Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Aristotle on Eudoxus I

Aristotle discusses Eudoxus in both his treatments of pleasure. One of Eudoxus’ arguments is discussed in EN 7.13 together with Speusippus’ response, but the most extended treatment comes in 10.2, where we find a number of arguments attributed to Eudoxus which all point to his attempting to promote some kind of hedonism. There are four distinct arguments, gathered in Lasserre’s edition of Eudoxus as testimonium D3. I’m currently thinking about the first one.

Let's call it: Eudoxus’ argument from universal pursuit of pleasure (1172b9–15):

Εὔδοξος μὲν οὖν τὴν ἡδονὴν τἀγαθὸν ᾤετ' εἶναι διὰ τὸ πάνθ' ὁρᾶν ἐφιέμενα αὐτῆς, καὶ ἔλλογα καὶ ἄλογα, ἐν πᾶσι δ' εἶναι τὸ αἱρετὸν τὸ ἐπιεικές, καὶ τὸ μάλιστα κράτιστον· τὸ δὴ πάντ' ἐπὶ ταὐτὸ φέρεσθαι μηνύειν ὡς πᾶσι τοῦτο ἄριστον ὄν· ἕκαστον γὰρ τὸ αὑτῷ ἀγαθὸν εὑρίσκειν, ὥσπερ καὶ τροφήν, τὸ δὲ πᾶσιν ἀγαθόν, καὶ οὗ πάντ' ἐφίεται, τἀγαθὸν εἶναι. [1]

Eudoxus thought pleasure the good because of seeing all animals aim at it, both rational and non-rational, and because what is choiceworthy in all cases is what is fitting and what is particularly choiceworthy is most powerful. The fact that they all are attracted to the same object suggests that this is best for all things. For each finds what is good for it, as it also does food, but that at which all things aim it is the good.

My first question is: What is Eudoxus’ argument? Eudoxus combines an observation that all creatures, both rational and non-rational, pursue pleasure with an argument to the effect that what all creatures pursue is the good. He begins with a general premise about that all animals are pursuers of what is good for them. This is a general thesis about animal motivation, supported with a further observation. Each species pursues its natural good, something that is obvious when we consider as an example the way in which each species pursues its own particular diet. Squirrels look for nuts; lions hunt antelopes. This might suggest an argument along the following lines: All animals pursue radically different ends. But in fact, there is one thing which all animals – rational and non-rational – pursue, namely pleasure. This is as true of squirrels and lions as it is of humans. In this way Eudoxus is hoping to move beyond a mere descriptive claim about what all animals do in fact pursue to a normative claim about what is good for all animals and therefore good for humans too.

However, there is a problem. If we can rely with some confidence on Aristotle’s presentation of the argument, this is not quite what Eudoxus says. He does not opt for a starting descriptive premise of the sort familiar from some later Hellenistic philosophers. He does not, for example, claim like the Epicureans that all animals aim solely and instinctively at pleasure (perhaps some form of psychological hedonism or the view that pleasure is the natural goal of all unreflective pursuit). Nor, in Aristotle’s version of the argument, does he offer the explicit claim that although animals may aim at a variety of different things depending on circumstances, pleasure is the only thing at which all animals aim (although perhaps this might be the implicit thought behind the very last clause in the section just cited). That latter claim is, however, a reasonable interpretation of the argument ascribed to Eudoxus in the report by Alexander of Aphrodisias (In Arist. Top. p.226.16–18 Wallies):

Εὔδοξος ἐδείκνυε τὴν ἡδονὴν τὸ μέγιστον τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἀπὸ τοῦ πάντα μὲν τὰ ζῷα ταύτην αἱρεῖσθαι, μηδὲν δὲ τῶν ἄλλων ἀγαθῶν κοινὴν οὕτως ἔχειν τὴν αἵρεσιν.

Eudoxus demonstrated that pleasure was the greatest good from the fact that all animals choose it and that no other good is chosen so generally.

