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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts



Hit Counter