“I believe that if you look at the writings expressly directed against Wagner, and especially The Case of Wagner, you could readily extrapolate what he [Nietzsche] would have said against Heidegger. And I think if you could actually perform this feat of imagination that I am proposing to you, and envisage such a Nietzschean critique of Heidegger, then for penetrating insight it would surpass anything which I can offer you with my modest powers in these lectures.” (104)
These intriguing remarks, set forth by Theodor W. Adorno in his series of lectures delivered in Frankfurt during the winter semester of 1960/61, can be regarded as the touchstone of Ontology and Dialectics. This lecture course of 1960/61 – and the three Vorlesungen delivered at the Collège de France in March 1961 – first published in 2002 under the title Ontologie und Dialektik, excels in presenting a subtle analogy between Nietzsche’s positions concerning Richard Wagner’s music as a cultural expression of décadence and his remarks on Heidegger’s fundamental ontology as a degenerate movement or tendency against Aufklärung. As presented in Der Fall Wagner (1881), the Nietzschean formulation of Wagner’s music as a “disease” affecting German culture is evoked in order to analyse the philosophical observations on Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno in Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno’s incisive observations, fundamental ontology, as defined by Heidegger, manifests a specifically German posture – considered by Adorno as profoundly deplorable – against Enlightenment ideology. As Adorno asserts, fundamental ontology is a philosophical movement which can be characterized as an abominably vile counter-Enlightenment. The Nietzschean analysis regarding the infamous power of seduction involving Wagner’s music, from Adorno’s point of view, is a “Heideggerian disease” because it profoundly affects the German academic world, which represents a new philosophical movement that is intensely respected and greatly venerated. The bizarreness of this Heideggerian spell, or disease, under which the German intelligentsia seemed to succumb, is often considered by Adorno:
“[…] for in Germany there are now hardly any responsible academic positions or professorial chairs in philosophy that do not feel obliged at least to show that they are somehow worthy of what has been achieved by Heidegger and Jaspers. And even those thinkers who for political and other reasons are extremely critical of both philosophers, but especially of Heidegger, still appear to be captivated – in a way I find really hard to understand since I have never experienced this spell myself – by this kind of thinking and seem unable to sever the umbilical cord entirely in this regard.” (100-101)
According to Adorno, fundamental ontology, Heidegger’s philosophical project, can be regarded as a philosophical tendency which owes its effect and possesses its forces through opposition to idealism in general. It is an anti-subjectivism; in fact, the philosophical question concerning fundamental ontology may be stated in a variety of ways. Adorno puts it thus: fundamental ontology is essentially an anti-subjectivist. Fundamental ontology stands in contrast to a philosophy which remains essentially devoted to a preliminary question, namely the question of how knowledge is possible at all. The coarse obliteration of the philosophical reflection upon the subjective mediation of knowledge and the epistemological relevance of the conceptual thought represents the chief theoretical posture of Heidegger’s ontology as conceived by Adorno.
Fundamental ontology is unequivocally the chief subject matter of Ontology and Dialectics by Theodor W. Adorno. The relevance of such a book – essentially a compilation of 23 Vorlesungen delivered in Frankfurt in 1960/61 and in Paris, at the Collège de France, in March 1961 (we refer to the last three lectures included in the book) – can be described in accordance with the consideration that the positions expressed in Ontology and Dialectics represent as an initial discussion of the Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno. It should be observed that Ontology and Dialectics presents a philosophical anticipation of the incisively penetrating analysis of the Heideggerian ontology which, ultimately, forms the core of The Jargon of Authenticity, published in 1964. According to the “Editor’s Foreword” included in this edition, written by Rolf Tiedemann, the book Ontology and Dialectics, which expresses the philosophical antipathy to the ontological movement emanating from the Black Forest, evokes a project which Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht had already begun to pursue around 1930, not long after the publication of Being and Time. The project they sought to pursue was that of “demolishing Heidegger” [den Heidegger zu zertrümmern]. The intention of “demolishing Heidegger” pervades Adorno’s work and thought, especially after his return from exile to Germany. As Rolf Tiedemann elucidates, within the German philosophical academic circle developed after the end of the Third Reich, during the political and social process of re-establishing democracy in Germany, Adorno was widely regarded as the pre-eminent intellectual opponent to Heidegger – and Adorno accepted this incumbency. To lay emphasis on the fact that Adorno’s Complete Writings comprise almost 600 references to the name of Heidegger (exceeded in number only by those to Walter Benjamin) is not superfluous. Clearly then, “demolishing Heidegger” was an Adornian philosophical project. Nevertheless, the Adornian critique of Heidegger is not an aggressive refutation of the fundamental ontology that is without merit, nor is it intended to chiefly condemn the political positions adopted by Heidegger. The Adornian objections to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology that are most important are those which excel in revealing the dangerous political and social implications of a philosophical tendency – developed in accordance with the refusal of the cognitive sophistication of philosophy – that, in its instauration of odd cults and bizarre interests, promoted the pseudo-ideal of pre-Socratic irrationalism.
