Category: Philosophical theories

Deconstructive readings of Plato (Derrida)

Based on the view that Plato's work inaugurated and grounded Western metaphysics and its dogmatic inflexibility, the philosopher's work became subject to a series of deconstructive readings, with Derrida's being the most renowned ones.

According to Derrida, in the context of Western metaphysics Plato inaugurated the downgrading of writing and its expulsion from the "living" voice. Phaedrus is seen to be the emblematic text vis-à-vis this degrading since Socrates is seen to oppose the substitution of the soul's living self-presence for the artificial art of writing. Writing is invested in terms of danger to both memory and knowing.

Plato's Pharmacy

In his work Plato's Pharmacy (1972), and through the critical method of a deconstruction (déconstruction) of Plato's arguments, Derrida attempted to point up another obscure, yet inevitable, "logic" that governs Phaedrus. This logic, claims Derrida, undermines its metaphysical presuppositions. The "blind spot" [tache aveugle) through which Derrida seeks to bring into relief this covered textual logic in Plato's dialogue is the word φάρμακον [pharmakon]. Pharmakon stands for both "medicine" and "poison" - two contrary meanings that are hard to reconcile within the same discursive enunciation or usage context. And yet, this is exactly what Derrida claims: these two irreconcilable meanings of the said term coexist throughout Plato's text defeating every effort by commentators, translators or even Plato himself to opt for one of its particular denotations.

Plato's condemnation of writing hinges on an Egyptian myth that Socrates conjures up. Plato uses king Thamus as a mouthpiece in order to reject writing as a harmful pharmakon that will lead to the deterioration of the faculties of memory and critical judgment with regard to the accumulation of knowledge (274e-275b). However, despite his effort to identify writing with the negative meaning of the term pharmakon, that is, poison, the term's ambiguity persists unresolved whereas its contradictory meanings continue to intersect uneasily. Accordingly, on one hand, Plato has Socrates reject writing as a useless, harmful pharmakon to be avoided at all costs, while, on the other, presents him as leaving his customary sites and the city (something extraordinary for the city-loving Socrates) in pursuit of a written text, a book (λόγους ἐν βιβλίοις) that his interlocutor, Phaedrus, has in his possession (230d-e, PPh 75). As Derrida stresses in conclusion, each time the philosophical "axe" seeks unadulterated essences or meanings, that is, niches of unambiguity, it confronts by necessity its very contradictions.

Χώρα

In his texts "Khora" (1987) and "How to Avoid Speaking: Denials" (1986) Derrida focuses on the term "khôra" and the way it appears in Plato's dialogue Timaeus. According to the French philosopher, the idiosyncratic way in which the term appears within Plato's text deconstructs the dominant Platonic-metaphysical binary distinction between the intelligible and the sensible, that is, it ultimately deconstructs the Platonic edifice as a whole. The khôra, which Timaeus presents in terms of the "receptacle of every coming-to-be" (49a) belongs in neither the genus of Ideas nor the realm of the perceptibles, but constitutes itself a third genus » (48e, 52a; Χώρα 15-16). Plato describes it as "difficult and obscure" (χαλεπὸν καὶ ἀμυδρόν, 49a). In this sense, khôra "denotes none of the established, recognisable types of being [...] that are accepted by philosophical discourse" (Χώρα 25). Philosophical discourse is unable to express the truth of the khôra since the latter, by virtue of its not belonging in any of the two genera, lacks any determinate substance. It neither partakes of an eternal substance, in the manner of the perceptibles, nor is it itself one.

The khôra signals the fact that "there is [il y a ]" something which, as Plato states, "offers a ground to all that has come into being" (52b). However, it is in itself neither being nor nothing. Since it lies beyond the realm of intelligibility and perceptibility and has no intelligible equivalent (to the degree that it does not partake in any Idea as is customary with the perceptibles), it eludes any possibility of determination and signification. As Derrida points out, the khôra "would no longer belong in the horizon of meaning" (Χώρα 21). Referring to the "rich, multiple and inexhaustible" interpretations "informing us about the meaning or value of the khôra" since antiquity, Derrida observes that these "consist in giving form and defining what cannot be offered or put into language without eschewing all determinations" (Xώρα 23). At the same time, John Sallis (another deconstructionist reader of Plato's Timaeus, points out that claiming that the khôra eludes any determination means that we subject it to " a kind of determination beyond any determination."

Author: Gerasimos Kakolyris
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