Saturday, December 30, 2006


Bad night last night -- woken by one of the little darlings again and again, so I don't think I got any sleep after 5. They're usually pretty good at sleeping these days (though they were both terrible when younger) but last night was one of those when you are awake between 4 and 5, just the time when you are attacked by all sort of anxieties, worries and -- at least in my case -- get one or two words of a song stuck going round your mind. (Last night it was the first two lines of Respect by Erasure. Nice.) If you're awake then, you're likely not to have slept enough already to feel like surrendering and getting up. But you know that even if you do get back to sleep there is a fighting chance that you won't really feel much better when you do eventually have to get up. Sheer torture, in fact. (And sleep deprivation can indeed be a very effective means of torture, something any new parent would immediately recognise.)
I'm glad I hadn't read until now (from the ever useful Wikipedia) the effects of sleep deprivation, since I reckon we went through about two years of it. It's a wonder they let new parents drive, operate machinery, or do anything that requires any fine judgement at all, let alone care for young children.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Unacademic Christmas

I'm very happy to say that I haven't thought much about philosophy or classics for the last week or so, mainly because we have been busy enjoying Christmas so much. When you have young children there really isn't much you can do except join in with the excitement and the chaos, the boxes and wrapping paper, the noisy toys and messy chocolates. But some others in my line of work are not, apparently, so lucky.
Some academics do, no doubt, spend most or all their vacation in the library (and we are indeed lucky in my Faculty to have access to the library at all hours) but I wonder whether it's really a good idea. When I was a student, the usual stance to take was that you hadn't done much work, were unprepared for the exams and would just have to wing it. Professional academics often take a different stance, explaining at length just how much they have done, at what long or unsociable hours and so on. Now, this might in fact be true. What is interesting is the extent to which some people -- in any profession, I imagine -- find it necessary to tell others and others keep quiet about how much they do or don't do. What should I do? I haven't spent the week working so should I feel like I am slacking off in comparison with my peers? (I certainly do sometimes feel that I should be working more and working harder since others seem to be doing more than me.) On the other hand, it would seem odd in various ways if I were to make an equally public declaration of the time I haven't spent working. Perhaps it would make me seem less in the eyes of my colleagues and superiors. Perhaps people would think of me as I used to think of the annoying fellow students who explained at such length how little they had done. The pressures of comparison with fellow-workers are not insignificant. They are presumably useful for employers and also for pushing ourselves to do more. But they can also be damaging, stressful and impede efficiency.
In any case, beyond all this navel-gazing, I'm happy to say that I'm enjoying my Christmas immensely. I have rediscovered how much fun Lego is, I've watched some excellent kids Christmas TV (top marks for the Charlie and Lola Xmas special...) and it has been great to have a week without the grumbles of college and Faculty. Just the odd reminder for a reference or two, but I had those sorted and ready to print before the vacation. And I had checked my references for a new book typescript early in December...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lies and fables

A teacher at a school in Exeter has been criticised for a lesson in which year 5 children (10-11 year olds) were asked to write responses to imaginary letters to Santa. (The lesson plan and materials were produced by the Hamilton Trust.) In the process of the lesson it was made very clear that Father Christmas does not exist and that all letters purporting to be from him are in fact generated and delivered by the Royal Mail. (Read the news report here.) Parents were perhaps justified in complaining that it should not be up to the school to decide if and when to tell the truth about Father Christmas to children, although it is not clear to me that the teacher was not right to expect all 10 year olds to have worked it out already. (I suspect that lots of children continue to play along with their parents although they are pretty sure it's all a game for some time before the parents themselves realise. Children are quite capable, I think, of appreciating when playing along is to their advantage and, less venally, when playing along is something they think will please their parents.)
Anyway, I wonder how far this principle ought to be applied? Are all myths and stories, of any sort, out of bounds in this way? Should a school never expressly attempt to enlighten children and stop them believing in unfounded stories? (You can see where this is going...) I would have thought that it was in fact part of a school's job to do precisely that, whether or not the parents concerned have given their consent. You do, after all, send children to school for them to be taught things... There are, no doubt, more and less sensitive ways of disabusing a 10 year old of a false belief, so perhaps the problem here is less that fact of enlightenment than the means. But that the children in Exeter were being educated is surely not in doubt. Teaching children that there is no Father Christmas leaves room for positive discussion about the value of Father Christmas as a story, of course, so this need not be a wholly negative affair. But I don't think schools should collude in lying to children, even if those lies are thought by many to be harmless.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

No more bishop-bashing, please

Just beating the story of the love between Lembit Opik MP and one of the 'cheeky girls' (how did he pick between the two?), my favourite news item of recent days is an intriguing story of Christmas cheer. Poor Tom Butler, bishop of Southwark, is in a bit of a mess after a night out at the Irish Embassy. Reports of what happened are a bit hazy, but they seem to involve him banging his head, losing a briefcase and phone and -- the best bits -- half hanging out of a car throwing baby toys about. Now, we should not be quick to pass judgement... It could, of course, be that he suffered some sort of blackout or seizure. Or he might well have been the victim of what we can all recognise as a 'dodgy' glass of wine. (The Telegraph, reporting that the bishop has since the event hosted another party (shock!) suggests that 'Portuguese' wine may have been to blame!) But in particular, the bishop is very keen that it be known that he was not drunk. Some of his arguments in favour of this hypothesis are, however, not strong...
1. "I have been going to receptions for 20 years," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme in his first broadcast interview. "Normally, at a reception, I will have a glass or two of wine. I'm very careful. I don't get drunk frequently. I would not be able to do my job if I got drunk. I certainly don't think it's a resigning matter."
Of course, past attendance at receptions is no guide to his recent performance but it is not clear that it would be impossible to be a bishop if one were ever to get drunk. In any case, in saying he does not get drunk 'frequently', the bishop certain implies he does so 'sometimes'. Good for him, too.
2. The bishop said he had used public transport to make his way home in Streatham, south London, on the evening of 5 December. "I defy anyone who had too much to drink to make that journey," he said.
Again, although not an expert, I can certainly point to occasions when an innate 'homing ability' has got me, a little worse for wear, to my home and even seen to it that I get into bed having folded my clothes neatly and piled them carefully on the floor. (Indeed, probably showing more care than I would normally...)
In short, then, this is all a bit of a mystery. But if you want to send the bishop messages of support, then you can do so here.

