T. K. Seung
September 20, 1930|
near the city Chongju, Pyonganbuk-do, Korea
|Main interests||Ethics, Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Hermeneutics|
|Notable ideas||Cultural Thematics, Bedrock Platonism, the Sovereign Individual|
T. K. Seung is a Korean American philosopher and literary critic. His academic interests cut across diverse philosophical and literary subjects, including ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of law, cultural hermeneutics, and ancient Chinese philosophy.
- 1 Background
- 2 The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan (1962)
- 3 Cultural Thematics: The Formation of the Faustian Ethos (1976)
- 4 Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics (1982)
- 5 Plato Rediscovered: Human Value and Social Order (1996)
- 6 Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul (2005)
- 7 Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wagner: Their Spinozan Epics of Love and Power (2006)
- 8 Seung’s Interpretation of Kant’s Philosophy (1969–2007)
- 9 Selected works
- 10 External links
- 11 Further reading
- 12 Footnotes
Seung was born on September 20, 1930, the eldest of three children, near the city of Jungju in the Pyeonganbukdo Province of Korea. He attended Jungju Middle School, where he was exposed to Western-style education. In 1947, he escaped from North Korea, crossing the 38th parallel with a few friends. He settled in Seoul, South Korea, where he studied at Seoul High School for three years. He attended Yonsei University for only one month before the Korean War broke out in June 1950, subsequently fleeing south to Pusan ahead of the advancing North Korean army. There he enlisted in the ROK Army and served throughout the war, eventually attaining the rank of captain.
After the end of the Korean War, Seung went to Yale University on a full scholarship and resumed his undergraduate studies in 1954. As a student in the Directed Studies program, he discovered the history of Western culture. He was introduced to the latest schools of thought such as existentialism, New Criticism, and other intellectual movements. At Yale he was mentored by a number of famous professors, including Thomas G. Bergin, Cleanth Brooks, Brand Blanshard, and F.S.C. Northrop. He graduated summa cum laude in 1958 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He entered Yale Law School, but quit after one academic year, deciding instead to pursue doctoral studies in philosophy. Around this time he wrote his first book, The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan, which proposed a new, "trinitarian" interpretation of the Divine Comedy. His Ph.D. thesis was later published as a book, Kant's Transcendental Logic.
In 1965, he received his Ph.D. and also married Kwihwan Hahn, a graduate of Juilliard in piano performance. They have three children. His son, Sebastian Seung, is Professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT. After teaching for a year at Fordham University, he joined the philosophy department of the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where he is the Jesse H. Jones Professor in Liberal Arts, Professor of Philosophy, Government, and Law.
The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan (1962)
Seung’s first book, The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante’s Master Plan, is a highly original reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is crucial for understanding Seung’s development as a philosopher. He articulates and illustrates his method of interpretation in his trilogy on hermeneutics, Cultural Thematics: The Formation of the Faustian Ethos (1976), Structuralism and Hermeneutics (1982), and Semiotics and Thematic in Hermeneutics (1982). These three volumes contain Seung’s contribution to the revitalization of literary and philosophical hermeneutics and constitute the methodological groundwork for his study of Kant, Plato, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Goethe, Wagner, and normative political theory.
The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl grew out of a term paper Seung wrote during the first year of his graduate studies at Yale University. The subject is the most central issue in Dante Studies: the thematic unity of the Commedia, which many Dante scholars still regard as either unsolved or unsolvable. For centuries, Dante readers have pondered about the relation between Dante’s construction of the three realms of the afterworld (Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise) and Dante’s journey through those three realms. It is not easy to say what Dante’s main concern is – to describe a journey through the afterworld or to unfold a vision of the universal order? At least, obviously, journey and order are two interdependent themes in Dante’s poem. The account of the journey presupposes a cosmic order, and the order can be understood only through the account of a cosmic journey.
In The Fragile Leaves, Seung says, we know that the Commedia has three parts (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), but we do not know how these three parts constitute one poem. We learn that the three parts describe three worlds, but we do not see how the three worlds are unified into one cosmos. We find many themes and scenes in Dante’s narrative, but we do not understand how those themes and scenes are woven into the central plot of Dante’s text. In an article, “The Metaphysics of the Commedia” published twenty five years after The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl, Seung restates his approach to Commedia as the problem of unity and division in Dante’s vision: “What is the principle of unity that holds together the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory, and the ten spheres of Paradise,” and “What is the principle that divides Hell into nine circles, Purgatory into seven circles, and Paradise into ten spheres?”
Seung elucidates the poem’s thematic unity by using three principles essential to medieval Christian thinking. The first principle is the medieval classification of virtues and sins. It provides the framework for understanding the formal structures of the three realms. Seung shows that Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are structured in accordance with the medieval table of seven natural virtues and three supernatural virtues, which are implicitly celebrated in the ten spheres of Paradiso. The natural virtues are humility, mercy, meekness, fortitude, liberality, temperance, and chastity, and the supernatural virtues are the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The contraries to the natural virtues are the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust, and they are condemned as sinful acts in the various sections of Inferno, and on the seven terraces of Purgatorio they appear as vicious dispositions being purged into their virtuous opposites. Moreover, in the beginning of Inferno the supernatural virtues are thematized as being absent; in the beginning of Purgatorio they appear as distorted; near the end of Purgatorio they are celebrated as regained; and finally in the last cantos of Paradiso they are presented in full display.
Seung then shows that Dante's first principle of construction (the classification of virtues and sins) is based on his second principle, the tripartite theory of the human soul (vegetative, sensitive, and spiritual) and their powers (concupiscible, irascible, and intellectual). The natural and supernatural virtues and their contraries reflect the powers of the tripartite soul in virtuous and vicious dispositions or in virtuous and sinful acts. Dante's third and final principle of construction is the Holy Trinity. Since the human soul is created in the image of God, Seung holds, the triadic structure of the human soul resembles the trinitarian structure of divine nature, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. By establishing a systematic connection between the three parts of the human soul and the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, Seung demonstrates that everything Dante witnesses in his epic journey is meant to be an allegorical reflection of the Holy Trinity and their activities. Because Dante scholars have failed to recognize this systematic allegorical function of Dante's epic, Seung maintains, they have reduced it to a grand Human Comedy, in which the mass of humanity Dante encounters in his journey can hardly leave any room for the presence of God. By his trinitarian reading, Seung securely installs the Holy Trinity as the epic hero of Dante poem. Apart from this interpretation, Seung says, his poem is an epic without an epic hero. Many Dante scholars have tried to cope with this poetic anomaly by exalting Dante the traveler as the epic heror. But he is only a traveling reporter, who cannot take a single step in his journey without the aid of his three guides. He never shows a heroic stature in any of his numerous actions.
Seung's trinitarian reading is best exemplified in his allegorical interpretation of Dante’s three guides. Traditionally, Dante studies have focused on two guides: Virgil leads Dante through Hell and Purgatory, and Beatrice appears in the Terrestrial Paradise near the end of Purgatorio, where she replaces Virgil and becomes Dante’s guide through the spheres of Paradiso. The former has commonly been interpreted as representing Reason and the latter as representing Faith. However, Seung points out that this traditional account has committed the inexcusable mistake of completely ignoring Dante's third and final guide Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who appears at the end of Dante's ascent to the highest heaven. Only through Saint Bernard’s prayer to Virgin Mary is Dante granted the beatific vision of the Holy Trinity. The final guide consummates Dante's long journey, which has been initiated and sustained by his first and second guides. Therefore, the role of the former is far more important than the roles of the latter. But the most important guide could not be accommodated within the traditional Dante studies, because they have operated with the dyadic Thomistic schema of natural and supernatural orders. Virgil and Beatrice have represented these two orders and left no room for Saint Bernard. According to Seung’s trinitirian reading, Dante's three guides allegorically represent the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity: Saint Bernard is Dante’s ultimate and third guide. Virgil represents the Son, Beatrice represents the Holy Spirit, and Saint Bernard represents the Father.
