn his words by rote; all this is a thing greatly to be envied….

Okay now, here we go! The Greek word rhaps-ode means “a stitcher of song,” and men like Ion belonged to the illustrious guild of highly trained performers who descended from the glorious Achaean bards of old. These men were not themselves poets, but they memorized, acted out, and then interpreted passages from the epics, often before very large crowds at festivals held (as you can see) in honor of various gods by Greek city-states in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. (Homer was roughly 750 BCE; the Trojan War 12th century BCE.)

So what we have here in the person of Ion is “the very first literary critic” to make an appearance in the texts of Western thought. And given that the Greeks were pellucid theorists in every area, he is supposed to be the very first literary theorist too, if he is to be regarded as anything at all, in the way of an educator and thinker. In current terms, Ion is, let us say, the humanities professor, and now he is going to be examined by the hard-headed thinker who ironically claims to know nothing at all, Socrates.

Let’s remember that this Socrates has often been credited for the birth of the “arts-and-sciences education,” and for the birth of “the scientific spirit” in the West. We are told (by Plato) that he liked to claim that he was only a “midwife” to ideas. He was the one, he said, who could help other persons to “conceive” new formal concepts, and then, he was the one who could help them to distinguish between the live births and the mere “wind eggs” (see Theaetetus). So it would actually be Plato and Aristotle who established the first schools for the liberal arts and who worked out in detail the theorizing of the arts and sciences as a robust pluralism of valid disciplines, in the decades following Plato’s writing of this very early dialogue (c. 390-380).

[But notice, there’s an ambiguity here about whether I am saying these things about the historical Socrates, or about the “Socrates” we have come to know in Plato’s dialogues, since Plato’s “Socrates” is the main instrument whereby we think we know the man and are able to measure his enormous significance in Western thought. Here’s the inescapable paradox or antinomy: Plato both acknowledged Socrates as the true origin of the new approach to knowing and at the same time Plato made him that origin. This is no equivocation either. These kinds of mutually self-constituting relationship between all the different Socrates – Zenophon wrote “Socratic dialogues” too, as did others – or between “Socrates” and the influence of Socrates are always involved in our cognitive knowing of all linguistically-mediated identities. We can’t know exactly who the historical Socrates was (is?) directly, without the mediation of various observations of him. So we evaluate with rigorous formalisms very carefully all the conflicting reports and their agendas and we are still left with significant indeterminacy — and yet we know we are dealing with an identity so strong that it is has been recognizable as itself for 2400 years. Now, if you’ll just bear with me for one step further, think about the actual historical Socrates, as he was known to himself and his contemporaries, before there were any written reports to obscure the phenomenon. Again, his identity – for himself and for them – was just as mediated and mutally self-constituted. Everyone was observing him and his behaviors, including himself, and everyone had a different and evolving model, and interpretation of that model. They are widely conflicting ones! After all, the citizens of Athens voted to execute Socrates as a harmfulinfluence on young minds, just 10-15 years before this dialogue was written, right there in Athens, where his student Plato is now returned and announcing, in part through this dialogue, that he is taking up a philosophical way of life in the memory of his dead master. The question of how we get at Socrates is no throw-away or dismissive question. This is the heart of where phenomenology and poststructuralism have gotten us, in dealing with the play of (self)representations that build up for us reflexively the identity of what we perceive as we attempt to know it, in exquisitely precise and exact and yet still limiting ways…. We in semiotic theory have had to formalize this, first, and now all the disciplines have to distinguish the problem of Socrates from the problem of the “physical object” in science. Great differences, yes. Some similarities too…. That was a digression!]

Socrates was famous for his skepticism about unsubstantiated claims to knowledge and wisdom, especially on the part of teachers (sophists) who expected to be paid for their services. (This always makes me wince.) Apollo’s oracle may have declared Socrates to be the wisest man in Greece, but Socrates insisted that what the god must have meant was that he was the only man in Greek who knew that he (in fact) knew nothing at all. Everyone else was less wise, because they were sure they did know something, when they didn’t!

