Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Operation pedalo

I'm too worn out from admissions interviews and Christmas shopping to put anything philosophical up here.  But, instead, have a read about this anti-crime offensive by Cambridge police, who are trying to put a stop to bicycling naughtiness around the city.  The report is accompanied by an exciting gallery of pictures of naughty cyclists with their faces pixellated like they do on Crimewatch.  It will be quite a job for the police, I think, because there is a lot of naughty cycling in Cambridge.  Tut tut.

Friday, December 07, 2012

A personal statement (revisited)

This week, I have been reading lots of 'personal statements' from students applying for places at Cambridge.  The Sutton Trust has just published a report which raises concerns about the ways in which students from different backgrounds approach writing these statements and the different opportunities they might have for their statements to be checked and edited.  Also, there is obviously the fact that different students will have had different opportunities to engage in various activities that they can include in their statements.

This is not news.  (Though I imagine it is not a coincidence that The Sutton Trust should be reminding us all of the obvious this week as we listen to the radio before heading off to do some more admissions interviews.)  Nor is it something we don't bear in mind when we are reading these personal statements.

Here is a Grauniad article from 2009 (the URL unhelpfully suggests that we 'ignore' personal statements) that makes clear the general position.  I had something to say about it at the time: here.

For what it is worth, here are some other relevant and perhaps interesting links.

The Sutton Trust report

The (brief) advice on personal statements provided by the University of Cambridge

and, something I found a bit surprising, a website to which students can upload their draft statements and then invite feedback from other people browsing away.  Perhaps worth a few moments -- the 'advice' offered is sometimes quite an eye-opener.  Here is the collection of 'Cambridge personal statements'.  (Compare this site...)

Another Lectureship in Ancient Philosophy

...has been advertised, this time at Somerville College and the University of Oxford.  Further details will appear in due course here.

But you can download the Word documents for the Advertisement, Further Particulars, and Cover Sheet required for applications by clicking on the links.

Here is the advertisement:


 The University of Oxford: Somerville College and the Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford, invite applications from suitably qualified candidates for the above post starting 1 October 2013.

 This post is permanent, subject to the satisfactory completion of a review of the initial period of office by the College and the University. This review, which will take place no later than the fifth year of appointment, is intended to be constructive; it is non-competitive, and most postholders in Oxford complete it satisfactorily.

The area of specialization for this post is Ancient Philosophy. The successful candidate must be able to provide research-led teaching and supervision in Ancient Philosophy at all levels, undergraduate and graduate. Applications from candidates whose work complements the research and teaching of the Faculty, will be welcome; this includes especially candidates with expertise in Ancient Philosophy after Aristotle.

 The successful candidate should normally be able to give undergraduate teaching (in the form of tutorials) in at least two of Logic, General Philosophy and Moral Philosophy from the first year course and a variety of core areas for more advanced papers. A wider teaching repertoire is an advantage. The salary will be on grade 10a (£42,883 to £57,581 per annum, as at 1 October 2012) of the University’s pay and grading structure. Additional College allowances are payable.

The Further Particulars, with details about the position and how to apply, are available from the College and Faculty websites ( and

 By 1 January 2013, the successful candidate must have received the degree of PhD (or equivalent), or attained a comparable level of publications.

The closing date for receipt of applications is Monday 14 January 2013.

Applications for this post are particularly welcome from women and black and ethnic minority candidates, who are under-represented in academic posts in Oxford. The University and the College are equal opportunities employers.

Thursday, December 06, 2012


Phew. Bit hectic at the moment, despite the sabbatical. Quick trip to Paris then admissions interviews and a PhD viva to do.

But... My printer today spewed out what might be a first draft of the book I'm supposed to be writing. It will be chopped and changed a lot, but somehow I find it easier to spot the typos and see what has to be altered on a page rather than a screen. And its a nice feeling to see a pile of bits of paper rather than a list of files in a drop box window.

But, before I get to wield the red pen, there are a few more interviews to do next week. The coffee shop owners of Cambridge must be doing well at the moment sheltering the helicopter parents who sit fretting while their young things head off into the colleges.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy

A vacancy is being advertised at the University of Exeter (closing date 19th Dec.).  Details here.  And details about the department here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tordre le bâton dans l'autre sens...

I found in my pigeon-hole today (I suspect from the usual source) a copy of a review by Roger-Pol Droit of Xavier Pavie's Exercises spirituels. Leçons de la philosophie antique, from Le Monde of 23 November.

The review makes a very important point that the Hadot-style concentration on philosopy as a way of life and a kind of spiritual exercise, while it has significant merits, risks overlooking some rather important aspects of ancient philosophy specifically and philosophy itself more generally.  There was more to philosophy than working out a way of life and there still is more to philosophy than that.
Car il n'est nullement prouvé que la philosophie antique et ses multiples branches se réduisent aisément à la seule recherche de la sagesse et la sérénité de l'âme.  Si cette tâche est importante, il'n'en reste pas moins que mathématiques, logique, physique ou politique ne lui sont pas nécessairement tout entières subordonnées...   Si la philosophie est certes traversée de spiritualité, d'entraînement à la sagesse, de souci de soi, on ne saurait oublier qu'elle est aussi constituée de concepts, d'arguments, et même de pure théorie.  La partie des exercises spirituels vaut certes d'être reconnue.  Elle ne peut ni ne doit se prendre pour le tout.
Well said.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Plaisir chez Platon

And I will also be performing as part of this:


 A. Jaulin, C. Cerami, M. Crubellier UMR 7219/UMR 8163

 Le plaisir dans les traditions platoniciennes et aristotéliciennes

 Première séance : Platon Vendredi 30 Novembre 14h-17h :

14h Charlotte Murgier : « Le plaisir dans le Timée de Platon ».
15h Karine Tordo-Rombaut : « Pourquoi Socrate conteste-t-il le choix du plaisir ? »
 16h Olivier Renaut : « Éduquer et transformer les plaisirs dans la cité ».

 La séance aura lieu en salle 1605, au centre Pierre Mendès-France, 90, rue de Tolbiac, 75013. (M° Olympiades (ligne 14), M° Place d'Italie, M° Tolbiac, Bus 62, 83).

Samedi 1er Décembre 10h-12h :
10h James Warren : « Pleasure and piety in Plato's Philebus ».
11h Sylvain Delcominette : « Plaisirs mélangés et plaisirs purs ».

La séance aura lieu en salle Cavaillès, UFR de Philosophie, 17 rue de la Sorbonne, 75005.

Les séances suivantes auront lieu les 1 et 2 février 2013 (L’ancienne Académie et Aristote), les 15 et 16 Mars (Aristote et l’exégèse grecque), les 5 et 6 Avril (Traditions arabes et latines).

Friday, November 02, 2012

Poetry in the museum

At the invitation of Carol Ann Duffy, ten poets will be taking up residencies across the University of CambridgeThe Museum of Classical Archaeology will host Sean Borodale, whose recent Bee Journal was one of the Guardian's books of the year 2011.  Here is Sean's website, which unfortnately seems to be mostly dark grey text on a black background.  You can read an extract from it here.

And here is a picture of Vergil writing about bees from a 15th c. edition of the Georgics.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

CFP: First Principles, Cause, and Explanation in Ancient Philosophy

Our excellent graduate students in ancient philosophy here in Cambridge are organizing their third annual conference.  This year's theme is: 'First Principles, Cause, and Explanation in Ancient Philosophy' (12-13 April 2013).

