Thursday, August 27, 2009

Interview with Maria Michela Sassi

I'm reading and enjoying (despite reading it in part in order to write a review) Sassi's new book, Gli inizi della filosofia: in Grecia (Bollati Boringhieri). I've also just found an interesting interview discussing the book with her by Simona Maggiorelli here. (The interview was, I think, published in Left-avvenimenti, 24 July 2009.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Offprint: Aristotle on Speusippus on Eudoxus on pleasure

Not sure how many people will be interested, but I've just got a pdf offprint of my essay in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 36, 2009: 'Aristotle on Speusippus on Eudoxus on pleasure'. You can download it here.

New Professor Layton Game

Not sure I can wait and put it on my Xmas list...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Danny's Dad

A friend is Chief Executive of the Fatherhood Institute, a UK think-tank devoted to issues of fatherhood and parenting. They have been looking at representations of fathers, particularly in popular dramas, and how they might project or reflect particular expectations and conceptions of the role. We ended up talking recently about the portrayals of fathers in the children's books we are both currently reading to our respective kids. A lot of the time, particularly in more modern picture books, there aren't many fathers shown at all.

Perhaps the authors are concerned to move beyond the kind of family you see in something like The tiger who came to tea, a kindly enough Dad who comes in from work and sorts out the problem of having no food left in the cupboard -- the tiger has eaten it; he has also drunk 'all Daddy's beer' -- by taking the family out for a meal. Or perhaps it is just a general aversion to portraying a mother + father + children kind of family in case it simply does not match the reality of much of their hoped-for readership.

Whatever the reason, we found it a bit tricky to come up with some great Dads. The best I could manage is Danny's Dad in Roald Dahl's Danny, the champion of the world: he's loving but still very paternal and blokey, even dangerously so. (The picture above shows Jeremy Irons and his sone Samuel who played Danny and his Dad in the film.) But even there there is the thought that he has acquired this role because of the loss of Danny's Mum. Can anyone help out with some others, preferably Dads who are still part of a more or less complete family unit but are not absent, uninterested, made to appear like idiots, too stern, or in some other way not very positively described?

Monday, August 17, 2009


This, from Laurie Taylor's THE column, made me giggle. Sad, I know.

Three injured in 'pain' riot

Police cars raced to our campus on Monday in response to an emergency call from the convenor of this year's Annual Conference of Physicalist Philosophers.

According to witnesses, a fracas involving several dozen delegates broke out in the conference hall during a paper by Professor D.W. Grimping on the manner in which physicalism could readily dispose of the issue of qualia raised by such states as feeling pain and seeing red.

As Grimping neared his conclusion on the merits of supervenience physicalism, it seems that an organised cabal of unregistered phenomenologists rose to their feet and began to chant in unison: "phenomenal nature is not exhausted by functional role".

Delegates who moved to eject the troublemakers were met with blows from rolled-up copies of the conference abstracts and shouts of "this is what pain feels like" and "now you know what seeing red really means".

Speaking to The Poppletonian, the convener of the conference, Doctor L.G. Thinginess, expressed his regrets for the violence. "Most phenomenologists", he insisted, "are perfectly happy sitting around quietly examining their own structures of feeling. It's only a minority who seek to impose those feelings on others."

Our Corporate Director of Conference Hospitality, Janet Teesmade, confirmed that there would be an investigation into the incident and that careful consideration would be given to any future conference applications from philosophers. "Without taking sides in the present dispute, it does rather seem that these physicalists get under other people's skin by not getting under other people's skin."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Admissions timing

Next week the college will find out the exam results of all those students who have 'conditional offers' to come as undergraduates in October. Some will not quite get the required examination grades and will miss out. The college therefore has to make slightly more offers than it wants places filled. All in all, there is a degree of uncertainty about the process that might better be removed.

There is another problem with making admissions offers before examination grades: some people will do better than they or their school expected. They might not have applied to universities with generally higher conditional offer grades but then discover too late that they might have had a shot. In a new report, the Sutton Trust makes a compelling argument that maintained school students are more likely than independent school students to fall into this category and not have applied to a course they turn out to have good enough grades for. (You can read the full report here as a pdf file.)

