Musings on Gadamer on Plotinus on Dunamis
In his essay, “Thinking as Redemption: Plotinus Between Plato and Augustine,” Gadamer discusses Plotinus’ understanding of dunamis, describing it as a living power that “fulfills itself and maintains itself by the power of its activity” (86). He goes on to say that the new accent that Plotinus gives to dunamis adds a dynamic aspect to a certain Greek idea of being as presence. “No longer is being the streaming present that is manifested to the gaze of thought only in its predictability—as idea, nature, substance; being is now the secret power that is dormant in everything, a being that never lets itself be seen, assayed, or exhausted, but manifests itself on in its expressions” (86)
This passage reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a professor about racism and sexism. Isn’t this previous Greek view of being as—“the streaming present that is manifested to the gaze of thought only in its predictability—as idea, nature, substance” in some sense what is at the center of racism, sexism and other related –isms? No doubt the means through which we, so to speak, get to that center varies. For example, with racism, the visual seems to play a large role. This emphasis on the visual is clearly seen in Kant’s writings on race and his emphasis on skin color. But however one gets to the center, different communities/traditions at different times come to view a certain pattern/ideal as the standard/norm—a kind of static form of sorts of what it is to be a human, what it is to be a male, a female etc.—and whatever person or group deviates from that is then either an inferior instance or worse is excluded from the category as a whole (i.e. simply isn’t a human or is at least treated by the community as not fully human).
In contrast, what if human reality is more like this living power of which Plotinus speaks? If so, then we should expect new insights, genuine surprises, developments in tradition, multiple interpretations, mystery, the inability to exhaustively define femininity and masculinity, different ethnic groups and so on. After all, we as Christians believe that humans are imago Dei, i.e., created in the image of God who is beyond our full comprehension, so why shouldn’t we expect a real difficulty in defining ourselves and others?
From what I can tell so far, part of Gadamer’s project in Truth and Method is to re-appropriate ancient and medieval insights, bringing them into conversation with thinkers like Hegel and Heidegger so as to offer a corrective to the Western tradition. In other words, his project is both de-structive as well as con-structive, and he in no way advocates a facile dismissal of the insights of previous thinkers. It seems that on one level Gadamer’s view of hermeneutics might be understood as applying Plotinus’ view of dunamis as living power which “fulfills itself and maintains itself by the power of its activity” to tradition, texts and works of art which, in reflecting the dynamism of reality, likewise manifest dynamism and flexibility of their own. That is, tradition/texts/works of art are themselves “living” and consist in some genuine sense of this living power or built-in dynamism which permits expansion through successive generations and yet simultaneously manifests an identifiable continuity with the past. Does Gadamer’s view then suggest a dynamism “all the way down”? That is, does ultimate reality (which for the Christian is the Trinitarian God) also exhibit this dynamism? I’m not sure how Gadamer would answer this question; however, in his reading of the later Plato, he understands Plato as including motion and rest in the transcendentals. This is part of Gadamer’s critique of Heidegger, as he does not fully accept Heidegger’s reading of the Western tradition as one extended variation on the “forgetfulness of Being” (Seinsvergessenheit). Rather, Gadamer takes Plato’s inclusion of motion and rest in the transcendentals as a statement against a strict view of truth as orthotes (“correctness”). (For Gadamer, the Ideas are not the center of Plato’s philosophy—the center is the dialectic between the One and the Many). Consequently (or ironically), Plato’s truth is much like Heidegger’s aletheia—a constant interplay of concealment and unconcealment. Along these lines, Gadamer emphasizes that the Idea of the Good never shows itself directly but always indirectly and every revealing is simultaneously a concealing (this is the case with all the Forms as well). This “motion” within the Ideas of revealing and concealing and showing themselves in different ways at different times in history is harmonious with the possibility of multiple, true interpretations over time, as different interpretative communities bring different questions to the text in relation to the cultural-political and other particularities of their day.