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.