Index to this series

Can Socrates really “find a natural support for justice,” as Allan Bloom says he must? It is strictly impossible, as I say in “Bloom, Badiou, Ryle, Shorey.” Inevitably there is more that can be said, and I shall try to say some of it here.

Sand, sea, mountains, sky
Anatolian sand, Aegean sea, Lesbian mountains
Uranus over all
Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 24, 2021

There’s a lot in this post. I drafted the end first, while I was still at the beach; I’m not there now, and I have to move on. Here in Istanbul, I have added the beginning (and brought pieces of the early draft forward), largely to look at the relations between the thoughts of

  • Leo Strauss, Bloom’s teacher;
  • R. G. Collingwood, the subject of some of Strauss’s criticism, yet nonetheless my teacher, through his books (he died twenty-two years before my birth).

In the Interpretive Essay that accompanies his translation of it, Allan Bloom calls Plato’s Republic

the true Apology of Socrates, for only in the Republic does he give an adequate treatment of the theme which was forced on him by Athens’ accusation against him. That theme is the relationship of the philosopher to the political community.

I haven’t seen that Bloom uses it, but one piece of evidence for his claim is the very form of the Republic, which, strictly speaking, is a monologue by Socrates, who only recounts his earlier dialogue with a “political community” consisting of Cephalus and his son Polemarchus, Thrasymachus the rhetorician, and the brothers of Plato called Glaucon and Adeimantus.

According to Bloom’s elaboration on his “apologetic” interpretation, Socrates was confused with earlier philosophers, who discounted justice because it could not be found in nature. Socrates undertook to show that what was lacking was not nature, but the study of it, and justice was natural after all. Here are some of Bloom’s own words, which I also quoted and discussed in “Badiou, Bloom, Ryle, Shorey”:

the thesis of Thrasymachus [that justice is the advantage of the stronger (338c), namely the established ruling body (339a)] … is the application to politics of what has come to be known as pre-Socratic philosophy. The results of the study of nature led the earlier philosophers to believe that there is no cosmic support for justice, that the gods, if they exist at all, have no care for men. Justice is, then, merely human convention and hence a matter of indifference to those who wish to live according to nature …

… Socrates was accused of being a proponent of this pre-Socratic philosophy … The Republic defends Socrates against this accusation … his is a philosophic response to a philosophic challenge, and therefore it, too, is subversive of the ancestral. This response cannot merely be an exhortation to the practice of justice; it must also attempt to find a natural support for justice. The study of justice therefore leads to the study of nature; the character of justice depends on the character of nature as a whole.

We have to get clear what is meant by nature. What we mean by it may have changed since ancient times. Have we learned more about nature since then? Perhaps we have forgotten something, or we just think differently.

Nature has been one theme of this blog generally. In “Şirince January 2017,” thinking of a student who wanted to find the natural path in life, I argued that to be human was to leave behind nature, and our lives were inevitably artificial. We may try to use animals as a model, and yet that is something that animals themselves do not do. (The young of some mammals may imitate their parents, and males may rival one another; but when the young human is looking for a path in life, presumably she has found her parents and peers to be insufficient as models, or at least she cannot choose among them.)

In “Bloom, Badiou, Ryle, Shorey,” I treat nature as the object of natural science, and I say that for natural science, nothing that it studies is trying to be other than it is. More precisely, modern natural science presumes this, as far as I understand. Ethology may be an exception, if it studies animals by analogy with us, who do try to be other than we are, as when we seek to be full rather than hungry, or knowledgeable rather than ignorant, or even generous rather than stingy.

People talk about human nature, but I think they may do this to excuse their not trying to be different from what they already are.

A 2015 post of this blog called “Equality Is Not Identity” consists largely of quotations from the chapter on Aristotle in Collingwood’s Idea of Nature (1945). Here is another, the bold emphasis being mine:

Nature, for the Greeks, was characterized not merely by change but by effort or nisus or tendency, a tendency to change in certain definite ways. The seed is pushing its way up through the soil, the stone pressing down upon it; the young animal is working at increasing its size and developing its shape until it reaches the size and shape of an adult, and then its effort, having reached the goal, ceases. All process involves a distinction between the potential and the actual, and the potential is the seat of a nisus in virtue of which it is forcing its way towards actuality. This conception of nisus as a factor running through the entire natural world, with its teleological implications about ends towards which natural processes are directed, was at one time rejected by modern science as a piece of anthropomorphism. But it is by no mean [sic] an anthropomorphic idea, unless we falsely identify nisus with conscious volition. No doubt it would be anthropomorphic in the worst sense to credit the seed with a knowledge of what it is trying to do, an imagination of itself as a full-grown plant; but because the seed does not know that it is trying to become a plant we are not entitled to say that it is not unconsciously trying to do so. There is no ground for thinking unconscious effort an impossibility.

