“Let’s Play Soccer!” — On reading Plato’s Ion

A reader asks these questions on Wily Socrates # 7:

and here is my totally naive and (perhaps) irritating question for the teacher. does socrates kick the poets out of the republic *seriously* or is he being the devil’s advocate? i have a friend (okay, my husband) who used to bring up socrates on the poets all-the-time until i threw a fit and said never to say it again (i *am* after all, the poet!)

i also wondered about the passage late in #7: “Plato’s Scocrates there affords us a fine technical analysis of the non-expository or ‘mimetic’ use of language. In fact, it is this analysis …that will provide the technical apparatus Aristotle will use in his own treatise to validate calling poetic ‘making’ a high mode of thought, one that is ‘philosophical’ in its own right.” So, teacher, does Aristotle get away with calling poetry “philosophical,” given Socrates’ philosophical refusal of poetry? If you respond to this post, I think this is the one point where I can most use more light.

And if your response is, “Can you push that question a little farther?” I think this is where I would go. I don’t know a lot about soccer (for instance), but when there’s a gorgeous play, I know that it’s gorgeous, despite my ignorance. And doesn’t it seem that we can know so little about — about anything — but a brilliant poem on the topic will elucidate the topic, in addition to being a great poem. One gets a sense, listening to a great teacher (similarly) of authenticity.

i’m feeling a little inadequate to make further comments, though one thought i’ve had has been on a soccer essay i recently read –on mastery–and the theory that it takes 10 years to master a complex or higher skill, such as soccer. hmm, the soccer ike?

Thanks so much! Yes, I agree, the soccer ike!

And one who is a master of that ike has a “power of knowing” how to “do a certain work (ergon)”! This is how I believe that truth is best defined, by the way: being changed in this way by the reality of something, into one with a degree of “power to know it” and that also means “power to do it.” And being compelled to keep trying to know to better.

But what we now realize, at our amazing moment in the history, is that as human beings engaged in any discipline, we never grasp the whole of the subject-matter, nor do we manage to grasp it from what we can know to be the ultimately “right” analysis, that will never be extended and reinterpreted in the future. (Whether it’s soccer or quantum mechanics or poststructuralism.) You just keep working your way deeper into the discipline — with practice and formalizations and the dialectic between them and coaching and discussion and practical application and constant testing on the field and so on….

So the question you raise about “what Plato really thinks on the poets” (and the question of “does Aristotle get away with his defense of poietike”) is what my entire reading-through of Ion is for!! I am doing all of this, just to put us in a position to analyze the questions you’re curious about, with some degree of cogency and rigor!

And I happen to think these are about the most fascinating questions in the world. They bear on everything, from science to cultural studies to religion.

So are you asking me, like the scientists asked me, why I “don’t just say it”? I can’t just say it, because the “answer” to your question is precisely something that cannot be “said.” It is a structure of ambiguity and impasse that has to be entered into and done and experienced. So I’m trying to offer an apprenticeship, so to speak, so that I can eventually invest you with a power of knowing and a way of doing a certain kind of work (the work that is “poststructuralism” as I read it) and that work has an amazing amount in common with classical Greek insights into the arts and sciences, and into the structure and nature of human coming-to-know.”

It’s as though someone were asked to “just say” how to ride a bicycle (Polanyi’s analogy), when first you have to be given a bicycle (a new system of vocabulary and concepts, a new or different sense of what a person is and what knowing is, a new “power of knowing”) and then maybe I can run along beside you while you try it out until you get the hang of it yourself!

Then, on the question of “the poets,” and the relation of the fictive to the Real, you will be able to “dwell” in the space that Plato opens, that he opens in order to situate this problem, and you will be able to understand more and more deeply why it has never been put to rest for Western thought and culture. (And why Aristotle’s thought-work on this is so powerful and suggestive). And how both science and cultural studies employ heuristic “fictions,” so to speak, in genuine engagements with reality in order to formalize it better. And why this is an open-ended process but not for that reason a matter of “anything goes” or self indulgent “relativism.” (And above all, not “subjective”!)

