Thursday, June 28, 2007

Social desires

I have just begun reading I. Persson’s monumental, The retreat of reason (Oxford, 2005; see the review in NPDR). There is a lot to think about already in the first forty pages or so, particularly about pleasure and pain. But I have just come to a very interesting argument which Persson thinks is sufficient to refute ‘experientialism’, that is the claim that the only thing desired by us is to have experiences of one kind or another. These may be experiences of pleasure, or of intellectual discovery, or whatever. What matters, nevertheless, is that the only things we desire are experiences which we have. As he puts it on p. 43:

[T]he falsity of experientialism is shown also by the existence of certain ‘social’ desires the content of which is that one be surrounded by other conscious beings who perceive and understand one and whose uptake is friendly and generous, that is, desires to the effect that others have certain experiences of oneself.

These ‘social’ desires are still self-regarding: it is not a general desire that there be in the world conscious beings, but rather that there should be in the world beings conscious of oneself. But it is not a desire for oneself to have a certain kind of experience; it is, rather, a desire to be experienced.

Persson’s argument for the denial of this claim turns on the idea that we would be most upset were it to turn out that there are no mental properties but only physical properties. So there are animate beings, but they act and respond just as one would expect a minded agent to act and respond, but do so solely on the basis of physical stimuli. The world would look, in other words, just as it does now. But there are simply no mental states in addition to physical ones. Persson says that should it turn out that this is the case, and should we find out that this is the case, we would feel ‘intolerably lonely’ (43).

This loneliness is interpreted as being generated by a desire for there to be other minded agents in the world on whom we might leave certain ‘imprints’ (44). There should, in other words, be people whom we might cause to love us, remember us, even despise us. It is not enough that people merely behave towards us in certain ways; we must also be confident that they think about us in certain ways etc. Persson interestingly uses this as a grounds for the common view that we are reasonably justified in having the desire to be remembered after our deaths (presumably fondly, for the most part, but I suppose some people may conceive a desire to be feared or simply well-known whether positively or not). Would this be so intolerably lonely? I’m not sure. Persson insists that the absence of mental states applies to all living beings, the addressee of his argument included. So the loneliness would be of a very strange sort; what we have realised is that all of us, that is all people we would normally classify as alive and conscious are in fact responding solely on the basis of physical stimuli, ourselves included. Loneliness would seem to be the appropriate description of my reaction only in the case in which I discover that I am the only possessor of mental properties in a world of otherwise solely physical living things.

Second, if we were to be convinced of the truth of the no-minds picture of the world that is presumably enough to convince us that there will be no mental properties at all. We might simply have to give up on the desire to be loved, thought of and the like. But if, as Persson insists, we too should turn out to be mindless in this sense but still have these social desires, we would also radically have to revise what it is for ourselves to want to be loved and the like. If we can find any room to retain such a desire in this mental-property-less world then it is less clear to me that we cannot also reorient our understanding of what it is to love, say, such that we can allow it to be possible all the same to be loved (on this new understanding) by other mental-property-less people.

This does not mean, of course, that Persson is wrong to think that what he calls ‘experientialism’ offers too narrow a range of things for which we can have intrinsic desires. But I am not so sure that this is a good argument against it. Perhaps the common and widespread desire for certain states of affairs to obtain after one’s death could offer a starting-point from which to build a similar case. However, it would remain to be shown that it is (i) rational or justified to have such desires and (ii) that such desires are in fact what they seem to be on the face of it and not, as one might claim, disguised desires to experience during one’s life certain emotions of being held in high-regard, loved, respected and the like.

These are still early thoughts, but I’m very keen now to work through the rest of the book. It seems to be an example of what I like most of all in philosophical work.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dinosaurs are cool

I'm sure I've said this before, but palaeontology is cool. At least, it seems so to an amateur like me. It appears to combine the interesting elements of archaeology and biology and require both scientific rigour and a great deal of creative thinking to produce anything like a detailed picture of the remote past and the lives of the animals who were around then. My eldest daughter is quite a fan, in particular, of Dr Phil Currie of the University of Alberta. Mostly, this is because she has seen him (in fact, has repeatedly watched him) in an excellent BBC Horizon documentary (transcript here) on the odd world of the Cretaceous period in Patagonia -- where enormous Giganotosauruses (like a T-Rex but even bigger and with serrated knife-like teeth rather than thick bone-crushing T-Rex teeth) took on enormous Argentinosauruses (like a Diplodocus but bigger). Just like in the films! Apparently, T-Rex itself had to make do with eating Triceratops and the like because there weren't any big sauropods around in its time in North America.

