10.31.2008

Underlying Structure, the Prison of Language, and "True Felicity"

"A mind enclosed in language is in prison." -- Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace translated by Gustave Thibon
Prediction: In about three years, academia's going to re-begin its search for a foundation, and when it does, the work of Neoplatonist philosopher/mystic Plotinus is going to become interesting again. The trick will be learning to think in terms of underlying structure instead of linguistically. Since I've been on the Philip K. Dick train lately, here's a clip from Waking Life (Linklater, 2001) that I mentioned to Fenhopper privately yesterday -- it concerns the possibilities of underlying structure:



I had a professor once who told me a story about his time in gradute school. He was studying Renaissance mechanics and physics and he was very interested in Da Vinci because (this was in the early 70's) a new codex of Da Vinci's work had just been discovered or released or something... and there were like 5 or 6 pages of drawings that were not accompanied by any writing. Scholars couldn't make sense of them -- at first.

My professor's dissertation was a kind of interpretation of the language of those drawings -- he told us that he trained himself to think like Da Vinci, which meant thinking without language. This kind of thinking is not irrational, it is just non-verbal (and perhaps not customary), it involves shapes and colors and other kinds of abstractions. When academics re-discover the possibilities of thinking non-verbally, Plotinus will, as they say in the music industry, "blow up." A fun pair of excerpts from The Enneads:
The secret is Indetermination.

Likeness knows its like: the indeterminate knows the indeterminate. Around this indefinite a definite conception will be realized, but the way lies through indefiniteness. (from his chapter "Matter")
And, showing the often unsettling blend of Platonic idealism and Christian Gnosticism that makes Plotinus so unique (this excerpt was in paragraph form -- I have lumped it together for the sake of readability. The paragraphs are all very short. Most are two sentences.):
...we must consider what a perfect life is. The matter may be stated thus: It has been shown elsewhere that man when he commands not merely the life of sensation but also Reason and Authentic Intellection, has realized the perfect life. But are we to picture this kind of life as something foreign imported into his nature? No: there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing which we hold to constitute happiness. But are we to think of man as including this form of life, the perfect, after the manner of a partial constituent of his entire nature? We say, rather, that while in some men it is present as a mere portion of their total being -- in those, namely, that have it potentially -- there is, too, the man, already in possession of true felicity, who is this perfection realized, who has passed over into actual identification with it. All else is now mere clothing about the man, not to be called part of him since it lies about him unsought, not his because not appropriated to himself by any act of the will. To the man in this state, what is the Good? He himself by what he has and is. And the author and principle of what he is and holds is the Supreme, which within Itself is the Good but manifests Itself within the human being after this other mode. The sign that this state has been achieved is that the man seeks nothing else. What indeed could he be seeking? Certainly none of the less worthy things; and the Best he carries always within him. He that has such a life as this has all he needs in life. Once the man is a Proficient, the means of happiness, the way to good, are within, for nothing is good that lies outside him. (from his chapter, "Happiness")
More than anything, I like to think about the incredibly daunting task of translating Plotinus, which fell, in this case, to Stephen MacKenna. I wonder what MacKenna's designation "the Proficient" was in the original Greek, and whether it might have connoted salvation, or enlightenment, or awakening. Consider the phrase "not merely the life of sensation, but also Reason and Authentic Intellection": the words are so abstract that they almost force readers to begin playing the game of structure -- Authentic Intellection denotes something that corresponds to something called "Reason," and seems to supplement something called "the life of sensation," and none of these terms can be easily understood without context. I would share some enthralling excerpts from MacKenna's introduction, but I can't, because I can't figure out how to type the Greek.

Plotinus will return to favor not when people start to read Plotinus, but when they start to read through Plotinus.

3 comments:

fenhopper said...

"The trick will be learning to think in terms of underlying structure instead of linguistically."

AhA! Now I know the problem! You don't understand that linguistics is all about finding an underlying structure. Do you realize that in one of the major models of phonological analysis there is a UR (Underlying Representation) and an SR or PR (Surface or Phonetic Representation) and that when you write out a pronunciation with //s you mean the underlying form and when you use []s you mean the surface form?

time for that other guy that knows linguistics to do a post.

Casey said...

No... no I don't know that at all. And that one-sentence explanation of "//s" didn't help anything. I'd love to learn about it, though.

Preliminary questions, before the alter-ego-linguist posts:

Isn't phonology all about sounds and pronunciation? That seems relatively unimportant to me & Plotinus (unless I'm wrong). Which sounds we associate with underlying structure hardly matters -- although Steve Pinker tried to argue yesterday on C-Span that words like "Scuzzy" sound like what they means.

You've certainly listened to me enough to know that I'm trying to talk about something that's difficult to describe -- it's why I'm always asking you questions like "What was originally meant by the Kingdom of Heaven?" and so on... what sounds we use to denote the object of our inquiries seems interesting, but not essential. IN FACT, this is precisely how words seem almost to get in the way of the kind of "understanding" I'm trying to talk about...

I once re-wrote John's introduction: "In the beginning was the deep structure, and the deep structure was with G-d/us, and the deep structure was G-d/us."

Putting aside for a moment my daring (ha) associate of G-d with "us," I hope I'm implying a question, which is... aren't words in some respect, at least imaginably, "superficial," or "surfacey?"

Of course, we can only refer to the underlying structure with--alas!--more words. But if we have a hint that there exists a deeper something that words can only approximate, then... well, that's when I have nothing more to add.

I suppose this would be what Chomsky's UG tries to demonstrate? -- I've always maintained that I'd be perfectly (and I mean PERFECTLy) satisfied with the UG paradigm if scholars would understand/admit that universal grammar is a reflection of the world (OR, I suppose more mystically, that the world is a reflection of UG). Instead (as it was explained to me), Chomsky's UG goes unaccounted-for, as if it's just an arbitrary accident [sometimes redundancy helps emphasize a point] that sentences in every language share some... deep structure.

Like, take this exchange: I know, or I at least believe with a great degree of certainty, that you're sort of understanding my overriding question, even though all of it has been poorly expressed...

Casey said...

Like, the other day in class, after the Emerson debates, I asked my students to imagine that some very tough dictator shows up and it's the near-future (2012) and he passes a law proclaiming that the pronunciation of the words G-d & Jesus is punishable by death... what would happen?

They seemed to think it mattered very much. That that would be a disastrous situation -- I kinda don't agree... we could just talk about "the One" and Al-Hallaj, or whatever, instead.

Because the word--the name--doesn't matter (does it?); only the underlying structure matters. In fact, theoretically, even if somehow there was a white flash and all history and names were erased, I sort of believe that we would recapitulate the same underlying structures that exist right now... we would tell Jesus' story through our own experience, somehow -- and Buddha's, and Ellen G's, and yours, and whatever.

Am I right, though?--it would be REALLY weird if I was wrong here... I watched Terrence MacKenna this morning on YouTube describe how the I-Ching is related to time and how, in some inexplicable way, finding yourself eating at "Hadrian's Burgers" corresponds exactly to being a part of Emperor Hadrian's invading forces in the 3rd century (or whenever that was). Same with Joyce's Ulysses... as if the word REALLY is important.

But if that's true, then a schizophrenic leap really is required and I'm not willing to take it (just yet). Schizophrenia or MacKenna's favorite, DMT.