Debate Rages: Socrates versus the Rhapsode Ion

The noble Roman strikes again! He provides us with exactly what we need. Another indefatiguable “resistance” from Rick, who insists on taking Ion’s part in Plato’s dialogue and ably defends the art of poetry.

If necessary, go review “Wily Socrates # 4” and then read Rick’s marvelous devil’s advocacy of Ion in his most recent comments, found here.

Many of you are following this discussion of Plato’s Ion closely. Please consider giving to us the Christmas present of your own personal presence here, by speaking up. (“prison gal,” where are you?)

Meanwhile, Rick and I will carry on stoutly.

Rick, I agree with you that as the “whole arts” of Plato’s day have become more and more developed in the modern centuries, especially since the rise of science, that we must specialize more and more within each of our fields. Today, being an Austen scholar as opposed to a Dickens scholar makes good sense. (You seem to agree that certain formal principles would still belong to both scholars, e.g. insofar as both are students of the novel?)

So I agree with your persuasive examples of specialization within a disciplinary category, up to a point. I agree too that specific “facts” and “knowledge” play a large role in any kind of disciplinary excellence. (So why shouldn’t Ion be excellent on Homer only?)

But for us in the Modern West, it may be that facts and knowledge have come to play a huge, perhaps exorbitant role in our understanding of what arts and sciences are about. (Think of the way that “epistemology” in the English-speaking world has come to mean “theory of knowledge” exclusively; it has lost entirely the Greek notion of the episteme or techne as a way of knowing, as yeilding to us a focused “power” for following the intrinsic formal patterning and potentiality of a kind of thing.)

There is a world of difference between “knowledge” (or “theory of knowledge”) in our own Anglo-American world and the Greek miracle of formal “knowing” (seen as a purposeful human activity tracing a kind of formal order in the world, under the guidance of that order). This latter vision made the arts and sciences extraordinarily thrilling and vital for 2000 years, as envisioned (I believe) by the founders of the original liberal arts and sciences, Plato and Aristotle.

And this Greek vision of “knowing” started with the miracle of formal ordering manifesting itself in the world, as registered within the “space of appearance” that is a local human community (the polis).

That is, all of us start out with the commonly received ideas (about what Justice is or about what a living organism is or what a healthful diet is), but we have the opening to move beyond these “opinions” to more thoughtful and rigorous Form-al accounts, but only because and as long as those kinds of formality are there in the world, giving themselves to our attention.

[[Okay, here comes one of those deeper theoretical meditations for my theory students. You can skip over this whole thing, and hear more about Rick’s arguments on Ion below it.

[It seems to me that implicit in this formally interdependent and formally integrated approach (as I’ve pondered it for decades), there is a powerful way around our terrible divide today, this ugly divide between “objective fact” and “social construction,” as we understand them, to which the scientists on this blog have drawn my attention so forcefully.

[I myself must always have been an epistemologist, I suspect, but in the Greco-European tradition, since I was trained by the Greeks and by their successors in the earlier West, and then also by Saussure and the French (post)structuralists, who are similarly powerfully formalistic thinkers. (There is a strong link, remember, between the ancient Greek thinkers and recent Continental philosophy and linguistic theory — phenomenology and poststructuralism — because of the formally dynamic tradition of Greek scholarship that runs through the thought-work of Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, and others.)

[My own abiding interest in Derrida, too, derives from the singular way that he presses the Saussurean and phenomenological formalisms toward the mapping out of as yet uncharted territories in our understanding of the potencies and limitations of human meaning-systems. (Derrida, I believe, has been Saussure’s best reader.)

[In any case, there is a world of difference between pondering whether our “knowledge” is “certain” (has a firm foundation or has sufficient evidence or even “exists” –how do we “prove” it exists) and on the other hand, responding to the opening of a “possibility,” responding to the call to thought, that might not have been there for us in the first place. We can come to know, however, but only because of the “givenness” of order in the world (a prevenient grace) can we experience and participate in the supreme joy of that coming-to-know within communities devoted to the practice of these thrilling ways of knowing.

[This difference in emphasis indicates, very roughly speaking, the difference between our own Anglo-American intellectual project and, on the other hand, Greek and Continental approaches, in my judgment.

