A Defense of Plato on Writing Written Seriously

        I intend to write seriously about Plato. It seems as though I am about to do battle with Plato, but I have no such intentions. Rather, I have the audacity to think that I can write seriously about Plato and that I can be sympathetic to Plato at the same time.

        The problem of my writing seriously in defense of Plato derives from Phaedrus. In it, Plato writes:

Socrates: Now what about the man who knows what is just, noble, and good? Shall we
say that he is less sensible with his seeds than the farmer is with his?
                                       Phaedrus: Certainly not. Socrates: Therefore, he won’t be serious about writing them in ink, sowing them,through a pen, with words that are as incapable of speaking in their own defense as they are of teaching the truth adequately.                                        Phaedrus: That wouldn’t be likely. Socrates: Certainly not. When he writes, it’s likely he will sow gardens of letters for thesake of amusing himself, storing up reminders for himself "when he reaches forgetful old age" and for everyone who wants to follow in his footsteps, and will enjoy seeing them sweetly blooming. And when others turn to different amusements, watering themselves with drinking parties and everything else that goes along with them, he will rather spend his time amusing himself with the things I have just described.1 Certainly, I cannot seriously be meaning to defend Plato in writing when Plato himself writes that a man "who knows what is noble, just, and good" will not be serious about sowing that knowledge into writing. I must be amusing myself with contradiction. However, if this is so, then how seriously can we take Plato? It seems that we have caught Plato on the horns of a dilemma. Either it seems that he must say that his writing about writing was not serious, in which case writing might well be serious—in which case Plato has said nothing. Or, it seems that he must say that his writing about writing was serious, in which case he has contradicted himself. The irony of this paradox was not lost on Jacques Derrida, who in an essay entitled "Plato’s Pharmacy" writes: …Writing must thus return to being what it should never have ceased to be: an accessory, an accident, an excess.
The cure by logos, exorcism, and catharsis will thus eliminate the excess. But this elimination, being therapeutic in nature, must call upon the very thing it is expelling, the very surplus it is putting out. The pharmaceutical operation must therefore exclude itself from itself.2
In short, Plato must use writing to exclude writing. At length, more can and will be said. And, at length, I will write a defense of Plato that helps him out of the apparent dilemma and the trap of deconstructive confusion that Derrida argues is necessary for the Platonic tradition.

        However, this project that I have set out on is not novel. Others have defended my thesis. What is novel is that I think that resolving the paradox of writing also entails the claim that serious philosophy requires something like writing. That is, I think that solving the Platonic dilemma will also solve the dilemma I have in claiming to write seriously about Plato. Although, it seems that the opposite would be true. If I were to defend Plato successfully in his argument that writing should not be done seriously by the man who knows what is noble, just, and good, then I would seem to undermine my surprising introduction. Nevertheless, I shall make the surprising argument that Plato is right about writing and that I am right to write seriously about Plato. More surprising than that even, I believe that Plato would approve of the way that I write seriously about him.

        So, I intend to write seriously in defense of Plato’s critique of writing in Phaedrus, in defense of the proposition that serious philosophy requires something like writing, and finally that Plato would find my solution satisfactory. To make the case, I plan on exploring Phaedrus, with help from the Platonic canon, especially other Middle Dialogues, notably Republic, Meno, and Symposium. I shall also be using Sophist and hints from other dialogues. In making my serious case, I will consider but eventually toss aside Derrida’s critique, but will also toss aside interpretations, even if somewhat sympathetic, by Graeme Nicholson and by John Fisher.

        Let us ask so that we can see just exactly what the criticism is that Plato makes about writing in Phaedrus. But, for what are we looking when we are looking for a "just exactly"? At this point, it is impossible to say. No single word, no single phrase, no single proposition will yield a just exactly just now. It simply lays there open for all sorts of interpretation, lifeless and blind, unable to answer our questions except superficially, except through assumptions we give it. And, of course, this is just exactly what Plato says about writing, and so it seems. This is what the text says:

Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. Theoffsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse rolls about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.3 If Plato is right, writing cannot stand up for itself; it is dead or at best on its father’s life support system. However, looking more carefully, the horizon of the charge against written words is that one would "think they were speaking as if they had some understanding." This is in line with an old point about Socratic wisdom: I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know. 4(Emphasis added). However, if this is the just exactly that we were asking about, we are not there yet. There are many questions that we could ask, but the one that I suspect will shed light on the text, which we are as of yet unable to pin down, is to ask what Plato means by "understanding." That is, if writing is merely the pretense of understanding, an image of understanding, what then is the understanding of which writing is the image?

