Plato and Eros: Should a Philosopher Rule the City?

Increasingly, I think that a good way to read the Republic is to see it as highlighting the failure of mathematics/calculation to control human eros (e.g. the failure of the marriage number/lottery), as eros is constitutive of what it is to be human.  Here eros is understood in a broad sense as desire or longing for something.  For example, the philosopher is a lover of wisdom.  In that sense, s/he is erotic.Plato in Athens

In book VII of the Republic, Socrates describes life immersed in the visible realm as a life of slavery.  For example, the people who are in bonds in the cave are lovers of sights and sound.  So we have a critique of lovers of sights and sounds, and the implication that freedom comes in the study of essences.  Hence, only the philosopher is truly “free.”  The philosopher, because he knows “true” reality, the essences, must then go back into the cave (the polis) and rule.  However, there are a number of tensions with this account.  Does knowing the essences of x make you better at doing x? Or is it that knowing the particular x makes you better at doing x?  For example, someone could have an excellent grasp of the essence of music theory, yet be tone deaf and completely unable to make music.   Glaucon, whose shortcomings we often highlight, actually seems to have an insight on this point.  In other words, Glaucon’s attempts to bring Socrates down to the visible world seems reasonable because he sees correctly that Socrates is setting up an educational system that produces people who are not comfortable in the cave or the city; they don’t like it; they want to be contemplating the essences.  Some scholars attempt to resolve this tension by appealing to the ancients’ communal sense over against a more modern, individualistic leaning, which makes what “I” want more important than the needs of the city.  However, that doesn’t seem to solve the issue, because I’m suggesting that it would not be better for the city for the philosopher to rule, as knowing x does not necessarily make one better at doing x.

Plato’s Socrates is of course incredibly subtle and often leads us in one direction simply to show us that that particular path is a dead end.  Perhaps that is what he is doing here.  For example, Socrates is aware that the philosophers who have come out of the cave and glimpsed the light of the Sun (the Form of the Good) will not want to go back down (just as Socrates didn’t want to go down to the Piraeus at the beginning of book I).  At 520d Socrates intimates that a democracy would not be the best regime because the leaders all want to rule and are power-grabbers. Later in the Republic in his discussion of the different regimes, he shows how each character type is conflicted and deficient in his erotic attachments (e.g., oligarch is a money-lover).  Since the philosopher is also erotic-a lover of wisdom (Cephalus’ being the foil, as his lack of eros disqualifies him as a potential philosopher), to rule would cause him to live in a disordered state, as he would have to (at least part of the time) turn away from his love of contemplation.  In other words, the philosopher would be conflicted.  This confliction is not exactly parallel with the internal tension experienced by the oligarch or timocrat; yet, it is a genuine tension because he is pulled away from what he loves and does best and is forced to engage in something for which he has no erotic attraction.

Though Plato’s Socrates makes several critical statements concerning the democratic regime, it just might be the case that he is actually ambivalent to democracies.  For example at 557, he states, “It [the democratic regime] is probably the fairest, the most beautiful of all regimes.”  Then at 557d, he says, “It is probably necessary for the man who wishes to organize a city, as we were just doing, to go to a city under a democracy.”  Here in effect Socrates is saying, if we want to do what we are doing right now (i.e. engaging in philosophy), then maybe we have live in a democratic regime.  Consider the “clues” that we’ve been given that his might be the case.  A basic feature of democracy is the protection of privacy.  With regard to our present concern this means there is no compulsion or obligation to be political.  This is the opposite of what we find in the parable of the cave, where the philosopher is forced to return to the cave; hence, he is forced to be political.  We see this mimicked at the very beginning of the Republic when Socrates is “forced” metaphorically to stay in the Piraeus.  Thus, in contrast to Socrates’ supposed perfectly just city, in a democracy, because privacy is assured, a person could pursue philosophy, as there is no compulsion to be political.  If, as I believe it is, the city in thought is a failure, a purposed reductio ad absurdum, and eros is constitutive of humans and cannot be controlled by mathematics (which has a kind of necessity to it), then a democracy is in fact the best (although imperfect human-all-too-human) regime for the politician and the philosopher.  Why?  It allows the eros of the politician to be satisfied because s/he is doing what s/he is best suited to do.  The same thing goes for the philosopher.  Whether this works out for the artisans (and for their ultimate good) is another question, which will have to wait for another time.