The website for the conference with more details and information about submitting a proposal can be found here.
  • Submission deadline: 13th January 2013
  • Word limit: Abstract should be 500 words (max.)
  • Please put ‘Conference Abstract Submission’ as the subject of your email.
  • Please include your name, departmental affiliation, email address, and title of your paper in the body of the email.
  • Abstracts should be prepared for blind review. · Please ensure your abstract is free from identifying personal details.
  • Please submit abstracts as .doc or .pdf by email to as an attachment.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Monday, October 15, 2012

The war that never ends

Here's a blast from the past.  I remember seeing this (IMDB entry) on the BBC in 1991 just before the first Iraq war.  (I think there was a 2006 performace or version too.)  It's an interesting project and explicit in insisting the relevance of Thucydides and Plato for understanding modern conflicts too.  It's a bit stagey at times. But there's a good cast (Ben Kingsley as Pericles, a young Nathaniel Parker as Alcibiades, Don Henderson as Socrates, Bob Peck as Nicias). I can't see this sort of thing getting an hour on the telly now, though. Radio, perhaps, but not TV.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I've just finished Neal Stephenson's AnathemIt's a whopper -- and probably a good advert for reading on a Kindle rather than lugging around an enormous (900+ page book).  It's good.  An amazing act of speculative imagination.  Perhaps the story peters out a bit towards the end but like most good scifi the interest is to a large extent concerned with just living for a while in a different world.

Here he is discussing the novel and the genesis of the ideas behind it.

Anyhow, it is worth mentioning here because there is a lot of philosophy in it and a lot of ancient philosophy in particular.  There's certainly a lot of Plato there (and just why there might be philosophical ideas reminiscent of Platonism in this world turns out to be part of what the book is about.)  There's an appendix that does a good job, for example, of offering an alternative dialogue that makes the same point as the slave experiment in Plato's Meno.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Surprise surprise!

The unexpected hits you between the eyes etc.

Here is an interesting Epicurean argument against divination, found in a scholion to Aesh. Prometh. 624 (Us. 395):
᾿Επικούρειον ἐστι δόγμα ἀναιρῶν τὴν μαντικήν. «εἱμαρμένης γὰρ», φησί, «πάντων κρατούσης πρὸ καιροῦ λελύπηκας †εἰπὼν τὴν συμφορὰν ἢ χρηστόν† τι εἰπὼν τὴν ἡδονὴν ἐξέλυσας». λέγουσι δὲ καὶ τὸ «ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι, ταῦτα καὶ γενήσεται» 
 There is an Epicurean doctrine that denies divination. Epicurus says: ‘If fate controls everything then when you declare the misfortune then you have been pained before the right moment. Alternatively, if you declare something positive, then you have ruined the pleasure’. These people also say: ‘What has to be will be’. [1] 
It’s quite neat but not convincing. At best it's an argument that divination is something you ought not to do.  If it's not reliable then it is useless.  It it is reliable then it is no benefit.  You go to a fortune teller and ask about your future. If the fortune teller tells you that something bad will happen then this increases your overall distress. Given that the event is fated and therefore inevitable you have simply added the dread of expectation to the eventual pain to come. But if the fortune teller tells you that something good will happen then this ruins the pleasure to come.

I’m interested in this because I am interested in Epicurean attitudes to hope, expectation, and pleasure. The first arm of the dilemma accords well with the claim that prescience or anticipation of an pain merely makes a pain present. This is denied by the Cyrenaics, of course, who think that thinking in advance that an evil will occur may overall lessen the pain of the event. They might have a point, I suppose. 

The second arm, however, seems to run counter to the Epicurean claim that knowledge and expectation of a future pleasure can produce confidence and pleasure in the present. And it doesn’t ring true in any case: unless the fortune teller reveals that your friend has organised a surprise party for you tomorrow and the pleasure of that party should come mostly from the fact that it is a surprise then it seems to me not true that knowing some pleasure will come about will diminish the pleasure. Perhaps we would say it does not diminish the pleasure of the event itself but it might diminish any extra pleasure that might come from its being unexpected. Still, that seems to me to be outweighed by the pleasure you get in the confident expectation of the happy event. Imagine, for example, you are told that you will win big on the lottery next year. (And imagine also that this is a reliable prediction!) Will this make the win any less pleasant? It might make it less of a surprise, for sure, but is that what is pleasant about winning the lottery? 

 [1] Usener prints: εἱμαρμένης γὰρ, φησί, πάντα κρατούσης πρὸ καιροῦ λελύπηκας <εἰπὼν τὴν συμφοράν>, ἢ χρηστόν τι εἰπὼν τὴν ἡδονὴν ἐξέλυσας. 
The line in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound is spoken by Prometheus: τὸ μὴ μαθεῖν σοι κρεῖσσον ἢ μαθεῖν τάδε.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Not in SSR

I've been looking again at some of the bits and pieces in Plutarch that might concern the Hellenistic philosophers' debates over the nature of pleasure.  This bit of information on the Cyrenaics is not in Giannantoni's SSR.  It's in the Quaestiones Convivales 7.5 705A-B.
 οὐδὲν οὖν ὁρῶ τὰς τοιαύτας ἡδονὰς ἴδιον ἐχούσας,  ὅτι μόναι τῆς ψυχῆς εἰσιν, αἱ δ' ἄλλαι τοῦ σώματος καὶ περὶ τὸ σῶμα καταλήγουσιν· μέλος δὲ καὶ ῥυθμὸς καὶ ὄρχησις καὶ ᾠδὴ παραμειψάμεναι τὴν αἴσθησιν ἐν τῷ χαίροντι τῆς ψυχῆς ἀπερείδονται τὸ ἐπιτερπὲς καὶ γαργαλίζον.  ὅθεν οὐδεμία τῶν τοιούτων ἡδονῶν ἀπόκρυφός ἐστιν οὐδὲ σκότους δεομένη καὶ τῶν τοίχων ‘περιθεόντων’, ὡς  οἱ Κυρηναϊκοὶ λέγουσιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ στάδια ταύταις καὶ θέατρα ποιεῖται, καὶ τὸ μετὰ πολλῶν θεάσασθαί τι καὶ ἀκοῦσαι ἐπιτερπέστερόν ἐστι καὶ σεμνότερον, οὐκ ἀκρασίας δήπου καὶ ἡδυπαθείας ἀλλ' ἐλευθερίου διατριβῆς καὶ ἀστείας μάρτυρας ἡμῶν ὅτι πλείστους λαμβανόντων.’
This is a modified version of the translation I found online here: [1]
Therefore I see nothing peculiar in those pleasures, that they should be thought to belong only to the soul, and all others to belong to the body, so far as to end there. But music, rhythm, dancing, song, passing through the sense, fix a pleasure and titillation [1] in the pleased part of the soul and therefore none of these pleasures is enjoyed in secret, nor wants darkness nor walls about it, according to the Cyrenaics' phrase; but circuses and theatres are built for them. And to frequent shows and music-meetings with company is both more delightful and more genteel; because we take a great many witnesses, not of a luxurious and intemperate, but of a pleasant and respectable manner of passing our time. 
The Quaestio here is 'That we ought to keep ourselves from pleasures from bad music and how this should be done'.  Callistratus is trying to defend the idea that it would be wrong to think that the pleasures from theatre etc. are a cause of intemperance even if audiences occasionally get carried away.  He doesn't think, with Aristoxenus, that only the pleasures of music should be called 'fine' but he also disagrees with Aristotle who thinks that the pleasures of music and dance belong only to rational human animals and not to non-rational animals.  (Here Callistratus cites how some fish appear to take pleasure in rhythms and sounds.) Then he declares that the pleasures of dancing, songs, and the like generate pleasure in the soul such that they can (and indeed should) be enjoyed in public and in company.  This, after all, is what theatres are built for.  And there is nothing grubby or shameful in that.

