Greek European Culture

Education, Europe - West, Plato

Remembering Reiner Schurmann

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House

The Platonic dialogues, I learnt through my association with Reiner, do not “immortalize” Socrates; they preserve the ephemeral – his mortal face. By etching the immortal forms onto Socrates’ perishable body, Plato accuses the forms of their impotence and their irrelevance. Yet, tragically, he also proves their indispensability. Scholars now debate whether Socrates was a character in Plato’s dialogue and whether he was just a mouth-piece for the younger man’s philosophy. To them, I say: no more accurate, more moving, more personal and more complete a biography was ever written. Is it historically accurate? Or is the dialogue mere fiction? I try to show in my work that history and true accounts only produce bibliographies – biography requires preserving the individual, the lover, the mortal, and the singular. The body of this dissertation will not mention Reiner’s name on every page, but it is his biography in this fundamental sense. Of course, he would have written it better, but I claim with a certain pride that no “historian” could have done a better job. The life and loss of each one of us is neither as bas(e)ic as a fact nor as capricious as fiction. …

Hardly had Reiner passed away, when Reiner’s “philosophy” – i.e. his bibliography, not his biography – supplanted him as a cheap idol (Greek eidolon) would. In one seminar, I was amazed to hear this ultimate condemnation of the man he was: “nice guy, but influenced by an errant philosophy.” Though provable bibliographically (its opposite can also be proven by more careful readers; facts can be used in any way), biographically this is wrong on three counts. Reiner was not a “nice” guy. He was mercilessly intolerant of pretension and just about as polite as Socrates. In terms of “influence,” his philosophical praxis consisted solely of the discovery of cracks in all foundations. Reiner was less susceptible to other philosophies than Socrates was to Alcibiades. The term anarchy, which has many levels of meanings for him except the most obvious one, also means the susceptibility of all “influences” to critical questioning. Finally, errant philosophy is a sword that cuts both ways: as soon as a philosophy becomes conspicuously errant, such as Heidegger’s is alleged to be, it begins to teach even greater and subtler philosophical lessons.

Biographically, Reiner taught me the difference between particularity and singularity. In his writing, he claims the difference as follows: “…death as mine temporalizes phenomena because it is absolutely singular. But the singular cannot be treated as the determinate negation of the universal; the contrary opposite of the universal is the particular. It takes a neglect of the persistent tie between time and the singular, a tie signified to me by my death, to append these conflictual strategies to the list, long since Antiquity, of terms that are mutually exclusive within a genus and jointly exhaustive of it.” For Reiner, interested in the public sphere, the singular was a tool to demonstrate the illegitimacy of univocally binding “phantasms,” such as totalitarianism. For me, interested in Reiner, the singular was happily the object of love, tragically the object of death, and ultimately, the face and fate of all phusis.


  1. James

    Thank you for your Blog about Reiner Schurmann. I didn’t know anything about him or the philosophical work that occupied much his life.


    When I was reading the final paragraph in your commentary I was particularly stroke again by the notion of mans (tragic) upward seduction towards the eternally unchangeable immutable realm of the ideas or the Gods. Historically I never been able to discern critically how widespread this notion about the realm of the ideas actually was in Greek culture as a whole or at what decisive juncture the ideas become a more tenable or believable part of the cultured Greeks’ general education rather then the mythic beliefs that surrounded the Olympian Gods. I think that perhaps in many important ways we can begin to see this critical difference, a difference that is even more visibly apparent today, between the fundamental notions of the logos and mythos. Likewise in Plato’s dialogue, Parmenides, the One exists only as a unity of the many, and the Many only exists only as a manifold of units. In this dialogue Plato seems to (unlike his early dialogues) concede some type of reciprocity between the universal or the ideas and the particular, meaning the empirical, given datum of what’s apparent as reality before us in the world as it is, namely that which can’t be dissolved back into concepts. However it’s in this connection that I agree that with your or Parmenides statement that we must return to our pluralistic mortal cosmos, where the singular can only be returned to momentarily, or more exactly as something that can no longer be anything “more” then it is. However this “more” that demands nothing more that what it actually is can only be experienced in the sense of a relationship not just between the “mortal” things that give the world it’s sense of unity, but also in terms of what can be, precisely “no more” and this is the essence of what we should perhaps mean by something being temporal. Yet, in order to fully understand not the concept of what something means in a temporal state or how it relates to “things in time”, which is the way many people relate to many temporal things, including their own mortality, it’s important I think to see “temporality ‘ in the original sense of how things pass, are more simply as their passing in this world of which we are a small part, and this relationship doesn’t relate us to time but to those things that can be “no more” because they are complete in-themselves. Paradoxically to know something can be “no more” is also to know that it is more then what can be its temporal moment.


    I think that perhaps Reiner Schurmann sensed something of this lost along the pathway in western thought with all the talk about ideas and form, ultimately we have perhaps lost the feel for what life really is through our readiness to know it without knowing.



  2. J

    The work you are citing from is now in print. Just thought you might like to let your readers know the reference: Parmenides, Plato and Mortal Philosophy: Return From Transcendence (Continuum Studies in Ancient Philosophy)