Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Seeing yellow III

Thanks to Kelli, I can now point myself to two abstracts of medical papers dealing with cases of xanthopsia: here and here.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Seeing yellow II

Thank you all. Some very helpful info:

Gábor writes:

Hi, I was reading your blog on seeing yellow. Here is what Sherlock and Dooley write in their Diseases of the Liver and Biliary System: 'In deep jaundice, the ocular fluids are yellow, and this is considered to explain the extremely rare symptom of xanthopsia (seeing yellow)' (10th ed., Blackwell, 1997, p. 207). 'Extremely rare' I think is telling; I wonder if it is not a way of saying that we are not quite sure whether this symptom really exists, but there is this whole tradition.... I also vaguely remember the Geoffrey Lloyd wrote something about it in 'Observational error in later Gr. science.'

...and then...

'I checked and there is a long footnote on this issue in 'Observational error...' (fn. 2 on pp. 303f in the reprint in Methods and Problems...). By a survey of some authoritative medical books (he does not mention the one I was quoting) Lloyd shows that whenever there is a change in the wording of the successive editions, authors become more and more tentative about the existence of the symptom, but on the other hand, many books keep referring to it. Lloyd concludes: 'The repetition of this idea is remarkable testimony to the tenacity and conservativeness not just of popular belief but of medical opinion. Mr W.N. Mann, who confirms that he has not encountered a case of xanthopsia in jaundice, has remarked to me (personal communication) that it is striking that the matter has not been tested by a post mortem examination of jaundiced subjects to establish whether the media of the eye (aqueous, vitreous) and/or the lens is discoloured.'

I wonder whether such an examination has been carried out since 1982.'

So, there you have it. There is a weight of antiquity and, perhaps, simple prima facie plausibility behind this thought sufficient for it to be repeated as true and therefore not tested. Of course, for the Cyrenaics' point (which is why I originally wondered about the phenomenon) it only needs to stand as one example of a set intended to make the general point that it is reasonable to think that the way things appear to one is sometimes mistaken. You'd think that nevertheless they would be best served by examples which are familiar from general experience...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Seeing yellow

I'm thinking about the Cyrenaics. I've thought a bit about their hedonism before, but it's high time I got properly to grips with their general epistemology. So I've been spending the last couple of days thinking about Sextus Empiricus Adversus Mathematicos (M) 7.190-200, at least the beginning of which (191-3) looks to me like it might contain the kernel of the original Cyrenaic argument for their slightly unusual epistemological view.

Lots of people before have been interested in these guys and in this text in particular, most recently because they might have been an example of a 'subjectivist' position and might even be the best example of a case of ancient 'external world scepticism'. I'm not sure about that. I think the latter is unlikely to be true and I need to get a proper handle first about exactly what 'subjectivism' is. (Like lots of isms, I suspect that it is regularly used to refer to slightly but crucially different views so comparing accounts becomes tricky.)

Here's the relevant bit of Sextus:

