Monday, April 30, 2007

Xenophanes and the hero

How much did the early Greek philosophers react to social and cultural changes in Greece at the time they were writing? Can we use the evidence of early Greek philosophy to shed light in turn on what those changes may have been? I am tempted to think sometimes we can, and have been mulling over an possible example.

There is a story told twice by Aristotle and three times by Plutarch that Xenophanes insisted that different attitudes should be adopted towards dead mortals and gods. The citizens of some city come to Xenophanes and ask how they should treat a particularly revered citizen, now thought to have somehow become immortal. Xenophanes replies that they must decide finally whether the person in question is a mortal or a god. If the former, she should be mourned but, if the latter, she should be honoured (DK 21 A12, 13).

Xenophanes‘ other well-known philosophical output is equally concerned with delineating the correct set of differences between gods and men. Xenophanes insists, famously, that god should not the thought of as anthropomorphic (though god does see and hear, for example) and that we should not attribute to the gods the sorts of unsavoury behaviour found in, for example, the Homeric poems and which is also indulged in by mortals.

Presumably, the problem of the distinction between gods and men is compounded by the regular practice in Greek religion of honouring a mortal who was later made into a god (as was Leucothea, about whose cult the Eleans question Xenophanes in Aristot. Rhet. 1400b5ff. (DK21 A13)). And I wonder if it might be in response to a prevalence of this kind of practice that Xenophanes’ general concern might best be viewed. From what I can tell, worship of ‘heroic’ ancestors (well, perceived ancestors) was going on in Greece from the middle of the eighth-century BC, often centred around Bronze Age tombs. That’s well before Xenophanes’ time, so it is not as if Xenophanes is reacting to anything new in general terms. However, the idea that this is all a long-standing practice might have to be qualified. It is possible that the identification of these ‘heroes’ with particular Homeric characters may have been a later innovation, perhaps even as late as the late Archaic/ Classical period: much closer to Xenophanes. So perhaps this is what prompted his particular interest in the worship of certain named 'heroised' individuals.

It is plausible to relate some of this emergent behaviour to the gradual expression of distinct polis identities, which involved looking back to a presumed ancestor and the institution of shared religious practices [1]. So even if the target of his criticism is not a relatively new religious turn, Xenophanes may have felt that the entire, albeit longstanding, practice was misguided enough to launch a concerted assault on it, along with various other usual treatments of the divine. If that’s along the right lines, then it seems that it would certainly be incorrect to think of Xenophanes as a religious conservative, since in his poetry he is taking on a set of generally agreed and long-standing practices and conceptions with strong political and cultural roots.

[1] See A. Snodgrass, ‘The archaeology of the hero’, reprinted in R. Buxton (ed.) Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (OUP, 2000)

Friday, April 27, 2007


I was cheered up yesterday by a present from S: the new novel by Mark Z. Danielewski called Only Revolutions. It looks like it's going to be fun: two parallel stories running (physically) through the book in opposite directions; 360 pages of 180 words each of each story; the stories begin taking up most of the page but shrink as they progress and you move towards the beginning of the opposite story. There's a nice summary that doesn't give away the plot (as if that mattered...) if you go here. Sounds a bit pretentious, I know, but I love that kind of thing. And like all good stuff these days, there is a funky website to go along with it. (Click on the picture of the dust jacket...)

I'm excited because S and I both loved his first novel, The House of Leaves, which used similar typographical tricks and was packed with fake scholarship and odd footnotes. But most of all The House of Leaves was genuinely frightening. I'm not much of a fan of horror films or fiction, but this was a very disturbing read; disturbing in a good way, I mean, because some of the parts of the story stayed with me for some time. It's certainly worth looking out for if you haven't read it already. Of course, not everyone likes it, but that's the way with all fiction. Others did. (I cannot stand Jane Austen... 'Oh, Mr ___, would you like to take a turn around the garden?'... Don't tell me it's all a clever and witty take on contemporary manners. It's just pants.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Wittgenstein and Socrates

An article in the new volume of Philosophy argues that Socrates and Wittgenstein shared some important personal affinities: M. W. Rowe, 'Wittgenstein, Plato, and the historical Socrates', Philosophy 82 (2007): 45-85. From a quick skim through, these include:
  1. Both began by being interested in 'science' but then moved to linguistic concerns; they underwent a significant change in outlook.

  2. Both became more pious as their scientific confidence wained. (Here Rowe uses evidence from Aristophanes' Clouds and Plato's Apology for the view that, at least at some point, Socrates was (thought of as?) an atheist natural philosopher.

  3. Both had strong artistic streaks. (Socrates even seems to want to learn to play the lyre while waiting to be given the hemlock...)