Horizon did a great doc on these finds, including Currie's hypothesis that the large tyrannosaurids hunted in packs (you thought one was scary!) and it inspired my little girl to produce this picture of a pack of Giganotosauruses taking on a spotty Argentinosaurus. I did ask about the spots, but was told in no uncertain terms that since we don't really know what colour dinosaurs were she could do whatever she liked. Fair enough. I reckon this one has just about had it, though, spots or not.

There is a good Walking with Dinosaurs-style BBC programme on this stuff showing Nigel Marven trying to track down these beasts, but we had to order a DVD from America (which also includes the original Horizon documentary) and our DVD player can't cope with it. So we had to use the PC upstairs. But come on, BBC, why limit the fun to people in the US? Release it here as well!

Sunday, June 24, 2007


For those not so keen on 'motivational' posters at work, there is solace from the good people at Despair, inc., who produce an excellent range of demotivational apparel, mugs ('This mug is now half empty'), and other literature. Particularly good is their poster generator, which helped me to make this:

Friday, June 22, 2007

Balls and songs

It's an in-between week in Cambridge for most of us. The marking is finally over, even the MPhil marking and viva voce examinations, and now there is a brief hiatus while marks are collated before a final examiners' meeting early next week. The students are busy get rained on at May Balls (it's Corpus Christi's Ball tonight and the forecast doesn't look good, unfortunately) and by Monday only the graduands will still be around for a final week before they too disappear and leave the colleges to be occupied by conferences and summer schools.

But that leaves a bit of time for some pleasant events, like the garden parties which a lot of colleges throw for those people who've taught for them during the year. I was at Fitzwilliam College yesterday, which is particularly nice because there are often lots of kids there. My two have acquired a taste for smoked salmon through events such as these, which is not a bad thing in itself, I suppose, but does tend to increase our grocery bill at home if ever they get their way.

On the way to Fitz yesterday I was walking along listening to some music and came across one of my favourite ever songs. It's so good that I think everyone ought to listen to it regularly. It's a song that has the odd ability to make me both sad and somehow elated at the same time. It's not beautifully sung, but the singing is heartfelt. The voice cracks and strains at the words but is carried along nevertheless by the backing. Here are the lyrics to the first verse:
I dreamt we were standing
By the banks of the Thames
Where the cold grey waters ripple
In the misty morning light
Held a match to your cigarette
Watched the smoke curl in the mist
Your eyes, blue as the ocean between us
Smiling at me.
You can hear a bit of it here. It is Misty morning, Albert bridge by the Pogues from the 1989 album Peace and Love and was written by the group's banjo player, Jem Finer. And I reckon it should be exhibit A in any case for including the group, particularly, Shane MacGowan (official website here) in the list of great songwriters of the past twenty-five years. (Exhibit B is of course Fairytale of New York...) He is also an Olympic-standard drinker, and there is presumably some kind of link between that and the songwriting (or at least with his distinctive voice). On this record, though, the combination is perfect.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The ties that bind

I have to attend a University event on Wednesday and, to make it worse, I will have to have my picture taken for use in various bits of University 'development' literature/propaganda. (Here's some blurb about last year's). This is all a pretty grim prospect, but at least there might be a nice supper. But it also turns out that it is a sartorial minefield. I am very happy to work in a job which allows me most of the time not to wear a tie. In fact, unlike some of my colleagues who still put on the uniform, I hardly ever wear a tie unless absolutely required. (For example, it is still essential to wear a tie if you go in to 'dine' in the evening in college at High Table. Fair enough, I suppose. We make the Butler wear a tie so it's only proper that we should make some effort too.) But looking at my tie options the other day I discovered that I hadn't bought a new tie for years and the ones I had were looking a bit sad and out of date.

