Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Private pain

I'm still wondering about Sextus Empiricus M 9.162-7. At the moment I am wondering about the sense in which Sextus thinks that pain is 'private'. He certainly argues here that the only method by which god might acquire knowledge of pain is by experiencing it. The relevant bit of the argument is as follows:
If god possesses knowledge of these [sc. of goods, bads, and indifferents], he knows what sort of things are good, bad, and indifferent. Since, then, suffering is one of the indifferent things, he knows both suffering and what it is like by nature. And if so, he has experienced it; for without experience he would not have formed a notion of it, but, just as the man who has not experienced white colour and black, owing to his having been blind from birth, cannot possess a notion of colour, so too god cannot have a notion of suffering if he has not experienced it. For when we, who have often experienced it, are unable to discern distinctly the special quality of the pain suffered by gouty patients or to guess it from descriptions, or to get consistent accounts from the actual sufferers, since they explain it in different ways, and some say that they find it to resemble twisting, others bending, others stabbing, -- surely, if god has had no experience at all of suffering, he cannot possess a notion of suffering.
The question whether Sextus thinks that to have knowledge of pain it is necessary to experience pain first-hand, so to speak, may turn out also to be relevant to a long-standing question about the scope of ancient scepticism and, more generally still, about the overall ancient treatment of what we might call subjectivity. Does Sextus consider pain to be what we might all a ‘subjective state’? That is, does he consider pain to be a state such that there is ‘something it is like to be in pain’, that there is some ‘characteristic phenomenological feel’ to it? If so, does he think that there can be a reasonable question about whether we can or indeed do have knowledge of such states qua subjective states? In short, does he think it is a reasonable question to ask whether we can have knowledge of pain, if pain is indeed in his eyes something we would recognise as a subjective state? If the answer to this final question is yes, then this might lend support to a view which sees less of a radical difference between Sextan and, for example, Cartesian approaches to questions of knowledge and certainty, especially when those questions are applied to knowledge of one’s own mental states.

The question of Sextus’ attitude to pain would appear to be a good place to look for useful evidence in trying to answer this set of questions since pain would perhaps count as a particularly good example of a ‘subjective state’ in modern philosophy. Pain, on at least one persistent view of its nature, is thought to be private and grasped only via some kind of introspection. There is, additionally, certainly something it is like to be in pain. Indeed, these assumptions are precisely what generate some rather difficult modern problems in dealing with pain since they make it rather difficult to see what relationship pain in this sense can have with physical damage and the equally plausible assumption that pain is physically localised in distinct parts of the body. We can leave these difficulties aside for the moment however, if it is sufficiently agreed that pain would be an interesting test case for Sextus’ treatment of so-called subjective states.

Sextus does in this passage seem to accept that pain is private. At least, he claims more than once that knowledge of pain can be acquired only by experiencing it first-hand. But it seems to me that this need not mean that he holds anything like the particular modern notion of pain as a subjective state, since there are various ways in which the privacy of pain might be explained. In fact, the comment about the impossibility of learning about pain through interviewing gout sufferers would seem to fall perfectly in line with the view that, on Sextus’ view, pain is inaccessible to anyone who is not suffering not because it is somehow an ontologically special and personal mental state, but rather because it depends on a particular internal state of the sufferer which is adêlon to all except the sufferer himself. Perhaps the most telling point of all is that Sextus even for the slightest moment is prepared to entertain this proposal of simply asking people to describe their feelings as a possible method of acquiring knowledge of pain. To put it another way, Sextus could have said in reply to this suggestion: ‘Don’t be silly. Of course, if you want you can ask other people what gout feels like, but this is no way to acquire knowledge of the pain of gout. Pain is the sort of thing that is private. I mean that it is private in a special way. Person X’s pain is not hidden from Person Y in the way that the interior of Person X’s private apartment is hidden from Person Y. Rather, pain is private in the sense that it is an essentially first-personal subjective experience. You can’t know what it is like to feel the pain of gout without yourself feeling gout, just as you cannot know what it is like to be a bat without yourself being a bat.’ Further Sextus could, for that matter, have pointed to the descriptions of the pain of gout as ‘twisting’, ‘bending’, or ‘stabbing’, and said that these are no use because at best they are only metaphorical or, at worst, are misleadingly describing some sort of mental occurrence in physical terms.

