The philosophy of Plotinus: part five


Movement and rest in ‘thought’, the most intense activity and stillness in unity

Intellect is both thought (thinking being, ‘that which primarily thinks’)1 and the objects of its creation existing in the realm of thought.2 It is eternal mind and absolute living Being.3 It contains a finite totality of non-sensory, interpenetrating beings which are both Forms and intelligences,4 and is the highest knowable reality, majestic and beautiful. It

‘…might be likened to a living sphere teeming with variety, to a globe of faces radiant with faces all living…with Intellect enthroned over all so that the place entire glows with Intellectual splendour.’5

In Intellect, there is no past nor future, only an eternal present. Though having shape (because it contains being), and despite existing as the absolute standard of measurement, it has no extension and is beyond all bound, measure, and even spatial and numerical infinitude.6 It is infinite power.

By an intensely active and stationary wandering within itself, in the universe of ‘the Meadow of Truth’,7 Intellect produces its act – everlasting Being.8 Motion (both in a creative outpouring and towards the Good, and the attainment of self-knowledge) enables the former, rest sustains the latter.9 The existence and movement of Intellect lie in the ceaseless diversity of its production.10

The lower activity of Intellect falls short of lasting unity, contemplating (thinking and looking at) the objects of its creation. As the creator of All, Intellect is unity-in-multiplicity – a unity of thought and Forms, a reflection of the whole within the part, an identicality of the whole and the part – of  thought, being and life.

‘(In) the true and first universe (of Intellect)…each part is not cut off from the whole; but the whole life of it and the whole intellect lives and thinks all together in one, and makes the part the whole and all bound in friendship with itself, since one part is not separated from another and has not become merely other, estranged from the rest…And since it is everywhere one and complete at every point it stays still and knows no alteration; for it does not make as one thing acting upon another. For what reason could it have for making, since it is deficient in nothing?’11

In a going outwards, the multiplicity of Intellect is a dissipation of self. In its higher activity – eternally loving and desiring its prior12 – and in its return, Intellect is above multiplicity. With Forms at rest, it approaches and unites in direct awareness with its source, the Good. In this process, thought (active actuality) is the bringing to completion of something prior to thought, and within it.

‘For it has something to think about because there is something else before it; and when it thinks itself it is in a way comprehending what it had from the vision of another in itself.’13

We are each an intelligible universe. Thus, to attain (or more precisely, return) to Intellect,14 because it is independent of our lower nature and the outward, we must leave the sensory world behind. Yet we can know it almost like an object of sense.15

Unlike sensation, which can only give knowledge of the images of objects existing independently of it and individually, knowledge in Intellect is undifferentiated from the object, because the objects exist as a partless unity-in-multiplicity, in which movement is both thought and primary, real and living substance. Thought cannot exist without this movement.16 The act of intellection requires the identity of subject, immaterial object and (movement in) the act of knowing.

‘The Intellectual-Principle is not something taking cognisance of things as sensation deals with sense objects existing independently of sense: on the contrary, it actually is the things it knows: it does not merely possess their images or representations: whence could it have taken them? No: it resides with its objects, identical with them, making a unity with them: knowledge of the immaterial is universally identical with its objects.’17

These objects are not abstractions but are concrete reality. Proof of their truth is neither necessary nor possible.18

Part five/to be continued…


1. II,9.1. In MacKenna’s translation, ‘Intellectual-Principle’ is the first emanation from the Good and is manifested in every Form. The term refers to the creative element of Divine Mind or Divine Intelligence. Plotinus defined thinking as a soul’s ‘…kind of seeking its substance and its self and what made it, and…in turning back in its contemplation and recognising itself it is at that point rightly and properly Intellect…’ VI,7.37.

