Friday, 31 December 2010

One Essay - Neil Williams

The (Meta)Physics of Perfection: Aporia, Angst and Authenticity in Plato and Heidegger

We saw the river beating on the river bank
Oh the way that it held us on her river bed,

It’s cold
It’s dark
It’s not for people with uneasy hearts
But if you’re with me on the other side
Strike up the band
We have survived.

Spencer Krug, Bang Your Drum.

§1. Introduction

This essay is in no way an attempt to combine ‘Platonism’ and ‘Existentialism’, or subsume one to the other. Such a project would not only be doomed to fail, but be of little value overall. All I hope to do here is, taking key passages of the Phaedo, and looking at them under the lens of the existentialism in Being and Time, bring more to light what I believe the common aim of both philosophies is: better understanding of ourselves and the life we live. Taking inspiration from the Socratic elenchus, this essay will move from an examination of negation (aporia/angst) (§2), to the possibility of ‘authenticity’ or ownership of our ideas (§3), before finally examining the practical benefits of both belief systems (§4)

§2. ‘It’s Cold, It’s Dark’: Aporia and Angst

‘Socrates, before I even met you I used to hear that you are always in a state of perplexity and that you bring others to the same state ... like the broad torpedo fish, for it too makes anyone who comes close and touches it feel numb ... both my mind and my tongue are numb, and I have no answer to give you.’

(Meno 80a-b)

Socrates’ ignorance is his defining feature, he is famed for it, it is the only knowledge he holds and it is this that makes him wise (Apology 23b). This ignorance, weaponised within Plato’s dialogues, is used by the fictionalised Socrates to negate his interlocutor’s knowledge and bring them to what Meno describes above: a sense of aporia (ἀπορία – lack of resources), a moment of admitted ignorance, confusion or doubt. In the Socratic elenchus, as defined by Gregory Vlastos[1], this is a key stage in the method Socrates employs in the dialogues – a cleansing of ‘incorrect’ knowledge, so that we might move towards more ‘correct’ knowledge, or ‘Truth’. Thus a particular dialogue, having met this absence, this aporia, can move towards a new ‘truth’ (in Meno from the aporia we get the conception of knowledge as recollection that is relied heavily upon in Phaedo), or can remain in this state of not-knowing (Euthyphro, Laches and Charmides are commonly held to be ‘aporetic’ dialogues in this sense). In my conception, Phaedo is an aporetic text, but in a radically different way.

What evidence of aporia can be found in the Phaedo? Surprisingly little, in terms of the actual arguments Socrates uses. Socrates prefers in this dialogue to exchange knowledge for better knowledge, without the aporetic step. For example: in the epiphenomenal argument that Simmias presents, that the soul is some form of ‘harmony’ (Phaedo 86c) arising from the body working in the correct way, Socrates does not proceed to demolish the argument by looking at its internal inconstancies, as is the way of the aporia, but instead shows that it is inconstant with a theory that is already ‘proven’ earlier in the dialogue, the theory of recollection (75e)[2]. Showing Simmias’ ‘harmony’ argument does not fit with the recollection argument is enough for Simmias to remove it, being that the recollection argument is ‘based on an assumption worthy of acceptance’ (92d), and he had ‘convinced [himself] that he was quite correct to accept it’ (92e). In this way, within Socrates use, the text is surprisingly un-aporetic.

And yet despite this, there is a ‘strange feeling’ that permeates the dialogue in a way that Phaedo mentions at the very beginning of the text: ‘an unaccustomed mixture of pleasure and pain at the same time as I reflected that [Socrates] was just about to die’ (59a). This mixture of emotions, this uncertainty of how to feel, follows us everywhere in the Phaedo, is mixed up in every argument that Socrates presents. More than usual, Socrates is sure to relate the lack of stability of his own beliefs and arguments, as well as those of others. The claim that philosophers should accept death but not commit suicide, as we are the property of the gods, is riddled with caveats of untruth: he argues only from ‘hearsay’ (61d), about what he may ‘believe’(61e), about things that can only be discussed in ‘the language of the mysteries’ (62b) which is a doctrine ‘not easy to understand fully’ (62b), and can only reach a conclusion that is ‘perhaps ... not unreasonable’ (62c). We begin to see that the aporia presented is not for Socrates interlocutors, but for Plato’s readers.

The most striking moment of ‘doubt’ (88c) and uncertainty comes in the centre of the dialogue, when Simmias and Cebes present their counter arguments to Socrates conception of the immortality of the soul. The aporia is not felt by Socrates, who remains ‘pleasant’ and ‘kind’ (89a), but by those listening to the conversation. There is a removal from the Socratic scene to the ‘listener’, Echecrates, who in an aporetic state, cries: ‘What argument shall we trust, now that that of Socrates, which was extremely convincing, has fallen into discredit?’ (88d), and Phaedo admits he was lead to doubt ‘not only what had already been said but also what was going to be said’ (88c). The reader must mirror this confusion: If the argument of Socrates, whom the audience inside and outside of the dialogue have been relying on up to now to be a guide to the truth, has failed, then the aporia is not only a lack of knowledge here, but a doubt in the possibility of knowledge of any ‘truth’.

