Tag Archives: Platonic Ideas

A penny for them…

‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking.’
– Eliot, The Waste Land

‘He’s the sort that you never know what he’s thinking’ defines a recognisable character but carries a curious implication. There is a strong suggestion of duplicity, of inner workings at odds with outer show. Even among long-time married couples you will sometimes hear it said (in exasperated tones) ‘all these years we’ve been married and I still have no idea what goes on in that head of yours’.

But that exasperated tone indicates the same curious implication of the first case – namely, that we expect to know what people are thinking; that not to know is what is considered remarkable, the exception that proves the rule. C.Auguste Dupin, a notable precursor of Sherlock Holmes created by Edgar Allan Poe, makes a striking demonstration of this in The Murders in the Rue Morgue:

‘One night we were walking down one of Paris’s long and dirty
streets. Both of us were busy with our thoughts. Neither had spoken
for perhaps fifteen minutes. It seemed as if we had each forgotten that
the other was there, at his side. I soon learned that Dupin had not
forgotten me, however. Suddenly he said:
“You’re right. He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and he would
be more successful if he acted in lighter, less serious plays.”
“Yes, there can be no doubt of that!” I said.
At first I saw nothing strange in this. Dupin had agreed with me,
with my own thoughts. This, of course, seemed to me quite natural.
For a few seconds I continued walking, and thinking; but suddenly
I realized that Dupin had agreed with something which was only a
thought. I had not spoken a single word.’

Dupin’s explanation of his apparent mind-reading runs to another page and three-quarters [you can read it here] and though something of a virtuoso performance, it is based on sound principles – Dupin observes his friend’s actions and expressions closely, and is able to follow his train of thought by skilful inference, both from what he sees, and what he already knows.

The incident starts when, in evading a hurrying fruit-selller, his companion stubs his toe on an ill-laid paving stone:

‘You spoke a few angry words to yourself, and continued walking. But you kept looking down, down at the cobblestones in the street, so I knew you were still thinking of stones.
“Then we came to a small street where they are putting down street stones which they have cut in a new and very special way. Here your face became brighter and I saw your lips move. I could not doubt that you were saying the word stereotomy, the name for this new way of cutting stones.’
….
‘Later I felt sure that you would look up to the sky. You did look up. Now I was certain that I had been following your thoughts as they had in fact come into your mind.’
….
‘I saw you smile, remembering that article and the hard words in it.
“Then I saw you stand straighter, as tall as you could make yourself. I was sure you were thinking of Chantilly’s size, and especially his height.’

Two things are worth noting here, I think. The first is Dupin’s attention to such things as the direction of his friend’s gaze, the expression on his face, and his whole bodily posture, all of which he reads as indicative of thought – I was going to say ‘accompaniments of thought’ but that would be the wrong word, I think, for reasons I will come to presently. The second thing is one particular detail – ‘I saw your lips move’ – and the observation the narrator makes at the end of the episode – ‘Dupin was right, as right as he could be. Those were in fact my thoughts, my unspoken thoughts’.

These highlight two important points about thought that are often overlooked: that it has a physical aspect, and that it is closely connected to speech. We use the expression ‘difficult to read’ of people like the man cited at the start, the ‘sort that you never know what he’s thinking’, and this reminds us that we do rely to a great extent on non-verbal physical indications of ‘mental’ activity.

Indeed, it is interesting to consider just how contrary to everyday experience is the notion that mental activity and thought are hidden, private processes that take place ‘in our heads’ so that only we ‘have access to them’. I put those expressions in quotes because I think they are misleading, in the same way that it is misleading to speak of facial expression etc. as ‘accompaniments’ to thought – I would say they are better considered as an integral part of thinking. We see this from the expression ‘I learned to hide my thoughts’ which is connected with controlling – indeed, suppressing – these external manifestations of thought.

The fact that we must make a conscious effort to conceal thought suggests that it is far from the ‘hidden process’ it is often supposed to be and calls into question the whole range of terms we use that suggest it is – such as the notion of thoughts being ‘in our head’ and our having ‘private access to them’ alluded to above. The implication there is that the head (or brain, or mind) is a sort of space in which our thoughts are stored (and where other mental activity takes place); furthermore, it is a private space, a sort of secret room to which we alone have access. (In this connection, consider the various fictional representations of telepathy and mind-reading, which often involve clutching the head, pressing the temples etc., either in an effort to keep its contents from being rifled, or in the attempt to pilfer them – thoughts are seen as something contained which can, by certain means, be extracted)

In St Ambrose’s day (c340-397) it was considered remarkable that he could read without moving his lips, from which we infer that most people then did so. I believe that this is now termed ‘subvocalisation’ and it appears to have been studied extensively in connection with reading but less so with thought. I am conscious that a great deal of my own thought consists of articulating sentences ‘in my head’ a process that I consider the same as speaking in all but the final act of voicing the words aloud (an interpretation supported by the fact that sometimes I do actually speak my thoughts aloud) – hence my interest in the expression Poe uses above, ‘my unspoken thoughts.’

