April 29, 2011

Plato's eros: desiring the beautiful and keeping the path of reason

From time to time in our lives, we get to feel the immense power of love: the desire and longing that goes with it, the deep importance and value we can suddenly find in someone else, and (unfortunately) also the uneasiness which comes from ignoring at least temporarily that inner voice admonishing us to not let ourselves drift too far from the path of reason. There is a tension, an inner conflict, an instability in love and its relation to what is beautiful and good that goes along with all that depth and intensity and inner turmoil.

Love, personified in Eros, thus "is by nature neither immortal nor mortal. But now he springs to life when he gets his way; now he dies—all in the very same day", as Plato vividly and imaginatively has his character, Diotima, describe it (203e).[1] In the same vein, according to her, love is neither good nor bad, and neither wise nor foolish, and cannot be, for love goes along with desire, and desire is always for something you don't have; what you desire will be something good, and beautiful, and so there can't be love without a lack, and longing, for that which has importance and value, which is beautiful, and good for you. At the same time, (unfortunately) love can equally not be without the danger of being carried away from what reason dictates.

It is this ambivalence of love that Socrates is the first to bring up when it is his turn to speak at the drinking party that gives the Symposium its title. Attributing to love the qualities that love aims at (such as beauty and value) wouldn't be true to how things really are: love may be love for such things, but love itself is constituted by desire, not by the desirable. Of course, there is a way to put these drives to a good use and finally arrive at the good and beautiful in a proper way, according to Socrates. He reports having learned this 'art of love' as a young philosopher from Diotima, a priestess and his teacher: the famous 'ascent of love', certainly one of the most beautiful and ingenious pieces of philosophy that have ever been written.

However, I am myself more concerned with the problem than with Plato's solution. I'm interested in the role that beauty and value play in the strong pull that love and desire perpetually exert on us, and in why and how (unfortunatly) this can get in conflict with the more reflective and reasonable lines of activity which we employ in living our lives. (To be sure, that is certainly a curiosity I have in common with Plato, and quite probably any other philosophically-minded person as well. But I'm more than hesitant to follow him in some of his metaphysical moves, and therefore, beautiful though his solution is, I've never been able to become comfortable with it.[2])

[1] Plato, Symposium, translated, with introduction and notes by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, Indianapolis: Hackett 1989. All Plato quotes are from the Symposium in this translation, unless otherwise noted.
[2] In Plato, the good and the beautiful are genuinely in harmony with each other, and therefore never in real conflict; and they're both equally of supreme reality compared with the world of things and persons which we inhabit. Although I find that many elements in his analysis ring true, I wouldn't map them onto the metaphysical layout in that way: very roughly, I think that on the contrary beauty belongs at the far side of unreality, while what makes our lives successful (that which Plato would call the good) is attained by generally steering close to reality, and so there is a perpetual tension here that must be reflected in a metaphysical conception.

April 25, 2011

Kierkegaard's despairable self

"Man is Spirit. But what is Spirit? Spirit is the Self. But what is the Self? The Self is a relation that relates itself to itself; or it is, in this relation, that which relates it to itself (the Self is not the relation, but that the relation relates itself to itself)."
Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death
First we might want to cut through the jargon of the first few sentences: what Kierkegaard wants to say is that the interesting or important thing about human beings is that they have a self. To have a self is to be a special sort of thing. Stones don't have a self. Artifacts, such as chairs and tables don't have a self.[1] Plants don't have a self, and most animals don't either.[2] But human beings have a self, and that is so essential to them that Kierkegaard straightforwardly identifies being human with having a self. It's what Man is — having a self.

The thesis of The Sickness Unto Death is that almost every self that is in fact out there, that is, almost every human being's self in the world, past and present, is defective. A self that is fully in order is very rare; the typical condition of selves is to be defective. The defect takes various forms, but there is a collective term that is used throughout the book for them: Despair. Despair is a condition we're all in (or, at any rate, most of us are in); it's the name for that pervasive defectiveness of selves. Thus, in order to explain what Despair is, it's necessary for Kierkegaard to first state what a self is, for only then we can understand in what sense and in which ways such a self may be defective. That's the point of giving a definition of a self.[3]

So now we have seen what the definition is for and what (intuitively) it is targeted at. We have some idea, that is, what we're talking about, what will be defined for us now. (It's only to be expected, of course, that our idea of a self will be changed in the process of understanding the definition. Part of the point of giving a definition is to clarify and sharpen our understanding of what's defined, and another part is to connect the idea of what is defined in the definition to other ideas. So we learn about distinctions and about connections to other concepts, and that will transform our overall view of things, including the thing that's talked about in the definition.)

