Metamorphoses of Self | Ch.II – Catagogic Discord

| André Masson - Acéphale, 1936. |

Areteus writes of sick people he saw tearing off their own limbs because of religious feelings in order to pay homage to gods who demanded this sacrifice. But it is no less striking that, in our day, with the customer of sacrifice in full decline, the meaning of the word, to the extent that it implies a drive revealed by an inner experience, is still as closely linked as possible to the notion of a spirit of sacrifice, of which the auto-mutilation of mademen is only the most absurd and terrible example. – Georges Bataille1

Ok then, sure, the transgender identity has no ontological validity and is quite immoral. But if that’s the case, that perhaps a male-body-united-intellect somehow comes to relate to itself as female, and it is a male body that allows it, how does one become deluded into such a transgender self-relation? Let’s analyse the process that facilitates this.

A sound intellect can know more truly what masculinity and femininity are and how they are able to perfect said soul, but it potentially goes awry in mixtures. Beauty, Plotinus relates, is in symmetry, in a constellational harmony. A good example is the harmony of the virtues. In Meister Eckhart’s commentary on Colossians 3:1, he argues that some people are half raised up: practicing one virtue but not another. Some, ignoble by nature, covet riches. Others of a nobler nature care nothing for possessions but are bent on honour. Yet the virtues are necessarily interdependent.2 Though a person may incline to the practice of one virtue rather than the others, they are nonetheless all interconnected. Some people are fully raised up but are not raised up with Christ. Resurrection “here” with Christ can so be thought of in this totality of will assimilation, at least insofar as we read along with Eckhart’s simultaneously allegorical reading to the ressurection “there”. “Here” refers to the perfection of man in his immediacy whereby Christ is borne “in the soul” as through him and the Father we are given the gift of supernatural grace from the Spirit qua trinitarian perichoresis, “there” refers to the historical Christ-crucified who rose again on the third day3. To be rid of death, to be resurrected “here” is such a state, then, when the full constellation of virtues are in harmony with themselves and so with Christ. All in all, ugliness does not persist when the constellational harmony of virtues persists in a musical union such that when ugliness confronts it, the soul “shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.”4 

So with Eckhart and with Plotinus, in Christ-becoming or the ideal self respectively, we have the completion of the virtues in such a perfected manner that one might aspire towards perfection through. The good self-relation is then nested within this constellation of beauty and virtue. It is properly harmonious when a person through his body comes to see himself through himself as he is, biological design and all; the orientation is innately anagogic. This an anagogic metamorphosis of self best exemplified by St. Paul [Gal. 2:20]. We will return to this in the third chapter. First, let us explore its opposite in more detail.

By contrast, to see one’s self-relation as wrongly configured by the demiurge perhaps as the dysphoric do, is one of innate discordance – but a discordance that is not there because it cannot really be there, except conceptually; as a mental phantasm of sorts. So what essentially takes place is the hypostasising of an idealised mental construct or image of the other – its beauty or goodness in some veiled sense, of the opposite sex, that is unreachable in the present biological state which serves as such a veil. It’s this misidentification whereby the self goes out of itself, tries to leave itself but never returns to itself, to ‘know thyself’. n1x provides an apt and colourfully Deleuzean description (albeit serving a very different dialectical purpose):

 

The masculine cracks open its stern carcinized exterior to reveal the smooth post-human feminine alien within. The phallus becomes the Acéphallus, the body is emancipated from the reproductive humanist death drive to become the Body without Sex Organs.5

My good friend Alexander Iulianus has a great exploration of how this happens at a more psychological level here as it pertains to MtF transgenders. A choice quote:

 

There are these men, however, who are not so naturally resilient against impressions, and are more susceptible to slip towards the extremity of their internal psychological actualisation. The psychical life of these men turns malicious towards themselves as feelings of inadequacy and insecurity begin to dominate them. Pornography and their sex life ceases to be merely the fulfilment of a primitive urge towards reproduction, and it takes a totally new meaning and purpose. A ‘fulfilled sexual-self’ becomes mentally symbolised, pornography and sex becoming mediums for affirmation and confirmation. It is through these and other sexual mediums that they believe they will receive the goods they perceive to be lacking.

Instead of affirming the self, the dysphoric who find themself akin to the opposite sex affirms a relation to something else it is out there with, but not essentially united too. The process becomes quite mercantile in a very peculiar sense. In this process of, say, becoming-woman is the homo-economicus desire to strive. It is a drive downwards in nobility. It is materialistic in that it seeks its good purely in a bodily re-transfiguration as opposed to say the Christian desire to be ruled by the eternal λόγος such that Christ lives in you. This gives a whole new dimension to Nick Land’s proclamation that transgenders are the “jews of gender”. The dysphoric self-relation is a competitive process against the self for the attainment of sensual satisfaction, to attain this appetitive good for its own sake, only to feel radically unsatisfied once obtaining it – an interiorised competition between the socially present self and phantasmal otherness being reached for. The further realisation that this dysphoric state will not be ameliorated at all by going further into the process merely heightens this dreadful and disordered yearning.

Dysphoria feels like being unable to get warm, no matter how many layers you put on. It feels like hunger without appetite. It feels like getting on an airplane to fly home, only to realize mid-flight that this is it: You’re going to spend the rest of your life on an airplane. It feels like grieving. It feels like having nothing to grieve.6

I say “desire to strive” because my intuition seems to point towards a distinctively libidinal aspect at play here; a kind of perverse pleasure in the idea of such a metamorphosis – sometimes even in its irreversibility. Put back into the mythic account of Plato’s then, transgenderism could be represented as a flight towards what the gender dysphoric might see as the forms after death, which is another manner in which to reconsider what n1x called “emancipation”. We will call it death, to emphasise the dualism and shedding of the body to unite with the image of the other, much as “deadnaming” is seen as a kind of attempt at resuscitating the σώμα [“soma”: corpse] of the previously incarnate self. But of course, this isn’t really a going-out-of the self towards the truth of things which are in the soul, and the soul in it. What is it a going-out towards then? Consider the following testimony from Alex Marzano-Lesnevich:

When the world went into lockdown five months after I started taking testosterone, I thought it would be easier not to see people for a while. Maybe they wouldn’t hear my voice go scratchy or see up close the hormonal acne splattered across my face. Alone in my apartment, I imagined that all my difficulties in being seen and recognized as transgender-nonbinary would evaporate. No one would gender me except myself; my pronouns would be right there in the text box on my Zoom screen.

