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At the heart of the Stoic’s physiological study was the concept of pneuma. For them pneuma was the dynamic phenomena responsible for the structuring of everything from the cosmos to the organism. In the organism, for example, pneuma was the way in which the Stoics expressed the modern day idea of neural transmissions. It was also an expression of the blood flow and heartbeat. They would appropriate this concept in both its material and spiritual sense. But the Stoics also wrote after the sharp division Plato made between the soul and the body; so, it may be, they were forced to choose between the materiality and immateriality of pneuma (and perhaps they opted for the former). Also, pneuma is the Greek word for breath and it can be argued that breath in nothing but the physiological phenomena of warm air.
Hence the question is, were the Stoics simply conflating the spiritual aspect of breath with its natural, physical, material make-up? Whether this breath retains material or spiritual features or neither is part of what I would like to address here. In order to do this I will draw on the similarities between pneuma and Luce Irigaray’s account of air in The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger.
Now it might be worth mentioning that Irigaray wrote three books in the ‘elemental series’ with a fourth in the making, berating western philosophy for its forgetting of the four elements earth, water, fire and air. She claims this disregard is due to the oblivion of Being and the end of the history of metaphysics. In this particular volume she addresses Heidegger, the philosopher she most admires and the one who brought to her and our attention the oblivion of Being and the dawning of the post-apocalyptic age after the end of metaphysics.
Despite the evident admiration she holds for the German philosopher, she nonetheless very carefully accuses him of privileging the earth as the ground on which man dwells over what is perhaps a less metaphysical ground, air. She claims:
[P]erhaps one must remove from Heidegger that earth on which he so loved to walk. To take away from him this solid ground, to rid him of the ” illusion” of a path that holds up under his step — even if it goes nowhere — and to bring him back not only to thinking but to the world of the pre-Socratics.
So she finds it strange that the earth fascinates the philosopher, who announces the groundlessness of everything. She claims that Heidegger should drop the earth and ground his philosophy on something less substantial, perhaps take after the pre-Socratics. Here she is referring to Anaximenes of Miletus the pre-Socratic that coined the term pneuma. Perhaps the answer to the question of the materiality or immateriality of pneuma is evident in Irigaray’s critique of Heidegger. All this will hopefully become clear but first I will divert slightly and explain what both philosophers mean by the history of metaphysics.
First, Heidegger is the philosopher who, as we know, announces the end of the history of metaphysics, a history of the substitution of Being as a mode of being for a being understood as an entity. Being, the entity, is a substance, a total presence or a complete opening. In contrast the mode of Being is neither present nor absent — it withdraws. This withdrawal is what leads to the oblivion of Being as a mode. Heidegger describes this mode as an opening or a clearing as well. But the difference is this clearing is not a total and complete opening or revelation like an entity. He often explains this in relation to Plato’s allegory of the cave. For Plato being as an entity is a complete opening meaning it is always in the light. Being as a mode however is best understood as an opening that is in battle, or strife as Heidegger explains, between revelation and denial, light and shadow or disclosure and closure. While the light is something that is somewhat static, a battle does not rest.
Irigaray invites us to consider the clearing. If we remove everything from the open we are left with one thing, we cannot be without, air. Light cannot shine without air therefore the battle between light and shadow cannot happen without air. This means there can be no opening without pneuma, that Being as the mode of Being as the clearing has pneuma as the condition of its possibility. Irigaray asks however: “Finding again the path of air, would Heidegger discover an unbreathable air?” Going back to the initial question, by saying pneuma belongs to the clearing are we renouncing its materiality? Are we claiming that it is unbreathable air?
If we go back to Heidegger’s distinction between being as an entity and the mode of Being, can we determine which being air belongs to? We cannot say that air has presence. We cannot say that it is a total revelation. Yet we cannot deny that air functions in relation to an entity, the body. In other words, if we are to understand existence as man’s mode of Being and the body as his entity then pneuma conditions man’s existence while at the same time keeping his body alive. We then have to consider that perhaps pneuma is both an entity and a mode of Being. No other phenomena can function as both an entity and a mode like pneuma. This is perhaps why the Stoics made it the source of everything, because it is the only phenomena that can condition being whether mode or entity without compromising it. Here however we come across another problem. In order to be able to think pneuma as belonging to two different categories being as a mode and an entity we have to think how to bring these two categories together. Otherwise pneuma belongs to neither and this makes air or pneuma problematic for thought. Is pneuma perhaps a little too airy-fairy?
Before we reach our conclusion let us consider the difference Heidegger makes between the mode of Being and the entity through the distinction he draws between time and temporality. We can then ask the same question in these terms. Does air belong to measurable clock time, vulgar time, the succession of nows or does it belong to the structure of Being, of Dasein? If we’re claiming it belongs to both then how? First let us propose that what brings together primordial time, temporality, and clock time, vulgar time is a kind of tempo. If we think of tempo as the extension and the contraction of time then whether it is measurable, in succession, or not, time extends and contracts. For example, we have a short or long measure of tempo in music terminology. What we might call beats per minute. Or Dasein’s temporality extends and contracts, for example in the experience of boredom. Here we have to note that the German word for boredom is [Langeweile]. If we break it down lange is long, extended, and weile is while. This is how we can think of pneuma. It is the tempo of both the material and the immaterial. We can also perhaps digress a little and mention the practice of yoga, which combines the way of contracting and extending physical breath in order to affect the spirit or the mind.
To conclude it is worth mentioning that even Heidegger was not far off from interpreting breath in the way we are suggesting. In the introduction of metaphysics he describes the lifespan of human beings, the temporal extension of the mode of being as a breath. Perhaps this extension and contraction is the best way to re-read the Stoics use of pneuma as tempo di materiality and immateriality.
Irigaray, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, p. 2.