Monday, September 24, 2007

Michael Palin's pants are on fire

Jolly Brit abroad Michael Palin is limping around Eastern Europe and beyond for his new 'travel' programme, Palin's New Europe. Pah! It's a limp thing all round, this programme and yet another example of the current outbreak of telly not telling the truth. I know. It's bad, isn't it? Hot on the heels of the revelation that the footage of Alan Yentob nodding may not have been filmed at the very moment he was interviewing someone, now Palin is at it too.

Last night series out set-up interviews with 'colourful' new neighbours began with Palin watching some crazy Bulgarian mystics dancing in circles at the summer solstice. Weird, huh? You wouldn't get people in Britain celebrating a simple astronomical event as if it were a major energizing of the spiritual whatnot, would you? Oh. In any case this must have been in June. But later in his 'travels', after seeing some gypsies in Sofia -- crikey! There are gypsies there! -- he arrives in Cappodocia (Göreme, in fact, which Palin insisted on pronouncing GO-remmy...) and it's in deep snow. Now, either the rail network and the lorry he 'hitched' in were very slow, or this wasn't really part of a single journey. 'Fess up, Palin! More shoddy BBC work. No wonder people are turning off.

Volvo day

This coming Saturday, if you are travelling along the M11 or A14 here's a game you can play. Keep a look out for cars delivering students for university. 1 point for a car stuffed full of obvious university kit. Add a point for a bike on the back. Add another point for each pot plant (that is, plant in a pot) visible in a back window. Add a further point if you can make an educated guess at the subject the students is studying (visible textbooks, bits of anatomical skeleton etc.) The doble your tally if it's a Volvo.

If you live in Cambridge, of course, stay away from the town centre. The place was never designed to accommodate this influx of traffic and concerned parents. You'll never get served in a café and it's crazy to attempt to buy anything at Sainbury's or M&S. Best stay away altogether.

So we will swap the f*cking punt chauffeur types for bunches of students - new ones, a bit bewildered, not yet sure how to do laundry; returning students - suddenly feeling terribly important and confident.

Poor things. And poor parents too. They are paying for all this now and no doubt feel much more invested in the whole business. Many parents insist on coming to college Open Days and even try to come to the admissions interviews. Not a great idea, but you can see why they might feel they have much more of a part to play in the process these days.

Another symptom of the new atmosphere is the readiness of universities to address parents directly. See, for example, the St Andrew's website: Nothing comparable yet at But students themselves here organize a 'parenting' system -- assigning new first years to 'parents' in the second or third year. It's something of an odd exercise in genealogy and not all 'parents' take an appropriately paternal or maternal attitude to their offspring, of course. But then, they haven't just driven from Devon with a pot plant obscuring the rear view mirror...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Two new books arrived for me today, just so I don't got to bed and dream about the dramas of uploading images or page hierarchies. Calcio: a history of Italian football and Morbo: the story of Spanish football. I hope they're as good as two of my favourite recent reads: Gary Imlach's My father and other working class heroes and Adrian Chiles' We don't know what we're doing (which has a very sad ending) ... The Italian one, at least, looks rather scholarly but now I will be at last sure that I'm right when I explain why the football teams in Milan are called 'Milan' (pronounced 'Meelan', NB not Milano) and 'Internazionale'... But then I noticed something very suspicious. The authors' names: Foot and Ball. Surely some conspiracy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Does not compute

I've not been posting much for the last week because we are busy in the Faculty of Classics building a new website. The current one was put together somewhat 'organically' so it has lots of offshoots and a strange way of organizing the information. Most of it is there if you know where to look, but knowing where to look is the trick...

So we have a shiny new Content Management System and a number of us are busy generating pages and then making 'content'... It's pretty straightforward, if a bit fiddly. For example, I've spent the morning hunting down the odd character in pages we've more or less copied from the current site which is in the wrong coding. So a '£' shows up as a black square with a question mark inside...

I'm geeky enough to think this is all going to be worth it in the end. We should end up with a site which can be managed and updated by a number of people with much greater ease than the present arrangement. No one really needs to know any html or whatever, and what you see is (the stray tricky characters aside) what you get. The next big push is then to start putting video and audio on the site!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Fire and the Sun?

I was doing some lazy research this morning for a schools' lecture on Platonic Love for the Faculty's VIth Form Study Day on 26 September (you know, type some random keywords into Google and see what happens). Sometimes it can be very interesting: 'strictly platonic', for example, generates an enormous list of classified ads by city for various kinds of personal relationships. Not sure Plato would have been too chuffed with most of it.

But the best and strangest I found is this excellent site for Platonic fireplaces. I imagine they cast wonderful shadows... Perhaps they are good for rooms containing large numbers of prisoners who want to be given a misleading puppet show.

And I found this cartoon which made me laugh.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What about Cicero?

