Symposium Introduction

Mark Anderson’s Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction is a layered philosophical novel. The first set of layers is that of the fictionalized relationship Anderson has to the novel itself. Anderson portrays himself as the mere editor of a manuscript by the eclectic scholar of ancient philosophy Michael Tomassi. The novel, by Anderson’s telling, is Tomassi’s production, one that is an intellectual autobiography of an imagined and never named philosophy professor. So, by Anderson’s layering, we have three doctors of philosophy recounting the tale—the fictional narrator and his life, Tomassi, the purported author, and then Anderson himself, the later discoverer and editor of Tomassi’s manuscript.

Anderson’s second layering is his method of unfolding the professor’s story. The program proceeds in four movements. At first, the professor suffers from the anxieties and disappointments of professional work in the academy. So he retreats to the mountains. Second, in the mountain retreat, the professor meets the curious and compelling thinker-artist, who provides a critique of the life of professional philosophy and a model for how to live intellectually independently, away from the quotidian grind of university administration. Third, the professor’s new idea of himself and his future germinates as he exchanges the occasional letter with the thinker-artist. Fourth and finally, the professor is his own independent mind, a creative individual. He draws down his obligations to the university, and he embarks on his own unique creative intellectual path.

The vision emerging from Anderson’s work, both with this novel and his other books (Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One; Moby Dick and Philosophy; Zarathustra Stone; and The Thinker-Artist) is both a diagnosis of modern intellectual melancholy, but also a picture of creative construction as an alternative. There are, on the one hand, classical influences of Platonic mysticism, but on the other hand, there is the anti-Enlightenment pull of Nietzschean personal development and creativity. Anderson’s book, with its picture of the life of professional academics, is a searing case that something has gone wrong with the university and the lives of the scholars there. The question, then, is whether the model of the thinker-artist Anderson proposes is the fix so desperately needed.

Alyssa Lowery

Response

Bringing the Thinker-Artist Down to Earth

Mark Anderson’s book Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, aims to be an instance of artistic philosophizing, a work of the “thinker artist.” For me, it succeeds in this aim; it was both a pleasure to read and yet also philosophically stimulating. I found myself reflecting on the kind of philosopher I aim to be, having been offered at least two figures against whom to helpfully compare myself. There is plenty to commend, but here I’d like to direct attention to one area of critique, that of the role of ideals in the text, particularly as they are expressed in one, the protagonist’s choice to leave his university position for the mountains, and two, the sort of philosophy lauded in the text.

A central theme of Nietzsche’s work, and the one which strikes me as most challenging in an attempt to reconcile Plato and Nietzsche, is Nietzsche’s critique of transcendent ideals. Putting off one’s potentially rich, contemporary present for the sake of a distant future of imagined happiness undermines the good of the now; we ought to embrace our material existence, rather than privilege a pristine, painless future. And yet, this is the orientation I see in our protagonist, first, with regard to his final choice in the novel, when he decides to leave his job as a professor and his life in the city for the mountains. We may leave off whether Platonism and the Christianity which took it up actually represent Plato’s views, but regardless of the success of this interpretation of Plato (I leave it to the Plato scholars to make such determinations), Nietzsche’s critique is clear. Even if we absolve Plato of the claim that he privileged transcendent futures, what is at issue here is that our narrator seems to present such a view. That is, the protagonist entertains an idea of a world free from dissatisfaction, a representation of an impossible ideal.

While it is certainly possible to pursue a life free from administrative duties, what is impossible is a life free from the demands, responsibilities, and gifts of our interactions with other people. The protagonist writes that, as a reader of Epictetus, he knows to expect to be splashed if he enters the baths; he will therefore simply avoid the baths altogether by going to the mountains and “avoid the raucous bathhouse of contemporary culture” (140). But isn’t this to miss Epictetus’ point, that there is no escape from being splashed? Bathing was a necessity, and even if one bathes in private, one will always be encountering some other displeasure from some other necessity. Having to make one’s own food, having to acquire more paper and books, all of these will be troubled by some “splashing” appropriate to the task. The narrator, though, indulges that he can live a splash-less life, troubled by only his own melancholia in the mountains. But regardless of the Stoic view, the choice to go into the mountains alludes to an idealized life beyond the present one. As Kaufmann puts it, “the deprecation of this world” is the product of a fixation on a life after death, and can lead people to “condone their imperfection,” and, “instead of striving to become perfect here and now . . . put their trust in the distant future” (346). I see something similar in the protagonist’s choices to bemoan his obligations, his opportunities in the world of academia, in favor of his idolized future in the mountains. Notably, we don’t see this future, akin to the end of a romantic comedy when the happy couple rides away into presumably domestic bliss, though it’s never depicted on screen. There is even a kind of death and rebirth in the novel’s final paragraph, mirroring Nietzsche’s critique of a fixation on the afterlife: “And so now I am done . . . with this phase of my life . . . now at last I shall begin to live. But not here, not in the hubbub of the modern city, with its shallow culture and dying universities. I am leaving all this behind. I am returning to nature, ancient and profound. I am going into the mountains” (151). Just as it is unlikely that the protagonist will be able to build the robust life of “pure art” and wild, free philosophizing he desires given the constraints of his inherited prejudices and tradition, so it is unlikely that he will develop a life in the mountains which is truly beyond the baths (127).

I see this problem of idealization not only in the protagonist’s choice to enter the mountains, but second, in the type of philosophy lauded throughout the text. Just as the professor reaches for an idealized future, so is the thinking-artistry he ultimately advocates for a kind of idealized project, in spite of its presentation of itself as able to engage the messy, poetic facets of philosophy rather than merely its clean lines of reason. In other words, it is ironically the protagonist’s treatment of philosophy I find narrow and even unsatisfying by the close of the book. In the editor’s note, he remarks that “the problem, from [his] point of view has less to do with the work the professionals produce than with their stifling of work composed in a different style for different ends” (155). If the key message of the book is that there ought to be more venues for philosophy to be composed in different styles, I find it hard to disagree. But the message also seems to be that philosophy is properly “joy in intellectual creativity . . . radical exploration . . . the exuberant subversion of entrenched pieties” and “free-spiritedness,” and that anything else is just “profession” (154). Philosophy here is only what satisfies the criteria and approach of the thinker-artist. What about people for whom philosophy is a valuable tool, having illuminated for them the contours of their oppression and the way in which they may be able to begin correcting it? Why tie to philosophy the fixation on creativity and self-attention too tightly; ought philosophy really be only for ourselves? This strikes me as a conclusion divorced from the concrete, even if challenging, practical power philosophy has historically and currently offered. Access to knowledge is a gift for many people unlucky enough to be of the sort that they may have never gotten an education in a different world. Liberation from ideology and forced ignorance (something I’m particularly grateful to philosophy for, having grown up a household that restricted the use of reason) are noble goals, perhaps the highest philosophy can aspire to. Next to them, pursuing creative self-reflection reads to me as a clear second, and as a goal which valorizes an idealized kind of philosophy removed from many of its benefits. My guess is that the protagonist would think of this as either a call for instrumentalizing philosophy, or as ends best served by philosophy as conceptualized by him, the thinker-artist. Here we may have to agree to disagree. For those not blessed with excesses of reason throughout life, a heap of it is a great gift. The truth is that to subvert entrenched pieties and liberate people in real need of liberation, careful, close, reasoned attention and professionalization are necessary.