Monday, December 18, 2006


I've been listening to Tanya Donelly's new album, This Hungry Life, as I crawl round Cambridge from school to work to shops to wherever. It's really good, perhaps better than Whiskey Tango Ghosts and reminiscent of the stuff she did with Belly -- which was my initiation into things Donelly, then Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh etc. Anyway, favourite at the moment is track 3: Kundalini slide, which you can hear on TD's MySpace page. Please go and listen. I think it's very like Seal my fate, from Belly's album King, but pared down and somehow more fragile but also powerful.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


On a quick sortie into town yesterday I passed by a booth set up in the Market Square. Someone was standing outside the booth encouraging frazzled Christmas shoppers to come in and take part in a film. I didn't look too closely for fear of being collared and persuaded to join in, but it looked very much as if people were being encouraged to come off the street and offer confessions to a camera -- perhaps later to be selected, edited, and made into some kind of 'exploration' (is the term I imagine would be used) of .. well, what? Of what people can be persuaded to say if you stick them in a box in the Market Square and point a camera at them. An artificial situation which panders to the extrovert. (And, as far as I could tell, there weren't many takers yesterday.) The I wondered: What would I have said if I had gone in? Nothing that I really think I have done wrong, I decided, in part because I wouldn't want anyone I have wronged to hear my confession in the wrong way, namely if by some misfortune they ever sat through the finished film. And if I simply wanted to express a confession to the air, just to have said it, then I wouldn't want to do so with a camera in my face. So I would probably have made something up, or else confessed to something extremely trivial. Neither of which would make for an interesting film.
But if you want to confess something to the world or, more likely, eavesdrop on other people's confessions, then there are lots of ways to do so on t'internet. Go here, for example. Or here. And then wonder what would lead people to write in and confess.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dads' mag

The top quality publication FQ (Fathers' Quarterly) now has a revamped onlined version available here. The typical issue includes a brilliant combination of articles aimed at the modern Dad: famous Dads to look up to (this month: Will Smith), advice on finances for families and reviews of the top new baby gadgets. And lots of silly lists (e.g. 'Top 10 evil dads': Joseph Stalin new at number 7!) The fact that now you can read the full thing online for free suggest to me that it is generally paid for by the large glossy ads, but perhaps most magazines are like that. Anyway, it's certainly a niche market that hasn't been explored to a large extent before and it's interesting to see how they pitch this at a Dad who hasn't given up on looking good, having fun, and spending time with his mates but still has a sensitive and full relationship with his children. (Just perfect for me, then....) Aspirational, for sure, but these are not bad aspirations for people to have.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Interview blog

Oxford's director of Undergraduate Admissions, Mike Nicholson, is writing a blog describing a variety of interviews and the experiences of applicants during this hectic admissions season. You can read it here. This sounds like a pretty good idea to me, at least it will be if people are confident that it is indeed honest and open. (I can assure my own Admissions tutor that I have no plans on doing the same...) No doubt, there is something of an agenda: it's important to try to make the process less mysterious and perhaps remove some of the prejudices and myths that still surround it. But it will be interesting to see if Mike ever posts about something he thinks went wrong or was inappropriate or unhelpful. (This might be either something done by the interviewers or by the interviewees themselves.) Anonymity will have to be respected, I imagine, so we are a long way from a reality warts-and-all exposé of the interview season. But how about I'm a celebrity, let me into here!: eight little known people sometimes snapped in Heat set about getting in to a Cambridge college for an undergraduate degree?

They live together in a hostel, survive on basic hall food, and each night one of them is voted off on the basis of their performance in an academic trial... (I can see it now... 'Day three, and Jamie Theakston leaves the halls of residence after performing very poorly in the basic inorganic chemistry practical...) If anyone wants to buy the format idea from me then you have my contact details.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Cheating and virtue ethics

A new report commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has set out various ways to tackle cheating in examinations. Many of the more headline grabbing proposals are designed to tackle the current ease of cheating using modern technology, particularly mobile phones. But the report (which can be downloaded here) also includes ideas for removing the desire to cheat. One section in particular caught my eye (p.12-13 of the report):
5.1 The Virtues Approach (Ethics)

This approach should always be the first line of defence against dishonest

5.1.1 Codes of practice:
It includes making explicit the definitions of and code of practices in operation in relation to plagiarism and other forms of cheating to students and to staff. This has been the first line of defence of both the JCQ and QCA in their dealing with institutions and individual students and staff. Statements of code of practice, while meeting legal requirements, have proved insufficient deterrent to much of the
malpractice within the student body however. The next step is developing and
cultivating an environment where cheating does not prosper and it is easier for
students to say no to peer and other pressures. Brown and Howell (2001) have
shown that institutional policy statements on cheating and plagiarism can
influence student perceptions.
5.1.2 Honour Codes:
Hinman (2000) reports that in the US academic honour codes (e.g. the Academic Integrity and Kansas State University Websites) have been shown to reduce cheating, for example serious test cheating on campuses with such a code in operation have been shown to be 25% to 50% lower than in institutions that do not have such honour codes both within the secondary and tertiary sectors. Overt codes of practice are a mark of an institution's commitment to good academic behaviour and Digital Technologies and Dishonesty in Examinations and Tests when students perceive their tutors or teachers to be so committed, levels of malpractice decrease
(Underwood & Szabo, 2004)