It would be interesting to know whether the late Romans of St Ambrose’s day moved their lips when thinking, or indeed habitually spoke their thoughts aloud, openly or in an undertone. Even now, this is more common than we might suppose – people often blurt out their thoughts without meaning to, and most of us are familiar with the expression ‘did I just say that aloud?’ (and the feeling that accompanies it) when we say what might have been better kept to oneself. There are also people who have the habit of framing their thoughts as spoken questions, which can be disconcerting till you realise that they are not actually seeking an answer from you, personally: it is just another form of saying ‘I wonder if…’.

So it would seem that, just as we have we have learned for the most part to read without moving our lips, so we have also gradually shed (or learn to suppress) the more obvious physical manifestations of what we now consider ‘mental’ activities, such as thinking, imagining, remembering etc. though my guess (as with subvocalisation in relation to reading) is that there is probably still a fair bit that could be detected in muscle movement, brain activity and the like (though it would be an interesting experiment to see if these too – the brain activity in particular – can be controlled).

From the effort we must make to conceal thought, and our varying success in doing so, it is reasonable to infer that the ‘natural’ mode of thought is holistic, involving the body (at least) as much as the brain: consider, for instance, two rather different examples. One is the domestic cat, and how it is transformed on spying a bird that might be its prey or an intruder on its territory: its intentions can be read very clearly from its bodily posture and movement. The other is the recent emergence in sport – particularly at the highest level – of the practice of ‘visualisation’, which is rather more than simply picturing what you want to happen; it is a full-scale physical anticipation of it, typified by the rituals with which Jonny Wilkinson used to precede his kicking attempts in rugby.

It is interesting to set all this alongside the long-standing tradition in philosophy that regards mental activity as private, personal and inaccessible to others, which has led some to the extreme of solipsism, the doctrine that your own self is the only being you can confidently believe to exist. Much blame for this can be laid at the door of Descartes, often seen as the herald of the modern era in philosophy, though the mind-body dualism generally attributed to him can be dated back to Plato (much as his most noted dictum, cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – can be traced back to St Augustine a thousand years before). Descartes makes the classic error of supposing that because we are deceived in some cases, it is possible that we might be deceived in every case – overlooking the fact that such a state of affairs would render ‘being deceived’ and its allied concepts of mistake, illusion, hallucination and the like incomprehensible: if we were deceived in all things, we would not be aware of it; the fact that we have a word for it demonstrates that, in most cases, we are not deceived, and that we also recognise the special and generally temporary circumstances in which we are.

If we go back to Plato, I think we can find the real root of the notion that thoughts are private. It is bound up with what I consider the relocation of meaning that takes place around the time of Classical Greece, about 25 centuries ago, and is made possible by the invention of writing. Only once a word can be written on a page does it become possible to consider it apart from the milieu in which it naturally occurs, human activity involving speech. Such activity (what Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’ and ‘language games’) is the ultimate source of meaning (cp. Wittgenstein again, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’). Prior to the invention of writing, there was neither the means nor indeed any reason to consider speech apart from the larger activity of which it formed a part; indeed it is doubtful whether people would even have the concept of words as components of speech, which presents itself as a rhythmic flow, rather than a concatenation of smaller elements.

With writing, all that changes. For the first time, language can be studied and analysed at leisure. A sentence written on a page is comprehensible in itself, or so it appears, without reference to who wrote it or in what context. From this it is an easy step to the notion that meaning is an inherent property of words, rather than situations (what we overlook in this, of course, is that we are able to supply the context in which the words have meaning; but as such instances as the Phaistos Disc remind us, that ability can be lost, so that the marks we see have no more meaning for us than if they were random scratches made in  play).

Screenshot 2015-04-21 13.12.20

This relocation of meaning is fundamental to Plato’s Theory of Forms (or Ideas) in which he argues that the senses are deceived by the world of Appearance and that only the intellect can apprehend the true nature of Reality, the transcendent and immutable Forms. As I have argued elsewhere there is a strong case to be made that Platonic Ideas are in fact words – specifically, general and abstract terms – so the Platonic Ideas of ‘Cat’ ‘Table’ ‘Justice’ and ‘Good’ are the words cat, table, justice, good which stand for these ‘things’ (i.e. the general idea of ‘cat’, the abstract idea of ‘justice’) just as a specific name stands for the actual thing it denotes. (Though Plato pictures the words pointing to the transcendent Form or Idea, in actual fact the words themselves, allied to the use we make of them, are all that is needed)

It is this objectification of general and abstract ideas that leads to the notion of mental processes as private and inaccessible to others. We can point to something as an act of justice or goodness, but once we acquire the notion of justice as an idea, we introduce a new class of objects, those which can be apprehended only by the intellect. Strictly speaking, ‘object’ is used metaphorically here, but with Plato’s insistence that the Forms are the true Reality, this gets overlooked, and we start to think of thoughts, memories, ideas, impressions and the like as ‘mental objects’ that exist ‘in our minds’ or our ‘imaginations’ which we conceive as a kind of space, a sort of private viewing room.