In short, I argue that what is needed by the text—and the philosophy it offers—is a coming down to earth, a taking up of the challenges and opportunities provided by our entanglements with others. While this is a kind of redemption I associate with Nietzsche, there is certainly a tension between his resuscitation of the material world and his efforts to develop a set of values befitting the superhuman, and perhaps I have overemphasized the former. Ultimately, I’m grateful for the opportunity to engage with a work as creative and innovative as this one, a text which renders readable and engaging some of the fascinating insights of ancient and nineteenth-century philosophy, and so has served to make philosophy more accessible, a brave and commendable endeavor indeed.

 

Works Cited

Anderson, Mark. Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction. Nashville: S.Ph. Press, 2018.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

  • Mark Anderson

    Mark Anderson

    Reply

    Reply to Alyssa Lowery

    I suppose I should begin by pleading guilty to not particularly caring whether my philosophy tends toward the liberation of oppressed individuals or peoples. I am happy to dissent from the contemporary consensus that everything is, or must be made to be, political. I aim to be an apolitical thinker, even anti-political. Yes, yes, I know: but this is in itself a political position. Fine. If this is the sort of dialectic one wants to adopt, I won’t complain. But neither will I play along. I accept Nietzsche’s call to go my own way, and to resist the seductive urge to escape this task by engaging in the easier, and more publically rewarding, performance which today we know as social-political activism. With Nietzsche, I would “lay the skin of at least three centuries” between myself and my today (GS 338). In sum, I want to be on the wrong side of history.

    In saying this, however, I imply an exaggerated version of Lowery’s criticism. I expand on her concern to address not only her worry, but related worries that might go even farther than hers. And besides, in one sense I quite obviously do care about the liberation of individuals. It’s one of the central themes of my book: intellectual and existential freedom, realized through the rejection of the hyper-professionalized standards of the contemporary academy. Or perhaps “transcendence” is better than “rejection” here, for in my book I mean to portray an individual who has mastered the demands of the profession but moved beyond them. He has worked to acquire the skills and knowledge of a scholar, but now he aims for more than a scholar’s life. Creativity without knowledge tends toward pure meretriciousness; but expertise without artistry is insipid. The ideal as presented in the book is an amalgamation of the two, the thinker-artist, and this presented as the highest manifestation of the philosopher. I model the image on Nietzsche himself, and on Plato too.

    Given her stress on the liberating possibilities of philosophy, it’s a surprise that Lowery begins her essay by objecting to my protagonist’s search for a more fulfilling mode of existence. Surprising in at least two ways. First, she appeals to “Nietzsche’s critique of transcendent ideals” to suggest that Nietzsche would condemn the aspiration to live a better life. But surely we don’t want to identify a better life here and now—or anyway in the near future—with a Platonic “true world” or a Christian heaven. There are no Hinterwelten in my protagonist’s conception. The comparison might be more appropriate, if still a stretch, if he really aimed for the “impossible ideal” of “a world free from dissatisfaction.” But that’s not his goal at all. Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could have been in the text, but when he goes into the mountains he doesn’t run off to the isolated existence of a hermit. Most all his encounters with the Nietzsche figure take place “in the mountains,” very much among people and civilization; and it’s to the mountains in this sense that he withdraws. So he’s not hiking into the wilderness, Grizzly Adams style; he’s adopting a more deliberate mode of life at a distance from the hurly-burly atmosphere of the city and the daily grind of artificial professional demands. We may assume that even in the mountains he’ll assume various responsibilities and confront his share of the usual disappointments of life. But, even so, there’s still the possibility that his new life, whatever its problems, will suit him better than his current life as an academic.

    The second surprise in Lowery’s objection is that it overlooks the fact that Nietzsche himself changed his life just as my protagonist does. Indeed, I based my two main characters in part on Nietzsche’s biography. Nietzsche retired from the University of Basel after a decade teaching there, and he spent his remaining years wandering between northern Italy and southern Switzerland. A major factor contributing to Nietzsche’s retirement was of course his illness (and my protagonist suffers similarly from migraines), but by the time he left his teaching post he had long since come to reject most every premise of the academic life. He felt constrained and distracted in and by his work, frustrated that his duties as a philologist impeded his progress toward the free life of the philosopher. Therefore he abandoned his present for a brighter future, with no hint of any dubious longing for the transcendent.

    In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote: “To live alone one must be either a beast or a god, says Aristotle. He omits the third case: one must be both—a philosopher.” This has always struck me as capturing a fundamental truth about the philosopher as a type. It’s exaggerated, of course. Nietzsche never shied away from hyperbole if by indulging he could make a point or turn a phrase with greater force. But be that as it may, I mean to call attention to Nietzsche’s image of the philosopher as a free spirit, unconstrained by conventional boundaries of intellect or action. This is the image I see reflected in Nietzsche’s aphorism. Thinking Life is my attempt to adapt that image to our own time and circumstances.

Chance Woods

Response

Thinking Life through Modern Mythopoeia

A Response to Mark Anderson

Only as creators can we destroy.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

 

Mark Anderson’s book Thinking Life constitutes one of the most imaginative philosophical ventures in recent memory. The timeliness of this work, both for considerations of modern academia as well as for the personal enterprise of philosophical reflection, is profound. Over the last six decades there has been no shortage of trenchant critiques of modern university life, ranging from the landmark publications of Jacques Barzun (The House of Intellect, 1959) and Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind, 1987) to the more recent work of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (The Coddling of the American Mind, 2018). What distinguishes Mark Anderson’s book, I would argue, is its supreme synthesis of narrative and critique, artistic expression and exacting analysis. Indeed, the mode of expression in Thinking Life has only a few analogues in the grand history of philosophy. Foremost among these analogues are points of reference to which Thinking Life draws explicit attention: the works of Plato (~427–347 BCE) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Like these precursors, Anderson draws upon a wellspring of traditions to engender a wholly new and idiosyncratic project. In the brief space I have here I would like to suggest that Thinking Life enacts a mode of philosophical reflection that hovers tensely between the realm of fiction and existential meditation, or what ancient Neoplatonists (especially Plotinus) deemed mythopoeia. While completely unique, Thinking Life participates in what Stephen R. L. Clark and Peter Struck have helpfully termed the “Plotinian imaginary”: the unfolding of metaphysical principles through a myth which “expresses synchronic realities in a diachronic narrative form.”1 The myth of Michael Tommasi’s life, ingeniously fabricated by Anderson, dramatizes the making of a philosophical life in more ways than one. The result is not some banal critique of modern intellectual life, but rather a mythographical presentation of life at its most philosophically brilliant and destructive.

