If we define philosophy, as in the previous Chronicle, as the attempt to persuade us, despite a lack of apparent evidence, that our own good, or highest interest, coincides with that of the community, and metaphysics as a way of thinking that rejects the simpler syntagmatic forms postulated by the originary hypothesis and equates language with the declarative sentence, then the conjunction of the two phenomena suggests an implicit equivalence. But conjunction is not identity; the emergence of what we can already call philosophy, whose underlying ethical aim is not immediately foregrounded, precedes by two centuries that of metaphysics, by definition aware (albeit not in linguistic terms) of its hypostasis of the sign-world.
For words to be understood as shared ideas rather than ritual gestures, language must be cut off from the ostensive activities of ritual. The reciprocal exchange of signs around the originary central object is not the model for philosophical discourse. In terms of what we may call ostensivity, the degree to which a sign points to the presence that in turn justifies its emission, the idea-of-the-good is at the opposite end of the linguistic spectrum from the originary name-of-God. The latter, to the extent that it retains its original force, needs only to be invoked to suspend private appropriative activity in favor of ritual sacrifice. In contrast, the concept of the Good implies, without being able to “point to” any of them, the existence of possible actions and attitudes consonant with the maintenance of the ontologically necessary but not clearly visible harmony of the individual and the polis. The task of philosophy is to demonstrate that the very existence of the concept is a guarantee that language can be found in which to discuss its application to any given life-situation. What is metaphysical about philosophical language is not simply that it is formulated in declarative sentences, but that it embodies the faith that such sentences can always be produced in order to fine-tune the idea of the “good” in a given context to whatever specificity is necessary, via a series of what, in a context less independent of ethical interaction than appears at first glance, Peirce called interpretants. To put it more provocatively, in contrast with the praxis of the pre-declarative linguistic structures that point to ritual action, philosophy claims that human conflict can always be expressed in language and can always be resolved in language.
The reduction of language to the declarative sentence does not require denial of the sacred as the source of language, but it reduces the sacred to at best an external guarantee of what must be shown to be inherent in language itself. Thus the goddess in Parmenides’ poem reveals to the philosopher the transcendental basis of thought, which ordinary mortals, attached to their worldly pursuits, cannot grasp. In Plato’s ideal republic, knowledge does not emanate from a scene defined by the exchange of representations around a sacred center; on the contrary, in the anti-scene of the cave, we are shown the mechanism that makes scenes of sacred revelation a sham.
The first philosophers appear coincidentally with the emergence of a trading culture, if not a market in the modern sense, in Ionian city-states in the margins of the Egyptian, Persian, and Mesopotamian empires shortly after 600 BC. These polities had become, no doubt for the first time in world history, sufficiently liberated militarily, economically, and ritually from imperial compactness to produce a shared intuition of themselves as social and not simply ritual communities.
The Presocratics’ preference for cosmogony over the concerns of everyday reality should not blind us to their ultimate ethical focus. Rather than seeing these thinkers as precursors of modern scientists, we should seek the unity of their inspiration in the desire to think the world—in the first place, the human world. Their speculations embody a new awareness of the distinction within one’s own mind between what Bacon would call the “idols of the tribe” and the transcendent truths that undergird the human enterprise. These truths are no longer objects of sacred revelation; they must be discovered through thought, yet knowledge of their existence is given a priori. Philosophy arises in response to the sense that ritual can no longer mediate satisfactorily between the everyday thinking of the individual member of society and the transcendent values or Ideas of the community. It is a new form of reflective thought constrained by what Kant would call the “categorical imperative” that it be universal cognitively in order to be universal ethically. The use of propositions to describe the thinkable world in universal terms independently of any revealed source relies on a sharing of representations that is implicit in the representation-world itself rather than imposed by a ritual context. The difficulty of the philosophical enterprise, which must be constantly renewed, stems from the fact that there is no self-evident path from the community’s preexisting sacred culture to the logical demonstration of the compatibility between individual and social values.
As the first thinkers to emerge from the ritual world, the Presocratics have a common disdain for the thinking of the worldly individuals whose activities in the marketplace make them narrow defenders of their own interests; in contrast with the near-contemporary biblical prophets, their hostility to the doxa is couched in cognitive rather than moral terms. The Presocratics maintain an aura of sacrality around the transcendental nature of language rather than seeing it, as would Socrates in democratic Athens, as the guarantee of the wisdom to be gained from the exchanges of the agora.
