Monday, September 29, 2014

Aristotle, civility, frankness

There has been some interesting and some helpful discussion recently about questions of civility and its proper place in academic life generally, and philosophy in particular.  Here MM McCabe rightly, it seems to me, objects to the thought that civility is somehow to be opposed to freedom of speech or perhaps frank speech generally.  (This goes both ways: an appeal to civility cannot by itself trump the free expression of someone's position and the fact that you are expressing your own position--in an academic matter or otherwise--does not all by itself excuse incivility.)  Anyway, reading MM reminded me of some Aristotle and, in particular, in his account of what are sometimes referred to as 'social virtues'.  Here he is (in Nicomachean Ethics 4.6) discussing how people should deal with one another both in what they say and what they do. (This is Ross' translation.)
In gatherings of men, in social life and the interchange of words and deeds, some men are thought to be obsequious, viz. those who to give pleasure praise everything and never oppose, but think it their duty 'to give no pain to the people they meet'; while those who, on the contrary, oppose everything and care not a whit about giving pain are called churlish and contentious. That the states we have named are culpable is plain enough, and that the middle state is laudable- that in virtue of which a man will put up with, and will resent, the right things and in the right way; but no name has been assigned to it, though it most resembles friendship. For the man who corresponds to this middle state is very much what, with affection added, we call a good friend. But the state in question differs from friendship in that it implies no passion or affection for one's associates; since it is not by reason of loving or hating that such a man takes everything in the right way, but by being a man of a certain kind. For he will behave so alike towards those he knows and those he does not know, towards intimates and those who are not so, except that in each of these cases he will behave as is befitting; for it is not proper to have the same care for intimates and for strangers, nor again is it the same conditions that make it right to give pain to them.
Now we have said generally that he will associate with people in the right way; but it is by reference to what is honourable and expedient that he will aim at not giving pain or at contributing pleasure. For he seems to be concerned with the pleasures and pains of social life; and wherever it is not honourable, or is harmful, for him to contribute pleasure, he will refuse, and will choose rather to give pain; also if his acquiescence in another's action would bring disgrace, and that in a high degree, or injury, on that other, while his opposition brings a little pain, he will not acquiesce but will decline. He will associate differently with people in high station and with ordinary people, with closer and more distant acquaintances, and so too with regard to all other differences, rendering to each class what is befitting, and while for its own sake he chooses to contribute pleasure, and avoids the giving of pain, he will be guided by the consequences, if these are greater, i.e. honour and expediency. For the sake of a great future pleasure, too, he will inflict small pains.

The man who attains the mean, then, is such as we have described, but has not received a name; of those who contribute pleasure, the man who aims at being pleasant with no ulterior object is obsequious, but the man who does so in order that he may get some advantage in the direction of money or the things that money buys is a flatterer; while the man who quarrels with everything is, as has been said, churlish and contentious. And the extremes seem to be contradictory to each other because the mean is without a name.
While in NE 4.6 (and 2.7) this particular virtue isn't given a name there are various categorisations in EE 2.3 and 3.7 that are clearly related.  The different texts divide things up in different ways.  Also, Magna Moralia 1.27-32 has a tidy (perhaps too tidy) set of related social virtues, including being correctly indignant (nemesis) and being appropriately witty (eutrapelia).  The most likely candidate for the name of what he is discussing in 4.6 is something like 'semnotēs'.

In any case, the surrounding discussion makes clear that in these social dealings Aristotle thinks that there are two important factors: one is a question of truthfulness and sincerity in what we say and do and another is the question of causing pleasure or pain to the recipient or recipients of the words or actions.  That seems right.

I think this contains some important and suggestive points.  It's important that what is being discussed here is not confused with being 'friendly' or 'polite'; what matters is not the form of words that is used but the intention and purpose of the agent who is using them in a given social setting with a particular interlocutor.  There are no set 'rules' that govern the way that a view can or should be expressed; what matters is why you are saying what you are saying, when, and to whom.  The virtue being discussed here concerns dealings with people who are not friends (or, we might add, dealing with people who are friends but not qua friends, and so also colleagues, fellow academics etc.)  Sometimes the right way to talk is to be critical and to cause offence but giving offence per se is not something worth aiming for.

Also important is something Aristotle mentions explicitly a little later in 4.8: that it is important not only to speak in the right way but also to listen in the right way too (1127b33-1128a2).

Monday, September 22, 2014


If you missed the Symposia and Inaugural address from the 88th Joint Session (or if you'd like to revisit them) then you can catch up here.  They include the one I chaired:

Amber Carpenter (York): Ethics of Substance

Aristotle bequeathed to us a powerful metaphysical picture, of substances in which properties inhere. The picture has turned out to be highly problematic in many ways; but it is nevertheless a picture not easy to dislodge. Less obvious are the normative tones implicit in the picture and the way these permeate our system of values, especially when thinking of ourselves and our ambitions, hopes and fears. These have proved, if anything, even harder to dislodge than the metaphysical picture which supports them. This paper first draws out the ethics suggested by a conception of being as individual substances, and finds both inner tensions among these values – expressed in divergent characteristics in the history of philosophy – and a neglect of a significant set of values. Substance metaphysics prefers freedom, independence and autonomy over relational and reciprocal values, which can even be regarded as existentially threatening. A prominent attempt to accommodate both sorts of values without eschewing substantialist metaphysics is briefly considered, before turning to examine an alternative metaphysics and the values it implies. A metaphysics which takes being as becoming, it is argued, supports an ethics centred on relational values, and their associated virtues of care.

