Saturday, February 27, 2016

Heraclitus and Aesthetics

On the face of it, Heraclitus seems to have little to say about aesthetics or the philosophy of art.  He does anticipate Plato in criticizing the poets Homer and Hesiod for telling lies.  And he also has some important things to say about harmony.  One might leave it there, but I always like to look at the great philosophers from an aesthetic point of view and Heraclitus has a lot to offer in that regard.  He certainly influenced Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida among the modern greats (Derrida's idea of a deconstructive reading seems to me just an extension of Heraclitean theory of interpretation, the dynamic of opposites playing a central role in both philosophers.)  I will be using mainly the Robin Waterfield translation of the fragments as appearing in The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists (Oxford, 2000) and my discussion is greatly influenced by his arrangement and commentary.  However, that is almost arbitrary since different classical scholars arrange the fragments differently and some have interestingly different translations, or shed light on the meanings of specific terms.  In particular, I am inspired by Edward Hussey "Heraclitus" in The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy ed. A. A. Long, Cambridge University Press, 1999.  

I make no claims to be a Heraclitus scholar:  mainly I am interested in engaging in a dialogue with Heraclitus.  On a personal note, Heraclitus is one the first philosophers I ever fell in love with, probably at the age of fifteen.  I had read The Aristos by John Fowles and went from there to his source.  Reading Heraclitus at a young age probably gave me a lifelong skepticism concerning rationalism and any logic-centered philosophy that does not give sufficient credit to the way that tensions can underlie harmonies and the way opposites can be internally related.  Heraclitus is not an aesthetic philosopher just because he talks about harmonies but also because these harmonies, or what Hussey calls "latent structures" are metaphor-like.  Looking at the world fundamentally through metaphors is, I would argue, an aesthetic way of looking.  The metaphysics we get from this mirrors the epistemology and methodology insofar as aphorisms that are riddles (of the sort that make up the fragments of Heraclitus) are kinds of metaphors that reveal something that is itself essentially metaphor-like.  Unlike Plato's view of essences, Heraclitus's makes the philosopher's quest not for final definitions but for deeper knowledge of this metaphorical dimension of reality. Moreover, the symbol of fire, so central to Heraclitus, I understand as referring to the quality of aura, the glowing sense of life that emerges when such a quest is successful.  This aura emerges from or adheres to the interpretive object in the process of interpretation, what Heidegger refers to as an opening up of Being.  We refer to this aura when we say that something is beautiful, but an aura can also be negative, as when something is ugly.  Successfully deep riddles are metaphors that reveal tensions of vibrant reality beneath the superficial categorizations of everyday thought.  The "logos" that Heraclitus seeks to express is, then, wrongly read as "logic" or even, as Hussey would have it, reason in the sense of the proper proportion in which everything fits (93).  This would accord, I think, too nicely into our current conception of the rational as a matter of conclusions based on correct definition, valid demonstration, resistance to counterarguments, and premises grounded in sound experiment-based or data-driven evidence.  All of that is a fine and workable notion of rationality, but a counter notion of logos allows another dimension of rationality that may at first seem irrational but ultimately is not, one that gives credit once again to insight into essences as expressed in metaphors and riddles and not in traditional real philosophical definition, i.e. definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (what Socrates ostensibly sought).

Begin with the fragment, "Harmony:  non-apparent is better than apparent."  Apparent harmony is what we see easily enough in conventional modes of thinking where categories are applied in familiar ways.  But when category violation occurs in metaphorical thinking (e.g. "man is a wolf to man" is a category violation since man is not literally a wolf), new and more powerful harmonies emerge, ones that are not easy but that in fact contain possibly disturbing tensions.  If we add to that the idea "I searched for myself" and that "the true nature of a thing tends to hide itself" we can get the notion that the true nature of things, including the searcher him or herself, is hidden.  Since it is a hidden harmony it is a better one, better because deeper.  

In what way are such harmonies hidden?  We know that "eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have souls which cannot understand their language."  So these harmonies are hidden from eyes and ears unless we can understand the language of eyes and ears, unless we interpret, i.e. unless we question the surface story. So when Heraclitus says "the things I rate highly are those which are accessible to sight, hearing, apprehension" he means that the senses have a power of penetration to hidden harmonies, one of which we are not normally aware.  And of course these are the senses by which we typically apprehend aesthetic phenomena. 