2. IV,8.3

3. Cf. Timaeus 31B1 and 39E7-9

4. Each Form, as being and intellect, is both one and a composite of many parts existing prior to it. Consistent with Platonism, Plotinus understood the Forms to be the thoughts of God (see V,9.7). He used the metaphor of a circle and its radii to explain the multiplicity of beings in the universe of Mind: ‘Often for the purpose of exposition – as a help towards stating the nature of the produced multiplicity – we use the example of many lines radiating from one centre; but while we provide for individualisation we must carefully preserve mutual presence. Even in the case of our circle we need not think of separated radii; all may be taken as forming one surface: where there is no distinction even upon the one surface but all is power and reality undifferentiated, all the beings may be thought of as centres uniting at one central centre: we ignore the radial lines and think of their terminals at that centre, where they are at one. Restore the radii; once more we have lines, each touching a generating centre of its own, but that centre remains coincident with the one first centre; the centres all unite in that first centre and yet remain what they were, so that they are as many as are the lines to which they serve as terminals; the centres themselves appear as numerous as the lines starting from them and yet all those centres constitute a unity.
Thus we may liken the Intellectual Beings in their diversity to many centres coinciding with the one centre and themselves at one in it but appearing multiple on account of the radial lines – lines which do not generate the centres but merely lead to them. The radii, thus, afford a serviceable illustration for the mode of contact by which the Intellectual Unity manifests itself as multiple and multipresent.’ VI,5.5. For Plotinus, the bodies of the celestial living beings are spherical. Although Plotinus held that the Form of man exists in Intellect as a universal, in some sections of the Enneads, counter to traditional Platonic doctrine, he allowed the existence of Forms of individuals (see V,7). Thus we are each the All. ‘…to become Intellect does not involve the destruction or absorption of the particular personality but its return to its perfect archetypal reality…’ Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, xxii. The universe of Intellect contains or in a sense is all particular minds or intelligences.

5. VI,7.15. Intellect is a ‘bulkless power’ in us, beyond sense-perception, ‘standing on itself, no feeble shadowy thing but the most living and intelligent of all, than which nothing is livelier or more intelligent or more substantial…’ VI,6.8. ‘…the perfect life, the true, real life, is in that transcendent intelligible reality, and…other lives are incomplete, traces of life, not perfect or pure and no more life than its opposite.’  I,4.3. Being and beauty are identical.

6. Because thought is common to all and is not physical, it has no need of these qualities. The unity of real beings would not be possible otherwise. Similarly, we all share the same Good.

7. Of the intelligible Plotinus wrote there is an ‘…endlessness for ever welling up in it, the unwearying and unwearing nature which in no way falls short in it, boiling over with life…’ VI,5.12. ‘Beings could not exist save by the activity of Intellectual-Principle; wandering down every way it produces thing after thing, but wandering always within itself in such self-bound wandering as authentic Intellect may know; this wandering permitted to its nature is among real beings which keep pace with its movement; but it is always itself; this is a stationary wandering, a wandering within ‘the Meadow of Truth’ from which it does not stray.
It holds and covers the universe which it has made the space, so to speak, of its movement, itself being also that universe which is space to it. And this Meadow of Truth is varied for that movement through it may be possible; suppose it not always and everywhere varied, the failing of diversity is a failure of movement; failure in movement would mean a failing of the Intellectual Act; halting, it has ceased to exercise its Intellectual Act; this ceasing, it ceases to be.
The Intellectual-Principle is the Intellectual Act; its movement is complete, filling Being complete; and the entire of Being is the Intellectual Act entire, comprehending all life and the unfailing succession of things. Because this Principle contains Identity with Difference its division is ceaselessly bringing the different things to life. Its entire movement is through life and among living things. To a traveller over land all is earth but earth abounding in difference: so in this journey the life through which Intellectual-Principle passes is one life but, in its ceaseless changing, a varied life.’ VI,7.13. The ‘Meadow of Truth’ is from Phaedrus 248B. Plotinus’ usage of the Greek for ‘wandering’ (pláne), applied to the life of Intellect, is from Parmenides 136E. The ‘planes’ of ‘Analytical’ Cubism can be analysed from this perspective. Real numbers (of which quantitative numbers are an image) are prior to and generate beings. They are also a particular kind of beings and forms with the same reality and causative power as other Forms. (Armstrong) Number is a structuring principle in the intelligible world and the Forms can be considered as a system of quasi-mathematical formulae, which project themselves onto Matter to produce the multiplicity of the physical world. (J. Dillon in his Introduction to Plotinus, The Enneads, Third ed., Abridged. Trans. S. MacKenna. op.cit.).

