A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: Neo-Platonism and Plotinus

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Plato took upon himself a synthesizing role in relation to the Pre-Socratic philosophical positions of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Materialism, and Sophism. The strategy of Plato favoured the position of Parmenides but obliged itself to provide explanations of the world of material flux and change. Some commentators mistakenly saw in Plato the presence of a dualistic assumption that divided the world of thought from the sensory world without the means to reconcile the two supposed opposites. In fact Plato had provided in his dialogue, the Republic, a metaphysical explanation for the relation of the physical sensory world and the world of thought. The world of thought possessed the logical character of the oneness and goodness of Being expressed in the Form of The Good, whereas the physical sensory world possessed the character of the flux and change of the many. The latter world was not however hermetically sealed from the world of thought but was in the relation of “participation”: the oak tree we experience, for example, was an entity that could come into existence and pass out of existence in virtue of the relation it had to the eternal changeless form of an oak tree in the realm of the oneness and goodness of Being. We should also bear in mind that Platonism was itself a Philosophy in the process of evolution or development from the earlier open-ended Socratic dialogues in search of essentialist definitions to the middle more theoretical dialogues featuring the Theory of Forms and finally to the later dialogues including “Parmenides” and “Timaeus”. The Theory of forms from the middle period faced a crucial argument to the effect that it lacked a logical justification given the fact that the forms were many and thereby differed from the oneness and goodness of Being: the theory that is, lacked metaphysical justification. The Timaeus resolved this issue by claiming that the Forms were emanations from the Parmenidean oneness and goodness of Being in a derivative realm Plato referred to as Mind or “The Intellect” which actively worked with the Forms: this is the realm of the activity of the Demiurge. Souls in turn then “emanate” from the Intellect(the highest activity of life). Soul contains then two principles, firstly a power of reason that can understand and contemplate the forms and a material principle of desire for material ends. This latter principle defines the non-contemplative activity of the soul in terms of a deficiency, a want for something it does not possess. When engaged in this mode of change the soul uses the cognitive and action systems at its disposal to achieve the ends desired. Cognition, however, best expresses the Forms of the Intellect although affective states also “image” the activity of the Intellect in virtue of a cognitive recognition or consciousness of the affection. Cognition cannot however directly reveal the oneness and goodness of Being as evidenced by the need for Plato in the Republic to use allegories to symbolically represent this realm. The difference between the activity of the Intellect or Demiurge and the activity of the Soul is that the former activity is internal to itself and the latter requires some external end to achieve a state of quiescence. This internal activity of the Intellect is characterized as contemplation and to the extent that the Soul is capable of contemplation of the Forms is the extent to which it is capable of participation in divine activity, thus moving closer to the ultimate oneness and goodness of Being. It is necessary to point out that on this account the external material concrete world is the least real of all the philosophical entities being discussed in Plato’s theory. This physical material world is also by definition the least Good of all the entities that have been caused to exist by the oneness and goodness of Being. Matter only becomes evil when it impedes the divine contemplative activity of the soul from contemplating the forms.

The above was largely the position adopted by Plotinus(born ca 205AD, died, ca 271AD) and communicated in his teachings some 600 years after Plato. It appears that he was also further convinced that the writings and teachings of Aristotle were sophisticated elaborations upon the Platonic position, even if there were problematic deviations such as the insistence that the forms were, in some real sense “in” the external physical world. Life forms of various kinds, for example, were on Aristotle’s account, potentialities actualizing in accordance with the principles of their kinds. For Plotinus these life forms all emanated from the oneness and goodness of Being, they revealed the “workings” of Being through the Demiurge and its divine thinking. In this arena of description and explanation, there is obviously a risk of a dualistic characterization of reality without appeal to these higher realms of Thought and Being. It is not clear whether Aristotle would have accepted all of the details of the above account but it is clear that it is not merely knowledge of the Form of the Good (as presented allegorically in the Republic) that is the prime mover in the system. Aristotle believed that one approached the oneness and goodness of Being through Theory and not allegory. He believed that is that our knowledge of 4 kinds of change, in reality, can be explained by four kinds of explanation of these changes which will appeal to three principles. This is, amongst other things, how we human souls have “access” to both the activity of the Demiurge and the oneness and goodness of Being. This account of Aristotle is perhaps an elaboration upon the Platonic insistence accepted by Plotinus that Being can only be characterized negatively, in terms of what it is not, which for many created the impression of its non-existence or even an impression that statements relating to the meaning of Being were contradictory. This impression was less likely to occur whilst the term “aletheia” (unconcealment) was an important element of the theoretical account, because it strongly suggests that Being can be accessed or be “discovered” in a process that seems to be more related to the ancient concept of “meaning” rather than our modern conception of truth that appears to acquire a relation of correspondence between the dualistic elements of thought and material reality. Aristotle is an important contributor to this debate about the nature of Being because he claimed that Being had many meanings and the theorizing about these meanings appeared to be best investigated by the logical principles of identity and non-contradiction.

