…with mieke metsijs on idealism via plato, socrates, hegel, marx, althusser &c.

April 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mieke Metsijs: Hello Aurelio! Welcome to my place in Antwerp, I’m happy you’ve had a safe trip to visit me here & that you found my apartment in the city. I know it can be confusing to find this little place, but I can see you’ve managed just fine. After all our correspondence via e-mail, it’s nice to see you in person & to finally attach a face to the words. I’ve been looking at your blog & from what you say, you now want to write a post on each city you visit: Antwerp & Amsterdam, can’t wait to read that. Also, since I’ve given you permission to record this exchange & will look forward to reading again what you & I will be discussing here. Before you left the States we were looking at a few ideas & from what I understand you have some important questions that I’ll work to broaden, with respect to your reading of Plato & more specifically on idealism as it relates to postwar & modern philosophy, with other questions.

Aurelio Madrid: Yes, yes, I too am pleased to see you in person. I’ve drawn your portrait, & as anyone can guess, it’s just not the same as shaking your hand on our first day here. I’m surprised to learn that you live so close to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. I want to see that tomorrow & I might have general questions about the city, but we’ll talk about those things when the recorder is off. You have a great view from the apartment here, so many antique buildings everywhere…

Anyway, as we were planning, we wanted to talk philosophy & so let’s get that underway. First-things-first, we had been looking at Plato’s Republic & I was thinking about many ideas at once. In my reading, with the many versions of the Republic I’ve thumbed through,  I’ve noticed that the book/chapter numbering changes from one translation to the other…

Mieke: What translation are you mainly reading from? I’ve relied on the Alan Bloom & I’m familiar with the Jowett.

Aurelio: I should page through the Bloom, but I’m reading the Jowett. I’d love to see a Loeb Classical edition with the Greek, because I like to ‘tweet’ the Greek with the English, as you know I don’t read Greek, I can start to pronounce words just can’t translate it cold, it’s pleasing to have the Greek against the English to have the illusion that we’re somehow closer to the original.

Mieke: Last night I was reading through your twitter-feed & it does look like you’re slightly crazed & I suppose that’s the way you like it huh, keeping people guessing.

Aurelio: Absolutely, keep ‘em guessing! I like to maintain a certain distance online & I really try to not get too personal, it’s more about staying creative, intellectual & to meet like-minds, like you Mieke.

So, as we were talking about…with the Jowett Republic, we’ll focus on parts of books V through VII. Starting with the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ which I’ll crudely say, is a text book definition of idealism & I’ll add, that many other parts of the Republic are about ‘formal’ & philosophical idealism, ethics, politics, mathematics, the soul along with other particular agendas. In short the whole is highly idealistic.

Plato_1_lg(Plato)

Mieke: ..add to that list metaphysical & dialectical. The idealism might later be contrasted with Aristotle & basic materialism, I want to examine the materialist contrast (sans Aristotle) later. Please continue…

Aurelio: Okay, if we can say anything about Plato, we can say he was an idealist, in the best (& the worst) sense of the word. As told by Socrates via Plato, ‘The Allegory of the Cave’ (5.518 – 520) is the famous metaphor of an underground cave, where prisoners are chained & are found musing on shadows that are presented to them on a facing wall. These shadows are believed by them to be ‘true’ reality & this serves as an example of the average unquestioned world we live in day-to-day. These shadows are created by a cast of mystery characters who are putting on a kind of puppet show in front of a fire that creates shadows onto a wall the prisoners face. It is suggested that at some point, one of these prisoners (for an unknown reason) is suddenly set free, this freed man stands up, turns around to discover that what was previously believed to be reality is starting to look like an fabricated illusion. He then travels to the upper-world into the light of day, blinded by the light of the sun that’s brighter than any other light he’s been accustomed to since then. He can now comprehend that this must be the true way things are & that he was mistaken to have ever believed that the shadows were the truth.