Mariana Varela, Inextricable

Now let's sort this out carefully. I can have an attitude towards something. For instance, I can have an attitude to this armchair: that I find it inviting. I feel somewhat lazily drawn towards it, I imagine that it would be pleasant to be seated in it right now, and so on. I have an attitude of finding the armchair inviting.

Attitudes can be to objects like an armchair, or to other people, but I can also have an attitude towards myself. I might reflect, right now, and find that my attitude towards the armchair (my finding it inviting) reveals something about me, at least about what I am right in this moment, right in taking this attitude (of finding the armchair inviting). I take myself to be lazy, let's say. Now I'm taking an attitude towards myself, the attitude of taking myself to be lazy (in finding the armchair inviting).

Assume, for a moment, that this sort of episode happens frequently: I consider myself lazy quite often; and not only when faced with armchairs I find inviting; let's say I'm also reluctant to get out of bed each morning; I'm constantly drawn to over-extend my lunch break; I'm hesitant to go out in the evenings for my sheer inertness, and so on. Let's assume, for a moment, thus, that I'm a generally lazy person. In the episode described above, when considering myself lazy when finding the armchair inviting, I recognize an instance of my general laziness. In other words, I relate my attitude towards myself (my considering myself lazy) to other, similar attitudes I have registered in the past. In so relating my attitude, I give meaning to the predicate 'lazy' by putting my attitude towards myself in a class of related attitudes (which would fall under the same predicate). Thus what I do isn't just taking an attitude towards myself, it's also an attitude that contains a further reflective self-reference (in putting itself, as it were, in the category of being an attitude of laziness).

Let's now drop the assumption I've made in the previous section: that episodes like the one described (episodes of considering myself lazy) happen frequently. Let's instead assume that such episodes have never happened before at all. The new assumption thus is the first time ever that I consider myself lazy, in finding this armchair inviting; moreover, this is indeed the first time (we now assume) that I consider myself lazy at all.

Note that we have two options here:
i) It's in fact the first time that I could consider myself lazy; it's the actual first time in my life ever that I had occasion for it; never before was I in a situation where some attitude I took towards something (armchair or other) gave me the opportunity to consider myself lazy.

ii) Although in fact I had many episodes of attitudes towards external things already, the thought hasn't so far crossed my mind to consider myself lazy; only now this has occurred to me, for the first time.

In either case I can either become aware that I'm lazy or be aware that I've become lazy. (That is, we have four cases here: first, that I get into such a situation for the first time but take myself to have been in it for longer and assume that I've just become aware of the fact; second, that again I'm in the situation for the first time and also think of myself as having come into it for the first time; third, that I've actually been there before and now correctly but for the first time notice it; and finally fourth, that I've been in that situation before but got aware of it only now and thus take it, incorrectly, to be the first time.)

In any of these cases again I'm not just taking an attitude towards myself, but also an one that includes that additional reflective self-reference (putting the attitude itself in the category of being an attitude of laziness, one that I think of as either just having come about or just having come to my awareness). So it's not just an attitude, but it also brings with it a comparison with attitudes (that were taken or not, in which they at least might have been taken) at earlier times. These additional reflective self-references (that they are self-references of the attitudes themselves) make up what we call the self. Or, to put it differently, you're said to have a self only if your attitudes include some of that rather complicated variety. And that means that in some way or other, your past attitudes are built into your self. This build-up of reality on unreality is again a form of what I've called sedimentation.

[1] Perhaps there will be rather sophisticated artifacts at some future time which will have a self; think of a supercomputer with an 'intelligent persona' here, one which starts developing its own thoughts, goals and so on. Perhaps that sort of being will have a self in the relevant sense then. But as of today, that's still firmly an idea from the realm of science fiction, even though some progress towards it has been made in the branch of science and technology known as Artificial Intelligence. So for the moment, artifacts don't have a self, even if in principle they might, and in the future they possibly will, have one.

