The Greeks understood that all human being is interpretive; it interprets itself as well as everything that is a being/thing in whatever sense. These interpretations are done through language and symbol; they arise from human relations to the beings that are. But speech or language as a way of knowing and revealing is not the primary manner in which the truth of the beings that are is revealed. In speech, truth may be disclosed but does not necessarily have to be disclosed. Language can either reveal or conceal. As the distinguishing feature that makes human beings the animals that they are, the zoon logon echon, human beings, too, can be in the world in a manner that reveals or conceals.
Moderns see “judgement” as the proper bearer of truth (Kant: “Judgement is the seat of truth”), but this was not the case for the Greeks. The sophists’ manner of being-in-the-world is through language: he dwells in language; and as a dweller in language, what is revealed by the sophist may be either true or false. The sophist is an orator, one whose purpose is to form an opinion, a belief, a conviction among the many who are his listeners. He is today’s politician who is looking for “partisans” for his cause, or one of the many “talking heads” that one views on the social media. The sophist’s emphasis is on emotions and the appetites and on entrapping his audience into beliefs that may or may not be true. The sophist moves in a world of very determined opinions and he strives for a conformity to those opinions whether those opinions regard political things or knowledge itself. His use of speech at most times is not to “unconceal” the truth of things but to “cover” them over in order to produce “distortion” and “deception” for his self-benefit or for the benefit of partisans of the cause to which he belongs.
In the days of Aristotle and Plato, the sophists were “materialists” in the sense that they understood Being as “presence in bodies”. “Materialists” were represented by both Plato and Aristotle as notoriously hard-nosed and stubborn when both wrote about them in their dialogues and treatises, but the materialists are also shown to be not very bright. Today’s “materialists” are known as “pragmatists”, those who deal with “real” things whether political or theoretical. They are opposed to the “idealists” since their “realism” is considered practical and sound “common sense”. But they do not have “knowledge” of the things of which they are speaking in any traditional way that “knowledge” is understood.
All ways of knowing serve to establish a relation between ourselves and the world we live in and the things within that world. Logos is the mode of access to the beings or the things of the world and logos defines the possibilities within which something can be experienced about beings and their Being. In the English language, any addressing of something as something, the thing that is addressed or what is said about the thing, what and how the thing says of itself i.e. “gives” itself to us, our way of addressing the thing i.e. the proposition and the structure of the addressedness itself requires, either explicitly or implicitly, the verb “to be”. In our language, the being of the thing has always been an issue for language, and if we are to say anything about something, we must say something about its being. The “as something”, the “how” of the thing addressed, is also a necessity for language. How are the beings encountered in language as a way of knowing? The issue of the “being” of something is already presupposed and understood and these presuppositions and understandings predetermine how that thing will come to presence.
In Plato’s Sophist, the sophist himself is difficult to find for he dwells in darkness. The philosopher is difficult to see because of the brightness of the divine that surrounds him. Such distinctions should not be seen as “opposites” but as “deprivations” of some other third thing i.e. rest is not the opposite of motion but the deprivation of motion, and vice versa. The sophist is deprived of the knowledge that the philosopher somehow possesses (sophia, the divine) but he has the potential or the possibility of such knowledge as all human beings do but only a few attain to it. This lacking is, simply, the light. It is the presence of deprivation in the beings themselves that turn all beings into non-beings, that is, into something that they are not, according to Plato. “The light” is not an analogy or metaphor; it is meant literally in Plato.
How can something be other than what it is and can therefore be classified as a “non-being” and yet still be at the same time? We can say of our own human being that without self-knowledge of who we are as a human being then we are not a full human being. This lack of fullness, completeness or perfection would be as our “non-being”; we are, but we are not. We are irrational numbers or incommensurables, in the language of mathematics. We are not human beings, for example, when we are “inhumane” for “humanity” is one of the qualities required for being a full human being. But as the being that we are, we still use the words “human being”. Beings contain within themselves both the potentiality or possibility for being what they are or for not being what they are in relation to their being-in-the-world . They are not when they are deprived of that quality that makes them what they are in truth i.e. when they are not fully revealed to themselves or to others and have not yet reached the perfection of their “full potential”. To give a simple example: “the chair is wood” attributes both “woodness” and “chairness” to the chair i.e. woodness is something present in the chair as chair. Both woodness and chairness can be attributed to the same thing and still be other i.e. wood is not a chair in itself and it is possible to have chairs other than wooden ones. So it is with human beings.
The development of the argument of the non-being of beings is very long and complicated in the Sophist. The sophist’s language uses eidolon (“idols”) or false images in order to render the content of what he is speaking about to others. His language focuses on that aspect of the human soul (he is a “hunter” or “angler” for human souls) that is its desire for that which is good. The human soul is both eternal or permanent and in motion, the movement of the human soul being its desire for things that are permanent; it seeks rest from its motion. Both desire (movement) and the eternal (rest) are co-present in the human soul and the human soul’s desire is shown in the “appetites” which in themselves are constantly in motion because they are insatiable and they seek as their goal something which in itself can never be an end in itself because it, too, is in motion and never comes to rest.