We leave Plato at this crucial aporetic moment, and turn to Heidegger to better understand the nature of negation. Like Plato, Heidegger finds that a removal of surety can lead us to ‘truth’, in this case truth of our own being. For Heidegger our everyday existence as Dasein (Being-there) is described as Being-in-the-world (BT 53/78)[3]. His conception of the ‘world’ is complex, but is best described and most used as ‘that ‘wherein’ a factical Dasein as such can be said to ‘live’’ (BT 65/93): the world is a chain of significations, is a collection of equipment, or more accurately a holistic sense of ‘equipmental whole’[4]. When the world withdraws itself through anxiety, we become aware of the fact there is no ‘anchor’ as such for the meanings and conceptions we have of the world, that ‘the ground of being is grounded on an ‘abyss’ or withdrawal of ground’ (Greaves, 2010: 122). If we take the literal meaning of ‘aporia’ as lack-of-resources, the similarities between the two concepts reveal themselves. When we experience anxiety, it is literally a removal of this chain of significations, this realm of equipment we call ‘world’. This state of anxiety could be literally described as having a lack of resources (aporia), as all meaning, possibility for use, withdraws with the world (is, in a real sense, the ‘world’), everything is left ‘completely lacking in significance’ (BT 186/231). We are left with only ourselves, so anxiety ‘provides the phenomenal basis for explicitly grasping Dasein’s primordial totality of Being’ (BT 182/227). So aporia is the awareness of the impossibility of knowledge, anxiety is the awareness of the impossibility of possibility. This conception of ‘knowing ourselves’ is, I believe, primary to Plato’s use of the aporia within Phaedo.

§3. ‘It’s Not for People with Uneasy Hearts’: Angst to Authenticity

‘What would you say? Not, surely, that [Socrates] does not care that you know the truth, but that he cares more for something else: that if you are to come to the truth, it must be by yourself for yourself.’

(Vlastos, 1991: 44)

Phaedo links at the start (59a) his uneasy feeling with Socrates' death. The dialogue seems to attempt a certainty about what will come in death, or after death, and yet continually negates this possibility. Socrates confirms that, within life, it is impossible to ‘adequately attain what we desire, which we affirm to be truth’ (66b), with the apparatus of the bodily senses which ‘makes for confusion’ (66d). Often it is perceived that Plato is trying to present a genuine argument for the existence of the soul after death[5], and the weaknesses of Socrates’ arguments are indicative of Plato’s lack of philosophical acumen. But how then can we interpret Socrates’ repeated statements of belief (114d), hypothesis (101d) and uncertainty (66d)?

For Heidegger, Death is the ultimate aporia, Death is a primary source of anxiety, as it is itself ‘the possibility of the absolute impossibility’ (BT 250/294). Angst is one of the few states that liberates us from the ‘They-self’ [das-man] (BT 181/225)[6] – the chain of significations, made up of the interpretations of others, through which we gain meaning in the ‘world’ (and constitutes the ‘world’). We cannot represent ‘angst’ because to do so is to once again drop into the ‘world’. For example, the state of anxiety can be understood in terms of depression, but to do so would be to categorise, label, and explain away the unexplainable. Anxiety is an awareness of ‘nothing’ and ‘nowhere’[7]. In this way angst ‘individualises’ (BT 191/235), it makes us aware of ourselves and our freedom as separate from the consensus interpretation of the they-self. In a world where we understand ourselves in terms of roles and actions (the they-self world), any man might play any other man’s part. However ‘No one can take the Other’s dying away from him.’ (BT 240/284). It is the single thing that only we can face, making it our ‘ownmost’ possibility (BT 258/303). From this awareness of death, through the anxiety it brings, we can become aware of the possibility of an authentic [Eigentlichkeit][8] existence (BT 263/307). So by keeping death in mind, and by not falling into the dismissive ‘they-self’ conception of death which does not allow us the ‘courage’ for angst in the face of death (BT 254/298), we become an authentic Being-towards-death, which is ‘essentially anxiety’(BT 265/310).

What does this mean in terms of the aporia with which we have linked angst? Similar to Heidegger, Plato has a dualistic conception of existing in the world, rather than Dasein/das-man[9], he has soul/body (explored in 63a-68a). The body, with its imperfect senses is an ‘obstacle’ for acquiring information (63b) and it is through ‘reasoning’ (63c) that soul can approach ‘truth’ ‘through thought alone’ (66a). Now, being as we are in the body, unable to attain ‘truth’, Socrates draws two conclusions: ‘either we can never attain knowledge or we can do so after death’ (67a). Though we cannot learn truth in this world, the soul desires it, moves towards it, reaches past the body. This is why the philosopher should not fear death, for it is the point that the soul removes itself from the body utterly. The entirety of the Phaedo points towards the moment where Socrates dies, and although all present seem desperately to be attempting to prove that the soul is immortal, that death is not the end, Plato allows us no surety whatsoever – the only person that remains ‘convinced’ (109a) that he will survive is Socrates himself, as he laughingly admits at the end (115d).