The point to note here is that the metaphor preserves the Subject-Object relation, which is easily grasped in relation to physical objects – I know what it is to look at a tree, a cat or indeed another person: I am here and it is there. However, a degree of mystery seeps in when this is extended to ideas, thoughts and suchlike, particularly as philosophy develops the account it gives of them. Thus by Hume’s time we no longer simply see a tree: we form a mental impression of one, of which we can then make a copy, which he calls an idea – and this copy is what we use in remembering or imagining a tree, ‘calling it to mind’. This development clearly goes hand in hand with a growing understanding of light and optics and the physiology of the eye, but it is facilitated by having the notion of ‘mental space’ and regarding ideas as objects.

However, what is of most interest is how this alters our view of the Subject. From being a holistic notion which makes no distinction between mind and body – ‘I am this person looking at that tree’ – the subject begins to retreat in what becomes an infinite regress: the tree that we see out the window becomes a representation of a tree – to use Schopenhauer’s term, or the impression of a tree, to use Hume’s – which is now ‘in the mind’ but is still, somehow, seen. And if we have memory of that tree – an idea, to use Hume’s term – or the thought of a tree, or the mental image of one, then that, too, seems to be an object which we somehow apprehend – so the seeing, knowing or thinking subject – ourself – is forever edging out of the picture, never able – as subject – to become itself the object of consideration.

This is what leads the earlier Wittgenstein to suppose, in the Tractatus, that the subject is the boundary of experience, that it does not exist in the world but somehow outside or on the edge of it. Others have suggested that the Subject is a temporary manifestation generated (not unlike an electrical charge) by the combination of our brain and body and nervous system: it exists while we are alive (perhaps only when we are awake) and simply ceases when the physiology that generated it dies.

Yet all this, I would argue, is simply the result of philosophy’s having painted itself into a corner by adopting the way of thinking about the world that starts out with Plato. By dismissing the objects of sense as mere Appearance, and substituting the objects of intellectual apprehension as Reality, we reduce the Subject from an active participant in the world to a passive, detached observer: Wittgenstein’s boundary of experience. Reality is redefined as solely objective, and there is no room in it for the subject: ‘objectivity’ is praised while the subjective (often qualified by ‘merely’) is dismissed as unreliable, partial, mere ‘personal opinion’.

But let us step back, go back indeed to where we started, with Dupin, and the notion of thinking as a holistic activity which involves us as a totality, which is both physical and ‘mental’ (if indeed that distinction can be made at all). The view mentioned earlier, that the Subject (which can be identified with consciousness) is a kind of transitory by-product of our physiology seems to be supported by the latest developments in brain-imaging, which allow us to observe electrical activity in the neural networks of the brain: there is a correlation between certain activities and the part of the brain that ‘lights up’ when we are engaged in them. This has even led some to say that what brain imaging shows us are our actual thoughts – that all they are is these patterns of electric activity.

But I wonder. It has been demonstrated that people can lower their blood pressure aided by an index of it in the form of a display; likewise, people can be trained to suppress the physiological symptoms which polygraph tests – so-called ‘lie detectors’ – depend on for their evidence. It would be interesting to see if the lighting-up of neural networks is something that can be similarly controlled or disguised – for if we can learn to ‘hide our thoughts’ by controlling outward appearances, why should we suppose that we cannot do likewise with other physical manifestations of them, once we are aware of them?

It is illuminating to look at this from the other side: not only can we suppress or disguise the physical manifestations of thought, we can also imitate them – that is what actors do. And of course a standard acting technique is to have a store of memories that move us, which can be called to mind when the requisite emotion is called for – so if I wish to portray a character stricken by grief, I conjure a memory when I myself was grieved and my outward aspect will conform, much as does the player’s in Hamlet, who

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann’d,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit
Wittgenstein asks somewhere how we know that we are imitating someone’s expression, and adds that it is not by studying our face in a mirror. Our response to a smile, from a very early age, is a smile; but we are not imitating what we see – after all, we do not know what our own face looks like. What guides us is rather the feeling that goes with the smile. The best way I can think to put this is that, as human beings, we know what an expression feels like from the inside.

And I would add a note of caution here: do not import the model of cause and effect that we use in analysing the objective world. The joy we feel within does not cause the smile; it is not prior to it – the two are aspects of the same thing. I am reminded of an expression I learned as a boy doing my catechism – ‘an outward sign of inward grace’. There are a range of things that we know, not through becoming acquainted with them, but by doing them, by being them. And although we speak of ‘seeing’ ‘hearing’ and the rest of the senses separately, we cannot actually turn them on and off, but do them all at once and all the time; what we vary is the attention we give each one, and for most of us, sight predominates. with hearing next and the rest a good way behind, except when they force themselves on our attention.