The interesting bit for me is the phrase: τῶν τοίχων ‘περιθεόντων’, ὡς  οἱ Κυρηναϊκοὶ λέγουσιν.  It's pretty obscure.   First, is this really a reference to some Cyrenaic philosophical vocabulary?  The context seems appropriate and appropriately philosophical to think that it is.  Second, if that's right, then what does it mean?  We're used to thinking of the Cyrenaics as envisaging each person as in receipt of various pathê which are in themselves veridical and reliable insofar as they relate incorrigibly how the person is affected.  And they will, as pathê of pleasure and pain, give good recommendations of what affections to pursue and which to avoid.  But they won't give any reliable information about the nature of the external objects by which they are caused.  In terms of walls and the like, I've seen the Cyrenaics (or perhaps their critics) use walls (city walls) as a metaphor before in their epistemology.  Plutarch Adversus Colotem  1120C-D has the Cyrenaics holed up within themselves 'as if in a siege' (cf. 1120F).  So I wonder: perhaps here Plutarch is using again this metaphor to contrast the Cyrenaics' position in which every perceiver is isolated and walled off from others with the public and communal enjoyment of theatrical and musical performances.

The other possibility (see note below) is that Plutarch is again referring to something mentioned also at 1089A, namely the Epicurean and Cyrenaic disagreement over whether one ought to have sex with the lights off.  There we are told that the Cyrenaics were rather more restrained than their Epicurean hedonist rivals because they recommended doing it in the dark so as not to over-inflame the desires (Cf. QC 654D and Cic. Tusc. 5.112.)

[1] That 1909 translation doesn't refer to 'Cyrenaics', instead reading 'according to the women's phrase'.  οἱ Κυρ. is Doehner's emendation (in his Quaestiones Plutarcheae 4 vols., 1840-63) for the MSS αἱ γυναῖκες.  (Perhaps the textual uncertainty is the reason why this is not in SSR.)  Both Hubert's 1971 Teubner and Minar, Sandbach and Helmbold's Loeb (Moralia vol. 9) retain οἱ Κυρ.  I haven't managed to read Doehner, but the Teubner note ad loc. suggests the emendation was supported by reference to Non Posse 1089A. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A surfeit of papers

I'm in a bit of a daze this weekend after back-to-back conferences.  It's hard work sitting and listening to people read out loud...  And I found it harder work, oddly, sitting listening to someone reading out something that had been pre-circulated.  It's a weird way of exchanging ideas, isn't it, to print out someone's paper, read it in advance and then sit with twenty other people listening to the author read it out?  The rustle of paper as we all turn over the page...

The best thing about conferences, really, is catching up with friends and colleagues.  So perhaps we should cut the reading-out time and increase the drinking coffee/gossiping/bitching time.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Hooray.  Jonathan Meades has a new book coming out.  He's always interesting.  Sometimes infuriating.  But in an interesting way.  Here he is on a recent bit of Loose Ends on Radio 4 (35 minutes in; but just before then there's a lovely bit of Beth Orton).

To illustrate, here is a bit of his recent 3 part BBC 4 series On France.

I think the whole series on the YouTube. But this is the first bit. You get the idea.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Encyclomedia online

I wrote a couple of short things for this interesting project, 'Encyclomedia' that combines text, images and video. I've seen a print version of some of the material but not yet how it has been integrated with some of the multimedia stuff.  I'm not sure as yet what the subscriptions costs will be and I imagine it will mostly be of interest to institutions rather than individuals, but it will be worth keeping and eye on how well it does. It's certainly ambitious in its scope and range.

Here's an introduction to the project:

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Courageous burglary

It looks like we will be reading Plato's Laches in our Thursday seminar at some point this academic year.  And it's topical.  A judge in Teesside has sparked a minor row by saying that burgling a house is courageous.  Is it possible to be a courageous criminal?  (Let's also assume for now that burglary is not just illegal but is also a bad thing to do.  Can you be courageous in performing a vicious act?)

This is from the local news report:
He [Judge Peter Bowers] said: "It takes a huge amount of courage as far as I can see for somebody to burgle somebody’s house.  I wouldn’t have the nerve. Yet somehow, bolstered by drugs and desperation, you were prepared to do that."
Needless to say, this didn't go down well with one of the people burgled and now 'Dave' Cameron has had to say something about it because the story has been picked up by the national media.

And now also by the satirists.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Notes to self

We're gearing up for the new term here in Cambridge.  I'm on sabbatical leave this year (all year!) so it's not so bad for me.  But I've been thinking about the new students coming up and what helpful advice they might need.  I think I wish someone had explained to me how best to use a supervision and that it was perfectly OK for me to come along and try to steer the conversation how I wanted with my own questions, difficulties and the like.  I think I was far too passive and may have lost out on the opportunity to set straight things in my mind that I really didn't understand.  I had probably also fudged those things in the essay because I thought it important not to seem as if there was anything I didn't quite follow.  Now, I quite like it if a student tries really hard to sort something out, writes the best essay they can, and leaves a note at the end or puts in a footnote: 'Is this right?  I don't think I understand xxxx because if it means yyyy then surely....    Can we talk about this at the supervision?'  It makes the supervision easier, because I know what to talk about, and I can be more confident that we are actually talking about something that will help the student when they come to look again at the topic later in the year.  I suppose I still thought that the essays were submitted mostly to be graded and handed back. 

So, over to you: what do you wish you had been told (and/or took notice of) when you were a new undergraduate?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Ancient Philosopher's Annual

The Philosopher's Annual for 2011 (volume 31) can be found here.  I've been looking back over the contents of past volumes (1-29; not sure where volume 30 went but there's a list on Brian Leiter's site here) and there is not very much in there about ancient philosophy.  In the new issue there is “The Concept of Unified Agency in Nietzsche, Plato, and Schiller” by Paul Katsafanas in Journal of the History of Philosophy 49. Before then, Jessica Moss' "Akrasia and perceptual illusion" from AGP was in volume 29 and Michael N. Forster's "Socrates' Profession of Ignorance" from Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy in volume 27.  Then (if I haven't missed something) you have to go all the way back to volume 12 for the next one: Jean Roberts' 'Political Animals in the Nicomachean Ethics' from Phronesis

Well, perhaps ancient philosophy is a relatively small sub-discipline.  But just 4 out of the 300 or so papers in the 30 volumes so far?  True, things have looked better more recently.  But I don't suppose that is because scholarship in ancient philosophy has got better only recently or that it has got better relative to scholarship in other areas of philosophy more recently.  (There's a brief explanation of the process that generates the annual list here.)

Anyway, perhaps there's not quite enough published in ancient philosophy each year to put together a crop of ten papers for an Ancient Philosopher's Annual, but if we widen the search to include chapters in books, I think we could come up a few nominations.  Any suggestions for 2011?  Or even for 2012 so far?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


We're just back from hols in Italy. We stayed in Ercolano, which tuned out to be very convenient for all the good sites, but also very quiet. This is a good thing, but the August holidays in fact ensured that most of the shops and restaurants were closed.  Still, we did find the excellent Tubba Catubba, though it kept to eccentric and unpredictable opening hours and, like most other places, would/could not take payment by card. Great food though. And we found a couple of good pizzerias (my favourite was Luna Caprese - a bit chaotic and lots of fun).

The hotel was good too and had an excellent pool. 

Some bits were less good. The Naples Archeological Museum was suffering from the familiar malaise of random gallery closures. Sara really wanted to see the stuff from the Greek colonies but that section was closed. Would it be open later in the week?  A shrug from the person at the info desk didn't help much. Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps we should have rung ahead and arranged to see it.

Pompeii is amazing, of course, but for my money Herculaneum is better.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Credit where it's due

Here's an interesting bit of a review in the current Times Higher of Charles Fernyhough's Piece of Light: the new science of memory.
When planning to give a talk, Fernyhough argues, we draw on relevant memories, including memories of previous talks. From them, we extract some general lessons to help us to plan our talk, such as how to engage the audience, how to keep to time, and how best to cope with the cramped room in which the talk is to be given. It is a mundane example, but deliberately so, because from it he extracts the general contention that memory enables us to imagine future events. If this is so, we might expect those who have serious memory problems, such as amnesia, to experience problems in imagining future scenarios. One might also expect overlap between the brain areas that are active when recalling past events and those active when imagining future ones. Both these predictions have recently received empirical support, and this has added weight to what medieval writers contended: that memory and imagination are intimately related. It also reminds us of one reason why we have such sophisticated memory abilities in the first place: remembering enhances our ability to deal with the present and to imagine different possible futures. 
What medieval writers contended?  Huh.  They may well have done.  But they were by no means the first to have the idea.  Try Plato's Philebus -- which is where Aristotle also got the idea, I reckon.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

People to cheer for in the Olympics II

Chad Le Clos. Not so much for him as for his excellent Dad. 

