Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oscar Mike

This is an experiment: a mobile blog post. I wondered about twittering for a bit but I don't really get it. Anyway, I need a doppio before facing the day and - thankfully - the machine is working without needing prior servicing. Then back to proofs and lots more emails.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Psychological hedonism in Laws V

Does Plato advocate a form of psychological hedonism in Laws V? Certainly, the famous argument against akrasia in Protagoras seems to invoke such a view, but it is notoriously difficult to know whether that view should even be attributed to Socrates the character in that dialogue, let alone to the author. What about Laws V? The Athenian seems to be offering something in that direction.

The passage I'm interested in is 732d8ff. The Athenian says that the finest (kallistos) life is praiseworthy not only because of its glorious reputation but also because it provides what we all want, namely a preponderance of pleasure over pain throughout a life (732e7–3a4). He will eventually conclude that the life of psychic and bodily virtue is not only better than other lives in its nobility (kallos) and correctness (orthotēs) but also by virtue of being more pleasant (734d4–e2).

At 733a9ff. the Athenian sets out a list of principles which he thinks govern our general preferences within a life and between possible lives. The principles listed here seem to be as follows:

1. We want to have pleasure but we neither choose nor want to have pain.
2. We prefer pleasure to a state of neither pleasure nor pain.
3. We prefer a state of neither pleasure nor pain to pain.
4. We do not prefer a state of neither pleasure nor pain to pleasure
5. We want smaller pain and larger pleasure.
6. We do not want larger pain and smaller pleasure.
7. It is not possible to make clear any preference between two cases in which the pleasures and pains are equal.

This much is probably uncontroversial, apart from the minor question whether there is indeed an intermediate state between pleasure and pain. It amount to a general ranking in descending order of choice-worthiness: pleasure --- neutral state --- pain (2–4), combined with a relative ranking of mixtures of pleasure and pain (5 and 6). Two things here are worthy of attention before moving on. First, we ought perhaps to notice that there is no explicit discussion of whether we prefer a combination of large pleasure and large pain to a combination of small pleasure and small pain. Presumably, the question is supposed to be settled by 7: the only case in which preferences are possible are those in which there is some inequality between pleasures and pains and in those cases the preference will be settled by the most basic preferences outlined in 1–4.

Second, we might note that ‘larger’ and ‘smaller’ in 5 and 6 are not clarified so it is unclear whether a larger pain, say, is a more intense or a longer-lasting pain, or both. It is unclear what the ranking would be between a shorter but more intense pain and a longer but less intense one. The Athenian does indeed refer to a variety of variables which might differentiate one pleasure from another or one pain from another or indeed one set of pleasures from another and so on, namely: number, size, intensity, equality and their opposites (733b6–7) and says that our preferences may or may not be affected by them. There is, however, very little interest in what readers familiar with the intricacies of hedonic calculations demanded by various utilitarian theories.

What precisely does he mean when he says that our preferences may or may not be affected by them? Is it that some differences in intensity, for example, are irrelevant to our preferences? (In that case the Athenian is continuing to express our general preferences and practices as in some way correct and justified in the choice between different hedonic arrangements). Or is the idea that sometimes we do take into account relevant and significant differences and sometime we do not? If the latter, what explains this variety in our competence at enacting the preferences outlined in 1–6? In particular, what is the import of the comment later in the passage at 734b4: everyone who is akolastos is so unwillingly?

The obvious answer will be that the preferences in 1–6 express a kind of psychological hedonism. If so, anyone who as a matter of fact ends up living a life in which pain predominates over pleasure must all along have been trying to live a life in which pleasure predominates over pain. So his end result is not what he would have wished. As the stranger puts it at 733d2–4, we are being offered a choice between the sort of life we want by nature and the sort that we do not want by nature.