Upon reading Thinking Life for the first time, the reader is immediately struck by the heightened degree of self-reflexivity that the text enacts through its many layers of fictionality. In the “Editor’s Introduction,” for example, the imagined editor notes: “For me the value in studying the lives of thinkers and artists resides in the consequent insight into their manner of becoming who they were, insight one may incorporate into one’s own life” (x). As he goes on to suggest, an intense meditation on the lives of thinkers should not inspire imitation as such, but rather reflection on the very process of psychological formation involved in philosophy as a way of life. In this respect, the editor and the subsequent narrative address the same limitations of the Romantic ideology of Bildung that Nietzsche wrestled with and diagnosed in his lifetime. Michael Tommasi’s life draws profound attention to the shallow forms of self-awareness brought about by modernity and university life. There is, in the early pages of the narrative, a profound description of how the attenuated pressures of academic life quite literally manifest themselves in somatic configurations of intense pain and melancholy. For a long while, he is unable to conceptualize himself in an organically genuine way. Thus, as the editor’s preliminary remarks attest, the narrative about to unfold gestures beyond superficial self-consciousness (one’s understanding of one’s place within a larger cultural scheme) to a more radical kind of self-reflexivity that transcends the artificial boundaries of society and academia toward true individuality.

It is upon meeting the anomalous Platonic stranger in the Alps that Tommasi charts a new direction of his own intellectual evolution. Tommasi is awoken from his scholarly slumber by the startling comment of the stranger: “My worry is whether your life as lived moves you to exult in your being, in your being here and now. Satisfaction and scholarship are distinct from cheerfulness and life, no? A man might well be satisfied with his work while nonetheless pained by the conditions of his existence, and the virtues of an industrious scholar can produce an inferior man” (32). These early remarks, in addition to resonating tremendously with many thinkers today (including myself), resound throughout the entire mythical framework of the book. The distinction made by the stranger, between an attenuated scholarly life and the more limitless scope of the true philosopher’s vision, establishes a problem that the casual reader of Thinking Life may wonder ever gets fully resolved within the narrative flux of the story itself. Indeed, the Platonic stranger’s diagnosis becomes a clarion call for Tommasi to reform his sensibilities toward greater authenticity as a philosopher.

The stranger’s continued critique of academic philosophy establishes the problem that, as I read Anderson’s work, Thinking Life attempts to outline in profoundly existential detail:

And let’s be frank and acknowledge the reality of the situation, which is this: the philosophy professor does not profess philosophy—instead he is a drone for pedantry, a book-man, a desk-man, a stunted and sallow lecturer. At best—or is this worse?—the academic philosopher translates the insights of his greatest predecessors into conceptually precise terms, rearranging the revised propositions into formal arguments, then analyzing the results as to validity and soundness. (34)

The point of this striking passage is that philosophy cannot be reduced to the rather fruitless enterprise of translating the grand insights of past thinkers into modern scholarly paraphrase. Not only is this endeavor completely servile to the rudiments of the modern research university’s methods, it also completely stifles the possibly of creating new insights and new systems of meaning. The first half of Thinking Life contains a series of critiques of formal academic philosophy in the vein of the passage above, while the second half stages remarkable vignettes of Tommasi’s determination to revise his outlook to escape the cul-de-sac of academia. By the end of the narrative, he comments:

Needless to say it is not my intention to compare my work to Plato’s, no more than to associate the consequence with the source of inspiration. The dialogues moved me to explore my every resource of creativity, and to interweave my artistry with my intellect. It may well be that here the similarity ends. I can live with that, for the person I have come to be through this interweaving is a man with whom, and as whom, I am happy to live. (137)

The narrative culminates in this tremendous notion of interweaving artistry with intellect, which shifts the focus from one-dimensional scholarly rumination to creative intellectual existence. The latter can only become manifest, as we have seen, through a story (mythos) of life.

This heroic crescendo of the book, remarkable though it is, might easily obscure the even more brilliant accomplishment that Mark Anderson achieves through his narrative. Indeed, the whole of Thinking Life reveals Anderson to be an artist-philosopher himself: what one could call a philosopher-poet (in the Greek sense of poet as maker: ποιητής, poētēs). While Tommasi has, by the end of the narrative, resolved to foster his own life as an artist-philosopher, the larger meta-literary framework of Thinking Life represents a mythographical unfolding of philosophical principles that are imaginatively explosive and made completely unique by Anderson. The specific moments in the life of Tommasi are charged with a philosophical import that transcends the biographical details. In this respect, Anderson’s work reminds the reader of a crucial passage from Plotinus’ Enneads where he elucidates the philosopher’s diverse and creative ways of speaking via myth, what he calls “our way of speaking”:

“Our way of speaking”—for myths, if there are to serve their purpose, must necessarily import time-distinctions into their subject and will often present as separate, Powers which exist in unity but differ in rank and faculty; and does not philosophy itself relate the births of the unbegotten and discriminate where all is one substance? The truth is conveyed in the only manner possible; it is left to our good sense to bring all together again.2

Conveying the truth “in the only manner possible” was extremely important for Plato, Plotinus, and Nietzsche, for all three understood the profound limitations that language and culture set upon the genuinely free philosophical mind. This is why, in part, that the various myths of Prometheus, Hermes, and Dionysus succeed philosophically where even the most dynamic philosophical treatise fails. Their stories “bring all together again” the strands of life that escape syllogistic summation and, what is more, scholarly pedantry.

What this entails for Mark Anderson is an exercise in mythopoeia that is philosophically dynamic: he uses narrative language, specifically the mythos of Tommasi’s life, to gesture beyond philosophical and linguistic constraints established by modernity and the university. This in turn allows him to demonstrate, following the metaphysical precedents of Plotinus and the existential urgency of Nietzsche, that transcendence is never fully understood except through the intermediations of the immanent world and its consequent representation in the intellectual imagination. Life itself is a form of art, though not the shallow theatricality on display in a university context. Life is art, as Mark Anderson’s work demonstrates, precisely to the extent that self-reflexivity can engender new narratives of discovery that may very well ultimately destroy the institutional foundations of formal academic philosophy. Thinking Life constitutes a dynamic myth, enacted by Tommasi but made manifest by Anderson, wherein existence itself becomes true philosophy.