I've been spending some time thinking about Cicero's presentation of Epicurean hedonism, particularly at the beginning of Fin. 2. In particular, I've been wondering whether the problems he raises there for the Epicurean identification of painlessness with the highest state of pleasure are telling. Certainly, it is an odd identification to make and the attempts made by the Epicurean spokesman, Torquatus, to defend it do not seem to be very promising.

Yet, there is a problem. Quite a few commentators, Gosling and Taylor in their 1982 The Greeks on pleasure in particular, are very hard on Cicero and his tactics. They find his emphasis on the Epicureans' interest in 'kinetic' pleasures unnecessary and even go so far as to claim that Cicero is himself mistaken in making such a deal out of a distinction between the pleasures of painlessness and the sensory pleasures involved in satisfying a need. For these commentators, that is not the central distinction in Epicurean hedonism and Cicero has distorted matters for his own polemical purposes.

Now, I'm not sure if I understand the Epicurean notion of pleasure well enough to know whether this accusation is right. One of the problems, of course, is that Cicero is one of our fullest accounts of Epicurean ideas about pleasure and I find it hard to be sure that we have a sound and accurate picture against which we can compare him and find him wanting. The other evidence is similarly polemical (e.g. Plutarch) or else very scrappy and ripped from any sort of useful context (e.g. the quotations in Cicero and Plutarch; the fragment at Diog. Laert. 10.136).

So how do we proceed? I suppose we need to do three things. First we need to have a clear account of precisely what Cicero's argument is in texts like the opening of Fin. 2 and we need to construct as part of this process an account of what Cicero's understanding of Epicurean pleasure is. We should do the same for Plutarch, and any other source. Second, we need to do a thorough linguistic and philosophical analysis of the scrappy bits of genuine Epicurean material which survive and -- if possible -- see if they can be pieced together into a consistent, though perhaps gappy, whole. Third, we need to do some genuine philosophical inquiry ourselves. For example, we might ask whether we can come to a satisfying account of what pleasure is or, failing that, some picture of the various possible options and what the consequences of each of them is. So, what if we abandon the idea of pleasure as somehow related to perception? Must pleasure be associated with a certain kind of phenomenological 'feel'? If not, what can we say about it? This third part of the process will help to set down some parameters to guide our thinking about what is and is not a plausible or even possible opinion to hold on the question of pleasure.

Finally, we have to put the results of all three kinds of inquiry side by side and see how they relate to one another. Does Cicero's argument, for example, show that he is committed to a view of Epicurean pleasure which is evidently incompatible with the primary Epicurean evidence? If not, is the Epicurean evidence compatible both with Cicero's argument and also with other conceptions of pleasure which are less susceptible to his criticisms? Does either Cicero's attack on Epicurus or the likely Epicurean picture itself offer anything like a plausible conception of pleasure, judged independently?

This is a laborious business, to be sure. And it requires a great deal of both philological and philosophical skill. But it seems to me that this is something like the ideal methodology for approaching this kind of question: we certainly cannot simply legislate that Cicero must be biased and disregard his criticisms as a result. Fortunately, the enterprise as a whole is something that can be pursued collaboratively -- some providing part of the picture and others other parts. And it is something which can proceed gradually, always open to revising the results offered so far. But, considered with my best rose-tinted specs on, that is how I think good ancient philosophy is done.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Protagorean hedonism

Here are some thoughts I’ve been having about Plato’s Philebus. I have been wondering whether, as an alternative to Socrates view that pleasures can be false, a coherent position can be outlined to the effect that pleasures are always true – not just in some sense of their being always ‘really’ a pleasure or some such, but that pleasures are always true in a sense of ‘true’ that corresponds closely with the likely sense in which Socrates thinks that pleasures can be ‘false’. He does not mean that some pleasures are not ‘really’ pleasures.

So, imagine that we disagree with Socrates of the Philebus and think that pleasures cannot be false. Imagine also that we disagree in this way not because we think that it is daft to think of pleasures as true or false, that is, we disagree not because we think pleasures are not ‘truth apt’. Rather, we disagree because we think that all pleasures are true. This is a possible view of Protarchus’ position in the Philebus.

On a plausible view of Socrates’ account, a pleasure can be false in this sense. Pleasures have, as it were, a propositional content. They can be expressed in statements of the form: ‘I am pleased that P’. A pleasure is false, on this view, if P is false. So if ‘I am pleased that you love me’ but you do not love me, the pleasure I feel is, alas, false.

Now imagine that we think that all pleasures are true. How is this expressed? Perhaps we borrow the notion that pleasures have a propositional content. So again, pleasure can be expressed in statements of the form: ‘I am pleased that P’. On this view, however, P is always true; it is true, presumably, in some sense because I take pleasure in it.

This is like one view of Protagoras’ position in the Theaetetus is respect of beliefs generally. On this view, Protagoras thinks that all beliefs are true. If I believe P then P is true. I cannot be mistaken. (He may also think that if P is true then I believe it. I am omniscient.)

