Weeding with a Rake: A Review

May 17, 2021

Here again, in the quagmire of a wake which The New Enlightened imagine was stirred up by Derrida, revels in peril

of drowning, another professor of ‘Allerley-Wissenschaft’: Simon Critchley.

Let’s look, in his book, at his critique of the Platonic/Socratic tradition of ‘virtue’. Firstly here is an avowed intention taken from his own Introduction:

“The mannered ferocity of Plato’s denunciation of tragedy seems to conceal a deeper worry about the nature of the philosophical perspective that tragedy seems to embody and its relation to what is, all too simplistically, called “sophistry.” There is much to say here: the supposed stability of the distinction between philosophy and sophistry is one of the things I want to press at in order to recover the persuasive force and power of a certain sophistry against the assertions of Socrates and against the reassertion of Platonism that one finds in contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou. To put it crudely, tragedy’s philosophy is sophistry.”

Next, because of copyright reasons, and because of the parsimony of the book publishing house (not alone among its fellows in this), I am going to type in long sets of extracts from the book, taken from my own copy, and this first item comes from the section in it named: Plato’s Sophist:

“Socrates relentlessly opposed The Sophists, and most of what we know about them we get from the caricatures of them in a large number of Plato’s dialogues….. “Protagoras”, “Gorgias”, “Hippias minor”, “Euthydemus” and “The Sophist” of course…. in “The Sophist” the final – rather abstruse- definition of sophistry runs as follows: “Sophistry is a productive art, human, of the imitation kind, copy-making, of the appearance-making kind, uninformed and insincere in the form of contrary-speech-producing art."

“Contrary-speech-producing-art” refers to the sophistical practice of antilogia,which proceeds by antithesis. We find a cruder definition in The Protagoras: “ a sophist is really a merchant or a pedler of goods by which a soul is nourished” ….we go back then to the idea of the Sophist as a wisdom whore turning cheap rhetorical tricks for rich young men that gives them the patina of virtue without any real knowledge”

This then is a central antagonism which the book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us sets out to discuss. A reader is able to see very clearly, as you almost certainly have, which side of the debate Simon Critchley is on.

The allowance of sophistry and of sophists as being in some way legitimate practitioners; and the antithetical corollary which darkens the names of Plato and Socrates, which is that they are wrong, and are wrong because they are prejudiced (perhaps by the historical repercussions of large political events which involved them during their lifetimes?): these two arguments (by way of antilogia) are those Simon Critchley wants to defend, nay, maintain with some aggression, in his book.

Without getting into a ‘cowboys and Indians’ style of controversy, in which positions are upheld rather in a spirit of opposition, than as a means to a spirit of inquiry, let’s look at the logic and the reasoning.

Simon Critchley warmly embraces Protagoras the Sophist, recorded famously as having said: “Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not." From this instance Simon Critchley draws out an understanding that

“In Plato’s hands this [saying of Protagoras’] leads to what we would now call subjectivism in relation to knowledge and relativism in relation to virtue”.

Further, Simon Critchley claims that:

“...I see the entire problem of relativism as a by-product of philosophy’s obsession with universalism”

and he goes on next to say that:

“Once that universalist obsession is pushed to one side, then the problem of relativism also disappears in a puff of smoke and we might finally be able to engage in a more realistic and plausible account of the life of virtue and its relation to place, and indeed, other places”

The initial thing to be said is that Simon Critchley’s manner of discourse in his book is not in the style of, nor does it appear to bear the accustomed rigour in use of language which is common to a philosophical investigation. Argument proceeds by way of inclusion of a personal animus, and rather ranges than it staying sequential. This may be acceptable; I myself find harder to grasp the finer details of a position when the style is in this mode.

Consequently I am unable to understand fully the sentence of his which I last above copied down from his book. The final tagged on item, ‘and indeed, other places’ has me flummoxed.