8. ‘Intellect, to act at all, must inevitably comport difference with identity; otherwise it could not distinguish itself from its object by standing apart from it, nor could it ever be aware of the realm of things whose existence demands otherness, nor could there be so much as a duality.’ VI,7.39. Plotinus defined being as the self-directed activity of thought. ‘The Being of Intellect, therefore, is activity, and there is nothing to which the activity is directed; so it is self-directed. Thinking itself, it is thus with itself and holds its activity directed to itself.’ V,3.7. Being is an image, but of an original so great that the very copy stands as a reality.

9. ‘(Intellect) is both at rest and in motion; for it moves around Him [the Good]. So, then, the universe, too, both moves in its circle and is at rest.’ II,2.3. Plotinus also referred to the ‘static activity’ of Intellect.  II,9.1.

10. ‘…we must think of it as a quiet, unwavering motion; containing all things and being all things, it is a multiple but at once indivisible and comporting difference.’ VI,9.5. Multiplicity in Intellect is not evil because Intellect is unified. Since Intellect has multiplicity, it is less than the One.

11. III,2.1. Also ‘From everything which has been said this is perfectly clear, that each thing in the All, according to how it is in nature and disposition, contributes to the All and is acted upon and acts, just as in each individual living thing each of the parts, according to how it is in nature and condition, contributes to the whole and serves its purposes and has its own proper rank and utility; it gives what comes from it and receives as much of what comes from the others as its nature is capable of receiving; and all has a kind of common awareness of all; and if each of the parts was a living being, it would have functions as a living being different from its functions as a part.’ IV,4.45. ‘Intellect is many, intelligible, intelligent and in motion because it thinks and each thought, to be a thought, must be something multiply various – i.e. in Intellect, thought thinks of another. Substance thinks in Intellect, but the greatest substance (the Good) stands still in majesty since it transcends thought….Thinking brings substance into being. Thinking is a power of generation itself. Thought and substance are the same things. The Good is beyond substance and thought and is alone by itself with no need of the things which come from it. it did not act before it generated activity, nor did it think before it generated thought. There is no thought in the Good itself, otherwise the Good would be in a unity with that which is less than it. Thus thought and substance are together.’ Armstrong, op. cit., vol. VII, 209-211.

12. I.e. Formless Form. ‘…in Intellect there is desire and a movement to convergence with its form.’  III,8.11. Intellect always needs, desires and attains the Good; but the Good, as the one productive power, needs nothing.

13. VI,7.40

14. Plotinus believed we must first acquire the moral and intellectual perfection necessary to attain Intellect before aspiring to the One. He referred to both the One and Intellect as God. For example, we originally existed in Intellect, in which some were even gods: ‘…pure souls and intellect united with the whole of reality…’. VI, 4.14. ‘But if someone is able to turn around, either by himself or having the good luck to have his hair pulled by Athene herself, he will see God and himself and the All…’ VI,5.7.

15. VI,9.5

16. ‘But if someone were to say that “in immaterial things the knowledge and the thing are the same”, one must understand what is said in the sense that it does not mean that the knowledge is the thing nor the reason contemplating the thing the thing itself, but the other way round, that the thing itself when it is without matter is object of thought and thought, not thought in the sense of being a definition of the thing or an intuition of it, but the thing itself in the intelligible is nothing else but intellect and knowledge. For the knowledge is not directed to itself, but the thing there makes the knowledge, which does not stay like the knowledge of a thing in matter, to be different: that is, makes it true knowledge: that is, not an image of the thing but the thing itself. So the thought of movement has not made absolute movement, but absolute movement has made the thought of it, so that it has made itself as movement and thought; for movement there is also the thought of that thing itself, and it itself is movement, because it is the first movement – for there is no other before it – and real movement, because it is not incidental to something else, but is the active actuality of what is moved, which exists in actuality. So, again, it is substance…’ VI,6.6. ‘…if it (Intellect) stands still, it does not think; so that if it came to a standstill, it has not thought; but if this is so, it does not even exist. It is, then, thought; that is, all movement filling all substance, and all substance is all thought encompassing all life…’ VI,7.13.