Accordingly, this very funny little dialogue will feature Socrates examining Ion about his exalted techne, his “art” or “profession.” And Ion, as we’ve already gathered, will not be bashful about proclaiming the virtues of his techne – or rather, as it turns out, proclaiming his own virtues. Very quickly I think we begin to gather that Socrates’ own approval of Ion’s art may be somewhat qualified, especially when the wily ironist describes Ion’s techne as requiring Ion “to wear fine clothes and to look as beautiful as you can.” The same irony can be heard behind Socrates’ subsequent statement that Ion’s art requires him to go beyond merely “learning the words by rote” – so that he is able in truth “to understand Homer’s mind.” Both statements call our attention, slyly but ineluctably, to the gap that may exist between appearances and reality. We are reminded that what always matters, for Socrates, is the substance behind the show. (Unanswerably, the historical Socrates demonstrated this difference best in the manner of his own death).

We shouldn’t be too surprised, therefore, when this dialogue turns into a primer on what constitutes a legitimate art or science, and how we might go about distinguishing between sham and the genuine article. (Perhaps at some future point down the road, when we’ve discussed the entire theory, we might apply Socrates’ methods of detection to the 1996 Sokal hoax, in which a scientist was attempting, as he saw it, to expose a good deal of postmodern cultural theorizing as a sham enterprise.)

It’s important to be clear about the Greek word techne, from which we derive our “technical” and “technology.” Techne was the most common word the Greeks used for referring to any art or science, and also to what we regard as very humble crafts or skills, because these were all viewed as formal and formalized enterprises, ranging from the humblest to the most sublime. Technes, therefore, included techne arithmetike, or arithmetic, a highly formalized, highly theoretical discipline that would of course be greatly honored in Plato’s school. In practice, the word “techne” was often dropped by Greek speakers, and so this discipline was simply called arithmet-ike. Notice, that presence of the suffix “-ike” (pronounced EE-kay) on the end of a noun referred to the formal study and knowledge of that formal kind of thing (in this case, “counting”). Examples: phys-ike, poiet-ike, log-ike, grammat-ike, rhetor-ike, mus-ike, and so on, yielding such modern words as physics, poetics, logic, music, and the like.

Socrates is going to school Ion on what any “ike” has got to have, in order to be a genuine formalized way of knowing. [We don’t think of sandal-making or raft-building as formalized disciplines and hence as ways of thinking and knowing, but I think the modern world would be far better off if we did. And for the Greeks, all the way back to Homer and before, every way of knowing a formal kind of thing, every technical skill confers a “power” (or ergon) upon its knower, as we’ll see later on in this very same dialogue.]

So when Socrates talks about techne, bear in mind that he is thinking not only of “arts,” but also of “sciences.” And Plato is thinking about whether or not Ion’s so-called techne deserves a place in the liberating curriculum of the new form of education for young citizens. [We’ll be seeing that knowing for Pl & A was always formal, because it was always knowing of a kind of thing. The formality of the kind-of-thing governs the formality of the human attempts to come to know it and hence to produce it and evaluate it. This is true even in the case of the humblest kinds of human capacities to master “the elegant formalities of things.” That’s my phrase for how the lucidity of the Greek mind views the world, as a panaorama of all of the formal kinds engaged in their characteristic formal activities. This is true in the vast and spacious and utterly clear and distinct world of the Homeric epics, where you really can “see forever.”]

One final comment on this first passage. Plato and Aristotle were educators first and devoted thinkers second. (Like their master, Socrates. Like anyone following the way of philosophy, to their minds.) They knew they needed technical vocabulary and precise definitions for advanced thought, but they were more interested in teaching or provoking others to follow some of the fluid gestures of thought and to learn to spot some of the formal relationships that recur, than in pinning down a hard-and-fast technical vocabulary as if for its own sake.

This seems strange to us, because we have become great sticklers for correctness, ever since the rise of science in the 17th century. [For example, the 18th century Enlightenment was the great age for establishing a standardizing spelling. To this day, I cannot spell (sorry’s abut Planck’s constant) and I take great comfort from my Renaissance manuscripts, in which Shakespeare and Donne spell even their own names differently each time they write them down, not to mention all the other words. Literature and thought somehow managed to thrive in the Renaissance, despite these in-significant kinds of indeterminacies….]