The title of the book, Ontology and Dialectics, alludes to Adorno’ intention of presenting a philosophical contrast between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and Adorno’s own conception of dialectical thought as negative dialectics. This intention is subtly illustrated in a story involving Gustav Mahler and his literary taste.
“It is well known that Gustav Mahler was passionately interested in Dostoyevsky, who stood for something quite different in the years around 1890 than he does of Moeller van den Bruck. On one occasion, during an excursion with Schoenberg and his pupils, Mahler is said to have advised them to spend less time studying counterpoint and more time reading Dostoyevsky. And Webern is supposed to have responded with heroic timidity: ‘Pardon, Herr Direktor, but we have Strindberg’.” (1)
As Adorno explains, this story is probably apocryphal; nevertheless, this episode involving Gustav Mahler’s literary taste is mentioned by Adorno as a witty elucidation of the relationship between the new fundamental ontology of Heidegger (or, we might say, Dostoyevsky’s new literature) and the tradition of the German dialectic thought (or, we might say, Strindberg’s thought). However, the emphasis upon the philosophical opposition between the new fundamental ontology and the traditional dialectic thought does not form the heart of Ontology and Dialectics. It is pertinent to observe that this series of lectures, published under the title Ontology and Dialectics, precedes the three lecture courses which form the book Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s masterpiece, published in 1966. The thorough theoretical presentation of such a philosophical project – the delineation of the philosophical singularity and distinctiveness of the negative dialectic thought – is indeed the chief subject matter and the central line of thought developed by Adorno in Negative Dialectics, written between 1964 and 1966. It is worth noting that Ontology and Dialectics, which precedes Negative Dialectics, is especially devoted to the philosophical condemnation of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.
At any rate, as Adorno conceives it, the concept of Being, in Heideggerian terms, is not actually a concept at all. In fact, according to Adorno’s reading of Heidegger’s ontology, the concept of Being is not supposed to be the highest abstraction, the supra-concept reached by omitting all particular individuation, all particular determination. In approaching such a philosophical account of Being, Adorno intends to lay emphasis upon the fact that the Heideggerian ontological positions should be sharply distinguished from other kinds of ontology – such as the concept of ontology introduced by Husserl, the ontological project developed by Nicolai Hartmann, or the ontological positions advanced by the neo-scholastic tradition. The relentless obliteration of the conceptual dimension of Being defines the decided difference between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and the traditional ontologies. As Adorno clearly explains, Being, in Heideggerian terms, is supposed to be what is utterly prior and primary, that which is highest and most constitutive. The question regarding Being – over against the highest regions, the highest and most universal concepts of all possible classes of beings – is what is decisive here, precisely because it involves the problem of the possibility of ontology as such, namely whether such a pure doctrine of being can be thought as such independently of the doctrine regarding the order of beings. From Heidegger’s point of view, those doctrines devoted to the ontological delineation of the order of beings – those doctrines which totally disregard the benedictory ontological difference between Being and beings, those ontologies of the ontic developed in accordance to systems of blind conceptual categories, fundamental principles and axioms – it is these doctrines imply an ontological questioning in the naïve sense. They do not represent, as Heidegger insists, the essential task of ontology understood in the radical sense – and this is precisely what fundamental ontology is.
The cult of the concept of absolute originality, the cult of the Firstness, is one of the philosophical oddities bound up with the persistent assertion of such an ontological questioning in the radical sense, as advanced by Heidegger. According to fundamental ontology and, especially, according to its chief claim concerning the ontological difference between Being and beings, any approach which does not involve the priority of Being with respect to beings is already rejected ab ovo and defamed as inferior, as a failure, as a betrayal of the real question. As Adorno asserts: “we are constantly presented with the same invocation, variation or repetition of this premise, namely the priority of Being with respect to beings” (22). Consequently, in repudiating the conceptual sophistication of the traditional philosophical thought (and of the philosophical ontologies), Heideggerian ontology fails to consider that the concept of Being itself is not the original question which fundamental ontology would have us believe. As Adorno attempts to explain – this is, unfortunately a very laconic explanation – the concept of Being deserves to be regarded philosophically as a concept of reflection in the sense of those concepts subjected to criticism by Kant in his “Amphiboly of the Concepts of Reflection” when they are hypostasized – in other words, when they are treated as an expression of true beings as such. On this view of things, the concept of Being is not something very ancient but something rather late and, correlatively, developed in accordance with the conceptual sophistication of critical philosophical thought. It should be observed that, from Adorno’s point of view, the concept of Being is a result, a historical result, attained only through a process, which, in turn, can be characterized as a conceptual and critical philosophical process. The concept of Being, in Adornian terms, is, in fact, understood philosophically as a concept – the highest abstraction, understood in accordance with the development of the conceptual sophistication of philosophical thought. It is not properly a Kantian perspective. This concept of Being as the highest abstraction is already present in Plato and in Aristotle, as Adorno claims, despite the brevity and the laconism of his elucidations.
