Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

So, tell me about these “real numbers.” Plato, Therapy, Theory, & Ethnography

Last time I related Plato’s “ideas” to mathematics, in particular Calculus and Geometry. The value of Plato, and the “doctrine of ideas,” carries over into other realms as well, from psychology to law to political theory to anthropology.

Most schools of modern clinical psychotherapy have this in common. They are mindful of the client’s inner-world. Cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, and existential phenomenology, have different reasoning for this, but they all have Plato in common.

By patiently asking questions and listening, therapists unearth a client’s “ideals” and their inter-relationships. Some do it hoping to subtly persuade the client that his behavior does not conform to his ideals. Others view awareness of this disharmony as sufficient to release clogged-up psychic energy. Yet others might connect the client’s ideal-world with his world-as-lived as a way to harmonize them. In all cases, “reality” or “facts about life” are secondary. The crucial point is the client’s “ideal” inner-world.

Beyond therapy, attention to ideals helps in understanding other perspectives, the first step in legal persuasion. No argument or trick can move a judge if the words of the argument do not speak to her ideals and values. If psychologists listen with open questions to get at what makes a client who he is, a lawyer must begin by exploring the ideals and values of both legal system and judge. A lawyer must not only “speak the judge’s language,” but also grasp what that language is “all about.” In so doing, the lawyer takes legal “ideals” along with the relevant rules as point of departure. The effective lawyer apprehends these well enough to dialogue with them; and a good Platonic dialogue can change questioner as much as respondent.

The story of the Contracts professor asking students not to “shoot the rabbit” illustrates the layman’s, and new law student’s, biggest difficulty with legal discourse. In order to “play the game,” to write law school exams, or argue before a court, you take the rule as given, a rule best understood in an “idealized” logical form. At least at first. If you wish to argue that a rule should or should not fit a set of facts, you must see the rule as a constructed “ideal object” within a system of similarly “ideal” elements. “A contract begins with an offer and acceptance.” If you immediately reply, “That’s not the way it is in real life,” you are too clever by half. You are “shooting the rabbit.”

Likewise, political theory begins with a set of ideals that justify a form of government, or lay the foundation upon which it is built. These could be a view of the “perfect community,” or they could be “inalienable rights,” like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, etc… Whether the political community in question is a monarchy, republic, oligarchy, or democracy, it must begin as Platonic and ideal.

Could every psychological inner-conflict, every legal dispute, every political controversy involve a nonconformity between a world-as-lived and a world-of-ideals? Could inner-realities lie at the heart of conflict rather than facts? Should we be reading more Plato and less Aristotle?

Regardless, there are less momentous concerns with equally intense ramifications. To have a meaningful “cocktail party” conversation with someone who is a theorist, law professor, mathematician, political scientists, or artists, it could pay to play Plato.

“Tell me about these ‘real numbers.’ How are they different than other numbers? Why are they so important in mathematics? Would such and such also be a real number?”

When done in conversation, not only does this avoid the worn-out “What are you working on?” but it also gives you a chance to learn something new. By beginning with these “emic” questions you start the conversation from the other’s perspective, likely a welcome change for someone not used to talking about her/his work with non-experts.

This process of adopting the viewpoint of a subject is called the “emic” perspective in social anthropology, in contrast to the “etic” or external-objective viewpoint. To understand a social phenomenon (or a person) “emically” involves placing it within an “ideal” value system as a whole–a system of symbols, a system of culture.

Social anthropologist Clifford Geertz, building on Kenneth Lee Pike’s linguistics terms emic/etic (from phonemic/phonetic), made this the prevailing ethnographic method. Much as a modern therapist would, a contemporary anthropologist adopts an internal perspective, beginning with elements of the “native’s” internal world in the context of her ideals, beliefs, and experiences-as-lived. A native’s thoughts are not “interpreted” according to some external paradigm of what they precisely mean, or what “human life” objectively is, rather thoughts/ideals/values are interpreted from within her own language–world–perspective. Astoundingly, a competent lawyer would argue much the same way in court.

If inter/multiculturalism and change are defining terms of our age, that would be compelling enough reason to read less Aristotle and more Plato.

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2 comments on “So, tell me about these “real numbers.” Plato, Therapy, Theory, & Ethnography

  1. Pingback: Ideals in the Real I: Plato, Calculus, Law, Alice in Wonderland, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty, & Mind | Fila Sophia

  2. Pingback: So, tell me about these "real numbers.&quo...

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