Since the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity are the ultimate point of reference for every action of Dante’s narrative and every component of his universal vision, Seung argues that the central theme of the Commedia is the Holy Trinity and its governance of the entire universe. This is his trinitarian reading of Dante's epic, which is ultimately simple and systematic. But he admits that the trinitarian meaning of the poem is not easily discovered. In order to discover it we should make a systematic parallel reading of the poem’s three parts. When we focus on an episode or segment of Inferno, we should try to relate its thematic content systematically to the corresponding episode or segment of Purgatorio and Paradiso. This method of reading can be described as connectionist reading, and it stands in contrast to the prevalent method of reading in Dante studies, which commonly interpret the different episodes, segments, and parts of the poem as self-contained entities and not as thematic particulars of one cosmic theme.
Seung’s trinitarian reading occupies a unique position in Dante studies due to its simple principles of interpretation that lead to a comprehensive understanding of the poem’s thematic content. No other scholars have ever attempted such a comprehensive and systematic account of Dante's epic. Marc Cogan’s project may appear as ambitious as Seung's. In The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the Divine Comedy and Its Meaning (1999), he claims to have discovered the ordering principles of Dante’s universal vision. But Cogan's ordering principles are limited to the orderly understanding of human virtues and sins displayed in Dante's other world. These principles correspond to the first of Seung's three principles, but Cogan does not present any higher or deeper principles that can correspond to Seung's second (the tripartite theory of the human soul) and third (the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity) principles. Hence he cannot even think of connecting human virtues and sins to the Holy Trinity. Thus his reading of the Commedia remains all too human as it has been sanctioned by the long tradition of Dante studies. The magic of Seung's trinitarian reading is to transform this human epic into a divine one. Kenelm Foster of Cambridge University described this magic touch as the stroke of Seung's intuitive genius in his review of The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl (Blackfriars - November 1962).
There has been increased recent interest in Seung's work on Dante. Jesper Hede (University of Copenhagen in Denmark) has published an extensive defense and elaboration of Seung's Dante interpretation in comparison with Cogan's interpretation and the prevalent methods of reading in Dante studies.
Cultural Thematics: The Formation of the Faustian Ethos (1976)
In Cultural Thematics, Seung says that his trinitarian reading of the Commedia was originally inspired by two major movements in the humanities at the time. One was the formalistic program of New Criticism with its preference for close reading under the slogan “Back to the text,” and the other was European phenomenology with its motto “Let the object reveal itself instead of imposing one’s preconception upon it.” Though never abandoning the phenomenological motto, Seung came to have serious doubts about the formalistic approach to textual interpretation. The outcome of these misgivings is presented in his trilogy, Cultural Thematics, Structuralism and Hermeneutics, and Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics. In the first book Seung constructively demonstrates the role of cultural context in the explication of textual meaning. In the second book he systematically examines the danger of misinterpretation inherent in the formalist and post-structuralist programs of textual interpretation, due to their disregard of contextual considerations. In the third book he takes into account the theoretical assumptions and methodological commitments that the first two books presuppose, and presents a fully elaborate theory of how to combine the phenomenological approach to textual meaning with the hermeneutic assertion that cultural contextualism is the prerequisite for adequate textual understanding and interpretation.
Seung substantiates his trinitarian reading of the Commedia with a cultural contextualist examination of the intellectual development of medieval thinkers and writers during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. He focuses on two pairs of triads in this development: on the one hand, the intellectual differences encountered in the works of the Franciscan Bonaventure, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, and the Franciscan Duns Scotus, and on the other hand, the literary differences displayed in the works of the three writers that constitute the Italian Trecento literature: Dante, Francesco Petrarca, and Giovanni Boccaccio. Seung argues that these two triads, though not entirely corresponding in time and place, unfold some of the crucial premises for understanding the emergence of the modern secular ethos during the late Middle Ages. Seung speaks of the formation of the Faustian ethos with reference to Oswald Spengler, who, in the Decline of the West, speaks of the Faustian man as a medieval invention.
In demarcating the intellectual differences between the three philosophers and the three writers, Seung uses the term “sensibility.” The term is carefully chosen as an alternative to the term “idea,” which is often used in historicist studies of intellectual developments and changes. Sensibility refers to the way in which human beings conceive their being in the world without necessarily formulating a specific ideological system or a rigid pattern of ideas. In this regard, Seung’s theory of cultural contextualism has some affinity with Eric Voegelin’s approach to historical phenomena in that the latter came to regard the term “idea” as a misconception when we try to understand how human beings experience their being in the world and act out their experiential conceptions in their every day life as well as in political and judicial forums and social institutions.
The book generated positive reviews, including one from Frank J. Warnke from the University of Georgia: "one cannot question the subtlety and intellectual rigor of his study, the quality of excitement that permeates it, and the illumination it sheds on a great and complex period of Western culture." The noted historian of modern philosophy, A. P. Martinich, wrote, "It is a work of intelligence and imagination; it deals subtly and originally with a complex and difficult topic; and, in characterizing the modern sensibility, it also addresses the crisis of contemporary philosophy. We who "are living in the waning days of the Faustian culture" (p. xi) experience anomie. We sense that something new is almost upon us, and we do not know what it is. Perhaps understanding what we were will help us through the change." 
Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics (1982)
The interpretive principles of Seung’s theory of cultural thematics are most clearly stated in his article “Thematic Dialectic: A Revision of Hegelian Dialectic”, which makes up the last chapter of his book Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics. Seung defines this theory as thematic dialectic, since it formally involves a revision of Hegel’s dialectic as often identified with the triadic formula of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Various scholars have argued that Hegel does not explicate this formula systematically or apply it consistently in his work. The triad is mentioned only a few times in his writings and mainly in his polemic against the logical formalism of Kant’s critical idealism. For that reason, Hegelian scholars sometimes maintain that the formula is neither Hegel’s invention nor the constituting pattern of his philosophy. This discussion, however, is not important for understanding the theory of thematic dialectic. The theory departs from the assertion that Hegel’s system is meant to be a systematic account of how every dialectical conflict is reconciled through the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. The classical example of this pattern of thought, as stated in Hegel’s Science of Logic (I.1.1), is that the concept of being and the concept of non-being are reconciled in the concept of becoming.
The theory of thematic dialectic is not an attempt to restate Hegel’s theory, nor its Marxian offspring in the form of dialectical materialism. Though adapting the Hegelian logic of “both-and” in combination with the Kierkegaardian logic of “either-or” as well as the Buddhist logic of “neither-nor,” the theory breaks open the narrow perimeter that has been set by Hegel, Marx, and Kierkegaard in that it transforms the rigidity of the Hegelian system into flexibility, its uniformity into diversity, and its logical necessity into existential contingency. The theory adapts Hegel’s notion of historical dialectic in that it departs from Hegel’s inexhaustible idea that every cultural theme has its dialectical opposite:
“For example, the cultural theme of regarding nature as an object of contempt and defilement is dialectically opposed to that of adoring it as an object of beauty and sanctity. These two cultural themes are incompatible with each other, because they are contraries. That is, if one of them is to be realized, the other must be rejected. The opposition of these two cultural themes may be called thematic exclusion or contrariety. Theirs is the dialectic of incompatible or incommensurate themes.”
This type of opposition resembles the Kantian notion of antinomy. However, we are not dealing with pure concepts but with propositions. One proposition can say that nature is adorable, and another proposition can say that nature is contemptuous. Thematic exclusion is the classical form of "either-or."
