Monday, December 29, 2008


Xmas has been and gone and I think we survived pretty much unscathed. I have a new coat and scarf and a snazzy Brain Training little game thingy (which nevertheless tells me my brain is aged and atrophied...) and the girls have all sorts of bits and pieces, most of which we have now found homes for.

But we made the big mistake of venturing out into town today. I don't know if anyone was spending any money (sorry, Gordon, but we aren't doing our bit do haul the UK out of its hole) but people were certainly out in numbers, mostly just to get in each other's way. Perhaps they had by now become sick of annoying their family members at home and had decided they absolutely had to get out. So they all congregate in town to annoy each other. We at least managed to get the lovely people in the Early Learning Centre to take back a malfunctioning (pink...) CD player but otherwise the trip was a bit of a dead loss. Shopping with kids is at best a hit and miss affair, unless you want just to shop for things in shops that are kid-approved. But today it was absolutely horrendous. I was very glad to get home and collapse into a sofa. (And I also was able to have a first go at Lego Batman... Lots of fun.)

Perhaps the week between Xmas and New Year is just designed to persuade us all that it won't be so bad to get back to work.

Just the panto to negotiate now and then the January pool...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

RAE 2008

Some good news today from the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. The full details of the procedure and the results are available here and there is a handy pdf of the headline news from the THE here. But here are the rankings for the subjects I'm most interested in. The results here show a weighted average score (from 0 to 4) for a given assessment unit (subject) by institution. Very good news for the Cambridge Faculty of Classics. The Cambridge ancient philosophers were included in the Classics submission since that is where we hold our lectureships.

Here is the GPA ranking for Classsics, ancient history, Byzantine and modern Greek studies:

Cambridge 3.15

Oxford 3.05

UCL 2.95

King’s College 2.85

Durham 2.85

Warwick 2.85

Exeter 2.80

Manchester 2.70

Bristol 2.70

St Andrews 2.70

Birmingham 2.60

Here is the ranking for Philosophy.

Good news for the Cambridge Department of the History and Philosophy of Science.

UCL 3.15

St Andrews 3.15

King’s College 3.05

Sheffield 3.05

Reading 3.05

Cambridge A: History and philosophy of science 2.95

LSE 2.95

Oxford 2.95

Stirling 2.95

Bristol 2.90

Essex 2.90

Birkbeck 2.85

Cambridge B: Philosophy 2.85

Nottingham 2.80

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reason and childhood

Every so often I attempt to explain to my kids what I do all day. This tends not to go very well. This evening I attempted to introduce R to some interesting paradoxes. She was telling me how if someone says 'I am telling the truth' this is good evidence for the fact that they are lying. Shrewd, I thought, but then I also took the opportunity to ask her whether someone who says 'I am lying' is telling the truth or not. She would have none of this and just told me I was being silly.

So I tried to persuade her of the powers of reason by explaining how I could prove she cannot cross the room. Then I gave her a version of Zeno's dichotomy paradox. Again, the answer was that I was just being silly (she was getting quite cross with me by now) and that she would prove me wrong as soon as she got out of the bath by crossing the room easily. Such an empiricist, my daughter...

What should I conclude from this? Yes, I suppose she was right that I was being silly. BIt is certainly not clear that doing more philosophy would allow R to have a better reaction to puzzles of this sort. Her current attitude is probably, all things considered, the right sort of thing to say. If that's right, I wondered if trying to persuade anyone to do anything other than dismiss this kind of thing is really a good idea... I really need the vacation to come soon.

Friday, December 12, 2008

That's your opinion

There's an interesting article in this week's THE about 'student-centred' learning, punctuated with some nice grumpy comments from Alan Ryan. Read the article here, but for a flavour of Ryan's take on things:
"Opinions can be all right, but students aren't here to learn opinions, they are here to learn how things are," he says. "In the past I have looked at a student's work and said, 'All you have done is copied this out', and hey've replied, 'Oh, did you want my opinion?'

"Well, the answer to that is, 'No, I don't want your opinion; what I want to know is if these are proper arguments, whether Plato was right about this - I couldn't give a bugger about your opinion; who could care less?'

"All this stuff about opinions - bloody hell, who wants opinions in physics, for example? The real thing is how you assess whether people know anything, and if they aren't obliged to write coherent prose and so on, then what evidence is there that they do? The answer, I am afraid, is not much."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Grumpy Christmas

Term has just finished and we have a good few days of undergraduate admissions interviews ahead of us. These are hard work and involve some difficult decisions. It's a serious business and so it has to be done properly. I also have some supervisions hanging over from term and two MPhil students in the last throes of their first assessed essay and then a PhD to examine.

So I'm not in the mood for Christmas at all. But when you have young kids it all seems to start very early and positively demand your interest and excitement. Sigh. So this afternoon is the great-if-you-are-6 Fitzwilliam college children's Christmas party. This is an excellent institution, I hasten to add, but I can't help thinking it would be better if we could wait to have it some time in February when there's not so much else going on.

Then there are the eye-achingly sweet but dreadful Christmas 'performances' at school (a play -- the amusingly named propaganda-vehicle 'Rock around the Flock' -- and a concert) and the increasingly frequent rehearsals for the ballet school production. I'm sure these will all be terribly lovely and camcordered with much affection by parents but I just don't enjoy them. I know I should , probably, and I like it that they matter so much to the kids (though I am not sure I like the fact they give over most of this half-term in rehearsals) but I just don't. So there. I'm a bad un-Chrismassy person but there's really not much I can do about it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Chasing the tortoise

Today I received news of this year's 'Eleatica' conference, to be held 15-18 Jan. in Ascea. The main lectures are being given by Jonathan Barnes (on Zeno) and more details can be found here. The accompanying letter also announced the inauguration of a ZENO prize 'devoted to the portrayal unsing computer graphics of Zeno pursuing the tortoise'. So if you have any talents in that direction, off you go. Of course, in order to write all the code for the programme, you need first to write half the code. And before you write half the code, you need first to finish writing a quarter... I can see it might not be easy to give this prize away.

Here's an animated attempt:

The other announcement is that the honorary citizenship of Elea will be awarded to a distinguished scholar. Can you think of any suitable modern Eleatics?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Just feel it

I am looking back at Cicero Fin. 1 and 2 and the portrayal there of the Epicurean notion of pleasure. Today I spent some time thinking about this bit:
itaque negat [sc. Epicurus] opus esse ratione neque disputatione quam ob rem voluptas expetenda, fugiendus dolor sit: sentiri haec putat, ut calere ignem, nivem esse albam, dulce mel, quorum nihil oportere exquisitis rationibus confirmate, tantum satis esse admonere.

So Epicurus denies there is any need for reasoning or argument to show why pleasure should be pursued and pain avoided: he thinks these can be perceived just as the fact that fire heats, snow is cold, and honey sweet. In these cases there is no need for elaborate arguments for confirmation; it is enough simply to point them out.

