Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.33

Sara Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism. Non-Discursive Thinking in the Texts of Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.  Pp. xx + 266.  ISBN 0-521-65158-1.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Pauliina Remes, Philosophy, University of Helsinki, Finland (
Word count: 2049 words

A reader well acquainted with Plotinus cannot suppress an occasional twinge of impatience when encountering the later members of the same school. So much is old hat, and what once was clear in Plotinus has become muddled with myth and excess metaphysical layers. Sara Rappe's (R.) reading of Neoplatonism shows, however, that these philosophers go a long way in trying to solve a problem that is central in Neoplatonism and inherent in Plotinus himself. The author explores the following paradox: for the Neoplatonist, truth cannot be disclosed in discursive language. Ordinary, propositional thought cannot express full or higher reality, or the One. Nonetheless, the same philosophers attempt to communicate their philosophical convictions in discursive language. If we take seriously the claim that the truth cannot be conveyed discursively, what can we learn from texts? What did the Neoplatonists think the text could transmit that would lead to a non-discursive realisation of truth?

By posing this crucial question to the texts of Plotinus, Proclus and Damascius, and by using contemporary philosophy of language to penetrate their metaphors, symbols (sunthema) and myths, the author seeks a bridge between the discursive and the non-discursive. This she finds in meditation practices, evoked by symbols, visionary exercises, myths and divine names used in the texts. As the list of authors shows, R.'s aim is to trace this textual phenomenon almost throughout Neoplatonism. This is also a drawback of her effort. Plotinus, who wrote nothing about Orphic mythology or ritual practices of theurgy, finds himself grouped together with late Neoplatonist authors to whom metaphysics had become mixed with the narrative and the ritual of pagan religions.

R.'s book is divided into two main parts. The first part concerns Plotinus and the Enneads, the second is a series of chapters on later Neoplatonism. I will review some of the central claims of the book and then proceed to observe certain assumptions about non-discursivity in Plotinus, before touching upon R.'s analysis of later Neoplatonic texts.

R.'s starting point is the Neoplatonic lack of confidence in discursive argument. Wisdom can be attained only through noetic contemplation. This contemplation transcends the discursive, the temporal and the representative, enclosing everything there is to know in one unitary vision. But if this truth cannot be expressed in language, it cannot be communicated either. As R. observes, there is no literal meaning available. The role left to language is to represent aspects or segments of truth. And in this sense, all statements about the truth are metaphors. They always represent it from a distance, under a guise, in a certain way.

Neoplatonic texts, R. further argues, ought to be interpreted in the context of this paradox of meaning. They are written to form a "configuration of non-discursive truth". Reading these texts involves decoding the discourse, which consists not only of philosophical arguments but of theurgic rituals, visionary journeys and visual exercises. These "meditation manuals" with their symbols and ritual formulae are intended to invoke non-discursive states of consciousness. Texts are vehicles of transmission rather than series of written arguments. Needless to say, this somewhat radical way of reading the texts may run the risk of overlooking their argumentative aspects. It does, however, illuminate passages that would otherwise remain obscure.

According to Plotinus, discursive thought happens in time. At any one time it can always disclose only aspects of reality or truth, and, as R. argues, it uses (linguistic) representations. Truth, however, cannot be selectively aspectual, nor can it coincide with representation. It must be about the real beings, not their images. Since it is not intentional, it cannot be disclosed by means of linguistic representation. The question then becomes how to reveal a truth that is non-representational. The answer seems to be that not everything can be disclosed by discursive methods.

But what is the scope of the limitation of discursive methods? Before tackling this question, several things ought to be clarified. The division into discursive and non-discursive veils a number of similar but not identical experiences or states of consciousness. Non-discursive thought can be non-propositional but still, in a sense, conceptual. That is, the Intellect can be seen from the point of view of its internal objects, the forms that are, as it were, the concepts it forms when grasping the unity of the One. But the Intellect can also be studied devoid of these internal objects, as mere vision of the One. (If I have understood correctly, this is closest to what R. is interested in.) Are there two different kinds of non-discursivity? If so, one must be very cautious in determining what the passages are about (I disagree, e.g., with R.'s reading of V.3.7.35-38 on p. 57-58 and V.3.17.35 on p. 64 as being about the Intellect's proper functioning.) Furthermore, someone might think that if the Intellect truly succeeded in this vision and gained unity with the One, there would no longer be even a seer, any Intellect distinct from the One. Which of these three levels coincide(s) with truth? More specifically, I would like to examine five interrelated issues mentioned by R. (esp. chapters 2 and 3): (1) essences at the level of nous are not discrete individuals because of the unity of forms (e.g. p. 43); (2) objective essences in the world and the essences found within the researcher as a result of the right kind of contemplation have nothing in common (e.g. p. 29-30); (3) discursive reasoning and noêsis are states wholly unlike each other (part I passim); (4) conceptual activity does not help in observing the nature of things as they are in themselves but instead obstructs it (p. 30); (5) "Human beings cannot think their way out of a limited point of view" (p. 30).

To start from (1): Despite the identity thesis (that the Intellect and its thoughts are identical) Plotinus states often that the contents of the Intellect, and thereby of intellection, are 'many-coloured' and many (e.g. V.1.5.1; II.4.4.15-17; VI.7.32). The Intellect is a henpolla. It is an integrated complexity -- whatever that means in the non-spatio-temporal realm. Importantly, it is different from the One because it is not altogether simple but coincides with the differentiated essences and because a conceptual distinction between the thinker and its thoughts can be made (V.1.7.17-18; 26-30; V.8.5.15ff.; II.4.4.2-5). Thereby noetic contemplation, too, is bound to differ from non-differentiation and from a state in which there is no longer any distinction between the seer and the seen (cf. VI.9.8.33-35). The description of noêsis as primarily objectless (e.g., p. 64, based on V.2.3.17) becomes complicated by the fact that forms belong to the nature of the Intellect.

