Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What does your soul look like?

This is not a reference to the (excellent) track by that title on DJ Shadow's Preemptive Strike album. I really mean: what does your soul look like? (Better, since I don't think we really have souls: what would your soul look like if you had one?) While reading up on the recent spat between the Catholic Church in England and Wales and the government's insistence on introducing equality legislation which would also apply to adoption agencies (for the latest see here), I clicked on a link to the Life4seekers site. It has a 'downloads' section which includes children's drawings of god and of souls. Have a look. My favourite is this one (click on it for a larger view):

I especially like the fact that this child's soul seems to contain a PlayStation 2 and a football as well as things like a family (I suppose) and a cross. It's also not entirely anthropomorphic; perhaps this is to convey the idea that it isn't really physical.

Anyway, despite the whole idea of trying to draw your soul being a bit odd, I think this is not a bad shot at it.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Not shopping

Here's an idea to waste an hour or two. Get the new Argos catalogue (as Bill Bailey calls it, the Laminated Catalogue of Dreams....) or go online here. Find the five daftest things they sell and then congratulate yourself on not having spent money on them or found space for them in your life.
Here are mine:
1. A Dr Who TARDIS wardrobe (actually this is quite clever). Make tidying your room an adventure in time-travelling BBC marketing:

2. A pink gear stick and handbrake cover for the car. Express your zany individualism with some gaudy ill-fitting plastic stuff for your Nissan Micra:

3. A number 1 Dad pendant. Show your love with a piece of football-related costume jewellery:

4. A POWERbreathe 'insipratory' muscle trainer. Make breathing harder!:

5. A Manhattan skyline trolley-case. Fail to capture the image of a transatlantic jet-setter with a picture of some large buildings on a bag:

Once, while waiting for an order to be fetched at an Argos, I tried to fill the time by wondering aloud to the person serving if the name of the store had been chosen because of the Greek for 'lazy'. (A lazy way to shop, I suppose.) She didn't know and, in fact, seemed a bit upset. Looking back, I think now that perhaps she thought I was commenting on the service.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


What do you call a man with no shins?


Things that are annoying me today

  1. People using 'quality' as an adjective.
  2. People who confuse an opinion being sincere with its being justified.
  3. It being unacceptable to know nothing about literature but somehow alright to know nothing about chemistry.
  4. Drivers who are in the wrong lane at a roundabout.
  5. Not being able to see without my glasses.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Start saving now...

...because, if you have children who will be going to university in England any time after 2009, it looks as if you will have to stump up at least £6,000 pounds per year in tuition fees. That, for what it is worth, is the current -- and, no doubt, deliberately shocking -- estimate from a newspaper poll of a hundred university heads. Bad news for all, I think, and we will have to face once again the worrying claim that this will badly affect subjects like mine (Classics and Philosophy) which do not have the obvious and straightforward instrumental value of leading to well paid employment after graduation. (It's not really and straightforwardly true, you know, that people with Law or Economics degrees go and earn lots while Classicists and Philosophers do not. Plenty of students leave with these degrees and go on to earn plenty, perhaps even enough to pay off a weighty student loan and the various fees they have incurred along the way. But not all do and -- this is important -- we don't and must not want them all to. It's good to educate people who go on to be teachers, artists, charity workers and so on...)

It's a grim thought and has been buzzing around my head hot on the heels of some thoughts about whether Classics is a 'social leveller' of a subject. The argument goes, I think, as follows: many works in Latin (for example) are hard to read; in fact, they are so hard to read that it is not possible to gain an advantage in reading them simply by throwing money at the problem. And knowing Latin and literature in Latin is a key to upward intellectual mobility. So it sorts out bright students and moves them forward without the output being distorted by irrelevant inequalities of economic and educational background. There might be something in this, though I'm not sure that it is any more true of Classics than of some other university subjects. The most significant problem with the argument is, as ever, one of access to Latin in the first place: despite the best efforts of some very dedicated teachers and organisations too few students have the opportunity to learn Latin at all. And even if the opportunity is there, Latin has to compete for interest with other worthwhile and, perhaps, more immediately useful and attractive subjects. And in any case, we university teachers had better not think it true that the quantity and type of teaching you get is entirely irrelevant to your eventual success in the subject. (True: more expensive teaching is not necessarily better, but somehow this all reminds me of the standard retort to the trite observation that 'money cannot buy you happiness': even if it cannot, it can make your misery much easier to bear...)

