Thursday, December 31, 2009

Party like it's 2009...

Ten years ago I was spending a fun evening in a cold flat on Guest Road, Cambridge, with some good friends. Hello to them.

Things I've done since 2000:

Got married.
Joined a new college. (An old college.)
Moved house.
Had two children.
Got a job.
Wrote some things that got published.

Doesn't seem a long list but it certainly filled the time.

Here's Tanya wondering about how short life is etc.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Choosing a DVD

If you didn't watch this last night then get on the BBC iplayer immediately. Karen would ace a Cambridge admissions interview.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The dark side...

The latest from the unelected Sith Lord currently directing UK Higher Education policy can be found here. Have a stiff drink before you read it. There is every chance, of course, that by next summer he won't be in the job so it is not clear how many of these requests and proposals will be followed-through in full. But it looks bleak for now. Best get to work rushing our students through in just two years...

Note also that again (para §3 and 4) it seems to fall to universities to wider and diversify access. This is a little odd since universities cannot directly affect either who applies and what sort of education the applicants have received prior to arriving at university. And again it seems that Higher Education is primarily viewed as a means of equipping a workforce with skills required to drive growth in the economy (§5). Good grief.

Monday, December 21, 2009


We were watching the Muppet Christmas Carol a couple of days ago. I'd forgotten how good it is. And then I found this on YouTube: watch Beaker carefully just before he leaves. It's hard to be sure because I think he only has three fingers, but the middle one appears to be aimed at Michael Caine.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Someone wrote to ask me for some things to read about the current state of the discipline of ancient philosophy. This is not easy. Other than Barnes' 'Bagpipe music', which might well put anyone off the whole business, I could think of the following:

J. Annas, 'Ancient philosophy for the twenty-first century', in B. Leiter ed. The future for philosophy (OUP, 2004), 25-43

H. Lesser, 'The history of ancient philosophy', in O. Leaman ed. The future of philosophy: towards the twenty-first century (Routledge, 1998), 14-24

And not much else. To be honest, I am not sure this is the best place to start thinking about the discipline. Much better just to get on and read some ancient philosophy (start with some Plato and work backwards and forwards from there) with some helpful guides. The Cambridge Companions are often a good place to begin (I would say that...) and there are some other interesting single-authored works like this one.

Any other suggestions?

Monday, December 07, 2009

False pains

I’m re-reading some of Fred Feldman’s Pleasure and the good life (Oxford, 2004).

In chapter 5 Feldman is wondering about the sort of objection you might raise against hedonism on the grounds that it may not be able to account for our intuitive dislike of ‘false pleasures’ (pp.109-14). ‘False pleasures’ here, roughly speaking, are those that are predicated on some false belief or taken in some false object. Imagine someone who falsely believes that he is well-respected; he might take pleasure in this belief. But we might be uncomfortable if hedonism cannot distinguish between the value of this pleasure and the value in a similar pleasure taken in a similar true belief. Feldman then tries to offer a hedonism that does respect this difference in value.

There are some interesting questions to raise about this, but the specific point that interested me today is the following comment (p.111):

In order to state this modified version of the theory, we will need to say something about pain, too. Shall we say that pain taken in true objects differs in intrinsic value from similar pain taken in false objects? I am puzzled by an apparent disanalogy between pleasure and pain here. On the one hand, I can readily sense the attractiveness of adjusting the value of pleasures for truth. Pleasure taken in things that are true does seem somehow better than equal pleasure taken in things that are false... But on the other hand, I cannot readily see the corresponding attractiveness of a similar adjustment of the value of pain for truth.

The thought is this: the pain caused to a person by the false belief that he is thought an idiot by his colleagues is not distinguishable in value from the pain caused a similar but true belief. We may want our pleasures to be true rather than false. Do we want our pains to be false rather than true? It depends why we want true rather than false pleasures.

If what makes a true pleasure better is some thought about being right or about the intrinsic value of knowledge then I suppose we might indeed prefer true pleasures to false pleasures but then also I think we should also prefer true pains to false pains. I should like, if I am pained, to be pained justifiably, truthfully, at some true object, and so on.

On the other hand, if what makes a true pleasure better than a false one is some lingering concern that the false pleasure is, by being false, less reliable or that it might easily be dissipated then I would answer differently. The examples that are used to generate a preference for true pleasures tend to stipulate that the person taking false pleasure ‘would be miserable’ if the falsehood were revealed. Even when it is stipulated that the person does not suspect and does not ever discover the falsehood, the lingering suspicion of this counterfactual may be doing a lot of work on our assessment of the example. And if so, then I think I can see a case for preferring false pains to true pains since we will say that the person imagined ‘would be happy’ if the falsehood were revealed. And again, the lingering suspicion of this counterfactual is that the false pain – like the false pleasure – may be dissipated by the discovery of the truth. And just as I might prefer my pleasures not to be subject to such contingencies, I might well prefer that my pains are.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Harming the innocent

I have started this season taking our elder daughter (nearly 8) to watch Cambridge United. We went on Saturday to watch them lose 2-1 and go out of the FA Cup. She then got home to find out her favourites - Natalie and Vincent - were kicked out of Strictly Come Dancing. Not great all round. Not even the Abbey Stadium bacon rolls could cheer her up at the end after the Us had huffed and puffed around the York City goal for the last five minutes trying for the draw.

You can see the 'highlights' below. They miss out the bit where the York fans unfurl huge banners in the away end and are greeted by some predictable but funny comments from the Newmarket Road massive. (That's another thing: she has broadened her vocabulary quite a bit since we've been going, even sitting in the 'Family Stand'). And they also miss out the York keeper scrambling to keep the ball out as he's bundled over the line in the last minutes. Good angle on the delightful Brodie's miss, though...

Am I harming her by introducing her to the net (geddit?) disappointment that is supporting our local team? Yes, there are good times. (We've seen them win 7-0 this year. I think that might have given her a false impression of what it's generally like.) ButI know she has already been mocked by some kids in her class who have decided that something a bit more Premier League is clearly the way to go. I know I can pretend that she is gaining the joy of supporting the local side, being able to go to the matches more or less every Saturday they are at home, feeling part of a community and all that. But wouldn't it also be nice if the team she supported won something every now and then? Since I first went the Us have slid from what would now be League 1 (the glory days... I can't claim to have witnessed the thrills and spills of the John Beck era, but I did like Lionel Pérez's highlights...) to the Blue Square Premier and I can't see them getting out of there for a good while yet. She already has her favourite player, but the chances are he'll move on in the next transfer window.

So I can't shake the suspicion that I might be doing something bad by taking her along. Yes, I think I can make the case that in the long run this is a good, character-building, sort of thing for her and I do really enjoy our Saturday afternoons, but she hasn't (I admit) really chosen to support the Us. And I suppose she will at some point decide it's all a bit daft and tell me I can go on my own from now on. But will the damage have been done by then? She'll have seen us allow the visitors a two goal head-start and throw a lead more than enough times. Then again, at least she's not paying nearly twenty pounds for the privilege...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cyrenaic psychic pleasures

I was asked by someone who read my previous post what the Cyrenaics thought a purely psychic pleasure might be. Good question. They seem to think, for example, that many of what we might have assumed are simple perceptual pleasures – the pleasure of listening to some music – also involve a degree of cognition sine the affective pathos is changed according to the thought whether the person singing is simply performing a lament, say, or is genuinely grieving.

DL 2.90

λέγουσι δὲ μηδὲ κατὰ ψιλὴν τὴν ὅρασιν ἢ τὴν ἀκοὴν γίνεσθαι ἡδονάς. τῶν γοῦν μιμουμένων θρήνους ἡδέως ἀκούομεν, τῶν δὲ κατ' ἀλήθειαν ἀηδῶς. μέσας τε καταστάσεις ὠνόμαζον ἀηδονίαν καὶ ἀπονίαν. πολὺ μέντοι τῶν ψυχικῶν τὰς σωματικὰς ἀμείνους εἶναι, καὶ τὰς ὀχλήσεις χείρους τὰς σωματικάς. ὅθεν καὶ ταύταις κολάζεσθαι μᾶλλον τοὺς ἁμαρτάνοντας. χαλεπώτερον γὰρ τὸ πονεῖν, οἰκειότερον δὲ τὸ ἥδεσθαι ὑπελάμβανον.