We also have the central metaphor of the lyre and the bow.  The harmonies of these stringed instruments are hidden when we just look at them.  Moreover, they are based on tensions that are hidden as well.  Heraclitus says that the many are "ignorant of how while tending away it agrees with itself - a back-turning harmony, like a bow or a lyre."  From this we see a way to understand the principle that "war is father and king of all." War is the principle of a conflict between principles that produces harmonies.  This passage also says that war reveals some "as gods, others as men; some he makes slaves, other free."  We know that actual war makes these changes: we also know that war, conflict, and change in general, can make something the opposite of what it was, a slave for example can become free.  

Hussey's translation of the lyre passage adds something:  "They do not understand how the diverging agrees with itself:  a structure [harmonie] turning back on itself, such as that of the bow or of the lyre."  Hussey observes that the "unity is more fundamental than the opposites" that "the opposites are essential features of the unity," and that "the manifestation of the opposites involves a process, in which the unity performs its essential function."  (96-97)  

This constant process of change in which things become their opposites is a process of harmony:  here "cool things become warm, warm things cool down" and so forth.  So, when Heraclitus says that "war is common, and strife is justice, and ...everything happens in accordance with strife and necessity" we see that conflict is universal and that justice is not a matter of some quiescent harmony but one based on strife.  The reference to "necessity" indicates that there are laws that govern change.  This is central to the philosophy of Heraclitus:  there is constant change but there is also unity, and this is a unity of harmony based on opposing tensions.  So, looking at his most famous saying, the reason why "on those who step into the same rivers ever different waters are flowing" is that the river is maintained as the same despite constant change of the substance of which it consists. There is unity in diversity, which is another definition of beauty, for example offered by Hogarth.   

Another possible focus for an aesthetic take on Heraclitus can be found in the passage "God:  day/night, winter/summer, war/peace, fullness/hunger.  He changes like first which, when mixed with spices, is named according to the savor of each."  It may seem superficial at first to mention here the idea of "savor" in relation to aesthetics.  Hussey observes that when Heraclitus says that day and night are one he means not that they are identical but that they are one thing in different states.  Further, this one thing is God, as we see in this quote, which is to say that the unity manifests something divine or divine-like insofar as there is an aura of the infinite here. God here is not seen as an unchanging entity but rather as nature itself but in its divine aspect, and manifested through the sensually pleasurable experience of tastes as associated with the savor of things when mixed with spices. 

I want now to focus on one passage, originally quoted by Sextus Empiricus, and quite a long one:  "we become intelligent by drawing in this divine reason, and although we become forgetful when asleep, we regain our intelligence as soon as we wake up. For since when we are asleep the sensory channels are closed, mind-in-us is separated from its natural union with what surrounds us (the only lifeline, so to speak, which is preserved being connected by means of respiration), and so, being separated, it loses the power of memory that it formerly possessed.  But when we wake up, our mind again peeps out through the sensory channels, as if they were windows, makes contact with what surrounds us, and is endowed with the power of reason.  Just as cinders which are brought close to a fire undergo an alteration and start to glow, but are extinguished when they are separated, so the fraction of what surrounds us which is in exile in our bodies becomes more or less irrational in a state of separation, but in a state of union, which is achieved through the numerous sensory channels, it is restored to a condition of similarity to the whole."  (Waterfield T9 44-45.)  

This can be read in one way as remarkably similar to Plato's Pythagorean stories of the soul as separate and distinct from the body and as containing a portion of the divine fire.  But it might be read in another way (by reading it as itself an allegory or metaphor), as more deeply aesthetic, where "divine reason" is what happens when things light up in the aura of their essences revealed, this happening only when humans wake up from their usual sleepy ways of thinking, remembering by way of using their senses, not only to see in a superficial way but to see in the sense of allowing beauty to emerge.  Memory here acts not just as a storage vehicle but as something active, some what like Plato's notion of recollection (perhaps Plato got the idea from Heraclitus).  The "power of memory" and the "power of reason" as also "intelligence" are one on this account:  it all has to do with our "natural union with what surrounds us" i.e. by way of our "sensory channels."   The idea of essences being revealed can be seen in the notion of "physis" or nature when Heraclitus says "nature likes to conceal itself." 

