28 September 2023

Philosophy as quest for truth

In his Gorgias dialogue, Plato engages with Gorgias' sophistry, which the famous sophist is said to praise as the art of being able to exercise power over men's opinions and actions through rhetorical skill. It is allegedly the highest social power because the orator skilled in rhetoric needs no other power than the power of persuasion to exercise power over men with all sorts of other skills and powers.

Plato will have none of this, and calls rhetoric a mere "knack". He defends philosophy instead as the quest for truth rather than as a skill to exercise social power, thus initiating the struggle against sophistry that, to the present day, stands for the superiority of persuasive talk as the ultimate social power over the quest for truth. There is no denying that, in its guises as the talk of politicians and advertising, the power of rhetoric is indeed an uncanny, deftly deployed power on the surface of social life that, especially in today's mass societies, easily trumps the philosophical quest for truth.

But what is this philosophical quest for truth? The Greek word for truth is _alaetheia_ (ἀλήθεια), whose alpha prefix signifies a negation, namely, of _laethae_ (λήθη), whose standard English translation is 'oblivion' but, in this context, is more appropriately rendered as 'obscurity' or 'concealment'. At first, the phenomena do not show themselves as they are in themselves, but obscurely, distortedly, which results in their being misunderstood, misconceived by our mortal minds. (Note that this distortion does not pertain merely to being deceived by the senses.)

Hence we can say that 'at first and for the most part' (a phrase often used by Aristotle), we mortals exist in untruth, in distortions and misconceptions of the phenomena themselves. The truth of phenomena themselves is not merely about the correctness of facts (factual truth), because facts presuppose already a conception or misconception of the phenomena to which they refer. E.g. whether someone has committed a crime has to be brought to light by uncovering and presenting the facts of the matter to a court of law. Whether the act is a crime is not merely a matter of assessing it factually in terms of correspondence or non-correspondence to (i.e. infringement of) positive law, but depends on the conceptions of justice and freedom per se of the given society in an historical time on which the laws depend. Such conceptions or concepts may be called ideas (ἰδέαι) in Plato's sense, whose truth, Plato says, may be disclosed by _anamnaesis_ (ἀνάμνησις), i.e. remembrance or calling back (ἀνά) to mind (μένος), thus overcoming λήθη (oblivion, concealment). We mortals always already implicitly have in mind the ideas that mentally structure the world, but still have to call them explicitly to mind through philosophical questioning to see them clearly.

That makes of philosophy's quest for truth a struggle to wrest the truth from obscuring distortion and concealment. The distortion and concealment, in turn, reside in our very own misconceptions of the phenomena, which makes of philosophical endeavour a struggle with our own minds to clear away (at least some of) our misconceptions. This struggle to interpret the phenomena themselves starts with the most elementary, and therefore most consequential and decisive, ones, because they stand at the beginning (ἀρχή) of any attempt to think through the ideas through which the mind interprets the world.

The hermeneutic truth of certain phenomena themselves, i.e. their idea, may be uncomfortable and unwelcome. Because there are vested interests in maintaining certain elementary misconceptions for the sake of shoring up the status quo (the mind suffers from conservative inertia), the philosophical quest becomes also a socio-political struggle. Here the idea of freedom itself is pivotal: Wherein does human freedom consist? And the question concerning human freedom (a certain kind of movement) presupposes that we understand, i.e. interpret as best we can, who we are as humans. The question of the truth of human being itself, if it is raised at all, rather than being ignored, suppressed or answered by well-worn clichés, is a struggle, perhaps an ultimate one, to clear away the misconceptions and bring the truth to light. This truth is an hermeneutic one for an historical time.

Further reading: On Human Temporality.

Social Ontology of Whoness.

20 September 2023

Da capo - From the beginning

Da capo - from the head - from the beginning, a musical term directing "at the end of a piece of music to repeat from the beginning" (OED). Once again from the beginning. 