What we actually experience, unanalysed, is not simply ‘the world’ – that is only half the story; what we experience is ‘being in the world’. All experience has this dual aspect: we know it from the inside and the outside at the same time. That is what makes communication possible, what understanding, properly understood, consists of. It is what in art, in all its forms – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, dance – enables us to ‘get it’: by considering the outward sign, we experience what it is like from inside, we recognise the feeling it expresses as something we, too, have felt.

The clever model that Plato and Aristotle invented, that underpins all Western thought, has enabled us to achieve remarkable things, but only at the considerable expense of ignoring one half of our experience and pretending that it does not matter.

Perhaps what Descartes should have said is not cogito ergo sum, nor even sum ergo sum (since it is not something we know by deduction) but simply sum – I am.

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Seeing Better

‘See better, Lear!’ is the admonition Kent gives his King after he has petulantly banished his youngest daughter, Cordelia, because she ‘lacks that glib and oily art’ to flatter him as her false sisters have done. Sight and blindness is a central theme in King Lear, as is its corollary, deception, both of others and oneself.

Kent’s words came to me when I was ruminating on my latest occupation, drawing shiny things

One of the things that drawing teaches is seeing better, and that indeed is a large part of my reason for pursuing it recently, as a kind of philosophical experiment (since February I have been drawing a monkey a day, in response to a challenge by a friend)Muriquin

The status of colour crops up in philosophical discussions at various periods – it is Locke, I think, who argues that colours are not ‘primary qualities’ (such as shape, extension and solidity) but only ‘secondary’ in that they involve an interaction between eye and object and cannot be said to inhere in the object itself as the primary qualities are supposed to do – but it is really a subset of a larger argument that takes us back (as always) to Plato.

Plato, it will be recalled, dismisses the world brought to us via the senses as deceptive Appearance, maintaining that the true nature of the world – Reality – can only be apprehended by the intellect: it is the world of Forms or Ideas. As I have argued elsewhere (‘In the beginning was the Word’) what Plato has really discovered is the power of general terms – the Platonic Idea or Form ‘table’ is not something that lies beyond the word ‘table’, to which it points, it is in fact the word ‘table’ itself – which can be used in thought to stand for any table, because – unlike a picture – it does not resemble any particular table.

This introduces a whole new way of thinking about the world, where it is no longer seen directly, through the despised senses, but apprehended by the intellect through the medium of language. And there is no better way of appreciating this than to try and draw something shiny.

Daimlerdrawn

What colour is the car? Why, black, of course – with some shiny bits. That is how it was described on the official documentation – Daimler DR450, Black. But what about all those other colours, then? Ah, now, that’s just reflections of one thing and another – you can ignore them; the car’s real colour is black (and its radiator grille etc aren’t coloured at all, they’re shiny chrome plate).

What trying to draw it teaches you is not only that you can’t ignore the many other colours that are there (if you want your picture to be any good at all) but it also brings home to you that your regular habit (or at least mine) is to dismiss a great deal of what your eyes tell you and pretend it isn’t there, that it doesn’t count: ‘that is just light reflected off a polished surface; that is just a reflection; that’s just a shadow.’

And that is Platonism in action: the intellect overrides the senses, reserves judgement to itself – and it does it through words: ‘light’ conveniently labels – and so keeps you from looking at – something that is very difficult to render faithfully in a drawing. You find that reflective surfaces, far from being bright, are often dark and dull; a tiny patch left uncoloured on a white page becomes a gleam of light when surrounded by greys and blues, even black. And your mind, on seeing the drawing, converts it back to an image of a plated surface – perhaps the most interesting part of the process.

It is as if we erect a glass screen between ourselves and the world, and on the screen we write the words that correspond to the things beyond – ‘mountains, trees, clouds, house, road, cars, people’ – and most of the time what we see is not what is in front of us, but only the words on the screen that give us the simplified general picture, at once a tool of immense power (enabling rapid thought unencumbered by distracting detail) and a great impoverishment of our experience – it inserts a carapace between us and the world.

See better. Draw. Then go out and look.

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In the beginning was the word… or was it?

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Reflecting on the origin of words leads us into interesting territory. I do not mean the origin of particular words, though that can be interesting too; I mean the notion of words as units, as building blocks into which sentences can be divided.

How long have we had words? The temptation is to say ‘as long as we have had speech’ but when you dig a bit deeper, you strike an interesting vein of thought.

As I have remarked elsewhere [see ‘The Muybridge Moment‘] it seems unlikely that there was any systematic analysis of speech till we were able to write it down, and perhaps there was no need of such analysis. Certainly a great many of the things that we now associate with language only become necessary as a result of its having a written form: formal grammar, punctuation, spelling – the three things that probably generate the most unnecessary heat – are all by-products of the introduction of writing.