Aristotle himself makes no comment about whether pleasure alone or pleasure especially is chosen by a wide range of animals, let alone whether it alone is chosen by all animals. [2] We have no reason to suppose that Alexander had access to Eudoxus’ works or philosophy beyond what he could find in Aristotle, so there is no reason to prefer his later presentation to that given in EN X.2. But it is not difficult to see why Eudoxus might be thought by Alexander to have argued along those lines, and therefore why his account of the argument, although based on Aristotle, is subtly but significantly different. Had Eudoxus offered either of these stronger claims, namely (i) that pleasure is the only good at which animals aim or (ii) that pleasure is the only good at which all animals aim, then he might have been able more easily to go on to conclude that, since all animals desire what is good for themselves, and the one thing which all animals desire is pleasure, then we have good reason to conclude that pleasure is good for all animals and indeed that it is the only thing that is good for all animals. In that case, pleasure is the good for each and every animal qua animal. In the absence of the stronger claim of the uniquely universal pursuit of pleasure, Eudoxus would have to reach for something else to move from his descriptive premise to his desired conclusion.

Rather, according to Aristotle’s interpretation, Eudoxus’ argument seems to begin merely with the claim that pleasure is an object of pursuit shared by all animals. The important argumentative work, in that case, must be done by the curious intermediate premise, generally not emphasised by the later commentators’ versions of the argument, that ‘what is choiceworthy in all cases is what is fitting and what is particularly choiceworthy is most powerful’. Unfortunately, the precise meaning – and indeed, due to Aristotle’s characteristic concision, the correct translation – of this inference is itself unclear. That's a worry for another time.

For now, I'm interested in Aristotle's reaction at 1175b35-1173a5.

Aristotle is evidently trying to perform some kind of a salvage operation on the Eudoxan argument, and he does so principally by wondering whether it points to a natural and shared tendency among all animals, rational or otherwise. Eudoxus’ insight is to stress how pleasure is sought not only by non-rational animals, but by rational animals too. Given this additional class of pleasure-seekers, it becomes impossible to conclude that pleasure-seeking is a mere brutish activity unsuitable for rarefied creatures such as ourselves. Of course, there are some distinctions to be drawn between the pursuit of pleasure by, say, a cat and the pursuit of pleasure by an Athenian aristocrat, but Aristotle is prepared to speculate that the cat’s aim for the pleasures of a place by the fire may be an indication of something rather interesting. Perhaps, he wonders, even in the lower, non-rational creatures there is some natural good which aims them at the good appropriate for them. Presumably, he means something like the following: These lower creatures cannot reason about what is their own proper (οἰκείον) good; but pleasure may well serve as a mechanism for encouraging or driving them nevertheless to pursue what they ought. My cat, for example, cannot deliberate about what is good for it nor can it engage in any sophisticated deliberation about whether it should sit by the fire on a rainy night. Nevertheless, the fact that it takes pleasure in warmth and comfort means it pursues a good which is proper to it qua cat. [3] In effect, Aristotle is exploring the possibility that we can make sense of Eudoxus’ argument not as an attempt to belittle the behaviour of rational animals by stressing something they have in common with their non-rational fellows, but as an indication that non-rational animals too may have a natural tendency to orient themselves towards what it good. The fact that pleasure attracts both the rational and the non-rational gives us a good reason for thinking that it is a good, if not the good. [4]

[1] Bywater brackets ἕκαστον γὰρ τὸ αὑτῷ ἀγαθὸν εὑρίσκειν, ὥσπερ καὶ τροφήν, but this seems to me to be part of an inference that includes the whole remainder of the cited passage.

[2] Cf. Heliodorus Paraphr. Eth. Nic. p.210.25–7 Heylbut: πᾶσι δὲ κοινῶς ἀγαθὸν οὗ πάντα κοινῶς ἐφίενται καὶ πορίζειν βούλονται ἑαυτοῖς· ὃ δὲ πᾶσίν ἐστιν ἁπλῶς ἀγαθὸν καὶ οὗ πάντα ἐφίενται, τοῦτο εἶναι τὸ ἔσχατον ἀγαθόν.

[3] Michael of Ephesus is prepared to make a more extravagant teleological claim: ἔνεστι γὰρ ἐν ἅπασιν ἢ νοῦς ἢ νοῦ τις αὐγὴ καὶ ἔλλαμψις, ὡς αὐτὸς ἐν ἄλλοις ἔδειξε, καὶ “φύσιες ζῴων ἀδίδακτοι”, ὡς Ἱπποκράτης εἴρηκεν (In Arist. Nic. Eth. 534.15–17 Heylbut).

[4] Cf. Heliodorus Paraphr. Eth. Nic. p.211.28–36 Heylbut.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Let's share our pain...

Here is an interesting thought-experiment from A brood comb:

Two cyborgs, Michael and Ethan walk on the surface of a distant planet after a fight with alien troops. Michael notices that Ethan’s finger has a hole in it.
-Does it hurt much? - asks Michael.
Ethan unscrews his finger, and hands it to Michael, who replaces one of his own fingers with it.
-Gosh, that hurts a lot - says Michael.
-Thanks for sharing my pain. - says Ethan. -Now give it back to me.

Does that sound right? If so, why? If not, why not? Read the discussion here. Now, is it more plausible than something like the following?

Two cyborgs, Michael and Ethan walk on the surface of a distant planet after a fight with alien troops. Michael notices that Ethan is smiling.
What is it? - asks Michael.
I am feeling a tremendously pleasant sensation in my finger. - says Ethan.
How does it feel? - asks Michael. Ethan unscrews his finger, and hands it to Michael, who replaces one of his own fingers with it.-
Gosh, that really does feel pleasant - says Michael -Thanks for sharing your pleasure with me.
Now give me back my finger - says Ethan.

This seems a very odd story, and odder than the first. Why? Do we just not think there can be pleasure in Ethan's finger? Or if there can be pleasure there, is it less shareable that a pain?
UPDATE: The brood comb now has a useful reaction to this variant. Read it here.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Is a philosophical life pleasant?

I’ve been bothered by an argument in Plato Republic IX in favour of the philosophical life being the most pleasant (585aff.). In short, the problem seems to be that much of the argument plausible only on the understanding that pleasure is a kind of replenishing of a desire or lack, that it is a process and therefore episodic. To be sure, we might understand ignorance as a state of cognitive lack much as hunger is a state of bodily lack, but if pleasure is associated with the process of replenishing that lack, there seems no other conclusion possible than that the pleasures of replenishing the soul – exquisite and intense though they might be since they are trained on pure and true objects – will be experienced only while the philosopher is acquiring knowledge. What pleasures of this kind will be left for the philosopher once he has the understanding he requires? If, in other words, pleasure ceases when the process of replenishing ends, then ‘the more successful a philosopher is, the sooner his life will cease to be pleasant’ [1].

Here is how I think Socrates might reply. First, we should remember the assertion at 586e4–587a2 that only in the light of the rule of reason in the soul is a person able to experience appetitive and spirited pleasures of the purest and truest variety available. Of course, these pleasures are never going to be pure and true in the sense that the intellectual pleasures are, but nevertheless this passage serves as an important reminder that the philosopher will also continue to enjoy the pleasures of eating and so on and, more to the point, we are assured that because of the harmonious arrangement of his soul and the fact that therefore his desires are all marshalled and arranged by reason sub specie boni, he will be able to do so to the greatest extent possible for any person. In contrast, when one of the other parts of the soul is dominant, it forces its fellow soul-parts to pursue pleasures which are alien to them (587a4–6).

Second, it is also worth noting that elsewhere in the Republic Socrates demonstrates a more subtle and nuanced understanding of the affective experience of intellectual discovery and of the acquisition and use of philosophical knowledge. Concerns about the hedonic life of the philosopher ought therefore to take into account other passages in the work. For example, the description of the ascent from the cave emphasises not the pleasures of discovery and the satisfaction of intellectual lack but, quite the opposite, the dizzying and startling effect produced by the taxing and disorienting acquisition of a new perspective on reality and value. Indeed, Socrates repeatedly notes the pain and discomfort felt by the man on his way up out of the cave as the new bright light and the journey take their toll (ἀλγοῖ 518c8; ἀλγεῖν 515e1; ὀδυνᾶσθαι 515e7). Perhaps the pain is caused by the sudden realisation of prior ignorance or misapprehension, the sudden recognition of a previously unnoticed lack (much as in many of the ‘early’ dialogues Socrates’ interlocutors voice annoyance and anger at being reduced to aporia); certainly, the process of intellectual progress is not unremittingly pleasant [2].

