Sunday, May 31, 2009

Thanatological explosion

There seems to be a rash of books about the philosophy of death being published at the moment. The following have all been published in the last couple of years, and three of them in 2009. I wonder why. It's an interesting subject, of course, and in the last twenty years there has been a steady flow of articles on the topic and an increasingly tangled set of views. Perhaps the subject has just got to a point now at which it is thought profitable to take stock and present a general overview of the various options and also it has perhaps now made itself on to university course provisions, thereby generating a market for publishers to aim at.

I had a crack at this general area from a more historical perspective, but I have tried my best to keep up with the increasing literature. I wonder whether the topic has reached something of a staging point; propelled initially by reactions to Nagel's 1979 article (in his Mortal questions) and then Parfit's challenging work on temporal asymmetries in Reasons and persons, the current publishing boom is in many ways following the example of Feldman's 1992 Confrontations with the reaper. What next? It seems to me that what is needed now is something innovative to set the discussion off in a new direction. It's not clear precisely where that will come from: empirical psychology, perhaps?

Friday, May 29, 2009


There is a wonderful passage in Glenn Most's article on collecting philosophical fragments[1] which I think is worth sharing. It was pointed out to me by a graduate student earlier in the year, but I've just got hold of a copy of the volume and found it again.
[T]here is a seduction to working on fragments which is often neglected in scholarly discussions of the subject but which nevertheless seems to exercize a powerful subliminal fascination, especially upon scholars. Closed, finished texts can sometimes seem to rebuff us. They are already perfect: what can we add to them besides our own misunderstandings? But a text upon which time and fortune have unleashed all their destructive fury can present itself to us in the form of fragments: wounded, incomplete, crying out for out help if it is to speak once more its words which have almost been silenced. Curiosity, and even a kind of piety, urge that we gather such relics; but so too does a deeper, more mysterious urge, which makes us want to render less incomplete the many imperfections of our own experience and to redeem to some degree the dominion that chance and disappointment have over our own lives. Perhaps, if we can succeed in rescuing the broken fragments of some long dead Greek philosopher, then might not the shattered hopes of our own existence somehow be restored? (Most 1998, p.14)

Does this ring true for anyone?

[1] G. W. Most, 'À la recherche du texte perdu: on collecting philosophical fragments', in W. Burkert, L. Gemelli Marciano, E. Matelli and L. Orelli (eds.) Fragmentsammlungen philosophischer texter der Antike / Le raccolte dei frammenti di filosofi antichi (Aporemata 3), Göttingen, 1998, 1-15.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A personal statement

Today's Guardian had an unhelpful article on the attitude of Cambridge admissions to an applicant's 'personal statement', a box on the UCAS form that allows the student to say something in joined-up prose about why they are applying for what they are applying for, why they are interested, what they've done in terms of preparation for the course and the like. The article offers the headline: ' Admitting defeat. So, universities don't read personal statements, A* grades aren't to be trusted and A-levels are routinely denigrated. Just what are students meant to make of it all?'

Students would do best not to take the alarming claims in the headline too seriously. Yes, there may have been a slightly clumsy statement recently on this issue, but the university's clarification (to be found here) is, well, pretty clear. We do read personal statements. Carefully. More than once.

What follows is my own view, not endorsed by any admissions tutor or the central admissions office, but since I do play a small role in the admissions process then I think it might be worth my saying how I view things.

The article begins:

Spare a thought for those poor year 12 students who, as they traipse around university open days this summer, will be wondering just what they have to do to get into the course of their choice.

Should they concentrate on beefing up their volunteering, work experience and extracurricular activities in order to have lots to put into their Ucas personal statements in the autumn? Or should they set all else aside and focus exclusively on trying to achieve the new A* grades at A-level?

The second paragraph offers a false dilemma. No, for my part I am not particularly interested in what volunteering work someone has done. But that is because I take my role to be one of assessing applicants for an academic course studying, say, philosophy. Some aspects of what the applicant has been up to - however important in other ways - are irrelevant as far as that goes. It might be interesting to hear that the applicant has been able to manage a number of different demands on his or her time, but that is still at best a minor consideration. But it is also true that I am not solely concerned with examination grades. I do want to read the personal statement because I want to know something about why the applicant is interested in coming to study this particular kind of course. They will have that commitment sorely tested when they get stuck in to the demands of the work, so I want to be assured that it is no passing interest and that they have done something to see if it is indeed a subject they will enjoy studying.

And in all of this, in the assessment of academic qualifications so far and in our reading of the personal statements, we do our best to take into account the applicant's educational background.

