Plato is one among the many unfortunate philosophers who are referred to more and more, read less and less. To this atrophied forgetting, Abrogast Scmitt’s Modernity and Plato: Two Paradigms of Rationality is a patient therapeutic mnemonic. Over 500 pages of closely argued text ambitiously proposes a fundamental critique of modernity, and its self-conceptions, in the light of a rigorous reading of Plato, and what Schmitt names the Plato-Aristotelian tradition (henceforth P-A). In the course of such a reading, the familiar clichés of the ‘theory of forms’, that orient not only Philosophy but also the humanities and the social sciences, are laid to rest.
What strikes one first about Modernity and Plato is that it is simultaneously, a monumental historical diagnosis, a subtle and nuanced philosophical analysis, as well as a courageous conceptual thesis. The text is structured in terms of a series of conceptual propositions that are then extrapolated and established through various kinds of readings; some of which are detailed and pertain to key sections of the referred to canonical works. It integrates and goes on to transform themes that are conventionally kept distinct, such as the conceptual and the aesthetic. One of the most refreshing aspects of the book is the frequent illustration of the argument through everyday examples that seamlessly expresses, rather than attenuates, the rigour of philosophical labour. The singular voice that speaks through the text does so with an originality and spirit that is untrammelled by the jargon of thought.
To get to the thesis that is never lost sight of. Schmitt argues that what is conventionally taken to be modernity, notwithstanding the debates around date and place, is characterized by a particular consciousness that believes itself to be at once “original and unique” (4)[i]. From the period conventionally designated as the Renaissance we find evidence of an attitude that “degraded” it’s immediate past not only in the specific domains of the fine arts, but on the more general registers of philosophical and scientific aptitude. Self proclaimed superiority of the latter lay in the ostensibly more exact understanding of the objects of the world in visual (artistic) and scientific (philosophical) ways. Thus a particular understanding of the function of art – a representation that was to replicate an individuated empirical experience of the world – was construed to be the essential characterization of art as such. Schmitt argues that there were deeper roots to this understanding and valuation of the world; roots that could be traced to the nominalists and the specific rehabilitation of a specific Hellenistic/Stoic philosophic thesis at the cost of the P-A tradition. Modernity, in following the former, foregrounds the individual object as immaculately received, making the infinite (and doomed) task of knowledge, to be one of faithful representation.
The argument is illustrated through a discussion of Duns Scotus’s interpretation of Aristotle. Schmitt forcefully argues that this interpretation was in fact a radical misunderstanding of Aristotle in particular; but also simultaneously a profoundly debilitating misunderstanding of the whole P-A tradition that persists to this day in academic and more mainstream discourse. In his own reading of Aristotle, knowledge begins with perception (never without its own cognitive dimension), and yet, to (truly) know that which we perceive, we require a conceptual clarification which is the true knowledge of the object and its (sensory) properties. On the other hand, for Scotus, that which was arrived at through intellectual cognition is in fact truly something that is to have been already given to us in the “immediate intuition of the object”. The question and difference thus revolves around the status and making of the “individual object”.
In Aristotle via Schmitt, intellect brings about unity among moments isolated by the mind-sense organs, with cognition taking place in a single act. There can be no clear ‘reception’ of the individual object, because such individuation requires the conceptual discrimination between what is essential and what is not. The circle drawn by chalk, is given as an example, one that is constantly returned to. Only a conceptual clarification can define the circle as having an essential characteristic property i.e. all distances from the perimeter to the centre are equal. This property is to be distinguished from the color white of the chalk that also might characterize the given circle. Such a distinction is involved in the conceptual act as a unifying and distinguishing operation in so far as it presents an individuated object: color of chalk and roundess along with other properties in the circle.
Scotus’s major intervention lies in the fact that the function of “intelligence” — or conceptual analysis as a concrete distinguishing act — as it existed in Aristotle is elided and the unity of the object is said to lie in the object itself combined with the act of intuition i.e. perception and intellect. Reason is now assigned the function of distinguishing the parts in terms of an already given or received unity. Thus, reason/conceptualization is to be found (already) in intuition, which is itself dependent on the “individual object” that “includes all that can be found in terms of intellectual determination in every higher instance thereof”. The nature of conceptual clarification or analysis to be found in Aristotle has here been radically altered because in Scotus, such conceptualization (or thought) is now to be understood merely as a form of representation, and is only able to work ‘deficiently’ i.e. retrospectively ascertain or represent the object that is to be in itself (as a unity) already found in intuition. This construal of the individual object is what Schmitt characterizes as the “metaphysical overload of the individual object”. Thought is construed as always secondary while the individual object as it is experienced is endowed with a primary and foundational role. It is reduced to an exclusively “representative” character, a fundamental move that will later lead to the more recognizable contemporary distinctions and between the conscious (thought) and the unconscious. (22 – 30)[ii]
The active function of thinking in the constitution of an object is thus subtracted at the cost of a series of aporias that afflict the fundamental equating of representation/consciousness and thought; this is to be the primary contribution of the nominalist moment to the essential characterization of modernity (and post-modernity). The aporia i.e. how can thought ever authentically represent that which it is not, is not dissolved by its recognition of the aproria. For Schmitt, the ancient P-A conceptualization of thought as discrimination rather than representation does not lead to such aporias, while all the same remaining faithful to everyday experience. Thought as concrete discrimination recognizes that even what appears as an ‘object’ is through and through a synthetic activity, there being no single (individuated/unified) object that is apprehended devoid of conceptual activity.
