In my last post, “Two Cultures”, I wrote that “…one hopes for a creative amalgam of West and East.” So far this blog has concentrated on Eastern, especially Buddhist ideas, particularly Zen, wondering if Western thought can be helpful in approaching the Zen experience. If I am indeed dedicated to going in the other direction demonstrating that Zen intuition can contribute to Western philosophy, I need now to understand Western philosophy at a deeper level. In fact, it may well be the case that Eastern and Western approaches to ultimate understanding are immiscible like oil and water, so that far from being helpful to one another their intersection becomes nothing more than a contradictory mess. My intuition says otherwise, but in order for me to specifically find and point out ways that each can help the other combine into a single broader and deeper approach to what it’s all about, I need a more thorough appreciation of Western philosophy. That is, I need to understand Plato. I say Plato because I remembered and then found (in the book I’m about to consider) a quote: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” from Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead. Besides the Whitehead quote there is a general understanding that Western philosophy only came into full flower with Plato. Plato’s works were the urquell, the Spring from which all flowed.
Of course, over the years, I’ve been casually exposed to Plato. At Stanford, all freshmen at the time I was there, were required to take the year long History of Western Civilization course which consisted of the reading of works deemed significant for Western thought with lectures and discussions in class. The class was largely wasted on me, because, as a freshman, besides being occupied with my interesting roommates, I was on the swimming team, not much interested in History, and bone lazy. I do remember reading Plato’s Phaedo, impressed with the story though far from impressed with Socrates’s reasons for not being afraid of death. Then, over the years, I ran many times into allusions to the story of “the cave.” Then there are Platonic “ideals”. None of this exposure really grabbed me. What did make a difference was running recently into a piece on the internet which discussed a philosophical issue with impressive clarity. Here was someone who could talk philosophy in a way that made sense. The author was a women named Rebecca Goldstein. Googling her on the internet I found that she was a rather unusual philosopher in that she wrote novels as well as philosophy. I won’t get into the interesting biographical details about her because these can easily be found on the internet. After enjoying her novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A work of Fiction, I looked in Amazon to see what else she had written and saw listed Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. This was available in our library in eBook form so I read it on my Kindle, and then ordered a hard copy from Amazon. Below, in the interests of brevity I will sometimes refer to Ms. Goldstein as RNG (for Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein).
Understanding Plato via the writing of a gifted philosopher who writes with clarity seemed better than trying to find adequate translations of Plato’s work or trying to learn classical Greek so I that I could read him in the original. Of course, there would be the difficulty of really understanding Plato no matter what the approach. So, I will consider Ms. Goldstein’s book not as authoritative, but as a foundation for riffs off of what I conceive her to have said about Plato and Western Philosophy. Of course, I agree with her thesis that philosophy is here to stay and find her criticism of philosophy-jeerers, such as Lawrence Krauss, amusing and telling though that is not what interests me in her book. Incidentally, I have read Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, and found it fascinating. He is a great physics popularizer and, in my opinion, writes philosophically so his wholesale condemnation of philosophy is not to be taken seriously. Possibly, a critical review of his “Something” book by a philosopher intensified his antagonism toward philosophy to the point that he had to express his outrage. In that state one finds slings and arrows to hurl at philosophy, rather than relaxing one’s ideological grip as suggested in my last post. A wholesale condemnation of philosophy is ridiculous. However, it seems to me that the situation is not “either/or”, for part of the life blood of philosophy is criticism of philosophy. For example, if in getting at what really matters in philosophy, one should consider “differences that make a difference”, (Gregory Bateson’s definition of “information”), I find too often, philosophers seem to haggle over differences that to me make no difference whatsoever. Perhaps I lack a critical component of what it takes to be a philosopher. Whether or not that is so, I find Ms. Goldstein’s writing mostly clear and fascinating.