No surprises, then: make clear that cheating is a bad thing and that it is dealt with seriously. If that doesn't work (and it probably won't) then try to get people not to want to cheat. My main question is: why label this a 'virtues' approach? I know that virtue ethics is one of the most popular ethical frameworks right now, but I was interested to see it crop up even here where you might expect the more 'trad' appeals to rules and obligations or consequences. There is, I suppose, something here about inculcating a certain kind of disposition which rejects cheating, and something also about students moulding themselves on their teachers' attitudes, but elsewhere this seems hardly like any virtue ethics worth the name. There is even some old-fashioned consequentialism mixed in for good measure: 'developing and cultivating an environment where cheating does not prosper and it is easier for students to say no to peer and other pressures'. In other words: try to make sure cheats lose out in the end and also, importantly, make sure that it is known that they do not. (Perhaps just the latter is necessary: make people believe cheating will not be successful and they won't cheat, whether or not cheating is in fact a bad tactic...) But all in all this is thin stuff. Sensible, probably, but did we really need to commission a report to tell us this and dress it up in impressive, near-philosophical, terms?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Brit lit crit

You can soon bid for a page from Britney Spears' school book containing a bit of lit crit on Sophocles' Antigone. See the story here. And here is the page itself...

Soap suds

Great drama yesterday. Coming in from work, having missed putting the kids to bed, I discovered that the washing machine had done its party trick of getting stuck mid-cycle because of a blockage in the outflow. Already grumpy and tired, with an essay to mark and having had no dinner, S and I then spent an hour up to our ankles in old soapy water trying to remove whatever it was that had bunged the thing up. It was, as usual, some bits of paper and stones which the kids stuff into their pockets. All the same, I was not in a good mood and the kitchen now smells strongly of Fairy non-bio.
Perhaps I should not have been so grumpy, though, because to my surprise it turns out that we can learn an awful lot from washing machines. For one, the internet has this excellent site: 'How stuff works', explaining how the damn things function... (And what to do if they don't -- although I imagine doing anything particularly invasive will void the warranty...) But you would be astonished by what other things washing machines can demonstrate. Here, for example, is an argument that shows that optimally designed machines, like modern washing machines, often function less efficiently or reliably than earlier, less sophisticated versions. In that case, the argument continues, the fact that some biological systems appear sub-optimally designed is a point for, not against, the notion that they are intelligently designed by a creator. I hope it's a joke, but I suspect it's not.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A new thing to make me happy

We went to Milton Keynes yesterday, an unfairly maligned place. It's great for shopping - particularly if you have to push a buggy around. Best of all, they have a Lego shop, and I am now the proud owner of a new Lego Boba Fett keyring. Brilliant.

Truth and evidence

I was disappointed and not to say a little anxious to read a report today claiming that an increasing number of schools are teaching creationism in science lessons. I'm not concerned merely because I happen to think creationism is not much of a theory. (I happen to think that it is more like a form of intellectual surrender: we can't at present explain how this happened so we assume something analogous to something familiar, like a super-craftsman, must be responsible...) More worrying is the rhetoric assumed by many of the organisations promoting this view that suggest that they are the intellectually modest and respectable side in the debate. For example, the organisation Truth in science offers as part of a rationale for its promotion of creationist material the principle outlined in various school syllabuses that:
Pupils should be scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example, Darwin's theory of evolution)
National Curriculum KS4

This is an excellent principle and could offer a foundation in critical epistemology generally. It is important to be able to recognise how empirical data can be interepreted differently and how alternative hypotheses are advanced, tested, and criticised. That is the way to do science. But this does not mean, I think, that entirely unfalsifiable and untestable hypotheses -- such as those offered by creationists -- deserve to be presented to children as equally plausible or equally worthwhile. Here's a thought: What would count as evidence against creationism? What would creationists say could possibly count as evidence against their view? If there is no answer to this, then I have no idea how to assess creationism as an explanatory hypothesis. True, it is not easy to see how one might prove Darwinism either, but at least in its case I have some idea about what phenomena might and might not be interpreted in its terms. Note that the KS 4 principle talks specifically about scientific controversies. I don't think I'm alone in imagining creationism not to be 'scientific' in any significant sense of the term.
The Truth in science site goes on to point out sections in textbooks which point out -- rightly -- when evidence for a particular theory (e.g. hominid evolution) is scant or disputed. Again, this is perfectly good science. But I don't see how this should be thought to be a sign of bad faith on the evolutionists' part. They, at least, are prepared to offer their theory for scrutiny. (To be fair, Truth in science do generally take the pose that they are encouraging debate in the face of dogmatism. But there are some curious sides to this. See here, for example, for their restatement of the misguided old chestnut that natural selection and evolution would make our society empty of morality. 'Humanism', it seems is for them a synonym for amoralism. For a better view of humanism see the British Humanist Association site.)

My proposal would be that creationism does deserve to be taught as a theory. But it also therefore deserves to be subject to the same scrutiny as its competitors. (No mention of that possibility by Truth in science...) Start with Hume's Dialogues on natural religion and other discussions of the argument for design and see what children make of that. Taught well and with an open mind, I imagine this would be an excellent educational opportunity.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Policy by TV

The tired government's new announcement is the creation of various 'Supernannies' to improve parenting skills and somehow thereby reduce delinquency and other sorts of naughtiness. (The picture of sullen teenagers in hoodies being sent to a naughty step does not produce much confidence.)

