Plato's Phaedo might seem to be the last place to look for aesthetics but, having the chance to teach an Introduction to Philosophy course for the first time in many years, has brought me back to this both irritating and fascinating work. In previous posts I have discussed other more obvious applications of aesthetics to Plato's thinking in the Phaedo. This one, however, is trickier. I want to think about the aesthetics of thought itself, and in the context of the Plato's discussion of the doctrine of recollection. Let us start by admitting that the theory, as presented by Socrates, is entirely implausible. I am just not going to buy into the idea that before I was born I was a disembodied soul able to perceived the eternal Forms, and that whatever current knowledge I have is simply recollection of that knowledge.
By the way, many commentators (and even more student papers) stress the similarities between Socrates' theory and the doctrine of reincarnation. This is a mistake: the similarities are minor, at best. Nothing important in Socrates' theory requires that there be a previous embodied state for the soul. Any knowledge gained in a previous embodied state, as when one was a prince or princess in a previous life, is worthless for his purpose. Even if there were previous embodied states, the only important previous state is the one in which the soul has no body. Socrates does mention possible future incarnations, for example as a bee in a bee colony, but this is only for those who are not philosophers: true philosophers will avoid any future reincarnation as they will continue to dwell in the world of the Forms, Hades as Plato understood it. Textual support can be found for reincarnation in other works, but the key point here is that, on a theoretical level, this is a red herring and pretty irrelevant to the point at issue.
So the question is whether the idea of recollection has any philosophical interest. Much has been made of Chomsky's idea of linguistic structures that pre-exist actual development of language. I want to go in a somewhat different, though related direction. Here I want to stress the phenomenology of creative thought. The question is whether there is a experience in creative thinking which answers to Plato's notion of recollection. We do often have the experience of seeing a new idea developed and explained by another thinker and feeling that this is something we had thought before, but not as clearly. It seems as though we are, here, recollecting some general idea or insight we once had, as though the writer is actualizing something potential in our own minds. The experience of Meno's slave in the Meno might be a symbol for this in that the slave is brought by Socrates to develop the elements of the Pythagorean theorem simply by being led through a series of questions and answers. So too, we have the experience as creative thinkers of working on a project with a name, for example exploring the nature of love, which is designated by the name "love," and coming up with a new insight (grounded in various ways on previous thought) that seems a discovery of something already there waiting for us, although not waiting in the visible world but rather in the space of possibility and potentiality that surrounds that world, i.e. in our phenomenological meaning-laden "space." The point here is to grant that experience some ontological weight.
So here is the hypothesis, inspired by Plato's ideas on recollection in the Phaedo. (I make no claims to scholarly accuracy or to providing an interpretation of Plato here.) (1) there are indeed essences, although I would insist, contra Plato, that these are not eternal and unchanging, but rather are potentials successfully actualized in different contexts, both spatial and temporal, usually as the result of an ongoing dialectical process. We can have insight into such essences, for example the essence of love. (2) The term for the essence, for example "love," has the interesting quality of being empty of actual content. This emptiness may be filled by various definitions, some of which are better than others, but love itself, is unchanging and simple (because empty of content). (3) Knowledge does not come from sense evidence alone: it requires concepts, such as "love," as well. As Kant put it, concepts without percepts and percepts without concepts are equally useless for knowledge. (4) Investigation of such concepts through attempts to arrive at their definition promotes an increase in wisdom with regards to the referent domain of the concept. (5) When we intuit and articulate the essence of a general concept we knew it before (and therefore are recollecting) in the sense that the ground of these new actualization of the concept, i.e. "love," has already been laid and the we already had a working use of the term, i.e. "love," which, qua philosophical, or qua ideal, is nonetheless empty of content. (6) This experience of recollection is an aesthetic experience in that it is an experience with a certain unity attended by pleasure in which an aesthetic quality plays an important role. (7) The aesthetic quality which plays an important role here is aesthetic perfection, or beauty. (8) The grasping and actualization of essences in definitions and their attendant supporting stories and arguments is an aesthetic judgment.
Plato himself may have been vaguely aware of these last point or, at least, what he says at 73d inspires me in making this point. This is where the doctrine of recollection becomes aesthetic. The very contact and imagery of discussion brings us back to the Symposium and the debate over the nature of beauty as the object of love. Socrates says: "you know what happens to lovers: whenever they see a lyre, a garment, or anything else that their beloved is accustomed to us, they know the lyre, and the image of the body to whom it belongs comes into their mind. This is recollection...." (Grube tr.) i.e., especially when it is of things one has not seen in a long time. Socrates then asks "can a man seeing the picture of a horse or a lyre recollect a man, or seeing a picture of Simmias recollect Cebes [his good friend]...or seing a picture of Simmias, recollect Simmias himself" None of this is the kind of recollection we are looking for, i.e. recollection of the Forms or of general truths (or, in my language, essences), but it does give us some indication of what we are looking for, because, in the case where the recollection is of similar things, we necessarily think (or at least wonder) how close the similar thing (e.g. the portrait of Simmias) is to the subject. The question is whether the representation is deficient or complete.
