Doctoral Statement of Intent

As some of you know, I am planning on applying to PhD programs in the fall of ’08 (the five programs — two of which are ancient philosophy and three of which are theology — I intend to apply to are: Texas (joint program in ancient philosophy and classics), Kentucky (David Bradshaw), Durham (Andrew Louth), Nottingham (John Milbank), Cambridge (Catherine Pickstock)).

If you held a gun to my head and said, "Right now, give me your statement of intent," here is how I would respond:

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Social, economic, and political order rests on a prior moral or metaphysical order. Virtue is the craft of bringing the former in line with the latter. Hence fundamental metaphysics, especially an informed understanding of its history, is as important today as ever.

One recently attempted way of getting at this is by way of reverence, “schematized” by Paul Woodruff as “the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have.” Reverence is what Socrates experiences before the good and what, in the Phaedrus, his interlocutor (and all modern representatives of philosophic sophistry, including Jacques Derrida, as shown in his reading of this dialogue) lacks. Reverence is in short supply today, as Woodruff observes. The result is that “we don’t really know what we are doing in much of our lives, and … we are in no position to think about how to do it better.” If this is so for the individual, how much more so for the multifarious communities which dot the lanscape of our radically pluralistic society?

The source of our confusion? Layered and complex though the story be, it nonetheless seems to me that Nietzsche’s reduction of antique virtue (with its ultimate principle of logos or reason providing order to a chaotic world) to difference (the overarching principle of modernity, subsuming both reason and chaos in violent conflict) plays a central role.

Nevertheless there is something greater, something beyond, these two alternatives. If modernity (a la Nietzche) has, in fact, called antiquity’s bluff, then what will succeed modernity? What can get us beyond the emotivistic nature of moral disagreement (to use Alisdair MacIntyre’s phrase) in our day? Only a construction of reality which denies the necessity of violent difference, something which can provide an account of difference (groped toward by MacIntyre himself) which is truly beneficent and peaceful.

To put things another way, I suspect that, the validity of his move notwithstanding, Nietzsche does not have the last word (no matter how clearly his voice is still perceptible today across the dominant spectrum of philosophy, both continental and analytic). I suspect that, deep within the layers of antique virtue itself, there is always already a tendency to deconstruct what some (following Nietzsche) perceive as the ancient and pervasive hegemony of an allegedly neutral logos.

To return to the above example, consider the attitude of Socrates in the Phaedrus. In contrast to the impious stance of his sophist-sympathizing interlocutor, Socrates stands in reverence before myth. Not only does this posture save erotic love from reducing down to some kind of utilitarian (and therefore nihilistic) transaction, it instructs us on the ecstatic nature of the good, which, unlike Phaedrus’ ideal, is particible in time.

What is it about myth (specifically the three myths invoked by Socrates in this particular dialogue) which commands his devotion?

This participatory aspect of the ancient Greek philosophy, (deepened by neoplatonism in such developments as the theurgy of Proclus and Iamblichus), has been  utterly lost in the West. How? Perhaps it was Augustine’s injection of divine simplicity (inherited from the god of Plato’s middle dialogues) early on into the stream of western thought. Giving rise to an incipient realm of autonomous human reason, this trajectory includes Aquinas and the scholastics, early modern philosophers such as Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, on down to Nietzsche, who truly heralds a new and secular age.

With the advent of the “death of God” western philosophers no longer pretended to work within the horizon of Christianity, and the path of a truly post-Christian world was blazed.

The merits of this genealogy notwithstanding, classical Greek participation (especially that of Socrates) in all its modes (the ecstasy of the good, the dialectic of community, the concept of _energeia_ already latent in Aristotle’s thought) provides rich resources for the future of philosophy and culture in the West.

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Any comments anyone has are greatly appreciated.

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