All posts by Jonathan Greig

‘Problematic’ of the First Principle in Damascius’ DP I.1

Well, never to disappoint over the topical title of this blog, I now have a post formally on archai. My current work takes me into Damascius’ inquiry on first principles, and that includes an enigmatic passage problematizing the nature of the first principle.

Some background context: from Plotinus up to Damascius, nearly all Neoplatonists would affirm that the One constitutes the role of the first principle. Unlike Intellect for Plotinus and Aristotle’s divine intellect (on Plotinus’ and other Neoplatonists’ take), the One has no other character except as one-only: since unity is ontologically prior in all things, before Being (and thereby intelligibility, self-intellection, and actuality/energeia), the principle itself must be absolutely prior. No positive features can be attributed to it, but only negative predication. The One is then absolutely transcendent, but it is also causal of unity in things by its own unity.

These two aspects–transcendence and causality–are split apart for Damascius, as one can see at the beginning of De Principiis (On First Principles) I.1:

Is that which is called the single first principle of all things (ta panta) beyond all things or something belonging to all things–as it were, the summit of those things which proceed from it? And do we say that all things are together with it, or after it and from it?

For if someone were to say the latter, how would something among all things be outside? (1) Among those things that are not then lacking, ‘all things’ [indicates] absolutely these; therefore all things are not absolutely after the first principle, but with the first principle. (2) ‘All things’ yet wish to be⁠1 many things having been limited, since the unlimited would not be completely all things. Nothing therefore appears outside of all things: for totality (pantotês) is a certain boundary and already an encompassment, in which the first principle is, on the one hand, the upward limit, while the extreme of what is from the principle is the downward limit. Therefore all things are with the limits. (3) And yet the first principle is coordinated with the things which are from [it]: for it is and is called the principle of those things. Even the cause then [is coordinated] with its effects, and the first with those things after the first. Among the plurality of beings of which there is a single coordination, we call these ‘all things’, such that the principle is in ‘all things’. (4) And generally we say ‘all things’ absolutely inasmuch as we conceive in whatever way; but we also conceive the first principle. Accordingly, we are even accustomed to call every city a ruler and those ruled, and every family [or ‘kind’] both begetter and those begotten.

If ‘all things’ are with the first principle, the principle is not something among all things, since [otherwise]⁠2 even it has been taken together in all things. Therefore, the single coordination of all things, which we call ‘all things’, is without a principle (anarchos) and without cause (anaitios), that we do not go up upon the unlimited. But it is necessary that everything is either a first principle or from a first principle. However if the latter, the principle will not be with all things, but outside all things, so that the principle is of those things from it; but if the former, what would proceed from all things, just as from the principle, and outside of all things toward the things downward as the full completion of all things? For even this is in all things, since the notion of ‘all things’ leaves aside absolutely nothing. Therefore, all things are neither a principle nor from a principle. (DP I, 1,4–2,20 Westerink-Combès; my trans.)

πότερον ἐπέκεινα τῶν πάντων ἐστὶν ἡ μία τῶν πάντων ἀρχὴ λεγομένη, ἢ τὶ τῶν πάντων, οἷον κορυφὴ τῶν ᾽π᾽αὐτῆς προϊόντων; καὶ τὰ πάντα σὺν αὐτῇ λέγομεν εἶναι, ἢ μετ᾽ αὐτὴν καὶ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς;

