Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Performance Piece Masquerading as a Conference Talk

I was recently reflecting on the fact that I apparently now only ever right conference pieces which violate in various ways the norms of conference pieces (this is apropos for something about Derrida I'm working on)

I offer the following up as proof: it's an occasional piece, written with the Ancient Philosophy Society in mind (this will be clear from what follows if you keep in mind they met this year in Sundance, Utah and had encouraged pieces that dealt in particular with the topics related to physis.)  It is, as will be clear, unacceptable and undeliverable as an actual conference talk.  I therefore offer it up instead to the internets.  Enjoy. (Here is a link to it as a google doc which may be easier to read)


Butch Cassandra and the Sundance Stranger: On Teleology and Normativity

In Utah, physis comes in two flavors.  In the North, there’s the full, piny aromatic sweep of sloping hills surveying valleys that were once rich with brush and scrub, but where the scrub has been reduced to little isolated brown patches surrounded by what passes in the West for verdure, brought to you by the irrigated, tamed and dammed up rivers whose pesky finitude will one day bankrupt the West.  Further south, the trace of the human is less remarkable, but that’s not why the flavor of physis is different.  The reason for that is in the rocks, whose color runs redder, whose angle tends closer to vertical.  The same rivers that quench the thirst of Western megalopoles have been running a much longer show down there, over thousands of millennia, they’ve notched the landscape with scores of deep slot canyons, they’ve polished the rocks into weird, vaguely anthropomorphic shapes, into arches, into stairways.  People who don’t look closely enough have called the landscape inhuman.  They’re not wrong, but it’s a little like saying humans have vegetative souls.  It’s not it’s most distinctive trait.  It isn’t just inhuman, it’s positively inorganic, if not quite abiotic.
Let’s call these northern and southern Utah flavors of physis, Aristotelean and Platonic flavors respectively.
Although, I grew up in northern Utah, along the Wasatch Front --- not much more than twenty minutes from here; at this height, you could probably see the house I grew up in if there weren’t a mountain in the way --- although I grew up here in the Aristotelean part of the state, although for what it’s worth, I’m sure Aristotle is probably more right than Plato, I imagine that my affinity for Plato derives somewhat the time I’ve spent amidst Southern Utah’s inorganic, unconsoling beauty.
Sundance Stranger: I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call you on that.
Me: On what?
S.S.:  On the tendentiousness of your metaphor.
Me: Excuse me, but what are you exactly?
S.S.: I’m the Sundance Stranger.
Me:  Well, Stranger, since you’re not from around these parts, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are unaware of the norms that govern conference presentations.  It’s perfectly acceptable to have a short introduction, whose connection to the thesis is metaphorical or illustrative.  What isn’t acceptable is interrupting someone at the beginning of the their paper.
S.S.: But I wasn’t calling you out for using a metaphor, I’m was calling you out for its tendentiousness.
Me: How can you know if it’s tendentious if you haven’t even heard my thesis yet?
S.S.: Ok, let’s hear it.
Me: Um, that the inorganic, unconsoling terrain is a mark of what distinguishes the Platonic Good from its post-Kantian re-iteration.
S.S.: No.
Me: It would have sounded better in context.
S.S.:  And the context was what, that little piece you opened with?
Me:  Among other things.
S.S.: What are the other things?
Me:  Well, for starters, I would have explained a little what I meant by the phrase “its post-Kantian re-iteration.”
S.S.: And what do you mean by that little phrase?
Me:  It would have been helpful if I had been able to continue situating it.  See, I was planning on seguing from this description of the inorganic landscape to a brief discussion of the claim, popular nowadays, that the “absolute” idealism of Hegel and Holderlin inter alia differed from Kantian idealism by its embrace of Platonic realism.
S.S.:  I’m familiar with the work of Friedrich Beisser.  But I hardly see how that gives any coherence to your thesis.
Me:  It doesn’t, on its own.  But thinking about what that claim gets wrong about Hegel and especially Holderlin has gotten me thinking about what people get wrong in Platonism, whether the only possible way of embracing Platonism is through Platonic realism.
S.S.: I suppose it depends on what you mean by “realism,” which is I suppose what you are going to claim that that little number at the beginning was going to help clarify.
Me: Kind of, I guess.  I hate to keep on getting auto-biographical.
S.S.: I’m sure you do.
Me:  But this time I’m at least talking about philosophical autobiography.  See, for a long time, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the way in which the ancients seem to have understood teleology and the way that moderns seem to.  You know how annoying it is when people summarize the intellectual importance of Darwinism, and they mangle their Aristotle, imputing something like the argument from design to him?
S.S.:  As if the ancients were a bunch of good little Victorians!
