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.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
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
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
- People using 'quality' as an adjective.
- People who confuse an opinion being sincere with its being justified.
- It being unacceptable to know nothing about literature but somehow alright to know nothing about chemistry.
- Drivers who are in the wrong lane at a roundabout.
- Not being able to see without my glasses.
Monday, January 22, 2007
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
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.
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.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Sunday, January 14, 2007
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.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Monday, January 08, 2007
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.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
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
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...