Every being/thing must have the possibility of being both itself and being other than itself in relation to something else. In the human soul, movement as desire is co-present with the eternal as rest. It is the presence of deprivation or difference that turns all beings into non-beings i.e. shadows (for Plato). Being other is the non-being of beings including human beings. But how can a “non-being” be? They are, but they are not “what” they are but “other” than what they are i.e. “different”. The reality of evil is its deprivation or difference from what truly is i.e. when it is “revealed” in its truth. Until it is done so, it dwells in darkness and is not “knowledge”. What has traditionally been understood as “opposites” is not the case since “opposites” would be separate entities.
Thus, the sophist is a deprivation of the philosopher as a being, and his knowledge is a deprivation of the knowledge of the philosopher for the sophist holds opinions on everything. But the “non-being” is no less present than the being of which it is an “otherness”, “difference”, or a “deprivation”. The non-being itself is visible as a being and has its own eidos or “outward appearance”. The ironic analogy which Plato uses is the “exchange of money” by showing how a single, large denomination may be parceled out in smaller denominations while retaining the same look i.e. money. The point Plato is making is that a non-being is not a “nothing” but a “some thing”. https://mytok.blog/2019/12/07/ct-1-self-knowledge-and-ethics/
That the discussion of the non-being of things should lead to a discussion of language is Plato’s attempt to show what dialectic is i.e. the letting be seen of what is properly visible, the eide, of the beings themselves. The highest relation between human beings is “friendship”. Friendships are possible among “two or three”, not two or three thousand. It finds an echo in the words of Christ: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) The “friends” of Facebook and other social media are not the “friendships” spoken of by the Greeks. The language that is used to communicate on our social media is not the language of dialectic, the conversation of friends. To be capable of being a friend, one must first have the proper education so that one can engage in the dialectic or conversation that involves the revealing of things among friends.
The distinction in the language of dialectic and the language of rhetoric can be seen in Plato’s dialogue The Apology of Socrates. Plato’s The Apology is an account of the speech Socrates makes at the trial in which he is charged with not recognizing the gods recognized by the state, of inventing new deities, and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ speech, however, is by no means an “apology“, nor is it in any way a “dialectic”, in our modern understanding of the words. It is an example of Socrates’ use of rhetoric, not dialectic, for one cannot use dialectic before a multitude or before a mob. The distinctions between Brutus’ speech and Marc Antony’s speech before the Romans following Caesar’s assassination in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar shows clearly the nature of speech and the nature of language before crowds. Brutus’ appeal to reason is utterly defeated by Antony’s appeal to the emotions of the Romans. Both Aristotle and Plato found poetry to be more philosophic than history. History is favoured by rhetoricians, not by philosophers.
A few words need to be said regarding language and conversation and how we understand them in the modern. Our conversation today is more closely akin to “idle talk”. “Idle talk” controls the ways in which one may be curious or become an inquirer and is the manner in which knowledge is shared. “It says what one ‘must’ have read and seen.” (Heidegger, Being and Time, 217) “Idle talk” is connected to language as a way of knowing and being in the world; but either of these ways-to-be (curiosity, idle talk) drags the other along with it: curiosity for which nothing is closed off, and idle talk, for which there is nothing that is not understood, provide human being(s) with the guarantee of a ‘life’ which, supposedly, is genuinely ‘lively’. (Our phrase “Get a life” is caught up with this understanding of human being in that it points to getting distractions and socializations which lead the individual human being (Human Being) into the they-self). But more must be said about “idle talk” so that this phenomenon of everydayness is made clearer.
The phenomenon of “idle talk” is rooted in the manner and methodology of inquiry and research. It is not to be seen as a disparaging term, but is to be understood as the kind of Being of everyday human being’s understanding and interpreting. It is expressed through language, primarily the language of the sophist. We need to remember that in our modern age, there is no distinction between the regime that rules and the institutions that dominate life within those regimes. But, since these use language, the understanding and interpretation already lie in what is being expressed; it is our ‘shared knowledge’ which is used by our modern sophists and comes to determine most of what we post on our social network walls. In language, as the way things have been expressed or spoken out, there is the concealed way in which the understanding of what human being is has already been interpreted. To put this in another way somewhat reflective of the philosopher Kant: the theory is the practice; the ‘scope’ is the ‘methodology’. This interpretedness of our human being delivers human being over and controls the possibilities of average understanding and of the state-of-mind belonging to it, and modern sophists rely on it. This understanding which is present-at-hand in the way that things have been expressed relates just as much to our understanding of things in the world and to our own understanding of ourselves and what we think we are as human beings. We perceive Others as “things”, resources, and in this perception our sense of “otherness” is gradually, and finally, dimmed and eroded to disappearance.