The theory of thematic dialectic is resourceful in outlining the ways in which the problem of opposition can be resolved. In this respect, it deviates from Hegel’s historicism in that it gives a systematic account of the interplay of cultural themes that does not rely on a rigid conception of synthesis. Cultural themes are cultural ideals. For example, the atheist ideal of rejecting the existence of God is a cultural theme, and the theist ideal of believing in the existence of God is another cultural theme. These two ideals exclude each other. But in some cases, their mutual exclusion is not fully sustained. Seung argues that thematic exclusion should be distinguished from thematic tension or competition:
“For example, the cultural theme of being concerned with the other world is not necessarily incompatible with the cultural theme of being concerned with this world, because one does not logically exclude the other. That is, it is possible for someone to be concerned with both worlds. But these two cultural themes can be in competition with each other, and their competition can create tension. Nevertheless, theirs is the dialectic of compatible or commensurate themes.”
The dialectic of cultural themes is their tension, conflict, and interaction. But thematic tension can be resolved in different ways. The Hegelian way of synthesis or “both-and” is one way to resolve it. The Kierkegaardian way of exclusion or “either-or” is another way—that is, given the two cultural ideals it resolves their conflict by rejecting one of them. A third way is to reject both ideals, which has been the Buddhist approach. This is the way of “neither-nor” in contrast to the way of “either-or”, which, in turn, is contrasted to the way of “both-and.” However, these three ways do not cover all types of resolution.
According to the theory of thematic dialectic, the forms of thematic tension fall in two principal groups, each of which is divided into three main positions. On the one hand, we have the group of dualistic resolutions, and on the other hand, we have the group of monistic resolutions. The former are dualistic in that they accept the existence of two competing themes, and the latter are monistic in that they do not accept the existence of two competing themes. The dualistic group consists of (1) resolution by equilibrium, (2) resolution by suppression, and (3) resolution by subordination. The monistic group consists of (4) resolution by fusion, (5) resolution by elimination, and (6) resolution by absorption. If we add to these six forms of resolution the form of exclusion, the theory of thematic dialectic denotes, in all, seven ways in which the interplay of dialectical opposites can take place. The systematic quality of the theory is manifest, for example, in the fact that the resolution by equilibrium is the dualistic counterpart to the monistic resolution by fusion, the resolution by suppression is the dualistic counterpart to the monistic resolution by elimination, and the resolution by subordination is the dualistic counterpart to the monistic resolution by absorption.
The resolution by equilibrium is to keep two conflicting themes in balance. It can be used for achieving a balance between two competing interests, for example, “the conflict between the private interests of individuals and the public interests of their community can be resolved in this manner. Both interests can be regarded as equally important, and their conflict can be resolved by maintaining a proper balance between them.” Resolution by suppression denotes that one theme suppresses another, and resolution by subordination denotes that one theme is subordinated to another. In explaining their difference, Seung takes the medieval ideal of contemptus mundi as the example:
“Concern for this world was to be totally suppressed for the sake of concern for the other world. By the twelfth century, this resolution was being replaced by another: secular concern was not to be suppressed but only to be subordinated to religious concern. This is resolution by subordination. Resolution by suppression was acceptable, as long as the medieval Christians took no strong interest in the natural order. Once they started taking a positive attitude toward nature, this resolution became difficult to maintain and had to be superseded by the resolution by subordination.”
Resolutions by equilibrium, suppression, and subordination are well known phenomena in our time. But it is most often the resolutions by suppression and subordination that make the headlines because they involve an uneven relationship between two ideals that often disturbs the culturally contingent sense of democracy and equality in Western societies. However, although these dualistic forms of resolution are prominent, they do not cover the whole spectrum of thematic dialectic.
The resolution by fusion means to fuse two conflicting themes into one. For example, the idea of a supernatural order can be fused with the idea of a natural order by making the former immanent in the latter, as it was advocated in the Romantic idea of natural supernaturalism or supernatural naturalism. Resolution by elimination denotes that one theme eliminates another. Extreme scientism is an example of this type of resolution. By looking upon physical things from a strictly positivistic and materialist point of view, the scientistic position eradicates every spiritual experience and reduces all things to physical matter. Scientific materialism is reductive; it reduces mind to matter. The opposite reduction is also possible; it is to reduce matter to mind. This is also a resolution by elimination. Unlike these reductive methods, the resolution by fusion rejects reduction. But all of them produce a monistic result. The last type of resolution is the resolution by absorption, which denotes that one theme absorbs another. This type of resolution is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend because it can easily get mistaken for the resolution by fusion. In Seung’s words:
“Although both modes produce monistic results, they differ in one important respect. In resolution by fusion, the two competing cultural themes operate as equals; both lose their original identities in the process of fusion and gain a joint identity. In resolution by absorption, the two competing themes operate as unequals; only one can retain its original identity and integrity, while the other must lose them.”
Seung explains the resolution by absorption as it was used for resolving the conflict between individual and communal interests. This conflict can be resolved in different ways. For example, it can be resolved by the resolution by equilibrium. But Seung points out that this resolution became impossible with the emergence of the sovereign individual in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
“because the sovereign will of the individual could not be retained and preserved in such an equilibrium. It dictated the subordination of communal interests to the individual will, but even this resolution was not quite perfect from the standpoint of individual sovereignty, because it could not fully eliminate the thematic tension between the individual and the communal interests.”
This tension, however, was resolved by making the one absorb the other. The political idea that people can form a commonwealth if they subject their wills to the will of one individual is an example of individual absorption of communal interests. This is the idea of absolute monarchy and enlightened absolutism, which governed European politics from the 17th to 19th century. The political idea that the interests of the individuals cannot be distinguished from the interests of the state is an example of communal absorption of individual interests. This idea was pervasive in the communist states of the 20th century. Moreover, Seung points out that these two types of absorption can be joined. Nazism is a case in point: “the individual interests of all citizens were absorbed into the interests of the state or the race, which in turn were absorbed into the interests of the Führer.” The cults of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong are other examples, although they might differ in formal terms from that of Adolf Hitler in that the General Secretary did not have officially the same status as that of the Nazi leader.
Besides being a systematic account of the various types of resolution, the theory of thematic dialectic is also a systematic theory of how to deal with the problem of consequence in considering the interplay of dialectical opposites. Seung argues that “the resolution of a thematic conflict establishes the dominance of some cultural theme or themes, which can produce certain thematic consequences. These consequences can also take various forms.” He outlines six forms of thematic consequence: (1) continuance: a cultural theme maintains its dominance over another cultural theme; (2) expansion: a cultural theme expands its dominance over another cultural theme; (3) reaction: a cultural theme reacts against the dominance of another cultural theme; (4) reversal: the dominance of a cultural theme over another is reversed; (5) repression: one cultural theme represses another cultural theme; and (6) deterioration: a cultural theme deteriorates and is replaced by another cultural theme.
These cultural events can take place in various historical contexts. There is no simple schema for causally linking one of these events to another. Seung stresses the variety of possibilities in his discussion of thematic conflicts, their resolutions, and their consequences. In short, his account of thematic dialectic is highly existential and contingent, whereas Hegel's account was logical and necessatarian. Though critical of Hegel’s logical necessitarianism that every dialectical conflict can be resolved only by way of synthesis, Seung does not reject the assertion that thematic resolutions may be determined by historical causes and conditions operating on the thematic conflicts. In this sense, the historical determinism that governs Hegel’s historical dialectic is integrated as one option among several others in the theory of thematic dialectic.