The same could be said of words. Till we have to write them down, we have no need to decide where one word ends and another begins: the spaces between words on a page do not reflect anything that is found in speech, where typically words flow together except where we hesitate or pause for effect. We are reminded of this in learning a foreign language, where we soon realise that listening out for individual words is a mistaken technique; the ear needs to attune itself to rhythms and patterns and characteristic constructions.

So were words there all along just waiting to be discovered? That is an interesting question. Though ‘discovery’ and ‘invention’ effectively mean the same, etymologically (both have the sense of ‘coming upon’ or ‘uncovering’) we customarily make a useful distinction between them – ‘discovery’ implies pre-existence – so we discover buried treasure, ancient ruins, lost cities – whereas ‘invention’ is reserved for things we have brought into being, that did not previously exist, like bicycles and steam engines.  (an idea also explored in Three Misleading Oppositions, Three Useful Axioms)

So are words a discovery or an invention?

People of my generation were taught that Columbus ‘discovered’ America, though even in my childhood the theory that the Vikings got their earlier had some currency; but of course in each case they found a land already occupied, by people who (probably) had arrived there via a land-bridge from Asia, or possibly by island-hopping, some time between 42000 and 17000 years ago. In the same way, Dutch navigators ‘discovered’ Australia in the early 17th century, though in British schools the credit is given to Captain Cook in the late 18th century, who actually only laid formal claim in the name of the British Crown to a territory that Europeans had known about for nearly two centuries – and its indigenous inhabitants had lived in for around five hundred centuries.

In terms of discovery, the land-masses involved predate all human existence, so they were there to be ‘discovered’ by whoever first set foot on them, but these later rediscoveries and colonisations throw a different light on the matter. The people of the Old World were well used to imperial conquest as a way of life, but that was a matter of the same territory changing hands under different rulers; the business of treating something as ‘virgin territory’ – though it quite plainly was not, since they found people well-established there – is unusual, and I think it is striking where it comes in human, and particularly European, history. It implies an unusual degree of arrogance and self-regard on the part of the colonists, and it is interesting to ask where that came from.

Since immigration has become such a hot topic, there have been various witty maps circulating on social media, such as this one showing ‘North America prior to illegal immigration’ 2gdVlD0

The divisions, of course, show the territories of the various peoples who lived there before the Europeans arrived, though there is an ironic tinge lent by the names by which they are designated, which for the most part are anglicised. Here we touch on something I have discussed before  [in Imaginary lines: bounded by consent]  – the fact that any political map is a work of the imagination, denoting all manner of territories and divisions that have no existence outside human convention.

Convention could be described as our ability to project or impose our imagination on reality; as I have said elsewhere [The Lords of Convention] it strikes me as a version of the game we play in childhood, ‘let’s pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ – which is not to trivialise it, but rather to indicate the profound importance of the things we do in childhood, by natural inclination, as it were.

Are words conventions, a form we have imposed on speech much as we impose a complex conventional structure on a land-mass by drawing it on a map? The problem is that the notion of words is so fundamental to our whole way of thinking – may, indeed, be what makes it possible – that it is difficult to set them aside.

That is what I meant by my comment about the arrogance and self-regard implied in treating America and Australia as ‘virgin territory’ – its seems to me to stem from a particular way of thinking, and that way of thinking, I suggest, is bound up with the emergence of words into our consciousness, which I think begins about two and a half thousand years ago, and (for Europeans at least) with the Greeks.

I would like to offer a model of it which is not intended to be historical (though I believe it expresses an underlying truth) but is more a convenient way of looking at it. The years from around 470 to 322 BC span the lives of three men: the first, Socrates, famously wrote nothing, but spoke in the market place to whoever would listen; we know of him largely through his pupil, Plato. It was on Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, that Dante bestowed the title ‘maestro di color che sanno’ – master of those that know.

This transition, from the talking philosopher to the one who laid the foundations of all European thought, is deeply symbolic: it represents the transition from the old way of thought and understanding, which was inseparable from human activity – conversation, or ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ as Wittgenstein would say – to the new, which is characteristically separate and objective, existing in its own right, on the written page.

The pivotal figure is the one in the middle, Plato, who very much has a foot in both camps, or perhaps more accurately, is standing on the boundary of one world looking over into another newly-discovered. The undoubted power of his writing is derived from the old ways – he uses poetic imagery and storytelling (the simile of the cave, the myth of Er) to express an entirely new way of looking at things, one that will eventually subjugate the old way entirely; and at the heart of his vision is the notion of the word.

Briefly, Plato’s Theory of Forms or Ideas can be expressed like this: the world has two aspects, Appearance and Reality; Appearance is what is made known to us by the senses, the world we see when we look out the window or go for a walk. It is characterised by change and impermanence – nothing holds fast, everything is always in the process of changing into something else, a notion for which the Greeks seemed to have a peculiar horror; in the words of the hymn, ‘change and decay in all around I see’.