εἰ μὲν γὰρ τοῦτο φαίη τις, πῶς ἂν εἴη τι τῶν πάντων ἐκτός; ὧν γὰρ μηδ᾽ ὁτιοῦν ἄπεστι, ταὺτα πάντα ἁπλῶς· ἄπεστι δὲ ἡ ἀρχή· οὐκ ἄρα πάντα ἁπλῶς τὰ μετὰ τὴν ἀρχήν, ἀλλὰ παρὰ τὴν ἀρχήν. ἔτι δὲ τὰ πάντα πολλὰ βούλεται εἶναι πεπερασμένα· τὰ γὰρ ἄπειρα οὐκ ἂν εἴη πάντα ἀπαρτί. οὐδὲν ἄρ᾽ ἔξω φανεῖται τῶν πάντων· ὅρος γάρ τις ἡ παντότης καὶ ἤδη περίληψις, ἐν ᾗ ἡ μὲν ἀρχὴ πέρας τὸ ἄνω τὸ δ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς ἔσχατον πέρας τὸ κάτω· πάντα ἄρα μετὰ τῶν περάτων. ἔτι δὲ ἡ ἀρχὴ συντέτακται τοῖς ἀπὸ τῆς ἀρχῆς· ἐκεὶνων γὰρ ἀρχὴ λέγεταί τε καὶ ἔστι· καὶ τὸ αἴτιον δὴ τοῖς αἰτιατoῖς, καὶ τὸ πρῶτον τοῖς μετὰ τὸ πρῶτον. ὧν δὲ μία σύνταξις πολλῶν ὄντων, ταῦτα πάντα λέγομεν· ὥστε ἐν τοῖς πᾶσι καὶ ἡ ἀρχή. καὶ ὅλως πάντα λέγομεν ἁπλῶς ὅσα καὶ ὁπωσοῦν ἐννοοῦμεν, ἐννοοῦμεν δὲ καὶ τὴν ἀρχήν. καὶ τοίνυν εἰώθαμεν πᾶσαν λέγειν πόλιν ἄρχοντα καὶ ἀρχομένους, καὶ πᾶν γένος τόν τε γενήτορα καὶ τοὺς γεννηθέντας.

εἰ δὲ πάντα μετὰ τῆς ἀρχῆς, οὐκ ἂν εἴη τι ἡ ἀρχὴ πάντων, συνειλημμένης ἐν τοῖς πᾶσι καὶ τῆς ἀρχῆς· ἡ ἄρα μία τῶν πάντων σύνταξις, ἣν πάντα φαμέν, ἄναρχός ἐστι καὶ ἀναίτιος, ἵνα μῆ ἐπ᾽ ἄπειρον ἀνίωμεν. ἁλλὰ μὴν δεῖ γε πάν ἢ ἀρχὴν εἶναι ἢ ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς· καὶ τὰ πάντα ἄρα ἢ ἀρχή ἐστιν ἢ ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς. ἀλλ᾽ εἰ μὲν τοῦτο, οὐκ ἂν εἴη σὺν τοῖς πᾶσιν ἡ ἀρχή, ἀλλ᾽ ἔξω τῶν πάντων, ὡς ἡ ἀρχὴ προϊὸν ὡς ἀπ᾽ ἀχῆς καὶ ἔξω τῶν πάντων ἐπὶ τὰ κάτω ὡς τῶν πάντων ἀποτέλεσμα; καὶ τοῦτο γὰρ ἐν τοῖς πᾶσιν· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀφίησιν ἡ τῶν πάντων ἁπλῶς ἔννοια· τὰ ἄρα πάντα οὔτε ἀρχὴ οὔτε ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς.

So, what does an Aristotelian or a Neoplatonist say to this? Some may easily dismiss this passage as an ornery logical exercise, and not acknowledge the difficulty. Others might accept it as a radical-skeptical aporia which implies that there is no ‘real’ first principle.

But first, what is happening in this passage? Paragraph 1 gives us a disjunction (actually there are two, but the first is an inversion of the second): ‘all things’ are (a) ‘with’ or (b) ‘after’ the first principle–vice versa, the principle is (a) with, or (b) before, all things. Paragraph 2 gives us (4) reasons to say (a). Paragraph 3 responds against paragraph 2 by asserting (b): a first principle definitionally must be prior to its effects–so it can’t be ‘with’ all things, simply speaking. But the rest of paragraph 3 also shows that this is problematic. Therefore the principle–it would seem–can’t be straightforwardly ‘with’ all things or ‘before’ all things. Damascius will eventually call this the ‘Ineffable’ at the beginning of DP I.3–something that one can’t talk about, neither with assertions nor negations.

Now, given this structure, one could be led to think that the conclusion we reach, what is the ‘ineffable’, is an implicit reductio: there is no ‘real’ first principle, although one can’t prove it. It merely becomes a condition when one does metaphysics–so in that respect, a quasi-/proto-Kantian position. (Or, of course, one could write off Damascius’ aporia as non-problematic.)