        Of course, to do this, we must look at more writings, more images, and this should not be at all surprising. In fact, our first clue that Plato may have been quite aware of this paradox comes from much earlier in Phaedrus. As Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the myth of Boreas, where Orithuia was abducted by Boreas along the banks of the river where Socrates and Phaedrus are walking, Socrates claims that he could reject the story much as the intellectuals of his day do.5 However, Socrates says he has no time to do such things because he must first know himself; therefore, he accepts what is generally believed.6 Some may take this to mean that because Socrates has to spend all his time first understanding himself that he has no time for trivial scholarship. However, his attitude is more flippant and playful. Socrates would be no less bothered to worry about whether he was writing, giving speeches, or talking so long as he was looking at himself. If in the course of looking at himself he may happen to be re-explaining a myth, much as he finds himself doing in Republic in chastising the sayings of Homer and other poets who wrote on the gods and so long as he is not so worried about the technical ability to decipher texts and stories as he was at understanding himself. More telling than this singular example in Phaedrus, we find the elaborate construction of Symposium. In this work, we hear the tale from one man who heard it from another who was remembering speeches given at a party long ago checked against the memories of other men.7 In fact, the speech given by Socrates was actually one given by Diotima that Socrates was reciting from memory. The construction of images upon images, imitations upon imitations, is so elaborate that we should not be surprised that Plato thinks he can express to us some notion of understanding even if it is conveyed in images. Most striking of all is Republic’s use of an image in The Theory of the Line, where Socrates first tells Glaucon and Adeimantus that he will not be explaining to them the Good itself but its "offspring,"8 and then says the relationship between the visible and the intelligible realm "is like a line" (emphasis added).9 So, we have an image, the likeness of the offspring, which is the image of The Good. Thus, even one of the most telling discussions of understanding in Plato comes to us as an image. So, we should not be surprised that Plato gives us an image of that which is supposed to go beyond images.

        If we consider understanding, now within the image of The Line, we find something very surprising about the top section of the line, where the dialectic of the philosopher is supposed to reside. What is surprising is that Plato seems immediately to contradict himself. He says:

In the other subsection, however, it makes its way to a first principle that is not a hypothesis, proceeding from a hypothesis but without the images used in the previous subsection, using forms themselves and making its investigation through them.10 Understanding proceeds from a hypothesis but without images. Literally, this is not a contradiction, but it is no less troublesome. Hypotheses are generally taken to be suppositions about the truth, but are not themselves known to be true—"If x, then y." However, how can understanding proceed from hypothesis while at the same time using Forms, the standard-bearers of truth? Furthermore, hypothesis, while logical and not visible, apparently describing more a method than an ontological entity, still suggests some notion of image. Hypothetically speaking, if hypotheses are themselves not known to be true, then the content of what they suggest would not be a Form but rather an image. And, even if this image is not necessarily visible, for our purposes here, it serves no difference. The critique against writing is its pretense to understanding, a mere image of understanding. It could hardly matter whether we could literally see this image. No less, it seems that through an image of understanding, Plato is now telling us that we can proceed by hypothesis not by image but by Form. One can quickly come to the end of his wits toying with all of these issues.

        Plato seems to be in a terrible predicament. Not only has he condemned writing while seemingly needing some sort of writing to condemn it, the charge he makes against writing, that it pretends to understand, now comes off as wholly unintelligible. Naturally, I am only using a small bit of the Platonic canon to make this case, but so what? The trouble apparently remains. We still cannot find out just exactly what Plato is saying. What’s more, the case against Plato gets worse.

        Jacques Derrida, as I have mentioned, attempted to deconstruct Plato by noting the dependence of Plato on the very things he wants to eradicate. Derrida argues that Plato takes writing to be a drug, a pharmakon, which though it seems to heal us, its dead nature—its separation from its father who can defend it—makes it a lifeless imitation of the truth. This creates dichotomies. Writing is bad while discourse is good. What remains tied to one’s father is good while what goes off by itself is bad. What is living and internal is good while what is dead and external is bad. What can reproduce itself is good while what is sterile—like writing—is bad. What is is good, and what is not is bad. The problem of dichotomies leads to a riddle. How does one eradicate what is bad while enclosed within the realm of the good? How does one eradicate the stale imitation of writing without in some way engaging it, acknowledging it, attacking it? Writing is at the same time dead and at the same time ambiguous, open to many interpretations, many life-like interpretations. After all, writing cannot be much of a pretense to understanding unless it shares something the same with understanding. The dichotomies begin to deconstruct into more and more confusion.