It is certainly worth noting that Adorno’s reading of Heidegger excels in presenting a collection of problems, ambiguities and contradictions which profoundly involves fundamental ontology. According to Adorno, Heidegger’s fundamental ontology comprises a double refusal: in effect, fundamental ontology is a philosophical tendency developed in accordance with its emphasis upon the rejection of both conceptuality – it is pertinent to mention the delineation of the concept of Being as a non-concept – and reality – and it is convenient to consider the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings. Fundamental ontology can be described, as Adorno suggests, by its attempt to escape both from mere conceptuality and from any reality simply or immediately accepted as such. This double approach, this double front against a philosophy of concepts and against a philosophy of reality, is precisely what characterises the efforts of fundamental ontology. However, as Adorno elucidates, Heidegger incessantly fails to attain these philosophical intentions.
The Heideggerian cult of language, or the fascination with language, has tremendous significance for Heideggerian ontology. Language as a mediation of Being, or language as the possibility of aletheia and the unveiling of Being, is not philosophically compatible with a coarse rejection of conceptual thought. As Adorno proposes, Heidegger continuously disregards the fact that the concept of Being, in terms of its origin and its legitimacy, is directly bound up with the categorial structure of language. Heidegger’s ontology perniciously explores such a quid pro quo involving Being as a concept – Being as an element of language, entity, and even Being as a non-concept – which cannot be expressed through mere meanings insofar as it is not exhausted by conceptual terms nor by subjectively instituted concepts, and is cut off from conceptual thought. Nevertheless, such a remarkable ambiguity between Being as concept and Being as a what-is-beyond-concept is not acknowledged by fundamental ontology as a deficiency at all, as Adorno explains. On the contrary, it is chalked up as a positive and counted as credit. Why? The enigma, or the touchstone, underlying Heidegger’s pernicious ambiguity is taken as a venerable philosophical position that proceeds from a peculiar account of language that is incessantly proposed by Heidegger: the idea that language as a true, pure and absolute entity, or the idea of language as the domain of the unveiling of Being, is that of an immediate medium, organon or ‘complexus’ of truth that is deprived of any conceptual elements or aspects – and, as Adorno elucidates, also deprived of subjectivity and historicity. Hence, the concept of Being – in accordance with such a conception of language – deserves to be inexorably regarded as an entity beyond mere conceptuality.
In presenting this Heideggerian ambiguity, Adorno reflects more closely upon fundamental ontology as an anti-subjectivism by apparently overcoming subjectivism and the spurious claim that philosophy has somehow escaped its imprisonment within subjectivity (and within conceptual and categorial thought) through this new ontological project. This is intimately bound up with the Heideggerian quid pro quo, acknowledged and presented by fundamental ontology as an element of apparently higher dignity, as “one of the strongest seductions of this philosophy” (46), which arises from “that wavering, negative and inarticulate character of this talk of being itself” (46). Regarding the Heideggerian refusal of reality and the abandonment of the empirical dimension – a claim which involves and justifies the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings and, correctively, the hypostatization of the word ‘Being’ (by supressing the dialectic of Being and beings) – Adorno draws attention to a conspicuously Heideggerian philosophical posture: the act of ontologizing the ontic; the repeated ontologising of ontic beings, namely, the human being itself. The anti-subjectivism which involves fundamental ontology is, in effect, the central axis treated by Adorno – that of the ontological conception regarding the human being as Dasein, which permits an elimination of the subjective character, now turned into a determination of Being. As Adorno explains, the ontological interest is profoundly incompatible with the subjective reflection itself. The subjective dimensions of reflection, spontaneity, consciousness and self-consciousness, and, by extension, the subjective dimensions of critical, conceptual and discursive thought, are all totally avoided and obliterated in order to sustain an ontological conception of Dasein as a ‘mode of being’ or, in a developed sense, a “shepherd of being”, where the latter serves as a primitive agrarian metaphor set forth by Heidegger in Letter on Humanism, and serves as an amusing object of Adorno’s attention.
According to Adorno, Heidegger sets out to extirpate subjectivity by transforming it into the scene or arena of ontology. In effect, this ontological kind of thinking, for which Being appears or manifests itself in Dasein, naturally evokes something related to subjectivity; but, at the same time, it loses what was so decisive for this subjective form of thought – in other words, it loses that moment of subjectivity that appears in Kantian philosophy under the name of ‘spontaneity’ and in Hegelian philosophy, under the name of ‘labour’. In fundamental ontology – and this is, as Adorno explains, the phenomenological legacy of the doctrine which Husserl had already developed, namely the idea of the pure intuiting of the thing in question – subjectivity is actually introduced as a kind of pure receptivity; subjectivity becomes that to which Being manifests itself, yet without that moment of activity, or that ‘function’, as Kant also occasionally puts it, properly being acknowledged. Consequently, a philosophical relevant determination of the Heideggerian project consists in “taking up that moment of reflection and subjectivity which is directly opposed to the ontological approach and integrate it into his original project by turning it into a mode of objectivity, turning ‘existence’ into Seinsweise, or ‘mode of being’” (82). It is the absolute precedence of Being over beings, the total precedence of Being over human existence, that concerns us here. This structure – that a particular being is itself ontological – is the defining and distinctive touchstone of the doctrine of Dasein, and it implicitly expresses Heidegger’s intention of avoiding the conflation of his own analysis of Being with the ‘philosophy of existence’ associated with Kierkegaard or Jaspers. Ultimately, as Adorno suggests, this ontologizing of the ontic, this reduction of the ontic being to Being, promotes, in an unexpected and ineluctable way, the superfluity and the dissipation of the celebrated ontological difference, which gives rise to the absolute hypostatization of Being. Indeed, Adorno’s acute reading of the Heideggerian analysis of Dasein deserves an extended treatment, for it excels in considering the anti-subjectivism manifested in fundamental ontology. Nevertheless, we venture to say that Adorno disregards the philosophical relevance of the Heideggerian notion of Befindlichkeit as a singular determination of human being, which cannot be reduced to any subjective or discursive determination developed by critical thought.
