Thursday, October 30, 2008
Sunday, October 26, 2008
The photos as a whole do show that there is more to Cambridge than the university. But they depict the university in very boring and perhaps unrepresentative ways. The accompanying text also manages to enphasise the impression that there are two parts to the city that have little to do with one another. Parr speculates, at one point, when taken to the Arbury, 'a council estate in the north of the city', 'that most Cambridge dons had probably never been there'. Why on earth would he think that? Perhaps he assumes (as some students do) that we all live in our little college offices and venture out of the college gates only to go to a Faculty to lecture or perhaps to go the the Arts Theatre. We live here. And we live all over the city.
So I wondered: how would I want to picture the university? I think we might show something of the sheer amount of work that goes on here. It is not all lying on the lawn and deeps chats by the fire. A picture of the UL reading room on an October morning might be a start. It would certainly show a wide range of people working and researching there. Or a packed lecture theatre in the Law Faculty, an Engineering practical session, even a Faculty Board meeting at which papers are designed, PhDs awarded or not awarded and hard decisions made about where to cut back on spending. Go to a college on a Tuesday at 2am and see how many students are in the library working. (They won't be wearing boaters and college cricket sweaters, I'd guess.) Why not go to a college that isn't behind an 'ancient door'? Have a look at the art in Murray Edwards college or the new library being built at Fitzwilliam. Just something a bit different that would show that it's not all punts and May Balls and lawns.
Friday, October 24, 2008
This week has been like that. I have lots of different things to do. Each one of them is manageable in itself. But they are just coming too soon one after another. So if I have to put the brakes on for any reason, even if it is just to stop getting myself into a tangle, then everything eventually comes to a stop and I am left with a big pile of stuff on my desk which seems to be getting ever bigger.
Here is the real source of the problem. I have too many different sources of stuff to do and they are not at all co-ordinated. What I need is some third party to filter the stuff and send it to me in a single and ordered stream. I would be very happy doing each thing as it comes in and then moving on to the next thing. But that's never going to happen. Sure, academic jobs are 'flexible', and we manage our own time and efforts but part of what that means is that there is no upper limit to the stuff you do and no one who can step between you and more stuff to do to say that maybe this next thing can wait and delay it popping up in the inbox... Just having to decide yourself that something can wait is another bit of stuff to do.
RJR introduced me today to the notion that we should 'prioritise low-hanging fruit'. That's OK if it's obvious how low each thing is hanging...
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large.
What bird is this? It is sometimes translated as ‘stone curlew’, for what that’s worth. LSJ s.v. say that it is probably the thick-knee or Norfolk plover, Charadrius oedicnemus. (Also known as Burhinus oedicemus, the Eurasian stone curlew.) They add that it was proverbially greedy, hence the reference in the Gorgias. (The bird also had yellow eyes and the sight of it was supposed to be a cure for jaundice – on which see also my post here.) That would be a sensible connection, I suppose, but it still seems a little thin. Dodds, who notes that evidence for the identification of the bird as a stone curlew can be found in D’Arcy Thompson’s Glossary of Greek birds p.311, ad loc. simply notes that it is a ‘bird of messy habits and uncertain identity’. I love this comment, but the more I think about it the odder it seems: Dodds must be certain enough about the identity of the bird to be able to comment on its habits, mustn’t he? And what is the implied contrast with ‘messy’: Are their tidier birds? More sanitary birds? Birds that take more care over their appearance? Anyway, Dodds goes on to tells us more about stone curlews: the stone curlew is a ‘twilight feeder, and has large bright-yellow eyes and inconspicuous plumage... when disturbed it runs rather than flies away’. It also tends to hide by crouching among stones.
It would help that the bird is somewhat timid, of course, because Callicles wants his ideal life to be one which includes courage, albeit courage in the service of unrestrained appetites. All in all, this is not a very noble bird and quite contrary to Callicles’ general lofty vision of his ideal person. What about the ‘messy habits’? Dodds is perhaps extrapolating here from the needs of Socrates’ argument which has been tackling Callicles’ conception of a good life characterised by the pleasure gained from processes of satisfying desires. Socrates infers that in order to enjoy pleasure there must be an antecedent lack to be satisfied. And after the process of satisfaction is complete, as Callicles agrees, the pleasure is over. So the lack must be generated again. In terms of the ‘leaky jars’ analogy being pursued at this point of the text, in order to fill up the jar again whatever was previously there has to be expelled. Perhaps these are the ‘messy habits’: for every time the bird spies and eats a tasty worm it also expels something to make room for the new morsel. If, on the other hand, it is a bird that spends its time running about after every little grub it can find, perhaps Socrates might have in mind the idea that rather than a life of grand pleasures, Callicles’ ideal might turn into one of constant petty pleasures, since every time a lack arises the person concerned will be driven to try to satisfy it, like someone constantly topping up a leaky jar.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
I've always thought I'd like a pretty minimal kind of space, but on the other hand I can't do without having lots of books around me. Too much stark emptiness is a bit cold. Thinking a bit more, I think I have worked out that what really annoy me is clutter on surfaces -- tables, shelves, etc. These can have things on them, for sure, but they have to be neatly arranged and I have to be able to see the surface somewhere or other. Jumbled piles of stuff or -- worse -- piles arranged with smaller things underneath and holding up larger things just annoy me. I can't bear them, I mean, and find it hard to feel relaxed if I can spy something like that out of the corner of my eye. Of course, when the pile of stuff is someone else's then the problem is much worse; I can't just go over and bin what's not needed or rearrange what is. Instead I have to ask, beg, nag, and the like. And that often just makes that other person less inclined to cave in to my odd sensibilities. (Some 'handy' marriage and clutter tips can be found here. See, that's better now, isn't it?) The serious point is, however, that this is not just a whimsy on my part. I think it is a genuine and deep-seated bit of my psychology. Living around clutter doesn't make me acculturated; it just makes me constantly stressed.