There are multiple points to be made about this passage (I am writing a chapter, of course), but here are a couple tentative thoughts:

  • It would seem that, no, the ‘Ineffable’ is not solely a condition of thinking, and it is not an absurdity, but it actually ‘describes’ the principle ad intra. The ‘Ineffable’ makes clear the principle in itself without implicating it, both in our concepts, discourse, and ‘our’ relation to it. It seems like this becomes an objective ground on which metaphysics, beginning with the One, can be done.
  • Damascius does not deny that there is a single cause for ‘all things’–in fact this is made plain in DP I.2 where he admits the One as the ‘summit’ (korphè) of all things. What is in dispute is whether the One is sufficient as the ultimate principle. As it becomes apparent later, the One cannot be signified by itself without relating it to its effects, ‘all things’. The One’s causality, then, can’t be indicated without referring to that, or those things, of which it is a cause. In this regard, Damascius’ Ineffable isn’t de-emphasizing metaphysics or science, but it actually solidifies it.

These are theses that I hope to draw out and elaborate further in future posts and writing.

For now, I’m more interested to see if others have further thoughts on this passage–or disagreements. Shoot away!

1 I.e., ‘[The phrase] “all things” means many things having been limited’. The phrase ‘wishes to be’ (βούλεται εἶναι) is a typical construction especially in Aristotle for definitions.

2 Following Westerink-Combès’ suggested insertion. The text does not specify, but the context of the paragraph certainly implies this is a counter-conditional.

Christian Wildberg: Why study late antiquity?

While catching up on long-forgotten bookmarked papers, I stumbled on Wildberg’s essay arguing—forcefully, if ferociously—for the study of late antiquity as part and parcel of intellectual history. Late antiquity has been coming more in vogue—as my recent work on Neoplatonism stands to show (I hope!)—however it still does not have a pervasive presence in the common academic (or popular) imagination that, e.g., classic antiquity (e.g. Plato, Homer, etc.) or modern (Descartes, Kant, etc.) studies do.

Describing an example scene of a tourist couple visiting Rome—where they see inscriptions like ‘pont max’ on different buildings and say, ‘huh, I wonder who or what that was’—Wildberg writes:

Remnants of that past have become part of our own world; we see them, even look at them, but we have lost the firm grasp of what they mean. Such things have become mere ciphers for most of us, empty and meaningless; however, the meaning that these remnants signify continues to remain an important part of our world: “Pont Max” seemed just like another name, perhaps like the movie “Mad Max”, and as such was indecipherable for our tourist; thus, he could not possibly make the inference that at that very moment a latter-day pontifex maximus was perhaps sitting not so very far from him, behind one of the windows of the adjacent wing right there in St. Peter’s, building one of his formidable bridges and affecting human lives around the world in no mean measure.

Wildberg thus comes to propose two theses:

The first thesis is that of all the historical periods into which antiquity is traditionally divided (Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Imperial periods, and then Late Antiquity), it is this last period — Late Antiquity — that was in fact the most formative and influential in the subsequent course of the history of western culture, not only for the middle ages but in certain respects also for modernity, indeed for us now. The thesis is certainly prima facie plausible, if one thinks in the first instance about religion, Christianity, but good support for it could also be garnered if one were to look at legal history, or at the historical causes that shaped the geopolitical structure of Europe, both east and west.

And for his second thesis:

I would also like to argue that Late Antiquity is actually of prime importance in terms of understanding the fundamental tenets and beliefs of our intellectual history. And I do mean quite literally “philosophical” intellectual history. Now, this may strike some of you as counterintuitive, given that, as you may reasonably object, the really great thinkers of antiquity lived well before the Roman Empire. But I am not talking about Plato and Aristotle. I am talking about that welter of intellectual currents that converged in Late Antiquity to form a common culture of philosophical discourse, broadly conceived, that includes not only pagan philosophy as it was at the time, but also and especially Christian philosophy as well as the various manifestations of Gnosticism and Hermetism.

Here I would also add one particular example: understanding where Aquinas, for instance, comes from is incomplete if one only looks at Aristotle and Augustine without reference to, for instance, Plotinus, Proclus, and Avicenna—just to begin with. Another example can be made with later Byzantine theology: one simply cannot understand where later Fathers from Maximus up to Palamas come from without having looked at Pseudo-Dionysius—and really Ps.-Dionysius’ conceptual source, Proclus, and the prior Neoplatonists.

