28 January 2010

On the divided line

An inability to sleep, combined with a recent reading of book VI of Republic, led me to the somewhat disordered diversion of creating an Excel spreadsheet to take a look at the so-called "divided line" that Socrates presents. An immediate problem that we should discover in comprehending the line is that it is completely impossible to actually draw it since the precise dimensions are not given in the dialogue (this is, of course, no accident). However, regardless of which numbers are used, so long as we follow the constraint that Socrates gives us (two unequal segments subdivided into two segments that follow the same ratio as the main division), the larger division of the smaller part of the line and the smaller division of the larger part of the line have the same length. This can be shown mathematically as follows:

Line L is divided into segments X and Y, such that Y > X. X is further divided into segments A and B, while Y is divided into segments C and D. Based on the data that Socrates provides, B = X*(Y/(X+Y)), while C = Y*(X/(X+Y)). Both A and B simplify to XY/(X+Y), so A=B.

This is important because it underscores the necessarily circular relationship that exists between B, which Socrates says contains "the animals around us, and everything that grows, and the whole class of artifacts," and C, which contains "a soul, using as images the things that were previously imitated, [which it] is compelled to investigate on the basis of hypotheses and make its way not to a beginning but to an end." Those sorts of knowledge and knowing that correspond to C (Socrates chooses geometry as an example) attempt to use the sorts of things in B ("material" objects) to discover the template that underlies them, the "things themselves." As useful as this enterprise is, it never reaches to the highest level, D, the level of "intellection," because it has began with the things as images and can neither leave this aspect of them behind nor entirely transform it into something higher. Therefore it will be forever "unable to step out above the hypotheses." This knowledge will therefore be drawn back down towards its material origins and seek to reform the material in light of what it has itself created from the material.

Socrates' statement that this sort of thinking is not the highest kind of thinking should be highly interesting to us, since what normally passes for thought is precisely this sort of thinking. That Socrates suggests the existence of an even higher realm, a realm which is neither the astringent ecstasy of the mystic nor the emotional deluge of the romantic, should give us occasion to ask whether we have ever even begun to think in the highest (yet also most original) sense of the word. Despite the tremendous amount of thinking that people all over the "globe" are doing each and every day, it is possible that what is essential in and to thinking remains as an overlooked challenge sheltered in the Socratic dialogues.

22 January 2010

The location of power as the difference between Greek and modern philosophy [part two]

This is a continuation of a previous posting.

We may perhaps best bring to a point our necessarily short consideration of the power of essence within Greek philosophy by ending at the end of Republic, in the tenth and final book. Here we see powerfully the manner in which the beginning controls the end. Socrates, after an ambiguous condemnation of the work of the tragic poets, proceeds to expound a mythic account of the doings of the soul after death, which acts as the Socratic counterpoint to the Glaucon’s story of the ring of Gyges. What is particularly remarkable in this account is the manner in which the soul is determined in advance of itself. After death, persons are sorted on the basis of how they acted when they were alive. The just went on to their reward, while the wicked experienced torment in the abyssal depths of the earth. Here we see already that the essence of what one will be after death is determined in advance by one’s actions during life, just as idea determines image and as the necessity of justice determines discourse. The worst punishments of all are reserved to those who had acted impiously towards their “gods and parents and for murder” (615c, p.298). These crimes are precisely the worst sort of crime because they violate the fundamental debt owed to the origin as the source of life for the human person. The allegorical depiction of essence as the primally powerful wellspring of action becomes even more greatly reinforced towards the end of the myth, when Socrates describes the manner in which souls have their destinies assigned to them before their births. Lots are cast, and each man has laid before him “patterns of the lives” that they may live (617e, p.300). These patterns inscribe the destiny of each man in advance of their lives, containing within them the entirety of the conditions that will help determine the life that will be lived. All that is missing is “an ordering of the soul,” absent so that each person can creatively constitute their existence in response to the destiny that has already been laid before them (618b, p.301).