And here he is charming Claire Balding:

Friday, July 20, 2012

Taking the tablets

I have resisted up until now but I have splurged some of my supervision money on a Nexus 7 tablet. I'm trying out its blogging app at the moment. So far, I'm impressed. I'm not a Mac person so this suits me fine. It syncs with my Google account, as does my phone. So that's easy. And for now it seems big enough without being too big. More updates if I can be bothered.

Monday, July 16, 2012

People to cheer for in the Olympics, part 1

Fran Halsall, GB swimmer.

She likes Aristotle.  This is a good thing, even if her chronology is a bit out.  This is from an article in Sunday's Observer.
She also told me "Aristotle is my main man. Oh my God, it's definitely got to be old Aristotle. He had all these ideas before anyone really knew anything – a whole new way of thinking was based around his thoughts. And this was like millions of years ago! It's crazy!"  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Something more beautiful

Hooray.  Beth Orton has a new album, Sugaring Season, coming in the autumn.  There's some news about it here.  And here is the first single from it.

If you haven't listed to Beth before, for shame!  Here are some of my favourites: this one, this one, and this one.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Occupational direction of fit

'Direction of fit' is a useful metaphor to distinguish, for example, ways of thinking about beliefs and ways of thinking about desires (or 'cognitive' vs. 'conative' attitudes generally).  So, roughly, beliefs should fit the way the world is because beliefs aim at truth while desires involve wanting the world to fit the picture of the world the agent has in mind.

Here is a related distinction between different kinds of people that may be familiar to those who work in institutions a bit like the ones I belong to.

Call this 'occupational direction of fit'.

In some cases the direction of fit is: job  ---> behaviour (JtoB).  That is: the job one has places certain constraints and obligations on how one acts and the job-holder's behaviour alters to fit.

But in come other cases the direction of fit is: behaviour ---> job (BtoJ).  That is: the way a person behaves places certain constraints and requirements on the way that person's job is understood.

(Cartoon from here.)

Most organisations in which people have paid employment will, I think, assume a JtoB model.  Someone employed as a X in the organisation, because of what is involved in being an X, will do what that role requires and not do what that role precludes.  The payment is what compensates for the employee making the alterations to behaviour that are required to fit the role.

But there are occasions when it goes the other way.  Imagine a person who simply cannot do A or cannot refrain from doing B.  Sometimes what happens is that the job alters to fit the behaviour.  (Sometimes it's by far the easier option than trying to get the person's behaviour to change.)  'Well, we can't ask Y to do this because, you know...  so we'll have to do it for him/get someone else to do it' etc. 

It seems to me that in messy practical contexts we often work with an amalgam of JtoB and BtoJ.  And this mostly negotiates the demands that various jobs get done and respects the fact that people are different, sometimes malleable and sometimes not.  Sometimes this is OK.  But at other times it is annoying, particularly in cases in which it seems that two similarly placed people within an organisation are not respecting the same direction of fit...

(Cartoon from here.)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why knowing things is good

I’ve been thinking about some uplifting Epicurean sayings about pleasure and philosophy [1].
Here’s the first, Vatican Saying 27:
Ἐπὶ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων ἐπιτηδευμάτων μόλις τελειωθεῖσιν ὁ καρπὸς ἔρχεται, ἐπὶ δὲ φιλοσοφίας συντρέχει τῇ γνώσει τὸ τερπνόν· οὐ γὰρ μετὰ μάθησιν ἀπόλαυσις, ἀλλὰ ἅμα μάθησις καὶ ἀπόλαυσις. 
Bailey translates:
‘In all other occupations the fruit comes painfully after completion, but in philosophy pleasure goes hand in hand with knowledge; for enjoyment does not come after comprehension, but comprehension and enjoyment are simultaneous.’ 
Compare Diogenes of Oinoanda fr. 33.VI.11–VII.10 Smith for the idea that the pleasure and the cause of the pleasure can be simultaneous: we do not eat and then afterwards experience pleasure because of eating nor do we ejaculate and then later experience pleasure because of that [2]. In these cases what causes the pleasure and the pleasure itself are simultaneous.

This Saying is mostly concerned with pointing out that knowledge and pleasure come about simultaneously (at the moment I come to know something I simultaneously enjoy knowing that something). Knowing is just all by itself something pleasant. I don’t need to wait for that knowledge to be useful or to lead to some later pleasure; it’s pleasant all by itself and the pleasure occurs as soon as something is known. So, like the Diogenes of Oinoanda fragment, it might well be aimed at dispelling the idea that the Epicureans think that knowledge—like virtue—is good only in a crude way because of some later pleasure that it might produce. Instead, they want to say that knowledge is good because it is pleasant immediately and all by itself. The chronological claim is perhaps best understood as a claim about the nature of the value of knowledge. Knowledge is intrinsically pleasant and therefore valuable; knowledge does not have to wait to cause some later pleasure for it to be valuable.

The Epicureans clearly feel some pressure to recognise a value of knowledge that is not merely contingent on its producing some later pleasure while still holding firm to their hedonist axiology. Perhaps the idea is this: It is not pleasant to know some trigonometry just because it will allow me later on to build a house efficiently and live in a secure and water-tight dwelling. Yes, it will do that. But knowing that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to etc. etc. is just pleasant all by itself. Or, if we want a more specific example of some Epicurean ‘philosophy’, perhaps it is not pleasant to know that lightning is not caused by divine anger just because that will allow me to live a life free from superstitious anxieties. Yes, it will do that. But knowing that lightning is caused thus-and-so is just pleasant all by itself. (Compare Ep. Hdt. 78–9 and Ep. Pyth. 86 which also stress the necessity of a sufficient knowledge of such things for living a good life.)

It is still the case that the value of knowledge lies in its being pleasant, of course, but its pleasantness is intrinsic and inseperable. The Saying does not say whether it continues to be pleasant to know something. A lot would depend on the precise meaning of gnōsis and mathēsis. For example: if the latter means ‘learning’ in the sense of the event of coming to know something, then it will not follow that just because this is all by itself pleasant just when it happens, it will continue to be pleasant to have learned something. But the sense of the event of coming to know something makes best sense of the claim there need be no time-lag between the mathēsis and the pleasure. (This is not a common word in Epicurus. Nor is the cognate verb common. But compare SV 74: ‘In philosophical shared inquiry the one who is beaten gains more according to how much more he learns [prosemathen].’) The former, however, gnōsis, is more likely to mean an on-going state of knowing or understanding. (See, for example, its use in Ep. Hdt. 78–9). (It’s a familiar problem with ancient philosophical claims for the pleasantness of knowing that it is sometimes unclear whether they mean that it is pleasant to come-to-know or to continue-to-know, or both. And the reasons for making either claim or both claims might have to be different.)

[1] I’ve been thinking a bit about Epicureanism again lately because Pamela Gordon very kindly sent me a copy of her new book, The Invention and Gendering of Epicurus (Ann Arbor, 2012): very interesting it is too.

[2] For a recent discussion see D. N. Sedley, ‘Diogenes of Oenoanda on Cyrenaic hedonism’, PCPS 48 (2002), 159–74

Friday, June 15, 2012

Stale cava

It's a busy time here, what with all the marking and grading and reading and registering and writing reports and agreeing marks and viva-ing and chasing scripts from other examiners or students or finding someone has answered some question here and not there and so on.  I don't think I've been able to think about any of my own work for at least two weeks because I've been squinting at other people's handwriting or leafing through bundles of printouts.  Soon, soon, I promise myself.