What really has changed since the Greeks? That is the big question. Collingwood continues by saying,

And more recently the theory of evolution has necessitated a return to something not altogether unlike the Aristotelian theory of potentiality.

The return here would seem to be by philosophers who are now, eighty years later, even less read than Collingwood himself, who closes his paragraph by saying,

evolutionary philosophies like those of Lloyd Morgan, Alexander, and Whitehead are frank in their acceptance of the ideas of potentiality, nisus, and teleology.

Alexander here must be Samuel Alexander, to whom, in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940), Collingwood attributes the notion “that natural piety should be the clue to metaphysical thinking.”

On the subject of piety, with his student Joseph Cropsey, Strauss writes, in the Introduction of History of Political Philosophy (third edition, 1987),

It seems that Socrates was induced to turn away from the study of the divine or natural things by his piety. the gods do not approve of man’s trying to seek out what they do not wish to reveal, especially the things in heaven and beneath the earth. A pious man will therefore investigate only the things left to man’s investigation, i.e., the human things.

The remark about piety in An Essay on Metaphysics is in Chapter XVII, “The Son of the Child,” where Collingwood gives a great summary of his own understanding of metaphysics. He fancies it is what Alexander meant too, even consciously. One might say that, by this account, metaphysics is all about “the human things.”

Collingwood starts his summary by saying what he already has said, earlier in the Essay: “Metaphysics is concerned with absolute presuppositions.” I think we have seen an example: that nothing is trying to be other than it is is an absolute presupposition of modern natural science. Collingwood continues as follows:

We do not acquire absolute presuppositions by arguing; on the contrary, unless we have them already arguing is impossible to us. Nor can we change them by arguing; unless they remained constant all our arguments would fall to pieces. We cannot confirm ourselves in them by ‘proving’ them; it is proof that depends on them, not they on proof. The only attitude towards them that can enable us to enjoy what they have to give us (and that means science and civilization, the life of rational animals) is an attitude of unquestioning acceptance. We must accept them and hold firmly to them; we must insist on presupposing them in all our thinking without asking why they should be thus accepted.

This has an air of telling us what our nature forbids us from doing. It also allows us to suggest that, in the Republic, what Socrates is trying to do is to work out our absolute presuppositions about justice. This gives us a paradox:

  • Absolute presuppositions, being historical, can change with time.
  • That justice itself is eternal and unchanging may be one of our absolute presuppositions.

We shall come back to the notion of an absolute presupposition. Meanwhile, we return to our main topic. Strauss and Cropsey observe that, although Homer uses the word “nature” only once,

this first mention of “nature” gives us a most important hint as to what the Greek philosophers understood by “nature.”

That Homer uses φύσις a single time is implied by Cunliffe’s Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (1963/1924), which for all I know is the source of the claim by Strauss and Cropsey. The unique use of the word is in Odyssey X.302–6, where Odysseus is telling the Phaeacians about how, on the island of Aeaea, Hermes gave him an herb or drug (φάρμακον) so that the poison of Circe would not make him a pig as it had his men:

ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας πόρε φάρμακον ἀργεϊφόντης
ἐκ γαίης ἐρύσας, καί μοι φύσιν αὐτοῦ ἔδειξε
ῥίζῃ μὲν μέλαν ἔσκε, γάλακτι δὲ εἴκελον ἄνθος:
μῶλυ δέ μιν καλέουσι θεοί: χαλεπὸν δέ τ᾽ ὀρύσσειν
ἀνδράσι γε θνητοῖσι, θεοὶ δέ τε πάντα δύνανται.

So saying, Argeiphontes gave me the herb,
drawing it from the ground, and showed me its nature.
At the root it was black, but its flower was like milk.
Moly the gods call it, and it is hard to dig
for mortal men; but with the gods all things are possible.

I’ve broken up Murray’s prose translation according Homer’s lines, having rearranged Murray’s “hard for mortal men to dig” in order to do so. Emily Wilson’s verses do not exactly match Homer’s and have no noun corresponding to φύσις:

The bright mercurial god
pulled from the ground a plant and showed me how
its root is black, its flower white as milk.
The gods call this plant Moly. It is hard
for mortal men to dig it up, but gods
are able to do everything.

According to Strauss and Cropsey,

the gods’ ability to dig the herb with ease would be of no avail if they did not know the nature of the herb – its looks and its power – in the first place. The gods are thus omnipotent because they are, not indeed omniscient, but the knowers of the natures of the things – of natures which they have not made …

It seems that the Greek word for nature (physis) means primarily “growth” and therefore also that into which a thing grows, the term of the growth, the character a thing has when its growth is completed, when it can do what only the fully grown thing of the kind in question can do or do well … On the other hand, there are things which are “by nature” without having “grown” and even without having come into being in any way … The atoms to which the philosopher Democritus traced everything are by nature in the last sense.