Thinking of the Forms which would in logic be regarded as necessary truths implies that the negation of these truths could not be possible in this realm of meaning for the simple reason that it is not possible to think contradictions. Contradiction, therefore defines or circumscribes the limits of thought. Human souls, as we know, sometimes believe we are thinking about something even when we possess contradictory beliefs or when we regard the compatibility of two forms as impossible or contradictory. This testifies to our finitude and the fact that we are mixed beings composed by the Demiurge of thought and material. We only approach the level of contemplation once we rid ourselves of all contradiction and can finally in a contemplative state mean everything we think. If we are further able to mean everything we say we embrace the Logos of the divine. Heraclitus, as we know believed he had achieved such a state.

Brett, in his characterization of Plotinus’ commitment to what he regarded as Neo-Platonism insists that whereas Plato conceived of the oneness and goodness of Being in terms of practical human activities, Plotinus turned his back on the world of change and human activity and attempted instead to describe and explain the state of timeless meditation which all humans should strive to achieve:

“The atmosphere of Neo-Platonism is at once more impersonal and more subjective. Plato diffuses an atmosphere of practical activity, and thinks chiefly of the good life as a system of human activities. Plotinus, the founder of Neo-Platonism turns his eyes away from the world of change and action to the inner life of timeless meditation. For Plato the world that lies beyond the senses was a justification of human effort: it was primarily an answer to those who saw in life nothing but ceaseless change that made effort vain and progress only a synonym for process. For Plotinus the supersensible is the spiritual world of the mystic…… The mysticism of Plato ends with insight into the reality of life: the mysticism of Plotinus begins from that point, abstracts the reality from life and views existence as a state from which man strives to flee that he may depart from it and be with God.”

The mystic state for Brett, combined with the term “subjective” minimises the role of theory in both Plato and Plotinus. The term “subjective”, for example, is loaded with scientific materialistic assumptions to the effect that Being is material, concrete objective reality best “discovered” by the scientific method and its activities of observation, measurement, and experiment. Modern Science, that is, retreated from philosophical description and explanation and reversed the polarity of Platonic and Aristotelian theorising on the grounds of the reduction of Being to the two Aristotelian categories of “Quantity” and “Relation”: ignoring the two other fundamental categories of judgment namely Substantive Judgments and Qualitative judgments which are about substantial and qualitative aspects of Being respectively. Qualitative change we know was later in History to be in its turn reduced by empirical and analytical Philosophy to primary and secondary qualities in the spirit of the reversal of the polarity of Platonic and Aristotelian Philosophy. Primary qualities were “objective” essentially quantitatively and relational and secondary qualities were “subjective”. It is not, however, beyond the realms of possibility that this process of the abandonment of Platonic and Aristotelian theorizing about Being was compromised by Plotinus’ tendency to focus on the state of contemplation in abstraction from the “activity” of the soul in both its thinking and acting. Brett also wishes to place some of the responsibility for Plotinus’ drift toward mysticism and subjectivism on the shoulders of Plato:

“The change hinges upon the interpretation of Plato. If emphasis is laid upon Plato’s idea of the body as the tomb of the soul: if contemplation is valued before action; if the whole process of education is regarded exclusively as the liberation of the soul, the origin of Neo-Platonism can be seen at once. The divergence of Neo-Platonism lies mainly in the metaphysical view of intellect s a cosmic reason. The Stoic doctrine of universal reason had been really veiled materialism: nevertheless, its “pantheism” only required a fresh interpretation of reason to emerge as a theory of all-embracing intellect.”