On other occasions, Socrates is much more upbeat about the pleasures of intellectual discovery. See, for example, his description of the ‘philosophical natures’ at 485aff., especially 485d10–e1. These people, fitted with all the necessary traits of character to allow them to be potential philosopher rulers desire ‘the pleasure of the soul itself by itself’ (τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς ἡδονὴν αὐτῆς καθ αὑτὴν), a description very reminiscent of book IX’s characterisation of the pure and true pleasures at 585bff. Certainly, the Republic contains a complex and varied story of the affective aspects of intellectual advancement, beyond the arguments concerning pleasure in book IX. And we might also imagine that even the accomplished philosopher’s intellectual life would display a similarly complex affective aspect. The objection in hand concerns his hedonic state in particular and, true enough, it is plausible to imagine that he will not experience any more the exquisite pleasures of new intellectual discoveries once he has come to know and understand the Forms in the light of the Good itself. But, even now, he might be able to recall or turn his attention to one or another piece of knowledge or otherwise review in his mind’s eye the arrangement of the Forms as a geometer might revisit a deductive proof. He might also deploy his understanding in novel ways as circumstances demand (see e.g. 540a–b).

Indeed, there are signs that Socrates is happy to imagine both the process of learning and the state of possessing knowledge to be pleasant, however we might characterise the precise nature of that latter possibility. Just before our stretch of text, in the discussion of the choice between the three different lives, Socrates characterises the philosopher’s perspective as follows:

Τν δ φιλσοφον, ν δ’ γ, τ οἰώμεθα τς λλας δονς νομζειν πρς τν το εδναι τληθς π χει κα ν τοιοτ τιν ε εναι μανθνοντα;
And how are we to think that the philosopher considers the other pleasures in comparison with that of knowing where the truth is and always being in some such state when learning? (581d9–e1)

True, the philosopher being considered here is still interested in the pleasures of learning and the love of learning is what Socrates uses to characterise such a person (581b10–11). But there is also, evidently, a pleasure which is to be associated with the possession of some kind of knowledge. What that knowledge is, precisely, in this case is not so clear. In all likelihood, it is the knowledge of where truth is in the sense of knowing how to go about acquiring truths or, so to speak, where to go looking for them rather than knowledge of the kind that distinguishes fully-fledged philosopher rulers from everyone else. Nevertheless, although it is not easy to see how one might assimilate the possession of knowledge or the revisiting and refreshing of already acquired truths to the model of lack and replenishment brought to the fore in these arguments of book IX, there is good reason in principle to imagine that the life of the fully-fledged philosopher will be full of intellectual as well as appetitive and spirited pleasures.

[1] Gosling and Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure (Oxford, 1982), 122–3.

[2] Note also the reference to the philosopher’s ‘birth pangs’ as he struggles to grasp each thing’s nature (490a–b). Once he has achieved the goal of his intellectual desire he then would understand and truly live and be nourished and, in this way, be relieved of his pain’ (γνοίη τε καὶ ἀληθῶς ζῴη καὶ τρέφοιτο καὶ οὕτω λήγοι ὠδῖνος 490b6–7). Compare Diotima’s assertion that those who have ascended to grasp Beauty itself will be able to engage in satisfying acts of creation: Symp. 211e–12a

Friday, February 16, 2007

Crash, bang

College is still in a state of (de)construction as part of the project to build a new library. I seem to have become something of a scaffolding magnet. Just when I thought it had all gone away some has now reappeared at the bottom of my staircase. And it looks like it might be there for some time. Shame, because the rest of the view is quite lovely.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Absent pains and pleasures II

Here's another thought-experiment:

Imagine two uninhabited but inhabitable islands, A and B. They are excellent places to live with plenty of natural resources. They are in all respects now entirely alike.

However, they have very different histories. Both used to be inhabited. The people who inhabited island A suffered for a long time from a terrible disease. Their lives were painful. Eventually, they were all wiped out in a sudden extinction.

The people who inhabited island B lived happy lives filled with many pleasures. However, one day they were all wiped out in a sudden extinction.

Think of the deserted islands today. Do we think about them differently? Do we think of island A: Isn't it good that there is no suffering there any more? Probably. Do we think of B: Isn't it a shame that there isn't such pleasure being enjoyed there? Or do we think: It is neither good nor bad that this is now an island devoid of pleasant lives? There, I am not so sure.

