“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?)]

Wily Socrates # 7 — The End (the telos) Is in Sight

Well, my friends – humanists, scientists, poets, theorists, and thinkers of every variety and persuasion! – it is now time to look at the next segment of Plato’s Ion, and we will take it up with Socrates’ second long speech about the “magnet” simile. We’re going to see a big difference this time, in Ion’s reception of the idea of “divine inspiration” (rather than a mental acuity) as the power that fuels the poets’“art.” Why do you think he reacts so differently this time?

Socrates Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which, as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one another? The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these God sways the souls of men in any direction he pleases, causing each link to communicate the power to the next. Thus there is a vast chain of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended, as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse. And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. And from these first rings, which are the poets, depend others, some deriving their inspiration from Orpheus, others from Musaeus; but the greater number are possessed and held by Homer. Of whom, Ion, you are one, and are possessed by Homer; and when anyone repeats the words of another poet you go to sleep, and know not what to say; but when anyone recites a strain of Homer you wake up in a minute and your soul leaps within you, and you have plenty to say; for not by art (techne) or knowledge (episteme) about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession, just as the Korybantian revelers too have a quick perception of that strain only which is appropriated to the god by whom they are possessed, and have plenty of dances and words for that, but take no heed of any other. And you, Ion, when the name of Homer is mentioned have plenty to say, and have nothing to say of others. You ask, “Why is this?” The answer is that your skill in the praise of Homer comes not from art but from divine inspiration.

Ion That is good, Socrates; and yet I doubt whether you will ever persuade me that I praise Homer only when I am mad and possessed; and if you could hear me speak of him I am sure you would never think this to be the case.

Socrates I should like very much to hear you, but not until you have answered a question which I have to ask….

For myself, I can’t help but wonder whether Ion’s change of heart – you remember that last time he said “your words, Socrates, touch my soul, and I am persuaded that in these works the good poets, under divine inspiration, interpret for us the voice of the gods” – does not come about from the sudden realization that he himself is in danger of being deprived of the ike he so happily plumes himself on possessing. (In addition, Socrates has dropped the rhetorical brilliance and has emphasized the ludicrousness of the metaphor, and the haplessness of the lower “danglers,” this time around.) Let’s continue, though, because Socrates is now going to bring his theory of the formal ike to a powerful consummation.

Socrates I should like very much to hear you, but not until you have answered a question which I have to ask. On what part of Homer do you speak well? – not surely about every part?

Ion There can be no part, Socrates, about which I do not speak well: of that I can assure you. [Note that Ion, however ineffectually, is trying to assert a poetic “wholeness” on every part of which he is equipped to speak well.]

Ion There is no part, Socrates, about which I do not speak well: of that I can assure you.

Socrates Surely not about things in Homer of which you have no knowledge? [Literally, “not on those things, which Homer says, about which you are not knowing?”]

Ion And what is there in Homer of which I have no knowledge?

Socrates Why, does not Homer speak in many passages about arts (technes)? For example, about driving; if I can only remember the lines I will repeat them.

Ion I remember, and will repeat them.

Socrates Tell me then, what Nestor says to Antilochus, his son, where he bids him be careful of the turn at the horse race in honor of Patroclus.

Ion “Bend gently,” he says, “in the polished chariot to the left of them, and urge the horse on the right hand with whip and voice; and slacken the rein. And when you are at the goal, let the left horse draw near, so that the nave of the well-wrought wheel may appear to graze the extremity; but have a care not to touch the stone.”

Socrates Enough. [This “enough” from Socrates is my favorite line in the entire dialogue. So ends Ion’s one and only chance to perform as a rhapsode!] Now, Ion, will the charioteer or the physician be the better judge of the propriety of these lines?

Ion The charioteer, clearly,

Socrates And will the reason be that this is his art or will there be any other reason?

Ion No, that will be the reason.

Socrates And every art is appointed by God to have knowledge of a certain work [ergon]; for that which we know by the art of the pilot we shall not succeed in knowing also by the art of medicine?

Ion Certainly not.

Socrates And this is true of all the arts – that which we know with one art we shall not know with the other…?

Here is the climax of the theory of the ike: “and every art is appointed by God to have knowledge of a certain work,” for that which we know (how to do) by one art we will not know (how(to do) by another. Here is a different translator, spelling out the elliptical Greek here, by writing that to every art “is apportioned a power of knowing” that is peculiar to itself. So we are talking about the way in which we know a genuine ike because it confers a power for doing – “a certain ergon” – upon the one who possesses it.

This is where I think we can really see that to translate the Greek “episteme” fundamentally as “knowledge” is very misleading, given our modern connotation of knowledge as consisting of discrete and concrete little pieces of “fact” (sort of like what we memorize for the SATs). An episteme or a techne – any Greek ike – is fundamentally a skill, or a power to act. It confers the ability to do a certain kind of work with arête or formal excellence. And whatever that work may be – piloting a boat, driving a chariot, practicing medicine, or doing geometry – it is a power of knowing. It is a mode of human thought, or “a way of knowing.” And it comes into play and is visible to our eyes, whenever the activities associated with a formal kind of thing are called upon.

[Theoretical aside from jlb: This is why I think the saddest thing, and one of the most alienating aspects, of education in the modern centuries has the narrowing of human thought to ratiocination. This is a powerfully elitist move, and it has disenfranchised most human beings from the life of thought. They still practice their ways of knowing, of course; they simply get no credit for doing so. See Ruth Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom. I would go so far as to say that the steadily building resentment of the non-elite has done much to produce the cultural phenomenon of the “red states” versus the “blue.”]

Now it would seem, wouldn’t it, that we have just seen Ion perform his “art” with our very own eyes? He has fluently recited from memory a few lines from the Iliad – in an abruptly truncated performance, as we have noticed. But he is given no opportunity to display the rest of his “power of knowing,” if indeed he has such power.

Socrates steps right in and shows Ion how he ought to “interpret” the lines he has just performed – from the point of view of dialectical (“philosophical” or “rational”) inquiry into the arts and sciences. Socrates want Ion to identify the subject-matter in question in the lines, and then to name the kind of expert who would know “the propriety” of these lines best. Does anyone else besides me think this is really, really, entertaining and funny?

To prepon, the question of propriety, fittingness, or the appropriate, belonged to ike of course, along with orthtotike, because for the Greeks it was a question intrinsic to knowing how to do any kind of action well. (See how much Greek you’ve learned? And with acquisition of any language comes the “power of knowing,” the power of thinking, that is conferred by that language.)

Never forget that for the classical Greek mind, the meaning of logos or ratio (ratio is the Latin translation of logos and gives us “rationality”) was always — first of all — formal elegance, proportionality, and balance between parts, before it became the term used “technically,” in connection with the new philosophical way of life, the practice of the newly rigorous kinds of purposeful thinking and speaking maintained in the disciplines.

Ion will acquiesce without a qualm in these reductive “disciplinary” or “philosophical” interpretations of each successive poetic passage, in our next segment. Entirely gone will be Ion’s brief flicker of a notion of some kind of a poetic wholeness, of which he is master, so that he can claim in this respect to speak equally well on all passages of a Homeric poem.

[Theoretical aside from jlb: If philosophy is a way of using language more rigorously and more according to the logos — or “logically,” then is poetry inherently anti-philosophical? Is rigorous dialectical thinking limited to the transparent or expository or “pointing” way of using of language? This is the origin of the age-old quarrel between poetry and philosophy that still bedevils our academy in the current wars between cultural studies and the hard sciences. Does language secure itself and its truth in the concrete empirical things to which it points, or does it create and construct its own fictional “worlds”? This is quite a contretemps. And Plato placed it at the very heart of the Western philosophical project. And he did so — in this dialogue! So do you think that literary theory is not crucial to Western thought?]

So, we must ask, who here has a power of knowing-how-to-do the “work” of rhapsodike? Not Ion. Socrates, on the other hand, will take over from here on out, in performing the passages of Homer from memory, and these passages will grow longer and longer and longer as the dialogue draws near its end. Socrates will even take over Ion’s own part in the conversation, performing both Ion’s role and his own in front of Ion, who becomes the audience at Socrates’ performances.

Who, then, understands what he is doing, here? Who wins the ironical contest of rhapsodes, which is the dialogue called Ion?

And yet, Socrates’ practice of Homeric “interpretation” is very strange indeed. He simply, flat-footedly, interprets each epic passage as though it were an expository description of some subject-matter always belonging to some other art, and serving no telos within the narrative beyond that. This is a reductionism of the most extreme kind. It denies to the poet the power of using language in a manner different from that of the new dialectician – in spite of the fact that every Greek on the Street knew perfectly well that poietike is a “productive art,” and that what the poiet (“maker”) makes is precisely a poiema, an elegant “made-thing,” which is also called a poiei-sis, or the making that results from an active and purposeful process of making that kind of thing. (Click here for more on these Greek words.)

But Ion never resists Socrates’ imposition of his own distinctly strange practice of “rhapsodike” upon its own practitioner. The argumentation of the dialogue is over. The rest of it will be composed of Socrates’ increasingly extreme and quite hilarious high jinx as he takes over the role of rhapsode from Ion, reciting from memory passages of Homer that grow increasingly lengthy, and then discoursing about the subject matters of each passage and pointing to the ikes that would rightfully “speak well” of them. It’s almost, in a way, a near parody of the new project of the liberal arts and sciences that Plato is contemplating.  This will lead us into the funniest denoument in all of the Socratic dialogues, and then Ion will go (innocently?) on his way. (But the laughter of the gods may be ringing in our ears….)

And yet, based simply on the Greek words themselves if nothing else, it is perfectly apparent, isn’t it, that a poet possesses the power of knowing how to do a certain work, and that the poet’s ergon is the making of poems, and that this is done out of language. Furthermore, this is precisely what Plato’s greatest student Aristotle will say about the art of poetry in his famous treatise, the Poetics. Aristotle will also say that poietike is not to be judged by the standards of politike (the ike directed toward the public good), because the art of poetry is a different art and therefore it has a different telos. This is an application of Socrates’ theory of the ike to poietike at last! (And poietike will have a different orthotike, and a different to prepon or fittingness. Nonetheless, Aristotle argues that an excellent poiesis can serve an important, formative, civic function,  as we’ve seen, by exercising, purging, and restoring balance in the emotional life of citizens.)

So we have a very strange sight going on before us here in Ion. It’s a compellingly important aporia. A “sticking point” or “impasse” – the kind of “wonder”-producing stumbling block or contradiction or anomaly that Aristotle says in the Metaphysics is the place where philosophy always truly begins. (Think of those few small anomalies in the later 19th century, in black body radiation and in electro-magnetism, that no one suspected would give rise, through wonder-ing, to the philosophical brilliance of Einstein’s dialectical reconstruction of the Newtonian physical universe. “It seemed to me” that the thoery of electro-magnetism “ought to be symmetrical,” he explained! You see how this is the very same Western thought, however we try to get away from it….)

So we see before us Socrates practicing the new lucidity (it belongs to Plato surely) of the philosophical way of life, theorized as a pursuit of formal knowing through the ikes, with a view toward the good (practice of) life and the civic good of the polis. Socrates has set forth an account (a logos) of all the formal features that might identify a genuine ike, as opposed to mere sham and pretense, according to a certain trajectory of thought, and it has much to commend it. He has done all of this in language, and it is a strikingly new kind of rational or proportionate or reasonable employment of language. It is a careful talking–back-and-forth that works its way deeper into the formal structure of that which is to be known. It is dialectic. It is the new language of thought and inquiry that will be practiced from now on in the West, all through Roman and medieval Christian philosophy and theology and by among the Renaissance Christian humanists as well.


But there is a problem here. Surely Socrates has a “power of knowing,” conferred on him by the art of dialectical analysis, but he has chosen to enact and put-to-work his dialectical art in relation to the distinctly odd case of poietike. Is there an art of poetry? Is poetry a mode of thought that equips one with a lucid understanding of a formal kind of thing and confers the power of knowing how to do well all the actions associated with it? Granted, Ion cannot make poems, but can he interpret them, and can he explicate the poet’s activities of making, according to the Form-al nature of the epic?

Apparently not. Ion never brings up anything like this. But then, he is never allowed to, either. Socrates insists on challenging and then routing poetry out of the arena of thought, by treating it as though it uses language in exactly the same expository or diegetical manner in which other disciplines use language.

But those other disciplines are not concerned with kinds of things that are made out of language. They use language instrumentally, to discuss and formalize and communicate the results of their disciplinary thinking and knowing. There are precisely two arts that do not use language in the standard dialectical manner: rhetoric and poetry. And Plato notoriously has problems with both of them. (It is commonly thought that Plato resented any rival to the dialectic he pursued so earnestly, and that he thought that non-dialectical language was false or pseudo-language, that it could never be “true.” This is of course how the British scientific rationalists read Plato, and why Nietzsche at times furiously  reviled what Socrates and Plato had come to represent.)

However, in the Republic, every other argument against poetry in Ion is developed further, except this one. This one, which adroitly sidesteps the whole issue of the poem as  one whole kind of thing, and instead reduces language to its ostensible or “pointing” function – this argument or approach is altogether dropped. Instead, Plato’s Socrates there affords us a fine technical analysis of the non-expository or “mimetic” use of language. In fact, it is this analysis (Rep 3) 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 what is going on here? Well might you ask!

Right now, it seems to me, we are reading Ion on its own ostensible or “pointing” level, as though its words are transparent and refer us directly to the things they are talking about; as though this dialogue is itself a piece of extended dialectical “talking about.” And it is.

But language can also be something that is fashioned into building blocks and then into a built-thing, and this seems to be forgotten in the Ionian dialectic. (Whited out, erased.)

