The ‘Man for All Seasons’ and Ontological Exigency

I’ve recently embarked on a study of Gabriel Marcel’s thought and I must say that the experience has been rather exhilarating: the freshness of his works speaks loudly and clearly across the decades since he wrote. Unpacking the meaning of his work has been an extremely useful exercise in identifying the spiritual problems that lie at the root of modern political life. Here I want to focus on one aspect of his work, ontological exigence as it is presented in his book Philosophy of Existence.

But first let’s go over some background points. Marcel’s so-called “Catholic existentialism” seems at first glance to be a contradiction. The marriage of these two terms is an unlikely one. Existentialism usually invokes cartoonish images of snooty overly intellectual Frenchmen lamenting the woes of their existence while ensconced in the material comfort of a beautiful Parisian café (with tiny glasses of Pernod, of course). Especially when one considers its Sartrean expression, existentialism is the philosophy par excellence of the nihilistic and alienated individualism against which the Church has been railing for decades if not centuries. Catholicism, for its part, is often viewed as the stalwart, scolding, religion of yesterday, clinging hopelessly to its medieval traditions and philosophy while the world passes it by. Since the genesis of existentialism in the volcanic figure of Kierkegaard, the alienation of modernity has in part been seen by many existentialist critics to be connected with the moral imperialism of the Church.

How exactly does Marcel combine these two currents? It seems of necessity to be a feat of dialectical ambiguity. Here I want to attempt a beginning at answering this question by making a literary comparison between Marcel and Robert Bolt’s compelling portrayal of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Particularly, I think that More’s character speaks volumes about Marcel’s “creative fidelity.”

To quickly set the scene: More was the Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of King Henry VIII. After the King was refused an annulment for his barren marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry formally broke with the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England. In this process, Henry required that all government ministers take an “Oath of Supremacy,” acknowledging Henry as head of the Church of England. More’s refusal to do so resulted in his execution in 1535.

Robert Bolt’s depiction of the events leading up to More’s death in his play touches on themes that correspond to certain aspects of Marcel’s philosophy. Let us begin with one of the great moments in the play, where More is trying to explain to his friend Norfolk why he cannot take the oath:

And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You’d hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it—I do—not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do—I! (More goes up to him and feels him up and down like an animal. . . . ) Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord! (123-4).

More is the quintessential tragic figure: in remaining connected to his being, he is renouncing his life. He is Orestes: he must kill his mother (the source of his life) in order to avenge his father (the genesis of his being). As Marcel so forcefully asserts in Philosophy of Existence: “my being is not my life” (21). In choosing his being, More must renounce his life.

But as they are wont to do, these great literary themes open more questions than answers. We feel their correctness before we can articulate it in words. What is being? For Marcel, it is that which “withstands—or what would withstand—an exhaustive analysis bearing on the data of experience and aiming to reduce them step by step to elements increasingly devoid of intrinsic or significant value” (11). Following Bergson, Marcel thinks that being is necessarily existential—it cannot be grasped through the merely propositional. Its source is the person.

Thus, when More’s family, colleagues, and friends exhort him to be “reasonable,” to do the sensible thing, to just sign the oath even though he privately does not agree, they are asking him to renounce this wellspring of his personhood. But I must be cautious here: this source of personhood, the ontological exigence, is not necessarily something that is simply grasped in its totality once and for all. It is, on the contrary, indeterminate, paradoxical: “To formulate this need is to raise a host of questions: Is there such a thing as being? What is it? etc. Yet immediately, an abyss opens under my feet: I who ask these questions about being, how can I be sure that I exist?” (12). Were he to take the oath More would be in a sense renouncing his ability to ask these questions, he would be allowing the exigencies of his situation to dictate the answers rather than allowing him to ask the questions of the existential search.

Marcel poses the rhetorical question: “Surely I, who formulate this problem, should be able to remain outside it? . . . Clearly this is not so” (12). The questioning is never of one who stands outside being, able to interrogate it in the same way an empirical scientists interrogates nature. It is instead like a stage upon which being plays out: to ask the question of being is to be an I. To engage in the questioning is to ground the notion of self, to allow it to participate in the unfolding of being. This is what Marcel calls the “meta-problematical”:

I am therefore led to assume or to recognize a form of participation which has the reality of a subject; this participation cannot be, by definition, an object of thought; it cannot serve as a solution—it appears beyond the realm of problems: it is the meta-problematical (15).