[191] (A) φασὶν οὖν οἱ Κυρηναϊκοὶ κριτήρια εἶναι τὰ πάθη καὶ μόνα καταλαμβάνεσθαι καὶ ἀδιάψευστα τυγχάνειν, τῶν δὲ πεποιηκότων τὰ πάθη μηδὲν εἶναι καταληπτὸν μηδὲ ἀδιάψευστον. ὅτι μὲν γὰρ λευκαινόμεθα, φασί, καὶ γλυκαζόμεθα, δυνατὸν λέγειν ἀδιαψεύστως καὶ ἀληθῶς καὶ βεβαίως <καὶ> ἀνεξελέγκτως• ὅτι δὲ τὸ ἐμποιητικὸν τοῦ πάθους [192] λευκόν ἐστιν ἢ γλυκύ ἐστιν, οὐχ οἷόν τ’ ἀποφαίνεσθαι. εἰκὸς γάρ ἐστι καὶ ὑπὸ μὴ λευκοῦ τινα λευκαντικῶς διατεθῆναι καὶ ὑπὸ μὴ γλυκέος γλυκανθῆναι. καθὰ γὰρ ὁ μὲν σκοτωθεὶς καὶ ἰκτεριῶν ὠχραντικῶς ὑπὸ πάντων κινεῖται, ὁ δὲ ὀφθαλμιῶν ἐρυθαίνεται, ὁ δὲ παραπιέσας τὸν ὀφθαλμὸν ὡς ὑπὸ δυεῖν κινεῖται, ὁ δὲ μεμηνὼς δισσὰς ὁρᾷ τὰς Θήβας καὶ δισσὸν φαντάζεται τὸν ἥλιον, [193] ἐπὶ πάντων δὲ τούτων τὸ μὲν ὅτι τόδε τι πάσχουσιν, οἷον ὠχραίνονται ἢ ἐρυθαίνονται ἢ δυάζονται, ἀληθές, τὸ δὲ ὅτι ὠχρόν ἐστι τὸ κινοῦν αὐτοὺς ἢ ἐνερευθὲς ἢ διπλοῦν ψεῦδος εἶναι νενόμισται, οὕτω καὶ ἡμᾶς εὐλογώτατόν ἐστι πλέον τῶν οἰκείων παθῶν μηδὲν λαμβάνειν δύνασθαι.

My translation is as follows:

[191] The Cyrenaics, then, say that the pathē are the criteria of truth and that only these are apprehended and met with without deceit, while none of the things which have caused the pathē is apprehended or without deceit. For, they say, it is possible to say that we are ‘whitened’ and ‘sweetened’ without deceit and truthfully and reliably and irrefutably. But that what is the cause of the pathos is [192] white or sweet is impossible to declare. For it is reasonable that someone is disposed ‘whitely’ by something not white and ‘sweetened’ by something not sweet. For in so far as a dizzy person and someone with jaundice are affected by everything in a yellow fashion, someone suffering from ophthalmia is ‘reddened’, someone who presses on his eye is affected by doubling, and someone in a mania sees two Thebes and imagines that the sun is double [193] so in all these cases the fact that they all undergo some pathos – e.g. they are being ‘yellowed’ or ‘reddened’ or ‘doubled’ – is true, but that what is affecting them is yellow or red or double is considered false, so it is also overwhelmingly reasonable that we are able to grasp nothing more that our own pathē.

I'll have to come back to this text and I might have more to say about it soon.

Anyway, for starters I thought it was about time I sorted out something you find regularly in ancient epistemology, and which features in the bit I've quoted, namely the claim that people with jaundice see everything as yellow. It seems that people with jaundice do get yellow eyes (see exhibit a above, taken from here). But I can't really see any modern confirmation of the confident ancient claim that a person with such a condition sees everything somehow tinged yellow. You'd think they'd ask someone if they could. Perhaps it's just one of those old chestnuts that becomes accepted truth. It's clear the sort of point the example is supposed to make, whether or not this particular example is strictly speaking true. This paper sounds promising, but my science isn't up to making much sense of the abstract.

Readers of this blog have been v. kind in the past in sharing their expertise on a variety of topics, including specs-buying and choosing ties. So I reckon I've a fair chance of sorting this out if I just send the question out into the interweb: Do people with jaundice see things as yellow?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Testing times

Children in English schools are tested a lot, perhaps to destruction. They are tested very regularly and the results spewed out in variously misleading league tables. Later on in the school system the modularised AS and A2 levels means that students are tested extremely regularly in the 16-18 age range. They get very good at taking these tests, at least the ones I see at Cambridge admissions interviews do. But it is not always the case that the strategy the smart ones adopt to get the highest AS and A2 scores is the best strategy to adopt when it comes to less defined university courses. A student who has worked out that they should find out what they need to know and what the examiners will gives ticks for is not always well suited to the more exploratory undergraduate courses.