I'm not so bothered about the policy, this time, but the manner of its presentation. First, our dear leader 'Tony' announces this by 'writing' exclusively in the Sun. Here is a flavour of his statesmanlike rhetoric:
Being a parent is hard and most of us have to just get on and do it. But there are some families who can’t cope with it. That’s a fact.
I love the ending: 'That's a fact.' Really, Tony? Glad you emphasised that for me or I'd have thought that you just say things that aren't 'facts'... And nice of you to imply that it's not my family that needs the naughty step. But there are 'some', no doubt. That's a fact.
What really annoys me is the patronising tone, the deliberate avoidance of any abstract principles, the restricted vocabulary and the most basic gesture at persuasion. It is the worst form of paternalism.
Add to that the choice of term. 'Supernanny' is not just the tabloids' spin; it's implied by in Tony's own words:

[T]he overwhelming majority of parents say they would welcome outside help in dealing with difficulties with their children.
This should be no surprise given the huge popularity of television programmes in which experts help parents with their problem kids.
So now TV -- in fact, Channel 4 -- is leading government policy. First Jamie Oliver drove policy on school meals. Now Jo Frost is driving policy on parenting. What next? Let's send Kim and Aggie to tackle hospital 'Superbugs'. (Isn't everything 'Super' now?) Or lets set up a new mechanism for tendering for public contracts in a Noel Edmonds' Deal or no deal? style. Don't laugh... It's not so unthinkable.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Liberal education and philosophical sympathy

Well, I've now read Stephen Law's The war for children's minds and I'm quite impressed. On the other hand, I'm predisposed to agree with the general thrust of his call to avoid authoritarian teaching methods and encouraged independent consideration of, in particular, moral, political and religious questions. Some of the writing is a bit of a blunt instrument, but it is intended to be read by a wide audience and it is time that someone got a bit polemical on this side of the debate. In particular, Law does a good job of demolishing some of the weak but popular conservative arguments such as: 'In the absence of religious faith there can be no ethical rules or truths' and 'Liberalism leads inevitably to relativism'.
One of the most important virtues worth cultivating, I think, is a willingness to engage sympathetically with a point of view which is not, at least initially, one's own. It is too easy, often, simply to reject as misguided and pointless a view because of an initial distaste or a failure to see why anyone would ever come to hold such an opinion. I've been thinking about this recently because the failure to engage sympathetically is a mistake often seen in promising philosophy students. They acquire the notion that dismissing a view swiftly and by rejecting its foundations is by far the most impressive way of winning an argument. If that were true, then there would indeed be little of interest in studying most ancient philosophy since it is generally built on foundations and overarching conceptions of the world we would not share. Of course, we do not have to agree with any point of view simply because someone august or clever thought or wrote it. But the ability to engage with a view we happen to disagree with, by uncovering its assumptions and asking why it might have appealed is often a route not only to enlarging one's own view, but also for encouraging an appreciation for the intellectual abilities and sincere effort expended by others in developing a view, whether or not we care to agree with its conclusions. That, it seems to me, is an essential aspect of thinking philosophically and of thinking about philosophy as a humanity. And I would hope that it would be a virtue inspired by a generally liberal educational outlook.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

League tables

The 2006 Leiter report has just been published here. It ranks philosophy departments across the world and also includes a ranking by area of speciality. Although all the ancient philosophy specialists in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics are listed only as 'Affiliated faculty' (in contrast to our colleagues in the Faculty of Philosophy in Oxford) Cambridge comes out level with Princeton as the second highest ranked Faculty in the world for studying ancient philosophy. Oxford are first. It was also nice to see that Cambridge ranks higher in ancient philosophy than in any other philosophical specialism.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Shock report: Santa 'may' not be real

It's that time of year again. The air is crisp and there's a hint of frost on the ground. And already we have people complaining that Christmas is coming too early. Isn't it time we resisted this and instead went back to the good old days? Wasn't it great when we didn't complain about Christmas coming too early until at least the end of November, if not early December? Soon, we'll be complaining about Christmas coming too early in January.

This too from the article in today's Guardian:
The Christmas ad for Argos has received 15 complaints from parents because it conveys the concept to children that Santa may not be real and that it is parents who actually buy children's presents.
Fancy that. 15 people -- a real groundswell of popular opinion. And: 'may' not be real? Come on, Guardian, don't be so coy. Still, I agree that it is terrible that there should be these obstacles to parents lying to their children. What other collective deceptions should we ensure can never be revealed in advertising a catalogue retail chain?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Children, authority and free thinking

A lot of nonsense has been talked, particularly recently, about how children are being educated poorly, not only in schools but also more widely be various social and cultural influences, new technologies and so on. It is refreshing, therefore, to read some more reasonable analysis of the issues at stake, which tries to rise about mere dogma and set out precisely where the different positions lie.
Stephen Law, author of the excellent The Philosophy Files, has written The War for Children's Minds. I have not read it yet, but if the short piece in the Philosophers' Magazine is any indication, it is just what we need.

While you're thinking philosophically, and in the run-up to Christmas, you might also drop in on the Unemployed Philosophers' Guild, where you can find all sorts of excellent presents for the philosopher in your life (or for yourself...) My favourites: the Freudian slippers, and the Nietzschean eternal recurrence watch.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Facebook: a warning