From Nietzsche’s Despair Through Husserl’s Inner-Time Consciousness to Gadamer’s Open, Fluid Horizon

Gadamer As Walter Lammi explains, Gadamer altered his predecessors’ notion of “horizon” in significant ways.[1] Working in the tradition of phenomenology, Gadamer was of course influenced by Husserl, as well as Heidegger.  Regarding the term “horizon,” Gadamer mentions explicitly his debt to Husserl.  The concept of “horizon,” however, did not originate with Husserl but can be traced back to Nietzsche.  We should stress up front that in each of these philosophers, the term “horizon” means something different.  For example, according to Gadamer’s interpretation of Nietzsche, horizon is a “limiting concept in that human beings cannot see beyond their historical or cultural horizons” (493).  For Nietzsche, it is crucial that we embrace the fact of our limited horizons; yet, in doing so, we ultimately land in despair, as we can no longer hope to find any ultimate meaning in an absolute sense.  “Historicism for Nietzsche is a great but life-destroying truth because it takes away our ability to believe absolutely in anything” (494).  (N.b., Lammi states in footnote 48 that Gadamer’s interpretation of Nietzsche is problematic; nonetheless, Gadamer’s dynamic concept of horizon is on target.  The contents of this footnote appear in my post as note 2).

Husserl also utilizes the concept of “horizon”; however, his focus is not on horizon as a limiting concept, locking us into our diverse cultural-historical frameworks.  Instead, Husserl’s understanding of horizon is much more fluid, and his focus is on the inner experience of time-consciousness, where “the horizons of one experience flow into those of another so that in the continuum of experiences there is a constant flux of horizons” (494).   Gadamer comes along, takes the insights of Nietzsche and Husserl, and formulates his own notion of horizon for the purposes of his  hermeneutical project.  Rejecting what he understands as Nietzsche’s closed-horizon view and accepting Husserl’s less-staticized conception, Gadamer, in essence, offers a fundamental critique of Nietzsche (or what he understands as Nietzsche’s position), while de-subjectivizing Husserl.  As Lammi explains,

On the one hand Gadamer, like Nietzsche, understands “horizon” to denote the finite limitations of any particular perspective at any particular time [TM, 269].  However, he interprets Nietzsche as believing that a horizon can be simply “closed,” which in Gadamer’s judgment constitutes a “romantic reflection, a kind of Robinson Crusoe dream,” [Ibid., 271] because just as no individual exists without others, no cultural or historical horizon exists in static and total isolation from others.[2] Horizons, most particularly the horizon of the past that we call “tradition,” are always in motion just as human life is always in motion [Ibid., 217].  There is no historical consciousness in the sense of Nietzsche’s “historicist insight” that sets the horizons into motion; all historical consciousness does is make that motion aware of itself [Ibid., 271].  The awareness that our horizons are fluid, rather than teaching that nothing is true, makes it possible to find new truths-to “expand our horizons,” as the saying has it. Thus the self-awareness of historical consciousness, far from being a “deadly truth” about the relativity of all values, is for Gadamer the key for reaching beyond or behind a given horizon to confront the possibility that there is truth to be learned from the past. “I am convinced of the fact that, quite simply, we can learn from the classics,” Gadamer concludes [Ibid.,490] (494-95).

Gadamer wholeheartedly agrees with the aspect of Nietzsche’s historicist claim which emphasizes our finitude and the fact that our knowledge of our world and ourselves always remains partial and limited.  Yet, Gadamer believes that Nietzsche’s historicism “fails to understand temporal distance as a positive aid to discovering which is the way Gadamer understands the interpreter’s hermeneutical situation once it is brought to self-consciousness”  (495).


[1] Walter Lammi, “Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ‘Correction’ of Heidegger,” Journal of the History of Ideas 52:3 (1991):  487-507.