In this reading, being "endowed with the power of reason" is not a matter of learning logic or being able simply to mount arguments or even to have the skill to reject dubious premises, but the ability (also, but fundamentally so) to be open to insight concerning the emerging and constantly changing essences of things, the ability, without which, all of the other appurtenances of reason are useless or, worse, deceptive.  

An important aspect of this is that access to what surrounds us is by way of the senses, hence related to the Greek "aesthesis" and that the thing perceived is not just in us but in the world, hence not merely subjective.   These are not essences to be found in an ideal world of Forms of the Platonic sort.  They are more like Aristotelian universals, but unlike these, as we have seen, they are accessed primarily through the senses, thus connecting Heraclitus more with Lucretius, Nietzsche and Dewey.  Cinders brought close to the fire and that start to glow indicates that when essences are revealed there is a glowing aura, that the object perceived is as if more than itself.  Fire, in my reading represents that aura.  The cinders image indicates how the subjective/objective split may be overcome.  The whole, on this account, is the aura that comes with any sense of unity, but also a reference to the background of the universe as a whole, which also provides aura as something like background radiation from the big bang (to use a metaphor).  If all of this is too mystical sounding for you I would suggest that I believe it could all be expressed in the pragmatist language of Dewey.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Neither Scientific Realism nor Skepticism but Fictionalism

This blog entry is inspired by Jay L. Garfield's 1990 essay "Epoche and Sunyata:  Skepticism East and West" Philosophy East and West, 40:3, 285-307.  I have always been attracted to skepticism, however based on my studies in aesthetics over the last forty years I find I have some serious reservation about skepticism as presented at least by Garfield and perhaps also as presented by his hero Nagarjuna although I know too little about Nagarjuna to be able to say anything definite there.  I am all for philosophical therapy as a way of curing us of "cognitive and emotional ills born of extreme metaphysical, moral, or epistemological positions," however I suspect that another type of philosophical therapy is needed to cure us of the extremes of skepticism advocated by Garfield.  Garfield wants to avoid the title of "extreme" by situating his skepticism between nihilism and scientific realism exemplified by the position of Jerry Fodor.  I don't think that anyone is seriously a nihilist insofar as no-one really rejects all values.  So I think that extremes are extreme skepticism on the one hand a and scientific realism on the other.  I prefer extreme skepticism to this form of scientific realism, but think a much more plausible position would be in-between the two.  We can call this pragmatism, but for now I will call the position I want to advocate "fictionalism."  The term "fictionalism" has been used in the past and there may be an affinity between my version and these others, but I will not explore this here.  Let's make the point in a short way first. Where skeptics, including for example Wittgenstein, Nagarunga, and Garfield reject essences and causal powers, I accept these sorts of things as quasi-real.  They are certainly real in experience.  But they are not just subjective things:  they also have a reality that extends beyond the subjective.  For example, they can be found in what John Dewey calls the "situation."

Now most of Garfield's discussion is oriented to philosophy of science, but I always start with the philosophy of art and aesthetics, and that is where I will start here.  My principle is that any philosophical theory that fails to accomodate my strongest intuitions and reasoned beliefs about art and aesthetics must fail, ast least for me, in general.  Garfield wants to argue that we need no longer speak of causal powers, for example, but that we may replace such talk with talk of regularities.  I think, however, of my recent experience of viewing of a painting by Bonnard at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.  A fundamental part of my experience of this painting is my awareness of the fact that it was painted by Bonnard.  Regularities have no real explanatory power for me here.  What helps me understand the painting is understanding a very particular causal relation between Bonnard, a real person who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, and the painting, and also between this painting and my own experience.   I do not deny that causal nexus is extremely complex.  It may well be that the causal power of Bonnard in creating this painting, and in inspiring certain emotional and appreciative responses in me, cannot be based on anything but a kind of fiction. But, if so, this is an extremely useful and a necessary fiction.  Without it, little sense can be made of my experience or of anything for that matter.  This is not metaphysics except in the Kantian way of reconstructing metaphysics in terms that that which is necessary a priori for experience:  transcendental but not transcendent metaphysics.  My fictionalism is really a Kantianism of a certain sort.  Such things as substance, causal power, personal identity (both of Bonnard and me), and meaning are all, on this account, necessary posits for any experience whatsoever.  (This is relativized and historicized for me in a way it cannot be for Kant however.  I do not rule out that talk the language games these concepts involve may be irrelevant in a thousand years.) When we have an experience of a painting that is an authentic experience we search for a meaning, seek to understand ourselves, open to ourselves to communication from another, and listen to the unveiling of essences, as Heidegger might put it.  None of these things (meanings, selves, essences) are eternal and unchanging in the Platonic way.  None of them are entirely independent of the search to understand them.  They are quasi-real and yet they are as if real. 