Stephen Makin (Sheffield): Ethics, Fixity and Flux

This paper engages with the idea at the core of my co-symposiast’s paper ‘Ethics of Substance’: that the Aristotelian concept of substantial being has ethical implications, and an alternative understanding of existence in terms of affecting and being-affected will help us more easily to accommodate relational values, which are thought to sit uneasily within the Aristotelian framework. I focus on two questions. First, is there really is a tension between an Aristotelian metaphysics of substance and concern-for-others? The answer depends on how we understand the relation between my valuing something indeterminate but determinable (e.g. my having a child, or my living a life) and my valuing the particular way in which that determinable is contingently determined (e.g. my having a daughter or my living this life). I agree that Carpenter is correct in identifying the tension she does. Second, does the alternative Buddhist-influenced view of what it is to exist shift our attention from ethical values such as independence and autonomy onto interpersonal and relational values? I consider an example which reflects another aspect of Aristotle’s outlook: his account of the ontological status of the simple material elements. I suggest that once we abandon the idea that such elements exist in virtue of specific intrinsic structures, then questions about the their persistence through the changes by reference to which they are identified at the very least paper.

Career change

I just received this tweet.  They must know me really well.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Bone Clocks and early 90s Cambridge

I'm enjoying David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks but I've just got to the bit where the narrative switches to Cambridge in the early 90s and every so often something jars with me. ('You dont know, man.  You weren't there!' Sort of thing.  I was.  Proof: here and (from mid-90s, here).) Simple things that might have been checked quite easily. 

So far:

A band does a gig at the 'Cornmarket'. Wouldn't the Corn Exchange allow its name to be used?

A student says he is studying 'Economics and politics'. I don't think anyone would say that. It would have been Economics or SPS.

A student refers to a college's site as a 'campus'. Would anyone have done that?  Do they even now?

Of course, I could have mistaken these and they are in fact a carefully planted set of indications of an unreliable narrator/author or something.  And, sure, they don't stop me enjoying the book, but they did bother me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


I'm reading Donald Davidson's Plato's Philebus, his Harvard PhD dissertation from 1949.  The Routledge reprint just presents the type-written original, complete with hand-written bits of Greek.  So it's all there, warts and all.  Some of those warts are rather nice.  On pp. 18-19, for example,  D. twice writes 'Protagoras' when he means 'Protarchus'.  I noticed because I've just spotted the same slip in something I wrote so it's good to be in good company, at least.  Damn those 'Prot-something' Greeks; nearly as bad as all those 'Anaxa/i-something' Presocratics...

And then there is this in the one-page preface to the 1990 edition: 

It doesn't mangle the sense, of course, and I quite like the word 'phlosophy' (something dentists might advise?) but I it did make me wince (not for the first time) at the price tag.  (And yes, I do realise that I've had a hand in various publications that are far from cheap and yes, they do have typos in them too...) 

Friday, September 05, 2014

Growing apart

Writing lectures for a new course on Aristotle’s ethical and political thought had me this morning reading again through NE 8 and 9. There are all sorts of interesting little observations and musings in there, a lot of them pretty sensible. Here’s Aristotle’s variant of the ‘It’s not you; it’s me’ line.
εἰ δ' ὃ μὲν διαμένοι ὃ δ' ἐπιεικέστερος γίνοιτο καὶ πολὺ διαλλάττοι τῇ ἀρετῇ, ἆρα χρηστέον φίλῳ; ἢ οὐκ ἐνδέχεται; ἐν μεγάλῃ δὲ διαστάσει μάλιστα δῆλον γίνεται, οἷον ἐν ταῖς παιδικαῖς φιλίαις· εἰ γὰρ ὃ μὲν διαμένοι τὴν διάνοιαν παῖς ὃ δ' ἀνὴρ εἴη οἷος κράτιστος, πῶς ἂν εἶεν φίλοι μήτ' ἀρεσκόμενοι τοῖς αὐτοῖς μήτε χαίροντες καὶ λυπούμενοι; οὐδὲ γὰρ περὶ ἀλλήλους ταῦθ' ὑπάρξει αὐτοῖς, ἄνευ δὲ τούτων οὐκ ἦν φίλους εἶναι· συμβιοῦν γὰρ οὐχ οἷόν τε. εἴρηται δὲ περὶ τούτων.
 But if one friend remained the same while the other became better and far outstripped him in virtue, should the latter treat the former as a friend? Surely he cannot. When the interval is great this becomes most plain, e.g. in the case of childish friendships; if one friend remained a child in intellect while the other became a fully developed man, how could they be friends when they neither approved of the same things nor delighted in and were pained by the same things? For not even with regard to each other will their tastes agree, and without this (as we saw) they cannot be friends; for they cannot live together. But we have discussed these matters. (Trans. W. D. Ross)

NE 9.3 1165b23–31
He has a point.  People do, after all, grow apart, although not often we might now think because one ends up outstripping the other in virtue.  He does, however, include a conciliatory note: if you’ve left a former friend or lover behind, as it were, then it’s still appropriate to have some kind of remembrance of the former closeness (μνεία τῆς γενομένης συνηθείας), even though it's not very clear just what that amounts to. 

Anyway, it reminded me of this: Julie Walters being brilliant in a brilliant film.  Because moving apart can be painful on both sides.  Both people lose something, whatever else one of them may have gained.