And it's raining most of the time.  Which at least washes away the smell of stale cava from the pavements when it has dripped off a pale undergraduate who has emerged blinking from an examination hall to find some 'hilarious' friends ready in ambush with poorly-aimed sticky fizzy wine.

I'm not in the best of moods.

On the other hand, the work I've read is pretty impressive given all that our students have to do and the slightly eccentric method by which we decide to grade their achievements.  Some clever things, some hard work and only occasionally the feeling that what I'm reading is the complete and undigested contents of a rapidly-acquired superficial acquaintance with information that should have been thought about properly.  So hooray for the students who work hard and are clever.  Not that this means I won't curse them in the coming week as they roam the street in be-blazered and chino-shorted gangs, bumping into respectable civilians and imagining that they really are quite the most important people here.  They will all leave soon.

And then.  And then I have a year of sabbatical to do some proper reading and writing.

One last moan.  CUP have at last produced Myles Burnyeat's collected papers.  Two volumes.  Nice paper and sturdy binding (certainly feels sturdier than some recent OUP things).  But £75 per volume.  £75, for pity's sake.  That's £150 for about 740 pages of things.  I'd been saving up credit from reading and refereeing work for the Press, but this has now blown a big hole in my account.  £150.  Really!  (But, the good people at amazon will do you a deal on the two volume set -- see below -- and I am pleased to see that unlike some other volumes of this kind it has the handy marks that indicate the pagination in the original publication.  That's a very good thing.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Summer wardrobe

I like a good philosophical t-shirt and there are some good ones here, including some ancient types.

Jazz hands!

I'm supposed to be marking exams at the moment so I shouldn't be mucking about on the interweb.  But look!  Anyhoo, here is something funny:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Genius loci

This afternoon I was the examiner present at the start of the Part II (third year, finals) Aristotle paper in the Corn Exchange.  An examiner has to be there for twenty minutes in case there are any questions about or problems with the paper.  The hall was mostly full of the Part IB (second year) English students doing the Shakespeare paper, each with a clean copy of the Complete Works on the desk and a stern warning on the front of the examination paper: 'DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CONSULT THE GLOSSARY'...  But there was a column of heroic Aristotelians at the very edge of the hall.

Anyway, I think it was having to do this that made me feel anxious all morning and in fact I felt quite sick at lunchtime.  As if it was an odd physiological memory of being a student taking the exam.  I had taken nearly all my own exams in that same place and, 17 years or so ago, I was sitting the B2 Aristotle paper there.  Anyway, the smell of the bins outside the Corn Exchange on a hot May day, the sounds of the desks and chairs scraping and clanking and, finally, the noise of two hundred question papers being turned over at exactly 1.30pm by the clock hung on a wooden post on the stage at the front of the hall...  It all made me feel quite ill.  After twenty minutes I escaped along with an examiner who will have to plough through what must be a huge pile of Shakespeare scripts, thankful that I didn't have to take the paper.  But I will be back on Monday to begin the Part II Plato paper and will probably feel the same again.  Horrible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Aristotle's sex life

Aristotle can sometimes say some surprising things. This is one of my favourites. In NE VII.11 he is giving a list of reasons why you might think that pleasure is not a good thing in a human life. (He doesn’t endorse these entirely, but runs through them nevertheless before showing why they might not be as compelling as you’d first think.) One of the reasons is that pleasures might be an impediment to thought. You can imagine a po-faced Platonist thinking something like this if he has been reading the Phaedo in a lazy way and not quite got the idea that there can be pleasures had from thinking too. But at least some kinds of pleasure might get in the way of a good think. And then Aristotle gives an example:
 οἷον τῇ τῶν ἀφροδισίων· οὐδένα γὰρ ἂν δύνασθαι νοῆσαί τι ἐν αὐτῇ. (1152b17–18)
  (… as with the pleasure of sex: no one could have any thoughts when enjoying that.) trans. C. Rowe.
I like to imagine Theophrastus sitting in the audience and being a bit taken aback… (I don’t know why I think this might bother Theophrastus; he just seems like that kind of person.  And I don't think I’d get away with a comment like this in a lecture. Just imagine the questionnaire returns.) It’s a reasonable point, I suppose, if you add some further thoughts. If sex is a natural human activity and sex is very pleasurable and it is impossible to think properly while having sex then perhaps there is a tension between at least some parts of our nature and our wonderful intellectual capacities.

Still, is it just me or does this conjure up all sorts of other images? Perhaps Aristotle had tried it out. (‘Hang on, darling, I’m just wondering about a first figure syllogism…’)  And I suppose if you do manage to do a bit of demonstration while having sex, you perhaps are not really engaging properly in either activity.  Anyway, it's a shame he doesn't come back to this in 10.5 when he explains how his account of the way in which activities each have a characteristic pleasure explains various phenomena like this.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


We are reading the Theages in our Thursday seminar.  One of the first issues that we put on the agenda was the question of authenticity.  A lot of readers think it just doesn't 'feel' like Plato, even if there is no particular obvious other bit of evidence that will show conclusively that he didn't write it.  I have to introduce the next section at tomorrow's meeting (124c-127a).  One of the interesting bits there is the use of a line of Euripides, which goes something like: 'tyrants get wise though association (sunousia) with the wise' (125b: σοφοὶ τύραννοι τῶν σοφῶν συνουσίᾳ).  Apparently a scholiast on Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusai (ad 21) says it comes from a play called Ajax at Locrus.

Anyway, I'm more interested by the fact that the line also appears at Republic 568a-b.  Coincidence?  You decide!  Let's see what the learned types make of this tomorrow but for now I'm wondering whether more than one of these short sometimes suspect dialogues have a similar connection to the more central works, particularly the Republic (e.g. Clitophon)Perhaps these are 'satellite' works that can stand alone but are knowingly put together with a view to a more well-know, demanding, and central work.  They are intended to be read alongside that larger work.  As far as authenticity goes, this can go either way: perhaps they are dialogues inspired by that large work, composed after Plato as 'spin-offs' from his original; or perhaps these are Plato's work too, like DVD extras.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

My first demiurge kit

Look: with this construction kit you can make triangles to make simple solids to make elements to make worlds.  Warning: understanding of perfect intelligible paradigms not included.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Passport to Plato

Look: the people at the Unemployed Philosophers' Guild will sell you a passport to Plato's RepublicIt's not clear whether this is supposed to be a passport for people wanting to 'visit' Kallipolis or is a passport for a citizen of Kallipolis who wants to go out and see the world.  Either way, I reckon the Kallipolan Borders Agency would be a pretty hard-core kind of outfit.  Not many would get in or out and foreign trade would be rather restricted.

Here's some more from Plato about foreign travel into and out of a good city, this time the Laws' Magnesia.  (This is Jowett's translation of Laws 12 950b-953e):
And our Cretan colony ought also to acquire the fairest and noblest reputation for virtue from other men; and there is every reason to expect that, if the reality answers to the idea, she will before of the few well-ordered cities which the sun and the other Gods behold. Wherefore, in the matter of journeys to other countries and the reception of strangers, we enact as follows:-

In the first place, let no one be allowed to go anywhere at all into a foreign country who is less than forty years of age; and no one shall go in a private capacity, but only in some public one, as a herald, or on an embassy; or on a sacred mission. Going abroad on an expedition or in war, not to be included among travels of the class authorized by the state. To Apollo at Delphi and to Zeus at Olympia and to Nemea and to the Isthmus,-citizens should be sent to take part in the sacrifices and games there dedicated to the Gods; and they should send as many as possible, and the best and fairest that can be found, and they will make the city renowned at holy meetings in time of peace, procuring a glory which shall be the converse of that which is gained in war; and when they come home they shall teach the young that the institutions of other states are inferior to their own. And they shall send spectators of another sort, if they have the consent of the guardians, being such citizens as desire to look a little more at leisure at the doings of other men; and these no law shall hinder. For a city which has no experience of good and bad men or intercourse with them, can never be thoroughly, and perfectly civilized, nor, again, can the citizens of a city properly observe the laws by habit only, and without an intelligent understanding of them. And there always are in the world a few inspired men whose acquaintance is beyond price, and who spring up quite as much in ill-ordered as in well-ordered cities.