However, he says neither such thing. Instead he rules out the indirect acquisition of knowledge of pain because the reports of the peculiar nature of gout are such that no clear and consistent authoritative picture will emerge. It is because the gout is internal to the gout-sufferer that no one else can access it in such a way as to be able to acquire knowledge of it. An external observer, Person Y, might see the external symptoms of Person X’s gout, notice Person X’s groans and the like. But he cannot perceive the pain of gout. In a case such as this we are therefore reliant on the reports of those people to whom the pain of gout is evident, namely the sufferers themselves. So Sextus’ treatment of this possibility suggests that pain is not private in a way which would render such a form of inquiry immediately wrong-headed. Instead the problem faced is a very familiar one concerned with disagreement and the apparently irresolvable nature of the conflicting appearances. In this respect, there appears to be little difference in Sextus’ mind between the obstacles faced by (i) someone who has never experienced gout in answering the question: ‘What is the pain of gout like?’ just by asking sufferers to describe it and (ii) someone who has never entered an area of a temple reserved only for priests in answering the question: ‘What is it like in the inner sanctum?’ just by asking the priests to describe it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Too old and too boring

This made me laugh, probably because it struck a chord. I'm off to a conference in a couple of weeks and need some light cotton trousers. The conference is in Greece so it's going to be warm. I can't spend the week in shorts because I have pasty weird English legs and, besides, when you wear shorts what can you wear on your feet? Trainers make you look like a clown or a high-school student -- you might as well put on a baseball cap and complete the look. And I cannot bear to wearing sandals or (gulp) flip flops... My family has recently gone crazy for Crocs shoes but since I don't work most of the time in a hospital operating theatre and can't in any case pull off bright pink clogs, I've been the only one to give them a miss.

Anyway, as I think I've said before there is a black hole of male clothing between the student years and the Werther's Originals phase. Some people go straight for the tweeds and come over all Ede & Ravenscroft, but my accent wouldn't fit... So I found myself in M&S buying some nice but -- let's face it -- really boring trousers. The only answer is just to give in and resign myself to beige and shapeless things until I decide that what I really nice is a nice warm cardie...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Allusion and intertext in two children's classics

Well, if it's good enough for classical poetry it's good enough for children's books. But I can't claim much credit for spying this -- my youngest daughter, on being read Maurice Sendak's Where the wild things are (1963) for the first time, pointed to one particular wild thing and exclaimed 'It's a Gruffalo!' I can see her point. (I think the wild thing in question is the one on the right.)

Not very telling, you might think, because monsters in children's books might be thought to have to follow some very basic and general parameters. No wonder that sometimes they resemble on another. Here, by way of comparison is the cover of Donaldson and Scheffler's The Gruffalo (1999): (You might want to compare the cover of the US edition, in which the Gruffalo seems rather more hidden behind a tree. Is this to make the book more exciting? Or is the monster too scary for open display in US bookshops?)

But then we read on and came to this description of the wild things (p.9):
And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.
Anyone who has read The Gruffalo as many times as we have will surely spot the allusion made there in a very strict poetic metre to Sendak's looser but poeticised prose. In the later work, the Gruffalo himself also has 'terrible tusks and terrible claws', not to mention 'terrible teeth in his terrible jaws'. It is not beyond credibility, surely, that this is a deliberate reminiscence of Sendak's classic [1]. Whereas the wild things are, we are encouraged to think, some kind of imaginative projection of the hero Max's anger and exuberance, the Gruffalo is initially the creative imagination of the hero in the later book, a mouse, designed to scare away various predators. But the mouse's creation turns out to be real, and this creates yet another creature to outwit.

[1] One of the reviewers on the Amazon.co.uk page, 'humptydumpty', seems to agree, as does the review from Publishers' Weekly, cited here. For similar claims about Sendak's influence, see here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Light reading

I really should be getting down to finishing a draft of my paper on Sextus for the Symposium Hellenisticum and examining a PhD thesis, but I might get distracted by a new book which arrived this morning. It's hard to ignore -- the cover (black with red lettering -- very 80s) and title demand attention. And it might help with some of the worries I've been having about pleasure and pain.