There is also a lot of playing around going on here with the art of rhetoric,  and this will be seen best in the next segment of Ion, which I like to call “the contest of rhapsodes.” (It’s an entirely one-sided contest, after which Socrates will also assume the role of the judge of rhapsodes, at the very end of the dialogue.) In fact, at the end of our next segment, Ion will make his one solitary stab-in-the-dark of a theoretical assertion about the art of poetry, and it will actually concern the art of rhetoric, not poetry at all. But heck, that’s close enough, especially for Ion! Rhetoric, after all, is essential to the poet in practicing the poet’s own art. If, that is, poetry has its own art….

So next time, we’ll look at the rhetorical structuring that is going on in the language of the Ion – and that becomes especially manifest in the next segment – in addition to the Ion’s ostensible dialectical argumentation. And so we’ll finish up everything next time, except for the amusing conclusion.

Then we will have acheived our telos, we will have had our story told, the story that is Ion, and the fun can really begin! Then I can explain poststructuralism, when we can begin to look at the Ion as itself an elegant structure of poietike. And that’s where the Platonic fireworks will really begin, where we will be in a position to see the always-already of “deconstruction,” if you will, and where the question of “what Plato means” and the depth of Plato’s analysis of the problem of truth, can really emerge for our dialectical engagement.

Theorist Asks You for an Act of the Historical Imagination

VISITORS: WE’VE BEEN 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.)

However, folks, in this grand debate between philosophy and poetry (i.e. science and cultural studies?), I’ve been stuck for little awhile on the next Wily Socrates post. I’m having a huge case of exploding ideas, and I want to go in every conceivable direction at once. (What? You’ve noticed I have tendency to do this?)

So I posted the entry below in the meantime, which is outdated and BORING, except for the part about Stanley Fish, which you ought to scroll down to and read (it’s highlighted)…. Otherwise, visitors, go back and read Wily Socrates # 4 instead, it’s a good introduction, or # 3, and the scintillating discussions thereof. I shall return, with # 7, soon….

This post is part of an earlier comment thread I’m bringing up onto the front page, because I would like to bring everyone’s attention to these issues more prominently. This comes from the Wily Socrates posts but concerns general issues on this weblog.

At one point, Rick said: “It seems to me that if we are forced to conclude that either no-one possesses an “ike” (or at least a “whole ike”) unless they know everything about an entire field of endeavor, or that each individual specialization is its own ike, then perhaps what we have is a problem with the concept of an “ike”.”

I’d like to use this comment to highlight the contrast I want to make between the dynamically fluid formalism of the Greco-European tradition, about which I am “telling my story,” and the quite different emphasis on “solid pieces of knowledge” that has dominated Modern thought and educational theory in the past 300 years.

What is the nature of the “wholeness” of “a whole ike”? It is not a wholeness acheived by inclusion of every “fact” or “objectified” piece of information that might belong to a field of study, as we tend to think of it. (Rick cleared himself of this charge, by the way, if it ever was a charge!)

For the Greeks, though it seems paradoxical to us, a discipline is not constituted by “knowledge” at all. Knowledge (in the modern sense) is merely a by-product of ike. An ike is an acquired skill in a communal way of thinking, and it has to be learned through practice, while participating with others in an activity directed to a certain purpose. That telos is to come to know with formal lucidity, something that has a formal unity and coherence to be known.

As becomes very clear in the next section of the dialogue, the “oneness” of an art relates to the “oneness” of the phenomenon it studies. But the oneness of the phenomenon (kind of thing) is not at all like the oneness of a concrete material “object.” Object-ive knowing thought of what it knows as well-delineated and isolated objects that are strictly separate from one another and from the processes that produce them. The modern idea of the “fact” was built on this model.

Greek Form-al knowing, in contrast, is interested in an individual object as an instance of a formal kind of thing and is after what produces and sustains that kind of thing.

Isn’t this, though, in practice what Galileo and Newton did in formalizing the laws of motion and gravitation? They weren’t interested in anything about the particular objects except as “instances” of how matter behaves as matter in motion, and they formulated the “laws” that implicitly must produce and sustain these motions. But because of the radical separating of mind from nature, and to avoid “metaphysics,” classical science rigidly separated the “laws” from the material objects.

Actually, I have never been able to figure out exactly how scientific rationalists did used to think of the ontological status of scientific laws and mathematical formulas — are they things in the world or ideas in our heads or what? Especially the empiricists and positivists — I can’t find an account of what the maths are doing, in their own view. I’ve been reading waay too much Bertrand Russell, I guess. But I’m utterly fascinated by (not being able to see) the way he produces his pronouncements.

But isn’t the separation of gravitational law from matter impossible to sustain in modern physics? Isn’t it based ultimately in the components of matter itself on the sub atomic level? The very notion of “matter” has rather complicated and non-concrete, hasn’t it? And what about E = Mc^2? Now the Greeks thought of the principles or the laws as inhering in the material instances by “forming” and “informing” them. And that fluidity and connectedness seemed too vague, too vitalistic, and too metaphysical to natural philosophers in the 17th century. It seemed to stand in the way of the development of Newtonian “mechanics” at the time, and it was dismissed.

But I tend to see this same notion — unstated — everywhere in Neo-darwinian and other accounts of emergent phenomena today. E = Mc^2 has to have ended the notion of “matter” as an inert and solid “stuff” that extends indifferently in time and space, doesn’t it? Matter is energy? (Classicists, this is Aristotle’s dynamis and inergeia, material potency and actualization in the form of ability to do work…) But I’ll wait to see if the scientists challenge me….

We have seen that knowing for human beings is a constant process of constituting theoretical accounts of kinds of things, in terms of their distinctive features and their formal principles. (What we know of particular individual things is mediated dialectically through this process, the idealizing or concept-forming process, which is always operating as we use our communal storehouse of words referring to kinds of things. “This is a puppy.”) Developing the theory of the ike opens for Plato and Aristotle the Possibility of more focused and lucid and thoughtful knowing for the human knower within a disciplinary community for knowing, but ONLY because elegant formality does manifest itself in the world in a dazzling array of varieties.

Why do I keep insisting on all this about the formal ike? A friend said to me, “You are asking Rick and the others to take little baby steps with you instead of giving the larger picture of where you are going.”

If this is the case, it is not because I think my readers can only handle little “baby steps.”

But it might be a somewhat inescapable by-product of what I am trying to do, which is to elicit form my readers an act of the historical imagination. For it certainly is the case that, as Rick put it, “perhaps what we have is a problem with the concept of an ‘ike.'” Yes, today we definitely do have a problem with the concept. And what I want to do is clear away some of the obstacles and allow us to see the coherence of the idea of the ike for the Greeks! To see its coherence within a different frame of reference from our own. (It will serve us well all the way through the Renaissance.)

If I can only get you to make this leap with me — a kind of leap that can only be made by an act of self-transcendence, by allowing the horizons of your world to shift — then you will be empowered to experience this amazing kind of thinking that is all about formal elegance in the universe, manifesting itself in (and as) the kind of thing, because of the formal processes that produce the kind-of-thing.

But this particular leap is very hard to do from where we are, and that makes it particularly rewarding for us, it seems to me. The rupture that Descartes managed to initiate, by his own amazing imaginative and theoretical genius, was between the human knower or subject (“I”) and the “object” of knowledge, but it was a rupture that simultaneoulsy collapsed the human act-of-knowing and the thing-to-be-known into one and the same thing. (I hope I can show you how fateful this was to be.)

Finally, but not least significant, the Cartesian paradigm produced a huge chasm between the older Greek dynamical coming-into-being of things (physis) and the new awareness of the concrete particular things that exist, considered as inert “objects” of human knowledge, measurably extended in time and space and knowlable in the sense of being quantitatively measurable and plottable.

This was the day the universe died. “Life” effectively disappeared (animals are machines) and the only center of vitality and choice and spontaneity became a mental substance to be found only in the mind of human beings (and in God). Really, this had to be about as radical an invention and historical paradigm shift as can be imagined. And 250 years of historical cultural process has entrenched it in our minds: this new “objectivist” model for reality and epistemology in the Modern centuries.

But if you are willing to attempt to set all of this conditioning in abeyance, since you already know what the familar way of thinking can do, and if you are willing to engage instead — perhaps through “a willing suspension of disbelief” (John Keats) — in reconsidering the rigid separation of the “laws of nature” from the (inert) objects — then you might end up with more than one rich way of thinking about the same things, one of them from our own era of history and one from an earlier era. (“Complementary” models that might urge us towards a deeper theory?)

It seems to me that the ontological separation of the human mind from all material bodies of every kind, and the separation of “the objects” from what was now called “scientific law,” was as arbitrary and artificial as it would be to regard “blood” as a separate ontological substance from the body through which the blood courses. Why is “thought” a separate ontological substance from the bodily human brain? And only the “thought” of human brains, at that? (Not of animals?) This is why it is so ironical for Dawkins to accuse Christians of being the ones clinging to the superstition of a separate soul or spirit or mind, when historically this was invented with the rise of science!

Meanwhile, Bertrand Russell (the granddaddy of Dawkins and Dennett as analytical philosophers) wanted to reduce this Cartesian dualism by simply making everything mechanistic, and denying any reality to human thought or the human experience of the “I.” But Dennett and Dawkins are taking “mentality” very seriously as an emergent phenomenon to be studied scientifically. All of this is a nest of paradoxes!

Descartes and his eager disciples, who electrified Europe, accomplished this inexplicable feat of separating of scientific law (presumably as res cogitans or thought-stuff?) from res extensa (or matter-stuff), by developing between them a radical opposition that persists in our minds to the present moment. (Where it jostles uncomfortably in our heads along with the new paradigms in all the disciplines and in popular culture that have deconstructed this misguided Cartesian dualism.)

To me, in our day, the greatest liberation can come from learning to “stop patronizing the past” and being willing “to see the present as itself a period.”

This has been the point for me of teaching earlier literature and philosophy. The external world and the interiority of the human subject have been historically interrelated in a number of different ways, and each model will disclose (and also “white out” or erase) some aspects of the state of affairs, when there is a genuine and deep engagement with reality. In this, how can the rise of science as a way of knowing fail to move us and to be appreciated in its exemplary reality-testing procedures and safe-guards? I think it cannot and must fail so to move us.

Poststructuralism certainly does not deny the external world or our genuine engagement with it. But what the Saussurean revolution has given us is a much deeper awareness of how profoundly conditioned and mediated every kind of human engagement with the world is, and how profoundly our conditioned human perceptions and that which is perceived are interrelated. Science does not escape this condition, and yet it presents us with an exemplary way of knowing in which fascinating its own epistemological checks and balances come into play, despite every pressure upon it (and presence within it) of social, political, and other cultural meaning-systems.

The Saussurean recognition — the fundamental paradox of late twentieth-century thought (and to me the essence of what is best in post-Modernity) — means that the splendid goal of the liberal arts education is superlatively empowered today. We have the opening of the better possibility to think and to know, precisely because we do not have to be unwittingly bound to our own cultural paradigms. (It only takes one or two other paradigms to make us significantly less parochial thinkers and significantly more flexible and acute and undefensive thinkers.)

We are also in the philosophically enviable position of being significantly chastened and humbled by realizing how deeply we are formed — intersubjectively, in our shared codes of conventional associations — by our cultures, and by our personal histories of formation, which go back to before we knew ourselves as an “I.” This can only make our disciplinary thinking more cognizant and efficacious.

So my goal is not to convince you, my readers, that the Enlightenment worldview was “wrong” and the Greco-European one was “right.” (But I see I have erred in my presentation, by seeming to suggest that. And rightly this has evoked protest, most recently from Hi.)

No, I want us to see the sequence of worldviews in Western history as a rich opportunity for us North Americans (who are so largely monolingual) to learn new “epistemological” languages, to imaginatively grasp and apply an “other” way of thinking rigorously, which in this case comes to us from Plato and Aristotle.

Why? Because this will enrich and broaden us, but most of all because of what it does for us when we “return” to our own world and our own deeply engrained set of assumptions about what knowing is and what it is for. We will see ourselves and our own worldview better, because we have fresh critical apprehensions about it.

Now in the U. S., Stanley Fish has been notorious for arguing that getting outside of our own “interpretive community” only means that we have been inducted into another interpretive community, or into two or three more of them, but that we can never get to a place outside of all these parochial human communities and arrive at an objective view of “the way things really are.” This line of “relativist” thinking seems to loom large in American constructivist theory.

I want to say as emphatically as I am able that if Fish means this as a critique of the time-honored liberal-arts ideal of critical awareness and its power to “liberate” us, then his argument only holds water if we are thinking in terms of an ideal of finding an Archimedian point upon which we can rest everything, and from which we can “move the world.” That is, if we are thinking of getting entirely outside of our former parochialism and acheiving, once and for all, a God’s-eye vantage-point, so that we humans can loftily proclaim that we know finally and completely the objective and universal truth of the ways things really are.

This hope, of course, was once brand new, when it arose with science and the Newtonian-inspired Enlightenment — that humanity could now cease to be parochial and subjective and could now attain to this universality of objective fact and a “self-evident” Reason. (In the 50s, so far as I can tell, I was still growing up in THAT world. What a huge paradigm-shift has occurred in our culture since then.)

The Enlightenment was, like all powerful cultural movements, an experiment in attempting to put into practice and to live out certain selected values, and many of those values were magnificent (the universal rights of man, for instance, and the idea that science could promote the material welfare of humankind).

All such cultural experiments also produce the unexpected and often completely unwanted “dark side” of living out their selected values, because selecting some values means excluding or denying others. And in the thrilling adventure of forging this new culture, we are generally utterly blind to this dark side. We simply do not see it, because we are focusing on what we have selected to focus upon.