Is Protagorean hedonism, the view that all pleasures are true, an absurd view? Certainly, it captures the sense in which we might baulk at the idea that it is possible to be somehow mistaken about what we take pleasure in. Socrates seems to want to say that it is possible to be experiencing a pleasure but there to be some kind of falsity about that pleasure. It is not merely that pleasures can be generated by beliefs that are mistaken; rather, there is something mistaken or wrong about the pleasure itself.

Protagorean hedonism rejects that. If I am pleased at P then P is true. Now, it is depressingly easy to find prima facie objections to this. For example, I might indeed take pleasure in thinking how much you love me, but in fact you do not love me at all. Surely there is something wrong about the pleasure here? If we do not want to go along the route of denying that pleasures are ‘truth apt’, we must somehow instead relativise the object of the pleasure. Now, ‘I am pleased that P’ where P is something true but its truth cannot be undermined by unfortunate facts about, for example, whether you do in fact love me or not. Instead, the truth of P must, it seems, somehow be guaranteed instead simply in virtue of my taking pleasure in it. Somehow, the truth of the pleasure I take in thinking how much you love me is entirely independent of whether you do or do not. It is instead guaranteed by my taking pleasure.

So this is where I have got. Now I have two other questions: How coherent is 'Protagorean hedonism'? Could an argument be mounted against it analogous to the arguments mounted in the Theaetetus against Protagoras’ more general position about beliefs?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Educashun, educashun, educashun

At long last, the Tories are beginning to think of some policies. Their education ideas are being floated at the moment and include two ideas worth thinking about. I'm not sure whether they will be useful or even desirable, but I was tickled by the the other parties' reaction.

The first idea is that kids at 11 who are under-performing would not be allowed automatically to proceed to secondary school. (Here's the BBC report. And here is the Tories' own version of the story.) They may be kept back at primary school until their level of achievement is up to the move. I suppose the idea is that this is an incentive not to be kept back, because of the possible stigma that might bring, and also that it might help secondary schools by removing the need for extensive remedial work with incoming pupils. Well, maybe. But here is what David Laws, the Lib-Dem spokesperson, had to say:
"Like the old 11-plus, proposals for what the Tories have called a remedial year would stigmatise the very children who need extra help. They would also increase class sizes and make it impossible for teachers and parents to plan ahead."
The first point is perhaps true but is presumably in part the point of the exercise. Whether in the long term it is overall to the educational and general social benefit or detriment of the pupil concerned is something I really have no idea about. So this might turn out to be a very bad idea, all told. But Laws' second point, though, is surely not quite right. Holding back pupils will increase class size, he says. Well, yes. But surely it will also decrease class sizes. For every extra pupil still in primary school there will be one fewer in secondary school. Or can we now manufacture pupils e nihilo? Sure, there may be an extra burden on some schools, but this is hardly an absolute increase in class sizes... The Tories certainly will need to say something about what they are going to do to help the primary schools to accommodate any such people. But they are even at present being put somewhere...

The second idea was apparently less worthy of the other parties' immediate comment. Here is the Torygraph report. But it seems to me not a bad idea to explore:
"The sixth form experience of many young people is now dominated from year one by the examination system and teachers tell us that the opportunity to explore young people's curiosity and enthusiasm in pursuit of academic byways has been almost totally removed," says a panel of experts, led by a former cabinet minister, Stephen Dorrell, and ex-vice-chancellor Baroness Pauline Perry.
That does sound like something worth taking seriously. And that has left me with a very disconcerting thought. Am I really thinking that the Tories have some potentially useful ideas in their education policies? Help! Either I am getting old and cranky -- and, please no, might even end up reading the Daily Mail... -- or British politics has finally gone completely topsy-turvy.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Hooray for autumn

Summer is nice but, especially in odd-numbered years, June and July and the first part of August are sadly football free. But it's all back and this year I seem spoilt for choice. Not only has 'five' (Channel 5) started to show Serie A games on Sunday afternoon's in Football Italiano but I have suddenly acquired via the 'kind' people at Virgin media Setanta sports -- so I can miss Premier league games during the kids' tea time/In the night garden time, but may be able to catch the odd SPL fixture (why?) or even Bundesliga, Portuguese league, and -- when I'm really lucky -- live Conference (sorry, 'Blue Square Premier') games. They even had Cambridge United a few weeks ago. The five coverage is pretty poor, unfortunately, and they seem to lack the wit and fun of the old Channel 4 (and then Bravo) Gazzetta programmes. They don't have James Richardson, for a start. And the title is wrong. Do they think we won't understand 'calcio'?

But best of all is the BBC Radio Five commentary. It's a real saviour for parents who, let's face it, aren't going to be allowed 2 hours of TV during the weekend to devote to watching a game. You can be doing something else while it's on, and still feel the excitement. It's perhaps even better in the car. For me, it certainly evokes the relief of getting back to the car after fighting your way around the shops on a Saturday afternoon, particularly around Christmas. A few minutes of commentary sets you up for a cup of tea and the radio when you get home. Or it reminds me of driving home from visiting the parents on Boxing Day. Special times.