John Sallis: Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus

Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus Book Cover Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus
John Sallis
Indiana University Press

Reviewed by: Colin C. Smith (University of Colorado--Boulder)

The first installment of the eleven-volume Collected Writings of John Sallis series from Indiana University Press is a new edition of Sallis’s watershed Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus. First published in 1999, the book is now well known among scholars of Plato, phenomenology, and the history of philosophy broadly. In it, Sallis offers a reading of Plato’s influential Timaeus dialogue centering around the chōra, that elusive ‘third kind’ (triton genos) that receptively mediates between being and becoming, is apprehendable only by a kind of ‘bastard reasoning,’ and always appears without ever showing itself.  The Greek word ‘chōra’ has a broad semantic range that entails notions of place and political space (compare ‘territory,’) but Sallis finds in its role in this dialogue a new and far-reaching metaphysical principle or anti-principle, a kind of ‘being beyond being’ that marks the limit of metaphysics. More than a mere Plato commentary, Sallis’s book is thus an attempt to recover lost insights into the history of metaphysics and accounts of the limits of human rationality.

What follows in this review is a discussion of Sallis’s reading and its value both to Plato studies and phenomenology. Those interested specifically in details surrounding this new volume—which, aside from its outer packaging and minor front matter, is strictly a reprinting and not an expanded edition—should skip ahead to the final paragraph of the review.

Beginning especially with the landmark Being and Logos in 1975, Sallis’s work has offered new directions for Plato research. Up until this time, there were two main interpretations of Plato developing within Anglo-American scholarship. The first was a Plato taken to be philosophically juvenile and fundamentally mistaken by the analytic philosophers. Although these readers demonstrated that then-recent developments in analytic philosophy could serve as profoundly valuable resources for unpacking the ancient texts, the understanding that emerged from this analysis was largely dismissive of the philosophical viability of Plato’s thinking. Perhaps best represented by the critical interpretations of Gregory Vlastos beginning in the 1940s, these commentators understood Plato’s dialogues to express nascent ethical and metaphysical arguments characterized by thickets of confusion that must be untangled and corrected by enlightened modern commentators.

The second was the conservative esotericist Plato of the Straussians. According to those who developed this interpretation, Plato had littered his dialogues with clues leading to a political agenda that must be untangled in a different sense, that is, through interpretive engagement with that lying just below the surface of the text in dramatic details, mythical allusions, and underdeveloped philosophical threads that point to a kind of political critique relevant both to ancient Athens and us today. In short, the analytic Plato required correction while the Straussian Plato was to correct us.

By contrast, Sallis’s Plato is a distinctly ancient Greek anticipation of the philosophical interests of continental philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, and Gadamer. For Sallis, reading Plato entails tracing a self-showing (phainesthai) of the truth (alētheia) as it makes itself manifest through the movement of the text. Similarly to the Straussians, Sallis’s key interpretative method for developing this conception of Plato is slow and careful reading, attending to the dramatic and implicit content of the dialogues as closely as the more explicitly “philosophical” stretches.  Sallis furthermore challenges and rejects many of the familiar and reigning 20th century interpretations of Plato, including that Plato wrote his dialogues in a “developmental” order that could be discovered by us or that Plato held “doctrines” of things like recollection that are spoken in the dialogues by the “mouthpiece” Socrates in some kind of straightforward manner. Indeed, one of Sallis’s aims in Chorology is to undermine the charge of simple metaphysical dualism through which readers have long understood Plato and his so-called and oft-misunderstood “doctrine of forms” by pointing to the chōra as a third kind that dissolves the very notion of the binary.

This reading served as a paradigm changer for continentally oriented philosophers interested in Plato, as the dialogues thus understood are full of philosophical riches discoverable by close and careful reading that, far from being thickets of confusion, in fact have much to offer us in our own time. But unlike him of the Straussians, Sallis’s Plato offers a programmatic for grasping the nature of the things themselves through noetic analysis that is necessarily bound up with a critique of the limits of human inquiry in general.   In short, on Sallis’s view, Plato teaches us that things show themselves to us through their look, but that this look is always partial, pointing beyond itself to that which continues to lie hidden.

