Navigating Post Truth: Nietzsche Contra Plato
All philosophy, we are told, is a mere set of footnotes to Plato. This itself is a very Platonic assertion. Not just in the fact that Plato probably whispered things like this to himself under the moonlight, but also because it attempts to reduce the history of thought back down into its singular essence. The Form of philosophy itself is Plato’s thought, the pure ideas about the pure ideas.
And so, if thought is in a crisis now, we can perhaps see this as a crisis in Platonism, in certain long standing assumptions, intuitions and methods. What do I mean that thought is now in a crisis? Not that philosophy itself is in crisis — the discipline is doing just fine, institutional and financial issues aside. What I mean is that we are now in a time where it is getting increasingly harder to know what or how to think. We stand exacerbated and dumbfounded in front of the TV, twitter feed, or whatever, as dramatized by Jessica Chastain on SNL some weeks ago: does anything even matter anymore? Everywhere is a sense of old categories breaking down, with nihilism at every turn. However, now is also a time, the breaking apart of these old categories, that “lines of flight” are multiplying…
If we are really experiencing a “reversal of Platonism”, it certainly feels at times like a capsizing. Perhaps we would do well to look to the thinker who announced that just such a ‘reversal of Platonism’ was the primary goal of future philosophy: Gilles Deleuze. Platonism needs to be reversed, not discarded, because if we try to situate ourselves truly beyond its horizon, we’d have neither ground nor light to see if we had moved at all. As Heidegger notes in the introduction of Being & Time, we don’t drag our history behind us like a vapor trail — everywhere we smash face first into it: the only way out is through.
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So what do we find when we ‘return to Plato’? A series of dramatic dialogues, questions and their replies, where little is resolved, satisfied, and more often than not our philosophical hero Socrates subdues his detractors with a myth. The myth of the judgment of souls, the myth of the “soul mates”, the myth of the flying rainbow gate or whatever it was.
In Nietzsche and Philosophy, Deleuze identifies one root of pre-Nietzschean philosophy in the particular form of the Platonic question as it pertains to discovering essence: that is, the question “What is x?”
The Platonic dialogues have a repeating structure for the most part. Socrates asks, in so many words, “What is beauty/justice/truth/courage” etc, his interlocutors almost always respond by offering up the “one who is beautiful, just, true, brave”. And here they fall into Socrates’ trap: “These are mere examples, what is beauty in itself?” This structure is so quintessential to Plato’s dialogues anyone who’s read even one will be able to chuckle at this comic.
When presented with a multitude of instances of a type (x), it seems fitting for us, scrabbling around in Plato’s footnotes, to ask this question, what is x in general? The method is simple, we merely derive a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that manage to encompass all instances. Dictionaries are built on this principle. From there, from our definition, we can then hold court: which of the many outliers, mutants, chimeras, border cases, and refugees, will make it into our definition, will take part in the form of x? And then, who are the impostors, the simulacra, to be cast out and revealed for what they are? The Platonic method, embodied in the dialectical procedure of the “what is-” question, divines essence primarily to establish the conditions and degrees of participation within an transcendent ideal.
But pay attention to what happens when we perform this synthesis: a myriad of cases are investigated as to their common features. What is idiosyncratic to each is suspended, and a ghostly residuum emerges, the ideal or pure form of x. This residuum exists in each, but is completely ambivalent to each particular instance as particular instance. With this residuum in hand we then turn around and distribute the cases — one by one, relative to a line we have drawn in the sand.
What is the human? The human is the Rational Animal insofar as humans participate most fully in rationality. Okay. Now lets distribute degrees of humanity itself along a scale of a supposed image of rationality. Then we can spend hours discussing whether we have moral obligations to calculators, while full humanity is withheld from large groups of actually human citizens. Hordes, masses, mobs, waves, pandemics of humans and irrational human behavior in juxtaposition to homo economicus, who always rationally selects between ordered preferences to maximize utility, and is everywhere a perfectly mundane and average individual.