Nowhere is this aura more explicit than in the poem of Parmenides, arguably the masterpiece of presocratic philosophy, a work that exercised a profound influence on Plato, and perhaps on his master Socrates as well. Not that Parmenides is interested, like the latter, in learning from his fellow citizens. Implicit in his philosophy is that, as a prerequisite of any ethical reconciliation between the individual and the community, we must learn to think transcendentally, distinguishing being from not-being and the Way of Truth from that of Opinion, that is, thought whose object is of the same nature as its transcendental source from thinking that, naively taking the power of representation as given, uses it as an instrument for practical ends. Parmenides expresses in its purest form the presocratic understanding of philosophy as a mode of thinking, distinct from practical thought, that has access to the transcendent source of language, the embodiment of the human community as more than the sum of its members. Alone of the Presocratics, he is explicitly aware that the transcendental nature of thought entails that it applies to ideas, not things. His insistence on a total separation between truth as the thought of Being and the mere opinions of mortals poses the basis for all future philosophizing. The Way of Truth is a way of language that traverses an autonomous conceptual universe of “what-is.” Parmenides’ dictum, “thinking and being are the same” makes the being of what is thought itself transcendental, rejecting the real world as an object-universe to which true thinking might be applied. The notion of model essential to natural science is foreign to Parmenidean thought. His rigor reveals retrospectively that his more cosmologically-oriented predecessors too lacked this notion, since, unlike him, they fail to distinguish rigorously the realm of signs from that of things.
In Parmenides’ poem, the philosopher receives the possibility to think the what-is as a gift from the transcendental universe figured by the goddess; his voyage in the sacred chariot prefigures that of Dante. In ethical terms, the opposition between the unchanging truth of what-is and the confused thoughts of the mortal world opposes the transcendentality of the sacred-communal to the confused experience of the individual. Socrates will make this distinction accessible to the reader-interlocutor as the goal of dialogue, and in modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, it will become an existential model for the reader to reproduce in his own experience.
The goddess’ long list of the privative aspects of “what-is” is a catalogue of the qualities, also essentially privative, that we associate with the transcendent, although our intuitions concerning finitude and infinity have changed. Parmenides’ idea that Being simply is, that it cannot be spoken of in terms of change or growth, birth or death, is a direct characterization of the world of signs as opposed to the material world subject to the ravages of time. In each case, what is denied of Being is what we would deny of the sign: “it never was nor will be, since it is now, all together, one, continuous. . . It exists without beginning or ceasing … not imperfect … not deficient … equally balanced in every direction from the centre.” As Scott Austin points out in his rigorous analysis of the poem (Parmenides: Being, Bounds, and Logic, Yale UP, 1986), Parmenides seeks in being as such the logical relations that Aristotle would later formalize as relations of concepts alone; his insistence on the separation of what-is from what-is-not anticipates the law of the excluded middle. The spherical “perfection” of the what-is is finite, uniform, and symmetrical, so to speak a three-dimensional model of the originary human scene whose symmetry, generated by the equilibrium of its inner tensions, inaugurated the transcendent world of signs. This figure of the whole is one that cannot be imagined or perceived from within; only the goddess can reveal it.
Unlike Parmenides a son of Athenian democracy, Socrates displays an ironic but not contemptuous acceptance of the common human intuition of language as he interrogates his fellow citizens to discover what ideas they all share, performing philosophy’s fundamental task of reconstituting the community of linguistic exchange through individual dialogue rather than communal exchange around a sacred center. Socrates’ purpose in questioning the use of words such as courage, friendship, or other variants of the Good was to make explicit their underlying universal content and thereby to point the way from selfish to shared values. The philosopher reveals, by demonstrating the inconsistency of the interlocutor’s prejudices, that the latter indeed shares in his own mind the universal notion of the common good that informs whatever specific category is under discussion. In claiming to “know nothing,” Socrates is not simply playing dumb; he is demonstrating that to understand what holds human society together, one must not begin with apodictic truth but with the faith that the common words or ideas we share guarantee the possibility of shared membership in the human community. This is evident in the more truly “Socratic” early Platonic dialogues, where the participants arrive only at the conclusion that there is no simple definition of these ideas; the abandonment of the narrowly individual definitions offered by Socrates’ interlocutor—who may go so far as to display (as with Callicles in the Gorgias) open disdain for the common welfare—leaves the field open to the universal value that stands behind them.
By revealing the embodiment of the transcendent in the words of everyday conversation, thereby restoring transcendence to its originary place at the horizon of all language, Socrates would take the first great step—that so horrified and fascinated Nietzsche—of desacralization. It remained to create philosophy as an ongoing enterprise for Plato to establish the Good and its derivatives in a transcendent world of Ideas that serve as mimetic models for the real world. This enshrining of language as the guarantee of a cosmic ethical order is the definitive institution of metaphysics, the removal of the objects of language to a sphere where they can no longer be pointed at like the things that imitate them. Plato would transform what for his master was an ongoing project of reform into a manual of construction for an imaginary Republic that could realize the Good in a way no longer thinkable in Athens.