So here I am dedicated to teaching a subject which is undoubtedly hard and rewarding but which, very soon, will in all likelihood be even more expensive to come and learn. Some expense can perhaps be accommodated and perhaps the prestige (and perceived later earning power) of a Cambridge degree will mean that people will be prepared to come here and pay a price which would put them off studying the same subject elsewhere. And various institutions are, I should emphasise, doing what they can to offset these pressures with scholarships and hardship funds. But increasingly I cannot shake the thought that, had I been applying to university now rather than x years ago, the thought of the large fees and loans might well have pushed me away from Classics -- a subject I love -- towards something else, rightly or wrongly. That thought leaves me with a strange combination of feelings; it makes me feel both personally very fortunate (sometimes it is good not to be young) and also increasingly concerned.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Where does it feel good?

If a doctor asks you: 'Where does it hurt?', it's pretty straightforward to point her to the relevant bit of your anatomy and ask for something to be done to make the pain go away. But is pleasure like that? Can pleasure be located in that way? (I'm feeling pleasure here...) If not, then this is a good reason to stop thinking of pleasure and pain as simple counterparts: one positive and desired, the other negative and to be avoided. Can pleasure be timed in the way that pain can? ("Well, my back became sore after the football match yesterday afternoon and it's still painful. But I've been feeling pleasure in my right ear since 7am...")

We were wondering about these questions today in a class for a paper I'm teaching on pleasure in ancient philosophy. We had been reading Ryle's characteristically confident dismissal of the idea that pleasure can be located or 'clocked'. Intuitions turned out not to be very consistent or clear on this matter, and it is worth wondering why. Here is Ryle:
We can tell a doctor where it hurts and whether it is a throbbing, a stabbing or a burning pain; but we cannot tell him, nor does he ask, where it pleases us, or whether it is a pulsating or a steady pleasure. Most of the questions which can be asked about aches, tickles and other sensations or feelings cannot be asked about our likings and dislikings, our enjoying and detestings. In a word, pleasure is not a sensation at all, and therefore not a sensation on one scale with an ache or a twinge.
G. Ryle, 'Pleasure', in his Dilemmas (Cambridge, 1954), p.58

Ryle has bigger difficulties in his sights in this piece, and he moves on rapidly from this point on the basis that he has shown that pleasures are not sensations. I am not so sure, or at least I am not so sure that he has here given a good enough reason to think that pleasures are not sensations. The pains he has in mind, we should notice, are pretty basic physical pains so we might begin by asking whether there are similarly basic pleasures. (There is, while we're at it, a good question to be asked about whether he is entitled to compare these pains with 'enjoyings', which seem through the rest of the article to be a much more varied and general class of psychological phenomenon.) There is, first, the silly point that there is of course a perfectly good reason why we don't talk to doctors about where we feel pleasure and of what sort: doctors tend not to be interested in this sort of thing and we don't really go to the doctor to tell them about where it feels good. Perhaps less flippantly, there is something to be said for the idea that just as -- what Ryle seems to acknowledge -- just as it is possible to give various qualitative characteristics of a pain (it throbs, burns, etc.) so it is possible to give characterisations of sensations which we can group together as pleasures. True, pleasures are not classified as clearly and institutionally as pains are (see, for example, the Pain resource center's classification), but this is not surprising. Pains are classified like this to help clinical practice. Still, I can imagine an analogous classification of pleasures: this is pleasantly warm or cool; it's pleasant to feel held or free; this is an acute pleasure or a tingling pleasure or a tickling pleasure. There is the 'pulsating' pleasure of a mouthful or sherbet or the steady pleasure of a warm duvet.