Reality surely cannot be like that: Truth must be absolute, immutable (it is important to see the part played in this by desire and disgust: the true state of the world surely could not be this degrading chaos and disorder where nothing lasts). So Plato says this: Reality is not something we can apprehend by the senses, but only by the intellect. And what the intellect grasps is that beyond Appearance, transcending it, is a timeless and immutable world of Forms or Ideas. Our senses make us aware of many tables, cats, trees; but our intellect sees that these are but instances of a single Idea or Form, Table, Cat, Tree, which somehow imparts to them the quality that makes them what they are, imbues them with ‘tableness’ ‘catness’ and ‘treeness’.

This notion beguiled me when I first came across it, aged fourteen. It has taken me rather longer to appreciate the real nature of Plato’s ‘discovery’, which is perhaps more prosaic (literally) but no less potent. Briefly, I think that Plato has discovered the power of general terms, and he has glimpsed in them – as an epiphany, a sudden revelation – a whole new way of looking at the world; and it starts with being able to write a word on a page.

Writing makes possible the relocation of meaning: from being the property of a situation, something embedded in human activity (‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’) meaning becomes the property of words, these new things that we can write down and look at. The icon of a cat or a tree resembles to some extent an actual cat or tree but the word ‘cat’ looks nothing like a cat, nor ‘tree’ like a tree; in order to understand it, you must learn what it means – an intellectual act. And what you learn is more than just the meaning of a particular word – it is the whole idea of how words work, that they stand for things and can, in many respects, be used in their stead, just as the beads on an abacus can be made to stand for various quantities. What you learn is a new way of seeing the world, one where its apparently chaotic mutability can be reduced to order.

Whole classes of things that seem immensely varied can now be subsumed under a single term: there is a multiplicity of trees and cats, but the one word ‘tree’ or ‘cat’ can be used to stand for all or any of them indifferently. Modelled on that, abstract ideas such as ‘Justice’ ‘Truth’ and ‘The Good’ can be seen standing for some immutable, transcendent form that imbues all just acts with justice and so on. Plato’s pupil Aristotle discarded the poetic clothing of his teacher’s thought, but developed the idea of generalisation to the full: it is to him that we owe the system of classification by genus and species and the invention of formal logic, which could be described as the system of general relations; and these are the very foundation of all our thinking.

In many respects, the foundations of the modern world are laid here, so naturally these developments are usually presented as one of mankind’s greatest advances. However, I would like to draw attention to some detrimental aspects. The first is that this new way of looking at the world, which apprehends it through the intellect, must be learned. Thus, at a stroke, we render natural man stupid (and ‘primitive’ man, to look ahead to those European colonisations, inferior, somewhat less than human). We also establish a self-perpetuating intellectual elite – those who have a vested interest in maintaining the power that arises from a command of the written word – and simultaneously exclude and devalue those who struggle to acquire that command.

The pernicious division into ‘Appearance’ and ‘Reality’ denigrates the senses and all natural instincts, subjugating them to and vaunting the intellect; and along with that goes the false dichotomy of Heart and Head, where the Head is seen as being the Seat of Reason, calm, objective, detached, which should properly rule the emotional, subjective, passionate and too-easily-engaged Heart.

This, in effect, is the marginalising of the old way of doing things that served us well till about two and a half thousand ago, which gave a central place to those forms of expression and understanding which we now divide and rule as the various arts, each in its own well-designed box: poetry, art, music, etc. (a matter discussed in fable form in Plucked from the Chorus Line)

So what am I advocating? that we undo all this? No, rather that we take a step to one side and view it from a slightly different angle. Plato could only express his new vision of things in the old way, so he presents it as an alternative world somewhere out there beyond the one we see, a world of Ideas or Forms, which he sees as the things words stand for, what they point to – and in so doing, makes the fatal step of discarding the world we live in for an intellectual construct; but the truth of the matter is that words do not point to anything beyond themselves; they are the Platonic Forms or Ideas: the Platonic Idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘Horse’. What Plato has invented is an Operating System; his mistake is in thinking he has discovered the hidden nature of Reality.

What he glimpsed, and Aristotle developed, and we have been using ever since, is a way of thinking about the world that is useful for certain purposes, but one that has its limitations. We need to take it down a peg or two, and put it alongside those other, older operating systems that we are all born with, which we developed over millions of years. After all, the rest of the world – animal and vegetable – seems to have the knack of living harmoniously; we are the ones who have lost it, and now threaten everyone’s existence, including our own; perhaps it is time to take a fresh look.

