©2005 Dennis Leri

We may experience it differently. It's in virtually every lesson. We may use different words to describe it. We may color it with different emotions. It? 'It' is that moment, that time and place in a lesson where we arrive at an impasse, a literal standstill. In that impasse, we don't act and we don't know how to act. Or we know too much to act. Either way we've lost our way. Bewildered, frustrated, curious, maybe humorously delighted, we are at a loss as how to proceed. Mostly we don’t like it. We don't, truth be told, know quite how to like it. Mostly we will do anything to relieve ourselves of its hold. We are there but we can't dwell there. Sad to say, most of the time, we do something in an attempt to distract our-selves from that unbearable, naked, unadorned, unrecognizable presence other than our self yet at its center. Our 'self,' found wanting, found ignorant, facing the unknown, shrinks, contracts, dis-integrates. Attempting to right ourselves we reach for the familiar, we look backwards, we rear view mirror our present into the future. We do what's been done before. Or perhaps rather than closing, we open and rather than shrinking, we expand. But can we sustain it? Instead of disintegrating, can we integrate? What would await us? From impasse to...? From misunderstanding to…? More annoyance? Keen to hang in there with nothing to lose except a compulsion or two, can we develop a fresh sense of ‘self’? If we pause with the impasse, that taking pause is already an action. That deliberate pause can give rise to a new action and it can also signal a new means for action. In this article and in this series of articles we will look into that breakdown in the continuity of our lives at the seat of that breakdown: our self image and our lack of self-understanding.

Moshe Feldenkrais knew that moment of impasse. He knew how to set it up. And he gloried in its ramifications. More than once Feldenkrais echoed Socrates', "Know thyself." It wasn't through the mere mouthing of words that Feldenkrais linked himself to the founder of Western thought. It was how that impasse could be made to appear, how one acted in the face of it and what one learned from it that made Feldenkrais's connection to the Greek philosopher an intimate one. The peculiar emergence of an impasse, that loss of way, within the field of a lesson is not incidental to a lesson's construct. The Socratic method and Socratic dialogue at the beginning of Western thought utilized their particular approach to answering the need of how to 'Know Thyself.'

“Socratic dialectic … conceives of the elenchic, or refutational, aspect of the argumentation not as a basis from which one could then derive a positive conclusion either as the contradictory of the proposition refuted, as in reductio argumentation, or by affirming the alternative because it was the sole alternative available, but rather as inducing an aporia or awareness of an impasse in thought: subjectively, a bewilderment or puzzlement."[1]

In other words, Socrates wasn't arguing to either refute a position or clarify an alternative position. He wanted to negate the holding of positions. He wanted the person to realize that the holding of contradictory positions was based upon no more certainty than the ignorance of those contradictions. So to speak, the certainty of the conflict is taken as a surrogate for the certainty which comes through self understanding.   

"Second, (Socratic dialectic) …uses the conflicting energies held in suspense in the aporia as the motivation of inquiry.”[2]

The aporia, the awareness of an impasse, subjectively puzzling and bewildering, but objectively motivating. Motive without a reason, a negative which opens to a question. Quite literally our life is on hold and we are sustained in doubt. Not the doubt of the academic or the dilettante or the Cartesian poseur, but the doubt that collapses to a particular loss of perspective, to my inability to act. There is tremendous energy there. There is a vital there there. We need to know!

Plato says it began with Socrates. He's the one who put the phrase into the mouth of a mere mortal, his Master. But before Socrates, “Know thyself,” was the dictate of the Oracle of the god Apollo. To the Ancient Greeks the Apollonian dictum “Know thyself” meant something more like “Remember that you are only human, not a god!"[3] Socrates took the phrase personally and it became the theme of his life, his 'avowed' dream, the reason for his death. It was he who admonished first his fellow Athenians and then the whole of the Western world to not forget that we are 'only human.'

Only human. A lovely sentiment. Bittersweet. Bitter (only) + sweet (human). But how to become only human? How does one employ the Socratic method to know oneself? First what did Socrates intend? It’s said that Socrates claimed he knew that he didn't know anything? But really what he said was that he didn't think that he knew what he didn't know. The difference isn’t trivial. Only a god could 'know' that he doesn’t know. For Socrates human 'wisdom (Gr., sophia) is, in fact, “… based on recognizing the impossibility of taking the god's eye view of things.”[4] Only humans can recognize the impossibility of seeing through a god's eye.

Socrates would appreciate a Feldenkrais lesson on at least two accounts. First, in a lesson in any given moment we can be uncertain that we know what we are doing in even the simplest actions. The unknowing is not a function of unclear language but rather language indicating it source, turning back not on itself but rather towards that which gives it meaning and vitality. Mostly words for us have no connection to what's really vital in us. The language of a lesson sends us on a course of re-collection of our selves. There are moments where the lesson seems to know more than us. Have we not all experienced an impasse in a lesson? We may or may not resolve it into a action that is new means for action. If no resolution comes, the anxiety born of uncertainty and perplexity can become quite tangible. If left unresolved, if one dwells in unknowing there is room for novelty. If resolved, the question may later arise as to how it is that one can hold so strongly to a mode or pattern of action in one instant and be rid of it in the next. Second, we may have thought we possessed some infallible overview of our self and our actions, some god's eye view. We are caught operating as if we could remain detached from our habits of action. We are blind to how it is human action gives rise to human perception. But, resolution if it comes, comes not from outside us but rather through and with a differently organized sense of self. How?