  1. Stephen R. L. Clark, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016), 149. I borrow the quoted phraseology from Peter Struck’s helpful overview: “Allegory and Ascent in Neoplatonism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Allegory, ed. Rita Copeland and Peter Struck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 58.

  2. Enneads, III.5.9. All references to Plotinus are to Stephen MacKenna’s famous translation of The Enneads (London: Faber and Faber, 1969). Cf. Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); and Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths, trans. Catherine Tihanyi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 187–206.

  • Mark Anderson

    Mark Anderson

    Reply

    Reply to Chance Woods

    Woods’s remarks on mythopoeia call to mind Plato’s account of the construction of the cosmos in the Timaeus. As Plato has Timaeus tell the story, in the beginning there were only two-dimensional triangles, free-floating shapes, which the Demiurge took in hand and manipulated to construct the so-called Platonic solids, which compose the elements of earth, water, air, and fire, which are in turn the building blocks of the universe. It’s a tale not unlike the creation stories with which we’re familiar through various religious traditions, with the difference that Plato was happy to acknowledge, and even to insist—as the founders of traditional religious narrative usually are not—that his account is a mythos rather than a logos (Tim. 29d2). This inevitably raises the question why Plato would choose to present his ideas in these terms.

    Aristotle in his Physics (251b14–26) writes as if he takes Plato to have meant the account of construction in time literally. He employs it as a foil to argue that the cosmos, and indeed time itself, must be eternal. Xenocrates insisted to the contrary that the account was merely a figurative exposition to facilitate understanding. Although the cosmos can be analyzed into the regular solids, and these into triangles, there never was a time when these parts existed independently and on their own (without naming Xenocrates, Aristotle mentions his interpretation in On the Heavens, at 279b32–280a1).

    If Xenocrates is right, then Plato’s construction story is an example of (to quote Woods quoting Clark and Struck) “the unfolding of metaphysical principles through a myth which ‘expresses synchronic realities in a diachronic narrative form.’” It’s undeniable that Plato writes in this mode at various places in the dialogues, and this is noteworthy in itself, as an example of a style of philosophizing. But even more remarkable is the characterization of Plato as a philosophical type suggested by the disagreement between Aristotle and Xenocrates. Both these men knew Plato personally, Aristotle as a student at the Academy for nearly two decades, and Xenocrates as a man sufficiently intimate with the master to accompany him to Sicily. Given their acquaintance with Plato, I wonder: could they not simply ask him how to take the relevant section of the Timaeus? If not, why not? Or maybe they asked, but Plato declined to answer. Or maybe he did answer, but with different answers to different men, or with one ambiguous answer. However we imagine the scene playing out, it suggests to me that Plato in person was anything but a straightforward expositor of truth. Rather, he was more like a poet, employing images when it suited him, and declining to translate his figurative language into literal propositions for the sake of strict clarity.

    I myself draw inspiration from Plato’s manner of writing. The dialogues at their best invite the reader to explore ideas without insisting on any one proposal or approach as obviously superior to every other. This is not to say that Plato never intimates his preferences, but hints and gestures are ambiguous—they raise the question not only of what precisely the author means to indicate, but even whether he means to indicate anything at all, for maybe after all he only appears to do so. Intimations in this way are radically ambiguous, for their ambiguity is also self-reflective. The text of my Thinking Life is perhaps less ambiguous than this, but I do attempt to present ideas in such a way as to encourage readers to think along with the text—in which activity I include thinking against the text as well—rather than to lead them toward predetermined conclusions.

    But there’s another motivation behind my writing in the mode of what Woods calls “a dynamic myth,” and that’s my desire to intermingle substantive ideas about truth, say, or the nature of philosophy, with, as Woods puts it, “existential meditation.” If philosophy is a way of life, as the ancient Platonists believed it to be—and I agree—then it seems to me that philosophers should make a point to address life in more than just its intellectual aspect. As I write in the book, it has always baffled and disappointed me that Plato nowhere addresses such psychological or emotional themes as melancholia or nihilistic despair. The author of the Problemata names Plato specifically as one who suffered from melancholia (953a28), and I cannot believe that the condition was unrelated to his philosophical activities—as either a consequence of his thinking life or an impediment to it. It’s worthy of consideration as it bears on the attainment, or not, of eudaimonia, and also as a powerful force in the life of the philosopher. In short, how should we, as humans in general or as philosophers specifically, manage such conditions? Thinking through this and related questions is at the center of my own philosophical life, inextricably bound up with more traditional philosophical concerns. And it seems to me that to engage the reader with such themes, it’s best not only to write about them abstractly, but to evoke them in the reader’s mind, to make the reader feel them. Narrative is better suited to this task than conceptual analysis or abstract reasoning. In short, to capture philosophy as a way of life in words, one must include all the elements of a philosophical life lived.

    With such thoughts as these in mind, I conceive of philosophy as an enterprise more expansive than the elaboration or analysis of arguments. The philosopher constructs and explores thought-worlds—some do, anyway—and this is both an intellectual and a creative activity. At times it involves operating with logoi, but only as elements of a broader mythos. Think, as an analogue, of Magritte’s realistic depiction of individual objects in a more broadly surrealistic composition. Or, better, consider Plato’s incorporation of arguments into the artistic whole that is the Phaedo. Indeed, most all of Plato’s works strike me as mythoi in this sense, as works of mousikê, broadly speaking. And, in all honesty, I sometimes suspect that Plato was the dreamer of the dream reported by Socrates in the Phaedo: “Plato, don’t confine yourself to Socratic rationalism, to the logos as opposed to mythos. These are only apparent opposites, and logos is but a mode of mythos. Plato, wake up! Wake up and be a philosopher-artist! Practice mousikê!”