Plato then has Socrates move on to discuss two sticks being equal and the relation between that and the Equal itself. But it is worthwhile to dwell for a moment on this experience of questioning the realism of a portrait. That something is a realistic portrait is, I take it (albeit controversially), an aesthetic claim: "realist" is an aesthetic predicate. The issue is not simply whether the portrait gives us all the information that we would get from looking at the original from the same place (this is the flat-footed theory of realism offered by Gombrich in Art as Illusion) but whether the object is realist in the sense of "capturing the likeness" i.e. capturing the essence of how that person looks (something that cannot be captured by a collection of data points). If we consider a portrayal realistic it is because it gives us pleasure in the apprehension of its realism in "capturing" sense. Similarly, the intuition of the essential qualities of a named essence, for example "love," requires that the intuition involve pleasure in the moment of apprehension. That is, this is not what Kant would have referred to as a cognitive judgment (as Plato would hold) but what he referred to as an aesthetic judgment. As an aesthetic judgment, it also has a kind of subjective universality, which I would have to explain elsewhere. In any case, the claim is that the intuition of essences is both a discovery (because the potential is already there as an active potential, a kind of pregnancy ready to give birth) and an invention (as the discovery is one that involves active making of the new concept in the process of developing a new definition, defending it, and attempting to defeat its opponents) and that this is not only creative but also aesthetic, as it involves a necessary experience of pleasure in the transcending beauty of the newly perceived, but previously named, pattern. As with the case of the two sticks that are equal but are not Equality itself, when seeing the essence in a perceived thing we are led to think of the essence itself, which, although invisible, is a phenomenological aspect of the thing (that is, as a layer of our experience) perceived in this instance of creative perception. Creative thinking, in short, comes out of creative perception, whether this be in direct or mental perception, i.e. in the realm of thoughts being shaped in the process of thinking, talking or writing. It is noteworthy in this regard that Plato's Socrates, who had, earlier in the Phaedo, completely denigrated knowledge from the senses, recognizes here that "it is definitely from the equal things, though they are different from the Equal, that you have derived and grasped the knowledge of equality" and hence, really of Equality itself, despite the fact that it is not very similar to "small e" equality. (74c) We move from recognition of deficiency (Plato's word) in the equality of the two sticks, or deficiency in even the most seemingly perfect example of love, to positing a non-deficient account of the essence of Equality or Love, an ideal which is never actualized and, contra Plato, not even real, a kind of fiction that acts as a model or standard alone.
To finish Socrates' argument: "We must then possess knowledge of the Equal before that time when we first saw equal objects and realized that all these objects arise to be like the Equal but are deficient in this.. [and] this conception... derives from...sense perception, and cannot come into our mind in any other way, for all [the] senses...are the same...Our sense perceptions must surely make us realize that all that we perceive through them is striving to reach that which is Equal but falls short of it...Then before we began to...perceive, we must have possessed knowledge of the Equal itself if we were about to refer our sense perceptions of equal objects to it, and realized that all of them were eager to be like it, but were inferior...We must then have acquired knowledge of the Equal before birth [the point at which we began to perceive with the senses.]" (75a-75c) It is the senses that allow us to recover "the knowledge we had before" (75e), learning being the recovery, i.e. recollection. I think that I have account for all parts of this in my re-interpretation above.
It is noteworthy also that the Forms, including not only Equal but also Beautiful and Good, are things "which we mark with the seal of 'what it is,' both when we are putting questions and answering them." (75c) That is, they are considered the objects of reality especially (only?) when we are engaged in Socratic dialogue: they are a function of the dialogue (and similar activities) itself. They might be said (going beyond Plato) to be constituted within the space of such dialogue. They are the endpoint to a certain fiction-like story that we create, in reality or in retrospect, or in the process of creative thinking, speaking and/or writing (usually as a part of an on-going dialogical process with our previous selves and with previous thinkers.)
What then is the soul on my reinterpretation of Plato? It is whatever perceives and actualizes the essences and to the extent that it does so (i.e. it is that aspect of ourselves, ourselves actually being just the embodied persons we are in the material world -- the only world there is.) It is as if itself eternal and unchanging, this particularly in what Kant would call the transcendental aspect of ourselves (or more accurately, the transcendental ego) which, using Kant's language, is hardly transcendent (there being, contra Kant, no transcendent realm anyway.... the transcendental does all the work that the concept of the transcendent was originally invented to do.)