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Entertaining questions requires wisdom, a considering, reflecting frame of a mind still resonating with past experience but now focused by desirous expectation. Otherwise put: Questions are a mode of blessed ignorance, a thorough apprehension of our own cognitive limitations which clears our minds of mere opinions and, while it prevents us from reaching for personal originality rather than objective origins, moves us inward…

complexityWhat a great honor it is to be invited to speak to the philosophers of Athens, though I came flying into Atlanta through the blue skies by airplane rather than sailing into the Piraeus over the wine-dark sea by trireme!

My topic is a duality, an opposition in the way our world offers itself to the search for knowledge, which is mirrored in our personal predisposition for a way of inquiry.

I’ve learned not to expect an audience to sit with bated breath until I reveal my own inclination and also not to indulge myself in post-modern indeterminacies. So I’ll say up front where, as my students say, I’m “coming from” and, as matters more, where I’m going with my title, “Depth Versus Complexity.” I think that the first dimension of depth describes such bottom-seeking knowledge as we’re capable of searching out; it may be called philosophia, “love of wisdom.” The second dimension, on the other hand, describes such surface-covering information as we can attain by research; it could be named, to coin a term, philotechnosyne, “love of skillful fact-finding.” Since it seems to me hazardous, both aimless and dangerous, to plunge into the depths below a surface that I’m not acquainted with, it also seems to me that those who attempt such a plunge, which is always made with eyes closed, should have their eyes wide open above and be acquainted with much of the wide surface, always keeping in mind Heraclitus’ dictum that “Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to humans that have barbarian souls.” I will cite rather, in behalf of being extensively informed, Socrates, who lived in that first Athens as an ardent urbanite. He seems to Phaedrus, his ostensible guide, like a stranger outside the city in the country around Athens, and he says that he, Socrates, only learns when within the city; but he shows that he has far more real local knowledge than his companion.

The direct opposite of complexity would be simplicity; of depth, it is shallowness. I’m not disavowing but rather avoiding those antitheses, for now. So I’ll describe the two ways not as directly opposite, but rather as orthogonal to each other. Therefore, let me begin in a somewhat unlikely way: with the most basic Cartesian coordinate diagram of classical physics, in which the horizontal x-axis represents the fundamental independent variable, time, and the vertical y-axis orthogonal (that is, at right angles) to it represents some other physical dimension—early on, distance, velocity, and acceleration. That’s so even in latter-day elementary textbooks. But at a crucial moment in physics, its first modern moment, the direction is different. The second theorem of the Third Day of Galileo’s Two New Sciences (1638), sets out, under the title of “Naturally Accelerated Motion,” the earliest clearly quantified law of nature, that for free fall at the surface of the earth,[1] where acceleration is naturally uniform. Here time is represented by an upright line, while the horizontal stands for velocity. Moreover, time begins not at what will later be called the origin, the intersection of the representative lines, but at a release point. Picture the diagram as rendering Galileo, nearly half a century earlier, standing at the top of the Leaning Tower, about to start his experiment by letting go of a ball. That experiment was not, to be sure, an experiment at all but a demonstration of a remarkable fact already known by Galileo, namely that balls of different weights would, absent friction, hit the ground together.

That’s somewhat to my point, since so-called information, gathered by experimental research is, I would guess, far less often put to use as the source of new discoveries than as the corroboration of pre-conceived knowledge.

What is a little off my point is the mind-boggling and modernity-determining way Galileo proves the law on the basis of a postulate suggested by the Pisan demonstration. The postulate says that, since weight is not involved in free fall close to the earth’s surface, the simplest possible relation of velocity to time is to be assumed, namely that the former varies directly with the latter. Then the velocity-lines, set up horizontally on each moment of time, increase proportionally with the time of falling and so assume the outline of a triangle whose base represents the velocity at the moment of impact. The interior of this triangle is a kind of proto-integral, a summation of all the near-infinitesimal velocity-lines, with side t for time and d/t for distance per unit time, or velocity. These sides, when multiplied, yield twice the area of a triangle representing the dimension t·d/t. Simply put, the area of a triangle, a plane figure, now represents a distance, a linear figure. I’m moved to say that this counterintuitive procedure instantiates the crucial effect of quantification: the symbolic quantity has no immediately apprehensible similarity to the quality of the symbolized phenomenon, here distance.