Nature, however understood, is not known by nature. Nature had to be discovered. The Hebrew Bible, for example, does not have a word for nature … The discovery of nature led to the splitting up of “way” or “custom” into “nature” (physis) on the one hand and “convention” or “law” (nomos) on the other …

Once nature was discovered and understood primarily in contradistinction to law or convention, it became possible and necessary to raise this question: Are the political things natural, and if they are, to what extent? The very question implied that the laws are not natural. But obedience to the laws was generally considered to be justice. Hence one was compelled to wonder whether justice is merely conventional or whether there are things which are by nature just …

I am going to propose that what was discovered was not strictly nature, but an absolute presupposition, or what Collingwood calls a “constellation” of absolute presuppositions, involving something called nature.

As Simon Blackburn describes them in the article on Collingwood in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998), absolute presuppositions “form the framework within which ordinary investigation proceeds.” Here is the full passage, showing Blackburn’s attempt to connect Collingwood’s ideas with those of other thinkers:

A final theme that can be isolated as a constant in his work is the dependence of all thought upon absolute presuppositions. Collingwood is not here thinking of the a priori, for, this time anticipating Quine, he has no use for the category. Rather, at a particular time the identification of questions and the production of answers in response to them must go on against a largely unnoticed background of presuppositions. These themselves are not posed in answer to any questions, and therefore cannot be assessed as true or false. To use the analogy with which Wittgenstein in On Certainty characterized the same doctrine (which he held for the same reason – the absence of a method for raising and answering the question of truth) they are the hinges on which the door swings. Collingwood has in mind something like the paradigms of Thomas Kuhn: the resources for thought and the devices for structuring it that, in a particular period of time, form the framework within which ordinary investigation proceeds. Again, his prescience in isolating such a category and insisting that historical research be directed at uncovering its operations in the history of science and philosophy has been amply confirmed by later writing.

(Here and below, it is not Blackburn’s typesetter, but myself, who have italicize “a priori ” for clarity.) I do not understand why, twelve years after publishing the words above, Blackburn gives a skeptical description of absolute presuppositions, saying,

Those are the presuppositions that lie so far underneath the edifices we build that we cannot dig down to them. They remain invisible, if only because they would be at work determining the shape our digging would take, or what we could notice as we conducted it. We can never step on our own shadow. The only power that can reveal these presuppositions is that of time: later generations will see them, but we cannot. Myself, I find nothing shocking or surprising in this claim. The hiddenness of a presupposition is like the peculiarity of a fashion, obvious to subsequent generations but necessarily invisible to those whose fashion it is.

This is from “Being and Time” (New Republic, April 3, 2010), and I complained about it in “What It Takes” and “Re-enactment.” In the latter post, I called Blackburn’s fashion analogy “interesting, but frivolous.” Worse than that, it is misleading, if not simply wrong.

Hardhats delivering copper beer kettle
Beer kettles for Populist
Bomonti, Şişli, İstanbul
June 17, 2015

We can know what our absolute presuppositions are, just as we can know what our fashions are. Fashions can even serve as examples of absolute presuppositions. That the construction worker wears a hard hat is a presupposition, though not an absolute one, since there is an easy answer to the question why he or she does it. Ask why the bank worker wears a skirt or a suit coat, and perhaps an answer is not forthcoming: this then is a sign of absoluteness in the presupposition that she or he does wear it.

Here I am just following the lead of Chapter IV, “On Presupposing,” in An Essay on Metaphysics, where Collingwood recounts a kind of Socratic questioning that you might engage in:

Thus if you were talking to a pathologist about a certain disease and asked him ‘What is the cause of the event E which you say sometimes happens in this disease?’ he will reply ‘The cause of E is C’; and if he were in a communicative mood he might go on to say ‘That was established by So-and-so, in a piece of research that is now regarded as classical.’ You might go on to ask: ‘I suppose before So-and-so found out what the cause of E was, he was quite sure it had a cause?’ The answer would be ‘Quite sure, of course.’ If you now say ‘Why?’ he will probably answer ‘Because everything that happens has a cause.’ If you are importunate enough to ask ‘But how do you know that everything that happens has a cause?’ he will probably blow up right in your face, because you have put your finger on one of his absolute presuppositions, and people are apt to be ticklish in their absolute presuppositions. But if he keeps his temper and gives you a civil and candid answer, it will be to the following effect. ‘That is a thing we take for granted in my job. We don’t question it …’

The imaginary pathologist thus states an absolute presupposition and reveals that it is indeed absolute.