Again they hold that pleasure is not derived from sight or from hearing alone. At all events, we listen with pleasure to imitation of mourning, while the reality causes pain. They gave the names of absence of pleasure and absence of pain to the intermediate conditions. However, they insist that bodily pleasures are far better than mental pleasures, and bodily pains far worse than mental pains, and that this is the reason why offenders are punished with the former. For they assumed pain to be more repellent, pleasure more congenial. (Hicks)

They also say – as here – that ‘bodily’ pleasures are better than psychic ones and bodily pains worse than psychic ones.

I suppose that at DL 2.90 the point is to draw out yet another contrast with Epicureanism (hence the polemical adoption of ataraxia and aponia for the intermediate state). It's probably easiest to think what mere 'psychic' pleasures and pains would be, presumably those that respond to no perceptual (or proprioceptual) stimulus such as the pleasures and pains of thinking about some future or past event.

DL 2.89 adds the following:

οὐ πάσας μέντοι τὰς ψυχικὰς ἡδονὰς καὶ ἀλγηδόνας ἐπὶ σωματικαῖς ἡδοναῖς καὶ ἀλγηδόσι γίνεσθαι. καὶ γὰρ ἐπὶ ψιλῇ τῇ τῆς πατρίδος εὐημερίᾳ ὥσπερ τῇ ἰδίᾳ χαρὰν ἐγγίνεσθαι.

Not all mental pleasures and pains, however, are derived from bodily counter-parts. For instance, we take disinterested delight in the prosperity of our own country, which is as real as our delight in our own prosperity. (Hicks)

An example of (weak) psychic pleasure that has no dependence on bodily pleasure is, apparently: 'disinterested delight in the prosperity of one's homeland'. The crucial term is ψιλός ‘bare’ in both DL 2.89 and 90: many pleasures involve both the body and the soul but it is possible to identify pleasures that are stripped of bodily or perceptual involvement and it is wrong to think of many perceptual pleasures as being entirely stripped of any psychic influence.

These purely psychic pleasures are too weak, the Cyrenaics insist, to counter present bodily distress (which is what the Epicureans claimed they could do). The pleasures that matter are bodily – this is the telos (2.87) – and although these can it seems be affected by one's cognitive grip on what's going on I don't see any reason why we should be suspicious of calling the pleasure from perceiving some beautiful statue a bodily pleasure.

We know too little about Cyrenaic natural philosophy to be sure what they thought the soul was. Is it something physical? The soul does engage in motions, it seems, but then Plato can talk that way too. I suspect the Cyrenaics simply had no natural philosophy to speak of (though Theodorus seems to have had some things to say about theology) . That would seem to be consistent with the general epistemological stance.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tractatus Logico-televisicus

By the excellent Craig Brown. You can read all of it here. It was performed with proper Wittgensteinian accent here.

My favourite bits:

2 Television contains the possibility of all situations.
2.1 It is evident that the world of television, however different it may be from the real one, must have something - a form - in common with it.
2.2 Though it is hard to see what.
2.3 People in the real world share many properties with people on television.
2.4 Not including Robert Kilroy-Silk.
2.5 If Robert Kilroy-Silk exists, he exists only on television.
2.6 Robert Kilroy-Silk is no longer on television.
2.7 Robert Kilroy-Silk does not exist.
2.8 He has been switched off. He cannot now be switched back on, other than in repeat.
2.9 It would be a sort of accident if it turned out that in future old episodes of Kilroy! were celebrated as classics and sold in boxed sets on DVD. Just as we are quite unable to imagine spatial objects outside space, or temporal objects outside time, so, too, we cannot imagine repeats of Kilroy! ever being viewed again.


6.4 In order to perceive the outer limit to television, we must sit all the way through Celebrity Fat Club.


8.1 What we cannot view, we must flick through in silence.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cyrenaics, art, and pleasure

I've at last managed to get back to thinking about Cyrenaic hedonism. In fact, I have two Cyrenaic projects on the go: (i) a paper on the Cyrenaics in Plutarch's Adversus Colotem for a conference in Lyon in the spring and (ii) a chapter on Cyrenaics for a Companion to Ancient Philosophy (and, yes, I know we need more of them like we need more branches of Tesco, but I thought the Cyrenaics would be an interesting topic to do).

Anyway, I wondered in the summer about this bit of doxography from Diogenes Laertius 2.90:
λέγουσι δὲ μηδὲ κατὰ ψιλὴν τὴν ὅρασιν ἢ τὴν ἀκοὴν γίνεσθαι ἡδονάς. τῶν γοῦν μιμουμένων θρήνους ἡδέως ἀκούομεν, τῶν δὲ κατ' ἀλήθειαν ἀηδῶς.

They say that pleasures do not arise from mere sight or hearing alone. At any rate, we listen with pleasure to those imitating a lament but without pleasure to those who are doing it in truth.

The idea seems to be as follows: proof that pleasure is not generated by mere perceptual experience alone is provided by the fact that two identically sounding performances of a song of lament can produce different hedonic results. We might enjoy listening to someone merely performing a song of mourning, that is: someone who is not in fact themselves in mourning. But we do not take pleasure in listening to someone singing who is genuinely in mourning.

I've now found a related report in Plutarch, who seems to have been quite well informed about the details of Cyrenaic hedonism. This is QC V 674A-B (SSR IV A 206):
ἀνθρώπους μὲν γὰρ ἀποθνήσκοντας καὶ νοσοῦντας ἀνιαρῶς ὁρῶμεν• τὸν δὲ γεγραμμένον Φιλοκτήτην καὶ τὴν πεπλασμένην Ἰοκάστην, ἧς φασιν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον ἀργύρου τι συμμῖξαι τὸν τεχνίτην, ὅπως ἐκλείποντος ἀνθρώπου καὶ μαραινομένου λάβῃ περιφάνειαν ὁ χαλκός, <ἰδόντες> ἡδόμεθα καὶ θαυμάζομεν. τοῦτο δ’’ εἶπον, ‘ἄνδρες Ἐπικούρειοι, καὶ τεκμήριόν ἐστι μέγα τοῖς Κυρηναϊκοῖς πρὸς ὑμᾶς τοῦ μὴ περὶ τὴν ὄψιν εἶναι μηδὲ περὶ τὴν (B.) ἀκοὴν ἀλλὰ περὶ τὴν διάνοιαν ἡμῶν τὸ ἡδόμενον ἐπὶ τοῖς ἀκούσμασι καὶ θεάμασιν. ἀλεκτορὶς γὰρ βοῶσα συνεχῶς καὶ κορώνη λυπηρὸν ἄκουσμα καὶ ἀηδές ἐστιν, ὁ δὲ μιμούμενος ἀλεκτορίδα βοῶσαν καὶ κορώνην εὐφραίνει• καὶ φθισικοὺς μὲν ὁρῶντες δυσχεραίνομεν, ἀνδριάντας δὲ καὶ (5) γραφὰς φθισικῶν ἡδέως θεώμεθα τῷ τὴν διάνοιαν ὑπὸ τῶν μιμημάτων ἄγεσθαι [καὶ] κατὰ τὸ οἰκεῖον.

Here’s a translation, stolen from this site, with the odd modification.

It is unpleasant to see a sick man, or one at his last gasp; yet with pleasure we can look upon the picture of Philoctetes, or the statue of Jocasta, in whose face it is commonly said that the workmen mixed silver, so that the brass might depict the face and color of one ready to faint and expire. And this, said I, the Cyrenaics may use as a strong argument against you Epicureans, that all the sense of pleasure which arises from the working of any object on the ear or eye is not in those organs, but in the intellect itself. Thus the continual cackling of a hen or cawing of a crow is very ungrateful and disturbing; yet he that imitates those noises well pleases the hearers. Thus to behold a consumptive man is no delightful spectacle; yet with pleasure we can view the pictures and statues of such persons, because the very imitating has something in it very agreeable to the mind, which allures and captivates its faculties.