Sallis’s interpretation of Plato might arguably find its fullest realization here in his monograph on Plato’s Timaeus, the riches of which demonstrate the value of this kind of orientation. In the Timaeus, we find Socrates regrouping with the old Critias, accomplished general Hermocrates, and wise Timaeus on a day following a discussion of a well-ordered polis that seems strikingly similar to that of the Republic. After short discourses on yesterday’s findings by Socrates (Tim. 17a-19b) and a mythical archaic city from Critias (Tim. 20c-27d), the bulk of the dialogue (Tim. 27d-92c) comprises Timaeus’ extended discussion of the origin and composition of the cosmos. The influence of the Timaeus in the history of philosophy is difficult to overstate, given this dialogue’s import in antiquity and the middle ages, impact on Enlightenment-era mathematics and physics, and profound influence on subsequent Platonisms, Christianity, German Idealism, and the metaphysical tradition broadly. (Sallis offers a summary of this influence at pg. 2-3, including fn. 2, and a critical engagement with it throughout the concluding Chapter 5.) The central notion of the chōra has, furthermore, been the site of serious interest from continental philosophers like Heidegger, Derrida, and Kristeva. Sallis’s reading of the dialogue thus represents an intersection of important themes taken from throughout the history of Western philosophy.

Sallis finds the chōra at the conceptual center of the dialogue, and his discussion of the chōra sits at the center of Chorology in its third of five chapters, which are augmented by a prologue, brief Greek lexicon, and indexHe begins in the prologue with a consideration of the Timaeus’ history of transmission and some reflections on interpretive principles.  In fact, the notions of beginning and its difficulties will be among several that Sallis traces in the book, a group that also includes the themes of the city, the relationship between production and procreation, the tensions between nous (meaning ‘intelligence,’ ‘understanding,’ and ‘mind’ in the sense of ‘knowing’) and necessity, and the mathematical triad.

Chapter 1, ‘Remembrance of the City,’ thus appropriately is not the beginning, which indicates the sense in which a ‘beginning’ is, for Sallis, always both a continuation and a rupture.  Using this as an interpretive principle, Sallis will find the problem of beginning thematized throughout his reading of the Timaeus.  He argues that the text is inscribed and reinscribed with new beginnings, each drawing out while also decisively cutting away from what came previously.  In the case of the Timaeus’ beginning, Sallis focuses on Socrates’ opening count, “One, two, three…” (Tim. 17a), as the first of many appearances of the triad that will reappear throughout. Among other reasons, the triad is significant here as an enactment of tripartite structure that will characterize many stretches of the text, such as the three speeches (i.e., those of Socrates, Critias, and Timaeus), the three major phases of Timaeus’ speech (those tracing nous [Tim. 29d-47e], necessity [Tim. 47e-69a], and their blend [Tim. 69a-92c]), and the very theme of blending itself at play in several threefold distinctions, e.g., that among being, becoming, and the mix of these in which the chōra will first be addressed explicitly.

Later in Chapter 1, Sallis considers Socrates’ remembrance at the Timaeus’ outset of the ‘eidetic city’ that closely but not entirely resembles the well-known Kallipolis of the Republic (Tim. 17a-19b, pgs. 12-35). Sallis cannot resolve the controversy surrounding the relationship between Socrates’ cities-in-speech (logos) in the Republic and Timaeus (though pgs. 15-19 and 21-30 contain some provocative suggestions), but nevertheless uses the occasion to reflect on Socrates’ act of production of speech to reflect on the difficult but crucial relationships among central concepts like artistry (technē), production (poiēsis), and nature (phusis).  Through the course of the text, Sallis will ultimately argue that the Timaeus occasions a shift in our understanding of nature from the model of production to that of procreation.  The chapter also includes the first of many discussions of the significance of the chōra, with reflections on its difficult semantic range that always, according to Sallis’s insistence here, indicates that which is “posed at the margin of what can be fabricated, marking the limit of controlled production” (pg. 19; see also fn. 16 for development of the point).  The chapter also includes a thorough consideration of the dialogue’s dramatic elements and characters, as well as a discussion of Critias’ story of the archaic city (Tim. 20c-27d, pgs. 36-45), that sets the stage for Timaeus’ extended discourse.

In Chapter Two, Sallis turns his attention to Timaeus’ speech concerning the ‘Production of the Cosmos’ (Tim. 27d-47e) from which the chapter receives its name.  Timaeus’ speech begins with a prelude (Tim. 27d-29d, covered in pgs. 46-56), and Sallis discusses key notions found therein such as ‘that which always is’ (ti to on aei, pg. 47), the tension between nous and necessity (anankēs, esp. pg. 50), the well-known crafter (demiourgos) of the cosmos that Timaeus identifies throughout in scant detail (pg. 50), and the eidos typically understood to relate to Plato’s theory of forms (which Sallis addresses critically at pgs. 48-49 and 50-51).  Commentators on the Timaeus must make sense of Timaeus’ repeated assertions that his account is merely a “likely story” (eikōs muthos or eikōs logos, Tim. 29b ff.), and while Sallis does not thematize the point as much as some, he discusses it with reference to the relationships between being, becoming, truth, and belief (pg. 54-56).