Fin. 1.30

Torquatus notes (in 1.31) that this is something of a controversial point and that other Epicureans have thought that it is necessary also to give some further reasoned justification for the choice-worthiness of pleasure. But to his mind, the value of pleasure is simply and directly perceived (sentiri), a point no doubt also made by the Epicureans’ identification of the pathē as one of the criteria of truth. Indeed, the suspicion that Torquatus is here relying on some basic points of Epicurean epistemology is confirmed by the other examples offered of things supposedly made clear and evident simply via the senses. But these examples set me wondering precisely what position about pleasure is supposed to be headed off by the optimistically robust empiricism Torquatus assumes.

Whether honey is indeed sweet, for example, is one of the most common questions to which sceptical thinkers with various degrees of caution or suspension of judgement. In that case, the general stance is that given the possibility that honey may not appear sweet to some people at some times, it is not wise to infer that honey is indeed sweet even in the cases when it does indeed appear so via the senses. Similarly, Timon, for example, declares in On the Senses (at DL 9.105) ‘that honey is sweet I do not assert, but that it appears sweet I do accept’.

It is not immediately clear, however, how an analogous argument might function in the case of pleasure. It is possible to see how the same object or activity may not always produce pleasure in all perceivers and that therefore it might be wise not to infer immediately that such and such a thing is pleasant. But the argument here concerns not the question whether some object or other is pleasant but the choice-worthiness of pleasure in general.

In that case, it seems to me that the idea which Torquatus wishes to reject is perhaps the following: some experiences of pleasure appear choice-worthy while others do not, and from this observation we should suspend judgement about the choice-worthy nature of pleasure itself. If that is the argument being answered here the Epicurean answer would be two-fold: first, they might appeal to their general resources of anti-sceptical argument; second, they will account for the false appearance of non-choice-worthy pleasures with just the kind of argument which Torquatus goes on to give at 1.32–3 which defends the per se choice-worthiness of pleasure while allowing that certain pleasures are not to be pursued on hedonistic grounds.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


It snowed just a little this morning. Quite nice to look at if not to be in. So I began to think about Christmas (groan) but decided the thing to do is to work out if there are any really bearable Christmas songs. I've not got very far because most of them are awful. But besides the obvious Pogues Fairytale of New York I could manage Saint Etienne's I was born on Christmas Day (watch that here... ahh, Sarah Cracknell...) and Galaxie 500's version of Yoko Ono's Listen the snow is falling (mp3 here -- download it and let it wash over you). Incidentally, a big shot out to Bill Tieman who bought me The Portable Galaxie 500 some time ago. I'd missed them first time round but they are terrific. Any other contenders?

And here's some more Galaxie 500 while I'm at it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy world philosophy day

Really; UNESCO says so. The details are here. The BBC has helpfully suggested some philosophical questions to 'make your brain hurt' here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Good grief

Lord Drayson, a science -- that's science -- minister says that he has a sixth sense. In an interview in yesterday's Times he says
"In my life there have been some things I have known, and I don’t know why. I think there is a lot we don’t understand about human capability."
Well, fancy that. I reckon my four year old can predict that when she lets go of a cup it will fall. But I certainly haven't taught her about gravitational attraction and I'm pretty sure no one else has. How has she learned it, then? Spooky!

What a load of nonsense. (I include in the nonsense some of the reporting, including this from the Torygraph with its barbed final paragraph.) I'm sure Lord Drayson isn't claiming super powers for himself, but what he is pointing to is hardly very astounding. It turns out people sometimes believe things without conclusive evidence. What this does not suggest, however, is that it is OK to believe anything you fancy and not be liable to the critical evaluation and improvement of your beliefs. Otherwise, where would we be? We'd end up putting people in the House of Lords, say, who believe all sorts of strange unfounded tales about supernatural beings and out of body experiences and thinking it's a good idea to let them have a say on matters of national importance. What? Oh....

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I'm not feeling well enough to write about anything demanding today but I did find this, which is a trailer for the last series of Outnumbered, which began its second run yesterday. Last night's episode was more like a documentary as far as I was concerned, having just had to endure the stresses of two little girls being bridesmaids at a friend's wedding. But anyway, if you haven't watched it you really should.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Arisotle, love, and pleasure

Some more thoughts on Aristotle and Plato on pleasure and their interest in using homosexual erotic relationships as examples of a cause of pleasure and as a means of illustrating how to think about the nature of pleasure itself... Aristotle offers further evidence of a detailed engagement with Platonic accounts of love and pleasure at NE 1157a1–12. Here, Aristotle is contrasting the virtuous kind of friendship (philia) with other forms on the grounds that it is much more stable and lasting since each member of the relationship receives the same things from the other.
ἡ δὲ διὰ τὸ ἡδὺ ὁμοίωμα ταύτης ἔχει· καὶ γὰρ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ ἡδεῖς ἀλλήλοις. ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ἡ διὰ τὸ χρήσιμον· καὶ γὰρ τοιοῦτοι ἀλλήλοις οἱ ἀγαθοί. μάλιστα δὲ καὶ ἐν τούτοις αἱ φιλίαι μένουσιν, ὅταν τὸ αὐτὸ γίνηται παρ’ ἀλλήλων, οἷον (5) ἡδονή, καὶ μὴ μόνον οὕτως ἀλλὰ καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτοῦ, οἷον τοῖς εὐτραπέλοις, καὶ μὴ ὡς ἐραστῇ καὶ ἐρωμένῳ. οὐ γὰρ ἐπὶ τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἥδονται οὗτοι, ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ὁρῶν ἐκεῖνον, ὃ δὲ θεραπευόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ ἐραστοῦ· ληγούσης δὲ τῆς ὥρας ἐνίοτε καὶ ἡ φιλία λήγει (τῷ μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν ἡδεῖα ἡ (10) ὄψις, τῷ δ’ οὐ γίνεται ἡ θεραπεία)· πολλοὶ δ’ αὖ διαμένουσιν, ἐὰν ἐκ τῆς συνηθείας τὰ ἤθη στέρξωσιν, ὁμοήθεις ὄντες.

Friendship based on pleasure is similar to this one [sc. one based on virtue] for good men also are pleasing to one another. (Similarly friendship based on the useful, because good men are also useful to one another.) Friendships last especially in those cases when the same thing is shared between them, such as pleasure. But not just that; also pleasure from the same thing, for example as with witty people and not as with a lover and beloved. For these two do not take pleasure in the same things, but the former in seeing the latter, the latter is being cultivated by the lover. And sometimes when the bloom of youth fades so too does the friendship (for the appearance is no longer pleasant to the lover and the beloved is no longer cultivated). But many do remain friends, provided as a result of familiarity they enjoy each other’s character, now that they have become alike.
Aristotle offers a rather complicated analysis of different kinds of intimate relationship which may involve the taking of pleasure by both sides, by only one or, perhaps, by neither. At this point of his discussion he is comparing and contrasting cases in which a friendship is based, at least initially, on pleasure, with those which are based on either the good character of the friends or on some utility which one provides the other. In some ways, some examples of pleasure friendships are like those based on good character. For example, friendships based on pleasure can be as stable as friendships based on virtue, provided that the two members continue to take pleasure in the same things. (Virtuous people will take pleasure in the same things and so a virtuous friendship will also involve many experiences of pleasure, even though pleasure is not the grounds of the friendship.) Aristotle contrasts such a stable friendship based on pleasure with the case of a relationship between a lover and a beloved since in the latter case Aristotle says that although both members of the pair may take pleasure from the relationships, their pleasures come from different sources. For the older lover the pleasure comes from his seeing the beloved, whereas the beloved may take pleasure in being cared for and cultivated (therapeumenos) by his lover. What’s more, Aristotle insists that such erotic relationships are temporary since they depend on the particular and transitory youthful beauty.

