Plotinus and the Possibility of Non-Propositional Thought

"One must not suppose that the gods or the 'exceedingly blessed spectators' in the higher world contemplate propositions, but all the forms we speak about are beautiful images in that world, of the kind that someone imagined to exist in the soul of the wise man, images not painted but real." (Plotinus, Enn. v 8.5.20-24)(1)

The modern faith that all thought is propositional does not easily find its way into interpretations of classical Greek philosophy. Even if, as Plato insists, the dialectician must give an account of each form he claims to know, it is not clear that knowledge is conveyed in the account without remainder. Plato's own distrust of writing is well known from the Phaedrus, and the Cratylus seems to show that knowledge must precede naming if naming is anything but conventional. Platonic skepticism about language finds its most concise and virulent form in the philosophical excursus of the Seventh Letter.

Despite these conflicting attitudes, we can still look at classical theories of intellection and ask whether they demonstrate that non-propositional thought is possible or necessary. Richard Sorabji has recently argued against the generally accepted view that Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus all defend some form of thinking which is non-propositional. He believes that commentators have been too quick to suppose that insight into forms (Plato), contemplation of essences (Aristotle), and the activity of Nous (Plotinus) involve non-discursive, non-propositional thought. First, I will summarize Sorabji's argument regarding Plotinus. That argument has two parts: first, he defends a specific reading of Aristotle's account of thinking composites and incomposites, chiefly as it occurs in Book 9 of the Metaphysics and Book 3 of De Anima; second, he claims that Plotinus is using this model, with significant alterations, in the Enneads. Questions abound at both stages of the argument; I do not think Sorabji's arguments are plausible in themselves. But my primary purpose is to show, in section II, why Intellect cannot be propositional given Plotinus' concerns about the nature of language and the possibility of infallible thought. Section III reinforces this conclusion by showing how Plotinus thinks language can be used to investigate the hypostases. I conclude that while we cannot make Plotinus share modern views about the propositional nature of thought, we can find in his thought a sophisticated understanding of language.


Sorabji on Non-Discursive Thought

In "Myths about Non-propositional Thought," Richard Sorabji argues that, contrary to received opinion, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus do not present any models of thinking that must be regarded as non-propositional. He grants that Aristotle and Plotinus hold that some forms of thinking are non-discursive, but he denies that non-discursive thought is non-propositional. Intuitively, this is a tough thesis to argue because by non-discursive thought we typically mean a way of thinking without movement from one concept to another. If there is no movement in a non-discursive thought how can there be a proposition with a subject, copula, and predicate? On a psychological level it is not obvious that non-discursive thought is possible at all. Try to think "beauty" without thinking anything about it. The mind tends to wander and we are soon thinking of some particular beauty or, perhaps, that "Beauty is truth." A. C. Lloyd, Sorabji's opponent in this debate, suggests that we imagine that someone is knocked unconscious before thinking the predicate of the proposition, "Beauty is truth." But this kind of psychologizing is misleading. The non-discursivity thesis is not a psychological thesis but rather a philosophical thesis that reality is constituted in a way that makes essences intelligible in isolation; that is, we can think one essence without thinking other essences in relation to it. Plotinus, for instance, would never regard our inability to contemplate essences at will as evidence that they could not in principle be contemplated.

Sorabji begins with Aristotle's claim that in contemplating incomposites in isolation we do not assert anything of anything. This might be taken to mean that non-discursive contemplation is inherently non-propositional. After all to have a proposition, one must say something of something. In Metaphysics Book 9, 1051b18-35, Aristotle applies this reasoning to composites and incomposites. For a composite "to be" two things must be united, but that cannot be the meaning of "to be" for incomposites. Similarly, truth and falsity cannot be the same for incomposites and composites. The truth of an incomposite is a matter of apprehending it or not apprehending it. This apprehension is a kind of direct contact and so without discursus.

