Thursday, March 24, 2011


In Part X of Hume's Dialogues, Demea says this:
Ask yourself, ask any of your acquaintance, whether they would live over again the last ten or twenty years of their lives. No! but the next twenty, they say, will be better.
I'm reading an interesting exploration of this offer. What if this were not in place of the next ten or twenty years but in addition to it? Of course, in reliving this time you really will relive it: there will be no memory of what is to come, so to speak, when you go back; instead, things will turn out just as they did and you will have no prior knowledge of how they would. Still, let's say this adds on and extends your life. If the last ten years have been good overall (contain more good than bad, perhaps) then surely we should want to take up the offer; it would make our lives longer and better.

Here's Avishai Margalit setting out the offer in The Ethics of Memory (Harvard, 2002, 131-2):
Suppose that what you are offered is to repeat the last ten years of your life exactly as they were, with no traces of memory from your previous experience of those ten years.  Assume that the ten years that you are going to relive, if you accept the offer, are ten years added to your life and no a substitute for what awaits you. You will spend the rest of your life from from the exact point you are in now, with the same state of mind and memories that you now have.  Assume, further, that the last ten years in your life were not particularly bad, perhaps even reasonably food.
We should assume that the whole world colludes in this: events repeat in the news, my family and friends equally repeat those ten years.  So it is not as if only I am going back and reliving the time; we're all in it together as far as my life is concerned.  All the same, I don't think I would be keen.  Why not? For one, notice that it is not obvious that I can be sure I am not already doing so.  But that is also why it does not appeal since it also makes no real difference so far as my own conception of my life and its value is concerned whether or not I repeat the ten years, indeed whether or not I am in a succession of such loops.  If a longer life with more goods is a better life then this seems to be a case in which I see no reason to hope for a longer and better life is this is the means by which it becomes longer and better.  If a life is to be improved, therefore, it seems that I want it to be improved in a way that makes it a longer and better continuous set of events, with no such 'loops'; if we take a narrative view of a life, it want it to have more chapters in it and not just in the sense of containing two or more chapter twos, however good that chapter is.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I was interviewed on Friday for Peter Adamson's excellent The History of Philosophy with No Gaps podcast.  Since (unlike Epicurus) he's not leaving any gaps and since we were talking about Epicurus, it will probably be a while before it's my turn to appear.  But I thought it was worth giving it a plug anyway...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Academic virtues

In this week's Times Higher Frank Furedi makes the case for the importance of 'academic judgement', which he thinks is close to what Aristotle meant by phronesis.  Here is the article.   In part, I think his claim rests on there being no sensible way of making academic judgements (by which he means things like exam marks, reports on journal submissions or book typescripts) susceptible to simple and clear rules of evaluation.

While you're there, read the reply from William Evans, who compares academic judgement with that employed by (i) sports referees, (ii) judges, (iii) newspaper editors.  He's interested in areas where there is some later right of appeal but accepts that even there eventually the chain of appeal-able judgements must come to a stop.  Should academic judgement be more open to this?  Sure, it would be horribly inconvenient for examiners, editors, and the like.  And in some ways I do think it makes little sense.  If a journal rejects a paper I submit and gives me the reports to read, sometimes I do think that the reader hasn't understood a point or that their objection is unfounded.  But should I be able to point that out to the editor and ask for another opinion?  Is this analogous to an appeal if a footballer is sent off harshly by a referee?  (Seems not very much like that.)  And just gathering more opinions on my article isn't going to help; mostly, this will just point out other ways in which the article might be pruned/expanded/improved etc.  Should I be able to continue until a majority of readers think the article is publishable, whatever the other quibbles?  Do we need a 'higher' opinion, then?  Whose would that be?

And while we're wondering about academic virtues of judgement, should we not also wonder what the character virtues are that we would similarly think we cultivate in ourselves and our fellow academics?  (It seems to me that this is not a simple question, nor is it a silly question; Aristotle seems to have got it right that matters of excellence in practical reasoning are not entirely separable from excellences of character...)

Monday, March 14, 2011

On the history of philosophy

And, in particular, the question: Why would anyone think it a good idea to do a PhD dissertation on a topic in the history of philosophy?  Here's a letter to prospective graduate students from Bob Pasnau at Colorado that tries to make a case in favour (pdf file).