So I was surprised by how much my gender instead seemed to almost evaporate. No longer on the alert for how to signal a restaurant’s waitstaff that neither “he” nor “she” applied to me, or for whether colleagues and neighbors would use the right language — devoid of anyone to signal my gender to — I felt, suddenly, amorphous and undefined. It was as though when I had swapped my Oxford shoes and neckties for fuzzy slippers and soft sweatpants, I, too, had lost my sharply tailored definition.7 

It’s no wonder that when deprived of the social space that allows for the generation and sustainment of these phantasmal models, that the transgender self-relation is immediately problematised. This is a going-out towards simulacrum; towards an often pornographic in the MtF cases, perhaps commodified or otherwise fetishistic understanding of the other – but its lifeblood is a very specific kind of sociality. However, another key point to note is how such a social mode of being is generated. In the above FtM example, the exchange and display of socially mediated commodities, is very clear. Their identity is included amongst the various commodities that must be on perpetual display in order to be real. For MtF, vaginoplasty surgery expectations are quite revealing of the fetishistic aspect here;

Transgender patients who elect gender affirming feminizing genital surgery do so for a variety of reasons- often all in combination, which include gender dysphoria associated with the male appearance of their birth genitalia, a desire to have female-appearing genitalia, and a desire to be sexually active with genitalia in alignment with their gender. Indeed, many often present with varying expectations about the appearance of their vagina post-surgery. Some patients, for example, prioritize well-defined pendulous labia. Many patients also relay anxiety that their new vagina look “natural”, and often, the standard referred to are images of vaginas from downloaded from the internet (often pornography). Vaginoplasty can be performed with creation of a vaginal canal (for vaginal receptive intercourse), or without creation of a canal (what we term “shallow-depth” vaginoplasty). The choice for creation of a vaginal canal is important for patients because a canal requires strict lifelong commitment to regular vaginal dilation and douching, where failure to do so is associated with high risk of vaginal canal stenosis, and resulting chronic infection and pain. Many transgender women, however, have not considered (or have difficulty accepting) that a vagina is not defined by the presence of a vaginal canal, which is never visible – but rather, by what is visible, and its normal female urinary and sexual function.8

As we explored above, how one comes to know or understand is mediated through the senses and so irrevocably by the sexed body. We might also note how in tandem with Kitaro Nishida’s account of pure experience, we do not first have the “I” and then “experience” as a posterior phenomenon, but rather, the “I” is enveloped within experience. Experience is prior to the knowing subject. What does this mean for the catagogic metamorphoses of self? It means that there is necessarily a prior social mode of being, a 自覚 「jikaku」or self-realisation that such a sociality entails – the 自覚 of being an adolescent boy perhaps – which such pure experience presents itself as. But then in this catagogic process, there is a kind of creation of the individual that must take place. This is the creation of a subject that is able to define itself against such a sociality, against a prior 自覚, which takes the form of identifying the threats to the assent towards the reified opposite sex, and then engaging against a characteristically gnostic revolt against the social defining of the subject. Adam Katz points out that it takes the form of the demand  not to “look at me as a _____, but look at me as… the other of _____.” The demiurge has not just gone wrong is the configuration of the body, but in the configuration of the social order which generated a 自覚 whose archons must be dispelled. How does one escape the trappings of the demiurge its oppressive archons that govern the social? Through Mazdakian orgiastic rites of initiation that consist of increasingly depraved internet pornography, through castration, pharmaceutical drugs, and other such soteriological short-cuts. In such an inebriated state, the gnostico-dysphoric can only be described from the outside similarly as Bataille does: sinister, but we might add “drunken”, love of darkness. The progressive development of a monstrous taste for the obscene and lawless archontes. It is with this recognition that Bataille notes that such licentious Gnosticism, it’s sexual rites, fulfil a kind of, consequently, irreducible demand: a kind of black magic.

While to some extent we have all communed with the demons ever since we were cast out of the Garden, becoming cyborgs when Adam and Eve first decided to wear clothes and thus fuse the inorganic to the organic, the trans woman is unique. Her performance of herself and her desire has been intertwined with technocapital, in a way that could not even be cast off if she wanted to rip out a cybernetic implant. She is, in other words, perhaps the first truly molecular cyborg.

[The transwoman] mutates from castration, from the creation of the Acéphallus, the phallus perverted into a purposeless desire for desire’s sake. In this castration, in this mutation into an Acéphallus, she becomes the Body without Sex Organs: The body in a virtual state, ready to plug its desire into technocapital, becoming fused with technocapital as a molecular cyborg who is made flesh by the pharmaceutical-medical industry.10

The end of economic liberalism would asphyxiate transgenderism, and fatally so. Without the surgeries and drugs coordinated by pharmaceutical companies, spurred on by NGOs and Academia under the absolute farce that is “academic freedom” – without the domination of the investor class who are the only ones who seem to gain at all from it being a prevalent phenomenon, it would cease to be. The parallel of transgenderism through internet culture and Gnosticism could be taken even further with an exploration of e-grooming as essentially the basis of their underground cults but I shall leave that for another time. What is important to note is that while the constructed image that the hapless dysphoric goes towards might in some sense be an assemblage of signs which indeed have real referents, the unified synthesis of models becomes so far removed, whilst already gesturing towards something unreachable, that the understanding that moved intellect here might as well have moved it into an abyss. It’s not the internet pornography that spurred the realisation that one was not of the gender their body was ensouled with, but it was the internet pornography that resulted in the dysphoric delusion, to begin with. As the above paper illustrated for us, the intellect fundamentally moved it into a void because the image of the female genitalia that is reached for was totally devoid of the function that made its supposed referent what it is. It’s only natural that those who persist through their surgery do so in a kind of resignation. And so we get testimonies like this from Andrea Long Chu:

