Friday, March 27, 2009

Doomed! We're all doomed!

Some recent discussions about the place of the history of philosophy in philosophy teaching and also the prospect of a colloquium some time next year in Cambridge on a similar topic have got me thinking about ancient philosophy most generally and, particularly, what its prospects are. I did think they were pretty cheery: lots of departments, especially in the US, seem to be committed to maintaining a presence for ancient philosophy in philosophy departments and there are jobs in the UK too.

Then I read again Jonathan Barnes' 'Bagpipe music',Topoi 25, 17-20 (online here). It's entertaining, for sure, as you would expect. But it strikes a very different note. Many of its concerns apply generally to modern academic life (pressure to publish too much, too early; too many Companions to the Handbook Guide to Introductions to Reading so and so...) and Barnes’ concerns for the discipline relate in part to institutional pressures and the demands of a modern academic career. They are therefore somewhat more generic than his specific concerns for philologically informed scholarship in ancient philosophy. Here's a taster of the tone:
Q: Where is ancient philosophy going now?—A: Downhill, and to the dogs. Q: Where will it go in the future?—A: Further downhill, and right past the dogs. Q: What can be done?—A: Not much. Q: What will be done?—A: Nothing.’
How far past the dogs have we got? Have we even got within barking distance yet?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cicero De Finibus 1.37-8

I’m still stuck in Cicero De Finibus 1. Currently I am trying to pick through 1.37–8 and I’m finding it difficult to pin down what Torquatus is saying. This is the present sticking point: I am trying to understand precisely what is meant by two phrases. The first is part of the argument for the pleasantness of the absence of pain in 1.37:
...cum privamur dolore, ipsa liberatione et vacuitate omnis molestiae gaudemus...
When Torquatus asserts that ‘we rejoice in the very freedom and absence of pain’ the message might be that the absence of pain is some kind of object in which we take joy (gaudium). It is not clear whether the absence of pain is already a pleasure and the gaudium is therefore some kind of second-order pleasure – a pleasant appreciation of one’s already pleasant and pain-free state – or whether the gaudium is, so to speak, what makes the pain-free state pleasant: the pleasure of being pain-free consists in the joy which we take in it. This is as interesting possibility because some recent interpretations of Epicurean hedonism argue for this latter alternative. It is worth noting that Torquatus can reasonably be interpreted as offering this very view, although it remains to be seen whether it is a coherent or helpful line for him to take. (I think it is not in fact a good idea for the Epicureans to pursue this too far.)

Now it occurs to me that a sentence in 1.38 might point in a similar direction:
quisquis enim sentit quem ad modum sit adfectus eum necesse est aut in voluptate esse aut in dolore.
Again, this manner of expression makes a distinction between (i) how one is affected and (ii) the perception of how one is affected. The implication here is that some perception of (i) is sufficient to be in pleasure or pain in the sense that it is impossible to perceive (i) and be neither in pleasure nor pain. But it is unclear whether perception of (i) is necessary for a person to be in either pleasure or pain (someone might be in pain but not notice it). And it is also unclear what the precise relationship is between being ‘in voluptate’ and each of (i) and (ii). I may have a tin ear for the natural reading of the Latin, but I can see two possibilities here.

Perhaps Torquatus is merely asserting that every conscious (perhaps self-conscious) agent is necessarily always experiencing pleasure or pain. This makes the sentence merely another way of stating that there is no intermediate state but leaves unclear why this ought to be taken as grounds for (enim) the previous assertion that the highest pleasure is the absence of pain.

