Posts Tagged ‘Plato’

Update from Janet, September 2011

September 6, 2011

A former student asked me a question here last week: do you plan to publish something on this “incredibly important” conversation?  He meant the conversation between science and faith and more specifically the lively conversation with physicists (and with one biologist) that took place on a few years ago. So here’s an update on what I’ve been doing more recently.

The sort of conversation attempted here is important, and yes, I am planning to publishing something very much related to it. Right now I am finishing up a sequence of essays on  Greek theory of knowing — a theory of the irreducibly many ways of knowing on which liberal arts education was originally based — working out of Plato and Aristotle, but addressing the entire course of the liberal arts tradition in Western history. These are addressed primarily to literary theorists in my own field, but they keep the natural scientists and mathematicians always in view as well, and I employ many elegant paradigms for disciplined knowing taken from Galileo and Newton, and from geometry and mathematics, as well as linguistics and poetics.

If these essays help to initiate the kind of respectful conversation between the ways of knowing that we all would love to see, then I will go back to finishing my book, which is addressed to a more general audience, especially to physicists and to theists and to anyone else who cares about the liberal arts and the life of the mind, and who is saddened by the distrust and misunderstanding between “science” and “religion,” as between cultural theorists and those academics who are more scientifically oriented (including analytic philosophers like Dawson and Searle).

I have been working on this particular task for more than nine years now. If I had known how hard it was going to be, perhaps I might never have started. But at this point at last, I have the arc and sweep of my larger argument worked out, and not simply various pieces of it. The work has crystalized, so to speak, and I’m happy with the essays I will begin sending out for publication this fall.

The lively back and forth on this website a few years ago proved to be a real springboard for me: it continues to guide me and give me insight into the problems I am treating from the point of view of the physicists and biologists. I cringe to think of the many missteps I would be making unawares, if it had not been for their honest expressions of dismay and impatience with this “innumerate humanist” (sometimes even when I thought I had been the most clear, tactful, and forbearing). The physicists — and one biologist — who conversed with me here taught me what the hot buttons really are and how to avoid pushing them accidentally; I suspect this will have improved my ability to communicate persuasively with the scientific segment of my audience.

So I am very grateful to the great conversation partners I had here from the natural sciences, mostly sent over originally by Jennifer Ouelette from Cocktail Party Physics, or else engaged with originally at Sean Carroll’s Cosmic Variance website. ( was also very helpful in orienting me — it is a treasure of a news and features aggregator for those in the sciences, and its editors were encouraging to me.) I am especially grateful to the Socratic lovers of deliberative conversation who faithfully discussed my “Wily Socrates” posts — and participated in that one very long conversation — a real workout for everyone involved — on Part I of my introductory lecture on Literary Theory (over in Pages).

Traces of that conversation on Plato’s Ion will surely be discernible in the work that will have emerged from it.

People of science, people of faith, please…

April 10, 2008

Please read the comment threads on the previous two posts, my most substantive posts ever, perhaps. It seems to me that we are getting somewhere, on our efforts to theorize the arts and sciences so as to do full justice to the natural sciences without demeaning the humanities, or the cultural and religious ways of knowing…. I need your thoughts. And please ask others to read, and comment, too. (It’s okay to be saucy, and gut-honest direct, but because these are such difficult issues we’re tackling, all of us will also need thoughtfulness, humility, and respect. (I myself have been called to account, quite rightfully, for not realizing that my own wording was going beyond passionate into the realm of disrespectful…to my great regret. So we’ll keep on calling each other to account.)

Good News from Janet…

February 13, 2008

Hello, readers. I’ve been silent here for a couple of months and yet you’ve shown a remarkably steady interest in my postings. Thank you so very much.

I suffered a bout of illness beginning in late November. Then I submerged myself in new work on the questions we’ve pursued here: a paradigm for knowing in the disciplines that would give all the credit in the world to scientific methodology, but without disparaging or relativizing the other ways of knowing in relation to the natural sciences.

Eureka! I have found it. (I think.) It’s still based on the Greeks, but it’s more cogent and more deeply substantiated in the texts of Plato and Aristotle. Also, I’ve had incredible amounts of fun seeing what happens when I apply the “old” model for knowing to Galileo and Newton, to Descartes and Leibnitz, instead of their own rationalist model.