So what is Plato’s aim? To leave us all in a state of anxiety? For Heidegger this would perhaps be no bad thing: the aporia/angst, as embodied in death, allows us to free ourselves, enables authenticity. But this does not mean to dwell on death, to be morbid or suicidal, but to except the individualisation anxiety in the face of it has taught us, and enter back into the ‘world’ with ‘anticipation’ [vorlaufen] (BT 262/306). Once examined in this light, Plato’s aim is perhaps similar. Socrates states we should not be a ‘misolouge’(89d), we should not be rejecting the possibility of knowledge and ‘studying contradiction’ (90c), and so thinking we are wise. The aporia is not somewhere to reside. Instead, in the same way as the Socratic aporia leads his interlocutor to believe his knowledge is wrong, and leads them to ‘truer’ knowledge, the Platonic aporia of the Phaedo, that is the ultimate aporia of ‘death’, leads his audience to realise the fallibility of logic. Consider this passage:

‘[G]ive but little thought to Socrates but much more to the truth. If you think what I say is true, agree with me; if not, oppose it with every argument and take care that in my eagerness I do not deceive myself and you’ (91c)

The aporia for the audience of the dialogue is realising that Socrates can be fallible. Recognising that ‘real cause’ (99b) is impossible to grasp in this life (imprisoned in the body), Socrates describes his ‘second best’ (99d) method for finding ‘truth’. This is to posit the ‘hypothesis’ (100a) one thinks is most likely, and then examine it with discussion with others (99e). We should not lose faith in logic (90b), but neither should we expect it to be always correct: ‘Learn the truth about these things or find it for oneself, or, if that is impossible, adopt the best and most irrefutable of men’s theories, and, borne upon this, sail through the dangers of life as upon a raft’ (85d italics mine). In this sense knowledge is neither ‘true’ nor ‘false’, but more or less ‘stable’. Knowledge is not of some external ‘truth’, but the ‘safest’ (100e) understanding to support us through this life. With one eye on the aporia[10] we keep an open mind, we continually re-assess our understanding for validity, we own our ideas. We become authentic.

Socrates account is not meant to be convincing, it is a myth, a dream that works for him and that, most importantly he has chosen. He is aware of the alternative, and has no illusions that it is ‘correct’ in any sense of the word (97b). The Socrates at the end of the dialogue is not positing his knowledge as true, indeed, he admits ‘no sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them’ (114d). He is proposing his methodology as true, and this is a methodology of authenticity.

§4. ‘If You’re With Me On the Other Side’: The Possibility of Perfection.

‘[We] must put aside the Plato of the schools, who contrasted the sensible world with the supersensible. Plato has seen the world as elementary as we, only more originally.’

Heidegger (Sophistes: 580)[11]

It takes a great deal of courage to face our freedom, to face our fear of ourselves in anxiety, and to own our decisions. Far easier to be lost in the ‘they-self’ (BT 181/225). It takes a great deal of ‘bravery’ to turn away from the pleasure of the body and stay ‘ever contemplating the true’ (84b). Philosophy, then, is a route of freedom, and a mode of comportment towards death, what Heidegger calls ‘an impassioned freedom towards death’ (BT 266/311). This is what Socrates means when he states that living in philosophy is ‘to train himself to live in life in a state as close to death as possible’ (67e). An awareness of death frees Socrates’ ‘soul’ from the confines of the body as it frees Heidegger’s Dasein from the confines of the they-self. Is it possible that Heidegger would perceive Plato as running away from death, of retreating into the ‘They-self’? After all, Socrates tries to assuage the ‘fears’ (77e)of his comrades with ‘charms’ (78a). But here we have to distinguish between two concepts: Anxiety [angst] is separated from Fear [furcht], in that fear is fear of an entity in-the-world, where as angst is the feeling that is not located anywhere, is directed towards the world, which is to say ourselves (BT 186/230). Plato may show Socrates assuaging the fear of death as a thing that happens, but he does not remove the inherent mystery, un-knowablity, and uncertainty of death that makes it ultimate aporia, the source of angst. A belief in the after-life will always require ‘a good deal of faith and persuasive argument’ (70b), will never be given as true. To choose in it, as Socrates does, requires an authentic leap of faith. It is a ‘risk’ but a ‘noble one’ (114d). Plato’s aim in this dialogue seems not to prove what the ‘truth’ of death is, but to present us with a methodology of engaging with our ideas in an authentic way, using death as the ultimate aporia about which we can know nothing, proving the fallibly of our logic.

It is exciting to note the language of movement which both philosophers use, which shows their common aim. For Heidegger Being is always ‘thrown’ (BT 135/174)into existence, returning to the ‘they-self’ is called ‘falling’ (BT 181/225), authentic existence is equivalent to ‘Being-towards-death’ (BT 266/311). Similarly Plato conceives as logic as a ‘guide’, on the ‘path’, returns to the idea of a ‘journey’ again and again. In a separate essay I have argued for what I perceived as ‘the liminalising logic’ of Plato (Williams: 2010). Now that logic itself is brought under his methodological liminalisation. Brought to bear upon the ultimate aporia that is death, the soul cannot understand it using logos, and logos is itself liminalised, made into nothing. Logos is a thing that cannot reach truth, does not participate in truth, but that none the less stretches towards it. Like Eros in the Symposium, logos has become a guide rather than a source of truth. In this way the ‘logos’ is devised of true revelatory power in terms of something outside of existence, and becomes a tool to build our ‘raft’, builds the stable frame of knowledge that can continually be made more stable, and can move us towards the ‘true’. The soul becomes something that continually reaches for what it cannot know, moving into the ‘truth’, which is unknowable, in a similar sense to the Heideggerian conception of authentic Being-towards-death, where Dasein is thrown towards it end.

Ultimately, though Heidegger posited ‘authenticity’ and Plato posit ‘truth’ as ideals to strive for, they were only ideals in that they encouraged movement, self examination and self improvement. They are something ‘meta’ to our world, that none the less help us to navigate it. To be truly ‘authentic’ in Heidegger’s conception would require full and permanent removal from the world, which is an impossibility. Authenticity remains only ‘an ontological possibility’ (BT 266/311)[12], an ideal to strive for. We can only become aware of the distinction between authenticity/inauthenticity through angst, and therefore be able to move towards one of the poles. Similarly Plato/Socrates admits that ‘truth’ as a ‘form’ is unknowable, but something we desire and strive for – something, once the aporia frees us to move, which enables movement in our liminal existence. To return to Krug’s river metaphor, one critic described authenticity as the struggle for authenticity: ‘like swimming against the current’[13], and we are reminded of Socrates on his raft. The ‘other side’ may or not be reachable, the ‘music’ may or not be imagined, that is not the issue. The issue both of these thinkers wanted to assess is what we do whilst on the river.

Socrates was convinced of the existence of the Forms, as a ‘hypothesis’. Simmias, though mostly convinced, admits to ‘private misgivings’ (107b). Plato’s views are inaccessible, we have no conception of what he did or did not believe. If we believe that Socrates presents Plato’s views, Plato is a hypocrite; at once positing that the soul within the body cannot conceive of the ‘truth’, and that he has found it in the Forms. And so we are lead to a somewhat appropriate ending. We have the choice: to believe in the literal word of the text, or choose the (in my view) more ‘stable’ assumption that Plato’s text is internally consistent, acting as a guide rather than a manual, which will lead us to the much larger, braver and helpful conclusion that I have built to. Taken in this way, Plato’s text is helping us understand itself.

1. Vlastos, 1983. Though the Socratic elenchus is a commonly held notion, it is not one that Plato stuck to or outlined in his works. Thus, we have arguments against the notion of Socrates having a definite method at all (See Scott, 2002). The aporia, however, even if not a stage in argument as Vlastos conceived it, is recognised as an existing event.

2. Actually, the theory of recollection isn’t correctly examined within the Phaedo, but in the Meno (Meno 86a). In Phaedo it is introduced by Cebes as an ‘excellent argument’ already existing outside of the text (Phaedo 73a).
3. All references to Being and Time come from the Macquarrie and Robinson translation, the first parenthesised number refers to the page numbers of the original Heidegger Sein und Zeit, the second to the translation.
4. See Being and Time §12 (BT 53/78 – 59/86) for an overview of this concept. Alternatively ‘World: The event of meaning’ in (Greaves, 2010: 36-49) provides an excellent account.
5. Something I won’t be looking into in this essay, but see the introduction to Bluck’s ‘Plato’s Phaedo’, 1955, for one amoung many examples of this assumption.
6. Tom Greaves, chooses to translate das-man as ‘The One’, or ‘One-self’, indicating a totality that includes the individual Dasein in question, and is not experienced as ‘Other’ in some way. See (Greaves, 2010:54).
7. Ibid. 69
8. Blattner (2006: 15), has commented that ‘Eigentlichkeit’ is better translated as ‘ownedness’ – perhaps a better word to use when understanding the similarities between Plato’s and Heidegger’s projects.
9. To call Heidegger’s conception ‘dualistic’ is to ignore the complexities of the connection between these two concepts that we cannot go into here.
10. Note that Socrates, when positing his belief, always admits to the negation of this belief. (67a, 76e for example) and is always aware that they are bases on ‘assumptions’(92b) that are mere hypotheses, not ‘truth’.

11. Quoted in (Zuckert, 1985: 43)

12. See also (BT 181/225): ‘‘The Self... is proximally and for the most part inauthentic, the they-self. Being-in-the-world is always fallen’

13. (Carman, 2002:24)


• Blattner, William (2006), Heidegger’s Being and Time: A Readers Guide (London, New York: Continuum, 2006).

• Bluck, R.S (1955), ‘Introduction’ in Plato’s Phaedo (London: Routledge, 2003) pp 1-34.

• Carmen , Taylor (2000), ‘Must We Be Inauthentic’ in Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity: Essays in Honor of Hubert L. Dreyfus, Volume 1, Mark A. Wrathall and Jeff Malpas (eds)(Massachusetts, London: MIT Press, 2000) pp13-29.

• Greaves, Thomas (2010), Starting With Heidegger (London, New York: Continuum, 2010).