So far this sort of contemplation still sounds non-propositional. To make his argument Sorabji turns to De Anima, Book III, section 6, where Aristotle writes,

Assertion is the saying of something concerning something, as too is denial, and is in every case either true or false: this is not always the case with thought: the thinking of the definition in the sense of what it is for something to be is never in error nor is it the assertion of something concerning something. . . (430b26-29)

Sorabji's claim is that the contemplation of essences is simply a matter of thinking definitions. If he is right, then non-discursive thought is propositional since definitions involve a subject, a copula, and a predicate. But contemplation of essences involves no assertion according to Aristotle and definitions seem to be assertions. Sorabji construes definitions as non-assertions by arguing that they are identity statements and therefore they do not say "something of something" but the same thing twice.

This is a clever argument and it makes sense of the passage from De Anima, but I think the passage can be understood without Sorabji's conclusion and more important, I don't think we can make sense of Sorabji's notion of definition. A full consideration of Sorabji's arguments would take us away from Plotinus, but some of the following objections resonate in Plotinus' text so they deserve at least brief mention here.(2)

First, there seems to be a difference between thinking an incomposite and thinking a definition of an incomposite, at least with respect to infallibility. I think bad definitions can be called false in the sense that the name of the thing and the definiendum will refer to two different things and then I will be asserting or contemplating something about something else. The only way to avoid false definitions is to say that their truth is guaranteed by the infallibility of the contemplation. But that move requires acknowledging that contemplation has a logical and epistemological priority over definition and if that is true, they cannot be resolved into one another.

Second, there is no need to insist on the propositional form "'x' is x" for contemplation when it simply involves thinking "x's x-ness." If the latter captures what is meant by contemplation, then propositional form is not necessarily involved.

Third, while definitions are clearly identity statements in the sense that both definiens and definiendum both refer to the same thing, the definiens only refers mediately through a reference to a genus and differentia. I only know how to think a definition by passing discursively from genus to differentia and by asserting the relationship of one to the other. The judgement synthesizes the genus and differentia of the definiendum.(3) If such a judgement is involved in thinking a definition, then such thinking is not the same as contemplating an incomposite in isolation and that is what Sorabji set out to explain.

Finally, the identity interpretation of definitions does not capture the experience of non-discursive contemplation, at least as Plotinus describes it. The copula "is" is frequently understood in its capacity to join subject and predicate in an apparent identity. But it is also true that the copula divides subject and predicate. After all, if it merely joined without also marking the difference between that which it joined, we might simply write identity statements without the copula, i.e. "I man" for "I am a man." This obscure way of putting the point is like Plotinus' obscure formulation "I I" in v 3.10.30-35, where he argues that any use of language introduces multiplicity and compromises identity. The copula both unites and marks the division between that which it unites. The copula itself introduces discursivity by inaugurating the division which it asks us to unite in thought.

Plotinus makes an overt and extensive appropriation of the perplexing Aristotelian thesis that in thinking the act of thought is identical to the object of thought (De An. 431a1). This source takes us to Plotinus' text more directly than the previous argument. It is a sub-text to v 5 ("That the Intelligibles are not Outside the Intellect"), and it appears directly, along with the distinction between potentiality and active actuality, in v 3.4 and v 3.5. Of course Plotinus' use of the thesis is different from Aristotle's and, if I am correct, Sorabji's use of it is different from both.

In order to get to Plotinus' text, I will ignore the question of whether Sorabji's reading of Aristotle is "really" Aristotle and simply summarize the work it does in his polemic against non-propositional thought. By looking at Plotinus' own use of Aristotle's identity thesis I will demonstrate that Sorabji's reading cannot work for Plotinus.