These are they whom the citizens of a well ordered city should be ever seeking out, going forth over sea and over land to find him who is incorruptible-that he may establish more firmly institutions in his own state which are good already; and amend what is deficient; for without this examination and enquiry a city will never continue perfect any more than if the examination is ill-conducted.

Cleinias. How can we have an examination and also a good one?

Athenian Stranger. In this way: In the first place, our spectator shall be of not less than fifty years of age; he must be a man of reputation, especially in war, if he is to exhibit to other cities a model of the guardians of the law, but when he is more than sixty years of age he shall no longer continue in his office of spectator, And when he has carried on his inspection during as many out of the ten years of his office as he pleases, on his return home let him go to the assembly of those who review the laws. This shall be a mixed body of young and old men, who shall be required to meet daily between the hour of dawn and the rising of the sun. They shall consist, in the first place, of the priests who have obtained the rewards of virtue; and in the second place, of guardians of the law, the ten eldest being chosen; the general superintendent of education shall also be member, as well the last appointed as those who have been released from the office; and each of them shall take with him as his companion young man, whomsoever he chooses, between the ages of thirty and forty. These shall be always holding conversation and discourse about the laws of their own city or about any specially good ones which they may hear to be existing elsewhere; also about kinds of knowledge which may appear to be of use and will throw light upon the examination, or of which the want will make the subject of laws dark and uncertain to them. Any knowledge of this sort which the elders approve, the younger men shall learn with all diligence; and if any one of those who have been invited appear to be unworthy, the whole assembly shall blame him who invited him. The rest of the city shall watch over those among the young men who distinguish themselves, having an eye upon them, and especially honouring them if they succeed, but dishonouring them above the rest if they turn out to be inferior.

This is the assembly to which he who has visited the institutions of other men, on his return home shall straightway go, and if he have discovered any one who has anything to say about the enactment of laws or education or nurture, or if he have himself made any observations, let him communicate his discoveries to the whole assembly. And if he be seen to have come home neither better nor worse, let him be praised at any rate for his enthusiasm; and if he be much better, let him be praised so much the more; and not only while he lives but after his death let the assembly honour him with fitting honours. But if on his return home he appear to have been corrupted, pretending to be wise when he is not, let him hold no communication with any one, whether young or old; and if he will hearken to the rulers, then he shall be permitted to live as a private individual; but if he will not, let him die, if he be convicted in a court of law of interfering about education and the laws, And if he deserve to be indicted, and none of the magistrates indict him, let that be counted as a disgrace to them when the rewards of virtue are decided. Let such be the character of the person who goes abroad, and let him go abroad under these conditions.

In the next place, the stranger who comes from abroad should be received in a friendly spirit. Now there are four kinds of strangers, of whom we must make some mention-the first is he who comes and stays throughout the summer; this class are like birds of passage, taking wing in pursuit of commerce, and flying over the sea to other cities, while the season lasts; he shall be received in market-places and harbours and public buildings, near the city but outside, by those magistrates who are appointed to superintend these matters; and they shall take care that a stranger, whoever he be, duly receives justice; but he shall not be allowed to make any innovation. They shall hold the intercourse with him which is necessary, and this shall be as little as possible.

The second kind is just a spectator who comes to see with his eyes and hear with his ears the festivals of the Muses; such ought to have entertainment provided them at the temples by hospitable persons, and the priests and ministers of the temples should see and attend to them. But they should not remain more than a reasonable time; let them see and hear that for the sake of which they came, and then go away, neither having suffered nor done any harm. The priests shall be their judges, if any of them receive or do any wrong up to the sum of fifty drachmae, but if any greater charge be brought, in such cases the suit shall come before the wardens of the agora.

The third kind of stranger is he who comes on some public business from another land, and is to be received with public honours. He is to be received only by the generals and commanders of horse and foot, and the host by whom he is entertained, in conjunction with the Prytanes, shall have the sole charge of what concerns him.

There is a fourth class of persons answering to our spectators, who come from another land to look at ours. In the first place, such visits will be rare, and the visitor should be at least fifty years of age; he may possibly be wanting to see something that is rich and rare in other states, or himself to show something in like manner to another city. Let such an one, then, go unbidden to the doors of the wise and rich, being one of them himself: let him go, for example, to the house of the superintendent of education, confident that he is a fitting guest of such a host, or let him go to the house of some of those who have gained the prize of virtue and hold discourse with them, both learning from them, and also teaching them; and when he has seen and heard all, he shall depart, as a friend taking leave of friends, and be honoured by them with gifts and suitable tributes of respect.

These are the customs, according to which our city should receive all strangers of either sex who come from other countries, and should send forth her own citizens, showing respect to Zeus, the God of hospitality, not forbidding strangers at meals and sacrifices, as is the manner which prevails among the children of the Nile, nor driving them away by savage proclamations.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


It's examination term here in Cambridge so the students spend a lot of time sitting in libraries.  Have you ever wondered what they're really doing?  No.  But there is now a website where you can read what they want to pretend that they are thinking: Library whispers.  Not very edifying stuff: most mildly flirty, angry, or plain weird.  But the most interesting thing is that you can filter the comments by library and then wonder whether things in the Classics library are different from things in the Law library....

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bad Romans

I've been thinking about a lecture I have to give to this year's Oxbridge Classics Open Day for sixth formers (details here).  I've been timetabled against lectures on the Olympics and the Aeneid so I think it likely I'll be a bit lonely in the lecture hall, but never mind.  I was told to do something Roman because there was a lot of Greek stuff elsewhere on the bill so I have decided to give a little talk on 'What did the Romans ever do for philosophy?'  Nothing very innovative to say, I'm afraid, and what little I have I'm not going to spoil by blurting it our here.  But, while looking for pictures for the Powerpoint thing (I only ever use Powerpoint for events like this; it doesn't seem to me very helpful for the bread and butter lecturing I'm doing and even for giving papers it's simpler to use a paper handout for the audience to scribble on and take away) I tried to find a pair of pictures to illustrate some stereotypical images of clever clever Greeks and serious, practically-minded Romans.  I'm still looking, but in the process I found this.  I think it's funny.  I showed it to my older daughter and she didn't think it is funny.  But she has now taken a general policy decision not to find funny any of my jokes.  (She didn't even laugh when I told here that out of off of The Voice had a brother who stars in a Dr Seuss book... and I hadn't even make that one up; I stole it from the interwebs...)  Anyway, here is the pic.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Horrible Histories do Ancient Philosophy

Horrible Histories has started its fourth series on CBBC.  It's the best thing on telly at the moment and the songs this time are particularly good.  They've done Charles Darwin in a Bowie-style on ch-ch-changes, a boy band version of WWII airmen, and now some classical philosophers in the style of the Monkees.  Great.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Aristotle on pure pleasures

At Nicomachean Ethics 10.7 1177a25–7, Aristotle writes:
δοκεῖ γοῦν ἡ φιλοσοφία θαυμαστὰς ἡδονὰς ἔχειν καθαρειότητι καὶ τῷ βεβαίῳ, εὔλογον δὲ τοῖς εἰδόσι τῶν ζητούντων ἡδίω τὴν διαγωγὴν εἶναι. 
At least, it is thought that philosophy contains pleasures that are astonishing in both purity and stability and it is reasonable to think that life is more pleasant for those who know than for those who are inquiring. 
 It is unusual, it seems to me, for Aristotle to talk about the purity of a pleasure although it is of course a notion very familiar from Plato. Should we say that Aristotle did think that pleasures themselves varied in terms of purity or should we say instead that Aristotle is citing a reputable endoxon (a Platonic thought) that can be thought to support his general view that contemplative activity is the best activity available to humans and will therefore be accompanied by the best pleasure? [1]

It is not easy to find any other explicit reference to pleasures being more or less (let alone astonishingly) pure in Aristotle. True, he does say that god’s activity will be very pleasant because contemplation is most pleasant and best (Met. 1072b19–26) and there are similar claims in the NE about how pleasant intellectual activity is for us humans (e.g. 1174b20–23). But these do not make the case for the excellence of such pleasures in terms of the purity of the pleasure concerned.

