A Blog for Everyone and No One
Over the next few months, I would like to present some recent research into the idea of philosophizing, which is to be understood here, albeit in an abstract and general form, as the expression of the experience of doing philosophy. Although there are specific orientations, polemical contexts and philosophical motivations that stir the necessity of thinking ‘the idea of philosophizing’, I would like to perform a kind of inversion of Adorno’s invocation of poker in his short preface to Negative Dialectics: I want to try and immediately play the game without putting my cards on the table.
And yet, even if I want to keep the expression ‘philosophizing’ in somewhat enigmatic form for the time being (which does not amount to trying to remain at ease with myself before the reader, ‘like wine in a wineskin’, as Michel Leiris once put it), it would be useful to give some sense of co-ordination apropos its significance. There are three initial formulations that I believe should be kept in mind:
First: that philosophizing emerges from the experience of the ontological condition of a reality oppositional to itself – experience is the experience of this antagonistic reality and philosophizing is the turning of a thinking that begins to turn to itself from out of this experience of disjunction. Thus: philosophizing is orientated toward, and immanent to, the present.
Second: philosophizing is not simply directed toward a description of this reality; it is to express the truth of this reality.
And third, the expression ‘philosophizing’ is at once somewhat equivocal and unequivocal, and, moreover, not really a central part of the themes that construct the architecture of our philosophical imagination.
The general aim of this research could be expressed, albeit with a certain amount of naivety, in the following: to re-animate and, in a certain sense, rehabilitate the expression of philosophizing and its effects through a conceptual exposition of its dynamic.
The research itself will be presented in a series of short texts that shall be updated at (hopefully) relatively regular intervals. Presented below is the first installment and it constitutes a sort of a basic outline of a preliminary model of the distinction between the experience of antagonistic reality and the philosophizing that emerges immanently from that experience of reality. But it does this, somewhat paradoxically, by taking recourse to an ancient myth. It is the myth itself that will provide the initial ‘model’ of philosophizing. It will however require reconstructing.
The myth I have in mind is the one recounted by Socrates in book seven of Plato’s Republic; a myth more commonly known as the so-called ‘allegory of the cave.’ What draws my attention to the allegory is Socrates distinction (and indeed performance of the distinction) between two forms of ‘turning’ to Truth (aletheia). I will refer to them as (following the Greek) peripatetic and apostrophic turning. It is these two forms of turning that I want to reconstruct in the context of the development of the meaning of ‘philosophizing.’ The meaning of ‘peripatetic’ and ‘apostrophic’ will be disclosed in the unfolding of our interpretation.
With this in mind, I would like to turn to Plato.
Dialectics is not simply, according to the ancients, an art that any one is granted, but rather, the essential training of thinking attributed to the philosophical pursuit of truth and the good. This is so clear to the ancient Greek that even the unnamed xenos (visitor, stranger) attests to this (Sophist, 253e). Dialectical thinking, the form that thinking must take in its ‘quest’ (the category is a favourite of those who dip into the classical past) for truth, is accordingly, universal. But the training of dialectical thinking does not come about via the pouring of its knowledge from the learned to the uneducated (the ‘philosopher-statesmen does not simply reveal the truth of a geometric axiom to the slave in Plato’s Meno), but rather, the ‘uneducated’ always already expresses a certain kind of existential impulse (if the modern expression can be permitted) for dialectics (Parmenides, 135d). And in that the impulse is the universality of dialectics, which itself is the structure of the discourse of truth, the impulse itself is the impulse of truth. The specific character of Socrates’ impulse however, his inclination for dialectical thinking, is not perfectly aligned with the dialectical mode as exposed by the Eleatic tradition. Rather, it follows a slightly different dynamic of movement, one that, despite appearances, does not follow the to-and-from movement of question and answer. The nuanced differentiation is evinced in Socrates’ peripatetic nature.
It can be said that Socrates himself is the agent of peripeteia; with his thinking, things turn, reverse and inverse, leaving the interlocutor, at times, transfixed in a dizzying, unsettling threat of mental asphyxiation. By way of response to this threat, the interlocutor on occasion fights back. For example, Thrasymachus empties a ‘great flood of words’ into the ears of those in attendance to his encomium on justice after Socrates reveals that his meaning reversed into its opposite (Republic, 344d). Thrasymachus’ words however do not ‘drown’ either Socrates or the fellow listeners (the ineffectual force of Thrasymachus’ hylozoic – the flood of words – counter-move can no doubt be situated into a wider and older metaphysical context that Plato has at the back of his mind). Plato recalls this specific point of the conversation between Socrates and Thrasymachus thus: ‘When we reached this point in the argument, and it was clear to all that [Thrasymachus’] account of justice had turned into its opposite (perieistekei)…’ (ibid. 343a). Socratic probing ‘turns’ the movement of the dialogue around. The dialogue is reversed. (Desmond Lee’s translation is perhaps more succinct: ‘At this stage of the argument it was obvious to everyone that his definition of justice had been reversed…’ Plato, Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, London: Penguin Books, 2003.)
The dynamic of the peripatetic turn however is not simply confined to a short, succinct movement of logical gymnastics that leads the listener from the darkness of illusion into the light of truth: ‘Socrates: So after going a long way round (perielthontes) we are back at our original difficulty’ (Theaetetus, 200a). The ‘reversal’ renders the movement as circular. The movement – the leading – of Socrates’ thought is rotational; his interlocutors note this: ‘Protarchus: Socrates has plunged us into a considerable problem, Philebus, by leading us around (periagagen), I don’t know, in some sort of circle’ (Philebus, 19a). Against this however, Socrates at times charges his interlocutors with precisely the same movement of his own thought, viz. the circular movement of the return of the same, preliminary thought that inspired the dialogue. For example, in trying to define the idea of ‘greed’ Socrates reveals the inadequacy of his interlocutors thought precisely through its circulation: ‘Don’t you see that you are coming around back again (peritrecheis) to the same place?’ (Hipparchus, 231c).
Socrates is the thinker of the ‘reverse’ par excellence: his own thought structures a reversal itself and he recognizes and evinces this structure in the thought of others. It is this double insight that gives Socrates the power to ‘lead’ thinking around; that is to say, to provide the original model for the way in which thought advances through a process of unfolding the truth of the reality of what is, which is to say, to grasp being in itself and not in its becoming, its transience and change. This is the central task of philosophy; philosophers must ‘learn to rise up out of becoming (einai) and grasp being (ousia)’ (Republic, 525b).
This emergence from out of the change of becoming and into the Truth of being as such expresses the central task of philosophy and puts it directly into the context of book seven of the Republic. This will be the point of departure in the next installment. For now, it is important to hold in mind the distinction between dialectics as such – and, importantly, our ‘ordinary’ notions of the meaning and structure of the ‘dialectic’ – and the peripatetic nature of Socrates’ thought (that is, its specific turning and reversal of thinking in the context of the attempt to grasp the truth of being).