At 1157a9 Aristotle uses the same word for the youthful beauty of the beloved –
ρα – as he does in the simile illustrating the relationship between pleasure and activity at NE 1174b33 which further confirms the assumption that in that simile Aristotle is indeed using familiar terms of praise for a young beloved.It also confirms the suspicion that in the passage in book X the intended analogy is between the perceived outward pleasing appearance of a beloved young man and the perceived pleasure attendant on a particular activity. In his analysis of the philia between lover and beloved, Aristotle then points out that when the beauty disappears so does the lover’s pleasure in viewing the beloved and when the lover no longer offers the same kind of attention to the beloved then the beloved’s pleasure from the relationship also ceases. Often, when youthful beauty fades, since the relationship is grounded on the respective pleasures each takes, so too does the relationship itself unless it has been replaced by a more lasting tie based on familiarity (1157b10–12). This in turn contrasts with another kind of erotic relationship in which the two partners exchange favours of utility rather than pleasure (b12–14).This final form of erotic relationship is most unstable because, as Aristotle curtly notes, the two are not philoi of one another but only of the gain they might take from the relationship. Once that opportunity has disappeared, so too has the relationship.Aristotle may well be offering his analysis on the basis of what he considered to be generally acceptable accounts of how interpersonal relationship in fact differ and develop. All the same, as he wrote this passage he can hardly have been unaware of a Platonic antecedent of his discussion of the differences between the exchange of pleasures between lover and beloved and something more focussed on character and perhaps even virtue. Indeed, Plato appears to have been very fond not only of this particular theme but also of the metaphorical use of the term ὥρα to refer to the particular bloom of youth displayed by the beloved. The most obvious antecedent for Aristotle’s account of this form of philia, as Burnet notes in his commentary on NE 8.4, is Pausanias’ speech in the Symposium, particularly 183d8–e6. So that is where I will go next.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Love and pleasure

At some point this summer I got interested in exploring a link between Philebus 53d-e and Aristotle EN 1174b31-3. I even got round to posting something about it here before things got derailed. Anyway, we got to that bit of Philebus in a lecture today so it spurred me on to think again about it. It turns out that part of why I got derailed over the summer was that I got very perplexed about the passage so perhaps I might turn to my good reader(s) for clarification. The passage in question is this:
ΣΩ. Ἐστὸν δή τινε δύο, τὸ μὲν αὐτὸ καθ’ αὑτό, τὸ δ’ ἀεὶ ἐφιέμενον ἄλλου.

ΠΡΩ. Πῶς τούτω καὶ τίνε λέγεις;

ΣΩ. Τὸ μὲν σεμνότατον ἀεὶ πεφυκός, τὸ δ’ ἐλλιπὲς ἐκείνου.

ΠΡΩ. Λέγ’ ἔτι σαφέστερον.

ΣΩ. Παιδικά που καλὰ καὶ ἀγαθὰ τεθεωρήκαμεν ἅμα καὶ ἐραστὰς ἀνδρείους αὐτῶν.

ΠΡΩ. Σφόδρα γε.

ΣΩ Τούτοις τοίνυν ἐοικότα δυοῖν οὖσι δύο ἄλλα ζήτει κατὰ πάνθ’ ὅσα λέγομεν εἶναι.

Soc. Let there be this pair: what is itself, by itself, and what is always aiming at something else.

Prot. What are these two you are talking about and what are they like?

Soc. The one is always by nature the most holy and the other lacks it.

Prot. Be clearer still, please.

Soc. I suppose we have seen beautiful and good young boys together with their brave lovers.

Prot. Certainly.

Soc. Then now look for another pair of things that are like these two in all the ways we are mentioning.

Given the classification to come between things that are geneseis and things that are ousiai, which is also meant to map a distinction between things that are for-the-sake-of something else and those for whose sake are other things (such as how ship-building stands to a ship) we should expect the relationship of beloved : lover or, to use the standard Greek terms, erōmenos : erastēs to function analogously to that of ousia : genesis. Pleasure will be assigned to the class of geneseis. Most importantly, therefore, it is the lover who is aligned with pleasure and ‘becoming’ while the beloved is aligned with a completion or goal and with ‘being’.

So I wondered whether that is indeed how we are supposed to interpret the erotic analogy. And this is as far as I have got. That the correct alignment is lover-genesis beloved-ousia can be supported by a variety of notions which build on a common, albeit perhaps idealised, picture of the lover–beloved relationship and also various conceptions of the lover–beloved relationship which can be found either in the surrounding context of the Philebus or elsewhere in Platonic texts:

1. It is the beloved who is here described in terms which refer to his beauty and goodness.

When Socrates finally explains the ousiagenesis distinction in terms of the value of the members of the two classes, he insists that ‘that for the sake of which something comes to be’ should be put in the class (moira) of goods while pleasure, if it is a kind of coming-to-be, ought to be placed in a different class and is therefore not a good (54c9–d3).

2. The beloved is the object of the lover’s aims and desires. It is ‘for the sake of’ the beloved that the lover undertakes various tasks, performs various acts and so on.

3. It is the lover, not the beloved, who feels desire. And desire is often figured as a kind of lack of absence. So in this sense, qua lover he is lacking.

Lack or deficiency is a characteristic of the genesis class of things (54d6–7) and is made a defining feature of the lover by Plato most obviously in the Symposium.

4. It is the lover, not the beloved, who is generally understood to take pleasure in the relationship.

This is not such a clear case. See, for example, Phaedrus 240d. To be sure, the context here is a speech in which the aim is to persuade the young man that he is better off taking up with someone who is not his lover, but the rhetorical tropes must be to some extent plausible to a general Athenian audience for the speech to be effective. Nevertheless, despite some exceptional cases, which are often intended as grotesque inversions of the norm, it is generally speaking the erastēs who is considered to take pleasure in any intercourse.