Brett is here omitting the influence of Aristotle in the intervening period between Plato and Plotinus.This together with his projection of the prejudices of materialistic science upon the metaphysical(“first principle”) aspect of this discussion needs also to be borne in mind. The idea of cosmic reason was embraced by Aristotle as part of a comprehensive theory that could in its turn be used to respect scientific concern for describing and explaining a change in quantitative and relational terms(subjective-objective were “relational” categories). This Aristotelian theory stretched from the Oneness and goodness of Being which was Primary Pure Form, all the way down to a position of pure primary material. Primary Form on this account can in no way be correctly related to the relational term of the “subjective” or the consciousness of a being who introspects upon its own “contents of consciousness”. Aristotle is in his theory characterizing a great chain of Being which includes the Forms and the soul and the material of the body of the soul as well as the material of the external environment of the soul. This “metaphysical attitude” of Aristotle can not meaningfully be characterized as “psychological”. It is rather a philosophical position arrived at through the various philosophical methods of elenchus (Socrates), dialectical reasoning as well as logical reasoning and explanation. The Metaphysics of Stoicism may well be problematically materialistic as Brett is suggesting in that its notion of causation was unnecessarily deterministic and this might in a sense follow from the limited view of causation we find in Plato who appears to believe the idea of “formal cause” suffices to describe and explain everything that needs describing and explaining. Aristotle criticized this position and elaborated upon the role of causation in description and explanation in terms of his famous “four causes” schema. Recent scholars(Jonathan Lear) have pointed out that the Greek word “aitia” is connected to knowledge and explanation. Jonathan Lear, therefore, writes about the four different fashions of characterizing cause in descriptive and explanatory contexts.

The interesting question to ask in this context is whether Plotinus subscribed to the Stoic view of deterministic causation or whether he would have regarded the Aristotelian view as more accurate. in this context we should also remind ourselves of the fact that a revered teacher of Plotinus in Alexandria, Ammonius Saccas, was both an expert in Platonic and Aristotelian Philosophy. Saccas saw in Aristotelian Philosophy a natural continuation and sophistication of Plato’s Philosophy.

Plotinus’s position is problematically characterised by Brett in the following manner:

“This Neo-Platonism is therefore no mere reproduction of Platonic doctrine. It is to a large extent an independent construction by reason of the new standpoint adopted. Plotinus has a new idea of the rational life as something distinctively subjective. Out of this arises his virtues and vices: for it leads to a deeper view of thought and at the same time makes impossible that trans-subjective use of thought on which he builds a metaphysics not unlike the vagaries of Gnosticism.”

Subjectivizing Plotinus in this way is indeed problematic. Is Brett really suggesting that Plotinus decided to ignore the great chain of being argumentation contained in both Plato and Aristotle in favour of an idea of the “subjective” that was not in currency at the time? We also know,by the way, that when virtues and vices arise out of a subjectivity thesis, ethical relativism is the inevitable consequence: a consequence which both Plato and Aristotle would have dismissed as a misunderstanding of the nature of ethics.

Brett, as we pointed out previously ignores the resemblance of the Platonic position to that of Aristotle’s and this raises a question about the validity of categorising Plotinus as a Neo-Platonist. Perhaps, then, the litmus test of the correctness of Brett´s categorisation lies in Plotinus’ view of the soul and its relation to the external material, world. In a section entitled “The Activities of the Soul” we find the following account of sensation –the link between the external world ad the soul:

“Sensation is defined as the reception of forms in the matter which accompanies soul. It is the process by which forms are placed at the disposal of the soul. Knowledge is always an activity of the soul: sensation as such is not knowledge but a condition of the attainment of knowledge about material things. The independent character of the soul appears still more clearly in the sphere of knowledge. The soul uses the organs of sense as its instruments: it is itself unaffected: external impressions are made upon the sensitive soul by objects, but these impressions involve no self-recognition, no consciousness. The impressions are stored in the affective soul until the cognitive soul turns toward them and chooses to behold them. Plotinus here modifies the Aristotelian tradition. He deprives the senses of any function but that of transmitting forms which are the potential objects of cognition…When the soul exerts its activity and turns towards the things of sense, it perceives: this action may be described as facing toward the external world.”

