24 September 2005

Obscurum Per Obscurius?

As might have been predicted from the title ("The Togetherness of Thought and Being: A Phenomenological Reading of Plotinus' Doctrine 'That the Intelligibles Are Not Outside the Intellect'"), Eric Perl's BACAP lecture last Thursday was an attempt to show the fundamental similarity of outlook between Plotinus and Husserl. In fact Perl is something of a pioneer of this approach to Plotinus.

I found myself agreeing with the drift of Robert Berchman's commentary--that Plotinus' motivations were so different as to make the doctrine different, no matter how similar in some places the words might seem; that Husserl's phenomenology is, of its nature, a reply to a kind of scepticism that could not even arisen before Descartes.

I also wondered additionally about the purpose of such a project. In his conclusion, Perl urged that a phenomenological reading of Plotinus might help us respond to an 'alienation of external reality' which afflicts modern culture:

But the importance of reading Plotinus in this way goes beyond its value in helping us to understand his philosophy. For the subject-object dualism which both he and Husserl are opposing is not merely an isolated problem in epistemology, but an aspect of the ultimately nihilistic alienation between consciousness and reality that afflicts so much of our contemporary culture and life. Nihilism consists most fundamentally in a denial of the intelligibility of being, of its intrinsic givenness to thought. Being, thus stripped of its intelligibility, is objectified as something “outer,” over against and alien to consciousness, and is thus denied any sense, any meaning, any eidos such that being itself could be grasped by consciousness. All form, all sense, all intelligibility is considered to be subjectively constructed and imposed on being from without. Conversely, consciousness, thus denied any grasp of reality itself, is subjectified as an “inner” sphere, so that all meaning, value, and sense have no place in “external” reality. As a result, being is reduced to raw material for human projects. This externalization and alienation of being from awareness, the reduction of beings to objects, is the foundation for the human dominance and devastation of the world in the last several centuries. As Descartes saw, by objectifying reality we become “masters and possessors of nature,” but we thereby reduce nature, or indeed all reality, to a slave, something stripped of its proper personhood, dignity, and intrinsic value. Our present-day problems of, for instance, technology, biotechnology, and environmental destruction, are at bottom not merely social or ethical but ontological in nature, and must be addressed at the level of being and our comportment with it, and therefore at once ontologically and phenomenologically.
Perl wanted to claim that, in the face of these problems:
Plotinus’ doctrine of the togetherness of thought and being ... is not merely a historical curiosity, but an insight which our current nihilistic predicament makes it vital for us to recover. The affinity of phenomenology with Plotinus opens a way, within contemporary philosophy, for such a retrieval.

I'm all in favor of scholars believing that their work has benefits to society that go beyond, even, the great benefit of simply discovering the truth. And I'm willing to accept, also, that there is a large measure of truth in Perl's diagnosis of contemporary ills.

But I don't see how, even on these terms, Plotinus can be of any importance. Wouldn't it be the phenomenology of Husserl, not that of Plotinus, which would offer a timely response to the alienation and nihilism of today? It's not as though there are all kinds of followers of Plotinus, sitting idly about, ripe and ready to be enlisted in a phenomenological crusade against nihilism.

Moreover, to me it seems that a phenomenological reading of Plotinus carries with it a double dose of perplexity: it contains not merely all of the obscurities that affect phenomenology, but also all of the obscurities that are found in Plotinus--and aren't the difficulties in interpreting Husserl more than enough?

It seemed that nearly every passage of Plotinus quoted by Perl as relevant to his project contained an apparent contradiction:

... that which thinks (to nooun) must be one and two. For if it is not one, that which thinks and that which is thought will be different...but if it is, on the other hand, one and not two, it will have nothing to think: so that it will not even be that which thinks. It must, then, be simple and not simple (V.6.1.12-14)

Its nature therefore is to become other in every way...It is not then possible for the beings to be unless intellect is actively at work, forever working one thing after another and, we may say, wandering down every way and wandering in itself...But it is everywhere itself; so its wandering is an abiding one (VI.7.13.26-34)

But if it should stand still, it does not think; so that if it came to standstill, it has not thought; but if this is so, it is not. It is, then, thought, that is, all movement filling all reality...But intellect keeps always the same journeying through the things which are not the same...But it is also itself the other things, so that it is all itself (VI.7.13.39-52).

Husserl believed, as Perl noted, that the view of the relationship of object to consciousness, accepted in the British empiricist tradition following Descartes, "not only leads to scepticism but is intrinsically incoherent". Yet, given these apparent inconsistencies and contradictions in Plotinus (and not a few others), how could we be confident that Plotinus's view avoids being, in its own way, intrinsically incoherent?


tabbycat said...

There's a difference between intrinsically incoherent and inherently paradoxical. Plotinus is paradoxical--nous is and cannot be one--but that is not the same as incoherent, ie I have no idea what he's saying.

Michael Pakaluk said...

I'm willing to say that Plotinus' philosophy is 'deep nonsense' (in Dreben's notorious phrase) whereas the representational theory of perception, as found in British empiricism, is simply nonsense. But then it's not felicitous, quite--or perhaps it is even insincere--to hold that what distinguishes phenomenological neo-Platonism, and gives it an edge, is that it avoids 'incoherence'. The word is too blunt for the dispute.

jack said...

The Nous is both one, in that it is all intelligible, and many, in that that intelligibility is of distinct Platonic forms. If it was simply one, nous couldn't think because thinking is distinguishing. Plotinus is attempting to talk about intelligible reality or "the realm of the really real." (Sorry if you already got that far.) Because the Nous is the Platonic Intelligibles (demiurge?), because thinking is its thoughts or it is nothing at all, it is one-and-many, all intelligible but with intelligible distinctions.

How does one get a hold of a copy of that paper? I think Perl is right in his diagnosis and sounds like he is on the right track regarding the solution. Modernity-post-modernity is opaque, which is why it sucks. While initially opaque, Plotinian Neoplatonism is fundamentally about the ultimate transparency of reality to contemplation. Plotinus leaves only one "primitive": the antinomic mystery of the One's self-diffusion qua the many intelligibles and their many images.