• Heidegger, Martin (1927), Being and Time, Trans. John McIntyre and Ian T. Ramsey (London: SCM Press, 1962).

• Krug, Spencer (2008), ‘Bang Your Drum’ in Wolf Parade: At Mount Zoomer (Montreal: Sub Pop Records, 2007).

• Plato, ‘Apology’ in Five Dialogues: Second Edition, Trans. G.M.A Grube (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company) pp 21-45.

• Plato, ‘Meno’ in Five Dialogues: Second Edition, Trans. G.M.A Grube (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company) pp 58-93.

• Plato, ‘Phaedo’ in Five Dialogues: Second Edition, Trans. G.M.A Grube (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company) pp 93 -155.

• Scott, G. A, ‘Introduction’ in Does Socrates have a method?: Rethinking the Elenchu in Plato’s Dialogues and Beyond (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).

• Vlastos, Gregory (1983), 'The Socratic Elenchus' in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy I, (1983) pp 27–58.

• Vlastos, Gregory (1991), ‘Socratic Irony’ in Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997) pp21-45.

• Williams, Neil (2010), ‘The Logic of The Lack: The Concept of ‘Liminality’ in Plato’s Philosophy and Methodology’ on ( : 6/12/2010).

• Zuckert, Catherine (1996) ‘Heidegger’s New Beginning’ in Postmodern Plato’s (London, Chicago, 1996) pp33-70.

Two Poems - David Tait

Achtung! Saparrot!

Police are still searching
for the dissidents suspected

of planting a giant pineapple
in Government Square.

This happened around seven
on the thirteenth of November.

All CCTV in the immediate area
was severed for ten minutes

after which the pineapple, measuring
one metre tall and fifty centimetres wide

is recorded to have appeared.
In order to help the authorities

With their investigation anyone
who remembers anything suspicious

or has relevant information
must come forward at once.

The Ambassador

No-one is sure why the ambassador
chose that morning to leave

his pent-house apartment and instead
of going to work to head

to the famous harbour, where he proceeded
to take off all of his clothing

and tread straight into the water.
The ambassador is a true patriot

and all who saw him acknowledged what rapture
came over his face at knowing

he could be free in this country
to walk to a harbour

and become one with the water,
the sand, the sea and keep going.

David Tait's poems have been published or are forthcoming in The RialtoThe NorthStand, The Guardian, PopshotPomegranate and Like Starlings. He is Poetry Editor for the Cadaverine and House Poet for the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends Poetry Series at Manchester Royal Exchange.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

UEA Writers #4 - Jenna Butler

The fourth of our UEA writers is the excellent Jenna Butler. Her debut collection, Aphelion, from which 'Kerouac' is taken, was one of my favourite releases of 2010, and my review of it is here on Eyewear (as you can probably guess, I highly recommend you pick up a copy). 'Farmhouse: Castor, Alberta' is taken from The Seldom Seen Road. Her final poem comes replete with notes at the end of this post. Enjoy!


his family heaved a sigh of relief
the day he hopped a train
and disappeared from their lives
     at least until the following Christmas

under the trees in the woodlot
his meditation place grew over     threaded with wild blue flax
they mowed it under in September for hay

never a postcard
although once a slip of paper
with lines from Han Shen
which his mother pretended to understand
justifying its place on the mantel

out in the Arizona night
home     a thousand acres of desert sand
shot through with shadows
the Mexicali girls
brought port
danced unafraid by the tracks

woke to his absence
and the dawn cinders of the Express

watched the slow sunlight
enter the imprint of his body
and obliterate his passing


Castor, Alberta

early sun skims
the plate rail      a kitchen
reduced to grit & shambles
       butcherblock table
       wallpaper slumped about its knees

light here reveals
only      absence

teasel in the bones of
the victory garden       thrusting
barrel staves like iron ribs

what we have come for

lilacs pressing in
these diamond panes       their blossom
stark & fragrant across the hearth
      rainwater shifting in
      the stair’s curved spine

how this land holds everything &
nothing      back


Deconstructing Carroll[*]

youth willow alembic, that burning

photograph form as witness; mnemonic gyration

alice small sickle against untethered dark; demi-disc, lunar visage

name or. calling, calling back

mirror hinges a man, shadows like smoked glass

women mathematics of desire. shame. desire

name to unface a man, just this: construct a new


history littoral boundary. sub / liminal

genius back of the mind: two rooks, barking

letters missive or lifeline

doubt (syn. fecundity.) murky armistice.

truth scumbled edges. if not, then.

self subject to fragging


speech hesitation as intrusive space

camera intermediary to need

gentleman title or caution

stone (white.) epicentre of memory

stone apropos of drowning


biography demilune or fallacy

journal crepuscular rendition, sabotage

family proponents of what truth

carroll causa sui


alice faded at eighteen

legend that brittle waif

scandal what spice or tarnish


women vapid rabble

faith as glass to a jackdaw


craft / vanishing point


*EXPLANATORY NOTE: Taken from a new manuscript entitled Nyctogram: The Lewis Carroll Poems. The entire collection takes Carroll's (Charles Dodgson's) poetry and anagrams it into new poems about Dodgson's life and the construction of the Carroll identity.

