Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ancient Philosophy Society 2011 Meeting, Part Two

(All pictures were taken by me at the Sundance resort during the conference)

Day Two Continued (see my previous post for details)

Panel: The Evolution of Nature in Early Greek Thought

"'Now that it has left its stump on the mountain;' the Withdrawal of Nature in the Iliad I"
by Thomas Thorp of Saint Xavier University

This is the paper I was asked to comment on and I am extremely excited by the project. The work of Tom I am familiar with, primarily this paper and an earlier one presented at the meeting of the APS in New York several years ago, tends to focus upon a careful reading of the use of particularly important words within Homer and the implications this use has for philosophical issues, especially those connected to social and political concerns.

In this paper Tom focused upon the first use of the concept of nature within the Iliad and, therefore, arguably the first documented use we find of the concept in western history. His provocative point was that the first time nature appears in the Iliad it does so on its verbal form, Phuo, rather than the substantive Phusis. In other words, nature's first appearance is as an event of begetting. Furthermore, this verbal use is the origin of the substantive noun for nature. Tom suggested that it wasn't until Aristotle's work that we find a fully developed concept of nature as a self-developing ordered system.

Tom's focus is not simply upon this important point, but rather extends it to conceptions of justice. He rightly pointed out that this first appearance of nature as Phuo also identifies it as that which has withdrawn which provides the foundation for human justice. It is in Achille's discussion of the scepter upon which oaths are sworn as destined to never again "put forth" that Phuo appears. Tom's two provocative conclusions from this point are that human justice necessarily arises from a break with nature and that the original verbal sense of nature offers the originary injustice in response to which justice is founded.

The implication of the first conclusion is that human attempts to naturalize justice or derive justice from natural principles will inevitably fail. Furthermore, the very hope of arriving at human meanings or principles of justice from nature presuppose the derivative substantive understanding of nature. To support this point Tom offered a nuanced reading of the use of the verbal and noun forms of nature in the Antigone and clearly demonstrated that the difference between, for example, Antigone and Creon is that Creon presupposes an ordered natural totality which grounds his political power while Antigone recognizes the event of her nature origin as, at best, an ambiguous event.

The implication of the second conclusion is that humanity is ontologically not at home in nature. What it means to be human is to be cut off from the event of natural origin, originary injustice, in a manner which nonetheless calls for the "response" which is human justice. To further elucidate and ground this argument Tom pointed out that for the Iliad, and Homeric epic in general, the import of starting in medias res is that the events of epic are always preempted but a primary injustice. As Tom put it during the question and answer period, there is a basic sense of "having been screwed" which provokes the search for, and development of, human justice.  

"Anaximander's Transcendental Materialism"
by Holly Moore of Luther College

Holly offered an argument against reading Anaximander as a materialist. She wished to maintain his inclusion amongst the phusikoi insofar as he does provide an account of nature as a self-sufficient generative process but objected to the identification of Anaximander's apeiron or "unlimited" with either a material body or one of the elements. Rather, Holly insisted, apeiron must be understood as that "from which and into which all material instantiation occurs" rather than something like a body from which other bodies arise through something like differentiation-development or, in other words, as a material donor for the stuff out of which everything is made. In connection with this, Holly suggested that Aristotle's own reading of Anaximander's apeiron misses the Pre-Socratic's point and so too does Aristotle's argument against it. Rather, the apeiron is much closer to Aristotle's own conception of the infinite as potential and not actual. Thus, apeiron as arkhe or originary principle exists as potency rather than being itself material. In this sense, then, it is the medium of matter rather than itself being a body and can be considered the transcendental "principle of the possibility of material quality".

As I have mentioned before, I tend to oppose the materialist and naturalist (or phusikoi) readings of the Pre-Socratics but I found Holly's paper to be one of the strongest interpretations of Anaximander I have heard with, of course, due deference to Heidegger's own hints of an interpretation in his work. Indeed, interpreted in a certain light, Heidegger's own suggestions of a temporal interpretation of Anaximander can potentially be developed into an interpretation of the apeiron, as temporality, as the transcendental condition of the existence of beings. I would, however, have rather series reservations about how much we assume in talking of "transcendental" principles and conditions. But this would take me rather far afield into other areas of my work.   

