Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I've just picked up my copy of the new Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism edited by Richard Bett. (The entry on the CUP site is here, where you can 'look inside' and read Richard's introduction...) I've just glanced through so far, but I did read Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson's chapter on 'Pyrrho and early Pyrrhonism'. He does a very good job of making clear in a concise way what the real philosophical and interpretative questions are that lie behind a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about emending touto to to in a bit of Eusebius Praep. Evang. or wondering about punctuation in a fragment on Timon of Phlius. I'm looking forward to the rest.

(And while I was browsing I found this wonderful picture on Wikipedia: Der Philosoph Pyrrhon in stürmischer See. It illustrates DL 9.68. The pig looks suitably ataraxic.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Timaeus the movie

This was found by Jenny. It's such a brilliant idea I can't imagine why it hasn't been done already.

What philosophy is

Recent editions of two Cambridge student newspapers print comments by Cambridge alumnus, Alain de Botton, on the nature of philosophy. Here is his essay in Varsity and here is his interview in The Tab. I wonder what people make of them. As far as I can see, philosophy is a varied and complicated thing. Quarreling over the name is not particularly important.

Here is part of the interview:
RC: So, it’s the most obvious question to ask really: what exactly is philosophy?

AB: 99% of people who call themselves philosophers are employed by universities, in the UK. And they’re really employed to teach the history of philosophy or the theory of philosophy but they’re not philosophers as such, they’re commentators on philosophy that other people have done, on the whole. My handy definition is just a commitment to logical thinking and reasoning, and that can be directed towards any subject on earth. But it’s all fairly shaky ground, and whether someone is or isn’t a philosopher is always going to be a bit of an ambiguous question.

RC: Do you think it has something of an image problem, concerned with just asking pointless questions?

AB: Yes, a terrible image problem! Most academic philosophers would say that philosophy is pure enquiry into certain abstract questions and we have no responsibility to do the kind of thing that Joe Public expects of philosophy, which is, ‘how do I live?’ Somehow philosophy should be a repository of wisdom and that it should be particularly concerned with the great challenges of life but it doesn’t seem that this is the case.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Career plans

What might someone go on to do after a PhD in ancient philosophy from the University of Cambridge? Well, one possibility is that you might go on to do this. I was the internal examiner for the lead singer's PhD on the Hellenistic and Roman construction of Socrates as a philosophical icon. It was very good.

There's more here.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Aristotle did some biology. But he didn't think what we now tend to think about biology. Weird, huh?

Here's a BBC4 programme all about it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


"Th' best thing about lecturin'," said Ben, "is that a chap can get up an' say aught he pleases an' no other chap can answer him back. I wouldn't be agen' lecturin' a bit mysel' sometimes."
From The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911), ch. 26

Thursday, January 14, 2010


This is excellent. (I particularly like the bloke in the red jumper who gets in to the picture three times.) Click, hold, and drag the mouse pointer to pan round.

Kings Parade in England

More here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pleasure, perception, beauty

After a brief Cyrenaic interlude I'm back thinking about Nicomachean Ethics 10.4, the way in which pleasure is supposed to 'perfect' or 'complete' an activity and, in particular, the curious analogy Aristotle offers between this relationship and the bloom of youth on a young man in his prime.

At 1174b14–20 he refers to the complete or perfect activity of a sense which now is specified as the best exercise of a given sense as when, for example, the activity of sight is being engaged in both by a person with a well-functioning sense organ and also at a most beautiful object. It is tempting to think that the favoured example of sight and its clear relationship, when exercised perfectly, with seeing beautiful objects ought to be of help in understanding the analogy between pleasure and the ‘bloom of youth’. Perhaps we are meant to think again of the example of the beautiful young man and to recognise that in seeing such beauty we would be engaging in a perfect activity of seeing and hence take the best pleasure possible in that activity.

This won’t take us all the way to understanding the analogy, I think, and I might get round to explaining why in due course. But for now I have a different question.

Gonzalez 1991, 153 [1], notes a similar claim made in EE 3.2 1230b21–1231a26, where Aristotle argues that non-human animals do not see beautiful visible objects as beautiful but rather use their sight so as best to find food, shelter and so on. For this reason he says that they do not take pleasure in what they see per se since, presumably, their sense activity is not complete or perfect in the way that it can be for humans. If seeing is an activity that is most complete when directed at its best object, then such animals do not engage perfectly in seeing in the way that humans can.

I’m off next to look back at the Philebus on pure pleasures, but want to delve further into this human/animal distinction a little first. Does anyone know of any further discussion of this bit of EE?

[1] Gonzalez, F. 1991. ‘Aristotle on pleasure and perfection’ Phronesis 36: 141–59.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In other news...

...there was a very positive review of Tim O'Keefe's new book Epicureanism by David Konstan in the NDPR.

Do more with less

The Russell Group has put together a strong reaction to the proposed cuts in HE funding (estimated to be approx. 2.5bn). The Conservatives don't look as if they will do anything different and may well do more, since they are committed to cutting the national deficit more quickly. If there every was a party, it's now over.

Why HE? I imagine there are thought to be few votes in it. Cutting the NHS budget or pre 18 education is much more politically sensitive but since it is never entirely clear what anyone gets out of HE, certainly not in humanities or arts degrees, then this is a quiet way to save money. On the other hand, those same HE institutions are praised when it suits for innovation and research 'outputs' (mostly, I'm afraid, those valued for clear and obvious economic benefits).

There is a statement from Dr Wendy Piatt on the Grauniad website here. You can even download it and sit listening to it on the bus.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Oh the humanity

Here is an interesting article about the role and value of higher education in the humanities and whether it is being appropriately recognised by higher education and research funding policy. What's more interesting, and perhaps more depressing, however, is the set of 'Readers' comments' at the bottom.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A plug

The end of 2009 was the end of my tenure as one of the editors of the Cambridge Classical Journal, what was formerly known as the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society. Now I am no longer an editor, I can without major embarrassment commend it to all those of you who are looking for a place to submit that cutting-edge piece of classical research. It's a general classics journal that recently has published a lot on the reception of classical antiquity as well as pieces on textual criticism, linguistics, philosophy, archaeology, art history, history, and classical literature. Although some of the papers have been presented to meetings of the society, many more have not.

While I'm at it I could even plug the society, membership of which gives you a subscription to the annual journal. It's a bargain and tax deductible for UK tax payers...

All the details you could want are here.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Mars of Slough...

There's a nice little piece on British chocolate makers by John Lanchester in the new LRB (thanks to K&P for buying us a subscription for Christmas). You can read it here. I did not know, for example, that:
Other great British bars appeared in a burst of heroic creativity in the 1920s and 1930s: the Flake in 1920, Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut in 1928, Fry’s Crunchie in 1929, the Aero in 1935, then in 1937 no fewer than three masterpieces, the Rolo, the Kit Kat and Smarties. All British inventions. According to Roald Dahl: ‘In music, the equivalent would be the golden age of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. In painting, it was the equivalent of the Italian Renaissance and the advent of Impressionism at the end of the 19th century; in literature, Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens.’
I thought the Rolo, for example, was a much more recent invention. Still, things have not always been a series of noble achievements. First, there is the Marathon/Snickers debacle and, perhaps more worryingly, some years ago Mars removed the little cardboard strip from Bounty bars, as lamented by the great John Shuttleworth in the song 'Mutiny over the Bounty' that gives this post its title: