Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Conference news

Here's a plug for a conference in St Andrews in November (click the picture for a bigger version).  You can find some more information here.  If you're feeling brave, you can leave St Andrews and go straight down to London for the Keeling colloquium starting on Monday 7th...

Monday, July 18, 2011


I'm in St Andrews to do a PhD viva.  The internal examiner has just taken me for a walking tour through the showers and sunshine and I saw this.  It's very pretty.  And it's very quiet here.  Makes Cambridge in July seem like a buzzing metropolis.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Spend, spend, spend

I spent the morning wondering what I would have done with a £165 million Euro lottery win.  Not easy.  After totting up the cost of a new house, new car (this one) and money for family, trusts for the kids etc., I reckon I'd still have a good £100+ million left at least.  Now, you need to put some of that to work so you can have a guaranteed income enough not to be worried but then there's still plenty to play with.  Probably enough to found a decent new Cambridge college and certainly enough to do a lot for a current one.  So, what else would be on the list, specifically concerning my day job and my concern for the health of my own area of research?

There would be plenty to make regular and substantial donations to various charities.  But there are some specific things that would be worth doing too.

Endow a research fellowship, probably alternating between classics and philosophy for new postdoctoral researchers.  Perhaps also endow a university lectureship (we've enough professors) provided that didn't mean the university could think it didn't need to keep funding the ones we have already.  Probably best to negotiate a B.O.G.O.F. deal here.  They promise to keep funding one, and we'll fund another.

A big chunk of hardship funding for undergraduates.

What else should go on this list?

Friday, July 15, 2011


The Cambridge Faculty of Classics will be hosting the Triennial Conference, 'A celebration of classics', on 25-29 July.  You can find out all about it here and even read a programme of events (pdf here).  There's quite a lot of ancient philosophical stuff going on, if that's your thing.  And Cambridge will be looking nice, despite the enormous numbers of tourists and annual scaffolding boom.  Here's the poster:

Friday, July 08, 2011

Football and philosophy

Here is an interesting piece on aesthetics and football written by Stephen Mumford in the Times Higher.  (He has a book coming soon; perhaps I should wait until I've read the full account, though given its £75 price-tag I might not manage to.)  He is right to claim that there is something aesthetically pleasing and engaging about sport.  On the other hand, it seems to me that his advocacy of non-partisan viewing is problematic, at least for football.  True, I can and do enjoy watching games between two sides with which I have no particular connection.  The World Cup is great just because I can indulge myself in watching such matches.  On the other hand, it is extremely difficult not to adopt one of the two sides, often for no particular reason, and take on a supporter's role.  It is difficult to remain disengaged sufficiently to have no partisan feelings whatsoever.  Of course, it is possible simply to enjoy watching the skill on display but this is a contest after all and not a performance or improvised display.  The teams display the skills they have in order to win the game.

It is also surely the case that partisanship opens up a deeper and broader range of experiences in watching than disengaged aesthetic appreciation.  Watching sport is often a shared experience, shared often by groups who arrange themselves and display themselves as comrades.  Let's distinguish watching a football match on the sofa and home from sitting or standing among a group of supporters of a given team at the ground itself.  The reason it is worth going to the ground is the intensity of the shared experience.  It does matter, at least for those 90 minutes, whether the goalkeeper makes a save and whether a pass finds its intended recipient.  We choose to make it matter and because we surrender in that way we are able to experience the joy at a goal or the despair at losing.  

So when Mumford writes...
The purist and the partisan can see different games because one regards it aesthetically while the other sees the contest primarily as something to be won. The partisan would far prefer to see their team win a dull game 1-0 than to lose 3-4. And keenly contested tackles that are appreciated by the purist will for the partisan be either a show of superior strength when they win them or outrageous fouls committed by brutes when they lose them.
...I think I would contest the sense of the term 'purist' here.  It is a different perspective, for sure, to watch from a non-partisan viewpoint.  But it is not a purer appreciation of a game of football.  A game my team wins (perhaps because it is not a common occurrence) is not really a dull game.  A 1-0 win can be nervy (if the team scores early I then spend the time desperately willing the ball away from my team's penalty area; I applaud an almighty clearance over the stand if it relieves the pressure) or amazingly uplifting (a late goal, no matter how scrappy).  That seems a pure appreciation of football to me.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Deep Wilson

Open Days today and tomorrow.  Perhaps more on those later.  For now, here's what I listened to as I walked to work.  I think you should listen to it too.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Aristotle sets hears a-flutter

Browsing some Aristotle today I came across this in De Partibus Animalium 3.6. He is discussing the lungs and making a case that they are for the sake of respiration. As part of the discussion he dismisses the idea that lungs are there to cope with the ‘jumping’ of the heart. His argument for this is interesting because it seems to offer some evidence for his distinction between human and animal psychological capacities (669a17-23):
τὸ δὲ πρὸς τὴν ἅλσιν εἶναι τὸν πλεύμονα τῆς καρδίας οὐκ εἴρηται καλῶς· ἐν ἀνθρώπῳ τε γὰρ συμβαίνει μόνον ὡς εἰπεῖν τὸ τῆς πηδήσεως διὰ τὸ μόνον ἐν ἐλπίδι γίνεσθαι καὶ προσδοκίᾳ τοῦ μέλλοντος, ἀπέχει τ’ἐν τοῖς πλείστοις πολὺν τόπον καὶ κεῖται τὴν θέσιν ἀνωτέρω τοῦ  πλεύμονος, ὥστε μηδὲν συμβάλλεσθαι τὸν πλεύμονα πρὸς τὴν ἅλσιν τῆς καρδίας.
Here is a translation by William Ogle (1912):
It has been said that the lung exists as a provision to meet the jumping (halsis) of the heart. But this is out of the question. For man is practically the only animal whose heart presents this phenomenon of jumping, inasmuch as he alone is influenced by hope and anticipation of the future. Moreover, in most animals the lung is separated from the heart by a considerable interval and lies above it, so that it can contribute nothing to mitigate any jumping. 
 See Hippoc. Morb. Sacr. 17 (§XX in the Loeb) for the idea that the phrenes jump and cause palpitations as a result of unexpected excessive pleasure or distress (εἴ τι ὥνθρωπος ὑπερχαρείη ἐξ ἀδοκήτου ἢ ἀνιηθείη, πηδῶσι [αἱ φρένες] καὶ ἅλσιν παρέχουσιν).

This is the bit that interests me: only humans have hope (elpis) or expectation for the future (prosdokia); this is why only humans experience their heart ‘jumping’. This suggests that hope and expectation here are being understood to have some rational component or source.  What exactly distinguishes them from the kinds of forethought that non-rational animals are capable of?