A. C. Lloyd clearly defines the relationship between what I will call the identity thesis, that there is "no difference" between the activity of thinking and object of thought, and the basic mark of non-discursive thought, that there is no transition from concept to concept. Non-discursivity entails some kind of identity between thinker and thought. If the concept being thought is very different from the thinker's self-thought, there will be a transition from thinker to thought in every thought (Lloyd 1969, 266). Here we can see the importance of non-discursive thought and why one might argue about whether it is propositional. If all thinking is mediated by a transition, Aristotle's model of infallibility fails and we have an opening for skepticism. If, on the other hand, non-discursive thought is possible and it is the model for infallibility and yet it is inherently non-propositional, we have the still undesirable possibility of mysticism coupled with a weaker form of skepticism.(4) In arguing that contemplation is a matter of thinking definitions of essences, Sorabji is trying to maintain that non-discursivity and propositionality are both attributes of a contemplating intellect, thus steering a path between two undesirable alternatives.

This goal informs his strategy for reading the Aristotelian identity thesis. All non-skeptical philosophers must agree in some sense to the thesis that the thinking subject and object of thought are identical, even if only in the minimal sense that to think a thought, the thought must be of the same nature as that which can think it. This does not require us to agree that the thinker is essentially identical to the object of thought, as Aristotle repeatedly cautions (Aristotle, Ph. 202a20-b22). Sorabji, with Aristotle hold something like this minimal reading. For example, teaching and learning are essentially different but both can be referred to the same activity, education. Aristotle argues that while separate, they are both predicable of the same process (Ph. 202b19-21). This reading, applied to Plotinus' second hypostasis, where Intellect is identical to the intelligible, allows Sorabji to claim that the Intellect is different from the intelligible and yet both are predicable of intellection. In other words, act and object of thought are different enough to permit predication but they are part of the same activity (intellection), therefore in going from subject to predicate (definiens to definiendum), there is no "discourse."

The Aristotelian identity thesis is notoriously difficult and the question of its interpretation and influence on Plotinus would require a separate discussion. Other commentators, writing prior to Sorabji, have given us textual evidence that Aristotle's view cannot be directly applied to Plotinus' (Armstrong 401; Wallis 922-924). For my present purposes, I would only like to indicate why I think Sorabji's use of this thesis distorts the notion of non-discursive thought.

In his discussion of definitions, Sorabji argued that subject and predicate were identical in the sense that both refer to the same object. But no such identity holds for act and object of thought. The latter refers only potentially to a single activity. Both Sorabji and Aristotle, except perhaps when he is talking about God, acknowledge their essential difference. Once "non-discursive" can be applied to a transition between essentially different concepts merely on the grounds that they remain within intellection, the term has no recognizable meaning because there would be no cases of discursive thought.

In light of these specific criticisms of Sorabji's view, we need to begin a positive reconstruction of Plotinus' reasons for denying that Nous is propositional.


Why Nous Cannot Be Propositional

In v 1.11 and v 5.1, Plotinus contrasts the infallibility of Intellect with the fallibility of discursive reason in the soul. If the soul is sometimes right and sometimes wrong about particulars, "there must be some further permanent rightness from which arises (its) discursive reasoning" (v In the later passage (v 5[39].1), Plotinus enters into a search for the source of Intellect's infallibility. Prior to this, Plotinus develops the polarity between fallible and infallible apprehension by constructing three distinct models, or stages, of self-consciousness for soul: soul's awareness of itself in the sensible world, soul's awareness of Intellect, and Intellect's self-awareness. This dimension of his thought may be his most original. While he draws heavily upon the Aristotelian theses discussed earlier, he articulates the kind of awareness involved in fallible and infallible knowledge in greater detail than Aristotle. He also relates the possibility of language to the possibility of infallible truth. My general thesis in this section is that the model of consciousness which guarantees infallibility also prohibits language. To demonstrate this I will delineate the three stages of consciousness implicit in the writings of the fifth Ennead, noting how the possibility of language is associated with each.

In an early essay Plotinus contrasts the Intellect's possession of truth with the soul's deficient awareness. "For aroung Soul things come one after another: now Socrates, now a horse, always some one particular reality; but Intellect is all things" (v 1[10].4.17-19). Soul's need to move in this incessant and discursive manner is an effect of its original self-assertion and essential lack. Intellect, however, possesses its object by having it not by seeing it (v 1.4). One of Plotinus' aims as a writer is to show how the soul can recover its origin by turning its power of apprehension inward and attending to its father/King Intellect (v 3.4). The cure for self-assertion is self-reflection of a certain kind.

