Friday, December 21, 2007

Shame on us?

Alain be Botton writes in The Philosophers' Magazine here about the treatment his work has received at the hands of some professional academic philosophers including -- he names names so I don't have to -- one or two people who work like me on ancient philosophy. His piece concludes:

It clearly feels very important for academic philosophers to guard their borders aggressively. Doing so has brought them extraordinary neglect and mockery. I’d recommend that they learn to make philosophy into a big tent and stop being so threatened by practioners who don’t share their assumptions, lest they find out that there are no more true believers.

I know Alain feels very strongly about this; he was written to tell me as much when I posted something he felt discredited his work in much the same way here he says other professional philosophers have done. But I still think there is something of an improper contrast being made, and perhaps being pursued by both sides. It seems to me that a 'big tent' might well be a good idea, but only so long as it's big enough that we can do what we each do without having to jostle for space or feel threatened by one another. Attacking writers like de Botton for doing what they do might well be unfair and/or unproductive. I see no reason not to call it philosophy. But similarly, telling professional academic philosophers they are somehow doing a disservice to philosophy by pursuing more abstruse or technical or less popular avenues of research is not going to get us very far either. That too offers too narrow a vision of what the subject is and should be.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


And one little coda to the interview story: not long ago I rediscovered a little postcard sent to me in December 1991 by the person who was eventually to be my Director of Studies at Clare; he was writing to tell me that I would be getting a conditional offer of a place. That sort of thing isn't supposed to happen any more, because it's important to be absolutely sure that any communication about decisions comes initially via the Admissions Office and is double-checked etc. But in some ways, that's a bit of a shame. That small card meant an enormous amount to me and also was a very humane way of letting me enjoy my Christmas without the anxiety of still not knowing how my application had gone.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

So, tell me a little about....

The admissions interview season is more or less over, so we can at last spend a few days frantically trying to do some of our own work before Christmas. I still remember my own interviews, so this time of year causes some serious flashbacks and I find myself sympathising a great deal with the various candidates who come along and have a go at answering tricky questions in a new and probably intimidating environment with rather a lot at stake. For my part, I hope I do what I can to make the experience reasonably pain-free without stinting on the level of care and seriousness that we apply to the decision-making. It's important for the interview to be revealing of what the various applicants would be like were they to be admitted, so it can't be too cosy.

Like all Classics applicants, I was interviewed at not just the college of my first choice (Clare) but at another place assigned by the Faculty. For me, this was Trinity, and the Trinity interview came first, on the morning after a v. hard test in Clare (which involved a chunk of the nastiest Latin I have ever read; or at least that's how it felt... I don't think there was a verb in the first sentence. Silver Latin, eh?). I had to find my way to Grange Road after a night freezing in a room in Memorial Court. Those were the days before central heating and certainly before en suite facilities -- all now demanded by the paying undergraduate clients and certainly by the lucrative conference facilities. I remember talking to my Trinity interviewer about Herodotus and Thucydides, and wondering how different they were -- even making up something about their prose style. I couldn't read a word of Greek at that time, so it was all a bit off the cuff. At the end, the interviewer told me that he reckoned I had a good chance but Trinity had so many of its own applicants that I probably wouldn't end up there. Fair enough. I hadn't applied to Trinity anyway; but it's interesting to note that that sort of talk is definitely -- and rightly -- verboten these days. (It may well have been verboten even then...)

Then three interviews at Clare, with the Director of Studies and one of the college lecturers, with the person who would eventually be my tutor, and with a Professorial fellow in Classics. These I remember less well, but I was certainly asked if I agreed with Quintilian's assessment of Livy's prose style (ummmm, well.... mumble....) and whether I'd prefer to know a little about a lot or a lot about a little. I have no idea what I said to that. Quite a full day, though.

Still, I think I enjoyed it. At least, I enjoyed the obvious time and attention being paid to my application. And that is still the case. The decisions are taken very carefully and with a great deal of consideration of each candidate's various strengths and weaknesses. It's a shame we cannot take more people, of course, and then there are people to whom the course or the method of teaching we offer are not well suited. In fact, if there is one piece of advice that I would insist upon for potential applicants it is that they all need to look carefully at the course they apply for. Make sure you know what it involves, what it does not cover, and the sort of work you will be doing. All that information is easily available, but it is surprising how many applicants appear not to have spent much time looking and thinking about what they are signing up for...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

More shirts

It seems to me that there are more philosophy-themed t-shirts on sale than there are people who would wear philosophy-themed t-shirts. But sometimes they make me laugh, all the same. Here's one that made me laugh from, 'Offering products than which none greater can be conceived'.

Friday, December 07, 2007


I've just got home on the Citi (sic) 2 bus service. Yes, I know I probably shouldn't be using Stagecoach buses, but it's the only service in town. It was grim enought waiting 40 minutes for the 'every 20 mins' service, but then when I got on I had to share the bus with a eejit who insisted on playing the assembled passenger aggresive rap from the tinny crap speakers in his mobile phone. Prat. I know it must be hard to get respec' on the mean streets of Impington or wherever, and perhaps somewhere in his tiny brain he was entertaining fantasies of ridin' round the projects of Baltimore but for Pete's sake stop inflicting this trebley drivel on all and sundry. Of course, this being Britain and because we're all worried about being knifed on public transport, no one said anything to get him to stop. And why should we have to in any case? Grrrr.

Ho ho ho

Term is over so we academics should all be sitting back and waiting for Christmas, right? Not a bit of it; hence the lack of much blogging recently. At the moment the colleges are full of students who are applying for admission in October 2008 (or for deferred entry in 2009). Our current first-years have only just started and already we need to think about the next year's intake. I find the whole process a lot of hard work, and pretty stressful. Not, I suppose, as stressful as the candidates find it. But all the same, there are some big decisions to be made and we try to make them fairly and well.

That's not all. For our Faculty, this is the time of year when we begin to set exam papers for the summer. It's a long and baroque process, with all sorts of complicated discussions about formats and fonts and markbooks and workbooks and candidates from other courses and the like. One of the hardest parts of the job, in fact, is moving between the various different teaching, Faculty, college, research, and publication tasks that we each take on. I can't juggle and I'm only just able to manage this working equivalent.

But there are some things to smile about too. Like: (8 new elves per second, apparently...). Or the interesting and often very bright students we get to interview. Or finding out that YouTube has footage of perhaps the best thing that Socrates ever did.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Had I written it...

Ah, the demise of the subjunctive... Not long after I became grumpy at the sight of a college Governing Body paper written with clauses like: 'The committee recommend that X is [sic] tasked with' etc..., I find that the new lamentable OJ Simpson book has the title 'If I did it'. Now, this is fine for the Goldman family, I suppose, because now they have been granted rights to the book they can arrange the title on the front cover with the 'If' in a colour that blends almost imperceptibly into the background. But really, what would have been so wrong with 'Had I done it...'? Perhaps OJ is genuinely unsure whether he did it or not, so the remote conditional didn't strike him as appropriate. But I doubt it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Charity has its limits

Oh dear. Kenodoxia has now been cited in Mary Beard's 'Don's diary' (in the latest Cam magazine) as a vaguely scholarly trip along the by-ways of ancient philosophy. I have a sneaking feeling I haven't been very scholarly lately, nor very philosophical. But here's a gesture in that direction.