The national press has picked up on the Facebook, a website known to all Cambridge undergraduates as somewhere to promote themselves by listing their vast numbers of friends, share photographs of their wide and varied social life, and display their interesting quirky character by listing the different groups and societies they have formed -- most of them only virtual and existing for the sole purpose of making a public display of inventive humour and free-thinking wit. This is, of course, all well and good to a point but -- as the Guardian article makes clear -- the content is not always written with the clear thought in mind that it is a very public forum. In particular, jokes or criticisms aimed at members of staff, teaching staff, and other students are public and open to view by the objects of the barbs.
Isn't this an odd sort of doublethink? Clearly, the point of such a forum is that it is a form of organised public display as much as a means of communication. Two students can email each other in a mode which is open only to the two of them should they wish. There is no need for them to post a conversation on their Facebook 'wall' that any passing browser can read. So there is, built into the very nature of the thing, both an openness and also, I think, the pretence of baring oneself to a wide audience. But it is easy to think of it also as a kind of private club, as if these were indeed closed conversations and discreet grumbles that no one but the select and envisaged few can read.
Students ought to be cleverer than this. Some colleges, I know, have already warned their students that Facebook profiles are regularly checked by employers on receipt of a job application. The diligent and committed budding merchant banker can soon blow his cover if the HR department reads about his membership of the 'Brunette appreciation society'. It doesn't matter that, of course, the Facebook is no more a window on the 'real' person than any other form of self-presentation (blogs included). It can and is on occasion treated as such. Those students in Cambridge busy writing lit. crits. for their Classics IB paper on 'Latin letters' might like to wonder how what they say about Pliny's correspondence might be said (mutatis mutandis...) about their own.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Beer and rights

I have no idea what the Lord Chancellor's intentions were in declaring that:
"Human rights are as British as the Beatles. As British as the BBC. As British as bitter beer."
It's pretty nonsensical however you look at it. And I don't think it works as a piece of rhetoric. But, if it means anything at all, is this claim true? I think he wants it to refer primarily to the UK's role in drafting the European Convention on which the act is based, but even so it is worth asking whether humans rights are British... Isn't there something odd about such a claim anyway, since I thought that human rights were supposed to be somehow independent of any particular citizenship or nationhood. At least natural human rights would seem to be like that.
Still, if you want quickly to find out what rights you have (and when they can be overridden) you could start with the DoCA's website, and its handy 'study guide'. This will tell you, for example:
Article 2: The right to life

3.12 In summary, you have the right to have your life protected by law. There are very limited circumstances when it is acceptable for the state to take away someone’s life. You also have the right to an effective investigation if one of your family members dies incircumstances where the state might have had a part to play in the death. Everyone present in the UK has these rights, including those such as suspected terrorists or violent criminals who put the lives of other people at risk.
Article 2 gives perhaps the most fundamental of all the rights under the ECHR.

So that's clear. The state cannot kill you except in cases when it can. And if it does, your family gets to have it investigated, but not necessarily explained. Note that this is the most fundamental of all rights and even this is defeasible. But when?
So here's the problem. To be honest, I find talk of rights incredibly slippery. At most, they seem to be declarations of what we take to be a person's general entitlements and what such a person may not be prevented from doing. But in most cases, it is indeed possible to conjure up cases where the circumstances seem to demand the infringement of a supposed right. (See, for example, the nice first -year kind of questions about torture.) What ever is wrong with just saying that there are certain things we think should not be done to people and certain things people should be allowed to do? This sounds to me like a clear set of moral questions, and talk about rights often merely obfuscates the central issues. Why don't we just say that we think that killing people is, generally, wrong. There are times when this basic intuition might come under pressure, however, at which point some very careful and agonising thinking has to be done. There may be no clear and easy rules about when it's OK and when it's not of the sort that would make convincing and useful legislation. But why should we expect there to be?
Are these questions as British as bitter and the Beatles? No. They are as universal as suffering, oppression, and difficult choices.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Palingenesis again

I haven't posted much about ancient philosophy, and certainly not about my own work, but there is always a first time.

It is always nice to find out that someone has read something you have written and has thought about it. For philosophers, often the most evident sign of this is that someone objects to what you have written. I have just picked up a copy of Richard Sorabji’s new book, Self: ancient and modern insights about individuality, life, and death (Oxford University Press, 2006) to find that he is not convinced by a short piece I published some time ago (‘Lucretian palingenesis recycled’, Classical quarterly 51, 2001, 499–508). There I argued that Lucretius does not, at DRN 3.843–51 commit himself to a psychological criterion of identity along the lines of Locke’s view of the matter, although Locke himself perhaps took inspiration from this very passage. Those with an institutional subscription to the journal can read the article here.
Sorabji’s objection is that at 3.861–3...

Lucretius ‘moves to the idea that, with memory interrupted and indeed missing, it will not be the very person after all.’ … ‘He appears to be taking the same view earlier at 677–78, where he infers from our not remembering an earlier life that any past soul has perished and our present soul only now has been created.’ (Sorabji, Self, 2006, 98).
The note to the second sentence just quoted wonders how I would take the lines 677–8 and 861–3.

677–8 is not particularly problematic for my account, and indeed I do discuss it – albeit briefly – at ‘Palingenesis’, 506. Here L. argues that the soul is not immortal because we do not remember the time before birth. The fact that all retention of past actions has been lost shows that this state is not far from death. So the continuity of memory is a good sign of the continuity of existence. And although this is close to saying that there is a psychological condition of personal identity, it is not quite there. Indeed, what Lucretius says is quite consistent with denying that the continuity of memory is a necessary or sufficient condition of identity over time. On that view, the palingenesis hypothesis (i.e. the notion that, given time, all the atoms which now constitute me will after my death return to the same arrangement as they are in now) leads Lucretius to say, for example, that the two individuals A and B, who are constituted by the same atoms in the same arrangement are indeed identical. Let’s say that person A at t1 has atomic formation F. A dies at t2. Later, this identical atomic formation (which I take to mean not just the same arrangement but the same atoms in the same arrangment) F will be restored. Let’s say B is born at t3 and at t4 F is restored.

677–8 on my account says that, for example, B at t4 will not remember any of the events between t1 and t2. Therefore the soul is mortal; it did not persist throughout t1–t4 since if it had there is no reason for this amnesia (pace, I imagine, a Platonist’s story about incarnation disrupting our souls such that we need to recollect truths acquired when discarnate. And, in any case, on a plausible view of what Platonic anamnēsis recalls, we certainly do not recall particular facts about any personal prior existence). But all this is quite compatible with asserting the identity of A and B and to think it is not simply begs the question. So I agree that ‘with memory interrupted and indeed missing, it will not be the very person after all’ but only in the sense that it is true that between t2 and t3 A and B do not exist.