There's a lot of good stuff in there, for a brief glance, although it won't really count as holiday reading. Hmmm. Is pain the next place for me to turn my philosophical attention after death? Is there a pattern emerging here?

Still, there are a number of philosophers interested in pain (insert joke here). Here is a good blog on the subject, by Adam Swenson, currently wondering about snail venom. (His 2006 Rutgers PhD on pain and value can be read here.) And the editor of the collection pictured here has a good online bibliography.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Oh dear

I've just asked for the film rating of this blog. (You can do the same for yours here.)

Online Dating

It turns out that this blog should not be read by minors without appropriate supervision. And, let's be honest, adults should be warned that there may be some shocking content... Mostly, the fact that so far I have mentioned 'pain' 52 times seems to be major reason for this result. Better to be forewarned, I suppose.

God and Pain II

I noted yesterday an interesting argument in Sextus M 9.162-5 and wondered if the reference there to the 'peculiar pain of gout' in the context of an argument about acquiring knowledge of pain might point to an interesting idea about the first-personal introspective nature of pain in general. Does Sextus think that to 'know pain' is to know 'what it is like to be in pain' and that this latter can be acquired only by experiencing pain personally?

I think there are good reasons for thinking that Sextus’ conception of what it is to have knowledge of pain is not to be quickly assimilated to modern concerns about the acquisition of knowledge of qualia. Sextus does have concerns about the indirect acquisition of knowledge of pain, that is of acquiring knowledge of pain in any way which does not involve experiencing pain first-hand, but they seem not to be because he thinks that pain is such that it can only be known about through direct first-personal experience.

The grounds for this caution are to be found in some of Sextus’ supporting arguments. Even in such a compressed argument, Sextus finds time to address two counter-objections, both of which try to show that god might acquire knowledge of pain without having to experience it. The first of these counter-arguments is the most important, since this is the occasion on which he responds to a claim that knowledge of pain might be acquired by interviewing, as it were, people in pain
. (I might look at the second some other time.)

The first response is part of an a fortiori argument. Sextus wants us to think about how difficult it is for us, who have at least experienced some pain, to come to know the pain of gout. (He assumes, therefore, that his audience are not gouty-types themselves.) You might think that it is possible to know what it is to feel the pain of gout, for example, by talking to people who are experiencing or have experienced that pain and discovering what it is like. But, Sextus argues, it is not possible for us to acquire knowledge of the pain of gout in that way and, remember, unlike the hypothesised pain-free but knowing god, we at least have experienced some pain in our lives. If it is impossible for us to know the pain of gout, then a fortiori it is impossible for god to do so.

Sextus’ response to the proposal that such knowledge may be acquired indirectly is telling, since it offers another clue to his general presumptions about the nature of pain and the nature of the knowledge of pain. The problem he outlines is not, importantly, the most general point that some more modern philosophers might make, namely that pain cannot be known except by direct, first-personal, acquaintance. Rather, he says that it would be impossible to acquire knowledge of pain through these indirect means because even those people suffering from the same ailment – gout, for example – will describe their experience in wildly differing ways. Some say it is like a kind of twisting; some say it is like a kind of bending; others say is it like a kind of stabbing. We can recognise here a very common form of Pyrrhonist argument: he has outlined a general diaphōnia between gout-sufferers. This disagreement is, furthermore, impossible to resolve in favour of any one rather than the other proposed descriptions of what it is like to experience the pain of gout. The ‘twisting-gout sufferers’ are no more authoritative than the ‘stabbing-gout sufferers’, and so on. And since these descriptions are competitors, we cannot simply accept all of them as capturing some aspect of the phenomenon such that they can be simply combined.