Late antiquity has a strong pull in all directions. It’s with this in mind that Wildberg concludes (among other things):

So what we need, it seems to me, is an intellectual history of Late Antiquity, a history that is so broadly conceived that it does not, in view of the obvious communalities, simply just connect Proclus and Dionysius the Areopagite, or Plotinus and Origen, but actually juxtaposes Jesus and Lucretius, or Paul and Cicero. A survey of this kind might begin to wrench answers from the extant material — answers to very, very important questions which not only puzzle me a great deal, but which one cannot, it seems to me, ignore much longer with impunity.

The kind of project Wildberg proposes goes in the general direction those like Peter Adamson (my supervisor) have advocated—e.g., expanding the canon for what qualifies as ‘history of philosophy’, or more proximate for late antiquity, a review of the last 10 years of Neoplatonism studies. Aside from my own selfish desires in the area I work in, there is an argument to be made for more strongly integrating late antiquity in the general canon of history of philosophy (or intellectual history in general). Having come from a ‘Great Books’ program in the US, like Thomas Aquinas College, Wildberg’s proposal is only a logical conclusion to the general approach of studying the history of ‘ideas’ (or for Great Books types, the ‘Great Ideas’)—and perhaps, simply speaking, what constitutes valid, true arguments in philosophy.

Anyway, lengthy speaking aside, read the paper. Well worth it.

Knowledge like sense impression

While preparing for a presentation I recently gave in Cologne, I have been reminded of an intriguing yet strange passage in Damascius. In his De Principiis, Damascius asks what ‘knowledge’ (γνῶσις) is, in the context of Intellect’s relation to its object, Being. The response, however, is by no means a straightforward identity:

What then is knowledge (ἡ γνῶσις) really? Is it like a halo, the forerunner in the procession of light that comes to be in the knower from the object known? Certainly perception takes place in accordance with the sense impression (ἡ αἴσθησις κατὰ τὸ αἴσθημα), and imagination exists according to the impression (ἡ φαντασία κατὰ τὸν τύπον), and opinion (ἡ δόξασις) and discursive thought (ἡ διανόησις) according to the content of thought and opinion respectively (ἡ μὲν κατὰ τὸ διανόημα, ἡ δὲ κατὰ τὸ δόξασμα). In general, then, knowledge (ἡ γνῶσις) exists according to the content of knowledge (κατὰ τὸ γνῶσμα), so to speak (De Princ. II.149.12–17 Combès-Westerink; trans. Gertz).

Sebastian Gertz discusses this at length, and quite well, in his 2016 paper on knowledge, being, and intellect in Damascius. I also discuss this passage (and his interpretation) in another dissertation chapter on causality in Damascius, slowly being developed. Gertz’s paper does a fine job elucidating this and other passages—I would recommend readers towards that.

But to return to the text, I want to focus on how Damascius makes his argument, especially in light of Aristotle. What makes Damascius’ argument interesting is that he does not (explicitly, at least at this point) use premises from the general Neoplatonic hierarchy to make his claim—for instance, that Being is a priori separate from Intellect. Instead he uses analogies from other faculties to make the initial claim: sensation (αἴσθησις) is according to, or identical with, its sense impression (αἴσθημα), and the same for opinion/discursive thought. In the same way, so Damascius appears to argue, knowledge is identical with the ‘content of thought’, coining the word, γνῶσμα, to explain this phenomenon. But what about the object of knowledge—the γνῶστον? Immediately after, Damascius seems to say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’:

In general, then, knowledge is according to the content of knowledge … while the content of knowledge is the object of knowledge itself (αὐτὸ τὸ γνωστόν), although becoming substantialized in the knower (τῷ γιγνώσκοντι). We say that knowledge is entirely according to the latter [or ‘this’], but knowledge is not [simply] this. (De Princ. II.149,16-20; trans. my own)

καθόλου τοίνυν ἡ γνῶσις κατὰ τὸ γνῶσμα, εἰ οἷόν τε φάναι, τὸ δὲ γνῶσμα ἐστιν αὐτὸ τὸ γνωστόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἤδη τῷ γιγνώσκοντι ἐνουσιωμένον. ἢ κατὰ μὲν τοῦτο πάντως ἡ γνῶσις, οὐ τοῦτο δὲ ἡ γνῶσις.