He was an exceptional cryptographer and often included codes (frquently anagrams) in his poems. I've cross-anagrammed "Jabberwocky" and "A Sea Dirge" to create "Nyctogram: Deconstructing Carroll." I love the idea that, like the Carroll persona, anagrams change the meaning of a text with each creator. Two people could anagram the same text and get two completely different things out of it. This is what happened to Dodgson in terms of the creation of his Carroll persona.

A "nyctograph" was one of Dodgson's inventions (he was a brilliant inventor and mathematician). It was a writing aid that would, through a series of slashes and dots, allow the user to write down thoughts in the dark without having to get out of bed to light a lamp. The nyctograph was lost after Dodgson's death, but here, I imagine these poems as "nyctograms," messages out of the dark about a man who was so little known and scarcely understood.

The collection will be an exact anagram; by the end of it, every letter from every one of Dodgson's poems will have been used to retell the story of Dodgson's/Carroll's life. (Yep, it's taking me a while to write.)

Monday, 6 December 2010

One Essay - Neil Williams

THE LOGIC OF THE LACK: The Concept of 'Liminality' in Plato's Philosophy and Methodology

The liminal, somehow incongruous to the rational Plato of modern conception, is in fact vital to the formation of his philosophy. Here, I define liminality simply, without delving into its now rich cultural meaning, as being between two states (from the Latin limen – threshold). In Plato in particular this is found to be between two polar opposites or ‘binaries’. Starting by closely examining Plato’s creation of the liminal as it occurs in The Symposium, I will then explain its philosophical use within this dialogue and Phaedrus. Though I touch on only a few concepts, I will outline a methodology central to Plato’s philosophy, which can be used to understand many more.

The Symposium is concerned primarily with the God of Love ‘Eros’, and his relation to humanity. All the speeches prior to Socrates’ praise the God highly. Agathon, directly preceding Socrates’ speech, is the best example: ‘The happiest of all [The Gods]... is Love (Eros), because he is supreme in beauty and goodness (195a). Not only this but he ‘is also the source of beauty and goodness in all other things’ (197c), both mortal and divine. There seems little that Eros is not in this hyperbolic apostrophe, and Socrates wastes no time subverting the claims. Love, he reminds Agathon, is necessarily love of something - it’s relational. In a suburb system of apparently innocuous (‘trivial’ - 199b) questions directed at the increasingly perturbed but surprisingly agreeable Agathon, Socrates masterfully divests Eros of everything that Agathon’s speech had just posited him with. The reasoning is as follows:

• Love is love of something (199e)

• To love something is to desire it. (200a)

• To desire something is to lack it (200b)

• Love is love of the beautiful, not the ugly (201a)

• Love lacks the beautiful (201b)

• What is good is beautiful (201c)

• Love lacks beauty and goodness (201c)

Plato, accepting the binary of Lover and Beloved, subverts it – making Eros a lover, not a beloved. He makes the concept of Eros empty, an ‘objectifier’ rather than the objectified, absence rather than presence, a lack. Perhaps the reasonable thing to assume then, as the young Socrates does (201e), is that Eros is therefore ugly and bad. But this would be a mistake – Eros, now empty, exists in a liminal space, he is ‘something between the two (202b).’ As Socrates summons the ghost of his former teacher Diotima to speak in his stead, Eros is divested even of his godhood, due to the very lack now established (202b – 202d), as no God can lack happiness, and happiness is possession of the good. He is instead a daimon (202e) – a ‘spirit’ between God and mortal. Plato, through Socrates through Diotima, takes these good/bad, beautiful/ugly god/mortal binaries and opens them up in a way that allows things to exist ‘in-between’ – making a spectrum of the binaries.

This liminal space between binaries is now accessible to Plato, and this liminal entity Eros can traverse the space between bad and good, ugly and beautiful, mortal and divine. We are allowed movement along this spectrum in a way that the rigid binaries did not allow. We see the character Diotima take full advantage of this potential for movement. Having emptied the vessel Eros of definition, it gets redefined by this emptiness. ‘Love’ (Eros) is nothing but ‘the desire to possess the good always’ (206a). Plato has already conflated the beautiful and the good (201c), and when we find wisdom is also beautiful (204b), this Eros-figure can move towards this beautiful/good/wisdom pole of the binary at once. Eros moves towards that which it desires, it is the nothing that moves towards something, the flux that moves towards stability. And due to Plato’s subtle manipulation of the concepts, the liminal entity Eros can only move ‘forward’ in the binary spectrum, towards the good.

So, what use is this new movement to Plato? What does this ‘methodological liminalising’ allow that the binaries did not? That answer too is in Diotima’s recollected speech. We are presented with a metaphorical journey: a ‘path’ (210a), or ‘ascent’ (211b) or a ‘climb ever upward’ (211c). The movement of Eros from bad to good, from flux to the forms, can move us too. By using Eros as a guide we too can move towards truth. Diotima outlines the ascending ‘steps’ that this pursuit of beauty through love consists of:

‘going from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from all beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from beautiful practices to beautiful kinds of knowledge, and from beautiful kinds of knowledge finally to that particular knowledge which is knowledge solely of the beautiful itself’ (211c).