So it is very important for us to loosen up a little and flex our mind-muscles and encourage our thoughts to leap and flow by analogy and “homology,” when reading Greek philosophical texts. Aristotle said that the true mark of genius – and he meant in every field, not in literature – was metaphor. He meant the ability to spot similar arrangements and to see in some unrelated structure or model a possible insight into a different state of affairs. (See that Eugene Wigner essay!) To see that a formal relationship might be isomorphic yet differently situated on successive levels of structuring was thrilling to them. Mathematicians and physicists will understand this very well!

So, the upshot of this fluidity in using terms, so as to follow the movements of thought without being tied down to a highly specific technical vocabulary, at least when dealing with students and “tricking” them into using their minds, as in a dialogue, is that the words techne and episteme were used interchangeably by Plato and often by Aristotle. On the other hand, the word episteme could be used to refer to the more purely “theoretical” disciplines (such as geometria and arithmetic), in distinction from the technes, viewed as the “productive” arts. But they were all ikes. When the distinction was in view, though, the Greeks thought of medicine as a techne because it produced salves and medicines and dietary recommendations, just as a sandal-maker produced sandals and a poet produced poems. But geometers and mathematicians produce purely theoretical formalisms.

Later on, the Romans would translate episteme into scientia and translate techne into ars (artis). And so the standard liberal arts curriculum to form young minds would become (later on) the Seven Liberal Arts (three arts and four sciences), with philosophia above them at their pinnacle, last reached, but first in importance, as the most interdisciplinary and comprehensive level of thinking and knowing. A meta-level certainly, but also the most existentially and politically relevant, for here is where the individual who has been trained up to the beauties of FORM has to decide whether to live generously and responsibly by these higher realities and principles (large mindedly if you will) or fall back into stupid self-interest and greed and cynicism, from which a liberal education attempts to liberate us!

For Plato and Aristotle, of course, the highest branch of philosophia is the one that contemplates the highest things, things that are first in importance and realness, the divine, by which they meant formal reality taken in itself (immanent and transcendent). Theology or “first philosophy” was therefore the final highest stage of the ascent of the knowing mind’s education all the way through the Renaissance. The vita contemplativa, therefore, was always higher than the vita activa (the active, political, “doing” life of citizens in a polis or city-state), though both were vital to what education was all about for 2000 years, until the 17th and 18th centuries, when a big shake-up of these older schemas began. (I think everyone should read and grapple with Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, a book of fundamental importance for thinking about modernity and the development of totalitarianisms, earth-alienation, and world-alienation, even though I fear that it is impossibly written, in her heavily Germanized “English.”) I’m sorry, I got off on a sermon for the last two paragraphs.

Anyway, as we’ll see next time in Plato’s Ion, Socrates’ hilarious maneuvers and outrageous high jinx will vividly enumerate the distinctive features that must belong to a genuine techne, but just remember that this techne does not mean (here) an “art” as opposed to a science. (We must stop ourselves and retrain our mental reflexes here.) No, Socrates’ goal is better characterized as an effort to define the nature of ike, more generally, as it manifests itself in both arts and sciences.

In a magnificent later Platonic dialogue called Theaetetus, Socrates will explore the question “What is episteme?” – while he is talking with two promising lads who exhibit the truly inquiring minds that are the best hope for the future of any polis or city-state. “What is episteme?” is usually translated “What is knowledge?” but the word episteme frequently occurs in the plural, and is translated “forms of knowledge” or “kinds of knowledge.” Episteme is the common ingredient in every one of the epistemes (and the technes). So we use episteme to “know,” that is, to study the formalities of every formal kind of thing. But the episteme of episteme itself …. “What is episteme” in essentia? — that question (as we’ll see) belongs to epistemo-logy — the logos of the episteme (or the techne)…The dialogue called Ion goes a long ways towards answering that question…

5 thoughts on “Wily Socrates and the Witless Theorist: A Parable — Episode #1

  1. Rick

    You said we could ask questions …

    You said of rhapsodes that “These men were not themselves poets, but they memorized, acted out, and then interpreted passages from the epics, …”. What kind of “interpretation”?. In English, we would talk about a Shakespean actor’s “interpretation” of (the character) Hamlet or Macbeth, meaning the manner in which he protrays the role. We would talk of a director’s “interpretation” of (the play) Hamlet of Macbeth meaning the manner in which he stages and directs it. On the other hand, an English professor’s “interpretation” would be going into the meaning of the plays, the social and political contexts, etc. What kind of interpretation did the rhapsodes do?