This whole section has the title: Why We Take Delight in Hearing Those that Represent the Passions of Men Angry or Sorrowful, and Yet Cannot Without Concern Behold Those Who are Really So Affected? It’s interesting in itself for the questions it raises about aesthetic pleasure taken in depictions of suffering but I am particularly interested in the signs here of a perceived debate between the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics. The Cyrenaics, it seems, were of the opinion that the pleasure is generated not in the sense organs but in the soul (here Plutarch uses dianoia but there is no reason, I think, to assume that this was original Cyrenaic terminology and rather more reason to think it is Plutarch’s own Platonist vocabulary). And if that is what they wanted to show then this is rather a good argument: two phenomenologically identical experiences (e.g. hearing (i) a crow and (ii) someone imitating the call of a crow) may reasonably cause different hedonic responses because of a person’s understanding of the situation. It is possible to appreciate the skill of the imitator – or a sculptor – and take pleasure in the creation even though it depicts something which would be an the cause of discomfort or even distress if perceived directly.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

What is a university?

I've been wondering about this particularly since Lord Vader's recent musings on the necessity for us to regard students as customers and look to the economic benefit of the country. And I've been reading David Watson's new book on university morale. He offers the following interesting question (p.85). Consider the following institutions and organisations. Which is/are most like a university and in what respect(s)? (The comments are Watson's. Some of the examples might be a bit UK specific, but I hope the point is clear nevertheless.)
  1. the Armed Forces (a command structure but very dependent on outsourcing);
  2. the Church of England (a consensual community, but one that is legally 'established');
  3. the National Trust (a private charitable society, but one which guards much of the nation's 'heritage' and acts as a tax-management device);
  4. the Post Office (a 'privatized' service, with a public 'golden share');
  5. Banks (private corporations, some now in public ownership because apparently the public cannot allow them to fail);
  6. the NHS (a constantly restructured devolved service, where individual trusts, although nominally independently governed - especially 'foundation trusts' - can apparently be overruled or reorganized by political fiat);
  7. Schools (a local authority service, but nationally regulated - including through the National Curriculum - but 'governed' on an individual institutional basis);
  8. BAE Systems (a private company with a majority of public contracts).
Any thoughts? The problem seems to be that universities resemble all of these in some respect and none of them in all. But the exercise does serve, I think, to draw out some of the sometimes inchoate and potentially inconsistent ideas we might have about what universities are, how they might be governed and govern themselves, and what they might be for. (The same procedure might be followed for an Oxbridge college which is in some important ways relevantly distinct from the university.)

Monday, November 02, 2009

Marcus Aurelius the VC

I'm starting David Watson's new The Question of Morale: managing happiness and unhappiness in University Life, principally just out of curiosity but it might give me some ideas about managing my own unhappinesses (and happinesses too...) I'm just flipping through for now and will report any big findings, but I did notice one of the 'digressions' that he scatters through the book (p.137-8). Thinking about senior management in universities, he wonders:
..perhaps the field might benefit from a Marcus Aurelius-Alain de Botton style volume aimed at the VC's holiday bag. (138)

Well, perhaps. Marcus might be a bit hard going, I suspect, but then it's pretty clear that Marcus is being mined just for the odd snappy aphorism. At p. 137 Watson writes:
... for senior managers, one of the most celebrated Meditations rings with particular force: 'treat with respect the power you have to form an opinion.'

I don't have a copy of Marcus to hand so can't track this down but it ought to have a special Stoic tinge about the power to generate opinions about matters of value or choiceworthiness, not just a general statement about power and leadership. Still, there are worse things to be plastered on a motivational poster above a VC's desk.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


Half term last week, so the kids were off school. S did most of the cover, I'm afraid, because lectures are hard things to timetable and harder things to alter, but it worked in the end.

Otherwise, I spent some of yesterday morning experiencing the joy that is the UK's socialised medical system. Really. I woke up with a tight wheezy chest of the sort I haven't had properly for a long time. A cough had aggravated my asthma. Since it was Saturday and GPs' surgeries no longer open then I had to phone the out-of-hours thing, CamDOC. They were very good. A nurse phoned back within a few minutes and decided I ought to go it. The surgery is close to home but all the same I was in and out within an hour and a half with a prescription for steroids, antibiotics, and a back-up inhaler.

All things considered it worked pretty smoothly and I can breathe a little more easily now. CamDOC isn't always so swift, I know, but this time I was quite impressed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The influence of Aristotle...

I'm reading David Wolfsdorf's new piece in Apeiron 42 (2009, 221-57), ‘Epicurus on εὐφροσύνη and ἐνέργεια (DL 10.136)’. There's a lot in it for me to think through but here's one assertion that I found particularly interesting. Wolfsdorf is generally sceptical about the common assertion (which I too have made in the past) that the Epicureans identify a kind of pleasure -- a kind of kinetic pleasure -- with the process of restoring a lack (e.g. of slaking a thirst). One reason for this is a view Wolfsdorf takes of the influence of Aristotle.

At 251, Wolfsdorf writes:
'In the wake of Aristotle, Plato's restorative conception of pleasure could not simply be accepted.'

Now, I'm quite a fan of Aristotle but I wonder about this. First, it is not clear to me just how much Aristotle Epicurus had read. In fact, I'm relatively happy with the suggestion that Epicurus might have read the NE (and perhaps Wolfsdorf is right that DL 10.136 might constitute evidence that he did so) but I don't think we can be in any way certain of this. And it would also matter what Aristotle Epicurus had read. For example, if Epicurus had read the Rhetoric it would not perhaps have been so clear to him that Aristotle does reject wholesale the restorative conception of pleasure. And what is the case for Epicurus is also, I think, the case for other Hellenistic philosophers.

We might emphasise the 'simply' in what Wolfsdorf says. True, after NE VII and, especially, X, it would be hard for anyone who had read those works to continue breezily to work solely with the familiar model of restorative pleasures only without giving Aristotle's alternative view any thought whatsoever. But I'm not sure what we can say in addition would necessarily have to follow for any post-Aristotelian account of pleasure. Do they really have to take account of what Aristotle calls pleasures of activity? And how? Does this allow, for example, that someone might still retain Plato's view but not in a simple fashion? (But Plato did not maintain it in a simple fashion either.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bygone days

Things don't change very quickly in some parts of Cambridge. Would you have thought, for example, that there would be a pigeon hole labelled thus in our Porters' lodge? (There is not another next door labelled 'Husbands of...' or 'Civil partners of...', I should add.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Online companion

The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism is now available here via CUP's 'Cambridge Collections Online' if you have the appropriate institutional subscription. It gives access to the full text either on screen or as downloadable pdf files.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Last night I gave a talk for the college's social sciences society, just a very brief look at how politics and psychology are intertwined in Plato's Republic. It was a bit of a last-minute job, I'm afraid, but I was glad to do it because, first of all, a friend asked me to and also because the society is named after a colleague who died recently and who was for me an excellent guide (although I'm pretty sure he certainly did not set out to be) to what it is to be a good and effective fellow of a Cambridge college.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed it. It's always interesting to see what someone's initial reaction might be to the kinds of ideas I have now spent a lot of time thinking about: so much time, in fact, that perhaps I have lost sight of how novel or odd or surprising they might sound on first meeting them. The audience had some interesting reactions too. And it reminded me what is good about being an undergraduate: you can be introduced to some Freud in the morning at a lecture, spend the afternoon reading new things for a challenging essay, have dinner with friends and talk about what you and they are doing and then go along to something like this event in the evening. Not everything will be fun, but it will all be new. And more than that, this novelty is being packaged in a rich and vibrant social atmosphere that challenges them in all sorts of other ways too. I remember it being absolutely exhausting and sometimes very frustrating, but giddying and exhilarating nevertheless.

Friday, October 16, 2009


REF, the son-of-RAE, requires us to consider what 'impact' our research work has on the world in general. Now, this is a tricky thing to work out for those of us who don't make things, cure things, or similar. But help is at hand with a handy on-line questionnaire we have been invited to fill in. The hope is that we can in this way contribute to the question how 'impact' is supposed to be assessed in our case. The opening questions are all pretty straightforward, but then come Q10 and 11:
10. Has your research informed subsequent research in your area?

11. If yes, how has your research informed subsequent research? Select all that apply

Created interest in a new or previously unexplored aspect of your subject area
Revived interest in an area of research that had been dormant
Maintained existing approaches within your area
Contributed to a change in approach within your area
Informed supervision of research students
Generated invitation(s) to present your work at academic lectures, conferences and/or seminars
Other, please specify

How do I answer those? I have reasonable evidence that some people have read some of things I have published. (Well, some people have reviewed some of it; other people have put references to some of it in footnotes, though both groups might not have read any of it, I suppose.) Is that enough to answer Yes to Q.10? I am not sure. 'Informed' sounds slippery enough that I can interpret the condition sufficiently weakly that I have to say Yes. (Compare the football referee's worry about whether an attacking off-side player is 'interfering with play'... If he isn't then what is he doing on the pitch?)