Yet this is also why cultures are most critical and despairing about themselves for their perceived failures in fully instituting their highest values. In the Modern West, our failures in acheiving genuine human rights for all; in the medieval West, their failures in acheiving spiritual compassion and responsibility by persons on all levels of feudal society, which is endlessly mourned and reproached in medieval texts.

This is the human condition, I believe, and this is a view of the human condition that I read in poststructuralism, in postmodern times, and in the historical Christian faith, in the premodern West, both of which viewed humanity as riddled with contradictions (even in our highest efforts), and both of which thought dialectically about the play of positivity and negativity in the human psyche and in human communities.

As I noted, this didn’t lessen the acute disappointment registered in the earlier Christian era over humans not consistently fulfilling higher spiritual ideals, over them not being universally transfigured and empowered by grace. Similarly, it leaves poststructuralists, also, struggling with the human condition, a constant in all of their work. French poststructuralism was anything but a superficial fashionability. The willingness to face the depths of human “unsuccess” as the real problem for the human race has been for me the greatest strength of both traditions of thought.

Going back to the comment about the ike implying “a knowledge of everything about a specialization,” I want to ask all of you to keep on pushing yourselves to think this question differently — as well as to think it also in the astute way that that Rick has thought it for us. (Think it both ways. Let them play against each other. Work in the in-between of the two paradigms. That’s the poststructuralists’ chosen territory because its turbulence is so rich in seeking higher-order formulations about human meaning-structures….)

Our formalisms are what guide us in seeking facts and data and what help us to know where to look next, how to select and combine those pieces into the required coherent picture or results. This skill of ours in this formal elegance derived from its human history — we are nourished by those who have gone before us, but we know we are working out an evolving story and we know that in the future our ike will look different than it does from where we now stand.

So why do we persist? Because there is nothing better or more fascinating or revealing for us to do with our human energies, and we want to think it further and to teach it to young minds. We hope our specialization will cultivate and season young minds, and make them better equipped to be thoughtful citizens, and that some of them will turn into the future workers in our field. We don’t really teach them information. We teach them “how to think” that information. (How it has been thought and how it is now thought, so that they can progress to the better way it might be thought in the future.)

In every field and specialization, we do experience Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts,” but the many, many students with whom I’ve read Kuhn had no difficulty pointing out that his model was too simplistic and rigid — just an introductory schema for starting to think about science (like any discipline) as having deep continuties with its past formalizations and yet being able to recognize when a leap to a better paradigm will fulfill its earlier efforts on a higher and more comprehensive level. My students always tell me that Kuhn overdoes the “incommensurability” of the new paradigm vis-a-vis the old. (This indicates how thoroughly our cultural codes, the codes that have formed these kids, have absorbed at this point the once revolutionary and entirely counter-intuitive work of Kuhn.)

So I’d like to point toward the work of the great physical chemist (and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi) to complete this post. Using a deeply Augustinian stance toward the situation of the scientist as knower, his description of how humans are able to come to know is for me the most convincing model I’ve ever encountered.

For him, what enables human knowing (the conditions of its possibility) is a reality for and in the human mind that is the same reality that enables all emergence, everywhere in our universe, including the “leap” from the floating amino acids to the first one-celled organisms, those little “centres of thought and responsibility” (this is a chemist speaking) that first exploited the opportunity to initiate biological life. That reality is the potentiality locked into the universal history that has formed us — the drive from the beginning to exploit every potential for higher-order complexity. At the same time, the reality that forms us as we are now (say Newtonian mechanics) also empowers us to make the next “leap” in organization (say relativistic mechanics and quantum mechanics), in the form of our brilliantly formalized next attempts to know.

Wily Socrates # 6 — Central Passage

With today’s installment of Plato’s Ion, we reach what may be the single most critically important passage in the entire dialogue, at the mid-way point in it.

You remember that Socrates had just finished quite an oratorical performance, the first of two long speeches – centered around an extended “epic” simile, no less. We’ll pick him up here again as he concludes that first speech, to the effect that the poets are not “in their right minds” and not “possessed of their senses,” when they are singing their evocative and inspired words, but are instead ecstatically possessed by the Muse, and under the guidance of the inscrutable gods. (Read Rick’s summation.)

This Socratic “explanation” of how poetry is engendered – although it is without benefit of ratio-nal or elegantly proportioned (logikos) thought – finds a great reception from Ion, who is moved and persuaded by Socrates’ rhetorical excellence. (In fact he is quite “en-thused,” from en-theos.) The rhapsode doesn’t seem to realize (yet) that if this notion of mind-less inspiration were to be extended to himself, as the interpreter of the mind-less poets, then he would be definitively deprived of an ike. Ion could no longer claim that he wins his rich prizes by exercising a formal art, a legitimate cognitive activity, with its own subject-matter, methodology, orthotike, and elegant consistency as “a whole art.” (After all, Socrates is not scrutinizing Ion as a public entertainer, nor even as an actor in our modern sense, but with respect to the rhapsode as a public educator of a citizenry.)

If poetics originates with “inspiration,” however honorific this might seem, the literary ike would fail to meet the standards Socrates has been developing in this dialogue for determining the genuine ways of knowing available to the human mind, through the new philosophical project Plato has in mind, based upon a critical and dialectical mode of thought aimed at elegant formalizations of various kinds of things. Rhapsodike (or epiipoietike) could never be included within a liberal arts curriculum, that unique enterprise undertaken for the first time in the West in Plato’s Academy, during the decades following Plato’s writing of the Ion.

So let’s see more of what follows the first speech, and consider why it is so significant, vis-à-vis the new mode of education for citizens, through the arts and sciences:

Socrates … in this way God would seem to demonstrate to us and not to allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, nor the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which God intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst poet he sang the best of songs? Am I not right, Ion?

Ion Yes, indeed, Socrates, I feel that you are; for your words touch my soul, and I am persuaded that in these works the good poets, under divine inspiration, interpret to us the voice of the gods.

Socrates And you rhapsodes are the interpreters of the poets?

Ion There again you are right.

Socrates Then you are the interpreters of interpreters?

Ion Precisely.

Socrates I wish you would frankly tell me, Ion, what I am going to ask of you: When you produce the greatest effect on the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and shaking out his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles springing upon Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam – are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem?

Ion That proof strikes home to me, Socrates. For I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs.

Socrates Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in an embroidered robe, and has golden crowns upon his head, of which no one has robbed him, appears weeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him – is he in his right mind or is he not?

Ion No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is not in his right mind.

Socrates And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most of the spectators?

Ion Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking; and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself will laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself will cry, when the time for payment arrives….

“I am obliged to give my very best attention…” – to what? To the emotions on the faces of my audience. In these exchanges, Socrates introduces the issue of the “effects” on human persons of the rhapsode’s actions. He also evokes from Ion an indication of the telos or formal “end” or “goal” Ion always bears in mind to in-form his actions. Therefore, these exchanges constitute, I believe, the pivotal moment in the dialogue, and its moral center.

It seems to me that here, for a instant, the mask of the acclaimed prize-winner slips, and we are given a brief glimpse of what lies behind the splendid costumes and the “noble” and “beautiful” appearance of Ion. Such a glimpse as this, however, is what the crafty “angler” Socrates has been fishing for, ever since he observed, back in his opening speech, that “adorning the body” and “appearing as fine as possible” are “fitting” requirements of the rhapsode’s art.

Up until now, Ion has probably appeared to you the “innocent babe” one of you (“theory kid”) described him as being – a little lamb whom Socrates has “wrapped around his finger,” with his shifty and even unscrupulously invalid argumentative techniques. After all, Ion of Ephesus merely blundered mildly into this inquisition, and in the end he will be allowed to blunder out of it and continue blithely on his way – off to the great Athenian competitions in rhapsody, where he will win again, perhaps, and be amply rewarded for all his pains. In any case, he will depart from Socrates just as undisturbed in his sublime self-approval and in his touchingly childish eagerness to display what he can do as he ever was.

Plato’s Socrates will treat Ion quite gently, in fact, compared to his treatment of other would-be educators (some of the Sophists), who are tested and exposed in later dialogues. (But not every paid teacher of rhetoric will be pilloried, and Plato will honor many old teachers and mentors in the dialogues, including the distinguished mathematician Theodorus in Theaetetus, and of course, Socrates himself.)

So let’s see how Socrates angles for Ion’s unwitting confession, and why this confession seems so culpable to Plato, in light of the new vision of the arts and sciences that was instigated by the historical figure of Socrates himself.

Socrates begins by asking Ion to “tell me frankly” about the effects of his performances upon Ion’s own mental condition, when he is on stage, absorbed in reciting and enacting a striking passage for his hearers, and “producing the greatest effect” on them:

…when you produce the greatest effect on the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and shaking out his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles springing upon Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam – are you in your right mind?

“Are you in your right mind?” appears to be the main thematic point of this inquiry, but appearances can be deceptive. Let’s not miss the new threads appearing in the close weave of Socrates’ unique artistic practice, dialect-ike, whose own telos is always to prod those of us who willing to engage in it with him into re-educating ourselves, most of all in re-educating ourselves about who we are. (Not for nothing was the historical Socrates associated with the Delphic injunction: “Know thyself.”)

The new threads entering the dialectic are those of “the effect” of the ike on the citizenry, and the question of one’s ultimate telos in pursuing the ike. What effect does Ion’s mimetic activity have upon his own state of mind, and what are the “greatest effects” he produces in his audience?

Whenever a structure of language is invented and evaluated in terms of its effects on its addressees, we are dealing with the Greek art of rhetoric, “whose end (telos) is in the hearer.” So we are looking here at the question of rhetorically effective language itself, and Plato and Aristotle will despise the Sophists because they employ their rhetorical expertise not with regard to the truth, but only to persuasion, being quite willing to “make the worse appear the better cause” (as in John Milton’s pithy phrase). Ion responds, quite “frankly” enough, that “at the tale of pity my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs.”

Now Aristotle, in the brilliant thought-work of his Poetics, will return to the issue of evoking “pity and fear,” of which Ion speaks here. Contra the Platonic Socrates’ arguments, here and in the Republic, that the mimetic poets irresponsible stir up and pander to the mob’s emotions, and thus encourage the “less worthy” part of the soul (the pathe or “passions” as opposed to ethe, or the settled and enduring ethical principles and habits of the higher faculty of the mind), Aristotle will point out that an excellent tragedy exercises and educates the emotions, by effecting “a cartharsis of pity and fear.” Thus poietike can exert an important civic function, Aristotle maintains, in relation to the passions. (However, this is not Aristotle’s telos for poietike, as it is generally taken to be, but simply an important Aristotelian response to Plato’s suggestion of the civic irresponsibility of mimesis.)

If we turn to the three “striking passages” Socrates mentions, we will achieve a better understanding of what raises these philosophical concerns. First, Socrates alludes to the scene in the Odyssey when the hero reveals himself and begins to take his very bloody revenge upon the suitors (and the young women of the household who consorted with them). The massacre of all these young men touches off an inevitable blood-feud, one that threatens to bring the kingdom to ruin – except that Zeus and Athena decide to intervene at the last minute, imposing a deus ex machina resolution by forbidding the battle between Odysseus’s close kin and the kinsmen of the slain suitors.

Then Socrates mentions the shameful passage in the Iliad when poor Hector has given way to fear and has been pursued by Achilles around the city wall, until the goddess Athena tricks him into taking his stand. She then deserts him and leaves him to face the potent wrath of Achilles alone. Achilles proceeds to desecrate the body of the fallen Hector, in front of his family and the entire citizenry of Troy watching from the battlements, after their greatest and noblest defender has fallen.

Finally, Socrates cites “the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, and Priam,” in their passionate and unrestrained lamentations of grief and despair.

In Plato’s mature masterpiece the Republic, Socrates returns to the question of the epic poets at much greater length than in Ion, and in Book 2 he contends that children ought not to be exposed – especially at a tender age when they are most “impressionable” — to the childhood stories commonly told then, the ones about “falsehoods.” What falsehoods? Adeomantes inquires. “I mean telling lies about the gods and heroes,” Socrates replies. For Socrates, the gods do not engage in deception and trickery, nor do heroic men give way to passion, or if they do, those are not the actions to be held up for public consideration. Socrates mentions the scene of Hector’s death and desecration at the hands of Achilles (a scene which also involves the treachery of the patron goddess of Athens).

Then Socrates makes a further statement: It is not just that the poets tell falsehoods about gods and heroes. This is reprehensible enough, of course, and ought not to form any part of early education in the ideal polis. But no, there is a further sin here, because the poet not only does so, but “he does it for no good cause.” For no good purpose or telos. So there are in fact two grave sins against truth adduced here. First, gods do not act this way, Socrates insists, and if our heroes ever do, we certainly do not wish our children to hear these acts held up in storied legend. The young should be told stories about divine justice and about how the “godlike” heroes act in self-possession and always for the good.

But secondly, the poets willingly tell such unworthy tales “to no good purpose.” Socrates means that literary mimesis of this kind does not serve any function beneficial to the polis. It is later, in Book 10, that Socrates develops the parallel arguments that when the mimetic poets stir up in us unworthy emotions, our own enacting of these emotions through our own mimesis (acting and recitation), will strengthen “the lower part” of the soul and encourage that to war against “the higher principle.” Here it becomes explicit that, in all these ways, such poetic mimesis is harmful to the polis – it has no good civic function. This is what Socrates means when he says the poet tells tales, and to no good purpose.