    Also, your translation has Socrates saying “and to understand his mind…”. Other translations say simply “and to understand him, …”. This seems to be a critical difference; to “understand” Homer (or Shakespeare) would encompass (at least in contemporary English) the meaning “to understand his plays” (what’s the word I want here? metonomy?), which would not be at all the same thing as “understanding his mind”, which suggests a deeper knowledge of the person, and personality, and manners of thought, degree of knowledge of Homer (or Shakespeare) than merely understanding his works. (For example, did Shakespeare know that the romans didn’t have clocks that struck? It would seem that this would matter under the second meaning, but not, or much less so, under the first).

  2. Rick

    “To this day, I cannot spell …”

    “It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!” – Andrew Jackson

  3. Janet

    God bless Andrew Jackson!

    I said you COULD ask questions???

    No, I am begging you to ask questions. (Lots of you are letting others do the talking for you. And the talkers are doing a great job, in my humble opinion. Still….)

    By conversation on these episodes in our parable, this is the only way we’ll ever acheive our absolutely world-changing enterprise (!) of developing rapport and a fresh vocabulary for how conversation between the sciences and cultural studies might be carried one — and get to the conversation about the genuine, more fundamental questions…

    And nothing in life is more “interesting” than that! And if WE don’t believe this, why should our students embrace the life of the mind? (Why not just make millions as CEOs and to hell with the common good! That would be Socrates’ notorious student Alcibiades, a conservative aristocrat who came to power and unscrupulously raped, and then betrayed, the city of Athens. Hmmm. Did he go to Yale, I wonder? Oh, sorry! He may be the very reason Socrates got condemned to death….but Plato separates Alcibiades from Socrates with clinical precision in the Symposium. It’s so very dramatic!)

    And if I’m going on and on too much in the “episodes,” just tell me so. We have to keep to the main points! Don’t let me go off on tangents if they are boring or too time-consuming. (I’ll try to put them in italics, like those sections in general science texts that are in brackets, so that the innumerate students can skip over them! Here, the numerate thinkers can skip the humanist’s impractical tarrying with more obscure lit-philosophical considerations.)

    So, Rick asks, “What kind of interpretation did the rhapsodes do?” Well, you get the impression Plato didn’t think much of it. And we’ll see examples of rhapsodic interpretation throughout the dialogue. At this point, though, I can say that basically the rhapsodes were (must have been?) didactic. They used the epic heroes as role models for core Greek values, such as valor in battle, cleverness in military strategy, examples of ways to be the complete Greek man with “excellence in doing and speaking well.” (Only citizens could fight for the city as warriors, by the way.)

    Plato objects to the lack of formal thinking going on in these sililoquies about the glorious past, we suppose. Does the rhapsode actually have formal expertise in the subjects that the epics constantly talk about? Without formal expertise in various ikes, how can Ion really teach, because learning is not “facts” or “values,” for Socrates, but rather it is critical thinking skills, but ALWAYS as they yield their fruit only within a discipline, and within another discipline and another discipline….

    Over and over and over again, this is what Plato brings us back to in the dialogues, and this is why he founded the first liberal-arts academy!!

    There is a new way of thinking critically, with the advent of Socrates (as Plato say him), involving testing ideas back and forth in a rigorous way, but to really use dialectic effectively, and be “liberated” by it, one must be educated in formal thinking skills as they emerge within several different disciplines! This inculcates breadth of mind and faith in intellectual intercourse. This is the gist of the vision of the arts and sciences as training for citizens, as opposed to repeating conventional wisdom and conventional values without any skills for critical appraisal….

    I think this idea that knowing can only be formal-knowing-of a-formal-kind of-thing, by a dialectical community, to be very refreshing and helpful to us, in our own day. We DO think of education as “knowledge.” Like the little “factoids,” the ones that a high school student told me she had to learn in AP class, so as to be able to score well on the SATs. She KNEW they were just factoids, but she didn’t know how to question the system, except with a raised eyebrow, because she hadn’t been equipped (FORMALLY equipped) to do so…. Plato would turn over in his grave….