  4. Both lived through periods of significant political conflict and war.

  5. Both were rather introspective and shunned politics.

  6. Both lived rather ascetic adult lives although they came from wealthy backgrounds.

  7. Both were interested in the philosophical role of reminiscence and reminding.

  8. Socrates claims to be a kind of midwife. Wittgenstein was interested in medicine and psychoanalysis...

  9. Both aim at creating an integrated and healthy psyche via a kind of 'talking cure'.

  10. Both were (in some sense or at some time or to some degree...) homosexual.
See Rowe p. 43 n.3, by the way, for some important disclaimers about his omission of any discussion of the problem of the 'Socratic' problem and also qualms about referring, say, to ancient 'science' or 'homosexuality'...

I'll have to ponder the significance (and truth) of these claims a bit more before I can formulate a full response. Certainly, it seems likely that there was some similarity between the methods of teaching adopted by Wittgenstein and Socrates (or, at least, Plato's Socrates). Beyond that, however, I'm not sure how important many of these sometimes strained similarities genuinely are. It's plausible that some of the similarities were generated by Wittgenstein's own reaction to Platonic works; certainly, as Rowe points out, he was interested in philosophical dialogue [1]. (Wittgenstein insisted he had never read Aristotle, but he did certainly read Plato.)

It's also worth wondering, I think, whether Socrates -- or perhaps the image of Socrates generated by ancient works, Plato especially -- has become something of a paradigm in the European imagination for what a 'philosopher', perhaps a philosopher of a certain stripe, must be like. We might owe to Plato, then, the notion that philosophers must be somewhat other-worldly irritants of conventional practice and commonly-accepted notions. If that's right, then this image may have exerted its attraction on both Wittgenstein himself and also the mythology around Wittgenstein.

But one of Rowe's thoughts in particular, (related to 10. above) struck me as worthy of pause (p.78):

None of the foregoing suggests that philosophy is necessarily homosexual, but it may suggest that it is best conducted between people who are mutually attracted.
I think this is meant to be an explanation of Wittgenstein's view rather than Rowe's and even then it takes some digging to extract much from the scattered comments W. is supposed to have made which might be relevant. For Socrates, on the other hand, there's some decent evidence that he was happy to exploit quite a close relationship between philosophy and erotic desire. But, regardless whether either Ludwig or Socrates thought that philosophy must involve some kind of sexual chemistry, is it true? I'm certain that philosophy isn't necessarily homosexual (if I understand what such a claim would amount to, anyway: does it mean that it necessarily can happen only between same-sex dialectical/sexual partners?) but what about the latter suggestion? Personal experience seems to tell against it. Fortunately so, I think.

[1] See also: B. J. Heal, "Wittgenstein and Dialogue" in Philosophical Dialogues: Plato, Hume, Wittgenstein ed. T.J.Smiley Proceedings of the British Academy 85, 1995, 63-83

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A new Socratic text

I recently discovered that Socrates has in fact produced some written philosophical work. You can even order it from Amazon.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The art of fishing

Here's an interesting claim from Sextus Empiricus M 9.3:
Hence, as it shows more art to be able to catch a great number with a single onset than to hunt after the game laboriously one by one, so too it is much more artistic to bring one's counter-argument against all in common rather than to develop it against the particular tenets. (trans. R. Bury)

ὅθεν ὡς πολλῷ τεχνικώτερόν ἐστι τοῦ καθ’ ἕκαστον θήραμα πονεῖσθαι τὸ διὰ μιᾶς ἐφόδου πολλὰ δύνασθαι ἀγρεύειν, οὕτω πολλῷ χαριέστερον τὸ κοινῇ κατὰ πάντων κομίζειν ἀντίρρησιν τοῦ προσειλεῖσθαι τοῖς κατὰ μέρος.

He is contrasting his own, skillful, approach, which tackles all dogmatic natural philosophers' assumptions together, with the Academic approach which takes on each one by one and tries to find flaws in them severally.

Clearly, there is something appealing about the metaphor of hunting to describe the philosophical pursuit of some difficulty. Aristotle is certainly referring to a related image when he writes that if truth is as claimed by some of the misguided souls he tries to set right in Metaphysics gamma, then we would be left with the depressing thought that the philosophical quest for truth would be like 'chasing birds' (i.e. trying to catch on foot something that can at any moment simply take to the air and evade your grasp): 1009b33-1010a1.

