Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Know Thyself? Part I: or, My Beef With Western Philosophy

"Know Thyself."

This famous directive, carved in the entrance-hall at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, was a guiding philosophical principle for Socrates. The original intent of this directive is unclear. It may have meant something like, "Know your place" -- that is, know your place within your society and in relation to the gods, and don't rock the boat.

For Socrates, though, it took on a different meaning. This 'different meaning' served as one of several foundational principles in his (and, by extension, Plato's) philosophy. I think the most relevant passage in Plato is this:
I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that ... Am I a beast more complicated and savage than Typhon, or am I a tamer, simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature?

-- Plato, Phaedrus, 230a
Here, Socrates is explaining to Phaedrus why he has no interest in inventing rational explanations for the various Greek myths -- 'this is what really happened' sorts of stories, along the lines of 'The Red Sea really split because of an earthquake, and people thought some 'God' did it' -- something which the Sophists seem to have been involved in at the time. (More on that in a later post.)

Socrates doesn't elaborate further here on the need to "know thyself," but the meaning seems clear: How can I hope to investigate all the things around me without knowing what I -- the thing that's doing the investigating -- in fact am? How can I understand the world without first understanding the self? And this meaning is confirmed throughout Plato's philosophy, in dialogues like Phaedrus, Symposium, Republic, Meno, Plato continually explores what a human being must be in order for his epistemological and metaphysical system to hold together. The ability of human beings to learn; the meaning of justice; the consequences of injustice; the whole theory of forms; in short, the whole of what is generally considered 'Platonic doctrine' -- all of it rests on the nature of the self that is built up in these dialogues. Without that self, the whole house of cards falls to the floor. With a different notion of the self, all the questions Plato asks would have to be answered differently.

This is a deep epistemological problem, and one that hasn't gone away. The history of Western philosophy is largely defined by the inability of philosophers to deal with this problem -- or to even see that it is a problem. And this holds for most of our philosophy down to the present day. While most of us have rejected what we (often mistakenly -- more on that in a later post) take to be Platonic doctrine, we're still plagued by the Platonic view of the self.

I hear members of the audience (possibly fictitious ones, since I may have no audience) screaming: "What the hell are you talking about? We're modern secular people! We've rejected dualism, the immortality of the soul, the mind as something separate from the brain; we believe the opposite of what Plato did about the self!"

To which I reply: yes, we've stripped away much of the doctrine. But only the parts we recognized as doctrine; only the parts we don't still assume are true without realizing we're making assumptions. What about the subject/object division? What about the assumption that the logic (and mental processes in general) conducted by the self can adequately describe or represent the world around us? What about the idea that the self can be treated as a concrete entity at all, even though it's constantly changing moment-to-moment, and you-ten-years-ago wouldn't be able to recognize you-now as the same entity?

I don't mean to suggest that Western philosophy has utterly failed to address questions like these. Beginning with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, certain philosophers began to revise -- and reject -- some of our assumptions about the validity of our logic, the coherency of the self, and the general correctness of our philosophical process. Those philosophers who actually understood Kant -- few and far between (more on that in a later post) -- and their intellectual heirs have made much progress on all of these issues. In particular, I have in mind the phenomenologists and some of the existentialists (particularly the religious existentialists); but also the attacks on the stable self made by Freud and Nietzsche, and some of the work of the postmodernists. But for more than 2,000 years, our tradition was more or less hung up on the Greek notion of the self and the infallibility of the logic that arose from that notion of the self; and most of the 'serious thinking' done by intellectuals in the West still relies on these deeply flawed assumptions.

Part II later this week...

-- The Crooked Sophist

P.S.: Yes, I realize I've promised you no fewer that four(!) posts. I promise I'll write them all eventually. To keep me honest, let's keep score. I owe you:

1) Know Thyself? Part II
2) The Sophists' secular, myth-explaining agenda (which will mostly be about how Plato's philosophy is a religion)
3) What we take to be Platonic doctrine isn't really Platonic doctrine (or: Plato's a slippery, underhanded bastard and we should never take him at face value)
4) Very few philosophers understood Kant (or: Analytic philosophers don't understand what the words CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON mean)

Hello World

I've recently begun two projects: a re-reading of the Western philosophical canon, and an exploration of Zen Buddhism. I'll post musings about both on this blog.

I make no claims about the frequency of my posting. Feel free to comment. I'll read them all. Feel free to email me privately, as well.

-- The Crooked Sophist