"The Reversals of Physis and Psyche in Heraclitus"
by Jessica Mayock of Warren Wilson College

Jessica's paper was very interesting particularly due to her interest and background in psycho-analysis. We should first note the productive ambiguity in the title. The reversals with which she concerns herself are "of" Physis and Psyche both in the sense of being reversals within each and being the interchange between each.

The heart of Jessica's claim, as I see it, is that Physis and Psyche are ontologically connected in Heraclitus' work through their possession of logos. Furthermore, logos is to be understood in terms of a model of language in which contraries can be brought into harmony. This harmony, in turn, brings about the existence of a sum which is greater than its parts. This is, in turn, the sense in which the soul grows, much as natural entities do, through the increase of its logos.

The use of the term "reversals" in the paper's title refers, then, to the sense in which the logos encapsulates the reversals of contraries into each other in both nature and soul and, in doing so, brings about a harmony which is higher than each. It also refers to the sense in which the logos of nature is found in the logos of the soul but in the "reversed" sense of the soul's growth coming about through the productive creation or uncovering of the harmonies found in natural logos. In other words, if the soul's most basic connection with nature is through the language of sense perception then the logos of the soul arrives at its own harmonies in going beyond these bare givens in a process that might be seen as a reversal of the naturally immediate.

The final section of Jessica's paper focused upon the connection between Heraclitus, who is said to have deposited his book in the temple of Artemis, and the goddess herself. As Jessica points out, Artemis is preeminently the goddess of liminality ruling over the space where civilization meets the wild, for example through the hunter, and the space of life and death through birth and disease. In Heraclitus, then, the logos occupies a similar liminal state of connecting divided realms and in so doing brings about higher unifications.

Book Panel: Christopher P. Long's Aristotle on the Nature of Truth

(In discussing both this book panel and Peg Birmingham's Keynote Address I will be limited to the rather questionable powers of my memory, as I was previously when discussing Pierre Lamarche's paper. Since these were all very rich sessions I can not hope to really do them justice. Despite this, I shall attempt to provide what sketch of the points which most stuck with me that I can. It should also be noted that I have not yet read Christopher's book but following the panel I am very excited to do so in the near future.)

Christopher Long's own brief introduction to the book panel can be read or listened to here.  I highly encourage you to check it out.

Will McNeill of DePaul University
Drew A. Hyland of Trinity College
John Lysaker of Emory University

I shall briefly discuss the comments of each presenter in turn. I fear that my presentation of John Lysaker's comments are likely to be the least sufficient as he focused extensively on thinkers within the tradition of American philosophy with which I am not very familiar and, honestly, by the time of his comments my mind was likely more than a little worn out.

It is important to first note that each of the presenters admired Christopher's book and referred to it as a great achievement and a precious gift to Aristotle studies. The following questions were, then, offered in the spirit of grateful response and not critical attack.

One of the first things which struck me about Will McNeill's comments was the mention he made of the fact that Aristotle on the Nature of Truth was not the original title of the work and, as a title, appears too dry to really capture the rich complexity and ambition of the work.  The book may be said to have two related goals. First, to argue for an understanding of Aristotle's concept of truth as a cor-respondence on the model of a peripatetic methodology. Cor-respondence understands truth as a relation between beings and the understanding on the model of something like Gadamer's logic of the question and answer in which beings and the understanding are seen to be in conversation and cooperation. Second, this cooperative conversation, or reciprocal-response as one might translate cor-respondence, in turn also includes the peripatetic element insofar as truth is understood to arise through the collective historical conversation with the investigations of one's predecessors. The speaking, talking and thinking of those who came before is as much the medium through which one engages with the truth of beings as the new conversations with beings which one might advance. 

As one would expect from so prominent a scholar of Heidegger's work, Will's observations and questions focused upon the influence of Heidegger within the book. We can clearly see, for example, the influence of Heidegger's views on the idea that it is within the historical-social context of one's world that things come to be encountered. Will noted, however, that much of the book seems to rely more heavily on what we might consider Heidegger's positive views, for example concerning the nature of disclosure and the way in which it occurs, and less on Heidegger's negative views, for example the extent to which disclosure is always also a concealment such that the being of things recedes as much as it is brought into focus. In this spirit, then, Will noted that the book seems to be "a kind of homecoming" which may under-appreciate the role of not being at home and exile in Heidegger, especially in his later work. Christopher responded, in part, by noting that the book does indeed represent "a kind of homecoming" but not one without loss, difficulty or a related exile.