As I noted earlier, Aristotle counters confidently in his Poetics that, on the contrary, tragic drama, for example, exercises and trains the emotions, effecting a “catharsis” of potentially dangerous emotions (“pity” and “fear”), and enabling them to be re-integrated into the harmonious and balanced whole psyche. This is a notable point of contrast between Plato and Aristotle, but never forget that in Rep. 10, so very fascinatingly, as Socrates is banishing the mimetic poets from the heavenly Polis in the Sky, he begs at te same time that someone will reply to his charges and successfully defend the poets, that they might be readmitted to the city. Throughout the Poetics, Aristotle is responding to just such an invitation.

What about the “sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam”? They are also mentioned in Rep. 10 as examples of unrestrained and “womanly” emotional excesses unworthy of good citizens. Always, Socrates urged stoicism in misfortune, and at Socrates’ deathbed in Plato’s Crito, he sends the weeping women away and admonishes his male friends not to give way to grief: why should we resist this great good fortune – to the philosophical mind – the transition of a settled mind from this life to the next. (By the way, Socrates’ wife goes away lamenting, “Oh, Socrates, never again will you sit and converse with your friends.” This strikes me as a remarkably perceptive, affectionate, and generous expression of sadness, but Socrates is having none of it.)

And Socrates sees an addition problem here. If a man is to enact the sorrows of Andromache and Hecuba, he will need to assume mimetically the part of a woman, and this is specifically mentioned in Rep 10 as destructive to the stoical and “manly” habits of mind desirable in the citizens of the polis. Socrates would not want to see a citizen enact the role of a child or a slave, either. Here we are confronting the Platonic mind/body dualism that runs through Western history from Plato to Descartes and thence to the present day.Governed by the basic structure of the Platonistic mind/body opposition are the oppositions mind/passions, thought/emotions, male/female, adult/child, free man/slave.

[theoretical aside from jlb: But there is no sign of the mind/nature dualism introduced by Descartes in Plato and Aristotle, nor in Western Christian thought prior to the rise of science. The immanent/transcendent presence of formal elegance throughout all of nature, including human nature, was the third player and mediator. It provided for the inherent concentenaity between human knowing and the surrounding world, because human thought was a part of that same world. Formal elegance could run through the human mind because it ran through the entire cosmos and revealed itself in all ikes, as it did in geometry and arithmetic, music and astronomy, the numerical arts.]

Finally, let’s return to Odysseus, spilling his arrows at his feet. Socrates opposed the taking of revenge, perhaps the most shockingly counter-cultural thing about him in his day, although he was personally courageous and distinguished himself as a soldier in more than one campaign. He also defied an execution order issued by the council — made in the heat of the moment and later withdrawn – to carry out their political vendetta against a number of citizens. He simply went home instead.

So the three “striking passages” mentioned in Ion give us a very good idea of the kinds of objectionable “effects” that Ion’s “art” produced in his hearers. The rhapsodes moved their audiences to excesses of “womanly” pity and fear, and wrought these passions to the uttermost.. (Athens had given way to mob emotion and regretted it, when they had wiped out a colony, settled by Athenians, when it had decided to be self-determining, like Athens herself. Thucydides had attributed this shameful political decision to the absence of cooler heads effectively able to reason calmly and win the day.)

Clearly, Ion also enacted stirring examples of blood revenge, and scenes that involved divine treachery and misdeeds enacted by the greatest Achaean heroes. We ourselves have become much more supportive of a broad emotional and situational range, both in art and in entertainment, yet I think we can feel a certain sympathy for Socrates and Plato too, living as we do in the age of Fox News, the excesses of the blogosphere, and other semi-respectable forms of popular hysteria.

Plato and Aristotle were the first to dream of an education based on thoughtful and pluralistic investigations of many things, with a political telos of citizen formation in view. The new philosophical approach would oppose itself to uncritical acceptance of inherited assumptions (Bronze Age Greek tribal codes of blood revenge, for example, or popular acceptance of amoral “divinity”). It would be based on a commitment to disciplinary communities and the dialectical play of mind, carried on in pursuit of ideals of Form-al truth that would functioned as a critique of contemporary thought and practice. When Socrates first asked, “What is Justice?” and refused to accept the answer that it is whatever those in power say it is, he was opening the possibility of what would become ethics and politics, as the first liberal arts.

So thoughtful critique and re-examination of received opinion was half of what it was all about. The other half, though, was the thrilling new excitement of that communal pursuit of formal elegance that opened up within any ike – the transfiguring sense of deep contact with reality – that could come to individuals through participation in a discipline for the sake of its truth. Nothing else could empower a citizen to rise to the occasion, to rise above interests and pressures, with courage and integrity. Only this existentially transfiguring experience of the true, the beautiful, and the good, in those moments when the ike makes a genuine breakthrough, could accomplish this liberation, this personalist salvation.

So the arts and sciences would serve the good of the polis through the pursuit of truth in the disciplines,through the formation of citizens equipped for and experienced in thoughtful conversation from many disciplinary perspectives, and through the “existential” liberation of at least some citizens from simple greed and self-aggrandizement, for a principled service of higher things.

Simple greed and self-aggrandizement, I am afraid, are revealed in the center of the dialogue Ion as being the telos that energizes the activities of our “innocent babe,” the rhapsode Ion of Ephesus. But the word in-nocent means “not harmful.” I think we can see that for Plato what Ion represents is anything but harmless. We see Ion’s hawk-like vigilence, at every moment that he is on stage, is to read the reactions of the audience, so as to win their applause. Not only is Ion quite willing to stir up deep and even base emotions, but he does so “to no good purpose.” He is not thinking about the good of the polis or the best formation of its citizens: “I am obliged to give my very best attention” to their faces, “for if I make them cry, I myself will laugh, but if I make them laugh, I myself will cry, when the time for payment arrives….”

From the perspective of the new philosophical project, Ion has notably failed to manifest the desire to seek any ideal or higher formal truth. His mind is uncritical and self-serving. He wants to succeed, but he does not desire to examine why he is succeeding or what it is that he is succeeding for. He believes that money and fame are sufficient ends in themselves, and he accepts the judgment of his peers as vindication of his own worth. No voice of the God is whispering within him, as Socrates’ daimon does, asking him whether he indeed knows anything at all, or what he would most deeply desire to know, if he could choose freely. Ion does not even know that he is not free to choose, that he has not taken even the first baby steps down the long road to becoming a free person.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith Disappoints on Social “Constructivisms”

I’ve been reading an excellent book whose Chapter 5 deals entirely with the Science wars of the 1990s (as in the Sokal hoax affair) by an American theorist whose work I have always admired, Barbara Herrnstein Smith. And while the book manifests her characteristic lucidity and precision — and is therefore quite helpful — I find myself disappointed at where she comes out on all of this.

And surprised.

Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth, and the Human (2005) sets out to clarify and defend an American movement of thought that Herrnstein Smith calls “constructivism,” which she distinguishes from another American movement she calls “social constructionism” (or, confusingly, social constructivism).

Smith’s is a voice worth listening to, for she is not only very well grounded in literary theoretical developments over the past 40 years, but she’s also street smart and knows her way around American and British academia. (She taught for years at the University of Pennsylvania and, when writing this book, she was concurrently Braxton Craven Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Duke and Distinguished Professor of English at Brown.)

The two constructivisms are “often conflated,” she notes, and “the views and enterprises they name have complex intellectual-historical connections. Nevertheless, their simple identification obscures significant differences of origin, emphasis, and intellectual or ideological operation”(4).

To summarize, Herrnstein Smith describes her own affiliation, constructivism, as being focused on human cognition and as being philosophical and epistemological, with some input from psychology and sociology. American constructivists have been interested in “the processes and dynamics of cognition: either micro-cognition, that is, individual learning, knowledge, and perception, and/or macrocognition, that is, intellectual history and the cultural-institutional-technological operations of science.” Their work, she says, is aimed primarily at “other scholars and theorists of cognition and science, especially though not exclusively philosophers.” Its roots go back to Heidegger and Niezsche and it draws on mid-twentieth-century figures including Peter Berger, Jean Piaget, and Nelson Goodman.

In contrast, social constructionism is “more culturally focused and politically engaged” (5), and is carried on “by cultural critics, feminists, gender theorists and other scholars and critics in connection with such problematic practices as racial classifications, gender bias or normative heterosexuality.” This movement “operates primarily as an effort to challenge relevant beliefs – including those offered by scientists or in the name of science – by revealing their dependence on historically or culturally particular discursive practices and/or exposing their implication in the preservation of prevailing social and political arrangements.”

[Derridean aside from jlb: Note the word “revealing” in the last sentence above: “revealing their dependence on….” I’d like to use that word to offer a Derridean gloss on what she’s talking about, but from the perspective of my own movement in theory, not hers.

Heidegger and Derrida meditated deeply on “forgetting” and on this ancient Greek notion of truth as “bringing into the communally human space of appearance from out of the unknownness of forgetfulness.” Remember how we’ve seen that the Greek word a-letheia means “truth,” and that it is constructed from the root-word for “forgetting,” as seen in “washing in the river Lethe,” along with the alpha-privative prefixed to it. “Truth” then is an “un-veiling” of something that was there all along, but it had been “veiled” or “erased” or “whited out.”

In this philosophical context, the words “re-vealing” and “re-velation” become especially interesting to Derrida because of their etymological structure, since the “un-veiling” they signify is figured as a “re-veiling,” or “covering over again.” For Derrida, every human act of revealing is always also inescapably a “veiling” or covering over. But don’t stop with this, don’t stop with one or the other: this is a dialectic. Yes, bringing into the light as truth is precisely truth, if it is truly in contact with something there, in that it brings into the light of our attention a part of what was always there. But by so doing, it casts other parts of what was always there back into shadow. And this principle of human perception can be seen operating quite clearly, in my judgment, in the case of the social constructionist mission stated above.

What I mean is that the social constructionist act of “revealing the dependence” of scientific concepts “on historical and cultural particularities” can be a genuine enough revelation, as far as it goes, but it is not by itself the whole state of affairs. And promoting it covers over or hides from view or makes us “forget” the methodological determinations peculiar to science that give science its own legitimacy and validity, even though these determinations and formalizations are always evolving. No, I should go further and say that their validity and legitimacy are guaranteed by the very fact that they are always evolving, through the experimental interactions of scientists with the natural world.

So do you see why “dialectic” is such an important concept to Continental philosophers and theorists? Even though it is messy and rancorous, the dialectic going on right now between “science” and “social constructionism” could conceivable bring to light some precise and rigorous insights and clarifications (a Hegelian synthesis, if you will). But at the same time we must realize that there will be a left-over, an aufgeheben, a “supplement” – in that other elements of reality will be veiled in the process of clarification, and future readjustments, no doubt also messy and rancorous, will need to be made, in their own time, by those who identify with what has been forgotten.

At this moment in our own Anglo-American intellectual tradition, this dialectic, and a belief in conducting it as a faithful process, is perhaps the re-cognition we need the most, because for the past 100 years we have been so deeply invested in this notion of absolulutely certain and indubitable “truth.” (The very notion of a “truth” that is partial, and of which our understanding evolves, seems to us a contradiction in terms, even though historically this has always been the Christian notion of truth, and was that of the Greco-European tradition in general.)

Our recent investment in this overreaching ideal of certainty in “knowledge” has become a foe to thought. It ran its course. Yet, true, too much dialectical “light” runs the danger of obscuring the even the more qualified notion of truth, and creating a climate for runaway irrationalisms. This is the dialectic once again. However, I’ll take a humble “irrationalism” over a “rationalist” absolutism, or over any absolutism, any day.]

Herrnstein Smith points to Kuhn’s “paradigms” and Foucault’s “epistemes” as key reference points for both “constructing” movements – although I would note that neither gentleman denied the reality of the external world (as she knows too). She considers Kuhn and Foucault, along with the fascinating work of a little known Polish scientist named Ludwik Fleck (whom she rightly introduces and quotes extensively) as beacons pointing these movements toward “the existence of conceptual-discursive systems that both enable and constrain the processes of cognition” for a given “social collective.” (This notion of, in my terms, meaning-generating systems that both empower and limit at the same time is important also in postructuralist theory. Think of my speech-communities, disciplinary communities, and cultural worldviews or “thought-worlds,” for instance.)

In the matter of “systems that both enable and constrain” cognition, I am on the same page with Herrnstein Smith and the “constructivists.” But I am surprised and disappointed at where she goes with this, especially when she responds to the frequent charge against both movements that they deny that “Nature is structured in certain ways, inherently” and that “those ways are largely in accord with our perceptions, conceptions, and descriptions of them.” She states merely that constructivists, as distinguished from social constructionists, “typically decline … to presume either any particular way the world inherently is or such an accord” (6). (Some members of SC do presume against these propositions, but not all of them.)

Now we need to pause here. I’m surprised and disappointed, but at the same time, this is a very delicate issue, enormously complex theoretically. Smith writes that it is “in their historical, sociological or psychological accounts of science and cognition” that constructivists “decline to presume,” and therefore they adopt this stance of what she calls “professional ontological agnosticism.” This suggests to me that in doing their cultural analyses, they decline to adopt a position of “knowing for sure” the precise reality of the physical systems or phenomena with which the science they may be treating is dealing.

This would actually be quite wise, as far as it goes. It represents an advance in critical awareness over previous days when all scholars and researchers and textbooks assumed the old (“scientistic”) stance that “we today” have all the answers, and the benighted thinkers of the past were merely unable to discover what we now know absolutely to be the case. In contrast to that complacent “historicism,” we ourselves are always aware that our current state of knowledge is liable to change and may develop radically in the future. It is best to treat the past as fairly and sympathetically as we can, in its own terms, and to recognize its own comparative accomplishments, strengths, and weakness, without seeming to hold them up to a universal standard of absolute correctness (which we ourselves then must embody)

So it is now quite possible to write confidently and accurately in science (and about science), as visiters on this blog have done, without adopting such a patronizing and universalist Archimedean stance (of being outside the historical process and able to assess it from a finalized and totalized vantage point). This advance in critical self-awareness and intellectual modesty was hard-fought and very hard-won, and let us not despise it.