    Of course, if a techne WERE merely “knowledge,” then Ion has a techne! He certainly knows a lot of stuff about Homer and his epics, and can quote at will. But does he understand the KIND OF THING a poem is? Does he have the “power” to analyze formally “the mind of the poet”? This is very questionable, in the case of Ion. So Ion’s utter incompetence gives Socrates the opening to laboriously rehearse what “a formal grasp of a kind of thing” is like, in terms of the features that show that critical thinking is genuinely involved, in general (looking across all the disciplines).

    If you read the Ion literally, on the level of what Socrates ostensibly proves, you would conclude that literary interpretation was not highly advanced in Plato’s day. But for the Greeks, you have to look not just at what the expert can say, but what the expert can DO, especially when it comes to the productive arts. Can they “make” the thing they claim to know about? That would be best. But if not, can they explain formally how it is made, and why? (And we have three players here. Not just Ion, but Ion and Socrates. And not just Ion and Socrates, but Ion and Socrates in a rhetorical duel. And finally we have Ion and Socrates AND PLATO as the artist behind the scenes, making this dramatic poem and speaking THROUGH Ion and Socrates!)

    This also means, briefly in advance (a preview), that imitation or “reproducing something in another medium” is a way of knowing it (one way of “thinking” it!). One branch of human knowing is for the Greeks the mimetic branch, the arts that are accomplished by mimesis or imitation. The arts of the Muses are the mimetic arts. They use sound, language, and rhythm to reproduce aspects of human cultural life (and hence to know them better, so that a musical performance is in this sense like a scientific experiment or demonstration. Instrumental music, the Greeks thought, imitates emotional realities of human experience and in this way works it through or thinks it.)

    So even though Ion is not a poet, shouldn’t he be able to explain how the poet made the poem and for what purpose. Does he? It becomes VERY CURIOUS INDEED, HOW SOCARTES SEEMS TO HANDLE THESE ISSUES (THESE THIRD-LEVEL ISSUES). He is reductive, to say the least, as we’ll see.! Why? Did Plato not possess any understanding of poetry as its own formal kind of thing? We’ll have to struggle with this. That’s what the dialogue named Ion is for.

    Back to your point, Rick, about what Ion does (on the second level, as I see it). Plato is not interested in acting itself as an art, as we envision it. Instead, he is strictly looking at poietike, the -ike of the epic poem and that should mean the kind of thing that it is and how it is put together and for what end (this is how Aristotle will do it in his treatise on poietike). But before Ion can interpret the poet’s artistic decisions on this high level, he must 1) memorize speeches, and 2) analyze the thoughts in the speechs so as to perform them well.

    So the formal skill that Plato has in mind when he says Ion must go beyond memorization “to understand the mind of the poet” is actually, for a Greek, the techne or art of rhetoric! Rhetorike is the formal understanding of how one might best organize the thoughts into a formal structure for a compelling speech and then use figurative language to enhance the effects of the thought-structure or argument.

    Once Ion memorizes the language (“learning the words by rote”) he must then figure out what “thoughts” the speech is presenting through those words, if he is to perform the speech well, in a rhetorical sense. (The word in Greek isn’t “mind’; it is “thoughts.”) [Please! I utterly disclaim these smiley faces that have somehow been inserted where I typed parentheses.] We ourselves think of rhetoric as window-dressing, mere sophistry, too much of the time. For the Greeks it was an intellectual skill, of finding the best means of making your argument or effect. This will be very important in the hilarious end of the dialogue!

    Okay now, you asked specifically about the meaning of the phrase “undertanding Homer’s mind.” You are already anticipating the next episode, hurray!

    In the next post I offer you’all the Greek word used there, which is dia-noia, which means “mind” only by (yes) metonymy. Nous is the Greek word for “mind.” So what does dia-noia mean? It’s plural, and it’s what goes “through the mind,” in the plural. It is the “thoughts” of the poet. Benjamin Jowett is being poetical and capturing something of the flavor of the conversation (I really like his translations), but that doesn’t mean it is a close literal translation.

    So I would claim that Socrates is signaling there the important move from #1) the mental activity of merely rote memorization of the trappings of the speeches, which require mental activities that are akin to merely donning “fine clothes” and “appearing beautiful” externally — the move from THAT “clothing the mind in fine language,” to #2) the next level of rhapsodic “thinking,” which ought to be figuring out the “thoughts” conveyed by that fine and impressive-sounding language in the speeches to be performed.