        Derrida acknowledges that Plato recognizes the need to consider non-Being, to consider the other in overcoming what one must, but this recognition only gives fuel to his deconstruction of Plato. We find the engaging of the other most principally in Sophist. In this work, Theaetetus and an Eleatic Visitor seek to find the nature of the sophist. The problem becomes nearly impossible when they note that it is extremely difficult to say how it is to find a being who peddles in what is not while treating the subject as if it is:

Visitor: Really, my young friend, this is a very difficult investigation we’re engaged in.  This appearing, and this seeming but not being, and this saying things but not true things—all these issues are full of confusion, just as they always have been. It’s extremely hard, Theaetetus, to say what form of speech we should use to say that really is such a thing as false saying or believing, and moreover to utter this without being caught in verbal conflict.11 This problem leads the Eleatic Visitor to suggest patricide against Parmenides of Elea, who most famously said, as quoted by Plato:

                                                    Never shall this force itself on us, that that which is not may be;
                                                    While you search, keep your thought far away from this path.12

That is, the Eleatic Visitor must kill his father, who taught him the dichotomy that Being and non-being are completely different and never shall cross paths. They must "insist by brute force both that that which is not somehow is and then again that that which is somehow is not."13 The dichotomy is further shattered when they decide to "take it as a definition that those which are amount to nothing other than capacity,"14 and then they go on to say that "both that which changes and also change have to be admitted as being."15 Finally, after long analysis, the Eleatic Visitor concludes, "Nobody can say that this that which is not, which we’ve made to appear and now dare to say is, is the contrary of that which is."16 To Derrida, the only thing that is clear is that Plato has completed his own mess of things:

If truth is the presence of the eidos, it must always, on pain of mortal blinding by the sun’s fires, come to terms with relation, nonpresence, and thus nontruth. It then follows that the absolute precondition for a rigorous difference between grammar and dialectics (or ontology) cannot in principle be fulfilled. Or at least, it can perhaps be fulfilled at the root of the principle, at the point of arche-being or arche-truth, but that point has been crossed out by the necessity of parricide. Which means, by the very necessity of logos. And that is the difference that prevents there being in fact any difference between grammar and ontology.17 Plato wanted to make writing distinct from understanding, but his very need to take on the other, forces him to kill his father, ontology itself, forcing us into the pure ambiguity of the pharmakon that is writing.

        So, the argument is powerful against any understanding of our question on just exactly what Plato was saying of writing when he said that it spoke as if it had understanding when actually having none. If Plato is correct, seemingly, his own writing on the matter should not be taken seriously. However, even if we reject that, we are forced to seek out what understanding is, at least for Plato, but we do so only to discover that he takes understanding to proceed from hypotheses which are not images but are instead Forms. If this was not unintelligible enough, Derrida thinks he shows us that Plato’s patricide of Parmenides makes Plato’s project impossible. The paradoxes, the antinomies, are too great.

        However, Derrida was either lazy or unimaginative, and he should not have stopped right when he could have found a resolution.18 My criticism of Derrida echoes the one given by Hegel of Kant for not resolving his antinomies. Consider this:

The Critical philosophy has one great negative merit. It has brought home the conviction that the categories of understanding are finite in their range, and that any cognitive process confined within their pale falls short of the truth. But Kant had only a sight of half of the truth…The observations made on various stages of consciousness culminate in the summary statement that the content of all we are acquainted with is only an appearance. And as it is true at least that all finite thinking is concerned with appearances, so far the conclusion is justified. This stage of ‘appearance’ however—the phenomenal world—is not the terminus of thought: there is another and a higher region. But that region was to the Kantian philosophy an inaccessible ‘other world.’19 Like Derrida, Kant reached irresolvable conflicts in the categories of our reason that forever divorced our concepts from the thing in itself. And, while we are not about to go into Kantian antinomies, it is worth noting that Derrida has given us a nice beginning. That is, if we reduce understanding to the merely finite categories that the dichotomies give us, than we will face irresolvable conflicts and will be lost in confusion. However, like Plato and like Hegel after him, I do not think this is the last word. Let us use our wings to go to a higher region.20

        However, not everyone that aspires to higher regions will get there. That is, not every means will get us to the higher region. It may be one thing to note that whatever our solution is, it must somehow cut across dichotomies, much as eros is said by Plato to do in Symposium, but it is quite another to find it. To say that the problem is with the dichotomies is not enough to solve the problem. So, in order to fly, let us consider what is not yet flying. Briefly, I want to consider poor alternatives offered recently by Graeme Nicholson and a little less recently by John Fisher. By closing these doors, we shall tighten our focus on the door which leads to a defense of Plato.