Next Thursday, I will get a vagina. The procedure will last around six hours, and I will be in recovery for at least three months. Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain. This is what I want, but there is no guarantee it will make me happier. In fact, I don’t expect it to. That shouldn’t disqualify me from getting it.11 

Returning to Plotinus, he relates that for humans, the Good and beauty are not identical. But they are identical from the supra-lunary vantage. Beauty is a feature of the intelligible world, while the Good, the Godhead, is beyond intellect, it is the spring and origin of beauty. Contrarily, ugliness is caused by an “admixture of evil living, a dim life and diluted with a great deal of death”. Speaking of moral ugliness:

Suppose, then, an ugly soul, dissolute and unjust, full of all lusts and all disturbances, sunk in fears by its cowardice and in jealousies by its pettiness, thinking mean and mortal thoughts as far as it thinks at all, altogether distorted, loving impure pleasures, living a life which consists of bodily sensations and finding delight in its ugliness.12 

Plotinus finds even ugliness poignant. In a misguided search for beauty, the soul clutches compulsively at everything that crosses its path, seeking to possess it by joining it to itself. “The soul becomes ugly by mixture, and dilution, and inclination toward the body and matter… just as pigs, with their unclean bodies, like that sort of thing.” And such is what we see with the reified, hallucinatory model that the dysphoric wields as a perverse inversion of the Plotinian ideal-self upon themselves. 

On what principle does the architect, when he finds the house standing before him correspond with his inner paradigm of a house, pronounce it beautiful? Is it not that the house before him, stones apart, is the inner idea stamped upon the mass of exterior matter, the indivisible exhibited in diversity?13

Herein lies another fundamental issue. Christ or the ideal-self operate as this indivisible pre-containment of the harmonious constellation. Consider the elements of the constellation as points on a circle. Each one of these points are one of the many virtues, excellences, and potentially infinite dramatic responses to “how should I act?” with “what Christ would do,” – let these all be individual points on a circle’s circumference. Now picture that these points recede upon their radii to the centre and watch the circle gradually shrink. But as they converge upon the centre, upon each other, the circle blinks out. Due to the harmony of this constellation, it is perfectly pre-contained in the eternal Christ. Not two, but one Christ. Two natures yet a unified person that beautifully exhibits itself in diversity with us – eternality that exhibits itself in time. The incarnation then gave humanity, body and soul together, a triumphant dignity;

John 1:14 | And the Word was made flesh, and came to dwell among us; and we had sight of his glory, glory such as belongs to the Father’s only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth.14

The bodily nativity of the Son of God took nothing from and added nothing to His Majesty but rather gave us a share in his immeasurable dignity. As the Word took the flesh into the unity of His Person, it was as if, as Eckhart tells us, that a mighty king who had a beautiful daughter gave her to the son of a poor man and so all those who belonged to that family would thereby be raised up and ennobled.15 By assumption of Manhood into God, spirit and flesh both were given immeasurable dignity just as how Christ taking on this universal human nature born from the Virgin Mary;

…through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so, is it with the King of all…16

The foundation of the transgender self-relation does not operate this way in the slightest. Evidently enough from n1x, the body is allowed no such dignity in a transgender self-relation, not even the low dignity of being Socrates’ prison which is not just to capriciously escape from. It is necessarily discordant because the transgender self-relation creates an oppositional form of radical dualism that has no ontological basis for validity. It then is sustained by this very specific kind of ephemeral sociality that is inherently disordered, drawn away from perfection, and naturally so because the process of man becoming-woman or woman becoming-man requires immense violence to be done upon the body. It suffices to say that the only level upon which we should speak of this self-relation is upon one that is confined to its ephemeral sociality, because it is bound by it. 

Recall Plotinus’ images of soul’s relationship with body as a gardener whereby the soul and body are tied in a passionate sexual union. When a transgender self-relation dramatically manifests, what does it look like? Discordance. Naturally, between the Elizabeth Arden perfume and the 5 o’clock shadow, the miniskirt and the Adam’s apple, the narrow heart-shaped pelvic inlet and the permanent wound between the legs, what symmetry or concord could there be? To have the freedom to mutilate oneself in hopes of bodily perfection is no freedom at all. Its drive is entirely ruled by this will towards a hallucinatory material image for its sake, which culminates, through the progressive realisation though a likeness to gnostic rites, a bodily sacrifice to the demons of neoliberal technocracy. Castration for the transwoman serves as a far more grotesque and extreme version of the Israelite circumcision. Yet the need for that far humbler sacrifice of the body was overturned with the Son of Man [Acts 15:7-10, Gal. 2:2-5], being an archetype of the sacrament of baptism [Col. 2-11], “the circumcision of Christ”. Land’s statement that transwomen are the Jews of gender could thus be extended to mean that the transwomen continue their sacrificial mutilation because they likewise still are waiting for the messiah. n1x is surely still waiting for AI to truly realise itself through a technologically deterministic kind of Roco’s Basilisk retrocausitive providence and singularity eschaton. The sacrifice then operates as such: that in exchange for the act of auto-mutilation, the pharmaceutical company receives the financial and bodily devotion of the transwoman in return. The transgender person is no gardener, and not just any kind of gnostic, but a technocratic gnostic who lacerates the flesh to fit in conformity to a socially generated set of bureaucratic, reified attractions.

With this displacement of the subject, the inexorable mechanics of desire take center stage. The quasi-autonomous motor of desire forms things now in this way, now in that, legislating upon plastic matter. The body becomes a kind of prime matter, “a surface for the recording of the entire process of production of desire.” With this sentence, Deleuze explains the tattoo phenomenon. If the body is a surface on which desire writes, then desire is free to form it as it wishes. These days, this formation of the body by desire does not stop at sex. In “body modification,” people may have horns implanted in their foreheads, and worse—because the body has no innate intelligibility before desire begins to inscribe it with its blind purposes.