Me:  Exactly.  See, when I reread The Origin of Species a while back, I was struck by how much time Darwin devoted to justifying the idea that species (and I mean that here in the broad sense as a Latinization of eidos) need not be eternal, could in fact be mutable.  And it struck me that that’s what would have been a bigger stumbling to the ancients than the idea that organic forms required a designer.
S.S.:  Ok, I think I see where you were trying to go, then.  You were going to try to imagine how it would be possible to temporalize the Platonic notion of Form and I suppose that’s what you had in mind by an anti-realistic Platonism.
Me:  No, that’s way too big of a project for such a short presentation.  I’ve been working on that in a lot of different ways.  Here, I was just going to focus on how the inhumanism of the Platonic good distinguished it from Kantian and post-Kantian teleologies, which depended so heavily on the concept of a normativity fixed by humanism for their understanding of what Plato would have called the good.
S.S.:  Alright, I’m starting to see your point a little better.  But your metaphor was still a little over-wrought.  More importantly, it conflated a lot of different senses of the notion of organicity.  You have to recognize that that’s central to the complex of problems you’ve raised.
Me:  I guess I do.  But, and I”m embarrassed to admit this, I’m not fully sure how to deal with that problem.  So I was hoping that we could let that conflation slide.
S.S.:  Wouldn’t it be better if we investigated it?
<Butch Cassandra gets up from the audience and says:>
B.C.:  Somebody stop them right now.  If you let them continue, by the time they’re done, they’ll have made Plato look like Nietzsche.
Me:  Did you hear anything?
S.S.:  Must’ve been the wind, which can really howl at these heights.  By the way, keep your eye out for Butch Cassandra.  She’s said to be hiding out somewhere around here.  She may be a prophet, but she’s also really annoying.  It’s best not to listen to her.
Me:  I’ll keep that in mind.
S.S.:  You know where you really should have started if you think the idea of normativity is so important?  Anaxagoras!
Me:  I like Anaxagoras just fine, and I can see where he might be helpful in pushing for a rejection of a humanistic teleology, but that’s because he rejects teleology altogether.
S.S.:  And that’s exactly what I think makes him so important to what you’re trying to do.  If you look at where he shows up in Plato’s work, I think you’ll find that it’s precisely at those points where what post-Kantians would recognize as the concept of normativity shows up.  But I’m afraid it’s going to complicate your little thesis.  For starters, it’s going to associate the idea of normativity with Plato’s theism much more strongly than you’re going to want to admit.
Me:  Ok, so let me think:  there’s the famous reference in the Phaedo.  And I guess I can start to see how you might claim that it’s associated with normativity, since Socrates goes on to criticize the idea that you can describe how he got to jail without some reference to the Good.  But now I’m going to have to accuse you of tendentiousness.  That may be normativity, but it’s nothing like the normativity I’m going to want to derive from the Kantian tradition.
S.S.:  That’s only because you’ve missed the most important point.
Me:  Which is?
S.S.:  Just wait.  First, let’s expand the presence of Anaxagoras in Plato.  He’s in the Apology.
Me:  But that’s just a throw-away reference to the fact that if people think Socrates holds that the sun is a rock rather than a God, then you’re mistaking him for Anaxagoras.
S.S.:  You think that’s a throw-away reference?  You think when Socrates says that the thing that distinguishes him from Anaxagoras is his theism, that that’s a throw-away reference?  And consider the presence of Anaxagoras in the Laws.
Me:  Believe me, I have, but that hardly helps us clarify things.  I mean, really the point you’re getting at has less to do with the Good than with the fact that Anaxagoras is Plato’s cardboard cutout atheist.  But here Plato’s the one guilty of conflation: he uses that cardboard cutout knee-jerk reaction against atheism to conceal the huge difference between his conception of God as the good and the traditional notion of divinity, to cloak his radical conception of the good in the garb of traditional piety.
S.S.:  And you don’t think that that conflation is itself significant?  What allows him to make that connection so naturally?
Me: I don’t understand what you mean.
S.S.: What does his conception of the divine share with the traditional Greek conception?
Me:  Well, lots of things.  He’s Greek, after all.  But what I consider most significant is the connection between the Platonic notion of eternity and the Greek conception of immortality, which are both aeizoon.  That’s actually exactly the point where I think that the post-Kantians will depart with Plato.  But the challenge then is to explain how they nonetheless remain Platonists.
S.S.:  You’re getting ahead of yourself, but you’re on the right track.  Now ask yourself the most obvious follow up question.  Is Anaxagoras different than Plato and traditional Greeks here?