However, there is still a big problem here, with a position of “ontological agnosticism.” It does seem to me to lead to metaphyscial relativism and “anything goes,” because humans are thus trapped in their solipsistic little social worlds and where is our recourse for saying that any account is scientifically or morally or politically any better than any other? Why should we even try? (Derrida is frequently interpreted as though this is what he is suggesting, and quite unjustly. There was too much truth in his remark that he was being reading “increasingly widely and increasisngly less well.”) 

But let’s still remember that there was a time in the Modern West when we rather naively took the natural world in its concrete material “here and nowness” as the gold standard of what is real. (You know, of course, what “time” I mean. How could you not, by now? The Newtonian Enlightenment, of course. By and large, the worldview of the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, and hanging on by its toenails in the 20th century.)

But on this weblog, at least, I think we have granted full status as reality to emergent phenomena of all kinds that can no longer be studied on the fundamental levels of physics, chemistry, and biology, and yet are quite real. (Ink and paper vis-à-vis Hamlet.)

The reason, it seems to me, that “ontological agnosticism” arises now in the Anglo-American intellectual setting is largely as a reaction against the great “foundationalist” project of our own early 20th century philosophy, the attempt to “ground” scientific knowledge as being “certain knowledge” (Frege, Russell, Husserl).

The shocking failure of this project seems to have left us “burned” and in something of an intellectual vacuum. Anglo-American analytical philosophers have struggled to regain their bearings. Richard Rorty, for a well-known and influential example, turned to what he called pragmatism — and he and pragmatist philosophy are mentioned as influences on constructivism. There is a strong anti-foundational climate in American thought that did not develop in France, because they never invested in foundationalism in quite this way or to this extent, to begin with. The dialectical mode was very strong on the Continental, even while it was “whited out” altogether over here.

Those older turn-of-the-century thinkers such as Bertrand Russell had taken geometry, mathematics, and modern logic as the fundamental guarantees that humans could claim to “know for sure.” Once again, we are looking at “absolutely certain knowledge”: the obsession of Descartes and of British scientific rationalism, to the extreme extent that epistemology ceased to be the study of how humans come to know and became instead “theory of knowledge”: how we can prove that what we know is known for sure. (The truly strange thing about this is that Russell and Frege knew it was impossible from the beginning. Quite apart from the threat of Russell’s paradox, Russell says so right out in 1925 and continues his project anyway. I need to write about this.)

It turned out that neither logic nor mathematics could be grounded in the manner they had wanted to be possible, and had assumed to be required. Not only could not be, but did not need to be. Geometry, mathematics, science, and philosophy can all get along quite well without an indubitably secure foundation. (All we need is brilliant formalization!)

So we can simply start where we’ve been reminded again that human beings have always started – in medias res. We are always “thrown” into life, waking up “in the middest of things,” muddling along as local communities with historical crises to face, and keeping things going – especially our humble desire to know – with whatever resources came to hand. And being very rigorous and brilliant about finding and developing those resources (such as geometry, math, logic), to boot.

The reason I lay so much emphasis in my own work on the way the Greeks began with the presence of formal elegance manifesting itself in their world is that our Anglo-American world needs to get reacquainted with this originary Western insight once again. Plato and Aristotle simply take the actuality of the world for granted. It is there, insofar as it impinges into their human worlds. Then they go after its formal elegance with their formalisms. (Closeness to that Greek tradition must be one reason that Continental philosophy did not get so bogged down as we have done in endless ratiocinations along the lines of an absolutely axiom-baseded, atomistic and mechanized symbolical-logical machine, such as Principia Mathematica represented.)

And we are still hung up over here on axiom-based systems working algorithmically as our preferential models of what is real, which, however brilliant computer research may be, does not provide the most fruitful model right now for figuring out how language and the mind work. (I agree very strongly with Herrnstein Smith, by the way, that Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, as heirs of that linear-logical tradition, are coming at human cognition in a self-confirming but dead-end kind of way. Yes, it was brilliant, but it’s time we “backed out of” those systems of assumptions and turned to other possibilities. Back to Saussure, I’d say.)

At any rate, I am surprised and disappointed that for all of Herrnstein Smith’s immensely lucid distinctions and her sophisticated and articulate commentaries on cultural theory, I see no sign of any critical mediator between “naturalism” and “humanism,” as she terms the two warring camps in our academia today. She seems in practice to be willing to let Nature and the external world go, in order to pursue the closer and more triumphant analysis of social constructions.

It seems to me that “ontological agnosticism” – or the much more extreme position that denies humans any genuine contact with an external world at all (“ontological atheism”?) – fails to deal with what Sausurean linguistics and semiotics focuses on: the formalized ways in which we humans do precisely interact with the external world. Therefore she fails to point toward any mediation by theory between the two camps.

I do not say that we interact with the world directly, im-mediately, nakedly. That would be very naive, at this stage in history. No, we do so by selection and combination. Selections and combinations of ontologically real features of the physical world, for instance. And first, our attention is directed to selections and combinations of features as they come to us in the elegant codes (language and other intersubjective semiotic systems) that precede us into the world and that will go on after we have left it.

The social codes enable us (and limit us), but paradoxically, they do not fully determine us. As Daniel Dennett says, “freedom evolves.” We become the historically constituted “centres of thought and responsibility” that we are (Michael Polanyi), through these codes which condition our perceptions of everything and make us the perceivers we are, and yet all of these codes are constantly checked and tested and revised in interactions with the external world, whose features deny the exclusive emphasis we would like to put on some of them. I cannot put poststructuralism more succinctly than that.

The features we select, communally and within the disciplines, and also individually, with our freedom, are there in the empirical world, unless we are deluded, and the combinings we do (to arrive at our elegant formalities) are constantly tested against that empirical world. True, our selection “forgets” a great deal of what is there, but we are driven to be selective by the exigencies of our needs and those of the community we were acculturated into — from way, way back, before we were ever “we.”

[Theoretical aside from jlb: This is why the technical term “always already,” now a cliche, is so exact. Again, it’s from Heidegger via Derrida. “We” – as speaking subjects – have “always already” been acculturated by our community. Why? Because at every point as the speaking subject is emerging, the cultural systems are already there, and by interacting with them and internalizing them, we were enabled to become the specific speaking subjects that “we” are.

Descartes’s grand experiment was of course one of ruling out language, culture, and the natural world (too potentially illusory, uncertain, or unreal), and finding that even then, he would still know “cogito ergo sum” – “I know that I am thinking these thoughts, and doubting these doubts, with reference to everything else, and therefore I now know for sure that “I” exists.” Ultimately, though, this is a pipe dream. The “I” would not exist as an “I” and be able to think and communicate these doubts even within itself except for the pre-existing reality of a given language, a given culture, and a natural world at every point in my emergence. Or Descartes’. These were “always already” there, if we are dealing with a typical human subject, and particularly with a philosopher!

The “I” is, in its very constitution as itself, an emergent result of interactions with all these other realities. Still, these realities were always for us coded or formalized realities: the natural world entered our awareness from the beginning as mediated to us and as given its complex identities by the given codes.

Our new awareness of our social encoding (by the later 20th century) must not make us therefore lose sight of the fact that the codes are constantly tested against the natural world and against every other personal and social reality they mediate to us. And within the scientific community, a particularly sharply evidence-based way of knowing checks its own advanced formalizations against the physical reality it explores in highly focused ways.

How can we leave out of consideration the ontological manifestations of a resisting reality in every case of a human meaning-system for interacting with that reality? Again, Saussure gives us some paradigms, based in the final analysis upon human cognition of language, that have scarcely been tapped yet for mapping out the complex territories at the boundaries or ambiguous zones between our mapping systems and that external reality.

Maybe I’ll make another presentation of what Herrnstein Smith has to say at a later point. But reading her convinces me all the more that my own poststructuralist theory is a fruitful methodology for attempting to do justice both to science as an evidence-based way of knowing that is in constant interaction with a natural world, on the one hand, and to the pervasive (and often subterranean or hidden) influence of human meaning-systems, on the other.

I don’t see the same promise in these strictly American philosophical and theoretical movements so far. And I see that science does have a legitimate problem with these American movements. Dialectically, though, Herrnstein Smith is very good at showing the Rush Limbaugh-like nature of attacks by defenders of science on “SC,” which preach to the (very shocked) choir with scare tactics and vague generalizations. (I still don’t see why Sokal went after the French poststructuralists, who are not SC members and do not share its ontological agnosticism.)

I’ll close with a neat little set of contrasting terms that Herrnstein Smith offers us, to characterize the two camps in English-speaking academia today. I’ll just list a few – you’ll have to buy the book!

She identifies the first set of “concepts” with the “classical realist, rationalist, logical positivist” camp (Hume, Russell, Popper). The other set she identifies as the distinctively “constructivist, pragmatist, interactional” concepts. They are “interactional,” let me note,  not in the sense of interactions between human beings and an external world, but in the other important sense of being concerned with the “interactional” (I call it “mutually and reciprocally self-constituting”) nature of the semiotic relationships between speaking subjects and their communal codes, and between all the other semiotic elements that enter into this play of identity and difference that (always already) confers meaning and identity for human perception.

So consider a few of these contrasting terms: “individual” vs. “communal, social, institutional.” “Autonomy” vs. “connection, interdependence.” “Transhistorical, universal” vs. “historical, situated.” “Interior, intellectual, mental” vs. “exhibited, embodied, enacted.”

You’ll notice how the Cartesian paradigm is dominating the first terms and the notion of a multi-layered psyche that is socially constituted and significantly unknown to itself dominates the second set of terms. These are very different views of human nature. Don’t you suspect that each view is whiting out parts of a complex state of affairs? Don’t you suspect that when the pendulum swings to one side, it will provoke a historical counter-movement (from those who feel they have been injured in their personal formation by that too-much-dominant orthodoxy)?

One last set of contrasting terms might well remind us of Socrates and Ion. “Reason, logic, experiment” vs. “rhetoric, performance, negotiation” [that is, interested or self-aggrandizing negotiation].

On an ostensible reading, Plato’s Ion certainly suggests this kind of antinomy and antipathy, especially to Anglo-American readers today. It’s how Ion is generally read, as Plato’s rationalism rejecting the threat of the irrational and illogical and emotional, represented by art. (See Nietzsche’s brilliant youthful essay, “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.” What a fascinating piece, and included in almost all anthologies of literary theory.)

Still, I think Plato’s after something deeper, and we’ll only get to it if we can recognize that for Plato and Aristotle, rationality is not something based primarily on ratiocination or Bertrand Russell’s notions of “logic,” but on ratio, considered as the Roman translation of logos. These words ratio and logos refer to proportion, harmony, fittingness, and to the “cosmos” as the elegantly ordered manifestation of formal reality.

For Greek thought, never forget the beloved and mystical Pythagorean “ratios,” as manifested in geometry and in the Western harmonic scale, or in the Golden Rectangle upon whose elegant proportionalities the Parthenon is built. Or the circular rotations of the heavenly bodies, so presumed because the circle or sphere for the Greek mind are self-evidently the most perfect geometric forms. Why? Because of the proportionate symmetries of the circle and of the motionless motion of a sphere rotating about its center. (The devotion to formal elegance is the common element in science, math, art, literature, theory. No wonder it was the original foundation of the liberal arts! Not a “foundation” as a guarantee of certainty. No, a dynamic foundation as an ever-unfolding reality we are destined and compelled to desire to know.)

To be “rational” in the Greco-European tradition is always to be “musical” – to seek the elegant formality in things according to their kinds. And the most rational mind is also the most musical or “harmonious,” the most balanced and integrated, the most “ethical.” But when it comes to language, we had best arm ourselves dialectically and critically — by becoming highly aware of the precise nature of the elegant rhetorical and poetical uses to which language can be put. They are their own kinds of truth, yes, and their arts can be employed for truth, yes, but they can also be employed strictly for exploitation and greed. Forewarned is fore-armed.

(Stay tuned for Wily Socrates # 6.)

Don’t Miss the Comment Threads Right Now…

… at the Wily Socrates posts # 4 and # 5. They should be my front page right now.

If you’re a visitor, I recommend you read both of those posts and their comment threads, starting with # 4. I wish there were a way we could see notices of all the new comments from the front page. Recent Comments simply changes too quickly, so you can be unaware of whole recently emergent threads. (I have added a partial guide under Pages, called “Red-Hot Comment Threads,” but it can’t keep up with the thinking and discussion.)

We have an unusual situation here, because the various posts and comment threads are continuing what is basically all one complex on-going discussion and often the newest and best reading is off the front page. With most blogs, you can simply pick a post whose specific content interests you and assume that all of its related comments are right there following it. Here? Good luck!

Anyhow, please do enjoy the red-hot comment threads following WS # 4 and # 5! We are closing in, quite precisely it seems to me, on the enigmatic area that lies “between” the existence of “external reality” and so-called “social constructionism.”

I am contending that poststructuralist and Saussurean theory can help us out in avoiding — or at least in understanding better — the frequent controversies between science and postmodern thought in our own Anglo-American intellectual setting.

Wily Socrates # 5

With this installment of Plato’s Ion, we are entering the central section of the dialogue — and we will even be moving past the half-way mark!