Plato Rediscovered: Human Value and Social Order (1996)
Seung’s Plato book is distinctive for several reasons – most notably, it is his only substantial work on an ancient or pre-Christian philosopher. But it is not difficult to discern how it fits into his greater corpus. Indeed, Plato Rediscovered marks a high point in the development of Seung’s methodological and substantive interests. Methodologically, he employs his cultural thematics to construct a comprehensive reading of a philosopher central to the entire Western tradition. That is, he seeks out the most pressing questions of Plato’s time and tries to understand how Plato responded to them. Substantively, the book addresses the question of eternal or transcendent norms (or “Platonism”) versus what he calls “positive norms”.
Seung’s study of Plato is the third volume of his trilogy on normative philosophy, which began in 1993 with his Intuition and Construction (Yale University Press). Seung’s concern there was to identify the normative foundations for John Rawls’s theory of justice. He found two Rawlses – roughly correlating to the early and later works. The early Rawls of A Theory of Justice presented his normative philosophy as transcendentally true of all cultures. But the later Rawls of the Dewey Lectures and Political Liberalism backed off from this lofty perspective and took the modest position that his theory of justice was based on the values embedded in his own culture (viz., liberty and equality). The problem with the latter approach on which Rawls eventually settles is that it is wide open to charges of moral or cultural relativism – charges that continued to trouble Rawls throughout his career. In his personal reply to Seung's critique on this point, Rawls confided his frustration in finding a satisfactory foundation for his theory of justice.
For his earlier transcendental perspective, Rawls claims to have drawn his inspiration from Immanuel Kant, but openly disdains his formalistic ethics for its vacuity. In his own Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness, Rawls notes that Kant's formalistic ethics advocates no more than the generality and universality of moral principles, the formal requirement for any moral theory. In his view, no substantive theory of justice can be constructed on such a slender basis. He goes on to say, "The real force of his [Kant's] view lies elsewhere." But he does not specify the indefinite expression "elsewhere". This became an enigma in Rawls scholarship. Seung tries to solve this enigma by investigating Kant's entire works in normative philosophy. His efforts have appeared in two books, Kant’s Platonic Revolution in Moral and Political Philosophy (Johns Hopkins, 1994), and Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2007).
According to Seung's meticulous investigation, it has been the most grievous long-standing mistake in the study of Kant's ethics to assume that he has espoused no other moral theory than his formalistic ethics and that the Groundwork is his most important work in ethics. Prior to the Groundwork, according to Seung, Kant had embraced Platonic Ideas as the foundation of his ethics in his Inaugural Dissertation of 1770 and reaffirmed his Platonic allegiance in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In his Groundwork, Kant had to abandon his Platonic ethics because he designed his ethical formalism as a Copernican revolution in ethics. In distinction from this new position, Seung labels Kant's Platonic ethics his ethical Platonism. This version of his ethics had never been recognized until it was uncovered by Seung. He has further shown that Kant did not sustain his ethical formalism very long after the Groundwork. In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant may appear to retain his formalistic framework, but he injects Platonic content into this framework. That was only three years later than the Groundwork.
In Metaphysics of Morals, which is supposed to be his crowning work in ethics, Kant does not even retain this formalistic framework and reverts to the traditional substantive ethics. He divides this work into two Parts: (1) the theory of justice and (2) the theory of virtue. Neither of these two topics was even mentioned in the Groundwork. This is the checkered career of Kant's ethical theory from the Inaugural Dissertation through the first two Critiques and the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. Seung does not only trace this checkered career, but also clearly exposes the vacuity of Kant's ethical formalism, thereby vindicating Ralws's dismissal of it. Seung concludes his study of Kant's ethical works by declaring that Rawls's theory of justice was inspired not by Groundwork, but by the theory of justice in the Metaphysics of Morals. He further explains that this theory in turn had been inspired by the Platonic Idea of Justice. So he calls it Kant's Platonic Revolution.
These works on Rawls and Kant eventually led Seung to Plato, the first political philosopher of the West. He opens the preface of his Plato book by saying, "Political philosophy is one of the great inventions by Plato's genius." But this invention took a long intellectual journey, and Seung reconstructs the itinerary of this journey by thematically connecting twenty-two of Plato's dialogues. The point of departure for this journey was the Gorgias, and the Republic and the Laws turned out to be its two destinations. Through the mouth of Callicles, the Gorgias presents the challenge of power politics, as it was practiced in Athenian imperialism and as it was depicted in Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War. In the domain of power politics, power is the ultimate foundation of all normative principles because it alone dictates and sustains all positive norms and refuses to recognize any other normative standards. Callicles maintains that only power should rule because that is the law of nature and that all constraints on power are the chains cunningly devised by the weak to control the strong. In this dialogue, Plato's Socrates tries to prove that Callicles's theory of power politics is wrong, but cannot deliver a knockout argument. Hence the dialogue ends without a decisive resolution. From then on, Seung holds, Plato took upon himself the task of finding an effective response to Callecles's political philosophy of power. This task became his lifelong mission and his philosophical journey.
It is Seung's thesis that Plato set out to overcome Callicles's challenge by formulating his own political philosophy on the basis of eternal normative standards. Without appealing to such eternal norms, it was impossible to talk about the justice or injustice of any positive norms because every positive norm is just by its own standard. But it is not easy to recognize such eternal norms, nor is it any easier to use them in constructing a political institution. Hence Plato had to write a long series of dialogues, which paved his way to the Republic, where he constructed his ideal state, the Kallipolis. This was the first half of his long journey. But he soon recognized two fatal defects in the Republic. First, the standard for being a philosopher-ruler for this ideal state was too high because the ruler was supposed to be absolutely intelligent and totally incorruptible. It was a superhuman standard well beyond all mortals. In formulating this superhuman ideal, Plato had completely ignored the empirical human nature. He had made the same mistake in advocating that the members of the governing class should be allowed to have neither their own families and children, nor their own properties. This was to free them from the chain of private interests in order to make them perfect public servants. Plato came to realize that such a drastic measure went against the most basic human nature.
The second fatal defect of the Republic was Plato's conception of knowledge and intelligence. This was an important topic because the Kallipolis was to be governed by the philosopher-ruler's intelligence and knowledge. The Republic had emphatically demarcated knowledge (or wisdom) from opinion (or conjecture). Although this demarcation sounds commonplace, it is based on Plato's metaphysical demarcation between the eternal realm of Forms and the temporal realm of phenomena. Knowledge is infallible; opinion is fallible. The scope of knowledge is restricted to the domain of eternal Forms or Platonic Ideas because only they are truly intelligible. One can become a philosopher by gaining the knowledge of eternal Forms. But the temporal phenomena can never be the objects of knowledge because they are ever mutable and unintelligible. They can be only the objects of opinion or fallible conjecture even for philosophers. But the knowledge of Forms is insufficient for governing the Kallipolis. Because it is situated in the phenomenal world, its proper government requires the knowledge of phenomena. Since the philosopher-rulers have no knowledge of phenomena, they have to govern by their opinion. This surely undermines Plato's ideal of government by knowledge and wisdom.
The importance of understanding phenomena is indirectly acknowledged at least once in the Republic. When Socrates begins to recount the degeneration of the Kallipolis at the beginning of Book 8, he says that its deterioration is most likely to be caused by its leaders' mistakes in handling the eugenics of future rulers by sense perception and calculation. Without the knowledge of phenomena, it would indeed be impossible to avoid mistakes in breeding because eugenics takes place in the phenomenal world. The understanding of phenomena is even more critical for the construction of the Kallipolis because it is based on the tripartite theory of the soul. The three classes of the Kallipolis are modeled after the three parts of the soul. Since there is no Form of the soul, the tripartite theory can never be knowledge, but only an opinion. Thus Plato's ideal state is built on opinion rather than on knowledge. This is the second fatal defect of the Republic. The Kallipolis turned out to be a product of opinion although it was presented as a product of philosophical wisdom.