Allowing this meta-problematical to recess from consciousness, what Heidegger calls “the forgottenness of Being” is to forget the “I.” In this sense, the Oath of Supremacy takes on for More a sort of existential imperialism: it is the encroachment of an outside force onto an indelible facet of the personal; an integral part of what it means to be an “I.” The meta-problematical is in all cases my quest, a set of questions that can never be understood in the abstract, can never be answered by anyone but me. This is why no one ever became wise solely by reading a lot of philosophy. It is only when, through experience, one comes to understand the meaning behind the various articulations of being one finds in philosophy that it can flower into its full potential. Bolt’s depiction of More demonstrates this to great effect: the need for each person to play his or her part on the stage of being; to participate in that which can never be engaged in the abstract.

For Marcel, this ontological exigency can never be denied, and any philosophical outlook that does so inevitably results in the alienation of the person that has been the hallmark of modernity.

The Aesthetics of Myth in Plato

It is always fascinating to ask people who are reading Plato, for the first time or the 100th, why they think he is so often akin to utilizing mythological elements in his work. The soaring heights of Socrates’s philosophical peitho (persuasion) often culminate in the mythical. Witness, for example the Meno, the Phaedrus, and the Phaedo, not to mention Timaeus.

What are we to make of this tendency to revert to the myth? Scholars like A.E. Taylor aver, at least in the case of the Timaeus, that the myth is just the tool Plato uses when his analysis hasn’t gone far enough. Others, like Charles Kahn, see it as a mere means of persuasion for Plato’s audience, lost in the ignorance of a mythically-founded existence as they were. The more vulgar interpretation, for instance, in the French version of Philosophy for Dummies that I’m working on translating (an extremely interesting, useful, and comical pursuit), views Plato as the philosopher that just couldn’t quite get past the myth. He was a transitional figure; in him we can see the birth pangs of a the more fully “reason”-based philosophy that emerges in Aristotle. In a word, he just couldn’t quite get past mythos and enter true logos.

This interpretation is to be found even among modern Christian philosophers of a more analytic bent. James Jacobs, in his new book, Seat of Wisdom, posits the standard viewpoint on the central achievement of Greek philosophy: “[The] monumental turn from mythos (myth) to logos (logic, or reason) would prove to be a seminal innovation for the entire human race.” His translations of the terms here must not go unnoticed: uncritical use of of the word “myth” in the modern sense (a fabricated story that must be debunked in order to discern truth) and “reason” (the only principle which allows one to know something, that which must stand under everything claimed as knowledge). Hence his subsequent emphasis on Aristotle as the foundational figure for the philosophie pérenne.

What is Plato really doing when he employs the myth? The most plausible theories come in the “myth as persuasion” variety. For scholars like William Rowe, the use of myth is an acknowledgement of the limits of our capacity for knowledge. The eikos mythos of Plato’s Timaeus is the “likely tale” that is the closest we can hope to come to knowledge about the beginning of the world. We are getting warmer: Plato was acknowledging the limits of “knowledge” as we understand it today, steeped as we are in our post-postmodern worldview, which one could describe as constituted in part by a fanatically uncritical scientistic rationalism.

Eric Voegelin’s view of what is happening in Plato’s mythologizing is a much fuller exposition of the myth as persuasion interpretation. In his book Plato and Aristotle, he provides a fascinating reading of the Timaeus that expounds on the meaning of Plato’s myths.

To begin with, Voegelin agrees that

“The paradigm of the cosmos itself is inaccessible to the intellect of man… Nevertheless, we can give a likely account of the likeness because our psyche is part of the cosmic psyche, and in the medium of our individual psyche we respond with the eikos mythos to the cosmic eikon” (198).

We must go over some terminology. “Psyche” here is a technical term meaning the locus of interaction between man and the transcendent “beyond” or “unlimited” (apeiron) with which man interacts through reason. Thus, “reason” for Voegelin is “The consciousness of being caused by the Divine ground and being in search of the Divine ground” (Conversations with Eric Voegelin).

Another term to note is eikon, Greek for “image,” but which is the etymological root word for “icon.” There is more going on here, something like what Jean-Luc Marion has in mind when using the term (See his most in-depth treatment in God Without Being). For Marion, the icon is the unlimited depth (which we can scarcely begin to discern conceptually) that lies at the root of that which is being contemplated. It is the fullness of what we might call the “unconcept”: that which can be broached (in the French sense of aborder) but can never be contained within a totality. In this context, the cosmos is an eikon.

