[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…