Monday, October 26, 2009

The influence of Aristotle...

I'm reading David Wolfsdorf's new piece in Apeiron 42 (2009, 221-57), ‘Epicurus on εὐφροσύνη and ἐνέργεια (DL 10.136)’. There's a lot in it for me to think through but here's one assertion that I found particularly interesting. Wolfsdorf is generally sceptical about the common assertion (which I too have made in the past) that the Epicureans identify a kind of pleasure -- a kind of kinetic pleasure -- with the process of restoring a lack (e.g. of slaking a thirst). One reason for this is a view Wolfsdorf takes of the influence of Aristotle.

At 251, Wolfsdorf writes:
'In the wake of Aristotle, Plato's restorative conception of pleasure could not simply be accepted.'

Now, I'm quite a fan of Aristotle but I wonder about this. First, it is not clear to me just how much Aristotle Epicurus had read. In fact, I'm relatively happy with the suggestion that Epicurus might have read the NE (and perhaps Wolfsdorf is right that DL 10.136 might constitute evidence that he did so) but I don't think we can be in any way certain of this. And it would also matter what Aristotle Epicurus had read. For example, if Epicurus had read the Rhetoric it would not perhaps have been so clear to him that Aristotle does reject wholesale the restorative conception of pleasure. And what is the case for Epicurus is also, I think, the case for other Hellenistic philosophers.

We might emphasise the 'simply' in what Wolfsdorf says. True, after NE VII and, especially, X, it would be hard for anyone who had read those works to continue breezily to work solely with the familiar model of restorative pleasures only without giving Aristotle's alternative view any thought whatsoever. But I'm not sure what we can say in addition would necessarily have to follow for any post-Aristotelian account of pleasure. Do they really have to take account of what Aristotle calls pleasures of activity? And how? Does this allow, for example, that someone might still retain Plato's view but not in a simple fashion? (But Plato did not maintain it in a simple fashion either.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bygone days

Things don't change very quickly in some parts of Cambridge. Would you have thought, for example, that there would be a pigeon hole labelled thus in our Porters' lodge? (There is not another next door labelled 'Husbands of...' or 'Civil partners of...', I should add.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Online companion

The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism is now available here via CUP's 'Cambridge Collections Online' if you have the appropriate institutional subscription. It gives access to the full text either on screen or as downloadable pdf files.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Last night I gave a talk for the college's social sciences society, just a very brief look at how politics and psychology are intertwined in Plato's Republic. It was a bit of a last-minute job, I'm afraid, but I was glad to do it because, first of all, a friend asked me to and also because the society is named after a colleague who died recently and who was for me an excellent guide (although I'm pretty sure he certainly did not set out to be) to what it is to be a good and effective fellow of a Cambridge college.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed it. It's always interesting to see what someone's initial reaction might be to the kinds of ideas I have now spent a lot of time thinking about: so much time, in fact, that perhaps I have lost sight of how novel or odd or surprising they might sound on first meeting them. The audience had some interesting reactions too. And it reminded me what is good about being an undergraduate: you can be introduced to some Freud in the morning at a lecture, spend the afternoon reading new things for a challenging essay, have dinner with friends and talk about what you and they are doing and then go along to something like this event in the evening. Not everything will be fun, but it will all be new. And more than that, this novelty is being packaged in a rich and vibrant social atmosphere that challenges them in all sorts of other ways too. I remember it being absolutely exhausting and sometimes very frustrating, but giddying and exhilarating nevertheless.

Friday, October 16, 2009


REF, the son-of-RAE, requires us to consider what 'impact' our research work has on the world in general. Now, this is a tricky thing to work out for those of us who don't make things, cure things, or similar. But help is at hand with a handy on-line questionnaire we have been invited to fill in. The hope is that we can in this way contribute to the question how 'impact' is supposed to be assessed in our case. The opening questions are all pretty straightforward, but then come Q10 and 11:
10. Has your research informed subsequent research in your area?

11. If yes, how has your research informed subsequent research? Select all that apply

Created interest in a new or previously unexplored aspect of your subject area
Revived interest in an area of research that had been dormant
Maintained existing approaches within your area
Contributed to a change in approach within your area
Informed supervision of research students
Generated invitation(s) to present your work at academic lectures, conferences and/or seminars
Other, please specify

How do I answer those? I have reasonable evidence that some people have read some of things I have published. (Well, some people have reviewed some of it; other people have put references to some of it in footnotes, though both groups might not have read any of it, I suppose.) Is that enough to answer Yes to Q.10? I am not sure. 'Informed' sounds slippery enough that I can interpret the condition sufficiently weakly that I have to say Yes. (Compare the football referee's worry about whether an attacking off-side player is 'interfering with play'... If he isn't then what is he doing on the pitch?)

And how do I approach Q.11? Some of it I can answer easily. (I have been invited to conferences; I'm not entirely sure why but it's a reasonable bet that my research played some part in it.) But is it up to me to say that something I did has revived interest in an area of research? How could I tell? How much interest do I need to create? There are other slippery words here too: as well as 'informed', 'contributed to' is nicely under-determined.

I think we are trying to big-up (is that hyphenated?) ourselves so I feel I should tick as many boxes as I can. But I am far from confident that I am telling the truth.