The sentence that this item is the close of appears to be saying that ‘virtue is conditional upon the place in which it is [to be] exercised’. I hope I have it right? In his own style of writing ‘horses for courses’ perhaps? What is impeccable behaviour in the building trade is a far cry from that which is approved as the acme in the wine trade? Or perhaps not? Perhaps the action of being in trade being common, one should separate wider and suggest what is good behaviour in the army is not acceptable at dinner parties? The problem poses itself to me whether ‘in the army’ and ‘at diner parties’ have any relation to one another, other than as being fairly usual places of human activities?

In Protagoras’ terms, as it were, is one measure of behaviour of men and women in occupation x, in any way concerned with or does it bear on the behaviour of men and women in occupation y? And is it, or is it not, the same body of men and women doing both x and y occupations? Or does that matter since we are all human?

Another concern: are there any behaviours in common between occupations x and y which are either unacceptable in both, or else acceptable in both? And if so, then how far might one build up this ‘in common’ approved or disapproved behaviour into an abstract generality applicable to how many and what tyres of humankind?

It’s worth noting here that at least English as a language is built in this architecture of sets within sets of common usages and meanings, some more general some less so, in a loose hierarchy of vocabulary supported by grammar. So is [English] language, how we use it, how it has developed from its creation, responsible at least in part for how we conceptualise abstracts right up to universals? Or else does the [English] language merely reflect like a mirror the structures of the material world on which it’s signs are founded to proffer meanings? You may say our minds have a role.; impose or impact some of their [common?] psychic structure onto the forms of [English] language? Or further perhaps the sensations of the material world are those which have formatted that [common] psychic structure of human minds? Who knows?

Nonetheless language is built and operates in this fashion [in English is all I can say with certainty, but maybe in other languages too?]; and so is our language to be deconstructed and restructured so as to accommodate a non-use of universals, and also to become a non-comparative [non-relativist] form of communication? Is this not mere ‘kicking against the pricks’ to attempt; and an impossible task in practice?

That of course was not a logical argument but a reasoned and reasonable one nonetheless. Much of it rests on conjectures raised on my understanding that our language is built in the hierarchical and on the architectural framework I have crudely sketched out.

Turning now to the ‘disappearance in a puff of smoke’ of the curse of relativism just as soon as ‘universalism is pushed aside’ - an amazing mind-picture arises as one reads these descriptions - what can be said? The inference, if there is one, appears to say that the concept of relativism is held in existence only by the concept of universalism, let us be kind, at least psychologically-speaking? Lose universalism and relativism ceases to exist. Probably true; but not in the naive way our author states he expects.

What then remains existent, if in our author’s meaning, universalism is ‘pushed aside’ and thereupon in ‘a puff of smoke’ relativism vanishes?

I recall a lecture at college on the topic of building a new, perhaps better, form of language. One suggestion was that every contingent instance of an object such be allocated its own unique word. The ultimate in contingency – the polar antitheses to use fo universals in language. Of course it ended up like T S Eliot:

“On Margate sands. I can connect nothing with nothing”

The discovery was soon made that to connect one contingent instance with another, both named uniquely each, one needed to add a sign that couples them - ‘these’ instances – so that the word ‘these’ thus created relates one instance to the other.

Is this ‘I can connect nothing with nothing’ the situation arrived at whenever relativism goes up ‘in a puff of smoke’ when universalism is sidelined? Other than this I can’t think what might occur?

If relativism subsides upon the demise of universalism, it seems to me to mean that relativism is a dependency of that universalism? So that universalism is prior logically to relativism as a concept? That without universalism, relativism cannot function? It is a chain of connections which once severed from its anchor point drifts endlessly without aim or purpose or meaning? Useless.

Perhaps the author means that only the problem of relativism disappears? But what is this problem? I’d suggest that the problem of relativism from the author’s point of view is it’s antagonist [and support?] universalism. It does seem to me to be saying ‘If only the enemy would decamp, we would win this battle. If he leaves the field and walks away,the field is ours”.

But the conditions of this battle are different to this – the enemy cannot walk away, his back is to the wall – because beyond universalism what might there be greater? The enemy is also there simply to allow the other side champing for its victory to be present. It is there to be derided, antagonised, wished done and defeated, so that those who calumniate it might live.

There’s a lot, lot more to be said; but this is sufficient for the time being.

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”