I must interrupt my account here to say, very emphatically, that Galileo clearly saw what was eventuating and did his clever and careful best to circumvent the representation of distance by area, so that his proof is conceptually clear but mathematically cumbrous. More efficient and less mindful ways would soon be found.[2]

As it turns out, the tsunami of information now available is largely numerical in form and bears a ruptured relation to its qualitative subject. Incidentally, the law of free fall then simply stares at you from the diagram: Since by the postulate the velocity ratios are the same as the time ratios, we can substitute the time for the velocity and say: In free fall on earth, in abstraction from friction and in the absence of a force that might increase acceleration, the distances vary as the squares of the times, d ~ t2 Let me repeat: I’m a little off topic with this tale, but only a little, since the story of non-similar symbolism is deeply implicated in the tale of depth vs. complexity.

My recall of a moment when time went diagrammatically downward rather than outward is intended to remind you of other ways time goes downward—and inward. If Galileo’s ball hadn’t been stopped at ground zero it would have gone inward toward the center of the earth.

There is another discipline in which time heads down. In archaeology, the deeper we dug (I say “we” because in my pre-Socratic days I was an archeologist), the later it was in our personal day, the earlier it became in the world’s time: the deeper down, the farther back. On our earth, the buried past lies progressively deeper below the visible now that presents itself on the surface. These material survivals went, if undisturbed, in readable stratifications, way back into prehistoric times.[3]

I refer to digging because it is analog, perhaps even the source of metaphor for a psychic capacity called remembering. In remembering we dive into our memory tank, often to meet a memory floating or flashing up to forestall or even anticipate our search. But sometimes we must recollect, dig laboriously downward through stratum after stratum of compacted memories, until the desired one halts the search. Socrates distinguishes memory (mneme) from recollection (anamnesis)—e.g., in Symposium 208a, and Meno 81d. Augustine, that great Platonic theologian, devises an imaginative topology of the soul which visualizes that depth-sounding destination of recollection (Confessions, Bk. X, Chs. 11, 12, 17). Our quasi-sensory memory images densely fill the innumerable fields and caves and caverns of our inward quasi-spatial memory. Here we wander in remembrance. But yet deeper within the huge inner world are placeless places for imageless presences such as true mathematical figures (meaning those drawn with breadthless lengths on an inner quasi-plane), precepts of the liberal arts, including logic, and the invisible being of things discerned within, “themselves by themselves,” the Platonic forms. These flee into the remotest recesses and must be “excogitated,” literally “driven together and out,” that is, laboriously recollected. Then Augustine extends the depth—or height—of the soul beyond memory and its recollective recesses. “I will transcend” (transibo), he says, my memory and “ascending” (ascendans) through and beyond my memorial soul I will mount up to God who is above me.

To my mind, this is a remarkable correction, or perhaps a consummation, of Socrates’ account, who never tells, except in post-mortem myths, how the forms and their ruling principle, the Idea of the Good, actually come into the soul—or it to them. In Augustine’s account, they penetrate, they enter, the innermost depth of the soul, that is to say, the soul opens onto the heights of Heaven. Depth and height are strangely identical. I will dwell on this later, but here recall to you that the Latin word altus means both “high” and “deep,” and also that Heraclitus says “The way up and down is one and the same.”

Like Augustine, the enhancer of Platonic psychology, Freud, its traducer, has an outside-in psychic topology. He himself called psychoanalysis “depth-psychology” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1926). His early typology in the Interpretation of Dreams (1900) names at the upper end the perceptual system, that is, awareness; behind or below comes the preconscious system, that is, the subconscious, where reside psychic facts not presently in awareness but readily accessible. And deep down there is the place of the unconscious, a hermetic hell, reachable only by the experts in deep penetration, by the psychoanalysts. The motto of Freud’s early book is “If I cannot bend heaven, I will raise hell” (Virgil, Aeneid VII 312). And that is why I call Freud a traducer of the two ancients: For them, the light increases with depth, for him, the murk. As Lady Macbeth, who might, poor woman, be a Freudian case, says: “Hell is murky” (Macbeth, V.i.41).