There is a whole industry ready to cater to me, it turns out, which I discovered just be googling 'clutter'. And it's pretty clear that we are supposed to think that an uncluttered life is supposed to be some kind of ideal -- based again on the idea, I imagine, that a cluttered house is the sign of a cluttered and disorganised mind. Instead we ought to pine for an ideal of white furniture, bleached floorboards and one glass vase on a single glass table. (Try this site, for example. Yes, get rid of your crap old sofa and piles of magazines and you'll be a happy stylish person with plenty of time on your hands to pose in a white outfit with a smug look...) That's much too far, of course, and the grauniad article is surely to question whether it is really possible to live happily in that kind of environment. So I don't want an empty box to live in. I suppose I just what control over what clutter is there and how, precisely, it is cluttered...
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Monday, October 13, 2008
B69: ἀνθρώποις πᾶσι τωὐτὸν ἀγαθὸν καὶ ἀληθές• ἡδὺ δὲ ἄλλωι ἄλλοHow much can we infer from this about Democritus’ conception of the relationship between the good and pleasure? It is easy to see why B69 might be taken as a statement of anti-hedonism: what is good hold universally for all people; what is pleasant does not. One might think that it follows that we must not identify pleasure with the good. There is certainly a contrast here between a pair of things which are supposed to be universal for all people – what is good and what is true – and something which is more variable – what is pleasant. In his discussion of the fragment Taylor draws some interesting parallels between this fragment and the more famous Democritean ‘reality’ v. ‘convention’ contrast in B9.  The idea, roughly sketched, is that just as we would be wrong to take the straightforward evidence of the senses as reason to think that things are in fact hot, cold, sweet, bitter and the like so we would be wrong to take what we find pleasant as straightforward evidence of what is good. Instead, the truth of the matter is that things are in reality atoms and void and to grasp this requires a degree of rational reflection in addition to, if not in contrast with, simple empirical observation.
“The same thing is good and true for all men. But what is pleasant differs from one to another.”
Ought we to conclude that what we find pleasant is in fact misleading when it comes to thinking about the good just as what we perceive as hot might be misleading when it comes to thinking about reality most generally? Perhaps the analogue is this: the truth of the matter is that what is good should be grasped with a conception of the overall good of a life, which is a matter for rational reflection of some kind, and not driven solely by episodic perceptions of what is pleasant and what is not. Taylor, I think, is careful to note that the parallelism between the two trains of thought in B9 and B69 is not perfect and also makes this a point in Democritus’ favour; since he think Democritus’ overall epistemology eventually succumbs to a kind of self-refutation, it is better for Democritus if the ethical theory is not similarly vulnerable.
What is the precise import, in that case, of B69’s claim about what is pleasant? The first thing to notice, it seems to me, is that B69 is not after all incompatible with a full-blooded hedonist account of well-being; it merely asserts that, as things are, different people will differ in terms of whether they find some particular object pleasant. Take an example: Annie loves oysters and Bob hates them. This oyster is pleasant to Annie and not to Bob. But since Annie and Bob are both humans then there is one and the same good for both of them. All we are entitled to infer, I think, is that oysters are not the human good or, perhaps better, that the pleasure of eating oysters is not the human good. We are not entitled to infer that pleasure is not the human good. It may well still be the case that pleasure is the human good. But if that were so then Annie and Bob would perhaps pursue this human good by engaging in differing kinds of activities. Perhaps Bob loves chocolate and Annie does not. Nothing prevents us thinking that the pleasure Bob gets from chocolate is the same qua pleasure as that which Annie gets from oysters. In that case there is no reason to think that this pleasure – the one Annie gets from oysters and Bob from chocolate – cannot be the good.
There is still room for Democritus to say that there are some things we find pleasant but ought not to pursue but this too can be done on hedonist grounds. Perhaps Annie would be better acquiring a taste for chocolate since it is cheaper and more readily available. There are also other texts which make it attractive to distinguish between pleasure – hēdonē – and joy or enjoyment – terpsis – and it may be that Democritus did want to deny an identification of hēdonē with the good. But it is hard to make this distinction consistent with everything Democritus says. B191, for example, appears to call for a moderation of terpsis. But B69 does not by itself after all offer strong evidence that Democritus was not a hedonist.
 ‘Pleasure, knowledge, and sensation in Democritus’ Phronesis 12, 1967, 6–27 repr. in his Pleasure, mind and soul, Oxford, 2008.
Friday, October 10, 2008
For my money, Armando Ianucci's version of a reality show was at least as funny, even if it has fewer scenes of an undead Davina McCall. Here it is: