OT 3: Knowledge and Politics Part 1

When we speak of “knowledge and politics”, we are speaking about “political philosophy” or “political science” because knowledge is “science” or “philosophy”. The turbulence of our times in not unique to them; the history of human beings shows that as long as we have had societies, we have had difficulties living within them. These difficulties for us today are that the problems of living in societies are exacerbated by the judgements of our social sciences which state that we cannot make judgements about what is the “best” society or what is “good or bad” when speaking about societies and the actions of the human beings who live within them because we must distinguish between “statements of fact” and “statements of value”. To judge the good or bad or what is “best” is to make a value judgement, and the modern social sciences are forbidden from making “value judgements” (or so they claim, although they do so all the time). “Political philosophy” or “political science” would claim to have knowledge of “political things”, but what are “political things”? Our modern social sciences resist making such claims to knowledge.

Our modern social sciences are a product of, and a consequence of, the great change in the viewing of Nature that occurs with the modern Natural Sciences of the 17th century. It was the Greeks who first distinguished Nature (physis) from “convention” (nomos) and thus raised the issue of whether social things, the political things, were “by nature” or “by “convention”. This distinction raised all kinds of thorny questions: is justice merely “conventional” or are there things which are by nature just? do laws have natural content or are they merely the inventions of human beings and thus conventions? These questions are still with us. When Americans say: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…” they are saying something which is by nature, “self-evident truths”, and not something which is mere convention. Nowadays we aren’t quite sure that there are any “self-evident truths” and this is one of the major reasons that we find ourselves in the turmoil and confusion that we are in today no matter where we dwell on the planet.

Plato in Bk. VI of his Republic states that those who follow the opinion of what we today would call the “pragmatic theory of truth” would be the followers of a Great Beast, and in their following of the Beast, their actions or ethics would be determined accordingly. The sophism of today’s Social Science is outlined clearly by Socrates in the passage which here is quoted in full because of its importance:

“…That each of the private wage earners whom these men (technites) call sophists and believe to be their rivals in art, educates in nothing other than these convictions of the many, which  they opine when they are gathered together, and he calls this wisdom. It is just like the case of a man who learns by heart the angers and desires of a great, strong beast he is rearing, how it should be approached and how taken hold of, when—and as a result of what—it becomes most difficult or most gentle, and, particularly, under what conditions it is accustomed to utter its several sounds, and, in turn, what sort of sounds uttered by another make it tame and angry. When he has learned all this from associating and spending time with the beast, he calls it wisdom and, organizing it as an art, turns to teaching. Knowing nothing in truth about which of these convictions and desires is noble, or base, or good, or evil, or just, or unjust, he applies all these names following the great animal’s opinions—calling what delights it good and what vexes it bad. He has no other argument about them but calls the necessary just and noble, neither having seen nor being able to show someone else how much the nature of the necessary and the good really differ. Now, in your opinion, wouldn’t such a man, in the name of Zeus, be out of
place as an educator?” (Republic 493b trans. Allan Bloom)

In his description of the Great Beast, Plato outlines what he will call the Cave in Bk VII of Republic and what dwells in the Cave. The Cave is the world in which we dwell everyday. Societies are the Great Beast that we dwell alongside, among and with in the Cave, and the societies are determined by the nature of their rulers and the regimes and rules (laws)  that they establish. The “regime” is what the Greeks called the polis, from which our word “politics” is derived. The word has more connotations than the translations “country” or “city” or “State” provide.

Plato lists five types of regimes, from best to worst, in his Republic: 1. monarchy; 2. aristocracy; 3. oligarchy; 4. democracy; 5. tyranny. Democracy is placed just above tyranny because, according to Plato, democracy appeals to the “lowest common denominator” in human beings, the “appetites”, and these are insatiable in nature and lack sophrosyne or “moderation” without “proper education” and guidance. Democracy neglects the education to “virtue” of its citizens within it or domestically, and appeals to an imperialism in the State without in its relations to its neighbouring states because of its avariciousness. Democracy inevitably devolves into tyranny through time because it is unable to develop a sense of “otherness” among its inhabitants i.e. it is not able to establish the virtue of “friendship” among its members. “Friendship” is established through logos or “speech”.

When things are known through “speech”, they can become what we call “opinion”. Ethics is not “opinion” because it deals with praxis, concrete actions, and these actions are taken in the direction of some perceived “good”, and the actions and their results can be seen by all. An opinion is directed to something; it is a maintaining that some thing is such and such. Opinion is an orientation towards things as they would show themselves to a correct investigation and examination. “Opinion” is an attempt to “reveal” the truth of something covered over or hidden. “Opinion” is Plato’s “justified true belief” which he outlines in his dialogue Theatetus. Opinion is not a seeking for knowledge but is something someone already has whether it be true or false because an opinion can be true or false. Sophia and episteme are not “opinion” because they are already complete i.e. they are not underway towards something because they already possess knowledge of the things about which they deliberate and those things are the things which are permanent. “Opinion” regards those things that can be otherwise and that is why it can be true or false. Opinion is the handing over of knowledge through “language” and what the thing is that is handed over. It is not a “truth relativism”; it may reveal or it may not. It reveals when it is true; it does not reveal when it is false.

To speak about “knowledge and politics” is to recognize that ours is an age of sophistry. Because this is so, we wish to look at the dialogue by Plato which follows Theatetus called Sophist. In this dialogue Plato provides the “lineage” of the sophist so that we are able to grasp from where and how the sophist came to be. Plato’s dialogue “uncovers” the Sophist as well as those things with which his techne deals. How the sophist speaks about and deals with things reveals that his comportment towards things is that of a technite. His is an art or a craft which involves the “speaking about everything”. We have come to call this techne “rhetoric”. Sophistry is the “know how” that deals with speaking about everything there is; his is the “know how” about speaking about things, but his “know how” is a deception of that which is spoken about: the speech of the sophist presents its object as something which it is not; what he speaks about is not as he shows it to be. In a Platonic sense, the sophist demonstrates “the Being of non-beings” and in doing so demonstrates that illusion and trickery are. But surely, illusion and trickery, deception and lies are real things, are they not? Not so for Plato, but we must remember that for Plato even those things which we consider “good” are not “real” but merely “shadows” of their true being.

By showing what the sophist is through words, the Being of the philosopher is also shown in silence. Throughout this dialogue, Socrates is silent, his is the Being of the philosopher, and the conversation is conducted by the Stranger from Elia and carried out with Theatetus. We have two opposite “triangles”: the politician – the sophist – the madman, on the one hand, and the Statesman – the philosopher – the human being/citizen on the other. Each of these triangles illustrate the Idea of the objects that they are attempting to bring to light or to “presence”.

The language used by Plato in his dialogues is an attempt to get beyond the chit-chat of everyday speech, the language we most commonly use in our everyday dealings with things. The language and engagement in the conversation that is dialectic is not the attempt to out-argue someone, but getting one’s partner in the conversation to open their eyes and see. Logos is an assertion about something and an addressing of some thing as some thing. It is concerned with the proper naming of the things. While language first has to do with hearing, its purpose is to make us see. We do not have to look far for examples of disputes with the proper naming of things. Any reading of the daily news will provide them, and as this is being written a great debate is going on in America over what is the thing that is to be called “bribery”.

Plato’s Sophist shows  the being of the sophist and the being of the philosopher and how the two “reveal” the beings with which they are concerned: the sophist in his comportment reveals the “non-being” of the things of which he speaks; the philosopher reveals the true being of the things, and as we engage in reading this dialogue we ourselves participate in philosophy. What we will attempt to show is the “non-being” of the political and ethical things of which the sophist speaks and in doing so, how Plato relates to “revealing” in our own age regarding these things. How do the political and the ethical things “look” when encountered and spoken of by the sophist and the philosopher? How do these things “look” in our age?