And how do I approach Q.11? Some of it I can answer easily. (I have been invited to conferences; I'm not entirely sure why but it's a reasonable bet that my research played some part in it.) But is it up to me to say that something I did has revived interest in an area of research? How could I tell? How much interest do I need to create? There are other slippery words here too: as well as 'informed', 'contributed to' is nicely under-determined.

I think we are trying to big-up (is that hyphenated?) ourselves so I feel I should tick as many boxes as I can. But I am far from confident that I am telling the truth.

Later Qs wonder about the impact of my research on policy-making, schools, and the like. I can answer these more confidently...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Clever Hippocratics

Here’s a clever argument in the Hippocratic Nat. hom. 2.10–12:

Ἐγὼ δέ φημι, εἰ ἓν ἦν ὁ ἄνθρωπος, οὐδέποτ’ ἂν (10)
ἤλγεεν• οὐδὲ γὰρ ἂν ἦν ὑφ’ ὅτου ἀλγήσειεν ἓν ἐών• εἰ δ’ οὖν καὶ
ἀλγήσειεν, ἀνάγκη καὶ τὸ ἰώμενον ἓν εἶναι•

Man cannot be one (perhaps: a unity – the term hen is a bit slippery here but I’ll just breeze on…) since if he were he would not feel pain. (There would be nothing on account of which he would feel pain.) And if he were, per impossibile, to feel pain being such a unity then necessarily what cures would also be one.

I suppose there are two arguments here for a human being a complex of some kind. (By that I mean simply the claim that humans are in some way or other complex, either by being composed of more than one element, or being composed in some complex fashion such that not every part of a human is just like every other part of a human.)

The first argument is that humans feel pain. Why would something not feel pain if it were a unity? I suppose the assumption is that pain is to be understood as some kind of reaction to or sign of or indeed just is a change in the arrangement of whatever it is that humans are. A genuine unity could not undergo any such internal change at all and so a fortiori would not allow there to be any change of the sort that is related to pain.

There are some interesting links here with (i) Melissus’ idea that what is does not feel pain (B7.4) and (ii) Diogenes of Apollonia’s idea that in order for things to interact with one another there must be an underlying basic monism. I’ll have to do more to pursue those and there are no doubt other interesting strands to find, but those are the ones I thought of immediately. Interesting philosophers, these Hippocratics.

The second is also a good argument. Humans must be complex because what cures humans is not one or simple. I suppose the thought is this: if all humans were simple, then any disorder or pain-producing state would have to be such that there would necessarily be a single thing that would be capable of curing all humans (indeed curing all humans of all ailments). If a human were just a unified bit of some particular simple substance then, the thought goes, a single thing would be able to sure all ailments since, in order to have any effect on a person at all, it would also be able to effect all of the person (since the person in question is simple and a unity). The same thing would do to sure earaches as toothaches as kidney stones as…. Of course, as it is different things cure different ailments and different things might also cure the same ailment in different people. So people must be complicated.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Unfortunately, my thinking about Plato has been hijacked by the start of term. I've spent the last two days seeing new and returning students at around 10 minute intervals, reminding them what to do and where to go, how to register with a GP, and how to declare their 'flu buddies in advance of the inevitable great epidemic that will sweep the college some time between now and Christmas.

Poor lot -- I don't envy them at all. I have very hazy memories of my first week at university, and the hundred and one little anxieties (where is the laundry? how do I get my GiroVend card to work so I can buy lunch? how will I find this room in Sidney so I can meet some scary bloke who will tell me to read two books of the Georgics by next week and write something about them? will anybody like me? ... it goes on). But eventually, with the aid of a good diary and some friends (thank you L staircase, 1992-3) things more or less settle down.

First lecture, 9am tomorrow, and then back to the routine. Some good seminars to look forward to, including my first performance at a college seminar. Funny that. We don't often perform for our college colleagues, not formally at least. It will be interesting to see whether I make sense to them.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


This is fascinating. Not only a brilliant lecturer but some genuinely surprising facts. (And certainly a good lesson on how to use PowerPoint or similar well.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Play up! Play up! And play the game!

I'm reading again some of Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics. It's mostly very sensible stuff, clear, interesting, and often right. He's very good, in the main, on pleasure and desire and is refreshingly happy to talk about the complexity of the psychological factors involved. (I reckon this is in part because he was a careful reader of the Philebus and of Aristotle as well as the various more recent people he mentions, but let's leave that aside for now.)

But there are obstacles too. He's long-winded and sometimes boring. And also occasionally lets slip something jarringly pompous and Victorian. Like this (from Book 1 chap. 4 sec. 2):

Take, for example, the case of any game which involves---as most games do---a contest for victory. No ordinary player before entering on such a contest, has any desire for victory in it: indeed he often finds it difficult to imagine himself deriving gratification from such victory, before he has actually engaged in the competition. What he deliberately, before the game begins, desires is not victory, but the pleasant excitement of the struggle for it; only for the full development of this pleasure a transient desire to win the game is generally indispensable. This desire, which does not exist at first, is stimulated to considerable intensity by the competition itself: and in proportion as it is thus stimulated both the mere contest becomes more pleasurable, and the victory, which was originally indifferent, comes to afford a keen enjoyment.

This comes just before the section on the paradox of hedonism. HS does allow that one might conceive a 'transient' desire to win, just because some such desire is a necessary condition of engaging properly in the game. But for HS it is the pleasant excitement of the competition that matters most and any desire for victory must be instrumental to it. Well, this just seems to me to be false: I can imagine all kinds of sportsmen and women whose principal desire is to win the game, who would relish a game that was not a struggle at all. Sure, they don't want to be bored. But a desire for the pleasant excitement of competition whatever the result and a desire for victory that is stimulated only as a result of the excitement in engaging in the contest? I don't find this very plausible. I wonder if the professionalisation of sport and competition is what makes me less sure than HS about this. Is that a shame?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Socrates and intellectual pain

At Philebus 51e–52b, in response to Socrates’ idea that the pleasure of coming to know something is an example of pure pleasure, Protarchus argues that it can be painful to know just in the case that you come to know that you do not know something that you need to know. (A newly known unknown, in Rumsfeldian terms; unknown unknowns are not painful, fortunately.) And coming to know that known unknown will in that case not be a pure pleasure since it is preceded by a painful ignorance.

In those terms, is the Socrates of, say, the Apology in intellectual pain? I was asked this recently and I still am unsure what to say. Well, either he is or he isn’t, I suppose… I don’t think we’re told that Socrates is living a terribly pleasant life but I’m not sure either we are shown him living a painful life, wracked with terrible intellectual distress at the realisation of his ignorance. Perhaps he is an odd case (here as in other matters) and different dialogues will tell different stories about Socrates’ own intellectual achievements. Sometimes he seems rather full of opinions, but on other occasions he stresses that he has no idea at all about what he and his interlocutor are discussing. And when it comes to questions of the affective aspect of intellectual progress, again perhaps he is an unusual case. When the Theaetetus talks about the ‘birth-pangs’ of philosophical discussion (a motif also in the Republic 490a–b) we might remember that Socrates thinks of himself as barren (Tht. 149b). He can bring on these pains in others and, if possible, relieve them; but does not either have to endure them himself or have the capacity to feel the pleasure of them being dissipated.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

REF and Classics

HEFCE has just published a consultation document on the new REF (son-of-RAE). You can find it here; comments from HEIs must be in by 16 December. Most important for my interests is that the general aim to trim the number of assessment panels has led to the proposal to merge Classics and Ancient History into 'History, Classics and Archaeology'. The consultation document, p. 47, highlights this proposal:
d. History, Classics and Archaeology – we regard Classics and Archaeology as too small in terms of volume to merit discrete UOAs within the new structure. However, although they would appear to be reasonably cognate with History, this grouping might risk becoming too diverse. Alternative options include separating this into two units (History; and Archaeology and Classics) or combining Classics and/or Archaeology with other UOAs.