[2] Recent research, especially on primates, more and more suggests that we should ascribe a self in the relevant sense to at least some animal species, which again shows that there's no absolute gap between humans and other beings with respect to having a self: it's something that we might in principle share with animals and machines; though (to repeat) it is still not fully settled whether in fact, and at present, we do. And even if so, there are still obvious large differences in degree with respect to how far developed these selves are, and thus we have to be careful not to be carried away with conclusions from such findings. (A caution which, alas, many science journalists and some popularizing scientists have long thrown overboard, which will probably not help improving the image of science in the long run.)

[3] The plan of Kierkegaard's author (the book is written under a pseudonym, and that is always relevant with Kierkegaard; so I'll not assume from the beginning that we're discussing Kierkegaard's text, but one that he puts before us as the work of an author who is himself already a character) is to explore the concept of Despair. I've capitalized the word to indicate that Despair, Kierkegaard's term, is potentially different in meaning from the everyday word. It's a central term, and it takes much of the book to explain what is to be understood by it. (And this being philosophy, of course, it's not simply settled; part of the challenge is always to interpret central concepts such as this one, so in a sense there is no fixed meaning at all for the term. We always have to keep in mind its interdependency and interaction with our interpretation of the book which discusses it.)

Kierkegaard's Despair is a defect in the Self. Before his author starts exploring the nature of this defect, its various forms of appearance, and the meaning of the fact (which he claims is a fact, anyway) that this defect pervades our reality and is a defect to be diagnosed in pretty much everybody's Self — before he starts discussing all this, he tells us what a Self is, so that we can understand the idea of a defective Self. It's a compressed passage and so obscure and complicated that some commentators have thought that it isn't even part of the more serious work but rather a playful, parodistic introduction (satirically imitating the jargon of another philosopher, namely Hegel). I don't think that's likely, though, so I'll just take it seriously, and take it to be doing what it purports to be doing, namely: defining what it means to be a Self (so that we later on can learn what it means to have a defective Self, i.e. what it means to be in Despair). For me, of course, the interest is mereley whether we can learn something interesting about any of the forms of unreality from all this.

April 23, 2011

Eros and in-betweenness: main point and corollaries

(Diotima, in teaching Socrates, uses the example of correct opinion as being 'in between' knowledge and ignorance to show that there may be a middle ground between two opposites, and if something isn't at one of the opposite ends, then it doesn't follow that therefore it most be at the other opposite ends: it might be 'in between'. Thus, after establishing that eros is not beautiful, she makes it clear that it doesn't follow that he must be ugly then. He might be 'in between'.)

Now, strictly speaking, it doesn't follow that he cannot be ugly. For all we know, the constellation that holds in the area of judgment (knowledge vs. ignorance and a middle ground between them) may have no counterpart in the area of beauty. I think it plausible that it has; however, we're not given an account of such a counterpart constellation, so it's anyone's guess what form the middle ground would take.

Moreover, even if we accept that an 'in-between' constellation holds in this area, it would still require further argument that eros in fact occupies the middle ground, and not the 'ugly' extreme. And again, to even understand this, we'd need an account of what it means to be 'in-between' here, an account that sufficiently explains what the difference is between beautiful and ugly things on the one hand and 'in-between' things on the other hand. Again, no such account is on offer in this part of the dialogue.

(As I have argued, at least there's one form we should reject: a continuous spectrum of a single quantity. That seems both implausible in itself and it also doesn't fit the many parallels Diotima gives in the text, which always contain a second dimension that accounts for the 'in-betweenness', not simply a single linear continuum.)

However, Diotima doesn't pursue the analysis further in that direction. It seems enough for her to have shown that it doesn't follow from the account of eros as not being beautiful that he must therefore be ugly. The discussion switches directly from that question to the question of his status of a god or otherwise. What are we to make of this change of subject?

4) At this point, we have to change the focus of discussion. So far, I have looked at single lines of thought and particular examples. We must take a wider view of the discussion now and get clear about the function these lines of thought and examples have in the overall discourse.

As I see it, both the claim that eros is 'in between' wisdom and ignorance (and thus, is a philosopher) at 204a–b and that he is 'in between' beauty and ugliness at 201e–202b, drawing on the supposed analogy of correct opinion being 'in-between' knowledge and ignorance have a supplementary function in the text. They are not meant to contribute direct evidence for the main thesis; rather, they spell out corollaries of intermediate results.