There is, then, a “consubstantiality” between the soul and the cosmos. This makes possible the interaction between the two that happens in and through the myth: “The eikos mythos carries its own aletheia [truth] because in it we symbolize the truly experienced relation of our separate conscious existence to the cosmic ground of the soul” (198). The myth is a participation in the “something” that is shared between the psyche and the cosmos.

This leads Voegelin to a crucial distinction: this is not a naturalistic philosophy of creation in time. This leads Voegelin to distinguish between the “time of the tale” (eternity, Being) and the “time of the cosmos” (natural time, Becoming). The myth symbolizes the coming together of the “in-between of time and eternity,” or the time of the tale and the time of the cosmos. It is an attempt at saying the unsayable: the relation between man and that which stands beyond his capability to know. The something which he participates in and with in the drama of being. On Voegelin’s reading, this in-between of time and eternity is a gesture toward the meaning of human existence for Plato. Voegelin continues:

“Being does not precede becoming in time; it is eternally present in Becoming. The flux of Becoming, with its transitory objects, as we have seen, is not merely a series of data given to belief and sensation; it has a dimension pointing out of time toward eternal Being… This process which intersects the time of Becoming at the point of its present, but is not part of the process of Becoming itself, is the process of the psyche; and the time of the tale is the “form of the object” into which consciousness casts this timeless process” (200).

The time of the tale approximates the process of the psyche as the locus of interaction between physical time and the eternal, between Being and Becoming.

I am reminded here of Martin Buber’s proclamation that “the prayer is not in time, but time in prayer.” The prayer constitutes time; it is ontologically prior to it. For example, in the West, before clocks were available, time was measured by the movement of the sun and the commensurate hour of prayer (See Neil Postman’s excellent book Technocracy for a great discussion of this). The Liturgy of the Hours constituted time in participation with the movement of cosmos. To enter into the prayer in some sense was to enter into the consubstantial kinesis (movement) of God’s creation. This, as opposed to the time of nature which on its own is utterly bereft of meaning. Prayer constitutes in this sense the intersection of eternal being and the becoming of nature, with and through man’s participation.

The meaning of this can only be understood in terms of the “Thou” which can never be reached in the disembodied proposition. How, then can it be approached? For Voegelin, it is through the peitho of existential communication, which Plato experienced via his discourses with Socrates. Plato has passed this on to us through the myth. This was the only way available for him to communicate that which is best passed between persons, between an I and a Thou. He was attempting to provide us a dim reflection of the meaning he had gathered from his experience as a student.

For Buber, another way to approach the unreachable is through art. In fact, as he explains in his endlessly fascinating essay, I and Thou, artistic creation is when the form reaches out to the artist from the beyond, desiring to be brought into the temporal realm, of becoming. It is a moment of intersection that allows us to go some way to understanding how being and becoming can meet:

“This is the eternal source of art: a man is faced by a form which desires to be made through him into a work. This form is no offspring of his soul, but is an appearance which steps up to it and demands of it the effective power. The man is concerned with an act of his being. If he carries it through, if he speaks the primary word out of his being to the form which appears, then the effective power streams out, and the work arises” (11).

To speak the most basic words requires that one have a sense of their meaning. The failure of analytic philosophy to ground the most basic concepts in a pure instrumental reason witness to this fact. It is only in and through the work of art that the power of that which stands outside of the self can be broached: an entrance into the relationship with the “Thou.” The happening that occurs with the creation of the work happens anew when one glances into it in the fullness of its depth. Or, one might say, in its evocation of the “Thou”:

“In bodying forth I disclose. I lead the form across—into the world of It. The work produced is a thing among things, able to be experience and described as a sum of qualities. But from time to time it can face the receptive beholder in its whole embodied form.”

The myth, then is Plato’s art. He is trying to write that which can never be captured textually; that which, once written, becomes meaningless when approached with the vulgar notion of reason in mind. In order to access what Plato has to offer, we must open ourselves to the Thou available to us at these most crucial moments in his dialogues.

Book review posted at VoegelinView

Friends over at VoegelinView have published my recent review of Calvin’s Crusaders in the Wars That Made America by David T. Fisher. Check it out here.

It’s a great book by a very perceptive author unafraid of bucking current historiographical trends. I highly recommend the book for those who want to escape the skullduggery of current debates of American history.

In other news, thanks for bearing with me as I finish up work on some other projects, including work on Levinas, Machiavelli, and Eric Voegelin. Expect to see more posts in the near future!