Tie-buying, I now discover, is also not an easy matter. It is very difficult, in fact, not to end up buying a tie that makes you look like one of the following main categories: (1) an accountant who buys ties only if they come ready packed with a shirt; (2) a footballer leaving court after pleading guilty to various traffic offences; or (3) that 'wacky' bloke in the office who thinks that having a cartoon character on his tie will make up for not having a personality. So if, like me, you are looking for a tie that shows that you don't normally wear a tie and don't have to wear a tie that makes you look professional and boring but also don't want to look like a dandy or a weirdo, there is a very fine line. And it is not easy to hit, or at least that is my impression from a 20 minute dash (my usual clothes-shopping maximum tolerance) to Tie Rack and M&S. I could, I suppose, have a supply of 'amusing' or 'cultured' ties that shout at the world that I am a Classicist: perhaps a Rosetta Stone tie, or an Attic vase painting etc. All the kind of thing you can get at the British Museum or Fitzwilliam Museum shop. Or perhaps something 'philosophical', though those are harder to find. (Nothing as nice as the T-shirt from the excellent Unemployed Philosophers' Guild which reads: 'Here's looking at Euclid'. Their 'Freudian slippers' are also good.) But in the end I ended up with this. I'm hoping it looks not quite like a work tie, and not like the tie you had to buy for a friend's wedding.

Not easy this sort of thing...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Charity work

I've been thinking about the 'Principle of Charity' [1], in part because I mentioned it in a previous post and a colleague expressed surprise, thinking perhaps it was a typo for 'Principle of Clarity' or similar. What role does charity have to play in philosophy, after all? (Aren't philosophers generally charitable types? Perhaps best not to answer that.)

Nevertheless I think I invoke the principle regularly, particularly when working with obscure or fragmentary texts. There are often gaps to fill in or multiple potential readings of a given phrase and -- perhaps automatically now -- I try to go for the strongest, or best, or most plausible reading. But perhaps there is more than one role for the Principle to play.

First, the Principle has a role in simple philosophical debate and exchange. It is tactically justified. Here it seems to me that the Principle is not a two-directional thing. I mean: it is not the case that while I employ it when thinking about other philosophers' arguments I can assume that others will employ it when thinking about mine. For example, this seems to me like sound advice from Jim Pryor's useful guide for students writing philosophy papers:

Pretend that your reader has not read the material you're discussing, and has not given the topic much thought in advance. This will of course not be true. But if you write as if it were true, it will force you to explain any technical terms, to illustrate strange or obscure distinctions, and to be as explicit as possible when you summarize what some other philosopher said.

In fact, you can profitably take this one step further and pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean. He's lazy in that he doesn't want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn't want to figure out what your argument is, if it's not already obvious. He's stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he's mean, so he's not going to read your paper charitably. (For example, if something you say admits of more than one interpretation, he's going to assume you meant the less plausible thing.) If you understand the material you're writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you'll probably get an A.

No doubt this is in part a good and pragmatic dialectical stance: assume that you will be interpreted uncharitably and therefore make sure that you are clear and methodical. Of course, this sometimes makes for very dull philosophy papers which spend a lot of time rejecting pre-empted objections that no one but the most perverse critic would ever offer. But it is still a good practice. And, I suppose, if this is coupled with the original Principle of Charity it will make the stance even stronger: give your dialectical opponent the very best argument you can and assume that this opponent will be mean and uncharitable to you. Not only will you, if you refute the best option available to your rival, undermine in the process all other weaker versions (including probably your opponent's own genuine position), but you will also offer in advance a position already protected from as many mean and nasty criticisms as you can imagine.

This is interesting, though, because it is part and parcel of a dialectical situation which is certainly adversarial. The budding philosopher is being told to be clear and charitable in the face of an opponent who is mean and perverse.