There are, to be sure, different functions for our descriptions of pleasures and pains. For the latter, what is most immediately important -- for our survival, at the limit, or for treatment and care -- is that this sensation is painful. So that becomes the primary mode of classification; it is what we think first about such a sensation. For pleasures, perhaps, that a sensation is pleasant is not necessarily the first thing we think about. (I lazily tried to Google 'pleasure classification' and 'pleasure types'. Not only did it turn up nothing like the clinical classificatory material I found when trying 'pain classification', but instead it turned a much greater variety of things. Have a look yourself or else use your imagination...) But that does not, I think, mean that pleasures are not sensations nor that they cannot be located. That is not to say that I think that pleasure and pain are symmetrical positive and negative sensations. But if we think they are not we had better be sure about precisely why.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

In the mood

Yesterday I was in a foul and miserable mood all day. I was certainly not much fun to be with although I cannot really say why. Presumably we all have days a bit like this -- for me they generally are gone after a bit of rest, but they are characterised by physical symptoms (lack of appetite, pressure behind the eyes, heavy limbs) as well as psychological aspects (general irascibility, an inability or lack of desire to enjoy anything, the feeling of generalised irritation at what other people are doing). It's a wonder anyone tolerates me in such moments, and I am ashamed to say that it is my family who suffer the most.
I don't think it's anything dramatic enough to make me concerned about my general mental health, so I guess that it's something that is to some extent or other true of most people's lives. Today, happy to be out of the mood, I began to wonder how best to characterise that state. I don't think it's right to label it an emotion, like anger for example. For one thing, it is much longer lasting than an emotion is usually and it is more like a general disposition to certain kinds of emotion. I am, in one of these moods, more likely to be angry at pettier things or perhaps to respond with a greater degree of anger than I would usually think the situation warrants. Furthermore, unlike an emotion (in so far as I understand what an emotion is), these moods do not themselves seem to have intentional objects. The emotions dictated or encouraged by the mood may well (e.g. I can be angry at the pile of untidied Lego bricks on the floor) but the mood itself (a general irritability or lack of tolerance) does not. On the other hand, these moods are not very long lasting. In my case, as I said, these bad moods generally last no more than a day (I'm thankful to say) and afterwards I can look at my odd behaviour in retrospect with a sense of embarrassment and distance. So it seems that a mood is not a character-state or a general disposition. There are some people who are irascible characters; a quickness to anger is a more or less permanent feature of them. But moods are not like that.
Doing a quick search, I found the following at Philosophy etc.

In addition to such fleeting feelings as joy or distress, our mental lives exhibit a longer-term emotional character, which we might call 'mood'. Over a period of several months, one might characteristically exhibit (any one of) depression, irrepressible cheerfulness, or anything in between. One's mood, so understood, may be a kind of disposition to react in certain ways, or to rally variously successful coping skills. It may manifest in one's general attitude towards life, as an optimist or pessimist, for instance.

This is in part what I want to say, but I would set what I want to label as moods as rather less long-lasting than is implied here. For me, they are best viewed as general dispositions to certain sorts of behaviour or, perhaps better, a certain overall perspective on one's life which varies either from day to day or, at most, month to month, although it's hard to set any firm temproal boundaries. Certainly I have in mind something more fleeting than several months.
It's pretty early days in my thinking about this, and I need to be somewhere where I can do a good literature search before I make any claims about what has or hasn't been said before. But I'm pretty convinced that there is a psychological phenomenon worth investigating which can profitably be labelled as a 'mood' and, or so it seems to me, this isn't something often remarked upon. In the area I know best, at least, ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, what I am interested in would fall between an emotion or pathos and a character trait or disposition, a hexis (or, for good dispositions, a virtue). Were ancient Greeks sometimes in a bad mood? It's not clear to me what the answer to this would be. More anon, I hope, provided I 'get out of the right side of the bed' tomorrow.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday night...