The difficulty of seeing the peculiarity of one’s own fashions corresponds to the difficulty, not of seeing your absolute presuppositions at all, but of seeing that they are not everybody’s. Collingwood explains this in An Autobiography (1939), Chapter VII, “The History of Philosophy” (page 65):

I could not but see, for example, when Einstein set philosophers talking about relativity, that philosophers’ convictions about the eternity of problems or conceptions were as baseless as a young girl’s conviction that this year’s hats are the only ones that could ever have been worn by a sane woman.

Concerning your interlocuter in the imaginary dialogue in An Essay on Metaphysics, Collingwood says,

I have made him a pathologist because this absolute presupposition about all events having causes, which a hundred years ago was made in every branch of natural science, has now ceased to be made in some branches, but medicine is one of those in which it is still made.

Collingwood may have in mind how in quantum physics, there is no cause of the atomic decay that, if it does occur, causes the death of Schrödinger’s Cat.

The sentences leading up to Blackburn’s description of absolute presuppositions in “Being and Time” may still be useful:

Most contemporary philosophers think of their subject in an entirely unhistorical way. They conceive of themselves as investigating things such as the nature of thought, or truth, or reason, or meaning. They wonder what a language, or a mind, or a world is that thought and reason and the rest are possible. This conception of the investigation is entirely “a priori ”: the problem would be the same as it perplexes us and as it perplexed Plato or Descartes. For Collingwood, this is all self-deception. What we may think of as a priori and timeless will be no such thing. It will be simply an application of the “absolute presuppositions” of our own period of thought.

They may be deceiving themselves, those philosophers who think physics has always been about the same thing; I think Collingwood’s concern is that they are deceiving their students, most of whom will not be professional philosophers. A teacher can say of a philosopher, “he is muddled about the business, and no one can ever tell exactly what it was that worried the poor man” (An Autobiography, page 71). Preferably the teacher says,

if you will think carefully about the passage you will see that he is answering a question which he has taken the trouble to formulate in his mind with great precision. What you are reading is his answer. Now tell me what the question was.

But the teacher cannot say that the philosopher has given the wrong answer to some particular one of the eternal questions that philosophers are always asking. David Bolotin seems incidentally to disagree then, in his own essay in the aforementioned History of Political Philosophy, where he says of Thucydides,

He is not generally thought of as a political philosopher, and for obvious and weighty reasons. Not only does he never use the term “political philosophy,” but he doesn’t address, at least not explicitly, its universal questions. Though he tells us what he regarded as the best Athenian regime during his lifetime, he never speaks of the best regime simply.

I brought this up when looking at The New Leviathan, Chapter XXVI, “Democracy and Aristocracy.” Of Collingwood’s posthumously published volume, The Idea of History, Bolotin wrote me on December 13, 2015,

I have read Collingwood’s Autobiography and his The Idea of History, and I admire both books, especially the former. I agree with you that his thought is far superior to what prevailed, and what still prevails, in Anglo-American philosophy departments. Indeed, I think that it is the best expression of historicism ever written in English. But I do not ultimately think it is adequate, for reasons which are well expressed in my teacher Strauss’ review of The Idea of History, which appeared in the Review of Metaphysics in 1952.

Strauss contrasts historicism with positivism in his Introductory Remarks On Plato’s Symposium (2001, from lectures of 1959):

When we look at the present situation in the world, this side of the Iron Curtain, we see that there are two powers determining present-day thought. I call them positivism and historicism. The defect of these powers today compels us to look for an alternative. That alternative seems to be supplied by Plato rather than anyone else.

First positivism. Positivism makes the assertion that the only form of genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge. Physics is the model of all sciences and therefore of political science in particular …

The positivistic position can be characterized as follows: There is no position between the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of evaluations … I leave it at these brief remarks in order to characterize in a few words an alternative to positivism which I call historicism. There are all kinds of overlapping between these two areas of thinking, but it is unnecessary for us to go onto them.

In the clear case, historicism admits that a value-free social science is impossible. But it asserts that both principles of thought and principles of action are essentially variable, or historical, and therefore in a radical sense subjective … There are no principles of understanding and principles of preference which belong to man as man, who can never go beyond a historically qualified humanity such as Western civilization.

A reason for judging Collingwood to be historicist might be found in the same chapter of An Autobiography that we have been looking at (now on page 61):

Take Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’s Leviathan, so far as they are concerned with politics. Obviously the political theories they set forth are not the same. But do they represent two different theories of the same thing? Can you say that the Republic gives one account of ‘the nature of the State’ and the Leviathan another? No; because Plato’s ‘State’ is the Greek πόλις, and Hobbes’s is the absolutist State of the seventeenth century.