Thanatos and Eros: Eric Voegelin on what dialogue actually means

The inchoate concept of “Dialogue” is a hot-button topic in our society today. I’ll refrain from providing a litany of theoretically problematic news stories or puff-pieces by “leaders” about how dialogue will solve so many of our political problems. I invite the reader to simply call to mind examples from his or her own experience. When readings such pieces, the more thoughtful among us may rightly be wondering: what does dialogue actually mean? What can dialogue, rightly conceived, actually accomplish? Can “training” or “education” really promote such dialogue?

As with so many “contemporary” problems, useful ways of understanding such problems have already been known for thousands of years. The faster we run headlong into schemes to increase “change” or “progress” the faster we realize how far behind we actually are. The sapiential frameworks for understanding our problems are already there; what we need are thinkers who can step outside the hysteria of the moment and better understand the tools available to us and how to apply them.

One possible framework for understanding dialogue comes in the work of Plato. As many have argued, Platonic dialogue is seen as one possible method for approaching concepts that could never be formulated as apodictic verities. According to James Rhodes (see link above), Plato’s assertion that he cannot write on the things about which he is most serious should make us wonder. At the very least, this indicates that there is a lot more to dialogue than just talking. In fact, just forcing people to talk to each other may do more harm than good. Is dialogue the second-best alternative to silent wonder at the ineffable mysteries of being? Is it our best hope for a true (though necessarily incomplete) understanding or being shared with others?

For an answer, we must turn to Eric Voegelin. In the 3rd Volume of Order and History, Voegelin asserts that true dialogue as understood by Socrates and Plato, consists of two elements: thanatos and eros.

According to Voegelin, the deep structure of Platonic dialogue is the heir to Greek tragedy. The idea of peitho, or “the persuasive imposition of right order on the unruly passion,” as exemplified in tragedies like Aeschylus’s Prometheus become a model for a well-ordered soul. The two opposing forces of order and passion are engaged in a dialogue in the soul. This well-ordered tension becomes the model for the soul: it is a balance of elements, hammered out in dialogue. The two elements can take many forms; Voegelin thinks that for Plato, they are best symbolized in thanatos (Socratic death) and eros (passion).

Thanatos is the element found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates explains the role of philosophy as a sort of purification toward the culmination that comes in death. In Voegelin’s words, “In the Phaedo, thanatos becomes the cathartic power that cures the soul of the sickness of the earth…[it] is the force that orders the soul of the living, for it makes them desirous of stripping themselves of everything that is not noble and just.” Philosophy, properly practiced, becomes a sort of living death, a shedding of the concerns of this world. Voegelin terms it, in a strangely Heideggerian moment, “life toward death.” This is dramatically illustrated in Socrates’ final words, in which he strangely remembers in his last moments on Earth that he “…owes a cock to Asclepios.” It is his final shedding of the concerns of the world as he makes his journey to the Beyond.

Eros is the other required ingredient for dialogue. Through thanatos man dies to all that is not noble, true and beautiful. Eros is the next step: it is “…the positive desire of the Good,” according to Voegelin. Plato explains the erotic connection in the Phaedrus, in the form of a myth: two souls search for the good and “…find their own divine nature in their fascinated gaze at the nature of the god in the beloved.” There is a tripartite structure here: the lover, the beloved, and the god reflected in the loving gaze between the two. This structure takes on a “sacramental character”, as the structure enters spatio-temporal reality through its enactment: “…for the nature of the god becomes incarnate in the community of the erotic souls as in its mystical body.”

When these two elements are present, true dialogue is possible: one must be dead to the insignificant concerns of everyday life and open to experiencing the Good through the other. This is how a simple trading of words can become a true dialogue, or “existential communication.” It is an openness to the other through communion, through a shared reality. One is reminded here of John von Heyking’s important and influential exploration of Aristotle’s concept of sunaisthesis. Only through a shared communal experience is friendship possible. Only when two souls have died to petty political concerns and opened themselves up to the good possible in community with the other is dialogue possible.

In Voegelin’s words:

The Idea of the Good evoked in the communion of the dialogue, fills the souls of those who participate in the evocative act. And thus it becomes the sacramental bond between them and creates the nucleus of the new society.

This sounds like a rather lofty and idealistic enterprise when we consider what might be possible through training at work or new educational schemes for our children. True dialogue is only possible when individual people open themselves up to experiencing the good through others. Heavy-handed government, corporate, or educational schemes can only fall short of what it really means to enter into dialogue. As mentioned above, they may do more harm than good. Again, Voegelin has the crucial insight: “[Dialogue] restores the common order of the spirit that has been destroyed through the privatization of rhetoric.” Can putting people in a room and forcing them to talk about these things do anything more than just accelerate the “privatization of rhetoric?”