Alternatively, Torquatus intends this to explain why there is no intermediate state by insisting that proprioception necessarily registers one’s current state with either pleasure (if it is not lacking) or pain (if it is lacking). Since one’s bodily state must either be lacking or not lacking then one will necessarily experience either pleasure or pain; tertium non datur. In that case, pleasure and pain are the results of some kind of self-perception and one’s currently bodily state is the object of that self-perception. Thus, the state of being without pain is the object of pleasant proprioception. What you might expect the Epicurean then to say is that one is always perceiving one’s own state and therefore must always be experiencing pleasure or pain since this will rule out the possibility of experiencing neither pleasure nor pain simply because one is not perceiving ‘how one is affected’. But as far as I can see, Torquatus does not say this. Should he?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Paying your way

Tuition fees for university students in England look likely to rise. Universities are expensive places to run and they do not receive sufficient direct funding to allow them to teach all the students they have without needing further payments directly from the students (or, rather, their parents/guardians) themselves.

This makes universities expensive places to attend. First of all, this cost may put off some people from the very idea of attending university. This is a bad thing and is at odds with the notion that, certainly at this university, we admit and teach the best students regardless of their background and economic clout. Well, the usual answer to that objection is something like the following: the cost can be in part delayed by loans and the like. But this shifts the problem into a graduate's later life and may well affect the sorts of careers a graduate will have to consider. It also makes a degree an investment, a gamble against future earnings.

Now I realise that we live in an imperfect world and one in which things cost money, people need to earn a salary, equipment must be bought, and the like. But, on the other hand, it does seem a little odd to consider an education to be something that can be given a price, a cash value that somewhere along the line has to be repayed or, better still, show a positive return. An education is not a commodity to be bought or acquired on a hire-purchase scheme. Nor is an education best thought of as an investment with a view to higher later earnings. If we start to think in these terms then the mere instrumentality of it all undermines the very point of the exercise. An education has a value, for sure, but not all values can be reduced to a set of commensurable list prices. And thinking that an education is worthwhile for the wrong reasons can have bad consequences for everyone.

We should fund universities so that they can teach the best people for particular courses because it is good for there to be people engaged in these intellectual activities, for there to be people teaching, learning, and thinking about these things. Full stop. This is not good for something further; it is just good. I happen also to think that holding this broader, more varied and richer notion of what is valuable will have general beneficial effects for us all, but whatever those further benefits might be they are not why education, for example, is to be valued. (For one thing, perhaps a broader notion of what is of value would encourage the sort of benefaction to universities which will allow them to go one doing what they do. If people just think that such an education is a good thing they will be encouraged to foster it and furthermore to do so without asking what the further knock-on benefits might be.)

So if we do not educate merely to foster economic wealth and we do not any longer think that we educate in order to foster piety, then what sort of reason can there be? 'Why should I fund scholarships to enable bright and enthusiastic people to study Norse literature?' 'Because it is good for people to study and know about Norse literature.' Just that. (The same goes, by the way, for education earlier in life. To ask: 'Why should 9 year-olds learn algebra if it will not fit them for a thrusting entrepreneurial career? Shouldn't they learn lots of IT instead?' is just the same instrumentality extended to cover every aspect of a poor child's development.) Some things are valuable because they are ends in themselves.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I promise some ancient philosophy soon. But for now, I was reminded of this beautiful song by an excellent BBC4 doc on Rough Trade Records. Here is Elvis Costello.

You can see Suede doing the same song here and also Robert Wyatt (a heartbreaking version) here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lack of thought for the day

I was unfortunate enough to be mid-shower when 'Thought' for the Day began on the radio this morning so had to endure when I can usually turn it off or run away. The BBC really ought to get rid of this but no doubt will not, even though the controller of Radio 4 thinks it is a 'genuinely difficult question'. Still, I have discovered a good antidote: Platitude of the day which summarises the morning's guff into a paragraph of bland but much funnier waffle. Thank you, Peter Hearty. (There's a similar site here. I love the interweb.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Odd pants

I have no idea who would want to buy these but they are on sale all the same. The same people also do Churchill, Obama, Boris, Shakespeare and Thatcher (!) pants... Or Henry VIII... And they also do an interesting line in dad and child combination apparel, such as this....