In one of the last essays he wrote (v 3[49]), Plotinus sets out the path for our return by distinguishing two ways that soul can be in accord with Intellect; first "by having something like its writing in us like laws, or by being as if filled with it and able to see it and be aware of it as present" (v 3.4.2-5). Below these forms of accord, soul has simple sense-perception. This lowest state of awareness is like the doxophilist's in Republic V, 480a. It involves no reasoning and no accumulation of knowledge. The second sort of consciousness is soul's awareness of the absence of Intellect. Even as we attend to its written laws, we are aware of the absence of the writer, Intellect. At the third stage of awareness, soul becomes Intellect.

The first two models are clearly discursive. In mere sense perception the movement is from datum to datum. There is no self-recognition nor any recognition of form. Soul's first consciousness of Intellect is an awareness of its writing in the soul. This awareness is also discursive but here the movement is from act of thought to rule of thought. Rules of thought stand in as a proxy for Intellect; we become aware that the rules come to us from another source and Plotinus believes that we identify ourselves with that source. Soul becomes aware that Intellect is what the soul most truly is.(5) Seeing intellect as the same, soul overcomes the otherness of its original self-assertion. Just as we cease to be absent-minded when we are reminded of our absence, and as we remember what we were supposed to be doing when we see the note we left for ourselves, so too, when we see the writing of the Intellect in us, we will try to become what we most truly are and, becoming Intellect, attain self-knowledge. Intellect's own awareness of itself is non-discursive, because the movement of the soul was due, in the earlier cases, to a lack which has apparently been supplied in the third stage.

This is a nice picture of transcendence but it is not clear why we should believe in a radical distinction between soul's awareness of Intellect and Intellect's self-awareness. This distinction deserves our scrutiny because it is also the basis for claiming that the soul can attain infallibility and for denying that Intellect has propositional knowledge. Plotinus' justifications come in two essays. The earlier one (v 5[32]) is primarily a negative argument against the view that Intellect knows what it knows the way sense perception knows its object. The second passage (v 3[49].5) is a more sophisticated positive argument for the identity of Intellect and the intelligible.

If Intellect is infallible and its knowledge is self-evident, what is the source of its self-evidence? This is the topic of v 5.1. If Intellect knows the intelligible as other than itself, how does it make contact? Any form of contact will be a kind of impression. "But how, also, will it know that it really grasped them? And how will it know that this is good or beautiful or just?" (29-30). Impressions are always "other than" the things themselves. Nor could the intelligibles be linguistic expressions, or axioms, or premisses, as an Aristotelian or Stoic would have it (Armstrong 1966/84, 158n). This bars discursive logic from Intellect for the general reason that all logic employs expressions which merely refer to objects outside the system of expression. If Intellect works in this way it must first know that what it grasped in the expression was the object. But how could it know this and if it knew this completely about all objects of knowledge what need would it have for the expression?

Further, language (which here includes logic) employs terms through prior limitation. To say "Justice is beautiful" involves taking justice and beauty as simple realities by themselves. Plotinus' objections to this notion are captured in a series of increasingly hysterical rhetorical questions (v 5.1). These questions, which occur throughout the corpus, are probably intended as points of departure for reductio arguments. The general point is that if the intelligible world is a collection of discrete concepts, Intellect will only know them through sense perception. This seems to indicate that Plotinus does not believe that Intellect apprehends discrete forms. The following passage confirms this:

But if they are going to say that justice and beauty are simple realities, justice by itself and beauty by itself, then first of all, the intelligible will not be a unity or in a unity, but each intelligible will be cut off from the others (v 5.1.46-49).