At the outset the identification of the γνωστόν with γνῶσις is denied: knowledge is ‘according to’ the former, but not identical to it. Before this, however, Damascius does appear to identify the γνῶσμα and the γνωστόν, only in the case when the latter becomes ‘substantialized’ in the subject of knowledge (the γιγνώσκον). (One minor point not addressed in Gertz’s paper, but agreeing with his general point.) The idea then seems to be that the knower becomes identical to the γνῶσμα, which itself was the γνωστόν before becoming imprinted in the knower.

Here the analogy to sense impression becomes a little clearer: the faculty of sense accords with the ‘content of sense’, the αἴσθημα, which itself correlates to the object of sense αἰσθητόν, although the latter remains distinct from the senses insofar as (1) it is the intentional object of the faculty of sense, and (2) it is enmattered. Aristotle’s De Anima III.8 brings out the distinction, in terms of the form/matter distinction:

Within the soul the faculties of knowledge and sensation are potentially these objects, the one what is knowable, the other what is sensible (αἰσθητόν). They must be either the things themselves or their forms. The former alternative is of course impossible: it is not the stone which is present in the soul but its form. (De Anima III.8, 431b26–29; trans. Smith)

Given this, Aristotle soon after does give an identification, or a kind of identification, between images/φαντάσματα and αἰσθήματά:

… when the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it along with an image; for images (φαντάσματα) are like (ὥσπερ) contents of sense (αἰσθήματά) except in that they contain no matter. (De Anima III.8, 432a8–10; trans. Smith, modified)

The αἴσθημα then serves as a bridge between the object of sense and the senses themselves, insofar as the sensible form which correlates to the αἴσθημα applies to both the senses and the object of sense.

In this respect Damascius seems to have something like this in mind for the γνωστόν and γνῶσμα, where the γνωστόν maintains distinction in relation to the γιγνώσκον. However if he is carrying through the analogy, there should be no essential difference between the γνωστόν and γνῶσμα which knowledge is identical with. Damascius’ ‘denial’ of the straightforward identity of γνωστόν and knowledge, however, seems to be similar to Aristotle denying that the faculty of senses become literally the stone in matter and form. Instead, the faculty of sense takes on the ‘content of sense’, i.e. the form, without the matter; in the same way, the knower takes on the ‘content of knowledge’ without the correlating ‘matter’ or substrate—whatever that may be. Thus, knowledge’s identity with the γνῶσμα implies a qualification of the kind of identity between the knower and the object of knowledge.

One remaining question: would constitute the ‘substrate’ which distinguishes the object of knowledge from its subject? In a word, unity: for Damascius, as for all Neoplatonists, Intellect implies duality since it thinks itself—there is then a necessary distinction of Intellect-qua-subject thinking itself, Intellect-qua-object. For late Neoplatonists (Iamblichus onward), Being, on the other hand, implies unity: its activity is not self-revertive, and as the first product after the One it mirrors the One’s characteristic unity. However, Being is also the proper object of thought for Intellect, so it must be immediately related to Intellect to be thinkable. Thus we see Damascius’ concern in the initial passages to qualify what constitutes ‘knowledge’, if we already have a distinction between the subject and object of knowledge in terms of unity and duality.

I would agree with Gertz and others that this is certainly a break in the ‘identity thesis’ from Plotinus and Aristotle—one can see this in our previous passages from De Anima III.8, where intellect (νοῦς) does become identical to its object. But I would maintain that we still have a qualified identity thesis, and that instead of a Skeptical response (ala Sara Rappe, perhaps?) or even possibly a ‘perspectivist’ position (mentioned in Gertz’s paper), it would be more fruitful to make the comparison in light of Aristotle’s qualified ‘identity’ for the senses and their objects. Damascius’ analogy drawn here, in this respect, is brilliant.


De-Archaicizing the Archai

This blog will be related to my current doctoral research in late Neoplatonic metaphysics (currently analyzing first principles, causality, and specifically the Neoplatonic One’s causality in Proclus and Damascius). I intend to publish short translations/excerpts of texts or brief outlines/summaries of arguments I will elaborate in my thesis chapters. In addition I would like to publish other non-thesis-but-related topics, such as causality in 3rd-4th century AD Aristotelians, earlier Neoplatonists, etc. In the future, after completion of my PhD, I hope to continue publishing on related topics. I am generally interested in topics of causality, first principles, and metaphysics in general for ancient and late antiquity philosophy, while I’m also interested in locating parallels in contemporary metaphysical discussions on causation, explanation, and grounding.