This leads, finally, to the beginning of Timaeus’ discourse (Tim. 29d ff.), and Sallis notes that Timaeus begins with the goodness of the crafter before reflecting on the important notion of nous, which guides Timaeus in his first account.  Timaeus describes the cosmos with the image of a living being, made wisely with an eye to the paradigm of that being that always is and the ‘fairest’ of ‘mediating bonds’ (pgs. 60-61) and precise mathematical ratios (which Sallis unpacks through several geometric diagrams: pgs. 61, 71-72).  Sallis offers extended discussion of the controversy surrounding the proper interpretation of the passage concerning the production of soul (esp. Tim. 34b-37c), an ambiguous stretch of text yielding competing interpretations from early Academic philosophers to Nietzsche and 20th century commentators (pgs. 65-70).  Among the competing interpretations, in each instance what is at issue is an account of blending, i.e., of the mediation of two opposites by a third acting as a principle of mixture, as in (taking the example of the third interpretation) the blending of (1) being and (2) the generated that results in (3) their mixture.  Sallis takes these to be decisive in the development of the text as a ‘chorology,’ indicating as they do a kind of “double bind,” for “to preserve the distinction between selfsame being and the generated, there must be duplication of being; and yet, duplication of being has the effect of violating the very sense of selfsame being, its determination as such, thus eroding the very distinction that was preserved;” this calls for a ‘third’ outside of being and the generated that comes from “outside the twofold in a manner that disrupts it abysmally” (pg. 70).  In addition to this consideration of the preparation for the chōra, the chapter also includes discussion of key concepts in this stretch of the Timaeus like time (Tim. 37c-39e, pgs. 73 and 77-85, with Sallis here heavily engaging with the work of Rémi Brague), and the genealogy of gods and mortals leading to an account of causes and the embodied (Tim. 39e-47e, pg. 85-90).

In Chapter 3, Sallis turns attention to the central and titular notion of ‘The Chōra.’ The chōra arises at the point in which Timaeus breaks his discourse off from the works of nous and begins to address those of necessity (Tim. 47e ff.)  Sallis therefore understands the chōra with close reference to necessity in the senses both of ‘wandering’ and ‘errancy’ that are introduced precisely when Timaeus must account for the material conditions of the cosmos (pgs. 91-98).  Sallis discusses at length problems with the traditional understanding of the chōra and the textual ambiguities of these passages (pgs. 98-104).  He ties in these problems and ambiguities closely to Timaeus’ identification of the ‘difficulty’ and ‘danger’ (chalepon) of bringing this third kind to discourse, and the numerous (and occasionally contradictory) names and images that Timaeus uses to attempt to capture this fugitive third kind.  These include the gold, the matrix, the wax, and the perfume liquid that receive shape or scent while all the while remaining self-same and never fully taking on the received form (Tim. 48e-53b, pgs. 107-109).  These images have led readers beginning with Aristotle, and falsely on Sallis’s view, to associate the chōra with matter (hulē; see Chapter 5 discussion below).  Sallis further considers the shift in emphasis from production to procreation in the text when Timaeus begins to describe the third kind with reference to nature (phusis) and the “in-which” (en hō[i]) and “from-which” (to hothen) that which is generated is begotten (Tim. 49a-50b, pg. 109).  This set of images has led readers, again falsely on Sallis’s view, to associate the chōra with place (topos, also addressed in the Chapter 5 discussion below).  Instead of understandings rooted in matter or place, we should on Sallis’s reading understand the third kind with closer reference to pure receptivity that, so far as we can think of it at all, possesses a double character: it entails both the nurturing mother (mētēr, 50d and 51a) and that which always appears but never as itself and flees precisely as nous approaches it (pgs. 109-113).  This dual character of nurturer and fugitive is central in Sallis’s account and the perplexity of the chōra to which Sallis draws attention.

