BMCR 2000.06.21

Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus

, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's Timaeus. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999. 172. $16.95.

We would need to think and reason with a certain illegitimacy, Timaeus tells us, if we are to speak (of) khora. The khora is not thought according to a logic of identity and non-contradiction, assuming, that is, that it can be thought at all. We must — and this necessity comes from the “matter” to be thought, which is not to be confused with hyle or its modern derivatives — “apprehend” or “touch” [ ἁπτὸν ] khora with a “certain bastard reasoning” [ λογισμῷ τινι νόθῳ 52b]. Yet, if we look at the history of the interpretation of the Timaeus from the post-Platonic hekadamy through our contemporary Academy, this imperative has been consistently ignored. With a remarkable regularity, this bastard reasoning has been assimilated either to a legitimate and legitimating discourse concerning “space” or “place,” or to the rhetoric of a certain Platonic modesty that requires the differentiation of a rigorous deductive presentation of the truth from a certain speculative, mythological, or oneiric transgression of “legitimate” discourse.

In Chorology, John Sallis has attempted to think “rigorously,” according to the requirements of such an illegitimate reasoning, about Timaeus’ account of the khora. Sallis’ work on Plato’s dialogues is well known: his Being and Logos: The Way of Platonic Dialogue (Third edition, Indiana U. Press, 1996) remains an important work for scholars who recognize the necessity of taking into account the specificity of textual form in any adequate interpretation of Plato’s text. In Chorology, Sallis continues his careful reading of Plato’s dialogues, bringing to bear on the Timaeus many of the questions and problematics he has pursued at the very forefront of contemporary philosophy over the intervening years. His work on imagination, representation, and the possibility and meaning of thinking at the end of metaphysics, to name just a few, all figure prominently in his reading of the Timaeus.1 Chorology can thus promise its readers not only a careful, rigorous, and scholarly interpretation of the Timaeus, which strives to do justice to the integrity of Plato’s text and not merely to a particular abstraction from the text (e.g., Plato’s “cosmology” or “physics”), but also a challenging and provocative exploration of some of the most pressing and difficult contemporary philosophical problems.

Chorology consists of five chapters, four of which comprise a close commentary on the majority of the Timaeus. The first chapter examines the introduction of the dialogue leading up to the beginning of Timaeus’ cosmogonic discourse (17a-29d). The second chapter discusses Timaeus’ first discourse (29d-47e) in which the artisan-god produces the kosmos as a representation of the intelligible order. The central chapter concerns Timaeus’ second beginning (47e), which simultaneously sets aside the first beginning while also making it possible. This discourse, the chorology, provides the focus for Sallis’ interpretation. The fourth chapter discusses the ways in which “traces” of khora mark Timaeus’ subsequent discourse. In discussing these several traces, Sallis confronts one of the most difficult and trenchant problems facing interpreters of the Timaeus — what is the significance of the chorology for politics? The final chapter of the book discusses the ways in which the chorologic discourse has been appropriated in three moments in the history of philosophy: the post-Platonic forgery passed under the name Timaeus of Locri, the Aristotelian reduction of khora to hyle and topos, and, finally, Schelling’s appropriation of the chorology.

The most distinctive and controversial element of Sallis’ reading is his interpretation of khora. The roots of this interpretation lie in Jacques Derrida’s early essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy.” In the few pages devoted to the Timaeus, Derrida interpreted khora as a name of the spacing of originary inscription, which he elsewhere approached under the name, différance. It was not, however, until 1987 in a Festschrift for Jean-Pierre Vernant that Derrida fully developed his remarkable interpretation of Plato’s discourse on the khora.2 Although Sallis’ interpretation of the Timaeus owes much to Derrida’s work, his interests and concerns lead him to develop his reading of the chorology in striking and novel ways. In addition, Sallis’ interpretation takes the form of an integral dramatic reading of the dialogue, whereas Derrida’s discussions of khora have been sometimes occasional and motivated by interests which are exterior to Plato’s text.

