This chapter will chart the path of mind’s ascent to the intelligible world in the Enneads. It will treat of the following questions. Can human beings know that which is timeless, partless, and immaterial? If so, how does Plotinus think that such knowledge comes about in the soul? What relationship, if any, does such knowledge have to the intelligibles constitutive of the second hypostasis?
Any interpretation on this score must overcome two major difficulties. First, ascent to the intelligible world is a recurring theme in the Enneads. Thus, the number of relevant texts is considerable. Second, these ascents do not follow a single course. On the contrary, their steps often vary in order and number. For example, in 5.1.3, Plotinus presents the contemplation of nature as a necessary, first step in the process of ascent. He exhorts the soul to ascend (ἀνάβαινε) only after it has finished reflecting on nature’s orderly motion. However, in 5.3.9, he encourages it to ascend (ἀναβαίνετω) through a direct contemplation of its own cognitive (δοξαστική), perceptual (αἴσθησις), and reproductive (γεννῶσα) faculties. The contemplation of natural motion is never assumed.
Despite this apparent inconsistency, I argue that these texts are, in fact, indicative of a coherent, overarching strategy of ascent that I will call ‘noetic reduction.’ By this term, I mean that the Plotinian ἀνάβασις is a leading back or referring of sensible being to its exemplars in mind—first to finite mind, then to Νοῦς. More precisely, noetic reduction or ἀνάβασις is a threefold contemplative act by which the mind abstracts from and contemplates sensibles, reflects on their mode of being within finite mind, and refers them, by a via eminentia, to how their exemplars in the divine Mind. In a word, finite mind becomes a bridge by which one is able to access a larger intelligible world within god’s mind.
These three steps of ascent, of what I am calling noetic reduction, rather fittingly, correspond to the three senses of the prefix ἀνα. First, ἀνάβασις requires that mind turn backwards and away from sensible beings. Second, the mind moves upwards insofar as it reflects on its own activities, objects, and being and uses these as analogues for the ἐνέργεια, νοητά, and οὐσία characteristic of Nοῦς. Third, this whole process is a return, a doing again, or a process of recollection insofar as finite mind reverts to its original nature by ascending to and relying on its prior cause.
The rest of this chapter will be devoted to clarifying the three mental acts constitutive of Plotinian ascent. First, I will examine Plotinus’s exhortation to contemplate the natural world and, in particular, motion insofar as they are occasions for the mind to revert to itself. Second, I will look at mind’s examination and critique of its own faculties, at how mind understands itself, its objects, and the conditions that make its own activity possible. Finally, I will look at how Plotinus uses finite mind, being immaterial, simple, and eternal, as an analogue or bridge to the second hypostasis and its contents. In short, I will argue that Plotinian ascent is a process of reducing sensible being first to its immaterial mode of being in finite mind, which, due to its intelligible character, is the most fitting point of departure to the intelligible world in toto.