17. V,4.2. Plato argued for the same pathway to unity with real Being. By developing the divine within us – ‘thought’ in its movement – we can unite our understanding with what is understood. ‘There is of course only one way to look after anything and that is to give it its proper food and motions. And the motions that are akin to the divine in us are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe. We should each therefore attend to these motions and by learning about the harmonious circuits of the universe repair the damage done at birth to the circuits in our head, and so restore understanding and what is understood to their original likeness to each other. When that is done we shall have achieved the goal set us by the gods…’ Timaeus 48, 90. The One’s inability to see itself as external is the supersession of intellection. Plotinus made frequent use of the metaphor of light to express the unity of the subject and the object of contemplation: ‘…shining down upon all, the light of godlike Intellection.’ I,6.5.

18. The real beings of Intellect exist in the ‘thinking’ subject. ‘In its (Intellect’s) thinking, then, there is activity and motion, and in its thinking itself, substance and being: for, existing, it thinks itself as existent…’ VI,2.8.

Foucault’s shaped subject: from disciplined to the Neoplatonic aesthetics of Self

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

In Discipline and Punish Foucault developed a view of the subject in a carceral society, in the work of his later years he sought to develop one of an ethical subject with a care for self. Both views are built on a shaped subject – the former by a range of disciplines, the latter by self on a Classical and fundamentally Platonic/Neoplatonic model.

In the chapter ‘The carceral’ Foucault wrote that the opening of Mettray in 1840 was the baptism of a new type of supervision over individuals who resisted normalisation. In the functioning of Mettray were to be found ‘cloister, prison, school, regiment’1 This ushered in a new age of institutions and disciplines which grew from the carceral network, which Foucault called a ‘counter law’ and which the administrative power of state bureaucracies and agencies did nothing to restrict from expanding to dominate modern society.

In this de-centred archipelago of diffuse power, the bureaucrat and the lawyer give legitimacy to the power of wardens, doctors, psychiatrists and teachers who all make punishment seem constructive and humane. They extend the control of the regime by making power most economical and its processes most efficient through internalising it in the bodies of the individuals they work with. Doctors and teachers complement the network of prisons – hospitals and schools are equally instruments of subjugation and subjection. The power to punish is not different from the power to cure and educate. Foucault asked ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’2

In a society where all relations are power relations, judges of normality are everywhere – the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge – the universal reign of the normative is based on them and all are subject to it. The carceral network is the greatest support in modern society of normalising power. Teachers, doctors and psychologists are tentacles of normalisation who disperse a manner of living and thinking that originated in the prison. All individuals are shaped by disciplinary power to the requisite form of subjectivity from cradle to grave – their bodies, behaviour and gestures. What we think are aspects of our socialisation and consider reasonable are in fact normalisation, gone beyond socialisation. The subject is not an expression of self. We have all been normalised, lulled into the carceral continuum. The ‘human sciences’ assist in this.

Foucault came to think that his writing in the period of Discipline and Punish put too much emphasis on disciplinary power and passive subjects, that he had not sufficiently considered how the subject constituted their self through their practices and ‘games of truth’. He discussed this in a interview in 1984, published as ‘the ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom’. Rather than individuals being shaped by disciplinary techniques and prescriptive ethics, he theorised them shaping their selves on the basis of the Platonic and particularly, Neoplatonic model of an aesthetic care for the self.