The introduction to this section, at 732e3–7 says only that humans are particularly (malista) concerned with pleasures, pains, and desires (and this is what contrasts them with gods) and also that humans are held suspended like puppets by these, the greatest influences on us (megistai spoudai). Further comments suggest a similar picture. At 733d4–6 he says that if someone asserts that they want something besides these things – by which he must mean the things revealed by the various preferences he has just outlined – then such a person is talking out of ignorance or an inexperience of actual life (ontes bioi).

But does this commit the Athenian to psychological hedonism? The suggestion here may be only that the way people generally are, they are motivated only by pleasure and pain. But perhaps the Athenian would not say also that it is impossible for us ever to alter so as to be motivated by some other value, albeit perhaps still alongside these hedonic preferences.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cambridge museums

This evening we went along to the 'Twilight at the museums' event, visiting both the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences (dinosaurs!) and the Museum of Classical Archaeology (pictured). The cast gallery looked super in the low light, with lots of kids running around with torches. And some great story telling.


Would you like a lectureship in Greek (NB, not 'ancient') philosophy? If so, perhaps you should apply to this job in the excellent UCL Philosophy department. Good to see that some places are hiring specialists in this area still.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Universally challenged

The University of Cambridge is thinking up lots of ways to celebrate its 800th anniversary. This is one of the bright ideas:

Your department wants YOU--to represent it in the ultimate battle of the brains!

In celebration of the university's 800th anniversary, the Cambridge Quiz Society is organising a live, University Challenge style competition to establish once and for all which department can claim to be the most knowledgeable. Each department is invited to enter one or more teams of 4 competitors, comprising of anyone from undergrads to administrators to department heads. So get together a team of your four cleverest friends, colleagues, teachers, and students and go to for dates,
rules, and application details.

Remember--If you don't enter, you're just letting the competition win!

Somehow, I don't really fancy it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Generation Kill

FX UK has now shown the first three episodes of Generation Kill and it's beginning to grow on me. Like The Wire it is initially alienating and confusing (although the info available on the website is very useful just for getting to grips with the command structure). The subject matter is tackled in a similar way too -- last night's episode involved a marine who might have shot two Iraqi children during an assault on a (deserted) air-strip. The situation is presented without commentary. The characters have different reactions to the morality of the situation, indeed to the very facts of the situation. Was the action wrong? What were the Rules of Engagement at the time and who was aware of them? What are they required to do now? By what standards are those requirements to be determined? Nothing is simple and no one is made into either a paragon or a villain. It treats the audience and the subject matter with respect.

However, it lacks the variety of The Wire both in terms of subject matter and cast. So far we have learned nothing about the Iraqi population since the whole situation is being focalised through the various marines. I suppose this makes the country they are in seem alien and disorientating too -- we, like they, are very much in the dark about where they are and whom they are fighting or helping. Still, the fare is a little more uniform than some might like. Later episodes promise to fill-in the picture somewhat (when, for example, they eventually get to Baghdad) but there is less of a rich variety of perspective than the earlier series provided.

I'm sticking with it.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

New book

The cover design for the Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, which I edited, has now appeared. Here it is:

I rather like it. The picture is of a mosaic from a Roman villa at Autun, in central France, now in the Musée Rolin. It depicts the Epicurean philosopher Metrodorus contemplating the wisdom of Vatican Saying 14, which is repeated around the sitting figure: ‘We have been born just the once; it is impossible to be born twice and it is necessary eternally to be no longer. But you, though you are not master of tomorrow, throw away enjoyment. Life is worn out by procrastination and each and every one of us dies without time on our hands.’