Plato-Divided-Line (The Divided Line)

Back, before this, in book VI (6.509-512) we find another description of the same idea, yet it’s distilled from the cave metaphor. This known as the ‘Dividing Line’, where Socrates speaks of a line & for our use, we’ll say this line is the same as the transitional place from light to dark as in the cave, the transition from the visible shadow world, to that of pure ideas/Forms, aka knowledge, truth & the like. We could toss in this the Platonic idea of the sun as a metaphor for these upper cognitive states, the sun-like vision of the truth. I suppose, that’s where this gets confusing, when the sun is outside the cave & the cave is said to be the average world, yet the real sun shines in the average world, so for Plato’s sake we’ll see that the sun in the real world as not (entirely) shining on the truth in this complete revealing sense. The sun (as a metaphor) only reveals if you are enlightened to the true nature/Form/good of things, i.e. if you’re a philosopher (or training to be one). Even if the sun is shining on real things, it is up to our own wisdom to inquire further into the actual truth of what & how this enlightenment is ordered & valued, hence for Plato to determine the ultimate good. This Platonic good has a godlike overtones suggesting & implying how the world is ordered & valued.

Mieke: I know you’re referring to books VI & VII, however if we go backwards even more, to Jowett’s book V of the Republic, that’s where we find (5.478-480) Socrates & Glaucon talking about opinion. Opinion falls on the bottom half of the dividing line, placing it within the cave’s shadows. Opinion is a ‘doxa’, don’t ask me to connect it to orthodoxy now. At any rate, doxa is between ignorance & knowledge (of the truth) & it’s also in-between ugliness & beauty. Opinion hovers between the two poles of not knowing & knowing. This would suggest that an opinion is always straining, longing for the truth.

Aurelio: I like the way you put it: ‘to strain for the truth’, to aspire to the ideal, from the depths of shadow into the clear light of the ideal. I’m fascinated by the fact that one could remain in the world of opinion without ever having to worry about the truth, how this is qualified is another story & it of course sets up an idealism that devalues opinion for its own sake, providing for the notion that opinion is bad & truth is good, yes, we can see this up to a point, but we can easily observe that opinion can’t be ruled out altogether, given that we can have an informed opinion that can miss the truth, while at the same time pushes the circumstance to a better good. The opposite of this can also be observed-no?

Mieke: While you’re spelling this out, I can’t help thinking about the dialectic & by extension the Hegelian dialectic. Apart from this, I don’t want to forget to send you the Xenophon PDF concerning his “Anabasis”. Xenophon knew the living Socrates too & he’s one of the few writers, other than Plato, who we use, to figure out who Socrates was as a living person.

Aurelio: yes, thank you that would be nice to read about, the greek word anabasis is going up, a going up from the darkness of the cave… & add to that, we already know that Socrates’ method is said to be dialectical.

socrates (Socrates)

Mieke: I believe he called it the “Hymn of the Dialectic” in book VII (532-535). That the dialectic is included in this metaphor of the cave with the position that vision, actual vision is as you’ve recounted, is not to be mistaken for knowledge & the way this is found is more-or-less brought about by the dialectical method. Remember Socrates himself was opposed to the written word, he’s legendary for not writing anything down, this is due to the conviction that ideas are meant to be talked about, sorted through, seriously bandied about, realized by means of an investigative conversation. By this method, if immersed in rationality & measured wisdom, a higher truth should be reached. To repeat again, the Socratic method is in fact a dialectical method, whereby he questions long-held beliefs such as in the opening pages of the Republic, with the incessant questioning of where we’ll arrive at a way of seeing the truth of justice that had been hiding in the original conception, supposition. I think the final direction the question of justice takes, has justice meaning that (with other considerations) one should know one’s proper place…um, knowing one’s business. Let me see….yeah here it is: “Further, we have affirmed that justice was doing one’s own business & not being a busy body…” (4.433b) [we both laugh at the busy body thought] I guess this has implications for the common good, justice should mean here, not getting out of place, one who get’s out of place is therefore unjust, disturbing the peace, undermining the status quo & so on. Let’s additionally bear in mind that such definitions are only part of the whole of the dialectic, just take this example as it shows that maybe to be an upstart is not ideally permissible, while we can observe, nowadays by our standards, that the upstart could be beneficial in reforming or even revolutionizing an old stagnant way of doing things. The dialectic is an upwelling of an inner antithesis, found in the original thesis, to then expose, discover a new synthesis.

Aurelio: Enlightenment of the great Hegel, now we’re rolling! Certainly the dialectic with Hegel & in a way Plato, strives for the ultimate, absolute (?) good, freedom, reason, truth, a high idealism &c.