What's the worst argument to be found in an ancient philosophical text? I mean the argument that is the most obviously fallacious or otherwise glaringly misguided? Now, the Principle of Charity often leads us in the business to try to do the best for whatever apparently ghastly bit of reasoning we might find. (Think, for example, of the 'Argument from opposites' in Plato's Phaedo: 'being dead' and 'being alive' are opposites in the required sense, are they Socrates?)

But I can't do very much for the following:
'If you are light, pain, I can bear you; if I cannot bear you, you are short.'

levis es si ferre possum; brevis es si ferre non possum.

Sen. Ep. Mor. 24.14
This is meant to persuade us that intense pain does not last. It's not just Seneca who peddles this rubbish, though: he probably caught it from an Epicurean (see Epic. Ep. Men. 133; KD 4; SV 4; Diog. Oin. fr. 42 Smith; also Cic. Tusc. 2.44.) But Seneca is daft enough to repeat it, even thanking nature for making it so (Ep. Mor. 78.7). If it's an argument at all and not just a daftly optimistic assertion, then it must mean something like this:
If pain is intolerable then it will kill you; it will not last. If pain lasts then it must therefore be tolerable.
This is of course true only in a very special and literal sense of 'intolerable'. I doubt anyone will be much relieved when they turn to a doctor and complain of excruciating agony if the doctor turns round and says: 'Well, it hasn't killed you. So it must be tolerable. Luck you.' Anyone persuaded by this not to worry about pain is an idiot or (and?) already, like Seneca, a Stoic...

Any arguments worse than this?

Why kids are great

Despite getting us all up at 5.30 for the last three days, daughter #2 managed to cheer us up by provoking the following conversation over breakfast:

Daughter #2: 'Will you come to explore a volcano with me?' (Daughter #2 is wearing a bike-helmet to eat her breakfast. In fact, she has been wearing it all weekend since seeing Dr Iain Stewart's new BBC2 series and people abseiling into a crater to look at moltem lava.)

Daughter #1: 'Sorry, no. It's a school day today.'

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

So, this is what it's all for?

A report in yesterday's Guardian tells me that philosophy graduates are much more popular with prospective employers than perhaps they used to be. Certainly there are many more of them (in 2006 more than twice as many people graduated with a degree in philosophy than in 2001) and they are finding work in some interesting places.

Good for them. But I couldn't help feeling a little deflated by the following:
Fiona Czerniawska, director of the Management Consultancies Association's think tank, says: "A philosophy degree has trained the individual's brain and given them the ability to provide management-consulting firms with the sort of skills that they require and clients demand. These skills can include the ability to be very analytical, provide clear and innovative thinking, and question assumptions."
I would have hoped that all university degrees offer that kind of education. For my part, I don't think that what I am doing when I teach is fit someone out with the kind of skills that management consulting firms demand. And it somehow bores me to hear once again the reduction of philosophy to some kind of 'brain-training' and the provision of a set of transferable analytic skills. But perhaps the increased employability of a philosophy degree will attract some good students who might otherwise have been put off and, if things go well, perhaps they will in the course of their studies read and think about something which lets them imagine doing something interesting afterwards.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

More free stuff...

Thanks to Harry who commented on a previous post, I found the Internet Archive. Not only does it hold lots of interesting music, but plenty of free pdfs of books -- with no problems this time with access from the UK and so no need for proxies.

I now have a nice pdf of Mutschmann's edition of Sextus Empiricus PH and also Oliveri's editions of Philodemus On the good king... and On frank speech.

Friday, November 16, 2007

I missed out...

Yesterday was UNESCO World Philosophy Day. Julian Baggini, on the Guardian website, is not sure whether to celebrate. I had no such troubles, mainly because -- I confess -- I didn't know anything about it. From my perspective at least, yesterday was not particularly philosophical. No more than most other days, in any case. But at least I'm not too late for the 2007 World Philosophy Day activities in Instanbul, on November 21-23. There's a programme here.

This is what the DG of UNESCO thinks it is all about:
To give greater depth to political, philosophical and intercultural dialogue and to mutual understanding of shared memories and values, ambitions and joint projects admittedly requires an updated chart of lines of convergence and divergence, of the differences, silences, misunderstandings and deadlocks that are always possible. The purpose of this Day is therefore to set out the conditions for such a universal dialogue by opening up to the diversity of interlocutors, and of philosophical currents and traditions, in an endeavour to take stock, to provide a perspective on the world and to engage in a critical rereading of our concepts and way of thinking.
Admirable aims, I suppose, albeit with a whiff of hand-waving generality...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

De morte

Was the first century BC, the years 55-c.40 BC in particular, a boom period for thanatology? I have been looking at some works of that period and I am beginning to compile a relatively long list of works we either have in total or in part or else can be confident belonged to that period:
  1. Lucretius, De rerum natura, book 3, lines 830-end
  2. Cicero, Tusculan disputations, book 1 (Cicero also wrote a Consolatio just before Tusc. His daughter, Tullia, died early in 45 BC.)
  3. Philodemus, On death
  4. L. Varius Rufus, On death (a poem; fragments survive)
  5. And, perhaps: Pseudo-Platonic Axiochus
This may not be a tremendously long list, but in terms of ancient works which survive or are known and considering the relatively close date of at least 1-4, I reckon this looks like a period of particular interest in such matters. If so, why?

Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that it is the result of a growing Roman interest in Epicureanism, the philosophy which emphasised most strongly the importance of getting right about the fear of death. Also, items 1, 3, and 4 were perhaps composed by people who were acquaintances or perhaps more loosely associated. This is therefore perhaps the result of a particular group's interest in this question. And, I imagine we should not discount the possibility that the turbulent times leading up to and after Caesar's assassination, the ongoing upheavals and -- no doubt -- deaths, might have encouraged this kind of reflection. We ought not to over-emphasise this last point, I suppose, since people die all the time and the Romans can't be said to have lived an entirely trouble-free kind of existence before the mid-first century BC. All the same, a number of these works either explicitly mention or can be plausibly linked to political concerns.

Am I missing any items from the list? And is there any other comparable period of activity? Is it that this looks to be unusual simply because we happen to know a bit about the works from this very well-documented period?

Monday, November 12, 2007


You can listen here to Alain De Botton discussing what philosophy is. One claim that emerges in the interview struck me as interesting. Is it really the case that philosophers are often bad writers? Is it a shame that Kant is such a bad writer given that Plato started so well? (By which I mean both: Is it true that Kant is a bad writer? and Is it a shame that Kant writes so differently from Plato?)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Christmas list

Item no. 1 on my list is the new shirt from the good people at Philosophy Football... It commemorates the famous Monty Python joke, YouTubed below. One minor blemish is that the shirt prints 'Empedocles of Acraga' rather than 'Acragas'. The Pythons had on their teamsheet, since the final was being played in Munich, 'Empedocles von Acraga' so it was an easy slip. I'd still wear it, though, particularly since the right team won. (Sophocles at right-back is a bit of a surprise, now I think about it. I think I'd have put Melissus in -- no one gets past an Eleatic.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Free stuff

Even better than cheap reprinted books are free books. Google Books, for example, will allow you to download Diels' Doxographi Graeci in PDF form for free... There are lots of other goodies there too, including the 1903 edition of Diels' Fragmente der Vorsokratiker... Well, you can get these if you are in the US. Those of us in the UK can't. If you hide your IP address you can get to the page only by getting there via a proxy site, and even then the PDF won't download properly. Shucks.

