Random Readings 2

In Book X of Plato’s Republic, Socrates discusses with Glaucon the value of art in their idealized society. This also appears to be where Socrates explains his theory of how everything in the world is an imitation of some ideal thing which exists somewhere in heaven. So, for Plato, the idea of universals is very real. The abstract concepts of Good, Justice, Beauty, Table, Wine, and Toga really exist on some other plane of existence. And according to this school of thought, these planes of existence are in a strict hierarchy, with the ideal of “wine-ness” on the highest level; below that the wine that Socrates and Glaucon may have been sipping as they talked; and below that the image of wine that might appear in a painting; and below that the description of some wine that might appear in a poem. Each successive level gets further from the Truth and deeper into imitation.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im Aussermoralischen Sinn,” also discusses the notion of universals or ideal reality, but from an opposing stance. Nietzsche argues, rather vehemently, that we create the ideals in our own minds. They have no reality of their own in some special space, but are products of our mental processes. He uses the example of leaves. Even though no two leaves are identical, we ignore the minute differences and create a mental category based on the similarities, which for us constitutes the ideal of “leafness.” Therefore, something that seems to have the qualities of a leaf, we will think of as a leaf, whether it is a leaf on a tree, a flower, or a shrub. Nietzsche believed that we perceive these “forms” instead of the actual object, and make sense of the world, therefore, through generalization of experience.

Plato and Nietzsche, then, appear to have held opposite world views. Plato thought the generalized form was the true reality and everything on earth is a representation of some singular “real” object, whereas Nietzsche thought that everything on earth was singular unto itself, and we create the generalizations so that our limited minds can cope with infinite diversity.

I found Jacques Derrida’s essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” to be very interesting, because he seems to be putting forth a kind of “theory of relativity” for philosophy. Derrida attacks the Newtonian ideal of absolutes as it is manifested in the structuralists’ insistence on the existence of a center within the structures of philosophy. Derrida states, in his roundabout way, “that there is no transcendental or privileged signified and that the domain or play of signification henceforth has no limit.” He later also states that discourse “cannot itself have an absolute subject or an absolute center.” What Derrida seems to be saying in these and other passages is the same thing that Einstein said when he argued that there are no privileged reference frames, no absolute time or absolute space against which everything else can be measured. Derrida seeks to have the structuralist view of philosophy and mythology swept away as was the Newtonian view of the universe. Derrida seems to be seeing a quantum-mechanics view of mythology and philosophy where uncertainty, approximation, and point-of-view are the ruling ideas. I even saw a parallel between something and the mysterious “quantum connection,” but I’ve forgotten what it was. I didn’t write it down, and now it’s gone. I feel a bit like Tom Stoppard’s Guildenstern. Or was it Rosencrantz?



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