I’ll return to Augustine’s Confessions, Book XI (23, 27, 28), to me the highpoint of the inquiry into time. Here memory becomes the place and the condition of time. Time is a “distention” of the mind, a dilation brought about by its accumulating memories, and the amount of this mental stretching is the measure of times. Neither the future nor the past are; only the present, the here and now, exists. The future is an expectation now and the past is a memory now, and time is the presently felt extent of this expectational and memorial stretching upward into the future and downward into the past respectively. To be sure, Augustine says nothing about up or down. But Husserl, who takes his departure from Augustine in what is probably the greatest application of the phenomenological method to a subject, namely his Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness (1905), does exactly that in describing his own “Diagram of Time” (para. 10). He speaks of the new nows changing into pasts that continuously “run off’ and plunge “downward” into the depths marked on a vertical line which symbolizes the “retention,” that is to say, the memory of impressions.

Before showing you where I plan for all this to be going, let me take a minute to tell you about the etymologies of the words “deep” and “down.” I am far from imagining that recovered meanings, be they the careful etymologies produced by learned linguists, who trace a word to its speculative Indo-European root, or the creative derivations devised by imaginative amateurs, which have no basis in research, prove anything at all. The dead-serious but linguistically dubious etymologizing of certain philosophers strikes me as an improbity, while the apt hijinks of others seem to me good fun.[4] But both linguistically sound etymologies and imaginative verbal jeux d’esprit can be thought-provoking, the latter because they’re meant to be, the former because they may tell us something about the development of human reflection. But all in all, etymologies are incitements, not revelations, and poetic play, not philosophy.

Here is the linguistically respectable etymology of “deep.” The Indo-European root, dheub, gives rise to “dip,” “dive,” as well as “deep.” Thus it is reasonable to infer that “deep” originally signified plunging into an element and bringing up some of it. The deepest dipping and diving our earth affords us is the ocean, the deepest of the deep the Mariana Trench; let it stand for non-metaphorical, literal, depth and diving. The “down” adjective is similarly physical; it is derived from dune, “hill”; “down” means “off the hill,” moving from top to bottom.

Now let me do the same for “complexity.” “Com-,” Indo-European kom, signifies “beside, near, with”; “-plexity” derives from plek-, “to plait,” originally from “flax,” a plant yielding textile fiber. So like depth, complexity is rooted in our dealing with material objects. I’ve read that the most complicated object known to us is our brain. I don’t need to insist that its complexity is non-metaphysical, literal, just because I believe that complexity hardly ever is a metaphor.

We deal with complexity by “ex-plicating,” that is, undoing the im-plicating entanglements of complexity, or by “ex-plain- ing,” that is, setting complexities out plainly. The two meanings of the word “plain,” that is, “clear” and “flat,” have the same origin: the wide “plain” is where things are plain because view is unobstructed, and the mathematical flat surface, the “plane,” has the same origin. Hence “explaining” is a mode of extracting meaning that explicates its subject by projecting it onto a flat surface. Thus, for instance, the brain is contained by a roughly round skull (because, I imagine, the sphere is that mathematical solid which has the lowest ratio of surface to content), so that its involutions need to be explicated in plane surfaces: in marked cross sections for viewing and labeled schemata for functions and plane mappings for neural networks.

What I’ve just said can serve to deal with an annoying sort of argumentative deflection. Someone will interject, to derail you: “It’s more complex than that.” To which the answer is: “Well then, if you mean it, draw me a picture.” For complexity is the eminently diagrammable, spatializable problem; it can be set out plainly. To be sure, complexity is the opposite of simplicity, and what these folks often say as the final put-down is: “You’re being simplistic, you’re over-simplifying.” To which the apparently merely eristic, that is, merely contentious, answer is: “And you’re being shallow, superficial,” meaning: your overview has too few nodes and connections to begin with and doesn’t go into the matter to boot.