But I was struck by the assumption on Sextus' part that we will agree that, for example, trawling for fish with a large net that will catch everything in its path is more artful (τεχνικώτερόν) and much more elegant (χαριέστερον) than fly-fishing for one fish at a time. It is, arguably, more efficient and I suppose Sextus' point is that in doing so it is necessary to have identified a common error in all the various philosophers one is criticising. He certainly can't mean that the process is more complicated. Certainly, his description of hunting birds with bird-lime on a cane (M 9.3; for an explanation see here) sounds like a pretty complicated business that needed rather a lot of invention. More than it would take to use a big net and simply ensnare anything too big to get out of its way, in any case. Rather, the skill involved is precisely that needed to recognise the affinity between a variety of quarries and design a method which can take them all on in one fell swoop.

I rather like that as an evaluation of the relative merits of philosophical criticisms. Prefer the one which identifies a more general difficulty to the Academic (academic?) dissection of a particular difficulty in one philosopher's treatment of a single question.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Last night, S and I finished our viewing of the first season of HBO's The Wire and we already have seasons two and three ready. I know I've probably come late to this series and that its praises have been sung by plenty of critics, but I had no idea just how good it would be until we took a chance on some reduced box sets. We've watched the first season in sessions of two episodes a night over the last week and can't wait for more. Here's Charlie Brooker telling it like it is:

It's not so easy to say what is so compelling about it. Certainly, US series and those from HBO in particular (e.g. Sopranos) have high production values and equally high standards for scripts and acting. But they also score because somehow US 'tec or crime dramas are just more exciting than ours. Perhaps crime is more interesting in the US. More likely, they have cottoned on to the idea that there is more to this sort of programming than leading the audience into a guessing game of whodunnit. (Compare our ploddy but otherwise OK output such as Morse or Waking the dead...) The Wire never hides whodunnit. What's more interesting is howdunnit or whydunnit, and the careful and gradual exploration of character, circumstance and the pressures of life in a gang (whether on the street or in a police team). Only rarely does it descend into moralising or the annoying habit some shows have of suddenly making a character voice some unlikely profundity (as when D'Angelo, about to rat on his family business, starts describing how he was more free when in prison than under the control of his uncles.) Still, just imagine the writer of the BBC's New Tricks coming up with this, from David Simon who created The Wire:

The second season of The Wire, centered around Baltimore's dying port unions, is a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class, it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy, that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.

Can't the BBC manage anything like this? And can't someone other than FX show this show in the UK?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Off today for what is becoming an annual pilgrimage with the kids to the Natural History Museum. (The Museum also has, by the way, an excellent website. We particularly like the Dino-directory.) The main attraction today was the fun (but pricey) Dino Jaws exhibition -- with seven moving animatronic dinosaurs. This is a baryonyx about to grab a fish:

The kids loved it to bits, and I did too. The other great thing about the Museum is its architecture: the whole building is covered inside and out with little carved animals and plants, climbing up the pillars and looking down from the balconies. I suppose it is meant to echo the architecture of a cathedral, but this time it is a cathedral to naturalism rather than the supernaturalism which is the driving force behind the more familiar cathedrals.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Silver linings

Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, whose research interests include measuring and promoting happiness, has written something in the Independent about why academia is a rewarding career to enter. His comments about projected earnings look on the generous side to me, but otherwise he makes some good points and raises some significant caveats to potential applicants for academic jobs. Still, it's nice to read something which reminds me of the positive parts of my job.
On the other hand, I'll reserve judgement on his approval of the Labour government's introduction of top-up fees. Let's wait and see whether all those £3K/year bits of funding find their way into improving teaching, research, and academic salaries. And let's see what effects it has on the number and type of student entering universities. Perhaps Economics departments will feel less of a pinch that Classics or Philosophy departments. Time will tell.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Thick epistemology

There are some exciting developments in epistemology coming from the US. Not only can we thank them for the clarity of Rumsfeldian epistemology, but we can also look forward to the exploration of 'thick' epistemological notions (e.g. trust, gullibility) alongside the conventional 'thin' stuff (e.g. justification, knowledge). See here for a call for papers on 'Thick epistemology'.

But perhaps the most useful piece of recent epistemological work is the identification of the quality of 'truthiness': that feeling that some view is right, although (or perhaps because) it is backed by absolutely no justification or logic. The origination of the term is disputed, but its usefulness (or indeed its prevalence) is not.

Hot on its heels ought to be an investigation of the related phenomenon that conflates sincerity with truth. I've too often heard politicians or other public leaders attempt to win an argument by stressing that they do, really, honestly, believe what they are saying. Well, that's all very interesting. I now know you aren't lying to me. (Or do I? Are you sincere in your protestations of sincerity?) But just because you really believe that, for example, there are shed-loads of awful weapons stashed somewhere in a country far away has nothing to do with whether they are in fact there! I don't care whether you really believe it. I care if it's true.