So please, hang in there! And I can’t be hurried. My readers have to do the work on Ion and the Greek vocabulary first — and please ask all the questions you folks want! And I’ll try to make it clear that when I discuss the Greek vocabulary, other scholars would agree with what I’m saying, but the way I put it all together is my own, though based on a number of Greco-European ways of thinking (rather than on Anglo-American logic and analysis, which begins with the standard isolation of “word,” “idea,” and the “object referred to,” to which “syntactical” – “factual” correspondence was superadded, in the Russell, Carnap, Quine tradition).

Aren’t there words, ideas, and objects, you ask? Yes, when language gets done with us, we have the kinds of minds that can point to and employ all three kinds of entities. In other words, we have been endowed by our language with a basic and communal “power of knowing.” But how did these “results” come into being so they can be used for human thought and perception? What kind of engagements with reality and formalizing processes result in constituting these entities for us to use? How do those beings who have “the language ike” engage in coming to know various kinds of “external” reality? And if language itself offer us several different ikes of language use, what indemic, chronic conundrums and aporias are bound to result?

The dialogue Ion is going to turn out to “be” dialectic, rhetoric, and poetic. (It does all three.) By “doing” all of these, it’s going to be “about” all these questions and the conflicting “powers of knowing.” Believe me, this stuff is endlessly fascinating, and especially once we finally have our formal working apparatus in place and possess the power to do its certain kind of work.

But that means our minds will have been given a new ike for thought. And it’s a peculiar and brilliant ike, because it works “in the space between” and in the intersection of other ikes! (And this is one reason that every text is constituted by a force that also nevitably deconstructs it, although Derrida doesn’t come at it in quite this way….)

On the last part of the comment, which was: I don’t know a lot about soccer (for instance), but when there’s a gorgeous play, I know that it’s gorgeous, despite my ignorance. And doesn’t it seem that we can know so little about — about anything — but a brilliant poem on the topic will elucidate the topic, in addition to being a great poem. One gets a sense, listening to a great teacher (similarly) of authenticity.

Yes, thanks for the compliment! And this is precisely why I insisted on bring Plato’s Ion into this web conversation between science and faith and theory.

It is a “poem” that does “elucidates the topic” and that we can sense is “a gorgeous play” — or a series of gorgeous plays to entice us into thought — and it is by perhaps the greatest teacher of Western history. Even though it is relatively “slight” in the canon of his dialogues, nonetheless as a poem it has that utter “authenticity” you mention. (P.S. I never would have known that this was a compliment for me if you hadn’t told me so in person! So thanks again.)

So, everybody, keep doing your drills in dribbling, passing, and shots on goal, okay?

With Love, from the Theorist

[P.S. Possibly tiresome theoretical aside from jlb: So the Cartesian or Lockean idea of “truth” as “a correct idea” that exactly corresponds to “the simple physical facts” just isn’t very helpful, or it is “helpful” in certain limited cases but deals with a subsidiary instance to what truth-seeking is about…. Yes, scientific formulas and theories do engage with the physical realities and “correspond” to them to the best of our abilities so far! But not in the manner of a simple idea or a universal formula, standing in exact and completed 1-to-1 correspondence with a simple factual state of affairs. It’s so much more complex and dynamic than that and our knowing of it is so much less “nailed down” than that. And yet we can be fairly confident about what we’re doing.

Both the evolution of our hypotheses and formulai, and the physical states themselves, in the case of quantum mechanics and so forth (as the working scientists who’ve talked with and instructed me here have made so very evident) are bigger and more dynamic and more mysterious (and we know we have to be more creative and open to the future) than what was commonly understood to be the case, back in the days of the older scientistic outlook…. (Okay, that’s another weblog conversation, and Michael Polanyi puts it best.)

It’s just so weird, though, that science and scientific rationalism — especially the Brits — sought a “thing-language” with a mechanistic algorithmic reasoning, to ground empirical truth solidly, and yet now we realize that scientists aren’t doing that at all and they know it’s not what they do. See QM discussions here. Same with the mathematicicians. I guess this is why I’m so obsessed right now with Bertrand Russell…. Why did he WANT to do this?)]