Pursuing this line of inquiry, I soon realized that the history of political theory is not the history of different answers given to one and the same question, but the history of a problem more or less constantly changing, whose solution was changing with it. The ‘form of the πόλις’ is not, as Plato seems to have thought, the one and only ideal of human society possible to intelligent men. It is not something eternally laid up in heaven and eternally envisaged, as the goal of their efforts, by all good statesmen of whatever age and country. It was the ideal of human society as that ideal was conceived by the Greeks of Plato’s own time. By the time of Hobbes, people had changed their minds not only about what was possible in the way of social organization, but about what was desirable. Their ideals were different.

Collingwood seems to be describing the world of Heraclitus, according to Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus (402a):

Heracleitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream.

We may object that there is still one stream, however it flows, as Collingwood recognizes that there may be one historical problem, albeit constantly changing. Cratylus seems to have anticipated such an objection, at least according to Aristotle, who tells us in Metaphysics Γ (IV.v, 1010a) that Cratylus

ended by thinking that one need not say anything, and only moved his finger; and who criticized Heraclitus for saying that one cannot enter the same river twice, for he himself held that it cannot be done even once.

If we find this silly, Aristotle does too, for he responds immediately:

But we shall reply to this theory also that although that which is changeable supplies them, when it changes, with some real ground for supposing that it “is not,” yet there is something debatable in this; for that which is shedding any quality retains something of that which is being shed, and something of that which is coming to be must already exist … But let us leave this line of argument and remark that quantitative and qualitative change are not the same. Let it be granted that there is nothing permanent in respect of quantity; but it is by the form (κατὰ τὸ εἶδος) that we recognize everything … Further, we shall obviously say to these thinkers too the same as we said some time ago; for we must prove to them and convince them that there is a kind of nature (τις φύσις) that is not moved.

I think it can only be an absolute presupposition, revealed perhaps by what Collingwood calls metaphysical analysis, that there is a kind of nature that is not moved. Strauss even says at least something like this, again in his Introductory Remarks On Plato’s Symposium: “men cannot live and think without a finality of some sort.” This is part of a paradox, even such a paradox as I mentioned earlier; for Strauss’s words in context are as follows.

Human knowledge is at best progressive and never final. This is, of course, a final assertion. The great difference between Plato and his modern followers, or seeming followers, is that Plato knew that men cannot live and think without a finality of some sort. Plato contended that the finality of the insight that we are never fully knowing implies a final answer to the question of the good life, including the question of the best society. This is the problem we have to understand while trying to understand Plato’s thought.

Given Collingwood’s assertion that Plato’s ideal for society was not the only one possible, Strauss might respond with what he says in his own essay on Plato in History of Political Philosophy: “ ‘ideal’ is not a Platonic term.”

Strauss says this, having taken up the question raised by Glaucon in Book V of the Republic, at the end of our first reading in that book, after Socrates has been describing how the guardians will wage war. Glaucon says,

Let it be given. And this and what went before are fine. But, Socrates, I think that if one were to allow you to speak about this sort of thing, you would never remember what you previously set aside in order to say all this. Is it possible for this regime to come into being, and how is it ever possible?

Strauss says of this,

We must now return to the question of the possibility of the just city. We have learned that justice itself is not “possible” in the sense that anything which comes into being can ever be perfectly just. We learn immediately afterward that not only justice itself but also the just city is not “possible” in the sense indicated. This does not mean that the just city as meant and as sketched in the Republic is an idea like “justice itself,” and still less that it is an “ideal”: “ideal” is not a Platonic term. The just city is not a self-subsisting being like the idea of justice, located so to speak in a superheavenly place. Its status is rather like that of a painting of a perfectly beautiful human being, i.e., it is only by virtue of the painter’s painting; more precisely, the just city is only “in speech”: it “is” only by virtue of having been figured out with a view to justice itself or to what is by nature right on the one hand and the human all-too-human on the other.

Strauss is also suspicious of Collingwood. The following is from “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History” (The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. V, No. 4, June 1952), a review of Collingwood’s Idea of History (1946):

If Plato took something for granted which we are in the habit of doubting or even of denying, or if he did not push the analysis of a given subject beyond a certain point, we must regard it as possible that he had good reasons for stopping where he stopped … It is to be feared that Collingwood underestimated the difficulty of finding out “What Plato meant by his statements” or “Whether what he thought is true.”