‘The only thing people love is the good’ (206a) – it is this that Eros allows us to get closer to by virtue of its liminality. Moreover, we move towards stability, the stability of possession of the good. As finite beings, we cannot possess the good forever, but by virtue of the liminal figure Eros, we can attempt to immortalise ourselves in three ways of procreation: physical children, good actions, and great ideas. Each one of these methods takes us further up the ascent that love provides, before finally gazing on the truth of The Beautiful, becoming, ‘if any mortal can, immortal himself’(212a). If possessing the good is happiness, Plato’s Eros gives humanity the possibility to ascend from the changeable world to the stable realm of ‘The Forms’. For this to work, of course, humanity too has to exist within a state of liminality, otherwise we could not move towards ‘the good’, or be persuaded to ‘the bad’, a fact Plato never explicitly mentions in these dialogues, but seems a necessary condition.

If wisdom is beautiful, then Eros is necessarily a philosopher (philosophos - literally lover of wisdom). The philosopher is the liminal figure between the knowledge/ignorance binary (204b). He lacks wisdom, or he would not desire it and move towards it. And yet he is not wholly ignorant – he is at least aware of what he lacks (204a). This ‘knowledge of ignorance’ reminds us of someone, indeed in Diotima’s speech we have so many similarities between her figure of Eros and Plato’s presentment of Socrates that it is impossible to enumerate them here. Some include: Eros’s bare feet, his residing in doorways , and his eager search for knowledge (203d-e). To be a lover in the sense Plato envisions it is to be a philosopher also. Love is equated to philosophy, Eros is equated to Socrates.

Eros, now removed from objectivity, can no longer be praised or worshiped; only used. It has no value save the teleological. Enter Alcibiades, arriving at the very end of the dialogue to show the consequences of treating the liminal like the real. Persuaded to give a speech on Eros, he gives a speech on Socrates – further conflating the two. Further, he gives a long description of why Socrates is ‘superhuman’ (daimonios - 219b), a ‘spirit’ between God and Man, as Eros was described by Diotima. Further, Socrates warns Alcibiades himself as the young man tries to seduce the philosopher: ‘spy better, and you’ll see I’m nothing’ (219a, italics mine). But still he persists in his folly. He has mistaken Socrates, the guide to truth and beauty (the absence moving towards substance), as truth and beauty itself, the same mistake the previous speakers were making of Eros. Alcibiades becomes the tragic/comic figure (another binary that is tiptoed around and tested by Plato in this dialogue), who sees love as the object of love, and forever moves in nothing but a frustrated circle.

At this midpoint, a summary of Plato’s ‘methodological liminalising’, might look like this:

• There is an x, such that x is dangerous or misleading.

• This x is ‘proved’ to be empty.

• Emptied, x has no true existence, only liminal (between states – a non-state).

• There is a binary y/z.

• y/z is proved to be a spectrum in which x resides.

• x can move along this spectrum, and can guide humanity (x’s use is this transitional capacity).

We see a similar form of ‘liminalising’ occurring in Phaedrus, concerned this time with writing. Plato once again divests it of substance – it is a logos removed from its father (275e), and permanently needs its father (author) to defend it, it can ‘contain no element of teaching’ (277e), and is a ‘mere image’ (276a), and those who rely on it for wisdom gain only ‘the appearance of intelligence, not real intelligence’ (275a). In a move we are now beginning to recognise, Plato makes writing absence, lack – once again through a recollection of Socrates, though this time in a myth.

This issue of writing was taken up by Jacques Derrida, who undertook a masterful and careful deconstruction of this element of Phaedrus. His deconstruction hinges around the Greek term Pharmakon, which is the term given to writing in the myth discussed by Plato (274c–275c). This term can mean either ‘poison’ or ‘remedy’; thus, in the myth, Theuth can present writing as ‘potion’ for wisdom and memory (275a) and the King can dismiss it as ‘poison’ for the same thing (275a). In other words the good/bad binary is contained within the same word in a way that is impossible to translate from the original Greek. In this careful and exuberant deconstruction, Derrida assumes one thing without foundation: that Plato is unaware of these multiple meanings contained in Pharmakon, that he ‘can not see the links’ (Derrida 1972: 98) and that Plato’s logic ‘does not tolerate such passages between opposing senses of the same word’ (101). However, as we have seen from The Symposium and the treatment of Eros, Plato’s progressive logic actually depends on such knowledge, and in a real sense he is utilising the deconstructive potential of his own language. By choosing Pharmakon as his description for writing, he is acknowledging the dual aspect of it – the liminality of the concept of writing. Writing becomes absence first via Plato’s treatment, and becomes liminal by virtue of employing the word Pharmakon to describe it. It is at once good and bad, and is neither – ‘The Pharmakon would be a substance ... if we didn’t eventually come to recognise it as antisubstance itself’ (75). But unlike in Derrida’s conception, this liminality is noticed, used, and carefully manipulated by Plato. More dangerous than Eros, the liminality of writing is multi-directional: ‘As a pharmakon, logos is at once good and bad; it is not at the outset governed exclusively by goodness or truth’(117). It can move towards truth, but it can be equally used to deceive, and must be used carefully.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that we are approaching what is commonly called the ‘Platonic Paradox’ – the question of why, if Plato dismissed writing, did he write at all? This issue becomes clearer if we conflate, as Plato did, the concepts of ‘art’ and ‘writing’ (‘there’s something odd about writing, Phaedrus, which makes it exactly like painting.’ 275d, italics mine). Due to Plato’s methodology both are divested of any substance – they become images of reality, containing no reality themselves – they are reflections (mimesis – representations) that have deceptive capacity. And yet we became aware of this problem of writing through the myth (mythos) of Theuth, which suffers from the same problem as writing and art, of being empty of truth, or as Derrida succinctly puts it: ‘One thus begins by repeating without knowing – through myth – the definition of writing, which is to repeat without knowing’ (80). Myth, art, writing, all become connected by the mimetic, non-truthful nature of their being. Why does Plato then use them in his dialogues?