[Both traditions have been bold and rigorous intellectual experiments (just think of Bertrand Russell and Edmund Husserl, for instance, working their very different ways out from the same fascination with the laws of geometry and number-theory at the turn of the 20th century!) and thus both traditions have much to teach us. But I think that here in North America and in England we need to hear now, more about the rigors of the Continental formalisms, so that we cannot mistake them and misuse them as nothing more than a trading in of “objective thinking” for cultural “relativism.”

[Academia has become dreadfully academic. Part of this is the shift from formal and communal coming-to-know to “certain knowledge.” We have to go to a music scene, for instance, to experience the transfiguring revelations of formal coming-to-know.”

[Let’s think more about this for a moment. What is our modern word “knowledge”? First, it is what we call a “substantive,” which is to say a “noun form,” and we know that a noun “is a word that names a person, place, or thing.” But a noun like “knowledge” doesn’t — in actuality. Nouns like “Abraham Lincoln,” “Bleak House,” and “Fido” (I guess animals must be “things”) are words that “name a person, place, or thing.” Common nouns are something else again!

[Common nouns (like knowledge) do not name a person, place, or thing. They name kinds of things; they name formal categories of things.

[I say this only to point out that a common noun is always from the beginning in fact a formalistic entity: it is a word that names a kind of thing, a category or a class of things. “Presidents,” “estates,” and “puppies” are common nouns that we use to name these Form-al kinds of thing, formal identities that we always perceive right along with any particular president, a particular estate, or particular puppy we might be contemplating. (The formal identity lights up like white lightning for us, as soon as and while we are perceiving the particular person, place, or thing.)

[These formal categories or “concepts” — the Greek eidos, Plato’s “Form” or “Idea” and Aristotle’s tode ti (the “what it is”) and Aristotle’s “universal” — are all formal place-holders, to be filled in by our evolving theories and the evolving evidences for these theories. As such, these words name both something “out there” in the world and something within our minds through the common currency of our language. But we then go beyond received ideas, making with thoughtful formal distinctions, through the dialectic (the dynamic exchange of thoughts and words) within each disciplinary community. The final community is the polis, which determines our future. (Socrates: “But what is Justice?”)

[For us as moderns, “knowledge” (along with any piece of knowledge, which is called a “fact”) is a “substantive” in the sense of a concretized object, or a word referring to some concrete “thing.” This was not the case for Plato and Aristotle or other earlier Westerners.

[For them what is “substantive” is the electrying and elegant formality that is “out there” in the world, producing and maintaining each kind of thing, and which is also being traced out by the members of a speech community, or preferable, by a disciplinary community. (Greek formalisms are always seen in relationship to activities, to purposive emergences, and not simply as those temporarily static objects or constructs that condense out of the flows of elegant formality in the world and the tracings of those flows in our minds and words.)

[This rigorously disciplined activity of tracing out or pressing deeper into the formalities that are manifesting themselves around us — this is where Plato sees us as able to move from doxa or “opinion,” which may be good or bad opinion (right or wrong or somewhere in-between), to the disciplinary logos, a formal account or definition or formula that captures that elegance formality to the best degree we can reach from where we now stand. (See the “divided line” in the Republic, for a famous example.)

[The natural world, after all, is for the Greeks “phy-sis,” an active process of emergence (note that active suffix “-sis”), which produces the formal elegance of all the kinds of things in the world, and produces also the human world, so that human minds can use their thoughts and words to press the search for logoi, because the same white lightning or dynamic patternings runn through all of these processes. All of these processes become integrated and reciprocal, as they flow into and out of those developing place-holders, the “concepts” or Forms and the “accounts” or “formulas.”

[For 2000 years, these fluid formalisms were in play in the West — I know this because I’ve spent my life reading the medievals and the Renaissance humanists, and they taught me how to read Plato and Aristotle. Even where many of the actual works of these Greek philosophers were not available, the elegant formalities of the kinds of things they established in the curriculum of the arts and sciences are still evident in Greco-European texts, all the way from the Greeks through the Renaissance (and onward into German Greek scholarship and Saussure).

[Therefore, I think that right now in the West, we can use the bracing corrective of the different emphasis we find in classical Greek thinking (and in Saussure, in fact, and in Continental phenomenology, esp. Heidegger), where the elegant formality of these fluid and reciprocally self-constituting relationships is always being traced out, even though this enterprise must ignore the particularizing features that belong to each individual instance.]]