It will be the point of my talk to show, perhaps a little too briefly, that it is not merely argumentative to say that complexity is a superficial view of the world, but has real non-derogatory meaning, and then to conclude by attempting a description and—I’ll be upfront about it—a defense of depth. Just as I don’t want to say that they are opposite kinds of thinking, so, far be it from me to claim that complexity and depth are “kinds” of thinking at all. To my mind, it is plain unthinking to claim that there are different ways of thinking. Thinking is always thinking—always the same in being “about” something, thus always qualified by what it is about. It is always the same but often about something different. For, of course, there are different objects of thought, different ways to see what you must think about.[5] Thus the people who used to be referred to as primitives, and before that as savages, felt surrounded by well- or ill-intentioned spirits and, most rationally, concluded that these needed to be propitiated in ways they themselves might respond too—just as we would.

Or take Socrates. Some folks say that he was interested in defining certain objects, that is, in delimiting them in the universe of discourse, in explaining them and their interrelations verbally. Well, so he was, but only when they were heavily affected with non-being, as in his multi-definitional pursuit of the sophist in the dialogue of that name, the results of which I’ve spent some amusing hours diagramming. But when he is within view of a true being, like one of the human excellences, asking that notorious “What is..?” question, definition is not his aim, but a delving descent to depths attained in literal “understanding” (as we say) or in a truth-following ascent to the heights achieved through “over-standing” or episteme (as the Greeks say). It is always thinking but sometimes of words, or about objects, or from different positions. Consider that if thinking weren’t always just that we wouldn’t even know when we have different intentions.

Now to some gist. What is complexity? Well, first, there are several kinds I’ve discerned and no doubt others I haven’t.

There’s Wittgenstein’s kind, very clearly set out in the Philosophical Investigations (Part I, 1945, Part II, 1949). He says at one point: “The deep aspect eludes us easily” (I 387, 594). “Do not try to analyze the experience in yourself” (my italics, II xi). So we are to turn to the public use of words, for example, explanations (I 69) and the behavior it induces, called the “language game.”[6] The external view, he says, “reveals a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing” (I 66). His figure here appears to be one-dimensional, a thread of overlapping fibers (I 67), but since these also crisscross, the real figure is clearly two- or three-dimensional. This is verbal complexity, and it is characterized by overtness, extensive relationality, and interconnectivity: “family resemblances” (ibid.); its point is to get on with practicalities; speech is known from its use in the world.

Another kind of complexity can be characterized as computable: It has sharply defined digital elements related by rules of computation, that is, problem-solving procedures, algorithms. This complexity is hard-edged: digits in clear calculational relations. The point is to get the solution to the kind of pre-formulated question called a “problem,” whose relation to human experience is determined by the fiat of postulation.

Yet a third kind of complexity is informational, characterizable as bits of fact, raw or inferred, singular or aggregated in categories. Information has only relative existence; in its first nature, it is like a mud flat, which becomes discrete only when handfuls are molded into a clump of clay. Abstract information is therefore irrelevantly pre-formed pseudo-knowledge. Thus information, even when verifiable, consists of relational factoids that become active facts in a context of human intention. Information becomes relevant to final decision-making when a desire is formulated and an intention is formed. Then the point is usually to underwrite the desired action or to modify, even to cancel it, if the facts are really terminally unspinnable. My final, but surely not last, kind of complexity is psychical and social—that is, human. I won’t attempt to delineate it. Its elements are too various in kind and degree and their relations too difficult, be it by human intention or natural obscurity. Ungifted experts tend to deliver very gross conceptual depictions of the human world, but very great psychologists and anthropologists (the latter need to be the former more than the converse, I think) manage to combine an extensive overview with penetrating insight. I am thinking of the Greeks’ Herodotus and our Tocqueville. They manage to survey the many phenomena that surface on our earth and to clue out underlying, I would say, the underlying distinctions and commonalities.

Here, by a natural and easy transition (as Robert Brumbaugh used to say, when he meant quite a leap[7]) I shall try to speak of depth. It might seem presumptuous, did I not think that one may speak of it without having been there: Trying is all.