Plato had to mend these two fatal defects of the Kallipolis and reconstruct his political philosophy. Thus began the second half of Plato's long journey, according to Seung, and it was finally concluded in the Laws, where he constructed a constitution for the city of Magnesia. In this reconstruction, Plato eliminates the first fatal defect—the superhuman ruler—by replacing the rule of man by the rule of law. Magnesia is a legal state, whose function does not totally depend on the perfect wisdom and virtue of rulers. All citizens of Magnesia participate in the governance of their state through an intricate system of councils on many different levels. Unlike the Kallipolis, Magnasia does not demand the total dedication of citizens and their rulers to the well-being of the state. They are allowed to have their own families and even private properties although the state sets the upper and lower limits to private possessions. This is Plato's acceptance of human nature in the phenomenal world.
The 'Statesman' presents the myth of two ages: the age of Kronos and the age of Zeus. In the first age, the world rolls forward; in the second age, the world reverses its motion and rolls backward. In the age of Kronos, the divine rulers govern the world by their wisdom. In the age of Zeus, the human rulers govern their social order by laws. This myth has been interpreted as Plato's philosophy of history or his metaphysical cosmology. But Seung interprets it as Plato's explanation for his shift from the government by virtues in the Republic to the government by laws in the Laws. By the myth of two ages, Seung says, Plato expresses his realization that the Kallipois is unfit for our age because we are living in the age of Zeus rather than in the age of Kronos.
Plato cannot eliminate the second fatal defect of the Kallipolis by institutional reforms. He tries to overcome it by devising a scientific way of understanding phenomena. He begins this project in Theaetetus by introducing two elements of perceptual knowledge: (1) knowing the sameness and (2) knowing the difference. Plato now believes that these two methods of perception can deliver the knowledge of phenomena. He substantiates this possibility by defining the sophist in Sophist and the statesman in Statesman. Since the objects of these definitions belong to the domain of phenomena, Seung points out, they are entirely different from the definitions of Forms. They are the descriptions of phenomena that can deliver knowledge if they are rigorous enough. To be sure, they cannot be as rigorous as the definition of mathematical Forms. The difference of these two types of definition is like the difference between the square root of a square number such as 4 or 9 and that of an oblong number such as 2 or 3. The former is a rational number; the latter is an irrational number. Unlike the former, the computation of the latter can never be completed. Although it is only an approximation of its true value, it is qualitatively different from a mere guess or opinion. Since its method of approximation is scientific, it should be regarded as knowledge rather than as opinion. Likewise, our definition (or description) of phenomena such as sophists and statesman can never be completed, but it can ever approximate the ultimate nature of phenomena closer and closer. This is Plato's revised view of how we can gain the knowledge of phenomena, according to Seung's interpretation of his later dialogues.
Plato's revised view of knowledge goes together with his revised view of Forms. There has been a long series of discussions on the question whether or not Plato retained his theory of Forms in his late dialogues. But Seung is the only scholar to advocate the thesis that Plato revised his theory of Forms. He explains this revision by distinguishing between simple and complex Forms. Complex Forms are definable; simple Forms are indefinable. Although Plato was obsessed with definition for a long time, Seung holds, he eventually realized that only complex Forms can be defined and that simple Forms are required for their definitions. Simple Forms can also be called primitive or ultimate Forms (or arche in Greek). They cannot be known by definition; they can be known only by direct intuition. The indefinable primitive Forms are already encountered in the Republic, for example, the Form of the Good. Socrates admits its indefinability and explains its nature by the analogy of the sun. In the second part of Parmenides, Seung says, Plato examines eight possible systems of primitive Forms as eight hypotheses. In Sophist, he joins Hypotheses 5 and 7 into his final system of ultimate Forms. He counts Being, Identity, Difference, Motion, and Rest as the most important ones. In his late dialogues, Seung holds, Plato retains only the simple Forms. This is his revised theory of Forms. In his original theory of Forms, he had never clearly recognized the distinction between simple and complex Forms. Hence Platonic Heaven contained all Forms, simple or complex.
Seung has labeled Plato's old theory of Forms as the Skyscraper version and his new theory as the Bedrock version. The eidetic population of Platonic Heaven has changed from the fully loaded Skyscraper version to the sparsely loaded Bedrock version. In the Skyscraper version, Forms are conceived as fully determinate, and they are the objects of definition. In the Bedrock version, they are conceived as highly indeterminate, and they are the basic elements for the construction of complex Forms. For this reason, Seung says, Plato changed his conception of definition. In the Skyscraper version, definition was the art of describing the nature of eternal Forms. In the Bedrock version, definition became the art of constructing complex Forms by using primitive Forms, as demonstrated in the definitions of sophist and statesman. Seung regards the construction of the Kallipolis as the watershed of this change because it can be seen as the construction of a new Form or as the description of an eternal Form. Although it is obviously a product of construction by Socrates and his interlocutors, he says that it is a model laid in heaven for anyone to see (Rep, 592b). If so, he was only describing it. So the Kallipolis can be viewed in two ways.
The art of construction is the most continuous theme in Plato's late dialogues, according to Seung. In Sophist, it is called the art of weaving Forms into a proposition. In Philebus, it is called a gift of the gods to human beings or the divine method. Socrates illustrates it by the art of dividing vocal sounds into vowels and consonants for the construction of language and by the art of dividing musical sounds and organizing them into a system of intervals and harmonic scales. Seung calls this divine art the art of Pythagorean construction because it is based on Pythagoreanism. By using this art, Plato constructs Magnesia as a rational state in the Laws and then the entire universe as a rational cosmos in Timaeus. By locating a rational state in a rational cosmos, Seung holds, Plato finally perfected his response to Callicles. In Gorgias, Callicles had maintained that only power had the right to rule because it was the law of nature and that any other kind of social order was a futile struggle against the power of natural order. Plato now can say that the natural order is not beastly but rational and that a rational state is a natural extension of the cosmic order. Thus he has concluded his lifelong mission and his epic journey.
This is Seung's outline of Plato's epic journey. For this outline, Seung has devised a new way of reading Plato's dialogues. The traditional method is to read each of them as a self-contained work, but Seung's unique way is to find their thematic interconnections and read them as a continuing series. He says that his connectionist approach was inspired by Plato's peculiar way of naming his dialogues. Except for the Republic and the Laws, none of them bear the titles that indicate their subject matters. Sophist and Statesman may appear exceptions. But the real topics of these two dialogues are not the sophist and the statesman, but the problems in the art of defining them. Why are only the Republic and the Laws named after their topics? Moreover, only these two works are extended dialogues. The former is divided into ten Books and the latter into twelve Books. None of the other dialogues are long enough to require such a division. On the basis of these bibliographical data, Seung has formed the hypothesis that the two long dialogues were the two destinations for Plato's epic journey and that all other dialogues were his stepping stones leading up to those end points. Every dialogue Plato writes usually generates new problems, and he writes another dialogue to take up those new problems. So Seung says that the dialogues themselves generate their own thematic interconnections. By articulating these interconnections, Seung has revealed the complex itinerary of Plato's philosophical journey.
Seung's book has been received well in reviews, notably being identified by Thomas J. Lewis of McMaster University as a "scholarly tour de force". The renowned scholar of Plato's political theory, George Klosko (University of Virginia), called Seung's radical new interpretation a "dazzling synthesis", marked by its "glittering intellectuality." More informally but just as enthusiastically, an anonymous reviewer at Amazon.com raved that it is:
"Simply the best book ever written on Plato. I realize that [this] will strike many as hyperbole, but this is all I have in my power to persuade others to read this extraordinary account of how Plato arrived at the invention of political philosophy. The book is wildly original in its approach. Seung is guided by no fashions or masters other than Plato himself. He uncovers the centrality of the problems of metaphysics to Plato's program of politics in a manner that no one, to my knowledge, has ever conceived. If you ever plan on seriously grappling with the big picture in Plato's corpus, this is quite clearly the place to start. Seung answers all the big questions in Plato's work (such as the function of the characters in each dialogue and the relationship of each dialogue to one another). Plato Rediscovered is ambitious and successful on every possible level."—Anonymous, Amazon.com
Seung's interpretation of Plato has proved influential in the work of J.M. Balkin and David Lay Williams, who have made much of the Bedrock theory of the Forms in modern and contemporary political philosophy.
Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul (2005)
In Nietzsche’s Epic of the Soul: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Seung develops an innovative reading of Nietzsche’s most abstruse work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Seung’s primary contention is that Nietzsche’s readers have not paid sufficient attention to the narrative unity of Zarathustra. Indeed, many readers have treated the work as nothing more than a collection of disjointed aphorisms, speeches, and parables. The most generous interpretations prior to Seung’s have allowed that the first three Parts of Zarathustra do, in fact, constitute a coherent narrative. However, Seung finds troubling the tendency of these interpretations to view the fourth and final Part of Zarathustra either as an embarrassing addition to the first three Parts or as a low comedy following a tragedy, after the manner of ancient Greek theater. Seung maintains that Part IV, rather than constituting a burlesque that is irrelevant to what precedes it, actually depicts the fulfillment of Zarathustra’s previously unrealized ambitions. Hence, Part IV represents the epic conclusion to a spiritual journey, the trajectory of which spans from Part I to Part IV of Zarathustra.
Seung accomplishes his reading of Zarathustra by decoding the distinctive meaning and role of each Part of the narrative. In Part I of Zarathustra, Seung argues, the protagonist sets out an agenda to spiritualize the secular world. Seung is careful to point out that Nietzsche’s opposition to Christianity should not be mistaken for antagonism to all things spiritual. Zarathustra harangues the bourgeois ethos of secular humanism, embodied by the townspeople in the marketplace in “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” for neglecting the soul. The secular humanists are too readily satiated by material prosperity and other petty forms of comfort. In an effort to save humanity from the pitfalls of secular humanism in the wake of God’s death, Zarathustra erects an ideal which Seung dubs the “Faustian superman.” The Faustian ideal, so Zarathustra hopes, will serve as a viable replacement for the old Judeo-Christian God. Whereas God formerly functioned as the guarantor of the world’s value, now it is up to the Faustian superman to endow the world with meaning through the power of his creative will. Seung refers to this Faustian ideal as the ideal of the “sovereign individual.”
Zarathustra’s notion of a sovereign, or autonomous, individual is linked inextricably to the traditional Western notion of an ego, or agent, situated outside the chain of natural causes and effects. The agent is a sort of unmoved mover, capable of willing events into existence without itself being the effect of causes beyond its control. Passages in Part I accordingly show Zarathustra exulting in the power of the creative individual who successfully inscribes the edicts of his sovereign will in the raw material of the cosmos. Many of Nietzsche’s commentators have seen no more in Zarathustra, or in Nietzsche for that matter, than the elevation of the Faustian ideal. Seung, however, does not see the ideal propounded by Zarathustra in Part I as the considered view either of Zarathustra or of Nietzsche. In fact, Part II sets the Faustian ideal in conflict with another ideal, that of the Spinozan hero.
The Spinozan hero, unlike the Faustian hero, accepts that he belongs to the inexorable knot of cosmic causes and effects. He acknowledges his lack of agent causal (i.e. metaphysical) power and affirms his physical/animal being. Seung refers to the Spinozan self as the cosmic self, that is, as the self that is coextensive with cosmic necessity. Whereas the Faustian hero wishes to be positioned outside of Nature and necessity and to assert his will against them, the Spinozan hero knows he lacks the power to combat necessity. Although Nietzsche expresses his admiration for Spinoza on multiple occasions, Nietzsche scholars have been remiss to draw any link between the two thinkers. But as Seung perspicaciously notes, “The problem of being trapped in the inexorable web of causal chains…was Spinoza’s central problem.”
The connection between Spinoza and Nietzsche, then, is that both are concerned with preserving spiritual meaning in a deterministic cosmos. Zarathustra, however, in Part II is unable to stomach his being no more than the sum effect of causes beyond his autonomous control. Lacking free will means he cannot realize the Faustian ideal, because he lacks the autonomous will which was to stamp itself upon the yielding cosmos. Rather than molding the cosmos, he must be helplessly molded by it. Consequently, the spiritual agenda laid out in Part I is doomed to fail, much to Zarathustra’s chagrin. Thus, Part II of Zarathustra chronicles the suffering of the human will that aspires to autonomy under the onus of cosmic necessity. Indeed, the central struggle of the book is the antagonism between the Faustian conception of the self and the Spinozan conception of the self. Nietzsche has, in essence, turned the problem of free will and determinism into the existential struggle of his hero, Zarathustra.
Part III stages the battle between Zarathustra’s Faustian ideal and the Spinozan ideal, represented by a dwarf. Most readers of Zarathustra posit the dwarf of Part III as a force which Zarathustra must overcome if he is to affirm eternal recurrence. Seung, on the other hand, forcefully argues that the dwarf, not Zarathustra, is the custodian of the thought of eternal recurrence in Part III. Zarathustra reacts violently against the dwarf’s rendition of eternal recurrence, because it seemingly reduces humans to nothing but puppets whose every action has already been decided by the cycles of eternal recurrence. The dwarf’s version of eternal recurrence, Seung contends, functions as a poetic metaphor for determinism. If time is a circle, as the dwarf proclaims, and each life has already been lived innumerable times before, then nothing new can happen this time around.
Concerning every action I will perform, I lack the freedom to bring about a result different from what has happened in previous cycles and what must happen again. But this lack of human freedom and the consequent absence of alternate possibilities is precisely what is entailed by a deterministic view of the cosmos, given Nietzsche’s metaphysical commitments. So Zarathustra must affirm the dwarf’s doctrine of eternal recurrence if he is to come to terms with what it means to live in a deterministic universe. And to accept living in a deterministic universe is just to accept being a fully natural being—that is, a being that lacks the metaphysical power of free will. Coming to terms with eternal recurrence thus will force Zarathustra to give up his pretense to being a Faustian superman. Instead, he will be forced to acknowledge his belonging to cosmic necessity. However, by the end of Part III, Zarathustra still has not acknowledged his cosmic self. When Nietzsche expresses his longing for Eternity (the cosmic knot of necessity) at the end of Part III in “The Seven Seals,” Seung observes that Eternity is nowhere to be found. Hence, Zarathustra’s purported love for Eternity cannot be consummated in Part III.
Seung’s groundbreaking reading, as already mentioned, centers on Part IV of Zarathustra. He contests that in “The Drunken Song” Zarathustra finally embraces his Spinozan self. Ceasing to aspire to autonomy, Zarathustra instead envisions himself as coextensive with cosmic necessity. As Seung puts it, Zarathustra becomes infused with the power of Mother Nature, which is interchangeable with cosmic necessity. Seung’s conclusion is borne out by the highly comical section of Part IV entitled “The Ass Festival.” Seung argues that the ass represents Dionysus and that Zarathustra and his followers are actually involved in a sort of Dionysian nature worship. Zarathustra has finally learned to love the deterministic forces of Mother Nature and to love his animal self—or, his self as nothing more than part of the cosmic chain of causes and effects. The zenith of Zarathustra’s spiritual journey is, in the final analysis, religious. He has conceded that the autonomous will is illusory and has accepted that his life, like all lives, is directed by Mother Nature. His power thus consists not in his ability to assert his autonomous will against the cosmos, but rather in his giving himself over to Mother Nature. This relinquishing of autonomous will and subsequent acquiescence to necessity seems, so Seung argues, to culminate in a highly religious experience of Mother Nature for Zarathustra.