Garfield thinks that appeal to to Madhyamika Buddhist philosophy, particularly to Nagarjuna will help the skeptics, particularly in distinguishing the skeptic from the nihilist.  Based on the quotes he uses, I do not think so.  Nagarjuna says "If one understands how actions are devoid of inherent existence, then he sees the suchness of actions.  When he has seen suchness, he will have eliminated ignorance, and when there is no ignorance then actions which are caused by ignorance cannot arise in him and so the results of actions such as consciousness and so forth, up to acting and death will not be experienced by him." (287)  This is not for me.  As a Deweyan pragmatist I give primary place to experience.  Sure, actions are devoid of final interpretation, and one should always try to seek beneath the surface interpretation that is currently dominant to get to something real, and yet the claim to a knowledge that transcends ordinary "ignorance" is arrogant and unsupported, or only supported by appeals to experience by those who have achieved enlightenment, which is not much help to us ordinary mortals.  The end result, in escaping action, the results of action, consciousness and experience is, as Nietzsche well observed, a denial of life.  "Suchness" might of course be interpreted as being much like what I call quasi-real essences, meanings, etc.  But searches for suchness are denials of dialogue, whereas the process of dialogue is precisely the language game that gives meaning to the search for and the existence of the quasi-real.  I applaud the Buddhist desire to abandon closed-mindedness and hatred, but am deeply skeptical of what Nagarjuna calls "elimination of wrong views." (287)  There is irony in the notion that Nagarjuna may be identified with skepticism, since his insistence that there are "right views" that are only available for those who have achieved Nirvana is the height of what Sextus Empiricus would have called dogmatism.  In one respect Nagarjuna is somewhat like Descartes: both of these philosophers brilliantly use skeptical arguments but in both cases they use them towards dogmatic conclusions, although in Nagarjuna's case the conclusion is an experience or a state of being rather than a set of propositions that are clear and distinct. The goal of fictionalism is not the achievement of peace or ataraxia (although this can be a worthy goal) but something closer to what Nietzsche called "will to power" understood in the way I understand it as will to creative action that is deep, a will not to be the "last man" as Nietzsche describes him in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Heraclitus saw it long before Nietzsche, but more on that later.

Fictionalism also takes an in-between position on "suspension of belief."  The fictionalist recognizes that belief is a complex thing and that the objects of belief are not unchanging and are perspectival.  Yet the fictionalist believes in belief.  Belief motivates creative action, even if belief is in something quasi-real. The bracketing that is needed is found in trying not to take the object of belief too seriously, as though it were really real, real in a Platonic or a factual way, real in the way that truths are supposed to be timeless, real in the way that there is only one possible correct interpretation of any meaning, real in the model of scientific truth. The myth to avoid is to take the quasi-real as really real.  But Nagarjuna buys into that as well, believing as he does in Nirvana, non-ignorance, etc.  