The main line of argument, the real focus of attention, takes its departure from the claim that eros is needful of beautiful things and from this moves to an account of eros as a spirit (not a god) whose nature is explained in detail, both with philosophical argument over some of his attributes and with a mythical story that is supposed to give an intelligible motivation of these attributes; finally it culminates in the definition of love's object as "giving birth in beauty, whether in body or in soul" at 206b.[1]

That's the main line of argument; the claim that eros is not ugly, but 'in between' beauty and ugliness, simply spells out the consequences of the result established earlier: that eros is needful of beautiful things and thus cannot be beautiful. (Whether you buy that latter claim or not; it certainly sounds confused to me.) Likewise, the claim that eros is 'in between' wisdom and ignorance, and thus needful of wisdom too, as he is needful of all beautiful things (wisdom is something beautiful) is a corollary of the nature of eros as it has been pictured in the passage that directly precedes that claim.

Even though they don't directly contribute to the argument for the main thesis, these points don't just have a supplementary function. As I have mentioned before, they also continuously connect the discussion with the areas of ethics (by bringing concepts like 'good', 'bad' and 'wisdom' into play) and epistemology (by use of analogies such as the one involving knowledge vs. correct opinion). What's more, these associations are not simply evoked by casually dropping those terms, but by an attempt to find similar conceptual structures ('in-between' constellations) in all these areas. Some of the connections seem a little forced to me, and generally I'd have wished they'd have been spelled out in more detail, but I think it's evident that this is Plato's rhetorical strategy in his use of these examples.

[1] (The teachings of Diotima have a second part, the famous ascent of love. At the level of the structure of the text, considering the rhetorical format of the speech, it's an independent section, and it also conceptually doesn't depend on the myth of eros in the first part, and the elenctic results there. It's where Plato demonstrates that philosophy can give an account of love on its own; an account that still appreciates everything that's valuable in love, yet without need for either the sophistry or the myth employed in the first part. But my goal here is to get clear about the use of the 'in-between' concept in the first part, so I'm not going into this any further.)

April 22, 2011

Eros and in-betweenness: beautiful and ugly

3) So, that correct judgment is 'in between' knowledge and ignorance is used as an analogy to motivate the idea that there might be something between beauty and ugliness as well. (To be sure, such a parallel does not show that there must be something between beauty and ugliness, it only shows that there is a conceptual pattern which one might apply, and which would, if the application were admissible, allow for something 'in between' beauty and ugliness. It still remains to be shown that, first, the application is admissible, and then, what it is that is in fact 'in between' beauty and ugliness.)

How good is the analogy here? The point that Diotima wants to make is: If something's not beautiful, it doesn't follow that it's ugly; if something's not good, it doesn't follow it's bad.[1] But here of course the question arises: if something is neither beautiful nor ugly, then what is it?

Once more, beautiful and ugly are not just simply extreme ends on a simple, one-dimensional scale of some quantitative measure. There is no such thing as 'beauty points', it's not that, when you look at something and assign, say, a hundred beauty points to it, then it earns the title 'beautiful', whereas when you assign a hundred negative points it's then called 'ugly'. It doesn't work that way. Look at these two landscapes:

(If you don't agree with my feeling that the area pictured in the first photo is beautiful and the one in the second is ugly, then insert your own favorite examples.)[2]

Beauty is a fragile thing: we can easily imagine the beauty of the landscape above destroyed by a single element that doesn't fit (for example, if we inserted an oil rig); on the other hand, a single small thing (such as a lone flower or a sudden burst of sunbeams after a rain) can give the ugliest setup an unexpected atmosphere that utterly transforms it from deep ugliness to beauty. (Our perception of people as ugly or beautiful can undergo similarly abrupt and total shifts into the complete opposite.)

Moreover, something (or someone) can be beautiful or ugly in many different ways; what might count as a 'beauty point' in one constellation wouldn't in another one. Have you noticed that in the second picture many of the trees in the background are in full bloom (visible mostly as white patches)? This would bring a certain attractiveness to many other sceneries, but in this case, if they'd been simply lavishly green the view would probably have been less ugly. Beauty and ugliness are constellations in which many elements must fit together in certain ways, and what makes them into beauty or ugliness is neither certain particular elements or a certain quantity of them alone; what makes them into instances of beauty or ugliness is as much in the constellation as it is in the particulars that go into it (fittingness, purity, integrity, and other attributes may play a role here that apply more to the whole than to its parts). Beauty and ugliness are more akin to states of perfection.