        Graeme Nicholson’s work, Plato’s Phaedrus: The Philosophy of Love, takes the stance that Plato’s criticism of writing was serious. Nicholson dismisses interpretations offered by Ronna Burger and Charles Griswold Jr. for not taking Plato’s rebuke of writing seriously enough. They each argue that Plato, by being aware of the limits of writing’s clarity, is in a position to overcome the reproach against it. However, Nicholson contends that the critique of writing is categorical and encompasses all writing.21 To what extent Nicholson is right in saying that the critique against writing is categorical and the extent to which Burger and Griswold are correct is something that I will take up later.

        Nicholson also dismisses Derrida, although the argument against Derrida is in fact nothing more than dismissive. While Derrida, as we have seen, takes Plato’s criticism seriously, Nicholson says that the long, tangential road that Derrida takes sheds little light on Phaedrus itself. However, in the end, Nicholson accepts Derrida’s claim that Plato is stuck in ambivalence:

Nevertheless, Derrida’s starting point is surely right, that anyone who communicates a logocentric, phonocentric philosophy is caught in an ambivalent posture. There are, however, more positive approaches to this dilemma than the deconstructive one.22 Therefore, while Nicholson admits that Derrida is essentially right, there may be another way out of the dilemma.

        After Derrida, Nicholson attacks the Tübingen School. Instead of trying to find a textual solution to the critique on writing in writing, this school of thought argues that there is an unwritten school of Plato. Thus, they spend a lot of time in historical reconstruction trying to compose the secret teachings of Plato. However, as Nicholson points out, borrowing from Hans-Georg Gadamer, even if one could get access to the unwritten teachings of Plato, how would we bring this doctrine into expression ourselves?23 We would find ourselves trying to express what Plato, by this understanding of him, thought inexpressible.

        The solution that Nicholson ends up endorsing is one given by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendroff. Here I quote Nicholson quoting Wilamowitz:

Why then does he write, and why does he write this very dialogue? As he tells us himself, it is play. And why does he play? Anyone who grasps this dialogue as a whole has no difficulty in seeing the answer. He has to write; he is driven by something unconscious, an inner force. This too is a divine madness. The poet within drives him to write, and no matter how low he may set the value of poetry, he lets poetry flourish just as, now, he has let rhetoric flourish. On one condition: one must have recognized the truth and be prepared to defend it, one must have that goal before one’s eyes and seek with all one’s might to accomplish in words that which please the gods. Wisdom belongs to God alone, but we can all become lovers of wisdom.24 Thus, although Derrida may in fact be right, a primal urge, a divine madness, perhaps the eros of Phaedrus, is what drives him into this absurdity anyhow. He wishes to defend truth, even though it is like a rabbit at a dog race. No one ever catches it, although apparently its "recognition" is a prerequisite—it is not clear how that paradox is worked out. This is the solution that Nicholson endorses without further comment.

        That Nicholson does not comment on the solution is the very first, if not the most important sign, that he must have no grasp on the problem. He lets the words of Wilamowitz sit there, to speak for themselves. But, more than that, the picture we have of Plato is one much like Albert Camus. We see Sisyphus moving his rock, rebellious, even though he knows ultimately that he will never reach his goal. He is driven but not unaware of his predicament. However, if the very ground upon which Plato writes his critique of writing is itself absurd, as Nicholson seems ready to concede to Derrida, what permits us from drawing any conclusion whatsoever about what Plato was doing or not doing? That is, if this reading is true, there is no truth of Plato, there is no truth of being driven, there is no truth of existential madness. One can as easily say, "Plato writes because the cow jumped over the moon." It makes anything that Plato ever wrote empty and dead in the most profound way, up to and including Plato’s own critique of writing. Rather than resolving the paradox, Nicholson’s solution is pretentious. It gives us the trappings of Phaedrus, the important place of eros, embracing play, an inviting flux, but it puts all of these things into Derrida’s ontological vacuum. It kills itself, and it takes us no further from Derrida than a fake smile exhibits friendliness. The analysis by Nicholson, in the end, has not given us a more positive approach at all—only bleak contradiction with a smile.

        John Fisher takes a different approach in his 1966 paper entitled, "Plato on Writing and Doing Philosophy." Fisher makes much of Plato’s use in Phaedrus of "winged words," tracing the usage to Plato’s familiarity with Homer. The article makes the point that there is a distinction between "winged words" which signify response and action with ordinary kinds of words. Whatever merits such a vague metaphor might offer, Fisher takes it in a particularly unsatisfactory direction. He argues that Plato’s use of writing is justified by the higher end of philosophy, which is presumably the Forms. Fisher writes:

