Eric Gans on Plato’s Botched Rescue of Sacrality.

The declarative, as a response to the physical absence of a demanded object, must invoke a different scene to linguistically still produce it: 

To understand a declarative sentence, one situates it on an “other scene” that is not a simple prolongation of the present scene but a mental scene inhabited by imaginary objects.

Plato fixates on the declarative to attempt a method of continuing shared attention, after the pre-declarative modes have been seized as an object of desire: 

For the Plato of the Theaetetus, he who affirms that “man is the measure of all things” would deny all values that transcend the individual [no method of sharing attention].  In the face of this danger, Plato relocates the foundation of the human community outside of it, but this “outside” is no longer revealed in the localized history of religious revelation.

In this manner, he creates the no-man’s-land that metaphysics will inhabit for over twenty centuries—that it has not yet abandoned.

Cratylus’ solution to Plato’s problem preserves the declarative-ostensive distinction, but Plato settles into demanding the ostensive also be declared: 

Socrates finds “primitive words” too distant and obscure to reveal their object clearly.  In answer to this objection, Cratylus attempts to guarantee the revelatory power of names by appealing to the sacred, proposing a Heraclitean derivation of primitive names on the basis of universal movement.

The raison-d’être of this derivation has never been satisfactorily explained.  It is in fact a nascent semiotic that marks a crucial step in the dialectic leading from pre-Socratic thought to Platonic metaphysics.  If names are given to things “insofar as they are borne and flowing and becoming” (411c), it is in order to permit us, since we are unable to immobilize this becoming, to observe it from a stable “Archimedian point.”

It is only when we possess the unchanging word “river” that we can affirm that we never put our foot in the same one twice.  The Heraclitean flux generates in the sign its own antithesis.  In this view of signification, the name preserves its ostensive function; it points to an ongoing worldly movement, as the just-quoted passage from 411c indicates—a remark made by Socrates himself, who informs us that he was in his youth a student of Cratylus.

But Socrates no longer accepts as univocal the Heraclitean derivation; basing himself on a few etymologies as apparently arbitrary as those which preceded them, he insists on the equal plausibility of the derivation of words on the basis of “immobility.”  By forgetting the implicit raison-d’être of the Cratylean-Heraclitean doctrine—the opposition between atemporal words and their temporal referents—Socrates slips from the idea that the name is made necessary by the impermanence of things to the idea that the name must “signify a movement and a translation,” that is, that rather than imposing its stability on the flux of things, the name must itself be a model of the thing-in-movement that it designates.

But if this is the point, then it is easy enough to find examples of word/things that are “immobile.”  The still-ostensive name of Heraclitus thus becomes the conceptual name of Plato, which expresses or “contains” the quintessence of an action–movement or the stopping of movement–attributed to the thing by Socrates’ fantastic etymology.  His first example of an “immobile” word says it all: it is the word epistémè (knowledge), which he would derive from hístesin epí (“[it] stops on,” “the sign that knowledge ‘stops’ our soul ‘on’ things” (437a).

In order to refute the Heraclitean who claims that knowledge has a stable existence only in relation to the instability of the things to which it refers, Plato derives the very name of “knowledge” from the already-theorized action of knowledge-that-arrests-movement; like the God of Exodus, he arrives at the name only by the detour of the sentence.

Cratylus’ model, while more compatible with GA, still does not elucidate perceived impermanence as an echo of permanent sacrality, which the originary ostensive signifies: 

It is thus upon the stability of the signified that Plato constructs his theory of knowledge.  Heraclitus, in remarking that things constantly “translate” themselves, would not have been able to think that this state of flux makes them incapable of functioning as correlatives of the linguistic sign.  Heraclitean ostensive nomination depends in fact on a subjacent sacred model.  The originary ostensive is not the name of an impermanent thing, but the name of permanence itself—the name of God.

To rid himself of the sacred Being that lurks within the Heraclitean flux, Plato must ground the sign not upon its worldly referent but upon the signified, which is by nature in a state of extrawordly repose.  The impermanence of each beauty is unimportant, provided that the Beautiful remain in place.  Plato is the first real theoretician of signification.  Without the signified, there can be no linguistic sign; Plato was the first to understand this capital fact, the foundation of all semiotics.  But, metaphysics is not content to be a theory of the sign, nor a fortiori a linguistics; it wants to found an ontology.  The signified “beautiful” will consequently be transported beyond the region of perishable things to become the Form-Idea “the Beautiful.”

Unable to return signification to sacrality, Plato makes the signifier itself the Sacred, birthing Heavenly Ideas, creating a rivalry between two worlds of objects, leading him to pick Ideas as the ‘real’ world: 

Plato realizes that language cannot be explained on the basis of ontological monism.  The word is something other than the thing, and not merely another variety of thing (an “imitation” like that of the artisan, for example).  But lacking the possibility—ethical as well as intellectual—to return this dualism to its anthropological source, he fetishizes it and consequently degrades it.  To affirm that the Ideas alone are real is not to distinguish them absolutely from worldly things, but on the contrary, to assimilate the two.  As soon as one imagines a “heaven” inhabited by the Ideas, one makes them play the same role in the other world as things play in this one, just as they do in the myth of the Cave.  The other world is in fact the “other scene,” the scene of representation, on which only signs appear.


It is the formality of the linguistic signification-relation that engenders the world of the Forms.  Immortality in this realm is not a beatific prolongation of lived time into eternity, but an extratemporal form of being.  Although he did not understand the other world to be originarily that of linguistic signification, Plato is the first to have realized that it is inhabited by beings accessible solely through meditation on the sign-beings that we call in a formalist vocabulary “signifieds,” but that merit their Hegelian name of Begriff, concept, for they “grasp” and preserve an originary content.

The concept is born when the formal immortality of signification becomes separated from its origin in ostensive designation.  We proceed from immortal gods to immortal Ideas, in such a manner that when the gods themselves are invoked in the mythical passages of Plato, they are creatures rather than creators of language.  The judges of the myth of Er at the end of the Gorgias are fictions that illustrate the idea of Justice, not gods who incarnate it.  Their distributions of compensatory pleasures and pains reveal by the “logic of the supplement” the inefficacy of Socratic morality; the tyrant Archelaos suffers in the underworld in order to embody a moral truth that cannot be exemplified on earth.

Metaphysics was a response of maintaining attention in a now post-ritual society (note how this necessity of obliterating history also exists within modern liberalism): 

The Sophists are dangerous because their rhetoric restores to language its originary power of creating meaning, but in a context where the speaker is no longer subject to the transcendent communal order incarnated in ritual.  The stability of the Ideas that maintain the social order is founded on a deeper, albeit still mystified vision of the originary event and of the scene of representation that preserves it.

The formal logic of signification justifies the founding gesture of metaphysics.  The concept is indeed immortal because it does not belong to the real world, whatever its point of entry into human language.  But if the nominalized virtues of the early dialogues and the Ideas themselves of the later ones possessed only the formal immortality of the sign-in-general, they would fail to meet the ethical requirements that Platonic thought imposes on them.

In attempting to find in language the basis of a conflict-free community, Plato creates a form of thought that effaces the historical origin of language as the human community’s means to defer conflict.  In order for the concept to be immortal, it must be without origin and therefore without history.  On the contrary, the real immortality of the concept is in its evocation of the scenic sharing of the sign in the originary event as a transtemporal guarantee of communal peace.

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