The Adornian emphasis upon the anti-subjectivist turn introduced by Heidegger’s fundamental ontology represents a crucial element of Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno, this “pseudo-revolutionary form of thought” (121) – which incisively repudiates the axes of modern critical form of thought, declaring itself to be a pre-critical return to naïve realism – expresses “a reactionary mentality” (121), which can be characterized by its philosophical intention of destructing the subjective mediation of thought, the critical moment of thought, in order to extirpate Enlightenment and rational thought. In Adorno’s words, Heidegger’s ontological project imposes itself as a pernicious philosophical tendency which can be described as irrationalism, counter-Enlightenment and, ultimately, return to myth, return to barbarism. In rejecting the question of the mediation of Being, and in repudiating the critical relevance of the thinking subject and the subjective determination of knowledge, Heidegger’s philosophical project, developed in accordance with the veneration of a truth fallen into oblivion (namely Being), expresses an odd return to myth and to fate that elaborates a philosophical project that denigrates philosophizing in favour of a particular relationship to language – an archaic language – that is totally devoted to what is primordial, original or authentic, and, supposedly, purified of conceptual determinations. The analysis of a collection of poems written by Heidegger – characterized by its “inferior character” (162) and “wretchedness” (162) – is an integrate part of Adorno’s emphasis upon the conspicuously archaic moment of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology: the spuriousness of Heidegger’s philosophy and poetry resides in its veneration of an archaic kind of thinking, which manifests an intention to suppress historical and social determinations inextricable to the act of philosophizing.
Regarding Adorno’s remarks on Heidegger’s poems, it is perhaps not superfluous to draw attention to an important aesthetic essay dedicated to Hölderlin’s late poetry: the essay entitled “Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry”, written by Adorno in 1963, which is fundamentally devoted to condemn Heidegger’s approach to art, namely to Hölderlin’s poetry; interestingly, according to Adorno, the Heideggerian commentaries on Hölderlin’s poetry reveal the total absence of aesthetic sensitivity towards the poetic object – the lack of an aesthetic organ (Mangel an ästhetischen Organ), as set forth by Adorno in his essay.
It is convenient to take into account the centrality of the concept of Schicksal in Heidegger’s ontology, for it clearly illustrates the intention of supressing the critical dimension of the act of philosophizing in order to establish a reversion to fate and a revocation of rationality and, ultimately, of freedom. In Adorno’s words,
“the concept of fate or destiny here ascribed to ‘being’ is that of a blindly entangled will – for what is ascribed to ‘being’ in this context bears all the marks of irrationality. In other words, ‘being’ is characterized as something utterly obscure that may somehow be intimated and venerated, but about nothing substantive can ever be said. In the first place, you should clearly observe how this very passage moves directly to the concept of Schicksal or fate, and how this concept of fate, even if it is indeed indexed historically, is furnished with that blind and ineluctable character which belongs to the ancient and traditional notion of fate” (117).
The Heideggerian emphasis upon the concepts of time and historicity is actually designed to deceive: the concept of Schicksal – regarded in its philosophical affinities with the concept of Hörigkeit, or ‘obedient hearkening’, a hearkening to Being which sounds like blind submission – defines and determines Heidegger’s form of thinking. It’s worth noting that Schicksal and Hörigkeit represent Heidegger’s condemnation of the critical thought – the critical labour of the conceptual, as Adorno puts it, according to Hegelian positions – regarded by fundamental ontology as a process of philosophical degeneration. Heidegger annuls critical labour, as if philosophy could assume a historical standpoint beyond history; although, philosophy is enjoined to obey history, which is then, like existence, itself ontologized.