...is alright.

Making yourself clear

Harry Frankfurt, author of an article 'On bullshit' that got turned into a bestselling little book, has now written a follow-up, On truth. (You can read what Simon Blackburn thinks of it -- not a whole lot -- here.) Frankfurt appeared on Comedy Central's Daily Show this week to plug the thing and seemed either to be horribly embarrassed or scared or otherwise uninterested. You can watch it here, once you get past the advert. He is a great read and an interesting philosopher, but on this one occasion an attempt to make his views clear in a popular interview didn't turn out so well. Whose fault is that? Harry's? Jon Stewart's? (I didn't get a strong impression that Jon had read the book, short though it is nor that Harry had thought at all about what he might be asked and what it might be appropriate for this forum to say about the book.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

School run

This is what S and/or I have to face every morning on the school run. It's a complete nightmare -- particularly because the chaos of badly-ridden bikes and stressed drivers makes the roads extremely hazardous. Add to this a lot of kids who are keener on finding their friends than watching the road and it's a miracle that there aren't more accidents. Perhaps it's our fault for choosing a school not within easy walking distance. But, as the goverment (and opposition) is reminding us at the moment, school-choice is a 'personal' decision and parents must have the right to choose.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Would your department hire Socrates?

An exchange of emails yesterday has made me think more about a few questions, which I will probably come back to here over the next few days. For now, I want to start with what might seem an odd question: Would any philosophy department these days hire Socrates? Of course, in one sense this is an absurd question. For one thing, Socrates would have no need of paid employment. Like the majority of ancient philosophers, he was fortunate enough to have the economic means to spend his leisure thinking and talking. This is not a trivial point, however, because it is part of the general picture of the professionalisation of philosophy as an academic discipline -- something which has had important positive and negative consequences. I'll come back to that.

Just suppose that Socrates bothered to write an application. What then? (Let's just imagine we can form a reasonably clear picture of what Socrates was like and of his general intellectual standpoint. That too is not something without considerable difficulties but we can breezily set them aside for now.) Famously, he wrote nothing, so a UK philosophy department interested in retaining its funding would have to take a big chance in hiring someone they know will contribute nothing at all to the Research Assessment Exercise. Socrates' major contribution would have to be in the area of teaching. Here we might think he would score well -- he has some well-known students: both those who went on to continue philosophical work, this time with a rather better publication record (Plato) and those who saw their talents lying elsewhere (Alcibiades?) Perhaps this would be enough. Other considerations might also be worth taking into account. For example, although Socrates' attitude towards the sort of people he might engage in discussion seems to have been relatively liberal, his students would probably not be particularly interested in participating in any Access and Outreach initiatives to widen participation in higher education.

A more general question is whether what Socrates would understand as 'philosophy' is what a modern philosophy department would understand by the same term. Would he be eligible for employment? For Socrates, it seems, the principal aim of his philosophical discussions was the pursuit of some kind of self-knowledge, which essentially involves the pursuit of an understanding of how best we might live our lives. This might, along the way, involve the odd foray into the philosophy of language (What is it to give an account of 'what-it-is-to-be' e.g. virtue?) or epistemology (If we happen to discover what virtue is how can we know that we know what is virtue?) but the primary focus is ethics of a certain sort, done in a certain way.

This is where Socrates might be thought to score over modern professional academics, since Socrates is always focused on a form of philosophy directly relevant to our lives and attempts to pursue it in a public way. Professional academics, on the other hand, as well as lecturing to their students, spend their time in the main writing papers for academic journals or writing books that are read only be a very few people and are usually pretty obscure to the general reader. It is, all the same, worth remembering that Socrates' own conception of what 'philosophy' is was not at the time universally shared. It is instructive to think that Plato and his chums were themselves at loggerheads with others (e.g. Isocrates) about what philosophy is, what philosophers ought to do, and whether (and in what way) philosophers ought to be engaged with society more generally.