Mieke: Yes, a tending forth of the freedom of mind & spirit, essentially to the untranslatable Hegelian ‘Giest’!

03a_Hegel_Teaching(Hegel teaching)

Aurelio: I know where you’re leading, as you indicated in your last e-mail, you wanted to talk about Marx.

Mieke: You recalled correctly & after we left off, I started to get excited about how to transition from Plato, Hegel, Marx & then to Althusser backing up to the high (& low) features of idealism.

Aurelio: Wow, okay, you’ll have to help me along here, since Marx was an historical & dialectical materialist, suggesting an overt rejection (if not a highly cynical, subordinate view) of idealism, Marx tried to extract all of Hegel’s overt idealism from his dialectic, regarding it as mere mysticism. Without knowing too much about Marx, I’ll venture to say that idealism must’ve been looked at as a propagandistic-persuasive tool of the capitalist, to then coax the proletariat into ‘voluntary’ exploitation. Idealism, as we know, goes hand-in-hand with religion, becoming for Marx the ‘opiate of the people’ which, as a Buddhist, is a feature of Marxism I don’t agree with. I can however, imagine what you’ll say, I ask you directly: how do you see this as relating to Plato?  

karl marx(Marx)

Mieke: Well yeah, I wanted to answer this via Althusser.

Aurelio: Wasn’t Althusser the philosopher who strangled his wife? –sometime back in the eighties?

Mieke: Yes, he was & I’m sure you won’t mind that we stay away from talking about him as a murderer, because I already have a major conflict with this biographical fact of his, that we’re sitting here talking about this man who killed his wife, is still repugnant to me as a woman & as a person. I’m affected by all of this, he was mentally deranged. But in reality I’m not comfortable with disposing of all his thought before & after that. He did do lots of work to to promote the philosophy of Marx & add to that, what he did for idealism itself, simply for that, I’m content to continue talking of his work. Let’s put these ghastly shadows of Althusser aside, & carry on.

Aurelio: I want to read his memoir: “The Future Lasts Forever”, where he looks at these problematic personal/mental issues.

Mieke: I have that book, I’ll lend it to you if you promise to ship it back when you get to the U.S., it’ll be a quick read it on the plane…so, Althusser was a communist (member of the PCF), a Marxist & most call him a structuralist, he also uses a bit of psycho-analytic theories from Freud & Lacan. The ideas I want to look at are tucked into a larger essay titled: “Ideology & the Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation).” written forty odd years ago in 1969. the reason I want to focus on this is in light of your emphasis on the ideology found in Plato. Althusser performed a critique,…maybe a revision, or updating of traditional Marxist theory. Althusser thought Marx needed to be reinterpreted, some might say, all the way back to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’

Althusser was a radical, he had developed an anti-humanist stance contra Sartre & against a (then) forming humanist Marxism, but yes, this was in the name of revising Marx out of the hands of what he saw as a softening ideology of the bourgeoisie. Let’s retain this anti-humanism for a bit to show that this was part of the structure of how he thought of ideology itself, in terms of how a set (or single) of ideologies can impose itself onto the subject, where the subject is fundamentally subjugated the the prevailing ways (unconsciously & otherwise). This plays into that the idea of the individual as really defined by the class-struggle, the societal & economic hegemonies come before the individual, rendering him/her as a subject, instead of an individual with free-agency. The manner by which the unavoidable ideologies impose themselves is coined by Althusser as “interpellation”.

Aurelio [laughs] …just this thought has me thinking that maybe even the ‘individual’ as a concept must be an American ideology itself. We value this to a fault. Still the individual vs. the masses is always compelling, while to all-together obviate the individual has negative drawbacks that disallows free-agency, this doesn’t let me warm up to these notions right away. With this said, it does call these structures into question enough for us to start a serious examination of such a thing within our day-to-day lives & to not just take everything at any face-value claim to ‘truth’.

Mieke: Whenever one hears that so-&-so is an anti-humanist it does have a sinister ring to it & that can be hard to shake. With this said, we’ll have to acknowledge that ideology does have these leftover cynical handprints, leftover from people like Marx. Even though  Althusser’s trying to retrieve & insert ideology back into Marx.

althusserS(a young Althusser, probably while he was detained in a German POW camp, during WWII)

Aurelio: What are you getting to?