It might seem ironic that Nietzsche’s answer to the death of God is itself religious. Seung confesses that this is the last thing he expected to discover when he embarked on his work. But Nietzsche’s Dionysian religion, unlike the Judeo-Christian religious tradition which preceded it, is a naturalized form of religion. It repudiates the metaphysical view of human agency that girds the Judeo-Christian tradition, substituting a naturalized vision of the self and of what it means to be human. Seung, however, issues a final warning against taking Zarathustra’s Dionysian transformation for the end of Zarathustra’s travails. At the end of Zarathustra, it appears that the hero’s Faustian self might make a resurgence. Seung explains this by contending that part of what it means to be human, at least at this stage in human history according to Nietzsche, is to be torn between what our Western tradition teaches us about ourselves and what science teaches us about ourselves.
Tradition would have us believe in the existence of our autonomous wills, and subsequently in our power to become Faustian ideals. Science would have us believe that we are no different than Mother Nature’s other children, which are subject to the deterministic mechanisms governing the cosmos. Nietzsche may not think us capable of resolving this conflict, and Seung is reluctant to draw any hard conclusions about Nietzsche’s final views. But Seung’s work does open up interesting questions about Nietzsche’s commitment to naturalism; and perhaps most importantly to Nietzsche scholars, his reading of eternal recurrence is highly provocative. While Seung’s contention that eternal recurrence is a metaphor for determinism is not original, his argument that Nietzsche galvanizes eternal recurrence to make us rethink what it means to be human in a deterministic world is highly original. Nietzsche’s readers might profit from reconsidering the trend in Nietzsche studies to see Nietzsche as the herald of a purely Faustian ideal. The Spinozan themes in Nietzsche’s work might deserve more attention.
Although only relatively recently published, it has attracted much positive attention. Robert Gooding Williams (University of Chicago, Political Science) wrote in a review for Ethics that Seung's book constitutes a "major addition to the philosophical study of Also Sprach Zarathustra". Robert Weldon Whalen (Queens University of Charlotte) wrote that "Neither Zarathustra nor Seung's Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul are for the timid, but the rewards each offers justifies the work demanded. Seung's argument may not convince everyone, but no one could deny his argument's power, creativity, and wisdom. Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul is a groundbreaking contribution to Nietzsche scholarship". Finally, the work has served as inspiration to at least one study of Nietzsche, Kyle Evan Mask's 2008 MA thesis in Philosophy at Texas A&M University, "Eternal Recurrence and Nature," which applies Seung's Spinozistic reading of Nietzsche to texts beyond Zarathustra.
Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wagner: Their Spinozan Epics of Love and Power (2006)
In Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wagner: Their Spinozan Epics of Love and Power, T. K. Seung develops his novel theory of Spinozan epics as first presented in Nietzsche’s Epic of the Soul. In the latter book he systematically examines Nietzsche’s text, defining its thematic content as an epic of the soul. He substantiates the theory with historical knowledge of main currents and undercurrents in European philosophy and literature, identifying the Faustian themes in Nietzsche’s epic and associating it with Spinozan naturalism.
In a comparative examination of the thematic content of Goethe’s Faust, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and Wagner’s Ring, Seung elucidates how the understanding of Spinoza’s pantheistic naturalism, its inspirational background and influences on European philosophy and literature, is indispensable for the understanding of the development and conditions of modern times. The book is the culmination of a lifelong study of the Faustian roots of Western culture. The first step was taken in his study of Dante’s Divina Commedia as an epic of the Trinity as presented in The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante’s Master Plan (1962). In Cultural Thematics: The Formation of the Faustian Ethos (1976), he showed how the 13th and 14th centuries, in European philosophy and literature, constitute the formative period in the transition of the medieval outlook of Dante’s epic to the Faustian view of the Renaissance. The theory was further substantiated in Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics (1982) and Intuition and Construction: The Foundation Normative Theory (1993). Now, with his book on the Spinozan epics, Seung brings further clarity to the complex development and conditions of modern times.
Seung’s Interpretation of Kant’s Philosophy (1969–2007)
Seung published three books on Kant over the span of thirty-eight years (1969–2007). In Kant’s Transcendental Logic (1969), he examines Kant’s claim that transcendental logic can generate a priori synthetic propositions. He views Kant’s transcendental logic as an extension of formal logic. This extension was made by joining formal logic to the pure intuitions of space and time and the pure concepts of understanding. Although his theory of pure intuitions has been discredited by the emergence of non-Euclidean physical geometry, his theory of pure concepts has remained relatively intact. But Seung has exposed a fatal flaw in this theory.
In the Metaphysical Deduction, Kant claims to derive logically his twelve categories from the twelve forms of judgment. It has long been a standard practice to dismiss the Metaphysical Deduction as one of Kant’s typical opaque passages and move on to the Transcendental Deduction. Seung argues that this practice leads to a serious misreading of the first Critique. If Kant were to assemble the categories empirically, they could not be distinguished from empirical concepts. For this reason, he openly disdains Aristotle’s empirical method of collecting his categories. By his logical derivation of the categories, Kant believes, he can prove their a priori origin because logic is a priori. With their a priori origin thus proven, Kant intends to use them as the logical premise for the Transcendental Deduction. But Seung shows that Kant’s derivation scheme was ill-conceived. The forms of judgment are syntactic elements; the categories are semantic elements. To derive the latter from the former was to derive semantic elements from syntactic elements. Although this was a logically impossible operation, Kant proudly flaunted it as his ingenious invention. Unfortunately, his ingenuity thrived only in exploiting his logical fantasy. Seung has dissected a series of fraudulent maneuvers in his derivation of the categories. But the fraud was recognized neither by the performer nor by the audience because it was executed in an obscure tricky language.
Kant’s apriorism has generally been taken as the central theme of his philosophy. But Seung has discovered one more enduring theme alongside it. This is the topic of Kant’s Platonic Revolution in Moral and Political Philosophy (1994), in which Seung explores the importance of Platonism for Kant. In his Inaugural Dissertation, Seung says, Kant expressed his enthusiasm over Platonic Ideas for the first time in his life. Although Kant launched his project of Critical Philosophy in the first Critique, he reaffirmed his earlier allegiance to normative Platonism in the Transcendental Dialectic, where he included Platonic Ideas in the pure concepts of reason. He emphatically distinguished the pure concepts of reason from the categories of understanding. Although the categories were indispensable for understanding phenomena, he maintained, they were useless for practical reason because they provided no normative standards. In the practical domain, he says, one cannot take a single step without appealing to Platonic Ideas as the ultimate normative principles.
By the time Kant wrote the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, he appeared to have completely disowned his normative Platonism. He does not even mention Platonic Ideas and tries to spin out moral rules by purely formal principles, which can have no connection with any transcendent entities such as Platonic Ideas. Consequently, Kant scholars have rarely recognized the relevance of Platonism for his ethics. Against this prevailing tradition, Seung has textually demonstrated that Platonism was an essential element in Critique of Practical Reason and Metaphysics of Morals, Kant’s two ethical treatises after the Groundwork. Plato’s influence is not limited to his ethical writings. Seung has shown that Platonic Ideas also play a critical role in the third Critique and in Kant’s philosophy of history. He finally concludes that the entire tradition of German Idealism has grown out of Kant’s enthusiasm with Platonic Ideas.
Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed (2007) provides an overview of Kant’s philosophical development. This development has been understood as his struggle to reconcile continental rationalism and British empiricism, which has produced his a priori formalism. But this is only one half of the story, according to Seung; the other half is Kant’s normative Platonism. In Kant’s own language, Seung says, his philosophy consists of two types of elements: transcendent and transcendental. The transcendental elements are a priori and innate to the subject of experience. The transcendent elements transcend the world of experience. The former was Kant’s appropriation of the Cartesian legacy; the latter was his adaptation of the Platonic legacy.
