ElAnt v1n4 - A Short Essay on Deconstruction and Plato's Ion

Volume 1, Number 4
September 1993


Andrew S. Becker,
Ancient Greek and Latin,
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures,
Virginia Tech,
Virginia 24061-0225,
e-mail: andrew.becker@vt.edu

Some of the furor surrounding deconstruction has now died down, and discussion need no longer be in terms of endorsement or rejection. This essay explores one case in which the language of Plato's Ion , seen through deconstructive glasses, can unsettle the ostensibly fixed polarity of reason and inspiration. I try to trace the consequences of borrowing an interpretive strategy, while not embracing the basic tenets of deconstruction. Section I outlines the contrast set out in the Ion between reason and inspiration in the activity of the rhapsode. Then, focusing on the word nous (mind), Section II considers the instability of that contrast. Such speculation begins, in a very traditional manner, by finding and articulating the apparent intentions of a text, the dominant rhetoric, what it 'means'. But then, in a manner borrowed from deconstruction, this reading of the text is unsettled by recovering the latent reverberations of the language, which can upset the dominant rhetoric. In a fashion appropriate to Plato's early dialogues, this essay then ends with a question mark (Section III); my musings, in the end, may not elaborate the instability of language itself (as in more committed deconstruction), but rather the instability of the rhapsode Ion's own use of language. In this way, these somewhat tame deconstructive moves may embellish and deepen (rather than subvert and refute) more traditional modes of interpretation. Finally, there is an appendix, something of a palinode.

I. The One Hand: nous in the Ion

The central question of the Ion is one of privilege and qualification. Who is to be the qualified interpreter of privileged language from the past? Who should bring the old wisdom into the present? Who can rightly interpret Homer? Ion is denied this role, because he relies on inspiration, and so lacks tekhne (skill, craft, art, system, method) and episteme (understanding, knowledge). The Ion , in familiar Platonic fashion, emphasizes a verbal skill which is attendant upon or constitutive of any given tekhne - it is the ability to talk about what one does (532b7-8, 534c5-6). If one has a tekhne then one must have the episteme to judge and critique anything that pertains to the tekhne ; i.e., in order for one's ability to be called tekhne , one must understand and be able to explain it as a whole (533a, 534c), both its good and bad manifestations (531e). The activity of the rhapsode is not qualified for inclusion in the sphere of tekhne and episteme , since the rhapsode can speak about Homer alone and not about poetry as a whole (531a, 532c8). He lacks the critical ability to judge the poetry he sings. The rhapsode is also unqualified to evaluate the various tekhnai (arts, skills) described in the Homeric poems. When a passage deals with chariot racing, a chariot racer is better qualified to judge whether the passage is rightly spoken (537a-c). When Homer treats medicine (538c), a doctor, not a rhapsode is said to be qualified to express an opinion. This same holds for any activity described in the Homeric poems: the one who has specific knowledge of the subject matter of a given passage is considered more qualified than the rhapsode to examine and critique ( skopein kai krinein 539d2-3) that passage. ( 1 )

In reaction to the rhapsode's lack of understanding, Socrates proposes an alternative source for Ion's ability. Because Ion cannot give an account of himself, cannot evaluate his words, and does not comprehend poetry as a whole, he must then be possessed or inspired. Socrates explains this in the simile of the magnetic stone of Herakles (533d-e). This stone is able to attract and hold a metal ring; that ring, in turn, is able to attract and hold another metal ring, and so on. This is analogous to the possession and inspiration of a poet by the Muse; this poet then possesses the rhapsode, who is then empowered to possess the audience to which he sings. In his explanation of this simile, Socrates mentions most of the terms used to make the distinction between reasoned knowledge and inspiration (533e-535a):

nous		ho nous meketi en autoi (mind no longer in him)
phren (wit) 	ekphron (out of one's wits), ouk emphrones 
episteme	entheos (possessed)
tekhne		theia dunamis (divine power)

Associated with REASON are painters, doctors, fishermen, and any others who are able to show the critical abilities of examination and judgment. On the side of INSPIRATION are poets, rhapsodes, Corybants, and any others who do not understand and are unable to give an account of what they do. Reason, skill, intellect, and understanding are arrayed against unreflective, inspired activity. The two are mutually exclusive (e.g., 532c6-7), although not necessarily exhaustive: one could be in the unfortunate state of speaking without either one.

The simile of the magnet-stone describes the rhapsode's recitations of Homeric poetry; but Ion also claims to be inspired in his ability to speak about Homer (533d1; cf. 530c8-9; 530d3, 6- 7). The bulk of the dialogue arises from this further claim to discourse well about Homer: since Ion's criticism is inspired, it too has no part in episteme and tekhne . On these grounds a case is made against the rhapsode as a fit interpreter of Homer, despite Ion's claim that he can examine and judge correctly everything in the Homeric poems (539e6). As the dialogue comes to a close, Socrates argues that Ion knows nothing about Homer; he can repeat, but cannot think (at least in the manner Socrates demands). The role of bringing old language into the present is denied to the one who traditionally held that privilege.

