It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all the heavenly glory.
– Bruce Lee
All of Western philosophy and politics — it is said — can be boiled down to a single point of division: Plato and Aristotle.
Aristotle is, in many ways, the father (or perhaps grandfather) of modern science, and of formal logic. Most importantly for our purposes, he is a champion of conceptual analysis, the philosophical technique of giving things clear and comprehensive definitions which capture all varieties of the thing in question. Thus, a “chair” might be defined as a four-legged platform designed for seating one person. Anything that does not have four legs, a platform, or is not designed for seating one person, is not a chair by definition. A three-legged platform of this kind might be called a “stool.” A platform of this kind for seating more than one might be a “bench.” A four-legged platform not meant for seating at all might be a “table,” and so forth.
Plato, by contrast, generally tried to point in a particular direction, rather than define a thing outright. Plato did not completely avoid definitions (he once got himself into great trouble with Diogenes after defining a human as a “biped without feathers”), but as a general rule, he engaged in what Jungians call “circumlocution:” moving around the point in order to illustrate without pretense of having actually captured the subject with language.
The reason for taking such an approach may lie in the nature of language itself. Words are metaphors: they are sounds arbitrarily associated with meanings which are not the sounds themselves. Because the sounds of words are not the thing itself, an understanding of a thing through the medium of words will always be incomplete. Experience is required for a true understanding of things. Knowledge acquired with words may be useful, but will always be insufficient. Thus, the belief that we can know things by words alone may prime the aspiring student for error and the pretense of knowledge. To be preferred is the Socratic self-knowledge of ignorance, which marks the beginning of wisdom.
Perhaps a case in point: there are many definitions of “mysticism.” What I have defined “mysticism” as above is neither a complete nor a comprehensive definition of the term (such a definition may not actually exist for a term like mysticism). Yet the “mystical” frame of mind, in contrast with the dialectic, rational state of mind, is one that can clearly be understood by anybody who seeks to look towards the meaning behind the words, rather than at the words themselves.
If one were feeling a bit Nietzschean (or perhaps Freudian), one might perceive in the Aristotelian a conscious avoidance of the meaning behind words, in favor of the concrete safety of the words themselves. A safety from experience.
The problem, of course, is that the implicit mystical critique of conceptual analysis is true. To speak dialectically, words are not even analogues of their definitions; they are merely metaphors.
So for the purpose of pursuing and conveying truth with humility, accuracy, and in a way most likely to foster understanding in the listener, perhaps it is best not to overestimate the value of Aristotelian reason — logic, science, philosophy, and so forth. All of these classical tools of rational thought are useful tools for training the mind, and should not be dismissed either.
But if one were to eventually settle with one or the other of these Greek philosophers as “higher” in their relation to truth, then I think the nature of language itself might require us to choose Plato — the man who, in his understanding of the metaphorical use of language, chose to spoke in metaphors rather than in declarative assertions, thus moving his pupils in the direction of the truth by their own reasoning, rather than falling into the trap of believing the lie that one had escaped metaphor through the use of clear definitions and captured some truth with words alone…