Finally, it's not an accident that Plato connects the beauty/ugliness pair of terms with the ethical good/bad contrast and then with an example from the sphere of truth and belief (with its knowledge/ignorance distinction). There is an intimate relationship between what's valuable in all these areas (truth, beauty and goodness). In Plato's world, these ideas cannot be separated.

Just as in correct opinion there is some connection with the truth (after all, correct opinion does hit the truth, it's just that there are no reasons behind it), in eros there is some connection with beauty. It's not, however, that eros is beautiful, but that what eros aims at is beautiful.

Unfortunately, the form of diagrams I have used in my previous posts seems to fail for this case: it's hard to supplement the contrast between beauty and ugliness with some additional dimension, in the same way we supplemented wisdom/ignorance and knowledge/ignorance with the desire for wisdom and the ability to give reasons in order to give more nuanced accounts.

[1] Do you know the phrase 'things are not as black and white'? That phrase is intended to make the same point: you cannot infer from a negative statement, that something is not X, that it then must be Y. Of course, if you think about it, that phrase is curiously incapable to do that job, because black and white are no exclusive options either. Not even if something is not white it follows that it must be black: there are different shades of gray, and then of course there are also all sorts of other colors. Even in that field things are not as black and white.

[2] What Plato refers to here with 'beautiful' isn't quite what the modern word means. That the focus is eros should be ample indication that the instances to discuss should better not be landscapes in nature or urban areas created (and, in this example of ugliness, neglected) by man. What I have in mind in my own account of beauty is of course neither/nor, but again something else, different from both Plato's concept and what is current today. Part of the goals of this blog is to understand the differences between all three views. In any case, the point made here is neutral in this regard: whatever we understand beauty and ugliness to be, they're not simply two extremes on a linear scale of some measurable quantity.

Eros and in-betweenness: a parallel from the theory of knowledge

(I have started discussing the notion of 'in-betweenness' in Plato's Symposium by first analyzing an attribution of neither wisdom nor ignorance (but something 'in between') to the god eros in one passage.)

2) The same idea of 'in between' has been applied before in the text in a similar way:
"Do you really think that, [...] if a thing's not wise, it's ignorant? Or haven't you found out yet that there's something in between wisdom and ignorance?"

"What's that?"

"It's judging things correctly without being able to give a reason. Surely you see that this is not the same as knowing—for how could knowledge be unreasoning? And it's not ignorance either—for how could what hits the truth be ignorance? Correct judgment, of course, has this character: it is in between understanding and ignorance. (202a)[1]

We can use a diagram of the same form as before to visualize this example:

(In this case, the upper left quadrant seems to have to remain empty; there is no plausible candidate for this combination: not hitting the truth and still being able to give reasons; at best the reasons would be in error, but then one might rightly argue that they haven't really been reasons in the first place.)

Now, questions of knowledge, wisdom, correct opinion and ignorance aren't in the center of this dialogue. They're just used as examples and parallels, probably because the main speaker (Diotima) thinks that her interlocutor (Socrates) is more familiar with them. What is in the center of the this dialogue is the nature of eros. So how exactly are these examples and parallels used in order to give an account of the nature of eros?

[1] The distinction that is made here between knowledge on the one hand and correct opinion on the other is not discussed in detail. It's taken for granted as far as the discussion in this dialogue is concerned. On the dramatic level, Diotima assumes that Socrates is familiar with that distinction and accepts it; and sure enough, Socrates agrees to the analysis that correct judgment is in between knowledge and ignorance. On the level of Plato's philosophy (the philosophy that is dramatized in this and other dialogues), it's also taken for granted and discussed in more detail elsewhere (namely, the Theaetetus).

April 18, 2011

Eros and in-betweenness

In my recent post on the connection between lack (and unreality) to eros in the Symposium, I probably went way too fast. Let's look more carefully into this.