The central section is built out of two long speeches by Socrates, and we’ll be looking at the first of them today. In both speeches, we’ll find Socrates declaiming oratorically, very much as though he were the rhapsode instead of Ion, in order to develop one of those extended “epic similes” so much beloved of the Homeric bards. By Plato’s day, in fact, the extended simile had become an obligatory “mark” or convention of epic poetry! So this is delicious irony, that Socrates uses an epic simile to deprive Ion as interpreter of epic poetry of the gift of reason (logos or nous), which would also mean that epiipoetike cannot be a formal way of knowing. [Pronounced “epi-poy-AY-tee-kay.”]

Remember that Socrates has just spent the first section of the dialogue teaching Ion that each of the ikes (the arts and sciences, or in Greek, technes and epistemes) must be “a whole art”: that is, a techne to holon. Why is this the case? Because this is an inherent formal necessity, a necessity within the very theory of the ike as a miraculous way of knowing that opens for the human mind. (Do you see this? If formal kinds of things had not manifested their presence, within the otherwise chaotic flux of the temporal world, then human minds would never have been able to participate in coming to know, through the ikes devoted to each kind-of-thing.)

There could be no ikes, no ways of knowing and no “arts and sciences” curriculum, without the givenness of formal elegance in the world, because the ike is by definition the careful theorizing of the formal structure of one of these kinds of manifested formalities or dynamic patternings. So bear in mind, always, in reading Plato and Aristotle that this vision of an epistemic wholeness – “for every ike is a whole art” – comes into play whenever humans are endeavoring together to know a kind of thing and to apply that knowing as a formal skill or power.

The same “white lightning” or formal elegance (and each ike has its own) is running through all these activities (coming to know by making formalizations that trace the patterning that makes the kind of thing, and applying that in new patternings governed by the same white-lightning formality) – this is the very the fulcrum upon which turns, for Plato and Aristotle, the original vision of an arts and sciences curriculum, a radically new hope for forming citizens

Again, why? Because experiencing this kind of dynamic ratio-nalizing (where ratio or logos is the account or formula for that particular kind of white-lightning formality, at least insofar as we know it at this point in our adventure of coming to know) has the power (dynamis) to give human minds a new hope and a new faith in the resources of knowing and of dialectical conversation, which could then be applied within the ultimate learning community, the polis or city-state. So the arts and sciences curriculum has as its telos (“end” or “goal”) the enabling of better polit-ical futures – the common good — through the way that liberally educated citizens can respond together to the never-ending series of emergent challenges to the polis.

But at the same time, within each ike, there is a nearer and more existential educational telos for the discipline, guiding all of its deliberations and acheivements, which is an existential telos, a personal telos. This is to save or liberate the student’s mind by bringing it into contact with deep reality, through the communion with elegant formality and with other human minds tracing that formality together.

This communal disciplinary excitement, directed toward the future and built upon the history of the ike, is felt deeply every time you will pick up a text dealing with disciplinary or philosophical or theological questions after Plato and Aristotle, in the times of the Romans, and the medievals, and the Renaissance humanists. These texts are marked through and through with this “stance of the question,” as I like to call it, and with the humble excitement and awe before the splendor of formal elegance. The liberal arts were their own justification for being!

Then the West turns abruptly, “abrupt” in the long view of things, from “the stance of the question” to the stance of the declarative sentence, uttering what are taken now to be absolute and universal truths, established upon a firm foundation of self-evidence and scientific rationality, in the age of Enlightenment, the “conversion experience” that established the Modern West.

This is where I got into trouble with the physicists (and chemists), when I tried in a few swift strokes to indicate the breakdown of this Enlightenment and Newtonian Modern Western worldview (reigning in the 18th and 19th centuries), during the course of a 20th-century critique of Modernity’s paradigms for thought (and we got into a 60-page discussion of quantum mechanics and relativity and of what could or could not be concluded from these areas of contemporary science. It starts here.)

Okay, given the background just reviewed for the form-ality of classical Greek thought about the ikes or the ways of knowing, we saw in the first section of Ion, then, that Socrates has taught us two formal features that indicate that a person does possess “a whole art.”

1) a “techn-ical” skill and understanding for dealing with of all instances of the kind-of-thing in question. This distinguishes ratio-nal skill from impressionistic poeticism. (Even in the case of “specializations” that Rick brought out, this notion of formal breadth and comprehenisveness applies. What would we think of a Jane Austen scholar who only wrote well on Pride and Prejudice but not on Sense and Sensibility?)

2) an orthotike: “formal standards of correctness and excellence,” that is used for evaluating or judging instances of the kind of thing, and any activities associated with it — with knowing or applying it. (By the way, each ike’s orthotike must be peculiar to its own discipline, another inherent Form-al requirement of the theory of ike, based on the fact that an ike is possible only when an elegant kind-ness has manifested itself to us as being in the world.)


Perhaps we are now ready to consider a more profound dimension of classical Greek thought, one deeply meditates upon by Heidegger in his Greek scholarship. All the various kinds-of-beings populating the world, called to ontos, or “the (kinds of) beings,” by the Greeks, are the beings or things that they are because of the manifold elegant formality manifesting itself in the world (physis) and producing and sustaining each of these kinds. (So medieval English texts call Nature “Mistresse Kynde.”)

Inevitably, the classical Greek mind looks from these “beings” (inherently formalized or else they would not be recognizable as kinds, and therefore formalizable) in order to consider the question of “being” itself. This is inherent in the structure of the Greek language and structure of classical thought. “Being” is what the Greeks called the ontos on — generally translated as the “really real,” because it is hard for us to say “the being-ly being,” or the “really-being being” or “the fundamentally existing (most deeply or truly existing) being,” or perhaps “essential being,” or being in essentia.

If elegant formality marks, originates, and sustains the to ontos (kinds of beings) then what of this elegant formality itself, the ontos on or really real that is the formal reality that gives formal reality to the kinds of being? Beings, after all, come into being and pass away, but essential being endures.

This is how the Greeks got themselves to the metaphysics of an “immanence” (an “abiding in” the world) of a formal reality that is at the same time more real than the actual world. “More real” than The Actual means that something is “transcendent,” of course. Something is “beyond” the comings-into-being and passing away observable in this world.

So this is how the Greeks arrived at the profound metaphysical paradox of immanence and transcendence, centuries before the Western Christian theologians and philosophers would do so, but the Christian mind would find it just as compelling, and for exactly the same philosophical reasons. Augustine recognized furthermore that this metaphysics was perfectly concordant with the insistently incarnational nature of the relationship between God and the world in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition.

Scientists today should understand this movement of thought very well, because so many mathematicians and physicists today accredit a transcendent formal reality to “all possible mathematical universes” (the ones who designate themselves “Platonists”). And they are not laughed to scorn, because all mathematicians and physicists can understand, if I am not mistaken, their overwhelming sense of the necessary existence of these mathematical universes. It derives, but correct me if I am wrong here, from the same experience of a deep and compelling immanence of formal order in the physical world that originally gave rise to the Greek conviction that formal elegance itself must be “ontologically” more really real than any merely actual instantiation of formal order manifesting itself in our world at any local place or time.

So this is how our distinctively Western Greco-European notion of “the divine” came to be constructed, and how all of these attributes came to be ratio-nally associated with the ultimate and originary formal elegance. The divine is the name of whatever is 1) immanent in the cosmos, and 2) transcendent beyond it (more really real). Hence the divine elegance is 3) the origin and also 4) the telos of all things contained within the cosmos. And by being all of these things, divine elegance 5) sustains all things in their being. (“God it is in whom we live and move and have our being,” and “all things are out from God, and through God and toward God (as their telos),” writes the apostle Paul.

Take all of this together and you have what Derrida identified as the West’s obsession with “logocentrism.” The formal structure of this logocentrism runs through our thought. And it received a particularly strong and rigid entrenchment in the Enlightenment, this time in the form of scientism. Natural law takes on these divine characteristics, only this time the human mind is able to grasp the law and use it control nature and make nature serve humanity in a way never glimpsed before in history.

The human mind is now on a par with the divine rather than merely “a part of all that You have made” (Augustine).

I am not being polemical right now. I am describing a certain formal structure of thought that runs through the history of the West, as elucidated by semiotic theory and critique. But I will note that it does seem to me that Derrida — not to mention Nietzsche and Heidegger — was reacting against the Enlightenment version of logocentrism, which still shapes all of us today, even though such thinkers identify that later logocentrism with the logocentrism of the earlier Western tradition.

For my part, I find that earlier logocentrism already contained its own “deconstructions” within it, and in this way makes quite a formal contrast with the much more closed and absolutist structures of logocentrism that arose in the Modern West. The scientists in the QM debate here have illustrated heartwarmingly again and again how much the postmodern critique of science – as I see it — has taken hold within the outlook of contemporary scientists themselves. I wish this epistemic humility imbued the commenters on some of the science blogs, who are so fanatically scientistic in the old Enlightenment manner. (We don’t want to do away with logocentrism, or with scientific “objectivity, but to qualify and limit it with a critical play of mind, and to remain aware of its own contradictions or negativites.)

And the historical schema I have just sketched also suggests that science could have arisen without the absolutizing tendencies that, historically speaking, did accompany it. (My idea is to free science and religion both, by drawing back from the absolutizing tendencies built in to Modernity, to a modesty in knowing appropriate to all human endeavors in a pluralistic world. This way, we can think better. This could be the rebirth of thought, out of the ruins of our modern experiment in foundationalism.)

However, the scientists here would probably say that their humility and awareness of limits in doing science (see, for instance, Paul) comes from the science itself and didn’t need postmodernism to get there…. In fact, I was trying to say (in my lit theory session) just how honest and self-critical science had been, to deconstruct the absolutisms implicit in Newtonianism (or suggested by Newtonianism to the culture? or both?) through its own scientific developments in the 20th century! Hoever, that effort of mine wS not meet with whole-hearted approval!

Now Ion, unfortunately, doesn’t meet Socrates’ first formal feature for possession of an ike. He is skilful only in speaking about Homer, and not about the other epic poets. And he doesn’t seem to have the theoretical lucidity to discern when Socrates is not “speaking well” about the ike of poetry – because poiesis in different from other ikes in using language very differently from other ikes: as a building material of its own formal kind-of-thing. (See Rick’s commentaries for this here and here.)

With all of this in mind, therefore, let us listen now to Socrates’ first speech and to the first of the crucial exchanges with Ion that follow it:

Socrates I see the reason, Ion [that you speak well about Homer, since it is clear that you do not speak by techne or by episteme, for if you did, you would speak well of all that pertains to epic poetry and not Homer only]; and I will proceed to explain to you what I imagine [this reason] to be. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epics as well as lyric, composed their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Korybantian revelers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right minds when they are composing their beautiful strains; but when falling under the power of music and meter they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses, they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing,and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his ssenses, and reason is no longer in him: no man, while he retains that faculty, has the oracular gift of poetry.

Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only; and when inspired, one of them will make dithyrambs, another hymns of praise, another choral strains, another epic or iambic verses, but not one of them is of any account in the other kinds. For not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine; had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all; and therefore God takes away reason from poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses the pronouncers of oracles and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves, who utter these priceless words while bereft of reason, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is addressing us. And Tynnichus the Chalcidean affords a striking instance of what I am saying: he wrote no poem that anyone would care to remember but the famous paean which is in everyone’s mouth, one of the finest lyric poems ever written, simply an invention of the Muses, as he himself says. For in this way God would seem to demonstrate to us and not to allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, nor the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which God intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst poets he sang the best of songs? Am I not right, Ion?

Ion Yes, indeed, Socrates, I feel that you are; for your words touch my soul, and I am persuaded that in these works the good poets, under divine inspiration, interpret to us the voice of the gods.

Socrates And you rhapsodes are the interpreters of the poets?

Ion There again you are right.

Socrates Then you are the interpreters of interpreters?

Ion Precisely.

So, what are we to make of Socrates’ insistence here that the activities and words of the poets themselves are not ordered by a genuine art? Whatever elegant formality the work of the poets may manifest, it derives from a divinity who has inspired and possessed them, and not from their own ordered mental processes. “Not by techne, but by god-in-you” (en-theos).

This move seems to accord the poets some respect, or at least to finesse the issue of their high cultural prestige in Athens and everywhere else in the Greek world, and to do so by trickily using another one of the epic poets’ own identifying claims. The epic poet, after all, always begins with the conventional invocation of the Muse.

Given that the theme of this dialogue is techne, and how to discern a genuine disciplinary excellence from a mere pretense of possessing a rigorous way of knowing with genuine educational value, I would think that we must take these rather inspired and inspirational praises of the poets as heavily qualified by Socratic ironic, so that the speech ends up implying pretty much the opposite of the praise it literally enunciates.

However, notice what Ion says in response to this speech! “Oh Socrates, your (winged) words have touched my soul!” The rhetorical eloquence of Socrates’ speech has worked its magic. Like any literary person, Ion is highly sensitive to the effects of artistic language, and at this point he is sufficiently “carried away” by the words that he “is persuaded” that Socrates “speaks the truth (aletheia).”

How do you react to this speech? It’s fascinating that later writers of rhetorical manuals for the Roman schools would quote phrases such as “the poet is a light and winged thing” and say that this was the “divine Plato” recognizing the sublimity of the poet’s art. Is this simply naïve? On one level this seems naive, and yet on another level it is perfectly just that Plato has always been recognized in every period as a supreme poet. What do you think?

Remember, by the way, that poiesis in the Greco-European tradition has nothing to do with whether the poet is writing in verse or in prose. It has to do instead with structuring a poetic whole out of language: that is to say, literary art has to do with making fictive structures to convey truth.