Finally, Plotinus gives what he thinks is the greatest

objection of all (lines 50-55). If the intelligibles are outside the Intellect it will only grasp images of them. Plotinus uses the distinction between the quality of a thing and the thing itself (an apparent reference to the language of Plato's Seventh Letter, 342e), to argue that if Intellect only knows the quality it cannot have infallible knowledge.

The tone and content of this passage say much about Plotinus' anxieties over language. All language trades in images. The whole point of investigating Intellect was to find something which guaranteed the reference of images in the discursive reasoning of the soul. Language and discursive reasoning give the appearance that limitation is ontologically basic, but language cannot guarantee the reference of its own terms. The limitation of concepts cannot be ontically prior to their intelligibility because then the model for Intellect will collapse into the model for sense perception. The solution therefore, is to place the intelligible inside Intellect and to exclude any form of linguistic or logical discursivity from Intellect. When intellect knows, it knows something the same as itself.

Even if these considerations explain the difference between the second and third stages of consciousness and the exclusion of discursive thought from Intellect, we still lack a clear model of how Intellect knows itself. The argument above merely solves a dialectical problem of inner and outer by translating it into a problem of container and contained. Contemplating contains the contemplated. But how? The explanation comes in v 3.5, but to understand that passage we must first understand Plotinus' definition of "thinking in the most proper sense." In general,

. . . thought seems to be an intimate consciousness of the whole when many parts come together in the same thing; [this is so] when a thing knows itself, which is knowing in the proper sense: each single part is just itself and seeks nothing; but if thinking is of what is outside, the thoughts will be deficient, and not thought in the proper sense. (v. 3. 13.13-17).

The argument of v 3.5 is difficult. The first thirty lines argue primarily for the essential identity of Intellect, intellection, and the intelligible. Plotinus believes that in the second hypostasis all three are coextensive and that any division among them is a result of the one of Intellect divided into many.

The impression conveyed by the earlier treatise (v 5.1), that the intelligible is contained in the Intellect, allows one to mistakenly think that Intellect sees the intelligible with a part of itself. But then there would be seer and seen and the seer would never have self-knowledge, as Intellect does, but only knowledge of what it saw. But how could such a division occur between the contemplator and the contemplated? One hypothesis is that Intellect sets itself on the contemplating side. But then it will know itself only as contemplated. "For the contemplating is not in the contemplated" (12). If he adds to the contemplated the idea of himself as having contemplated he will know only an impression of himself as having contemplated and as a result of his division and not truly. If Intellect possesses the intelligibles, "it does not see them as a result of dividing itself, but it was contemplator and possessor before it divided itself" (21-22). Thus, Intellect, intellection and the intelligible are identical prior to their division and Intellect only thinks the intelligible "in the most proper sense" when it has the intelligible as a complex whole which is the same as itself.

Again, we may feel like the victims of a philosophical shell game. Now the paradox of how the intelligible is contained in the Intellect is solved by arguing that, in the most proper sense of thinking, the Intellect is the intelligible. But like the contents of the shells in the game, this most proper sense of thinking is not available to our scrutiny. We are ourselves posterior to Intellect. Still, this brief summary demonstrates how Plotinus refers division and with it, all discursivity, to the state posterior to Intellect.

At this point we are left with a paradox. The explanation of how Intellect possesses the intelligible infallibly comes to the conclusion that Intellect is the Intelligible. This is only a little better than the answer given by the West Texas judge when he was asked how he knows he is following the law correctly. "I am the law," he responds. Plotinus' answer is better to the extent that it is the outcome of a dialectical argument. He has considered the possibility that the intelligible is "outside" or "inside" the Intellect. The only way to make sense of this paradox is to adopt some form of perspectivism.