Hmmm. Well, I can't easily think of any other UOA ('Unit of assessment') Classics might fit into. But History? And is Classics etc. too small? The same document shows (p.49) that 415 FTEs ('Full-time equivalents') were submitted in Classics, Ancient History, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies in the 2008 RAE while still proposing a UOA for the REF, 'Area Studies' (inc. e.g. Middle Eastern and African Studies, Asian Studies) with a total of only 571 FTEs based on the 2008 numbers. In lots of ways, Classics is as much an 'Area Study' as it is a historical discipline. But I see the problem: a case might well be made for including what I do in the Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies UOA. On the other hand, I think this is a proposal we would do well to avoid.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Oh. Dear. ITV2 tonight starts a new series, Trinity. You can watch a trailer here.

The website says:

Set in the gothic, oak panelled halls of residence and lecture theatres of the fictional Bridgeford University, Trinity College, the ITV2 eight part series brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "first term nerves".

For over 900 years, Trinity has been an elite playground solely for the über rich and powerful. However, for the first time in its long and illustrious history, Trinity is about to throw open its doors to the (sic) hoi polloi!

As new girl Charlotte and her fellow students settle in, they begin to realise that all is not what it seems at Trinity.

Beneath the glamorous veneer of wealth and privilege lurks a much darker world, ruled by the mysterious Dandelion Club: a select group of over-privileged students used to getting their own way.

Trinity boasts a host of gorgeous (sic), up-and-coming new talent alongside great established names, including Charles Dance, Claire Skinner & Christian Cooke.

I'm not sure whether I can stomach it, to be honest, having seen a few minutes. It's Cruel Intentions meets Porterhouse Blue meets some half-formed idea about UK higher education being more open to people from different social classes. It's real ITV2 stuff. I hope both Trinity colleges have good lawyers on the case already.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pleasure, learning, and knowing

Back to ancient philosophy. I am still wrestling with an old problem. In Republic IX Socrates claims that the life of the philosopher is the most pleasant and justifies that be an appeal to the fact that only the philosopher will experience the pleasures associated with knowing perfect intelligible and unchanging objects. His soul, itself something immortal and stable, will be properly filled by its proper objects. The problem is that Socrates seems to think throughout that pleasure is a kinēsis (583e9–10) and contrasts the intellectual pleasures of knowing with the bodily pleasures of, say, eating in such a way that it seems most likely that he has in mind the pleasures associated with the process of satisfying a lack, whether bodily or intellectual.

So, once the philosopher has come to know the Forms, will he be able ever again to experience the great pleasures associated with that process of coming-to-know? What will the hedonic life of a fully-fledged philosopher be like? There are various things we can say in answer to this, but I am still not sure that Socrates has much to say on the question whether there are pleasures associated with the possession of knowledge or the active use of knowledge in the way Aristotle can.

I’m working my way again through some interesting comments in Delcomminette’s book on the Philebus. He points to the following brief passage in Republic IX but I’m not sure how precisely it ought to be understood. Here it is:

τὸν δὲ φιλόσοφον, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, τί οἰώμεθα τὰς ἄλλας ἡδονὰς νομίζειν πρὸς τὴν τοῦ εἰδέναι τἀληθὲς ὅπῃ ἔχει καὶ ἐν τοιούτῳ τινὶ ἀεὶ εἶναι μανθάνοντα; (581d9–e1)

This is part of the argument that shows (tries to show) that in a debate between advocates of three kinds of life – money-loving, victory-loving, and wisdom-loving – although the three will each propose that their own pleasures are the best, we should side with the judgement of the philosophos. Here we are asked to imagine how the philosopher would compare the others’ pleasures with his own. But what are he own pleasures?

Delcomminette comments that here Socrates refers to the ‘plaisir de connaître le vrai tel quil est et d’être toujours dans un tel état en apprenant’ (2006, 477). This is in support of his general view that the philosopher is in a state of ‘apprentissage permanent’ since in an important sense knowing (connaître, εἰδέναι) and learning (apprendre, μανθάνειν) are identical. He takes this to refer to the pleasures the philosopher can enjoy even once he has acquired understanding of the Good and so on. It’s not clear to me just how the sentence should be rendered and understood. Griffith’s translation has ‘…the pleasure of knowing where the truth lies and always enjoying some similar sort of pleasure while he is learning it’, which sounds much more like the pleasure concerned is found in the process of learning and that there is no reference here to any pleasure to be had in the possession of knowledge. Grube’s translation has ‘…[pleasure] of knowing where the truth lies and always being in some such pleasant condition while learning’.

It would certainly be interesting if we had an assertion that there is pleasure to be had in knowing, in the sense of the possession rather than the acquisition of knowledge, whether or not we should think of knowing as a state of constant learning. (And, if it is not thus understood, we would have to wonder whether we can reconcile the notion of the pleasure of knowing with the idea of pleasure as a change involving the satisfaction of a lack.) But I suppose I have two difficulties:

1. Does the qualification ὅπῃ ἔχει form part of the object of τοῦ εἰδέναι? In other words, are we told that the philosopher knows ‘where the truth lies’ (which seems compatible with the philosopher not yet knowing the truth) or does the philosopher ‘know the truth’ and it is Socrates who then comments in his own voice: ὅπῃ ἔχει, since he does not himself know?

2. What is the precise meaning of the second part of the conjunction? Are we told that the philosopher is always in such a state when he learns (but can be in other states when he is doing other things than learning) or that as a learner he is always in that sate (that is, he is in a constant state of learning)?


Sunday, September 13, 2009

This space for hire

British TV will now allow product placement in its programming. Shame. The BBC, at least, will remain resolutely ad-free but the days of the shelves of Corrie's cabin being filled by made-up magazines are soon to be no more. Will Newton and Ridley lose control of the Rover's?

I suppose this was coming. And, in one sense, it will make drama shows less odd. It was perfectly reasonable for Mad Men, for example, to include stories of real companies hiring the firm to plug their new products and, much as I love Don and Betty, I did not feel a great urge to go out and buy Heineken because of its prominence in one of the episodes. It would have been a little odd for a show to set out to evoike a certain period, make reference to known events, be styled scrupulously for the time, but not refer to Kodak, American Airlines and the like.

So, I'm happy to join in. From now on I am open to bids for product placement within my lectures and anything I publish. It's pretty easy for me to drop a few brand names into any philosophical examples I use. I could, for example, refer to a particular rail operator when introducing trolley problems... Well, perhaps not that one. But I could wonder about the quale of drinking a particular Scottish-produced fizzy drink (the one made from girders...). Reasonable rates will apply, of course.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Harbingers of doom

Two unmistakable signs today of the imminent beginning of term. First, the names are going up on the room lists at the bottom of each staircase. Some sensible colleges still have them painted on in a nice calligraphic style. (See pictured here the board for Clare's L staircase where I had room L2 in 1992-3; it was very nice but very cold.) Here at Corpus we have moved to the printing of sticky labels. Still, the college will soon be populated again and that is probably a good thing; it seems a bit lifeless during the vacation.

Second, the Cambridge Pocket Diary for 2009-10 has arrived. This is very important because it tells you at a glance such essential information as when the Lent term 'divides' (13 Feb 2010, by the way) and when the Philological Society will be meeting. But... This year it has changed colour, from a nice friendly maroon to a bold black. It's probably something to do with the 800th anniversary thing but it is a change, nevertheless, and therefore probably something bad. (These diaries have been going for some time and are often themselves important relics. See pictured here Wittgenstein's diary showing some important appointments for Lent term 1930 taken from the pages at the Wittgenstein archive). Still, I shall spend some of the afternoon transferring all the bits and pieces I have written in the back of my old diary and filling up the appointments already made for the new term.

In other news, it is now possible (hooray!) to read the story of Betrand Russell's early life and philosophical career in comic book form. (See the Amazon link below.) Thrill as 'through love and hate, peace and war', Bertie 'persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity' (as the blurb puts it). Holy set-theory-paradox, Batman! Kapoow!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


It's still the school hols so I've not had much brainpower to spare recently. But while I think of something to say here are some good blogs for you to look at:

There I fixed it

The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks


Normal service will resume soon.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Interview with Maria Michela Sassi

I'm reading and enjoying (despite reading it in part in order to write a review) Sassi's new book, Gli inizi della filosofia: in Grecia (Bollati Boringhieri). I've also just found an interesting interview discussing the book with her by Simona Maggiorelli here. (The interview was, I think, published in Left-avvenimenti, 24 July 2009.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Offprint: Aristotle on Speusippus on Eudoxus on pleasure

Not sure how many people will be interested, but I've just got a pdf offprint of my essay in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 36, 2009: 'Aristotle on Speusippus on Eudoxus on pleasure'. You can download it here.