The philosophical purpose of Ontology and Dialectics, as announced by Adorno in the first lectures, consists in throwing light upon the philosophical discrepancies, contrasts and oppositions between fundamental ontology and negative dialectics. We conclude that Adorno leaves untouched a philosophical intention of forming the heart of negative dialectics in Ontology and Dialectics, for Adorno passes in silence the chief lines indicative of such a philosophical intention. In the context of Lecture 23, the last lecture of Ontology and Dialectics, there is a philosophical concept under the name “negative dialectics” that is described theoretically by fundamental determinations, but, interestingly, in order to offer a precise theoretical description of negative dialectics, Adorno proposes to consider the most relevant philosophical condemnations advanced against Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, especially the disapproval concerning Heidegger’s project as a philosophical tendency intended to perpetuate mythical thought. Dialectical thought, in its turn, is described as a philosophical attempt, “by means of cunning, the oldest medium of enlightenment” (240) to dissolve the mythical context of nature, to transcend the immediate context of nature without imposing its own domination, the domination of reason – in other words, dialectical thought “attempts to transcend nature without incurring that sacrifice and rage which would merely perpetuate the same context of nature” (240). As Adorno argues, dialectical thought excels in being the acne of enlightenment – the culminating point of conceptual thought – presented in its critical potential to extirpate the mythical context of nature. In accordance with these observations, it is worth noting that Adorno considers the mythical context of nature under the conception of identity – or, identity principle. Indeed, the idea of such a negative dialectics, as delineated and described by Adorno, implies a critique of identity – a critique of mythical forms of thought. It is the philosophical purpose of negative dialectics to abolish the circle of identity and the correlative identity principle. According to negative dialectics, the philosophical procedure of conceptualization is devoted to the determination of the non-identical; the negative element of thought which cannot be entirely tolerated under the identity principle. Such a principle – the identity principle – does not recognize the prominent prerogative of subjectivity or subjective mediation, which consists in determining the non-identical, the negative element of thought, without extirpating it under the logic of conceptual hypostatization.
In conclusion, it is important to lay emphasis on the logic of conceptual hypostatization. As Adorno argues – and this forms the core of the book Negative Dialectics (1966) – negative dialectics attempt to contradict any positive and unconditionally total dialectic elaborated under the identity principle. To distinguish negative dialectics, Adorno’s own philosophical project, from the Hegelian model of dialectics is, indeed, the theoretical axis of Negative Dialectics: the Hegelian elaboration of the supreme concept of Geist as a philosophical bizarreness which, as Adorno states, implies the pernicious sovereignty of the identity principle and its aspiration for (false) totality. Interestingly, in Negative Dialectics, the Hegelian dialectics – regarded as a model of dialectical thought, and not as the dialectical thought par excellence – there is treated by Adorno a degenerative dialectic, which succumbs to the hegemony of the identity principle and, consequently, to the annihilation of the preponderance of the negative elements of thought. According to Adorno, the hypostatization of the concept of Geist as a superlative entity, developed as an absolutization of the concept of subjectivity, clearly illustrates the process of decline of the Hegelian dialectics – a process of decline due to the assumption of the identity principle. It is not, perhaps, philosophically irrelevant to consider a subtle affinity between Hegel’s Geist and Heidegger’s Sein (advanced by Adorno as against the philosophical intention of elaborating supreme concepts, supreme conceptual entities which subsume the ontic or individual elements or realities under an aspiration for total identity), as an incisive disapproval of both Hegel’s dialectics and Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The chief purpose of Adorno’s negative dialectics consists in presenting the philosophical prerogative of subjectivity: subjective mediation as an act of spontaneity devoted to determine the non-identity and the negative elements of thought in order to destroy – through the critical labour of the concept – the identity principle (a mythical principle) which governs conceptualization itself.
Is it possible to abolish the identity principle through the labour of concept? Is it possible to extirpate the supreme conceptual entities, such as absolute subjectivity, or Geist, through the act of subjective spontaneity? To present and consolidate the fundamental lines of thought of negative dialectics with conviction represents a philosophical tour de force developed by Adorno. But, as with all tours de force, we are confronted with confusion, perplexity and uncertainty: How philosophically convincing is negative dialectics, Adorno’s philosophical project? The response should be found not in Ontology and Dialectics, but in Negative Dialectics.
John Sallis’ edited text Plato’s Statesman; Dialectic, Myth and Politics is a collection of essays on Plato’s Statesman (Politicus). The dialogue is part of a trilogy that includes Theatetus, Sophist and Statesman, which, together seek to define three key figures; the sophist, the statesman, and the philosopher. Theatetus is concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge, the Sophist seeks to identify traits of the sophist (as distinct from the philosopher) and the Statesman seeks to define the statesman. Though the dialogues do not explicitly address the nature of the philosopher, by eliminating the characteristics ascribed to the other figures we may grasp some of the traits and features a philosopher should possess. One must note the proximity of the conversation in the Statesman to the trial and execution of Socrates as the threat of his impending absence permeates the text and is reinforced by his withdrawal from the discussion. In Theatetus the train of events leading to Socrates death has already been set in motion so that when the conversation of the Statesman takes place it has already been decided that he will go to trial. The dialogue alludes to the coming events, and towards the end the Stranger launches into an assault on the democratic regime (see 299c).