Reprinting is good

Recently, my life has been much improved by publishers reprinting or re-issuing some otherwise hard to find things. First, Cambridge University Press have begun paperbacking some important things that were otherwise out of print or very expensive. Favourite so far is:

But perhaps even better than that is a series from the Italian publisher Bompiani. They have now released versions of Usener's Epicurea, Von Armim's Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta and, more recently, Luria's edition of the fragments of Democritus. Each volume include a copy of the original publication with facing Italian translation. In the case of Luria, this includes an Italian translation of the original Russian commentary which, up to now, has been a complete mystery to me. Good on you, Bompiani! Best of all, they're cheap.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Is poikilia the spice of life?

Some more on Epicurean pleasure. How can the Epicureans persuade us to think that painlessness is itself a pleasure, let alone the greatest pleasure? Torquatus’ attempt to answer the question in Cicero Fin. 2 is brief but important. He reminds Cicero of the Epicurean notion that katastematic pleasure cannot be increased but merely varied (variari) (2.10); the painless state admits of pleasant variation. This variation, somehow, is meant to smooth the acceptance of e.g. the absence of thirst as a genuine form of pleasure. Of course, Cicero will have none of this and offers yet another dilemma – the problem which seems to me to be a genuine and serious one for Epicureanism. Although Torquatus mentioned this variation only briefly, at Fin. 1.38, Cicero has remembered his Epicureanism well enough to be able to point out something which Torquatus has not stressed, namely that this variation is distinct from painlessness and in no way increases the pleasure of painlessness (see KD 18, which is very explicit about this). The painlessness is itself supposed to be the greatest pleasure so Cicero assumes that the variation is a ‘sweet motion on the senses’ (dulcis motus sensibus) and that it is another aspect of kinetic pleasure: it is what happens when someone drinks although they are not thirsty. Cicero does not care to insist on any distinction between the pleasures of drinking when thirsty and the variation of pleasure in drinking when not thirsty. Modern commentators tend to worry about whether either or both are genuine Epicurean kinetic pleasures, but for Cicero both are clear enough cases of sensory motions. And that is all he needs for his argument.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what, precisely, this ‘variation’ might be. The precise nature of this variety or complexity of pleasures once painlessness is reached is not always considered in any detail. But there are two distinct possibilities. First, the variety might be a phenomenological variety – a heterogeneity sometimes stressed as an interesting characteristic of pleasures generally. Alternatively, this variety may lie in the different causes of painlessness. [1] Cicero appears to support the latter view at Fin. 2.10: voluptas etiam varia dici solet cum percipitur e multis dissimilibus rebus (‘Pleasure is usually said to be varied when it is perceived from many unlike things’). But again, it is important to bear in mind that this is Cicero’s own attempt to understand what he says is an obscurity in Epicureanism on the basis of the ‘natural’ understanding of the Latin varietas. Torquatus’ initial introduction of the idea at Fin. 1.38 appears to contrast the differentiation of pleasures ‘by variation’ from the differentiation of pleasures in terms size or magnitude (‘ut postea variari voluptas distinguique possit, augeri amplificarique non possit.’), a contrast which might well point in the direction of qualitative variety. For what it is worth, a first look at the uses of ποίκιλημα and ποικίλος in Philodemus and Epicurus – words cognate with the term for variation used in KD 18 – suggests that it is linked primarily with notions of complexity or qualitative variety as in, for example, the great variety of directions of atomic movement. [2]

Yet another twist, suggested to me this week by Philip Hardie is that the Epicurean stance on variatio is perhaps inspired in contrast with a common literary conceit that variety and complexity in a text or in the language used in a text are prime methods of increasing the audience’s pleasure. I found, for example, Dion. Hal. Comp. 11 and 19 from the first century BC but it might well be a much earlier idea also.

[1] For this view, see Bailey ad KD 18.

[2] See Usener’s Glossarium Epicureum s.vv. Note also Plut. Non posse 1088C.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What is the logical form of this?

Thank goodness for YouTube. Here is my favourite bit from Derek Jarman's quirky film, Wittgenstein. What is the logical form of a V sign? Witters' reaction might be a bit extreme, but it's a good lesson in the complexity of meaningful forms of communication. And funny.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Some boring statistics

Facebook collects all the information its users decide to put in their profiles. I imagine this is commercially quite useful. But it also allows it to display tables like this one, which gives some results for the Cambridge UK network (you might have to click on it to see it large enough):

I reckon it's pretty depressing. Is it really true that the 'top books' among Cambridge network people are Harry Potter... and The Lord of the Rings. Good grief. And as for the top music choices, we really do come out as a load of boring MORers. What will we all be reading and listening to when we really are boring and middle aged? (I know: some of us are closer to that than others. But I wouldn't put U2 and Queen on my list...)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Epicurean joy II

It's nice to get comments on my blog, particularly when they are clever. In response to my musing last time, Eric Brown writes:

"I am puzzled about joy and katastematic pleasure, too, and so I'm glad you're putting this out there.

I'm not sure I understand your argument against Purinton's interpretation. Do you mean to attribute the following to Epicurus?

(1) Nonhuman animals experience katastematic pleasure.
(2) Nonhuman animals do not experience epilogismos.
Therefore, (3) epilogismos cannot be necessary for the experience of katastematic pleasure.
But (4) one can take joy in katastematic pleasure only by experiencing epilogismos about the settled state of the flesh.
Therefore, (5) joy cannot be necessary for the experience of katastematic pleasure.
Therefore, (6) katastematic pleasure cannot be defined as the intentional object of joy.

What's the evidence for (1)? I've no doubt that nonhuman animals experience the calm state of the flesh that we experience as katastematic pleasure, at least according to the Epicureans, but I cannot recall off the top of my head any evidence that Epicureans take nonhuman animals to experience this state as pleasure. (Indeed, isn't this part of Cicero's complaint--that the appeal to infant and animal pursuit of pleasure appeals to their pursuit of kinetic and not katastematic pleasure?) What am I forgetting?"

I had to think this over for quite a while, but this is as far as I have got:

I don’t think Eric is forgetting anything, and he makes a very good argument. So what can we say about (1)? I wonder if it will help to distinguish between the two types of katastematic pleasure: bodily (aponia) and psychic (ataraxia).

The Epicureans’ account of the hedonic lives of non-rational animals is not very clear. I can see no way, however, in which they could deny that non-rational animals can attain aponia. That is, it seems perfectly possible for a cat, say, to attain a state of physical painlessness. If that is true, I don’t see how the cat is not experiencing at least this form of katastematic pleasure. What a cat cannot do, however, is reflect upon and notice this state and cannot consider and reflect upon its likely continuance. (There are other drawbacks to being a cat. A cat can’t look at another cat with a bad paw and think, ‘How nice I don’t feel that pain’ in the way Lucretius imagines a human onlooker thinking at the beginning of DRN 2; that, by the way, looks to me like a good example of an instance of ‘joy’.) So a cat cannot experience ‘joy’. If that’s on the right lines then if we substitute aponia for ‘katastematic pleasure’ in Eric’s construal of the argument, it seems to me to be OK.

Now what about ataraxia? I suppose the Epicureans won’t want to let cats have that. But, on the other hand, the Epicureans are certainly concerned not to make it seem that a cat is better off than a human precisely because it can never experience mental pains, tarachai. (This looks like the mental analogue of the criticism – at least as old as Callicles in the Gorgias – that to say that we should aim at painlessness is to say that we should want to be like a stone, that is simply incapable of feeling pain.) What they say in response is not so clear but seems to be in two parts: (i) animals can, at least to some extent, experience tarachai; (ii) animals cannot – as humans can – reason away irrational fears and in addition take further pleasure in recognizing their care-free state. What evidence I have found about this is in Philodemus On the gods 1 XV and Polystratus De Irrat. Cont. VI–VII.