To begin with, the deep divers that I have read and even known, display respect for and acquaintance with phenomenal complexities.[8] I say “phenomenal” because the juxtaposition of phainomena and onta, sensed “appearances” and intellected “beings” must surely underlie the distinction between complexity and depth. Let me here say again that complexity usually is and means to be a literal description of its realm, while depth is a metaphor, a figural application of a this-worldly phenomenon: dipping and diving into a material element.[9]

Thereby hangs a tale, a tale I will foretell in a sentence: There is no, repeat, no way of speaking of the soul and of the realm whose emissary it is except by analogy (prosaically) or by metaphor (poetically). Indeed, all philosophical speech is, I dare to claim, figurative. Let me remind you of two prime examples. Plato’s Socrates speaks of eidos, literally “look” or “aspect.” But the word is used “metaphorically,” which means “carried over” into the realm of thought, in which reside the beings that have “invisible looks.” (Mythically and punningly their place is in the underwold: Aides aeides, “Hades the Invisible,”[10] Phaedo 80d, Cratylus 404b.11) Or take the Stoic invention of the “concept,” literally a “grasping together [of particulars].” These metaphorical ways, the poetry of philosophy, are not, to my mind, primitive evidence of some logic-overleaping access to the Unconcealed that hides itself from the prosaic professors, but our one possible way to reach beyond the sensory world by taking advantage of the deadness of the metaphors that make up our latter-day language. It is a semi-extinction that allows us to use our words as if they had always meant what we mean them to mean: non-sensory beings directly denoted by pure imageless speech. Who hears “concept” as an assembling grasp, or “logic” as a collecting art?[12]

Aristotle and Wittgenstein actually agree—imagine this!—that there is articulable thinking not in need of quasi-sensory imagining. For Aristotle, it is the highest kind that functions without imagination: intellecting, noesis, the direct apprehension of the knowable. For Wittgenstein no understanding of a proposition is in need of imagining (On the Soul 1129a ff.; Philosophical Investigation I 396). I can believe it of Aristotle that his mind, his nous, had such a capacity for viewless thinking, sightless insight—do any of ours?[13]

So, I claim, whether or not we are practicing etymologists, whether we are literally the “truth-tellers” about our first words (for that is the etymology of “etymology”), their defunct spirits tug at us to return to them.

—No way to speak of underlying being non-somatically, I said a moment ago, and no way to go into sightless depths (divers without goggles do keep their eyes closed) without first taking in the surface, the place of laid-out overtness, of infinite particularity, of connecting context. Here’s another Socratic corroboration: Socrates is generally and inattentively presented as denigrating the multifarious and shifting phenomenal surface on which we crawl about. But recall that he, an inveterate urbanite, who says that country places don’t teach him a thing, had more local knowledge and more scenic sensibility than his companion, a suburban stroller. That’s in the Phaedrus (229b ff.). And in the Symposium (206b ff.), Socrates, we learn, has been taught to think that the ascent into the heights of being must start with the surely complex, and mostly surface-captivated experience of falling in love, which is also the first glimpse into psychic depths. And the same is true of Aristotle and Thomas and Hegel, who all seem to know a lot about worldly and human complexity, especially the monk.[14] I’m not just dropping names here but citing concrete examples of experiential expansiveness.

With complexity given its due, what then is depth, this mode figuratively orthogonal to complexity, a mode more askew of than opposite to it? But I will stall one last time: What is depth and the way down not?

(1) It cannot, by its very nature, be governed by the formalisms of logic. For it is always reached through the revealing veil of metaphor, which assures that the blunt first law of logic be set aside, the one that proscribes “p · ~ p.” This law of non-contradiction forbids that a proposition be at once true and not true, though for its first formulator, Aristotle, this is not a formal axiom but an affirmation that its intentional object, the thing meant in declaratory speech, is always a determinate being, which either is or is So with acquiescence in the law of thinking and being goes this very implication, that the spatial world is determinately, positively, what it is. Not so the depths. The way down is very much a via negativa on the one hand: “I don’t really mean what my speech is saying”—and therefore, on the other, a via in-ventionis, a way of “going into,” of discovery—of things not quite thinkable.