ADDITION: I think the problem here is that the example is far too abstract. And this is a problem with all such thought experiments. They are designed to cut out various factors thought to be irrelevant to the very particular 'thin' conclusion we are asked to reach. But they must also be sufficiently described to elicit any reaction at all. It is impossible not to face an example like this with all sorts of questions and concerns in mind which are either meant to be discounted or are mere speculations.
In short, I can't imagine either coming to a conclusion on the basis of something like this that the absence of pains is good while the absence of pleasures is simply neutral. Nor am I very confident that considering this kind of example is a particularly effective way of clarifying or supporting something I happen to believe anyway.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Absent pains and pleasures

I mentioned in an earlier post an intriguing argument by David Benatar in his book Better never to have been. I want to revisit it here because it also chimes with some thoughts I have been toying with when lecturing a course on pleasure in ancient philosophy. The question concerns the value of the absence of pain compared with the value of the absence of pleasure. Benatar uses this as support for a more general thesis that the absence of goods is not bad while the absence of evils is good. Consider the following (Benatar p.30):

1. The presence of pain is bad.
2. The presence of pleasure is good.

These are, I would think, relatively uncontroversial. Next come the trickier claims:

3. The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
4. The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

These are interesting for me because various ancient authors are similarly interested in the relationship between pleasure and pain, and their respective values. Some are particularly interested in cases in which the absence of, for example, pain is taken to be pleasant and wonder in what sense this might be criticised. Plato, for example, seems interested in saying that the pleasure one might feel when you recover from a painful illness might be classified as a 'false' or 'apparent' pleasure, conjured up by the misleading comparison with what went before. It would be better to say that there is an intermediate, neutral, state of being between pleasure and pain.

In Benatar's book 3. gets some interesting clarification since, in particular, the explanatory clause (‘even if…’) is the bit that seems to need support. Contrast, for example, ancient accounts such as Epicurus’ or Speusippus’ which also hold that the absence of pain is good. Epicurus even claims that it is the most pleasant state possible. The clear implication is that it is good for someone living in a painless state. Benatar wants something more general: 3. is intended to say that the absence of pain would be good even if the absence of the pain requires the non-existence of the potential subject of pain.

Consider: Mr A has a very painful illness. The only way for the pain to cease is for Mr A to die. In this case the absence of the pain is good, even if that good is no enjoyed by Mr A. This is important since it allows Benatar to point out that what is good is not really that Mr A is no longer feeling pain.

His point will apparently apply equally in the following case. Consider Mr and Mrs B who are considering whether to have a child. They know that, were they to have a child, for various reasons that child would necessarily suffer pain throughout its life. In that case, we are invited to conclude, it is better not to have the child since the absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone. It is not as if baby B is waiting anxiously in case she is born to a life of pain and then feels positive relief when the parents choose not to try to conceive.

At some points in Benatar’s interesting defence of the asymmetry between 3 and 4 my intuitions simply give out and I find myself not particularly able to feel pulled one way rather than another. But why not see what you make of this example (from p.35)?
Whereas, at least when we think of them, we rightly are sad for inhabitants of a foreign land whose lives are characterized by suffering, when we hear that some island is unpopulated, we are not similarly sad for the happy people who, had they existed, would have populated this island.
I think this is probably true. But what should we infer from it? Should we infer, as Benatar wishes us to do, the asymmetrical claims 3. and 4. above?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dedications -- that's what you need

One of the first things I look at when I open a new book is the dedication page and then the acknowledgements. It's something I certainly think about when I am writing something, perhaps because I know how much attention I pay to others'; apart from the usual interest in who has been included in the 'thanks to...' (and who has been left out!) the style in which the thanks are offered is one of the few sections of an academic book which allows an author to be a bit looser and more personal before getting down to the serious scholarly stuff.

I ought to keep a list of my favourites. I remember seeing somewhere someone thank, as customary, his wife. But unlike the run-of-the mill formulaic thanks, this one read something like: 'And many thanks, as ever, to my wife _______. I won't pretend that this book would not have been written without her, because it would. In fact, it would probably have been written sooner. But I would have been less happy in writing it.' Is that refreshing honesty? Or does it say something peculiar about their marriage? I have no idea, and in a way it doesn't matter, but it made be more likely to read the book even though there is no way the rest of the contents would have shed any light on the matter.