So, in the text we repeatedly find this idea of something being 'in between' two opposite extremes. Love of wisdom is 'in between' wisdom itself and ignorance (Symp 203e–204b); eros is neither a god nor a mortal, but 'in between' (202d); and he is also not ugly nor beautiful, but again he's 'in between' (201e–202b). The whole setup is of course designed to explain the drive that our love (for beauty, or for wisdom) so obviously has: by attributing some characteristics to eros as a god (or whatever he is if he's not a god but something 'in between' gods and mortals) we get some clarity about our idea of love. So let's get clear about in-betweenness as a first step.

1) When it is suggested (by Diotima, who is teaching Socrates here) that eros is in fact a philosopher, the full text reads:
He is in between wisdom and ignorance [...] In fact, you see, none of the gods loves wisdom or wants to become wise — for they are wise — and no one else who is wise already loves wisdom; on the other hand, no one who is ignorant will love wisdom either or want to become wise. For what's especially difficult about being ignorant is that you are content with yourself, even though you're neither beautiful nor good nor intelligent. If you don't think you need anything, of course you won't want what you don't think you need. (204a)[1]
What does it mean to be 'in between' wisdom and ignorance? Sometimes being 'in between' can mean to take a position on some spectrum, being neither at one nor the other extreme, but somewhere in the middle. For instance, water (under normal circumstances such as pressure and so on) will have some temperature between the freezing point and the boiling point: a given bit of water will usually be 'in between' these two extremes.

But that seems not to be a good model for what we're talking about here: it's not as if the amount of wisdom in a given person were somewhere on a spectrum between zero (total ignorance) and some maximum value (full wisdom). Not only is wisdom surely not the sort of thing that can be quantified in this manner, but this model also doesn't include the element of wanting that seems to play a role: those who are ignorant aren't just ignorant (at zero position), they also don't want any wisdom, and likewise, those who are wise are not just at the saturation point (or maximum position), but they also don't want any wisdom. So there is another dimension here that we have to consider.

Let's try and plot this on a diagram. There are the two dimensions of in fact having wisdom and wanting it, and so we can find four principal constellations:

First, there are the gods who both have and don't want wisdom (on the upper left), and second the ignorant who don't have but also don't want wisdom (on the lower left).

Now, third, we also have the lovers of wisdom, who are neither wise nor ignorant, and those occupy the lower right.

There is a fourth position in this diagram, and we (and Plato) must ask ourselves whether it would be a possible constellation, and if so, what about those who would occupy it. Could someone be both already wise and still wanting to be wise?

This is an interesting question, and it has an interesting answer: in general, Plato thinks that, yes, this is a possible constellation, and those who already have something can at the same time desire it — but it is a desire not to get that thing, but a desire to keep it in the future. Socrates discusses this earlier on (in his interchange with Agathon), and he brings examples such as "maybe a strong man could want to be strong [...], or a fast one fast, or a healthy one healthy: in cases like these, you might think that people really do want things they already are and do want to have qualities they already have". In these cases, Socrates argues, "what you want is to possess these things in time to come, since in the present, whether you want to or not, you have them." (200b–d)

But even though in general there seems to be such a position as the upper right in the diagram, in the specific case of wisdom it's not acknowledged: none of the gods loves wisdom. What makes the case of wisdom special, I suspect, is that in this case who is already wise are the gods, and they are immortal and presumably will remain wise indefinitely, for all time anyway, so there is no point in attributing them a desire for continued wisdom. (Still, I think, even if this conjecture is correct, there would be the theoretical possibility of a mortal becoming wise, in which case that mortal could have the valid desire to remain so in the future, and then that wise person might have a love for wisdom even in being wise already. Since this is denied explicitly in the text, my guess is probably false, but then I don't see what makes the case of wisdom special compared to those other cases Socrates lists.)

I think this understanding of in-betweenness in the philosophy (love of wisdom) case is a good start. Let's check next how it fares with the other examples in the text.

[1] I'm using the Hackett edition by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, Indianapolis: Hackett 1989.

April 17, 2011


I have written on occasion that we need, in order to lead successful lives, both imagination (which lets us create unreality) and reflection (which cuts down unreality and keeps us close to reality); they're in a continuous interplay: if one of them would be dominated by the other, the result would be an unhealthful distortion.

