“Second Sailing” as Proto-Phenomenology? Not quite.

Note: this post is intended only for philosophy & theology geeks!

In her chapter, “Introduction to the Phaedo,” Eva Brann helpfully illuminates what is going on in Plato’s “second sailing,” discussed in the Socratic dialogue of the same name. Just before Socrates shares his discovery of the second sailing with his interlocutors in the Phaedo, he pauses dramatically and reflects deeply within himself. Indeed, he seems to be signaling, what is at stake in this second sailing is “no trivial business:” he means to inquire into the very “cause of generation and destruction as a whole.”[1]

Socrates then proceeds to narrate an intellectual autobiography of sorts, emphasizing the unfruitfulness of his prior “inquiry into nature.” At first, he says, he would “give the most ordinary answers to explain generation and growth: a human being grows by eating and drinking and adding flesh.” Note that this explanation is merely physical, merely based on a kind of naïve visual observation with little attempt to inquire “behind” the surface level items of everyday experience. This is an “explanation” that functions at the level of “things bumping into each other,” the naïve, “physicalist” kind of explanation offered by the Presocratics of the Milesian School.

Brann continues to comment upon Socrates’ account of his intellectual development in the Phaedo by pointing out the importance of the young Plato’s self-narrated discovery of a claim put forward by Anaxagoras, that “Mind orders the world.” Despite the fact that Anaxagoras failed to apply this principle rigorously to his system, instead falling back upon the same superficial explanations of ancient physicalists such as Thales, this insight about mind would prove determinative for the young Socrates, according to his own account. For it was this inkling that allowed Socrates to move beyond merely physical explanations. His recourse? If one wise statement from a predecessor in the tradition—that is, if just one logos—could prove fruitful, why not search for others as well?

Socrates describes this “moving beyond” in terms of a “turning away,” a forsaking his prior method of “direct” naïve observation for what he calls a “second sailing.” A fresh attempt to regroup, to start over, to turn away (albeit provisionally) from what the eyes see, to an investigation of what speech has in common with what those eyes see.[2] After all, one thing that eyes can never see is the very thing that Socrates initially stated as his goal: “the cause of generation and destruction as a whole,” whatever that might turn out to be.

How similar is this move to the procedure(s) which, twenty-four and centuries later, Edmund Husserl advocates under the banner of “phenomenology?” The short answer: very similar, indeed … but more different than similar.

To see resemblance, however, one must first appreciate that the procedure which Socrates enacts in his “second sailing” is actually composed of two, smaller-scale moves: first, he turns away; then he searches for something by means of words, by means of logoi.

What is fascinating is that, Husserl’s phenomenological procedure, has advocated and spelled out in his Ideas I, also involves not one fundamental move, but two.

And as is the case with Plato, the first move is a kind of turning away. Husserl writes:

We put out of action the … natural standpoint, we place in brackets whatever includes respecting the nature of Being: this entire natural world therefore which is continually “there for us”….[3]

How similar is this move to (the first moment of) Socrates’ move? From the quotation immediately above (together with its context) we know that Husserl’s move involves a turning away from a certain kind of naïve, “natural” assumption: that the things which we see “really” exist. But what is Socrates turning away from?

I decided that I must be careful not to suffer the misfortune which happens to people who look at the sun and watch it during an eclipse. For some of them ruin their eyes unless they look at its image in water or something of the sort. I thought of that danger, and I was afraid my soul would be blinded if I looked at things with my eyes and tried to grasp them with any of my senses. So I thought I must have recourse to conceptions and examine in them the truth of realities.[4]

Now, from this quotation we see that what both Plato and Husserl turn away from is a kind of naïve trust which assumes that things are in reality the way they appear to us by way of our vision. In this regard, it seems to me that Plato & Husserl are, in their “turn away,” doing the same thing.

Further, in a kind of intermediate move—a move between the moves—Socrates follows Husserl in emphasizing the importance of images, images which both thinkers affirm and advocate as an object of our focus. Plato seems to endorse the consideration of “image[s] in the water; in Husserl’s phenomenological reduction / ephochê he thinks that “a new region of being,” that of consciousness, comes into view, and within this region the mind attends rigorously not just to memories but also to “fantasies,” that is to say, to images.

Let me quickly register one pointed difference, however, in the two “turnings away.” Husserl makes it explicit in Ideas Part I, §32 that in the phenomenological reduction, one turns away not just from a kind of naïve dependence upon what one perceives by way of vision, but also from any kind of “theory” about the world or the things in the world. The world which we acknowledge, if only for the purpose of “setting in brackets,” is a world “free from all theory.”[5] So what one does here is to suspend the existence of the world, a process which includes provisionally denying or ignoring any kind of metaphysical scientific claim. The rejected world is “just the world as my senses take it in.” It is this world which is provisionally suspended, or assumed not to exist.

Now, one the one hand, Socrates can be said to turn away from this same world of appearance, and to suspend, reject, ignore, deny the theories of the world which he had previously been assuming. So far, Plato’s move matches Husserl’s. However, one must also recognize that Plato’s rejection of theory quickly gives way to an new entertaining of them, in the form of logoi, or wise opinions passed down primarily from his predecessors in the tradition. Secondly, and more fundamental, Socrates does not say that he is suspending or doubting or turning away from “the existence” of anything at all. I’d argue, in fact, that it is impossible to regard Socrates as doing this. Such a move occurs only after Descartes in the tradition, since prior to him there is an “ontological assuredness” (Cornelius Castoriadis) which characterizes all premodern thinkers. For them the question is never “Does anything at all exist?” but only “how does reality exist?”.

The deepest point is this, it seems to me: that from which Socrates turns away is merely one theory of how things exist. Granted, it was the theory which he apparently had adopted, but by his day many rival theories were on the scene (Parmenidean monism, Pythagoreanism, etc.). That from which Husserl turns away (albeit provisionally), however, runs much deeper than any one of these ancient, inter-mural theories, one among which Socrates repudiates. The “natural attitude” seems to be universally assumed. Even Buddhist mystics and ancient Cynics assume the world to exist in the sense in which Husserl means. And yet, this is what Husserl calls into question.

Put it another way: Plato seeks “to inquire into the cause of generation and destruction as a whole;” he never calls that cause–which surely is (closely related to) being–into question. But this calling into question is the very thing that Husserl’s phenomenological epochê does do.

To conclude. In this sloppily-written short essay, I’ve noted some similarities & differences between Plato’s “second sailing” and Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. Let me state what, perhaps, is the most interesting similarity between the two moves: they both “pause and reflect deeply” within themselves. What Plato states briefly, though, and passes over quickly, Husserl, like his contemporary Henri Bergson, “stays with” and elongates. For these latter two phenomenologists, then, this move deep within turns out to be a much bigger deal.



[1] Eva Brann, “Introduction to the Phaedo,” in The Music of the Republic (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2011), 20.

2 Brann, “Introduction,” 22.

[3] Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, tr. W.R. Boyce Gibson (New York: Routledge, 2012), 59 (Part I, §32).

[4] Plato, Phaedo, 99d-e, from the Perseus Digital Library, URL = http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D99e

[5] Husserl, Ideas, 60.