[2] Gadamer’s interpretation of Nietzsche is problematic on this point. Whether or not his critique is on target, however, Gadamer’s positive argument for the dynamic concept of “horizon” remains cogent.

Who Sings Their Praises?

“When we rethink the ‘there’ of our identity and community, the historical and contemporary figures that we embody, we may ask, Who sings the praises of those valiant warriors that fought against the colonizers?  Who laments the mothers raped, trapped, and left to die in the decadent slums of cities barely on the realm of modernity when they are no longer fit to be servants in the households of the colonizers-or servants in the households of the newly enriched postcolonial post-avant garde?  Where are the mourners for those who suffer from the rotten foods sold to the postcolonials, enriching world metropolitan centers, now romanticized as postmodern?  Who cares for the amputees from foreign-made land-mines, now abandoned by those who planted them?Returning From the Fields

The warriors, the mothers, the servants, the truck drivers, the children-these are not ghosts, they are not specters, they are not images in our heads.  These are bodies, black bodies; bodies of black men seen as inherently criminal; bodies of black women unseen, commodities of exchange, objects, things, toys, subjectless receptacles; children seen as already damned and irredeemable”  (Fanon:  A Criticial Reader, xvii).

Gadamer on the Self-Cancellation of the Heremeneutical Exchange

Gadamer Doing HermeneuticsAccording to Gadamer, we all come to the text with different horizons.  As we engage the text, our horizons, as well as our foremeanings are confirmed, altered, or perhaps a combination of both occurs.  Gadamer understands textual hermeneutics as analogous to a live conversation in which, when fruitful, we have attentive listening, respect for the alterity of the other, and an interplay of give and take.  Consider, for example, a conversation you’ve had in which you already anticipated ahead of time what a certain person was going to say.  You need an extension on your paper, but your professor has made it clear in the past that she rarely grants such extensions.  Here you approach the conversation with a fairly fixed idea of how the conversation will enfold.  After class you begin to make your case for an extension, explaining that your daughter has been ill quite a bit this month, and you’ve had to keep her at home.  Consequently, you were not able to complete your paper on time.  At first, the likelihood of an extension without penalty seems less than hopeful.  However, as the dialogue continues, your professor seems more open and in the end grants you an extension.  The banality of the example aside, it does provide a window into Gadamer’s understanding of the back and forth movement of our hermeneutical experience.  For example, as Gadamer explains,

A person who is trying to understand a text has to keep something at a distance-namely everything that suggests itself, on the basis of his own prejudices, as the meaning expected-as soon as it is rejected by the sense of the text itself.  Even the experience of reversal (which happens unceasingly in talking, and which is the real experience of dialectic) has its equivalent here.  Explicating the whole of meaning towards which understanding is directed forces us to make interpretative conjectures and to take them back again.  The self-cancellation of the interpretation is dialectical not primarily because the one-sidedness of every statement can be balanced by another side-this is, as we shall see, a secondary phenomenon in interpretation-but because the word that interpretatively fits the meaning of the text expresses the whole of this meaning-i.e., allows an infinity of meaning to be represented within it in a finite way (Truth and Method, p. 465).

The latter part of the passage introduces the idea of a “self-cancellation” involved in a hermeneutical exchange.  As Gadamer explains, the dialectic involved here is not simply an attempt to present the opposing viewpoint to balance out the perspective given.  Rather, (I think) he means something analogous to the following.  In a symphony, one has a meaningful whole, which consists of various particular parts organized in a very complex way.  Each instrument group (brass, strings, woodwinds etc.) plays a different melodic line (melodic lines are analogous to sentences).  These horizontal melodic lines, when considered vertically, constitute the various harmonies of the symphony (analogous to words).  If we zero in on one particular harmonic moment in say the third movement of the symphony, we might find, for example, a C major triad.  That C major triad can be abstracted and identified as a C major triad consisting of the notes C, E, G.  However, within the larger meaning of the symphony, that C major triad, because of its function at that particular place within the whole, cannot be understand as merely a C major triad (though technically it is that); rather, it must be seen as integrally connected with all the notes that precede it, as well as all the notes that follow it.  In a sense, the C major triad is both a one and a many-it is a C major triad and thus has an integral unity of meaning; yet, it is a many because of its intimate connection to and function within the symphony itself-that place where it lives and moves and has its being.  The dialectical self-cancelling movement occurs due to the fact that as the C major triad emerges from the background of the whole, it must “cancel” part of itself (the whole) in order to do so.  (This sounds very Heideggerian, which is no surprise given the latter’s influence on Gadamer).  Yet, to avoid mis-interpretation, it must not become completely severed from the whole, lest in a very real sense it die.  If this is a correct understanding of Gadamer on this point, there are some interesting Christian connections to be made.