(And this is why the rigorous study of how humans employ meaning-structures to negotiate with reality, which is what poststructuralism is all about, is potentially so relevant to the “science wars” of our day. The theory of the literary formalism is the bridge whereby literary theory became such a powerful branch of philosophy for a time in France, and why modeling reality with formally elegant structures may underlie all of the arts and sciences. See the section on Representation in my lit theory course, Session One, under Pages.)

But the exchanges immediately following Ion’s “conversion” to Socrates’ way of thinking are perhaps even more interesting and important than the speech attributing the source of Ion’s “gift” to inspiration.

First we have a condensed but effective version of the later argument in the Republic that the artist is “at three removes from reality.” First, there is the Ideal or Form-al Reality of the kind of thing itself (the “Chair” or the “Puppy”). Then there is the imitation or instantiation of that ideal formality in the temporal, material world of flux. Finally, there is the mimetic artist, who makes a portrait or representation of the instantiation. Therefore, the mimesis, whether in paint or marble or language, is at a third remove from truth….

In Socrates’ war of “reason” against poetry – that is, of ike against the irrational – not every argument used in Ion will be repeated in the Republic. Yet, fascinatingly enough, every argument presented in the Republic is already present in Ion. (By the way, to the best of my knowledge, you have heard this here, first.)

So, assents Ion, rhapsodes are the “interpreters” of the poets, who are merely the mind-less “interpreters” or vehicles for the truth of the gods…. “And you are the interpreters of the interpreters?” “Precisely.”

But what follows, I believe, is the most crucial moment in the dialogue, as far as assessing Ion’s pretentions to ike is concerned. We’ll look at that in the next episode of “Wily Socrates and the Witless Theorist”!

Scientists are impatient; theorist will “cut language at the joints”

Okay, the scientists are impatient with the theorist and want her to quit stalling and explain her thing. So, remember back when we talked about how we determine that physics is “cutting nature at the joints”? (And remember how it was pointed out to me, by one of you scientists, that this phraseology comes from a Platonic dialogue? Surely you haven’t forgotten THAT!)

Well, you remember how you know you’re on the right track in physics because of plank’s constant turning out to be a fundamental unit or “step” in the structure of things? (And those “energy steps” happen in all waves, we just can’t see it on the macro scale? That is really fascinating.) And so, you also know, because the maths keep turning out elegant and the formulas reduce themselves so neatly and niftily — and of course you have your experimental verifications….

Ahem, some of us, not to mention anyone by name, should take a look at the debate between Carnap and Popper over “verification” as the ultimate standard in “truth-statements.” It isn’t, Popper argued, and won, because great theories in physics, for instance, are too often bold new reconceptions that convince other physicists through their elegant formalisms and cannot be verified until much later on. That’s why Popper argued instead for “refutability” instead of “verification.” A statement is meaningful and non-trivial if it can be refuted, according to Popper — at least in principle, even if not in actuality. A statement is not meaningful only if it can be verified, because too often important scientific statements can’t be, when they are made.

Well, here’s the deal with my field of theory. Since Saussure, we poststructuralists have been pretty sure we are cutting nature at the joints, based on the new paradigm Saussure came up with for his “new linguistic science.” In about 1906-1909, he pronounced in his lectures — does this sound familiar? — that current so-called linguistics was not yet a science (not an ike or episteme), because it had failed to identify a single formal kind-of-thing as its own peculiar object. (This in spite of the great advances in historical linguistics during the 19th century, in which Saussure had been an extraordinarily precocious doctoral student and professor.)

So to show you where we poststructuralists “cut nature at the joints,” I will need to show you a Saussurean-inspired speech diagram and lay out for you all of its component elements.

Now therefore, I’m going to try to do what David and Gavin did — explain an extremely complex field in which decades of advanced work has gone on in a way understandable to non-specialists. First, two qualifications.

1) Your typical humanities person could not, I suspect, follow Gavin and David’s expositions. I could BARELY follow them, after going through a physics course for five years in a row as a team-teacher. (I was the one who made the social and historical connections as we proceeded through the development of physics, and the one who helped the humanities and arts majors, because I knew what was hardest for them — when it was hardest for me!) And since then, I’ve been reviewing the 60 pages of QM that David and Gavin gave us and reading Penrose and other sources. (I will get back to you physicists with some “advanced” (I hope) questions when I have gotten them all clear in my mind.) So, I think this is a very hard task I am undertaking, and I don’t know if it can succeed.

2) Poststructuralism in the United States had a huge hey-day in the 1970s and 80s and is now widely regarded as passe. I do not think it is passe, of course. Just as I do not think it was understood deeply enough over here. (There were some notable exceptions, Geoffrey Hartman and Barbara Herrnstein Smith come readily to mind, and Paul DeMann, who sort of did his own thing with it, and others). This however is forgivable because we have not had a structuralist movement here or a truly structuralist linguistics (a Saussurean linguistics). So again, this makes the effort I’m undertaking even more difficult and unlikely to succeed.

But I have had something of a revelation.

The reason poststructuralism is not “dead and gone” and the reason that it still has a long future ahead of it, is precisely because of the way poststructuralism speaks to the inveterate “two cultures” divide that has been such a persistent problem for us in the Anglo-American world.

In other words, I think that poststructuralism speaks directly to the problem of “social construction” vis-a-vis the “objective” reality of an external world, and that it may well be the major resource that is available to us that can do so. (Phenomenology is another candidate, and hermeneutics/Habermas has something to say….)

The rest of my revelation is that I don’t think people are reading poststructuralism this way, at least not nearly enough (but I must say that I had the advantage of a great teacher of my own, who died too young). The key to threading our way through the problem of observer-observed is right here in an everywhere implicit Saussurean prinicple: that of SELECTION AND COMBINATION. Formal selection and combination. So we’ll work on this together. (No, I’m not giving up on Plato’s Ion, btw.)

The fundamental explanatory models or paradigms, the ones every poststructuralist has always in mind, are the ones Saussure introduced over those three years of lectures that he never planned to write up into a book (because it was too daunting and the times weren’t ready for it). In the eight decades since then that linguists and theorists and semioticians have had to monkey around with those lecture notes, we’ve probably made every possible mistake and every possible reductive reading that can be imagined — all the things that Saussure knew were going to happen, have happened.

So we’d better start reading him better, hadn’t we? And we can, partly because we have had all this history (though most of it not in the U. S. or Great Britain), and therefore we can better avoid some of the pitfalls that have occurred. (History is an unending series of thought-experiments that actually happened! You can quote me on that.)

One of Saussure’s more recent expositors, Roy Harris, remarks that one cannot read the Course in General Linguistics, or spend time with this posthumously published book over several years as he did, and not come away with the lasting impression of a truly great mind at work, behind those interpolated student notes. I agree with Roy Harris 100%, and I think that we have scarcely begun to read Saussure as an epistemologist — a philosopher and theorist of how humans come to know. Nor have we yet begun to interpret his brilliant construct called the “phoneme” anywhere nearly as flexibly and fluidly and philosophically as we need to do. (The phoneme is the crux of everything.)

Derrida was Saussure’s best reader, I believe, and much of what Derrida has done, I think, is already implicit in Saussure’s new paradigms for thinking about how language as a semiotic system can throw light upon the structuring of human perception. Taking the work of these two together, Saussure and Derrida, and then adding in the work of the psycho-analytical poststructuralists, we have what we need in order to understand ourselves and our violent world. (Then, as always, we have to choose.)

But what we have here, what I will be explaining, is not to be taken as a Positive Truth, because this kind of strong positivity involves such rigid negations. (I’ll show you this.) Rather, it is a way of working with positivities. (A way that keeps them more honest and introduces into them some tolerance and play. This is what some of us have to learn to do with regard to ourselves, in psychotherapy, if we have emerged into adulthood with rigidly non-adaptive personality structures that no longer serve us well….)

We cannot avoid positivities (along with their negations), nor should we wish to, given the human condition, because we are who we are by being made out of them, but knowing that, we can find ways to make limited and modest interventions that may (or may not) point toward health, that may point toward responsibility, that may point toward joy and juissance (to use a well-earned Kristevan term).

Okay, so it now seems to me, after my revelation, quite natural that a trendy and fashionable French poststructuralism (but shallowly understood) was swept up and appropriated in a hit or miss manner by new movements (such as that in the social sciences) over here, movements that are widely viewed as introducing cultural “relativism” and undermining the objectivity and credibility of scientific methodology and results.

Hence our “Science Wars.” Hence the tragic renewal of the wars of science and religion. Hence, I’d better get to work and speak to all of this myself, a more ambitious project than simply teaching the history of literary theory….

So I’ll explain Saussure, the way I see him, as meaningful and signifcant for our future. Meanwhile, bear in mind that poststructuralists, as one specific strand within the wider phenomenon called “postmodernism,” themselves never had any reason to deny scientific method and results — and they didn’t.

If anything, Sokal’s book shows that they were all too eager to (mis)appropriate science to broaden the implications of their own work. (By the way, notice that Sokal and Bricmont found nothing to hang on Derrida at all. I’m still not sure that Lacan was as off-base as they think, because he did have physicists and mathematicians in his seminars, but he was a one-man circus and ego-show. But a magnificent thinker. On Kristeva, okay, she got it wrong, but mostly, it seems, in her very early work, which she seems to have repudiated.)

Btw, while we’re on this subject, yes, Sokal & Bricmont say they have no intention of impugning the non-scientific work of these theorists, and yet they do precisely that nonetheless, over and over again. (Ah well, I tend to agree with Derrida, who simply sighed and said: “pauvre Sokal.”) However, keep pressing me on this issue. If I’m not facing up to the problems of postmodernism enough for you, keep asking questions.

I work best that way, I’m afraid.

Coming soon, Saussure’s speech diagram and “cutting language at the joints.”

(For that niftly little course-module on Saussure, click here.)

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?

Wily Socrates # 4

Are you ready for the next installment of Plato’s Ion? (Hey, “prison gal,” you’re a poet too, and I look forward to hearing from you here!)

In this new section, Socrates will continue to instruct the prize-winning “interpreter of literature” named Ion about what formal features will always be observable in the case of a genuine ike: that is, in the case of a formal Greek techne or episteme, an “art” or a “science”. [By the way, these words are pronounced “TEK-nay” and “e-pi-STAY-may,” by the way]

Rick has pointed out “a deep ambiguity” in how I am treating Socrates’ argument. I would “prefer” (!) to say the deep ambiguity lies in the way Socrates is treating the poetic art here. With most of the other arts – let’s notice that they are technes that DO NOT INCLUDE LANGUAGE in the structure of their formal kinds-of-things. Instead, most ikes use language dialectically and by way of exposition and communication, as a straightforward means of working out the elegant formalities of their kinds of things. The Greeks had a technical word for this: diegesis. It means speaking in one’s own person (as we usually do) in an expository fashion about a subject matter (kind of thing).

How do we know this? Because Plato employs the distinction between diegesis and mimetic speaking in the Republic! And because Plato’s best student Aristotle uses this same Platonic linguistic distinction (and on two different formal levels of structure) as part of one of the greatest analyses of the formal kind of thing called a “poiesis” that has every been theorized. (This is Aristotle’s Poetics, which is just lecture notes annotated by students! What if we had his polished work on the subject. Imagine! But the brilliance of his formal thinking is visible there in the notes, just as it is visible in Saussure’s students’ lecture notes that were posthumously published by his students as The Course in General Linguistics.)

Socrates seems to assume that poets use language in the same “diegetical” way that carpenters or doctors or mathematicians use language, as a means to convey formal features of their arts and apply the ike in specific instances. A doctor knows the principles of wholesome foods and an arithmetician knows the principles of counting (as we saw last time), and therefore, each possesses the formal “power” or skill to know when someone is “speaking well” or “speaking poorly” about the kind-of-thing the ike treats. (That formal white lightning that is marked by the discipline as the formal “kindness” of that kind of thing guides their thinking about the kind of thing.)

But an epic poet does not employ language only to speak discursively (or through diegetical exposition) of kinds-of-things that are by rights the subject matters of other arts. No, the epic poet crafts speeches for his characters and when he recites them, he is speaking not in his own voice but mimetically, as though he were Odysseus or the goddess Athena. Furthermore, we and Aristotle would add, the poet is using the same language in order to build a new kind-of-thing, a “poiesis,” that is made out of the special, literary structures of language the poet is fashioning at all times?

Again, how do we know this? Plato lays this out for us in the Republic! And in Book 10, he has Socrates issue an invitation to anyone who can make a case for letting the mimetic poets back into the ideal polis, after he regretfully concluded they must be banished. In fact, Socrates says he would be so happy to consider such a defense that he would accept it even if it were not written in poetical verse, but merely in prose! (This is so funny!)

Well, as we’ll see, a couple decades later Aristotle writes the lecture notes that are his treatise called the Poetics, using Plato’s technical own points that an epic poet speaks sometimes diegetically (in his own voice) and sometimes mimetically (in the voices of his characters). Hence epic poetry employs the mixed mode of language-use: diegesis AND mimesis. The dramatist, on the other hand, uses the mimetic mode exclusively and never speaks in his own voice at all. Aristotle’s treatise is called “peri poietike,” concerning the ike of poesis, and it starts right off confidently and rigorously elucidating the formal structure of the poiesis, treating the formal kinds called epic and tragic most of all. (Is this not suggestive concerning Plato’s own relationship to poietike? In fact, Aristotle mentions the “Socratic dialogue” right off, as a prime example of mimetic poiesis!)

But no, here in Ion and again in Republic (in Books 2, 3 & 10, which you’ll find in Hazard Adam’s Critical Theory Since Plato or in the Norton Anthology of Literary Theory – as you lit theory students out there already know quite well), we find “Socrates,” Plato’s mimetic character, speaking as the historical author of “dialectic,” the finely honed language used for a discipline’s critical questioning about a subject matter, and hence the word used for critical thinking in general for the next 2400 years on the European Continent – and for the next 2000 years in the English-speaking worlds! That is, whenever rigorous critical thought is not called simply called “philosophy.”