Given the remoteness of academic philosophy from most people's lives or thoughts, has something gone wrong? I'm not convinced it has. Certainly, no one coming to study for a philosophy degree is likely as a direct result of their academic study to leave with a clear idea of how to live the best life. University can change your mind in all sorts of ways, and dedicated study of a subject you love and which interests you is -- to my mind, at least -- part of a good life. But philosophy in particular does not have a monopoly on that. (Of course, you might, I suppose, broaden the understanding of philosophy so that it encompasses a vast range of pursuits. It is possible, I suppose, to 'love wisdom' is all sorts of ways that would make philosophy in this sense a better candidate for a route to a good life. In that case anyone engaged in serious reflection might somehow be said to be a philosopher.) It is also true that much professional academic philosophy is not a great read and will not win prizes for style or for engaging wider reflection. But that's OK too, I think, if we remember that philosophy in this vein is not intended to be a guide for us all to live by. It might, on occasion, have in view an audience with a particular interest in or responsibility for public policy, for example, but it no more is obliged to engage the public at large than a research paper by a leading economist. It isn't fair to say that academic philosophers are doing philosophy badly (and that Socrates did it well) because 'philosophy' is not a clear and definite practice in the first place.

It is, no doubt, true that the rise of philosophy as an academic profession has had numerous effects. The attendant criteria of assessment and of peer-review and appraisal, research funding and job tenure has affected the style of what philosophers write, how often they publish, and has pushed philosophical discussions in various particular directions. But there are benefits too. For one thing, you might make the case that it has opened up the subject to a much wider range of people. It is a mistake to think that every Athenian woke up in the morning, headed to the agora, and began discussing the nature of courage with the first person he met. Most of them would have got up, headed to the fields or the harbour and got on with the day to day needs. The smart Athenian farmer would in all likelihood not have had the opportunity to spend his time in philosophical reflection of any sort. Paying people to be work in philosophy departments (and history departments, English departments too), then, has in the modern age generated a professionalised discipline but it has also made it possible for more people from a wider section of the population to spend their time doing it and teaching others as they do so. That is something which I think is worth praising. (I would, wouldn't I?)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Cave diving

You really can find all sorts of weirdness on You Tube. Here, for example, is a 'dramatic imagining' of the Cave allegory from Republic VII. Who needs to read the text when it's all acted out so beautifully? Note, however, that they interpret the Cave to refer always to a non-ideal state and so the returning escapee is executed Socrates-style but the troglodytes. Not much hope for the foundation of a new city founded on philosophical knowledge. I suppose that explains the choice of opening still -- sorry if anyone is bothered by the language there, but I wonder whether Plato himself might have had a little sympathy with it.

(Just a thought for those of us about to wallow in more eikasia as Celebrity Big Brother begins...)

Monday, January 01, 2007


As arbitrary chronological markers go, I'm quite keen on New Year's Day, especially when it was bright and fresh like today. I almost felt like things really were starting afresh. Of course, I'm not daft enough to make any new year's resolutions and certainly not daft enough to make them public even if I had. But I might try to do things better this year.

Something it seems impossible to do well, however, is New Year's Eve. If you're over twenty and not stoned out of your tiny mind in a club somewhere it can only be a damp squib. We both dozed off in front of the telly and just struggled through to midnight before giving in completely. And why is it necessary now to have fireworks every year? I blame the Millennium for the expectation that we want to send colourful explosives into the air at midnight -- something surely antisocial enough to warrant a corporate ASBO -- and the subsequent annoyance of various small bouts of fireworks round the city from about 11.45 pm onwards. Stop it, please. The bagpipes are bad enough but having to withstand the bloody London Eye and Natasha Kaplinsky every year is just too much.

One definite plus, however, is that I now have a better camera phone, so I should be able to illustrate this nonsense with front-line reportage photos like this one from RJR. Not quite as touching, perhaps, but better than the library footage I've had to use so far...