Wily Socrates # 3

Continuing Conversations…. First a couple of quick announcements and then we’ll get back to reading Plato’s Ion below.

Folks, we’ve have some great conversations going on! (I’d better add a Page called Red-Hot Comment Threads, just to keep you up to date on the conversations that’re happening here, which can’t be seen from the front page.)

Also, over at 3 Quarks Daily, I noticed two very important thought pieces I’d like to recommend quickly, before returning to Plato’s Ion. First, there’s a piece on the “Progressive Muslim” movement, showing some affinities to the thinking of those postmodern Christian theologians we discussed back in my Kevin Hart post, about whom some of us are interested. I’m particularly struck by the way these Islamic believers are combining a “conservative” or “traditionalist” (for lack of better terms?) approach that is pushing back against mere (theological) liberalism, along with, at the same time, an urgent cry for social justice and putting that into practice. (This has affinities, fo course, to what is going on within Evangelicalism.)

The other piece I’d like to recommend is on “evo-devo,” a newer field of scientific research into “evolutionary development.” They’re finding that it doesn’t take endless eons of random mutations to produce evolutionary advances, because certain proteins can turn on and over-produce and speed things way up. It even deals with Darwin’s finches as an example. Talk about historical synchronicities….

Now, back to the on-going “Wily Socrates” posts! My idea here was to use Plato to introduce for our consideration some fresh vocabulary terms, that we might be able to use for talking about disciplines as diverse as physics and poststructuralism. (So far I’ve introduced the terms “formal ike” and the “formal-kind-of-thing,” and “rhetor-ike” and “poiet-ike”….

We’re working on this website towards a set of descriptive terms that are less contentious and less loaded than some of the terms already in use, such as “truth,” in the sense of “universal” or “absolute” truth, and “objective truth” as implicitly opposed to non-objective (i.e. subjective) untruth, all of which are terms that have heavy, heavy histories since the Enlightenment and have been subjected to a good deal of criticism and contention in the 20th century…. We want to have a vocabulary permitting us to accredit the genuine (and enviable) strengths of science, its experimental verification procedures, its mathematical elegance and precision, and its drive toward ever-increasing comprehensiveness, while still allowing for the substantial rigor of non-scientific fields whose subject-matters are not amenable to the same approaches.

Remember, by the way, that my own first field is 17th century studies, and so I have been immersed for many years in the historical texts in which the new ideas of the Enlightenment emerged, in support of the rise of science, and, to my enormous regret, these “worldview” attitudes and assumptions are not so neatly separated from the simple doing of science itself, even though I want to agree with what Rick, for example, so thoughtfully argues. (You could take a look at Caroline Merchant’s collection of 17th-century texts dealing with the new methodology in The Death of Nature, for instance.)

But when I am trying to characterize some historical and cultural outlooks associated with science, it seems that our scientists who are explaining quantum mechanics (QM) on this site (under Session One, Part # 4) are feeling that humanists and theorists such as myself do not always understand the “continuity” of Newtonian science with later science, or science’s beautiful neutrality and honesty and openness to revision (qualities I take to be fundamental to any way of knowing that claims to be in the liberal arts tradition).

In fact, I think we have established so far that for science, as a liberal art, “objectivity” and “comprehensiveness” are fundamental characteristics that are precisely defined in science. (We need precise distinctive features for each of the disciplines, along with some fresh general terms for what they all have in common…)

Personally, I might prefer to call scientific “objectivity” something more like “experimental verification,” because the heavily laden Cartesian term “objective” too quickly calls up “subjective” as its binary opposite and its only alternative. (But I can live with it if I have to….) Every discipline, after all, has testing and verification procedures, and to that extent could be called objective. (But we don’t use the word that way. Only the evidence adduced in the sciences is usually labeled “objective,” unless I am greatly mistaken.)

Unfortunately, the formal-kinds-of-things that many disciplines must deal with aren’t always susceptible to the repeatable lab experiment as their basic verification procedure. Whenever possible, it seems to me, such will be sought as a correlative or as a secondary support. (Poststructuralist language theory, for instance, can guide the setting up of some scientific studies and be confirmed by them, as can Chomskian language theory. The experiments however cannot at this point verify one or the other approach, or the precise combination of them we should adopt, and in complex ways the theories overlap and yet remain incommensurate. This is going to take a lot of work!)

In Plato’s Ion, as we’ve seen, Socrates takes to task the first Western literary critic and theorist (the rhapsode Ion of Ephesus) for not understanding the basic formal requirements necessary for any “-ike” (pronounced “EE-kay”). Perhaps this term “ike” is too awkward for us to adopt, but techne isn’t much better, because “technical standards” or “technical competence” today does not convey the pure formal brilliance of Plato’s more incisive terminology. Since techne is translated “art” (though it includes the sciences too, as in “the liberal arts”) perhaps I should use the term “artistic standards” and “artistic competence.” Or simply “formal standards” and “formal competence”?

In the next section of the dialogue, we will see Socrates introduce the first two formal (or artistic) features that will be observable in any genuine liberal art, with a view to distinguishing the genuine art or science from mere sham and pretence.

Also in this next section of the dialogue, we will see that Socrates appears to have a very low opinion of Ion’s “artistic” or “technica”l or “formal” competence. Before long, Socrates will be questioning whether poetics (poietike) is an –ike at all. But in the meantime, we will learn that if any way of knowing is to be an ike, then it must have “formal comprehensiveness” and “formal standards of evaluation,” just like every other ike. Also, we’ll see that Socrates uses arithmetic as one of his examples! I hope you enjoy the delicious humor of this little dialogue’s repartee.

