Archive for August, 2007

Thanks! Great Impetus for My Work, & One More Question for Physics

August 29, 2007

[If you’re interest in Michael Polanyi, who was a world-class physical chemist and an Anglican philosopher of science who in about 1955 wrote Personal Knowledge, a paean of praise to the beauty and precision of science and at the same time a systematic deconstruction of old-style scientific “objectivism,” inspiring Kuhn but much better (if you ask me), go to per caritatem and check out a number of lucid Polanyi posts there — and here.]

I have a new motto for this post, from the Cartalk guys, who claimed to be (supposedly) quoting Albert Einstein! “Once you can convert all the matter in the universe into something that is nothing, the rest is easy….” The mass-energy questions asked below convert into matter-field questions, and these ain’t little questions!

This weblog and the lively conversations we’ve had here over the past few months have propelled me into some intense productivity on my own work. Thanks!

I’ve been working on several scholarly essays concerning Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics, and once these are scheduled for publication, I’ll start resuming my posts here on Plato’s Ion. (This just gives you some more time to absorb the ideas on literary theory in the Ion posts — and in the good stuff under “Pages.” Of course I’ll welcome comments on what’s already here, in the meantime.)

Then there’s everything I’ve learned from the physicists — and from the molecular biologist! — who’ve engaged so generously with me here: on quantum mechanics (for 60 fact-packed pages!), on Plato, on the paradigm shift from Newton to Einstein, on the soul, on method in science, on “ink-and-paper vs Hamlet,” and on “gnomes with shovels“!

I’ll have a posting for you soon on the Higgs Boson, detailing what you’ve taught me and how I want to use it in a book for general readership about the science/cultural studies divide. It will also be about how we might find our way through this dreadful “social construction of reality” impasse, an impasse I believe arises strictly within the context of our own Anglo-American intellectual tradition — and because of its particular and distinctive precoccupations.

Our habitual framework of assumptions leads us into misunderstandings when we are assimilating thought that evolved on the Continent, concerning what is being claimed (our word) about “reality” and what “exists.” (The denial of “an external world” emerges during the assimilation into our context, I take it, and does not occur in the original Continental contexts, so when Sokal and Brimont attacked some prominent French thinkers, they were the wrong targets if “social constructionism” was the enemy.)

But right now, until my Higgs Boson post appears, I’d like to address another question to those in the sciences, a question which arises for me when I am contemplating the standard theory, and especially the Higgs field, and remembering what Gavin and David said about the “medium,” as it were, through which electro-magnetic and other quantum waves propagate (i.e. “the universe,” they seemed to say).

Now, it seems that finding the Higgs boson would help to clarify what “mass” is. I get that. But what in the world, then, is “energy”?

In other words, is it the case that the question of what energy “is” has been clarified already for the physics community?

Like, for instance, is it true that even where we have those “vacuums” out in “deep space,” nonetheless all of it is thought to be “filled” with the Higgs energy field? And, I gather, with all of the other quantum energy “waves,” which in a sense seem to diffuse away into infinity? (This is why wave-particle duality is observed even when the wave is split and sent over large distances before being recombined and measured, and why entanglement phenomena manifest even when the pair of particles are separated by very large distances?)

And all of this leads me to the whole question of “being without any mass,” like photons. What does “massless” mean? How can a photon be massless and yet manifest as a particle? How can a massless particle make a “ping” on a screen? (Or is that just what happens with electrons and other particles with mass?)

Energy, I’m assuming (right?), is by definition without mass, since energy converts into mass, and vice versa. E = Mc^2.

And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science? A science that deals strictly with “physical reality”? How can energy be taken to be a physical and empirical thing, if it has no mass and takes up no space in any material sense? (At least until it is converted into a particle with mass….) Yes, I know that you have plenty of evidence that energy exists, but how is it a material thing? And if it is, then how are we defining material or physical reality these days? (Not the way it’s done on some of the science blogs….)

Okay, I’ve done some research and I see mass vs energy comes down to the difference between fermions and bosons? So deep space is filled with a boson wave field?

Thanks for any insights and any good links you can give me on this — which I realize to be the sort of question that only a humanist, most likely, would ask…. (Maybe this kind of consideration is the reason that it seems more physicists today self-identify as “Platonists” or as “positivists,” than as “realists”?) P. S. Found a fascinating piece on mass-energy equivalence in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — see the section on Philosophical Interpretations.

And don’t suppose, my gentle readers, that I’ve forgotten about the “soul,” either, or about the issues involving theism vis-a-vis science. I’m just getting everything “set up” here, to tackle these inquiries you’ve made, with some degree of precision….

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

August 12, 2007

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

August 7, 2007

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

August 4, 2007

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.