(2) The relation between the Intellect and the sensible realm is one of image. Even though the perceived kinds and universals are not the forms themselves, and even though perception and representation may mislead us regarding their true nature, the sensible formations are nonetheless similar and connected to the forms themselves. For this reason, whatever is found in inward-directed contemplation of the forms has some relevance to the realm of sense, and, vice versa, an inquiry into the sensible realm may inform something of real essences. (3) Not only are the objects of dianoia and noêsis related. The Intellect is described as the lawgiver of discursive reason, endowing us with rational cognitive capacities. Discursive reason is the image of the Intellect in time (V.3.3.23-39; V.3.4.1-4).1

If these remarks have anything to them, issues (4) and (5) become more complex. To start with the former, conceptual activity may not in and of itself be enough to lead us to contemplative truths, but it is hard to see how it could obstruct if it is used rightly to work towards the essences. Accordingly, even though the human mind is not able to think itself into union with or into a purified vision of the One, it is by no means evident that Plotinus wholly mistrusts the powers of thought in the case of contemplation and ascent to the intelligible (cf. On Dialectic I.3).

These observations have other interpretative implications. R. is convinced (Introduction and Ch. 5) that the occasional suggestions of a difference of emphasis between Plotinus' school and the theurgic Neoplatonism of Iamblichus have been overstated. However, from the point of view of someone who sees the Intellect primarily as an integrated complexity of forms, the mental experiments of concentrating one's attention or attempting to grasp an object from a detached point of view may not amount to full-fledged theurgy.

Nonetheless, in the final analysis Plotinus may be badly equipped to face R.'s problem of the possibility that something essentially non-discursive can be approached discursively. First, shifting the problem from the level of Intellect's proper functioning to the level of its vision of and unity with the One does not make it disappear. Second, unitive knowledge, whether it consists of forms or not, is at odds with language. Third, there is R.'s emphasis on noetic thought as self-intellection,2 which I find singularly valuable (Ch. 4). The subjective, the look inwards, differentiates between the discursive and the non-discursive and becomes the mark of the indubitable. Plotinus anticipates those modern philosophers who inquire into the intentional structure of thought and attempt to give an explanation of self-knowledge that does not objectify the subject of thought. The dissimilar structure of belief and (self-)knowledge also entails that no matter how much intentional discursive philosophy would assist us in gaining true wisdom, there will always be a gap between the two.

R. opens the second part of her study with an inquiry into mathematical or geometrical symbolism (Ch. 6). The prominence of mathematical objects and geometry as pedagogic devices shows the Pythagorean tendencies of many Neoplatonic authors. R. presents good evidence and arguments for the use of, e.g., geometrical figures as objects of attention in purifying the mind. I find the links to ritual less persuasive. Concentrating attention on a mathematical object, on the one hand, and worshipping the shape of a sphere in rituals, on the other, can be two distinct methods of achieving the kind of purity of thought that could lead to true ascent. Perhaps their connection is closer but not evidently so.

Ch. 7 explores the use of Orphic texts in Platonism. From Plato's Symposium to Proclus' works -- with one significant omission, Plotinus -- Platonism is mixed with Orphic symbolism.

The long chapter on Proclus' Platonic Theurgy (Ch. 8) is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Proclus' use of symbol, icon and myth is explicit and reflected in his own writings. For him, the text serves not just as an exegesis but as a means of initiation. This chapter also confronts the question how language is related to higher realms of reality. For Proclus, just as for Plotinus, language is a powerful image of higher reality. Despite the critique on discursive thinking, the human cognitive capacities are such that they can approach real beings, that is, the forms. But Proclus goes further to emphasise the power of words and names. According to Proclus, the demiurgic creation of the Timaeus and naming are one and the same thing. Thus in R.'s interpretation the right names would not just exhibit or present but in a sense coincide with the true realities. Through these icons of language the soul has, in a way, shortcuts to the higher realm. One may wonder, however, to which extent the method still relies on something like concepts, and if so, if and how it opens the pathway to the non-conceptual.

In Proclus, as R. contends, pure discursivity and argumentation are replaced by a new kind of text in which different genres are infused and ritualistic symbols and other shortcuts are employed to open up a vision of the truths internal to every soul.

The last chapter (Ch. 9) explores the implications and background of Damascius' metaphysical novelties and the denial of the identity thesis. As something which has no reality, the "ineffable" has no semantic function. The whole language of metaphysics is limited to the allusive, and the ultimate limit of philosophical discourse is silence.

This is one of those good books that does not leave one silent. It is a book to learn from and to discuss as well as to disagree with. Rappe's daring choice of method leads to a genuinely new interpretation.


1.   See e.g. E. K. Emilsson's forthcoming article on 'Discursive and Non-Discursive Thought'.
2.   For the division into self-perception or introspection and self-knowledge, see L. P. Gerson 1997 'Epistrophê pros heauton: History and Meaning', in Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica medievale 8: 1-32; 'Introspection, Self-Reflexivity, and the Essence of Thinking', in Cleary, J. J. (ed.) 1997 The Perennial Tradition of Neoplatonism. Leuven: 153-173.

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