Garfield may argue that I am still confusing skepticism with nihilism, which he denies as "philosophical  denial of the existence of that which - at least in some sense - clearly exists" as someone who "might deny that any of our statements about external objects, about ourselves or our moral responsibility, or about the meanings of words are true or warranted..."  Garflied claims, again, that skeptics are not nihilists.  Neither is the fictionalist.  So perhaps there is meeting point here. But maybe not.  The other extreme is supposed to be "reificationism."  Reification is making something not a thing as a thing or treating it as a thing.  The trouble is that fictionalists encourage reification too, up to a point:  for a fictionalist there is value to be gained from thinking about persons as having essential natures, of essences as being things that can be understood and explained, as causal powers as being the source of actions and created things, and so forth.  For example, we need to think that there is an essence of art in order to engage in a Socratic dialogue concerning that essence, or concerning art and what it is, which itself is a way to develop a new metaphor by which we may understand and develop future actions in the realm of art.  Only by debating about what art is can the future of art be assured. The quest for essences in all of these domains, personal identity, causal powers, meaning, etc.,  is the fount of creativity, something that both the dogmatists and the skeptics seek, usually unconsciously, to turn off.  

The skeptical response is to defend "the practices the nihilist seeks to undermine" by not grounding these practices on the kinds of things the dogmatists posit.  Yet the practices mean nothing if they do not have ideals.  The search for understanding of a text, a search for its meaning, posits that meaning as an ideal.  Fictionalism, or one could call it quasi-realism, does not deny ideals.  Each product of the quest for meaning is an actualization of the posited ideal. The ideal itself has no content or at least none aside from that of its many actualizations.  Further, the practice of creating a work of art that has meaning is meaningless if one does not posit meanings at least as quasi-real.  

According to Garfield the reificationist like Descartes "argues that experience presupposes a persistent self as its subject."  The fictionalist joins the skeptic in denying this, and yet experience presupposed an idea of the self and the idea of a search for the self, an attempt to answer the question "who am I" which the skeptic denies.  That answer can be better or worse, can change over time, can sometimes be very powerful and then wane in power.  The standard of truth for the fictionalist is pragmatist.  

The nihilist according to Garfield believes that there is no self or at least no self-knowledge.  This too is false.  The skeptical solution says Garfield is to hold that the self is a "forensic concept" and "conventional." (290) This is better, but leaves us in a sea of the conventional, denuding the Socratic or Heraclitean quest for the logos of any value.  To seek out the self is in no way to seek out something conventional.  To seek the self is more to break the bonds of the conventional.   Similarly Garfield holds that the skeptical solution to the problem of meaning "requires us to note that word meaning and the assertability of correctness regarding word use rests not upon [special semantic facts] but upon a network of social conventions regarding word use."  (290)  The fictionalist replies that that is not enough.  The network of social conventions regarding word use only provides us with material needed in the Socratic quest for meaning.  It is the background against which the real action occurs. It is not sufficient, for example to answer the question "what is art?" simply by saying that are is something to be understood in terms of the social conventions regarding how we use that word. That tells us nothing about how to move forward.  It is essentially a shallow solution to the problem.  It looks only to what is now, not to what is possible or necessary.   It tells us no story we can live with any authenticity.  It refuses to play the language game of seeking out the hidden, if we may combine Heraclitus and Wittgenstein in an unorthodox way.  

Finally, the skeptic, says Garflied, understands causal powers as replaced by understanding causal explanation as "grounded in regularities."  I would suggest that although this might work well for the natural sciences, it makes nonsense of the idea that in appreciating a work by Bonnard I am appreciated something created by Bonnard i.e. by way of a special causal power he had. Plato's story in the Ion of the magnets of inspiration going from the Muse to Bonnard to me makes better sense of my experience than "grounded in regularities."  The reificationist is closer to the truth than the skeptic in saying that, causal powers involve a "necessary connection" that explains.  I would only insist that the necessity is relativized and bracketed:  it is necessity within a perspective or relative to a situation, not absolute necessity.

The skeptic engages in suspension of judgment. The fictionalist, contrary to refusing to assent to a position while refusing to assert its negation would assent heartily to a position provisionally, hopefully in the act of creating that position by creating a powerful new metaphor that serves as a basis of understanding and creative action, followed by, later, for other purposes, or as an experiment, heartily assenting to its opposite, while constructing a new metaphor that allows this move to generate future creative activity.