Thus, instead of a rational engagement with an ­intelligible—that is, already formed—material world, there arises the technological imposition of form upon the passive surface of the body. “The question posed by desire is not ‘What does it mean?’ but rather ‘How does it work?’” Deleuze insists. “Desire makes its entry with the general collapse of the question ‘What does it mean?’” Autonomous desire, the evacuation of meaning, the technological inscription of form: All are exemplified by Andrea Long Chu’s vaginoplasty.17

It’s not that transgenderism is the only case of such a thing, but it is a topical and visceral example of it with much to explore within it. This applies to dysphorias of all kinds. But also, if we follow Plato’s Symposium, what is loved by the intellect is in some sense born within. So one must ask: would you rather be pregnant with the pornographic, consumeristic desires or desires that bestow upon you nobility? As Lady Philosophy tells Boethius, those who are driven by material wealth end up covetous,  those who yearn for honours find themselves begging humbly of their giver who they long to surpass and “become cheap through the baseness of your begging”.

Do you desire power? You will lie exposed to dangers, prey to treachery. Would you lead a life of pleasure? But who would not despise and reject being primarily in service of so very base and frail things as the mere body?18

If a man has been immersed in filth or daubed with mud, his native comeliness disappears and all that is seen is the foul stuff besmearing him: his ugly condition is due to alien matter that has encrusted him, and if he is to win back his grace it must be his business to scour and purify himself and make himself what he was.19

Such catagogic metamorphosis, depravity and filth being born in the soul due to the yearning for it takes this particularly macabre expression in the intrinsically sacrificial and gnostic nature of transgenderism. Bataille notes of circumcision, that it is an initial rite which many primitive cultures have equivalents of, such as in New Guinea where in the tearing out of a tooth replaces circumcision. Keeping in mind Andrea Long Chu’s self-resignation and Marzano-Lesnevich’s loss of self due to the dissolution of the social space she constructed for sustaining her gender identity, the rupture of personal homogeneity and projection beyond the self of a part of the self in such primitive cultures, are linked to periods of mourning or debaucheries openly evoked by the ceremonies marking the 自覚 of adulthood20. That transition into adulthood meant not only the bearing of responsibility but also of a degree of self-sufficiency – the opposite of which we see with the transgender reliance on a meticulously constructed social assemblage that comes from the self’s own body-bound desires that debase and denature the body.

 

[NOTES]

[1] Footnote: 

[Areteus was] a famous Greek doctor of the first century A.D., the author of ‘De morborum diuturnorum et acutorum causis, signis et curatione’. The vocabulary of sacrifice is still used spontaneously by Montaigne when he reports a case of auto-mutilation in chapter 4 of his Essais: mortified by an amorous adventure in which he behaved foolishly, a gentleman “mutilated himself and sent his mistress the organs that had disobeyed him in his desires, as a kind of bloody victim capable of expiating the offense he believed he had committed against her.”

Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess, Selected Writings 1927-1939. 2008. Minnesota, Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gough, 67.

[2] Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works. 2nd ed., 2009. New York: Herder and Herder, Sermon 33, 200.

[3] Joseph Quint’s footnote reads; ‘There’ refers to the historical birth of Jesus, ‘here’ to the birth of Christ in the soul.

ibid., Sermon 18, 133-136

[4] Plotinus., 1948. The Enneads. Boston: C.T. Branford Co. I.6 § 2.

[5] n1x land., 2018. Gender Acceleration: A Blackpaper. [online] Vast Abrupt. Available at: <https://vastabrupt.com/2018/10/31/gender-acceleration/&gt; [Accessed 10 May 2021].

[6] Andrew Long Chu., 2018. Opinion | My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy (Published 2018). [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/24/opinion/sunday/vaginoplasty-transgender-medicine.html&gt; [Accessed 10 May 2021].

[7] Alex Marzano-Lesnevich., 2020. Opinion | How Do I Define My Gender if No One Is Watching Me?. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/transgender-nonbinary-pandemic-transition-.html&gt; [Accessed 10 May 2021].

[8] Garcia, M., 2019. 010 A Novel Pre-surgery Counseling Aid for Transgender Patients Undergoing MtoF Genital Gender Affirming Surgery with Vaginoplasty, to Help Manage Patient Expectations and to Facilitate Patient’s Choice of Surgery (Full-Depth or Shallow-Depth Vaginoplasty). The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 16(4), pp.S5-S6.

[9] Bataille, Visions of Excess, Selected Writings 1927-1939. Gnosticism and Base Materialism, 48.

[10] n1x land., 2018. Gender Acceleration: A Blackpaper.

[11] Andrew Long Chu., 2018. Opinion | My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy (Published 2018).

[12] Plotinus., The Enneads. I.6 § 5.

[13] ibid., I.6 § 3.

[14] As per usual, I always either quote from the Knox Translation Bible or Douay-Rheims. Sometimes a mix but the above is purely Knox.

[15] Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works, Sermon 13b, 108.

[16] St. Athanasius., 1953. De Incarntione Verbi Dei. 2nd ed. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. § 9, 35

[17] Angela Franks., 2020. Deleuze on Desire | Angela Franks. [online] First Things. Available at: <https://www.firstthings.com/article/2020/04/deleuze-on-desire&gt; [Accessed 10 May 2021].

[18]  Ancius Boethius., 1978. The Theological Tractates; The Consolation of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, Loeb Library., Consolation of Philosophy Bk.III § VIII.5-13.

[19] Plotinus., The Enneads. I.6 § 5.1

[20] Bataille, Visions of Excess, Selected Writings 1927-1939. Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gough, 68.

Metamorphoses of Self | Ch.I – Hylemorphic Anamnesis

| François Boucher - Madame de Pompadour (1756) |

Lord, when I found myself far from thee, it was not due to a remoteness of place,  it came from the unlikeness in which I found myself. – St. Augustine1

This is the beginning of a three-part series, each building off the last. This first part will principally set down some epistemological outlines, the second: a moral case study of transgenderism, the third: concerning the perfection of man.