These considerations, finally, allow Sallis to begin the chorology (pgs. 113-124).  In the last section of the third chapter, he addresses Timaeus’ explicit discussion of the chōra directly.  This “kind beyond kind,” or “being beyond being” (pg. 113), derives its final and best-known name from this difficult-to-translate word, chōra (used explicitly at 52b1 and 52d3). He uses this occasion again to address its difficulty with regard to its uses elsewhere in Plato, and especially the Laws, Sophist, and Republic (pgs. 113-118).  Sallis summarizes that

The chōra is said to be everlasting, perpetual, always (aei), not admitting destruction, that is, ruin, corruption, passing away (phthora).  This corresponds to its being rigorously distinguished from the generated: it is that in which that which is generated comes to be and from which that which is destroyed passes away, departs.  It is presupposed by all generation and destruction and thus is not itself subject to generation and destruction” (pg. 119).

While Timaeus has given us several images (e.g., gold) through which the chōra can be partially disclosed, Sallis argues that we must now imagine the chōra as the very grounds through which images are imaged, or that which receives the images and, through itself, allows the images to show themselves.  The strangeness and wonder that such showing occasions is, for Sallis, the central issue of the dialogue.

In Chapter 4, ‘Traces of the Chōra,’ Sallis focuses mainly on the theme of the third kind and the mathematical triad as it reappears throughout the remainder of the dialogue (Tim. 52d-92c).  These include some reflections on several perplexing aspects of Timaeus’ account, including the triangle as the most basic unit of materiality (Tim. 53b ff.) and the relationship of the four material elements of earth, fire, air, and water (Tim. 55d ff., pgs. 128-130).  While Sallis does not address in much detail the lengthy third discourse on the blended with which the dialogue concludes (Tim. 69a-92c), he does challenge Aristotle’s complaint that Timaeus loses sight of the chōra (On Generation and Corruption 329a; pg. 131) by tracing some senses in which it remains at play in the discourse (pgs. 132-136).  Sallis furthermore offers some reflections on Timaeus’ third account with an eye to the roles of comedy, sex, and gender that mark this stretch of the dialogue as a kind of “downward discourse” (pgs. 136-138).  Chapter 4 concludes with Sallis’s consideration of the political frame of the dialogue that had begun with an account of the well-ordered city through comparative discussions of Republic Book 2 (pgs. 138-143) and the fragmentary Critias dialogue that follows the Timaeus dramatically (pgs. 143-145).

Finally, in Chapter 5 Sallis considers the ‘Reinscriptions’ of the dialogue in some of its many significant contexts in the subsequent history of philosophy.  Here he is most interested in tracing the forgetting of what he takes to be the originary sense of the chōra and its displacement through understandings rooted in notions of matter (hulē) and space (topos).  He discusses the view in antiquity that Plato had forged the dialogue (pg. 147) and the actual forgery, On the Nature of the Cosmos and the Soul, falsely attributed to a Timaeus of Locri and taken to be genuine by many Neoplatonists though almost surely written several centuries after Plato’s death (pgs. 148-149).  Sallis argues that this true forgery is one of many subsequent interpretations of the chōra that misses Plato’s most profound insights, and critically addresses the history of misunderstanding the chōra by overcommitting it to notions related to matter and space through Plutarch, Plotinus, and Aristotle (pgs. 150-154), footnoting related points concerning the interpretations of Irigaray (pg. 151 fn. 9) and Heidegger (pg. 154 fn. 12) along the way.  After a brief discussion of Kant (pgs. 154-155), the remainder of the chapter (pgs. 155-167) comprises an extended consideration of Schelling’s reception of the Timaeus and particularly the chōra.  Sallis finds in Schelling the tracing of his own understanding of the chōra, albeit one that begins to be conflated with the notion of matter as Schelling’s thinking develops.  Sallis addresses the role of the chōra in Schelling’s transcendental schematism, its appearance in Schelling’s notebooks, and the shifting understanding of it between Schelling’s own Timaeus commentary (c. 1794) and Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie (1801).  Sallis identifies a tension that develops in Schelling’s understanding of the chōra between the mere notion of matter and an “irrational principle that resists the understanding, or unity and order” (pg. 164).  Sallis interprets this both as a reawakening of tension between nous and necessity developed in the Timaeus and that which points beyond this distinction to what underlies it and remains hidden.

The depth and power of Sallis’s interpretation of the Timaeus clearly indicate the value of this approach to reading Plato.  I do stop short of suggesting that this ‘third kind’ of Plato reading has entirely mediated between the analytics and the Straussians in precisely the manner in which the chōra mediates between being and becoming.  (To be sure, Sallis certainly never suggests that this is the goal, though his pluralistic bibliography might point in this direction.)  If nothing else, it surely indicates an important set of philosophical issues that lies buried beneath the now-traditional divide in 20th century Plato scholarship and philosophy more broadly.