The old model for “how humans come to know,” the theory of the “-ike” I started to talk about in the “Wily Socrates” posts, was based, of course, in the philosophical theorizing that energized the original vision of a liberal arts education: an education in the disciplines for the formation of citizens capable of self-government.

Plato and Aristotle, as we know, developed (so brilliantly and responsibly) this theory of knowing-through-the-disciplines — that is, in my terms, the theory of the -ike — from out of that gleam in the eye of the historical Socrates: from his practice of a “dialectics” devoted to the eidos, as it appeared in area of ethics (What is “Justice,” “Friendship,” the “Good Life”?).

So, I’ve been working out of Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics, principally, with help from Plato’s Theaetetus and the Republic and from other writings of Aristotle, to formalize their theory of the ike, but in terms that will be fresh and efficacious for us today. I’ve been using the Greek words in order to do this, attempting to (re)embue them with the formal rigor I believe they carried in the classical philosophical schools of Athens during the 4th century BCE.

The “-ike,” of course, as my readers here will know, is a reference to this original theory of knowing, the Greco-European vision that inspired education for 2000 years in the West until the rise of science in the 17th century gave birth to a new “theory of knowledge.” The term “ike” derives from the manner in which the Greeks formed disciplinary names by adding -ike to the name of the subject matter, as in poietike, musike, logike, grammatike, physike, arithmetike, and so forth. (This would eventually yeild our “poetics,” “physics,” “arithmetic,” “mathematics,” and so forth.)

The -ike suffix, in other words, indicated that a “techne” or an “episteme” was in view. (Poietike or arithmetike were short for techne poietike or techne rhetorike, but the “techne” part dropped out most of the time.) The Romans translated the Greek techne as the Latin ars, artis, and along with this, they translated the Greek episteme as scientia, thus giving us our modern “arts and sciences.”

Yet today we tend to forget or overlook, given our deeply engrained scientific outlook in the Modern West, that while Aristotle formalized an existing distinction between the technes and epistemes as the “productive” ikes and the “theoretical” ikes, nontheless he still frequently employed either word in order to refer more generally to any formalized disciplinary practice, irrespective of its subject matter and methodology. (We would view arithmetic as a scientific discipline, for example, but while Aristotle saw it as “theoretical” and hence an episteme, it was still called techne arithmetike, just as poetics was called techne poietike. This wasn’t incidental, either, but crucial to take into our account.)

By the way, Plato and Aristotles insisted upon using fluid vocabularies because they were concerned with teaching the nature of thought itself, and so, as teachers first, they inculcated the capacity to register and attend to the complicated formal levels of organization manifested by the various kinds of things. This emergence of flexibility and deftness on the part of their students was more important to them than the modern insistence on honing an exact set of technical terms.

Don’t misunderstand me. Precision was as important to them as it was to Kepler, Galileo, or Newton. And the mechanics of motion couldn’t have been developed apart from this method. But for the Greeks, the kind of precision varied according to the kind of discipline, and the precision they most desired was to be located ultimately in the development of persons capable of well-armed thinking, while 17th century thinkers valued as genuine the method that could be operated most mechanically and impersonally so as to acheive the kind of “universality” that they held to be the mark of genuine knowledge.

(This is why so many of Plato’s dialogues warn us of the ambiguities that we must all, as “neophytes,” confront and think through, if we hope to mature as thinkers, yet without showing us the path through the muddle itself. Aristotle is more generous to beginners. He is willing to set out the simplest basics in his Organon.)

Plato and Aristotle, I believe, were learning and teaching how to think dynamically, formally, and elegantly, but not mechanically. Their theory of knowing, in other words, involved the formal elegance of the ike itself, lying at a structural level deeper than the specialized methodologies of any of the individual ikes, whether they happened to be geometry, arithmetic, history, ethics, political theory, or, as in the Ion, cowherding, piloting a boat, or producing clean laundry.