Like Derrida, Sallis rejects any hasty translation of khora into notions like “place” or “space.” As Timaeus tells us, when we think khora as space or place, “we look at it as in a dream” (52b), and, as Socrates explains in the Republic, dreaming is nothing other than mistaking an image for its original (476c). Thus, if we begin by assimilating khora to space, our discourse will concern a mere image of khora rather than “khora itself.” In making this distinction between the ” khora itself” and its images, however, we enter into the heart of the problem: khora subverts the whole logic of identity and essence expressed in the phrase “as such,” and hence problematizes the very possibility of speaking of ” khora itself” as though khora had an identity like any other being. We are firmly caught in a double bind that requires that we differentiate khora from its images while recognizing that such a differentiation is problematic and even impossible. As Timaeus says, only if khora is radically indeterminate and formless — only if it escapes the order of property and propriety — can khora receive the properties and formal determinations that first makes the kosmos possible. Khora hovers on the very edge of nothingness, never showing itself as itself, but only in conjunction with the presence of the elemental bodies, as a trace of “something,” which can never itself be made present. It is thus “something” very much like what Derrida named différance : an originary spacing and “differencing” that presence presupposes and that, as a condition for the possibility (and paradoxically the impossibility) of presence, can never itself be present. Thinking, or dreaming, this problematic has occupied and continues to occupy the work of the best philosophers of the twentieth century.

The introduction of the khora has significant consequences for the cosmology and metaphysics of Timaeus’ first speech. Timaeus begins with the fundamental metaphysical distinction between the sensible and the intelligible (27d-28a). All of the work of the artisan-God is understood, in the first speech, in the light of this distinction. The khora, as the necessary condition of the metaphysical distinction, shows, however, that metaphysics is not foundational but necessarily points to a prior “ground.” This “ground” is not the solid ground and foundation after which metaphysics seeks but rather the unstable, ambiguous, abyssal “ground” of a thinking that passes beyond metaphysics. Hence, Sallis concludes that Timaeus’ chorology inscribes the end of metaphysics as the very condition for the possibility of metaphysics.

The relationship between the chorology and metaphysics brings to the fore one of Sallis’ preoccupations in this book — Heidegger’s interpretation of the history of metaphysics. For Heidegger, metaphysics is inaugurated within the Greek epoch by a conception of being determined out of the notions of poiesis and tekhne. In modernity, metaphysics comes to a close and fulfillment — i.e., finds its possibilities entirely elaborated and exhausted — in Nietzsche’s reversal of Platonism and in the implicit metaphysics of technology. The task of thinking after the end of metaphysics is, for Heidegger, to prepare oneself for the “new beginning” — to open oneself to the new possibilities which thinking discovers after it has left the domain of metaphysics. For Heidegger the end of metaphysics seems to be understood, first of all, as an event that marks an epochal transition.3 Sallis contests this by arguing that there is already in the Timaeus a subversion of the metaphysical determination of being within the horizon of production. Sallis uncovers a “critique of production,” which is never explicitly formulated by Timaeus, by very carefully marking the ways in which the order of production is qualified, contrasted, juxtaposed, and undermined by the opposed order of procreation. The opposition between these two orders opens a space in the Platonic text where the exclusive determination of being by production is resisted. At the very beginning of metaphysics, the order of production is already “deconstructed,” if you will, by its “supplement,” the order of procreation.4

Although these two discourses are woven throughout the dialogue, the metaphor of the family arises centrally in the discussion of khora. Khora is the mother in whom the demiourgic father engenders offspring and also the nurse who nourishes these offspring. The chorology, therefore, has an affinity with the order of procreation rather than the order of production. Only through the resources of the procreative order can we adequately think at the end of metaphysics.5 To highlight the radicality of the chorology here we need only read this passage in contrast with the other central Platonic familial metaphor of Republic VI, where the father arrogates total responsibility for the offspring and where the mother is silenced in keeping with Socrates’ program, in Book V, of the assimilation of all femininity to masculinity.6