New Professor Layton Game

Not sure I can wait and put it on my Xmas list...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Danny's Dad

A friend is Chief Executive of the Fatherhood Institute, a UK think-tank devoted to issues of fatherhood and parenting. They have been looking at representations of fathers, particularly in popular dramas, and how they might project or reflect particular expectations and conceptions of the role. We ended up talking recently about the portrayals of fathers in the children's books we are both currently reading to our respective kids. A lot of the time, particularly in more modern picture books, there aren't many fathers shown at all.

Perhaps the authors are concerned to move beyond the kind of family you see in something like The tiger who came to tea, a kindly enough Dad who comes in from work and sorts out the problem of having no food left in the cupboard -- the tiger has eaten it; he has also drunk 'all Daddy's beer' -- by taking the family out for a meal. Or perhaps it is just a general aversion to portraying a mother + father + children kind of family in case it simply does not match the reality of much of their hoped-for readership.

Whatever the reason, we found it a bit tricky to come up with some great Dads. The best I could manage is Danny's Dad in Roald Dahl's Danny, the champion of the world: he's loving but still very paternal and blokey, even dangerously so. (The picture above shows Jeremy Irons and his sone Samuel who played Danny and his Dad in the film.) But even there there is the thought that he has acquired this role because of the loss of Danny's Mum. Can anyone help out with some others, preferably Dads who are still part of a more or less complete family unit but are not absent, uninterested, made to appear like idiots, too stern, or in some other way not very positively described?

Monday, August 17, 2009


This, from Laurie Taylor's THE column, made me giggle. Sad, I know.

Three injured in 'pain' riot

Police cars raced to our campus on Monday in response to an emergency call from the convenor of this year's Annual Conference of Physicalist Philosophers.

According to witnesses, a fracas involving several dozen delegates broke out in the conference hall during a paper by Professor D.W. Grimping on the manner in which physicalism could readily dispose of the issue of qualia raised by such states as feeling pain and seeing red.

As Grimping neared his conclusion on the merits of supervenience physicalism, it seems that an organised cabal of unregistered phenomenologists rose to their feet and began to chant in unison: "phenomenal nature is not exhausted by functional role".

Delegates who moved to eject the troublemakers were met with blows from rolled-up copies of the conference abstracts and shouts of "this is what pain feels like" and "now you know what seeing red really means".

Speaking to The Poppletonian, the convener of the conference, Doctor L.G. Thinginess, expressed his regrets for the violence. "Most phenomenologists", he insisted, "are perfectly happy sitting around quietly examining their own structures of feeling. It's only a minority who seek to impose those feelings on others."

Our Corporate Director of Conference Hospitality, Janet Teesmade, confirmed that there would be an investigation into the incident and that careful consideration would be given to any future conference applications from philosophers. "Without taking sides in the present dispute, it does rather seem that these physicalists get under other people's skin by not getting under other people's skin."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Admissions timing

Next week the college will find out the exam results of all those students who have 'conditional offers' to come as undergraduates in October. Some will not quite get the required examination grades and will miss out. The college therefore has to make slightly more offers than it wants places filled. All in all, there is a degree of uncertainty about the process that might better be removed.

There is another problem with making admissions offers before examination grades: some people will do better than they or their school expected. They might not have applied to universities with generally higher conditional offer grades but then discover too late that they might have had a shot. In a new report, the Sutton Trust makes a compelling argument that maintained school students are more likely than independent school students to fall into this category and not have applied to a course they turn out to have good enough grades for. (You can read the full report here as a pdf file.)

Of course, things are a little more complicated, mostly because getting the right grades is not a sufficient condition for entry. But even so there is clearly an important point here based on confidence. You have to be in it to win it... Some pupils, perhaps encouraged by home and school, will take a punt on a course even if they are not sure that their grades will be good enough. Others will be discouraged. And on the present system you have to apply before you know your final grades.

The Sutton Trust suggests that the timetable might be altered so as to make applications based on final grades, that is to say that university applications might be delayed until after the final school exam results. I can imagine admissions tutors turning purple at the thought of trying to arrange everything between mid-August and early October even if they might know immediately how many people are going to turn up on day one. So perhaps the university term has to be delayed, say until January. Not sure about that: what can we find for all these eighteen-year-olds to do between August and January?

Maybe. The chairman of the Sutton Trust summarises the report as follows:
This research shows that even with the right grades in the right A-level subjects, thousands of state school students each year do not apply to the most academically selective degree courses. [1]

The timing issue is just one possibility. Another possibility, which the Sutton Trust also points out, is to tackle to confidence problem head on. Indeed, I like to think that much of the university's admissions and outreach programmes are designed to do just that. If in doubt and if the course offered is the course you want, then make the application. More people are getting 3 As than before [2], after all, and if the potential reward is big enough then give it a go. But this is also not just a problem for the universities to solve. Schools too ought to bear some of the burden of encouraging their students to apply to the best universities whatever the timetable for applications.

[1] The report, p. 21, gives the appropriately more nuanced: 'The evidence suggests that low application rates are a considerable factor in the relatively low entry into selective research universities from state maintained schools and from FE colleges. This research is not able to identify why application rates are lower: whether decisions not to apply to such institutions are due to poor advice and information or low aspirations, or whether they are simply the result of well-informed choices to apply elsewhere in the Higher Education sector. To determine this would require a study of young people’s decision making around choice of HE study.'

[2] Yes, I know Cambridge is going to move to a A*AA offer from next year. No one really knows what effect that will have so we'll have to just wait and see...

Friday, August 07, 2009

De mortuis nil nisi...?

News of a person's death is spread very rapidly via the internets, and some recent cases have set me thinking about the tributes that are often posted in response. I'm not so interested in obituaries as such, if what is meant by an obituary is a considered and rounded attempt to sum up a life and a person. Obituaries can often be somewhat critical of the subject, even if they are generally couched in respectful terms. I'm interested instead in the kind of tributes and posts that say how much the recently deceased person meant, what they stood for, how much they will be missed and so on. These are generally, I'm sure, very sincere. But that seems to me to make it even more of a shame that the person concerned is not there to hear the esteem in which they are held. So why don't we tell people while they are still alive the sort of attitudes we have towards them as revealed in these tributes? (Academics, in particular, tend to be rather guarded in their personal praise towards people and colleagues in particular who are still alive but genuine and warm in the tributes to people when they have died.)

I don't think it matters that these tributes might, given time, often be tempered with qualification or matched with criticism of the person. It still seems interesting to me that we do have these genuine positive estimations of people but tend not to voice them or not to feel licensed or motivated to voice them until faced with the news of that person's absence.

Perhaps we think it best to wait until the end of a life before summing up its achievements and impact. The Solonic thought has its merits but, as Aristotle would no doubt point out, seems rather over-careful.

Perhaps we think if we really did disclose these positive attitudes to the person concerned they would somehow be damaged by them, made conceited, made embarrassed or otherwise compromised. I suppose this is in part true also but if so it seems to me to be unfortunate too.

Perhaps we ourselves would be embarrassed to disclose these affections to the person concerned. It would be a kind of opening up analogous to the risk involved in declaring romantic affections or sexual desire for another.

Then again, these tributes are a kind of public and communal activity. Posting a reminiscence on a website or sharing a story at a memorial is a shared practice of reinforcing certain positive traits we might like to encourage and aspire to ourselves.

What would it be like if we did tell people these things while they are still around to appreciate the high esteem with which they are held? (There are cases that are comparable -- awards of one kind or another, perhaps the tributes that appear in academic Festschriften, for example. But these are often couched in a kind of formulaic language that perhaps make them safer. If you come across anything too gushing in such a volume it does jar a little.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Welcome to the new age of patronage

You might have thought that twelve years into a Labour government we might have seen a degree of progressive social change. Yes and No. Social mobility is down, for example. This is something that it extremely bad news for universities, particularly ones which are committed simultaneously to admitting the very best and brightest students as undergraduates and also want to ensure a range and diversity of educational backgrounds for its intake. (By the way, the latter of these is something which the university wants to do anyway and it does not need government urging to take this seriously.  What it does need is a government intent on making sure that educational opportunities before 18 are such that students from various backgrounds have a fighting chance of making the necessary standards for admission.)