The identity of Intellect and the Intelligible is an identity without otherness. So what sense does the proposition "Intellect is the intelligible" make? I think Plotinus wants to say that certain propositions can be asserted of Intellect but that those propositions are true in the way the soul has truth when it is aware of Intellect's laws written in it, not when the soul has truth by being Intellect. It is the kind of truth one has at second hand, as when someone tells us that they had a wonderful time on their vacation. We presume that at some point in time there was a contemporaneity of vacationer, vacation, and "good time," but now after the experience all that we hear about is this or that pleasure. This is entirely apropos to v 3.6:

For while we were above in the nature of Intellect, we were satisfied and [really] thought and saw, gathering all things into one. . . and the soul kept quiet and went along with the working of Intellect. But since we have come to be here below again and in soul, we seek for some kind of persuasion, as if we wanted to contemplate the archetype in the image (v 3.6.13-18).

Unlike the empirical account of the vacationer, Plotinus believes that we can recognize the necessity of his argument because we can compare it with the rules of thought written in the soul. In spite of its necessity, he admits that the argument lacks persuasive force, but more about persuasiveness and necessity in a moment.

The problem with perspectivism is that it is philosophically uninteresting as an answer to the metaphysical question, How does thought think Being? Plotinus is interesting for having followed his reasoning to the point where language and truth become mutually exclusive. If, having followed this thread, we now want to deny the plausibility of Plotinus' definition of thinking as self-recognition or his claim that Intellect can think the intelligible in the most proper sense, we are the ones who must either accept the negative consequence that language is always discursive and inferior to thought and that there is no non-discursive counterpart; or argue (as was done in this century) for the affirmative conclusion that language can be made adequate to the requirements of absolute truth. The latter seems to be the alternative that Richard Sorabji would finally embrace. But his attempt to read a form of this view into Plotinus requires a reconstruction of the notion of essential definition which, implausible in itself, is alien to Plotinus' text.


How Plotinus Thinks Propositional Thought Works

In refusing to save Plotinus from the less desirable alternative, I do not mean to imply that his view of language is at all primitive or naive; it simply is not as optimistic as Sorabji's. If we summarize the involvement of language in each hypostasis, we can see some of the depth of Plotinus' thought on language.

Plotinus, like most philosophers, seems to believe that argumentation can lead us to see the necessity of certain positions in advance of a persuasive analysis of what that position entails. For example, after demonstrating that Intellect and intellection are one, he asks, "Has then our argument demonstrated something of a kind which has the power to inspire confidence? No, it has necessity, not persuasive force; for necessity is in the Intellect but persuasion in the soul"

(v 3.6.11-13).

Plotinus thinks we can see the necessity of the identity of Intellect and the intelligible even if our talk about that identity involves a paradox. When it turns out that talking about Intellect always introduces the difference of Intellect from itself (the intelligible), the difficulty lies in our "talk" (or the perspective that necessitates talk) not in the argument which leads us to claim identity. Similarly, Plotinus has a battery of arguments which attempt to show the necessity that there is a One. We should not infer from that that Plotinus expects us to find the One a plausible feature of reality, something we could get acquainted with.

There is something offensive (to a modern philosopher) about the uncoupling of necessity and plausibility, or persuasive force. Certainly, if the direct language of argument conveys necessity it ought to determine the Intellect to accept valid conclusions. Plotinus might be saying that philosophical argument, which considers the nature of Intellect itself, can persuade us of things that we cannot give a descriptive account of. Description persuades by giving the soul an appealing picture, but it is argument that necessitates the soul to cling to Intellect. If we bear in mind that literal description is the language of sensible apprehension and argument is the language of intellectual apprehension, we might remove some of the offensiveness from Plotinus' use of necessity and plausibility.

Description and argument are both forms of direct speech. As such, they are directed at the sensible and intellectual worlds respectively. But what should we say of description that is directed toward Intellect and the One and argumentation that is oriented toward objects of discursive knowledge? If this schema fits Plotinus' text we should find confirmation for saying that these usages are indirect. Earlier we saw that the soul reasons about things discursively by comparing impressions of things to rules of thought which are written by Intellect in the soul. This kind of knowledge is indirect because it involves a ceaseless shifting from object of thought to rule of thought. The man who knows himself this way is "double" and should realize that discursive reason is inferior to direct intellection (v 3.4). Discursive reason is here the paradigm of indirect argumentative language.

