Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Platonic Pious and the Piety of Thinking

Stanley Rosen explains that when Plato's Socrates in the Republic identifies the Good as the source of the being of Ideas, he cannot mean that the Good brings them into existence (since in that case, the Ideas would be unreliable and temporally limited, which is incoherent). Rather, he must be saying that if, per impossibile, the Good was not, the entire edifice of Ideas would collapse. The existence of the world, however, threatens this very foundation. It is good, conditional on its bearing fruit in philosophy. Without philosophy, the existence of the world contradicts the community of ideas.
But neither term [to einai or ten ousian] allows for the inference that the Good causes to exist in the sense of bringing into being the Ideas. That would be disastrous for the entire doctrine. Socrates must mean that the Good is a necessary condition for the being of Ideas, but a condition that always obtains. It would be very difficult to say exactly what this means, but I take the general sense to be this: Being (in the sense of beingness, not existence) is good; it is better that the cosmos exist than that it not exist, for more than one reason but primarily because this makes philosophy possible, and it is philosophy that redeems and sanctifies life. On the other hand, if there were no life, such redemption would be unnecessary. Plato's view is very likely that philosophy itself justifies the existence of the cosmos.
Did Plato ever give a definition of the pious? In the Republic, where we can turn for definitions—albeit provisional ones—of the other virtues. But we can find no definition of piety there, or even in the dialog of which piety is ostensibly the theme. The closest the Euthyphro will bring us is to suggest that piety is that part of justice (complete virtue) which concerns care of the gods, intending by this service of them. But Euthyphro categorically refuses to speculate on what work of the gods we might give our service to, recurring instead to a feeble catalog of pious observances.

This marked silence on the work of the gods is perhaps endemic in Plato's works. At least, it is notably omitted in the Republic as well as in the Euthyphro. When Plato considers the ways in which a god might turn falsehoods to use, he considers only whether a god has a need [to supply gaps in the historical record] or something to gain [by protecting himself from enemies or mad friends] (the two possibilities which remain for piety after service in the gods' work is left behind). The gods have no ignorance of history, no enemies or mad friends. But what of their work? Is it not embattled on an earth in which the bad outweighs the good?

A world, if Rosen is correct about Plato's vision of it, which is an egregious (even logically impossible) error on the part of its sources, unless by some miraculous rescue it comes to bear philosophy—which is up to us.

If we cannot distinguish "the piety of thinking" from this sort of anthropogenic redemption of the divine origin of the world, we must reject it (even if this means rejecting our beloved Plato) as blasphemous.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Paradigm of the Ridiculous?

Can we all agree that this (from Quine) makes no sense?
‘The stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world’.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Humanism as Transhumanism

Stanley Rosen gives his--let's call it his post-Straussian take on the contemporary political relevance of the Republic:
When philosophy seeks to bend the city to its will, it turns inevitably into ideology and tyranny. From this standpoint, we can regard the contemporary effort of the biological sciences to transform human nature as the "postmodern" version of Platonism, in which the rhetoric of scientific progress replaces the altogether less politically persuasive doctrine of the vision of Platonic Ideas. History as it were triumphs over eternity, but the motivation is the same: to protect humanity against nature. It seems heretical to attribute this view to Platonism, in however degenerate a form, but the point follows directly from the doctrine of the natural division and illness of the human soul, and the correlative thesis that this illness can be cured only by philosophical psychiatry.
The sly implication of transhumanism in an antagonism against the open society strikes me less than the possible implication of visionary education. For what is "seeking to bend the city to my will" if not seeking to prosecute a programmatic, efficacious transformation of the human soul?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Some Questions About Education and a Hint of an Answer

What is the difference between a vision of education and a sinister program of behavioral modification?
Does an education which refuses to define itself as a neutral tool for individual success necessarily become instead a transformation of its students into tools of a higher operation envisioned by the framers of the education?

[to be filled in: why would anyone take such appalling questions seriously in the first place, when everyone already knows that education is a great good, even one of the supreme goods of a society? and that an education which answers to no fundamental vision only succeeds in arming all the combatants of history with greater and more destructive cleverness?]

A vision of education is not a plan for the betterment of society, but the provision of society with a dwelling within which questions of betterment have a home.

Principled Contradiction and the Non-Principle of Non-Contradiction

In response to my objection to those who object to denial of the principle of non-contradiction, Pseudonoma wonders
whether one shouldn't be careful to draw a distinction between someone who is willing to accept what to them "will sound like contradictions" and one who is willing to deny non-contradiction IN PRINCIPLE.
I think this fine as long as one doesn't make the distinction so carefully that one fails to notice that in the normal case these two "someones" are the same person. For the refusal to hear statements which (as they are formulated) contradict each other or themselves, typically justifies itself on the basis of the interpretation of non-contradiction as a principle. If I can test the logical cogency of a remark or set of remarks by applying the principle of non-contradiction, as though this remark or set of remarks were a particular case of what non-contradiction universally governs (namely, discourse)—if I can verify the validity of particular remarks by seeing how the square with this universal principle, then I can excuse myself from engaging essential dialectical situations with the same self-assured alacrity with which I dismiss the ravings of the man on the street who says he has just come back from the moon with a message for humanity. On the other hand, I will subject myself to these dialectical situations—which is to say, I will have the opportunity to learn—only if I do not think of non-contradiction as having the kind of applicability to the remarks I am listening to that a universal has to particulars: only, that is, if I deny that non-contradiction is a principle. And in what other way can anyone be willing to deny it?

All of this is really to say less elegantly what Pseudonoma himself says in continuation of his reply:
It may well be true that this person is "unintelligible"—at least in principle. However it also occurs to me that this only MAY be the case. There is perhaps more than one kind of denial—and for that matter, more than one meaning of a principle. One might indeed say that there is something contradictory about formulating non-contradiction as a principle—but this problem, which I first stumbled upon years ago in a tiny undergrad thesis, opens up, as they say, a whole can, not to say diet, of worms.
That tiny undergrad thesis, by the way, I blame for my having spent the last five years in fits of agony—that is, in a graduate program in philosophy.