The writer uses myth, allegory, and the logical or other responses. Socrates uses these devices to further the ends of his art, to hint at truth inaccessible to descriptive analysis. In Plato’s view therefore the instrumentalities of literature are justified in philosophy by the lofty ends of the discipline itself.25 What we are to believe about Plato is that his ends justify his means. Although writing pretends to knowledge, is lifeless and dead, it is justified by the higher aspirations of philosophy to action and life. It is not adequate philosophy, but it is in some ways still justified. Real philosophy is between philosophers: Yet under the masterful hand of Plato the art form reached a height and a grandeur never equaled. Nevertheless the written word remains unwinged. The only way to do philosophy is to go out and find a philosopher. Unless Plato is completely mistaken, his words alone have wings.26 However, this response is entirely inadequate. A word can be just as unwinged between philosophers, or whether the word is spoken or unwritten. If two philosophers find themselves discussing their weekends, we hardly can be said to have engaged in serious philosophy, in a dialectic which begins "of forms themselves, moving on from forms to forms, and ending in forms."27 Furthermore, words spoken can be just as dead as words written, as we see in the speeches of the sophists and rhetoricians. We have no insight whatsoever as to what makes our words winged, and we have no insight into how this is possible in light of the fact that we must indulge in the image, in the imitation, in the otherness of nonbeing in order to reach such lofty heights. How do we reach such lofty conclusions, even assuming that our ends do justify our means—a very unplatonic way of putting things if ever there was—by means of an apparently deficient medium?

        What do we gather from the inadequate attempts to rise to the truth from the deconstructed confusion? From Nicholson, we see that whatever our solution to the problem is, it must not undermine the truth. We will never resolve the paradox if we concede to Derrida that the whole project of writing is absurd. From Fisher, we see that we will never reach the lofty heights of truth when we do not give an account of the possibility of using writing for such means. So, we learn two very important lessons that will guide us to my own solution. My solution must not itself begin with absurdity, or contradiction, and it must express itself in a way that shows why it is not absurd. That is, any solution must not be contradictory, and it must be able to give an account as to why it is not contradictory. And, why must this sort of solution be a solution? That is the question we will need to explore, and it will be enveloped by the solution to the larger problems facing me.

        So, still we are faced with the problem of writing. Plato charged it with seeming to present us with understanding while being unable to give us understanding. Therefore, Plato argued that people who "know what is just, noble, and good" will not be serious about sowing the seeds of this knowledge into ink. Instead, he urges on us dialectic, "discourse accompanied by knowledge."28 However, as we questioned the text to see just exactly what Plato says, we were faced by many more paradoxes, dichotomies, and confusions. We seemed to be driven right back into the image. We have no way out. We cannot reach out for something to pull us out of the abyss. It seems as though those "in particular who spend their time studying contradiction" who "believe themselves to have become very wise and that they alone have understood that there is no soundness or reliability in any object or in any argument" have carried the day.29

        However, when one reaches the point where one now believes that everything is utter chaos and confusion, it is just at the point where one must look at the question. We wished to ask Plato just exactly what he means, and we said at that time it was impossible to say. I suspected that fruit would bear if we looked at what understanding was, but it was apparently barren. However, understanding is about to come. Let us see how.

        When we ask of Plato what he means, should we be very surprised that he is unable to answer us? What I am suggesting is that we have loaded the question. If we take it for granted that the question is itself rested on some sort of legitimacy, we are asking for some sort of answer when we have presupposed doubt. That is, we have built doubt into the entire formula of the problematic. We have assumed a problematic. And, of course, it is problematic, from a matter of speaking. We do wonder what will solve paradoxes, what will allow Plato seriously to mean in writing that one should not write seriously. However, we have assumed that we can ask such questions, have such doubts, under a species of absolute doubt. However, is this coherent? We seem so sure of what we are asking and revel that it can never be answered.

        So, let us turn the paradox inside out. If when we doubt and question, we do not know what we are asking, then what are we challenging? We have said nothing. However, if we do know what we are asking, then our very question is already grounded in something known. Before we decide we can follow Derrida and believe that all is mired in ambiguity, we are faced with one further ambiguity. Ambiguity itself must either not be asking anything or must spring from non-ambiguous grounds. From that, it seems now that we are faced with the most enormous of all paradoxes. If we ask a question, we presuppose knowledge, but if we presuppose knowledge, what on earth was there to question? The problem is merely a reformulation of the problem of Meno:

Do you realize what a debater’s argument you are bringing up, that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know? He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.30 The answer of recollection, giving an account of what to some extent someone already possesses, becomes the answer. To demonstrate it, Socrates shows that a slave boy who had never been trained in mathematics that from a few basic principles that he already knew, he is able to derive all sorts of complex mathematical operations that he previously did not know that he knew. The teaching of the philosopher becomes not that which gives knowledge, but that which draws it out, or as Theaetetus suggests, a midwife.