True, we end with the slightly odd view that a person’s ‘death’ does not last forever – it lasts between one life and the next identical life (here, between t2 and t3) – and that sits uncomfortably with e.g. mors aeterna at 3.1091 (as I note in 'Palingenesis' p.506). But at no point does Lucretius say that continuity of memory is a condition of identity and none of his claims commit him to it.

861–3 is also compatible with my account. Lucretius says nothing in these lines, by the way, about memory (contrary to Sorabji’s claim). Rather, he makes the very general claim that for X to be a possible subject of harm at t, X must himself exist at t. (Compare Epicurus’: ‘Death is nothing to the living or the dead; for when we are it is not and when it is, we are not.’) So, taking up the last example, A (who on my account = B) cannot be harmed in the period t2–t3 (‘death’) because he does not exist then. Nor could A be harmed before before his birth. Does this mean that B can be harmed by something that happens between t1 and t2, i.e. during A’s life? No, and this is where psychological continuity is relevant. We are justified in feeling concern only at times to which we are/will be psychologically connected and since there is no psychological connection between A and B there is no reason for A to be concerned about what happens to B or vice versa. (That is what I take to be the point of 3.847–53.) But this is an entirely different matter from the question of the identity of A and B. On this Lucretius says nothing to qualify the statement at 3.445–5: ‘we and formed and held together by the banding together and union of body and soul.’

Friday, October 20, 2006


It's often the ads that are the best things on TV. Certainly, some of them have the biggest budgets. The new Sony Bravia ad is beautiful -- at least as good as the bouncing balls. Watch it here and let it cheer you up.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


One of the standard questions posed to undergraduates beginning to think about consequentialism is whether they think it would be right to torture someone in order to bring about some desired consequence. (Would it be right to torture someone to extract the information necessary to prevent a devastating terrorist attack? Would it be right to torture that person's child if it would be the most effective method of getting the information? Would it be right to torture the innocent to prevent future criminal acts? And so on.) Mostly this just generates a set of conflicting intuitions and starts the discussion.

But now we have some useful statistics to show what people generally think. The BBC report is here under the headline:
One-third support 'some torture'
Nearly a third of people worldwide back the use of torture in prisons in some circumstances, a BBC survey suggests.
That's already a bit of spin, of course, since more than half do not support the use of torture in any circumstances. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the survey is that allows you to compare attitudes between countries. A greater percentage of Italians are against any form of torture than any other nationality surveyed, while Indians are the most likely not to know whether they think all tortue is unacceptable. Of course, not much can be concluded from this -- although, no doubt we will see various camps claim support from these figures. I would like to know whether these figures would have been noticeably different if the survey had been carried out six years ago.

Friday, October 13, 2006


It's getting close to that time of year again. With the application deadline for undergraduate entry in 2007 looming, the national press is looking to fill a few more inches with stories about the process, which they insist on portraying as either overly gruelling, capricious, or otherwise plain unjust. The first piece I've seen this year is in today's Times. It focuses particularly on how 'bizarre' the questions asked at interview might be. 'Are you cool?' was apparently set for PPE applicants at Oxford. The article does not make perfectly clear why such questions are asked, however, and there is indeed a rather good rationale for them. In particular, interviewers are interested in seeing whether an applicant has the potential to do well and is therefore trying to bypass any differentials in their schooling and the base knowledge they have to see whether what they know can be deployed in a novel circumstance. We are trying to find out whether they have the ability to pick apart the various factors involved in assessing a new situation and then build a cogent response to a surprising question. So it is not the case, for example, that when asked to put a monetary value on a teapot there is in fact a price the interviewer is looking for (it's not The Price is Right), but what matters is whether the applicant can think about how things are valued in a capitalist economy.

For my purposes, I was also interested to learn from the article that:
Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill was also a must for philosophy students, with
38 per cent who had read it being made an offer.
This is interesting because rather a lot of applicants say they have read Utilitarianism. I wonder how many have actually read it and, more important, how many have thought much about it. There is a difference between tackling bits of it in an A-level Philosophy class and reading and thinking about it independently.

For more information from Cambridge University about interviews, go here.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Philosophy and the classics

Unlike some other excellent blogs by ancient philosophers, I have tended to shy away from saying anything much here about ancient philosophy. But today I picked up the latest issue of Philosophy and found the editorial wondering whether it matters to philosophy that of the 675,00 pupils taking GCSE exams in Britain, fewer than 10,000 take Latin and fewer than 1,000 Greek. Around 4,500 take Classical civilisation. (Those are the figures cited in the editorial. The ARLT blog has some figures from 2006.) It is not, I think, true as the editorial claims that 'such a seismic shift in educational values should occasion so little comment' since plenty of classicists and schoolteachers have been trying to bring this to wider attention for some time now. But perhaps it is nevertheless significant that the decline in numbers taking exams in classics at school is beginning to concern those outside classics. The editorial ends:
"Critical thinking, on which there is great interest in the philosophical community, is all very well; but we should also be concerned about the roots of our thinking, and about transmitting to our successors some grasp of these roots."
It still remains to be seen, I think, precisely what a 'grap of these roots' will contribute to philosophical studies at a time when professional philosophy in some parts, at least, is becoming increasingly technical and less the 'humanistic discipline' that Bernard Williams once dubbed it. Here in Cambridge, there is no compulsory ancient philosophy element to the undergraduate degree (although most first years do read Plato's Meno). Of course, I happen to think they are missing out. But it would take me some time to articulate precisely what I think would be missing from their study of philosophy by not studying 'the classics'.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lie, lay, laid...