As we explored in the first Sympoiesis post, the concept of self-ownership which runs through the entirety of modern political philosophy, especially the more extreme libertarian branches of it, presupposes, or ends up generating by necessity, a very acute form of radical dualism. It is a dualism that seems to have run as an inheritance from Descartes, regardless of whether liberals are keen to admit to it or not. Taking the hylemorphic understanding of man, as that of an essential body-soul composition that, man is self-moving unity but not one whereby the body is moved by a soul-substance or mental-substance that is over and above the body, we began to see that such grounds for the notion of self-ownership fall apart. 

But let us recap. If what makes man, ‘man’, is his intellective capacity as united to a sensitive body, Aristotle’s “rational animal”, it suffices to say that his body is not accidental. Why? Because how he comes to know is through the senses, and sense is of the body. Then, if we were to talk about a man “owning himself”, self-possession as a concept ceases to make any sense because there is no radical and distinct sense whereby he is over and above himself so that he might self-possess. But the point of discussion here in this post is not self-ownership. Let’s take a quick Platonic epistemological detour to flesh this out.

Many take Plato’s pre-existence of the soul, the coming from the forms at birth and going to the forms at death that allows for recollection as we see in the Phaedo, Phaedrus and Meno dialogues, as one of the strongest points for his version of radical body-soul dualism. Primarily, this is because the myths through which Plato represents this doctrine is taken in the literal sense by such people. Many pagan Neoplatonists, like Plotinus, do similarly adopt radical body-soul dualism which ends up disparaging the body somewhat. While I’m not going to argue that Platonism traditionally does not carry this form of dualism, exploring how it functions reveals a few interesting epistemological insights.

What is often overlooked in Plato’s theory of recollection, or anamnesis, is that it is most adequately an account of the togetherness of thought and being, an account of συνουσία [synousia]. Plato’s supposed argument of our coming to know the Ideas as a recollection of what we knew in a previous, discarnate existence but forgot upon being born in the body is not a ‘theory’ or a ‘doctrine’ but a myth and is presented in such a non-deductive form in the Phaedo dialogue, amongst the Meno and Phaedrus as well. The justification for the recollection-myth presented in the conversation with the slave-boy in the Meno shows, at most, that since he did not receive his knowledge of mathematical truth from outside, he discovered it within himself.

Then if for us the truth of beings is always in the soul, the soul would be immortal, so that you must boldly try to seek and to recollect what you do not now know, that is, what you do not remember… I would not altogether rely on this account in other respects; but if we hold it necessary to seek what one does not know we would be better and more courageous and less idle than if we hold that it is not possible to find it and need not seek: for this I would altogether contend in both word and deed.2

While it is beyond doubt that Plato, especially due unto his Orphic and Pythagorean inheritance, believed in the transmigration of souls, the key point on which Socrates insists, is not upon the recollection-myth itself, but that the truth of beings is possible for us, and hence we must seek it, because “the truth of beings is always in the soul.” The real conclusion of the argument is not that the soul literally pre-exists but that “the truth of beings” is found not outside of, but within, the soul. Anamnesis is not a transcendental, or otherwise deductive argument for the necessity of reincarnation in order to possess knowledge of the things-in-themselves.

But we need not discard the myths as mere window dressing. The idea that this knowledge was acquired in a previous existence should be taken as a mythic expression of the soul’s intrinsic possession of truth, that is, the intelligible whatnesses of things. Plato never presents a deductive argument for recollection, but poses these myths as what seems like a transcendental condition for the possibility of knowledge. But his epistemological argument, unlike regular transcendental arguments, does not terminate here and so cannot be an argument of such a kind – or at least not just yet.

The intellective soul is, by its nature, out there with what is given to thought. But the same is for thought and for being. This is what we call intentionality;  to think is necessarily to think of something (some-thing), that is, some being. It is not only that to intuit things in themselves apart from our consciousness is an impossible task, but that to think “nothing” would be to have no content of thought and thus not to be thinking, which is a blatant performative contradiction. Likewise, it would be incoherent to postulate an unintelligible being, a being that cannot be thought because to do so would already be to think this being in some manner and thus to commit another performative contradiction. Thus, it is impossible even to suggest that being could extend further than thought. So we might call the whatnesses of things intelligibles and how they are given to our senses, sensibles, because not only are being and intelligibility co-extensive, but intelligibility is the very meaning of being. Thinking is, wholly and solely, the apprehension of being, and being is, wholly and solely, that which is given to thought. It is with intentionality that the barriers between direct realism and idealism fall away entirely. As opposed to Rev. George Berkeley’s famous subjective idealist dictum: Esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived), we might say instead follow Aquinas’: Ens est proprium obiectum intellectus3 (being is the proper object of intellect); to be is to be given to thought. We could even adopt Kitaro Nishida’s to be is to act. The activity of knowing, which is the fuel for feeling, desiring and willing, is that which is given to such activity, and this constitutes every determinate thing that “is”. Cartesian doubt is a non-starter. Despite Nishida’s anxieties as to what might arise if we were to take the “phenomena of consciousness” as the sole reality (to take the given-to-thought as what “being” constitutive of), solipsism is nowhere in sight. Hard distinctions of noumena and phenomena need not apply due to the fact that εἶδος, often mischaracterised as noumenal, is the most given to thought, and so emphatically does not possess the quintessential Kantian characteristic of existing beyond the capacities of the intellective subject, or even his sense faculties in an absolute sense. Following Nishida once more:

From the standpoint of pure experience, this unity [of apperception] never entails absolute distinctions between itself and other such unities of consciousness. If we can acknowledge that my consciousnesses of yesterday and today are independent and at the same time one consciousness in that they both belong to the same system, then we can recognise the same relationship between one’s own consciousness and that of others.4