Friday, March 06, 2009

More on Tom and Tim

Prompted by some good questions, I have continued to worry about Tom and Tim and their pleasures. I certainly have not go as far as what we ought to say about these cases, but I think I have a clearer grasp on what we do not want to say.

Faced with the two cases, we don't want to say:

1. Tom is not pleased although he thinks he is.

So we don't want to make actually winning the lottery a necessary condition of being pleased that one has one the lottery. This is the reason why we might be tempted to say that all you need is the belief...

But we also don't want to say:

2. Tim is pleased only because he believes that he won the lottery.

Because that is not what Tim says: he says he is pleased because he has won the lottery and indeed this is true.

And we also don't want to say:

3. Tim and Tom are both pleased because either they have won or believe that they have won the lottery. Since it would not be possible in each case for Tim or Tom to work out which of the disjuncts is the case for them. And indeed the same impossibility would hold for any case of being pleased at something, even put in first-personal terms.

Do I really feel satisfied at the thought that when I am pleased I should say 'I am pleased either because X or because I believe that X'?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Beliefs and pleasures

In a class yesterday we discussed Bernard Williams’ ‘Pleasure and belief’, PAS Suppl. vol. 33 (1959), 57–92. It was pretty hard going, so this is an attempt to ‘add water’ to the opening moves on pp.57–9. This section is interesting to me because it seems to be a useful commentary on the discussion between Protarchus and Socrates in Plato’s Philebus on the question of the possibility of false please. Specifically, it seems a useful commentary on Protarchus’ reaction at 38a, that in supposed cases of ‘false pleasure’ it is some judgement or belief that is false but which gives rise to a pleasure which is itself not to be said to be false.

One of the claims early in Williams’ discussion (59) is: Beliefs in so-and-so should not be made to function as the cause of a person’s pleasure at so-and-so. Why not?


Tom is pleased because he has a winning lottery ticket.
Tim is also pleased because he has a winning lottery ticket.

Imagine also that Tom is in fact mistaken – he has misread the winning numbers (perhaps he has seen last week’s by mistake) so he has not won the lottery. But he is still pleased, at least until he realises his mistake at which point the pleasure ceases. Tim, on the other hand, has got it right.

How do we explain Tom’s and Tim’s pleasures? Tom cannot in fact be pleased at having a winning lottery ticket because he does not have a winning lottery ticket. Perhaps we’d better say that Tom is pleased because he believes (at least initially) that he has a winning lottery ticket. But what about Tim? Would we then have to say about him too that he is pleased because he too believes he has a winning lottery ticket? That seems odd: surely it would be better to say that he is pleased at having, not merely believing that he has, a winning lottery ticket. Yet saying something different about the causes of Tom’s and Tim’s pleasures is not very satisfying either; after all, at the moment they are being experienced they appear indistinguishable to the two people concerned.

The most promising move, it seems, is to hypothesise that Beliefs Cause Pleasures (BCP) since that might allow us to account for both Tim’s and Tom’s pleasures alike.

Williams gives three reasons to reject BCP (58–9). I am not entirely sure how to understand these, but this is a first attempt at filling out the first reason:

Williams refers to what he calls ‘the previous argument’, which I think is the one earlier on p.58. This goes, I think, as follows: The assertion of BCP requires us to consider cases like Tim and Tom and imagining ourselves in their respective places. This in turn requires us to think that, in Tom’s place, we would originally and sincerely have said ‘I am pleased because I have a winning lottery ticket’. But this is in fact at odds with BCP since BCP says that we really at the time were pleased because we believed we had a winning lottery ticket. We arrive at BCP only on the basis of a prior sincere assertion of something which is incompatible with it.

That’s why (I think), Williams concludes that it is ‘extremely doubtful whether I am in a position to arrive at the correct hypothesis, and distinguish it from rivals – at the very least, it seems that it would be a necessary condition of doing so that I had engaged in philosophical reflection’.

I need to think more about whether this is a good argument against BCP. Any thoughts?