Although Sextus does not make this claim explicit, the form of this reply suggests that he is at least prepared to imagine that it might be possible to acquire knowledge of pain in this fashion, if only there were not such an irresolvable difference between the various sufferers’ descriptions. In that case, the difficulty is not with the very principle of the procedure of asking for sufferers to describe their pain but with the problems faced in trying to get any reliable and useful single answer to the question being posed. It is not, in other words, that Sextus thinks it wrong-headed to try to understand what it is like to experience gout by asking a gouty person to describe it to you; it is rather that it is terribly difficult to get any clear and reliable answer to the question: what is it like to suffer from gout? If that is right, then Sextus’ objection to this method of acquiring knowledge of pain is not based on a conviction (even a conviction on the part of his opponent which Sextus is prepared to use dialectically) that pain can be understood only via direct first-personal experience.

Monday, July 16, 2007

God and Pain I

I’ve been doing some homework for a conference next month and have come across a passage which is also interesting for my ongoing thoughts about pleasure and pain in ancient philosophy. At M 9.162–5 Sextus offers the following argument against the existence of god. It is based on the idea that if god exists then god must possess wisdom and therefore know what is good, bad, and indifferent. He must therefore know pleasure and pain. Sextus insists that this in turn requires that god must have experienced pleasure and pain since that is the only way in which knowledge of these may be acquired. But if god must experience pain in order to have the wisdom essential to god’s being, and to experience pain is to be receptive of change and decay, then there is a central incoherence to the notion of god under scrutiny. God cannot be both unchanging and perfect and also wise. The argument in full is as follows:

εἰ δὲ ἐπιστήμην ἔχει τούτων, οἶδε ποῖά ἐστι τὰ ἀγαθὰ καὶ κακὰ καὶ ἀδιάφορα. (163) ἐπεὶ οὖν καὶ ὁ πόνος τῶν ἀδιαφόρων ἐστίν, οἶδε καὶ τὸν πόνον καὶ ποῖός τις ὑπάρχει τὴν φύσιν. εἰ δὲ τοῦτο, καὶ περιπέπτωκεν αὐτῷ• μὴ περιπεσὼν γὰρ οὐκ ἂν ἔσχε νόησιν αὐτοῦ, ἀλλ’ ὃν τρόπον ὁ μὴ περιπεπτωκὼς λευκῷ χρώματι καὶ μέλανι διὰ τὸ ἐκ γενετῆς εἶναι πηρὸς οὐ δύναται νόησιν ἔχειν χρώματος, οὕτως οὐδὲ θεὸς μὴ (164) περιπεπτωκὼς πόνῳ δύναται νόησιν ἔχειν τούτου. ὁπότε γὰρ ἡμεῖς οἱ περιπεσόντες πολλάκις τούτῳ τὴν ἰδιότητα τῆς περὶ τοὺς ποδαλγικοὺς ἀλγηδόνος οὐ δυνάμεθα τρανῶς γνωρίζειν, οὐδὲ διηγουμένων ἡμῖν τινων συμβαλεῖν, οὐδὲ παρ’ αὐτῶν τῶν πεπονθότων συμφώνως ἀκοῦσαι διὰ τὸ ἄλλους ἄλλως ταύτην ἑρμηνεύειν καὶ τοὺς μὲν στροφῇ, τοὺς δὲ κλάσει, τοὺς δὲ νύξει λέγειν ὅμοιον αὑτοῖς παρακολουθεῖν, ἦ πού γε θεὸς μηδ’ ὅλως πόνῳ περιπεπτωκὼς (165) <οὐ> δύναται πόνου νόησιν ἔχειν

This is Bury’s translation:

If he possesses knowledge of these [sc. of goods, bads, and indifferents], he knows what the goods things are and the evil and the indifferent. Since, then, suffering is one of the indifferent things, he knows both suffering and what its real nature is. And if so, he has experienced it; for without experience he would not have formed a notion of it, but, just as the man who has not experienced white colour and black, owing to his having been blind from birth, cannot possess a notion of colour, so too god cannot have a notion of suffering if he has not experienced it. For when we, who have often experienced it, are unable to discern distinctly the special quality of the pain suffered by gouty patients or to guess it from descriptions, or to get consistent accounts from the actual sufferers, since they explain it in different ways, and some say that they find it to resemble twisting, others bending, others stabbing, -- surely, if god has had no experience at all of suffering, he cannot possess a notion of suffering.