So the fictionalist heartily opposes the position Garfield adopts from Sextus:  "that the external world is not more than what we observe, that personal identity is not more than an aggregation of experiences and capacities, that meaning is not more than convention, that causation is not more than regularity."  (291)  For the fictionalist there is more in every case, although not as much as the dogmatist or the scientific realist of Fodor's sort would hold. Oddly, the fictionalist agrees with Garfield that "Custom and the particular practices of the arts and sciences...yield all the knowledge, certainty, and justification we need in order to navigate the world, identify ourselves and others, speak intelligently, and explain natural phenomena" but with the proviso that all of these things already operate according to language games that have a philosophical side, that seek out something quasi-real, that seek to create new metaphors of understanding.   

The disagreement relates to how one approaches everyday life.  Garfield's skeptic (quoting from Hallie) says that in living undogmatically we observe the requirements of everyday life which are "the guidance of nature, the compulsion of feelings, the tradition of laws and customs, and the instruction of the arts."  Notice how static this all is, as though everyday life never included creative activity, as though it was nothing more than following convention.  Don't rock the boat is the motto of this "everyday life." Whereas, again, this is just background for the real business of life, creative making.

Garfield says that "to understand the conventional as conventional, and as empty of any reality or foundation beyond convention, is the goal of philosophical inquiry."  I say that to understand the conventional as full of potential as more than what it appears to be, as gateway to that which we experience as the most real not, as something foundational only in the sense that a new powerful metaphor is an inspiration moment that provides the beginning of new valuable processes, is the true goal of philosophical inquiry.  


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Diotima's Truth: The Symposium Deconstructed

This is a bit of an unorthodox reading of the Symposium, so students beware:  your teachers may not like this.  But I also think it is true.  The Symposium is not what it seems to be. Diotima takes us down a rosy path, or rather the endpoint is not the end.  There is a myth at the center of the Symposium, and perhaps a secret truth. The secret truth is to be found in something somewhat more mundane than one would think.  The unorthodox reading, in short, is that the lesser mysteries of love are actually the deeper mysteries, or at least the lesser mysteries are key to understanding the deeper mysteries. This reading is partly inspired by Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy.  Nietzsche well saw that the Apollonian world of Forms, what we find at the end of the ladder of love in the Symposium, is a myth.  This is not to say that it is not valuable.  Ultimately, the point of the story is not, as it may seem to most readers, the static world of Forms, but rather the dynamic path of the seeker, the philosopher, the lover of beauty...a path that leads us, it is true, to the mythology-like realm of Forms, a clever replacement for the Olympian world of the gods, but then back down into the world that Socrates only superficially denigrates.  This deep reading of the dialogue goes radically against the usual surface reading. Hence my strategy is deconstructive in the tradition of Derrida. But don't worry I have no intention to talk about Derrida here or use any of his more explicit ideas.  

So, let us look first at the lesser mysteries of Diotima.  She informs us that the nature of love is the "everlasting possession of the good" or more circularly "love of the everlasting possession of the good." This comes after a significant expansion of the notion of poetry, interestingly similar to recent efforts to expand the notions of art and aesthetics.  I believe that this expansion is no accident. i.e. that this is not a randomly chosen example, but that it points to a close connection between the theory of love/beauty to be offered and a theory of creative art that is implicit and that is much more positive towards the arts than the one presented famously in Book X of the Republic.

Diotima then tells us that the object of love is the beautiful.  This introduction of the beautiful marks this discussion as a cornerstone document for aesthetics, which studies aesthetic properties, beauty being the most famous and perhaps the most important.  In particular, as Socrates agrees, what is loved is possession of the beautiful, i.e. "that the beautiful be his [the lover's]."  Now when a person loves the good (which Diotima seems to assume is ontologically equivalent to the beautiful) he or she wishes to possess the good, which means that he/she wishes to gain something, which it turns out is happiness, i.e. the happy are made happy by the acquisition of good things. (No surprise here...rather surprising only in that it is such a mundane comment coming from Plato.)  All men desire this.  

Diotima's illustration to explain this, which is more than just an illustration, is that poetry, which was generally considered to be a matter of creative making in ancient Greece, is now defined, very broadly, as "all creation or passage of non-being into being" thus equating poetry with any making at all (indeed, any change!), and yet she then says "and the processes of all art are creative; and the masters of arts are all poets or makers," even though they are not actually called poets, that term usually limited to people who produce music and rhymed verse.  The idea is to recognize that there is an important sense in which all makers are, or at least can be, creative in the way poets are.  People usually take Plato to be using this as a way to once again denigrate poetry, but I think he (and Diotima) more importantly is upgrading the other forms of making, the practices of everyday life, which are now seen as aesthetic in the strong sense that they participate in this overall process called the love of beauty.  In short, poetry is no longer the key example of poetic making. 