(2) Nor is depth-diving a way of deduction, of the logical descent from maxims to conclusion, nor of induction, the logical ascent from facts to generalizations.

(3) Nor are the depths a mere alternative universe of discourse, an idly eccentric language game, since, I am convinced, urgent intimations from that quarter, from our internality, those pulls that precede articulated speech, are a common, an ineluctable, human experience. This is a claim scarcely capable of verification other than by testimonial. But I simply believe that even people who revel in their own and their world’s brute materiality are visited by such transcendent innuendos.

(4) Nor is the way into depths subject to a Cartesian method, prescribed by teachable rules for the direction of the mind.[15]

* * * * *

What then, finally, is depth and the way down?

Well, to begin with, as Heraclitus says: “The way up and down is one and the same.”[16] I’ll adapt it to my purpose. Perhaps I can put it thus: The way of our search and its discoveries leads deep down into the depths of our soul, mind, or consciousness, towards what is found last but is in itself first, a grounding principle.[17] Once discovered, it becomes the ruling principle (arche) of our account-giving as we come back up onto earth. So the delving and climbing reach the same end, an “alpha and omega,” the insight and its expression.

That is the way, but the mode of our search is question-asking rather than problem-solving. In this phraseology, depth is the venue of questions, the complexity of problems. Statements of problems can actually do without question marks, they are perplexities presented to be explicated, straightened out, conceptually or practically. Or, if you like, a problem is a hard-edged, well-defined question with a correspondingly jigged answer drawn from a predetermined pool.

For example, here’s a metaphysical problem: to discern the number of causes operative in the world. The solution is constrained by such presumptions as these: Everything this-worldly has a cause, including apparent chance (Aristotle, Physics Bk. II iv ff.); therefore, if anything is uncaused or self-caused it is a divinity (Physics, Bk. VIII; Metaphysics, Bk. XII); causes are multiple, because the world is complexly constituted, and “responsible,” meaning that they come to us as responses forced from the beings pinned down by an interrogation. And so forth. The solution is definite, and the discussion continues only insofar as some people reject it.

Here’s a practical problem: On my way back from Athens, it’ll be a problem how to circumvent the notoriously long security lines of your Atlanta airport. When I get to the front, I’ll think of other things. Solving practical problems takes this-worldly know-how; solving philosophical problems takes other-worldly activity. In either case, when a problem is really solved it is also dissolved; it becomes moot. People preoccupied with solved problems are told to get a life. (There actually are some solved philosophical problems that stay solved, mostly those involving a superseded physics.[18])

Questions, on the other hand, seem to me not properly perplexities. They don’t go away, they are perennial, not because they are demonstrably insoluble but because they are not properly proposed for solving but rather for going into, deeper and deeper.

The mode of engagement with questions, as I delineate it for myself, is what Socrates calls aporia—literally, waylessness.[19] Therefore the way of searching out the deep is indeed a meth-odos, a “way-to-be-followed,” but only in the sense of an oriented movement, not in the modern meaning of a method, a progress guided by procedures.

Entertaining questions thus requires wisdom, a considering, reflecting frame of a mind still resonating with past experience but now focused by desirous expectation. Otherwise put: Questions are a mode of blessed ignorance, a thorough apprehension of our own cognitive limitations which clears our minds of mere opinions and, while it prevents us from reaching for personal originality rather than objective origins, moves us inward.[20]

A question, then, is a receptive opening in us—who knows in what capacity of ours. The reception is expectant of an answer—of a spontaneous intimation rather than a driven determination, of an incitement more than a settlement, of a mental vision or a verbal hypothesis instead of a conclusive solution.