The essays in this collection approach the Statesman as a ‘strange mixture’ of mathematics, politics, ontology, dialectic and myth (1). The Introduction is written by John Sallis who maintains that in order to enable the manifest force of this dialogue to come to light, one must enter into it as another voice in the conversation. John Sallis is Frederick J. Adelman Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. He is well known for his work on phenomenology and is the founding editor of the journal Research in Phenomenology. He is the author of more than 20 books which address major philosophical themes such as the legacy of Platonic thought, art, the imagination, chorology and the elemental in nature. His works include Crossings: Nietzsche and the Space of Tragedy (1991), Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s “Timaeus” (1999), Platonic Legacies (2004), The Verge of Philosophy (2007) and more recently The Return of Nature (2016) and The Figure of Nature (2016). The essays in this collection address the Statesman as a work in which several disparate themes are addressed but never properly conjoined. Notable themes include: absence and withdrawal, the role of law, myth, comedy, politics, and the method proper to practicing philosophy.
The theme of absence and withdrawal is always present in Plato’s dialogues as the author himself remains withdrawn; speaking through characters and figures such as Socrates. In the Statesman this theme is developed by removing Socrates as a dramatic figure and concentrating on the presence of the Stranger (who remains unnamed). Despite Socrates absence from the conversation, there is a strange doubling of him in respect to Theatetus (who looks like him) and Young Socrates (who shares his name). Socrates is therefore present despite his absence and the Stranger remains somewhat absent despite his recurring presence. Other themes such as the role of law (in its written and spoken forms) and the complex function of paradigm are significant in relation to the explicit task of the dialogue — to define the nature of a good, worthy statesman—and are given gravitas in light of Socrates’ impending trial.
Likewise, the question concerning the method through which philosophy should be conducted gains significance, in light of the impending threat posed by Socrates’ trial—a theme observed by many essays in the collection. The divisive bifurcation used by the Stranger contrasts with Socrates’ dialectical style and other questions are treated concerning: Where to begin? How to proceed? What is the role of analogy and examples? What is the effect of Plato’s use of figures, characters and dialogue? The Stranger’s method fails to yield insight into the nature of the statesman and so he turns to myth; setting out the myth of two ages. Treatment of this myth is also taken up by a number of essays in the collection which seek to extract meaning and demonstrate its philosophical significance. Various themes combine to influence how one understands the role, function and qualities of a worthy statesman, and by comparison the sophist and the philosopher.
In the Introduction Sallis notes that one should be wary of projecting concepts from Aristotle into the Statesman; he claims that the essays in this collection aim to make manifest the key themes outlined earlier (amongst others) by taking contextual and discursive forms of the dialogue into account. All of the essays seek to enter into the Statesman with attentiveness, reticence, and discretion, and all share in the desire for dramatic content and unique features to be addressed. However, each essay embarks upon a different path in respect to how to interpret Plato’s objectives, trace the primary aims of the text, uncover the rationale behind certain inclusions (and omissions), and, of course, understand Plato’s treatment of the philosopher. The essays attribute different degrees of significance to the key themes highlighted and present varied interpretations in relation to Plato’s methodological decisions.
Sallis describes how the collection of essays is intended to ‘enter into the Statesman in a way that opens from the dialogue itself’ (2). Essays such as ‘From Spontaneity to Automaticity…’ by Michael Naas address key sections of the text, whereas others e.g. ‘Where have all the Shepherd’s gone…’ by S. Montgomery Ewen focus on a particular theme. Essays such as ‘Reconsidering the Relations between the Statesman, the Philosopher and the Sophist’ by Noburu Notomi work to contextualise the Statesman by addressing it alongside the other dialogues to trace how the figures being addressed develop and are present throughout the trilogy. Those such as ‘The Art of the Example…’ by James Risser focus on the Statesman itself in order to analyse the theme addressed as it arises from and is present within this dialogue specifically.
Most texts on the Statesman analyze the work holistically or focus on a specific theme in the wider works of Plato. However, this collection sets itself apart by being beneficial through the different insights it provides regarding a variety of themes. This enables the reader to gain multiple perspectives into the disparate themes contained within the Statesman as whole. It demonstrates the complex multidirectional possibilities for interpreting the features of the topics treated and draws attention to curious aspects of Plato’s method. While the themes addressed are sufficiently treated in other works for the reader to grasp their importance, few texts on the Statesman offer insights as varied and dynamic as this one. The book contains an extensive bibliography which details different translations of the Statesman (in Greek and in English) and it purports relevant primary and secondary texts. The bibliography by itself is useful to Plato scholars interested in contextualising the Statesman or in learning more about how the key themes outlined (and others) are addressed in the Statesman itself and in Plato’s wider works.
The structure of the text involves a loose grouping of the essays according to theme, it is therefore difficult to assess a clearly defined structure in relation to how they are organised. As a result, the reader must leap between disparate themes and interpretations as the collection does not progress sequentially and it is not easy to synthesize events as they unfold within the dialogue or to develop a structured treatment of each theme. As the dialogue within the Statesman also leaps between disparate themes it is not beneficial to set the essays within a rigid structure as such an arrangement could impose reductive and counterproductive limits on a reader’s understanding. So, although the essays are roughly grouped according to the themes they cover, such rough groupings are necessary as they mirror the content and style of the dialogue in the treatment of these themes. There is a useful index of relevant terms in both Greek and English as well as biographical details of all contributors so the reader may reference the language structure and trace further works.
