22 March, 2009

The Church of St. Nicholas at Bari

The iconography at this church was occasionally rather unusual. One example is this sculpture of two oxen on either side of the church's main door as if they were dragging the church along behind them, just as two real oxen had transported St. Nicholas' relics to Bari in the first place.

16 March, 2009

The Problem with Learning

At several points throughout the Platonic dialogues, the “learners paradox,” also known as “Meno's paradox,” is raised as the foremost problem any epistemological investigation must face. “How,” it queries, is learning possible if one does not know to begin with what one must learn?” (Meno, 80d). Whatever solutions have been offered since Plato's time, and whatever their merits, the paradox remains in the background of any discussion of how we acquire knowledge. Indeed, one might even say that the paradox does not merely present a problem in its own right, but rather in its own way expresses the most fundamental problem that all investigation of this sort faces: how is it possible for us to come to know the world in the face of the chasm that exists between our sensory experience and our knowledge? According to the paradox, we do not know reality, yet somehow seem to be capable of coming to know it; how can our sensory experience be any help at all to us in this endeavor if we do not already know what we seek? Unlike later philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, do not try to solve this problem by denying our ability to come to know reality: rather, they affirm despite all odds that there is a reality which exists independently of us which we can somehow come to know. Thus, if the learner's paradox really is as fundamental and problematic as it seems, judgment of either philosopher's epistemology will at some point find it necessary to examine how well they provide an answer to this puzzle.

The model for acquisition of knowledge implicit in Plato's Phaedo is in certain respects remarkably similar to Aristotle's. The discussion midway through the dialogue of the “Theory of Recollection” assumes, just as Aristotle does, that knowledge of the reality of things is reached through sensory experience of particulars through which one is able to abstract universal truths. “Surely,” Socrates remarks, “this conception of ours derives from seeing or touching or some other sense perception, and cannot come into our mind in any other way” (Phaedo, 75a). Likewise Aristotle observes that men “by nature desire to know” and thus take “delight. . .in [their] senses” which allow them to acquire knowledge (Metaphysics, I,1).

Beyond this core similarity, however, there are many obvious discrepancies between the arguments, most notably the language of recollection present in Plato but absent in Aristotle. For Socrates, it is important that his epistemology retain this language, at least in the Phaedo, because his argument is in the first place trying to prove the immortality of the soul. Thus one central motivation for using this language turns out to be incidental to Plato's actual view of the soul's learning process. But there nonetheless must be more compelling reasons to preserve this manner of speaking, as it is a common thread of multiple dialogues (Phaedo, Meno, and Phaedrus, for example), becoming, at least apparently, characteristic of Plato's philosophy. This more compelling reason is his need to answer the learner's paradox. According to a literal reading of the texts, Plato's solution to this conundrum is to deny that there is anything at all that we do not know. “There is nothing” Socrates claims, “that [the soul] has not learned”; all knowledge is present in the soul by virtue of its long experience and many reincarnations (Meno, 81c). Our seeming ignorance on earth is merely the result of our immortal soul's descent into a body, a material object which so muddles and confuses it that it forgets all its certain knowledge at birth. The solution to the paradox is in essence then, a claim that we both know and do not know everything we will experience. As a soul alone we know the forms of all things, but as a human being, we must struggle through possibly misleading sensory experience to “recall” that which we have now forgotten.

This solution is unthinkable for Aristotle. His hylomorphic view of the human person is central in his philosophy, and the belief that the soul is the form of the body makes recollection from a pre-corporeal existence is impossible. At a time when there was no body, there could have been no soul existing separately and possessing knowledge in its own right as a substance independent of the body. However, if Aristotle must reject Plato's solution, his theory of learning is faced afresh with the problem of the paradox. Nonetheless, we have examined Plato's solution only in a literal sense thus far. As it will turn out, there is a way of interpreting Plato's epistemology which brings it even closer to Aristotle's, and this reconciliation may perhaps prove useful in directing our approach to determining whether Aristotle's philosophy can present a viable solution to the learner's paradox.

Plato's literal solution relies exclusively upon the language of recollection, yet evidence from Phaedrus points to another possible interpretation of how we can understand recollection to begin with. Though he uses the image of a person remembering what he has known in a pre-corporeal state in both Meno and Phaedo to clarify his point, in Phaedrus Plato presents the object of “recollection” as “the Idea, a unity gathered together by reason” (Phaedrus, 249c). In other words, recollection perhaps is not so much remembering as the ability to recognize a thing according to its place in the universal sum of knowledge by means of the logical apparatus and capacity to recognize truth which are in man by nature. Phrased this way, in admittedly non-Platonic language, the position reveals its similarity to Aristotle's. Aristotle understands the mind as the sum of all knowledge, a concept remarkably similar to Plato's “unity gathered together by reason”. He even goes so far as to call it “the place of forms”, the forms being both for him and for Plato, the truly knowable aspect of a being (De Anima, III,4). The mind is, moreover, the single aspect of the soul which lives on after death, a point which recalls Plato's assertion that the soul, the proper knower of all things, is immortal (De Anima, II,2). Thus the two philosophers agree that the soul is the true location of all knowledge and that the soul understood in this sense is immortal: Aristotle's epistemology does not differ from Plato's in these respects, at least. Though this has taken us a long way towards reconciling the two epistemologies however, it turns out that it does not really solve our initial problem. In order to effect this reconciliation, I had to employ essentially Aristotelean language to explain Plato's position. Only when the language of potentiality and actuality is introduced and applied to this statement does it begin to sound like the full solution Aristotle's ideas can lead us to.