That's later on in school careers. But younger children are tested a lot too. We are only now beginning to see the effects this has first- (well, second-) hand: our older daughter is 6 and now is having regular spelling tests (and perhaps other tests too; it's not always easy to work out precisely what she did at school because her reports are a bit variable...) She is finding it very stressful; not because she can't do it, but because she can. In fact, I am increasingly concerned that it is actively working against her enjoying learning to read. She gets very anxious about whether she has prepared well enough or long enough for the test. And she also gets upset if she feels the tests are boring and too easy. She's even upset for her friends if they don't get it all right: she worries about them and they are clearly upset if they are evidently not getting things all right.

And she is 6, for Pete's sake! S and I may be slightly pushy parents but we don't bang on about the need to get full marks in crappy spelling tests all the time, for sure. Right now, in fact, we spend much more time trying to say that the tests aren't important and she is doing fine, enjoying reading and learning to read more. I can't remember being 6 very well at all, but I'm pretty sure that there wasn't such an emphasis in the school on these kinds of quantifiable 'learning outcomes'. It's not the teachers' fault (her teacher is excellent and is very perceptive); it's not the school's fault (we're very happy with it). But something has gone wrong in the way we have chosen to assess schools. The method of evaluation has determined an unfortunately teleological method and it seems to be having negative psychological (and, I suspect, educational) effects.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Omar Little

A few of us have been playing with the idea of an academic conference on HBO's The Wire.  After all, if UEA can host a conference including papers like: 'From Queen if the Jungle to Tabloid Folk Devil: Kerry Katona as 'White Trash Mother', then why not a conference on the best TV series ever?  I think I'd offer something on Omar Little, one the two greatest characters on the show (the other, of course, being Bubbles...)

Anyway, since you have to have a colon in the titles for papers of this sort, I'm toying with the following possibilities:

1.  Omar and virtue ethics: the excellences of the stick-up artist

This would inquire into the virtues inculcated and encouraged by the heroic agonistic society of Baltimore's streets and also the sense in which Omar both accepts 'the game' but also strikes out with his own assessment of values and loyalty.  Further, can virtues truly be displayed by someone engaged in what is on most assessments truly immoral behaviour?  That Omar is cunning and a skilled fighter is beyond question.  But can he ever be properly admirable?  Omar provokes these questions because although in many ways clearly a violent and criminal character there is also an obvious sense in which he is to be applauded  for other traits of charater -- certainly comparatively against his peers but possibly also in some more absolute sense.  He is loyal, committed to his partner, able to see the damage being done to his surrounding society, eloquent, courageous, sincere etc.  What standards of evaluation are appropriate for us to adopt?  Must we take up a stance within the axiology of the society in which Omar acts or can we take up an external viewpoint?

2. (H)Omar's Achilles: The Wire and epic

This would explore the parallels between Omar and Achilles in the Greek epic tradition.  Both are heroic and part of the heroic cultural norms of their times but also challenge and reject some of those norms.  They stand partly outside the conventional mores while being unable to escape them entirely.  Both are stirred to action by the maltreatment of the corpse of their beloved.  (There are other parallels too, but in case people haven't got through season 5 I'd better not go on.)  By tapping these deep literary resonance how does The Wire figure itself as an epic?  In particular, does it aim to share the Homeric epics' ability to make the lives and actions of a particular group of people stand for much more general human questions?

I doubt I'll write any of these, but you never know.  I don't think it's an inappropriate subject for such analysis.  If I hear of any more proposed papers maybe we should really have this conference.  Anyone have Idris Elba's phone number?  I know a lot of people who'd turn up for him giving a keynote lecture.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Clever Cicero

In the first book of the Tusculan Disputations M. turns to what is in many ways akin to a common account of the harmful deprivation caused by death. Yet even here there are some interesting and surprising aspects to the discussion that I think show the careful dialectical approach taken by Cicero. M. concedes for the sake of argument at 1.87 that death does deprive someone of various goods but then asks: ‘But should it also be conceded that the dead ‘go without’ (carere) the benefits of life and that this is what is wretched?’ The subsequent discussion in 1.87–8 rejects this possibility on the grounds of an analysis of the meaning of the verb carere (‘to be without’) [1].

