Neoplatonic Critique of Identity?

A common theme of much 20th century continental philosophy was criticism of presumed identities of people and things. Writers like Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault, to name but two, systematically questioned the role of identity in our understanding of the world. Edmund Husserl had recommended suspending judgments of existence in favor of the concrete description of essences; starting especially from a historiographical point of view, Foucault recommended suspension of judgments of pre-existing unity in favor of a concrete description of differences.

Later neoplatonism like that of Proclus (412-485 CE) is commonly associated with an extreme “realist” multiplication of metaphysical entities that implicitly had their own presupposed identities. The positive side of this is a rich view of differentiation metaphysically underpinning the diversity of concrete being. But the neoplatonic technical term hypostasis is the etymological source of our verb “to hypostasize”, which basically means to attempt to artificially impose more unity on something than it really has.

But especially if we go back to Plotinus (204/5 – 270 CE), and also in later authors, there is a strong strand of what might be called “negative henology” in neoplatonism. Plotinus was the main originator of so-called negative theology in the West. Negative theology indirectly gives meaning to the notion of transcendence by pointing out how every definite description falls short of adequately characterizing God. Hen is Greek for “one”, so by analogy with negative theology, a negative henology would be an account of how everything falls short of the pure unity of the One — in other words, how things that we think of as pre-existing unities are less unified than we suppose.

Hand in hand with this perspective comes the recognition that unity has many degrees. There are a few strong unities and many weak ones, and many degrees in between. As Plotinus recognized, nothing real has the pure unity of the One. (See also Power of the One?Plotinus Against the Gnostics; Subjectivity in Plotinus.)


So, I want to say that distinction is something good, not a defect we ought to remedy. It is a fundamental symptom of life. Stoics, Buddhists and others remind us that it is best not to be too attached to particular forms. This is a wise counsel, but not the whole truth. I am tempted to say there is no compassion without some passion. Caring about anything inevitably involves distinction. It is better to care than not to care.

Everything flows, Heraclitus said. But in order to make distinctions, it has to be possible to compare things. Things must have a character, even if they do not quite ever stay still within their frames. Having a character is being this way and not that. Real being is always being some way or other. Its diversity is something to celebrate.

It is not immoral to prefer one thing to another. We can’t be who we are without definite commitments. Perfect apathy would lead to many sins of omission. It is better to have lived fully. We are not apart from the world, but inhabit the oceans of difference, and sometimes must take a side.

Bounty of Nature

Nature as we experience it is more characterized by superabundance and diversity of form than by univocal necessity. Even nonorganic phenomena like the weather involve material tendencies toward a kind of dynamic equilibrium. These tendencies — which are even more pronounced with living things — involve an “ability” to spontaneously recover when disturbed, a kind of resilience and adaptability to new circumstances.

The neoplatonists developed a whole metaphysic of “eternal generation” by a kind of overflow. For them, beyond every intelligible essence was something “supra-essential” that could be characterized only indirectly, through its overflowing superabundance. Essence ended up as a kind of after-image of the eternally overflowing primary superabundance of the Good or the One. Transformed in various ways, this notion greatly influenced historical developments in theology, supporting notions of the generosity, providence, and grace of a more personal God.

In a more modest and down-to-earth way, Aristotle had also dwelt on our experience of superabundance, applying it in his biology and in the more general notion of potentiality. In between, the Stoics developed a contrasting emphasis on a univocal direct divine omnipotence with respect to events. In the tradition, all three of these approaches came to be hybridized in all sorts of ways. While I think the approach of Aristotle himself was the best of all, I have a lot more sympathy with theologies of superabundance of form than with theologies of power-over and dominion. (See also Fragility of the Good.)

Biological Diversity

Modern biology provides an abundance of empirical evidence that things like populations and ecosystems need diversity to flourish. Inbreeding leads to all sorts of genetic defects; monoculture crops and other simplified environments are more vulnerable to pests, and generally far less able to recover on their own when disturbed.

In a more reflective, interpretive vein closer to ordinary experience, Aristotle already documented the tremendous variety exhibited in nature. Species are not somehow pre-given, but rather to be discerned and understood in terms of specific ways of meeting very general needs.

The fact that there is a superabundance of such ways in nature is one of the most basic observations we can make. Nature as we concretely experience it is much more characterized by this superabundance and diversity than by univocal necessity of the kind we find in mathematics. For Aristotle, an emphasis on this superabundance and diversity goes hand-in-hand with a perspective that looks to purely natural ends and means as more primary in the order of explanation than mechanical metaphors.

This suggests a broader paradigm of intelligibility, reason, and objectivity than the one grounded in mathematics, univocity, and simple necessity. Emotional reasonableness is a real thing that is not at all reducible to formal logic. Similarly, intelligibility, reason, and objectivity in general have a practical reality that should not be understood as requiring a univocal foundation. (See also Bounty of Nature; Equivocal Determination; Multiple Explanations.)