    In other words, Ion must or should be doing a rhetorical analysis of the language, so as to perform it well. So you can see how closely allied the rhapsodes are to Plato’s loathed “Sophists,” the unscrupulous teachers (to Plato’s mind) of rhetoric who “made the worse appear the better cause,” in Milton’s renowned phrasing.

    So forget all about actors and directors here. They are not in view. But there is a third level in Socrates’ description of the rhapsode’s techne, and I am labeling it # 3) “interpretation,” and I don’t think it refers to finding the thoughts in the speech, the rhetorical analysis and performance of the speech. No, the “interpretation” that Socrates has in mind is a third and highest level of thinking and knowing that could conceivably belong to the rhapsode, and it involves talking to the audience about the speech that had just been performed. This is truly the place where a theory of the epic poem would be required, I believe, if Ion really does possess “the art of poetry.”

    This would mean Ion’s explaining “how and why that maker made,” as Sir Philip Sidney put it, working straight out of the Platonic and Aristotelian texts rediscovered in the Italian Renaissance.

    But as we’ll see, Socrates never allows Ion to work and think on this # 3 level, and it is dubious that Ion ever could have done so. Why does Socrates foreclose this possibility? (We’ll see him doing it! It is so strange.) Again, does Plato lack an understanding of poetic form? Did that have to wait for his student Aristotle and for 2400 years of subsequent literary theory and criticism?

    This is one of the most fascinating and enduring mysteries about Plato. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates will exile the “lying poets” from the ideal polity — “The Polis in the Sky”! But the Republic is a piece of poetry. It is a mimetic work of art. And Plato and Aristotle (and at least some of their readers) were perfectly well aware of this!!!!

    This is sooo mind-boggling. There is not a more compelling problem in all of Greek philosophy. This is what literary theorists cut their teeth on (or should do).

    This is what is in store for us, if we keep reading this dialogue.

    On the other hand, if I am getting too boring, then we’ll do something else, if you’re willing, in order to tackle our dilemma of the hard sciences versus the cultural theorists…. And our problem of the closing of the American mind — no, the closing of the American liberal arts (into armed camps).

  4. Rick

    Ok, we have three levels.

    Level one – the level at which we actually _do_ something. Act on stage, or grow viruses, extract their DNA and sequence it. This is the level where we forget our lines, fall off the stage into the orchestra pit, mess up the pH in a solution, add too much reagent to a solution and mess up our results. That kind of stuff.

    Level two – The level where we write our script, decide on the actions on stage, select our intonation, choose our props; where we design our experiments, choose the host bacteria for our viral culture, choose what techniques we are going to use to extract and sequence the DNA. This is the level where our material doesn’t work, the audience doesn’t get our allusions; where we choose the wrong bacteria to host our virus, choose a DNA extraction technique that doesn’t work well with our particular virus, etc. Thislevel, doen right, allows one to do level one, to act on stage and do the viral research, well.

    Level three – Be able to connect the planning and results from level two into broader theory of how drama in particular, and how story in general, works; how the virus we are studying spreads, infects the body, how the results from our particular tests on our particular virus can illuminate the broader workings of DNA in cells. When get this right we can do level two well and get good plays and imformative experiments; when we don’t get it right we get bad plays, and useless experiments.

    Something like that?

  5. Janet

    Oh the noble and valiant Rick, what an honorable Roman was he!

    I like your three levels, as long as we specify that for the Greeks (which is a shorthand for Plato and Aristotle, the “classical” Greek philosophers) all three levels are governed, formally speaking, by the formal structure of the virus or the DNA or the stage play (which we are heuristically trying to know about in the ways Rick points out).

    Human knowing is a miraculous possibility, for the Greeks, because it is a potentiality that opens for us ONLY because of “the elegant formalities of things,” the Form-al orders in the cosmos (and in our human world because we are a part of that cosmos). All knowing is Form-al, in that it is the knowing of a formal kind-of-thing that we can recognize to be manifesting itself in the cosmos.