This explication of Republic in light of the relation of the nature of justice and philosophical discourse to the predetermining nature of essence as the ultimately powerful sovereign of all existence has necessarily been highly inadequate. Platonic dialectic does not lend itself to being disentangled except by dialectic itself, and our attempt to focus on one strand of the dialogue has thus forced us to touch upon many others to even come close to justly articulating our thesis. Even in this exposition we have perhaps acted unjustly, since we ourselves did not quite begin at the beginning, and neglected to show the importance of the dialogue’s opening scene, where Socrates is arrested by Polemarchus and his companions. Though the dialogue in this scene is openly comic, with Polemarchus jokingly forcing Socrates to come with him, the scene takes place against the backdrop of the Athenians bringing a Thracian goddess into their city. They are thus impiously abandoning their ancestral worship, even introducing the novelty of “a torch race on horseback,” a non-Athenian practice (328a, p.4). While all this may seem remarkably unimportant to us now, when set against the historical backdrop of the disastrous ending of the Peloponnesian War, which Athens lost because they had corruptly exceeded the appropriate measure of the polis and had instead sought to become an empire, the events take on a much darker hue.

20 January 2010

On the myth of the "red state" and the "blue state"

The completely implausible victory of a Republican candidate for the open Massachusetts Senate seat provides as good an opportunity as any to consider the myth of the "red state" and the "blue state." Conventional wisdom goes that the "blue" states generally support liberal causes and candidates, while the "red" states support conservative causes and candidates. This myth has the advantage of being extremely straightforward and simple. It is not even incorrect; states do generally vote in a similar fashion over time. It is precisely the general correctness of the theory that makes it practically useless and dangerous. Any theory that is "usually" true but breaks down in extreme situations is worse than no theory at all, because it lulls its followers into the false sense that they "understand" the essence of a situation when they have in fact not gotten past a simple unification of a series of experiences into a cohesive set of not-yet-essential appearances.

Two politically opposite examples of this same point are the victory of President Obama in the 2008 elections and the present election of Scott Brown that we are now considering. In the 2008 elections, the Republicans not only accepted but embraced the entire "red state" mythos. Their presidential candidate was a fighter pilot POW and their vice presidential candidate was a gun-toting "hockey mom" (whatever the devil that meant). They ran a gleefully anti-intellectual campaign calculated to appeal to the masses of "red" voters who supposedly drove trucks and owned guns and hated the "liberal elite." When it came down to the election, the McCain-Palin ticket found itself derailed not just in the blue states, but in many of the red states as well. What happened?

In Massachusetts just yesterday, the opposite event occurred. Martha Coakley seemed like an ideal blue state candidate. She was extremely "progressive," well-educated, and would have been the first female senator from the state (if I am not mistaken). While arguably she ran a relatively uninteresting campaign, she did this precisely because Democrats don't need to campaign for national office in this state--they always win. Yet she lost, and to precisely the sort of person who one would expect to win in a red state, a truck-driving national guardsman whose biography, as Jon Stewart observed, seemed tailor-made for a nighttime TV drama and not a Massachusetts senator. How could this possibly have happened in one of the bluest of the blue states?

The answer to this question lies in the overcoming of the belief in the actual division of the population into partisan political factions. Not because this belief is incorrect, but because it fails to explain that which is most in need of explanation in a practical theory of political psychology, which is the sudden and incalculably unexpected upset. The fact that red states and blue states only retain their chromaticity in the everyday situation should already suggest to us, who are (hopefully) more penetrating observers than most, that there is another force at play here...

18 January 2010

The location of power as the difference between Greek and modern philosophy [part one]


The forgoing was written as a submission for a graduate philosophy conference on the nature of power. It is not exactly the sort of topic I would have taken up of my own accord, which is why I hope you will pardon if it is constantly bending away from its apparent topic towards something else.

The difference between the philosophy of the Greeks and the philosophy of the moderns comes into sharp relief when we consider the question of the location of power. Where is power located—does power stem from a thing’s origin, as a river does from a spring, or does power lie in the end, bringing objects to itself by a sort of gravity? There are many sorts of power in this world, but the ultimate kind of power envisioned by both Greek and modern philosophy is the power by which things are determined to be the things that they are. This force, designated as essence, is the power by which a thing exists precisely insofar as it is what it is in its formal aspect. The power of essence is absolute power.