This leaves as yet unconsidered whether katastematic pleasure of either sort feels pleasant by itself, as it were. I think Purinton argues that it is rather ‘joy’ which ensures the positive hedonic feel of a good life, which is why he thinks an Epicurean would not want a life of joyless katastematic pleasure. I’m not so sure; or, at least, I am not sure that the Epicureans either do or ought to take this route. It seems to me more likely that they do indeed want to insist that katastematic pleasure is itself pleasant: living a (physical) life without pain is pleasant and living a (mental) life without care is also pleasant. Joy is certainly, however, something distinct from katastematic pleasure. But it seems to me that joy is not necessary for the katastematic pleasure’s having any positive hedonic value. I can see no evidence for that point and the evidence I can find seems to point rather towards the characterisation of joy I tried in the previous post. Now, whether this is coherent, let alone plausible, is another matter. At the moment I can’t help being on Cicero’s side here. But that’s the Epicureans’ fault, not the fault of Cicero’s interpretation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Epicurean joy

I’ve been wondering again about Epicurean hedonism and in particular its claim that painlessness is the highest pleasure. Most people find this implausible and also hard to reconcile with any recognisable hedonism. So there are some interesting attempts to make sense of the Epicurean view. In one particularly interesting article, Purinton [1] argues that katastematic pleasure should be understood as the object of the intentional state of ‘joy’ (khara). Both katastematic pleasure and the various ‘smooth motions’ in body or soul identified as kinetic pleasures, are to be understood as possible objects of joy in this sense. On this account, katastematic pleasure may not immediately ‘feel’ good but rather ‘is’ good and, if we think properly about what we should value, can be an object of joy.

I am not sure this is quite right. One of the most important passages to be addressed is a quotation from Epicurus’ On the telos, found at Plut. Non posse 1089D (Us. 68):

τὸ γὰρ εὐσταθὲς σαρκὸς κατάστημα καὶ τὸ περὶ ταύτης πιστὸν ἔλπισμα τὴν ἀκροτάτην χαρὰν καὶ βεβαιοτάτην ἔχειν τοῖς ἐπιλογίζεσθαι δυναμένοις.

For the well-settled state of the flesh and the trusted expectation of it povide the highest and most secure joy for those able to appraise it.

The most important point to note about this quotation for our present purposes is that joy is closely associated here with the capacity for some kind of calculation of reflection, that is with some kind of rational activity (described as epilogismos) which involves the proper assessment of one’s current and likely future well-being. [2] Joy, in other words, is produced only when one is able rationally to reflect on the well-settled state of one’s body or able to expect that well-settled state to continue in the future. Indeed, the Epicureans regularly remind us that the expectation that painlessness will persist can be a source of present pleasure and that the suspicion that it will not can cause present distress. Consider, for example, SV 33’s insistence that the present absence and expectation of future absence of hunger and the like the ‘cry of the body’. Similarly, doxographic sources regularly contrast the Epicureans and Cyrenaics in terms of the formers’ distinctive acceptance that memory and anticipation can produce pleasure (see e.g. DL 2.89). The conclusion that ‘joy’ is the product of rational activity and assessment is supported by the scholion to Ep. Hdt. 66 in which khara and phobos, fear, are assigned to the workings of the rational part of the soul located in the chest. Most crucially, they are said to be distinct from the pathē such as pleasure and pain. ‘Joy’, on this account, is produced by rational activity and like fear, but unlike the pathē, it will be corrigible. [3] One can be either correct or mistaken in the assessment of one’s current bodily state. It is likely, therefore, that if there is a contrast or distinction to be drawn between ‘joy’ and ‘katastematic pleasure’ then it is not a distinction that makes katastematic pleasure the intentional object of joy, but it is a distinction between different types or sources of pleasure. Joy, we might say, is a positive rational evaluation of one’s present or future state just as its counterpart, fear, is a negative rational evaluation of one’s likely future state. Fear is a kind of pain; so we can infer that joy is a kind of pleasure. But what really distinguishes joy is that it is brought about in a particular fashion. Joy, for example, is not a possible affection of non-rational creatures since they lack the psychic capacity required for the rational evaluation of their current state, let alone the consideration of their future state. But those non-rational creatures may nevertheless experience the pathos of pleasure, indeed the fact that they do so and that it encourages them to act in a particular way is part of Epicurus’ opening, ‘cradle’, argument for the idea that pleasure is the good.

[1] J. Purinton, ‘Epicurus on the telos’, Phronesis 38, 1993, 281–230.

[2] See M. Schofield, ‘Epilogismos: an appraisal’ in M. Frede and G. Striker eds. Rationality in Greek thought (Oxford, 1996).

[3] See D. Konstan, ‘Epicurean ‘passions’ and the good life’ in B. Reis ed. The virtuous life in Greek ethics (Cambridge, 2006).

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Our younger daughter turned 3 this week so we have had the regular influx of new toys. I'm still not quite sure where they are all going to go, but we'll squeeze them in somewhere, no doubt. Biggest and most impressive is a Playmobil castle with all the trimmings. Not quite my scene, but it's clearly going to be a big hit. But there are much more interesting Playmobil bits for the Classicist in your life. Like this excellent Cleopatra, for example, or this interesting orator complete with a list of useful Latin phrases.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I've mentioned the lovely people at Despair, inc. before. But here is one of their finest moments. I tried to get them to send me a t-shirt of it but it seems that you can't get them shipped to the UK. Damn. Not that they care; as their customer dissatisfaction slogan has it: 'We're not satisfied until you're not satisfied'.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

How to annoy a Platonist...

I've been revisiting some ideas about Epicurean hedonism recently. In particular, I've begun to think again about the Epicurean idea that a state of painlessness is itself a pleasure, indeed the highest pleasure possible. It's an odd thought, and it has generally been subject to a great deal of scepticism. Rightly so, it seems to me now (although it's one of those questions on which I've wavered back and forth...) I'm beginning to think that Epicurus really should have read Aristotle on pleasure more carefully. Or perhaps he should have read Aristotle on pleasure full stop; it isn't so obvious that Epicurus had much of an idea of what is in what we have as the Nicomachean Ethics. Still, I reckon he'd have found a lot in there to his liking. In particular, he might have usefully adapted Aristotle's armoury of activities and changes (energeiai and kinêseis) for his own distinction between katastematic and kinetic pleasures. (I would like to think that perhaps he did try to do just that. Well, I've often wondered if the curious and obscure quotation from Epicurus' On choices at DL 10.136 might point to him doing just that:
“ἡ μὲν γὰρ ἀταραξία καὶ ἀπονία καταστηματικαί εἰσιν ἡδοναί· ἡ δὲ χαρὰ καὶ ἡ εὐφροσύνη κατὰ κίνησιν ἐνεργείᾳ βλέπονται.”