Not only is power not an evil, it is the play of strategic games (rules for the production of truth) and such a model of care for the self obviated any requirement that the individual conform. When one thinks of, acts for and transforms oneself, one is thinking of others and the person who is thereby free has the power to speak the truth. The ‘beautiful’ individual is not the ‘normal’ person but one who has the courage to transgress. Foucault extended this into the notion of parresia or truth-telling in a rectangular field of competing values comprising isegoria (the right to speak/participate), ascendancy (who does speak?), normative truth and risk.

Foucault made liberty the criterion for an analysis of power. For the Greeks, having an ethos implied a competency to have relationships and to a place in the city and a city comprised of such citizens would function on a stable ethical principle. One only seeks to dominate others when one does not care for one’s self. In the case of pedagogical institutions the concern is not in the fact of the student being taught but in the mere exercise of power for its own sake. Such problems should be addressed through the law, the practice of self and the functioning of the community ethos.

Foucault argued that an ethics of care for the self was an urgent task. But this task is not the activity of an atomised individual, that self-formation requires a teacher and mentor. In the interview he referred to the end of the Alcibiades where that character, whose beauty was fading, said he will become the disciple of Socrates and Socrates his master, guiding him to true beauty. Foucault described this as the individual soul turning its gaze on itself in order to recognise itself and recall the truth to which it is related.

Plato describes this in the Phaedrus: ‘So each selects his love from the ranks of the beautiful according to his own disposition and, as if that love were the very god he followed, fashions and adorns him like a statue for himself, in order to honour him and celebrate his mystic rites. Thus those who belong to Zeus seek that the one loved by themselves should be Zeus-like in respect of his soul; so they look to see whether he is naturally disposed towards philosophy and leadership, and when they have found him and fallen in love, they do everything to make him like this.’3 The essence of this fashioning of another’s soul became the sculptor of Plotinus and Foucault’s real interest – the spiritual aestheticisation of self.4

In his attempt in the interview on care for the self to rise above a career of negativity Foucault is not convincing precisely because he looked not merely to a Classical but more specifically to a Platonic/Neoplatonic model which he agreed with the interviewer should be actualised.5 Foucault described this practice of the self as ‘ascetic’ saying that he used the word much as Weber had used it and this ‘asceticism’ can be traced back to Nietzsche.

In this interview on how to address core problems of modernity there is not merely an argument that if the self is formed ethically the community will reflect the benefits of this (a sound argument) but the ‘self’ referred to, as the man of ‘calling’ and overman in the writing of Weber and Nietzshe is inwardly focused. Further, not only is there a need of labour of self on self but that labour should be an occupation.6 But the interview ended with excellent words: ‘philosophy is precisely the challenging of all phenomena of domination at whatever level or under whatever form they present themselves – political, economic, sexual, institutional, and so on.’ If only that were true.



1. M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Trans., Alan Sheridan, Vintage, New York, 1995, 146
2. Ibid., 145
3. Phaedrus 252d5-252e5
4. Foucault said ‘I believe that, in ancient spirituality, there was identity or almost so between spirituality and philosophy. In any case, the most important preoccupation of philosophy revolved about the self, the knowledge of the world coming afterwards, and, most of the time, as a support to this care for self.’ ‘the ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom,’ interview with Foucault 20.01.84 by Raúl Fornet-Betancourt, Helmut Becker and Alfredo Gomez-Müller.
5. ‘Q.: Should we actualise this notion of care for self, in the classical sense, against this modern thought? MF: Absolutely…’ Ibid.
6. Ibid.


Psychoanalysis, Metaphysics and Platonism

Plato, Raphael's The School of Athens, 1509-11

‘psycho-analytic treatment is founded on truthfulness. In this fact lies a great part of its educative effect and its ethical value. It is dangerous to depart from this foundation. Anyone who has become saturated in the analytic technique will no longer be able to make use of the lies and pretences which a doctor normally finds unavoidable’1

In The Ego and the Id Freud wrote that the division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise of psychoanalysis and that psychoanalysis situates the essence of the psychical not in consciousness but that what finds expression in consciousness has its source in the unconscious, the basis of the ‘non-rational’.2

Psychoanalysis focuses on bringing the unconscious to consciousness, on what has been made unconscious by repression.3 The unconscious is the realm of the ‘non-rational’ and the non-propositional, of the emotions.

