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.