But now there is something new to make me shout at the telly. Channel 4 is not the most reliable of social indicators, I realise, but a new programme starting tonight, How the other half lives is perhaps the most depressing thing I have heard for some time.  An affluent middle-class family takes on a poor family and helps them out in a series of direct acts of beneficence.  What's wrong with that?  It's just like those scheme where you sponsor a child in the developing world, except now you get to drive up to their flat and see how very very grateful they are.  Aaaargh!  Wrong wrong wrong.  Who chose which family was going to be grateful and deserving enough?  What happened to the notion that poor people are entitled to state aid, free from prejudice and the contingency that it might be taken away on a whim if little Alexandra suddenly fancies horse-riding lessons instead?  The idea should be that certain people are entitled to aid and that other people are required to share some of their wealth to do so.  Making it personalised, while perhaps offering a veneer of direct effectiveness, wraps up what ought to be a matter of principle in a cloak of forelock-tugging and self-satisfied feelings of 'having done something important'.  Just take Christine and Charlie from episode one and tax them more, perhaps just a little bit.  They can keep their gardeners and so on.  They evidently have some money they do not need and are in some sense committed to social change so I don't see why they would mind.  Not much of a human interest documentary in that, I suppose, but I'd rather have blank screen for an hour than be offered this.

Monday, July 27, 2009

From the front line

Things I have learned so far from our holidays:

1. The Roman Baths in, er, Bath are great (I mean the museum is great) and have a nice audio guide with different stories for kids, adults, people who want to listen to Bill Bryson etc.  You can flip between them, which R appreciated when she got fed up with actors pretending to be Romans.

2. Wookey Hole is a lovely and exciting set of caves spoiled by an overpriced and very random not-any-theme-I-can- discern park attached.  It does have a ye olde halle of mirrors, though, which was quite fun.  The 'restaurant' was dire, however, and I get v. annoyed at the assumption in lots of these places in the UK that kids will eat only chips accompanied by some sort of reformed and fried 'meat' product.  We were told we couldn't have anything else in a child's portion.  Why not?

3. What counts as an 'A' road is geographically very variable.  Our sat nav is quite confused and counts as a junction things that are just very big bends in the road.  I swear there was a note of panic in her voice this afternoon.

4. S and I are ploughing through a box set of Mad Men season 1 in the evenings.  I'm loving it; not sure yet if I find Donald Draper totally evil or someone I really want to be.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

O tempora!

This from today's Grauniad had me scratching my head for a bit. It's from an article (well, really one of those 'Point'/'Counterpoint' things[1] about toplessness (the young French are less keen on it than the older generation, apparently):
I'm just saying that it's a bit of a coincidence that a sartorial (or anti-sartorial) habit – a cultural more, if you will – makes them look sophisticated and gets them an all-over tan at the same time. It's all very convenient.

I couldn't construe the aside, '- a cultural more, if you will - ' because I was reading 'more' as the comparative (many, more , most...) It took me ages to work out that it is supposed to be the singular of 'mores' (as in 'o tempora! o mores!). Oh dear.

[1] Of which the best example ever is here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


My birthday today, and I am very much now in the second half of my 30s. A good day, though, because first of all I was given a Lego Darth Vader TIE Advanced to make (as pictured). (I've also just discovered this site which has a pretty comprehensive list of all the Star Wars Lego sets released so far...)

Then I went to town with S to buy a new guitar. I've had a classical guitar since I took lessons when I was at school but I now also have a nice metal-stringed acoustic number/ I will have to build up a repertoire now of tunes with which to embarrass the kids.

Nothing ancient philosophical to report just yet but I have been toying with some of the testimonia on Xenophanes in Aristotle's Rhetoric, mostly on the topic of Xenophanes' notion of piety. I'm still working those ideas through for now but I might have something to post here soon, mostly requests for assistance as usual.

Friday, July 17, 2009


I've just found this interesting entry in the Suda (eta 97):
Ἐκ τῶν Πλωτίνου. Ἡδοναί, λύπαι, θάρρη, φόβοι, ἐπιθυμίαι,
ἀποστροφαὶ καὶ τὸ ἀλγεῖν, τίνος ἂν εἶεν; ἢ γὰρ ψυχῆς, ἢ χρωμένης
ψυχῆς σώματι ἢ τρίτου τινὸς ἐξ ἀμφοῖν. διχῶς δὲ καὶ τοῦτο. ἢ γὰρ
τὸ μῖγμα ἢ ἄλλο τι ἐκ τοῦ μίγματος. Ὅροι ἡδονῆς, αʹ λεία κίνησις,
βʹ ἢ γένεσις εἰς φύσιν αἰσθητή, γʹ ἢ ἄλογος διάχυσις, δʹ ἢ ἐνέργεια (5)
τῆς κατὰ φύσιν ἕξεως ἀνεμπόδιστος, εʹ ἢ τὸ παρακολουθοῦν τέλος
ταῖς τελευταίαις ἐνεργείαις. ἐκ τούτων τῶν ὅρων ἰσχύει τις ἀνα-
σκευάζειν καὶ κατασκευάζειν, ὅτι ἀγαθὸν ἡ ἡδονή, καὶ ὅτι μή. Ἡδονὴ
δέ ἐστι λεία κίνησις, πόνος δὲ τραχεῖα κίνησις. καὶ τὴν μὲν εὐδοκη-
τὴν πᾶσι ζῴοις, τὸν δὲ ἀποκρουστικόν. ἡδονὴν μέντοι τὴν τοῦ σώμα- (10)
τος, ἣν καὶ τέλος εἶναι, οὐ τὴν καταστηματικὴν ἡδονὴν τὴν ἐπ’
ἀναιρέσει ἀλγηδόνων καὶ οἷον ἀοχλησίαν τέλος εἶναι φασί. διαφέρει
δὲ τέλος εὐδαιμονίας. τέλος μὲν γὰρ εἶναι τὴν κατὰ μέρος ἡδονήν,
εὐδαιμονίαν δὲ τὸ ἐκ τῶν μερικῶν ἡδονῶν σύστημα, αἷς συναριθμοῦν-
ται καὶ αἱ παρῳχηκυῖαι καὶ αἱ μέλλουσαι. εἶναί τε τὴν μερικὴν (15)
ἡδονὴν δι’ αὑτὴν αἱρετήν, τὴν δὲ εὐδαιμονίαν οὐ δι’ αὑτήν, ἀλλὰ
διὰ τὰς κατὰ μέρος ἡδονάς. Ἡδονὴ δέ ἐστιν ἄλογος ἔπαρσις ἐφ’
αἱρετῷ δοκοῦντι ὑπάρχειν. ὑφ’ ἣν τάττεται κήλησις, ἐπιχαιρεκακία,
τέρψις, διάχυσις. κήλησις μὲν οὖν ἐστιν ἡδονὴ δι’ ὤτων κατακηλοῦσα,
ἐπιχαιρεκακία δὲ ἡδονὴ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις κακοῖς, τέρψις δὲ οἷον τρέψις, (20)
προτροπή τις ψυχῆς ἐπὶ τὸ ἀνειμένον• διάχυσις δὲ ἀνάλυσις ἀρετῆς.
ἔστι δὲ περὶ ἑκατέρου μέρους τῆς ἀντιφάσεως συλλογισμὸς ἔνδοξος.
ὅτι μὲν ἀγαθὸν ἡ ἡδονή, δείκνυσιν ὁ συλλογισμὸς οὗτος• οὗ πάντα
ἐφίεται, ἀγαθόν• τῆς ἡδονῆς δὲ πάντα ἐφίεται• ἡ ἡδονὴ ἄρα ἀγαθόν.
τὸ δὲ μὴ εἶναι αὐτὴν ἀγαθὸν ὁ τοιοῦτος• τὸ ἀγαθὸν ἀγαθοὺς ποιεῖ• (25)
ἡ ἡδονὴ ἀγαθοὺς οὐ ποιεῖ• οὐκ ἄρα ἡ ἡδονὴ ἀγαθόν. ἡ ἡδονὴ τοίνυν
ἐστὶ κίνησις λεία• ἐνέργεια δὲ ἀτελὴς πᾶσα κίνησις• μηδὲν δὲ ἀγαθὸν
ἀτελές• ἡ ἡδονὴ ἄρα οὐκ ἀγαθόν.