For the Greeks, essence lies in advance of that which it essentially determines. One of the most dramatically interesting examples of this fact is found in the philosophical allegory Republic, by Plato. In the dialogue, Socrates suddenly (and entirely unintentionally) finds himself caught up in a dialectical defense of justice. The decision of Plato to compose his ultimate philosophical work on the topic of justice is not an irrelevant detail—unless the nature and necessity of justice is demonstrated, then there is no difference between philosophy and sophistry. The only difference between the dialectic of Socrates and that of the sophists is that Socrates always insists on the truth, which is very often an inconvenient and at times a dangerous endeavor. The dialogue is in no way a political work in the modern sense of the word; Aristotle’s Politics is the first great work of Western political philosophy. Rather, the dialogue seeks to establish the possibility of philosophizing at all, a possibility which rests in the justifying philosophy, rendering it right in light of that to which it owes its essential ground.

These preliminary remarks upon the nature of Republic, insufficient as they are, must suffice to set the stage for our exposition. The ferocious energy of his interlocutors pushes Socrates quickly into an all-out defense of the reality of justice. Socrates proposes to do this by “watch[ing] a city coming into being in speech,” since such an endeavor would allow him to “see its justice coming into being, and its injustice” (Republic 369a, p.45). Socrates begins at the beginning; something he had been trying to do throughout the dialogue. After all, he initially found himself involved in the discussion of whether or not justice was better than injustice, a discussion which he admits was itself unjust, since he did “not know what the just is” (354c, p.34). The expectation that one should establish the nature of justice prior to deciding upon its qualities is itself a precursor to the location of essence at the origin of a thing instead of at its end. He is drawn back into argument by Glaucon, who puts into action the injustice of the sophists by refusing to allow Socrates to examine the essence of justice, instead launching immediately into a memorable attack on the desirability of justice. The fact that Glaucon ignores Socrates’ warning that discourse on justice is impossible except in light of a discourse on the essence of justice is no accident. He becomes in the dialogue an allegory for the sophists, who are themselves (beyond their own historical context) archetypes of unjust men, using their thinking to bypass the beginning in light of some more or less desirable end.

As Socrates begins the unveiling of what he proposes as the ideal city, his simple vision is sidetracked by Glaucon, and Socrates is forced to take a far more difficult and complicated path to demonstrate the necessity of holding to the origin. After Socrates presents a rustic paradise, which Glaucon sees as a “city of sows,” Glaucon attempts to correct Socrates by pointing out that the city Socrates had proposed differed from Athens and similar “modern” Greek cities (372d, p.49). This exchange is notable for two reasons. First of all, it completely refutes the literalist readings that have doomed interpretations of Republic by thinkers as original as Aristotle and as recent as Karl Popper. Socrates clearly states that the simple city he had described moments earlier is, in his mind, “the true city… a healthy city, as it were” (372e, p.49). What he goes on to describe is not his ideal city, but, as he says clearly, “a feverish city” (372, p.49). The entire convoluted narrative that follows, with its rejection of poetry, its caste of guardians, and its noble lie, has departed from the straight path of the ideal city in speech and instead becomes a journey into the unspoken presuppositions of Socrates’ interlocutors. This leads us to the second reason why this exchange it notable for our purposes—Glaucon had not stopped to consider the possibility that we would have to look beyond our limited historical situation to locate the source of justice, and that perhaps justice itself would consist in nothing more complicated than this very retrospective glance. They had, after all, started off in search of the just city; Socrates had imagined a sort of pastoral paradise that would form the prototype of later cities, while Glaucon assumes that not at the beginning but in media res would one find justice.

13 January 2010

The self-fulfilling prophecy

It is a commonplace that the ancients did not engage in the enterprise we call "the philosophy of history." The thinkers of the Aufklärung (the "Enlightenment") were accordingly the first thinkers to actually engage in the philosophy of history, which consists in an attempt at discovering the essence and end of what is understood as history. The possibility of engaging in the philosophy of history presupposes an understanding of history that presents history to us as an object for philosophical inquiry. The ground for the possibility of the objectivity of history is not questioned by the majority of those who engage in such work. None of the simple French progressive thinkers (nor their modern counterparts) ask themselves what the nature of their relationship to history must be to determine its essence to consist in progression. Equally blinded to the essential ground are those who reverse the ground of the position of the progressive thinkers and claim that the end of history is unknowable, since they are operating under the same idea of the nature of history that their opponents are. For it is clear that the philosophy of history, whether actually possible or not, must take its place as a historical development in a concrete and mutable historical context. This immediately renders the naive optimism of the French enlightenment, and the equally naive scientific progressivism of our modern civilization, as clearly invalid (if nonetheless possibly "true").