The other indirect use of language is descriptive language directed toward objects of Intellect. The textual evidence that Plotinus has a category of indirect descriptive language comes from his lengthy evocative accounts of intelligible beauty. These descriptive accounts are completely indirect in the sense that they explain Intellect and the One through the symbolism of pagan deities (v 8.9-12) and aesthetic beauty (v 8.8). The results of this schematization are summarized below:

Summary of Various Possibilities for Inquiry

into the Hypostases through Language

goal of inquiry

to gain knowledge to gain knowledge

of the world of Nous or the One

mode of inquiry

direct description empirical accounts -not possible-

indirect description -not necessary- evocative language

direct argumentation -not possible- dialectic

indirect argumentation discursive reasoning -not necessary-

This chart can help explain how Plotinus thinks discursive language works within the context of the perspectivism described in Section II. After summarizing the relationship of language (descriptive and argumentative) to each hypostasis, I will consider a speculation Plotinus makes about what language would have to be like if it could provide direct access to knowledge of Intellect or the One.

Empirical accounts are clearly direct descriptions used to gain knowledge of the world. Plotinus notes this sort of descriptive discursivity in v 1.4. Indirect description of the world is not necessary: if we have the datum directly, why use indirection? Plotinus does of course believe indirect description (evocative language) is necessary when we use the objects of the world to motivate the soul to consider Intellect or the One. Direct argumentation about the world of sense is not possible for two reasons: First, the intelligibility of things is not found in them directly and; second, the Intellect does not operate directly in this world but only indirectly through rules written in the soul. This is also the reasoning behind regarding discursive reasoning as indirect argumentation about the sensible world.

But how does language figure in our effort to gain knowledge of Intellect and the One? Certainly indirect argumentation would be unnecessary if the arguer stood in the presence of Intellect. If, instead of referring to rules of thought written in the soul, we had direct access to Intellect, why would we argue discursively from thought to thing? If we held all the items of a shopping list in mind at once, would we still use the list? If the soul possessed direct access to Intellect, language would be superfluous.

Perhaps the best candidate for a form of language which provides direct access to Intellect is dialectic. At least for Plotinus, the role of dialectic is not straightforward. The dialectical arguments for the identity of Nous and its object offered a series of alternatives, for instance that the intelligible is outside or inside the Intellect, and then cancelled both alternatives leaving us with the necessary but implausible conclusion that the Intellect is identical to its object. Thus, while dialectic is a likely candidate for direct argumentation about the Intellect, its candidacy is qualified in at least two ways: 1) it works less by direct presentation than by negation; 2) it is clearly discursive.

Like dialectic, evocative language works by negation but in this case the negation is more radical. When Plotinus speaks of an ascent of the soul, for instance, we must understand him metaphorically, just as we must understand the proposition, "John is a pig" metaphorically when spoken of a man. "Being a pig" is an image for John's gluttony, and so we can unravel the vehicle of the metaphor in terms of a descriptive account which presents the tenor of the metaphor. But what is the tenor of the metaphor of the ascent of the soul? This metaphor can only be unraveled by enacting the spiritual ascent of the soul. The person who makes this ascent has not explicated the metaphor so much as transcended it. In that sense it is a radical metaphor because it cannot be resolved within the system of expression which created it. One of the consequences of perspectivism is that as one approaches the limits of a perspective the paradoxes of that perspective can only be resolved by a qualitative movement up to another perspective. What is unsatisfying about Plotinus' perspectivism to a modern philosopher is that for Plotinus that movement requires us to abandon language in favor of thought. I think efforts to "save" Plotinus from this alternative are misplaced.