Mieke: Althusser basically says that everyone is interpellated into any/all prevailing/hegemonic ideologies (excuse that I’m paraphrasing here). This is illustrated with the metaphor of the police-officer who, from across the street yells: ‘hey you’, with this, the subject turns around automatically, under the instant assumption that it’s she who is being ‘hailed’. This is the brief version describing what are called the RSAs (repressive state apparatuses: law enforcement, courts, prisons, the military &c.) & the ISAs (ideological state apparatuses: political parties, the church, schools, the family & how they work. The RSAs work to mange the subject by force &/or the implication of force to be used & The ISAs work primarily everywhere else, with ideology overarching onto both. Let’s be quick to recognize that the ISAs are exclusively ideologically ‘governed’. The subject is subjected to both, with the RSAs & the ISAs both interpellate the subject into ‘imagining’ that they are locked into these structures in some way, whether that be antagonistically or in a convivial way. In short any ideology assumes the/any subject as part of its reach. Ideologies are thought to be imaginary, having real (often) unconscious power over us.

Aurelio: Before this I was reading the essay myself & will add the interesting notion that Althusser claimed that ideology “has no history”, it’s like the unconscious itself, it’s simply there, no escaping its reach & influence in every aspect of our poor interpellated lives. He writes…let me see…um yeah: “1. There is no practice except by & in an ideology. 2. There is no ideology except by the subject & for the subjects…” Heck, we are all ideological & ideological subjects! I suppose, where we have to wring our hands is when to ideologue ‘denegrates’ his own ideological act, presenting himself as outside this framework. Often we’ll hear the ideology presenting itself as non-ideological, this is probably it’s most insidious form.

Mieke: …yes, Althusser says that “Ideology is eternal”. I’ve thinking about the way Althusser tried to amend Marx’s treatment of Hegel. In a key essay he does this bizarre revamp of Marx’s extraction of the “rational kernel from the mystical shell of Hegel’s mysticism” (re: idealism). Guy Letts writes on this, he then turns the claim back around to expose a new mystical element in Althusser’s “overdetermined contradiction”.

Aurelio: I’m super intrigued by all this & want to try to come full circle back with relation to Plato because of the way he had Socrates explain & elaborate the ideological world of the Republic, the Cave et al., as just the way it ‘should’ be. All of this tending towards that which is good & valuable. So, it becomes difficult especially after the interdictions of Marx & Althusser to rid oneself of the ever-sticky cynicism. This is with the full regard that it’s been said Plato’s world was authoritarian, even fascist. This could be due to the way certain folks in the Republic are downgraded & the idea that they should be convinced that it’s for their own good. The ideal gets in the way of abnormality, things & people that are different that don’t really have a place in the Republic, since they don’t fall into the rational way of dealing with what might be considered aberrations of character, real or imagined defects.

What strikes me too when reading the Republic is that one can get a strong feeling for an old-fashioned strictness to the way the world is ordered, as with the subsequent strictures of the church & other now conservative values that, of course, interpellate the subject as a sinner, ‘all sinners need to be reformed’. I’m in a quandary with what to do with all this, other than to sit down & be perplexed with the inevitability of any ideology burdened with all the good & all the bad baggage implied thus far.

Mieke: With any of the above said, I think it’s vital to at least take stock, to determine for ourselves, as you were saying, to choose & to wisely determine the best course of action with a total regard as to how our free-agency can discover the underlying manipulative devices any ideology interpellates us into.

Aurelio: Clearly, all we can do is to avoid the ideologies we can identify that have covert, tastless power over us & we can mainly try to avoid aggressively, arrogantly & ‘ignorantly’ becoming subject,  & to recognize how we interpellate our ideologies onto & over others. Really, the kind of self-questioning Socrates urged us to perform, when he said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” 

[…we finish our coffee & promise to continue]

althusser (Althusser)

(Note: With the very real desire to simply write about many of these complex ideas, this post is presented, in this dialogue format, to creatively thank the real Mieke for sending me a few papers. I’ll confess that Mieke Metsijs is my own creation, in honor of Plato’s legendary dialogue form. Writing in this way, the philosophy can start to loosen formalities & can lend an overall approachability to the whole, this is done with a wish to bring the ideas alive, as if they were really spoken of, as they were to be refreshed & re-thought of again.) –Aurelio Madrid

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