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Sara Rappe, 'Reading Neoplatonism...', review by Pauliina Remes in BMCR 2002.07.33

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  • Cosmin I. Andron
    BMCR 2002.07.33 Sara Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism. Non-Discursive Thinking in the Texts of Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius. Cambridge: Cambridge University
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 7, 2002
      BMCR 2002.07.33

      Sara Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism. Non-Discursive Thinking in the Texts
      of Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius. Cambridge: Cambridge University
      Press, 2000. Pp. xx + 266. ISBN 0-521-65158-1. $65.00.

      Reviewed by Pauliina Remes, Philosophy, University of Helsinki, Finland
      Word count: 2049 words

      A reader well acquainted with Plotinus cannot suppress an occasional
      twinge of impatience when encountering the later members of the same
      school. So much is old hat, and what once was clear in Plotinus has
      become muddled with myth and excess metaphysical layers. Sara Rappe's
      (R.) reading of Neoplatonism shows, however, that these philosophers go
      a long way in trying to solve a problem that is central in Neoplatonism
      and inherent in Plotinus himself. The author explores the following
      paradox: for the Neoplatonist, truth cannot be disclosed in discursive
      language. Ordinary, propositional thought cannot express full or higher
      reality, or the One. Nonetheless, the same philosophers attempt to
      communicate their philosophical convictions in discursive language. If
      we take seriously the claim that the truth cannot be conveyed
      discursively, what can we learn from texts? What did the Neoplatonists
      think the text could transmit that would lead to a non-discursive
      realisation of truth?

      By posing this crucial question to the texts of Plotinus, Proclus and
      Damascius, and by using contemporary philosophy of language to
      penetrate their metaphors, symbols (sunthema) and myths, the author
      seeks a bridge between the discursive and the non-discursive. This she
      finds in meditation practices, evoked by symbols, visionary exercises,
      myths and divine names used in the texts. As the list of authors shows,
      R.'s aim is to trace this textual phenomenon almost throughout
      Neoplatonism. This is also a drawback of her effort. Plotinus, who
      wrote nothing about Orphic mythology or ritual practices of theurgy,
      finds himself grouped together with late Neoplatonist authors to whom
      metaphysics had become mixed with the narrative and the ritual of pagan

      R.'s book is divided into two main parts. The first part concerns
      Plotinus and the Enneads, the second is a series of chapters on later
      Neoplatonism. I will review some of the central claims of the book and
      then proceed to observe certain assumptions about non-discursivity in
      Plotinus, before touching upon R.'s analysis of later Neoplatonic

      R.'s starting point is the Neoplatonic lack of confidence in discursive
      argument. Wisdom can be attained only through noetic contemplation.
      This contemplation transcends the discursive, the temporal and the
      representative, enclosing everything there is to know in one unitary
      vision. But if this truth cannot be expressed in language, it cannot be
      communicated either. As R. observes, there is no literal meaning
      available. The role left to language is to represent aspects or
      segments of truth. And in this sense, all statements about the truth
      are metaphors. They always represent it from a distance, under a guise,
      in a certain way.

      Neoplatonic texts, R. further argues, ought to be interpreted in the
      context of this paradox of meaning. They are written to form a
      "configuration of non-discursive truth". Reading these texts involves
      decoding the discourse, which consists not only of philosophical
      arguments but of theurgic rituals, visionary journeys and visual
      exercises. These "meditation manuals" with their symbols and ritual
      formulae are intended to invoke non-discursive states of consciousness.
      Texts are vehicles of transmission rather than series of written
      arguments. Needless to say, this somewhat radical way of reading the
      texts may run the risk of overlooking their argumentative aspects. It
      does, however, illuminate passages that would otherwise remain obscure.

      According to Plotinus, discursive thought happens in time. At any one
      time it can always disclose only aspects of reality or truth, and, as
      R. argues, it uses (linguistic) representations. Truth, however, cannot
      be selectively aspectual, nor can it coincide with representation. It
      must be about the real beings, not their images. Since it is not
      intentional, it cannot be disclosed by means of linguistic
      representation. The question then becomes how to reveal a truth that is
      non-representational. The answer seems to be that not everything can be
      disclosed by discursive methods.