        So, I would like to draw a distinction. If it is possible to ask questions, and if it is possible to both know and not know, then what is being asked and what is it that is known? When I ask, "How are you?" I already know something about you. I know for one thing that you are a being that can be "doing well" or "doing so-so" or "doing rather poorly." What I do not know is your actual condition, but I know that you must have one, the possibilities of which I already understand. However, let us not stop short. What we know is a capacity, what we do not know is an actual condition.

        The capacity, what Plato actually called Being in Sophist, must itself include what is actual. When I ask you how you are, you are already actually something. However, from the point of view of the person who questions, this is as of yet indeterminate. So, the distinction that I am drawing is that knowledge of a person’s actual condition requires that it be approached from a perspective which is actually indeterminate. However, what is indeterminate itself requires that something actually be true. Thus, knowledge requires a determinate, actual object approached in light of a perspective which filters that object as indeterminate.

        Fancy talk, but what do I mean? What I mean is that what we have found is that questions presuppose knowledge, but we have also found from Derrida and Plato himself that knowledge requires us to engage the other. So, if this is what we find, Being must be both, but not in the same way. Much like the top in Republic that is moving and staying in place because it moves in respect to its axis while its axis stays in place in respect to the table, knowledge as well is that which moves and stays the same in different respects, is open to doubt and certainty, determinacy and indeterminacy.

        The respects are what I call the two modes of Being. When I say, "Being has two modes," I speak in two ways about Being. First, I express an eternal truth about Being, a determinate necessity about its nature. However, when I say, "Being has two modes," I confine Being within the image of a sentence. I pick out one instance of Being, one of many indeterminate ways of expressing it and pick that out. However, the image of Being is already understood, if we understand Being as being two modes, as exemplifying a necessary expression of Being, that it must be modified into a particular image. So, when we think we have Being pegged down as an image of Being, we are already presupposing the necessity of Being. We are saying, "Being must be made into an image." Thus, in the very necessity of Being made into an image, we are already beyond the image. We are saying something necessary and eternal about being that is evident in considering the very nature of the image. But, if we then go on to say that Being is that which is completely beyond image, we have already contradicted ourselves by making an absolute image of Being. Thus, Being is neither reducible to the image nor found without it. Rather, Being is not reducible to a single mode. To deny this is to make Being one or the other, and then we will be taken down the disastrous road of dichotomies. When we see Being from the standpoint of determinacy, we must see it in light of an image. When we see it as an image, we are obligated to express the necessity of its being and hence discover a necessity above and beyond the image, an image that is necessarily exemplified as image.

        Talk about Being is thick, and there is no drug which can make it less thick, make its comprehension simple. As Socrates says in Symposium:

How wonderful it would be, dear Agathon, if the foolish were filled with wisdom simply by touching the wise. If only wisdom were like water, which always flows from a full cup into an empty one when we connect them with a piece of yarn.31 It is not simple. Its very nature is irreducible either to the image or simply to the necessity grounding that image. It is only reducible in respect to the mode with which we perceive it. If we are looking for its necessity, we will only find it by considering the image. If we are looking for its image, we will only see it under the species of its necessity. However, I speak loosely. For, we are no longer talking about "image" as mere imitation, or mere "lifeless statue." Now, when we speak of "image," we are talking about the species of necessity, the open, free, indeterminate expression of necessity. However, it is in some ways the same. For such "images" will still be spoken, still be written, still be sung, and still be painted. The difference is that these "images" no longer have the pretentiousness of being the last word. Knowledge is that which plays with images and sees the necessity behind it.

        Thus, we are ready to solve the riddle from Republic. When dialectic begins from hypotheses which are not images but are Forms, we must be careful what is meant here by "image." The image is the lifeless artifact that pretends to give an account. The hypothesis of dialectic has no such pretense. The hypothesis opens itself up to its father, to what gives it birth. Whereas arguments from images, in the Platonic sense, are not understood as a species of necessity while arguments from Forms are. Rather, arguments of this sort take the Father, in this case the image, to be a lifeless sort of figure, a slave to its skin. However, if the Form is that which is open to individual expression, life, difference, differentiation, then an argument from a Form is necessary in so far as it recognizes that and does not mistake the mode of its expression for the mode of its birth. Therefore, it is without contradiction that understanding proceeds from hypotheses, which are Forms. For, being hypothetical is one mode of Being, whereas being necessary is another mode. To deny this is to lead us down the road of contradiction, contradictions reveled in by Derrida.