Drew's comments focused on the manner in which Christopher may be being too charitable to Aristotle, particularly in his production of a peripatetic methodology. Drew noted the traditional understanding of Aristotle's readings of his predecessors to be rather anachronistic and far from charitable. In a sense Aristotle understands those who came before him as important primarily insofar as they approached his own view or provided useful, and easily defeated, foils for his own conclusions. Aristotle's peripatetic methodology seems, then, to be far from the open respectful engagement with one's predecessors as the medium through which truth has already appeared that the book seems to want it to be. (It is amusing, at least to me, that a very similar concern can be, and often has been, raised in relation to Heidegger's own relation to the history which he deems all important.) Christopher's response turned on precisely the unquestioned "traditional"-ness of this reading of Aristotle's engagement with others. In making his point he read from one of Drew's own earlier works in which he had pleaded for a renewed and open engagement with Plato which would eschew the obscuring truisms and prejudices with which Plato had been dismissed for centuries. Christopher asked, then, whether Aristotle was not himself deserving of similar consideration and charity.

John asked two questions which particular struck me. He inquired how, for the peripatetic methodology, one was supposed to determine which previous thinkers were important to consider. He noted, for example, Christopher's use of American philosophers some of whom seem to have been included for inessential reasons. How was one to determine, then, which historical conversations were worthy of consideration for the continuation of one's conversation and cor-respondence with things without either too strictly limiting the tradition or cherry picking one's sources? John also objected to much of this talk of cooperation or cor-respondence with things. He pointed out that he would have preferred Christopher use something like the model of a conversation in which two people talk about something with a view to a wider audience. Aristotle is, then, in a sort of conversation with, say, Heraclitus but with his wider audience in mind as well. There is not, however, a conversation with nature but rather with Heraclitus about nature.

Keynote Address: Arendt and Herodotus: History, Immortality, and Political Glory
by Peg Birmingham of Depaul University

One of the highlights of this year's APS for me was getting to speak some with Peg Birmingham. She is an amazingly nice person and, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I thought her presentation at SPEP on Arendt and Hobbes was exceptionally interesting. As I said to her in Sundance, it made me go and take Hobbes down from the shelf in the first time in a rather a while.

Her paper at the APS was on Arendt and Herodotus but she changed the themes from dealing with Immortality and Political Glory (which closely mirrored the themes of her talk at SPEP) to that of the grounding the historian provides for political action.

Her paper was inspired by the claim that George W. Bush was the first post-modern president insofar as his administration didn't care about truth but rather brashly asserted that, as the actions of an empire, its decisions created truth. Peg's paper, then, was concerned to specify in what ways this understanding of post-modernism does not apply to the post-modernism we might find in Arendt.

Arendt is often thought of as one of the main thinkers of political action. In her work, it is thought, we see a shift from a modern conception of the human as the maker of artifacts (which some attribute to Heidegger) to a conception of the human as the political actor. This reading of Arendt, Peg suggested, focuses too much on her book The Human Condition without reading the essays she wrote at the same time dealing, for example, with the role of history and the historian in grounding political action.

Peg's ultimate argument, as I took it, was that political action is not the ground of human existence and historical truth rather it itself is grounded on the work of the historian who alone provides the shared world of social meanings within which political action becomes possible. In contrast, then, to the view that the actions of powerful empires or political revolutionaries determine reality Peg offered us the idea that any such actions are only possible within the medium of a shared public historical world (in this, she admitted, she sees Arendt and Heidegger to be far more similar than different) opened up by histories such as those offered by Herodotus. It is important, however, to say something about the model of history she is working with.

History is not, for Arendt according to Peg, just a process of providing a narrative or story in which people find a collective understanding of their place in the world. Rather, she insists, true history must be based upon the "facts". These facts are, however, not unchanging events we seek to reconstruct but rather something like the testimonies, spoken or written, of those who experienced the events in question. They are, then, material realities out of which history is built. In this the model of Herodotus plays a major role, for his practice was to travel around the Greek and Persian worlds collecting the stories of those who witnessed, or knew witnesses, of the Persian War. His history is, then, neither the presentation of one coherent narrative nor the objective reconstruction of an event independent of the humans involved. Rather it is a collection of the pluralistic human experiences of a certain event which has a material ground.