We are hard pressed to find an exact answer within Plato for this apparent paradox, and we should not be surprised - Plato uses liminal tools: myth, art and writing, (un-truth) and so there would be a logical inconsistency if they were expected to present ‘truth’ in his text. We find the case of Alcibiades even more poignant here – if we search for truth in what has become an absence, within love, art or writing, then we will find ourselves confused and frustrated and incapable of bettering ourselves. If, however, we accept the liminality of such concepts, and allow them to guide us (with the assistance of reason), we may find ourselves better able to recognise, and better able to approach that stability known as ‘truth’. The Platonic Paradox is, to a certain extent, answered – Plato’s texts are not supposed to teach us truth, or contain truth but reveal to us certain non-truths, which may act as a guide towards truth. They are indications, not proclamations, beneficial liminality that have vastly more potential of moving us forward rather than back.

It seems a conclusion has been reached: Plato, by employing ‘methodological liminalisation’, divests concepts that may be ‘dangerous’ of their reality, and by positing liminality can manipulate these concepts so they are useful and (more) safe. The liminal that is in Plato’s and that is Plato’s writing may, if we treat it correctly, guide us towards truth, without claiming to be truth. However, after this conclusion of our topic, there remains a great deal to say on the figure of Socrates.

This shadowy figure of Socrates has been in the centre of the discussion of liminality. He was there when we talked of Eros, and he was compared to a spirit (daimon/daimonios), half man and half god, by Alcibiades. He is the epitome of the philosopher, one who is aware of nothing but his own ignorance (which is in a sense, knowledge of nothing), but grasps eternally for knowledge. He is, like Eros, referred to as a magician by Agathon (194a) and the perceptive Alcibiades mentions his ‘magic power’ (215b), the power of logos. Derrida will waste no time in telling us that Pharmakus, the Greek word for ‘magician’ is locked into a chain of significations that links it with Pharmakon, that bi-polar word used by Plato to mean writing. Socrates, ‘he-who-does-not-write’, has become written; at once the real father of philosophy, and at the same time Plato’s fictionalised mouth piece. Alcibiades compares Socrates’ logos to the playing of mythical pipes, though he achieves the same effect with ‘simple prose rather than pipes’ (215c), and so Socrates is between logic and art. In all these ways, Socrates is ultimate liminality.

From this conception Socrates is the embodiment of the liminality that Plato employs and manipulates. Socrates is Plato’s Pharmakon, the medicine/poison that the sick, corrupt Athens needs. Socrates is what Kierkegaard will come to call ‘the Ironist’ (Kierkegaard 1841: 28), where irony is ‘the infinite and absolute negativity’. Socrates is the deconstructor, he who reduces all to aporia with his naive yet weaponised ignorance: ‘his ignorance is the nothing with which he destroys any knowledge’ (Kierkegaard 1841: 35). And reducing things to confusion, to ignorance, to absence is, as we have seen, a crucial step in Plato’s methodology. Socrates is the ironist, the destroyer, the lack, but he is also ‘the midwife’, he brings forth the new, or at least prepares for it. In this he is the liminal. He is the embodiment of Plato’s ‘methodological liminalisation’.


• Derrida, Jacques (1972), ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ in Dissemination, Trans. Barbara Johnson (London, New York: Continuum, 2008) pp67-187.

• Kierkegaard, S.A (1841) ‘The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates’ in The Essential Kierkegaard, Trans. Edna H. Hong, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (eds),(New Jersey, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2000) pp20-37.

• Osborne, Catherine (1994), ‘Eros, the Socratic Spirit: Inside and Outside the Symposium’ in Eros Unveiled: Plato and the God of Love, (Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press, 2002) pp86-116.

• Plato, The Symposium, Trans. M. C. Howatson, eds. M. C. Howatson and Frisbee C. C. Sheffield (Cambridge, New York : Cambridge University Press, 2008).

• Plato, ‘The Symposium’ in Great Dialogues of Plato, Trans. W. H. D. Rouse, eds. Eric H. Warmington and Philip G. Rouse (New York: Mentor, 1956).

• Plato, Phaedrus, Trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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