II. The Other Hand

The postulated contrast between reason and inspiration is drawn by a univocal, denotative reading; the dominant rhetoric of the text has established this contrast. Plato has used the language to make a clear separation between the two sources of interpretive ability. In a deconstructive reading, however, any term in any text is an unstable accumulation of expectations and anticipations, resonances and recollections. Also, in a deconstructive reading, there are no dead metaphors; we are enjoined to unpack etymologies and idiomatic phrases, even (and especially) if they do not support the argument of the text. A deconstructive reading sets aside the controlling expectations of unity, coherence, and denotative meaning, all of which guide most of our readings: we are advised to look for unwanted associations that unravel the weave of the univocal reading. The thread which I shall pull here is the use of nous as an exclusive property of REASON. It is used most explicitly in the explanation of the simile of the magnet- stone (534b3-6):

A poet is a light thing, winged and holy, and cannot compose until he becomes possessed ( entheos ) and out of his mind ( ekphron ), and his nous is no longer in him.

There is further clarification in the following section (534c7-8): 'the god takes away their nous '. When the Ion denies nous to the poets and rhapsodes, it denies them the ability to recognize, interpret, evaluate, or judge that which they say, see, or hear.( 2 ) Ion speaks but he knows not what he speaks.

But the absence of nous in Ion's activities is qualified by the presence of the term dianoia (thought, intention, purpose), one of the many forms which nous can take in composition. Dianoia is mentioned by Ion himself as he boasts of his abilities (530c8-d3):

I think that I can speak about Homer more beautifully than all other men; since neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus nor Stesimbrotos of Thasos nor Glaukon nor anyone else who came before was able to speak so many and such fine thoughts ( dianoia , pl.) about Homer as I.

We know that the rhapsode's ability to speak about Homer, as well as his ability to recite the poems, derives from inspiration; episteme , tekhne , and nous have no part in this activity (532c5-8, 533d1-3, 534b6). Yet Ion can and does express dianoiai about Homer. How can he produce 'that which comes about through his nous ' if he has no nous ? (This is a form of reasoning used by Socrates; cf. Apology 27c1: if there are daimonia then there must be daimones .) The word dianoiai , in this context, denotes Ion's pieces of Homeric criticism, without a connotation of the embedded nous . But, although latent in this context, nous slips in through dianoia . While this is not enough to undercut the division established in the dialogue, it does gaze across the gap.

The term nous also appears in the idiomatic phrase ton noun prosekhein (to apply one's nous ). This phrase occurs in one of the central passages in the Ion , when Ion is describing his activities during a performance (535e1-6):

'From the platform I always look down upon them, as they weep and gaze with awe and marvel at the things being said. For, indeed, I must pay attention ( ton noun prosekhein ) to them: if I can make them cry, I myself will laugh as I collect my fee. If they laugh, I myself will cry, having lost my fee'.

The idiom ton noun prosekhein is defined as 'to pay attention to', or 'to give one's mind to' (LSJ); the direct result of this activity is the ability to recognize ( anagignoskein ) and interpret phenomena. Not only when talking about Homer, but even in the midst of the performance itself, Ion thus claims (implicitly) to have his nous with him: he pays attention to the audience's reactions, interpreting the signals, desiring to evaluate correctly. This is the critical ability that a truly inspired bard is not supposed to have. Ion has said that in discussions of poets other than Homer he cannot apply his mind (532b9-c1): oute prosekho ton noun . From the dialogue, however, we have been led to believe that Ion is inspired when speaking of Homer, but not when talking about any other subject. Since inspiration entails the absence of nous (534b6), we are led to conclude, then, that Ion uses his nous precisely when and where Socrates denies him nous , i.e., in his inspired recitation and his equally inspired discussions of Homer.

The phrase ton noun prosekhein is an idiomatic way of expressing a certain attentiveness and engagement; the figure of speech, in its actual usage, is not necessarily inconsistent with the larger distinction between inspiration and intelligence. In the scenario I have described, however, the resonance of the figures using the term nous shows a kind of figural slippage that can undermine, call into question, or perhaps merely ask us to think twice about the dominant distinction between inspiration and reason as drawn in the Ion .

III. A Question Mark

But, as Cicero with Demosthenes, so I with Plato - I feel anticipated at every turn ( Brutus 35):

Nihil acute inveniri potuit in eis causis quae scripsit, nihil ut ita dicam, subdole, nihil versute, quod ille non viderit.

The figure of speech slips away from Ion, but does it slip away from Plato?

The suspicion remains that Plato is looking over our shoulder.( 3 ) This use of the deconstructive approach may not have unraveled the exclusive distinction between reason and inspiration, but rather taken the argument one step further. What if, in playful fashion, this figural slippage is part of the argument? The exposure of Ion's nous in his apparently inspired performances and disquisitions may not indicate that the distinction between reason and inspiration does not hold. It may lead, rather, to the more merciless conclusion that Ion has neither. Socrates claims that Ion does not understand what he does, but is, rather, inspired, a state defined by the absence of nous . Ion claims, however, to have his nous with him when he is supposed to be inspired. Perhaps Ion, as caricatured in this dialogue, has neither reason nor inspiration.