Such responses are often fraught simplicities, not abrogations of difficulties but rather problem-generating fecundities.[21]

The aim of asking questions is to penetrate spatiotemporal experience so as to reach the atemporal inwardness, commonly called the essence, whose surface is the appearance. Here I should stop because I am being carried away toward an ontological speculation from what I would be glad to call a meditation on, or at most a phenomenology of, inquiry.[22]

* * * * *

Are there consequences to the preceding exposition? To my mind, there are personal ones surely—such as the acquisition of a template to gauge what you’re doing and to judge if a quarter turn inside and down may be desirable. There are disciplinary ones probably, such as querying cognitive scientists concerning the feasibility of inward-turned mental depth emerging from the ultimate complex structure, the brain. And there are institutional ones possibly—such as a reconsideration by philosophy departments of their highest degree, now the Ph.D., Philosophiae Doctor. It is, after all, a comical title which claims that you are a proficient preceptor, a doctor, of the love of wisdom, a teacher, that is, of love—a situation nowadays full of moral and legal pit- falls. Departments might add a secondary but more sensible degree, the Ph.D.2, to be read as Philosophiae Dilector, a “delighter and dilettante in the love of wisdom.” For I think that while the mapping of complexity, which is an institutional way of “doing” philosophy, can keep you promotion-worthily busy and often contentedly absorbed, the dilettantish delvers into depths, amateurish because philosophy true to its name cannot be a profession, might also have their diploma, though such diving may bring up nothing but deep delight:

Could I revive within me Her symphony and song
To such a deep delight ’t would win me…
—Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with the author’s permission  from The St. John’s Review (Volume 58, No. 2, 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] The third day of creation in the Hebrew Bible is when the earth appears (Genesis 1:9).

[2] Of course, this transmogrification had already preceded, when a length uniformly increasing had been made to symbolize a similarly in- creasing rate, namely, the ratio of distance to time or velocity, d/t.

[3] “If undisturbed:” I recall a day of excitement at the American Excavations of the Athenian Agora (Marketplace), when a pristine Neolithic deposit was thought to have been discovered. By evening the excavators had reached bottom—and there lay a little button bearing the legend: Army of the Hellenes. It came from a Greek army tunic; its presence spoiled the temporal virginity of the find and with it much of its informational value.

[4] An example of—how shall I put it?—unstraightforwardness is Heidegger’s translation of Greek aletheia, “truth,” as “un-concealedness,” as from alpha-privative a (“un”) and lethe (“forgetfulness”), from a verb that means “to elude notice.” The etymology has some support, but there is no evidence that to early and classical authors aletheia meant anything but truth and genuineness as opposed to falseness and counterfeit. An example of fun is from Plato’s Phaedrus (252c): Pteros means, “Winged Eros” since pteron means “feather.”

[5] People also employ different devices, modes, ways of thinking, such as figures, analogies, conjectures; it is hard to see how they could do it, except against a backdrop of plain mentation.

[6] It seems to me that the language game, which teaches meaning by ostension, doesn’t work except for a dull-witted apprentice: Master teaches pupil the word “slab” (flagstone) by pointing to an exemplar and then sends him to fetch another from a pile (I 6). If he’s dull enough, he’ll come back with a slab, but if he’s brightly observant, he’ll come back and say: “I didn’t see another just like this one.” The master will be thrown back on communicating The Slab, itself by itself, since no one, I think, can see likeness except through modeling essence—but the last clause goes beyond my present.

[7] At Yale, I slipped in and out (more out) of his lectures, the only graduate class in philosophy I ever attended at all (1951). The required undergraduate course at Brooklyn College was a big nothing.

[8] “Even known”: Jacob Klein, Dean of St. John’s College when I arrived (1957).

[9] Thus descriptions that mean to delve are usually simplifications. Of whom is it truer to say “you’re simplifying” than of a novelist who is experienced in the delineating soul and the world?

[10] Aeides: an allusion to the un-murky Greek Hades (Aides), the underworld where dwell luminously invisible things.

[11] In other dialogues they are located up high (Symposium 211), in the heavens (Phaedrus 247).

[12] Logic: from Greek logos, whose root is leg-, as in “collect.”

[13] It is practically undecidable whether either Socrates or Plato ever claimed to have come within sight of the forms.

[14] Thomas: His “Treatise on the Passions” in the Summa Theologiae seems to me unsurpassable; consider also Aristotle’s researches in the animal kingdom and Hegel on history and the arts.

[15] Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637), Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1628).