    Think of the example you folks provided of the little girl who sees the “puppy” and her Mommy says, no, that is a “kitty.” Immediately she adjusts her theory — small and black and four-legged does not necessarily mean a puppy. But notice that she does not need to “know” all the necessary distinctive features for “puppy.” These “names,” of puppy and kitty, for her become “place-holders” in language, continuing “Forms” to be filled in or formally specified for the rest of her life. (Lo, another formal miracle. The “placeholder remains the same through time, while its contents become specified in an ongoing open-ended progress. This doesn’t mean language is slippery or tricky. It means it is the greatest formal device ever happened upon. Without it, we would have no formal knowing at all)

    The girl and her mother are dialectically “talking back and forth” — and in such processes the formal characteristics designated by those place-holders will be specified more “thickly.” This idea of the Form-al reality referred to by a “name” is called the eidos, the “look” of a kind-of-thing. We can have names for kinds of things because kinds of things have Form-al being in the world. (Eidos is translated “Form.”)

    So when Plato talks about the “Forms” or “Ideas” — or Aristotle talks about the tode ti or “what it is” or “species” — think of the word eidos and think of the little girl’s “puppy.” (Remember the autistic Temple Grandin I spoke of in Section # 4 of my lit theory course in Pages on the right, who can’t “get” the eidos to begin with…) This is why Socrates was called “the friend of the concept (eidos),” when he asked questions such as “What is Justice?” He was creating the formal discipline of ethics (eth-ike).

    The new theory of the liberal arts is founded on these pillars. That there is order in the world, the order of various Form-al kinds. And that therefore disciplinary communities can advance the formal specifications of those formal realities by inventing various appropriate heuristic devices and formalisms in an ongoing process that develops its own tranditions and formal standards. (We’ll see Socrates talking about the fact of standards soon.) But all of these are open to change and development!

    On the other hand, though, ever since the rise of science and Western Modernity, we have tended in the West to convince ourselves that we are talking about and knowing the concrete physical objects, and not working with our attempts to Form-ally specify what kinds of things those concrete objects are…. (Postmodernity basically returns us to the thrilling dynamisms of how we come to know. This doesn’t mean physical objects don’t truly manifest themselves in our world! But we know them “only as we can.” Does this make any sense? And science does so in a highly rigorous and formalized and successful sense!)

    Science is now returning to this older more flexible and dynamic view, I think, recognizing that the scientific progress is pretty open-ended and unpredictable (and that only makes it more exciting).

    But in the Newtonian period we thought that science was trying to determine the one set of finalized and absolute “facts” and that we would soon have an absolute grasp of a monolithic state of affairs. (Bertrand Russell’s magnificent project in mathematical logic was in a way the last gasp of this nineteenth-century project, which lhelps us understand why analytical philosophers like Dawkins, descendent of Russell, label every question that doesn’t fit into that particular totalizing project of scientific rationalism as simply being “uninteresting” and “without meaning”!)

    The Modern West’s theory of education got skewed badly by this shift to “facts” and finalized “Knowledge,” and leaving out the mediators (language, scientific method). Einstein went back to the method (humans making measurements) and showed that the “facts” can change, but the laws remain the same. He put the emphasis back on the formal dynamics, so to speak, and not the concrete particular findings….

    Can you see how this could be seen as liberating in a formal sense? How the critique of Modernity (ie. postmodern thought) could in this sense be seen as liberating and rigorous intellectually? And that GR and QM could be seen in this sense as correlative (postmodern) critiques of Modernity? Again, does this make ANY sense to you folks?

    I was very awkward about presenting Socrates’ specific three levels, and I disappeared, Orwellina squidlike, into an impenetrable cloud of ink. So I really appreciate that y’all are taking my word for it that there is a parable here we can use, if we can get the whole dialogue into our heads as a model. (In other words, there is a good reason why we must make an obstensible reading of the dialogue and then contrast it with other readings, that it also suggests about itself. It is only in the relationships between the various readings that the postmstructuralist genius of a Derrida, for example, can be seen….)

    I looked for the Ion on the web but the one version of it in English is extremely forbididng and difficult to read. Should I just summarize the dialogue (and assume you have read all of it) or continue to work through it piece by piece, I wonder?

    The next enstallment is about Socrates’s speech and the three levels of the rhapsode’s thought-processes. (I have good reasons on a higher level of analysis for picking out these three levels, but they will have to wait.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.