Dan Larkin

Response

How I Became Un-Mired from the Muck

Comments on Mark Anderson’s Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction

I want to begin by sincerely thanking Mark for this book. It is one that I would recommend to any individual of our profession, if only to remind them of the fact that we all too often become mired in the more administrative aspects of our trade, all the while forgetting why many of us fell in love with philosophy, not the profession of philosophy, in the first place. To this, I can attest that this book struck a chord with me. Not only because I am a Plato scholar who has a distinct interest in Nietzsche, nor because my research rests squarely on the role of creative inspiration in Plato’s works (a theme throughout Anderson’s book). No, the book resonated with me because I am currently in my first semester of a tenure track position. And, while I thought I was living the carefree existence of professorial bliss, reading Anderson’s work has made me realize that, just as his narrator had done, I had forgotten the very things that had made philosophy so irresistible to me as an undergraduate. Prior to ascending the ranks of academia, we are, in a sense, filled with the joy of stumbling children, devouring the works of all those giants of philosophy, naively challenging them with a sense of confident defiance only available to the young, or at the very least, the young at heart. And yet, like the lost children of J. M. Barrie’s stories, once we leave never-never land, and enter into our grown-up profession, we begin to forget. Yes, growing up is a necessary condition; one cannot remain a child forever if they are to pursue this life. However, what we ought not forget, regardless of the deadlines, the grading, the pressures of publication, nor the monotony and frustrations of administrative responsibilities, is the joy of philosophy, the creative thrust that kept us up at night reading and thinking and discussing and . . . living. And, I think, Anderson has captured this perfectly in these pages. I found myself smiling throughout, nodding in agreement, recognizing my own complicity in the continuation of the system that, as Anderson has noted, would today have nothing to do with publishing the very heroes upon which the system is founded should they have been writing their works today. Yet, with this all said, we are all here. And so, we might as well embrace and revel in the irony by engaging in the very thing Anderson’s narrator would perhaps despise . . . an academic assessment of Anderson’s work performed for a room full of academics.

To begin, I wholeheartedly agree that there is a certain inevitability to finding ourselves mired in the muck, so to speak, of academia. And, admittedly, I too am attracted to the Dionysian bliss that the creative side of our profession all too often produces in us. However, while the Nietzschean themes are of course well placed in this novella, that Plato was chosen as a compatriot of this spirit is somewhat surprising. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we ought dismiss Plato as an anti-aesthete on account of his infamous, though I would suggest often misunderstood, dismissal of the poets in Book X of the Republic. No, in fact, I would agree entirely that in Plato’s middle period, specifically in dialogues such as the Phaedo, the Meno, Symposium, and the Republic itself, the description of Thinker-Artist is perhaps warranted. Indeed, we find in the Phaedo in particular a blurring of the lines between philosophy and poetry. Socrates himself makes note of this (Phd. 61b), musing that for all the time he spent philosophizing on the god’s command, perhaps he should have instead been composing poetry.

That said, when we turn our attention to the late dialogues of Plato, this position, I argue, becomes untenable. In these dialogues, we find a drastically different Plato from the man who wrote those almost mystical works of the middle period. For one, we find a new methodology has taken center-stage, i.e., the method of collection and division, a rigid, entirely logical approach to the acquisition of knowledge. And, while the works that utilize this methodology (most notably the Sophist and Statesman) are themselves written in dialogue form, the more creative exuberance of the middle period is replaced with this hyper-structured system of definition. Gone too, for the most part, is the character of Socrates, replaced by the Stranger of Elea, a point that indicates a break for Plato, not only from his mentor (or his recreation thereof), but further, a break from the theories he dedicated himself to in that middle period. Indeed, in the Parmenides, this is perhaps most clearly presented, as within we find a young Socrates finding himself out of his depth in his attempt to defend his theory of forms to an older, more logically founded Parmenides. Given these changes, it seems to me that, as Plato developed, that inspired spirit that Anderson’s narrator sees as a model has evolved. In his place we have what appears similar in kind to the stuffy professor, the academic that has moved away from the exuberance of their youth, and has begun to find a balance. As an individual who all too often finds himself basking in the revelry of the Dionysian bacchanalia (both in the sense of the creative, and, well, otherwise), I will admit that I, for a time, saw Plato in that light, i.e., the artist first, striving for truth. And yet, as my understanding developed, I can recognize now that there seems to be a need for both, and I mean that here in regard to Plato. Yes, there is a deep sense of artistry there, however, it is my belief that we cannot simply focus on one period of a thinker, nor artist, but rather, we must take the whole, and, given the late dialogues and the drastic change that emerges therefrom, it seems to me that such an interpretation of Plato is problematic. To be sure, one might credit this change as yet another artistic revolution for Plato, and perhaps there is an argument to be made for such a case. However, given the direction that change takes, one that replaces the beauty of the Phaedo with the structure of the Laws, it is a difficult case to make.

As a second line of critique, I would like to focus specifically on Anderson’s account of divine inspiration (often described as a sort of “madness”) as it pertains to his concept of the “thinker-artist.” Throughout Anderson’s book, we find a consistent effort to bring attention to Plato’s recognition of the value of divine inspiration. Two notable examples of this effort are made by the narrator (92) as he references both the Phaedrus and Ion. Beginning with the former, we find that, in his explanation of the various types of madness, Socrates notes at 245a that those poets who find themselves directly inspired by the gods are, in those moments of inspiration, out of their minds. And yet, despite what may seem to be a crippling setback, it is precisely because they are momentarily mad that they are able to produce works of art vastly superior to even those so-called poets who possess the proper techne. Further, as we read in the Ion, just as magnetized rings influence each ring down the line, so too does the creative power of the inspired artist inspire others. The creative force of their artistry extends far beyond their own work, as it influences others around them to strive to such levels of achievement, pushing further past the boundaries to new forms of understanding that were previously left undiscovered, and thus, unexplored.

With that said, I want to press Anderson on his seemingly dismissive account of Socrates in this light, i.e., I am curious why Anderson has so adamantly declared Plato to be a model for the sort of thinker-artist, while dismissing Socrates from consideration. As we read on p. 98 of Anderson’s text, “Through the Phaedo Plato saves us from Socratic Platonism . . . I like to think that Plato executed Socrates to save us future philosophers from being devoured by this Minotaur of reason.” Lines such as these, as well as a couple others sprinkled throughout the text, seem to suggest that Anderson sees Socrates as distinctly different sort from Plato, i.e., as distinct from the sort of individual who might properly be considered a “thinker-artist.” And yet, while I do agree, as Anderson notes, that given Socrates’ lack of written work, let alone the care and artistry of the work that Plato produced, on the surface it would seem that Socrates ought not be considered. However, when we look throughout the entire Platonic corpus, we find that Socrates is consistently given to bouts of the very sort of inspired madness that Anderson praises so highly, a madness that Socrates, unlike other inspired individuals in the dialogues, then reflects upon via his highly attuned rational capacity. Not only do we have in the Phaedrus, Socrates claiming that his second speech was the product of divine influence (263d1–3), but further, we have countless examples of Socrates following the advice of his daimonion throughout the early and middle period dialogues. And, it should be added that Socrates adheres to the warnings of his daimonion not because he understands the reasons behind the advice in the moments that such advice is given, but rather, because he trusts the superiority of such divine wisdom implicitly.

