It’s often said that philosophy is about questions rather than answers. Yet it is in the nature of a question that one who asks it at least wishes to find an answer, even if that answer remains elusive. Even rhetorical questions are rhetorical because they imply an assumed answer.
And so with the perennial questions, to which I regularly return on this blog. Central to the idea of a perennial question, as I have expressed it, is that the answers have never come easily. People across cultures, in different places and times, have asked the question – but in each place, people have come up with opposing answers.
To observe this diversity of opinion is humbling. Here are some of the greatest minds in human history, people smarter than I will ever be, reading each other’s work and still coming to opposite conclusions. Can an answer then ever be found?
The quickest, easiest and most tempting response is to throw up one’s hands and say no, or effectively say no: there’s no way to decide between these different answers. This is the postmodern or relativist response, and it’s one to which undergraduates gravitate very quickly – and understandably – when faced with the big questions. But this answer very quickly reveals itself to be both incorrect and unsatisfying – for reasons beyond the performatives I have previously discussed.
For to say “there is no answer” is itself an answer, and an answer that is itself in disagreement with those very great minds. Plato and Aristotle might disagree significantly on the answer to the question of Ascent and Descent, but they will certainly agree that there is an answer to be found. Take the Descent and you will reject Plato; take the Ascent and you will reject Aristotle; say there can be no answer and you will reject both. There’s no way around fundamental disagreement with at least one of the great thinkers on any perennial question.
Or is there? There is another way to address such questions, but it is more complicated than any of the options discussed so far: taking one side over the other; adopting one thinker’s solution as truth; rejecting attempts to find an answer. Skholiast nailed it in his response to my first post on perennial questions. On perennial questions like that of Ascent and Descent, there is in the great thinkers always a dialectic: an attempt not merely to refute the opponent’s position but in some way to incorporate it. Skholiast describes the dialectical process using Hegel‘s complex but key German term Aufhebung (which is the noun form; the verb is aufheben in the present tense, aufgehoben in the past). Aufheben is often translated ineffectively with the word “sublate,” a word which has no real English meaning other than as a translation of aufheben. Ken Wilber renders it as “transcend and include,” which provides a much more helpful understanding of what the German term gets at, but is wordy enough to be awkward. I prefer “supersede,” which covers a lot of the sense of the German word. The new edition of a book (ideally) supersedes, aufhebs, the old. It cancels the old in a sense, moves beyond it and makes it unnecessary, but does so by preserving what is most important in the old while adding things that are new and better.
In the case of Plato and Aristotle, it’s easy to fall into the temptation of portraying them roughly as Martha Nussbaum does in The Fragility of Goodness, or as Raphael does in The School of Athens: as polar and mutually exclusive opposites, Plato seeking only to escape the fortunes of the world and Aristotle to embrace them. But as Skholiast notes and as I have tried to emphasize in my own posts, there is always a Platonic element to Aristotle, an attempt to embrace and incorporate Plato’s transcendence within a philosophy whose overall tendency is more worldly. This Platonic Aristotle comes out above all in sections X.6-8 of the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle says that the contemplative life is the highest and best because it is the most godlike. This is a passage that Nussbaum has a hard time dealing with; she says effectively that Aristotle is contradicting the rest of his work (Fragility 375-7). But she agrees that he feels the power of Plato’s Ascent ideal, and is trying to consider it. It strikes me that his goal was very likely to supersede Plato, to transcend and include him, to be not merely a Descender but a Descender who includes Ascent within his thought. If Nussbaum’s interpretation is right, it may mean primarily that he failed at that task.
The point I’m trying to make is that the perennial questions are best addressed through a dialectical synthesis. What the greatest thinkers do when they address a perennial question is not merely to take a side, Ascent or Descent, ātmanism or encounter. If they do take a side, they will attempt to incorporate the best of the opposing side in their view.
There are two critical elements to the process of dialectical synthesis. First, it is an attempt to find synthesis, not compromise; it is not about finding a middle ground. The middle ground can turn out to be a vicious mean and not a virtuous one. (Compromise, I have argued, has its role in political practice but not in philosophy.) More important is to take seriously the underlying concerns that animate each side and bring them to where they are, and answer those concerns in a way that could be genuinely satisfying to those who have them.
And second, this process of “taking seriously” is a dialectical one: one starts from the positions one tries to supersede, and shows their inadequacies from within, making the opposing positions part of the process of reaching one’s own. It is in this sense that Nussbaum’s and Wilber’s major works are not themselves dialectical, though I think they may aspire to be; the endpoint of the inquiry has already been reached at its beginning. In their works, opposing positions are discussed only to be refuted. Nussbaum tries to make a movement from Plato through various other thinkers and ending in James Joyce; but by the time she gets to Joyce, there isn’t any Plato left.
Not much of what I’ve said here today is new; I’ve made most of these points in the various posts I have linked to above. But I’m trying to bring them together just because I do see my project as one of trying to work out some answers, however tentative they must be, to perennial questions – and I do not believe I’ve found those answers yet. In some respects this post is an attempt to remind myself, and hopefully others with me, of the best ways to think about the great questions – just because dialectical synthesis is such a difficult path to follow, and I think I’ve typically fallen short of it so far myself.