Although deconstructionism is currently unfashionable I continue to find it inspiring as an interpretive methodology that allows for more creativity and depth of reading than one gets in a typical encyclopedia-style or strictly academic understanding. One of my current projects is to read the great classics of philosophy with the eye of an aesthetician, this including works that do not have clear or obvious aesthetic or art-related passages. This is related to my larger project of showing that aesthetics should not be considered peripheral to philosophy but rather as absolutely central. So, to sum up, although Derrida is not fashionable within current aesthetic theory or in philosophy generally, and neither is aesthetics in English-speaking philosophy, I do not think that being fashionable is required. It is ironic that one of main complaints about Derrida when he was fashionable was that the fashionable seemed to trump the true. Now that he is not, perhaps we can just use his ideas about interpretation to focus on the true.
The analogies of "the sun" and "the line," which appear in the Republic, are absolutely central to our understanding of Plato. In this post I will assume that the reader has recently read this material. I will be mainly using the Reed translation as my point of reference. The analogies are frequently taught, usually in conjunction with the "allegory of the cave," which itself was intended by Plato to explain "the sun" and "the line."
On the face of it, the metaphysics and epistemology set forth in these analogies is anti-aesthetic if aesthetics is seen as closely associated with perceptual experience, which would make sense given that the Greek word "aesthesis," which inspired Baumgarten in his coining of the term "aesthetics" in the 18th century, is associated with perception. "The line" gives us a hierarchy of being in which perceptual experience falls in the visible realm and in the realm of belief, below the intelligible realm, which is the realm of the Forms. Using the allegory of the cave, we can see the business of the philosopher-king to be escape from a world of aesthetics into the intelligible realm. This thought is intensified when we think of the arts, which are also usually associated with aesthetics. Most of what Plato says about what we consider the fine arts falls under what he calls the "imitative arts," and these clearly would be classified in the lowest portion of the line, that is the realm of images and imagination. (The allegory of the cave tells a somewhat different story in that the arts, along with rhetoric and any other opinion-generating mechanism, are portrayed not as shadows on the walls of cave but as the activity of the puppeteers who project the shadows.) Even the practical arts, which might for example include architecture, would not rise above the realm of belief, plants, animals and artifacts, which, although not as low in the hierarchy as the realm of images, is still beneath the intelligible realm. So, strictly speaking, Plato is anti-aesthetic on most definitions of that term. True understanding comes, according to Plato, from dialectic, and operates only at the level of the Forms.
Of course there are a number of things that undercut this picture at least to some extent. First, as has often been observed, although Plato downgrades images, it is obvious that analogies and allegories of the sort that he himself (or Socrates) is using here are images. The allegory of the cave can itself be seen as a kind of story and it is hard not to see it as an example of imitative art. How can Plato put any trust into something that he has just rejected?
There are perhaps even more significant ways in which the standard interpretation, as valid as it is on one level, might be undercut, i.e. in a way to bring out a deeper more authentic truth. Take, as a starting point, the more complex role that images play in "the line" than it seems at first. Images seem not to be able to stay in their place: they seem to wander up the line. Let me explain. We find that the mathematicians, who are concerned with the sub-realm of "thought" in the intelligible realm, use images in the dirt (or in my youth on blackboards) to make points about things that are not themselves visible. These things that are used as images are called "hypotheses." As Socrates puts it, "the soul using as images the things that were imitated before, is forced to base its inquiry on hypotheses..." Moreover, the mathematicians "use visible forms and make their arguments about them, although they are not thinking about them, but about those other things that they are like.." (510d) [i.e. the mathematical Forms, such as the Circle] and, further, "the soul [of the mathematician] is forced to use hypotheses in the investigation of [the intelligible realm], not traveling up to a first principle, since it cannot escape or get above its hypotheses, but using as images those very things of which images were made by the things below them..." (511a) The last quote clearly shows the kind of upsurging of images to which I have been referring.
Plato himself seems to have been well aware that the images and imagination are not by any means stably down below. Of course it could be argued that images do not infect the uppermost realm since, at that level, dialectic moves without images. As Socrates puts it, reason grasps the upper realm "by the power of dialectical discussion treating its hypotheses, not as first principles, but as genuine hypotheses (that is, stepping stones and links in a chain), in order to arrive at what is unhypothetical and the first principle of everything." (511b) It then "reverses itself" and deduces downwards to a conclusion. In both processes, it makes "no use of anything visible at all, but only of the forms themselves."