The role of "the event" (with all its echoes of Heidegger's Ereignis) is rather important here. The event provides the opening in the light of which the past shows up in a new way for the historian. After the Persian War different stories and material traces were important than were before the war. But the event is neither the action of a few political actors nor the construction of some specific individual's or culture's narrative. It both drives the historian and exists as a collection of material "facts" in the manner in which I specified.

Fascism, then, can be seen to be characterized in particular from a desire to destroy history in the sense of a collection of shared concrete and conflicting "facts" or testimonies/experiences in preference for a simplifying, unifying, totalizing narrative built out of political might and will. It is precisely not, then, Arendt's point that powerful or particularly motivated political actors are free to create truth. There is always the material "fact" and the shared, if suppressed, complex social experiences which contradict totalizing claims to narrative truth.

(Day Three, including the amazing Plenary Session on Heraclitus, to follow in the next post.)   


  1. Dr. Koch, I hope you will give us a summary of your response to Thorp's paper. It prompted me to look again at the Iliad for the Achilles' speech referenced. While I can see that the sceptre is clearly a symbol of justice, I take Homer's words about the sceptre's wood never "sprouting" again (as translated for me and what I assume the verbal use of Phuo refers to) seems to me to be a metaphor for the threat of Achilles' now 'dead' relationship with the Acheans. So how does Thorp entwine those two different senses?

    I confess the mix there of the symbolism of the sceptre as 'unnatural' and 'artificial' lends momentum to examination of justice as artificial but certainly not as unnatural. How do you see it?

  2. I had not planned on including a summary of my response as it dealt with some subtle points in Professor Thorp's paper not fully discussed in my summary of his presentation but guided by your comments I may be able to say something about my comments. And let me state again that my comments here are my own, I certainly don't speak for Professor Thorp and can only offer my own perspective on his work.

    The meaning of Achilles' speech certainly seems multi-layered and the way to connect its various meanings them to Thorp's point is to see that Achilles often plays the stand-in role for Phuo. On the one hand, Achilles throughout most of the Iliad will be cut off from the Acheans in the same way the scepter is cut off from its stump on the tree. And this divide is indeed sterile in the sense of freezing, for a time, the progression of Achilles' fate. But, on the other hand Thorp discusses the reverse point in his paper as well, that Achilles occupies a role in the Iliad much like that of originary nature. He is withdrawn but not entirely gone, as he doesn't actually leave the Acheans. He is outside of normal linear time in the same way that the original event of nature is (this is a point Thorp discussed that I have not really included, namely that Phuo becomes Phusis through Aristotle's applying of linear causal temporal frameworks to original events of coming-forth and with-drawing). Achilles is outside of time in the sense of knowing the specifics of his own fated death. He doesn't face the uncertainty of events in the same way most mortals do. I would add something that Thorp doesn't mention. The scepter speech has another parallel to Achilles' situation, specifically that his remaining with the Acheans and fighting according to the laws of duty and honor (according to justice) means that he himself will be cut-off from any chance of putting-forth (i.e. he knows if he stays he will die before he has had the chance to marry or have children). This fate and the knowledge Achilles has of it is also connected to his begetting (Phuo), it is his mother Thetis that tells him of his destined death which places him outside of normal time. Thorp also uses Achilles' rage, which shows up as the very start of the Iliad, as an example of the originary injustice which is the foundation of justice. So there are many connects between Achilles and Phuo. But, the play of these different meanings clearly suggests, and this doesn't really damage Thorp's point, that Achilles moves back and forth between the world of injustice and that of justice. His central problem is, then, which side ultimately to stand with while being unwilling thrust outside of either.

    It is important for Thorp to stress, as he does, that the scepter is not a symbol of the oaths which are sworn upon it. Rather the very word for scepter meant primarily the collection of oaths which found justice. The scepter is the oaths and oaths, therefore, are cut off from nature in their very being. During the question and answer period there were several other examples offered by the audience of the necessary process of expelling or stripping the "natural" in order for a council to occur. When the argument of Thersites, for example, threatens to convince the Acheans to give up their oaths to take Troy Odysseus threatens to strip him naked and send him thus back to the ships. The implication is that he doesn't speak in justice, but rather injustice, and as such represents the natural rather than the human. Odysseus just threatens to make this clear.

