Friday, August 31, 2007

A companion to guidebooks to the handbook of...

I'm hard at work editing a steady flow of contributions to what will eventually be the Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. (By the way, if anyone has any bright ideas about a nice cover for the volume, then I'm open to suggestions.) And I'm currently thinking over a more ambitious editing project to cover ancient philosophy more generally. But I can't help having a certain sinking feeling about the never-ending and ever-growing set of companions, handbooks, guidebooks, and the like. What are they for? [1] Different things, I suppose. Some are clearly intended as monumental statements of the state of the art. Others are more introductory and aimed at students or scholars in related but distinct areas who want a handy way in to a different field. And they also differ according to the scope and ambition of the subject area they propose to accompany or guide you through. ('Companion' is, I now come to think, a much less authoritarian sort of thing to call a volume. A guidebook is a bit more dictatorial: 'this is what you should think.' 'Now look here.' etc. Companions are, perhaps, supposed to be something you have with you as you make your own way. A study-buddy...) Also, what is the intended relationship between a companion to a subject and a first-order piece of scholarly work on the same subject?

So I started off thinking about companions with this question: What would I want the ideal one of these to be like? I reckon, it ought to have a number of virtues, certainly including these four:
  1. It should offer a reliable account of the subject area. For a historical subject, this would mean saying what the evidence is, what is generally made of it, and so on.
  2. It should give a good idea of why the subject area is interesting.
  3. It should give a sense of what at present are the major scholarly debates or schools of thought on the given subject.
  4. It should guide the reader to more specialised discussions, related areas and the like.
So this should be a point of entry and an invitation to a field of thought. It should not be thought to replace the first-order research. But it should show what the research is like, why it matters, and what sort of things it talks about. It is not a textbook which will replace or subsitute for the already-existing literature.

But there is something else I think they ought to do. For companions (or whatever) to philosophy, I would think they ought to give an impression of the practice of philosophy. So a companion to metaphysics ought not to be a list of positions or a survey of what conclusions might be reached; instead it would also have to show what it is like to be engaged in philosophical inquiry. It would therefore have to exemplify what it is about.

For my line of work, a companion to some historical period or school of philosophy, a good companion would introduce the reader to the practice of thinking philosophically and to the practice of interpreting and contextualising the particular subject matter. So it would have, for example, to show how to read a bit of Aristotle both by engaging with the argument and also, perhaps even initially, by showing how to get from a bit of Aristotle's writings to a relatively clear view of what it means. Of course, these two practices are not easy (or desirable) to keep apart; that, it seems to me, is what working on historical philosophy is all about: it is both history and philosophy.

I think I am coming to the view that a good companion will have two, perhaps very different, functions. It will (i) lay out the state of play, explain where to go to find various texts, say what they are generally thought to be about and so on; but also (ii) it will function as a protreptic to further deeper work and offer a set of examples of what is involved in working 'unaccompanied' with this material. This second might take the form of more specific or specialised bits of research. The authors can feel liberated from the need to 'cover' an area because their job here is to offer up an example of what the next stage of work would look like, exposing the difficulties and wondering explicitly about methodological questions.

[1] There are some interesting thoughts in G. R. F. Ferrari's introduction to the new Cambridge Companion to Plato's Republic (2007, Cambridge), xv. Ferrari also stresses the idea of 'accompaniment': 'This Companion, by contrast [sc. with a scout striking a new path], seeks to walk with those who are already on the road...'

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Just desserts

You can't make a jelly with pieces of kiwi fruit suspended tantalisingly inside. We learned that lesson yesterday the hard way -- and, after several hours, had only a bowl of sticky runny strawberry gloop with some kiwi pieces floated on top. But here's the reason why, from the helpful people at Planet Science and their fruity-jelly-making tips:

Just don't try fresh pineapple or kiwi fruit!

These fruits contain an enzyme, a molecular machine, which chops up proteins. As gelatine is a protein it is chopped up by the enzyme. As the gelatine fibres are chopped up their net falls to pieces, allowing the water to flow freely and turning the jelly back into a sloppy liquid. If you fancy pineapple in your jelly, then use the tinned sort. As part of the canning process the fruit has been heated up. This destroys the enzyme so that it can no longer chop up the gelatine.

So only tinned pineapple will do.... Damn those fresh fruit!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Things to do in Dorset

Here are my top five (in no particular order):

Monkey World. It's a whole world of monkeys. (Well, they have apes too -- as my eldest pointed out -- so maybe 'Primate World'. Less catchy, but more taxonomically accurate.)

Maiden Castle. Lots of fun even on a windy and wet afternoon. You share it with the sheep and can pretend to be a windswept and wet Iron Age person. They were probably pretty grumpy quite a lot of the time and I can see why you'd need to plait your hair. Blimey, it was windy.

Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Dress up as a Roman (if you are five). Look at some brilliant stuff, including a jade axe head. JADE! Completely pointless as an axe head, of course, but amazing and beautiful and all the way from Italy. A really super little museum with well thought out exhibitions and lots for people from 2 to 102...

Winborne Model Town. A totally bonkers idea. In the 50s some blokes decided to make a 1:10 replica of their town. Unfortunately their replica does not include a 1:10 scale model of the model village, which would also have to contain a 1:100 scale model.... etc. Nice cream teas.

The Red Lion, Winfrith Newburgh. Really good food. There wasn't any lamb kleftiko this time, alas, though I'm told the beef stifado was just as good. R. liked the bruscchete.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sale on now!

People in the UK cannot afford to miss this Amazon offer on The Wire DVD box sets. 65% off for the best TV series in the world?