Unfortunately, the text is a bit wobbly and there are all sorts of tricky aspects of the syntax to work out: ἐνεργείᾳ or ἐνεργείαι, for example? Thats a job for another (rainy) day, perhaps.) But for now I thought I'd share one of my favourite bits of Epicurean provocation, which I remember once (I think genuinely) shocked one of my fellow graduate students. (That might be because he was of a Platonist sort of persuasion at the time...) Here goes:
I spit on the fine (τὸ καλόν) and those who vacantly gawp at it, whenever it produces no pleasure.
Quoted at Athenaeus 547a (Us. 512)

Terrific stuff.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Herding instincts

With the new influx of students, the town seems curiously full. Perhaps the impression is compounded by the herding instincts of particularly the new students. I imagine the thought guiding their group-bonding behaviour is that if you are ever more than a metre or so away from one of your newly-made friends you might (a) get lost, (b) be forgotten about, (c) spend your next three years at university lonely and unloved. This tends to calm down eventually, of course, but for now it is causing major problems with the traffic.

There have always been bad cyclists in Cambridge, but now they are supplemented by huge pelotons of students, trying to stick together and therefore heading to lectures riding three or more abreast down the street. Many of them haven't cycled regularly since they were young kids and don't yet have the traffic sense to get out of the way when required and speed up when necessary. (And lots of them don't know yet how to change gear with confidence so end up peddling furiously in a low gear but failing to make much progress down the road.)

The cycle herds are reinforced by flocks of pedestrians. This morning a bunch of ten or so decided that in order to get to a lecture on the Sidgwick site they were perfectly entitled to stand in the middle of the Queen's Road/Silver Street crossroads. Like a bunch of Buridan's asses they seemed caught between an urge to get to the other side and an equipollent urge to retreat to the curb. So they just stayed there, waiting for some brave soul to take on a leadership role and manage the crossing. I've seen this sort of behaviour on David Attenborough programmes, so it's comforting -- in a way -- to have such a graphic illustration of the fact that humans are, after all, social animals in much the way that wilderbeest are. Thankfully, Cambridge drivers are -- for now -- generally in a forgiving mood or the body count would be pretty horrific.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Hahaha. You have to say the 'v' as a 'w'...

But it's really there:

Not quite up to the standard of the Private Eye degree citations, but close. Here's a good example:

Britannia Spears

Britannia Spears, dicta Britney Spears, est cantrix et saltatrix Americana. Nata est 2 Decembris 1981 in Silva Cantii (Anglice: Kentwood) in Ludoviciana. Musicam popularem canit. Anno 2004, Coemgeno Federline nupsit, et duos filios habent.


Britannia puella canere et saltare semper amabat. Anno 1991, cum annos novem haberet, ad Broadviam ivit ut "infrastudium" pro Laura Bella Bundy in fabula Immisericordis (Anglice: Ruthless) ageret. Postea, ab 1992 ad 1994, apparuit in Canale Disneyo cum Christina Aguilera et Iustino Timberlake in Sodalitate Mici Muris (Anglice: Mickey Mouse Club).

Hoc programmati primavera anni 1994 deleto, Britannia domi habitavit in Ludoviciana ut vitam puellae Americanam vulgaris habeat; revertit autem, post tres annos, ad mundum saltationis.

I especially like the idea of a 'vita puellae Americana vulgaris'...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Scarlet day

The new academic year has just begun and the weather has turned decidedly autumnal right on cue. I was feeling pretty lethargic last week and not at all looking forward to being pitched into the brief but very intense teaching term. But the city has been transformed over the weekend by the influx of new and returning students and there is a genuine buzz of excitement in the air. It's quite infectious, because for now at least I'm feeling quite positive about the term.

It might be because I was at the new undergraduates' matriculation dinner last night and it was hard not to be carried along by the mixture of pride, excitement and sheer terror that the new students are feeling at the thought of starting their degree courses. It's not so long ago -- I'd like to think -- that I was in a similar state myself. I seem to remember being particularly concerned about how to get the washing machines in the communal laundry to work; they were enormous great top-loading machines that had to be fed 50 pence pieces. They simply evened out the grime rather than properly washing things, so over the eight weeks your clothes became a uniform shade of grey. They would then emerge from the 20p guzzling 'driers' (enormous drums heated by alarming flames you could just glimpse if you peered round the back) slightly warm, damp, and grey...

But anyway, it's a very special time. In eight weeks or so we'll start interviewing for next year's intake, but for now we can concentrate on our current students and get them off to a good start in their first, or second, or whatever year.

This week is also a good time to be selling posters and toasters.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Michael Palin's pants are on fire

Jolly Brit abroad Michael Palin is limping around Eastern Europe and beyond for his new 'travel' programme, Palin's New Europe. Pah! It's a limp thing all round, this programme and yet another example of the current outbreak of telly not telling the truth. I know. It's bad, isn't it? Hot on the heels of the revelation that the footage of Alan Yentob nodding may not have been filmed at the very moment he was interviewing someone, now Palin is at it too.

Last night series out set-up interviews with 'colourful' new neighbours began with Palin watching some crazy Bulgarian mystics dancing in circles at the summer solstice. Weird, huh? You wouldn't get people in Britain celebrating a simple astronomical event as if it were a major energizing of the spiritual whatnot, would you? Oh. In any case this must have been in June. But later in his 'travels', after seeing some gypsies in Sofia -- crikey! There are gypsies there! -- he arrives in Cappodocia (Göreme, in fact, which Palin insisted on pronouncing GO-remmy...) and it's in deep snow. Now, either the rail network and the lorry he 'hitched' in were very slow, or this wasn't really part of a single journey. 'Fess up, Palin! More shoddy BBC work. No wonder people are turning off.

Volvo day

This coming Saturday, if you are travelling along the M11 or A14 here's a game you can play. Keep a look out for cars delivering students for university. 1 point for a car stuffed full of obvious university kit. Add a point for a bike on the back. Add another point for each pot plant (that is, plant in a pot) visible in a back window. Add a further point if you can make an educated guess at the subject the students is studying (visible textbooks, bits of anatomical skeleton etc.) The doble your tally if it's a Volvo.

If you live in Cambridge, of course, stay away from the town centre. The place was never designed to accommodate this influx of traffic and concerned parents. You'll never get served in a café and it's crazy to attempt to buy anything at Sainbury's or M&S. Best stay away altogether.

So we will swap the f*cking punt chauffeur types for bunches of students - new ones, a bit bewildered, not yet sure how to do laundry; returning students - suddenly feeling terribly important and confident.

Poor things. And poor parents too. They are paying for all this now and no doubt feel much more invested in the whole business. Many parents insist on coming to college Open Days and even try to come to the admissions interviews. Not a great idea, but you can see why they might feel they have much more of a part to play in the process these days.

Another symptom of the new atmosphere is the readiness of universities to address parents directly. See, for example, the St Andrew's website: Nothing comparable yet at But students themselves here organize a 'parenting' system -- assigning new first years to 'parents' in the second or third year. It's something of an odd exercise in genealogy and not all 'parents' take an appropriately paternal or maternal attitude to their offspring, of course. But then, they haven't just driven from Devon with a pot plant obscuring the rear view mirror...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Two new books arrived for me today, just so I don't got to bed and dream about the dramas of uploading images or page hierarchies. Calcio: a history of Italian football and Morbo: the story of Spanish football. I hope they're as good as two of my favourite recent reads: Gary Imlach's My father and other working class heroes and Adrian Chiles' We don't know what we're doing (which has a very sad ending) ... The Italian one, at least, looks rather scholarly but now I will be at last sure that I'm right when I explain why the football teams in Milan are called 'Milan' (pronounced 'Meelan', NB not Milano) and 'Internazionale'... But then I noticed something very suspicious. The authors' names: Foot and Ball. Surely some conspiracy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Does not compute

I've not been posting much for the last week because we are busy in the Faculty of Classics building a new website. The current one was put together somewhat 'organically' so it has lots of offshoots and a strange way of organizing the information. Most of it is there if you know where to look, but knowing where to look is the trick...