Returning to Plato, “the place above the sky” in the Phaedrus, “Hades” in Phaedo are both clearly mythic in the uses they have in their respective dialogues in that they represent both the soul and the forms as bodies, of which Plato could not possibly have meant literally under pains of gross self-contradiction on some of his most fundamental doctrines. The temporal location of the soul and the εἶδος that is implied by ‘pre-existence’ is as such too. If taken literally in a temporal sense, the story of pre-existence and recollection becomes quite ludicrous quite quickly: that at some point in 429BC, a year before Plato’s birth, Plato’s soul was “above the sky,” “looking at” the forms. This not only renders the soul to a corporeal object, but assimilates intellectual apprehension to sense-perception, making intellectual apprehension which a takes in of content from outside in the manner of modern subject-object dualism, whereas the whole point of the recollection-story is that our knowledge of the εἶδος is not taken in from a distinct exteriority but is “always in/with the soul” due to intentionality. What the argument for anamnesis in the Phaedo actually demonstrates is that our knowledge of the εἶδος is non-empirical in just this sense. Socrates begins by making the distinction between equal things and “the equal itself,” or the idea of equality: 

We say, I suppose, that there is something equal, I mean not a stick [equal] to a stick or a stone to a stone or anything else of that sort, but besides all these things something else, the equal itself… whence do we receive knowledge of it?5 

We do have such knowledge: if we did not know such a criterion, we could not identify anything we experience as unequal let alone equal. We need there to be equality itself to gesture towards and be ruptured by difference. As Damascius relates:

Socrates proves the existence of the forms more or less incidentally, assuming it but adding a demonstration at the same time: if there are many equal things, this manifold must derive its common character from one equal, which must obviously be real and obviously cannot exist in any of the individual things in which the many equals are found; it is therefore prior to them, since they are derived from it, and this is expressed by saying that they are ‘different’ from it. Then he outlines a second proof observing that equals existing in matter are contaminated with their own privation, but those existing by themselves are pure, and the perfect is necessarily prior to the imperfect.6

And so again from Plato:

When someone, seeing something, thinks that what I now see wants to be such as some other of beings but is deficient and is not able to be such as that, but is inferior, it is necessary, I suppose, that he who is thinking this knows beforehand that to which he says it is like, but deficiently.7

For that matter, without the knowledge of equality neither could we identify anything we experience as equal in any such manner. In making such judgments, we are bringing to bear an idea of equality and saying that the things perceived either do or do not display this εἶδος. On the one hand, the experience of equal things is what, as we say, ‘calls to mind,’ or arouses in us, the knowledge of equality:

From these equal things, although they are different from that equal, you have nonetheless come to think and have received the knowledge of it.8

On the other hand, sense-experience alone does not provide an adequate account for this knowledge. Since equality itself, like any idea, is not a sensible thing but an intelligible idea, it cannot come to us by way of the senses. Nor can we have arrived at it by ‘abstraction’ from what we perceive, for this would require that we first identify such things as equal, which in turn requires that we already have the idea of equality.

This insight helps dispel the notion that Platonism results in representationalism. We have already noted that εἶδος is not noumenal such that we only have access to “shadowy reflections” of the “things-in-themselves” as a popular caricature might run. But neither is the activity in which intellection is engaged in a kind of conceptualisation. We now have the tools to demonstrate this, and dispel representationalism by a general reductio ad absurdum.

If the intentional objects of intellection are other than the eternal εἶδος – restricting us to sense images and internal concepts we generate from them or what have you – then intellection will have to be able to compare the given sensibles or constructed concepts, of the corresponding intelligibles they emanate from or represent, with the intelligibles themselves in order to know that they are accurate. If it can compare them, it does not need the representation in the first place. If it cannot, then it cannot know being. The cognitive act would then have to have as its object something other that is other than being, but to argue as such would be absurd as the very object of intellect is being as we proved above. The same is for thought as is for being. So we might also conclude that sensibles allow us a real passage from them to their corresponding intelligibles, otherwise, they would not be intelligible as the determinate sense-data of “this” or “that”. Thus, representationalism and conceptualism are false.

A Plotinian account would extend this in supposing, alongside this argument, that eternal truth is not something possessed, where possession is understood as a representational state. So long as truth is agreed to be being in relation to intellect, the only alternative to representationalism is of any sort of identity. This identity, because it is a cognitive identity, of necessarily differentiated and determinate being, does not result in the conflation of the εἶδος. 

Since we apply this paradigmatic idea in judging what we perceive, our knowledge of it is in some sense prior, not in the temporal sense but in ontological priority to (what is most necessary for a consequent) sense-experience. If objects of knowledge are prior to objects of sense-perception, knowledge is necessarily prior to sense-perception, and therefore so are subjects of knowledge to subjects of sense-perception. As Nishida would tell us, “pure experience” is prior to the subject and the apprehension of sense experience. Therefore so is each of us as a knowing subject, enveloped in a process of apprehension amongst that which is given to thought, in ontological priority to being a perceiving subject:

Then it must be that before we began to see and hear and otherwise sense, we received the knowledge of what the equal itself is, if we were going to refer thither the equal things from the senses…9

On the surface level, this seems to problematise the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of knowledge which is taken as a major premise for the argument for hylemorphism and for the argument against radical dualism. However, it is not fundamentally incongruent. The metaphor of recollection has a peculiar power, because of the oddity of the everyday experience of forgetting and recalling.

If I have forgotten something, or simply happen not to be thinking of it at the moment, in a sense I do not know it: I am not apprehending it. But if upon being reminded, I recall it, I do not re-acquire it as a new piece of knowledge. Rather, I discover it within myself as something that, in some sense, I knew all along. What we have forgotten but can recall, we both know, in that it is within us, and do not know, in that we are not currently apprehending it. Recollection thus serves as a fantastic metaphor for our coming to know the εἶδος, which in one sense we do not initially know but which, by using the senses, we recognise as always already at work within our cognition. Then, sense knowledge remains in no slight and humble position as a necessity to spur this recollective knowledge which we are not currently apprehending. Yet, if sensibles are intrinsically tied to the intelligibles they emanate from, there is no discordance in this understanding of recollection as to the soul’s being-there with the intelligibles.