I think this might be a sign of my becoming a grumpy old man, but there is a song that drives me mad every time I hear it. It's not because it's a soppy bit of nonsense that goes nowhere whatsoever, a sort of cut-price torch song that would give its eye teeth to have half of the emotional impact and a quarter of the lyrical interest of something like The Smiths' There is a light that never goes out. No. It's because of its appalling grammar. The song is Chasing cars by Snow Patrol. (The full horror of the lyrics can be found here.)

The offensive part is unfortunately the chorus, which repeatedly wonders: 'If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lay with me...' on and on and on. What are they? Battery hens? The most annoying thing is that they could have said 'If I lie...' with no consequences for metre or rhyme. I have to turn it off every time it comes on the radio.

And don't get me started on Midge Ure's 'classic' If I was...

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A new hope...

The kids are both feeling sick today, so it's a slow day without any trips or visits. Quie nice, really, if I weren't feeling a bit dodgy too. Still, I have a new game to cheer me up.
There is something wonderfully therapeutic about smashing things into tiny Lego bricks with a lightsabre. Have a go, I urge you...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I'm keeping an eye on the development of a new set of qualifications for school-leavers, designed specifically with a view to preparing them for university. The Cambridge Pre-U (awful name, that...) is being created by the Cambridge International Examinations and seems to be generating a lot of enthusiasm and interest, at least among some university teachers. (See a recent report here.)

I haven't seen a draft syllabus yet for any of the subjects I am particularly interested in (primarily Greek and Latin, but also I suppose 'Classical heritage') but the philosophy of the qualification sounds right, driven as it is by a concern to foster independent and self-directed learning. This is from the CIE site:

The values enshrined in Cambridge Pre-U are:
  • The development of well-informed, open and independent-minded individuals capable of applying their skills to meet the demands of the world as they will find it and over which they may have influence.

  • A curriculum which retains the integrity of subject specialisms and which can be efficiently, effectively and reliably assessed, graded and reported to meet the needs of universities.

  • A curriculum which is designed to recognise a wide range of individual talents, interests and abilities and which provides the depth and rigour required for a university degree course.

  • A curriculum which encourages the acquisition of specific skills and abilities, in particular the skills of problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, team working and effective communication.

  • The encouragement of 'deep understanding' in learning.

  • The development of a perspective which equips young people to understand a range of different cultures and ideas and to respond successfully to the opportunity for international mobility.
The Guardian report does cite some reasonable worries, voiced by Tessa Stone of the Sutton Trust. It is certainly essential that any new qualification should be accessible to all students and able to be taught effectively by a wide range of schools.

Let's all keep our fingers crossed and hope they get it right...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Childhood crisis!

After the grumbles a week ago about childhood being 'poisoned', the Archbishop of Canterbury has decided to join in. Very helpful. And we have now been presented with all manner of statistics intended to make us all very concerned about children and their prospects and we are also being asked to contibute our views on what makes a 'good childhood' to the Children's Society inquiry, being patronised by the archbishop. (The Children's Society is a Christian organisation.) If you want to join in, go here to submit 'evidence'. You only have until the middle of November, mind, so it had better be quick. You fill in a different survey according to whether you are a child (<18), an adult (18 years+), or someone who works professionally with young people. Only the last category, note, is prompted to make clear the basis on which they are answering the other questions by an important initial question:
What do you understand by childhood? What does a good childhood mean to you?
The rest of us, perhaps too dim to think this is an important first step or else because our views on this matter are thought irrelevant, just jump in. Both adults and children are then asked:
What things do you think stop children today from having a good childhood?

They are not asked to say if there is anything they think that is currently condusive to a good childhood, positive and useful.

I have no idea what happens to this evidence, but we shall no doubt be treated to another publicity round some time near Christmas, when spoiled children will once again be on the agenda.

By the way, one of the statistics released today surprised me. This, from the BBC report:

A Children's Society survey found that 93% of 14 to 16-year-olds questioned said
their carers or parents cared about them, but only 63% thought their parents
understood them. The 11,000 questionnaire responses also found that 24% said
they had "sometimes" been bullied or "picked on" because of who they were.

63% sounds high to me (I am surprised any teenagers think their parents 'understand' them, and I would be very surprised if 63% of parents do understand their teenagers) and 24% sounds very low. Perhaps things aren't all that bad!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Access and participation

News today of another round of worries about who goes into Higher Education in the UK and how different kinds of students fare when they are there. There are two new HEFCE documents to plough through: the shorter one, How to think about widening participation in UK higher education, is a thought-provoking set of difficult questions asking us to come clean about what we mean by 'access' and the like and making the sensible point that this all needs a long-term approach.

The second, longer, document, Review of widening participation research: addressing the barriers to participation in higher education, is much harder work to read. I can't say I've gone over it all, but as I browsed the odd sentence caught my eye. For example:
"Those who drop out of HE tend to be less motivated to continue than those who stay on." (p. 58)
Well, who'd have thought it?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

21st century childhood

Some people are worried about children. A letter to the Daily Telegraph today, signed by over a hundred psychologists, educationalists, authors etc., is concerned that modern technology, modern educational targets, and concerns about child-safety are 'poisoning' and damaging children's development. Here's a taster:
"Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed “junk”), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives."
It concludes:
"This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades."
I'm not sure what to make of this. For a start, it is not clear to me that adults do much better adjusting to technological and cultural change. The letter points to some recent research, but in general just gestures towards the usual bugbears: junk food and computers. Interviewed on the radio this morning, one of the signatories gave the common line that kids ought to be outside more, climbing trees and scraping knees. There is also an odd and repeated use of 'real' as a qualifier to mean 'good': real play, real food, real interactions. I'm not sure what this means, besides it being a helpful bit of rhetoric: Who would deny that it is a good idea to eat 'real food'?