“Idle talk” determines our “shared knowledge”. The technites who create the shadows in our Caves are those who rule, politically or otherwise. The discourse of communication between the rulers and the ruled is language, either written or spoken. In spoken language what is spoken when one expresses oneself is an “average intelligibility”, and what is communicated can be understood to a considerable extent, even if the hearer does not bring herself into such a kind of Being towards what the discourse is about (topic or theme) as to have a thorough, original understanding of it. We do not so much understand the things which are talked about; we already are listening only to what is said in the talk as such. What is said in the talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is only understood approximately and superficially. “We have the same thing in view, because it is in the same averageness that we have a shared understanding of what is said”. (Heidegger, Being and Time, 212)
The primary relationship towards the topic or theme of what is talked about is not “imparted” by communication; it is in the being-with-one-another (social constructs) and the manner of being-with-one-another. The primary relationship to what the discourse is about is never reached and what is passed along or communicated is “gossip”. What is said in the talk spreads and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because “they” say so. The grounds on which the original topic or theme stand are groundless. One sees the effect of such groundlessness in much of what is occurring in the politics of the USA today, but it is also occurring in the politics throughout the world. So much of what is occurring with the current covid-19 pandemic provides ample concrete examples of the point being made here.
In scholarship or “inquiry”, this communication takes the form of “scribbling” and is based upon superficial reading. The average understanding of the reader will never be able to decide what is drawn from original sources and how much is just “gossip” or “fake news”. And in the realm of “shared knowledge”, the average understanding will not want any such distinction, and does not need it, because, of course, it understands everything. (Heidegger, Being and Time, 212).
“Idle talk” is the possibility of understanding everything without previously making the thing one’s own (i.e. inquiring and learning). It is the saying and teaching of the sophists of ancient Greece who had opinions on everything and taught those opinions; in doing so they were contrasted with the philosophers who had genuine understanding of the whole. What develops from such teaching of such sophists is that it relieves one from the task of genuinely understanding the topic or theme and develops an undifferentiated kind of intelligibility for which nothing is closed off any longer.
Language has the possibility of becoming “idle talk” when it is understood as merely “information”. (see the writing on Language and Knowledge and the understanding of language as “information”); and when it does so, it serves not so much to keep Being-in-the-world open for us in an articulated understanding, as to close it off and cover up or cover over the things-in-the-world. This covering over is not done with the aim to deceive in most cases, and it does not aim to pass off something as something else at most times. It merely closes off rather than discloses. What is understood is always a “saying something”—that is, uncovering something. But “idle talk” is a closing off by its very nature since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone. The thing spoken about does not get to arrive. Because an understanding or conformity is supposedly reached, any new inquiry or disagreement is suppressed or held back.
The way things are interpreted and handed over to us in “idle talk” establishes our “personal knowledge” and thus our “shared knowledge” through discourse, and this everyday way establishes our “average understanding” from which it is very difficult to extricate oneself. All genuine understanding, interpreting and communication are performed within it, out of it, and against it. All of us are caught up in this way in which things have been interpreted and this determines the manner of our beholding of what we encounter. The “they” prescribe one’s state-of-mind and determine what and how one “sees”.
“Idle talk” is the kind of Being which belongs to human beings’ understanding when that understanding has been uprooted. In “idle talk” human being-in-the-world is cut off from genuine relationships towards the world, towards others, and towards itself. This phenomenon is demonstrated most clearly in our social media, politics and networks. This way of Being, this uprootedness, is human beings’ most everyday and most stubborn reality. It is the “evil” of which Hannah Arendt speaks that “grows like a fungus” on the surface of things. https://mytok.blog/2019/12/07/ct-1-self-knowledge-and-ethics/ This uprootedness is not overcome by the cynical solipsism demonstrated in so many of the young these days and which has come to find political expression in populism when they are old enough to vote in democracies; this stance is pre-determined, and the poses of the young are already system-determined and system-determining through the They-self and within the They-self.
The combination of “curiosity” and “idle talk” as our everyday reality creates the third phenomenon of a triptych which is “ambiguity”. The knowledge problems for which we seek solutions or approaches in TOK are part of this experience of “ambiguity” or “confusion” in our everyday dealings. “When, in our everyday Being-with-one-another, we encounter the sort of thing which is accessible to everyone, and about which anyone can say anything, it soon becomes impossible to decide what is disclosed in a genuine understanding, and what is not.” (Heidegger, Being and Time, 217) This confusion or “ambiguity” extends not only to the world, but equally to our relations with each other and even to our understanding of ourselves. This “confusion” is shown with the particular emphasis given to “ethics” in the most recent TOK guidelines. Everything looks as if it were genuinely understood, genuinely taken hold of, genuinely spoken, though at bottom it is not; or else it does not look so, and yet at bottom it is.
Because our approach to the world is as subject/object understood within the principle of reason, ambiguity affects not only the way we approach and make available to ourselves what is for use and enjoyment and the way we manage it through our arts, but it also establishes itself in our understanding as potentialities-for-Being and in the way in which we, as human beings, project ourselves and our possibilities. This is what we have come to call our “empowerment” which in turn creates our “lifestyle”. “Idle talk” and “curiosity” take care, in their “ambiguity”, to ensure that what is genuinely and newly created is out of date as soon as it emerges before the public. (Being and Time, 218). The shortness of our memories in our “shared knowledge” and history is something that should inspire wonder although it does not.