The article then claims:
Cambridge has said it does not use personal statements when deciding whom to interview, but it does want students who achieve at least one A*.
Again true, but only in a rather narrow sense. Worse, to put the point like this is again potentially misleading. Personal statements do not determine who is invited to interview, true, but that is because as far as possible we call all applicants to interview whom we think have a sufficiently strong background in prior qualifications to have a shot. They are not however left unused so far as the admissions process goes.

Like the interview, they are one of the ways in which we try to get as full a picture as possible of the candidate from which we can then begin to make an assessment of their suitability and aptitude for the course. It's not particularly mysterious.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Have you ever been stuck for a compilation CD to play at a funeral? Fret no longer:

(I came across this on the excellent Popjustice...)

Cutting and burning

I’m now looking at the section on the Cyrenaics in Aristocles ap. Eusebius PE 14.19. Here is 14.19.1 (F5 Chiesara):

Ἑξῆς δ’ ἂν εἶεν οἱ λέγοντες μόνα τὰ πάθη καταληπτά· τοῦτο δ’ εἶπον ἔνιοι τῶν ἐκ τῆς Κυρήνης. οὗτοι δ’ ἠξίουν, ὥσπερ ὑπὸ κάρου πιεζόμενοί τινος, οὐδὲν εἰδέναι τὸ παράπαν, εἰ μή τις παραστὰς αὐτοὺς παίοι καὶ κεντῴη· καιόμενοι γὰρ ἔλεγον ἢ τεμνόμενοι γνωρίζειν ὅτι πάσχοιέν τι· πότερον δὲ τὸ καῖον εἴη πῦρ ἢ τὸ τέμνον σίδηρος, οὐκ ἔχειν εἰπεῖν.

This is Chiesara’s translation:
Next will be those who say that the affections (pathē) only are apprehensible; some of those from Cyrene affirm this. As if oppressed by a kind of torpor, they insisted that they knew nothing at all, unless someone standing by struck and pricked them; they said that, when burnt or cut, they knew that they were affected by something, but whether what burnt them was fire, or what cut them iron, they could not tell.

The point I’m interested in is at the end: ‘...whether what burnt them was fire, or what cut them iron, they could not tell’. This seems unusual. It does not say, for example, ‘...whether fire burns or iron cuts, they could not tell’. The difficulty, in other words, is not in assigning certain properties to particular kinds of external object – the familiar sceptical worry about whether fire burns ‘by nature' – but is rather the difficulty of identifying just what external item it was that caused a particular pathos.

Compare the report in Anon. in Plat. Theaet. 65.18–39 (Bastiniani–Sedley):
Ἔ]στιν τι τὸ ποι|ῆ̣σ̣[αν, ἔσ]τ̣ιν τι τὸ πά|[σ]χ̣ο̣ν̣· ε̣ἰ̣ δ̣ὲ̣ ὑπεναντί|20[α ὑ]π̣[ὸ τοῦ] α̣ὐτοῦ πάσ|[χ]ο̣υ̣σ̣ι̣, [ὁ]μ̣ολογήσου̣|[σ]ι μὴ εἶναι ὡρισμέ|ν̣ην τὴν τοῦ ποιή|σ̣α̣ντος ἰδιότητα· οὐ|25κ ἂν γὰρ τὸ αὐτὸ ἐν τῶι | α̣ὐ̣τῶι χρόνωι διάφο|ρα [ε]ἰργάζετο πάθη̣. | ὅθ̣εν οἱ Κυρηναϊκοὶ | μ̣όνα τ̣ὰ πάθη φασὶν |30 κ̣α̣ταληπτά, τὰ δὲ ἔ|ξωθεν ἀκατάληπτα.| ὅ̣τι μὲν γὰρ καίομαι, | φασίν, καταλαμβά|ν̣ω, ὅτι δὲ τὸ πῦρ ἐσ|35τιν καυστικόν, ἄδη|λον· εἰ γὰρ ἦν τοιοῦτο, | πάντα ἂν ἐκαίετο ὑ|π’ αὐτοῦ.

The interesting lines for comparison are 32–9: ‘For that I am burned, they say, I grasp, but that the fire is something that burns is unclear, for if it were such, then everything would be burned by it.’ [1]

There are, as expected, some very useful comments in Voula Tsouna’s book (pp. 68–72). It is certainly true that Aristocles – and other critics of the Cyrenaics – want to insist that they are wrong to refuse to move from pathē to pathē-causing properties in external objects. And it is certainly true that the Cyrenaics will likely insist that the pathē of pleasure and pain alone are what is necessary from practical decision-making. But I still wonder if Aristocles’ criticism is somewhat different; after all, he notes not that they refuse to say that fire is has the property of burning but that they refuse to say that this thing that burned them is fire. Is this a significant difference?