I might just ask whether these statements apply only to Plato, or perhaps also to Collingwood. Finishing up his entry on Collingwood in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn suggests that the difficulty of finding out what Collingwood meant is underestimated:

Collingwood’s writing is undoubtedly infuriating. Along with passages and doctrines of great depth and interest there are casual formulations of argument and a rather donnish delight in pugnacious overstatement and paradox that have left him easy prey to unsympathetic critics. Nevertheless the depth and range of his thought have seldom been equalled, and the years since his death have only slowly revealed the central importance of his problems, and the interest of his discussions of them.

Strauss closes his own review with what I think is his only explicit discussion of historicism there:

Studying the thinkers of the past becomes essential for men living in an age of intellectual decline because it is the only practicable way in which they can recover a proper understanding of the fundamental problems … If it is true that loss of understanding of the fundamental problems culminates in the historicization of philosophy or in historicism, the second function of history consists in making intelligible the modern notion of “History” through the understanding of its genesis. Historicism sanctions the loss, or the oblivion, of the natural horizon of human thought by denying the permanence of fundamental problems. It is the existence of that natural horizon which makes possible “objectivity” and therefore in particular “historical objectivity.”

Does Strauss mean that, though Collingwood may not have figured it out, the “natural horizon of human thought” is an absolute presupposition of doing history?

Recall that, in An Essay on Metaphysics, Collingwood concluded a summary of his subject by saying of our absolute presuppositions, “we must insist on presupposing them in all our thinking without asking why they should be thus accepted.” If this is not enough to refute Blackburn’s notion that we cannot know our own absolute presuppositions, Collingwood continues in a new paragraph:

But not without asking what they are. That is the metaphysician’s question, and Alexander does not mean to warn us against metaphysics. If we could hold firmly to the absolute presuppositions of our thought without knowing what they are, so much the better for us; we should be spared a troublesome inquiry. Alexander does not think we shall be spared it. What he wishes to tell us about it is that when we do undertake it we must do so in a spirit of natural piety. In our character as grown men, or metaphysicians, we must treat ourselves in our charac­ter as children, or non-metaphysicians, with filial respect. We must not now question, in the hope either of justifying them or of condemning them, the pre­suppositions which in that earlier stage of our life we were content to accept. The fact that we have learned what our absolute presuppositions are does not imply that our attitude towards them either should or can cease to be one of sheer presupposal.

Blackburn may well have forgotten about this when, as one inevitably does, he fit Collingwood’s ideas into his own understanding. In my copy of the Essay, the earlier chapters have a lot of my pencil marks, but in the chapter in question, I highlighted only one passage. The chapter is at the end of the book proper, before the three examples of actually doing metaphysics (one of which I took up in “On Causation”).

The chapter is called “The Son of the Child,” in response to the verses with which Collingwood opens it:

It was Wordsworth who wrote

The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

It was Samuel Alexander, one of two or three men in our time who have deserved to be called great philosophers, who took Wordsworth’s lines as a kind of motto for his metaphysical work. When Alexander said that natural piety should be the clue to metaphysical thinking he meant to say, as many sound philosophers have said before him, that a meta­physician’s business is not to argue but to recognize facts … Certainly, he thought, they must remain hidden from those wise and prudent men who would accept nothing but what was ‘proved’; and were revealed to any babe who would accept them as the child Wordsworth accepted the rainbow.

The son of the child is Alexander the metaphysician:

Alexander the child accepts it as an absolute presupposition of all his thought that every event has a cause … Alexander the man, the metaphysician, has come to know that he does this, but as the child’s dutiful son he continues to do it in an unchanged spirit, that is, without asking for argument or justification. All the same, knowing that he does it means something more than being able simply to state the fact that he does it; it means also being able to explain what exactly it is that he is doing.

Alexander was not in fact able to explain what he was doing in accepting that every event had a cause. He thought this proposition was just “a summary statement of observed facts.” Thus “Alexander’s metaphysics would seem to be a variety of positivistic metaphysics.” Alexander fell into this error from a confluence of two factors: profundity and naivety. The difference of his metaphysics

from the commoner varieties consists chiefly in being the work of a very rich, very wise, and very profound thinker; but also in a kind of very subtle simplicity, or highly sophisticated naïveté, to which the results of intricate research and far-reaching inference appear as perfectly obvious facts which leap to the eyes as soon as they are opened.

In these terms, I was suggesting at the end of “Politics” that selfishness in nature is treated as a “perfectly obvious fact,” when it is rather a “result of intricate research.” This research is founded, if not on an absolute presupposition about selfishness, then at least on a certain “world-picture” in the sense of Mary Midgley. I shall come back to this.