Plotinus does make a speculation about what language would have to be like if it could unravel the paradoxes of our imperfect grasp of Intellect. To do this language would have to overcome the deficiencies of both description and argument. Descriptive language gives us a picture of an object without presenting the object in its intelligibility. Arguments deliver the intelligibility of objects without direct apprehension. In the argument which proves the identity of Intellect and the intelligible, we never apprehend the identity, only the unintelligibility of their non-identity. The negation of unintelligible alternatives forces the necessity of the claim. But what if there were a mode of communication that could provide an image that presented both picture and object, an image "not painted but real"? Plotinus alludes to this view from the Symposium (v 8.5). He also thinks the Egyptians understood this and that ideograms are evidence of this:

"The wise men of Egypt, I think, also understood this, either by scientific or innate knowledge, and when they wished to signify something wisely, did not use the forms of letters which follow the order of words and propositions and imitate sounds and the enunciations of philosophical statements, but by drawing images and inscribing in their temples one particular image of each particular thing, they manifested the non-discursiveness of the intelligible world" . . .(v 8.6).

This is the prelapsarian language which, had it ever existed, might be recovered to supply the words the mystic always lacks. But the passage is poignant precisely because its author knows that such a language signifies only to the wise and that between theirs and ours lies an (almost?) unbridgeable chasm.


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O'Daly, Gerard J. P. 1973, Plotinus' Philosophy of the Self. New York: Harper & Row.

Sorabji, Richard 1982, "Myths about Non-Propositional Thought" Pp. - in Malcolm Schofield and Martha Craben Nussbaum eds. 1982. Language and Logos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wallis, R. T. 1987, "Scepticism and Neoplatonism" Aufsteig und Niedergang der Romanischen Welt 36.2 911-954.


1. 1. In a footnote to this passage Armstrong notes that "the images in the soul of the wise man" is a phrase from Alcibiades' speech in praise of Socrates in the Symposium (215b1-3 and 216e6-217a1). According to Armstrong the phrasing of this passage "brings out excellently that the Forms in Intellect are concrete living realities, not mental abstractions like propositions, a point on which Plotinus is much concerned to insist in this treatise" (Armstrong 1966/84, v 254).

2. 2. There are two related textual approaches to the problem of discursive thought which remain in the margins (and notes) of my approach. First, since the Enneads present a kind theogony, we might evaluate Sorabji's claim by determining the theological necessity of Plotinus' claim that discarnate souls do not use discursive reasoning (IV 3.18). The relevance of his theology to arguments about the nature of language will depend further upon how closely Plotinus thinks human knowers can approximate the ecstatic condition of divine Intellect. Wallis (945-952) considers this passage and A. H. Armstrong (1957) considers the more general thesis of God's self-thinking. Second, and related, the project of reunion with the One informs Plotinus' psychology. We could ask whether non-discursive, propositional thought is possible given Plotinus' view of the soul. In a chapter on discursive reason, Gerard O'Daly (1973) discusses the relationship between the psychology of apotheosis and role of non-discursive thought. My approach is to respond to Sorabji's logical arguments concerning the nature of language itself and to let this response and Plotinus' own remarks on language inform the picture I draw of Plotinus' view.

3. 3. A. C. Lloyd suggests that Plotinus makes a similar criticism of Aristotle's notion of definition (263).

4. 4. Of course, mysticism is only undesirable from a modern perspective and this same perspective informs our view of skepticism. For Plotinus there was no question of the mystical nature of intellection (consider "On the Intelligible Beauty," v 8 and v 3.6) and what I call "weak scepticism" would only have appeared to Plotinus as an indictment of language not of the possibility of knowledge. As R. T. Wallis has demonstrated, Plotinus is responding to skepticism in many of the crucial arguments of v 3 and v 5 (Wallis 917-925). Still, I think it is fair to say that mysticism courts scepticism at least in the sense that solipsism is a sceptical position.

5. 5. If we think of rules of thought as instruments, then Plotinus' imagery for the transition to the second hypostasis is similar to Alexander of Aphrodisias' comparison of divine intellect to a craftsman "who sometimes works with tools and sometimes without" (Armstrong 1957, 407). Armstrong also notes that Plotinus compares the morally superior man to a musician who no longer needs his lyre, but lets "it lie unregarded beside him while he sings without an instrument" (i 4.16.27-28).