Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 20, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neoplatonism/v-1
3. Epistemology, metaphysics and the daring soul
Pure sense-perception ranks low in the scale of certainty, because its information is incidental and transient. Mind arrives at an opinion or judgment (doxa) by assimilating sense-impressions into images (phantasiai) and comparing them with preconceived patterns of thought, which are intelligible and can be articulated, thus forming the mind’s internal objects. Certain, scientific knowledge (epistēmē) is the result of reasoning. This is the mental discourse (dianoia) in which mind weighs concepts, some abstracted from physical properties, others found inherent in formal relations (for example, mathematics) or in the method of pure reasoning. Above discursive reasoning Neoplatonists placed ‘intellection’ (noēsis), which is contemplation. They saw it as pure thinking (nous) in the sense of grasping unmediated truths as a ‘simultaneous whole’. For Plotinus this meant that the knower identifies with what is to be known. Others asserted that the two coincide (Proclus, Platonic Theology I, ch. 21, 97.22–98.5) so that we can still articulate propositions: perfect identity comes at a higher level. Grasping the ultimate truth, which has no differentiation, entails a complete unity, an ‘illumination’. Plotinus described it as mental rapture, but Iamblichean Neoplatonists deduced that it is fully supra-intellectual, brought about by ‘faith’ (pistis).
We assimilate knowledge with our psychē (soul, or the personal mind). It is what makes us alive and thinking. Not localized in a part of body or anywhere in the cosmos, it is as individual as the body it animates. Psychē exercises diverse activities, non-rational, vital, intellectual and spiritual. It can combine divine, intellectual inspiration and sensory perceptions into one mental object. Plotinus made psychē very flexible. The rest kept it between intellect and body, and sometimes distinguished its non-rational ‘nature’ (physis).
Education, knowledge, science, ethics and psychology are thus grounded in metaphysics: the kind of existence that substantiates them. Degrees of learning, awareness or ‘consciousness’ and virtue, reflect degrees of being. Humans, plants, gods and every existent thing are made up of a ‘bundle’ of the appropriate layers of being. In the basic scheme these are: physicality, soul, intellect, the One. Intellect (nous) is the objective, self-absorbed intelligence that creates by imposing ‘form’. On a universal scale it is the Creator. The unqualified One is the supreme principle of all that exists in some sense: that is, the ultimate God. In itself it is beyond the system, transcending determination. Later Neoplatonists distinguished aspects within soul and intelligence. In this way, they arrived at a richer scheme: pure body, physicality, rational soul, intellect, life-principle (process), substantive essence (object-pattern) and the One. They also distinguished class properties as ‘wholes’ and ‘parts’. For example, the complete soul is an unanalysed whole, but its ‘parts’ are the souls resident in individual living beings. This distinction helped specify ‘unity’ (henas) as the ‘root’ of the characteristic identity of a being, whether universal or particular. In later Neoplatonism (notably in Proclus) this is the spark of divinity.
The grades of being can be imagined as spheres of increasing comprehensiveness. Bodily existence is perfected by soul, this by the objective intellect, and so on. The One embraces everything. Conversely, there is a cascade of causation, from the One to the ‘many’. Neoplatonists were still faced with problems: How can diversity emerge from undifferentiated unity? Why should a perfect state give rise to others? In response they proposed that such causation is not voluntary but a necessary consequence of perfection, which has no external limits (so divine action is not a mystery, unlike in the revealed religions). Existence ‘unfolds’. This dispersion is like a light ‘emanating’ from its source and diffusing into space, or as a ‘procession’ of numbers from one to two, three, four…. Things (and levels) lose their foremost identity by gaining separate existence. They preserve the character that determines them by an act of ‘returning’. However, Neoplatonists were not satisfied with the One being both the original cause of intelligible reality and transcending it, and to the end argued over solutions (as indeed cosmologists and theologians do to this day).
The problem also appeared at the level of soul. Why does psychē leave its own proper level of being and ‘descend’ to a mortal body? Ontology requires an organizing principle to preserve the ever-disintegrating body. But something complete in itself cannot want something like the material body. Soul’s self-consciousness gives a sense of ‘dare’ (tolma) that enables its departure and blind fall. Later Neoplatonists pointed out that perfect souls (for example, the moving and organizing principle of the cosmos) do not suffer such a fate. The ‘particular’ souls are not completely aware what they are, and so leave their own order: either to ‘fall’ to body, or to ‘ascend’ towards the One. In this way the daring soul acquires a wide but personal experience.
Siorvanes, Lucas. Epistemology, metaphysics and the daring soul. Neoplatonism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neoplatonism/v-1/sections/epistemology-metaphysics-and-the-daring-soul.
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