What is sought in psychoanalysis regarding ‘non-rational’ behaviour is not a reasoned causal sequence of thought but an explanatory over-abundance, a multiplicity of interpretations – none of which themselves are definitive – which derive from behaviour patterns, contingent non-determining associative connections between memories, images, words, unconscious conflicts, and desires.

Towards this, free expression of imagination and the play of fantasy are encouraged. These explanations are ‘first person’ – the analysand is the authority, because the explanations concern therapeutic self-knowledge.

In the case of Mr R,4 Freud explored the ‘non-rational’ unconsciously motivated behaviour of a man who was torn between love for (of which he was conscious) and hate towards (which he had repressed) his lady friend. This was represented symbolically by his removing a stone from the road along which her carriage was to pass and then replacing the stone so that she might have an accident.5

Freud notes that Mr R’s behaviour was a compulsive pathological action and such actions, in two stages, are typically the manifestation of obsessive neuroses. In a footnote a couple of pages later,6 Freud gave another instance of a man who had done something very similar, throwing a branch into a hedge from the ground in his way, going towards home then, filled with unease, was compelled to hurriedly return and put the branch back in its original position, even though it would have been more dangerous to passers-by there than in the hedge. Freud described the second act (as with Mr R’s action) as hostile but in the conscious view of the man, philanthropic.

Mr R did not understand his two actions, that they were part of a pattern, and how they related. If his actions had been intentional he could have easily provided a rational explanation. In removing and replacing the stone Mr R was re-enacting the same unconscious behavioural pattern and emotional reaction from his childhood when his father had beaten him. His inability to recognise it as such made his behaviour unconscious.

Donald Davidson in ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’ exemplifies the metaphysical understanding of the rational explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour. He began his article ‘The idea of an irrational action, belief, intention, inference or emotion is paradoxical. For the irrational is not merely the non-rational, which lies outside the ambit of the rational; irrationality is a failure within the house of reason.’7

He wrote that reason explanations are built into our intentions and intentional actions, into our attitudes and emotions and asks how we can explain irrational thoughts, actions or emotions and why someone would knowingly and deliberately act contrary to their own best judgement.

Davidson believes that all intentional actions, irrespective of whether they are or are not in some further sense irrational, have a core rational element, that since beliefs and desires are causes of actions for which they are reasons, reason explanations include causal elements.8

He considers the example of the man who returned to the park to move the branch back to its original position. In his retelling, he strips the event of all the emotive ‘non-rational’ elements (a sudden seizure with unease, an obligation to get off the tram and return to the park and compulsion to behave in particular ways which in the parallel case of Mr R were, in addition to compulsion anxiety, hatred, love and fear – elements of which both men had no clear understanding) that are in Freud’s telling, concluding that everything the man did was done for a reason and discusses the story within the bounds of the rational, beyond which lies simply ‘the irrational’. For Freud it is ‘beneath which’.9

The problem for Davidson is how a ‘mental’ event can cause another ‘mental’ event without being a reason for it and in such a way that there is not necessarily any irrationality. He exemplifies this happening when cause and effect occur in two ‘minds’ – a person wishing that another enter their garden, grows a flower.

The other craves to see the flower and enters the garden. The desire of the first was not a reason for the craving of the second nor the reason for why the second acted, even though it caused both the craving and the acting of the second. ‘Mental phenomena may cause other mental phenomena without being reasons for them’.10

Arguing against the psychoanalytic position which he himself refers to – ‘the holistic character of the mental’11 – he then claims that the same can happen in the one ‘mind’ by partitioning it into two, which parts are able to interact at a causal level.

