THE LIMITS OF REASONING
THE LIMITS OF REASONING
as exemplified in Book One of the Republic
D. R. Khashaba
Reasoning is never self-sfficing or self-contained. Reasoning is a chain the first link of which dangles in bottomless darkness. It can never contain its ultimate ground since it has necessarily to start from a given.
In the early elenctic dialogues of Plato the search begins for the ‘what’ of this or that and never, not in a single instance, reaches a satisfactory conclusion. Were it not for the blinding authority of Aristotle this should have been enough to convince us that the Socratic elenchus was not a search for definitions,. The purpose of the Socratic examinations, as I have been repeating ad nauseam in my writings, was to show that in vain do we seek the essence or the meaning of an idea outside the idea, that being accessible only in the self-evidence of the idea in the mind.
Book One of the Republic, as every student of philosophy knows, is written in the manner of the early elenctic dialogues, so much so that it has been suggested that it was originally one of that early group. Be that as it may, I think that Plato in opening the Republic with that inconclusive search for the meaning of justice (dikaosunê) meant to say that the meaning of justice, or rather the answer to the question what manner of life we should live, which question Socrates twice in the course of the discussion indicates is what is at the bottom of the quest (344e, 352d) — that that meaning and that answer cannot be disclosed by argument, cannot be reached by reasoning, but must be beheld in a model, a model created by the mind within the mind, which is to say in a vision of the mind. It is instructive to follow the argument of Book One of the Republic to see how it displays the limits and the boundary of reason and reasoning. In Ch. 7 of Plato: An Interpretation (2oo5) I gave a detailed account of the argument of Book One. The following is a more sketchy survey limited to the purpose of this essay.)
Socrates having attended the festival of the goddess Bendis at the Piraeus is on his way back to the city with Glaucon son of Ariston when they are stopped by Polemarchus son of Cephalus and friends who insist Socrates should join them at Cephalus’ home. Once there Socrates engages in conversation with the old man, eventually leading to Socrates’ questioning the old man’s implied conception of justice as consisting in giving back what one has received from another (331c). The old man has to go attend to the sacrifices and his son, Polemarchus, takes over and supports the questioned definition by a quotation from Simonides. The examination – which we need not follow in detail here – proceeds in the manner of the elenctic discourses up to the point where Polemarchus has to admit that it is never just to harm anyone (335e).
At this point Thrasymachus can no longer let “this nonsense” pass unchallenged. For him justice is the advantage of the stronger (338c). Socrates says he has to learn what Thrasymachus means by that. Scrutinizing the statement Socrates brings out the contradictions inherent in it. Thrasymachus modifies his position. Earlier he had admitted that the stronger, the ruler, is fallible and may make laws that are disadvantageous to him but which the ruled mevertheless have to obey. Now he says that, precisely speaking, only one who infallibly decrees what is best for himself is a true ruler (341a). Socrates now introduces the analogy of the physician, the pilot, etc., who are true rulers in their respective spheres and who serve the interest of the ruled and not their own (342e). Thrasymachus who had been abusive before now becomes obnoxiously insulting (343a). In a long harangue he extols injustice and deprecates justice and then makes to leave. Socrates detains him saying that what they are discussing is no small matter but turns on what life is best for a human being. This is crucial for what I wish to convey in this essay but I withhold my comment till we have completed the survey,
Socrates proposes to examine Thrasymachus’ contention that perfect injustice is a more rewarding way of life than perfect justice (348b). Thrasymachus insists on classing injustice as a virtue and justice as a vice which rules out any argument on the basis of conventionally accepted values. Socrates again resorts to analogy to show that the just is akin to the wise and good and the unjust to the ignorant and bad. Thrasymachus declares that he is not satisfied, He rightly sees that the argument is pointless and he would only continue to answer Socrates’ questions just to satisfy those present. Socrates argues that injustice in a city or community breeds discord and ends in failure. Even a band of robbers must have justice among its members if they are to carry on with their robbery successfully. This is the insight expressed by A. N. Whitehead in saying “The fact of the instability of evil is the moral order of the world.” Socrates leads to the idea that injustice in the unjust individual has the same disruptive and destructive effect that it has in a city or community (352a).
Socrates then argues – with Thrasymachus only perfunctorily going along – that the peculiar virtue or excellence of a thing is the proper function of that thing; that justice is the virtue of the soul; that the just man will have a good life (352d-354a). Ask any of our worthy scholars who are shredding Plato’s dialogues to tatters and she or he will tell you that Socrates’ argument is flawed at every point. Socrates concludes by confessing that at the end of the whole discussion he has gained no knowledge. He ascribes that to having wrongly pursued the question whether justice is beneficial or not before understanding what justice is (354a-c).
Socrates could never have convinced Thrasymachus any more than he could convince Callicles in the Gorgias. They could never come to an agreement because they start from different grounds. Socrates could help Polemarchus clear some of the confusions, entanglements, and false beliefs with which he starts because Polemarchus tacitly shared certain values with Socrates. In the metaphysical core of the Republic (from 472a in Book Five to the end of Book Seven) Plato tells us that philosophical insight is attained in the process of striving to grasp that which truly is by that in us which is akin to that which is (490a). Again he tells us that the insight thus attained cannot be expressed in any definite formulation of thought or language; that it can only be intimated in myth and parable. He further tells us that the grounds of any definite formulation of thought have to be destroyed by dialectic (533c). I have been explicating and emphasizing this in all my writings including my most recently published Plato’s Universe of Discourse (2015, e-book).
To sum up let me reproduce these disjointed sentences picked up from Ch. 7 of Plato: An Interpretation: “That it is never right to harm anyone cannot be proved; it can only be proclaimed as an ideal, and is only embraced by one who equates his proper excellence and perfection, his spiritual health, with moral goodness.” “As an ideal, it can neither be proved nor disproved. It can only be shown to agree or to disagree with the form of perfection we elect for ourselves.” “Socrates does not argue against Thrasymachus, does not refute the thesis of Thrasymachus, but presents his own ideal in place of the other's.” “In philosophical discourse – call it reasoning if you will, provided you be wary of narrowing the meaning of the word – we are not concerned with proof but with the creation of a vision.”
All reasoning starts from an unexamined postulate, which subsequently must be examined and when examined is necessarily found to be riddled with contradictions. Philosophical insight is not a truth arrived at by reasoning but is a vision oracularly proclaimed.
Friedrich Hölderlin has prophetically said, “Poetry … is the beginning and the end of philosophical knowledge. Like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, philosophy springs from the poetry of an eternal, divine state of being. And so in philosophy, too, the irreconcilable finally converges again in the mysterious spring of poetry" (Hyperion, translated by Willard R. Trask, adapted by David Schwarz). Hölderlin, voicing the inward vision of a poet, expressed perfectly the Platonic insight into the true nature of philosophy, outstripping all professional philosophers before Kant and after Kant.
Cairo, January 23, 2016.