So that is as far as I have got so far. My next port of call is going to be Aristotle's analysis of philia and pleasure which also refers to these erotic relationships.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

OMG! Robot dinosaurs

RJR pointed me towards this, perhaps the freakiest toy I have seen. I'm hoping it is sufficiently inaccurate paleontologically that my elder daughter won't want one. (I'm pretty sure that these things could not really wiggle their horns.) But if you want one you can go here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Picturing Cambridge

Yesterday's thegrauniad featured a supplement of photos of Cambridge by Martin Parr. (He also took the pictures of the city that were used to cover up some of the boarding during the Grand Arcade project.) Some of these are interesting and certainly skillfully done. (You can see more of his work here on the Magnum site. I like his Bored Couples.) But the ones that represent the University in this new supplement are at best uninspired. Punting? Tick (twice). Bicycles? Tick (three times: one a pic of the Corpus Fellows' bike racks -- not sure if Mr Parr asked the Fellows' permission to use this one; the other two of people who mend or sell bikes). A don? Tick (Professor Beard holding forth enthusiastically). Students? Tick, well a few of them lying on the lawns outside King's, one of them reading the Penguin translation of a French version of the Camelot legend. Old staircase? Tick.

The photos as a whole do show that there is more to Cambridge than the university. But they depict the university in very boring and perhaps unrepresentative ways. The accompanying text also manages to enphasise the impression that there are two parts to the city that have little to do with one another. Parr speculates, at one point, when taken to the Arbury, 'a council estate in the north of the city', 'that most Cambridge dons had probably never been there'. Why on earth would he think that? Perhaps he assumes (as some students do) that we all live in our little college offices and venture out of the college gates only to go to a Faculty to lecture or perhaps to go the the Arts Theatre. We live here. And we live all over the city.

So I wondered: how would I want to picture the university? I think we might show something of the sheer amount of work that goes on here. It is not all lying on the lawn and deeps chats by the fire. A picture of the UL reading room on an October morning might be a start. It would certainly show a wide range of people working and researching there. Or a packed lecture theatre in the Law Faculty, an Engineering practical session, even a Faculty Board meeting at which papers are designed, PhDs awarded or not awarded and hard decisions made about where to cut back on spending. Go to a college on a Tuesday at 2am and see how many students are in the library working. (They won't be wearing boaters and college cricket sweaters, I'd guess.) Why not go to a college that isn't behind an 'ancient door'? Have a look at the art in Murray Edwards college or the new library being built at Fitzwilliam. Just something a bit different that would show that it's not all punts and May Balls and lawns.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Jam and stuff

Jam! I don't mean the nice kind, the kind Bob Marley insists upon in his confectionery [1] ,but the kind that snarl up motorways. In fact, I really mean the phantom jams (explained here by that nice Andrew Marr) that happen without any accident or breakdown. Individual cars, driving too close to each other, snarl up when one of them brakes quickly. It takes longer for them to regain their speed than it takes for them to brake sharply to avoid a crash so the effect of slowing ripples backwards and gets worse and worse until it ends in cars coming to a stop.

This week has been like that. I have lots of different things to do. Each one of them is manageable in itself. But they are just coming too soon one after another. So if I have to put the brakes on for any reason, even if it is just to stop getting myself into a tangle, then everything eventually comes to a stop and I am left with a big pile of stuff on my desk which seems to be getting ever bigger.

Here is the real source of the problem. I have too many different sources of stuff to do and they are not at all co-ordinated. What I need is some third party to filter the stuff and send it to me in a single and ordered stream. I would be very happy doing each thing as it comes in and then moving on to the next thing. But that's never going to happen. Sure, academic jobs are 'flexible', and we manage our own time and efforts but part of what that means is that there is no upper limit to the stuff you do and no one who can step between you and more stuff to do to say that maybe this next thing can wait and delay it popping up in the inbox... Just having to decide yourself that something can wait is another bit of stuff to do.

RJR introduced me today to the notion that we should 'prioritise low-hanging fruit'. That's OK if it's obvious how low each thing is hanging...

[1] How does Bob Marley like his doughnuts? Wi' jam in. My elder daughter classifies this as a 'Daddy joke'. I think that means it's not at all funny but gets told at every occasion it seems even remotely relevant.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An excellent piece of reasoning

I don't want to detract your attention from my ornithological excursus here, but since it's topical I thought I'd add another post today. I laughed out loud when I read the following reaction to the atheist ads to be put on some London buses, from a press release by 'Christian voice':
Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large.
I feel like adding 'Discuss' at the end and suggesting it as an essay question for this year's exams. It combines metaphysics and ethics rather nicely, I think. Spare a thought though for poor Ken Livingstone and his bendy buses. First Boris Johnson and now Christian Voice. The ads are pretty mild by the way, saying only that there is probably no god so you might as well not worry about it and get on with enjoying your life. (But that might be ad-speak so you don't need to be able to demonstrate the truth of an absolute claim, a bit like the good old claims about Carlsberg...)

Gorgias 494a6: an ornithological note

At Gorgias 494a6 Socrates says that the life Callicles is attempting to promote as ideal for a human is instead the life of a Charadrios. The point is clear in general terms: not only is this not an ideal human life, it is in fact not a human life at all, which is a counter to Callicles’ claim that the life Socrates recommends is the life of a stone or corpse. (This is not the only instance of this tactic: compare Socrates’ claim in the Philebus that a life of pleasure without intelligence is the life of a mollusc.)

What bird is this? It is sometimes translated as ‘stone curlew’, for what that’s worth. LSJ s.v. say that it is probably the thick-knee or Norfolk plover, Charadrius oedicnemus. (Also known as Burhinus oedicemus, the Eurasian stone curlew.) They add that it was proverbially greedy, hence the reference in the Gorgias. (The bird also had yellow eyes and the sight of it was supposed to be a cure for jaundice – on which see also my post here.) That would be a sensible connection, I suppose, but it still seems a little thin. Dodds, who notes that evidence for the identification of the bird as a stone curlew can be found in D’Arcy Thompson’s Glossary of Greek birds p.311, ad loc. simply notes that it is a ‘bird of messy habits and uncertain identity’. I love this comment, but the more I think about it the odder it seems: Dodds must be certain enough about the identity of the bird to be able to comment on its habits, mustn’t he? And what is the implied contrast with ‘messy’: Are their tidier birds? More sanitary birds? Birds that take more care over their appearance? Anyway, Dodds goes on to tells us more about stone curlews: the stone curlew is a ‘twilight feeder, and has large bright-yellow eyes and inconspicuous plumage... when disturbed it runs rather than flies away’. It also tends to hide by crouching among stones.

It would help that the bird is somewhat timid, of course, because Callicles wants his ideal life to be one which includes courage, albeit courage in the service of unrestrained appetites. All in all, this is not a very noble bird and quite contrary to Callicles’ general lofty vision of his ideal person. What about the ‘messy habits’? Dodds is perhaps extrapolating here from the needs of Socrates’ argument which has been tackling Callicles’ conception of a good life characterised by the pleasure gained from processes of satisfying desires. Socrates infers that in order to enjoy pleasure there must be an antecedent lack to be satisfied. And after the process of satisfaction is complete, as Callicles agrees, the pleasure is over. So the lack must be generated again. In terms of the ‘leaky jars’ analogy being pursued at this point of the text, in order to fill up the jar again whatever was previously there has to be expelled. Perhaps these are the ‘messy habits’: for every time the bird spies and eats a tasty worm it also expels something to make room for the new morsel. If, on the other hand, it is a bird that spends its time running about after every little grub it can find, perhaps Socrates might have in mind the idea that rather than a life of grand pleasures, Callicles’ ideal might turn into one of constant petty pleasures, since every time a lack arises the person concerned will be driven to try to satisfy it, like someone constantly topping up a leaky jar.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


How you arrange the space you live in is both an indication of and an influence on your interior psychological life. No big surprises there, I suppose, since people have been saying that sort of thing for a long time. Still, I liked this piece in the Saturday grauniad because it had some sensible things to say about how that general thesis might play out in modern home-stylings.