Who is to be the privileged interpreter of privileged language from the past? Who should bring the old wisdom into the present? Who can rightly interpret Homer? Socrates tries to show that Ion cannot be trusted, because he has not the knowledge to evaluate what he says. If Ion is not inspired, then he is also denied his role in the performance of the Homeric poems. Though he is left with nothing, Ion is ever unaware; he leaves thinking that he has a godlike power (542b3-4). To us, the opposition between reason and inspiration may be left to stand, but, on this ironic reading, Ion may not. ( 4 )

Appendix: First Thoughts Toward a Palinode

'Ein Ausdruck hat nur im Strome des Lebens Bedeutung' (An expression has meaning only in the stream of life) - attributed to Wittgenstein in N. Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (London, 1958), p. 93.

I have trouble with deconstruction primarily on the matter of the author's relation to an abstraction called 'language itself', whatever 'language itself' may mean: considered apart from use and users, 'language itself' ( langue ?) is an over-simplified abstraction, yet that is the ground for the deconstructive challenge. We are to look for relations in the language that are unperceived by the author, but authorial intent is denied as a hermeneutic principle: it is not considered relevent, nor is it considered to be knowable in any significant way. See, e.g., J. Derrida, Of Grammatology , trans. G.C. Spivak (Baltimore and London, 1974), pp. 150-159. The text's undercutting of itself, the unraveling of its own weave, according to the followers of deconstruction, is a necessary feature of this 'language itself', independent of what language users may do. Nevertheless, authorial intent is used (negatively) in analysis, as one tries to tease out connotations which are beyond the control of the author. Hence, at some point a reader is forced to determine the degree of control a given auther has over the figural play.

To counter an argument that takes as its arkhai assumptions about what 'language' must do or necessarily does, we need not appeal to referential certainties, or transcendental 'truth', or verities of 'human nature', or theories that assume structure and meaning as inherent parts of a language-system (the very positions deconstruction attacks, calling this 'the Western tradition'). We could shift the discussion to what language users actually do with their language, to a more emic and less etic view of language. Authorial intent, then, while not as simple to use as those with positivist inclinations might claim, would not be inadmissible evidence; nor would the actual or reconstructed responses of various audiences to the text. The ways in which we make language work and make it 'mean' are at least as interesting as any generalized necessity. In practice, our use of language, while usually fraught with confusion, is by no means wholly indeterminate. There is another intellectual tradition, which argues that language use and language users do much to determine what language does and means, not just 'language itself'. The use of usus as the cornerstone of our discussions of language can, perhaps, be the best answer to the challenge. For arguments against the limited view of language as an abstraction, see J. Ortega y Gasset, 'What People Say: Language: Toward a New Linguistics', in Man and People (New York, 1957), pp.222- 257, and 'The Difficulty of Reading', Diogenes 28 (1959), pp. 1-17; E. Grassi Rhetoric as Philosophy (University Park and London, 1980); M. Bakhtin The Dialogic Imagination (Austin and London, 1981); L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York, 1953); K. Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1966); P. Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (Cambridge, 1981) and A. L. Becker Translation and Beyond: Toward a New Philology (Ann Arbor, forthcoming). Deconstruction assumes a binary opposition between the radical scepticism, which it favors, and the purveyors of transcendent and knowable truth, 'the Western tradition', which it opposes. These varied works listed above, and many others to be sure, provide alternatives to such a simple dichotomy. ( 5 )

'Rigor alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity'. - G. Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (London, 1979), p. 219.


(1) Ion, or Socrates, or Plato, does not draw attention to those passages in Homer which deal with bards. Ion would, presumably, have some knowledge in this area; but, when Socrates asks what passages a rhapsode will know about (539d5- e5), song does not come to Ion's mind. Ion, the expert, quotes Homer only once (537c8-b5); Socrates produces four quotations (538c2-3, d1-3; 539a1-b1, b4-d1). In common with many other Socratic interlocutors, Plato creates an Ion who is inept, a whipping-boy, who is finally stripped of any claim to skill.

(2) The relation between nous and recognition is discussed by G. Nagy in Greek Mythology and Poetics (Ithaca, 1990), pp. 202-222. One's nous allows one to recognize ( anagignoskein ) signs ( semata ).

(3) For a characteristically deconstructive twist on this feeling, that Plato is looking over our shoulders, see J. Derrida The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond , trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1987) pp. 9-10, et passim.

(4) I pity poor Ion. Perhaps some imaginative and compassionate soul could take up the salutary task of defending the abused rhapsode.

(5) I am pleased to acknowledge that I have benefitted much from conversations on these matters with my colleagues Terry Papillon, Ann Murphy and Laura Gorfkle, and at a much earlier stage, George Kennedy.

Andrew S. Becker
e-mail: andrew.becker@vt.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 3 - August 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606