Since falsehood only exists in the mind, successful recollection is a going-out from the experiencing self to truth which is with the self-same knowing subject, it is then more intimately together with us through this recollective process of circling back upon the self. As Nishida reminds us, while we can easily go awry when we judge or recollect a “phenomenon of consciousness”, in such an instance we are no longer engaged in intuition but are operating by inference. Since our knowledge of the εἶδος does not subsist with us by way of the senses, it is nonempirical and in that sense a priori. The common philosophical expression of the a priori is itself a temporal metaphor. Heidegger too enjoys making a point out of the temporality of the a priori. What is a priori is prior to sense only in the sense that it does not directly come to us by way of such sense-experience. The meaning of Plato’s myth is that our knowledge of the εἶδος is a priori in just this sense.

Let us start fleshing this epistemological detour out in more detail such that it stats dovetailing further with our hylemorphic account of the essence of the human. The reason why we understand is not that we are moved by intellect, but rather, we are moved by our intellect because we understand. Our sensible body allows for the spurring of recollection of which we are out there with. So as a supplement to the Aristotelian-Thomist argument, an argument against something like transgenderism would run as follows:

The transgender identity relies on a discordance between body and essentiality of the person; a mind-body split which is necessarily of a radical variant due to this opposition that it supposedly allows for. The correction required for a successful fulfilment of the transgender self-relation is whereby the mind’s construct of discordant gender is impressed from over-and-above, and then upon the accidental body. But the human person comes to understand through a recollective process. This process necessitates the spurring by sense experience. Sense experience is of the body and its intrinsic faculties. What makes the human person what it is and not some other thing is that the human is an intellective creature. But such intellection only can be spurred by sense. Yet if sense is of the body, and is necessary for the proper function of intellect, it stands to reason that the body is not accidental. With a quick refresher from Aquinas [the additions in square brackets are my own clarifications];

Because, although the action of a part be attributed to the whole, as the action of the eye is attributed to a man; yet it is never attributed to another part, except perhaps indirectly; for we do not say that the hand sees because the eye sees. Therefore if the intellect and Socrates are united in the [radical dualist] manner, the action of the intellect cannot be attributed to Socrates. If, however, Socrates be a whole composed of a union of the intellect with whatever else belongs to Socrates, and still the intellect be united to those other things only as a motor, it follows that Socrates is not one absolutely, and consequently neither a being absolutely, for a thing is a being according as it is one [that is, a thing is a being insofar as it is unified].10

Let us say that you are reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Sensing the words on the page through which you come to understand what Boethius is being told by Lady Philosophy involves the body, then it necessarily follows that your body is not separate from you. It is not the intellect as a motor assigned to the body, but rather your body with its biological design is you because sense is an integral part of the process of intellection and understanding. It is essential to how you come to know yourself in your united totality. Your body and intellective soul constitute the unity by which you are, it so necessarily follows that your sexed body, through which you necessarily have to use to understand yourself, together with your intellective soul, make you who you are. The sexed body is not an accident to personal identity. Likewise, what constitutes your self-identity is not a part that is radically distinct from the whole but rather is in its Body-Mind unity. Plotinus also emphasises the mutuality of the body and soul, their beneficent penchant for each other. This begins to reveal how even the Platonic body-soul dualism is also unfitting for an account of the validity of transgenderism:

There never was a time when this universe did not have a soul, or when body existed in the absence of soul, or when matter was not set in order; but in discussing these things one can consider them apart from each other… If body did not exist, soul would not go forth, since there is no place other than body where it is natural for it to be.11

Did you catch that? Even in the Plotinian dualist account, it’s only through discursive concepts, not at a level of being as such that we can set body apart from soul. But wherever the human body is, it is engendered with biological sex differences; testosterone or oestrogen fuelling bone growth, pelvic shape differences, calcium deposition differences, limb length and thickness differences, and so on. Plotinus gives us several images of the soul’s proper relationship with the body: he pictures the soul as a gardener;

…concerned about the insects lodged in [a] tree and anxiously caring for it; or we may contrast a healthy man living with the healthy and, by his act, lending himself to the service of those about him, with, on the other side, a sick man intent upon his own care and cure, and so not only living in the body but body-bound.12

The soul’s union with the body is “like a natural spontaneous jumping or a passionate natural desire of sexual union.”13 Even if one were to take Plato’s pre-existence of the soul and disincarnate after-life literally as the pagan Neoplatonists do, or even their account of body-soul dualism on its own as many Catholic theologians following St. Augustine do, the Neoplatonic account does not actually leave room for the transgender self-relation due to its moral dimension. The oppositional discordance of person and body in such a self-relation exudes a phobia, in the sense of ‘hydrophobia’, that justifies corrective violence upon the body it disparages. This is absolutely anathema to Plotinus’ soul-gardener, let alone the body and soul’s natural sexual union. We will return to the idea of violence upon the body in the second chapter. But it suffices to say for now that between the breast binding, the slicing open and inversion of the scrotum, extensive skin grafting, the body being pumped with estrogen or testosterone, this is emphatically not Plotinus’ soul-gardener at work but rather a dog digging holes in the yard, piling the dirt in another place, and hiding foreign objects in the holes it makes.

To further stress the intimacy of the body and the soul’s union let’s dive a bit deeper into their respective sensible and intelligible “objects” (concerning the words in quotations: I am using with extreme reserve – the reason why should be evident soon enough). It’s important to note that sensibles and intelligibles in the Platonic scheme are not two distinct sets of objects.  “Platonic heaven” or the “realm of forms” is another one of these spatial metaphors which should not be treated literally. The passage from sensible things to the intelligible εἶδος is not a neutral turning of our cognition from a distinct set of objects to another, but a noetic ascent from one mode of apprehension to another, and so it follows that the relation between intellectual apprehension and intelligible being is not one of extrinsic duality either. Consider the following from Plotinus;

Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for hearing too, as in a combination of words and in all kinds of music, for cadences and melodies are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in conduct of life, actions, character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is a beauty of the virtues… what then is it that gives comeliness to material forms and draws the ear to sweetness perceived in sounds, and what is the secret of the beauty there is in all that derives from Soul?14 