M. places two conditions on the appropriate use of the verb. First, he requires that some possessor be present which first has and then lacks the particular item in question. For this reason it is inappropriate to say, for example, that living humans ‘go without’ horns of feathers. Second, and surprisingly, M. also insists that the subject should in some sense wish still to possess the lost item. Hence, he explains, it would be using the word in a different sense (alio modo) to say that someone ‘goes without’ a fever when they recover from an illness. Most generally, the relevant sense of the verb is understood to have a ‘melancholy’ (triste) air, since it implies that someone ‘had, has not, wants, searches for, desires’ (1.87: habuit, non habet, desiderat, requirit, indiget.) [2].

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that whatever the precise and proper sense of this particular Latin verb, M.’s account has introduced a further complication which is not absolutely required by his argument. Certainly, the insistence that there must be both some awareness of the loss in question and also a negative evaluation of that loss seems to narrow the possible scope of his argument to those accounts which agree that all harms must be noticed and registered by the subject as somehow harmful. A more generally applicable argument would require only that some subject persists both before and after the supposed loss and would not require in addition that the subjects somehow recognises the loss and finds it harmful. Why has M. offered what looks to be a less effective argument?

Here is my best guess. Most likely, he wants to attempt an argument which will be relevant for both those who think that the soul perishes at death and those who think that it persists. Certainly at 1.88 he remarks that it has not yet been demonstrated that the soul is mortal. In that case, the additional requirement that there be some desire for what has been lost will allow M. to say that, even if our souls persist after death they do not ‘feel the need for’ the goods of life: these are either no longer the sort of things that are appropriate for them to desire (just as it is senseless for a human to ‘feel the need of’ horns) or, even if they could desire them they are in such a better state now they are incarnate that they will feel no residual impulse to possess what they have lost. Of course, should it turn out that souls are mortal then it will equally be the case that the dead will not ‘feel the need of’ the goods of life; they do not ‘feel the need of’ anything since they lack all sensation.

Clever Cicero.

[1] See the entry in the Oxford Latin dictionary s.v. 1b, particularly for the use of the verb in periphrastic expressions meaning ‘to die’, e.g. carere + vita (life), luce (light), sensu (sensation).

[2] King’s translation in the Loeb Classical Library has ‘feel the need of’ for carere throughout this section. Since M. thinks it important to explain that this is the proper connotation of the word King is probably right that this is the sense M. has in mind, but a more neutral translation (e.g. ‘go without’) would make the explicit clarification more warranted.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Eyes update...

I bet you've all been really concerned about this, but thanks to some good advice from my fellow myopics I went to Boots Opticians and this is what my new specs will look like when I get them in the next couple of weeks. I ordered a pair of sunglasses in the same frames too. They didn't cost £700 but they still cost a lot. Damn. There goes my plan to buy a Wii so I can play the new 'Star Wars: the force unleashed' using the Wii remote as a lightsaber.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Eye tax...

I went for my biennial eye test today. My prescription has not changed much, but I do a lot of VDU work and read for a living, so I think I ought to update my glasses. Also, wearing the same bit of plastic on your face for more than two years is a bit of a grind. Certainly, they do undergo wear and tear.

But here's the problem. I am pretty myopic (SPH -3.50, -4.25) and also have a significant astigmatism (CYL -3.50, -2.25). If I don't want to wear big bottle-bottoms on my eyes that all means I have to pay more for high index lenses. Add to that a significant degree of vanity that means that I don't want to go for the cheapest frames around and it adds up to a potential bill of nearly £700. (That's what the bloke in David Clulow quoted to me, in any case, but then again he is trying to sell the most expensive stuff he can.) I could reduce that, I suppose, by shopping around, by disregarding my vanity as much as possible, and the like but it would still on even the most economical estimate top at least £300. That sounds a lot to me, certainly as a minimum figure for me to have to spend every two years simply in order to be able to see sufficiently well to do my job. I'm not eligible, of course, for a free eye test (which cost me £20) -- for the criteria for qualification, see here -- nor am I sufficiently poorly sighted or on a sufficiently low income to qualify for other financial help -- for details see here.

