Philosophy as poliorcetics

Finally, Troy tragically incorporates the gift from the gods...

Unless either philosophers rule in our cities or those whom we now call rulers and potentates engage genuinely and adequately in philosophy, and political power and philosophy coincide, there is no end, my dear Glaucon, to troubles for our cities, nor I think for the human race.

(Plato, Republic 473c–d)

Philosophy and Poliorcetics: War and Love of the πόλις.

The relationship between philosophy and the polis, and by implication its relation to poli-tics, is not one that is readily visible to the philosophically unversed person. But even the philosophically-minded one can lose track of how the philosophical is political since the long history of philosophy is filled with diverse definitions of philosophy, many of them explicitly disassociating philosophy from politics, others denying any internal association of philosophy with political discourse by positing an external, instrumental, association. I shall here try to point out the existence of such a relationship, without dwelling upon on the nature of this relationship, namely without trying to answer whether it is an internal or an external one. Rather, I will simply posit an analogical relationship, following Plato’s own analogy of the polis and the soul in the Republic, a relationship that fittingly suspends judgment concerning the internal-external dichotomy, but which does nevertheless does constitute a gesture that relates the two. The analogy to be expounded is that between poliorcetics, the art (or science) of besieging the πόλις and philosophy. As a matter of fact, this analysis will make the case for a double analogy: firstly, the analogy between ψυχή and πόλις; secondly, a modal analogy between φλοσοφία and πολιορκία, in the way each relates to their subject matter, namely ψυχή and πόλις.

For Plato, the first dialectician, philosophy and politics go hand in hand. He strongly maintained that the relationship between philosophy and politics is so important that he even believed that philosophers should be ruling the πόλις, just like λόγος ought to rule ψυχή!

Poliorcetics, the primary subject matter of this analysis, is the “art of siege”. The political essence of this art is made explicit if we pay heed to its etymology. Poliorcetics is an art of city warfare for the sake of capturing.

The common ground between poliorcetics and philosophy is the way they relate to their respective subject matter, namely the πόλις and the ψυχή. But this modal analogy is far from evident: while the first (poliorcetics) is really a kind of warfare of the πόλις, it is not readily apparent how the latter (philosophy) associates with warfare. Quite the contrary, the relationship of philosophy with warfare is rather counterintuitive, since our etymological intuitions tell us that in fact philosophy is an act of love (the φλία of σοφία, the love of wisdom), rather than an act of war. By implication, if philosophy is going to relate to the polis, which it does, it would have to manifest love toward the πόλις, the truth of πόλις.

But in fact, philosophy has been historically connected with μάχη (battle/war); philosophy has been described as an art of warfare: In Plato’s Sophist, the “stranger” describes philosophy as a γιγαντομαχία περὶ τῆς οὐσίας[1], “a battle between giants about the essence of truth”[2]! I will elaborate on this further, in showing how the opposing paradigms of love and war have produced respective modes of dialectical argumentation.

In addition, as much as philosophy has been associated with both love and war (the first being literal, the second metaphorical), so has πολιορκία (the act of sieging), albeit obversely. Πολιορκία is associated with both love and war; it is literally an act of warfare, but metaphorically can also indicate an act of love: πολιορκία can also refer to the erotic besieging of a desired one for the sake of “conquering”[3]. The point is, therefore, that both φλοσοφία and πολιορκία have semantically been associated with both an erotic act as well as a polemic act, depending on the context. Beyond this, both πολιορκία and φλοσοφία relate to the matters of the πόλις, political discourse, the first intrinsically, the second if not directly at least analogically.

By virtue of this analogical relation, I shall proceed to an analysis of πολιορκία in order to unpack its meanings and transpose them to the philosophical τόπος thus defining “poliorcetic philosophy” and situating it within the philosophical context dialectics.

The meanings of poliorcetics

As already mentioned, poliorcetics is the art (or science) of besieging a city. It is a loan from the Greek πολιορκητική which derives from πολιορκία (siege). Etymologically, πολιορκία is a noun that derives from the verb πολορκέω, which is a synthesis of the words πόλις and ρκος[4]. πόλις is the city; ρκος means a “bar” or “barrier”. It is crucial to point to an ambiguity in ρκος: it denotes a barrier that can be both an “obstacle”, in the sense of something that restricts and hinders access or excess, as well as a “barrier” that assists inclusion by virtue of protecting that which circumscribes.

This double meaning is more eloquently reflected in the way the verb form of the word which determines the act. Homer, in his narration of the siege of Troy, used the verb ργω (and sometimes also έργω) to denote the act of setting ρκος. This was indeed the only form of the verb in Homer’s dialect, Ionic Greek, which sustained the ambiguity of the meaning of the verb without resolving it. Later on though, when the Ionic dialect transformed into the Attic dialect, the verb ργω bifurcated to two different spellings: εργω and εργω. The difference lies in the diacritics above the vowel “ι” which indicate a difference in pronunciation.