7 thoughts on ““Let’s Play Soccer!” — On reading Plato’s Ion

  1. jefe

    So while you’re working at giving us a vocabulary to help us engage in dialogue with science, you’re also working in a different, prior place to try to give us something to work with in any number of ikes. Is that right? For example, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in law, a hopelessly dead discipline, theoretically speaking.

    But then I wonder, is there something about science that I should be concerned about. Does it have a kind of privileged place? I admit it; I have a hang up when it comes to the hard sciences, why should I be worried?

    By the way, after reading vol. 8 of Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, I am certain that Russell and his ilk did what they did to personally torment me.

  2. And to torment me, too. No, Russell at least is an utter enigma.

    Jefe, it’s so good to hear from you.

    Well, I started this weblog from the place of assuming that of course science has a privileged place. And being very bothered by the militant empiricism and intolerance on some of the science blogs, which is every bit as bad as the intolerance and bigotry of the anti-evolution blogs. So yes, there is a problem with the hard sciences in that respect, and the anti-God books coming out now exascerbate it all the more. Is this what bothers you?

    But no, actual science is entirely philosophical and beautifully theoretical. As a theorist, I admire physics with all my heart, and QM is as gorgeous as Aquinas. The scientists who have conversed with me here persuaded me that many scientists have left scientism behind completely. (Viz. the ink-and-paper vs Hamlet discussion.)

    Yet we realized that we don’t have a way to characterize its “objectivity” in non-absolutist ways that don’t demean the other disciplines and don’t suggest there is no other “reality” besides the “physical reality” of physics, chemistry, and biology. The phenomenon of “emergence” that Gavin emphasized is already transforming scientific attitudes away from reductionism and will likely do so more and more — and you see this already with the neo-Darwinians.

    Your very first question — “So while you’re working at giving us a vocabulary to help us engage in dialogue with science, you’re also working in a different, prior place to try to give us something to work with in any number of ikes. Is that right?”

    I think this is more “all-one-thing,” Jefe. The scientists and I agreed — and the whole Sokal hoax paper affair (the Science wars of the 90s) showed — that it is vital to have a better theory of the disciplines to go forward with, one that can preserve an engagement with reality and avoid the endemic dualisms that divide the “two camps.” So the science/theory dialogue depends on the theory of the ike….

    Science will not give up the confidence that they are testing their formalizations against physical reality — nor should they, I believe — although they realize the formalizations are not complete (and in many respects never can be) and will be adjusted perhaps radically in the future. So on the theory side, they’re great! And the American cultural studies folks and theorists, as far as I can see, have gone to a ridiculous extreme and thrown in the towel on reality, with social constructionism and Herrnstein Smith’s constructivism (did you see my post on her book).

    So Jefe — what do you think? I realized that Continental poststructuralists, who understand better than anyone how social and psychic reality is “constructed,” aren’t throwing in the towel on the notion that our disciplines (and human beings in general) are engaging with reality, not the way the Americans (Rorty, Fish, Smith) have done. Isn’t that kinda fascinating?

    I think I see new middle ground to be opened up here. What do you think? Am I right, maybe, about poststructuralism and reality? To me, we don’t have the resources over here, where we languish in the ruins of the analytic tradition, to reconcile constructionism (no reality) and science. But poststructuralism could take us through the impasse. Won’t it be fun when I read Derrida as the rescuer of reality?!? Or at least Saussure and the phoneme! (That’s my scholarly work right now.)

    It’s impossible to undo all the harm Russell and the others have done to the notion of reality in our Anglo-American context (by trying so hard and then being finally entirely unable to tear its wings off and pin it to the board by grounding it algorithmically and axiomatically) without starting over somewhere else completely. Voila! I’m back again to the phoneme as paradigm, only now our academia needs it not so much to deconstruct the real, but to preserve the real as part of the dialectic. And the Greeks are (post)structuralists in so many respects, just as my mentor Craig La Driere used to say….

    Maybe we’re ready for a sea-change. We’re certainly at an impasse between the reality/constructivist camps over here.

    Or maybe I’m tilting at windmills and nothing can shake our empiricism and our commitment to the autonomous self!