If it is, then my next question is: Has Aristocles garbled things here? Perhaps not, at least not unwittingly, since he goes on in PE 14.19.4 to point out the absurdity of a person not knowing what he is affected by. People know one another, roads, cities, food; craftsmen know their tools and so on. Generally, this way of casting the Cyrenaics’ position makes them appear even more absurd. Perhaps it also makes the Cyrenaics more like the absurdly sceptical Pyrrhonians of PE 14.18 – who don’t even know whether they are cut or burned (14.18.24) – whose general metaphysical outlook, says Aristocles, would prevent them from identifying, naming, and indeed saying, anything determinate.

[1] Commentary ad loc. ‘Il confronto con i Cirenaici è limitato al loro uso della prima premessa (ὅθεν, 29), cioè che lo stesso oggetto taloro impressione contemporaneamente in modo differente due soggetti percipienti. Cfr. S.E. M. VII 191–193. Per il principio (cfr. Pl. Phdr. 263s) che una cosa è F in sé dove esserere F per tutti, si veda Polistrato, De contemptu XXIII–XXIV.’

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Income and investment

There's an interesting piece in this week's THES about fundraising from alumni, written from the perspective of one of us academics who is both in the position of needing donations to help to fund a present employer/institution but also, as an alumnus, is on the receiving end of regular such requests. It makes the obvious but important point that how someone feels treated as a student will determine their reaction to later approaches for donations. The last paragraph sums it up very nicely:
The best way to ensure that current students will turn into generous donors of the future is to treat them well when they are there. This does not mean dumbing down, lowering standards or making things easy. But it does mean not being petty, discourteous or worse, seeing students as easily fleeceable paying customers. If you want customer/scholar loyalty, start by treating them as adults from the day they arrive. They may even reciprocate.

Something worth bearing in mind.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ask a philosopher?

Have you ever wondered what Mary Warnock would have done if she had been in Didier Drogba's flip-flops at the end of the second leg of this year's Champions' League semi-final, reacting to a poor refereeing performance from Tom Henning Ovrebo? Well, wonder no longer because The Observer can reveal all...

I would try not to swear. That would damage me, not the referee. I would look daggers, in hope that the scene was caught on camera, so millions could share my outrage. Afterwards, I would blacken the name of the referee as widely as I could. But revenge is impossible. The referee (like the umpire) is omnipotent. Whereas one may sometimes appeal against a wrong judicial verdict, there is no appeal against these tyrants; as well to pray to God to make something that has happened not have happened, or seek vengeance against the Almighty. What a hope.

• Mary Warnock is a philosopher and crossbench peer

Friday, May 08, 2009

Plut. Adv. Col. 1120C

An eagle-eyed reader noticed that in the original of an earlier post I accidentally missed out an important bit from my quotation of a Loeb translation of part of Adv. Col. 1120C. It's fixed now, but it might be worth looking again to see precisely what the Greek does mean. The phrase in question is:
...ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ ἐν πολιορκίᾳ τῶν ἐκτὸς ἀποστάντες εἰς τὰ πάθη κατέκλεισαν αὑτούς...

Einarson and De Lacy give:
... [the Cyrenaics] withdrew as in a siege from the world about them and shut themselves up in their responses...

The translation in the Appendix to Voula Tsouna's The epistemology of the Cyrenaic school (Cambrige, 1999, p.144) gives:
Instead, distancing themselves from external objects, they shut themselves up within their pathē as in a state of siege...

I suppose their might be a subtle difference between 'withdrawing from something' and 'distancing oneself from something' but otherwise these are pretty close. Tsouna perhaps rightly chooses not to translate pathē since much of her preceding discussion has been devoted to sorting out in detail just what these are.

Does this help in deciding whether the Cyrenaics are interested principally in avoiding conflict with the claims of other perceivers about the 'external things' or whether their primary aim is to ensure that their own claims are subject to no possible doubt or qualification? The two points are linked, of course, since the proposed reason for doubting one's own claim e.g. that this honey is sweet is that someone else claims that this honey is not sweet. Still, the idea of a siege suggests that some sort of conflict or attack is being imagined. The image of a siege, by the way, seems to be a relatively common in philosophical writing of about this time. By that I mean that it crops up with some frequency in Sextus (see e.g. the beginning of M 9), often to show how it is possible to undermine the dogmatic edifice constructed by some school or other. I have not, however, seen it used in precisely this sense of the relationship between a perceiver and the world or between competing claims of two perceivers.

Can anyone help me out with other examples?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Siege mentality

I’m trying to understand the image of a siege at Plut. Adv. Col. 1120D, quoted in an earlier post. This is where I have got.