Always so many comparisons and extractions, so many juxtapositions and “this is not it”s. This is what makes Deleuze assert that this question typifies an entire way of thinking that was alien to Socrates’ contemporaries, but has since become our standard recourse when asked to think anything at all: “well, let’s first define our terms and then the answer will be perfectly clear. Hand me the dictionary, or wikipedia, or google machine”.
Hidden within this way of thinking, this “innocent” clarity that emerges from this definition work, is the legislative spirit that hopes to regulate boundaries and cast out undesirables. When we think of essence as a kind of whatness that is derivable from the Platonic procedure of subtraction or denial of difference to establish a transcendent identity, through the question “What is-”, we stand in judgment over the myriad multiplicities of becoming in favor of an identical, unchanging Being that always escapes us. Never “this, that, these, or you, her, me”, but always something beyond the horizon of our world that will find us, and these things around us, lacking in reality insofar as they only more or less approximate what they supposedly are. The idea that any one thing, or any one of us, may be through and through irreducible, irreplaceable, unrepeatable causes our thought today to stall and sputter.
Take for example Aristotle’s (probably the master of this procedure of divining essence as whatness) discussion of Friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics. After deriving three forms of friendship (the useful, the pleasant, and the virtuous), and then arguing how the “higher form” of friendships of virtue form the ground of the other two, who reading this can escape without the feeling that, in fact, it’s possible they have had no “real” friends hitherto? Lacking in one’s actual friendships is the kind of disinterested moral purity that the inquiry posits as the essence of friendship. One feels that the pleasure and utility mixed in with all friendship is an abhorrent, pathological trace. What is needed is a completely inconvenient and unpleasant friend, such that we can definitely say this friendship participates in the pure form. But what madness is this?
The essence cooked out of the question “what is” always has this normative dimension: what begins as a purely speculative, descriptive enterprise, terminates at a normative judgment determining degrees of participation. Now we know what an X is, we find ourselves surrounded by deficient and impostor X’s. Life is doomed to never achieve the clear surety of a clean bundle of necessary and sufficient conditions. In this procedure we always come up lacking.
“This is why, in Plato, the opposition of essence and appearance, of being and becoming, depends primarily on a mode of questioning, a form of question.” (Deleuze, 2006, p.76)
Enough. Anyone with ears enough to actually follow Nietzsche, his project, the import of it in the context of 2,500 years of thought, will realize that he’s not down there in the foot notes of Plato, he’s climbed up into the text and is making his own comments and alterations, in ball point pen nonetheless, on your library’s copy of The Collected Dialogues of Plato.
So how does Nietzsche reformulate this question? Simply by treating seriously the response Socrates’ contemporaries favored for getting at essence. Not “What is?”, but “Which one?”.
The mistake is to take this question as asking for mere examples. We can only take this question in this way if we are beholden to the model of thought that sees the question “What is” as the premier form, and thus “which one” becomes a derivative game. But beyond the horizon of the question that sees in essence primarily a transcendent whatness, there is a whole other art for discerning essence. The question ‘Which one is just/beautiful/true?’-
“-does not refer, as Socrates believed, to discrete examples, but to the continuity of concrete objects taken in their becoming, to the becoming-beautiful of all the objects citable or cited as examples” (Deleuze, 2006, p.76)
This form of question does not discard the notion of essence, merely transforms its status. No longer some abstract universal that supervenes in the flux of becoming from beyond, imparting form, but as a particular species-region of becoming. There is no longer the pure form of the True, the Just, the Beautiful, but a becoming-true, becoming-just, becoming-beautiful that demonstrates itself as a capacity, as an effect or symptom of multitudinous, inter-related becoming, itself multitudinous. A force in the world among and against all others. Not something coiled in waiting, but a genuine event heterogeneously and actively created through the case.