And, of course, the volume is now available to pre-order. At amazon (UK, US) or via CUP... Here is the list of its contents:

Introduction James Warren; 1. The Athenian garden Diskin Clay; 2. Epicureanism in the Roman Republic David Sedley; 3. Epicureanism in the Roman Empire Michael Erler; 4. Epicurean atomism Pierre-Marie Morel; 5. Epicurean empiricism Elizabeth Asmis; 6. Cosmology and meteorology Liba Taub; 7. Psychology Christopher Gill; 8. Action and responsibility Tim O’Keefe; 9. Pleasure and desire Raphael Woolf; 10. Politics and society Eric Brown; 11. Philosophy of language Catherine Atherton; 12. Poetry and rhetoric David Blank; 13. Removing fear: the gods and death James Warren; 14. Epicurean therapy: pedagogy and improvement Voula Tsouna; 15. Epicureanism in the early modern period Catherine Wilson

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Chrysippus' hand

I gave a short paper today to the 1st c. BC philosophy research group on this chapter from Cicero's De Finibus (1.39). It's part of a longer thing I'm working on on the presentation of Epicurean conceptions of pleasure in Fin. 1 and 2 but I'm beginning to think that it's a sufficiently rich little bit of text to warrant some concentrated work. Here it is:
at etiam Athenis, ut e patre audiebam facete et urbane Stoicos irridente, statua est in Ceramico Chrysippi sedentis porrecta manu, quae manus significet illum in hae esse rogatiuncula delectatum: 'Numquidnam manus tua sic affecta, quem ad modum affecta nunc est, desiderat?'– Nihil sane. -- 'At, si voluptas esset bonum, desideraret.'– Ita credo. – 'Non est igitur voluptas bonum.' Hoc ne statuam quidem dicturam pater aiebat, si loqui posset. conclusum est enim contra Cyrenaicos satis acute, nihil ad Epicurum. nam si ea sola voluptas esset, quae quasi titillaret sensus, ut ita dicam, et ad eos cum suavitate afflueret et illaberetur, nec manus esse contenta posset nec ulla pars vacuitate doloris sine iucundo motu voluptatis. sin autem summa voluptas est, ut Epicuro placet, nihil dolere, primum tibi recte, Chrysippe, concessum est nihil desiderare manum, cum ita esset affecta, secundum non recte, si voluptas esset bonum, fuisse desideraturam. idcirco enim non desideraret, quia, quod dolore caret, id in voluptate est.

My father used to mock the Stoics with wit and elegance by telling me how, in the Cerameicus at Athens, there is a statue of Chrysippus sitting with an outstretched hand, that hand symbolizing the delight Chrysippus took in the following little piece of argument: “Does your hand, in its present condition, want anything?” “Not at all.” “But if pleasure were a good, it would be wanting it.” “I suppose so.” “Therefore pleasure is not a good.” My father remarked that not even a statue would produce such an argument, if it could speak. Though the reasoning has some force against a Cyrenaic position, it has none whatsoever against Epicurus. If pleasures were simply the kind of thing which, so to speak, titillated the senses and flooded them with a stream of sweetness, then neither the hand nor any other part of the body could be satisfied with the mere absence of pain and no delightful surge of pleasure. But if, as Epicurus maintains, the highest pleasure is to feel no pain, well then, Chrysippus, the initial concession, that the hand in its present condition wants nothing, was correct; but the subsequent one, that if pleasure were a good the hand would have wanted it, is not. For the reason that it did not want it was that to have no pain is precisely to be in a state of pleasure. (trans. R. Woolf)
I think it's very interesting and the discussion set me thinking in some interesting directions. But I am surprised that I can't find very much written about it. Gosling and Taylor say a little bit in The Greeks on pleasure (though they aren't interested at all in the dialogue's internal dialectic and report this all as what 'Cicero' writes) and there are some pointers in Madvig's notes, but there isn't much else. I wonder if anyone out there knows of something else.

I'm particularly interested in the presentation of Chrysippus here. I think there's enough evidence that he and Zeno liked to use hands and hand gestures to illustrate philosophical points. But what about the argument itself? Torquatus seems to be made out to present a nice Stoic dialectical syllogism, in question-and-answer form. He even refers to the premises in Stoic terms (primum... secundum...) So is this ever discussed in the treatments of Stoic logic (esp. Stoic conditionals)?