Is this the same as when we invoke the Principle is studying ancient philosophers? I don't think so, since the second and distinct role the Principle plays is as an aid to the deployer of the Principle's own understanding. There, it seems at least in part not to be primarily part of a dialectical exchange between the interpreter and the text (though such an exchange will perhaps arise when we begin evaluating the reconstructed position) but rather a methodological principle tied to the difficulties of making sense of someone else's position, which may be expressed in a foreign language, may be based in geographically and chronologically remote cultures, and so on.

Yet another thought, this time even less well-considered: How is the Principle of Charity to be related (if at all) to a popular principle in historiography, famously outlined by Quentin Skinner?
No agent can eventually be said to have meant or done something which he could never be brought to accept as a correct description of what he had meant or done. [2]
How in practice this proposal is precisely to be applied is of course, no easy matter. But how is it related to the Principle of Charity? Does it place a constraint on what might charitably be offered as an interpretation of a given philosopher? Imagine if, in our eyes, the best version of some philosophical argument found in an ancient text is such that there are reasons to think that the philosopher concerned could not 'be brought to accept' this interpretation. Then how do we proceed? I suspect that answering that question will involve some grand thoughts about just what it is to 'do the history of philosophy' [3]. But I can leave those from another day... Back to the marking!

[1] See also Richard Feldman's article on the Principle in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[2] Quentin Skinner, 'Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas', History and theory 8,1969, 28. [JSTOR access here.]
[3] There are some interesting thoughts in R. Rorty, 'The historiography of philosophy: four genres' in Rorty, Schneewind, and Skinner (eds) Philosophy in History, Cambridge 1984, 49-75.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Shopping tips

Things can be hard if you have a five year-old who is mad keen on palaeontology and wants to build up a serious collection of miniature prehistoric animals that she can lay out in evolutionary order. But S. recently discovered an excellent site here that will point you to the right places to get all the excellent Bullyland and Schleich models you need, including some fun unusual stuff like this Therizinosaurus. They are shipped from the US, so lots of toy-miles, but the exchange-rate is so good at the moment that you feel it's sort of wrong not to buy that Arsinotherium or Dunkleosteus you've always wanted.

While we are at it, RJR's concerns over comfortable shoes have reminded me that I saw some excellent Firetrap brogue-cum-trainers in one of the Saturday magazines a couple of weeks back. If anyone can tell me where to get hold of some in the Cambridge area I'd be very grateful. (Now, don't misunderstand me: most of the stuff in those magazines is clearly guff designed to make me think that I really should care about where I source my focaccia. And I don't feverishly head out each week to get hold over whatever Alexis Petridis is wearing in the little is-he-happy-or-is-he-sad picture. Here's one of him looking silly in sandals and socks. But these shoes looked fun. Certainly more fun than marking Latin translation papers, which is what I am mostly doing this week...)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Wizard philosophy at Cambridge

It seems that Emily Watson, 'Hermione' in the Harry Potter films, has decided that she wants to come to Cambridge to study philosophy. Good for her. It will probably be a bit dull after saving the world with a stick and a scarf and what-not, but she will at least be used to the gown-wearing and the dining halls.

She might already be used to some 'philosophical' disagreements. The metaphysics of the Harry Potter world is already a touchy subject in some quarters, what with the books being in some people's minds tantamount to witchcraft... (It seems to me that there really ought to be a fairly clear line between fiction and non-fiction, but apparently not.)

If she's thinking about choosing a Cambridge college, she could do worse than consider coming to Corpus (plug). After all, there are some Open Days soon. I've just finished judging our first schools philosophy essay competition and found some extremely good entries on all sorts of topics. We asked for a short (2500 words) essay on one of the following:
  1. Can a computer have a mind?
  2. Is it possible to alter the past? If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. ‘This sentence is false.’ Is it?
  4. What is the best argument against democracy? Explain your choice.
  5. ‘The value of a work of art is entirely dependent on the amount of pleasure it produces in its audience.’ Discuss.

I was pleasantly surprised by the range of answers (all 5 options got plenty of takers) as well as by the quality of the best essays. There's a brief report on the college website here and here.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The court of Athens?