Socrates …For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is much to be envied, I repeat.

Ion Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my techne: and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus or Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.

Socrates I am glad to hear you say so, Ion; I see that you will not refuse to acquaint me with them.

Ion Certainly, Socrates; and you really ought to hear how exquisitely I display the beauties of Homer. I think that the Homeridae should give me a golden crown.

Socrates I shall take an opportunity of hearing your embellishments of Homer at some other time. But just now I should like to ask you a question. Does your art extend to Hesiod and Archilochus, or to Homer only?

Ion To Homer only; he is in himself quite enough.

Oh, that innocent-seeming, yet lethal little “Socratic question”! The sound you just heard was the sound of a steel trap, springing shut upon the clueless Ion of Ephesus! (Okay, an iron-age trap.)

Socrates Are there any things about which Homer and Hesiod agree?

Ion Yes; in my opinion there are a good many.

Socrates And can you interpret what Homer says about these matters better than what Hesiod says?

Ion I can interpret them equally well, Socrates, when they agree.

Socrates But what about matters in which they do not agree? For example, about divination of which both Homer and Hesiod have something to say –

Ion Very true.

Socrates Would you or a good prophet be a better interpreter of what these two poets say about say about divination, not only when they agree, but when they disagree.

Ion A prophet.

Socrates And if you were a prophet, and could interpret them where they agree, would you not know how to interpret them where they disagree?

Ion Clearly.

Socrates But how do you come to have this skill about Homer only, and not about Hesiod or the other poets? Does not Homer speak of the same themes which all other poets handle? Is not war his great argument? And does he not speak of human society and of intercourse of men, good and bad, skilled and unskilled, and of the gods conversing with one another and with mankind, and about what happens in heaven and in the world below, and the generations of gods and heroes? Are not these the themes of which Homer sings? [Here’s a place where we get an idea of what the rhapsodes said about Homer to their audiences, but it is Socrates who supplies it, sounding very much the literary critic, himself! –jlb]

Ion Very true, Socrates.

Socrates And do not the other poets sing of the same?

Ion Yes, Socrates; but not in the same way as Homer.

Socrates What, in a worse way?

Ion Yes, in a far worse.

Socrates And Homer in a better way? [Notice it is Socrates who introduces the subject of standards of evaluation, and Ion merely echoes him. Ion is very good at learning the words by rote! But can he use the formal standards and put them into action? -jlb]

Ion He is incomparably better.

Socrates And yet surely, my dear friend Ion, where many people are discussing numbers, and one speaks better than the rest, there is somebody who can judge which of them is the good speaker?

Ion Yes.

Socrates And he who judges of the good will be the same as he who judges of the bad speakers?

Ion The same.

Socrates One who knows the science of arithmetic? [Lit. The one who possesses the “techne arithmet-ike”?]

Ion Yes.

Socrates Or again, if many persons are discussing the wholesomeness of food, and one speaks better than the rest, will he who recognizes the better speaker be a different person from him who recognizes the worse, or the same?

Ion Clearly the same.

Socrates And who is he, and what is his name?

Ion The physician.

I’ll break off the passage here, and let you ponder the perennially puzzling teaching device of Socratic questioning for awhile…. And the formal features Socrates is beginning to bring into view here as being necessary for any ike…. Questions and comments?

How I Explain Derrida… or quit bagging on poststructuralism

Well, I’ve done it now. I actually volunteered on a science blog to “explain” Derrida! (I’m sure they aren’t as excited about this as I am.) I brazenly pointed out that it isn’t so easy a thing to do as it is for Dawkins and Dennett to explain (so brilliantly) their neo-Darwinian biology and all its new tools of thought. Why? Because D & D use the same language for thinking that the general public in England and North America does: the exact same kind of rationalist-empiricist systems of exploratory assumptions that have belonged to the British and American educational system and the English language itself for the past couple of centuries.

Poststructuralism requires learning different languages for thought, from the ground up. Think of it as a non-Euclidean geometry, okay? Think of it as a bold, thought-experimental, “over-simplified idealism,” such as Dennett lauds in science, okay? (My own explanatory schema is over-simplified, that is; not the originals.) The point is, theorizing in every field has its own techniques and its own evidences. It took me decades to become fluent in the languages of structuralism and phenomenology that underpin poststructuralist theory. So how in the world can I explain this foreign “language” in clear and simple terms? That’s just not how we learn languages! But this system of thought yeilds brilliant results in dealing with all kinds of human meaning-systems.

Well, I try to explain what’s behind “deconstruction” in the very best ways I can think of, but I realize that I am asking an awful lot of my readers. For one thing, that they genuinely care about the idea of a liberal arts education! And by the way, science is fundamentally a rigorous way of knowing about the physical structure of the natural world. But it is also a human meaning-system. A lot of “reality” is very complex, in just this way. That’s why different aspects of reality are fruitfully explored by different disciplinary methods yeilding very different formalizations. Okay now, the Derrida stuff is contained in Section 4 under Pages on the right. I’m just going to send you over there. (If #4 intrigues, read Section 3 too.) If nobody goes over there and reads and comments, I guess I’ll have to flood my front page with it. Remember, please, that I am giving a very simplified version of a enormously sophisticated way of analyzing language. It is not the common linguistic approach taken in our own Chomskian U.S. (Have you read that amazing New Yorker article on Chomsky and the Amazonian tribe yet?)

By the way, polite and thoughtful conversation (however saucy!) such as you’ll see over at Rob Knop’s above-referenced science blog is welcome. Anything like “the Jerry Springer Show on science blogs” that I lamented about in an earlier post will be graciously deleted. (Wonderfully, I’ve never gotten anything of that kind here.)