In his brief essay ‘Beginnings’ Sallis contemplates a question concerning the nature of a suitable beginning which, in regard to the Statesman is related to the dramatic order of the dialogues within the trilogy. The Sophist and the Statesman are dramatic sequels to Theatetus and all three involve the same people in the same location with a shared task of defining the sophist, the statesman and the philosopher. As the third work in the trilogy, the Statesman does not begin at the beginning and Sallis claims that a ‘palintropic turn’ is required; ‘a turn back to the beginning anterior to the beginning’ and this is a turn to myth (13). In the dialogue the rigour of mathematics gives way to myth as, when Theodorus responds to Socrates’ remark that he owes him much (in respect to the conversation he (Theodorus) arranged between Theatetus and the Stranger to delimit the sophist) Theodorus replies ‘But soon you will owe me triple this…’ inferring that, once insight into the statesman and the philosopher are gained the debt will increase threefold (257a). Socrates argues that the three figures are not reducible to equal, mathematical units, and, as one may appear in the guise of another they are not strictly distinct but are related in community. Socrates begins by marking out the limits of mathematics and for Sallis ‘The Statesman begins with a return to a beginning anterior to its own beginning’ (14).
In ‘Spontaneity to Automaticity: Polar (Opposite) Reversal at Statesman 269c-274d’ Michael Naas focuses on the myth of two ages and the role played by a double sense of αύτόματος as meaning both actively spontaneous and passively automatic. Naas argues that everywhere else in Plato’s dialogues this term is used not to suggest a positive, spontaneous movement, ‘but the lack of any kind of intelligent, guided, or oriented movement’ (4). In relation to the myth of two ages this is significant as, though it is tempting to read the movement of the universe in a positive way ‘as the spontaneous motion of a living being endowed with a capacity for self-movement’ in reality it suggests ‘a lack or deficiency at the heart of the universe’ (5). He uses an interesting (and relevant) analogy to refer to the universe in the age of Zeus as one that is adrift, abandoned, unorientated ‘like a written law without the originary lawmaker’ (5).
In ‘Autochthony, Sexual Reproduction, and the Political Life in the Statesman Myth’ Sara Brill highlights the Statesman’s contribution to ontology and the ontological status of human political phenomena. She conducts a careful reading of the myth of two ages comparing the age of Cronos to the age of Zeus in order to present two forms of generation; generation from others and generation from the same (sexual reproduction). Brill argues that the myth marks human sexual reproduction as the advent of political life; a form of self-rule in imitation of the self-rule of the cosmos that requires us to acknowledge that human political life ‘is grounded in the fact that we are born from others like ourselves’ (5). ‘Where Have All the Shepherds Gone? Socratic Withdrawal in Plato’s Statesman’ sees S. Montgomery Ewen take Socratic withdrawal as key to understanding the dialogue. He draws similarities between Socrates’ withdrawal from the conversation and the withdrawal of the god in the myth of two ages to suggest that philosophy itself is presented as a Socratic withdrawal ‘that grants things the space to become what they most properly are’ (5). He claims that, if read alongside the Phaedo, the Statesman ‘is Plato’s attempt to make sense of a world without Socrates, whose death sets us adrift on our own devices, without the care and concern of the most orderly and godlike of philosophers’ (5).
Walter Brogan interrogates questions of the relationship to time that the Statesman raises as a condition of forming human community. He considers the care for this community that should be exercised by the statesman as that which should take up an appropriate relationship to time to invest in and preserve unity amongst the people. His essay considers the time of myth (before Cronos), the time of the statesman (the time of Zeus, or due measure) and the time of law (constituted by the founding sovereign to withstand the passing of time and ensure survival). Sallis notes that ‘Brogan shows how absence and withdrawal define and haunt the Platonic conception of time in the Statesman’ (6).
Nikolas Pappas focuses on the myth in the Statesman and addresses the question of how the age of Cronos is to be connected to the present age. He notes how the verb διανέμω occurs in reference to both ages but has different meanings; it links governance by the true king in that age, with dialectic by the philosopher in this age. Pappas presents philosophy as resulting from ‘the diffusion of kingship from foreign lands’ and understands the myth as reflecting back on the way that learning from ‘ancient foreigners’ allowed the Greeks to establish philosophy as a private and institutional response to kingship elsewhere (6). In ‘Noesis and Logos in the Eleatic Trilogy, with a Focus on the Visitor’s Jokes at Statesman 266a-d’ Mitchell Miller explores the interplay of intuition and discourse as two distinct methods. He begins with the ‘orienting provocations’ provided by Socrates refutation of knowledge as “true judgement and logos” in the Theatetus, and moves on to the Stranger’s ‘obscure schematization’ of the eidetic field of dialectic to arrive at the discussion at Statesman 227a-278e of the use of paradigms (6). He seeks to show that the Stranger’s odd medley of ‘geometrical and Homeric jokes’ aim to spark an intuition of statesmanship whose ‘self-nourishing’ motivates: the rejection of the initial definition (of statesman as shepherd), a turn to the analogy of the weaver, and the rejection of bifurcation in favour of the non-bifurcatory account of an art ‘that functions as the “limbs” of a well-formed city’ (6).