“Asking which one is beautiful, which one is just and not what beauty is, what justice is, was therefore the result of a worked-out method, implying an original conception of essence and a whole sophistic art which was opposed to the dialectic. An empirical and pluralist art.” (Deleuze, 2006, p.76)
Central to this art is the act of interpretation, rather than the positing of abstract conditions. Key to Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche is his characterizing of Nietzsche’s main contribution to philosophy being the introduction of the concepts of sense and value. From here Deleuze develops his notion of force. Nietzsche aimed to dispense with all things. He saw in even the notion of the atom just one last crutch of an erroneous metaphysical picture: if there is force, then it must be force of some thing. If there is thinking, it must be the thinking of some one. Against all of these residual (grammatical) grains Nietzsche puts forward the image of a multiplicity of pluralist forces — each forming a perspective, dominating, and being dominated, acting and reacting. Phenomena, then, are the effects of the inter-relations of forces. However, this is not in the sense of phenomena being mere appearances. What appears, in its appearing and being made to appear, is also a devolving of force. What Kant got wrong, vis-a-vis this picture, then, is the belief in the pure passivity of the sensibility. In every perception there is an evaluation — a bringing forward and a making primary, and, through this, an interpretation, a bestowal of a sense. One never sees, one always looks.
“The question “which one?” (qui) means this: what are the forces which take hold of a given thing, what is the will that possesses it? Which one is expressed, manifested and even hidden in it? We are led to essence only by the question: which one? For essence is merely the sense and value of the thing; essence is determined by the forces with affinity for the thing and by the will with affinity for these forces.” (Deleuze, 2006, pg.77)
When examining a beautiful thing, we don’t dump it into some intellectual acid to burn away everything that is particular to it. We don’t reduce beautiful things to the beautiful as such. Instead we consider each thing in its becoming-beautiful, of which we are also always a part (as a region towards-which this becoming-beautiful absorbs and impinges). Nietzsche laughs at Kant’s notion of beauty as being “the disinterested pleasure”, as if there were some impotent, uninvested perspective from which beauty could be made to appear (some sublimely passive consciousness that manages to discriminate without an active bringing forward). All phenomena are the effects of multitudinous forces — optic nerves, thermodynamics, appetites and hungers, lust and fear. The becoming beautiful of a fragment of the world within which we find ourselves is an interrelation of forces imparting senses and establishing rank orders of values. Somewhere in that vortex is the subject referred to as “I”.
Accordingly, there is not one “beauty” as is implied by the question “what is?”, rather, the becoming-beautiful of things is always multitudinous and heterogeneous. We do violence to sun sets, deserts, faces and bodies alike when we say that each takes part in the “form of the beautiful” which escapes each one. Each case is inseparable from its particular constellation of becoming, the particular perspectives, senses, and values that compose it, the meteorology of forces that have breathed it into being, and is in a sense unrepeatable.
The idiotic conclusion to be drawn here is that “oh, okay, then nothing matters #FML”. This conclusion is still issuing from within the Platonic paradigm, thus hasn’t actually altered its perspective. It’d be like opening the door of the cockpit mid-flight to discover there are no pilots and then, on the basis of this, assuming it does not matter if the plane crashes or not. No, the stakes have just been raised immeasurably. Where previously we had faith in some transcendent guarantee, we discover that there is nothing truly “out there” for us to rest upon, save for what we have established there over history. History furnishes us with a horizon, within which we work and make sense. But beneath and beside this horizon there are other terrains which we previously thought impossible (mistaking the horizon for the limits of the world). Value is modulated by this discovery, but not obliterated, unless of course the will behind our thought is to obliterate, and then any suitably shaped insight will do. Copernicus, Moses, Darwin, Dawkins, Dickens. Take your pick.
The art of interpretation, of discovering sense and value between forces that inter-relate beneath and beside essence as a whatness, is not a neutral art. How could it be when one is discovering sense and value? There are base and noble forces. This is why Deleuze follows his discussion of the form of the Nietzschean question with a sketch of the Nietzschean method.
“ From this form of question there derives a method. Any given concept, feeling or belief will be treated as symptoms of a will that wills something. What does the one that says this, that thinks or feels that, will? It is a matter of showing that he could not say, think or feel this particular thing if he did not have a particular will, particular forces, a particular way of being.” (Deleuze, 2006, p.78)
Deleuze refers to this method as Dramatization. Aptly named, for we select a given position (which one?) and place it in its setting, plot, and character. In this way we can even interpret Plato’s use of the dialogue. He was not yet so far removed from his contemporaries that it didn’t appear appropriate to him to dramatize his concepts, attribute to them their proper characters and points of enunciation.