        But, why should we accept this as possible? It may be contradictory to deny that the highest integer is either even or odd, but why should we suppose that there is such a thing? We should accept my solution as possible because this is the very nature of what it is to be without contradiction. That is, the law of noncontradiction itself exemplifies these two modes of Being. The law says, "It is impossible for a thing to be and not be at the same time and at the same respect." Consider it. The expression of the law depends upon a distinction between being and not being and its relationship with the necessity that ties this distinction together. It depends upon a distinction between what something is and its other being tied to a notion of necessity (its being impossible to be otherwise.) If both these ideas are tied, then we have in the very law of noncontradiction a distinction between being as determinate and being as indeterminate and distinctive. Therefore, we should accept what I am proposing as possible because what it means to be possible is precisely to be without contradiction. The notion of the highest integer being odd or even fails the test because the notion of a highest integer is itself contradictory. It is not possible, but my solution, like any possible solution, exemplifies the law of noncontradiction.

        However, why should we accept the grounds for my solution at all? Why should we confuse the necessity of thinking a certain way about Being for its solution? At this point, I would be at a loss to know what the interlocutor is talking about. If by Being, they mean something other than what is within the grasp of our conceptual necessity, then they must not be conceiving of anything. If that is the case, then they have no way of communicating their complaint without presupposing the truth of that which they are trying to deny. Therefore, one cannot meaningfully deny either my solution or the grounds for it.

        Derrida is cast aside because he like so many others failed to keep modal distinctions straight. We can write against writing because we may not be writing against writing in respect to its proper mode. When Plato writes against writing, he is writing against it in respect to its pretentiousness and against the idea that knowledge can be sown into words with a pen, as if knowledge was some sort of drug that can be given. However, in which mode is his critique of writing being written? The person who claims in writing that his writing gives knowledge is the person that Plato is categorically rejecting. He is rejecting, without equivocation, writing as that which can harness knowledge as a commodity into letters and words, which can if it touches you right, give you all sorts of wisdom. He is rejecting the person who confuses the necessity that may or may not be expressed in writing with the expression of the writing itself. The writing of which Plato addresses takes the mode of determinate necessity to be the same as that of the mode of indeterminate expression and thinks that it can bottle the one up into the other. Look closely. This is just exactly what Plato says. After saying that the seeds of the man who knows what just, noble, and good should not be sown in ink, the solution in Phaedrus is "discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others."32 Of course, discourse makes use of its own images, its own indeterminacy, but the difference is this: the words in dialectic move and reproduce expression from which discourse grows. How does it do that? It does that through the activity of dialectic which proceeds from hypotheses which are Forms. That is, it sows its seeds not by putting them into words but by considering its questions as a living, erotic force proceeding from necessity and drawing us into intercourse with the new expression that this movement gives us.

        It works like this. I consider a point. By itself the point proves ambiguous and unable to satisfy us. So, we question our activity and see that our "considering the point" occurs under some notion of knowledge. We have moved from what in one mode was an indeterminate beginning to the determinate grounds of that mode. When we do that, our conclusions take the form of a new point, a new beginning, and we start again, especially as life brings us new experiences and new things to wonder at.

        Therefore, Plato was fully justified to criticize writing, and so long as we keep in mind the way, or the mode, in which he criticizes writing, we are fine. For, Plato’s writing has no pretense of giving us knowledge. Knowledge cannot be bundled up into little atomic bits, swallowed, and digested. Plato’s writing is indeed dialectic, in that though it is expressed in writing, full of questions, grounded in a kind of ambiguity from one point of view, it takes us to that which grounds the ambiguity and another starting point. It helps us bear fruit between the paths of opposites without itself becoming contradiction.

        For the same reason, I can claim to write seriously in defense of Plato. For, I have not claimed to give you facts, little bundles of knowledge, little bits of evidence to show why my view of Plato is the truth of the matter. I wrote dialectically, not sowing my knowledge into my words, but considering my words as the created offspring of the Form. The central critique against writing is not that the one who writes cannot be serious but that knowledge cannot seriously be sown into the written word. The critique is more a critique of a view of knowledge. Knowledge is not that which is a gift. Even if it announces itself as such, this is mere sophistry. It sits there in its texts, by itself, only able to be memorized, unable to answer for itself. The scholar who takes himself too seriously looking for this just exactly and thinking he will find it merely by considering the written text is wasting his time having a kind of verbal sex with the wrong sorts of things. However, the scholar who sees the text, plays and toys with it, in order, to go beyond the text as text, seeing the text as exhibiting necessity from its point of view as the grounds for it, is serious. The person who writes not to write, not to convey some knowledge from on high, but with the understanding of dialectic, who is without pretense of passing knowledge, is a serious writer whose writing is not a trifling thing. And, while it is certainly true that this written text or any other written text may be distorted, misinterpreted, turned into a mere memento for reminding, that says only something about poor reading. The issue of serious writing is only concerned with the Form.