I've always thought I'd like a pretty minimal kind of space, but on the other hand I can't do without having lots of books around me. Too much stark emptiness is a bit cold. Thinking a bit more, I think I have worked out that what really annoy me is clutter on surfaces -- tables, shelves, etc. These can have things on them, for sure, but they have to be neatly arranged and I have to be able to see the surface somewhere or other. Jumbled piles of stuff or -- worse -- piles arranged with smaller things underneath and holding up larger things just annoy me. I can't bear them, I mean, and find it hard to feel relaxed if I can spy something like that out of the corner of my eye. Of course, when the pile of stuff is someone else's then the problem is much worse; I can't just go over and bin what's not needed or rearrange what is. Instead I have to ask, beg, nag, and the like. And that often just makes that other person less inclined to cave in to my odd sensibilities. (Some 'handy' marriage and clutter tips can be found here. See, that's better now, isn't it?) The serious point is, however, that this is not just a whimsy on my part. I think it is a genuine and deep-seated bit of my psychology. Living around clutter doesn't make me acculturated; it just makes me constantly stressed.

There is a whole industry ready to cater to me, it turns out, which I discovered just be googling 'clutter'. And it's pretty clear that we are supposed to think that an uncluttered life is supposed to be some kind of ideal -- based again on the idea, I imagine, that a cluttered house is the sign of a cluttered and disorganised mind. Instead we ought to pine for an ideal of white furniture, bleached floorboards and one glass vase on a single glass table. (Try this site, for example. Yes, get rid of your crap old sofa and piles of magazines and you'll be a happy stylish person with plenty of time on your hands to pose in a white outfit with a smug look...) That's much too far, of course, and the grauniad article is surely to question whether it is really possible to live happily in that kind of environment. So I don't want an empty box to live in. I suppose I just what control over what clutter is there and how, precisely, it is cluttered...

Thursday, October 16, 2008


The interweb is a curious thing. I usually get around 60 unique 'hits' per day on this site (thank you) and that's probably more than you would expect. (The counter stats are here.) But yesterday I got more than 6500, mostly because something I wrote eighteen months ago, pointing to Richard Dawkin's relaxing hobby of computer programming had been taken up by Funny, huh? Surely you'd expect my most read post to be something more like the recent interesting commentary on Democritus B69 or Aristotle NE 1174b31–3...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Democritus B69

Was Democritus a hedonist? I’m not sure. But here is a Democritean gnomē that I think is worth thinking about carefully in that connection:
B69: ἀνθρώποις πᾶσι τωὐτὸν ἀγαθὸν καὶ ἀληθές• ἡδὺ δὲ ἄλλωι ἄλλο
“The same thing is good and true for all men. But what is pleasant differs from one to another.”
How much can we infer from this about Democritus’ conception of the relationship between the good and pleasure? It is easy to see why B69 might be taken as a statement of anti-hedonism: what is good hold universally for all people; what is pleasant does not. One might think that it follows that we must not identify pleasure with the good. There is certainly a contrast here between a pair of things which are supposed to be universal for all people – what is good and what is true – and something which is more variable – what is pleasant. In his discussion of the fragment Taylor draws some interesting parallels between this fragment and the more famous Democritean ‘reality’ v. ‘convention’ contrast in B9. [1] The idea, roughly sketched, is that just as we would be wrong to take the straightforward evidence of the senses as reason to think that things are in fact hot, cold, sweet, bitter and the like so we would be wrong to take what we find pleasant as straightforward evidence of what is good. Instead, the truth of the matter is that things are in reality atoms and void and to grasp this requires a degree of rational reflection in addition to, if not in contrast with, simple empirical observation.

Ought we to conclude that what we find pleasant is in fact misleading when it comes to thinking about the good just as what we perceive as hot might be misleading when it comes to thinking about reality most generally? Perhaps the analogue is this: the truth of the matter is that what is good should be grasped with a conception of the overall good of a life, which is a matter for rational reflection of some kind, and not driven solely by episodic perceptions of what is pleasant and what is not. Taylor, I think, is careful to note that the parallelism between the two trains of thought in B9 and B69 is not perfect and also makes this a point in Democritus’ favour; since he think Democritus’ overall epistemology eventually succumbs to a kind of self-refutation, it is better for Democritus if the ethical theory is not similarly vulnerable.

What is the precise import, in that case, of B69’s claim about what is pleasant? The first thing to notice, it seems to me, is that B69 is not after all incompatible with a full-blooded hedonist account of well-being; it merely asserts that, as things are, different people will differ in terms of whether they find some particular object pleasant. Take an example: Annie loves oysters and Bob hates them. This oyster is pleasant to Annie and not to Bob. But since Annie and Bob are both humans then there is one and the same good for both of them. All we are entitled to infer, I think, is that oysters are not the human good or, perhaps better, that the pleasure of eating oysters is not the human good. We are not entitled to infer that pleasure is not the human good. It may well still be the case that pleasure is the human good. But if that were so then Annie and Bob would perhaps pursue this human good by engaging in differing kinds of activities. Perhaps Bob loves chocolate and Annie does not. Nothing prevents us thinking that the pleasure Bob gets from chocolate is the same qua pleasure as that which Annie gets from oysters. In that case there is no reason to think that this pleasure – the one Annie gets from oysters and Bob from chocolate – cannot be the good.

There is still room for Democritus to say that there are some things we find pleasant but ought not to pursue but this too can be done on hedonist grounds. Perhaps Annie would be better acquiring a taste for chocolate since it is cheaper and more readily available. There are also other texts which make it attractive to distinguish between pleasure – hēdonē – and joy or enjoyment – terpsis – and it may be that Democritus did want to deny an identification of hēdonē with the good. But it is hard to make this distinction consistent with everything Democritus says. B191, for example, appears to call for a moderation of terpsis. But B69 does not by itself after all offer strong evidence that Democritus was not a hedonist.

[1] ‘Pleasure, knowledge, and sensation in Democritus’ Phronesis 12, 1967, 6–27 repr. in his Pleasure, mind and soul, Oxford, 2008.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Unreality TV

Charlie Brooker has made a Bigzombiebrother show to be shown soon on E4. It has a flash-y website here with lots of screaming and gunge.