      But what is the scope of the limitation of discursive methods? Before
      tackling this question, several things ought to be clarified. The
      division into discursive and non-discursive veils a number of similar
      but not identical experiences or states of consciousness.
      Non-discursive thought can be non-propositional but still, in a sense,
      conceptual. That is, the Intellect can be seen from the point of view
      of its internal objects, the forms that are, as it were, the concepts
      it forms when grasping the unity of the One. But the Intellect can also
      be studied devoid of these internal objects, as mere vision of the One.
      (If I have understood correctly, this is closest to what R. is
      interested in.) Are there two different kinds of non-discursivity? If
      so, one must be very cautious in determining what the passages are
      about (I disagree, e.g., with R.'s reading of V.3.7.35-38 on p. 57-58
      and V.3.17.35 on p. 64 as being about the Intellect's proper
      functioning.) Furthermore, someone might think that if the Intellect
      truly succeeded in this vision and gained unity with the One, there
      would no longer be even a seer, any Intellect distinct from the One.
      Which of these three levels coincide(s) with truth?

      More specifically, I would like to examine five interrelated issues
      mentioned by R. (esp. chapters 2 and 3): (1) essences at the level of
      nous are not discrete individuals because of the unity of forms (e.g.
      p. 43); (2) objective essences in the world and the essences found
      within the researcher as a result of the right kind of contemplation
      have nothing in common (e.g. p. 29-30); (3) discursive reasoning and
      noe^sis are states wholly unlike each other (part I passim); (4)
      conceptual activity does not help in observing the nature of things as
      they are in themselves but instead obstructs it (p. 30); (5) "Human
      beings cannot think their way out of a limited point of view" (p. 30).

      To start from (1): Despite the identity thesis (that the Intellect and
      its thoughts are identical) Plotinus states often that the contents of
      the Intellect, and thereby of intellection, are 'many-coloured' and
      many (e.g. V.1.5.1; II.4.4.15-17; VI.7.32). The Intellect is a
      henpolla. It is an integrated complexity -- whatever that means in the
      non-spatio-temporal realm. Importantly, it is different from the One
      because it is not altogether simple but coincides with the
      differentiated essences and because a conceptual distinction between
      the thinker and its thoughts can be made (V.1.7.17-18; 26-30;
      V.8.5.15ff.; II.4.4.2-5). Thereby noetic contemplation, too, is bound
      to differ from non-differentiation and from a state in which there is
      no longer any distinction between the seer and the seen (cf.
      VI.9.8.33-35). The description of noe^sis as primarily objectless
      (e.g., p. 64, based on V.2.3.17) becomes complicated by the fact that
      forms belong to the nature of the Intellect.

      (2) The relation between the Intellect and the sensible realm is one of
      image. Even though the perceived kinds and universals are not the forms
      themselves, and even though perception and representation may mislead
      us regarding their true nature, the sensible formations are nonetheless
      similar and connected to the forms themselves. For this reason,
      whatever is found in inward-directed contemplation of the forms has
      some relevance to the realm of sense, and, vice versa, an inquiry into
      the sensible realm may inform something of real essences. (3) Not only
      are the objects of dianoia and noêsis related. The Intellect is
      described as the lawgiver of discursive reason, endowing us with
      rational cognitive capacities. Discursive reason is the image of the
      Intellect in time (V.3.3.23-39; V.3.4.1-4).[[1]]

      If these remarks have anything to them, issues (4) and (5) become more
      complex. To start with the former, conceptual activity may not in and
      of itself be enough to lead us to contemplative truths, but it is hard
      to see how it could obstruct if it is used rightly to work towards the
      essences. Accordingly, even though the human mind is not able to think
      itself into union with or into a purified vision of the One, it is by
      no means evident that Plotinus wholly mistrusts the powers of thought
      in the case of contemplation and ascent to the intelligible (cf. On
      Dialectic I.3).

      These observations have other interpretative implications. R. is
      convinced (Introduction and Ch. 5) that the occasional suggestions of a
      difference of emphasis between Plotinus' school and the theurgic
      Neoplatonism of Iamblichus have been overstated. However, from the
      point of view of someone who sees the Intellect primarily as an
      integrated complexity of forms, the mental experiments of concentrating
      one's attention or attempting to grasp an object from a detached point
      of view may not amount to full-fledged theurgy.