Gunter Figal addresses the way that topic and method intertwine in the Statesman by interrogating the relation between dialectical training and an objective determination of the nature of the statesman. Figal argues that we cannot determine the nature of political knowledge by imposing one single idea on it; the dialectical exercise therefore fails. Eric Sanday analyses the account of paradigm to show that the Stranger provides us with a method of inquiry that draws on and is guided by wisdom. For Sanday the Stranger’s use of paradigm heralds a gap between 1) the parts of a complex, meaningful whole and 2) the ingathering normativity that challenges and exceeds its articulation. We as philosophers must understand the power of paradigm if we hope to unfold ‘new horizons of intelligibility’, only then can we understand the distinction between the paradigm of the shepherd and the paradigm of the weaver to make sense of our search for the statesman.
James Risser in ‘The Art of the Example’ interprets the section in the Statesman where the need arises to give an account of the use of an example for determining the statesman. Risser claims that this part of the dialogue indicates how the discovery of the statesman ‘cannot be extricated from the experience of learning that approximates a dialectical art’ (7). For Risser, the key lies in the Greek word παράδειγμα which is used in this context to mean both model and example. Risser also submits that the stated need is to introduce a model for how comparative learning occurs and concludes that this model is operative in every example in order to generate the organic unity of the whole that is sought.
Noburu Notomi’s essay addresses the question of the relationship between the statesman, the philosopher and the sophist. Notomi assumes that the trilogy of dialogues pursues a single theme; the nature of the philosopher. This essay addresses the question: What becomes of the philosopher in the Statesman? It draws comparisons with the sophist and the statesman in relation to the distinction between genuine and imitative kinds of knowledge or art. Notomi determines the epistemological position of the philosopher in relation to the other figures, demonstrating that both the sophist and the statesman display the nature of the philosopher in their definitions. In ‘Syngrammatology in Plato’s Statesman’ Robert Metcalf focuses on 293a-299e; the connections between the critique of law and the critique of writing. He shows that what is at issue is not just any kind of writing, but syngrammatic writing which aims to eliminate ambiguity and is a structural feature of the ‘hypergraphic polis’. This raises the question about whether law can be thought on the model of non-syngrammatic forms of writing e.g. soul writing which is hypothesised by Socrates in the Phaedrus.
In ‘Stranger than the Stranger: Axiothea’ Drew Highland imagines a subsequent dialogue between Thaetetus, young Socrates and Axiothea (the purported female member of the academy). The objective is to raise the question for the two youngsters, of the limits as well as the virtues of each understanding of philosophy by comparing the dialectic method of the Stranger with Socrates interrogative method. Highland argues, it is an open question whether Plato intends us to leave behind the Socratic method in favour of the Stranger’s Eleatic formalism. Robert Bartlett’s essay considers the Stranger’s presentation of law as relevant not only to political life, but extending far beyond it. The Stranger proves quite critical of law in general and of divine law in particular; he praises the statesman as one who possesses the knowledge needed to be self-ordering in a way that those who profess to receive their law from the gods are not. This essay presents the anti-theological character of the Stranger’s account of law as an important feature of his political science.
Ryan Drake considers the fate of sophistic persuasion in the Stranger’s elucidation of the best possible regime under law; the legitimacy of this practice has been thrown into question by Socrates throughout the dialogues. Drake notes that, the Stranger remarks that the statesman in a lawful regime will need orators able to engage in ‘mythopoetic persuasion’ rather than teaching as a means of preserving civic order (9). These rhetorical tactics involve a ψυχαγωγία; a ‘leading of souls’ which is distinct from ‘the philosophical ‘directing of souls’ through dialectic’ and these methods are set in opposition. Drake observes that, for the Stranger the rhetoric of sophistry is necessary to the regime of law (but recognises that it is anti-philosophical in nature).
Burt C. Hopkins essay seeks to answer the question of whether Plato’s portrayal of multiple philosophers in the trilogy seeks to show that philosophy itself is something that is multiple (bigger than one man). For Hopkins, Socrates and the Stranger share a vision (of the difference between the whole and all the parts) and this guides their method of “looking into things by dividing them according to forms” (285A). He argues that they possess a common vision of άρχή beyond being and therefore the philosophy of the two labours is one. Gary M. Gurtler explores how Plotinus uses texts from the Statesman for different purposes; some pedagogical in nature. Gurtler argues that Plotinus’ interpretations and reference to examples intended to clarify reveal ‘different assumptions about the unity of Platonic philosophy and the possibility of its retrieval in a thinker like Plotinus’(9).
In summary, the essays within this collection make a valuable contribution to the clarification of the role and practice of the philosopher through comparison with key figures, e.g. the sophist and the statesman. The collection will be of interest to those who wish to further pursue key themes in respect to philosophical methodology such as: the limitation of mathematics, the importance of the good in politics, ontology, dialectic and the power of myth in the works of Plato. It will also be of use to those interested to explore how historical and philosophical events unfolded in the lead up to the trial and execution of Socrates and how this symbolic event is reflected and responded to through the work of Plato.