In my more grumpy moments, this seems to me to constitute a tax on the (mildly) disabled. Don't get me wrong: I can pay for these glasses (but as a result, of course, will not be able to pay for something else) and I think it is right that assistance should be given to those who are severely affected by poor sight or do not have a high enough income to be able to pay even the lowest cost of corrective lenses. All the same, there is something that annoys me about the fact that through no fault of my own my sight is such that I cannot drive, read etc. without glasses. And it costs me.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Pros and cons

On the downside, today is a Bank Holiday but the Cambridge term carries on regardless. Worse, it is a lovely day today in Cambridge and it would have been great to be at home with the kids.

On the upside, I had two major teaching commitments today and they reminded me of the good parts of the job. First, this morning I was convening the PhD ancient philosophy seminar. One of our current students took us through the sections of Theophrastus' De Sensibus devoted to Democritus. This is the subject of her doctoral thesis so she knows the material really well. Also, it provoked what I thought was a really interesting discussion which ranged over a variety of philosophical and historical issues, paid attention to linguistic and textual problems and, I think, managed here and there to make some good progress. That, it seems to me, is what research in ancient philosophy ought to be like and was also a good example of what can happen in a community of bright and committed students.

Second, this afternoon I ran a revision session on Plato Republic V-VII for the students at Corpus I have supervised both for the Classics and for the Philosophy Triposes. There were four students, more than we normally have in a supervision, but over the two hours again we made some good progress, aired some genuine and reasonable disagreements, and did some good thinking. I was particularly interested in how students from different courses had come to the text with different areas of interest and expertise but still managed not only to engage in close and engaged discussion but were also, or so it seemed to me, really listening to one another. They had also, evidently, been talking about this material outside the lectures and supervisions. That, is seems to me, is what undergraduate study ought to be like and was a perfect example of what can happen in a college environment in which students from overlapping disciplines live and work and learn together in a community.

Now I might head home and hope the good weather holds just a little longer.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Chin up!

We have been reading Epicurus' Kyriai Doxai in our seminar this term and I began last night to introduce KD 18-21, which attempt to show that Epicurus' hedonism can still offer a recipe for a good and 'complete' life: a life lacking nothing good. It seems that this might be a tall order for a hedonist because if (i) pleasure is the good then (ii) the more pleasure the better. That would seem to imply (iii) a longer life containing more pleasure will always be better than a shorter life containing less pleasure, and (iv) however long your life is, then, it always could have been better.

The Epicureans deny the inference from (i) to (ii), controversially, and therefore hope to avoid (iv) and rescue the possibility of a complete mortal hedonist life. Pondering all this I remembered one of my favourite quotations from Henry Sidgwick (perhaps most famous among the majority of Cambridge undergraduates for his Avenue...), Methods of Ethics Book II chapter 2 'Empirical Hedonism' (p. 130 n.):
It is sometimes thought to be a necessary assumption of Hedonists that a surplus of pleasure over pain is actually attainable by human beings: a proposition which all extreme pessimists would deny. But the conclusion that life is always on the whole painful would not prove it to be unreasonable for a man to aim ultimately at minimising pain, if this is still admitted to be possible; though it would, no doubt, render immediate suicide, by some painless process, the only reasonable course for a perfect egoist-- -unless he looked forward to another life.
(There is a very handy e-text of the whole work here and links to other resources here.) Sidgwick's point is certainly true: whether or not we do or can live lives which are pleasant, all things considered, is not really relevant to the question whether hedonism is true. In fact, hedonism is compatible even with a very dark view of our chances of ever living a life in which pleasure predominates over pain. Of course, should hedonism be true and it be the case that pleasure will never predominate over pain then this would recommend immediate suicide: things can only get worse if they are prolonged. (I wonder if he had a cheeky smile on his face as he wrote this note. Hard to tell whether he's the kind of person who ever had a cheeky smile...)