Diotima uses this extension of the concept of poetry to set up a similar point for love, that love is much broader than we think, where all desire for the good and for happiness is "only the great and subtle power of love" and lovers are not then limited to romantic lovers.  Rather, the class of lovers is extended to include various other paths, including those of money-making and gymnastics, as well as philosophy.  That is, even money-making, gymnastics and philosophy can be forms of creative making.  All of these involve love.  What humans love, once again, is everlasting possession of the good, and all of their activities, whether money-making, gymnastics, or philosophy are directed to that.  All of these activities are ultimate directed to aesthetic ends.

Then Diotima takes us to another level:  "the object which they have in view is birth in beauty, whether of body or soul."  This is perhaps the key to the entire dialogue.  The object of love is not beauty itself so much as that which can come out of the love of beauty, i.e. the births and the creative discoveries.  This is the dynamic soul, the lack of static end point, that is essential to the dialogue, and which is somewhat occluded by a shallow reading of the passages on the ladder of love at the end of Diotima's speech. 

But we need to understand what is meant by "everlasting" and it turns out that this is radically other than everlasting presence in the everlasting unchanging world of the Forms. That's a nice myth for beginners in the art of philosophy and the love of beauty.  But the true story is to be found earlier. "There is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation" says Diotima, and this procreation is "in beauty" and is a "divine thing."  Socrates was accused, says the Apology, of introducing new divine things which were perhaps not actually divinities:  this is why he died, since although in the Apology, he insists that divine things must be divinities or children of divinities, there is an irony in the pronouncement, since divine things could just replace divinities and children of divinities.  These divine things are precisely things of the a non-divine world.  They are, in short, things that can be considered "divine" in an atheistic sense of the word.  The divine as traditionally conceived, as a world of eternal things, is not a realm of procreation, since change is contrary to such a realm. So we find something in our world, i.e. procreation, which is to say both conception and generation, which makes up "an immortal principle in the mortal creature" says Diotima.  

Diotima begins with bodily procreation, but what she says about it can also be applied to the non-bodily sort: she says, personifying the conceiving power within each of us, that "when approaching beauty, the conceiving power is propitious, and diffusive, and benign, and begets and bears fruit; at the sign of ugliness she frowns and contracts and has a sense of pain, and turns away, and shrivels up, and not without a pang refrains from conception."  The easy interpretation, the first level, would be that we are talking about a heterosexual male who is sexually excited by a woman of great physical beauty but runs when confronted with her ugly counterpart.  But something else is meant. We have a specific process in mind which is best understood in terms of how it would be applied to creativity in non-sexual productive friendship and also in creative making described broadly under the concept of poetry earlier expanded.  So when Diotima says "when the hour of conception arrives, and the teeming nature is full, there is such a flutter and ecstasy about beauty whose approach is the alleviation of the pain of travail" she is talking about the creative process. Beauty is necessarily connected with the creative birth of a virtue, discovery or idea.  We all know about the moment of ecstasy that comes with inspiration:  we are prepared to conceive, and yet the process of creative making is painful since contrary to conventions and habit, it is not the easy path, and yet again it is alleviated by the presence of beauty, where the object of one's creative activities, the thing coming to birth shines with beauty.  Diotima insists again, to stress the point, "love is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only" but "love of generation and the birth in beauty."  Beauty pervades creative making.  Moreover, this generation to the mortal creature is "a sort of eternity and immortality."  It is, indeed, from the atheist perspective, all the immortality we are going to get...and it is enough too, since the other immortality is little more than a destructive illusion (one that Diotima and Socrates never saw, but Freud, Marx and Nietzsche did).  It is important that the next passage is one in which Diotima explains her ideas in terms of procreation amongst animals.  She at least dimly (perhaps unconsciously) recognizes what Dewey saw clearly that man in an animal interacting with his environment.  