The first, εργω, meant “to include” (lat. includere), whereas the second, εργω, meant “to exclude” or “to hinder” (lat. excludere). Even though the distinction was at some point made in the Attic dialect, in certain texts, the distinction did not survive and it finally collapsed to a single spelling, εργω (to include).

The act of πολιορκία is one and the same, but its operation can be interpreted in conflicting ways. The very same act can be interpreted as either an act of exclusion or an act of inclusion: firstly, the πόλις is surrounded by troops so as to exclude it from the rest of the world, in a way that would incapacitate the city. Exclusion is a negation that may or may not have an agenda of surrendering and incorporation; secondly, the πόλις is surrounded in the sense of absorbed into the command of the πολιορκητής.

The difference between the two acts is not one of numerical difference; rather it is a difference in interpretation of the very same act. The linguistic element here is telling: the structure of the two words is essentially the same but only differ in the diacritics: the difference is in the “breathing”, the so-called πνεμα. In latin: spiritus!

Dialectical criticism

The history of philosophy coincides, arguably, with the history of dialectical criticism. Since Plato, most philosophers have identified philosophy with dialectical criticism: from the Socratic method of elenchus and maieutics, to the Platonic dialectic of diairetiki, the Aristotelian definitio fit per genus proximum et differentiam specificam [definition begins with the broadest genus containing the species to be defined, and divides the genus into two sub-genera by means of some differentia][5], the Kantian transcendental deduction, the Hegelian dialectic, the Nietzschean genealogy, the Heideggerian existential analytic, the Adornian negative dialectics and Derridean deconstruction.

The point raised here is that all of these philosophers are –one way or another- critics of ideas that belonged to their heritage. As such, their ideas and method of philosophizing, whatever form it took, can be interpreted as a direct or indirect encounter with opposing ideas. Philosophy has always been coterminous with criticism, even when it defined itself as the “search for truth”, the “love of wisdom”, “meditation” or “description of phenomena”.  In this context, we can distinguish four types of dialectical criticism: 1) direct criticism; 2) transcendental criticism; 3) immanent criticism.

I have to point out that there is no consensus in the academia concerning the exact nature and differences between the form of each critical act: upon rigorous examination, each form of criticism either collapses into another, or at least overlaps with another. But this does not weaken the general argument of this essay, which is to draw an analogy between poliorcetics and philosophy (criticism). On the contrary, the sheer fact that there exists an ambivalence and/or confusion concerning the limits and definition of each kind of criticism, strengthens my argument. Besides: the exposition here is not meant to solve these problems, but merely to draw an analogy that is useful in identifying these very philosophical problems and offering a new context in which these can be examined. I shall now enter the last part of this brief essay which preliminary sketches the different kinds of criticism, associating each with either εἴργω or εἵργω.

1)   Direct criticism: It is a kind of criticism that aims at refuting the other’s position by proving that the other’s position is untenable and false. Direct criticism is based on exclusive disjunction (either/or), the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of excluded middle, whereby the other’s position is shown to be false, invalid and unsound. The critic’s position does not include any other agenda by which s/he wishes to preserve anything in the other’s position or to engage in any progress: the critic merely wishes to reject the other’s position by excluding it. The critical encounter does not refer to anything internal of the criticized position: there is always an assumed distance and opposition that remains throughout. In this regard, direct criticism resembles εργω, exclusion, the act of πολιορκία that wishes to exterminate the other while remaining external to it.

2)  Transcendental criticism: The critic tries to subsume their opponent’s position into their own. Transcendental arguments, firstly developed by Immanuel Kant, are arguments about the preconditions of the other’s thought or judgment[6]. They then deduce the necessary condition for having such thoughts. It is an implicit form of criticism because they appear to be analytic rather than critical, but essentially they draw the boundaries of the other’s position and therefore are a form of critical response to them[7].  Transcendental criticism, according to some philosophers, is a form of transcendent criticism, namely a criticism that draws normative grounds from foundational sources that are in fact outside of the criticized position. Apart from Kant, there are also other philosophers and critical theorists who have employed transcendental or quasi-transcendental methods, such as Heidegger (in his early writings, notably in Being and Time), Derrida[8], and even certain ‘second generation’ Frankfurt School critical theorists[9]. Transcendental criticism also includes transcendent criticism, which is a form of utopia criticism employed by anarcho-communists, Young Hegelians, Kantians, and natural law theorists[10]. In addition, Plato, in the Republic, develops a transcendent, utopian-laden, criticism. It is in this work that Plato has Socrates want to determine the bounds of ideal political constitution and have philosophers rule the world and it is in this context that Plato moves away from immanent to transcendent criticism. Transcendental (and transcendent) criticism resembles πολιορκία in the sense of εργω, inclusion, since the critic/attacker, tries to incorporate the opposing position, absorb it within their position that is beyond and outside the immanent content of the opposing position, namely, outside of the interior of the πόλις, defeating the independence and adequacy of the interior, albeit without destroying it.