Before getting into what Ms. Goldstein has to say about Plato I will mention one more thought about philosophy. With most disciplines talking about or discussing the discipline is separate from practicing the discipline. Writing about physics, chemistry or molecular biology, sociology, economics, or engineering, for example, is not doing research in or practicing those disciplines. If one writes about philosophy however, one is actually doing philosophy whether or not one is a professional, card carrying, philosopher. If one writes ignorantly, without sufficient thought or insight, one is doing “bad” philosophy, easily dismissed; but, nevertheless, one is doing philosophy. The only other subject, I can think of offhand, which perhaps possesses this characteristic is literature. A literary critic, writing about a literary work can actually create a piece of literature. I don’t think this claim works for history. A historian can do primary research and write up the story she or he finds (readable history always tells a story), but as soon as she talks in general or makes a judgement, she is doing philosophy of history, not history. Perhaps this last claim is merely a quibble, but certainly one reason philosophy will never go away is that thoughtful people will always continue to practice it, making judgements and seeking insights into whatever is on their mind. Whether university departments of philosophy offering degrees in the subject will wither away in the future is another question. It seems to me intuitively, unlikely.
Turning to Plato whether in classical Greece or in today’s Googleplex, it is clear that as a professional philosopher RNG has read everything Plato wrote or might have written, probably in more than one translation, as well as what other philosophers have had to say about Plato, including inquiries into the meaning of words in classical Greek and into the ethos of the society that gave rise to Plato’s philosophy. A fascinating observation (Googleplex p4) is that it is difficult or impossible to discover what Plato really himself personally thought about any of the far flung positions expounded in his various dialogues. Positions there are aplenty, but no positions that Plato would unambiguously assent to. RNG remarks on the many disagreements that philosophers have had on Plato’s various positions and has compared him to Shakespeare as one, whose personal views are unknowable. Further (on p40), quoting from Plato’s Seventh Letter, RNG concludes that “he never committed his own philosophical views to writing.” And further, “Plato didn’t think the written word could do justice to what philosophy is supposed to do.” This in spite of the fact that he wrote extensively. RNG considers that the form of Plato’s writings as dialogue suggests that Plato’s view of what philosophy is supposed to do is “Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world.” RNG quotes Plato, talking of philosophy as saying, “… for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance in instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when suddenly like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining.” (Googleplex, p40, Seventh Letter quote.)
This last sounds suspiciously like the “enlightenment” that is supposed to come out of Buddhist meditation and training. What is different is the methodology. With Plato’s philosophy one attains the transcendent state by intense thinking about the conundrums of philosophy, trying to gain insight through reason and rationality into deep, questions, compelling but unanswerable, which pursuit ultimately withdraws from one, the “life support” of one’s unquestioned certainties, leaving one “free” in an empty universe. Or am I reading too much into a specious resemblance between Plato and Buddhism? Certainly, besides bringing personal enlightenment, philosophy is attempting to bring about insights which can be expressed in language. It seems, in fact, that over the stretch of time since the days of classical Greece, philosophy has concentrated on trying to bring clarity to its questions using language in a precise way, rather than becoming a means of instilling an awareness beyond language. Western Philosophy, it seems, has given up a quest for transcendence by relinquishing such a pursuit to religions based on faith. It seems to me that Zen has a contribution to make here in that the enlightenment it postulates is beyond language and therefore is irrefutable via language. It is to be approached, according to what I’ve said earlier in this blog via a path which totally rejects superstition, magic or even belief in anything, as far as that is possible. Philosophy, it seems to me, is an excellent Western path for a “seeker” who is attracted in that direction. And if, as I assume, RNG is correct in what she has said about Plato’s philosophy, such seeking would not be new to philosophy, but instead a turn of a spiral back towards Plato’s original conception.
So much for this post. Later I would hope to return to RNG, Plato at the Googleplex and further ideas about a joining of East and West. For the immediate future, however I would like to take into account the objection that philosophy as a spiritual path is intellectually elitist, as indeed it might seem if one accepts the idea that “elitism” itself is other than an elitist convention. Be that as may be, now that I’ve brought up the idea of a “seeker”, it would be good to point out that seeking can adopt paths that are physical or artistic in nature though not necessarily anti-intellectual. So, onto the next post…