Socrates seems to equate the ike with dialectical or diegetical language-use. He will continue in this next passage to maintain that if a doctor can judge whoever is speaking about what foods are wholesome – both when someone speaks well and when someone speaks poorly (from a medical standpoint), then Ion ought to know when any epic poet is speaking well or poorly concerning the certain kinds of things that all epic poets “speak about.” Ion should not “speak well” about Homer only — no, not if he possesses epiipoietike, and this is indeed a curious flaw that seems to plague Ion (not speaking well about any other epic poet besides Homer), as luck (or Plato) would have it.

But is this – as our own in-house commentator Rick questions (may his name be praised) — really the literary techne? Is the ike of poetry really formal expertise a nd knowledge of the various formal kinds of things in the world that are encountered in the course of the epic narrative, or shouldn’t poietike instead treat its own unique formal kind of thing: the epic poem, in its formal structure and in terms of the poet’s artistic and stylistic acheivements?

We will see as we proceed through the dialogue that Socrates goes to great lengths never to allow the epic poem itself to come into view as though it were a formal kind of things in its own right. Socrates wants to talk about how to determine if someone possesses mastery of an ike through the accurate and competent way that person uses language to set out disciplinary principles about a subject matter in which language is not implicated at all!

As my marvelous mentor and classical scholar James Craig La Driere used to say, before his untimely death, Socrates “flattens” or “reduces” the language of epic to an expository flow of language in which the subject-matters of various ikes are discussed. In so doing, he lays out for us very clearly the formal characteristics of the ordinary ike, whether it be a theoretical science or a productive art that makes things. (Whenever I say “things” are you now thinking “formal KINDS of things”? Be sure you practice this mental discipline as you engage a Greek text!)

But an epic poet uses language in an unusual manner: in oreder to make a poem and not just to talk about the subject matters referred to in that language.

Is this a sore point for “Socrates” precisely because of the newness of the kind of rigorous dialectic speaking/thinking he represents – at least in the minds of Plato and Aristotle and the students in those first schools of the arts and sciences they founded in Athens? Don’t we still see this today, especially since the rise of science? (Very prominent in Francis Bacon and his explicit rejection of the loose language and cultural conceptual structures that he called the Idols of the Tribe, the Marketplace, and the Theater.

Some fields in the modern centuries have wanted to make language-use exceedingly precise and atomistic (as in Russell’s symbolic logic) and to ground words by seeing them only in terms of their specific real-world referents. They want to say “cat” denotes the cat as a species in the world, and do not want to think about “cat” as a formal place-holder in a system of signs which takes its value and identity from its place in a rich web of relationships of identity and difference….

Such disciplines and thinkers are exceedingly suspicious of metaphorical or symbolic language use or of “fictions” or “myths” as structures that can actually be used to explore and convey deep truths. (Isn’t this why an Oxford analytic philosopher like Richard Dawkins and a Continentally-informed lit theorist like Terry Eagleton are locking horns over Dawkins’ treatment of religion, regardless of theistic commitments or lack of them?)

So keep in mind as we progress through Ion that Socrates was after all the originator of dialectic, that new kind of philosophically more rigorous and thoughtful way of “talking back and forth” that Plato makes into the foundation of a vision of an arts and sciences education for young citizens of the polis. Derrida thinks it is the potent formalisms of poiesis that makes it the enemy to be rooted out by philosophical dialectic, and he reads Plato as 100% “logocentric” in using rationalism to rule out in advance any recourse to fictive structures, and in this case the mythic structures in Homeric epic are being used sloppily to reinforce rec eived values and opinions in the Greek polis. So lets so how the dialogue and evolves. Then we will step back and look at the dialogue as rhetoric. And then as poietics or literary art.

At any rate, Socrates certainly seems to be living up to Derrida’s notion of the Platonic enterprise in his treatment of Ion here. (Folks, I was expecting passionate approval of Socrates early in this dialogue, and instead I am getting from a scientist-cum-litterateur like Rick some passionate defenses of Ion, or at least of Ion’s art! Will the world never cease to amaze? Whose side are the rest of you on?)

These are curious matters, indeed! But not any “curiouser” than what readers of Plato are accustomed to encountering in his endlessly ironic dialogues. These dialogues do nothing for us unless they make us think and ponder their perplexities. And I highly recommend “a poet”’s embrace of “living with the mystery.” “Wondering” at what is perplexing is the origin of philosophy after all, as Aristotle tells us, precisely because “all humans by nature desire to know” – Metaphysics.

(A tangent: The difference between the first 2000 years of the Greco-European tradition, I argue, and the modern West was the shift from thinking though dialectic and open-ended questioning, still seen in medieval scholasticism, to the obsession with finding an absolute foundation and building an absolutist fabric of fact upon it that we see in Descartes’s vision of truth. Our science contingent has succeeded in convincing me that most scientists today aren’t like that, but I am still trying to convince them that nonetheless this was historically the case, until recently, in terms of the impact of science on modern Western culture in the 17th through the 19th centuries! This is precisely what gets thought out all through the 20th century and is the deep structure of the emergence of a post – Modernity mindset. It is not “relativism,” except in its most irresponsible forms.)

So hang in here with Plato and this dialogue. It’s well worth the effort. Ion truly is the beginning of the 2400-year-old history of literary theory as a very perplexing branch of philosophy in the West. What Plato clearly saw was that poetics represents something puzzling and provocative for the future of the philosophical project of applied critical thought, even in the very beginnings of Western philosophy.

Plato is placing the question of literary theory – for it always was and is and must be a question and an interrogatory – at the very heart of his immensely influential philosophical project. As its enemy? As its gad-fly? As an unacknowledged return of the repressed? We can only talk about those meta-level questions of interpretation after we have finished reading the entire dialogue on its diegetical or ostensible level of meaning, in which poietike does not seem to fare very well…

Socrates And generally speaking, in all discussions in which the subject is the same and many men are speaking will not he who knows the good know the bad speaker also? For obviously if he does not know the bad, neither will he know the good, when the same topic is being discussed. [The Greek doesn’t say “when the same topic is being discussed.” It says “concerning the same (kind of) thing,” using the Greek word autos, which is also the word usedin other situations to indicate the Form or Idea of a kind of thing, as opposed to an instance of it – jlb.]

Ion True.

Socrates We find, in fact, that the same person is skilful in both? (judging both the good and the bad speaker in terms of knowing the ike)

Ion Yes.

Socrates And you say that Homer and the other poets, such as Hesiod and Archilochus, speak of the same things, although not in the same way; but the one speaks well and the other not so well?

Ion Yes; and I am right in saying so. [Ahem. Did Ion ever say this? No, Socrates put all these words in his mouth, in the last passage we looked at!]

Socrates And if you know the good speaker, you ought also to know the inferior speakers to be inferior?

Ion It would seem so.

Socrates Then, my dear friend, can I be mistaken in saying that Ion is equally skilled in Homer and in other poets, since he himself acknowledges that the same person will be a good judge of all those who speak of the same things; and almost all poets do speak of the same things?

Ion Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention and have absolutely no ideas of the least value and practically fall asleep when anyone speaks of any other poet; but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and have plenty to say?

Socrates The reason, my friend, is not hard to guess. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art (techne) or knowledge (episteme). If you were able to speak of him by rules of art [speak of him by techne], you would have been able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole (a whole ike). [Literally: for poietike is (techne) to holon]

Ion Yes.

Socrates And when anyone acquires any other art as a whole [a whole techne], the same may be said of them. Would you like me to explain my meaning, Ion?

Ion Yes, indeed, Socrates; I very much wish that you would: for I love to hear you wise men [sophoi] talk.

Socrates O that we were wise, Ion, and that you could truly call us so; but you rhapsodes and actors [hypocrites], and the poets whose verses you sing, are wise; whereas I am a common man, who only speaks the truth [aletheia]. For consider what a commonplace and trivial thing is this which I have said – a thing that any man might say: that when a man has acquired a knowledge of a whole art [when anyone possesses a whole techne], the inquiry into good and bad is one and the same. Let us consider this matter; is not painting a whole art?

Ion Yes.

Socrates And there are and have been many painters, good and bad?

Ion Yes.

Socrates And did you ever know anyone who was skilful in pointing out the excellences and defects of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, but incapable of criticizing other painters; and when the work of any other painter was produced, went to sleep and was at a loss, and has no ideas; but when he had to give his opinion about Polygnotus, or whoever the painter might be, and about him only, woke up and was attentive and had plenty to say?

Ion No indeed, I have never known such a person.

Socrates Or take sculpture – did you ever know of anyone who was skilful in expounding the merits of Daedulus the son of Metion, or of Epeius the son of Panopeus, or of Theodorus the Samian, or of any individual sculptor; but when the works of sculptors in general (the sculptural kind of thing) were produced, was at a loss and went to sleep and had nothing to say?

Ion No indeed; no more than the other (i.e. in the case of painting).

Socrates And if I am not mistaken, you never met with anyone among flute-players or harp-players or singers to the harp or rhapsodes, who was able to discourse of Olympus or Thamyrus or Orpheus, or Phemius the rhapsode of Ithica, but was at a loss when he came to speak of Ion of Ephesus, and had no notion of his merits or defects?

Ion I cannot deny what you say, Socrates. Nevertheless, I am conscious in my own self, and the world agrees with me, that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man; but I do not speak equally well about others. After all, there must be some reason [aitia, or “cause”] for this; what is it?

Socrates I see the reason, Ion, and I will explain to you what I imagine [sic] it to be. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not a techne, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration [a divine dunamis or “godlike power”]; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripedes calls a magnet….


I hate to break off the dialogue at this very dramatic and funny point, just as Socrates is launching into his long and elaborate and highly inventive “epic simile” about the magnet, but we will have to leave those marvelous speeches for next time.

It’s interesting that Socrates at this point uses only examples drawn from the imitative or artistic technes and seems only to be thinking of “merits and defects” in terms of verisimilitude with what is being imitated, in each case. But I can’t help but think we could just as well see Socrates here as giving hints about how Ion might respond to this whole line of questioning. At least, if Ion does think he has a formal kind of thing that is not the subject matter of any other ike, shouldn’t he be speaking up about it by now? Ion doesn’t have a clue about the formal nature of what he is doing, does he? I think he is failing the test of defending his poietike quite miserably. And Socrates has only begun

Even if Socrates is not playing fair, as Rick and I both suggest, isn’t it also fair to say that if Ion had Rick’s expertise, for instance, Ion would be “speaking better” of his techne than he is able to do. Also, he should be able to recognize that Socrates is “speaking well” of the ike only occasionally and that he is speaking very “poorly” of it at other times? Ion shows no ability to judge the speaking of Socrates by a set of formal standards, or what Plato & Aristotle would call the “orthotike” that belongs to each discipline and is to some degree different for each.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle seek the truth first as educators, and I would argue that for them this is a higher priority and a more powerfully guiding formal end (or telos) of liberal thought than seeking truth within the ikes, important as that is. The difference between riding a bandwagon, playing to emotions, and following trends in order to win prestige and wealth and on the other hand actually possessing more than a shallow grasp of the ike in question – this difference (and it is a moral or ethical issue too) may be more in view in this dialogue than the actual ikes involved. Does Ion simply “learn his words by rote” and say what invariably stirs the crowds, rather than challenging and perhaps disturbing them, without a critical and thoughtful formal understanding of what an epic poem might be and what an interpreter of it would understand about it in its own right? If so, this is important, at the birth of the idea of a liberal arts education.

In our next installment, while Ion was eager to perform for Socrates, but was forestalled by him, now it is Socrates who will launch into one of the strangest and most memorable of epic similes of all of literarure….

Well, there is much to ponder here. But remember that we have learned an extraordinarily important formal principle for Greek thought: “every ike is a whole ike.” And this is only because an ike by definition treats one formal kind of thing in the world. And it is the that formal elegance of that kind of thing (its white lightning) that is followed and traced out in every purposeful activity associated with that ike.

The Greeks alone of historical human cultures, as far as we know, and this was the miracle of Greece, found an origin for human coming-to-know, and it was elegant ande compellling: the fact that there is indeed elegant formal order of a plenitude of different varieties visible to the human mind (“intelligible”) in the cosmos, including within the human space of appearance that is the city-state or polis.

We can come-to-know, for the Greeks, only because the world is filled not with things, but with kinds of things! Every time we see a cat, we also know something of the Form-al identity of “cat-ness,’ and therefore we can press further with our knowing. If there is form, then we can know, because rigorous knowing is formal by nature. And remember the Pythagoreans, early Greeks who discovered number, not as a humble method for counting in trade and everyday affairs, but in its own superbly elegant formality and its potent further “formalizabilities.”

Right here, this is the gist of classical Greco-European thought forever after. Identify a formal kind of thing and work out its elegance dialectically in an ongoing discovery procedure – this is the exciting way that “thought calls to us “in our deepest core of being (thank you, Heidegger).

So as Socrates continues to drill Ion with his strongly leading questions, notice the formal principles of ike he is expounding. Possessing an ike genuinely, or possessing a genuine ike (both of these are at issue in ion’s case, but they are formally quite distinguishable issues) must equip all members of that disciplinary community to 1) treat every instance of the formal kind of thing it is devoted to formalizing, and to 2) distinguish poor from excellent talking about (and practice of) the ike. The person claiming an ike must be able to apply an orthotike, a set of formal standards of evaluation, as developed by the disciplinary community.