  3. the poet

    As usual, your response is remarkably generous. Just when I’d decided, “Oh, of course it’s tongue-in-cheek!” you show me how no simple answer will suffice. One has to go inside the space of Ion and dwell there.

    We haven’t talked about the soul lately, but I happened across a radio program called “To the Best of Our Knowledge” featuring three segments on the brain. It was so shocking and fascinating, I have to share it (see link at end of this comment). Toward the end of the last interview MIT professor (and AI specialist) Marvin Minsky says: “I think [the concept of a unified self] is a terrible illusion. It sort of keeps you from thinking about yourself. When you think you have a self, just as if you think you have a soul—this sort of internal, featureless little pearl in the middle of a big ugly oyster—I don’t think it’s a valuable idea.” At the same time, Minsky sees himself (“himself”!) as part of a self called science, which includes Aristotle! I don’t know what to think about this, but my mind keeps scooting in close to have another look, like a bystander watching a train wreck.


  4. There’s all this shadow boxing going on, with the cognitive scientists and AI folks beating up the straw man of the religious “soul,” while their own account of this wonderfully complex set of systems in the brain becomes more and more like the thick and rich historical conceptuality of the “soul.” Such a paradox. So much unnecessary animus against the “other side,” despite only a facile stereotype of the other side to begin with….

    Jefe, about the law, maybe it’s in the same dilemma that’s so sadly apparent in the Science wars. As soon as a more sophisticated account of how human meaning-systems work comes on the scene here in North America, people like Stanley Fish run with it all the way to a cynical (and very unexciting) brand of relativism. How can we initiate a vital discussion within the law when we are stuck in this false dilemma? Either it’s the naivete of strict constructionism which appeals to the longing for certainty in the face of disruptive change (just as scientism and the religious fundamentalisms do) or else it’s a chartless sophistication that has no direction and has lost its momentary chache. We have to have something better than this to give the next generation on university campuses.

    Both the sciences, on the one hand, and the humanities/arts/cultural studies on the other are dealing with formalized ways in which human beings engage aspects of reality. The life of the mind HAS to have paths involving formal elegance and reality testing to sustain itself in the adventure of thought, an adventure that is for the polis. Even a single unified concept of -ike (a notion that doesn’t have to have divided itself beforehand into science and art) could BY ITSELF give us a powerful tool to think our way OUT of this false dilemma and into the real stuff that needs to be dealt with instead.

    The functional use of our minds would be to have individuals who have acquired wisdom from doing all this soaring theory going on in science and in culture studies, working together on figuring out what the biggest problems are and immediate interventions for those, and also on what Arendt called “judging,” which is a big step beyond thinking, wonderful as thinking is. Instead we let our energies and abilities stay locked in their little departments that are afraid of all the other little departments and just keep on repeating the compulsive and disfunctional battles of the past — shoring up our defensive structures — in order to keep our anxieties in check and make sure that nothing can actually ever be addressed.

    Like The Poet said, it feels like watching a train wreck.

    And it feels as though the scientists are absorbing the lessons of the formalism of their engagements with reality better than the theorists (over here) are absorbing the constant reality-testing that goes into the constituting of every formalism.

  5. Hi Janet,

    I am glad you like my poem!

    I think science is part of faith. It is a method or concept or formula that people use to reason what they believe, faith. As our church doctrines both to be in between reason and faith, but actually just faith.

    There are a few things are interesting from your writing that inspired me to make a poem:

    Title: To Be

    Faith of God
    Created world of science,
    And us, who reason in between.

    Power is granted freedom to choose
    To know by myself
    or to believe what He says;
    And the subtle one asked:
    “Did God really say…?”

    The tree
    bears good fruit,
    pleases my eye,
    and is desired to make me wise

    So I ask myself:
    Which way I go?

    As I am a big soccer fan and guess you also are, so I use soccer to debate our faith and reason.

    If soccer is poetry, then playing with words is reason, and every touch of practice is poet’s work, as our every endeavor in life is the work of science to our goal, faith to achieve.

    Thanks Janet!

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