August 13, 2013

Henry Geiger - Plato's Intent And Method (1976)

Henry Geiger (1908?-15 February 1989) was the editor, publisher, and chief writer of MANAS Journal which published from 1948-1988. Abraham Maslow called him “the only small ‘p’ philosopher America has produced in this century.”
Below is an excerpt from, "Plato's Intent And Method" by Henry Geiger. Source: MANAS Journal, Volume XXIX, No. 9. March 3, 1976.
A reader wonders why we quote so often from Plato and Aristotle. Didn't Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics take us far beyond these old Greek thinkers, and beyond any sort of "philosophy," too?

The first requirement in reply to this question is to distinguish between Plato and Aristotle. Plato was Aristotle's teacher, but Aristotle departed from his teacher's conceptions in a fundamental respect. Plato maintained that the foundation of all important knowing is ethical, that the individual's harmony with the best he knows is the necessary starting-point in the pursuit of truth. A man at odds with himself lacks the symmetry of a moral life, and this warps his judgment. All the lesser disciplines obtain their integrity from this moral harmony, since the use to which they are put, the causes they are made to serve, will depend upon the individual's ethical outlook. Plato was convinced that there is a divine spark in all humans, that the highest use of the mind is for the purpose of fanning that spark into the flame of self-knowledge. He called this exercise of conscious intelligence the Dialectic and he illustrated it in the Socratic dialogues.

Aristotle substituted his logic for the Dialectic—which is more art and invitation than syllogistic analysis—and he sought his first principles through empirical research. He could not accept the idea of innate or a priori knowledge, which supplies direction but needs to be awakened, elucidated, examined, and subjected to tests. Aristotle said that while the mind contributes the forms of knowledge, its content comes only from sense perception. You gather evidence, generalize it with the mind, then apply logic to the generalizations to produce the conclusions, which are knowledge. This is science, of which "philosophy" has become a subordinate part. There is no inner guide, no questing, conative intelligence striving to cope with the bewildering spectacle of the world, to extricate itself from the drives of appetite, the limiting hungers of emotion. There is only the logic machine plus its raw material obtained through the senses. In combination these two produce truths which compel assent. Morality plays no part. This is the "public truth" of science. You formulate the assumptions based on observation, develop their implications with reason, check the logic, and accept the conclusion because you must.

Plato, on the other hand, was convinced that the truths which compel admission in this way are always lesser truths. The important, crucial truth requires voluntary, inner assent. This is not, of course, a uniquely Platonic idea. An old Persian text put it in other words: "Truth is of two kinds—one manifest and self-evident; the other demanding incessantly new demonstrations and proofs." Milton Mayer speaks of "the epistemological commonplace that descriptive knowledge accumulates and normative knowledge does not." Descriptive knowledge tells us what the world is like, while normative knowledge tells what we ought to do. Normative knowledge looks into motive. Plato faced the problem—the prior problem, he declared—of seeking normative knowledge, while Aristotle evaded it, placing all emphasis on the increase of public truth. He evaded it, that is, as a pedagogic question, despite the fact that he wrote much on ethics.

An understanding of the intellectual and cultural setting in which Alfred Korzybski began his reform in the use of language would require a review of the cumulative influence of Aristotle and his intellectual heirs and descendants, such as Bacon, Descartes, Hume, and Locke, since these are the men who shaped the Western mind and provided science and technology with its major assumptions. Korzybski set out to correct what seemed to him the dire effects of the Aristotelian logic, hoping thereby to eliminate the intellectual rigidities which everywhere prevailed. The Aristotelian tools of description had made apparent certainties of matters which are actually in constant flux, requiring a corresponding flexibility in any account of them. Korzybski provided certain rules (words are not things, a map is not the territory, the man or situation of today is not the same as the man or situation of last year) which, he believed, "would gradually liberate the individual from his Aristotelian orientations and make a modern man of him—a non-Aristotelian," as S. I. Hayakawa puts it. Korzybski did not challenge the fundamental assumptions of scientific inquiry; he simply wanted to cleanse modern thought of Aristotelian contaminations. The far-reaching influence of this reform is evident from books like Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action and from regular reading of Etc., the quarterly magazine published by the International Society for General Semantics.

In the first issue of this journal (1943) Korzybski wrote:
I hear that some readers like the title ETC. and that a few do not. Personally I feel that the publication of the Society could not have a better title. . . . In a non- aristotelian, infinite-valued orientation, we do not assume that what we say can cover all the characteristics of a situation, and so we remain conscious of a permanent et cetera instead of having the dogmatic, period-and-stop attitude.
This title, Etc., with its justification by Korzybski, makes something of a link between the General Semantic criticism of the delusions arising from the misuse of language and Plato's broader warnings concerning the written word. Plato was not an advocate of finalities and flat-out demonstrations. The art of persuasion, for him, was a mysterious matter, involving inner awakening rather than proof. Although he sometimes seemed to, he would not "tell" people anything. He wanted them to tell themselves.