Schmitt’s discussion contrasting Descartes and the P-A method on cognition and sense-perception is sharply illuminating in this respect. While for Descartes in the Second Meditation, the “senses” deceive because they present “one and the same object” differently i.e. the wax may be white and then brown, firm and then malleable, leads to the conclusion that one requires an “intellectual seeing” which encompasses the differences that are perceived by the senses (212)[iii]. However, Schmitt counters by pointing out that sense-perception(s) in themselves do not deceive; what appears as white is seen as white, just as what appears as brown is seen as brown. It is this truth of sense-perception that can lead to the notion that ‘it’ is white and then brown. The sense-perception – with their cognitive dimension which gives each quality a unity – does not deceive. But neither do they allow us to truly identify i.e. conceptualize as one, something as “wax” i.e. a unity that exists through these changes; or the distinction between essential and unessential properties. The qualities of wax qua wax have to be arrived at through a conceptual analysis that accounts for different sense-perceptions just as the definition of a circle qua circle while requiring the sense-perceptions that see the circle on the blackboard drawn in chalk – whether in pink or white — are not reducible or identical to the same. To appreciate the importance of the concrete acts required for conceptual discrimination, that Schmitt elaborates upon, as opposed to abstract determinations that that leave their relation to their own determinations undetermined, we only need to reflect on both contemporary social scientific (and everyday) categories such as ‘state’ and ‘culture’ and ask about their relations to specific experiences or instances of the same. While as far back as Dionysodorus, the P-A tradition reflected on this issue and developed responses to it in a way not to be matched by contemporary social-scientific theory.
This specific argument of Descartes in linked to the famous Cogito argument operating as a synecdoche for modernity and its theory of representation and subjectivity. Descartes’s argument is that the non-negatable-I-think becomes the sole criteria and constituent of true knowledge. Thus intuitive certainty – of whatever form whether opinion or thought or feeling – is both criteria and content of (true) knowledge. Here we have an inversion of the traditional terms subject and object (184)[iv]. As Schmitt argues, to say “I am feeling cold” would be traditionally a representation and therefore objective, while whether the condition is cold would be subjective (‘cold’ underlies/is the subject of the condition). With Descartes’s introduction of thought – intuitive certainty – as criteria cum content as solely certain, the “I am feeling cold” is primarily subjective and the only true knowledge that is possible and therefore the support of the objective i.e. the representation, and is to be referred to this objective condition, ‘given’ as it is to thought. The implications are clear; “the origin of the modern concept of consciousness lies in this equation of thought with experience which has immediate evidence and certitude for us” (186)[v]. The P-A argument regarding the specificity of thought as a series of acts capable of establishing the unity of what is experienced is substituted for a certainty that can provide no criteria to discriminate between that which might be true or false; which is why Descartes ultimately equates cognition with other ‘mental’ acts such as dreaming, opinion and sense-perception, to be axiomatically distinguished from body.
Such a conclusion however flies in the face of actual experience. Whether it is an emotion (such as anger) or cognition (is that a tree) – heuristically distinguished here – there is nothing self-identical or certain in either except the shell of ‘immediacy’. Therefore Descartes’s original attempt to salvage the contingency of the differing experiences/intuitions cannot be accomplished by the (fictive) self-identification of thought-as-sense that ‘encompasses’ all of these. This would not be able to account for simple delusions or erroneous perceptions (seeing the slanted object in water), examples that the Sophists and Skeptics had traditionally used to assail different kinds of knowledge claims. On the other hand, the P-A argument would be that the unity/identity of the object is only the result of a series of conceptual clarifications/acts that are called by Aristotle ‘work’. In this context, Schmitt also clarifies modern and contemporary critiques of Antiquity that imagine that they have disproved the axiom of the theory of contradiction by pointing to objects or experiences that do not appear to follow the law of the excluded middle. Schmitt argues that such a critique is only possible by a misunderstanding of the function of “contradiction” in P-A, for which “contradiction is a requirement of thought and not a statement about the world” (221)[vi]. It is not a criterion to be merely applied, but an ‘internal’ requirement for thinking itself. Pointing out a contradiction in an ‘object’ itself requires the principle of contradiction in relation to the two aspects/objects meant to be in contradiction with one another. The critique of contradiction is therefore, to use the relevant phrase from Indian philosophy, self-destructive.