  3. The response I offered to Professor Thorp's paper connects to your concern about the sense in which justice is unnatural. It is important for Thorp that humans be not-at-home in nature and for justice to be, not just unnatural, but something approaching anti-natural insofar as it is a response to verbal-nature (Achilles' rage, the basic sense of "having been screwed", etc.). I problematized a seeming equivocation between three seemingly different things. Namely originary verbal nature, its withdrawal, and originary injustice. If originary injustice is the withdrawal of nature then justice need not be anti-nature. Rather it arises from a break from nature which is precisely the "problem" that motivates it. In this sense, our having been screwed is our loss of nature, it is not originary nature itself. Justice may just be, then, the drive to undo this withdrawal and get back to nature (still understood as an event of coming-forth, I think Thorp's point about the difference between Phuo and Phusis stands no matter where we come down on these questions). This is contrary to what Thorp wants to argue. Alternatively, perhaps the original event of nature is ALSO a withdrawal in the sense that, for Heidegger, disclosure is always ALSO concealment. If this is the case then justice does indeed seem necessarily cut off from nature. So, is originary injustice originary nature or is it the separate withdrawal of nature? You can see how the way we answer this will offer completely different interpretations of everything I have already said in this comment.

  4. I find it a very provocative arena for discussion of those issues. I look for evidence of Heidegger's suggestion that the Greeks once had a non-dualistic (a wholistic metaphysics) but Homer's poetry depends, it seems, on traditional metaphysics. Yet the "break with nature" leaves a lot of windows open. Thank you for sharing your thoughts

  5. William: I really appreciate your taking the time to post these thoughtful reflections on the Ancient Philosophy in general and on my book panel in particular. I think it is very important to create artifacts of reflection around such events and you do this in a thoughtful and very responsible way.

    Your discussion of my book panel captured much of the nature of the critique that was leveled and you did a nice job of capturing important aspects of my response. I have posted recordings and summaries of the panel on my site and will post the rest in the weeks to come:

  6. Thanks Professor Long, I will be sure to direct people to your site.

    January, I think the type of conversation we have been having about Homer can be deceptive in several ways. What Professor Thorp's paper does is draw out contemporary implications from some basic elements of the Homeric and Ancient Greek way of life but these implications are developed in terms of our own ways of thought. This can make it seem like we are finding traditional metaphysics in Homer but I don't believe that is actually what is going on, and I believe Thorp is well aware of this. Let me say a little bit about how this may be so.

    It is easy to read what we have said to mean "Homeric humans are not at home in Nature" or "Within Homer the human world is ontologically divided from the natural world" but these short hand ways of putting the matter have already imported the distinction we find in Homer into our ways of thought. It would be more appropriate to say "Homeric man founds justice in response to an originary injustice which arises in the experience of the event of begetting and withdrawal." Notice this doesn't make claims about being "at home in nature" because, at the Homeric level, nature is a verbal event not an ontological region or system. I favor the view that in Homeric humanity we find an aggregate event-focused sense of being without a concept of unity or substance. This does indeed lack the necessary elements of what we think of as metaphysics. It also lacks dualism insofar as dualism relies upon grounding assumptions which, I believe, the Homeric world lacks. That doesn't mean, however, that there are not conflicts between certain types of events and others, or between certain events and human responses.

    Talking in a very careful way, however, would require us to redescribe, for example, the Thersites episode so that "the natural" is not being presented as something like a stable characteristic of reality or humanity but is rather a type of event within which a person can find (or rather lose) themselves. Hopefully I have put this in a way that makes some sense.

  7. Your rewordings do change the locale. I can appreciate the distinctions. Yet I find I am still 'hung up' maybe. My interest is in Phuo and Phusis. I am wondering if I might understand more with an antonym. I think it likely the Ancients also spoke of "the unnatural." I expect that to be a human making or doing that is contrary to Phusis. I think of maybe resistance to the change of coming to be, taking a stand, and withdrawal. But would that make Heraclitus a naturalist and Parmenides unnatural?

  8. Human justice links to "natural injustice" by our natural desire to survive (or transcend) the sentence Nature has laid upon us.

  9. I refer you to my paper "Doric Crete and Sparta, the home of Greek philosophy" here:

    And have recently published another paper

    "Macrocosm/Microcosm in Doric Thought"

    I hope these papers are included in your discussions.