Yesterday (Lennon/McCartney) Re-harmonized

McCartney/LennonHere’s my quarterly non-academic post–an ipod recording of me playing a solo jazz guitar version of Lennon and McCartney’s tune, “Yesterday” (to listen to the recording, click the arrow below).

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

There are, however, a few philosophical questions that I can’t resist asking:  how is the identity of the tune, “Yesterday,” retained when I have re-harmonized the melody and added notes to and subtracted notes from the melody?   Also, clearly I have interpreted/performed the tune in a way that exceeds the intention of the “original authors,” yet, the piece is still clearly recognizable as Lennon/McCartney’s tune, “Yesterday.”  What are the implications for “authorship”?  What view of interpretation best captures the phenomena that emerge–an interpretor as co-author with a productive role?  If so, what are the givens of the tune itself that function as limiting structures–structures that both allow for new re-interpretations and  allow the tune to emerge in an identifiable way (while simultaneously dis-allowing any and every interpretation to count as “legitimate”)?

Fanon On What Sartre Forgot

“Expressing the real is an arduous job.  But when you take it into your head to express existence, you will Frantz Fanonvery likely encounter nothing but the nonexistent.  What is certain is that at the very moment when I endeavored to grasp my being, Sartre, who remains ‘the Other,’ by naming me shattered my last illusion.  While I was telling him:

My negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
It reaches deep down into the red flesh of the soil
It reaches deep into the blazing flesh of the sky
It pierces opaque prostration with its patience
Césaire, Notebook of a Return
to My Native Land
trans. Rosello and Pritchard, p. 114].

While I, in a paroxysm of experience and rage, was proclaiming this, he reminded me that my negritude was nothing but a weak stage.  Truthfully, I’m telling you, I sensed my shoulders slipping from this world, and my feet no longer felt the caress of the ground.  Without a black past, without a black future, it was impossible for me to live my blackness.  Not yet white, no longer completely black, I was damned.  Jean-Paul Sartre forgets that the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man” (Black Skin, White Masks, 116-17).

As Sartre explains, negritude is the antithesis of the assertion [not Sartre’s personal belief] of the supremacy of the white (the thesis).  Thus, negritude is the moment of negativity; a moment to be overcome.  In contrast to Césaire’s and Senghor’s understanding of black consciousness as an “absolute density,” Sartre presents negritude as a lack, as a “minor term” in the syllogism.[1] How might we understand Fanon’s statement, “Without a black past, without a black future, it was impossible for me to live my blackness”?  Here one could perhaps apply Derrida’s insights while simultaneously expanding them by way of Fanon’s critique of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.  According to Derrida, the meaning of a person’s life is always constituted at the intersection of a reference to the past and some kind of anticipation of the future.  Of course Derrida has in view a deconstruction of the completely transparent, stable, secure Cartesian self.  Nonetheless, Derrida’s emphasis on the role of past and future in constructing the self seems applicable here; yet, it is in need of Fanon’s stress on the fundamental difference of the black man’s experience of the world as mediated by a black body.[2] If a (black) person’s past is erased and re-written in the image of a violent, totalizing (white) other (the project of colonialization), and his future is largely pre-determined by that same other, “damned” is a pretty good description of his present experience.


[1] Ronald A.T. Judy, “Fanon’s Body of Black Experience,” in Fanon: A Critical Reader, (eds) Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Renee T. White. (Cambridge:  Blackwell, 1996):  63.

[2] Fanon replaces Merleau Ponty’s corporeal schema (schéma corporel) with his own schéma historico-racial and schéma épidermique racial.