Additionally, as mentioned above, in Plato’s late period we find that he has given up the more mystical aspects of his philosophical project, exchanging such methodologies and ideas for a more rigid system that is a vast departure from the work of his early and middle periods. However, despite this change for Plato, when Socrates is featured or discussed in these later works, most notably the Sophist and the Philebus, we find that the role of divine inspiration in the case of Socrates is front and center, if not magnified in comparison to the earlier periods of Plato’s works. Given such evidence, I would ask Anderson why Socrates would be seemingly set in direct contrast to his thinker-artist archetype, especially given Plato’s consistent representation of Socrates as someone who would quite neatly fit the bill as the sort of inspired individual Anderson so reveres, i.e., an individual who understands the value of both inspiration and reason, using both in tandem to express something bold, unique, and inspiring.

As a final critique, I would like to ask Anderson the message he intended us to take home, as I would imagine that we, those of us in this room and rooms similar to it, are his intended audience. I should note that, despite my comments above, I really do believe that the thinker-artist model is enticing, yet, unlike the narrator of Anderson’s work who ultimately decides to pursue this life, neither I, nor most academics, have a family inheritance (as the narrator had) that would allow us the financial comfort that is required to live such a life removed from the day-to-day tasks of academia. I say this not to criticize, but to ask if his intention was not to suggest this as a course of life, but rather as a reminder, a bite from a gadfly to stir the recognition of the better, perhaps purer aspects of our work. Yes, we must face the Sisyphean tasks of pushing boulder after boulder up the hill, and yes, all too often we lose ourselves in the exhaustion that stems therefrom. Yet, what I have gained from reading Anderson’s book is a reminder that in addition to the horrors of administrative responsibility, paper grading, and publishing deadlines, we all also get to walk back down the hill. We all, for the most part, live our lives removed from the rigid structures that most people face, all the while doing what we love. We do get to be creative, albeit a creativity, as was with Plato, that is tempered by order.

  • Mark Anderson

    Mark Anderson

    Reply

    Reply to Dan Larkin

    Larkin wonders at my pairing Plato with Nietzsche in my image of the thinker-artist, and he suggests that Socrates may be the more appropriate partner. I shall try to explain both my motivations and my broader rationale for preferring Plato to Socrates in this context, but I might sum it up at the start by baldly asserting that Plato was the “music-making Socrates” imagined by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy.

    It vexes me that scholars, ostensibly writing or speaking about Plato, invariably refer to “Socrates” throughout their discussion, rarely adverting to “Plato” except as shorthand for Socrates’ words and deeds. They ignore the artist for the art. So, as a counterbalance, in my own work I play up the differences between the two, and I make a point of privileging Plato. If we know anything at all about these men, it’s that Socrates was an urban public talker whereas Plato was a rural private writer. These are radically different types, and when I think through the implications of these differences, I conclude that Plato in his work (as in his life) was up to something other than what Socrates was up to. And since the greatness we experience in Socrates is communicated to us by way of Plato as an author, and since for all we know this greatness is entirely of Plato’s invention, I rank Plato superior to Socrates. The historical Socrates may well have been a skillful dialectician, but Plato was unquestionably a brilliantly creative thinker and writer. And Plato’s intellectual artistry attracts me more than Socrates’ dialectical skill. And although Plato expresses his artistry by way of his character Socrates, the man of whom the artistry is characteristic is Plato. Of course I can’t demonstrate this here, but the following will provide some idea of my general approach to the matter.

    The first sentence of the Phaedo is the first question of the dialogue, and the first word of that question is autos. Echecrates wants to know whether Phaedo himself was present for Socrates’ final conversation. The first word of Phaedo’s reply is autos, by which he indicates that he was there himself. He was an eyewitness; Echecrates can trust his account. But then Phaedo reports that Plato was not present. This means nothing special to the characters in the dialogue, but to us readers it raises the question whether we can trust Phaedo’s words—and it suggests, I believe, that we cannot. Plato has constructed the beginning of the dialogue to introduce an element of dramatic irony, by means of which, like the authors of the tragedies, he communicates to his audience behind his characters’ backs. Just as Oedipus can’t know the awful significance of his mocking Teiresias’s blindness, whereas the audience knows full well, so Echecrates isn’t struck by the report of Plato’s absence, but we readers see the implications. We suspect that—at the very least we wonder whether—Plato is providing us the very opposite of what Echecrates believes Phaedo is providing him, Socrates’ actual words. And this has ramifications for our reading of the dialogue as a whole. So, for example, when Socrates insists that he’s no mythologikos, but then refers to his “arguments” throughout as mythoi (as, for example, at 61e, 70b, and 114d)—well, then I suspect that Plato is intentionally subverting the self-presentation of his protagonist to call attention to himself as author, which is to say as artist, as a mythologizer. It is true, as Larkin says, that “Socrates himself makes note of” the Phaedo’s “blurring of the lines between philosophy and poetry,” but, as I read the dialogue, Socrates is as ignorant of the significance of his words as Oedipus is of his. Socrates explicitly downplays the alliance between philosophy and poetry to his auditors, whereas Plato implicitly affirms it for his readers.

    Having said all this, however, I admit it’s plausible that in the end—and maybe even all along—Plato was a dialectician concerned above all else with rationality and truth. But it’s also plausible that even in his late period he was still very much an artist, or rather a philosopher-artist, even if his art became increasingly opaque. In this connection I think of Michelangelo’s late Pietàs, or Melville’s last novel, The Confidence-Man, as dense and obscure in its way as any late Platonic dialogue. Besides, is there not an element of playfulness in the collection and division on display in the Sophist? It seems to me that the various accounts of the sophist suggest that the methodology doesn’t really cut nature at the joints. And the Statesman is a delightful work, full of insight and imaginative embroideries, including of course the great cosmological myth. So even if I were to agree that in the late dialogues “a rigid, entirely logical approach to the acquisition of knowledge” is presented, I need not—and I do not—agree that the dialogues themselves aim primarily at acquiring or disseminating knowledge. The discussion and application of the methodology is only a part of a broader artistic whole, which is far from rigidly logical. In short, the logos is but an element of the mythos.

    But, as I say, I could well be wrong about all this. That’s all right with me, for I don’t aspire to be a Platonist or a Plato scholar, but rather to be a Plato, as a type. To this end I have some interest in “getting Plato right,” to be sure, but I have a far greater interest in drawing on Plato to do what’s right for me. So when Larkin insists that “we cannot simply focus on one period of a thinker, nor artist, but rather, we must take the whole,” I agree with him as a scholar, but as an aspiring thinker and artist I disagree. I’m less concerned with interpretation than with inspiration. And consider Plato himself in this regard: Did he get Heraclitus or Protagoras right in the Theaetetus? Did he get Parmenides right in the Parmenides? Did he get Socrates right, ever? Did he even really want to?