Each mini-‘mind’ has all the functions of the single ‘mind’ but one of those structures ‘must show a larger degree of consistency or rationality than is attributed to the whole.’12 – unless this is the case, the point of the analogy with social interaction is lost. Irrationality would occur when the less rational side, against the rational determination of the other, persisted with a desire, causing a failure of the principle to act according to one’s own best judgement.

That Davidson did not include a discussion of the unconscious in this article emphasises his focus on the operation of reason.13 His account is locked in a dichotomy between reason and irrationality. He treats irrationality as an inconsistency, thereby failing to recognise and incorporate into his discussion the patterns, recognised by psychoanalysis, that characterise obsessive compulsive behaviour.

Davidson’s treatment of ‘non-rational’ behaviour shows not merely a bias towards rationalisation and inferential reason but a failure to recognise and understand the significance of inner conflict in our behaviour.

Psychoanalysis does this. Just as Davidson places a premium on reason, so psychoanalysis does on our imaginative capacities. Davidson’s article shows no recognition of what repression is and how it functions – which recognition is fundamental to psychoanalysis.

Lear wrote ‘(Psychoanalysis) is a technique that allows dark meanings and irrational motivations to rise to the surface of conscious awareness. They can then be taken into account’.14

Yet the theorising of both Davidson and psychoanalysis share a common heritage in metaphysics, particularly Platonic. Lear wrote that Freud ‘self-consciously brought psychoanalysis into the Platonic tradition15 and quoted him having written of ‘the divine Plato’, an expression repeatedly used by the Neoplatonist Nietzsche.16

Lear quoted Freud linking Eros to Plato: ‘In its origin, function and relation to sexual love, the “Eros” of the philosopher Plato coincides exactly with the love-force, the libido of psychoanalysis.’17

Freud was not the first to identify an underlying structure of our ‘minds’, of our psyches. The latter term points to Plato whose divisions of the soul Freud based his own, and equally arbitrary divisions on.18 His ego (representing ‘reason’) and id (representing ‘the passions’) derive from the allegory of the chariot in the Phaedrus.19

On such an emotive subject as that of Freud’s significance, it is to Lear’s credit that he recognised and acknowledged the problem that Freud’s metaphysical and arbitrary divisions of the psyche presented for the psychoanalytic explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour.

He wrote that as soon as Freud determined that neurosis should be understood in terms of conflict between psychic parts, he should have changed his conception of therapy. He asked how any talking cure can harmonise these warring elements. On this basis, neurosis could no longer be conceived in terms of repressed ideas in the unconscious but must be understood as structural conflict.20

As did Freud and as does Lear, Davidson also drew heavily on Plato. As the ego and id of Freud so Davidson’s Plato and Medea Principles – but where Freud’s treatment of his concepts was more complex and creative, Davidson’s Principles were closer to the rigid Platonic distinctions – one of his ‘semi-autonomous departments of the mind’ was ‘the side of sober judgement’ the other ‘the side of incontinent intent and action.’21

As Plato argued that metaphysical ‘reason’ should control contrary forces in the soul and that his philosopher should ascend to ‘pure’ reason, Davidson argued that metaphysical reason should perform a similar function in the ‘mind’ where his philosopher would find ‘pure’ reason.22 The psychic models of Plato, Freud and Davidson are all equally arbitrary.

While the psychoanalytic explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour, precisely because it entails a far greater degree of recognition of the complexity and contradictoriness in how our brains function, especially ‘non-rational’ behaviour, offers far more than does Davidson’s stunted model, both are metaphysically based.

Both seek to extend the metaphysical concern with underlying structures of reality to the ‘mind’, using ancient Greek and Platonic concepts and models. But these ‘underlying structures of reality’, as Aristotle made clear, are those things that lie beyond process and change – which nothing does. To focus on the therapeutic potential of a non-existent ‘mind’ using such models is to deny the vitality, complexity and potential of the brain.