For my money, Armando Ianucci's version of a reality show was at least as funny, even if it has fewer scenes of an undead Davina McCall. Here it is:

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nifty gadget

This is an excellent add-on for your web-browser: the clever types at the Cambridge University Library have put together a toolbar for direct searching of all the catalogues and also some handy right-clicking action. Should save a few copy-pastes and keeping more windows open than I really need. Three cheers for them.

Monday, October 06, 2008

How to get a book deal

These days, one easy way is to do something extreme or bizarre, usually for a whole year, and then write about how it was challenging, absurd but overall a life-changing and positive experience. There are people who are living without using any plastic or someone who tried to live for a year following the commands of the Old Testament. The newest attempt is this bloke who is trying to live for a year as a perfect Kantian and was featured in today's guardian. Well, it turns out this just means that he is not going to lie for a year. (As RJR pointed out to me, Jim Carrey beat him to it, but hey ho. I don't suppose real life is quite so contrived and Immanuel would be the first to point out that being unable to lie and being determined not to lie are very different things.) Surely, though, it would have been more fun to do it properly and show what a weirdo a perfect Kantian agent would be if you tried to apply the whole business consistently and thoroughly?

Still, there ought to be a bit of mileage in this from the ancient philosophers. Trouble is, I don't have the resources of leisure or the extreme cognitive qualifications to cut the mustard as a top-notch Platonic or Aristotelian ideal agent. I could live in a barrel and do various shocking things to 'debase the currency' as a Cynic, but I don't think I could have a laptop to hand while I do it and be at all consistent. Ho hum. I don't buy the Stoic bunkum about a universal benevolent and immanent deity, so that's out too. Which leaves Epicureanism or the more crazy bits of ancient scepticism. Living as a Sextan Pyrrhonist for a year would make for a very boring book. You more or less do what you would do anyway, but just don't commit to any beliefs... It's supposed to be tranquil, but I'm not sure I buy that. Well, I suppose it would be a way of testing empirically Burnyeat's famous question, 'Can a sceptic live his scepticism?', but I can't see many publishers beating down my door for the end result.

So maybe that's not an option for me after all. What's left?


Some enterprising people in the Faculty have put together this promotional video for Classics at Cambridge. 

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Plus ça change...

1.  Our older daughter is still only 6 but has decided that she is a fan of McFly.  It could be worse, I suppose (she could be into R&B or some awful sub-genre of headache-inducing dumph dumph dumph dance music), but at this rate she'll be an emo by 9 and then by 12 have renounced all modern music and spend her time digging round ebay for rare vinyl.  Seems a bit accelerated to me, but then I'm old and grumpy.  And I think that nothing has been produced in popular music in the last 23 years that is better than The Smiths' The Queen is Dead.  (The Stone Roses' first album comes close, but is still a way behind.)


2. The kids at her school play StarWars in the playground (and still often say 'life-savers' rather than 'lightsabres') and the boys of 6 and 7 years old still want to be Luke Skywalker rather than Han Solo.  I wonder how old they will be before they see the light...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


S and I escaped today down to London to go and see the Mark Rothko exhibition at the Tate. I really enjoyed it, although I have always had a soft spot for these paintings. There were two highlights to my mind. The centre-piece of the exhibition is a collection of over a dozen of the canvasses he painted for the Seagram murals. What's surprising is just how very different they are: some with vibrant bright orange, others deep purple and silver. But as a group they work together and the overall effect in the room is quite uplifting. The room was very busy and quiet, perhaps like in a cathedral, but I got the impression that people were all feeling rather happy. Anyway, I was finding the whole thing gave a positive feeling despite the hush and the low lighting.

Very different was the last room of black on grey paintings. These seemed much less considered, less loved. The black is heavy and oppressive and gradually weighs more and more heavily. The lighting here was much brighter and the room much less hushed but the atmosphere was much less pleasant. It's hard to dissociate these from the fact of his imminent suicide, but I think even without knowing that much these paintings would be unsettling rather than calming. They don't welcome you at all; they're angry and violently made while the Seagram ones give the impression of being laboured over with care and consideration and are somehow content.

My favourites, though, were the black form paintings just because these seemed rather happy too and managed to give something to the viewer even using the most restricted set of variables. They are quite complex despite the limited range of hue: texture, gloss, reflective and non-reflective bits and so on. So they take time to look at and seem again quite welcoming.

Of course, a lot of the work is pretty repetitive, and this might seem to be either a crass kind of cashing-in or else a strange tic of someone trying over and over to get something out of his system. But I quite like the fact that, when put together, the differences of balance and execution become the focus of attention. It's like looking at the collected output of a workshop. And I see nothing wrong in that at all.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The time of our lives

Some more thoughts provoked by some reactions to the Chronophage and its apparent claim that life is far too fleeting... (Incidentally, it has stopped working twice since its installation last week so we get temporary reprieves now and then.)

When I wondered whether it is in fact true that our lives are too short I was indeed thinking in perhaps overly simple global terms. There are of course various ways in which it is possible to think that parts of a life are too short (and parts of a life are perhaps too long) but all this points, I think, to a more general concern not so much with the overall length of a life as with its shape. Were we offered a longer life I think we would be very disappointed if it should turn out to grant us a life something like that of the mythical Tithonus. Dawn (sounds more classy left in the Greek, I think: Eos) got her lover immortality but not agelessness. So he hit his old age and just kept on getting more decrepit, without ever being able to die.

Clearly, a long life like that -- perhaps more so an everlasting life like that -- would be pretty crappy. What people want, I think, when they want a longer life, is just to be able to do more, to pack in more in the limited time they have. Or else they want the good bits to last longer and to edit out the worse bits. But, this is not really a question about how long a life is but a different question about how a life is to be valued and the contribution that the different values of different parts of a life make to the value of a life overall. To the extent that someone thinks that a life is better if it contains more goods then that might recommend a longer life (How long would be enough? How many goods are enough?) To the extent that someone thinks it important to do x number of things by a certain time, I suppose it might also seem a good idea to have more time (perhaps: it would seem better to have started earlier). But in both these cases the driving consideration is not really the amount of time but rather a thought about what would give value to the time we do have. In other words: one way of addressing the problem of thinking life is too short to do what you want is to want to do less.

Another thought pointed out by a Chronophage-watcher: the inscription at the bottom of the clock is this: 'mundus transit et concupiscentia eius', but it omits what comes next in I John 2:17 'qui autem facit voluntatem Dei manet in aeternum'. Add in that bit and it's not so distressing, admittedly granted some rather heavyweight additional premises...

(Thanks to RJR for scriptural assistance...)

Monday, September 22, 2008

How long do you want?

My college has unveiled a new clock/metaphor where once there was the door to the NatWest bank. It now is one of the corners of the college's excellent new library. You can read all about it if you just google 'Corpus clock'. It even has its own facebook fan page (and various other sites for those less keen on it) and a wikipedia entry.