Here's an imaginative formulation of the same line of thought from Robert Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Musil entitles one of his chapters: "Wenn es Wirklichkeitssinn gibt, dann muß es auch Möglichkeitssinn geben", and continues:
Wer ihn besitzt, sagt beispielsweise nicht: Hier ist dies oder das geschehen, wird geschehen, muß geschehen; sondern er erfindet: Hier könnte, sollte oder müßte geschehn; und wenn man ihm von irgend etwas erklärt, daß es so sei, wie es sei, dann denkt er: Nun, es könnte wahrscheinlich auch anders sein.[1]
People with that sense for possibilities, the Möglichkeitssinn, aren't necessarily unable to cope with reality; some may be, but there we're talking about a weak variety: a "schwache Spielart [...], welche die Wirklichkeit nicht begreifen kann oder ihr wehleidig ausweicht, wo also das Fehlen des Wirklichkeitssinns wirklich einen Mangel bedeutet."[2] This is one of the extremes (imagination without counterbalancing reflection) I have referred to above when I said there's a danger of an unhealthful distortion.

In contrast, there are those who can see deeper:
"Ein mögliches Erlebnis oder eine mögliche Wahrheit sind nicht gleich einem wirklichen Erlebnis und wirklicher Wahrheit weniger dem Werte des Wirklichseins, sondern sie haben [...] etwas sehr Göttliches in sich, ein Feuer, einen Flug, einen Bauwillen und bewußten Utopismus, der die Wirklichkeit nicht scheut, wohl aber als Aufgabe und Erfindung behandelt. [...] Da seine Ideen [...] nichts als noch nicht geborene Wirklichkeiten bedeuten, hat natürlich auch er Wirklichkeitssinn; aber es ist ein Sinn für die mögliche Wirklichkeit und kommt viel langsamer ans Ziel als der den meisten Menschen eignende Sinn für ihre wirklichen Möglichkeiten.[3]
Even here Musil points (albeit gently) to that danger from too much imagination without counterbalancing reflection: "Ein unpraktischer Mann — und so erscheint er nicht nur, sondern ist er auch — bleibt unzuverlässig und unberechenbar im Verkehr mit Menschen."[4]

(From here on, Musil performs a subtle transition from this reflective passage into a description of his main character, partly by building oblique references to later events into the text. It's an intriguing technique, but I'm not going to follow this development here.)

[1] Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften; p. 16 in my paperback edition, Hamburg: Rowohlt 1987.
Note that Musil's notion of Möglichkeitssinn is a very broad notion (just as my notion of imagination).
[2] Ibd.
[3] Ibd., 16–17
[4] Ibd., 17

Eros, lack, and unreality

Wherever there is love, Socrates demonstrates,[1] there is a lack of something; for that there is love means that there is desire (which is what gives love its drive, its dynamic); and desire can only be for something that is lacking.

In other words, you can only want something that you don't have; if you already had it, there would be no point in desiring it. At the same time, you have to be aware that you are lacking it: if you didn't, you couldn't have a desire either. A good example is love of wisdom: you can only be a lover of wisdom if you are not wise yourself, for if you had wisdom already, there wouldn't be a need to strive for it any more; but at the same time, you cannot be a lover of wisdom as long as you are totally ignorant: because then you wouldn't know anything of such a thing as wisdom, and hence you couldn't desire it.[2] For love to be in play, there must be something you lack and therefore desire, something that you want, but know you do not have.

Something that is very important to understand about a line of thought such as this is that it's nothing that we can detect by simply observing what's going on: it's not merely a fitting interpretation of the facts of human behavior. It follows from our idea of love, the concept that we have in mind when we talk and think about it. (Behind that concept, there is much more than just the single linguistic item, of course: a sea of cultural background lies behind it, centuries of love poetry and reflective philosophy, stories and dramas, millions of lived and experienced love relationships have formed our idea of love, and also transformed it over time.) The dramatic means by which Plato makes this clear is by having Socrates insist on clarifying whether it's just 'likely', or whether it is necessary that there is a lack in someone who desires something, a lack of the very thing that is desired.[3] (It's necessary not necessarily because there is a mystical, metaphysical force behind it; it's necessary because, as I said, it follows from how we think about love. If there were a situation in which it looked like someone was loving something or someone, and there was in fact no lack of what was desired, then it simply wouldn't be a case of love, as we use the term.)