The separation into base and noble willing, then, is carried out through the dramatic method where the trajectories of various propositions are animated. We are no longer asking “What is x”, but now “Which one does x?”, who is playing this part, and to what ends? Specifically, for Deleuze’s Nietzsche, what is noble is that will that affirms its own difference, is active, creating its own part, and what is base is that which denies the difference of another will, is reactive (complains about their co-stars improvisations throwing them off).
Let’s take a particular, over-played, example: “Alternative facts”. Now it would seem Kellyanne Conway’s bizarre coinage (and all of the threads that it seemed to tie together, to come to symbolize, ‘post-truth’, etc) is perfectly in line with Nietzsche’s attack on Platonic essence. Didn’t he after all write, in one of his unpublished notebooks, “There are no facts, only interpretations”?
Nietzsche’s recent critics (and alt-right advocates, for that matter) enjoy reading him with one eye closed. Enough: If there are no facts, then there are no alternative facts either. Conway did not say there are multiple interpretations, because this would have been absurd. Why? Because of what was being discussed: quantity, a number of people. Specifically — what number? This question occurs perfectly within the horizon of Platonic essence, identity, countability, and facticity. If we want to have an argument about demonstrable quantities within a discourse, where the assignation of identity to number has been settled in advance (a body equals 1), then we must follow this settling in advance and continue on as this discourse has been established. There is no need to diverge from Plato here, we are firmly and safely in his foot-notes. To do otherwise (to count 15 when there are 7 according to the definitions we are using to squabble) is to make nothing more than a childish error. Both Plato and Nietzsche (and my seven year old niece, for that matter) are all in agreement on this.
Where Nietzsche steps in is to Dramatize: who uses “fact” in this way, who uses “quantity” in this way? What do they will? What forces engender this position that wants to call “7″ fifteen? What does this false number do? In the alternative facts case the answer is obvious: this will is reactive in the extreme, huddled in its lists of numbers, fearful to let them go, yet screaming at them impotently to work differently, entirely beholden to the gazes, words, and actions of others that it wants to deny. This is a sickened will fearful of making its own discourse, of affirming its own difference. Reactive in the extreme, soaked in Ressentiment, base through and through. Reacting to what? Beholden to which gaze? Well, how many bodies (if we’re talking one body equals one digit) were at Obama’s inauguration, again?
The reversal of Platonism is only a capsizing insofar as we hold obstinately to the deck of the ship, now upside down. Talking about “facts” with alternatives, for example. Much of our discourse has been plunged into this overturned madness at the behest of base and reactive wills who try to lay claim to an inverted boat they are still trying to sail. Their position is as unsustainable as the metaphor suggests. However, there are also those active, creative wills being unleashed, swimming freely and re-establishing value and sense through genuine acts, genuine transformations. Deleuze would later come to call these potentials for escape and creative re-evaluation beyond the striations of the old discourse “Lines of Flight”. We see genuine threads of this in #Metoo’s resettling of the tables, calling bullshit on the supposed immutability of the “facts” of sexuality, received hierarchies, and the intransivity of “good ol’ family values and locker room talks”.
And now, look at how the words “thoughts and prayers” have undergone their proper Nietzschean re-evaluation of sense. We’ve gone from “what good are your thoughts and prayers?!” (2017) to “who is the one that says ‘thoughts and prayers’ when everyone knows what they really mean, what is their trajectory, will, relationship to other, hidden forces? What do they want? Which gods are these thoughts and prayers to?” (2018). This is has always been the Nietzschean retort to Plato.
“Ah, my dear Friedrich, but what is a god? May we find that under the many there is just one?” Socrates replies.
“You may, with that line of thinking.” Nietzsche says, and leaves.
Deleuze, G. (2006), Nietzsche and Philosophy, Columbia University Press, New York.
Making this foot-note markedly meta.