But what is it supposed to mean with regard to the task of thinking? If it meant to go back to the beginning of Western thinking with the Greeks to simply repeat their 'piece of music', i.e. the historical trajectory of philosophical thinking to the present day, then this would get us nowhere. We would only end up back where we are today, our mind would not have changed. It must mean, instead, that in going back to the Greek beginnings, we are prepared and willing to change our mind, to recast our mind, by revising how the Greeks — notably Plato and Aristotle — answered questions regarding certain elementary phenomena on which our conceptions of all further, less elementary phenomena in the world depend.

What are these elementary phenomena? Apart from the question concerning human being or life itself (which are not the most elementary phenomena), Greek thinking struggled over centuries to conceive being and movement and hence also time. These conceptions have remained basic and determining for our Western (today globalized) mind to the present day. In Timaios Plato conceives being only as the opposite or negation of genesis, i.e. of becoming, movement. In his Physics, on the other hand, Aristotle conceives time as the number counted off movement, hence, as derivative of movement. This would render the phenomenon of movement as the central, fundamental phenomenon, because being is conceived as the unmoving, the unchanging (implicitly as enduring presence) and time as simply numerical, counted clock-time. Therefore the unchanging, i.e. being itself, is conceived as 'timeless', a thoughtless cliché still ubiquitously employed today!

But is time truly derivative of movement, or is it the other way round: Is it not rather the case that all movement and change, of whatever kind, can only happen in time? And that this time is more originary, more elementary than counted clock-time? Does not the striving to think as truly as possible to the phenomena themselves demand that we radically rethink time itself? Perhaps even that time is not a physical phenomenon at all, but pre-physical (and certainly not 'psychological' in the insipid modern sense of the term).

Since not all movement and change is physical — with physical beings, since they are extended, requiring space — there is also pre-spatial movement, e.g. the movement of the mind itself, focusing on this or that. This existential movement of the mind itself, however, presupposes the open, originary, three-dimensional time unifying present, past and future in which it can happen at all. Our mind belongs to time; all mental movement is temporal in this sense of focusing (in German: Vergegenwärtigen). 

Hence time and space are phenomenally not on a par with each other at all; rather time is more elementary than space, that is, it is pre-spatial. With this observation, a well-entrenched and massively fortified dogma of all our (Western?) thinking falls to the ground. And yet the clichés of time and space as on a par with each other and of time as sequential clock-time, i.e. as consecutive 'nows', live on today unquestioned and unperturbed. As if we had forgotten what it means to think and remain content with modelling in flimsy, hypothetical, theoretical constructs that are then  — too late  — empirically tested.

Counted, linear clock-time went on to have a spectacular career on the historical trajectory of the cast of our Western mind. Galileo, Descartes and Newton mathematized it for the sake of gaining mastery over physical movement. Very clever and effective. Einstein spatialized this linear, counted time by conceiving it as the path of light tied to three-dimensional space as observed by a subject with its apparatuses, such as telescopes. Hence the Lorentz transformation in special relativity (straight light path) and the Riemann tensor (curved light path) in general relativity. 

Attempts to fuse general relativity with quantum mechanics in quantum-gravity theory have prompted the striving to get rid of (the phenomenon of) time altogether (as an 'inner' psychological fiction) in the mathematical modelling of what is supposed to be 'the case'. But perhaps only certain, restricted kinds of movement can be conceived as happening in this 'skinny', mathematized, linear time — the time of linear causality that cannot cope with quantum indeterminacy, not with that sociating kind of movement I call interplay.

What if what is become of time is also intimately intertwined with what is become of us, of our mind, in Western history? In other words: What if how our Western mind conceives time is intimately intertwined with who we conceive ourselves to 'be' in belonging to the openness of time? What if rethinking time necessitates our rethinking the entire temporal structure of the world with its various kinds of movement?

What I have written here is only a tiny indication, a teeny-weeny tit-bit of the enticing challenge confronting us today: to rethink da capo. Not for the faint-hearted, and also an immense, multi-generational task with a myriad facets, but also necessary if we are ever to learn to stop simply mouthing clichés of thought in outworn language that serves to perpetuate the status quo with its seemingly endless techno-scientific progress. Such as the latest, inevitable innovation: algorithmic control of all kinds of movement through AI. It's been a long time coming since Plato broke down the logos into discrete bits.

Further reading: On Human Temporality.