This is the translation from the Suda online:

From the writings of Plotinus. [Pleasures,] pains, recklessness, fears, aversions and to feel pain of mind, to what do they belong? For they belong either to the soul or the soul making use of the body or a third thing composed of both. This latter can be understood in two senses, too: for it is either a mixture or some other thing resulting from a mixture. Definitions of pleasure: 1, a smooth movement; or 2, a perceptible process of generation toward nature; or 3, an irrational relaxation; or 4, an unhindered activity of a natural condition; or 5, an end following the complete activities. Taking these definitions as a starting point, one is able to support and to overthrow the thesis that pleasure is a good and that it is not a good. Pleasure is a smooth movement but distress is a rough movement; and while the former is well-pleasing for every animal, the latter is repulsive. They say that the bodily pleasure that is also an end, is not a pleasure pertaining to a state, the one consisting of taking away of pains of mind, such as freedom from disturbance; they say that bodily pleasure is also an end. The end is different from happiness, for the end is particular pleasure but the structure consisting of particular pleasures with which we measure past and future pleasures, is happiness. And particular pleasure is worth choosing by itself, but happiness is not worth choosing by itself but by particular pleasures. Pleasure is an irrational elation over what seems to be worth choosing. Under it are arranged fascination, joy at another's misfortune, enjoyment, relaxation. Now fascination is a pleasure which fascinates one through one's hearing sense. Joy at another's misfortune is a pleasure at someone else's bad things; enjoyment, as a turning, is a certain conversion of the soul towards the dissolute; relaxation is the dissolving of virtue. There is an acknowledged syllogistic argument of the contradictory position concerning each part "of the thesis whether pleasure is a good or is not a good". The following syllogistic argument shows that pleasure is a good: the good is that at which all things aim. All things aim at pleasure. Therefore, pleasure is good. On the contrary, the argument that shows that pleasure is not a good is the following: the good makes men good. Pleasure does not make men good. Therefore, pleasure is not a good. In fact, pleasure is a smooth movement, but every movement is an incomplete activity. However, no good is incomplete. Consequently, pleasure is not a good.

It's clearly a 'bricolage' (is that the term?) of bits and pieces from various authors and the online Suda entry (here) does a good job of pointing to the various places in Plotinus, the Cyrenaic doxography of DL 2, and Aristotle where the various parts can be found in their original context.

What I think is very interesting, however, is this comment after the list of 'definitions' of pleasure:
ἐκ τούτων τῶν ὅρων ἰσχύει τις ἀνασκευάζειν καὶ κατασκευάζειν, ὅτι ἀγαθὸν ἡ ἡδονή, καὶ ὅτι μή.

Taking these definitions as a starting point, one is able to support and to overthrow the thesis that pleasure is a good and that it is not a good.
Perhaps someone out there who knows the Suda better might be able to help me out. It looks to me as if the list of 'definitions', all of which have some decent philosophical pedigree, is being offered as a kind of toolkit for dialectical tussles.

The closest I can find is Aristotle Topics 120a6-31 in which 'pleasure is good' or 'pleasure is not good' are taken as examples of theses which can be rejected because they have not been properly specified. It is not clear immediately whether what is meant is that 'all pleasures are good' or 'some pleasure is good' and so on. The point here, however, does not turn on what the nature of pleasure is taken to be (although in dialectical exchanges this might well turn out to be a relevant piece of information). Also interesting are the arguments in lines 22-26 of the Suda entry which demonstrate that it is possible to argue on both sides of this question.

Pro: What everything aims at is the good; everything aims at pleasure; so pleasure is the good.
Con: The good makes men good; pleasure does not make men good; so pleasure is not the good.

The 'Pro' argument is recognisably Eudoxan (see NE 10.2). The 'Con' argument can be found in Alexander's commentary on the Topics (In Top. 2.26-9 and elsewhere (pp.28, 77, 262).

The closest parallel of all is in Anon. Expos. Ars. Rhet. 743.7-16 Walz. But I don't know anything about this text or its supposed date. Can anyone help? Here it is:
ἔστι δὲ προβλήματα διαλεκτι-
κὰ καὶ ὧν εἰσιν ἐναντίοι συλλογισμοί· ἀπορίαν γὰρ ἔχει,
πότερον οὕτως ἔχει ἢ οὐχ οὕτως, διὰ τὸ περὶ ἀμφοτέρων
εἶναι λόγους πιθανούς. τὴν γὰρ ἡδονήν ἐστι καὶ ὡς ἀγα- (10)
θὸν συλλογίσασθαι, καὶ ὡς κακὸν, καὶ ἀμφότερα διὰ
λόγων πιθανῶν· ὅθεν ἀπορεῖν ἐστι, ποτέρῳ ἄν τις προσ-
τιθείη. καὶ κατασκευάζεται μὲν, ὡς ἀγαθόν ἐστιν, οὕτω.
τῆς ἡδονῆς πάντα ἐφίεται· οὗ δὲ πάντα ἐφίεται, ἀγα-
θόν· ἡ ἡδονὴ ἄρα ἀγαθόν. πάλιν ἐστὶ δεῖξαι, ὡς οὐκ (15)
ἀγαθὸν, οὕτως· τὸ ἀγαθὸν ἀγαθοὺς ποιεῖ· ἡ ἡδονὴ ἀ-
γαθοὺς οὐ ποιεῖ· ἡ ἡδονὴ ἄρα οὐκ ἀγαθόν·

Sunday, July 12, 2009

An allusion in Non posse?

This might be something of a stretch, but I wonder what others make of the following suggestion.

I'm thinking again about Plutarch's Non posse and how he criticises the Epicurean theory of pleasure and happiness from a Platonist standpoint. (I gave a paper on this last year at a conference in Oxford on Plutarch and philosophy and have been revising the paper for --  I hope -- publication in the proceedings.)  I think Plutarch has two general lines of attack: first, the Epicureans mistake the intermediate state of freedom from pain for pleasure itself. They do not see that there is a distinction between being free from pain and experiencing pleasure.  And second, by failing to stress the true pleasure to be had from the workings of the rational soul they therefore reduce humanity to the level of mere beasts.

Both of these criticisms, it seems to me, are driven by Plutarch's understanding of Plato Republic IX.  Some of the points of contact between Non posse and Republic IX are clear and obvious.  But I wonder how far the influence penetrates through the work.  For example, I have been wondering if I can make something of Plutarch's choice of vocabulary at 1091F. At that point of the text he is expanding on the notion that the Epicureans restrict pleasure to mere absence of pain and connects this with the idea that Epicurean pleasure is somehow sub-human; they put joy into a tiny and closed pen where it is forced to twist and turn (ἐν ᾧ στρέφεται καὶ κυλινδεῖται).   I am particularly interested in κυλινδεῖται.  Although this verb is not uncommon in Plutarch, this is the only time he uses this form. Is it perhaps meant as an allusion to the nature of the ‘many beautiful things’ at Plato Rep. 479d4 which 'roll about' between being and not-being?  

The allusion would at least be relevant since one of Plutarch's complaints is that the Epicureans are concerned only with perceptible or bodily objects of pleasure, to be contrasted with the proper objects of true pleasure which are the intelligible objects only accessible by reason alone.  Furthermore, the discussion of pleasure in Rep. IX seems to me to be rather like the famous passages at the end of book V in so far as in both there is both a dialectical argument aimed against some misguided, indeed 'sick', opponents which attempts to reveal their respective mistakes about pleasure and knowledge combined with another argument which makes use of the developed metaphysics of what we can for convenience call 'Forms and particulars' - very roughly: unchanging intelligible objects grasped by reason and changing perceptible objects grasped by perception.

I suppose I am wondering whether there is any other evidence of Platonists of about Plutarch's period getting as interested in the argument at the end of Rep. V as more recent modern interpreters of the work.  In that case, could Plutarch be casually alluding to it here?  On the other hand, the argument with the lovers of sights and sounds is now a staple of our Classics second-year ancient philosophy paper.  So, has the fact that I have spent many weeks every Michaelmas term for the last ten years or more (plus summers spent reading examination answers on the same topic) going through that argument led me to spot possible allusions to it everywhere?