Love implies, then, that there is an instance of unreality in play. In order to form the desire that is the basis of love, we need to form an idea of something that is not the case (but which we desire to be the case). It's not love if there isn't a lack, and we must come up with an idea of that lack; it's unreality, because we're thinking of something that isn't so (yet), and we must produce it (it wouldn't be unreality if we didn't produce it). We must be both lacking something and be aware of the lack.

(This is the formulation I would give it in the terms I've been using in this blog; for reasons that will emerge soon, Plato would certainly be suspicious, to say the least, of that way of putting it.)

[1] Symp 200a–e. We should keep in mind that, throughout this discussion, the focus is on eros, which is only one of the various forms of love. Both in ancient Greek and modern thinking there's much complexity to the concept of love; we might distinguish different forms to the extent that it could even appear that there really is a multitude of different concepts behind the single word. But I'm not going into that variety here.
[2] Symp 204a
[3] Symp 200a–b. Moreover, Socrates doesn't just get Agathon (his partner in the discussion) to confirm this stronger claim (of a strictly conceptual necessity), but he also discusses an obvious objection. Sometimes it might seem that a person has a for something that he already has; but this, Socrates argues, cannot really be a desire for getting that thing; instead, what the desire really points to is a future continuation of these attributes: you desire to keep that thing which you already have (200b–d).

April 10, 2011

Greek names

James Axton is an American who lives in Greece and works as an investigator for an insurance company with interests in Mediterranean and Middle East countries. He doesn't speak Greek well (and tends to avoid the ancient cultural monuments). Often when he talks to Niko, the concierge of his apartment building, he is ashamed of his bad pronunciation; so after a while he answers questions about where he is going not by telling the names of the actual places he goes to, but instead by giving those names he can easily pronounce. He is a little uneasy about doing so, however.
I felt childish, of course. [...] But the lies began to worry me after a while in a way that had nothing to do with childishness. There was something metaphysically disturbing about them. A grave misplacement. They were not simple but complex. What was I tampering with, the human faith in naming, the lifelong system of images in Niko's brain? I was leaving behind in the person of the concierge an enormous discrepancy between my uttered journey and the actual movements I made in the external world, a four-thousand-mile fiction, a deep lie.
The lie was deeper in Greek than it would have been in English. I knew this without knowing why. Could reality be phonetic, a matter of gutturals and dentals? The smoky crowded places where we did business were not always as different to us as the names assigned to them. We needed the names to tell them apart [...]. (Don DeLillo, The Names; p. 103 in my paperback edition, NY: Vintage Books 1989.)
James is a character in Don DeLillo's novel The Names, and his reflections on his own escape technique throw an interesting light on what I've previously called sedimentation of unreality: when unreality in whichever form (fiction, hypotheses, lies — even those harmless ones of the kind James uses) is taken for real and acted upon, when others build their views on them, then it quickly becomes a layer of reality itself, and irreversibly so.

In DeLillo's book, reality and its relationship with signs, language, and texts is hard to get a grip on. The quoted passage somehow fits with the main plot line of a curious sect which seemingly randomly kills people whose names' initials match those of the location of the murder: there is a suspicion that there is nothing meaningful, no structure or direction behind their path, any more than behind the faceless nondistinct business surroundings referred to above in the quotation; only the arbitrary symbolism of the names brings some kind of distinction into it at all, but that hasn't any real meaning to it, either.

The novel presses this motif home when one cult member defects and starts explaining. At first his account seems to provide "an element of motivation, of attitudes and needs", whereas "[t]he cult's power, its psychic grip, was based on an absence of such things. No sense, no content, no historic bond, no ritual significance." (216) But then again, this is quickly revealed as the personal recoil of a dissident; quite opposite from giving an insight into the mindset of the cult, it once more only gives an impression of what is missing. "These meetings were a way of turning himself toward the air of worldly reason, of conventional sense and its manipulations. He was raising a call for pity and forgiveness." (Ibd.)

Things are systematically left obscure; only the constant flow of symbols remains — names —, and there's nothing behind those. The effect is a deep uneasiness in us as readers (a commentator has called the book 'haunting'), not quite unlike the one James Axton professes to feel in the quote above. There is a deep suspicion that drifting away too far from reality (and even being led away from reality systematically and intentionally), isn't good for us.