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The Exploration of Inner Space III: What Plato’s got to do with it

chimborazo-3Chimborazo, Ecuador

WHEN I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

Turner’s poem is called ‘Romance’ and it records an experience most of us have felt at some point in childhood, the enchantment that arises from the potent combination of exotic names and far-off places, usually the result of reading books. I first heard it (my father was a great reciter of verse and lodged many poems in my head long before I ever read them, though I think it may have been my brother made me aware of this one) when I was still at primary school and I remember being perturbed by the second verse:

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

How could that happen and he not notice? I wondered. The fourth verse resonated with me: in those far-off days, we thought nothing of walking considerable distances to school, and being the youngest, I was often on my own, my brothers having moved on to the Big School, and I was certainly a dreamer:

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school—
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

volcano-popocatepetl-by-jakub-hejtmanek-wallpaperShining Popocatapetl, Mexico – photo by Jakub Hejtmanek

This poem came to mind on my morning walk when I was trying to recall when I first read Plato. I was about fourteen; it was a summer holiday in Barra, with no television. We learned to play cribbage and I read Plato’s Republic. So, not the misty heights of the South American volcanoes but a golden land of a different sort, the bright morning sunshine of the Mediterranean and ancient Greece, ‘when all the world was young’ – and not Romance, but Philosophy.

I say it was not Romance, and yet I wonder. For all his stern strictures on the ‘deception’ of art and poetry (which he would banish from his ideal state, unless it could be used for propaganda purposes) Plato is at his most persuasive when he is at his most poetic: the Simile of the Cave, where the prisoner starts out shackled in darkness, watching the play of shadows on the wall, but escapes to the upper world and gazes at last on the Sun of Truth, remains one of the most potent invitations to the study of philosophy.

Central to Plato’s thought is his Theory of Forms (or Ideas). This posits a world of immutable Forms which are what really exists – that is Reality; the world we perceive with our senses is deceptive Appearance, a mere shadow, whose contents stand to the World of Forms as the copy to the original. Thus, there are many tables, but each is an instance or expression of the single Idea or Form, ‘Table’.

As a teenager I found this beguiling, but I think an ambivalence was always there: although Plato plainly states that this World of Forms can be apprehended only by the intellect and not by the senses, his own presentation of it is so vivid (The Simile of the Cave and the Myth of Ur, which is an account of metempsychosis, following the journey of the soul after death into the timeless world of Forms thence to rebirth in another body, where its ‘acquisition’ of knowledge is actually ‘anamnesis’ or remembering its sojourn between death and birth) that it lends it the quality of concrete reality; to my teenage mind it was super-real: it had all the the vividness of the sensible world, only more so; as such it was a continuation by other means of fairyland and all the mysterious realms that had succeeded it in the stories of my childhood – it was the secret realm that lies hidden behind everyday reality, attainable only to the fortunate few.

(Another strand that was important to me was the compatibility of Plato’s thought with my religious beliefs – which should be no surprise, given that Platonism was the first big philosophical influence on Catholic thought, long before Aquinas assimilated Aristotle)

It has taken a good four decades and more for my perspective on Plato to shift. I think his way of looking at things retains a great deal of potency but is mistaken (or rather misleading) in two key particulars. The first of these is the elevation of the intellect with a concomitant denigration of the senses. I am beginning to think that this may have been a major wrong turning in Western thought and that its effects have been almost wholly pernicious. Plato may not be the first but he is certainly the foremost in establishing the antithesis between Appearance and Reality, effectively relegating the senses (and with them the emotions) to an insignificant and untrustworthy sideshow: the senses cannot be trusted; the intellect alone apprehends Truth. That is something that has bedevilled Western thought ever since; it could be summed up as the triumph of Head over Heart.

The second fault is not in his description but his labelling of it. There is a world that is apprehended by the intellect and a world apprehended by the senses, but it is the latter that is Real and Original, the former that is artificial and derivative.

(At this point, a curious things happened. Casting about for a suitable image to convey that Plato’s way of looking at things was a complete inversion of how they actually are, I recalled a particular optical illusion, where a hollow mask is rotated and we see it as a positive, convex face whichever side we see, and to accommodate this, we reverse the direction of its rotation. I recalled that I had used it in a previous piece I had written (Force of Habit) but when I checked, the link was broken. Searching for another version I came on this but what really excited me was the note at the end:

‘this illusion often fails to work on people suffering with schizophrenia; they are able to see the hollow mask for what it is. In this case the raw visual information (bottom-up processing) is not over-ridden by higher cognitive processes (top-down processing). Some psychologists believe that this dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality.’

Top-down processing suggests that we form our perceptions starting with a larger object, concept, or idea before working our way toward more detailed information. In other words, top-down processing happens when we work from the general to the specific; the big picture to the tiny details.’

Screenshot 2015-03-23 13.13.06

This, couched in different language, is just what Plato proposes in his Theory of Forms: the Form or Idea is general, and specific instances are derived from it (interestingly, it was Plato’s pupil Aristotle who devised the system of classification using Genus and Species, where things are grouped together according to their common or general characteristics, and subdivided according to their specific or detailed differences – a way of looking at things that seems so ‘natural’ that we forget that it was an invention).