Socratic wisdom is know-how. Know-how is craft. "Knowing-what," the accumulation of information is different. Wise are those who master the craft of understanding. Human understanding is fallible, fleeting, mutable and time bound. Human life, like all life in the natural world, is sentient. Gods on the other hand, being immortal and unchanging, possess perfect understanding and infallibility. They don’t make errors because they can’t. Fallibility, the hallmark of human understanding drives the dynamic of the psyche.

'Psyche' as used by the early Greeks was synonymous with breath. In Socrates' time it came to mean something like soul and indicated the life process within a living being concerned with understanding. Think about it: a soul is likened to the life process concerned with understanding. It typically had three parts or 'centers': the rational (logistikon) lodged in the head; the spirited, the passionate (thymoeides) located in the chest and midriff; the appetitive (epithymetikon) found in the lower torso.[5] Psyche's understanding confounded in a sentient being is never complete and therefore always imperfect. Because of its incompleteness psyche requires constant work to maintain “...its integrity as a process: its coherence and self-identity across time. Since it requires a discipline of corrective effort, it is intrinsically normative.”[6] The discipline of corrective effort is not one of brute force but rather insight, attention and imagination. It must address the needs of the entire psyche not just one of its components.

"…One finds oneself actually asserting both of the contradicting elements at once: the Socratic aporia is not merely a contradiction but a self-contradiction, which actually precludes refutation where it occurs since in refutation the refuted element drops out whereas the aporia depends on it not dropping out but maintaining itself in opposition to what supposedly refutes it." " ...what is asserted or put forth expresses a real conviction on the part of the asserter, so that in the event of a self-contradiction in assertion there is a corresponding opposition of intention or tendency to action that makes it impossible for the self-contradicting asserter to act in respect to the subject matter in either of two conflicting ways until such time as the conflict in intention is resolved."[7]

In the Socratic dialectic, inquiry functions through the willingness to 'tolerate' the aporetic state. The poet Keats coined the phrase Negative Capability to capture that 'tolerance,' It is, "…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."[8] Tolerance

"…for further elements to be introduced into the aporetic situation and set in relationship to the rest in such a way that a solution to the problem is arrived at, regardless of how long that might take. I speak of being 'willing to tolerate' the aporetic state because there is often a choice about this, and as Plato's dramas of dialectic frequently underscore, people are sometimes not at all happy about being brought into the aporetic condition and are not eager to stay in it unless, like Socrates, they have come to regard the life of inquiry as a normal form of human life. It is of course possible to recognize and cultivate the latter, and a good many people take to inquiry naturally, but there are also many who do not and who will readily falsify their own experience and deliberately turn large areas of their life into fiction in order to eliminate arbitrarily the uncomfortable self-contradictions of aporia when it threatens to arise. It is not accidental that traditions of inquiry are called 'disciplines', given the many ways in which the discomforts of sustained and truly honest inquiry can be and are avoided."

"Inquiry is aporia protracted in time, enabling articulation, structuring, and restructuring as new elements are introduced into the reflective situation and arranged and rearranged until such time as, finally, the contradictions that sustain it as aporetic disappear and the aporia and therefore the inquiry ends as a solution."[9]

We might say about a lesson that the freshly differentiated actions are not integrated into a new action until and unless thinking, doing, sensing and emoting are likewise folded in. Any new action means a new means, a means with an appetite for inquiry.

"Inquiry thus begins with sincerity in self-contradicted assertion which, as the aporia is sustained in time, passes over into and becomes indistinguishable from respect for the integrity of the subject-matter, toleration of it in those respects in which it is frustrating, and confidence or trust in its potentiality for finally being made intelligible. Sincerity, integrity, toleration, trust: these are moral conceptions."[10]

But first they are aesthetic concerns. In sensing and getting a sense of we realize we can realize a kind of rightness that is not imposed on us by sheer force of will, by succumbing to external authority, by following fashion, fad or trend. The rightness emerges within us as a clarity, a coherence of the so-called inner and outer worlds and subsequent feelings of harmony. That clarity enables us to act morally, that is with sincerity, integrity, toleration, trust.  So we need a way to develop our aesthetic sense. 'Know Thyself' is one but one half of the Oracle's injunction, the other half is 'nothing too much.'[11] It's often overlooked because it doesn't say how. It's a plea for temperance. To develop an aesthetic sense, first and last, we pay attention and we stay within our limits while learning. Temperance is a mode of learning and not necessarily a way of life.

Next in the series: more on the embodied psyche, the craft of temperance, knowing one's self and the physics of understanding.


1. Peirce and The Socratic Tradition, Joseph Ransdell Ver. 1-4-00
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon, pg. 170 New York University Press 1967
6. Peirce and The Socratic Tradition, Joseph Ransdell Ver. 1-4-00
7. Ibid.
8. John Keats (1795-1821) from a letter to his brothers, December 1817
Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors (Sixth Edition) p. 1818.
9. Peirce and The Socratic Tradition, Joseph Ransdell Ver. 1-4-00
10. Ibid.
11. Consolation to Apollonius, Plutarch (46-120 A.D.)