The real solution comes only in the authentic interactions between people, in shared experiences of reality that help them to mutually grow to see the good in the other. Rather than promote healing, any top-down scheme promoting “dialogue” will likely create yet more alienation.

Maritain’s Response: The Intuition of Being

In her book The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt provides us with this fascinating quote by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “To reduce perception to the thought of perceiving . . . is to take out an insurance against doubt whose premiums are more onerous than the loss for which it is to indemnify us: for it is to… move to a type of certitude that will never restore to us the ‘there is’ of the world.” (p. 49)

This indeed is the central philosophical problem since Descartes; and, I argue, the central political-theoretical problem of our time. The problem of truth is today a political problem.

Let’s explore one possible response to the problem posed by Descartes and reframed by Hegel. Jacques Maritain in Preface to Metaphysics:

“No sooner do we possess the intuition of intelligible extra-mental being, than it divides, so to speak under our eyes, into two conceptual objects. On the one side there is being as simply existing or capable of existence, as simply given to the mind, or, if you prefer, as a ‘thing’ in the modern sense of the word… On the other side, in another concept which is still being, but under a different aspect, being is perceived as involving certain exigencies and certain laws, or, if you prefer, as recognized, admitted, affirmed by the mind — or as perfection and determination. These two complementary aspects of being are apprehended by the mind, distinguished, in a purely ideal fashion, as two different concepts expressed by the same word.” 

Maritain thus acknowledges the same problem that Hegel points out in Phenomenology of Spirit. That there is a split in being at the moment of apprehension is taken as a given in modern philosophy. The question becomes what we do with this split.

Maritain’s approach is to recognize that in the event of perception, the mind “intuits” that between the two eidetic manifestations of this “split in being,” it is “thinking the same thing.” It is, in effect to will the identity principle:

“Then the mind intuits that in these two functionally different notions it is thinking of the same thing. It sees intuitively the first principle of all which it will formulate thus: each being is what it is. Here ‘each being’ is being given to the mind and ‘what it is‘ is its intelligible determination, being as affirmed by the mind. Being thus, if we may say so, duplicates itself. To its aspect as posited in existence it adds its aspect as intelligibly determined, as an essential quality.”

In an earlier post, I pointed out the necessity of the habitus and the moment of access to ens in quantum ens for comprehending the identity principle in all of its philosophical richness. It is what Maritain thinks makes this willing of the identity principle possible.

Hegel’s Journey

Hegel’s work sheds some light on the structure of the journey from Erlebnisse to Nous. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel devotes an entire chapter to the nature of sense-certainty that lays out the problem quite nicely. For this article, I cite the standard Miller translation with its immensely tasteful cover design (see below).

Sense-certainty, the knowledge that “I see a cup,” or “It is night,” Hegel calls the “concrete content,” of our sense perceptions. He admits that these perceptions seem like the richest and truest kind of knowledge, for sence-certainty seems to take in the entirety of its object in one fell swoop. If I see the cup, I know the cup in some capacity. Yet, upon further reflection, Hegel asserts that “…this certainty proves itself to be the most abstract and poorest truth… its truth contains nothing but the sheer being of the thing.” (p. 58).

Why is this so? Why is it that when I see the cup I know nothing about it other than that it is?

There is a sense here that Hegel is interested in establishing the difficulty of what I call the long road from the this to the what. Hegel calls the data of sense experience a “simple immediacy,” as in it lacks any sort of mediation of consciousness: “…here neither I nor the thing has the significance of a complex process of mediation; the ‘I’ does not have the significance of a manifold imagining or thinking [i.e., the mind has not yet put it into any context or named it, etc.]; nor does the ‘thing’ signify something that has a host of qualities…. the thing is… merely because it is… this is the essential point for sense-knowledge.”

The next assertion, following in the footsteps of Descartes, is the key assertion for modern philosophy. According to Hegel, sense-certainty necessarily splits the pure being into two mediated “thises.” The this I sense, and the “this as object.” (p. 59) This mediation comes through the thing and through myself. If, for example, I have bad eyesight, the apple might appear as a red blob. Mediation through the thing is a key ground assumption for Hegel, as the manifold (raw data) of sense-experience must come from something.

