04 March 2006

The Affinity Argument

It's perhaps best not to state any plans for a blog, even short-term plans, since one can hardly persevere with a blog if it imposes any kind of additional constraint. However, I do have in mind, at least, a series of comments on the Affinity Argument of the Phaedo. (Yet don't charge me with inconstancy if I don't fulfill this intention.) What is its structure? What is the strength of its conclusion? Why is it stated as it is? And there are other puzzles.

I had wished, among other things, to draw attention to what I regard as persistent misreadings of the argument. But at least two such misreadings, I find, are already nicely corrected, in a fine contribution by Hendrik Lorenz to SEP, on "Ancient Theories of Soul". One wouldn't expect to discover, perhaps, a superb exegesis of the Phaedo under such a heading, but there it is.

Lorenz makes two points that I think are exactly correct and are worth quoting. First, he observes that the purpose of the argument is simply to overturn the presumption that the soul is more easily dispersable than the body (perhaps on the ground that the soul is constituted, as in the popular imagination, of mist or spirit):

What [Socrates] does, in fact, conclude is that the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being, and that the body is most like perceptible and perishable being. To say this is plainly neither to assert nor to imply (as Robinson 1995, 30, appears to think) that soul in some way or other falls short of intelligible, imperishable being, any more than it is to assert or imply that body in some way or other falls short of, or rather rises above, perceptible, perishable being. The argument leaves it open whether soul is a perfectly respectable member of intelligible reality, the way human bodies are perfectly respectable members of sensible reality, or whether, alternatively, soul has some intermediate status in between intelligible and perceptible being, rising above the latter, but merely approximating to the former. Socrates does seem to take his conclusion to imply, or at least strongly suggest, that it is natural for the soul either “to be altogether indissoluble, or nearly so”, but, in any case, that the soul is less subject to dissolution and destruction than the body, rather than, as the popular view has it, more so. If this position can be established, Socrates is in a position to refute the popular view that the soul, being composed of ethereal stuff, is more liable to dispersion and destruction than the body.
Second, he observes that the argument wishes to assert not simply the likeness or resemblance of soul to the realm of intelligible and constant reality, but also its kinship, and that this kinship, Socrates thinks, is revealed in how the soul behaves under conditions in which its true nature is likely to be manifested:
The affinity argument is supposed to show not only that the soul is most like intelligible, imperishable being, but also that it is most akin to it. Socrates argues that the soul is like intelligible being on the grounds that it is not visible and, in general, not perceptible (anyhow to humans, as Cebes adds at 79b), and that it shares its natural function with the divine, namely to rule and lead (the body in the one case, mortals in the other). There is a separate argument for the kinship of the soul with intelligible being. When the soul makes use of the senses and attends to perceptibles, “it strays and is confused and dizzy, as if it were drunk” (79c). By contrast, when it remains “itself by itself” and investigates intelligibles, its straying comes to an end, and it achieves stability and wisdom. It is not just that the soul is in one state or another depending on which kind of object it is attending to, in such a way that its state somehow corresponds to the character of the object attended to. That would not by itself show that the soul is more akin to the one domain rather than the other (this is the point of Bostock's criticism, Bostock 1986, 119). To understand the argument properly, it is crucial to note that when the soul attends to perceptibles, it is negatively affected in such a way that its functioning is at least temporarily reduced or impaired (“dizzy, as if drunk”), whereas there is no such interference when it attends to intelligibles (cf. Socrates' fear, at 99e, that by studying things by way of the senses he might blind his soul). The claim that the soul is akin to intelligible reality thus rests, at least in part, on the view that intelligible reality is especially suited to the soul, as providing it with a domain of objects in relation to which, and only in relation to which, it can function without inhibition and interference and fully in accordance with its own nature, so as to achieve its most completely developed and optimal state, wisdom.
Lorenz' entire entry is first-rate--very much worth studying.