Furthermore, in the time since Sallis’s work began, readings like this ‘third kind’ have helped to blur the distinction altogether.  No longer can commentators from one tradition ignore the others, and those (for example) working on Plato from within the analytic tradition must consider Sallis’s contributions in Chorology to several 20th century analytic discussions.  This is perhaps most notable in his contributions to the ‘this’-‘such’ interpretive debate concerning Tim. 49c7-50a4 (pgs. 101-108), a storied debate among Timaeus commentators since the 1950s to which Sallis has some valuable insights on offer.

And of course, those looking for contemporary continental insights in an ancient register will be served well by this encounter with the chōra. Readers will recognize a set of Derridean insights underlying Sallis’s reading of Platonic metaphysics, and indeed ones that exceed the explicit connections that Derrida himself recognized in his own discussion of the chōra. (Sallis engages directly with Derrida, in terms both related and unrelated to Derrida’s own chorology, in several footnotes: pgs. 99 fn. 8, 111 fns. 21 and 22, and 113-114 fn. 23.)  And while Sallis counts Heidegger among those who have misunderstood the meaning of chōra in their own work (see pg. 154 fn. 12), he finds in Plato many anticipations of Heideggerian themes, such as the sense of truth as a kind of unconcealment of that which lies hidden that Heidegger develops at length.

Perhaps most of all, Chorology is of note to those interested in the account of the ‘end of metaphysics’ developed in 20th century continental philosophy.  The chōra, perhaps ultimately, marks the limit of the knowing of being in Sallis’s interpretation.  Sallis speaks to this directly as follows:

If one were to take metaphysics to be constituted precisely by the governance of the twofold, then the chorology could be said to bring both the founding of metaphysics and its displacement, both at once. Originating metaphysics would have been exposing it to the abyss, to the abysmal chōra, which is both origin and abyss, both at the same time. Then one could say—with the requisite reservations—that the beginning of metaphysics will have been already the end of metaphysics (pg. 123).

In other words, while many have taken Plato to be an originator of metaphysical dualism through simplistic readings of the so-called “doctrine of forms,” Sallis aims to show that Plato ends the metaphysical project already at its inception by pointing to the chōra, that ‘being beyond being’ that indicates the limit of nous, here in the Timaeus.  The chōra then replaces the traditional notions of dogmatic metaphysical rationalism with a principle of radical errancy, one possessing the double-character of mother and fugitive, and one in force “as hindering, diverting, leading astray the work of nous, as installing indeterminacy into what nous would otherwise render determinate” (pg. 132).

Sallis’s writing throughout Chorology is clear, crisp, and clean.  The book truly blurs the line between primary and secondary source, possessing value both as a Timaeus commentary and as an original piece of philosophy.  On rare occasion, the writing supporting Sallis’s creative and bold reading enters into the realm of self-indulgence.  For example, on 93: “Thus, another beginning is to be made, an other beginning, a different beginning, different from the beginning with which Timaeus began his first discourse.”  Aside from issues surrounding these occasional instances of excess, Sallis’ writing is a model of lucidity, and this text demonstrates that good philosophy can be as smooth and satisfying as good literature.  I won’t hazard to address the question of whether Sallis ultimately gets Plato right on my own view.  In any case, I do insist that readers of Plato from all philosophical traditions should learn from Sallis’s interpretation and, if they see fit, respond to, rather than ignore, its many provocations.

This new edition of Chorology is packaged nicely, designed as it is to sit on the shelf beside future editions of The Collected Writings of John Sallis series. The next generation of readers will be served well by this printing.  It is important to note, however, that aside from the outer packaging and minor front matter, this new printing contains no additions and no textual alterations to previous volumes.  The contents and pagination are, so far as I tracked through a comparative analysis, exactly the same as the previous edition.  This is hardly a complaint, as I found the text of both editions to be free of typos entirely; but it nevertheless bears noting in case any readers were, like me, hoping that this volume would offer some fresh insights from Sallis into the Timaeus.

Jörg Kreienbrock: Sich im Weltall orientieren: Philosophieren im Kosmos 1950-1970, Turia + Kant Verlag, 2020

Sich im Weltall orientieren: Philosophieren im Kosmos 1950-1970 Book Cover Sich im Weltall orientieren: Philosophieren im Kosmos 1950-1970
IFK lectures & translations
Jörg Kreienbrock. Hg. von Thomas Macho
Turia + Kant Verlag
Paperback 20.00 €

John Sallis: Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus, Indiana University Press, 2020

Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus Book Cover Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus
John Sallis
Indiana University Press
Hardback $60.00