    All this is to say that in the effort to fashion my own personality as a philosopher, I look to Plato, not to Socrates, as my model. Both are legitimate options, I suppose, but, in a sense, Plato is the only living model on display; his Socrates exists exclusively as artwork to Plato as artist. Similarly, there are two models of the philosopher on display in and through my Thinking Life. There is, first, the protagonist, who chooses to abandon his academic post for the unconstrained life of the wandering thinker-artist. Then there’s me, the author, as myself, an academic who chose to write a non-academic book informed by my academic specialties. Here we have two different manifestations of the philosopher as a type. Different, but more similar I think than Plato’s Socrates is to Plato, for I have tried to capture in writing the ideal I aspire to live.

    Finally, as to the message of my book: Yes, I do propose the thinker-artist (of either variety) as a model for a course of life, to those anyway who find themselves drawn to it, as many are drawn to it—before graduate school and the job market transform their riotous desire to live as philosophers into the dutiful preparation to work as professors.

Scott Forrest Aikin

Response

Thinker-Artists, Scholars, and the Problem of Misology in Anderson’s Thinking Life

Michael Tomassi is a regular literary foil in Mark Anderson’s work. I first heard of Michael Tommasi’s work from his recently (and spuriously) published translation of one of the Herculaneum papyri, Xanthippe’s letter to her mother. The epistle is apocryphal work of late Hellenistic rhetoric, wherein the author takes on the persona of a target figure. The genre was famous, in particular, with figures in the Cynical tradition, since they rarely wrote or had their views directly transcribed. So these letters, taken as well as possible from the author’s knowledge of the lives the figures lead, are valuable sources of information about the figures (even if the figures are not truly the authors). The Xanthippe letter, too, repeats many familiar things about Socrates’ life and Athens’ political context, but it also adds a darker line to highlight the stakes of Socrates’ life for his family—ironically, a point not lost on Socrates’ friend, Crito, as reported in Plato’s dialogue (Crito 45d). And the letter has the detail that Xanthippe was the prime mover for the escape plan, herself. (Further, it has the particularly delicious additional stroke of including Crito, in addition to the regular inclusion of Alcibiades, in the party who desecrated the Herms before the ill-fated Sicilian expedition.)

My point is to highlight the scholarly contributions of Michael Tommasi. More precisely, I wish to foreground that his work has deepened our understanding and appreciation of ancient philosophy, and Plato’s work in particular. It’s worth reiterating that Tomassi’s contribution has been in the form of his scholarship—that of a painstaking extraction and translation of an ancient text, one devoted to capturing, preserving, and sharing the thoughts of intellectual forebears. Given the contrasts we see articulated and then enacted in Tommasi’s Thinking Life, I take it that Tommasi looks dimly upon this kind of work—his own work. The relevant contrast that yields this judgment, I believe, is that between what Tommasi’s narrator and his friend in the mountains call “the scholar” and the “thinker-artist.” I have collated representative contrasts along the following lines:

The THINKER-ARTIST is . . . The SCHOLAR is . . .
Earlier, the prime mover Later, derivative (30)
A seeker of exultation A seeker of satisfaction (31)
A lover of wisdom, a philosopher A philosophy professor, a philologist (32, 38)
Devoted to living Devoted to working (35)
A maker of arguments A logician (merely testing arguments for validity) (38)
A poet, a Plato, a Solon The professor, a reader, an Aristotle (91)
A producer of art A producer of monographs (116)
A devotee of mythos A devotee of logos (129)

I must admit that I’ve felt the cut of this critique in my own case. The thinker-artist greets the scholar, asking ironically, “What are you doing away from your desk?” (27), and Tommasi’s narrator acknowledges that he himself has “contributed to the debasement of philosophy” (141) in training students not in philosophy but in entering the profession of philosophy.

This critique is correct about the excesses of professional philosophy. In many ways it is a critique of a symptom of a larger malady affecting the professorate—that of the growing administrative micromanagement of all aspects of a scholar’s life. In the same fashion that Mark Anderson asks, “Would a respectable university press publish Plato’s Phaedo today?” (155), it’s worth also noting that the average administrator would object that Socrates’ plan of showing people that they know nothing is not a quantifiable learning outcome. This is all because, as Anderson observes, “education has become just another mode of business” (154). I agree wholeheartedly.

My main concern, however, is that for all the problems we have with the philosophical scholar as pictured, I do not believe the move to the artist-poet is well-established, and I think that the point can be made from the perspective of Socrates in the Phaedo. Tommasi’s narrator holds he has turned to dive deeply into this dialogue, he has “lingered over the text as one lingers over a work of art . . . savoring its beauty, overwhelmed by the wonder of it all” (146). And so a worry Socrates has of his interlocutors will be well-appreciated if turned to the picture of intellectual life the narrator takes up.

Tommasi’s narrator makes the case for his Creative Pyrrhonism (133) starting with revisiting the problem of the criterion for correct judgment (130) and building to the problem of equipollent theses in philosophy (132). He concludes:

In this, skepticism is his ally. For if nothing can be definitively known to be true, every idea is permitted. (133)

But, as a scholar of skepticism, one who chases down the thoughts from Sextus Empiricus, Philo of Larissa, and Carneades, I don’t believe this works. The skeptic is an ally on the front end of this project, but not on the consequent cognitive permissiveness that Tommasi’s narrator takes to follow. Arcesilaus famously held that rash judgment is deeply wrong, and even the skeptics who concede that we have commitments, still hold that they must be held against a dialectical background of what is pithanon or has verisimilitude. Sextus Empiricus is clear that after showing views to be equipollent, one must suspend judgment (PH 1.8).