Me:  No, that’s actually precisely where he and other early ancient atheists, like the atomists go astray.  They have to imagine some sort of eternal, unchanging substrate, of course.  But even more to the point, they imagine the eternity of form, even if they don’t put it that way.  So, for example, in Anaxagoras, he has to have everything mixed with everything to explain how motion makes significant, formal change possible.  Or, in the atomists, although they imagine something like natural selection in their account of the origin of life, it’s not a recursive, self-reiterating natural selection.  Random parts come together randomly, but the atomists make it sound like those parts are arms, legs, eyes and other organs are randomly cohering, with only the coherent, whole  organisms survive.  And that’s where Plato and Aristotle get them:  because it’s impossible to understand an organ apart from a holistic organism.
S.S.:  So they imagine that the origin of life is temporal, but their understanding of the meaning of life is implicitly atemporal.
Me:  Right.
B.C.:  Normativity is irreducibly futural.  But it requires the constancy of the past for its guarantee.
S.S.:  Okay, so if Anaxagoras hasn’t shaken the necessity of the eternal, unchanging ever living mind, why is he useful for Plato in making himself seem traditionally theistic?
Me:  I don’t understand what you’re getting at.
S.S.:  You told me that Plato is making throwaway reference to Anaxagoras in order to lead people off the scent of his radical change in the notion of the divine.  It’s a truism that that change is to identify the divine with the Good.  So it’s no surprise that it should help Plato introduce the notion of the Good.  But notice that, because Plato assumes that Anaxagoras shares certain assumptions with him about the meaning of the divine, it obviates the underlying constancy between traditional Greek theism, Anaxagorean atheism, and Platonic theism.
B.C.:  Stop them!  Before they cast doubt on sacred idols!  They want to make you think that Plato killed God, when we all know it was Nietzsche.
S.S.: <continuing>  Now, what name would you give to that underlying constancy?  You said “eternity,” but you may as well have said “normativity.”
Me:  No, because that’s precisely what Anaxagoras rejects.  The point is that he doesn’t think that the eternity of nous requires a commitment to a normative good.  And that’s where Plato differs with him.
S.S.:  What about traditional Greek theism?
Me:  That’s a much tougher question.
S.S.: Go on, give it a try.
Me:  Why don’t I just let you?
S.S.:  Is it fair to say that what you’re saying is that the Greek conception of physis assumes a metaphysical stance, but that the precise position of that metaphysical stance may differ?
Me:  I guess so.
S.S.:  Ok, so now you’re ready to think about the significant detail you missed before.
Me:  Which is?
S.S.  Why is it that, in his central discussion in the Phaedo of the conversion to the good, Plato has Socrates give as his example of a normative claim one with which he doesn’t in fact agree?
Me:  That’s debatable.  Isn’t the whole point of the Crito that he’s accepting the judgment of the laws?
S.S.: You could argue that he’s accepting their force but not their justice, or goodness.  And even if we say it’s debatable, it seems odd that you’d take a debatable “good” as your example of the Good.
B.C.:  Normativity and teleology are both bets on the future.  That does not mean that they are betting on the same future.
Me (ignoring B.C.):  Okay, let’s grant that it might not be a claim about the good that he would agree with.  But his point is that you still can’t understand why he’s there without some reference to the good.
S.S.:  Or, for that matter, without some reference to the transgression of the Good, whether the fault for that transgression lies with him or with Athens.  And the truth is, that transgressive element was there in the example of the Apology too.  Socrates is accused of the crime of impiety.  He uses Anaxagoras, who is an atheist, to distract the jury from his own strange theism, which might just still be impiousness.
Me:  I’ve been known for some crazy readings of texts, but you’re really going too far.
S.S.:  Am I?  Remember the Laws?
Me:  Of course I remember the Laws.  There, the Athenian Stranger, not Socrates, throws all atheists into a moderation tank lest they corrupt the state.  And he does it with reference to Anaxagoras.
S.S.: <laughs>  And how do you know the Athenian Stranger isn’t Socrates?
Me:  Because I’ve read the Phaedo and because I’ve read the Crito.
S.S.:  So you know Plato’s last word about normativity?  And you know Socrates’s last word about normativity?  And, not only do you know both of their last words, but you assume their unanimity?
B.C.:  All strangers are Socrates.  Socrates is a mortal.  Nevertheless, Strangeness is immortal.
Me:  I try not to indulge in conspiracy theories.
S.S.:  Fair enough, but in doing so, you miss the transformative, transgressive power of fiction, even in Plato’s dialogues, even if through fiction they speak of the truth.
Me:  So Plato as an old man is indulging in a fictional daydream about his old teacher taking a hike up a mountain with two other old men?
S.S.:  Why not?  The mountain air can be a welcome change of scenery, especially if you’ve most of your life in a city under siege, a city where the excesses of Periclean democracy have palpably reduced air-quality.
Me:  Ok, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Plato has written a little fictional coda to the life of Socrates where he imagines the laws of a society that criticizes the excesses of Periclean democracy, the very excesses of which he takes Anaxagoras to be a figure.  So what?
S.S.:  Wrong.
Me:  Excuse me?