Of course, things are a little more complicated, mostly because getting the right grades is not a sufficient condition for entry. But even so there is clearly an important point here based on confidence. You have to be in it to win it... Some pupils, perhaps encouraged by home and school, will take a punt on a course even if they are not sure that their grades will be good enough. Others will be discouraged. And on the present system you have to apply before you know your final grades.

The Sutton Trust suggests that the timetable might be altered so as to make applications based on final grades, that is to say that university applications might be delayed until after the final school exam results. I can imagine admissions tutors turning purple at the thought of trying to arrange everything between mid-August and early October even if they might know immediately how many people are going to turn up on day one. So perhaps the university term has to be delayed, say until January. Not sure about that: what can we find for all these eighteen-year-olds to do between August and January?

Maybe. The chairman of the Sutton Trust summarises the report as follows:
This research shows that even with the right grades in the right A-level subjects, thousands of state school students each year do not apply to the most academically selective degree courses. [1]

The timing issue is just one possibility. Another possibility, which the Sutton Trust also points out, is to tackle to confidence problem head on. Indeed, I like to think that much of the university's admissions and outreach programmes are designed to do just that. If in doubt and if the course offered is the course you want, then make the application. More people are getting 3 As than before [2], after all, and if the potential reward is big enough then give it a go. But this is also not just a problem for the universities to solve. Schools too ought to bear some of the burden of encouraging their students to apply to the best universities whatever the timetable for applications.

[1] The report, p. 21, gives the appropriately more nuanced: 'The evidence suggests that low application rates are a considerable factor in the relatively low entry into selective research universities from state maintained schools and from FE colleges. This research is not able to identify why application rates are lower: whether decisions not to apply to such institutions are due to poor advice and information or low aspirations, or whether they are simply the result of well-informed choices to apply elsewhere in the Higher Education sector. To determine this would require a study of young people’s decision making around choice of HE study.'

[2] Yes, I know Cambridge is going to move to a A*AA offer from next year. No one really knows what effect that will have so we'll have to just wait and see...

Friday, August 07, 2009

De mortuis nil nisi...?

News of a person's death is spread very rapidly via the internets, and some recent cases have set me thinking about the tributes that are often posted in response. I'm not so interested in obituaries as such, if what is meant by an obituary is a considered and rounded attempt to sum up a life and a person. Obituaries can often be somewhat critical of the subject, even if they are generally couched in respectful terms. I'm interested instead in the kind of tributes and posts that say how much the recently deceased person meant, what they stood for, how much they will be missed and so on. These are generally, I'm sure, very sincere. But that seems to me to make it even more of a shame that the person concerned is not there to hear the esteem in which they are held. So why don't we tell people while they are still alive the sort of attitudes we have towards them as revealed in these tributes? (Academics, in particular, tend to be rather guarded in their personal praise towards people and colleagues in particular who are still alive but genuine and warm in the tributes to people when they have died.)

I don't think it matters that these tributes might, given time, often be tempered with qualification or matched with criticism of the person. It still seems interesting to me that we do have these genuine positive estimations of people but tend not to voice them or not to feel licensed or motivated to voice them until faced with the news of that person's absence.

Perhaps we think it best to wait until the end of a life before summing up its achievements and impact. The Solonic thought has its merits but, as Aristotle would no doubt point out, seems rather over-careful.

Perhaps we think if we really did disclose these positive attitudes to the person concerned they would somehow be damaged by them, made conceited, made embarrassed or otherwise compromised. I suppose this is in part true also but if so it seems to me to be unfortunate too.

Perhaps we ourselves would be embarrassed to disclose these affections to the person concerned. It would be a kind of opening up analogous to the risk involved in declaring romantic affections or sexual desire for another.

Then again, these tributes are a kind of public and communal activity. Posting a reminiscence on a website or sharing a story at a memorial is a shared practice of reinforcing certain positive traits we might like to encourage and aspire to ourselves.

What would it be like if we did tell people these things while they are still around to appreciate the high esteem with which they are held? (There are cases that are comparable -- awards of one kind or another, perhaps the tributes that appear in academic Festschriften, for example. But these are often couched in a kind of formulaic language that perhaps make them safer. If you come across anything too gushing in such a volume it does jar a little.)