But besides the various arguments we might have about whether it was ever true that children were not somehow -- often badly -- affected by their environment (Should they all be back up chimneys or down a pit? When was this better time for children?) the major hole in the account seems to me to be the lack of any clear statement of what is meant by 'children's well-being'. It appears to be in important ways different from adult well-being, but it is not clear how. Until we have a better vision of what this is -- and, no doubt, the authors of the letter might have their own view although it is omitted from their brief polemic -- we won't have any idea how this public and political debate ought to proceed.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

One man didn't go... mow. The lawn needs to be mown again and for some reason I really hate doing it. It doesn't take too long; I could probably do with the exercise; it's nice when it's finished. But all the same I hate doing it. If I had a reason for this hate, it would probably be something to do with the utter pointlessness of it. If I do it today, it will probably have to be done again in ten days or so and in the meantime the chances are that I will hardly spend any time in the garden at all to enjoy this nicely cropped grass. What is the point? (To get a bit Pseud's Corner: it could be a Sisyphean thing -- man struggling absurdly to dominate nature. Or else it must have something to do with men -- and it's usually men who do the mowing -- needing some reason to get out of the house for a while at the weekend.) Perhaps I should consult a new book on the philosophy of grardens (no, really...) for some insights (and for a grumpy review of it see here.) But then perhaps the philosophy of gardens is distinct from the philosophy of gardening... How about the Homebase chair in theoretical gardening? Is there anyone out there able to persuade me to love my mower? And, if there is anyone out there who does enjoy a good mow then she or he is, of course, very welcome to come and mow my lawn any time.

Friday, September 08, 2006


It is a strange time to be in Cambridge. Most of the university or college buildings are undergoing building or restoration work, so a lot of the town is currently covered in scaffolding or otherwise hidden. (For a nice view of the city from the top of the library tower go here. And for a view of the market square, go here. The Corpus college webcam is here, so you can watch the comings and goings of the corpuscles at your leisure.) It's as if the city is getting ready for the imminent influx of new and returning students, who will arrive to see the place clean and tidy, while we have had to spend the summer weaving through the debris.

Another bad sign -- the new university diaries have appeared in the CUP shop!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Alexander the Great and darts

Some marvellous commentary from Sid Waddell on Eric Bristow's darts victory in 1985:

When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer - Bristow is only 27!

Another story says that on hearing from the philosopher Anaxarchus, probably a Democritean atomist, that there were innumerable other cosmoses in the universe, Alexander cried because he had not conquered even one (Plutarch, De tranquillitate animi 466D; Val. Max. 8.14 ext. 2; DK 72 A11). Which is worse: an ambition achieved leaving nothing more to strive for, or the recognition that one's ambition can never be completely achieved?

Office supplies

Just in case you're looking for an excellent hole-punch...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rumsfeldian epistemology

My favourite Rumsfeld quotation:
“"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do no know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know”
He has been ridiculed for this, but it sounds perfectly reasonable to me. It's the unknown unknowns that are the problem -- just what Socrates was interested in pointing out. Much better for the unknowns to be known rather than unknown; otherwise how do you know what you need to try to find out?


Here is a link to the Youtube posting of the Germany v. Greece philosophy football match. (I've put it here because the link on Michael's Dissoi Blogoi doesn't work outside his university.) Marx is right, by the way: the goal should be disallowed.
If you want to buy the strip to show your support for your team, go here.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Plastic ataraxic

There are some excellent examples of 'Epicurean' being used by modern businesses to conjure up -- well, what? Some sort of idea of luxury and indulgence usually. Food and wine advice and reviews are perhaps an easy link to make. (And since Epicurus himself once declared he could dine happily on cheese he would have liked this.) But does that stretch to melamine and plastic tableware? (Thanks to Nick for the last link -- I'll find out if his purchase did indeed induce tranquillity.)

Friday, September 01, 2006


V. happy to have the Sopranos back on E4; I, Claudius in loud shirts. Not quite at its best with the first episode, of course, but still plenty to love: sushi addiction and car one-upmanship, the new Atkins fanatic and so on. All surrounding a nasty tale of violence and repressive structures of control and intimidation... Perfect Thursday night stuff.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Improving the unborn

Is anyone else bothered by Blair's new bright idea that the goverment should intervene 'even pre-birth' by identifying families likely to produce children who are likely to go on to cause social nuisance? As yet it seems there is not much detail about the precise nature of this intervention, and I wonder what that might be. What confuses me in particular is why this is put in terms of acting to alter the probable life-course of the as-yet-unborn rather than altering the circumstances and life-chances which any child who might be born will encounter. Can we intervene to help the not-yet-existing? Or perhaps Blair has a theory of pre-natal existence which lies behind the policy? I'm not sure which I'd be more worried by -- a peculiar but perhaps excusable lack of thought about the metaphysics lying behind social policy, or a commitment to the odd metaphysics that would be needed if what was said were to be reasonable.

Ronaldo's card

Some more football and philosophy. Correspondents to the Guardian's excellent football email, the Fiver, have been wondering about Cristiano Ronaldo's conduct at the world cup, apparently encouraging the referee to send off Wayne Rooney. What matters is not the ethics of what he did, but rather the metaphysics. Here is the last contribution, for the 30 August edition:
"Re: Cristiano Ronaldo pretending to wave an imaginary card (Gareth Bayford, yesterday's Fiver letters). Either he pretended to wave a card, or he waved an imaginary card" - Julian Wassell
Is Julian Wassell right? It seems to me that he may not be. It is not possible to wave an imaginary card -- there is no card there to wave after all -- so all one can do is pretend to wave it. Perhaps I have been reading too much Parmenides: you cannot say what is not nor can you wave it...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

More about me.

I have no idea if anyone ever reads these things. But if they do, then they might want to find out more about me.
My hompage is here. It mostly gives more information about my academic work.