It is striking that in Plato’s very early account of -ike in the Ion, he depicts Socrates as teaching the theory of techne (or episteme) itself, rather than pursuing directly an ethical eidos (the so-called Form or Idea). Like the later Theaetetus, in which “Socrates” asks “What is episteme?” the Ion is devoted in depth to the theory of ike. In it, Socrates proceeds one by one through the formal distinguishing features belonging to any and all of the ikes. (This is in the course of querying whether the rhapsode Ion, who claims an ike for epic poetry, in fact does or does not possess an ike.) Thus we are shown the significance of Socrates’ enquiries in ethics for the new philosophical way of life formalized by Plato. Both are based on an eidetic/dialectical theory of ike.
Both in Ion, and in Aristotle’s brilliant response to the question of whether there is an ike for poetry (contained in the thoughtwork of the Poetics), we see a theory of what constitutes a genuine way of knowing that is quite capable of being held up today — in the spirit of Neils Bohr’s complementarity? — as an alternative model for the arts and sciences and their role in the formation of a free citizenry.

In actuality, I do not think that the “new-old” paradigm of Greco-European knowing stands in the relationship of “complementarity” to the Enlightenment theory of knowledge — that is, to the classical theory of scientific rationalism that was developed in the 17th century, that dominated the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, and that was elaborated exhaustively throughout much of the 20th century in the tradition of Frege, Russell, and Carnap (not to mention Wittgenstein and Husserl).

Instead, I think that each of these two historical models brings out certain features of a very complex and urgent question: how do human beings genuinely come to know? And what are the consequences of genuine learning to know, in terms of the ethical, political, and spiritual good of individuals and of their communities?

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, along with 12 centuries of Christian thinkers in the medieval and Renaissance worlds, sought nothing less than human salvation through the life of the mind. (It is, after all, the mind‘s path to God for Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Dante, and the humanists of the Renaissance.) Yet none of them was the kind of intellectual snob that we moderns have been, with our elitist, patronizing, and exclusionary “theory of knowledge” and education. (They had their own snobberies and repressive elitisms, but not when it came to salvation.)

So this is the shape that my own work is now taking: following these two models that Western history offers us. The later model, established during the rise of science, was unquestionably built upon the laws of motion and gravitation, as its far-reaching Kuhnian paradigm. Galileo and Newton established this paradigm, however, by developing a new ike, one which was addressed to a newly redefined kind of thing. (It is utterly fascinating to look at the development of Newtonian mechanics through the lens of the Greek theory of ike, because it fits so remarkably well while placing its features in a fresh light.)

The first model for knowing, I believe, is best captured and represented by the account of ike elucidated by Aristotle in his Poetics. With respect to this “poetic” model, if we take it to serve as the Kuhnian paradigm for all of earlier Greco-European knowing, we must give the last word to Luce Irigary! (Over whom we have languished a good deal here, thanks to Alan Sokel.)

She deserves the nod because the essential differences between the two models turn out to resemble, at least metaphorically, the formal differences between the “mechanics of bodies in motion,” on the one hand, and “fluid dynamics,” on the other.
However, we should remember that “metaphorical” meant something quite different to Plato and Aristotle and later Greco-European thinkers than it has meant to moderns. Ability in the ikes, Aristotle remarked, shows itself in quickness with metaphor. (Contemporary physicists emphasize the creativity and invention of everyday working science. In many respects, they have modified the classical scientific paradigm already. We may all be on the threshold for a third model.)

Does the mark of real brilliance in the sciences differ fundamentally from what it is in the arts? Certainly, the heuristic methods and standards for testing differ from discipline to discipline. But something perhaps lies under them all. Something sub-stantial. the capacity to invent models deftly and fruitfully, by flexibly employing potential structural analogies and relationships, and intuiting likely symmetries. It lies in the human capacity to invent, apply, test, evaluate, modify, and abandon models, in the course of attempting to trace the elegantly formalizable dynamics of any given kind of thing.


[I don’t know how much of this current work I’ll be placing here, but I’ll be letting you know where to find it, for certain. I do intend to put more of the literary theory course here, since folks are reading it, and I’m very glad to engage in dialogue about any of this. Those exchanges last summer and fall with the physicists (and biologist) have proved invaluable to me; thank you all so much. My work will be more accurate and appealing across the disciplines because of all the repeated “checks” I’ve experienced here! And all of your “leads” and invaluable links.]

Wily Socrates # 3

June 27, 2007

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?