Each area of knowledge is “cut out”of the whole of things and has a definite aisthesis or “lens” (as we now call it) in which its perceptions have been shaped and honed regarding the objects which it inquires about. In geometry, the objects are the relations of space or place, things as they are “by and within nature”. The objects of physics are beings that are “in motion”. The physicist does not first prove that his objects of inquiry are in motion; they are seen that way in advance. Philosophy and the philosopher distinguish themselves from sophists and dialecticians by the type and mode of competence, and mode of existence which they demonstrate. The philosopher is dedicated to “substance”; the sophist to “semblance”. The sophist claims to educate by enabling his hearers to “speak well” about anything and everything. The sophist disregards completely anything substantial in his speaking.

In contrast to the philosopher, the sophist does not take things seriously because he is not concerned about the substantive content of his “speeches”; nothing gets too “heavy” in the speeches of the sophist simply because there is no substantive content to give them weight. The philosopher, on the other hand, wishes to bring about understanding; the sophist attempts to persuade and cajole through his speeches’ apparent reasonableness and brilliance. The sophist’s unconcern for substance is a matter of principle because the sophist is concerned with semblance, the false, the not, and negation. The sophist is well aware of the importance of speech and the speaking person and of the spoken word’s dominance in the individual and the community. The form which the speeches take is most decisive. In the view of human being-in-the-world and ethics, Plato associates the sophist with the politician and the madman.

Today’s politician is a sophist if we look at the character and mode of being of the sophist as outlined by Plato and Aristotle. Because the sophist is a “complicated” thing to “describe”, comparisons of commonplace things which no one will dispute will be used. The first commonplace comparison that is familiar to everyone is an “angler”. So what similarities do the “angler” and the sophist “reveal”? The methodological approach used by Plato is one of diaresis, a separation in which the two things, the thematic=sophist and the example=angler, are placed side by side so that they may be compared and “brought to light”, similar to the methodology that you will be using in your Exhibition.

The “angler” is shown to be a technite, one who has “know how”. Someone who has no “know how” whatsoever is what is called an “idiot” by the Greeks. This is the origin of our word meaning the same thing. This “know how” of the angler is called by the Greeks dynamis “an ability, a capacity, an aptitude for something”. Techne is a “producing”, a bringing into being what is not there at first, “a bringing forth into presence”, a “revealing”. The angler brings to presence what before was hidden in the depths. Learning is a “bringing something close to oneself”, “making oneself familiar with something”, “getting to know someone or something”, “taking something into awareness”. In Greek, the word pragma means “something there that one can do things with”, “something one can use”, “something one can appropriate”. The demiourgos is one who makes things for public use. The relation of all these terms is that they concern something that is already there; the things may be appropriated or “grasped” in logos or in praxis. The prey which the angler hunts is already there, though hidden.

What is appropriated in knowledge and speech is the truth of things that are already there in their “unconcealment”. Knowledge was developed by the Greeks without any “theory” or “epistemology”; they did not have a “theory of knowledge”. Knowledge, for the Greeks, was a taking to oneself of something that was already there on hand such that the being, the thing that is taken up remains precisely what and where it is. The things offer themselves in their full presence without distortion, and knowledge and discourse is allowing the beings or things to give themselves as they are. To contrast the Greek understanding of what knowledge is to our understanding of knowledge would take much more writing than this entry will allow. How do all of these concepts relate to the sophist?

The sophist’s comportment to the world is speech/logos. We have referred to it as “language as a way of knowing” and, as we have mentioned, each way of knowing is a comportment to the world, a “lens” through which the world is perceived in some way. Speech, words is the means the sophist uses to procure his objects which are other people. “Correct speaking” is what he himself has to give. His techne brings about “disputatiousness” in others; that is what his “education” brings about in other people produces “divisions” rather than the “understanding” that leads to “friendship”. The goal of “correct speaking” or rhetoric is the inculcation of opinions in others. The aim is to prevail in public opinion to procure power and reputation. The intention of speaking is not to comprehend those things about which the speeches are made, but to prevail in public opinion and procure power thereby. (Gorgias 453 A2)

The Greeks define human being as the zoon logon echon, the animal capable of discourse. Since language is crucial to understanding who and what the sophist is, we must look at how language relates to the techne and to the comportment of the sophist in relation to the world and the beings in it. Plato believes that the sophists are misinformed about the nature of their techne. Deception can only be carried out if one sees the truth. This deception must first begin with the self.