Another recent good example is from David Benatar's Better never to have been. The thesis of the book is that coming into existence is harmful and we would all have been better off never to have been: a paradoxical thought, no doubt, but one which Benatar pursues with a lot of ingenuity. (In rough and ready terms, the argument is that: (1) lives contain both goods and evils; (2) the absence of an evil is positively good while the absence of a good is merely neutral; (3) given the balance of goods and evils in a life and given (2), the fewer lives there are, the better.) To demonstrate his sincere commitment to the conclusion of his argument, the dedication is to his parents, and goes on more or less as follows: 'To my parents, despite the fact that they made me exist'. Not the usual sort of thing you find on those pages.

My most recent effort, in a book on early Greek philosophy (left), is a dedication to my children: 'To ___ and ____, two early thinkers'.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Stupidly named products

Apologies for the sudden attack of academic material in the last post, but I was (sad to say) genuinely excited by thinking through that bit of argument. Now, though, back to something much more frivolous. There is an interesting discussion (with illustrations) of oddly-named products from around the world to be found here. (Some people seem very keen on cataloguing this sort of thing.) The Iranian washing powder illustrated here is a good example. Pretty innocent fun, I suppose, but if you want to make something of it, lurking beneath the giggles is something interesting. It's not just about how a given word might have unfortunate connotations outside a particular country, but also it's about how the same sound or sounds may convey (or be intended to convey) a positive picture of a product in one country but also sound absurd or obscene in another. 'Barf', say, might be intended convey to an Iranian the power and brightness that 'Daz' is supposed to do for someone in the UK. (Although this is a pretty hit and miss business. How about 'Cillit Bang'?) It's also interesting to see how the connotations of words can change: one of the correspondents posts a picture of a box of Brain's Faggots. Good (well, perhaps) old-fashioned British food, but clearly something astonishing in particular to people from the US where the word does not refer to a form of pork and liver meatball in gravy (Mmmm!). It also turns out, by the way, that faggot consumption is, it seems, confined mainly to Wales, the West Country, and Midlands. You learn something new every day...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Did Socrates die?

I have been reading Sextus Empiricus M 10 for a conference later this year. I have to talk about a particular chunk of it, the very last bit in fact, and I'm finding it fascinating. I spent a lot of yesterday wondering about this bit (10.346-7). (This also gives me a chance to try out posting some Greek):

εἰ ἀπέθανε Σωκράτης, ἤτοι ὅτε ἔζη ἀπέθανεν ἢ ὅτε ἐτελεύτα. καὶ ζῶν μὲν οὐκ ἀπέθανεν· ἔζη γὰρ δήπουθεν καὶ ζῶν οὐκ ἐτεθνήκει. οὔτε δ’ ὅτε ἀπέθανεν· δὶς γὰρ ἔσται τεθνηκώς. οὐκ ἄρα ἀπέθανε Σωκράτης.

If Socrates died, he died either while he was alive or when he was dead. And he did not die while alive, for he has living then and had not died while alive. Nor did he die when he was dead, for then he would be dead twice over. So Socrates did not die.
There's a lot we could say about this argument. Of course, Sextus’ intention is to cast doubt on the reasonable assumption that Socrates did die by raising difficulties for the assumption that it is possible for something, or someone, to pass away. (So this argument provides the counterpart to the concerns raised in 10.343 against the possibility that a baby might be born or come to be.) But it is also significant that Sextus has chosen to cast this argument not in general terms about ‘someone’ passing away, but about one person in particular: Socrates. The question whether Socrates died is not such a surprising one, at least perhaps not for a Platonist. A Platonist of a certain persuasion might, after all, argue that if, as is claimed in the Phaedo, the soul is immortal and if, as might again be a reasonable Platonist claim, each of us ought to think of himself principally as an immortal soul, then there is a reasonable sense in which Socrates – i.e. the immortal soul – does not die when the hemlock has been drained. It is in any case not implausible that some such debate might lie behind these remarks if we remember Sextus’ recent reference to an argument about whether a person (ἄνθρωπος) is a body, a soul, or some compound of the two. If Socrates is his soul and a soul is immortal then he does not die. If, on the other hand, Socrates is a compound of a body and soul and death – perhaps following the initial definition in the Phaedo (cf. M 9.196) – is the coming apart of body and soul, then Sextus' problem mighthave to be faced.