This is what Hegel terms the difference between essence and instance. It is that age-old problem of the one and the many, the problem of universals. Expressed in terms of language, what makes it possible for me to predicate something about the object and to be understood by someone else?

For his part, Hegel does admit that the object exists whether it is known or not. Conversely, he also admits that “there is no knowledge if the object is not there.” This is a key distinction to make in the light of modern impatience with idealist philosophy. The essence, the thing-in-itself is still there in an important way regardless of our knowledge of it.

Now we must ask whether the object must be as we know it through sense certainty. What do our senses actually tell us about reality? Hegel uses the example of the term “now.” If it is 11:00 PM and I say that “now it is night,” write down this truth, then reread it the next day at 11:00 AM, is the thing that I wrote untrue? When I wrote it, it was true using the methods of sense-certainty, yet at 11:00 AM the following day, it is not true to say “now is night.” But the truth of my written proclamation is not thereby negated. Hegel calls this type of assertion a universal.

The this of sense experience is another such universal. Hegel calls it “…the universal this; or… Being in general.” (p. 60) The manifold of sense experiences that constitute the event of perception come in the form of a collection of sense data, what Kant called pure intuition. But this collection of data comes from a “this,” a universal similar to the assertion of a “now.” The same exercise above can be done with the assertion of a “here.” “I” is a universal in this Hegelian sense as well. Each assertion of “I” is an individual instance that varies depending on who utters it.

Hegel’s crucial next step:

“Sense-certainty thus comes to know by experience that its essence is neither in the object nor in the ‘I’, and that its immediacy is neither an immediacy of the one nor of the other; for in both, what I mean is rather something unessential, and the object and the ‘I’ are universals in which that ‘Now’ and ‘Here’ and ‘I’ which I mean do not have a continuing being…” (p. 62)

While I do not continue on with Hegel to assert the whole of sense experience as its own essence. This is the jumping-off point for so many who end their philosophical journey in an unmoored relativism. The essence of experience must come from something other than itself. The ground for truth must exist, the question is whether and how we access it. Yet Hegel nicely outlines the problem I termed in the last post “From Erlebnisse to Nous.” How do we get from these manifold experiences of thises, heres, and nows to predication in language, or more importantly, the truth?

Jacques Maritain’s Habitus

In my last post I spoke about the problem as posed by Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics. I’d like to expound on this problem as posed elsewhere by Aristotle, this time in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics:

“If, then, the states of mind by which we have truth and are never deceived about things invariable or even variable are scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and intuitive reason, and it cannot be any of the three (i.e. practical wisdom, scientific knowledge, or philosophic wisdom), the remaining alternative is that it is intuitive reason that grasps the first principles.”

Nicomachean Ethics, 1141a 5 ff.

Here we find that intuitive reason that we saw before. The greek used here is nous, one of the watchwords for our current endeavor. What does Aristotle mean by nous? While I am not by any means ready to venture a global definition of the term at this point (indeed, a life spent solely in attempting to understand what nous is would not be ill spent), in De Anima we find Aristotle describing it in a limited way regarding its role in “intuitive reasoning” as follows:

“I call nous that faculty by which the soul reasons (dianoeitai) and
comes thereby to belief.”

De Anima, 429a 23

While there is some controversy over the issue, it seems clear to me that, based on the way Aristotle frames the role played by nous in Posterior Analytics, it must be this sort of faculty rather than just a deeper level of induction as Bolton argues in the paper cited above.

So we again return to the question from the last post: what kind of intuition could this be? One possible answer is to be found in Jacques Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics. In the 3rd lecture of the book, Maritain describes a sort of intuitional or mystical experience that can provide one knowledge of the first principles. Maritain calls it an experience of the ens in quantum ens, or “being as such.” (p. 27)

Before proceeding, we must explain the role habitus plays in fertilizing the garden from which this moment of intuition can spring. Maritain thinks that, required for any such experience, one must attain to a certain capability or readiness in order to access the real. The section is worth quoting at length:

“As you know, to each science there belongs a distinctive intellectual virtue. There is, therefore an intellectual virtue proper to the metaphysician. And this virtue, or habitus, corresponds to being as the object of the intuition just mentioned. We must therefore distinguish two “Lights” in scholastic parlance, one pertaining to the object, the other to the habitus, or intellectual virtue. The characteristic mode of intellectual apprehension or eidetic visualisation — the degree of immateriality, of spirituality in the manner in which the mind grasps the object and conforms to it, demanded by the very nature of trans-objective reality as it presents to the mind as its object a particular intelligible facet — constitutes what the ancients termed the ratio formalis sub qua, the objective light in which at a given degree of knowledge objects are knowable by the intellect. At the same time proportionate to this objective light there is a subjective light perfecting the subjective activity of the intellect, by which the intellect itself is proportioned to a given object, fitted to apprehend it. That is why Thomists say that the habitus is a lumen, a light, not in the objective but in the effective order. For it is concerned with the production or effectuation of the act of knowing.” 