Sensibles, we might say, are portals or gateways that reveal pathways to εἶδος rather than reflections from or shadows of some otherworldly realm. Hence how Plotinus can then speak metaphorically of distinct orders but then use vectorial metaphors as he does throughout the Enneads, such as the above sweetness of material forms drawing us through to their intelligible wellsprings of beauty, here in this tractate, to describe their union. Seeing, the very ocular metaphorical use of the word “εἶδος”15 to mean intelligible whatness, or any mode of awareness implies not a separation between subject and object but rather a joining, a being-together, of apprehension and reality: συνουσία as we said before; a conjugal union of the knowing and the known. From Meister Eckhart;

While I was on the way here today, I was thinking about how I might preach so reasonably that you would understand me correctly. And so I came up with a comparison, and if you understand it correctly, then you will understand my intention and the basis of all the views that I have always preached. This was the comparison of my eye and the piece of wood. When my eye is opened, it is an eye. When it is closed, it is still the same eye. The piece of wood loses and gains nothing from my seeing. Now, pay close attention to my words: if it were to happen that my eye is one and unified in itself, and it is opened and casts a glance at the wood, both eye and wood remain what they are, and yet in active contemplation become one to such an extent that one can truly say: “eye-wood” and “the wood is in my eye.”16

Like the seeing eye that casts a glance at the wood and becomes one with the wood, man, through active performance, through seeing and loving, becomes that which he sees and loves in the mind. I see a tree. The tree exists for itself; the eye has its own being by itself in my organism. We can say that, however, only because we have cast our eye upon the tree. Only then is the tree there, by me. We retroactively separate eye and wood from the eye-wood unity. Thought and being copulate and unify; the phenomenon of consciousness that is the eye-wood unity produces something new: a being towards the wood.

To know beings, to come to intelligibles requires passage from sense in spurring the recollective process and so requires movement with the body. However, technically speaking not all knowledge involves sensibles. Knowledge that does not come primarily from self-motion in any sense, but from being acted upon from above is how we might describe something like a mystical union, revelatory experience or “the beam of spiritual light, piercing this cloud of unknowing that is between you and [God]”17 through which He reveals His mysteries in a non-discursive ascent. Such knowledge is beyond being, as God is not a “this” or “that”, God is not a being as such due to the fact of his infinitude, thus he is not an intelligible. His essence, the divine essence is not given to thought as such as a dog or a cup might be. The very statement “God exists” stated in the very same such manner as “this ball exists” is erroneous. Such non-discursive knowledge is not and cannot be given to the senses at all as it is from the infinite Godhead and not from determinate and finite beings.18

 

[NOTES]

[1] As quoted by Meister Eckhart in his commentary on Luke 2:22-25, Sermon 20. I am using the Maurice O’Walshe translation. It is a paraphrase of a section from Augustine’s Confessions. 

Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works. 2nd ed., 2009. New York: Herder and Herder, Sermon 20, 143.

[2] Plato, Complete Works. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett. Meno 86b1–c2, 886 

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, 1485. SUMMA THEOLOGICA. Holy See: Benziger Brothers. Prima Pars, 5, 2, resp.

[4] Nishida, K. and Abe, M., 1992. An Inquiry into the Good. New Haven, Conn: Yale Univ. Press., 44

[5] Plato, Phaedrus 74a9–11, 74b4

[6] Damascius, 1977. Commentary On Plato’s Phaedo. Amsterdam, Oxford, N.Y.: North-Holland Pub. Co., I §§ 301, 174

[7] Plato, Phd. 74d9–e4

[8] ibid., 74c7–9

[9] ibid., 75b4-7

[10] Aquinas, Thomas, and Timothy MacDermott. Summa Theologiæ: A Concise Translation. Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1989. Prima Pars, Q:76:1, 114.

[11] Plotinus., 1948. The Enneads. Boston: C.T. Branford Co. IV.3 § 9.

[12] ibid., IV.3 § 4

[13] ibid., IV.3 § 13

[14] ibid., I.6 § 1

[15] An explanation of the Indo-European roots of the word εἶδος, from Eric Perl’s fantastic book, Thinking Being;

As has often been pointed out, [εἶδος and ἰδέα] are related to words for ‘seeing,’ and, less directly, ‘knowing,’ in Greek and other Indo-European languages. [Footnote: Εἶδος and ἰδέα are cognate with Latin video, visio, etc; German Wissen; English wit, wise, wisdom; and Sanskrit Veda. We should, perhaps, hear distant echoes of all these words when we encounter the term ‘form’ in Plato.] Their fundamental meaning is the ‘look’ or ‘appearance’ of something, the way it shows up to the gaze. This is of the utmost importance, for it means that unlike the English word ‘form,’ these words intrinsically and immediately convey a relation to awareness: to say that things have a certain εἶδος is to say something about how they show up or appear to an apprehending consciousness. Many different things “have some one same form” (Men. 72c7) in that they all display the same content to the gaze, and so are truly identified as all pious, all beautiful, or all virtues. 

Eric D. Perl., 2014. Thinking Being. 1st ed. Leiden: BRILL. 23

[16] Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works, Sermon 60, 309-310

[17] Anonymous, 2001. The Cloud of Unknowing. Penguin Books. §26, 52

[18] The following selection from the beginning of Dionysius the Areopagite’s ‘Divine Names’ is a nice summary of this apophatic attitude following on from the reality of God as beyond-being. That He is beyond intellection, but our ‘symbols’, our manners of speaking and depicting him actually gesture towards him:

We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one. We leave behind us all our own notions of the divine. We call a halt to the activities of our minds and, to the extent that is proper, we approach the ray which transcends being. Here, in a manner no words can describe, preexisted all the goals of all knowledge and it is of a kind that neither intelligence nor speech can lay hold of it, nor can it at all be contemplated since it surpasses everything and is wholly beyond our capacity to know it. Transcendently it contains within itself the boundaries of every natural knowledge and energy. At the same time, it is established by an unlimited power beyond all the celestial minds. And if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge.

Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works. The Divine Names. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1.i 592C-593A. 53.