No doubt, there is something decidedly sophistic about the argument but it is not easy to say precisely what. A brief look back at the first appearance of this form of argument, in M 9.268–9 also reveals some important characteristics of its re-use here [1]. In M 10 Sextus does not bother with the possible added complication of wondering if it is in fact right and proper to talk of ‘a dead Socrates’. On another occasion, and with reference to something more like the M 9 version, he could have wondered if dying is not a change from one state (being alive) to another (being dead) but in fact an absolute passing away into not-being. And indeed, when summing up the overall picture from this argument and its successor, at 10.350, Sextus relies on the strong premise that to pass away is to exist no longer and argues that in that case neither can what is pass away (because it is) nor can what is not (because it is not). In the present argument, however, Sextus wants to rely only on the thought that living and being dead are exclusive and exhaustive states.

There is also something interesting going on with the tenses. In contrast with the earlier appearance of this sort of argument at M 9.268–9, the whole argument here in M 10 is cast in the past, beginning with the hypothesis: ‘If Socrates died (ἀπέθανε), he died so either when he was alive (ἔζη) or else when he was was dead (ἐτελεύτα: Sextus presumably varies the verb here just so as not to repeat the verb in the hypothesis). Both verbs are imperfect, contrasting with the aorist ἀπέθανεν, since he wants to offer the two possible states Socrates might have been in when he died. The dismissal of the two possibilities requires more intricate work with the tenses: Socrates did not die while alive (ζῶν: a present participle) for he was alive (ἔζη: imperfect) and he had not died while alive (ζῶν οὐκ ἐτεθνήκε: a present participle and a pluperfect). This last point is of course correct: it is no doubt true to say of some living person that he ‘has not died’ and Sextus has carefully crafted his claim to rely on this foundation. But it is not perhaps so obviously impossible to say of someone alive that ‘he is not dying’. There are two points here. First, Sextus has helped himself to something which supports his case without canvassing all the other possibilities. Although ‘When Socrates was alive he had not died’ is true, we might be less happy to accept as necessarily true the related but distinct ‘When Socrates was alive he was not dying’. Second, it is not legitimate to assume that it is possible to transform the tense of a proposition in this way and generate a true present tense claim from a true past tense claim. It is not legitimate to infer that ‘When Socrates is alive he is not dying’ must be true because ‘When Socrates was alive he had not died’ is true.

I think this is a good reason to see Diodorus Cronus' influence lying behind this argument, as well as the argument which follows for which he is explicitly credited (10.347). Diodorus has earlier been credited by Sextus with the observation that true past tensed propositions need have no simply related true present tensed proposition (M 10.97–100): that ‘Henry VIII had six wives’ is now true does not require us to believe that ‘Henry VIII has six wives’ was ever true. It is worth remembering, first, that this discussion follows a Diodoran paradox of motion that will be relevant to interpretation of the example of the wall which follows and, second, that Sextus himself takes issue with Diodorus and reasserts the necessity of a link between the truth values of past and present tensed forms of the same proposition. If that is the background to at least part of the Socrates argument then we might view it either as a crafty Diodoran example of the sort of paradox that might arise from being careless about transforming true past propositions into true present ones or else some attempted, and perhaps not entirely successful, response to his concerns. Either way, we would be right to think that Sextus’ engagement with Diodorus lies behind this brief argument no less than the more extended one to follow.

Another, more speculative thought then occurs. It's probably right to think that Diodorus was a strong influence on lots of Hellenistic thinkers, the Epicureans included. Certainly his paradoxes of motion seem to bear on problems in atomic physics. Now, if Diodorus is responsible for or inspired the worry about Socrates, it strikes me that he may also have set Epicurus thinking along the lines that would lead to one of his most famous (notorious?) arguments about the fear of death: death cannot be a harm to the living or the dead since ‘when death is we are not, and when it is we are not’ (see Letter to Menoeceus 125). This similarly trades on the absolute exclusivity of life and death: the living are alive and therefore cannot be affected by death; the dead are no longer and are therefore also immune.