In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates describe his love for speeches and why he does so: his love of speeches is driven by his desire for “self-knowledge”. It is a love of learning, or literally, “hearing what people say”. Socrates does not leave the city because he has nothing to learn from the fields, meadows and trees. Phaedrus itself is a dialogue regarding the human comportment in Love to speech, the soul, and the Good. But the dialogue itself takes place outside of the city, under a tree by a brook. Socrates’ love is not referring to the degenerate speeches of orators and the like; his love is of the speech with substance. The speeches of the sophist, however, concern the needs, demands, dispositions, inclinations, and the manners of the many, and these serve as the guidelines for discourse. The sophist must first have knowledge of the audience to whom he is speaking (See the Great Beast passage above).  Socrates does not distinguish between the speech about serious, important matters and the speech about trivialities and chit-chat. The one who is competent in the techne of speeches is also the one who is able to deceive in a perfect way by this same techne. The condition of the possibility of genuine self-expression is also the possibility of perfect deception and misrepresentation.

For example, deception is to speak about something in such a way that it looks like something else which it is not but which it is to be seen as. This “being seen as”, this sight, is to be formed by logos. The actual “what” of the thing needs to be hidden and the thing depends on the “face” that it wears, how it is made to appear. The face of the deception must be precisely revealed. The one who knows the truth of the thing must have this first before the deception is possible. One can see specific examples of this techne of deception running throughout the attempt to impeach Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors. The thing, the “crime”, is made to not look like a crime by Trump’s defenders. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth must deceive himself first through the logos which he does by not addressing the act which he contemplating to be “murder”. Macbeth refers to the murder as “it” and he invents a new word, “assassination”, in order to hide from himself the “face” of the action that he is considering doing. (Act I sc. vii) This self-deception is “evil”, for evil is the denial of the light as light, and this denial must occur first prior to the action being carried out. An element of “intentional ignorance” must be present and a denial of the truth as truth.

Where and how does this denial of truth originate? In Plato’s Sophist the discussion is of the relation between the soul and the body, and the themes of “sickness” and “ugliness” or “deformity”  (c.f. Macbeth). The “sickness” that arises in the soul is when one mode of comportment or way of knowing the world comes into conflict with another mode of comportment. This results in what we would call “stress” today and it is experienced in the body. “Ugliness” is considered to be a condition of the soul and is understood as “inadequacy” or “unfittedness” for the goal or aim that the individual is trying to achieve. This does not relate to the different modes of comportment but is something residing in the comportment itself. The “aim” or telos, the “aspiration” is not appropriate to the nature of the individual’s thinking nor to the individual’s psyche or soul thus resulting in a “deformity”. Where the “ugliness” is, things do not have “the proper outward look”; disfiguration in the things that are seen occurs because the soul itself does not have the proper “outward look”.

We will continue to attempt to explore the nature of political things in Part II of this writing on knowledge and politics. For a conclusion to this writing, as we rest along our journey along the path to the arriving at the origin of political things, let us just say that the modern thought reaches its culmination in the most radical historicism. It condemns to oblivion the notion of eternity or the permanence of things. Oblivion of eternity is our estrangement from our deepest desire, the desire of and for the Good, according to the Greeks. This estrangement has resulted in our present confusion regarding political and ethical things due to our estrangement from the primary issues. We do not know what the questions are that we need to ask. It is the price that we have had to pay for our attempt to control necessity and become masters and owners of nature.


Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

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