The closest is at NE 1175b36–1176a3 but it is not easy to interpret:
 διαφέρει δὲ ἡ ὄψις ἁφῆς καθαρειότητι, καὶ ἀκοὴ καὶ ὄσφρησις γεύσεως· ὁμοίως δὴ διαφέρουσι καὶ αἱ ἡδοναί, καὶ τούτων αἱ περὶ τὴν διάνοιαν, καὶ ἑκάτεραι ἀλλήλων.

Sight differs from touch in purity, as do hearing and smell differ from taste. Their pleasures differ similarly; not only do the pleasures of thinking differ from these but so does each from one another. 
According to Bonitz’ Index these are the only two occurrences of the noun καθαρειότης in the corpus. And in fact, setting aside related terms such as katharsis, Aristotle appears not to use cognate terms for ‘purity’ much at all. [2] The first set of distinctions is between different sense modalities. The senses seem to differ in that the distance senses are purer than the contact senses, with perhaps sight as the purest of all. [3] Direct contact with the object of perception seems to be associated with impurity of some kind. Something then follows about the respective pleasures of the various senses and also about the pleasures of the senses generally compared with the pleasures of thinking. Provided the ‘similarly’ is thought to mean not just that the pleasures differ as the senses do but that they differ in purity as the senses do, then we have here another reference to pleasures differing in terms of purity (perhaps because their specific sense-objects differ in that regard) and the claim that the pleasures of thought are purer than the pleasures of perception.

There are certainly texts that suggest that Aristotle, like Plato, was prepared to distinguish between different objects of perception in terms of their purity. For example, at De Sensu 439b31–440a6 [4] he first claims that there are some colours that are more pleasant to look at than others because their components are in easily expressible ratios to one another. Here he is borrowing a thought from similar notions about pleasant and unpleasant notes and chords in audible harmonies. He then distinguishes between pure and impure colours. The implication is that the pure colours are the most pleasant to look at. And this is a thought that recurs in the NE in the claim that the activity of sight is engaged most fully when we look at a beautiful object (1174b14–20). All the same, the idea of pure pleasures is not something that Aristotle emphasises except when it comes to offering a rousing claim about the astonishingly pleasant nature of philosophy. The principal work is done by distinguishing between different activities in terms of their value and intensity and claims about different pleasures will follow from that.

[1] See e.g. G. Van Riel, Pleasure and the Good Life: Plato, Aristotle and the Neoplatonists (Leiden, 2000), 70–71. Cf. Broadie’s note ad loc. in S. Broadie and C. Rowe, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Translation, introduction, and commentary (Oxford, 2002).

[2] The bee is the ‘purest’ animal (626a24); there is a reference to those who are ‘pure’ in appearance, dress and general conduct at Rhet. 1381b1.

[3] For the details of the distinctions between the contact senses and the other senses see T. Johansen, Aristotle on the Sense-Organs (Cambridge, 1997), 178–225.

[4] De sensu 439b31–440a6: τὰ μὲν γὰρ ἐν ἀριθμοῖς εὐλογίστοις χρώματα, καθάπερ ἐκεῖ τὰς συμφωνίας, τὰ ἥδιστα τῶν χρωμάτων εἶναι δοκοῦντα, οἷον τὸ ἁλουργὸν καὶ τὸ φοινικοῦν καὶ ὀλίγ' ἄττα τοιαῦτα (δι' ἥνπερ αἰτίαν καὶ αἱ συμφωνίαι ὀλίγαι), τὰ δὲ μὴ ἐν ἀριθμοῖς τἆλλα χρώματα· ἢ καὶ πάσας τὰς χρόας ἐν ἀριθμοῖς εἶναι, τὰς μὲν τεταγμένας τὰς δὲ ἀτάκτους, καὶ αὐτὰς ταύτας, ὅταν μὴ καθαραὶ ὦσι, διὰ τὸ μὴ ἐν ἀριθμοῖς εἶναι τοιαύτας γίγνεσθαι.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Me in ebook form

My Presocratics is now available as an ebook to Cambridge users (and, I suppose, anyone else with a subscription to the Taylor and Francis site) here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Barnes on Brunschwig

Memories of Jacques here (pdf).

Jonathan Barnes « Memories of Jacques », Les études philosophiques 4/2011 (n° 99), p. 595-601.
DOI : 10.3917/leph.114.0595.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Looking at things that are far away

I wrote a foreword for the 2012 reprinting of Guthrie's The Greek Philosophers.  I've just seen the cover that Routledge have chosen.  I like it.  It's also quite long way back to 1950, of course, when Guthrie wrote the book.

Look through here to see things from a long time ago.
It's not available until the autumn but if you can't wait to spend £9.99 click here:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Subject taster day for prospective undergraduate applicants

Subject Taster Events for students in Year 12
20th March 2012

Politics, Psychology and Sociology

These events will involve lectures and sessions by academics, including the subject Director of Studies, and are designed to:

• stimulate interest and thought
• give a sense of university-level study
• highlight the particular nature of the Cambridge course
• enrich students’ academic studies

The first session starts at 10.30 and the event ends at 15.15. Lunch and refreshments are included. The closing date for applications is 5th March 2012. Early booking is advised.

Applications must be made via your school.  Please use the nomination form (link below) and return the completed form to the address shown.  Schools can nominate a maximum of 2 students per taster event.

Closing date for Nominations 5th March 2012
Nomination Form

For more information on studying as an undergraduate at Corpus click here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

More middle fingers

Now it's Adele continuing a fine tradition of Cynic digital dismissal.

Adele, being a bit like Diogenes the Cynic: 'You want to listen some more to Blur?  Well, that's Britpop for you!'

In other news, now That's a good idea:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Philebus 42b: a helpful suggestion

My worry about Philebus 42b got this helpful answer from Mehmet Erginel.  He writes:
It would indeed be hard to make sense of it if Socrates were claiming that pains seem lesser and less intense when compared with pleasures, when he is claiming that pleasures seem greater and more intense when compared with pain. It would also be inconsistent with what Plato says about the mutual intensification of juxtaposed pleasures and pains in Republic IX (at least as I understand it): 586c1-2, for instance, suggests that both pleasure and pain appear more intense when juxtaposed with one another. Moreover, 584a7-10 and 584e8-585a5 suggest that the effect of juxtaposition with a contrasting experience is symmetrical in the case of pleasure and pain. 
My suggestion is to understand 'the opposite' differently: we are to understand that the intensity of pleasure and pain can be placed on a continuum, such that maximally intense pleasure and maximally intense pain are at the opposite ends of this continuum, with the neutral state in the middle. On this understanding, pain appearing more painful and intense could be understood as the opposite of pleasure appearing more pleasant and intense. This use of 'the opposite' would be like its use in saying that on certain economic policies, the rich get richer and the opposite happens to the poor, meaning that the poor get poorer - each becoming more of its kind.
This would get Socrates to say something sensible, I suppose.  Nearer pains might appear more intense and nearer pains might do the opposite, by appearing more intense too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Philebus 42b2-6