First, the siege seems to be a way of imagining the relationship between a given individual and the outside world. Since each individual does not have at his disposal sufficient grounds to affirm anything confidently about how the external pragmata are, he gives up this disputed territory and retreats within his personal/city boundaries, relying now only on what he can be sure of and what is beyond dispute. On the other hand, a siege is usually something which is a collective experience; cities are besieged and cities contain a number of people. As Plutarch uses the plural in his account, perhaps he also means that the Cyrenaics as a group retreat within the defensible walls and affirm only their pathē rather than affirming anything about external pragmata.

The second possibility might well collapse into the first, of course. After all, each Cyrenaic would appear to have no more grounds for confidence about how another Cyrenaic is impressed by the pragmata than he does for affirming anything about the pragmata themselves. (From an individual Cyrenaic’s point of view, other Cyrenaics are external pragmata too.)

Plutarch offers this as an analogy for their flight from the ekta to the pathē, continuing the theme of a contrast between external pragmata and internal states of the perceiver. The force of the analogy must be that this is a forced retreat and that however much the Cyrenaics might desire to sally forth and take back the territory around the city, they are somehow prevented from doing so. The reason for their involuntary enclosure must be just what has been outlined before, namely the fact that they have insufficient evidential warrant to claim any territory beyond their own internal states. Aristocles offers a slightly different analogy but one which again points to the idea that the Cyrenaic should be conceived as someone who is too weak to do anything more that avow the facts of his internal states. For Aristocles, the Cyrenaics are not heroically besieged citizens who are unwillingly held inside, but instead are oppressed by a kind of torpor (hypo karou piezomenoi tinos).

A later passage at 1120F, in expanding the metaphor, might help. There, the Cyrenaics are cast as avoiding conflict not only the sense of avoiding saying something indefensible about external pragmata but also in the sense of avoiding conflict with other perceivers and their claims about how things are.

The important phrase is this:

ἐκβαίνουσα δὲ καὶ πολυπραγμονοῦσα τῷ κρίνειν καὶ ἀποφαίνεσθαι περὶ τῶν ἐκτὸς αὑτήν τε πολλάκις ταράσσει καὶ μάχεται πρὸς ἑτέρους ἀπὸ τῶν αὐτῶν ἐναντία πάθη καὶ διαφόρους φαντασίας λαμβάνοντας.

...but when [opinion] strays beyond and meddles with judgements and pronouncements about external matters, it is forever getting embroiled with itself and falling into conflicy with others in whom the same matters give rise to contrary experiences and dissimilar impressions. (Einarson and De Lacy)

The image of the siege is recalled by the opening word. Plutarch considers what would happen in opinion were to break out (ekbainousa) and involved itself in matters that do not belong solely to the perceiver in question (polupragmosynē). Such a busy-body kind of opinion, set on making judgements about external matters will fall prey to two problems. First, it will cause itself some degree of concern or anxiety (tarassei). The word is presumably chosen because of its particular Epicurean resonance since Plutarch will presently argue that the Colotes and his Epicurean colleagues are themselves no better placed than the Cyrenaics and if a Cyrenaic cannot maintain ataraxia without retreating into the absurdly restricted position which Colotes criticises, then the Epicurean will face just the same difficulty. The anxiety must be a measure of the fact that in offering such judgements, opinion is venturing out on to ground which is far less secure that it is used to when dealing merely with internal pathē. The judgements are far less assured since opinion does not have sufficient katabebaiōsis for its claims. As Epicurus’ KD 24 insists, this hasty kind of assertion generates doubt and leave the judger open to all kinds of error.

Second, if opinion ventures on to ground that does not belong solely to the perceiver in question, it will fall into conflict with other perceivers. It is agreed by the Cyrenaics that some given external object may well cause in different perceivers different impressions. There is no conflict between the perceivers’ claims if they are restricted simply to reports about how each is being affected internally. But once anyone tries to claim the intervening ground, so to speak, the territory external to both, then conflict is likely.

This suggests the possibility that the siege in 1120C is not, so to speak, a battle waged between a Cyrenaic and the external pragmata. Rather, the picture is of Cyrenaics who are so epistemologically conflict-averse that each remains shut inside his own pathē in order to avoid even the potential for conflict raised by making claims about external pathē.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Enkrateia and neuroscience

Look! Those wonderful neuroscientists are at it again, showing that different parts of the brain are active when we weigh up healthy but not tasty v. unhealthy buttasty foods. People whose 'angel' (bad name, I know, but let's leave it for now) bit of the brain did not 'speak up loudly enough' (unpick that metaphor...) when shown a choice between something neutral and something tasty but unhealthy tended to choose the latter. Poor akratic souls. Maybe Plato was right about distinctly located centres of motivation. Or perhaps not.

Born 2 Rule

More on Cyrenaics soon, but for now I wanted to share this, from the excellent new BBC kids series of the Horrible Histories books.