The thing on top is a 'chronophage' which eats time. It's supposed to remind us as we pass of the imminence of death and the fleetingness of our mortality. Well, it is of course true that we are all going to die and it is true that our lives, looked at from the right kind of perspective, are short. The question is, however, whether they are too short. I'm not so sure about that. Sure, some lives are too short -- we can think of examples of people who have 'died before their time'. But are all lives like that? Aren't some lives even too long? -- we can think of someone who has been harmed by living as long as they did, perhaps because they were living in great pain or lived long enough to see some cherished project collapse or be ridiculed. The chronophage is only part of a story about our lives and time, an arresting one, I suppose. No doubt there will a lot of people who find the image provocative, perhaps even upsetting. That's OK -- I don't expect all public art or even public clocks to make everyone feel better. But I wonder if there ought to be somewhere a disclaimer that says that the passing of time can be something positive too...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ancient philosophy and ID III

Two more comments on the ancient philosophy and ID debate. -- although things have no moved on, I think, to the question of whether ancient philosophers were 'humanists'. Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far.

First, A. C. Grayling responds to Catherine Osborne's comment:
There are two different things in play: teleology and intelligibility. I think the latter is an assumption of all the Greeks from Thales on, and the former is made especially salient in Aristotle, though discernible elsewhere as you say. In importing as much as possible of use from Greek thought into Christianity from Augustine onwards, the doctors of the church - Augustine among them - were pretty careful to distance themselves from materialism (including the form it took in early Stoicism) or better: naturalism, so that references to 'gods' as in Thales and Stoics who spoke of fire or nature as the 'divine' did not at all suggest to Augustine and his ilk that they were dealing with anything like their conception of deity. Hence my point: that what Augustine and the Christian tradition means by 'god' and what occurrences of the terms thus translated from Greek denoted are quite different things. Apologists who try to co-opt the Greek philosophers to the religious tradition of which Christianity is an exemplar accordingly equivocate.
Second, Rupert Read has the following perspective on the debate:
Listen again here to my debate with Anthony Grayling last night on Radio 3, on 'humanism'. (It's about 34 minutes into the programme - you can just move the bar at the bottom straight along to it.)

It is relevant to this discussion on kenodoxia, in that Grayling and I seem to disagree pretty strongly about whether religion need be problematically superstitiously theistic or not.

I think the conversation was useful, and certainly fun. In retrospect, however, it seems to me that we were speaking somewhat at cross-purposes in our debate, and don't actually disagree quite as much as we thought we did about other matters, including the ostensible topic of conversation, 'humanism', which we probably should have defined more tightly before starting. For, for Grayling, apparently, humanism is only the sum of all non-supernaturalistic religion. Take for instance the list of philosophers with which Grayling begins: this has little or no unity! This is hardly a tradition. As an alleged ideology, as an 'ism', it cannot possibly be compared with (say) Hinduism or Buddhism; for it is thin gruel indeed. As I said, on the programme: if all that humanism is is the absence of superstition, then I have no beef with it. But that hardly seems to me to match closely with the actual use of the term 'humanism', to connote some coherent, substantial and positive belief-system that is in debate with and sometimes disagreement with ecologism, with the animal rights movement, and with the great mystical religions.
It does seem to me that it would be hard to find much that would seem like 'humanism' in a strong sense in classical antiquity, besides perhaps Epicurus and Democritus and maybe a sophist or two. Plato would be a bit grumpy, I think, to be labeled a humanist in any strong sense. Sure, he's all for being self-critical and thinking in a clear-minded way about how best to live, but a Platonic world is, it seems to me, one in which god plays a crucial ethical and metaphysical role. True, we shouldn't wait just to get a bit of divine revelation to acquire wisdom, but what wisdom we do achieve is likely to be based on a proper and true acceptance of the divine. Two of the things which Grayling says are deeply 'un-humanist' do turn up in Plato: that our present life is important because it is a preparation for something to come and that humans are somehow superior to the rest of the animal and plant world as the result of some kind divine decision.

Things are a bit tricky, though, and I confess I'm beginning to lose my bearing about what the precise comparanda are suppose to be. For what it's worth, the British Humanist association website says that the following are characteristic of its world-view:

  • that human ethics, morality or principles should be based on human social nature and shared reality
  • that we can take responsibility for our actions rather than deferring responsibility to supernatural realms
  • that the world is amenable to our rational curiosity

  • These all sound like good ideas to me. The first is probably the most controversial, partly because a lot will depend upon what 'based on' means here. and there are all sorts of possible views about what 'human social nature' amounts to. But anyway, there isn't much in this list that Plato or Aristotle would disagree with. Is that enough to make them 'humanists'?, I doubt it mostly because their view of the 'human social nature' on which ethics is based is one that has a sense of divine nature or natural teleology built in to a degree that I think would make a modern humanist decidedly uneasy.

    To be clear: I'm all for teaching plenty of philosophy in schools and I happen to think that a lot of what I understand to be humanism is an excellent place to start about thinking about how we ought to live. But I'm just a little uneasy about co-opting the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in this cause. The method of inquiry they tend to emphasise is a good thing, of course. I'm all for people doing some thinking and some self-criticism and not just taking as as a starting point some kind of divine authoritative revelation. All the same, we would be wrong to obscure the sense in which many of these old guys thought that the eventual view we should adopt is one which holds that a good human life requires and ought to be based upon a correct and positive acceptance of the crucial role of the divine in the world. Indeed, there is a strong current of thought in these ancient thinkers that says that we are able to engage in the right kind of rational inquiry only insofar as there is a part of us -- our reason -- that is indeed divine, if not part even god itself.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    Ancient philosophy and ID II

    I've had two interesting responses to my last post so I thought I'd promote them here just in case they would otherwise be missed.

    First, A C Grayling responded to my initial post:
    Thanks for your interesting comments. Two points in brief: Thales and the majority of his successors did not claim that their views were divinely inspired, nor did they rely on sacred texts as the source of their insights, nor did they claim that those insights required to be believed for 
soteriological purposes of some kind. This connects to the
second point: which is that when the ancients spoke of ‘god’ or ‘gods’ (as in
Thales’ case referring to the powers of life, movement, reproduction, magnetism etc to be observed in different natural phenomena) - or, as often, ‘logos’ (the principle of order, reason, underlying structure, etc as for the Stoics) - they emphatically did not mean anything like the conception of a personal deity which makes exigent moral demands and communicates them in detail to the world, requiring submission and worship, and punishing the hubris of questioning creation - which of course is precisely what the classical tradition is all about. As this suggests, ‘god’ is practically a homonym across these two very different contexts, and the philosophical idea of ‘logos’ and the rest is not a religious one. This is the key point. - Good wishes - Anthony Grayling
    And then Catherine Osborne responded to Grayling:
    Responding now to Anthony's comment, it doesn't seem to me that the personal God that you've just invoked -- the one that is involved in moral commands and salvation--has got anything whatever to do with the points in Augustine and so on about optimism about human science latching onto the truth. That tradition, which believes in the possibility of intelligent design and hence intelligent understanding of the intelligent design because we are equipped to understand, comes from the teleology (teleological accounts of the universe and of the relation of human reason to the goodness built into the world) that is endemic in ancient thinking, especially in Aristotle and Plato. That comes through to Augustine by way of his reading of the classics: I doubt any of it comes from anything in Christianity as a religion of personal salvation. So if you want to say that "god" is a term with two meanings, surely it's you who's equivocating?
    Thanks to both.