The explanation of why generation gives us immortality that follows is central to understanding the truth about love and beauty that Diotima is trying to teach the dim young Socrates.  She says, and mark the end of the quote, "the mortal nature is seeking as far as is possible to be everlasting and immortal: and this is only to be attained by generation, because generation always leaves behind a new existence in the place of the old."  Immortality in our world, the only world there is, happens by way of the new thing generated by love (in beauty which replaces the old.  Moreover this is explained in terms of the fact that in life the same individual is the result of succession, "not absolute unity" (take that! Descartes). Even though we are "called the same" there is a "perpetual process of loss and reparation" in which all parts of us, skin, hair, etc., are changing.  She insists that this is also true for the soul and most notably for knowledge since "not only do the sciences in general spring up and decay, so that in respect of them we are never the same; but each of them individually experiences a like change."  At this point Plato reintroduces the doctrine of recollection which he had explored in the Meno and the Phaedo.  Here it has a specific use:  the word "recollection" means the "departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection, and appears to be the same although in reality new, according to that law of succession by which all moral things are preserved, not absolutely the same, but by substitution, the old worn-out mortality leaving another new and similar existence behind - unlike the divine, which is always the same and not another."  So the mortal takes part in immortality by way of a series of substitutions by which the illusion of sameness is achieved and maintained.  Moreover, this is in, and by way of, moments of beauty associated with procreation and hence with love.  Socrates asks if this is true and Diotima gives, as evidence, something very different but interestingly related:  the quest for the immortality of fame.  Someone, after all, can have the somewhat delusive unity achieved through "recollection" without being concerned at all with creative making or fame, or vice versa, pursuing fame with no interest in the kind of unity of knowledge called "recollection," that is, if we were to interpret "recollection" in a flat-footed way.  But let's not.  Diotima explains the search for fame in terms of the desire to leave behind a reputation, a name, that is eternal.  If the memory of our virtues is passed down we are immortal in some sense.  But there is a deeper story here, and we understand it further from the next paragraph, when we find that souls that are pregnant and "mean who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies" conceive "wisdom and virtue in general" which Diotima immediately and at first associates with "poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor." So the expanded notion of the poet appears again at this critical juncture!  This of course is quite contrary to what is said of the poet literally speaking in the Republic or in Ion, although Ion also tells another story at another level as I have argued in other posts.  Of course Diotima then insists that the greater wisdom is to be found in "ordering states and families."  That does fit the vision of the Republic.  But it is followed by something that seems right our of Phaedrus and has to do with the lover/beloved relationship in philosophical friendship.  I will stop here, and in the next revised version of this post I hope to explain the role of this friendship and how the lesser mysteries illuminate the true meaning of the ladder of love which reaches beyond Beauty itself to that which is generated from grasping Beauty.    

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Plato's Apology from an Aesthetic Point of View

Most people who read the Apology think about the ethical issues involved.  However, there are some points relevant for aesthetics that are worth considering.  I will only consider one here.  It comes at the beginning of the dialogue.  Socrates begins by making a big distinction between the way that he will speak in court and the way an orator would.  Presumably, an orator would be an artist of speech.  Socrates insists that he will only speak the truth.  His sayings will not be "expressed in elegant language like theirs [the orators], arranged in fine words and phrases," which style he also refers to as "polished" and "artificial"  (I will be using the Reeve translation as found in Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, Hackett, 2015).  By contrast, he will be speaking "extemporaneously in whatever words come to mind" with a view to what is "just" or true.  Again, he wants his judges not to pay attention to his "manner of speaking" but to what is true.  So he is not claiming just that he has a different style than the orators, but that his style is irrelevant:  only the truth is relevant.  This of course assumes that truth value of a statement is radically other than its style, and that the second feature may be ignored in favor of the first.  It is implied that there is something wrong about elegant language, fine words, the polished and the artificial.  Aesthetically pleasurable language is likely to disguise the truth.  This is not to say that he is opposed to the orator's art:  it is just that that art lies in "telling the truth." 

I am not convinced that Socrates is without style, that his "spontaneous" style is not a style, or that there is such as thing as simply telling the truth in a way that radically separates manner from content.  What we love about Socrates is in part his ironic style.  Can we separate his style from the truth value of what he says?