Socrates, too, near the close of the Phaedo, warns his interlocutors not to become misologues. “There is no greater evil one suffer than to hate reasonable discourse” (Phaedo 89d). The problem is with the disappointments we feel from our favorite views not surviving critical scrutiny—and consequently, instead of valuing the way reasoning has revealed deficiencies, the misologue “throws blame heartily on the arguments and hates and reviles them” (90d). And Socrates even resolves, “Let us be on our guard against this [misology], and let us not admit into our souls the notion that there is no soundness in argument at all” (90e). So my worry is that the Creative Pyrrhonist is the misologue (or on the road to it) Socrates took pains to warn us from becoming. Tommasi’s narrator holds of the debates in philosophy:

Ah, choosing sides is so tedious, the bluster of the “true” and the “false.” I say: All things are always changing in every way, and yet everything always is at every moment. (113)

But to say this is to take a side. It takes Heraclitus over Parmenides, it takes Nietzsche over Descartes, and it takes Rorty over Peirce. And it does so not with an argument, but with a shrug of indifference to making the case, to answering a challenge. Socrates knew that such an unhappy turn was a temptation if one has tasted some of the bitter results of dialectic and elenchus. Resisting the temptation to misology calls us to critique logos’s misuse in the Apollonian philosophical professorate, but it also must be at work in tempering the appeal of the Dionysiac thinker-artist.

  • Mark Anderson

    Mark Anderson

    Reply

    Reply to Scott Aikin

    Aikin expresses three main reservations about the philosophical position adopted by the protagonist of my Thinking Life. To avoid circumlocutions, I will state these as concerns about me, for I do align myself with the thoughts articulated by the characters in the book. Stated briefly, Aikin worries that I misappropriate Pyrrhonism; that I take sides in the meta-philosophical debate, namely the Nietzsche-Rorty side; and finally that I am on the road to the sort of mistrust or rejection of reason that Socrates warns against in the Phaedo under the label “misology.” To respond appropriately to each of this concerns would require more space than I have here, so I shall try to indicate in brief the course my more robust response would take.

    I am indeed engaged in a project that diverges from the aims and intentions of the ancient Pyrrhonians, which is why I modify the noun “Pyrrhonism” with the adjective “Creative.” And of course Aikin is correct to note that “the skeptic is an ally on the front end of this project, but not on the consequent cognitive permissiveness” that I advocate. But, contrary to Aikin’s formulation, I don’t take this permissiveness to “follow” from skepticism, not anyway if by “follow” one means to be “logically entailed,” for, given the skeptics’ position, nothing logically entails anything (or so it seems to me now). But for this very reason, given the “front end” of the skeptics’ project, they have no authoritative say over what I choose to do on the back end, so long anyway as I don’t claim that the back end is implied or justified by the front end. Which I don’t.

    The lesson I draw from Pyrrhonism is not that since no thesis can be conclusively refuted, every thesis is justified. But I do conclude that every thesis is permitted—permitted, that is, in the sense that no one can demonstrate by argument that any particular thesis is false. Therefore, if I recognize in myself tendencies toward this or that idea, or set of ideas—if it appeals to me as moving, or beautiful, or powerful, or in any way at all, especially if this appeal is forceful even after years of reflection and research—then I need not resist it, anyway not on epistemic grounds. I should not affirm it as true, to be sure. But one may suspend judgment on a thesis in that sense while incorporating it as an element in one’s intellectual and emotional life, precisely as one may acknowledge that one feels hot without affirming anything at all about the non-evident. Indeed, one may construct an entire thought-world for oneself from such incorporated elements.

    Would the ancient Pyrrhonians themselves approve of my project? Would they recognize me as a member of their school in good standing? Probably not. But their disapproval of my project would not be based on logical or rational grounds. It’s not as if I disregard some relevant principle they have demonstrated or can demonstrate. It’s just that I’m not playing the same intellectual game as them. That’s fine. We can develop different games from the same starting points. They don’t own the starting points—and even if they did, their starting points undermine any attempt to regulate how others elaborate them.

    All this is to say that nothing in the logic of Pyrrhonism dictates that I must resist my intellectual tendencies and inclinations, justify them by argument, or confine my activities to seeking truth—so long anyway as I resist affirming truth-claims about the non-evident. To suspend judgment doesn’t mean to deny the appearances, and the appearances may include ideas.

    Let’s ignore the fact that the Pyrrhonians’ habit of devising and hoarding skeptical arguments suggests that, contrary to their insistence that they continue to seek the truth, they are in fact determined to cut off every path toward it—let’s ignore this and admit arguendo that even in the face of their skeptical arguments they continue to seek the truth. Fine. From this we gain insight into their personal psychologies, but their skepticism doesn’t mandate their search. To the contrary, the logic of Pyrrhonism seems to me to undermine such mandates. In short, the Pyrrhonian is in no position to affirm epistemic obligations. So Arcesilaus may think what he likes about the deep wrongfulness of rash judgments, but he can’t demonstrate that they are wrong in fact. Besides, my own judgments are anything but rash, nor are they affirmations of non-evident truth. They’re thoughtfully elaborated preferences regarding the architecture of my thought-world.

    As to the meta-philosophical dispute, it seems to me now that it cannot be decided. Moreover, I recognize in myself intellectual and psychological tendencies toward the Nietzsche-Rorty side of the debate, and an inclination to engage with philosophical themes creatively. From the Pyrrhonian starting point I take permission to pursue my inclinations. And that’s all the permission I need. I decline to play the justification-by-argument game. It can’t be won, but neither can it be lost. Besides, if I were to play that game, I would find myself too near to Rorty: continually insisting that philosophy is a creative enterprise, but never actually practicing it as such.

    Finally, as to the charge of misology, I would suggest that the Phaedo is far from our best source for a defense of the authority of reason. The section on misology, like the whole of the dialogue, is radically ambiguous. At 89d Socrates says that “there is no greater bad thing (meizon kakon) one might suffer (pathoi) than” misology. But at 83c–d he had said that “of all bad things (pantôn . . . kakôn) the greatest (megiston) and most extreme” that one suffers (paschei) is “believing those things are true which the body says are so.” In context, this is a rejection of empiricism. The unmistakable similarities of vocabulary suggest that Plato intends to couple these two passages, and thereby to associate empiricism with misology. I don’t imagine that Aikin wants to align himself with this association.

    Nor does it help Aikin’s case that the arguments in the Phaedo are flawed in a variety of ways—including those arguments that follow Socrates’ warning against mistrusting reason—and that these flaws are acknowledged in the text (e.g., at 76d–e and 84c). To insist that we trust reason in the course of elaborating incomplete or unsound arguments is a strange way to show respect for logos. Unless one means to be ironic. I suspect that Plato is being ironic, and at Socrates’ expense. This is not to say that Plato mistrusts or disdains logos, but it is to suggest that he consistently subordinates it to mythos.

    My Thinking Life, as the “philosophical fiction” the subtitle proclaims it to be, is a mythos which contains logoi as elements subordinate to the whole. The logoi aren’t meant to prove the truth of the mythos, but I doubt that arguments ever really prove the truth of anything substantive. I do hope my logoi help to justify my mythos, but only in the sense that we sometimes feel that a work of art justifies the ideas and psychic states without which the artist would never have created.

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