Friday, June 30, 2017



on the soul and on the limits of philosophical discourse

D. R. Khashaba

In the Phaedrus Plato presents a nice ‘proof’ of the eternity of the soul (245c-246a). It is rewarding to consider this proof from more than one standpoint. I quote this crucial passage in full, in Harold North Fowler’s translation in the Loeb Classical Library edition:

“Every soul is immortal. For that which is ever moving is immortal; but that which moves something else or is moved by something else, when it ceases to move, ceases to live. Only that which moves itself, since it does not leave itself, never ceases to move, and this is also the source and beginning of motion for all other things which have motion. But the\beginning is ungenerated. For everything that is generated must be generated from a beginning, but the beginning is not generated from anything ; for if the beginning were generated from anything, it would not be generated from a beginning. And since it is ungenerated, it must be also indestructible; for if the beginning were destroyed, it could never be generated from anything nor anything else from it, since all things must be generated from a beginning. Thus that which moves itself must be the beginning of motion. And this can be neither destroyed nor generated, otherwise all the heavens and all generation must fall in ruin and stop and never again have any source of motion or origin. But since that which is moved by itself has been seen to be immortal, one who says that this self-motion is the essence and the very idea of the soul, will not be disgraced. For every body which derives motion from without is soulless, but that which has its motion within itself has a soul, since that is the nature of the soul; but if this is true, that that which moves itself is nothing else than the soul, then the soul would necessarily be ungenerated and immortal” (245c-246a, tr. Fowler).

First a preliminary remark: Plato says that every soul is immortal, athanatos, but the whole passage makes better sense if we take the term athanatos to signify eternity rather than personal survival.

In the first place let us note that this whole passage cannot apply to the individual soul, since no living being – and indeed no particular finite being – is strictly self-contained, self-sufficient, complete in itself. The human soul is only relatively autonomous. Its activity is always conditioned – not determined but conditioned – by what is outside of it. Even human creativity – moral and artistic – is grounded in the particular individual personality. When we speak of the spontaneity of moral or creative acts we mean no more than that the act is not determined by what is external to the individual personality. Thus when Plato says that “self-motion is the essence and the very idea of the soul” that can only apply to the World Soul. This harmonizes with the representation of the world in the Timaeus as a single living organism.

Indeed we have in this passage the gist of Aristotle’s notion of the First Mover. Aristotle however corrupts the idea when he sees the First Mover as independent of the World, separate from the World, moving the World from outside the World. The First Mover thus becomes a particular entity that calls for an explanation, for a cause of its being external to its being.

Plato says that “that which moves itself is nothing else than the soul”. In this sense the soul is what is ultimately real and what is ultimately real is nothing else than activity. Plato does not say this in explicit terms but it harmonizes with his seeing all that is real in any sense is nothing other than dunamis, activity (Sophist, 247e).

Hence in my philosophy I say that what is ultimately real is not to be conceived as a being but as activity, not as a creator but as creativity, not as a creative intelligence but as intelligent creativity, which I name Creative Eternity.

I said we have to consider the passage from more than one standpoint. I will now take it up from a different angle: What does the ‘proof’ actually prove?

So what does Plato’s nice proof prove? If we are speaking about establishing the existence of an objective sate of affairs, then neither Plato’s argument here or elsewhere nor any properly philosophical discourse does or can establish anything relating to the actual world outside the human mind. In the above-quoted passage Plato is simply unfolding what for him soul means, and in doing so enriches our cultural heritage with a creative notion which opens up for us a new field of intelligibility. (See my Plato’s Universe of Discourse.)

The whole of philosophy proper is an exploration of ideas. The mind works with ideas, in ideas, through ideas, to widen our scope of intelligibility’ The world for us is dumb, there is no meaning in the world. The mind casts patterns of intelligible ideas on the world, and lo! the world is meaningful! All meaning we find in the world has been put in the world by the human mind: so says Socrates; so says Kant.

Towards the end of the Phaedrus Plato hurls his famous dictum saying that “he who thinks that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anyrhing in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person …” (245c-d. tr. Fowler).And as if Plato feared this may not be taken seriously enough, he goes on reiterating and emphasizing it in the strongest terms over the following two pages,

But Plato in fact wrongs himself by understating his case in confining the interdiction to written discourse. The ailment is not in the written words but in the language embodying the thought and in the thought that necessarily has to be conveyed in determinate formulations of speech. No definite philosophical statement is ever “clear and certain” for all purposes and in all contexts.

When Plato speaks of the living discourse imprinted in the soul, he is referring to genuine philosophical discourse that does not end in or lead to a dogmatic formulation but enlightens and enriches the soul in the course of the discussion. A philosophical statement is only meaningful (‘true’) within the context of a particular universe of discourse. The philosophical venture is a journey whose reward is not the end sought or attained but the journey itself.

To be consistent with Plato’s whole position, what he says in thePhaedrus must be taken in conjunction with what he says in the Republic where the Form of the Good as the ultimate Reality can only be spoken of in metaphor and simile and where we are enjoined to destroy the hypotheses underlying our philosophical stance; and also in conjunction with the Parmenides Where the Eleatic sage gives us a practical demonstration of the dialectic undermining of hypotheses as applied to his own theses. He explicitly says that this is what he proposes to do. Yet our scholrs find the dialogue puzzling.

In the Phaedrus itself what do we have? Apart from the concluding remarks about writing, we have nothing but poetic flights of imagination and playful mythologizing, but such playful mythologizing that gives us wings to soar into the realm of celestial Realities. And where is that realm located? Nowhere but in our mind. The beginning and end of philosophizing is an exploration of our mind, our inner reality.

D. R. Khashaba

June 30, 2017

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