    Friday, September 12, 2008

    Ancient philosophy and intelligent design

    In the New Humanist 123 (5), Sep-Oct 08 (online here) A. C. Grayling offers a curt review of

    Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design's Challenge to Darwinism by Steve Fuller (Icon Books, UK £ 12.99), ISBN 978-184046804-5

    I’m not so interested about the virtues or otherwise of Fuller’s book. But I am interested in particular in this bit of Grayling’s review:

    “Fuller claims that ID is “behind the scientific revolution that has been under way in the West since the 17th century” because the motivating belief behind scientific enquiry is that “nature is so constructed” that it can be understood because – as St Augustine taught us – man is made in the image of God and is therefore capable of understanding the universe. Call this Point 2”

    and the follow-up:

    “On Point 2: from a thousand years before St Augustine, Thales and the Pre-Socratics and Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics and Epicureans were thinking in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe, on the assumption that human intelligence is competent to understand the workings of nature, which observation abundantly suggests are regular and ordered – it needs no gods to point out how spring returns after every winter, and the crops grow again as they did before, and so manifestly on. Not only did people emphatically not have to wait for St Augustine to discover that they could enquire thus, without invoking supernaturalistic beliefs of any sort, but it is indeed a mark of the thought of Thales and his successors that they did not start from such beliefs, but began their thinking from observation and reason. It was the revival of their independence of thought in the Renaissance and afterwards – the rediscovery of a non-theistic tradition of thought about the world – that represented a resumption of the scientific enterprise that had been crushed by religious dogma for a millennium, and which in the 16th and 17th centuries had a struggle to free itself from religion’s iron opposition – witness the church’s denial of Copernican heliocentrism and the trial of Galileo for two related instances.”

    It is not clear to me that Grayling has a sure advantage over Fuller on his reading of the ancient sources. It depends what you mean by ‘supernaturalistic’ beliefs. To be sure, amongst these old guys there was plenty of observation and attempts at explanation by invoking what is ‘natural’. The crucial point is that most of them thought that invoking divine causes was a perfectly respectable part of natural philosophy. Furthermore, the extent to which human reason is able to observe, interpret, and explain the world about us is for many ancient philosophers due to the fact that our reasoning capacity itself is divine or god-like in some way. Understanding the world is a form of assimilation to god. We might leave Thales aside for now, just because the evidence is tricky, but even he famously thought that everything is ‘full of gods’. The Epicureans, theists too, did at least reckon that these gods had no interest in the world and so shouldn’t be invoked in our explanations of how the world is as it is. Still, it’s a bit of a surprise to see Grayling invoke Plato and the Stoics as allies. Now, they perhaps would agree that we didn’t need to think about god in order to realise that we could inquire into why, say, crops grow each year. But it doesn’t take much reading of Plato’s dedicated work of natural philosophy, Timaeus, to see divine causation and, let’s face it, intelligent design at work all over the place. The Stoics thought divinity was immanent and omnipresent, causing all things to work for the best. Not really, I think, the best ally for an anti-supernaturalist view. Aristotle, as often, is tricky. His god has a role to play in getting the world to go round though the world has just always been as it is, full of well-fitted natures aiming at their various natural ends. Not really a case of intelligent design and not really ‘supernatural’ either but still nowhere near scoring many points with Dawkins. This book might be a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to pursue this point further... The general point, I think, is that Plato and the boys are far from uncomplicated allies for an 'anti-supernaturalist' or anti-ID cause; I should hasten to add that they are also far from uncomplicated allies for a a pro-ID cause, though on balance I reckon that's where most of them (the atomists excepted, of course) would put themselves if made to choose.

    Fuller replies (online here). He doesn’t do much better either, it seems to me. It start off quite promisingly.

    Grayling’s observation that the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans thought “in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe” is true in the same sense as, yes, you can see the heads of animals in the shape of clouds. Of course, words and concepts and sometimes even whole arguments have been used from these thinkers in the pursuit of science – but I doubt that any of them, were they resurrected, would wish to associate themselves with our sense of science. And this is not because they would disagree with its guiding theoretical ideas or empirical findings. No, they would find the enterprise itself abhorrent – with its endless questing for an elusive yet uniquely comprehensive understanding of reality. They would see the way we treat science today as we might regard some future society, or parallel universe, that treated chess as the most cherished activity upon which all its resources were lavished. And that is probably the most positive light in which our Greek forebears would see us. The Epicureans in particular would simply think of our scientific obsession with “The Truth” as an anxiety-inducer, one of those Wittgensteinian flies that should be liberated from its bottle.

    The Greeks regarded the pursuit of science largely as the intellectual correlate of physical exercise – part of a normative account of leisure. While the Greek sense of science purported to get at the nature of things, that nature was not necessarily unified, the activity itself was never conceptualised in historically progressive terms, and there was no pretence to its universal accessibility, let alone universal entitlement. Science was for them an elite game – full stop. The introduction of these additional conditions, which characterise science in the modern sense of “universal objective knowledge” begins with the Muslim and later Christian synthesis of pagan knowledge for the general ennoblement of humanity, as beings created in the image of God. Like it or not, Grayling’s own view of the Greeks as “proto-scientists” in our sense is indebted to these religiously inspired efforts, which turned Aristotle’s patchwork ontology into a concerted proposal to unify our understanding of reality. Averroes and Aquinas would more quickly recognise the high intellectual ambitions that Grayling imputes to Aristotle than Aristotle himself would”

    It would take a while to untangle this. Here’s a couple of first reactions. First, Epicureans did, it seems to me, care about truth to the extent that some true account of what, e.g. thunder is, is needed to dispel anxiety. It’s not enough for them just to have a soothing story. (And why the scare quotes and capitalisation for "The Truth"?) Second, it’s true I suppose that ‘science’, if practised at all in the ancient Greek and Roman world, was in the main not a job as such. There were no research institutes with salaried posts and integrated research programmes. But that doesn’t make it a ‘game’ nor suggest that it was not done seriously with the concerted aim of really finding out what things are and how things work. Sounds like a false dilemma to me. (I’ve no idea what is meant by Aristotle’s ‘patchwork ontology’, by the way.) Third, there's a slide somewhere in this paragraph from pointing out that ancient natural philosophy was an elite practice and therefore not universally accessible nor a 'universal entitlement' to the idea that it was not intended to be provide 'universal objective knowledge'. 'Universal' is doing two jobs here. Knowledge is not and never has been very democratic and the proportion of the population that know P has nothing whatsoever to do with whether P is piece of universal (in the sense of universally applicable) objective knowledge.

    And another thought: we seem to be thinking only about Western philosophy and its relation to science. As I read this exchange I couldn’t help hearing in my head the characteristic voice of Geoffrey Lloyd, demanding a wider perspective...