Biological-Taxonomy

However, what excited me even more than this unexpected sidelight on Plato was how well the idea that the ‘dominance of bottom-up processing over top-down processing contributes to the sense of dissociation from reality’ fitted with the notion I floated in my last piece  namely that some (perhaps much) ‘mental illness’ has its roots in an inability to learn the conventional way of seeing the world that most of us have adopted. Of course, from my point of view, I would insist on the inverted commas round ‘reality’ here, and I would resist the superiority implied in describing ‘top-down processing’ as ‘higher cognitive processes’.

In other words, Plato’s Theory of Forms – or ‘top-down processing’ if you prefer – is the very ‘carapace’ that we interpose between ourselves and reality, as discussed in my previous articles [here and here]. It is worth exploring this idea further.

The first thing to say is that we must remember, first and foremeost, that what we are discussing here are not actual things but ways of seeing – what Plato (and all who have followed) are offering is a way of looking at the world, a way of thinking about it – ‘seeing it as’ .

In saying this, I do not mean that before Plato no-one saw it this way and that since then everyone has learned consciously to do so. What Plato has made explicit and others (principally Aristotle) have refined is a technique, a way of dealing with the world, of operating in it, that was doubtless already implicit in much of our behaviour (though it would be interesting to know to what extent).

At the heart of this technique is abstraction, or the power to generalise, the trick of ignoring (superficial) difference and homing in on (underlying) similarity. This is certainly a very powerful tool: it enables us to use general terms, group things under the same head: ‘tree’ for all and any tree, ‘car’ ‘man’ ‘insect’ and so on. We can imagine that without it our mental processes might be very cumbersome; certainly our language would be. (I have discussed an aspect of this before, in relation to number, here).

I remember as a youth having an interesting discussion with an elderly Australian jesuit, Fr. John Flynn, an eminent islamic scholar among other things. His brother was a man of the same cut and had compiled one of the first dictionaries of the Australian Aboriginal tongue. One point that has stuck in my mind was that (apparently) they had no single verb ‘to wash’ but used a different word depending on what was being washed – the feet, the hands, the head, some article*. Fr Flynn cited this as evidence of ‘primitive’ thinking and I remember arguing that it might rather have been that, for them, more significance attached to the difference between the specific acts than to the similarity of the action, so that to suppose that washing the feet was like washing the face might strike them as ludicrous or possibly indecent.

This calls to mind what is said in the excerpt quoted above about one set of cognitive processes ‘over-riding’ another and the attitude this implies. We could say that the Aboriginal Australian (in the instance cited) has not developed the ‘higher’ cognitive processes that enable him to see that all acts of washing are essentially the same, share the same general form; but equally the Aboriginal Australian could retort that our debased ‘Western’ way of looking at things is a bit like having bad eyesight – we can no longer distinguish critical details. It is we who are deficient: we have forgotten how to see.

I find that idea exciting. It resonates with other things that I feel are bound up with this whole area of discussion, the question of what constitutes Reality and how best to perceive it. One is the celebrated ability of the Aboriginal Australian to ‘read’ the landscape and navigate without any of the aids that ‘Westerners’ require; when it comes to reading our surroundings, it is we who are illiterate. (When we lost this ability is an interesting matter to consider. There has recently been something of a revival in Britain of the idea of reading a landscape in this way (as here, for instance) and it is a commonplace that those who work close to nature and depend on it for their livelihood – shepherds, farmers, fishermen, say – are much more skilled in gleaning information from their surroundings.)

Another point of resonance is the experience of learning to draw, and developing skill in art generally; one of the first things you have to be aware of is the extent to which we allow concepts to interpose between us and the thing we are looking at. The simple exercise of drawing a familiar object – a cup, say – soon brings this home. We know what a cup is – we have the idea of it ‘in our head’: it seems superfluous to provide an example; we could draw one from our imagination. And to begin with, that is what we do. We fail to see the specific cup that is in front of us and draw our idea of it instead; we need to learn various techniques for seeing past the concept to the actual object, which is a pattern of light, shade and colour. (One such is the technique of ‘negative space’ where instead of attending to the object, you look at the space round about it (see some interesting applications here)).

Here I think we are approaching the heart of the matter, which is the possibility that we have evolved a way of seeing the world that has proved so useful and beneficial in so many respects that we have become blind to its shortcomings (it is, in fact, a form of elective indispensability, an idea I discuss in an earlier piece). The consequence is that when we experience difficulty as a result of these shortcomings – as I think is increasingly the case – we fail to recognise the source. We resemble, if you like, people who have become increasingly wearied and burdened by a heavy back-pack and try every method to make it easier to carry – walking sticks, different diet, improved fitness – save the obvious one of taking it off.

*I am open to correction here, as I am recalling something from forty years ago.

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