Aristotle's introduction to Western thought of the distinction between actuality and potentiality is the single major difference between the two philosophers that I will address here. Meno's paradox presupposes that we can be in only two states with respect to our knowledge of a given thing: one of positive knowledge or one of complete ignorance and unfamiliarity. Plato points towards Aristotle's solution by presenting a sort of “third manner” of knowing: knowing perfectly in the soul while the human person as a whole knows imperfectly but can recollect the knowledge of the soul given sufficient help. Applied to the learner's paradox, Aristotle's theory of knowledge takes the idea of a “third way” even further. All human beings, he says, are fully capable of knowing all truth. That is, we by nature are innately receptive of truth: we have the intrinsic ability to receive truth when presented with it, even if not previously knowing it in action. Actual knowledge may be absent, but it is absent in such a way that when presented with it, we are able to tell what it is and where it belongs. This is a round about way of expressing the idea that all knowledge of truth “is present”—though such language is inadequate to express the nature of potentiality—potentially in our souls. Acquisition of knowledge is simply actualization of this potential.

Thus, we see that Plato can be read as pointing towards a theory of knowledge that Aristotle later develops by introducing the distinction between actuality and potentiality. Though we cannot accept Plato's original model of the soul as a separate, all-knowing entity whose knowledge we remember over the course of a muddled lifetime if, like Aristotle, we want to preserve the idea that the soul is the form of the body, the alternate interpretation of Plato hints at Aristotle's resolution of this difficulty by altering our understanding of what recollection consists of. Knowledge is in some sense “in” the mind for Aristotle as well as for Plato. The literal answer to the learner's paradox—that we know all things anyway because our soul has already encountered them—must be discarded in light of the Aristotelean understanding of the human person. However, in establishing the language of potentiality and actuality, Aristotle in turn can provide a resolution to the problem of how to gain knowledge by expressing our potential to receive knowledge as our means of “knowing” what we don't know, and therefore as the grounds for its eventual drawing out and actualization.


Greece was marvelous. This is the verdict that will unabashedly color the rest of my accounts of the ten day trip our class took to the area of the Gulf of Corinth.

We took two buses down the Italian peninsula to the coastal city of Bari, where we made a brief stop at the church of St. Nicholas, which contains his relics and a Russian Orthodox chapel donated to that Church by John Paul II. Not much later, we were on a gigantic ferry heading over to the Greek port of Patras.

As it happened, we hit the stormiest weather on the way that any UD class has seen within the memory of the current faculty. This made the ride very amusing and interesting - for the about 10% of the group who didn't get violently ill. I spent lots of time out on deck, a little inside reading, and felt fine. There were two enormous water spouts that passed within a mile of the ship, and that was pretty entertaining to see. It's also very amusing to stand out on deck and let yourself fall forward into the wind: generally, it's strong enough to entirely support you.

We stayed overnight onboard and didn't land until 2:30 p.m. because of some delays due to the storm. More bus rides followed until we finally made it to Olympia, ancient site of (you'll never guess...) the Olympic games. The hotel was nice, the food was good (probably the most Greek that we'd get over the course of the trip).

Our next day was devoted to exploring the museum and archaeological site just on the outskirts of the rather shabby and obviously not wealthy town. Olympia had been a major pilgrimage site in ancient Greece, and its Temple to Zeus was one of the largest in the ancient world. There would have been bath complexes, multiple temples, treasuries, etc. - the games had a religious origin, and preserved this connotation far into the later years of ancient history. In early Christian times, the site was combined with a Christian shrine, and remained something of a pilgrimage site until an earthquake leveled everything in the time of the late Roman empire. The stadium is still extant, and the best part of the trip was when we got to race three times there: one men's race, one women's and one mixed relay.

The prettiness of the area completely validated our decision to come in the spring. There were daisies, bright red wild poppies, and some type of unfamiliar purple flower all through the ruins. Also, I ought to observe that olive trees are remarkably pretty and are everywhere.

04 March, 2009

Cucumber Melon

I always get a kick out of the general tenor of people's reactions when I touch on anything we study here at UD. Ancient literary classics, Euclid, Aristotle, Church Fathers. . .'how boring!' Well, not really. It doesn't take an excessive amount of natural astuteness, really not even a grand degree of nerdiness, to begin to find these texts vastly amusing.

You perhaps don't believe me. Perhaps you mutter to yourself various epithets describing me as an excessive nerd. Perhaps you think my testimony is unreliable.

Read this.

Just for a bit of background, this is an excerpt from the writings of St. Irenaeus' massive work Against Heresies. He's attacking the absurdity of the Gnostic myths explaining the creation of the world, and in so doing uses this hilarious example.

Iu, Iu! Pheu, Pheu!— for well may we utter these tragic exclamations at such a pitch of audacity in the coining of names as he has displayed without a blush, in devising a nomenclature for his system of falsehood. For when he declares: There is a certain Proarche before all things, surpassing all thought, whom I call Monotes; and again, with this Monotes there co-exists a power which I also call Henotes,— it is most manifest that he confesses the things which have been said to be his own invention, and that he himself has given names to his scheme of things, which had never been previously suggested by any other. It is manifest also, that he himself is the one who has had sufficient audacity to coin these names; so that, unless he had appeared in the world, the truth would still have been destitute of a name. But, in that case, nothing hinders any other, in dealing with the same subject, to affix names after such a fashion as the following: There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus. For if it is fitting that that language which is used respecting the universe be transformed to the primary Tetrad, and if any one may assign names at his pleasure, who shall prevent us from adopting these names, as being much more credible [than the others], as well as in general use, and understood by all?