Later Qs wonder about the impact of my research on policy-making, schools, and the like. I can answer these more confidently...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Clever Hippocratics

Here’s a clever argument in the Hippocratic Nat. hom. 2.10–12:

Ἐγὼ δέ φημι, εἰ ἓν ἦν ὁ ἄνθρωπος, οὐδέποτ’ ἂν (10)
ἤλγεεν• οὐδὲ γὰρ ἂν ἦν ὑφ’ ὅτου ἀλγήσειεν ἓν ἐών• εἰ δ’ οὖν καὶ
ἀλγήσειεν, ἀνάγκη καὶ τὸ ἰώμενον ἓν εἶναι•

Man cannot be one (perhaps: a unity – the term hen is a bit slippery here but I’ll just breeze on…) since if he were he would not feel pain. (There would be nothing on account of which he would feel pain.) And if he were, per impossibile, to feel pain being such a unity then necessarily what cures would also be one.

I suppose there are two arguments here for a human being a complex of some kind. (By that I mean simply the claim that humans are in some way or other complex, either by being composed of more than one element, or being composed in some complex fashion such that not every part of a human is just like every other part of a human.)

The first argument is that humans feel pain. Why would something not feel pain if it were a unity? I suppose the assumption is that pain is to be understood as some kind of reaction to or sign of or indeed just is a change in the arrangement of whatever it is that humans are. A genuine unity could not undergo any such internal change at all and so a fortiori would not allow there to be any change of the sort that is related to pain.

There are some interesting links here with (i) Melissus’ idea that what is does not feel pain (B7.4) and (ii) Diogenes of Apollonia’s idea that in order for things to interact with one another there must be an underlying basic monism. I’ll have to do more to pursue those and there are no doubt other interesting strands to find, but those are the ones I thought of immediately. Interesting philosophers, these Hippocratics.

The second is also a good argument. Humans must be complex because what cures humans is not one or simple. I suppose the thought is this: if all humans were simple, then any disorder or pain-producing state would have to be such that there would necessarily be a single thing that would be capable of curing all humans (indeed curing all humans of all ailments). If a human were just a unified bit of some particular simple substance then, the thought goes, a single thing would be able to sure all ailments since, in order to have any effect on a person at all, it would also be able to effect all of the person (since the person in question is simple and a unity). The same thing would do to sure earaches as toothaches as kidney stones as…. Of course, as it is different things cure different ailments and different things might also cure the same ailment in different people. So people must be complicated.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Unfortunately, my thinking about Plato has been hijacked by the start of term. I've spent the last two days seeing new and returning students at around 10 minute intervals, reminding them what to do and where to go, how to register with a GP, and how to declare their 'flu buddies in advance of the inevitable great epidemic that will sweep the college some time between now and Christmas.

Poor lot -- I don't envy them at all. I have very hazy memories of my first week at university, and the hundred and one little anxieties (where is the laundry? how do I get my GiroVend card to work so I can buy lunch? how will I find this room in Sidney so I can meet some scary bloke who will tell me to read two books of the Georgics by next week and write something about them? will anybody like me? ... it goes on). But eventually, with the aid of a good diary and some friends (thank you L staircase, 1992-3) things more or less settle down.

First lecture, 9am tomorrow, and then back to the routine. Some good seminars to look forward to, including my first performance at a college seminar. Funny that. We don't often perform for our college colleagues, not formally at least. It will be interesting to see whether I make sense to them.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


This is fascinating. Not only a brilliant lecturer but some genuinely surprising facts. (And certainly a good lesson on how to use PowerPoint or similar well.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Play up! Play up! And play the game!

I'm reading again some of Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics. It's mostly very sensible stuff, clear, interesting, and often right. He's very good, in the main, on pleasure and desire and is refreshingly happy to talk about the complexity of the psychological factors involved. (I reckon this is in part because he was a careful reader of the Philebus and of Aristotle as well as the various more recent people he mentions, but let's leave that aside for now.)

But there are obstacles too. He's long-winded and sometimes boring. And also occasionally lets slip something jarringly pompous and Victorian. Like this (from Book 1 chap. 4 sec. 2):

Take, for example, the case of any game which involves---as most games do---a contest for victory. No ordinary player before entering on such a contest, has any desire for victory in it: indeed he often finds it difficult to imagine himself deriving gratification from such victory, before he has actually engaged in the competition. What he deliberately, before the game begins, desires is not victory, but the pleasant excitement of the struggle for it; only for the full development of this pleasure a transient desire to win the game is generally indispensable. This desire, which does not exist at first, is stimulated to considerable intensity by the competition itself: and in proportion as it is thus stimulated both the mere contest becomes more pleasurable, and the victory, which was originally indifferent, comes to afford a keen enjoyment.

This comes just before the section on the paradox of hedonism. HS does allow that one might conceive a 'transient' desire to win, just because some such desire is a necessary condition of engaging properly in the game. But for HS it is the pleasant excitement of the competition that matters most and any desire for victory must be instrumental to it. Well, this just seems to me to be false: I can imagine all kinds of sportsmen and women whose principal desire is to win the game, who would relish a game that was not a struggle at all. Sure, they don't want to be bored. But a desire for the pleasant excitement of competition whatever the result and a desire for victory that is stimulated only as a result of the excitement in engaging in the contest? I don't find this very plausible. I wonder if the professionalisation of sport and competition is what makes me less sure than HS about this. Is that a shame?