Thought is the “discrimination of something definite”, and not to be opposed to “emotions”, in the way modernity is held to have conceptualized these matters. For the latter, even when it recognizes something like “emotional intelligence”, presupposes that the latter is still to be fundamentally distinguished from ‘rationality’. In contrast, for Schmitt, in the P-A tradition, all thought is accompanied by “volition” (related to desire) and “feeling” (defined in terms of pleasure or displeasure). Therefore ethical action is not the subordination of ‘emotion’ to ‘rationality’, but rather depends on the freedom and perfection of the activity. Rather than opposing pleasure to reason, pleasure is itself distinguished according the kinds of activity – whether it be tasting wine or playing the flute – each of which has a cognitive component. Every action – even something as simple as walking or sensory perception – presupposes a series of conceptual acts that include identification, differentiation, totality etc that cannot be localized in any particular given case. But the more perfect and free an action, the more it realizes and actualizes the self as free from such a particular condition. This kind of freedom that is at once rationality in determining something in itself is further analyzed in terms of the non-discrete distinctions between perception, opinion and reason.
One “sees” only the “colour” of something, this something is known as a scissors i.e. one knows that it cuts, and what it can ‘do’ and therefore ‘knows’ it by its ‘work’. The latter form of ‘knowing’ is opinion. The scissor cutting – its work — is not an object of sensory perception, but is the ‘outcome’ of “reading off” this outcome from the individual case, that is sensorially perceived. Opinion includes both the universal and the particular dimensions in their (confused) unity. In distinction to opinion, reason would be able to determine something like cutting which is not captured by a particular case and would thus be able to ‘recognize’ a scissor even if it is of a sort that has not been seen before; say a pair of scissors made of a material that we are do not know, but the one who reasons knows will be capable of cutting (320-1)[vii]. Therefore one who knows what is involved in cutting might invent an object like the scissors, but what others may not recognize initially as one. Analogously, if we have seen only ‘white’ human beings who are rational our identification of the latter with the former is a sign of bondage i.e. prejudice towards those who do not share the same physical appearance. But this ‘prejudice’ is a form of (abstract) opinion that is universal and particular (since this identification cannot itself be perceived as an object). If however we have a concept of reasoning that does not depend on a case – or set of cases – we are open to recognizing others as reasoning creatures i.e. humans, since reasoning in itself need not have a particular colour as its essential property. This colour read off human beings that we have so far known is not mistaken to be the essential property of rationality or humanity. Prejudice is thus to be overcome by the conceptual recognition of the value at stake rather than an abstract injunction — ‘legal’ or ‘moral’ — to treat others as the same in any given situation. Reasoning is an act of (concrete) discrimination while at the same time not ever captive to any individual case, or set of cases.
As an act of discrimination it cannot allow for the distinction between judgement (in consciousness) and feeling (pleasure/pain). So the untrained ear might listen to a tune and make preliminary distinctions where pleasure and knowledge are one, but the trained ear in knowing more about music at once finds it more pleasurable or unpleasurable as the case may be. The importance of understanding the concrete nature of reasoning in its freedom is argued through with utmost virtuosity and persuasion in the sections on “feelings” and “ethics”. The violence of rage lies in its abstraction and not it its being concrete i.e. when I think someone else has humiliated me, in my eyes, this one ‘experience’ is the ‘fact’ that subsumes all other aspects of the aggressor’s personality. In my anger I cannot recognize the distinctions in context or person, or to use the Homeric expression cited, I cannot turn my head. Such abstraction is all the same as ‘rational’ as it might be “emotional’; such as when being consumed with humiliation I coldly and calculatedly plan my revenge, as Schmitt establishes through Euripides. Schmitt argues that this is the only understanding of rationality that modernity has and therefore has no qualms about calling the methodical killings of Nazi Germany as exemplarily rational’. By way of contrast, the P-A tradition would not recognize this as “rational” since rational thought is ‘free from the bond of the individual case’ even while it is concrete in its discrimination. The definition of justice as ‘to give anyone what is his’ will actually imply different things in different contexts, but this does not in any way, analogous to the principle of contradiction, mean that such a standard does not exist. The (impoverished) abstraction will arise only when a specific case is generalized; so one might say applying this principle in an empirical situation of gross inequality is an example of impoverished, abstract reasoning.