To reconcile these two legacies turned out to be a far more difficult task for Kant than the task of reconciling empiricism and rationalism. In his general scheme of synthesis, empiricism and rationalism complements each other like two sides of a single body, but the Platonic and the Cartesian legacies behave like two bodies of conjoined twins. Their harmonious union was so intractable that Kant had to revise it many times over and yet never achieved a satisfactory resolution. Seung supports this verdict by solid textual evidence. Although his three Critiques have traditionally been taken as three interlocking segments of his architectonic system, he points out, their interconnection is rarely, if ever, discussed in Kant scholarship. In fact, he says, Kant scholarship has been divided into three tightly segregated compartments, each of which clusters around one of the three Critiques and conducts its business without even considering the business of the other two. Obviously, there is no way to fit those three pieces together into a single edifice.
Seung has suggested that the most sensible way to read the three Critiques is to take them as Kant’s three attempts to bring together his a priori formalism and his normative Platonism. In fact, to write more than one Critique was not his original design. He had assumed that Critique of Pure Reason was sufficient for laying the foundation for his Critical Philosophy because there was only one pure reason. On the basis of this foundation, he was planning to write two metaphysical treatises: Metaphysics of Nature and Metaphysics of Morals. Instead of writing these two treatises, he changed his mind about the first Critique and wrote the second Critique. But he did not stop there. He changed his mind once more and wrote the third Critique. Even the first Critique marked a huge change of heart, which had terminated his dogmatic slumber in the Inaugural Dissertation. Seung textually substantiates these three revolutions in the development of Kant’s philosophy.
Seung concludes the preface to his Kant with the following observation: “Thus the three Critiques stand as the milestones for marking the three successive philosophical revisions. Therefore, it is a grievous error to regard them as three segments of a single unified architecture, as is conventionally understood in Kant scholarship. These three pieces can never be joined together in a single edifice because they are structurally incompatible with each other. Their connection can be understood only thematically because they mark the thematic development of Kant’s transcendental philosophy.” Thus Seung has launched a revolution in Kant scholarship by highlighting the hitherto neglected Kant’s normative Platonism and elucidating its dialectical tension with his a priori formalism. This was the irresolvable conflict between his own transcendentalism and Plato’s ancient transcendentism. He had to abandon one of them for the integrity of the other. Ironically, this has been accomplished by Kant scholars by blithely closing their eyes to the Platonic dimension of his philosophy. But he could not muster the courage to make the decisive move on his own. So he was destined to struggle with the two-headed monster of his own creation to the end of his life. This is Seung’s startling account of Kant’s profound epic struggle.
The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1962).
Kant's Transcendental Logic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969).
Cultural Thematics: The Formation of the Faustian Ethos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).
Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
Structuralism and Hermeneutics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
Intuition and Construction: The Foundation of Normative Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
Kant's Platonic Revolution in Moral and Political Philosophy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
Plato Rediscovered: Human Value and Social Order (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 1996).
Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005).
Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wagner: Their Spinozan Epics of Love and Power (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).
Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2007).
The Cultural Background of Western Philosophy (Seoul: Korean Academic Research Council, 2007).
"Plural Values and Indeterminate Rankings," with Daniel Bonevac, in Ethics 799 (1992)
"Virtues and Values: A Platonic Account," in Social Theory and Practice 207 (1991)
"Kant's Conception of the Categories," in Review of Metaphysics 107 (1989)
"Conflict in Practical Reasoning," with Daniel Bonevac, Philosophical Studies 315: 53 (1988)
"Literary Function and Historical Context," in Philosophy and Literature 33: 4 (1980)
"Thematic Dialectic: A Revision of Hegelian Dialectic," in International Philosophical Quarterly 417: 20 (1980)
"The Epic Character of the Divina Commedia and the Function of Dante's Three Guides," in Italica 352: 56 (1979)
"The Metaphysics of the Commedia," in The Divine Comedy and the Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences, edited by G. Di Scipio and A. Scaglione (Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 1988)
"Kant," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade (New York: Free Press, 1987)
"The Philosophical Tradition in Korea," in Tae Kwon Do Free Fighting, edited by Gaeshik Kim (Seoul: Nanam Publications, 1985)
"Bonaventura's Figural Exemplarism in Dante," in Italian Literature: Roots and Branches: Essays in honor of Thomas G. Bergin, edited by G. Rimanelli and K. Atchity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976)
- T.K. Seung's Homepage
- Seung Essay on Philosophical Method
- Seung Essay on Mind and Matter
- Robin Small review of Seung's Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul: Thus Spoke Zarathustra
- Robert Gooding-Williams's review of Seung's Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul: Thus Spoke Zarathustra
- Perry Myers review of Seung's Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed
- Google books page for Hede study of Seung's Dante
- Mask's extension of Seung's Spinozistic reading of Nietzsche.
- Balkin's appropriation of Seung's Platonism.
- Condensed version of Balkin's appropriation of Seung's Platonism with emphasis on Bedrock Platonism.
Balkin, J. M.: "Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice," Michigan Law Review, Vol. 92 (1994): 1131-86.
Balkin, J. M.: "Being Just with Deconstruction", Social and Legal Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1994): 393-404.
Balkin, J. M.: Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
Hede, Jesper: Reading Dante: The Pursuit of Meaning (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).
Hede, Jesper: "Ranking Types of Reading: Descriptive and Epic Readings in Dante Studies," in Dante: A Critical Reappraisal (Nordic Dante Studies III), edited by Unn Falkeid (Oslo: Unipub, 2008).
Williams, David Lay: Rousseau’s Platonic Enlightenment (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).
- Originally romanized as T. K. Swing.
- Plato Rediscovered: Human Value and Social Order (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 1996), p. 327.
- The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1962), p. 21.
- "The Metaphysics of the Commedia in the Divine Comedy and the Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences," ed. G.C. Scipio and A. Scaglione (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1988), p. 181.
- The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the Divine Comedy and Its Meaning (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999)
- Reading Dante: the Pursuit of Meaning (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. x-xi
- Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Autumn, 1979), p. 416
- "Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 16, No. 3, p. 354.
- International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 20 (1980), pp. 417-32
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, pp. 192-217
- “Thematic Dialectic: A Revision of Hegelian Dialectic,” p. 432
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, p. 203-204
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, p. 204
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, pp. 204-205
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, p. 208
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, p. 207
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, p. 209
- Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, p. 213
- Kant's Platonic Revolution, pp. 30-32, 61-68
- Kant's Platonic Revolution, pp. 96-101
- Kant, pp. 123-126
- Kant, pp. 137-143
- Kant, pp. 142-143
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 30-32
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. xv-xviii
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 293-308
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 145, 252
- Plato Rediscovered, p. 253
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 286-288
- Plato Rediscovered, p. 164
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 229-235
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 255-258
- Plato Rediscovered, PP. 152-154
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 172-181
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 179-180
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 185-216
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 218-219
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 241-242
- Plato Rediscovered, p. 245
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 223-226
- Plato Rediscovered, p. 225
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 236-240
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. 264-275
- Plato Rediscovered, pp. xvi-xvii
- Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Dec. 1996), p. 823.
- American Political Science Review, Vol. 91, No. 2 (June 1997), p. 445.
- See, for example, his "Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice," in the Michigan Law Review, Vol. 92 (1994): 1131-86 and Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), especially chapter 7.
- See, for example, his Rousseau's Platonic Enlightenment (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).
- For a strong Faustian reading of Nietzsche, see Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).
- Ethics, Vol. 117, No. 1 (October, 2006), p. 151.
- German Studies Review, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2006), p. 653