      Nonetheless, in the final analysis Plotinus may be badly equipped to
      face R.'s problem of the possibility that something essentially
      non-discursive can be approached discursively. First, shifting the
      problem from the level of Intellect's proper functioning to the level
      of its vision of and unity with the One does not make it disappear.
      Second, unitive knowledge, whether it consists of forms or not, is at
      odds with language. Third, there is R.'s emphasis on noetic thought as
      self-intellection,[[2]] which I find singularly valuable (Ch. 4). The
      subjective, the look inwards, differentiates between the discursive and
      the non-discursive and becomes the mark of the indubitable. Plotinus
      anticipates those modern philosophers who inquire into the intentional
      structure of thought and attempt to give an explanation of
      self-knowledge that does not objectify the subject of thought. The
      dissimilar structure of belief and (self-)knowledge also entails that
      no matter how much intentional discursive philosophy would assist us in
      gaining true wisdom, there will always be a gap between the two.

      R. opens the second part of her study with an inquiry into mathematical
      or geometrical symbolism (Ch. 6). The prominence of mathematical
      objects and geometry as pedagogic devices shows the Pythagorean
      tendencies of many Neoplatonic authors. R. presents good evidence and
      arguments for the use of, e.g., geometrical figures as objects of
      attention in purifying the mind. I find the links to ritual less
      persuasive. Concentrating attention on a mathematical object, on the
      one hand, and worshipping the shape of a sphere in rituals, on the
      other, can be two distinct methods of achieving the kind of purity of
      thought that could lead to true ascent. Perhaps their connection is
      closer but not evidently so.

      Ch. 7 explores the use of Orphic texts in Platonism. From Plato's
      Symposium to Proclus' works -- with one significant omission, Plotinus
      -- Platonism is mixed with Orphic symbolism.

      The long chapter on Proclus' Platonic Theurgy (Ch. 8) is one of the
      most interesting parts of the book. Proclus' use of symbol, icon and
      myth is explicit and reflected in his own writings. For him, the text
      serves not just as an exegesis but as a means of initiation. This
      chapter also confronts the question how language is related to higher
      realms of reality. For Proclus, just as for Plotinus, language is a
      powerful image of higher reality. Despite the critique on discursive
      thinking, the human cognitive capacities are such that they can
      approach real beings, that is, the forms. But Proclus goes further to
      emphasise the power of words and names. According to Proclus, the
      demiurgic creation of the Timaeus and naming are one and the same
      thing. Thus in R.'s interpretation the right names would not just
      exhibit or present but in a sense coincide with the true realities.
      Through these icons of language the soul has, in a way, shortcuts to
      the higher realm. One may wonder, however, to which extent the method
      still relies on something like concepts, and if so, if and how it opens
      the pathway to the non-conceptual.

      In Proclus, as R. contends, pure discursivity and argumentation are
      replaced by a new kind of text in which different genres are infused
      and ritualistic symbols and other shortcuts are employed to open up a
      vision of the truths internal to every soul.

      The last chapter (Ch. 9) explores the implications and background of
      Damascius' metaphysical novelties and the denial of the identity
      thesis. As something which has no reality, the "ineffable" has no
      semantic function. The whole language of metaphysics is limited to the
      allusive, and the ultimate limit of philosophical discourse is silence.

      This is one of those good books that does not leave one silent. It is a
      book to learn from and to discuss as well as to disagree with. Rappe's
      daring choice of method leads to a genuinely new interpretation.


      1. See e.g. E. K. Emilsson's forthcoming article on 'Discursive and
      Non-Discursive Thought'.

      2. For the division into self-perception or introspection and
      self-knowledge, see L. P. Gerson 1997 'Epistrophe^ pros heauton:
      History and Meaning', in Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica
      medievale 8: 1-32; 'Introspection, Self-Reflexivity, and the Essence of
      Thinking', in Cleary, J. J. (ed.) 1997 The Perennial Tradition of
      Neoplatonism. Leuven: 153-173.

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