Meanwhile, the problem with saying that certain ideas are really out there in the world is that it makes others ignorant, or worse, for not seeing them. As Collingwood puts it,

If it had been true, as [Alexander] thought it was, that what I call absolute presuppositions of thought are simply statements of fact, and that whatever is on my view presupposed in them has an observable reality as as a pervasive character of everything that exists, then either the same set of pervasive characters would have been recognized semper, ubique, ab omnibus, or we should have to believe in certain strange epidemic hallucinations to which all men are liable except ourselves.

Perhaps Strauss would accept the latter alternative, with the addition, “insofar as we understand Plato.”

Again, at the end of “Politics,” the next post after “Badiou, Bloom, Ryle, Shorey,” I suggested that one could see selfishness as a foundation of natural life. One might therefore conclude that selfishness is or ought to be the foundation of our life. I thought this would be a false step, since if we did see selfishness in nature, it was only because we had been looking for it in the first place. We might have found something else, had we looked for it. As Mary Midgley writes in Evolution As a Religion (2002/1985), “Facts are not gathered in a vacuum, but to fill gaps in a world-picture which already exists.” I looked more at this in “On Being Human in the Age of Humanity,” a post mentioned in another context – the effects of education – in the post on Republic Book IV.

Even if we are under a moral obligation to be selfish, it is not clear how to fulfill this obligation, since it is not clear what the self is in the first place. This becomes clear in the Republic, when Thrasymachus admits that the established ruling body in a city, who are supposedly stronger than the general population, can nonetheless make mistakes in pursuing their advantage (339c). We may see an elaboration of this point in Socrates’s analysis of the soul into appetitive, irascible, and rational parts. If some such analysis is possible, as I suggested earlier in “Politics,” then there must be more to us than our immediate desires.

One might channel one’s desires into a single pursuit, as I suppose Bobby Fischer was trying to do in saying, “All I want to do, ever, is play chess.” In high school, I wished I could say such a thing: it would simplify life. I was saved, perhaps, by the memory of being given a chess set a few years earlier, when I was seven. “Maybe you can be like Bobby Fischer,” said my grandmother. His victory over Spassky in Iceland was in the news. So then was his Fischer’s bizarre personality, and because of this, my father responded to his mother by saying, “Let’s hope not!”

I was probably in high school when I heard a similar lesson from my mother’s brother, who noted that while Frank Lloyd Wright may have been successful as an architect, he was not so as a human being.

It seems to be an assumption in the Republic that we heed the lessons that we are given as children, at least most of the time. I have no reason to think this is true. Moreover, when we do heed a lesson, it may not be correct. Still, I am going to assert that success at any particular activity, be it chess or architecture or for that matter mathematics, does not entail success at life. It would seem to follow that a computer program that can win at a game like chess or go cannot necessarily help us to win at life. We know what it means to win at games; the problem of life is figuring out what it even means to be successful there.

This problem seems to have been solved by David Silver, who

has led the development of techniques that let computers learn for themselves how to solve problems that once seemed intractable.

That’s according to Will Knight in “What AlphaGo Can Teach Us About How People Learn” (Wired, December 23, 2020). In 2017, AlphaGo “taught itself to play the ancient board game Go to a grandmaster level,” using

an AI technique known as “reinforcement learning.”

In 2018, Silver and colleagues developed a more general version of the program, called AlphaZero, capable of learning to play expert chess and shogi as well as Go. Then, in November 2019, DeepMind released details of MuZero, a version that learns to play these and other games—but crucially without needing to know the rules beforehand.

Knight asks Silver, “Where do you think MuZero will have its first big impact?” He says,

To give a concrete example, traffic on the internet is dominated by video, and a big open problem is how to compress those videos as efficiently as possible.

If that is a big problem, what about the problem of watching good videos, not to mention making them in the first place, or perhaps even making better use of one’s time? I have been warned that this may not be a fair question in context. Silver is talking about problems that he has hope of solving, just as any scientist would. And yet in “Politics” I presented accounts whereby the title subject was inseparable from science.

Knight asks, “Longer term, where do you think reinforcement learning will have the biggest impact?” Silver responds:

I think of a system that can help you as a user achieve your goals as effectively as possible. A really powerful system that sees all the things that you see, that has all the same senses that you have, which is able to help you achieve your goals in your life. I think that is a really important one. Another transformative one, looking long term, is something which could provide a personalized health care solution. There are privacy and ethical issues that have to be addressed, but it will have huge transformative value; it will change the face of medicine and people’s quality of life.

What if my life goal is to be like Bobby Fischer?

Also, if a “system” is just like me, and it is still going to help me, why cannot I just help myself? The idea of a machine with human or superhuman abilities that is nonetheless under our control: this is the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” of Goethe, which does not end well for the title character.

It is also the story of the Republic, in which Glaucon and Adeimantus are led to believe that through their own discernment, through education and selective breeding, they can raise a crop of outstanding human beings who will behave entirely as planned. The crop will be taught through lies that they are one big family, and they are expected to support one another automatically, the way family members supposedly do. Wise rulers are going to make sure of it.