So we have a shiny new Content Management System and a number of us are busy generating pages and then making 'content'... It's pretty straightforward, if a bit fiddly. For example, I've spent the morning hunting down the odd character in pages we've more or less copied from the current site which is in the wrong coding. So a '£' shows up as a black square with a question mark inside...

I'm geeky enough to think this is all going to be worth it in the end. We should end up with a site which can be managed and updated by a number of people with much greater ease than the present arrangement. No one really needs to know any html or whatever, and what you see is (the stray tricky characters aside) what you get. The next big push is then to start putting video and audio on the site!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Fire and the Sun?

I was doing some lazy research this morning for a schools' lecture on Platonic Love for the Faculty's VIth Form Study Day on 26 September (you know, type some random keywords into Google and see what happens). Sometimes it can be very interesting: 'strictly platonic', for example, generates an enormous list of classified ads by city for various kinds of personal relationships. Not sure Plato would have been too chuffed with most of it.

But the best and strangest I found is this excellent site for Platonic fireplaces. I imagine they cast wonderful shadows... Perhaps they are good for rooms containing large numbers of prisoners who want to be given a misleading puppet show.

And I found this cartoon which made me laugh.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What about Cicero?

I've been spending some time thinking about Cicero's presentation of Epicurean hedonism, particularly at the beginning of Fin. 2. In particular, I've been wondering whether the problems he raises there for the Epicurean identification of painlessness with the highest state of pleasure are telling. Certainly, it is an odd identification to make and the attempts made by the Epicurean spokesman, Torquatus, to defend it do not seem to be very promising.

Yet, there is a problem. Quite a few commentators, Gosling and Taylor in their 1982 The Greeks on pleasure in particular, are very hard on Cicero and his tactics. They find his emphasis on the Epicureans' interest in 'kinetic' pleasures unnecessary and even go so far as to claim that Cicero is himself mistaken in making such a deal out of a distinction between the pleasures of painlessness and the sensory pleasures involved in satisfying a need. For these commentators, that is not the central distinction in Epicurean hedonism and Cicero has distorted matters for his own polemical purposes.

Now, I'm not sure if I understand the Epicurean notion of pleasure well enough to know whether this accusation is right. One of the problems, of course, is that Cicero is one of our fullest accounts of Epicurean ideas about pleasure and I find it hard to be sure that we have a sound and accurate picture against which we can compare him and find him wanting. The other evidence is similarly polemical (e.g. Plutarch) or else very scrappy and ripped from any sort of useful context (e.g. the quotations in Cicero and Plutarch; the fragment at Diog. Laert. 10.136).

So how do we proceed? I suppose we need to do three things. First we need to have a clear account of precisely what Cicero's argument is in texts like the opening of Fin. 2 and we need to construct as part of this process an account of what Cicero's understanding of Epicurean pleasure is. We should do the same for Plutarch, and any other source. Second, we need to do a thorough linguistic and philosophical analysis of the scrappy bits of genuine Epicurean material which survive and -- if possible -- see if they can be pieced together into a consistent, though perhaps gappy, whole. Third, we need to do some genuine philosophical inquiry ourselves. For example, we might ask whether we can come to a satisfying account of what pleasure is or, failing that, some picture of the various possible options and what the consequences of each of them is. So, what if we abandon the idea of pleasure as somehow related to perception? Must pleasure be associated with a certain kind of phenomenological 'feel'? If not, what can we say about it? This third part of the process will help to set down some parameters to guide our thinking about what is and is not a plausible or even possible opinion to hold on the question of pleasure.

Finally, we have to put the results of all three kinds of inquiry side by side and see how they relate to one another. Does Cicero's argument, for example, show that he is committed to a view of Epicurean pleasure which is evidently incompatible with the primary Epicurean evidence? If not, is the Epicurean evidence compatible both with Cicero's argument and also with other conceptions of pleasure which are less susceptible to his criticisms? Does either Cicero's attack on Epicurus or the likely Epicurean picture itself offer anything like a plausible conception of pleasure, judged independently?

This is a laborious business, to be sure. And it requires a great deal of both philological and philosophical skill. But it seems to me that this is something like the ideal methodology for approaching this kind of question: we certainly cannot simply legislate that Cicero must be biased and disregard his criticisms as a result. Fortunately, the enterprise as a whole is something that can be pursued collaboratively -- some providing part of the picture and others other parts. And it is something which can proceed gradually, always open to revising the results offered so far. But, considered with my best rose-tinted specs on, that is how I think good ancient philosophy is done.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Protagorean hedonism

Here are some thoughts I’ve been having about Plato’s Philebus. I have been wondering whether, as an alternative to Socrates view that pleasures can be false, a coherent position can be outlined to the effect that pleasures are always true – not just in some sense of their being always ‘really’ a pleasure or some such, but that pleasures are always true in a sense of ‘true’ that corresponds closely with the likely sense in which Socrates thinks that pleasures can be ‘false’. He does not mean that some pleasures are not ‘really’ pleasures.

So, imagine that we disagree with Socrates of the Philebus and think that pleasures cannot be false. Imagine also that we disagree in this way not because we think that it is daft to think of pleasures as true or false, that is, we disagree not because we think pleasures are not ‘truth apt’. Rather, we disagree because we think that all pleasures are true. This is a possible view of Protarchus’ position in the Philebus.

On a plausible view of Socrates’ account, a pleasure can be false in this sense. Pleasures have, as it were, a propositional content. They can be expressed in statements of the form: ‘I am pleased that P’. A pleasure is false, on this view, if P is false. So if ‘I am pleased that you love me’ but you do not love me, the pleasure I feel is, alas, false.

Now imagine that we think that all pleasures are true. How is this expressed? Perhaps we borrow the notion that pleasures have a propositional content. So again, pleasure can be expressed in statements of the form: ‘I am pleased that P’. On this view, however, P is always true; it is true, presumably, in some sense because I take pleasure in it.

This is like one view of Protagoras’ position in the Theaetetus is respect of beliefs generally. On this view, Protagoras thinks that all beliefs are true. If I believe P then P is true. I cannot be mistaken. (He may also think that if P is true then I believe it. I am omniscient.)

Is Protagorean hedonism, the view that all pleasures are true, an absurd view? Certainly, it captures the sense in which we might baulk at the idea that it is possible to be somehow mistaken about what we take pleasure in. Socrates seems to want to say that it is possible to be experiencing a pleasure but there to be some kind of falsity about that pleasure. It is not merely that pleasures can be generated by beliefs that are mistaken; rather, there is something mistaken or wrong about the pleasure itself.

Protagorean hedonism rejects that. If I am pleased at P then P is true. Now, it is depressingly easy to find prima facie objections to this. For example, I might indeed take pleasure in thinking how much you love me, but in fact you do not love me at all. Surely there is something wrong about the pleasure here? If we do not want to go along the route of denying that pleasures are ‘truth apt’, we must somehow instead relativise the object of the pleasure. Now, ‘I am pleased that P’ where P is something true but its truth cannot be undermined by unfortunate facts about, for example, whether you do in fact love me or not. Instead, the truth of P must, it seems, somehow be guaranteed instead simply in virtue of my taking pleasure in it. Somehow, the truth of the pleasure I take in thinking how much you love me is entirely independent of whether you do or do not. It is instead guaranteed by my taking pleasure.

