Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pleasure, learning, and knowing

Back to ancient philosophy. I am still wrestling with an old problem. In Republic IX Socrates claims that the life of the philosopher is the most pleasant and justifies that be an appeal to the fact that only the philosopher will experience the pleasures associated with knowing perfect intelligible and unchanging objects. His soul, itself something immortal and stable, will be properly filled by its proper objects. The problem is that Socrates seems to think throughout that pleasure is a kinēsis (583e9–10) and contrasts the intellectual pleasures of knowing with the bodily pleasures of, say, eating in such a way that it seems most likely that he has in mind the pleasures associated with the process of satisfying a lack, whether bodily or intellectual.

So, once the philosopher has come to know the Forms, will he be able ever again to experience the great pleasures associated with that process of coming-to-know? What will the hedonic life of a fully-fledged philosopher be like? There are various things we can say in answer to this, but I am still not sure that Socrates has much to say on the question whether there are pleasures associated with the possession of knowledge or the active use of knowledge in the way Aristotle can.

I’m working my way again through some interesting comments in Delcomminette’s book on the Philebus. He points to the following brief passage in Republic IX but I’m not sure how precisely it ought to be understood. Here it is:

τὸν δὲ φιλόσοφον, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, τί οἰώμεθα τὰς ἄλλας ἡδονὰς νομίζειν πρὸς τὴν τοῦ εἰδέναι τἀληθὲς ὅπῃ ἔχει καὶ ἐν τοιούτῳ τινὶ ἀεὶ εἶναι μανθάνοντα; (581d9–e1)

This is part of the argument that shows (tries to show) that in a debate between advocates of three kinds of life – money-loving, victory-loving, and wisdom-loving – although the three will each propose that their own pleasures are the best, we should side with the judgement of the philosophos. Here we are asked to imagine how the philosopher would compare the others’ pleasures with his own. But what are he own pleasures?

Delcomminette comments that here Socrates refers to the ‘plaisir de connaître le vrai tel quil est et d’être toujours dans un tel état en apprenant’ (2006, 477). This is in support of his general view that the philosopher is in a state of ‘apprentissage permanent’ since in an important sense knowing (connaître, εἰδέναι) and learning (apprendre, μανθάνειν) are identical. He takes this to refer to the pleasures the philosopher can enjoy even once he has acquired understanding of the Good and so on. It’s not clear to me just how the sentence should be rendered and understood. Griffith’s translation has ‘…the pleasure of knowing where the truth lies and always enjoying some similar sort of pleasure while he is learning it’, which sounds much more like the pleasure concerned is found in the process of learning and that there is no reference here to any pleasure to be had in the possession of knowledge. Grube’s translation has ‘…[pleasure] of knowing where the truth lies and always being in some such pleasant condition while learning’.

It would certainly be interesting if we had an assertion that there is pleasure to be had in knowing, in the sense of the possession rather than the acquisition of knowledge, whether or not we should think of knowing as a state of constant learning. (And, if it is not thus understood, we would have to wonder whether we can reconcile the notion of the pleasure of knowing with the idea of pleasure as a change involving the satisfaction of a lack.) But I suppose I have two difficulties:

1. Does the qualification ὅπῃ ἔχει form part of the object of τοῦ εἰδέναι? In other words, are we told that the philosopher knows ‘where the truth lies’ (which seems compatible with the philosopher not yet knowing the truth) or does the philosopher ‘know the truth’ and it is Socrates who then comments in his own voice: ὅπῃ ἔχει, since he does not himself know?

2. What is the precise meaning of the second part of the conjunction? Are we told that the philosopher is always in such a state when he learns (but can be in other states when he is doing other things than learning) or that as a learner he is always in that sate (that is, he is in a constant state of learning)?



Phil said...

I don’t understand what point Plato is making if we take HOPE ECHEI as “where it is”. LSJ reminds us that Plato uses ESTIN HOPE as a qualifier of manner: “in some way or other.” Aren’t these idioms pretty much equivalent? Does Plato use HOPE ECHEI elsewhere in the sense of manner? (I tried to search this Perseus, but it wasn’t working.)

Of course to say HOPE ECHEI is a qualifier of manner leaves opens several possible translations. We can explore these if you like the idea that Plato intends a qualifier of manner.

Does the OCT offer any interesting variants here?

JIW said...

Dear Phil

Sling's OCT doesn't list any variants and you're right that the qualification isn't literally wondering about the position of the truth and it could well be a qualification of manner; Delcomminette has 'tel qu'il est' and that will do, although I don't see a huge gulf between that and Griffith's 'where it lies'. Socrates uses the expression regularly enough.

The real question is whether the qualification is within the scope of what the philosopher knows or whether the philosopher knows the truth and the qualification is added in Socrates' own voice to show that he is not so fortunate.

Georgia Mouroutsou said...

Dear James,

Thank you for this.
Your question in brackets, namely whether we can reconcile the pleasure of knowing with a notion of pleasure as change that comes about when satisfying a lack, requires the comparison of the Platonic Socrates of the Republic and the one of the Philebus: something that you suggest both in this and your next post.
But let me confine to a small point on the three lines you quote from the Republic. Adam, who also devotes an appendix to the intricate lines, renders: "But the lover of knowledge, said I, what value shall we suppose that he assigns to the other pleasures compared with that of knowing how the truth stands and always enjoying a kindred sort of pleasure while he learns?" (Adam places the question mark after τῆς ἡδονῆς, which is not obligatory).
I do not think the qualification ὅπῃ ἔχει should in this very case put any restriction on the knowledge of the Platonic philosopher or Platonic Socrates (same as in 581b5f, or with ὡς ἔχει in 478a6, or cf. 612a3-5 in comparison to 426d3f.) By the way, Schleiermacher renders 581e1f.: “wie sie [die Wahrheit] sich verhält”, but as you rightly say we can translate both ways: after all, the topic of different ontological fields and grades of reality is always relevant in Plato. Translating as “where it lies” appears to be misleading as it goes a little bit beyond the text’s claims. Do you perhaps have a certain case in mind where ὅπῃ ἔχει unambiguously restricts the claim of the philosopher’s knowledge? That would be of great help.
As for your second question, I think we are not told that the philosopher is always in the state of learning but that he experiences similar pleasure when learning as when knowing/in possession of knowledge. So it seems to me that we have the distinction that you would like to see drawn in Plato (possession of knowledge-process of knowledge and the relevant pleasure, which still remains one pleasure) but Plato’s Socrates does not make any further comments, unfortunately. He does not say what he means through "possessing" knowledge and what the relevant pleasure would be, whether it would be something like Glaucon's "ἀνάπαυλα τῆς πορείας" or probably something else. Even if we do not identify knowledge and learning ad loc (if they are kindred, similar, i.e. not identical, as their pleasure), these lines do not undermine an interpretation of philosophers as always re-possessing knowledge in all their tasks, be it μανθάνειν, διδάσκειν or σκοπεῖν.

Best wishes and many thanks,

JIW said...

Thanks, Georgia. I'll go back to Adam! I do have a line on the kind of pleasures a philosopher can have once he has learned various truths that still allows pleasures to be kineseis, but it's quite a long story...