        Since my writing is serious precisely because it seeks the Form, it is just exactly what Plato would want. We only arrive at the Form by proceeding from hypothesis, which we said really implicated an image. That is, the interesting thing is that philosophy must engage in something like writing. Of course, Socrates was a philosopher and did not write, but he too was engaged in something like it. Philosophy must begin from questions, ambiguity, the Cave, if you will. It is historically true that we begin here. We start with this life force, we play with it like children, as things get more intense we have a kind of foreplay where we consider it on its grounds, and as one thing leads to another, we are fully engaged in intercourse with it, the orgasm coming when we see that the whole process of our play, our discussion, our shaky beginnings, actually is another mode of the very questions from which we started. The just exactly that was impossible at first turns out to have been there all along but only able to be brought to light by philosophy, the only truly erotic discipline, finding its path by the method of dialectic and recollection. Since my writing moves dialectically, I would be hard-pressed to see how Plato could disapprove of my claim to seriousness or the way I have argued for it.

        Seriously, then, I am finished with this discussion. We are in fact past the climax. I have written seriously, defended Plato from those who would attack his attack on writing, argued that philosophy requires something like writing, and solved it in a way that Plato would approve. This conclusion is a bit succinct, but after so much moving around, we are ready for a little bit of rest from all this play.

1Plato, Phaedrus, in Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997,) 553, 276c-d..
2 Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Disseminations, translated by Barbara Johnson, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981,) 128.
3 Plato, Phaedrus, 552, 275d-e.
4 Plato, Apology, in Plato: Complete Works, translated by G. M. A. Grube, 21, 21c-d.
5 Plato, Phaedrus, p. 509, 229c.
6 Ibid., p. 510, 229e-230a.
7 Plato, Symposium, in Plato: Complete Works, translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, p. 459, 173b.
8 Plato, Republic, in Plato: Complete Works, translated by G. M. A. Grube and revised by C. D. C. Reeve, p. 1127, 507a.
9 Ibid., p. 1130, 509d.
10 Ibid., p. 1131, 510b.
11 Plato, Sophist, in Plato: Complete Works: translated by Nicholas P. White, p. 257, 236d-237a.
12 Ibid., p. 257, 237a.
13 Ibid., p. 262, 241d.
14 Ibid., p. 269, 247e.
15 Ibid., p. 271, 249b.
16 Ibid., p. 282, 258e-259a.
17 Derrida, 166.
18 In serious writing, we must play around.  In the context of Derrida’s failure to resolve paradoxes, I say that he was lazy or unimaginative.  But, in truth, I could not possibly know.  Herein, however, we must give provocative images which shed a more thought-provoking light.  I liken this to Plato’s endless diatribes against pastry baking, although I suspect that Plato himself probably was himself fat on pastries.  Like Plato, I am only making a categorical personal attack on Derrida within its appropriate context.
19 G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, translated by William Wallace, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975,) 93-94.
20 There are numerous references to wings in Phaedrus.  The choice of words was not accidental.
21 Graeme Nicholson, Plato’s Phaedrus: The Philosophy of Love, (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press,  1999, 79-80.
22 Ibid., 81.
23 Ibid., 84.
24 Ibid., 88.
25 John Fisher, “Plato on Writing and Doing Philosophy,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 27, 2 (April-June 1966): 172.
26 Ibid., 171.
27 Plato, Republic, p. 1132, 513d.
28 Plato, Phaedrus, p. 553, 276e.
29 Plato, Phaedo.  In Plato: Complete Works, translated by G. M. A. Grube, p. 78, 90b-c.
30 Plato, Meno, in Plato: Complete Works, translated by G. M. A. Grube, p. 880, 80e.
31 Plato, Symposium, p. 461, 175d-e.
32 Plato, Phaedrus, p. 553, 276e-277a


Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus.  Translated by Justin O’Brien.  New York:
Vintage Books, 1955.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination.  Translated, introduced, with additional notes by
Barbara Johnson.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Fisher, John.  “Plato on Writing and Doing Philosophy.”  In Journal of the History of
Ideas, 27, 2 (April-June 1966): 163-172.

Hegel, G. W. F.  Hegel’s Logic.  Translated by William Wallace.  Foreword by J. N.
Findlay.  Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975.

Nicholson, Graeme. Plato’s Phaedrus: The Philosophy of Love.  West Lafayette, IN:
 Purdue University Press, 1999.

Plato.  Plato: Complete Works.  Edited by John M. Cooper.  Indianapolis: Hackett
Publishing, 1997.

Go back to Jim's Writings
Go back to philosophy essays
Comment on paper on The Acropolis Discussion Forum