So this is where I have got. Now I have two other questions: How coherent is 'Protagorean hedonism'? Could an argument be mounted against it analogous to the arguments mounted in the Theaetetus against Protagoras’ more general position about beliefs?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Educashun, educashun, educashun

At long last, the Tories are beginning to think of some policies. Their education ideas are being floated at the moment and include two ideas worth thinking about. I'm not sure whether they will be useful or even desirable, but I was tickled by the the other parties' reaction.

The first idea is that kids at 11 who are under-performing would not be allowed automatically to proceed to secondary school. (Here's the BBC report. And here is the Tories' own version of the story.) They may be kept back at primary school until their level of achievement is up to the move. I suppose the idea is that this is an incentive not to be kept back, because of the possible stigma that might bring, and also that it might help secondary schools by removing the need for extensive remedial work with incoming pupils. Well, maybe. But here is what David Laws, the Lib-Dem spokesperson, had to say:
"Like the old 11-plus, proposals for what the Tories have called a remedial year would stigmatise the very children who need extra help. They would also increase class sizes and make it impossible for teachers and parents to plan ahead."
The first point is perhaps true but is presumably in part the point of the exercise. Whether in the long term it is overall to the educational and general social benefit or detriment of the pupil concerned is something I really have no idea about. So this might turn out to be a very bad idea, all told. But Laws' second point, though, is surely not quite right. Holding back pupils will increase class size, he says. Well, yes. But surely it will also decrease class sizes. For every extra pupil still in primary school there will be one fewer in secondary school. Or can we now manufacture pupils e nihilo? Sure, there may be an extra burden on some schools, but this is hardly an absolute increase in class sizes... The Tories certainly will need to say something about what they are going to do to help the primary schools to accommodate any such people. But they are even at present being put somewhere...

The second idea was apparently less worthy of the other parties' immediate comment. Here is the Torygraph report. But it seems to me not a bad idea to explore:
"The sixth form experience of many young people is now dominated from year one by the examination system and teachers tell us that the opportunity to explore young people's curiosity and enthusiasm in pursuit of academic byways has been almost totally removed," says a panel of experts, led by a former cabinet minister, Stephen Dorrell, and ex-vice-chancellor Baroness Pauline Perry.
That does sound like something worth taking seriously. And that has left me with a very disconcerting thought. Am I really thinking that the Tories have some potentially useful ideas in their education policies? Help! Either I am getting old and cranky -- and, please no, might even end up reading the Daily Mail... -- or British politics has finally gone completely topsy-turvy.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Hooray for autumn

Summer is nice but, especially in odd-numbered years, June and July and the first part of August are sadly football free. But it's all back and this year I seem spoilt for choice. Not only has 'five' (Channel 5) started to show Serie A games on Sunday afternoon's in Football Italiano but I have suddenly acquired via the 'kind' people at Virgin media Setanta sports -- so I can miss Premier league games during the kids' tea time/In the night garden time, but may be able to catch the odd SPL fixture (why?) or even Bundesliga, Portuguese league, and -- when I'm really lucky -- live Conference (sorry, 'Blue Square Premier') games. They even had Cambridge United a few weeks ago. The five coverage is pretty poor, unfortunately, and they seem to lack the wit and fun of the old Channel 4 (and then Bravo) Gazzetta programmes. They don't have James Richardson, for a start. And the title is wrong. Do they think we won't understand 'calcio'?

But best of all is the BBC Radio Five commentary. It's a real saviour for parents who, let's face it, aren't going to be allowed 2 hours of TV during the weekend to devote to watching a game. You can be doing something else while it's on, and still feel the excitement. It's perhaps even better in the car. For me, it certainly evokes the relief of getting back to the car after fighting your way around the shops on a Saturday afternoon, particularly around Christmas. A few minutes of commentary sets you up for a cup of tea and the radio when you get home. Or it reminds me of driving home from visiting the parents on Boxing Day. Special times.

Friday, August 31, 2007

A companion to guidebooks to the handbook of...

I'm hard at work editing a steady flow of contributions to what will eventually be the Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. (By the way, if anyone has any bright ideas about a nice cover for the volume, then I'm open to suggestions.) And I'm currently thinking over a more ambitious editing project to cover ancient philosophy more generally. But I can't help having a certain sinking feeling about the never-ending and ever-growing set of companions, handbooks, guidebooks, and the like. What are they for? [1] Different things, I suppose. Some are clearly intended as monumental statements of the state of the art. Others are more introductory and aimed at students or scholars in related but distinct areas who want a handy way in to a different field. And they also differ according to the scope and ambition of the subject area they propose to accompany or guide you through. ('Companion' is, I now come to think, a much less authoritarian sort of thing to call a volume. A guidebook is a bit more dictatorial: 'this is what you should think.' 'Now look here.' etc. Companions are, perhaps, supposed to be something you have with you as you make your own way. A study-buddy...) Also, what is the intended relationship between a companion to a subject and a first-order piece of scholarly work on the same subject?

So I started off thinking about companions with this question: What would I want the ideal one of these to be like? I reckon, it ought to have a number of virtues, certainly including these four:
  1. It should offer a reliable account of the subject area. For a historical subject, this would mean saying what the evidence is, what is generally made of it, and so on.
  2. It should give a good idea of why the subject area is interesting.
  3. It should give a sense of what at present are the major scholarly debates or schools of thought on the given subject.
  4. It should guide the reader to more specialised discussions, related areas and the like.
So this should be a point of entry and an invitation to a field of thought. It should not be thought to replace the first-order research. But it should show what the research is like, why it matters, and what sort of things it talks about. It is not a textbook which will replace or subsitute for the already-existing literature.

But there is something else I think they ought to do. For companions (or whatever) to philosophy, I would think they ought to give an impression of the practice of philosophy. So a companion to metaphysics ought not to be a list of positions or a survey of what conclusions might be reached; instead it would also have to show what it is like to be engaged in philosophical inquiry. It would therefore have to exemplify what it is about.

For my line of work, a companion to some historical period or school of philosophy, a good companion would introduce the reader to the practice of thinking philosophically and to the practice of interpreting and contextualising the particular subject matter. So it would have, for example, to show how to read a bit of Aristotle both by engaging with the argument and also, perhaps even initially, by showing how to get from a bit of Aristotle's writings to a relatively clear view of what it means. Of course, these two practices are not easy (or desirable) to keep apart; that, it seems to me, is what working on historical philosophy is all about: it is both history and philosophy.

I think I am coming to the view that a good companion will have two, perhaps very different, functions. It will (i) lay out the state of play, explain where to go to find various texts, say what they are generally thought to be about and so on; but also (ii) it will function as a protreptic to further deeper work and offer a set of examples of what is involved in working 'unaccompanied' with this material. This second might take the form of more specific or specialised bits of research. The authors can feel liberated from the need to 'cover' an area because their job here is to offer up an example of what the next stage of work would look like, exposing the difficulties and wondering explicitly about methodological questions.

[1] There are some interesting thoughts in G. R. F. Ferrari's introduction to the new Cambridge Companion to Plato's Republic (2007, Cambridge), xv. Ferrari also stresses the idea of 'accompaniment': 'This Companion, by contrast [sc. with a scout striking a new path], seeks to walk with those who are already on the road...'