3)  Immanent criticism:  It is a kind of criticism that tries to criticize the other’s position by occupying an internal position within the other’s ideological system and refuting it by eliciting the untenability of the position without introducing any external criteria. It exposes internal contradictions of the other’s position by means of the other’s own, intrinsic, theses. It exposes the other’s weakness “not with some “transcendent” concept of rationality but with its own avowed norms”[11].  Immanent criticism has produced either a “positive” outcome, whereby one can firstly –by virtue of immanent analysis- show how the first position is self-negated and produces a positive outcome- as is the case with Hegelian dialectic, or has produced nothing positive but has remained negative throughout and throughout, as is the case with Socratic elenchus and Adorno’s negative dialectics which remains faithful to Hegelian determinate negation. Immanent criticism can in fact resemble both senses of πολιορκία, namely both εργω and εργω since it can be either a plain and simple determinate negation without any other agenda involving a positive dialectical moment or an aspiration of resolution, or it can be a negation that serves as a midwife (the effect of μαίευεσις) that extracts the positive moment from the inside of the negative, without any appeal to external force whatsoever. The immanent operation resembles the actual end of the πολιορκία of Troy where the Trojans were finally defeated by virtue of their own internal logic: they let the horse in the πόλις because it was consistent with their own ideology. Indeed, it is this kind of πολιορκία that did the job afterall.

Finally, let it be noted how all kinds of criticisms are dialectical; they do refer to a single, identical, act, but they differ in dialect: a dialectic derived from the difference of two ancient Greek dialects, the Ionian and the Attic. Let this final sentence remain tentatively suggestive. More to follow.

*Special thanks and acknowledgment goes to my ex-colleague and friend Christopher Allsobrook (University of Sussex) for his help in the development of these thoughts. Misunderstandings and philosophical mistakes belong to me and only to me. Also, I drew some inspiration for this small article from some of Gordon Finlayson’s work.

[1] Martin Heidegger picks up on this and repeats this definition of philosophy in the beginning of his magnum opus Being and Time.

[2] “καὶ μὴν ἔοικέ γε ἐν αὐτοῖς οἷον γιγαντομαχία τις εἶναι διὰ τὴν ἀμφισβήτησιν περὶ τῆς οὐσίας πρὸς ἀλλήλους”. [And indeed there seems to be a battle like that of the gods and the giants going on among them, because of their disagreement about existence], Plato’s Sophist 246e.

[3] Γεώργιου Μπαμπινιώτη, ΛΕΞΙΚΟ ΤΗΣ ΝΕΑΣ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΗΣ ΓΛΩΣΣΑΣ, Κέντρο Λεξικολογίας Ε.Π.Ε., Αθήνα, 2006, p.1419

[4] All etymological and lexicographical, unless otherwise stated, are drawn from Henry G. Liddel & Robert Scott, ΜΕΓΑ ΛΕΞΙΚΟΝ ΤΗΣ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΗΣ ΓΛΩΣΣΗΣ, μτφ.Ξενοφώντος Π. Μόσχου, Εκδόσεις Ιωάννη Σιδέρη, Αθήναι, 2007.

[5] Cohen, S. Marc, “Aristotle’s Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

[6] “In Kant’s conception, an argument of this kind begins with an uncontroversial premise about our thought, experience, or knowledge, and then reasons to a substantive and unobvious necessary condition of this premise”, Pereboom, Derk, “Kant’s Transcendental Arguments”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[7] HARRISON, ROSS (1998). Transcendental arguments. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved October 05, 2010, from

[8] Whether Heidegger or Derrida are immanent or transcendental critics is debatable. On the one hand, Heidegger’s Being and Time is fulfilling a transcendental/foundationalist project, albeit one that is remains anchored on hermeneutic finitude and phenomenological immanence; on the other hand, Derrida’s deconstruction is quasi-transcendental as he himself called it. Both remain, in my opinion, ambiguously undecided between immanence and transcendence.

[9] Raymond Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p. 64.

[10] Buchwalter, Andrew, Hegel, Marx, and the Concept of Immanent Critique, Journal of the History of Philosophy 29:2 April 1991.

[11] Buchwalter, Andrew, Hegel, Marx, and the Concept of Immanent Critique, Journal of the History of Philosophy 29:2 April 1991.


About Christos Hadjioannou
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