This same ideal of thought is applicable to the ‘I’, and Schmitt argues that unlike the Stoic conception, bequeathed to modernity, this ‘I’ is analyzable (349)[viii]. The ‘I’ is not the ‘primitive’ that is opposed to ‘feeling’ (experiences of pleasure and pain). Only such a position leads to the modern dogma – with Hellenistic roots — of ‘self-preservation’ that treats the ‘I’ as a given object, unlike the P-A tradition which held ethical activity to consist in ‘self actualization’. Only the latter context speaks to the necessity of politics, or the fact that only in a community can the ‘self’ be fully actualized; there is no need to axiomatically distinguish one from the other only to then try and resolve the two in one way or another. In the P-A tradition, as part of the ‘training’ required for the self, art, especially tragedy, is exemplary as an “education of the feelings”. Self actualization is thus a task, and ultimately grounded in the very reasonable and free conceptualization of thought as discrimination or the principle of contradiction. Only thus is it held that even pleasure is at its richest when it is not bound to a case, and rather than being frozen in abstraction, such pleasure is the concrete feeling in itself as well as the scope and expression of an action. Critiquing, in a systematic fashion that irradiates from the prior epistemic one, the more modern conceptions of state and economy from Smith to Bentham, Schmitt writes, “The Platonic-Aristotelian division of labour is thus not oriented towards the greatest possible financial profit from the product of an activity, but rather, toward the specific characteristic of the activity itself and toward the greatest possible gain in pleasure attainable from it and specific to it”. (505)[ix].
Schmitt’s tour de force is of singular importance. A range of fields from modern logic to the history of science to Ancient Mathematics and modern political-economy are woven together to articulate a powerful set of arguments. For making this work accessible for those who do not read German but read English, one cannot but express heartfelt gratitude to Vishwa Adluri, who has rendered the German into prose that is as pleasurably lucid as it is densely textured. Schmitt’s own work refers to previous work – and others part of a research group in which he is involved – that is unfortunately not accessible to those who do not know German.
In conclusion, I would like to like to raise a couple of issues to continue the conversation as it were. Schmitt’s indictment is persuasive when it comes to the paradigmatic – and retrospective – understanding of the modern Western tradition as it takes expression in the orthodoxies not only of contemporary philosophy but also the theoretical infrastructure of contemporary social science. However, such an indictment can be evaluated in a two-fold manner: a) Is Schmitt’s reading of the early modern figures such as Kant and Descartes – and not their retrospective domestication in professional philosophy as it were – fully convincing, and b) How is one to relate the new epistemological configurations – and their false historicization – to the broader institutions and discourses of modernity. And in such a context, how would ‘absences’ like Marx, who is not treated, affect the argument?
My own position is that Schmitt is more convincing in his reading of Descartes than Kant, howsoever nuanced. And for lack of space, in so far as one is concerned with the problematic of tradition, one may just point out, through Heidegger and Bhattacharayya, that Schmitt’s discussion of Kant has no place for the “imagination” in Kant, and its relation to “freedom”. And so when Schmitt says that with Kant “feeling” is about pleasure and displeasure, he does not sufficiently note, again one might wager, through Heidegger and Bhattacharayya, that in Kant, “feeling” is also employed as ‘pure’ in relation to “respect”, which takes us to the fraught interrelationship between the three critiques, the question of the transcendental and its irreducibility to what Schmitt indicts modernity with i.e. an ultimately unreflexive theory of representation. Heidegger and Rose have in different ways critiqued Neo-Kantianism for severing validity from experience, and some of Schmitt’s critique of modernity would find resonance here. In other words is it possible that Schmitt, to put it slightly flippantly, might find some more solidarity this side of the 12th century?
And lastly, Marx would certainly not fall under the indictment of thought as (abstract) “representation”. In fact, notwithstanding much of Marxist scholarship, Marx’s critique of the abstractions of classical political economy and liberal political theory is accomplished through a rigorously (concrete) conceptualization of labour, thus engendering the scope for detailed analyses, whose energy is not derived from an abstractly ‘existing’ situation, but one that is equally anticipated. Marx’s own Aristoteleian conception of labour, could well be re-read with Schmitt’s argument in mind. For here too a rigorous – and by no means abstract – conception of labour is what allows us to critique what is presented as (abstract) free labour, whether in ideology, law or ‘fact’. These are but the beginnings of the multitudinous thoughts that arise from Schmitt’s brilliant and infinitely nuanced provocation[x].
[i] Abrogast Schmitt, Modernity and Plato: Two Paradigms of Rationality Trans. Vishwa Adluri (Camden House New York 2012)
[x][x] Both the points of entry – Kant and Marx – are based on some work already published. “Imagination and Freedom: K.C. Bhattacharayya, Heidegger and the Kantian Inheritance”, SHSS 2013; The Infinite Double (Indian Institute of Advanced Study Shimla 2015).
Rahul Govind teaches in the Department of History, University of Delhi. He is the author of the book The Infinite Double: Persons, Things, Empire, Economy.