As moderns, of course, and like Rick, we wish never to forget the treasured particularities (so dear to our post-Romantic hearts), whereby each individual departs from its purely formal identity, from the formal categories that constitute it as “what it is.” (Just as Austen and Dickens depart from the elegant formal commonalities of being great novelists.) Classical Greek scholar Martha Nussbaum has an unforgettable essay on the cherished idiosyncrasies of the “beloved,” in her great book, Love’s Knowledge, in which these idiosyncrasies are held in poise with the (ethically potent) Greek form-alities.

For Aristotle, “all knowing is formal” — human knowing is “knowing of the Form (eidos)” and the “account” or “concept (logos)”; i.e. of the thoughtfully and incisively defined “formal identity” of each kind of thing, as it is traced out in dialectical thought and conversation with others skilled in that kind of formal elegance.

Now this emphasis on the formal identities of kinds-of-things, as opposed to concrete “objects,” surely does have its limitations.

In the brilliant period of High Medieval thought, during the days of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas (in the 12th-13th centuries — then put into verse by Dante in the Divine Comedy), it was Johannes Duns Scotus who took on this deep Aristotelian formalism in Thomistic thought and attempted to clear the way (without losing that elegance and precision) for an appreciation of the additional beauty of ipseity, the uniquely particularized self-hood that comes as a crowning touch upon the elegant formal structures of “kind-ness” in the cosmos. (I think “the poet” wants us to call this precious ipseity something like a “soul.” And her comments respond in part to Hi’s response to my question to scientists about the soul. This is a thread I hope we’ll return to.)

Hence we have the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a great devotee of Duns Scotus, praising the non-Formal, uniquely individualized, and compellingly random aspects of things, in his curtail sonnet, “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brind(l)ed cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow, sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.

This poem celebrates the deep and paradoxical interplay of what is relatively changeless (formal identities) and the random ipseity of things. As you can see, I too deeply identify with this very modern (and especially Romantic) emphasis on the particularity of each individual being, as an unrepeatable and therefore utterly irreplacable individual. But I think that right now, here in North America, we could use a real shot of the ancient formal elegance into the mix of our thinking once again.

Now Rick argues ardently that Ion does possess an ike as a “whole art.” (It would be, remember, the art called rhapsod-ike, or epiipoiet-ike, “the ike of epic poiesis.” [And “-ike” is pronounced “EE-kay])

It’s just that Ion, according to Rick, just like our contemporary Austen scholar (or our specialized condensed matter physicist, and so on), happens to be good at applying the general art to one area only, to Homer in this case — and not to Hesiod or Archilochus. Now this is, I admit, a fascinating possibility that Rick suggests. I do wish, though, that Ion would say a little more than “yes” to show us that he really does know the things that Rick attributes to him. (Go, Rick!)

Rick says Socrates is tricky and unscrupulous. I have to admit, I wonder about Plato too. Why does Plato let Socrates battle it out with such an inarticulate representative of epic poetry to begin with? (Why couldn’t Plato have picked a rhapsode who was good in all the epic poets, if this is supposed to be such a big deal?) It really does not seem fair.

I think our next installment of Ion will throw some new light on these curious questions. We are moving now into the middle section of the dialogue, and will have come half way. (In the final section of the dialogue, our Socrates/“Paul” will demand that Ion make “in plain language” some “non-trivial” and “well-defined” statement of what it is that the rhapsode will know, that cannot be known by any other art or science. And poor Ion will be allowed one shot at this, one shot only, and he’d better not mess it up!)

Do oblige me, folks, by trying to think of the elegant formalities (the “white lightning” as I so irritatingly keep saying) possessed by the master of a “whole art” as deriving directly from the “whole kind of thing” to which that art is addressed. Do this for me, even if you are dead certain that Socrates is all wrong about the imitative arts, okay?

By the way, I agree with Rick, if only Socrates were thinking about the style and the individual excellence of various painters and sculptors, as Rick would like him to be. (I really wanted to give Socrates that.) But I fear that Socrates is speaking only of the “defects and merits” of the paintings and sculptures in terms of their “realism,” their “accuracy” compared with their originals, their “verisimilitude.”

By the way, we saw earlier that Socrates’ mother was a midwife. Well, guess what? Socrates’ father was a sculptor and a stone mason. Interesting, eh?

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