Syndetic philosophy


1 Introduction

I owe the term ‘syndetic’ to German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who uses it to characterize East Asian thinking (and cuisine) in contrast to an ‘analytical’ Western mode. According to Han’s book Abwesen (‘Absence’), the exact counterpart of the analytical (‘taking apart’) is the synthetic (‘putting together’), as both assume a whole made up of definite parts, and parts making up a definite whole. The syndetic order, different from either, places things one after the other, in an ‘and… and… and…’ structure (Abwesen, p. 71). This is what ‘syndetic’ means: ‘chaining together’.

In my view, Han overstates the degree to which syndetic thinking is characteristic of East Asia and distinct from Western thought, but he is not exactly wrong, either. Out of the ocean of writings that can be called ‘Western’ by one definition or another, historians of ‘Western philosophy’ prefer to select only what is analytical or synthetic, either discarding the syndetic or reworking it in an analytical—synthetic mode. The same bias did not exist in East Asia for most of its intellectual history.

The rationale for the ‘Western’ preference is easy to explain. Everyone makes good observations and wise statements on occasion; it is much more challenging to generalize underlying principles that tie all your observations together, and bring them into a logically consistent system.

However, not everything that is challenging is worthwhile. One reason that generalizations and universal principles are hard to arrive at is that they often simply cannot be grasped by a human intellect or, once grasped, cannot be articulated clearly in language. ‘Western’ philosophers in the analytical—synthetic mode have long seen this, of course, but it has not dissuaded them from seeking to articulate even that unclarity clearly.

To take the elusiveness of ultimate answers seriously on the level of method, on the other hand, means precisely to focus on the level of individual philosophical statements. These can, by being ‘chained together’ and studied, provide reliable guidance, a trustworthy sense and feeling for the underlying principles, in a way that no attempt to simply state or explain the principles in abstraction can.

Confucians appeal to the ‘propensity of the times’ (時勢 shíshì) to explain how the universal principle has to be sought precisely in the particular, in the circumstances at hand, not in a ideal that could be applied regardless of circumstance (see Wang Hui, China from Empire to Nation-State, pp. 73–77). When the Consummate Sage recommends a certain rule of behavior in the Analects or elsewhere, it is not the rule itself that we have to follow, but the import of the rule in its context, which has to be skilfully translated into different contexts.

Thus, I contend, the syndetic method of philosophizing is in no way intellectually inferior to the analytical—synthetic. It is only perhaps more difficult to distinguish between a bad use of it and a good one, because the evaluation cannot be based on purely formal characteristics (logical consistency, systematicity, comprehensiveness, etc.), but on the qualitative substance of the philosophical teaching.

It is high time, therefore, to take syndetic ‘Western’ philosophy seriously on its own terms, and no longer to treat it as pre-, sub-, quasi- or non-philosophical, or as ‘eclectic’ or ‘popular philosophy’ in a pejorative sense. This applies especially to those discourses which the ancients called philosophical in Greek and Latin literature, but which have been refused the full force of that label by moderns.

2 Greco-Roman syndetic philosophers

Maybe the most famous Greek philosopher who can be classified as syndetic in his method is Heraclitus of Ephesus (around 500 BCE). His widespread recognition stems from the sheer poetic brilliance of his writing, but also from the fact that some of the statements in his syndesm do formulate the kind of generalized principles that are favored in the analytical—synthetic mode. Yet the severe difficulties scholars have had in articulating Heraclitean philosophy as a coherent system would support my suggestion that this is simply not the best way to approach him. To think in Heraclitean fashion is to adopt his aphoristic and cryptic style of wisdom (like the Hippocratic On Nutriment), not to extract unambiguous doctrines from it (like the Stoics, ancient doxographers, and modern historians). As Heraclitus himself says of Apollon, the Ephesian philosopher “neither reveals, nor hides, but hints”, and for good reason.

Heraclitean works:
Fragments of Heraclitus
‘Hippocrates’, On Nutriment

Historians’ interest in Heraclitus as a philosopher can be directly contrasted with the disregard for Xenophon of Athens (4th century BCE). While certainly well known and commonly read by Classicists, his Socratic dialogues and the Memorabilia or ‘Memories of Socrates’ – a collection that is quite similar in format to the Analects of Confucius – are largely seen as literary pieces and more or (as most seem to think) less accurate reflections of the ‘historical Socrates’. Except in the realm of politics, Xenophon’s philosophical work is seen as trivial, because it aims at fairly concrete advice, not the kind of abstract principles discussed in the Socratic dialogues of Plato, or indeed in the more generalized statements of Heraclitus. But that concrete advice is still of philosophical character, even if the Memorabilia fall short of the brilliance of the Analects (as most philosophical works do).

Xenophon’s Socratic works:
– Memorabilia
– Apology
– Symposium
– Oeconomicus
– Hiero (not featuring Socrates)

Yet Xenophon was at least recognized as a philosopher in antiquity, as ‘Xenophon the Socratic’. Isocrates of Athens (also 4th century BCE), by contrast, was referred to as ‘Isocrates the orator’ by posterity, despite claiming the title of philosopher for himself in his own time. This is in part simply because the meaning of the word ‘philosophy’ shifted: for Isocrates, it is ‘learning’ in a more general sense, including rhetoric, while in later times, philosophy and rhetoric were understood as quite distinct forms of expertise. But Isocrates also made morality central to his teaching in a way that other rhetoricians and orators did not, and this genuinely philosophical attitude has been disregarded in modernity simply because of the syndetic format he uses. Nevertheless, his speeches of ethical advice – To Demonicus, To Nicocles, and Nicocles or Cyprians – are quoted frequently in John Stobaeus’ great Anthology, alongside both Xenophon and the sectarian philosophers in whom modern historians are more interested. So, on the basis of this implicit ancient approbation, I strongly believe Isocrates should be reinstated (so to speak) in the ranks of the philosophers.

Isocrates’ advice speeches:
To Demonicus
To Nicocles
Nicocles or Cyprians

[This list may be expanded considerably in the future, gods willing.]

3 Some other works of syndetic philosophy

Many Greco-Roman works of philosophy in the syndetic mode are not attributable to the direct authorship of a historically attested person such as Heraclitus, Xenophon and Isocrates. They often have a looser relation to the ‘author’ – recording their sayings at second or third hand –, assuming they have a genuine connection to them at all, since some are evidently pseudepigraphic (‘falsely ascribed’). Some works are entirely anonymous, or have only a vague attribution.

For instance, the so-called Delphic Maxims are variously attributed to the god Apollon or the Seven Sages, with various authorities attributing different sayings to different sages. These lists of ethical precepts were very popular, but they had no canonical form, rather circulating in multiple redactions.

Compilations of Delphic Maxims:
Precepts of Apollon
Advice of the Seven Sages
Sosiades, Injunctions of the Seven Sages (often just called “the Delphic Maxims”)
Demetrius’ Adages of the Seven
Sayings of the Sages from Diogenes Laërtius

[Work in Progress]

4 Interactions of the syndetic and analytical—synthetic mode

[Role of syndetic mode: comp. non-sectarian. Epictetus, Golden Verses, etc. in different frameworks.]