Jacques Maritain, Preface to Metaphysics (p. 26-27)

One possible way of conceiving the role of habitus is brought out nicely in Professor David Walsh’s magisterial book The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence. Walsh ingeniously teases out a grand narrative from a litany of modern thinkers which all point to the absolutely essential role that the luminosity or mystery of the self plays in understanding the basis and proper limits of philosophy. Without a certain openness to the unutterable profundity of personal existence, philosophy becomes a useless academic exercise (or worse, a tool for justifying evil) rather than a means for understanding reality.

Habitus consists in a growing-toward this realization, an “opening up” to the contents of what is there for us in philosophy as a properly lifelong practice. Yet while the habitus paves the way in a sense for the moment of access to being itself, the experience of intuition is ontologically prior to the habitus. This flash of insight, made possible by habitus, is in a way kept alive after the fact as the metaphysician undergoing this process perceives the nature of reality with more and more clarity.

Proceeding to the actual experience itself, I again quote Maritain at length:

“We are confronted here with a genuine intuition, a perception direct and immediate, an intuition not in the technical sense which the ancients attached to the term, but in the sense we may accept from modern philosophy. It is a very simple sight, superior to any discursive reasoning or demonstration, because it is the source of demonstration. It is a sight whose content and implications no words of human speech can exhaust or adequately express and in which in a moment of decisive emotion, as it were, of spiritual conflagration, the soul is in contact, a living, penetrating and illuminating contact, with a reality which it touches and which takes hold of it.”

Maritain describes an experience in which one is able to apprehend being itself in one gargantuan and overflowing, sublime, yet fleeting moment. This sudden stroke of inexpressible knowledge, a flash “pregnant with ontological realism,” to use Maritain’s phrase, is akin to a mystical experience. It cannot be accessed through any technique or process. It comes not from superior technical knowledge of philosophy or any other subject. It is a stroke of genius, a moment of insight, a singular instance of absolute knowledge that allows one to know for the rest of his life that “I am a self… [and that I have access to] the reality of my being, the profound first principle which makes me exist outside nonentity.” (p. 28)  According to Maritain, from this foundation we can continue to cultivate the habitus into higher levels of knowledge through the continued practice of philosophy as a way of life.

From Erlebnisse to Nous

Aristotle writes in Posterior Analytics 100a16 ff.:

“…demonstration cannot be the source of demonstration, and therefore science cannot be the source of science; if, then, intuitive reason is the only necessarily true state other than science, it must be the source of science. It apprehends the first principle (arche), and science as a whole grasps the whole subject of study.

The fundamental presuppositions which ground science cannot be demonstrated through scientific methods. So how do we arrive at these principles? Aristotle thinks, according to this particular translation, that it is “intuitive reason” which provides the ground from which Aristotle can move forward. In another translation I found has it translated simply as “intuition.” Thus we arrive at the following formulation: intuition or intuitive reason apprehends the first principles underlying science. These principles have traditionally been conceived as things like the principle of identity (this thing is a cup; A=A), the principle of non-contradiction (a thing cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time), or the excluded middle.

The key assumption here is that one needs a notion of a first principle in order to move forward with rational inquiry. In a word, we need to grasp this (or these) first principle(s) with something other than the cognitive tools of science in order to justify their use in science and logic.

Whence come these intuitions? When, as Hegel thinks, the object of sense experience becomes a universal, how do we come to agreement on what the object is? While this may not be a difficulty for most when it comes to normal objects of sense experience (although it is a perennial philosophical question), it becomes a bit more interesting when one considers the phenomenon of motivated perception and how we arrive at the sense that we “know” something. It becomes more interesting still when we examine the constitution of shared meanings such as moral virtue, the founding ideals of a country or the judgement of a piece of art.

Thus, we take it as assumed that our psychology often shapes how we perceive things. But if we humans are primordially nothing more than a bundle of individual perceptions driven by our own personal desires, how do we arrive at shared meanings? In a word, how do we get from Erlebnis to Nous?