It is not exactly clear how Brett conceives of this modification of Aristotle’s views especially in relation to the role of the senses and sensation in knowledge. Brett goes on to point out that Plotinus accepts Aristotle’s accounts of sensation, imagination and calculative reason and he also points out one crucial difference between the two accounts. Plotinus, unlike Aristotle, anticipates the role of the brain in this process. Another difference concerns the use by Plotinus of the so-called introspective method to arrive at the idea of self-consciousness lying at the intersection of the experience of objects and the unity of a soul which in its activity admits of no distinction between subject and object.

For Plato, there is no ontological difference between the changes in the world occasioned by the perceptual activity of the soul of the particularities of the world and the activity of a contemplating subject which is unchanging and universal and good in itself. The difference between an Aristotelian account and a Platonic account of the nature of the particularities in the external world is that these particularities, in the case of Plato, “participate”(in some sense) in the forms they are temporal representations of and, in the case of Aristotle, living particularities embody one form actually and other forms potentially. For Plato the particularities of the external world and the body(the different organs of the body) are in terms presented by the Republic instantiations of the “Many”, whereas thought in terms of the forms and their connectedness in the Intellect is instantiation of the “One”. The particularities are ever changing and belong to the world of Becoming existing separately in a differentiated world discriminated by sensation. the Soul, according to proof in Plotinus(Ennead 4,7,(2)) belongs on the other hand to the world of thought and Being. The body is composed of the material particulars: earth, air, fire, and water or compounds of them. Short of being organized by an internal principle or a form, these elements, even if they should occupy a shape in space, they will be merely accidentally juxtaposed have been brought into such a state by external processes. Such material will feel no sensations nor experience memory of sensations but will only be in a state of continual flux from moment to moment. If, for example, we are speaking of the juxtaposition of a number of grains of sand in a desert, this spatial unity will be disrupted by the first desert wind. Such temporal unities will not be able to contemplate the beauty of existence or the injustice of the dispersion of unity. Plotinus likens the soul to a musician and the body to the strings of a harp that would not be plucked unless in accordance with the principle of a melody that guides the movements of the fingers of the musician. These points and arguments are Platonic and Aristotelian and with the exception of Brett’s points relating to the brain, self-consciousness, and introspection, there seems to be little that is new. There is no doubt that Plotinus probably acknowledged that we humans have an awareness of what we are doing and thinking but this awareness must have taken the form of knowing what one is doing and this knowing must surely have been non-observational. Introspection, of course, has been many things to many theorists but in all its non-Cartesian forms, it has been connected to some kind of internal observation of the self(which possesses the kind of unity, principle or form that cannot be observed). The modern Scientific subjective-objective distinction is also often introduced into the debate with no awareness of its reliance on a materialistic assumption. This in its turn is anathema to the implication of Platonic and Aristotelian positions which maintain that principles on the thought end of the chain of Being are responsible for explanations of the kinds of change and activity associated with human Souls. In the metaphysical terms embraced by Plotinus, it is clear that the oneness and goodness of Being is the cause and explanation of the Intellect and its creative activity in relation to the forms. This intellect or Demiurge, in turn, is the cause or explanation of life forms such as Souls that are embodied and organized materially in various ways. The Soul is therefore obviously related in various ways to matter, the last entity in the chain of Being. In other words, material is the least organized and most chaotic of all the entities in this chain for which the oneness and goodness of Being is the source of all explanation. Science, of course, as we have noted, reverses the polarity of explanation and locates the source of description and explanation in the events of the external material world. This in spite of the fact that the very idea of what constitutes an event is in question even within the scientific community.

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