Shadow and Complexity: Homer’s Non-Platonic Virtues

Intellectuals tend to see themselves as missioned by humanity to express and articulate its knowledge, its needs and desires, and the principles on which they are based. They are thus also missioned to humanity to guide it on the right way to truth and virtue, « to direct humanity on the path to goodness » (cited by Feyerabend here). Feyerabend argues that such views are not only naïve and simplistic, they are also inhumane and dangerous.

These views are naïve and simplistic because they are examples of the pretention of intellectuals to speak in the name of humanity to justify the imposition of their categories and values without consulting the opinions and desires of the vast mass who are being imposed upon. In the eyes of intellectuals such as Parmenides and Plato, the « many » live in a world of illusion, cut of from true knowledge and true goodness:

« Their fears and joys, their political actions, the affection they have for their friends and children, the attempts they make to improve their own lives and the lives of others, and their views about the nature of such improvements are chimeras » (ibid, paragraph 4).

These views are also inhumane and dangerous because they ignore their own shadow:

« Philosophy is not a single Good Thing that is bound to enrich human existence; it is a witches’ brew, containing some rather deadly ingredients. Numerous assaults on life, liberty, and happiness have had a strong philosophical backing. » (ibid, para 2). Further, to impose their categories in a complex and variegated world intellectuals need the backing of power, influential institutions, government agencies and apparatuses, to give their directives force, to browbeat and brainwash people into submission.

For Feyerabend, the past is no dead matter to be studied and embalmed in intellectual history, but a living repository of values and ideas that can be drawn on at any moment to contest and even overthrow the status quo:

« There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge » and, we must add, of enriching our life (cf AGAINST METHOD p33).

So in order to criticise and go beyond the Platonic tradition that is still with us today, Feyerabend turns to the Greek world before Plato, before even the Pre-socratics, and finds material for the improvement of our knowledge and the enrichment of our life in the Homeric world.  (Note: This is one of the many points of convergence between Feyerabend’s philosophy as expressed for example in CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE, and that of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly elaborated in ALL THINGS SHINING). In Homer, concepts such as the virtues are not static universal essences but complex assemblages depending on and varying with circumstances, best illustrated by examples rather than defined by principles, embedded in community practices and skills rather than in the autonomous will of the rational agent:

« The Homeric epics reflect this situation. They do not define, they use examples, including cases that show, without explicitly saying so, under what circumstances a virtue turns into a vice » (ibid, paragraph 5).

Virtues are not simple unambiguous entities, they are not only complex and context-dependent they also have their shadow side. Homer can show Diomedes’ courage sometimes veering towards madness, and Odysseus’s wisdom and intelligence merging into cunning and ruse. The virtues’ complexity implies also their openness, we can enrich them with our imagination and our spontaneity, we can apply them to new situations or in new ways in familiar situations. For Feyerabend, the Homeric epics do not define or regulate, they do not submit things to rigid rules and universal principles, they use examples and cases, their appropriation and their projection into other circumstances. Echoing Deleuze on Châtelet, we can say that for Homer:

« the universal does not exist, but only the singular, singularity, exists. « Singularity » is not the individual, it is the case, the event, the potential (potentiel). or rather, the distribution of potentials in a given matter  » (DIALOGUES II, p160).

In such an open field of examples and cases, of events and potentials, of singularities and their prolongations, the best way to learn is by immersion, we are learning moral (and perceptual and cognitive skills) not methods and algorithms. The best style to convey such immersive concepts, remarks Feyerabend, is not a systematic account aligning « conceptual artifacts » (which seemed to him a particular, and often very superficial, literary form) but the Homeric (and Biblical) style of telling stories. STORIES FROM PAOLINO’S TAPES is from this point of view a fitting form for Feyerabend’s exposition of various virtues and their exemplars.

One of Feyerabend’s aims from very early on was to outline a theory of knowledge that would present the sciences and the humanities on the same plane, as « different parts of one and the same enterprise »  (NATURPHILOSOPHIE, p347). He imagined this theory as more like a manual of rhetoric containing various illuminating examples, useful rules of thumb, and diverse observations and remarks on the suitability of the rules to various circumstances. He wanted to avoid « easy syntheses » and « facile generalisations ». He claimed never really to have achieved that goal, but he wrote and spoke out of that guiding polytheistic imagination.

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2 commentaires pour Shadow and Complexity: Homer’s Non-Platonic Virtues

  1. dmf dit :

    is the repository « living » or rather a collection of images/practices that we might employ in a kind of bricolage, such that they get their meaning out of use.


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