This, I think is the question Gadamer is asking in his magisterial Truth and Method, which I just finished reading. At just under 500 very dense pages, it’s going to take me a while to digest all the themes that jumped out at me from the book.

When presented with Aristotle’s question, I found myself wondering, what kind of experience could it be to have such an intuition? What stuck out to me while reading the book is the question of how the understanding of these intuitions underlines a certain intentionality. In other words, of what is this intuition? One does not hear often of someone having a stroke of genius or vision of the identity principle. We do, however, often hear of out of body experiences or sudden mystical cognitions of “being itself” or some such thing. Much more often, we are told that these types of experiences might be a vision of God or the logos itself. As I argued in the About page, active intellect, logos, nous, transcendental ego, absolute knowing or the One might also be conceived as participating (so many other verbs could be used here) in this function, i.e., serving as the ground from which one might be able to move forward using pure reason.

I must stop for now, but more on this later.

Reading between the lines and other Straussian thoughts

Previously, I wrote about Strauss’s method of “reading between the lines.” After searching around for a link to a page that would explain this idea, I found that there were very few places on the internet where it is actually explained. To rectify this problem, I’d highly recommend reading Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing. It is a magnificent book.

But if you don’t have time to read it, I’d like to provide a quick précis of the idea. Essentially, Strauss explains that, oftentimes in history, writers are under certain constraints while writing. This may take a cultural form, as in Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed, written under the constraints of Jewish hermeneutic tradition, or a legal form, as Spinoza felt in his critique of the relation between philosophy and theology Theologico-Politcal Treatise (apparently under threat of persecution by the Church). Whatever constraints an author may be under, they often are led to “hide” their “true” teaching behind layers of contradiction, ambiguity, obfuscation, or misleading emphasis. Thus, it is up to the reader in a sense to familiarize herself with this tendency and dive into a study of the historical, personal, linguistic, formal and cultural details related to a work.

Strauss breaks out two levels of a book that can be analyzed, the exoteric and the esoteric. This leads us to Strauss’s hermeneutic approach to literature, and what were, for me, the reason for reading the book in the first place. Tools like these are extremely important for any student of the humanities, particularly for the student of politics.


The exoteric is the level of the obvious, the level that at which most of us engage when we watch the average action/adventure/comedy film, read the news or an entertaining listicle on the internet. It’s for those moments when all we want is a good, entertaining story or “just the facts.” As Strauss points out, it’s also the level that Spinoza and many other Enlightenment thinkers wanted to popularize in order for the masses to advance into the daylight of widely-known scientific knowledge. Strauss calls this intelligible as opposed to hieroglyphic writing. Spinoza seems to want to make all writing intelligible so that everyone who cares to read any book can immediately (i.e., without mediation) understand it. According to Strauss, Spinoza wanted to end the practice of hieroglyphic writing to effect this change, even to the point of rejecting the entire tradition of political philosophy in the Tractatus Politicus.

However, when it comes to reading old books, including the work of Spinoza himself, this is only half the picture. Strauss spends a substantial portion of Persecution showing how Spinoza uses hieroglyphic techniques to mask what he really wants to say. And, in fact, Strauss argues that the real aim of the Theologico-Political Treatise was to articulate the relation between reason and revelation while providing practical suggestions for how the two should inform the political (p. 200).

Thus we are left wondering, is intelligible writing really even possible? Thinkers like Derrida and Gadamer hold that we are always involved in language in such a way that access to a sense of what the author meant or how he engaged with his social, intellectual and political milieu is not even possible. Strauss, on the other hand, holds that access of this kind is possible and that it in fact opens up a whole new level of understanding (esoteric) for the reader willing to do this type of intellectual heavy lifting.

This opens up the paradox for the writer trying to do this type of analysis who comes across writers like Spinoza who assert the possibility of intelligible, exoteric writing. In Strauss’s words,

“Historical understanding, the revitalization of earlier ways of thinking was originally meant as a corrective for the specific shortcomings of the modern mind. This impulse was however vitiated from the outset by the belief which accompanied it, that modern thought… was superior to the thought of the past. Thus, what was primarily intended as a corrective for the modern mind, was easily perverted into a confirmation of the dogma of the superiority of modern thought to all earlier thought. Historical understanding lost its liberating force by becoming historicism… (p. 158)

There was a meeting between Gadamer and Derrida on this point. I need to read it to get a better sense for how these thinkers understand this problem.