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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