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.