The assertion that rationality will always be language based again exemplifies the impact of Plato – it binds a narrow understanding of ‘reason’ (that it is conscious, that it is deliberate, that it is inferential) and language together. To so do denies what psychoanalysis lays greatest claim to – an understanding of psychic behaviour.

What Lear disparagingly referred to as ‘elemental mental operations that occur below the level of linguistically informed thought’ and ‘the cunning of unreason’ entail our most complex and subtle thought which finds its expression in conscious deliberation.

Psychoanalysis must shed metaphysical thinking and, if it is to maximise its recognition of the complexity of the brain’s functioning (particularly manifest in ‘non-rational’ behaviour) and the therapeutic potential made claim to in its name, reflect developments in science.

The choice is not between metaphysics and science, it is between basing psychoanalysis on metaphysics or on science. Lear wrote of future brain research reinvigorating psychoanalytic ideas by revealing their organic basis. He writes that Freud predicted this and that Freud had no doubt that science would lead to a revision of his hypotheses, that his work would be superseded by science.23

This is the way for psychoanalysis to develop. Any understanding of the brain can only be on a materialist basis which therefore recognises the unity and plasticity of the brain’s functioning. The dynamic unconscious is material, not metaphysical.



1. Sigmund Freud, “Observations on transference-love”, S.E. XII: 159-171, p. 164

2. Sigmund Freud, The ego and the id, S.E. XIX: 13-66, p. 13

3. ‘The point is not merely that ideas can operate in the mind outside of conscious awareness; it is that the mind is motivated to keep ideas out of awareness because they are forbidden, rejected.’ Jonathan Lear, Freud, Routledge, London, 2005, p. 6

4. Sigmund Freud, Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, S.E. X: 152-249

5. Ibid., p. 190

6. Ibid., p. 192

7. Donald Davidson, ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’, in Wollheim, Richard and Hopkins, James, Eds., Philosophical Essays on Freud, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 289- 305, p. 289

8. Ibid., p. 293

9. Lear wrote that the mind is inherently irrational. Jonathan Lear, Open Minded, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 87

10. Davidson, op. cit., p. 300

11. Ibid., p. 302

12. Ibid., p. 300

13. Lear wrote (regarding Mr. R’s engaging in the love-and-hate two-step) ‘‘To search for unconscious reasons is only to increase the confusion. It is to treat the unconscious as though it were a repository for already formed reasons’ In Freud, op. cit., p. 39

14. Lear, in ‘The Shrink is In’, New Republic, December 25, 1995, reproduced at:

15. Freud, op. cit., p. 254

16. Ibid., p. 19

17. Ibid., p. 227 note. SE XVIII: 91. Also re- psychoanalysis on sexuality: ‘it had far more resemblance to the all-inclusive and all-embracing Eros of Plato’s Symposium.’, ‘Resistances to psychoanalysis’ SE XIX: 218 in Freud op. cit., p. 19

18. Lear referred to Plato’s account of the psyche as ‘a remarkably well-worked out account of psychological structure.’ Ibid., p. 191

19. Plato, Phaedrus 246a-254e. Freud wrote ‘‘The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions. All this falls into line with popular distinctions which we are all familiar with; at the same time, however, it is only to be regarded as holding good on the average or ‘ideally’. … Thus in its relation to the id it is like a man on horse-back, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.” S. Freud, The ego and the id, op. cit., p. 25

20. Freud, op. cit., pp. 187 and 190 Earlier in the same chapter ‘The structure of the psyche’ which begins with Plato’s division of the soul, Lear advocated these same Freudian divisions. The knots Lear got into regarding the superego – the heir to a so-called complex (the Oedipus complex) that never occurs and ‘never exists as such’ but which ‘plays a crucial role’ are exemplary. Lear was correct when he wrote ‘It is a little difficult to follow the developmental story’ … p. 183

21. ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’ op. cit., p. 300

22. Ibid., p. 294 Davidson’s ‘Plato Principle’ is the view that no intentional action can be internally irrational. He wrote that this is the doctrine of ‘pure rationality’

23. Freud, op. cit., pp. 6, 7