Plato and the singular universal

Socrates claimed that the poets were not wise since anyone standing around could explain their work better than they could, and this idea that wisdom with respect to literature consists in being able to tell what it means continually recurs throughout Plato (he dedicates a whole dialogue – Ion – to the point). The platonic claim (henceforward “the platonic” account) caught on, and has been a permanent axiom of Western intellectuals since.

There is nothing wrong with saying “work X shows us blahblahblah”, but the platonic  claim is something in addition to this.  If wisdom about literature is to have the philosopher tell us what it means, then literature is an opaque riddle in need of some priest-interpreter, that is, that the poem is an incomplete work of philosophy or science. The Platonic interpreter goes through the book seeing nothing but symbols. When we’re told that Moby Dick is all about man’s relation to God or the Lord of the Rings is about nuclear weapons we’re all supposed to react as if the veil has been pulled back and the whole secret of the book has been revealed.  Notice that this is the opposite of saying “Moby Dick teaches us blahblahblah”, for saying this leaves open the possibility that the book is never exhausted by the interpretation. It also gives the novel primacy, for it makes it a teacher as opposed to a stupid riddle that would be lame and hidden without a philosopher. (For a clear example of the difference between the two modes of interpretation of Moby Dick, compare R.C. Sproul’s platonic interpretation to James Wood’s claim that the novel manifests things in a mode wholly different from the scientific and discursive mode.)

To make a point that has should be manifest from my tone, I think the Platonic mode of interpretation is false. What’s more, its dehumanizing and it completely distorts the actual relation between philosophy/science and literature. So what then is the right relation between science and literature?

Both philosophy and literature manifest something, and so far as this goes they both teach. But the goal of the manifestation is not the same: the scientist desires simply to know whereas literature seems to intend the very operation of actually knowing so far as it completes our being (this completion is experienced as pleasant, but to say that literature intends pleasure isn’t precise enough). And so in one and the same thing – knowledge- the scientist seeks a sort of pure objectivity whereas the poet wants this pure objectivity as perfective of the person in his operation. The manifestation of literature is pure and continuous vision – serene, motionless, and active; the manifestation of science and philosophy are nothing but a step-by-step knowing. This is why the manifestation of literature is a wordless “Ah!” or “that’s dead on”, while the manifestation of science and philosophy can walk you though all of its steps (except, of course, for the first and last one).

Given their different goals both require different tools. Since manifestation is more perfect in the measure that one thing harmonizes a multitude and shows it clearly, literature and science need a different sort of unity that manifests a multitude with clarity. While both make a universal so far as they manifest many things with one thing, literature does this by making a concrete thing, science by making an abstract one. F=ma tells you something about every force, Othello tells you something about every jealous man. The literary universal, however, exists only in a larger context or world; for while we can know the equation without knowing the whole of physics, Othello (the character) can only be known within the larger world of Othello (the play). Aristotle is right that a character is a sort of person concretely realized, but he never develops this idea that this very concrete realization can only exist within the larger world of the literary work. Details like plot and setting are  not the same as the literary world – they are nothing but abstractions from the concrete world that constitutes the literary work. It is this world that the author sees and has the power to describe in all of its wholeness.

World is obviously a metaphor. In one sense I mean only that it is the place of the characters and their action, but I also mean that it has a wholeness and completion of itself, and that nothing we take from it is ever quite as real as the world itself.  Just as nothing in the actual world is ever exhausted by any one thing we might take from it, so too nothing in the poetic world is exhausted or even proportionate to some moral or lesson we might take from it. This is why Othello is not a symbol for jealously – because his being is not exhausted by any one thing he causes us to know. The poetic world is not an incomplete thing waiting for a philosopher to interpret it, rather it is our interpretations that are always partial and incomplete. The poet isn’t even trying to make some proposition or set of propositions known, but to give someone a uniquely manifestive world which  manifests the actual world. It should be clear by now why Plato could never recognize the literary universal- its very concrete existence was contrary to his firm conviction that the most real should be modeled after an abstract idea. Aristotle did much of the groundwork to locate the literary universal as a bona fide logical entity – that is, as something perfective of the intellect as such, just as science is.

To sum up, literature and science are both ways of organizing experience in order to manifest something about the world. Both make a universal, though the division between these universals is radical and irreducible. To try to reduce one to the other is not only false but dehumanizing since it cuts off all access to reality that can arise from the poetic universal. The poetic universal simply does a better job at showing the reality of intellect and intuitive vision, and to miss this will make science a step-by-step walk from nowhere to nowhere. Again, when we stress the step-by-step advance in knowledge, we inevitability see ourselves as having gone further than those who came before us in history, whereas when we see the world through the poetic universal it becomes impossible to think that we are in any way presumptively better than those who came before us. The need for both of these universals is what we are  fumbling around for when we divide the sciences from the humanities and insist on the necessity of both (note how badly we butcher the distinction when we put philosophy – to say nothing of Plato – in the “humanities”.)


  1. JT said,

    September 9, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Like Flannery O Connor:

    “It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what beginning fiction writers are loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions…

    The Manicheans separated spirit and matter. To them, all material things were evil. They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly without any mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write becuase fiction is so very much an incarnational art.”

    –“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”

  2. September 13, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Love the post and the comment, which explains galaxies. There ought to be recognized modern names for both hating matter and hating spirit in the sense Flannery meant it above…and for the hatred of proceeding step by step and hatred of the manifestation of poetics. The times when these thing come together in the higher order of reason are the times when we have wisdom, eh? St. Thomas isn’t St. Thomas, or his life and work is not fully understood, without him having the vision or manifestation that caused him to stop speaking. And an artist who truly despises or hates the process of reason, or refuses to recognize the place of the step by step in human life, will rarely or never become a Dante or even a Flannery, even if they never directly use such a thing (shudder) in their art.

    If you want to explain to someone what the start and end of reasoning is, is there a better way than to use the example of, say, Othello and jealousy? “It has been shown to you, and you have seen it. What more is there to say?” It is as if modern people want more certainty than doubting Thomas got. Now, you can talk and reason about it. And you probably should. But…

  3. September 13, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Plato and/or Socrates are characteristically maddening on this point, as they consistently use the very point you make in order to illuminate and get the audience to “see.” You can see a very real tension in Plato/Socrates, I think, as regards all this. The Republic ends the way it does for a reason, and in the Laws he all but says: something like this (God exists, cares about human affairs, and punishes evil and rewards good) MUST be true without the story. Plato thinks reason points to this. But the Republic must still end with a story, and Christ must speak in parables rather than write treatises.

    • September 14, 2011 at 8:42 am

      I think we can press this further: just as we are not honest about the objective character of literature (that is, its power to teach truth) we are not honest about the degree to which our science and philosophy is subjective. Consider this claim: the “story of science” is a purely objective reality in a Platonic heaven while the story of Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness is just pure fiction, through and through. The caricature is false, but no one knows how exactly to explain the truth of the matter.

      As a historical fact, philosophy replaced myth as the means to explain the world, but what do we say as soon as we recognize that it is impossible to say that no truth lost in the “advance”?

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