One of the most difficult problems confronting the interpreter of the Timaeus is providing an adequate interpretation of the political context for this cosmological discourse. Why is this “Platonic” physics situated within an explicitly political discussion? What does the chorology signify for Socrates’ desire to move from the paradigmatic representation of the “ideal” polis to the description of polis in its determinate historical character? Refusing any easy dissolution of the problem, Sallis advances a provocative and original answer to these questions, which I can only briefly indicate. “Khora” appears in the political discussions with its colloquial meanings of “country” or “land.” Sallis identifies khora in this sense with the “earth.” This provides an analogy between the role of khora in metaphysics and in politics: in the same way that khora both enables and makes problematic the metaphysical distinction between the sensible and intelligible, Sallis argues, khora (earth) both enables and makes problematic the distinction between an intelligible paradigm of the polis and its images in the historical polis. The khora (earth) thus implies the closure of politics — i.e., of the ideal construction of a political order immune to historicity — at the same time as it makes possible the differentiation of the ideal polis from the historical polis.

This brief epitome of Chorology fails, of course, to do the book justice. John Sallis is one of the most important philosophers in the United States working within the tradition of continental philosophy and this alone would mark Chorology as necessary reading for both philosophers and scholars of Plato’s dialogues. The work contains a rigorously formulated and substantial challenge to the “orthodox” interpretations of the Timaeus within the Anglo-American academy that, one hopes, will respond to this interpretation in the spirit of the true controversy that reveals vitality of thinking. From a philosophical standpoint, it is surely one of the most significant and provocative recent monographs devoted to the contemporary task of re-thinking the nature of “Platonism” out of a careful and hermeneutically sophisticated confrontation with Plato’s texts. This re-thinking must concern not only specialists in Plato’s dialogues, but also all who are invested in the task of thinking at the end(s) of metaphysics. If one finds oneself jaded and sceptical, or even despairing, of the possibility of anything new being discovered in the over-worked and, perhaps, exhausted fields of the Platonic corpus, or if one fears that contemporary philosophy has little to learn from a return to Plato’s dialogues, then I can think of no better antidote than a work as provocative and stimulating as Chorology.


1. For a critical overview of many of the themes, topics, and problematics that have occupied Sallis, see the collection of essays The Path of Archaic Thinking: Unfolding the Work of John Sallis, ed. Kenneth Maly (SUNY Press, 1995).

2. “Plato’s Pharmakon” (pp. 61-172 especially, pp. 158-162) in Dissemination (University of Chicago Press, 1981). “Khora”, translated in On the Name. (Stanford University Press, 1995). Also see, “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” in Derrida and Negative Theology (SUNY Press, 1992), “Faith and Knowledge” in Religion (Stanford University Press, 1998), and “Avances” published with Serge Margel’s Le tombeau de Artisan-Dieu (Les éditions de Minuit, 1995). Sallis’ commentary on Derrida’s reading of khora can be found translated as “Of the Khora,” Epoché 1994, 1-12. The discussion is continued by Derrida in “Tense” in The Path of Archaic Thinking, pp.49-74, and Sallis’ “Daydream” ( Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 1998 52: 397-410).

3. For a much more careful and precise discussion of these questions, see Sallis’ “The End of Metaphysics: Closure and Transgression” in Delimitations: Phenomenology and the End of Metaphysics (2nd edition, Indiana University Press 1995).

4. An alternative response to Heidegger’s thesis can be found in Stanley Rosen’s The Question of Being (Yale Univ. Press, 1993). Rosen finds in Plato’s dialogues not only a critique of “production,” but rather an entirely other conception of “production.” For Rosen, production is not critiqued or deconstructed by procreation but rather “explicated” and “clarified.” See also, in the Derridean vein, David Farrell Krell in the first chapter of Architecture: Ecstasies of Space, Time and the Human Body (SUNY, 1995).

5. The procreative order is not determined by a telos — that is by use — like the productive order. It is an openness to the event of the coming of the new, rather than the pre-determination of something for the sake of some purpose.

6. Sallis comments on this passage in Being and Logos pp. 402-417. The relationship between the “good beyond being” and the khora (which in its own way is “beyond being”) is of crucial importance for the interpretation of “Platonism.” Walter Brogan discusses this and highlights the significance of this move from the paternal to the maternal in Sallis’ work in “Twisting Free of Metaphysics: Ecstatic Philosophy” in The Path of Archaic Thinking.