The claim that god is without pain or toil is not uncommon in Greek philosophical thought and can be traced back at least as far as Xenophanes (DK 21 B25). Sextus evidently feels that it has now become sufficiently central to a conception of divinity that if he can demonstrate that it is incompatible with another common characteristic of divinity, namely that god is wise, then this inconsistency is extremely damaging for a dogmatic theist. My principal interest in this passage is in Sextus’ apparent contention that the only way in which it is possible to acquire knowledge of pain is through experiencing it. The reference to the ‘special quality of the pain suffered by gouty patients’ and the idea that it cannot be grasped except by having gout is certainly suggestive of such a view. This is an interesting claim because it might be thought to anticipate in an important way a claim often made in more modern philosophical discussions of pleasure and pain that they are essentially first-personal private experiences. Some modern philosophers also make the additional claim that experience of pleasure and pain of this kind is incorrigible: a person cannot be mistaken in his assessment of whether he is experiencing pleasure and pain. Sextus, we should note at the outset, makes no such additional claim and in any case need not do so for the purposes of this destructive argument. He needs only the claim that in order to acquire knowledge of pain it is essential to experience pain. It is not, therefore, possible to claim that god may acquire knowledge of pain by experiencing the positive pleasure and being able to extrapolate from that positive experience what it would be like to experience its opposite, pain. Rather, knowledge of pain can come only from a direct and personal experience of pain.

I’m still thinking this through because I have the suspicion that some of what Sextus later says in this argument makes it less like the first-personal private sensation view. Something for a later entry, I think.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Now TV is really messing with me. Last night, still fuming at the self-aggrandising that was the Alastair Campbell Diaries, I turned over to Channel 4 to see Big Cook Ben and Little Cook Small presenting Big Brother's Big Mouth. Without a grown-up helper. And Big Cook Ben was much smaller than Little Cook Small. Cripes! There's more of their 'adult' comedy here, if you're bothered...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Eros and university teaching

Here's an interesting article from The American Scholar, 'Love on campus', about the erotic aspect of university education. It's somewhat polemical in tone, but it's worth reading just in order to wonder whether its attempt to point to Plato's Symposium as a model for a positive kind of passionate learning is successful; is it in fact something we can or should want even to try to emulate? (There you are, perhaps there is something worth thinking about in Plato's Symposium, even for philosophers...)

There is, I admit, something to the rhetoric of the piece. For example:
Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification. But the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught.
The link to Plato is made explicit just below:
I’m not saying anything new here. All of this was known to Socrates, the greatest of teachers, and laid out in the Symposium, Plato’s dramatization of his mentor’s erotic pedagogy.
What is not said is that even for Diotima in the Symposium the love of souls is not the final resting point of the ideal conversion of the soul towards its proper erotic object. So the 'brain sex' (I kid you not, that is the phrase the article uses) of a teacher and pupil, although a step up from bodily sex, is not the be all and end all by any means. Still, I do encourage you to read the piece. It's quite funny, in an odd sort of way, as a kind of apologia. It is certainly an interesting example of the ongoing idealisation of Greek cultural practices through the prism of, first, an original Platonic idealisation of pederastic sex and courtship and, later, an idealisation of Plato as a touchstone for educational excellence.

I've wondered here before about the often supposed link between teaching (especially, for some reason, teaching philosophy) and erotic attractions of various sorts. Right now, I'm thinking about it again because I've volunteered to give a talk at the Cambridge Faculty of Classics Sixth Form Open Day (on 26 September) on the question 'How Platonic is Platonic love?' (One of those occasions when you come up with a title long before you've really thought about what you want to say about it.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

Philosophy for kids

I was really pleased by this report about philosophy classes for primary school children. The example problem being discussed was whether it is possible to step into the same river twice. Good question. And the children seem to have been thinking about it in an interesting way with skilled supervision. But then the teacher, Peter Worley, goes and says this:
"There's something wonderfully naive about the ancient Greeks because they were right at the beginning of it all," says Mr Worley. "There's something that the children can identify with - it is at the same level as themselves, but it is also sophisticated in its own way," he adds.
Sigh. You can find out more about this company, 'The Philosophy Shop' on their website. They also offer philosophical counselling.