Socrates is trying to convince Protarchus of a second way in which a pleasure can be false.  This kind of false pleasure somehow arises out of a mistaken comparison with a pain in a way similar to that in which things that are closer or further away sometimes appear larger or smaller in comparison with one another than they really are.  At 42b2-6 he says:
Νῦν δέ γε αὐταὶ διὰ τὸ πόρρωθέν τε καὶ ἐγγύθεν ἑκάστοτε μεταβαλλόμεναι θεωρεῖσθαι, καὶ ἅμα τιθέμεναι παρ' ἀλλήλας, αἱ μὲν ἡδοναὶ παρὰ τὸ λυπηρὸν μείζους φαίνονται καὶ σφοδρότεραι, λῦπαι δ' αὖ διὰ τὸ παρ' ἡδονὰς τοὐναντίον ἐκείναις.
 Which I think means something like:
But now, because of the fact of being seen from nearby and then far away in turn and, at that same time, being set against one another, the pleasures appear greater and more intense when compared with pain, while the pains seem the opposite when compared with pleasures. 
I'm a bit confused by this.  On the face of it, Socrates seems to say that pleasures seem greater and more intense when compared with pain and that pains seem lesser and less intense when compared with pleasures.  But why should that be so?  I might think that what he ought to say is something about us being biased to the near, whether what is nearer is a pleasure or a pain: the nearer pleasure seems greater and more intense than it ought in comparison with a further pain and a nearer pain seems greater and more intense than it ought in comparison with a further pleasure.  But he doesn't, or at least I don't think he does.  (Damascius thinks he does: In Phileb. §187.)[1]  Socrates does not say that nearer pains appear greater and more intense than they ought in comparison with later pleasures.  But such a claim about nearer pains seems at least as plausible as the claim he certainly does make about nearer pleasures. 

Is it because Socrates thinks we are biased not to the near but to the pleasant?  This might be what be he is interested in rather than a bias to the near; the analogy with nearer and further objects of sight would on this account be rather misleading.  Or could it be that he somehow combines the two thoughts?  He thinks we are biased so as to tend to overvalue mistakenly only the nearer pleasure (but that we do not equally tend mistakenly to overvalue the nearer pain).  Or is Socrates simply not at all interested about mistakes concerning pains, only those that concern pleasures and therefore is not very careful to spell out the possibility of doloric mistakes?

[1] : Ὅτι ὡς ἐπὶ τῶν αἰσθητῶν τὰ μὲν ἐγγύθεν ὁρᾶται μείζω, τὰ δὲ πόρρωθεν ἐλάττω, τὰ αὐτὰ ὄντα, οὕτω καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἡδέων καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν λυπηρῶν· τὸ γὰρ παρὸν ἀεὶ μεῖζον εἶναι δοκεῖ τοῦ ἀπόντος, καὶ <λυπηρὸν> λυπηροῦ καὶ ἡδὺ ἡδέος καὶ ἡδὺ λυπηροῦ καὶ λυπηρὸν ἡδέος.

"My band is...

...spinach, I guess."

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

One-fingered salute

So, it turns out that M.I.A. made a particular unidigital gesture during a Super Bowl performance.  Cue apologies similar to those that followed a wardrobe malfunction on a previous show.  The BBC report wonders how old the gesture might be and points to Diogenes the Cynic.  Diogenes Laertius (6.34) reports:
ξένων δέ ποτε θεάσασθαι θελόντων Δημοσθένην, τὸν μέσον δάκτυλον ἐκτείνας, “οὗτος ὑμῖν,” ἔφη,“ἐστὶν ὁ Ἀθηναίων δημαγωγός. 
When some friends from out of town wanted to do and see Demosthenes, he stretched out his middle finger and said, "This is the Athenians' demagogue".
It seems that there was little love lost between Diogenes and Demosthenes.  And Diogenes is not averse to a bit of shocking behaviour so perhaps it is a gesture of contempt.  But I wasn't not sure whether what he have here is an insulting gesture of contempt aimed at his guest-friends for wanting to go and see Demosthenes in action.

A similar story appears in Epictetus 3.2.11:
οὐκ οἶδας, ὅτι Διογένης τῶν σοφιστῶν τινα οὕτως ἔδειξεν ἐκτείνας τὸν μέσον δάκτυλον, εἶτα ἐκμανέντος αὐτοῦ ‘Οὗτός ἐστιν’, ἔφη, ‘ὁ δεῖνα· ἔδειξα ὑμῖν αὐτόν’;
Anyway, a quick TLG search seems to confirm that it is more or less the gesture we know now.  Scholiasts on Aristophanes Clouds (ad 653 and 549) suggest as much.  And here is the Suda:

The verb is σκιμᾱλίζω,'to hold up the middle finger': 
τῷ μέσῳ δακτύλῳ συναρμόσας τὸν μέγαν καὶ πλήξας ἐφυβρίζει. ἢ ἀντὶ τοῦ  κατεδακτύλισε· σκιμαλίσαι γάρ ἐστι κυρίως τὸ μέσον τὸν δάκτυλον εἰς τὸν πρωκτὸν τοῦ ὀρνέου ἐμβαλεῖν. οὐ μόνον δὲ τοῦτο, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὅταν βουλόμενοι ἐνυβρίσαι τινά, τὸν μέσον δάκτυλον ἐντείνοντες καὶ τοὺς λοιποὺς συνάγοντες δείξωσιν αὐτῷ. Ἀριστοφάνης· καὶ τὸν δορυξὸν οἷον ἐσκιμάλισεν.
So, it is principally to do with shoving a middle finger up a bird's anus and also can be used to insult someone.

Thursday, February 02, 2012


 University Lectureship in Classics (Ancient Philosophy) at the University of Cambridge.  Details of the post and information about the application process are available here.  Further particulars [pdf].  More details about ancient philosophy at the University of Cambridge can be found here.


Have you been watching Jonathan Meades on France?  I hope so.  I think it has now finished but the iplayer might let you catch up.  Last night was typical: odd, off-putting, unashamedly indulgent and clever-clever (How many programmes, even on BBC4, use the word 'oinological'?) but sensible or at least provocatively interesting (On not blaming architecture for social problems; put the same design of tower block in a chic bourgeois neighbourhood and it becomes 'as they say, "sought-after"') and funny.  ROFL funny.  Last night he came out (en passant and in a deadpan delivery) with the phrase: 'This is a France so profonde it is almost gnomic'.  The Guardian review collects some more.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

Start your engines...

Good news.  The Faculty of Classics here in Cambridge will very soon be advertising a vacancy for a University Lectureship in Ancient Philosophy.  Details of the timetable for the appointment process and the Further Particulars for the position will be posted soon on the Faculty website.  But the deadline for application will be relatively tight.  So, this is an early warning: if you might be interested, please keep a look out for the advertisement and prime your referees.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


At the beginning of term, there are all sorts of annoying things to do.  In Cambridge, often we have to do similar things twice because each thing has to be done for the Faculty and also for the College.  So the beginning of term is also a time when you begin to get grumpy with each other because if you look across at the person down the table from you at lunch, it often seems as if they are doing less than you.  Grrr.  Add in the fact that some colleagues have acquired the talent for playing off the college against the university and vice versa ('Dear college person, I'm sorry I cannot do the small job you've asked me to do because of me heavy commitments to research projects in the Faculty/Departmnent.  See you for dinner on Wednesday, love,...'; 'Dear Faculty person, I'm sorry I cannot do this small thing in the Faculty because I have lots of things to do in college at the moment.  blah blah blah'.) and things can get very annoying.

But I think I have discovered the problem.  It's wikipedia.  The relevant bit of the page reads as follows:

Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin

  • At Cambridge, teaching officers (lecturers, readers, and professors) are entitled to a college fellowship. For lecturers and readers, the process is competitive – generally the most able academics get fellowships at the richest and most prestigious colleges[citation needed]. Professors are allocated to colleges by a centralised process to ensure fairness. These fellows may or may not provide small-group teaching to undergraduates in the college, for which they would be paid by the hour. College fellows at Cambridge (except for research fellows) have no duties as such and are not paid. They will typically have a salaried post either with their college or the university.
'Citation needed' indeed.  Hear that, fellows of poorer colleges?  It's because you lost.  But the bit the bothers me is the '...have no duties as such...'  Nonsense.  But worse: dangerous nonsense.  People might believe it.  Worse: some Fellows might believe it.