Hegel's greatness consisted precisely in the apprehension that the philosophy of history did not exist separately from history itself. This confrontation between subject and object, which would have shattered the philosophy of a lesser thinker, instead led Hegel to the dramatic conclusion that not only must the philosophy of history itself be historical, but, more asountingly, that the essence of history is itself historical. This means that the philosophy of history bridges the gap between a descriptive "theoretical" discipline and a proscriptive "practical" discipline. Put another way, the truth of history is suspended into a future which arrives in the apprehension of its inevitability. The question of whether history (or for that matter anything at all) is now as Hegel says it to be is irrelevant in light of the coming of the infinite end of history. The philosophy of history is the creation of history itself.

Marx completes this motion by the mythologized fabrication of history. The Greek myths were suspended in the past, but the modern myth of the philosophy of history projects a past with a view towards the future. Thus Marx spins his fairytale of the time before private property, knowing full well that such a time never existed. Indeed, his entire interpretation of history in light of private property and class struggle is patently false, but this falsity (in light of the true meaning of the Marxist doctrine) can be completely consummed by the possibility of its truth. History ceases to be an attempt to produce an "accurate" record of events and becomes the most powerful tool in the arsenal of the revolutionary, who reconstructs the past to become an appropriate foundation for the future he seeks to bring about.

Thus the philosophy of history assumes the role of the self-fulfilling prophecy. In an essential form, this motion constitutes the distinct difference between ancient and modern philosophy; a difference controlled by the ancient beginning even as this beginning is increasingly concealed. The metaphysical determination of "subjectivity" as the ground of essence, wherein modern philosophy decisively diverges from ancient philosophy, is the ground for the possibility of the philosophy of history.

06 January 2010


We return now to the question of the essence of "space."

Thusfar, we have established that the usual concept of space requires it to be thought of us as composed of discrete units. While we have not established that there are a finite number of these units, we have established that any finite section of space must be composed of a finite number of units.

As (possibly) interesting as this discussion has been, we have neglected what arguably should have been the original question as to the essence of space itself in favor of discussing certain (perhaps essential) qualities that space possesses. This very fact may prove useful in coming to the essence of space. We are constantly engaged in questions wherein "space" is the horizon upon which the question is set. Any question of location, position, direction, size, and similar issues seem to be questions of space. The most basic of everyday concerns involving where one will go or how one will get there to the most difficult problems of engineering and the technical arts rely (or seem to rely) upon the notion of space. In none of these questions does space itself become a theoretical question; it is instantly passed over in favor of the practical aspect of the question, comprised by those things that are located within space and not space itself.

This puzzling fact may be further accented by the complete inability of the empirical sciences to give an adequate account of the essence of space. Note here we do not speak of a temporary inability, suggesting that additional research or more advanced observation techniques will someday enable a physicist to "solve" the "problem" of "space." Such a solution would hardly be possible when it comes to the essence of space, since the essence of space is no longer a question that physics can consider, anymore than the physicist can turn his microscopes backward and place his own essence under consideration. This question has been obscured from its vision by the essence of the conception of space that makes possible the work of physics. The reasons for this will become clear as we progress, but we may comment now that physics as it stands will only ever be able to explain the essence of space in light of material entities (whether these be particles, waves, or fields), and such an explanation of the essence of space in terms of that which exists within space will not be able to unveil its essence.

We will close at the present by highlighting that space constantly retreats to the background whenever it is involved in a question. Turn your mind now to the concept of space, and try to fix your thoughts upon it. What comes into your mind? If there are any images of objects within space itself, clear them at once, since space itself cannot be that which it contains. Clear away all materiality from the conception, and fix your gaze upon space itself. Stripped of matter, what remains? What is space?

02 January 2010

Aphorisms for a new year

With thanks to all those who helped me learn in the last decade.

I. Noncontradiction is the spiritual equivalent of materiality.
II. The subsumption of matter into spirit is the fruit of the union of practical and theoretical dialectic.
III. The essence of theory is action, and the practical and the theoretical are one.
IV. Space both is and is not a property of place.
V. The origin of all that exists is not an object we can adorn with predicates.
VI. Time and space are only relative to one bound by them.
VII. The passage to Understanding can only be made by the man who is not.