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Just desserts

You can't make a jelly with pieces of kiwi fruit suspended tantalisingly inside. We learned that lesson yesterday the hard way -- and, after several hours, had only a bowl of sticky runny strawberry gloop with some kiwi pieces floated on top. But here's the reason why, from the helpful people at Planet Science and their fruity-jelly-making tips:

Just don't try fresh pineapple or kiwi fruit!

These fruits contain an enzyme, a molecular machine, which chops up proteins. As gelatine is a protein it is chopped up by the enzyme. As the gelatine fibres are chopped up their net falls to pieces, allowing the water to flow freely and turning the jelly back into a sloppy liquid. If you fancy pineapple in your jelly, then use the tinned sort. As part of the canning process the fruit has been heated up. This destroys the enzyme so that it can no longer chop up the gelatine.

So only tinned pineapple will do.... Damn those fresh fruit!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Things to do in Dorset

Here are my top five (in no particular order):

Monkey World. It's a whole world of monkeys. (Well, they have apes too -- as my eldest pointed out -- so maybe 'Primate World'. Less catchy, but more taxonomically accurate.)

Maiden Castle. Lots of fun even on a windy and wet afternoon. You share it with the sheep and can pretend to be a windswept and wet Iron Age person. They were probably pretty grumpy quite a lot of the time and I can see why you'd need to plait your hair. Blimey, it was windy.

Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Dress up as a Roman (if you are five). Look at some brilliant stuff, including a jade axe head. JADE! Completely pointless as an axe head, of course, but amazing and beautiful and all the way from Italy. A really super little museum with well thought out exhibitions and lots for people from 2 to 102...

Winborne Model Town. A totally bonkers idea. In the 50s some blokes decided to make a 1:10 replica of their town. Unfortunately their replica does not include a 1:10 scale model of the model village, which would also have to contain a 1:100 scale model.... etc. Nice cream teas.

The Red Lion, Winfrith Newburgh. Really good food. There wasn't any lamb kleftiko this time, alas, though I'm told the beef stifado was just as good. R. liked the bruscchete.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sale on now!

People in the UK cannot afford to miss this Amazon offer on The Wire DVD box sets. 65% off for the best TV series in the world?


I've just come back from a week's holiday en famille in Dorset. We went back to a lovely little cottage in Winfrith Newburgh, called 'Snail's Place' (information here), which is perfect for this kind of trip. The kids love the olde worlde bit and we can tuck them up in the evening and stay downstairs with a good bottle of wine and a DVD -- currently more of The Wire...

On the way, we stopped on the M3 at Fleet services to stretch our legs and get something to eat. We had already crawled round the M25 and were a bit frazzled. The two-year-old is not always great on such occasions and this time she really kicked off and had a bit of a tantrum. Nothing nuclear, really, just a lot of noise. But it was a very busy place and lots of peole were feeling similarly grumpy and many of them had kids who were doing the same or had done so in the past.

But one couple at a table next to us were not very happy with being this close to a wailing child. I suppose I can see their point, but there is not a whole lot you can do about it in a place like that and in holiday-traffic levels of people. Still, what was unusual was that in addition to the tutting and eye-rolling, one of the men decided to lean across and directly address our daughter with several loud orders to 'hush'. Not what normally happens. Of course, this did not result in a quiet toddler; quite the opposite. In fact, had I been so ordered by someome who might -- by a less kind critic -- have been described as 'gaunt, with an overly-tight white t-shirt and Club Tropicana highlighted hair', I would have been uninclined to do anything but scream back. Which is precisely what happened.

I was a bit annoyed at them too. I know screaming kids are incredibly annoying. Other people's screaming kids are perhaps more annoying still. But we were hardly in a Hampstead bistro and I would have thought that you might expect to come across some less than perfectly behaved kids in Fleet services on an August Saturday. And even if they were, perhaps understandably, annoyed and put off their muffins just a little, you don't shout at other people's children like that.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What was Sextus Empiricus up to?

Events at the end of the Symposium Hellenisticum cast (and will continue to cast) a long shadow over the entire proceedings. But it was a very engaging conference and I came away with a number of new questions which it seems to me are worth noting down here. My paper will require quite a lot of revision, so I will ponder these as I go about that job. My principal questions are about Sextus' method and background knowledge.
  1. How much did Sextus know about e.g. the Stoic philosophy he was attacking? Was he, for example, fully aware of the Stoic distinction between the sense in which the present exists and the past and future merely subsist?
  2. If he did know about these niceties did he care about them? If not, is this due to sheer sloppiness or does he simply think that such word-magic is of no philosophical use?
  3. Who was he writing for? Were M 9 and 10 written for people already tempted by Pyrrhonism, perhaps even practising Pyrrhonists? It's unlikely that any committed Stoic would be much moved by what he writes, for example, so does that make him a poor dialectician or is that all part of the Pyrrhonist stance?
  4. How much had Sextus read? In particular, how much did he know of any philosophical work (particularly in the dogmatic schools) after, say, Aenesidemus?
  5. What are we to make of the methodological introduction to M 9? Does Sextus carry through with this manifesto? If not, why not? If he does so more in some areas than others, why?
  6. Sextus seems both very taken by and also keen to distance himself from Diodorus Cronus although Diodorus produces plenty of useful material for the anti-physiologia project. Why? Does this have to do with methodological qualms, differences of aim, or something else?
The fact that I am left with such apparently basic questions is a virtue of the conference. I had not been made to think these issues through before, but they are all very basic to understanding the work.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Waiting to present...

We're about half-way through the conference now, moving from book 9 to book 10 of Sextus. This morning we get to be concered about where there is place... I've drawn the short straw and am giving my paper last of all, on Saturday afternoon. On the one hand, by then everyone might be tired and sleepy and not in the mood for any serious aggression. On the other, they may have got so grumpy over the week that I get a serious going over. It's hard not to spend the whole week in a state of anxiety, worried whether someone is going to come out and say something that either anticipates the very small amount I think I have to add to the general discussion or else totally undercuts the basis of my paper. Them's the risks, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

From our embedded correspondent

So here I am in Delphi, enjoying the view (fantastic), the food (excellent) and getting thoroughly confused by Sextus Empiricus (probably what he wanted...) I would add a photo, but this slightly antiquated computer doesn't seem to like the fancy Blogger features. Perhaps when I get back. More updates if and when something occurs to me.

UPDATE: I've now added a photo. This surely ranks as one of the best views from a conference centre anywhere in the world:

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Packing for Pyrrhonism

I'm off (very early) tomorrow morning to the Symposium Hellenisticum in Delphi. I'll be away from the kids for a week, which will be a shame, but the conference looks like it is going to be very rewarding. And it's a lovely location.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Is the Fellow next to me at lunch a Time Lord?

I'm re-reading Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's holistic detective agency. Chapter 3 has an excellent account of a high table dinner at a Cambridge college (here it is the fictional St. Cedd's, probably based on Adams' own college, St. John's) which I had not properly appreciated before, since I must have read it first when I was about 15 and a very long way from a Cambridge college high table. One of the fellows dining is the excellent Professor Urban Chroniotis, 'Reg', the Regius Professor of Chronology... It turns out that Reg is a Time Lord, and a refugee from a Doctor Who story.

Lots of fun. And, it has to be said, it has made me look a little differently at some of my colleagues. Perhaps those odd non sequiturs at lunch are not a sign of age or the sheer weight of learning. Perhaps it is just difficult to keep track of things when you're zooming back and forth across the space-time continuum. And no wonder people seem to have more time than I to get things done. If a deadline is looming, they just pop into a time machine and give themselves a but more leeway... Handy.