I've been wondering recently about conspiracies -- not, I hasten to say, about how to organise one or even how to spot one, but about how easy it is to convince oneself that one is afoot. It must have something to do with a combination of a lack of knowledge about a situation and a set of assumptions about other people's likely motives. Well, that's as far as I had got. Other people, fortunately, have thought more about it. And in a philosophical way! Hooray for philosophy!

For starters, look at Brian Keeley's 'Of conspiracy theories' JPhil 96, 1999, 109-26 (available online here or via JSTOR here; Keeley has some other online papers, some of which are follow-ups to this, available here.)

There is plenty more to read, including a volume of essays: Conspiracy theories: the philosophical debate edited by David Coady. Also, Pete Mandik's nicely-titled paper 'Shit happens'.

A lot of this discussion centres around the proper way in which one ought to criticize conspiracy theorising. What, in other words, are the epistemological shortfalls of this kind of approach? Is the difficulty with conspiracy theories generated particularly by the assumption that the agents whose intentions and actions they purport to illuminate are acting in a manner designed to keep those very actions and intentions secret? Or is the problem with conspiracy theories largely similar to the general problems of any post hoc explanation of historical events in terms of the intentions and beliefs of a set of agents?

I'm not sure. I do wonder, however, about the pressures which lead people to posit conspiracy theories in the first place. So it seems to me worth asking why conspiracy theories arise and how they take hold. I imagine it comes about from a combination of beliefs such as:
  1. this particular event E promoted the interests of group X;
  2. group X was able to influence the occurrence of event E;
  3. group X had reasons not to declare that they influenced the occurrence of event E (perhaps because of 1...);
  4. event E would not have occurred except as a result of some intentional influence on the part of some group or other;
  5. conspiracies occur.
In any given proposed conspiracy, it seems to me that each of 1-4 will be subject to some plausible doubt. (I shall assume that 5 is true.) What will carry the day and generate the suspicion of a conspiracy is the combination of 1-4. And the combination of all 4, once it has generated this suspicion, will -- I think -- further suggest that each of 1-4 is itself individually more plausible than it is. For example, if a conspiracy theorist is challenged to defend 4, they might well point to 1, 2, and 3. Or if asked to defend 3 they might point to 1, 2, and 4. The more each is considered in the light of the general suspicion, the more each seems to be independently plausible. And this in turn makes the overall general suspicion more and more plausible.

Monday, July 02, 2007

De signis II

I park my bike in front of this sign. Something about it makes me confused.

Does this mean that when the Chapel is not open I can walk on the grass and enter the other buildings?

More charity

In response to some of my earlier fumblings about the Principle of Charity and the reconstruction and assessment of historical philosophical views, Steve Makin kindly and gently reminded me of his paper: 'How can we find out what ancient philosophers said', Phronesis 33 (1988), 121-32. I had read this before but should have gone back to it because it is a very helpful and thought-provoking paper. I particularly like his strong support for the principle that we are indeed justified in using rational reconstruction of a philosophical view in ascribing a particular claim or argument to some philosopher. After all, we should assume that -- even ancient, even 'Presocratic'(!) -- philosophers were in the business of trying to offer what were to their mind consistent theories. Now, this does of course provoke the question of how we go about assessing what would seem a consistent theory to a given historical philosopher, so there is a certain amount of historical reconstruction needed also. But that's just as it should be.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Stupid Dad!

Our 5-year-old palaeontologist has been looking at some small fossils we bought on holiday in Dorset. She has decided that there are some small marks on the ichthyosaur vertebra (left) and has matched them up with the fossil shark's tooth (right). 'Ha! Case solved', she declared. (The shark's tooth is, it has to be admitted, only about 50m years old, so much younger than the other fossil, but it's not a bad match.) I just thought she might want to consider some other possibilities so tried hard to think of any other possible culprits. Perhaps it was a liopleurodon, I wondered. Or a mosasaur.

'But Dad', she sighed, 'There were no ichthyosaurs in the Cretaceous!'. Duh!