I've just come back from a week's holiday en famille in Dorset. We went back to a lovely little cottage in Winfrith Newburgh, called 'Snail's Place' (information here), which is perfect for this kind of trip. The kids love the olde worlde bit and we can tuck them up in the evening and stay downstairs with a good bottle of wine and a DVD -- currently more of The Wire...

On the way, we stopped on the M3 at Fleet services to stretch our legs and get something to eat. We had already crawled round the M25 and were a bit frazzled. The two-year-old is not always great on such occasions and this time she really kicked off and had a bit of a tantrum. Nothing nuclear, really, just a lot of noise. But it was a very busy place and lots of peole were feeling similarly grumpy and many of them had kids who were doing the same or had done so in the past.

But one couple at a table next to us were not very happy with being this close to a wailing child. I suppose I can see their point, but there is not a whole lot you can do about it in a place like that and in holiday-traffic levels of people. Still, what was unusual was that in addition to the tutting and eye-rolling, one of the men decided to lean across and directly address our daughter with several loud orders to 'hush'. Not what normally happens. Of course, this did not result in a quiet toddler; quite the opposite. In fact, had I been so ordered by someome who might -- by a less kind critic -- have been described as 'gaunt, with an overly-tight white t-shirt and Club Tropicana highlighted hair', I would have been uninclined to do anything but scream back. Which is precisely what happened.

I was a bit annoyed at them too. I know screaming kids are incredibly annoying. Other people's screaming kids are perhaps more annoying still. But we were hardly in a Hampstead bistro and I would have thought that you might expect to come across some less than perfectly behaved kids in Fleet services on an August Saturday. And even if they were, perhaps understandably, annoyed and put off their muffins just a little, you don't shout at other people's children like that.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What was Sextus Empiricus up to?

Events at the end of the Symposium Hellenisticum cast (and will continue to cast) a long shadow over the entire proceedings. But it was a very engaging conference and I came away with a number of new questions which it seems to me are worth noting down here. My paper will require quite a lot of revision, so I will ponder these as I go about that job. My principal questions are about Sextus' method and background knowledge.
  1. How much did Sextus know about e.g. the Stoic philosophy he was attacking? Was he, for example, fully aware of the Stoic distinction between the sense in which the present exists and the past and future merely subsist?
  2. If he did know about these niceties did he care about them? If not, is this due to sheer sloppiness or does he simply think that such word-magic is of no philosophical use?
  3. Who was he writing for? Were M 9 and 10 written for people already tempted by Pyrrhonism, perhaps even practising Pyrrhonists? It's unlikely that any committed Stoic would be much moved by what he writes, for example, so does that make him a poor dialectician or is that all part of the Pyrrhonist stance?
  4. How much had Sextus read? In particular, how much did he know of any philosophical work (particularly in the dogmatic schools) after, say, Aenesidemus?
  5. What are we to make of the methodological introduction to M 9? Does Sextus carry through with this manifesto? If not, why not? If he does so more in some areas than others, why?
  6. Sextus seems both very taken by and also keen to distance himself from Diodorus Cronus although Diodorus produces plenty of useful material for the anti-physiologia project. Why? Does this have to do with methodological qualms, differences of aim, or something else?
The fact that I am left with such apparently basic questions is a virtue of the conference. I had not been made to think these issues through before, but they are all very basic to understanding the work.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Waiting to present...

We're about half-way through the conference now, moving from book 9 to book 10 of Sextus. This morning we get to be concered about where there is place... I've drawn the short straw and am giving my paper last of all, on Saturday afternoon. On the one hand, by then everyone might be tired and sleepy and not in the mood for any serious aggression. On the other, they may have got so grumpy over the week that I get a serious going over. It's hard not to spend the whole week in a state of anxiety, worried whether someone is going to come out and say something that either anticipates the very small amount I think I have to add to the general discussion or else totally undercuts the basis of my paper. Them's the risks, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

From our embedded correspondent

So here I am in Delphi, enjoying the view (fantastic), the food (excellent) and getting thoroughly confused by Sextus Empiricus (probably what he wanted...) I would add a photo, but this slightly antiquated computer doesn't seem to like the fancy Blogger features. Perhaps when I get back. More updates if and when something occurs to me.

UPDATE: I've now added a photo. This surely ranks as one of the best views from a conference centre anywhere in the world:

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Packing for Pyrrhonism

I'm off (very early) tomorrow morning to the Symposium Hellenisticum in Delphi. I'll be away from the kids for a week, which will be a shame, but the conference looks like it is going to be very rewarding. And it's a lovely location.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Is the Fellow next to me at lunch a Time Lord?

I'm re-reading Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's holistic detective agency. Chapter 3 has an excellent account of a high table dinner at a Cambridge college (here it is the fictional St. Cedd's, probably based on Adams' own college, St. John's) which I had not properly appreciated before, since I must have read it first when I was about 15 and a very long way from a Cambridge college high table. One of the fellows dining is the excellent Professor Urban Chroniotis, 'Reg', the Regius Professor of Chronology... It turns out that Reg is a Time Lord, and a refugee from a Doctor Who story.

Lots of fun. And, it has to be said, it has made me look a little differently at some of my colleagues. Perhaps those odd non sequiturs at lunch are not a sign of age or the sheer weight of learning. Perhaps it is just difficult to keep track of things when you're zooming back and forth across the space-time continuum. And no wonder people seem to have more time than I to get things done. If a deadline is looming, they just pop into a time machine and give themselves a but more leeway... Handy.

BB geets cultured

S. pointed this out to me yesterday. Why has Radio 4's Mark Lawson entered the Big Brother house under the obvious pseudonym of 'Jonty'? Perhaps Channel 4 have responded to concerns over the low-brow nature of much of its content and are re-introducing late-night arts discussion programmes by stealth. Good for them.