[16] He might concede that my experience of the way up and back is different, because I’m facing in opposite directions, but still, the overseeing Logos will give the same account of both. For the Heraclitean Logos is both immanent, as determining the ratios (logoi) of the elemental transformations of nature, and transcendent, as the one who gathers, collects (legei) Everything into One; it is the latter Logos who contracts up and down into one.

[17] My version of Aristotle, Physics 184a: “The way is from things more knowable to us and clearer, to things clearer by nature and more knowable.” There is another meaning of “ground,” not mine here. It is the a priori, the conceptually prior basement upon which to construct an epistemological edifice, an explanatory system such as Kant erects (Critique of Pure Reason, B 860).

[18] Some of these do in fact remain interesting, sometimes as testimonials to the concrete impasses that make grand theories implode.

[19] Or “unprovidedness.” The above meditation on modes of searching has as a background Aristotle’s Book III of the Metaphysics, which marks the transition of philosophy from amateur question-asking to professional problem-solving, the second such transition in the West. The first was from pre-Socratic initiation into Logos or Truth by a divinity to the Socratic search by going into oneself.

The word “problem” is not actually used by Aristotle in Book III; in fact, he speaks of “difficulties” and aporiai, which I think he assimilates to “problems” in our sense. Plato already uses problema in the geometry derived sense. A problem asks for a construction, which yields a product, as opposed to a theorem, which gives insight. Some ancients— this is to my point—objected to the notion of a mathematical problem since mathematics is about knowing, not making (Heath, Euclid’s Elements, I 125). By this distinction hangs a tale extending into modernity, but beyond the scope of this talk: the development of mathematical objects from concrete items to abstracted symbols.

[20] “Blessed ignorance” is my adaptation of Nicolas of Cusa’s title, Of Learned Ignorance (De Docta Ignorantia, 1440)—“blessed” for “learned” because, of course, it’s precisely not learned. Even though lots of graduates might be correctly awarded an I.D., an Ignorantiae Doctor, it would be in the wrong spirit. What Cusanus means by learned ignorance is the fully realized desire to know that has become unobstructed when we have thoroughly learned our ignorance (Bk. I i). Directing features of this desire are the via negativa (the way of gaining a foothold in the transcendent by what it is not), conjecture (the way of holding a well-motivated opinion firmly enough to go on with but flexibly enough for alteration), and analogy (the way of levering up thought by recognizing similarities in different venues and through these likenesses discovering differences). I think that these ways are mutually implicated, but I have neither studied Cusanus enough nor sufficiently thought out my notions.[21] Prime examples are to be found in the sayings of Heraclitus and Parmenides, the two pre-Socratics distinguished by being not “physical” (Aristotle, Physics 186b), but metaphysical. Here is one example: Parmenides says: “For it is the same both to be aware (noein) and to be” (D-K 3; D-K 8, line 34)—most often translated along these lines: “For the same thing can be thought as can be.” Heidegger interprets ingeniously in line with his notion of unconcealment: Being’s essence involves being apprehended (Introduction to Metaphysics (1935), 106).

I think we should not subvert bold depth by refusing to read what is written. Parmenides regards Being as One, for which his figure is a sphere. So he countermands the multiplicity inherent in his spherical metaphor by gnomically intimating that Being is self-aware, self-translucent, self-implicated—as unextended, partless, undifferentiable, being everywhere and nowhere, just as is awareness when its object is itself.

[22] I regard it as somewhat corroborative of the descriptive verity of my depth metaphor for a tendency of inquiry that it plays no discernible role for Heidegger either in Being and Time (1927), where phainomena and onta are assimilated [31, 35] or in the Introduction to Metaphysics, where Being is self-emergent and involves its own manifesting appearance as a defining delimitation [77]. The reason for this absence is, I think, that Dasein (an abstraction from a human being) which is only in caring about its being, is altogether temporal and this-worldly—so perforce a-metaphorical and un-deep.

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  1. Dear Dr. Brann, Having taken the plunge while delightfully rising, mixing complexity with simplicity, tis an intoxicating admixture mindfully imprinted. Thank you.

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