S.S.:  Plato doesn’t think that Anaxagoras is a figure for the excesses of sophisticated Periclean democracy.  Remember the reference in the Phaedrus?
Me:  When he says that Anaxagoras’s wisdom exercised a moderating influence on Pericles?  I’d forgotten that one.
S.S.:  And anyway, Plato’s relationship to Pericles is far more ambivalent than you’re giving him credit for here, as you know full well.  That’s particularly important in the Laws, where the Stranger envisions a mixed comprise between Athenian and Doric constitutions.  And, once again, that’s where Anaxagoras is relevant.
Me:  Now I’m totally lost.
S.S.:  Don’t worry, you’re close to home.  Didn’t you tell us it was just on the other side of this mountain that we’re on?
Me:  What happened to metaphors?
B.C.:  Although Presenter doesn’t want to admit it, he has always imagined the society of the Laws in a strange place, with a topography like Southern Utah.
Me (to the Sundance Stranger, not Butch Cassandra):  What happened to the Republic?
B.C.:  No one can imagine that as happening in any place at all.
Sundance Stranger (to me):  Remember, in the Laws the state of the Republic has been dismissed out of hand, because it would require the body politic to share sensory organs with one another.  The golden thread of the laws has been introduced to address this lack.  And do you remember what the feature it was that made the laws golden?
Me:  You mean persuasion.
S.S.:  And does persuasion owe more to the laws Doric or Athenian character?
Me:  Athenian.
S.S.:  And how does persuasion figure into the examples of Anaxagoras in the Phaedo and the Apology?
Me:  It doesn’t.  These are both places where persuasion has failed, and force is necessary.
S.S.:  Imagine such goings on!  In a democracy, no less.
Me:  Democracies have no problem with normativity.  In fact, if anything, they take their normative claims too seriously.
S.S.:  They mistake their voices for the voices of God?
Me:  Something like that.
S.S.:  And notice here how Plato is critiquing that.
Me:  But he still throws atheists into a moderation tank.
S.S.:  He does.  He doesn’t have much faith in people and he’s worried that they’ll lead them astray from the good.  But that doesn’t mean these atheists beyond persuasion, providing they are moderate and provided moderate, wise people talk with them.
Me:  Like the Nocturnal Council.
S.S.  Exactly.  The Nocturnal Council has to defend the Laws, which can’t defend themselves.  Because, unfortunately, the Laws, like all norms, don’t really exist.  But they defend them in a way that bears little resemblance to enforcing them.  The people enforce them on their own.  The Nocturnal Council defends their Goodness, which depends on their persuasive power, which is something quite different than their force.
Me:  But that’s Kant!
S.S.:  Exactly.  But it’s Kant without the humanism, it’s an inhuman, nocturnal Kant.
B.C.:  At night, they say that Kant defended his human dignity by having himself tied up!
Me:  But this is exactly what I was going to argue was distinctive to the pst-Kantian German Idealists.  I was going to argue that by distinguishing the rationality of the law from its efficacy, that their notion of a robust normativity in nature didn’t imply a return to Platonic realism but rather allowed idealism to emerge out of a dialogue with the the natural, or the real.
B.C.:  You were going to turn Hegel into Nietzsche, and you thought you were so clever.
S.S.:  But you don’t have to say that that’s any different than Plato.  Plato, it’s true, seems not to have had the vocabulary to imagine fully temporalized ideals.  He recognized he needed the notion of the Good.  But he never fully expunged the transgressive, fictional, downright mendacious character of that good.  This possibility remains in the textual body we call Platonism, ready to be liberated, provided we find a way to understand how fictional norms can nonetheless be efficacious.  Heidegger’s innovation was to realize that this was what Nietzsche had done.
B.C.:  See, I warned you this would happen.  I’ve warned you that they’d turn Plato into Nietzsche.
S.S.:  And although he imagines a metaphysical stance from which to talk about physis and although he invokes the gods to enforce that stance, he recognizes that the logic of metaphysics is utterly different in its essence from the language of force.  He invokes the threat of atheism to disguise that recognition, but we can recognize the respect beneath that invocation.  He recognizes a kinship with the inhumanism of the atheist.  I would wager that’s what you saw down in the desert, even if you’re telling us about it from the heights of a mountain.
Me:  So, after criticizing my thesis, you’re willing to agree with me.  And you’re willing to grant that my metaphor wasn’t tendentious after all.
S.S.:  I suppose I am, and I suppose it wasn’t.  It turns out you were right after all, though for all the wrong reasons.
Me:  But if you’d just let me read my paper, maybe you would have seen that I’d said the same thing, albeit with different words.
S.S.:  Well, I’d love to hear your paper, but I fear we’re out of time.  So we’ll have to turn to your argument another time.
Me:  Yes, we’ll return another time.
B.C.:  No, they won’t!