Hahahaha. Plato's got the slick moves but Aristotle takes it to the hoop.
For more see here. Credit to Brain Hammer. For the background on this stuff see here.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Mayweek roundup

I suppose I ought to say something about how the Mayweek seminar on Diogenes Laertius 9 unfolded. (This will be my own perspective, obviously, and others' may well differ; we don't keep minutes of any kind, though some keep their own notes.)

First, I had a lot of fun. The discussion was lively and good-natured and I think we made some good headway. I imagine it is not often that anyone sits down to read a book of DL as a book, and some surprising things emerged. In particular, it was very clear that this is an enormously varied text: in tone, register, subject matter, and -- presumably -- in the date of the original sources, which must range from (in DL 9, anyway) the early Hellenistic to at least the early Imperial. We found it tricky to be sure whether DL was ever citing the original source he mentions or some later intermediary, but he is certainly interested in impressing the reader with the range of his scholarship.

As for the quality of the work, as philosophy or as a history of philosophy, opinions were very divided. I was more prepared than most to see some kind of unity of purpose in the book, while others were more prepared to explain a particular omission or concentration on DL's part to his being unable to find a particular source or otherwise simply tickled by a racy story. For example, his treatment of Parmenides omits nearly everything you would find in a modern treatment of that philosopher. Is it because DL simply did not know the section we call the 'Way of Truth'? Or did he know it but think it unimportant? Or perhaps he simply could not understand it...

Nevertheless, DL's treatment of Pyrrhonism got some praise, thoroughly compressed though it is, and some were even prepared to say that in some aspects it represents an improvement on Sextus Empiricus (e.g. on the arrangement of the 10 modes and the separation of the material between the 10 and the 5 modes).

And was DL an Epicurean? That was the notion floated in the final session, on the basis that Epicurus seems to be the final destination of the work and is introduced in very positive terms, but I got the impression it did not win a great deal of support. Still, it would certainly be worth reading book 10 as a whole, and in tandem with book 9. Then again, I think we ought to have a good go at the prologue to book 1 as well.

That's the problem with seminars like this: the more you read the more you realise you need to read properly to understand what you've just read.

One final question that turns out to be tremendously important: How was DL read in antiquity? I don't mean to ask how he was interpreted, but simply how the work was consulted. Was it possible, for example, to turn to DL to look up some particular philosopher as one might now consult an encyclopedia or dictionary of philosophy? If so, then he did indeed make some surprising choices about what to include and omit. But if it was read rather as a continuous narrative, then it does seem that it is more legitimate to look for an overall strategy in the work, perhaps even to see it as a unified whole of some kind.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Lonely hearts

I got to bed too late last night, in part because I ended up watching the BBC 2 programme about current bands recreating the Beatle's Sergeant Pepper's... I would have given up sooner had I not spotted S's brother, a professional musician and principal horn for the RPO, tooting away on Bryan Adam's bash through the title track. Then there was the Magic Numbers' destruction of She's leaving home to endure before Razorlight (minus the really annoying one who insists on wearing white trousers and a t-shirt that looks like the V-neck has been stretched in the dryer) bashed through With a little help... (While I'm on the subject, what is the point of Razorlight? Second only to the awful Snow Patrol, they are my current pet hate. What are they talking about? Why has Johnny Borrell spent his life 'wochin' Ameri-cuh' and why does he think there's panic there? Pointless.

Anyway, is Pepper really such a great album that it deserves this kind of a mauling? Was there similar interest in the fact that last year was the fortieth anniversary of John Coltraine's A love supreme? I don't think so. (Actually, there was an anniversary concert by Ravi Coltraine and Branford Marsalis...)

What is interesting is that my two young kids seem to like the Beatles. A lot of Pepper is chummy sing-along stuff, now sufficiently familiar that it doesn't really sound like pop music at all, more a book of songs that had always been around. Perhaps that's a measure of its importance. Still, I prefer Revolver by some way.

Friday, June 01, 2007


I've finally realised what's so familiar about BB's over-age raver, Tracey:

She's clearly the secret offspring of two national treasures, Sir Jimmy Savile and Carol Thatcher, who are themselves no strangers to 'reality' TV. Come on, Channel 4, 'fess up!