Perhaps, according to Socrates, the only way to get people to be philosophers is to get them first thinking like Glaucon and Adeimantus. This is roughly the argument of Collingwood in the chapter on Passion in The New Leviathan, where first the sorcerer’s apprentice comes up. I recall from the chapter on Hunger and Love that these are the types of appetite:

10. 3. Love turns into fear when a man starts thinking of the not-self no longer as existing for the satisfaction of his own appetites but as having an independent character of its own: as being, so to speak, alive.

10. 31. This is the old tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice who conjures up a spirit and then finds that the spirit refuses his inexpert control: a frightening story because it tells in a myth the origin of fear.

10. 32. The theme of the story is constantly re-enacted in real life when a lover finds the object of his love no longer content with the passive role of accepting adoration, but behaving like a real person or whatever it is.

10. 53. In Plato’s doctrine of the so-called ‘tripartite soul’ (cf. 3.6-63) the ‘irascible’ is intermediate between the ‘appetitive’ and the ‘rational’. Anger, that is to say, is intermediate between the lowest mental functions, of which appetite is typical, and the highest, of which reason is typical. If there is a progress of the soul from appetite to reason, it passes through anger.

Let us go back to the idea of seeing justice (or anything else) in nature. Maybe there are things that we cannot help seeing. Presumably dogs cannot help seeing what they see, and they seem to recognize humans as one species, distinct from their own species. I think this tends to corroborate an assertion that I took issue with in “Effectiveness” (summarized in “Re-enactment”) and then again in “On Causation.” According to Michael J. Loux in his 1998 metaphysics textbook, in a passage retained in the 2017 fourth edition (now with second author Thomas M. Crisp), “few will deny that many of our ways of sorting things are fixed by the objects themselves … it is not a mere consequence of human thought or language that there are elephants, oak trees, and paramecia.”

My issue is that, while humans and dogs may sort things according to features that they actually have, the features that we use in the sorting are still somehow up to us. Here again we can make mistakes, at least if we are human. The h-index (taken up in “Politics”) is based on reality, but is not what we really want to know about a person; we may hope that this and similar measures will tell us enough about what we really want to know, but they may fail.

Likewise, while there may be a real distinction between the bald and the hairy, if bald men make good shoemakers, it does not follow that hairy men do not. Socrates points this out in Republic Book V (454c), in order to argue that the physical differences between men and women do not preclude one sex from doing unrelated jobs traditionally assigned to the other (455d). Again though, strictly speaking, he points that out not to us, but to Glaucon; what he points out to us is that he did make the argument to Glaucon. He also told Glaucon that, in order to keep the guardian class in top shape, its men and women should be forcibly bred like the hunting dogs and the pedigree cocks that Glaucon kept at home (459a).

At least in stories, a kidnapped person or a prisoner may be able to send his friends a message whose words are known by his captors, but not their true meaning. What message is Plato sending us, when he has Socrates preach both the liberation of women and the enslavement of men and women?

In an interview concerning his 2018 translation of Aristotle’s De Anima, David Bolotin says,

Aristotle presents the true teaching about what our relation to the world must be, if, as I believe, the world as it’s given to us, the world in which we’re born, the world in which we die, is not just illusory or apparent, but it’s the truth. It’s the most real thing there is. It’s not just the necessary beginning of our thinking, but the truest object of our thinking as well.

I should read Bolotin’s translation and notes thereon, but for now it seems to me that, while the word “truth” may be etymologically connected with “tree” for being a solid feature of the world, I continue to think it important to distinguish the world as it’s given to David Bolotin from the truth about the world. I really don’t know what it means to speak of “the world as it’s given to us.” How is it given – is somebody giving it? The difficulties here are pointed out by Collingwood in The Principles of Art (1938):

Thought in its primary function was described in the preceding section as concerned with the relations between sensa. But this description gives rise to a difficulty. A sensum is present to our minds only in the corresponding act of sensation. It appears as we perform that act, and disappears as soon as the act is over. It is ‘given’ in the fact of so appearing; having been given, it is at once taken away …

… This difficulty is concealed … by the adoption of a vocabulary in which certain characteristic features of sensa are implicitly denied. Sensa are called ‘sense-data’, where the term ‘data’ means not what the word ‘given’ was just now explained as meaning, but something totally different: it means given and retained, established or fixed like the datum-line of a survey or the data on which a scientific hypothesis is erected, and by reference to which it is tested.

Let that stand as one last example of the difficulty of talking about the nature of things.

Edited October 23, 2022

11 Trackbacks

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