Fine, but note again the two functions of hypotheses. In both cases they are remarkably like analogies and hence like images. Indeed, they operate as a kind of image even though in the intelligible realm. This happens fairly obviously for mathematicians at the first level: the mathematicians "make their arguments with a view to the square itself...The very things they make and draw, of which shadows and reflections in water are images, they now in turn use as images..." When something is used as an image that seems very similar to it actually being an image. Now in dialectical (i.e. philosophical) discussion at the highest level the hypotheses are "treated not as first principles, but as genuine hypotheses (that is as stepping stones and links in a chain)...." (511b) "Treating as" seems to be key here. They are being used as images or in an imaginative way too.
So now, let us consider the unhypothetical, i.e. the first principle. The idea of dialectic is presumably that the philosopher engages in something like the Socratic dialogue in which he sets forth various definitions of the matter at hand, say "justice," each one of which is refuted, until he or she grasps the form of Justice itself, which is unhypothetical. Now we understand the unhypothetical in terms of the previous analogy of the sun.
The analogy of the sun also contains a kind of infection or, to put it more positively, an upsurge of the aesthetic, although this time not in terms of images but in terms of two elements: a creative process similar to that of artistic creation and an intensification of experience similar to that produced by art. First, we already know that there is a close association between the Good and Beauty itself as discussed in the Symposium, although admittedly Plato makes clear that these are distinct in the Republic. Nonetheless the Beautiful is at the top of the ladder of love in the same way as the Good is at the top of the realm of Forms.
More important, the Good itself has some interesting features that relate it in some ways to aesthetics. It is "beyond being" which means that it is strangely similar to anything that is fictional, for example unicorns. Moreover, it seems to be understood mainly in terms of its effects. This is, of course, by way of analogy to the sun. So the sun is understood in terms of its ability to generate light, which is seen as a necessary medium between the eyes and the visible world. Similarly the Good radiates truth and thus makes the intelligible realm intelligible. It also sustains the intelligible realm in much the way that the sun sustains life by way of its rays. This generative function makes the Good something creative, as though it itself were an artist. One could even say, borrowing from Schopenhauer, that the world is the image of the Good, or perhaps the world is an image in relation to it as shadows are in relation to us. It turns out, for Plato, that the Good even begot the visible realm as its analogue. (508c) It is a creator God, but God not so much as maker but as father.
In describing the analogy between the sun and the good colors play an important role: the light of the sun "makes our sight see best and visible things best seen" and "when our eyes no longer turn to things whose colors are illuminated by the light of day, but by the light of night, they are dimmed and seem nearly blind.." (508d) So, it is through the intensity and vividness of colors, when seen in their most appropriate light, that we draw the analogy. Yet the intensity and vividness of colors is an important feature of painting as a fine art. (Dewey observes that they gain this feature partly from the way they capture the other sense modalities, and he thinks another feature of this intensity, almost religious in nature, is the way in which the presence of the surrounding universe and its deeper nature is contained in the experience. I will discuss this in another post). Now it is grasping the form of the Good that also gives philosopher-kings their appropriate power, their ability to perceive the good in things and act appropriately. As Socrates puts it, "what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good" (508e)
Again, the good is known mainly through its effects, through what it generates. Thus the good is very unlike, and this is an important point, the Parmenidean One. Rather than being distant from the world of change, the Good is its generator. It is the source of creativity both in the world of the Forms and in the visible world. Moreover, although the Good is not Beauty, it is the most beautiful: As Socrates puts it, "Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things. But if you are to think correctly, you must think of the good as other and more beautiful than they."
Finally, just as the sun provides visible things with their power to be seen it also provides "for their coming-to-be, growth, and nourishment..." and similarly the Good provides for the "existence and being" of the Forms. Although Plato does not go into this I suspect (or can imagine a story that says that) the relationship between the Good, the Forms, the Sun and the visible things is dynamic and interactive, i.e. that the Good cannot work its magic without the Forms or even without the visible world.
My reading has been deconstructive but not in the sense of destructive or skeptical. Instead I have used the deconstructive method in a hermeneutical way, trying to uncover hidden meaning which I believe is really there. In the last paragraph above I attempted a subtle transition to "what Plato should have thought...or would have thought if he thought his thoughts all of the way through." What Plato should have thought would have been a lot closer to what Dewey thought.