[1] M 9.268–9: οἷον ὁ Σωκράτης ἤτοι ὢν θνῄσκει ἢ μὴ ὤν. δύο γὰρ οὗτοι χρόνοι, εἷς μὲν καθ’ ὃν ἔστι καὶ ζῇ, ἕτερος δὲ καθ’ ὃν οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλλ’ ἔφθαρται· διόπερ ἐξ ἀνάγκης ὀφείλει κατὰ τὸν ἕτερον τούτων θνῄσκειν. ὅτε μὲν οὖν ἔστι καὶ ζῇ, οὐ θνῄσκει· ζῇ γὰρ δήπουθεν· θανὼν δὲ πάλιν οὐ θνῄσκει, ἐπεὶ δὶς ἔσται θνῄσκων, ὅπερ ἄτοπον. οὐ τοίνυν θνῄσκει Σωκράτης.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Clive James has a nice piece on the BBC website about, inter alia, Cambridge's recycling set-up. He mentions that the Ascension burial ground in All Souls' Lane has some nicely-labelled bins. I found a picture of them here. It made me laugh.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why feel guilty?

Yesterday's Guardian weekend magazine included an odd filler-article which let a number of 'great brains' let us in on their guilty pleasures. Read it online here. There was a healthy variety of intellectuals assembled, but I get the feeling that they either did not all get the point or else found it impossible not to turn a simple statement of their preferred leisure activity into a deep and meaningful excursus into the hidden complexities of something the rest of us mere mortals find merely trivial or not a recognisable pleasure at all. Richard Dawkins, for example, reveals his guilty pleasure is 'computer programming':

I have now kicked the habit, but every so often the craving returns and I must thrust it down and away. But whence the guilt? Isn't programming useful? In the right hands, yes. But my projects (inventing a word processor, machine translation from one programming language to another, inventing a programming language of my own) could all be done better (and were) by professionals. It was a classic addiction: prolonged frustration, occasionally rewarded by a briefly glowing fix of achievement. It was that pernicious "just one more push to see what's over the next mountain and then I'll call it a day" syndrome. It was a lonely vice, interfering with sleeping, eating, useful work and healthy human intercourse. I'm glad it's over and I won't start up again. Except ... perhaps one day, just a little ...

Such a wag, that Dawkins. Others (Stephen Pinker, say) threaten to turn their chosen pleasure (in his case, rock music) into another domain for their particular intellectual efforts but eventually recognise how odd this would seem. (Martha Nussbaum gives a nice account of why she loves baseball only slightly marred by a gratuitous reference to Marcus Aurelius.)
My question, reading this, was: What are our expectations, as non-intellectuals, reading this? Would we be comforted if Professor X said she simply loved reading Popbitch every week? Or are we disappointed since we want to imagine her relaxing with some challenging Hungarian cinema? Do we want these people do have a life beyond their profession or do we think there should be no possibility of having sensibly compartmentalised bits of a person's life? Does a linguist confirm or disappoint our expectations if he feels the urge to point out the interesting syntactical and lexical quirks of pop lyrics? (Or, perhaps, rage at the confusion of two similar verbs...)
I hope we don't insist that these pleasures should be guilty (a point one or two contributors do make) or else our 'intellectuals' are condemned to be less approachable and less relevant to the rest of us. (There is, of course, the related question of whether we need or want this handy category of 'intellectual', but that's a topic for another day.)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

But then...

Don't get me wrong: there are lots of things making me happy at the moment. For example, the new series of Life on Mars promises a Camberwick Green-inspired episode. Brilliant. Here's a trailer:


This week has been pretty awful. I'm not sure why, really, but the build-up and combined pressure of the different aspects of life and job have got to me. So I think I need a plan to maintain a semblance of sanity in the midst of it all. So far, I've come up with the following (additions gratefully received):
  1. I will keep looking at job adverts and will seriously consider moving. The thought of moving jobs is pretty daunting, particularly if it also involves moving house, children's school etc. but I think I need the possibility to be open. It helps to reassure myself that I am not here forever.
  2. I will properly value and appreciate my friends. Many of them feel the same way as I do, it turns out, so they are a kind of mutual support network that I can rely on. I should feel happier about telling them what is getting me down because they will understand.
  3. I must try not to let the pressure ruin my home. This is tricky, given the encroachment of work time and tasks into family life, but there are limits. These should be maintained and welcomed.
  4. I should listen to more loud music in the car. Last night, I drove home to They Might be Giants' You're not the boss of me (you know, the theme from Malcolm in the middle). I could sing along and bother nobody and it made me feel much better.