Any thoughts?  I wondered myself about the following paragraph.  It might well be true of programmes and departments in the US, but I was less convinced that it is true of the UK, in part because of differences in the way that graduate places are assigned and also because often the division of labour between philosophy and other cognate departments may be different.
First and foremost, it is both easier to get into a good PhD program if you focus on history, and easier to get a job.  Almost every PhD program wants graduate students in history, and every department, no matter how small, needs faculty to teach the historical core.  There are, however, many fewer candidates for these positions.  Even the very top PhD programs in the history of philosophy receive only an handful of candidates seeking to study in those areas, and it is not unusual for there to be roughly as many jobs in the history of philosophy as there are plausible candidates.
He goes on to point out (rightly) that a dissertation in this history of philosophy does not shackle you to historical study for the rest of your career.  And there are other arguments that I think are more positive, including the observation that historians of philosophy tend to wield the principle of charity and do the best for the people they read, while it is often the case that in dealing with our contemporaries we are inclined to offer the least charitable interpretation of what they write...

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


I wondered before about the generic characteristics of a power ballad.  But now I am wondering about another genre of popular song.  I'm not sure it has a name so I'm going to christen it  'sentimental rock'.  Elbow are very good at it.  Here are two examples:

'One Day like This' from The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)

And 'Lippy Kids' from Build a Rocket Boys (2011).

Other examples to my mind will include:

'Shipbuilding', particularly as done by Robert Wyatt
'Nothing Lasts Forever' by Echo and the Bunnymen
perhaps even Bowie's 'Heroes' or Peter Gabriel's 'Solsbury Hill'.

Do these have anything in common?   I'm not sure, but I do think there's a family resemblance here.  Perhaps it will involve some or all of: An emphasis on a sentimental lyrical theme, a general earnestness of delivery, an arrangement that often builds into a surging anthemic chorus or refrain, a sense of nostalgia or loss (often with reference to childhood), the sense of using a particular personal recollection to signify something more general and universally significant.

I don't think it is a particularly masculine genre but I'm finding it more difficult to think of examples with female vocalists.  Any suggestions?

Monday, March 07, 2011


I was talking to someone recently who was researching what the University of Cambridge was like in the late 80s and early 90s.  I think this research was in part prompted by the current proposals to alter the way higher education in England is funded and in part because those of us who were students then might now have started to do something interesting.  Certainly, there was an interest in asking whether the socio-economic make-up of the student body then differs from how it is now.  And it's certainly true that a lot of us are worried about what the  current funding proposals will do to the chances of the less well-off coming into higher education so it's a good question to ask and something we need to look at very closely.

Anyway, as I was talking two things struck me.  First, I couldn't really tell this person whether any of my friends and, if any who, came from less privileged backgrounds.  Now, this was in part because I was a pretty think naive thing who might not have spotted these things.  But it also wasn't really anything we talked and thought about.  Is that good?  I don't know.  I suppose I knew what the parents of my close friends did and sometimes we'd visit over the vacations and see where their families lived.  But I don't remember us making much of which school someone had gone to.  Perhaps we decided it was best not to ask.  And perhaps we were all deciding that now we were grown-up undergraduates we weren't going to be defined any more by our parents or our schools.  Or perhaps we were too busy with other things.

The other thing I remembered vividly was being terrified about my Greek.  I had done no Greek at school and so learned Greek in the Faculty's 'Intensive Greek' (IG) programme.  I remembered not only being scared every time I had to write a Greek literature essay (because I really couldn't read the text very well) but also having a sinking feeling every time something I was reading for, say, Greek history, helpfully decided to quote a chunk of untranslated Greek.  No use to me.

And finally, I remembered how that feeling persisted.  In my final year I was genuinely torn between applying to do research in Latin literature (prose, probably, perhaps historiography) or ancient philosophy.  The problem with ancient philosophy was that, although I really enjoyed it, I thought my Greek wasn't good enough.  Two of my supervisors (these two good people) very kindly took me for a cup of tea in the Sidgwick Buttery and we talked over the options.  In the end, I'm glad I made the choice I did but I very nearly chickened out.  Good job too; I would have been truly terrible at Latin lit.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The pains of being pure at heart

This isn't, I'm afraid to say, much to do with Plato and Aristotle on pleasure and pain (which is what I should be thinking about at the moment, although I've ended up getting bogged down in reading Odyssey 14 and 15 recently --- long story...).  But it's good; they are a band with a new LP (do we call them that still?) out soon.  They sound like things used to sound on the Sixth Form common room tape player.  And that's a good thing.  

Here's their website.

And here's their new single.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Belong by Slumberland Records

And here's their last album and EP.


And here they are in a video. With good fringes.