22 February 2005

Inaugural Post: Starting for Real

Here's a new blog, on ancient philosophy. (I won't exclude medieval if there's something interesting to say.)

Resolve: to post everyday. Each post will pose a problem, raise an issue, or propose an idea.

Here are the books I'm currently reading, which will provide, I suspect, much of the grist for my mill:

Gabriel Richardson Lear, Happy Lives and the Highest Good
Lorraine Smith Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship
David Sedley, ed., Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (don't know the volume--will tell you tomorrow!)
Augustine, De Trinitate
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Plato, Phaedo
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (of course!)

I might just post occasionally on the New Testament, if something is of philosophical significance. I'm currently studying Paul's letter to Philemon.

Other sources for my posts will be conferences, colloquia, and meetings I've attended, currently attend, or plan to attend, including:

Spindel Conference 2004 (in the past, but worth discussing)
Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy (BACAP)
New York City Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy
Cambridge University 2005 Mayweek Seminar

I'm the Director of BACAP. I plan to seek permission of lecturers in BACAP to post papers at this blog. Then the blog, among other things, can serve as a point for discussion.

How to post in Greek? I haven't figured that out, but I will!


Tad Brennan said...

Congratulations! Now that you have a blog of your own, you really exist!

I am delighted that you are starting up this Ancient Philosophy Blog, and I look forward to reading it and maybe even saying something now and then.

Tad Brennan

Tad Brennan said...

Forgot to say--

Brilliant name! Can't think of a better one for an ancient phil blog. (Not that there are no arguments to be made contra...)

Apollodorus said...

Hello! Allow me to introduce myself without warning.

As a serious student of ancient philosophy, I tend to think that ancient philosophic theories offer very real alternatives to modern and post-modern theories, especially in ethics. The problem is, I'm hardly an expert in contemporary philosophy, I'm a bit dull-witted, and it's recently been suggested that I've merely been enchanted by the ethos of ancient philosophy and don't realize how hopelessly and irredeemably out-of-date it all is. So I come in search of wisdom from Michael Pakaluk.

My question is this: How do ancient philosophical ideas, whether Platonic, Aristotelian, or derived from any of the Hellenistic schools, provide formidable alternatives to the naturalist-inspired anti-realism that has become so prevalent in contemporary analytic philosophy? In particular, how are ancient philosophic theories not plainly refuted in light of current biological theory, namely Darwinism? That is, if we do not reject the biology that supports the fairly standard sociobiological account of humanity offered up by the likes of E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, etc., how is ancient philosophy anything more than quaint, obsolete musing by the intellectual equivalent of children? Properly, my question applies as much to metaphysics as it does to ethics (as silly as these distinctions as these can become), but it's in the ethical realm above all that I'm especially concerned.

I recognize, of course, that I've just asked one version of one of the biggest question that can be asked about ancient philosophy. Of course, I'm not looking for an answer so much as some general thoughts. I imagine that most scholars of ancient philosophy must have some kind of position on this question. If you, Prof. Pakaluk, could even begin to move in the direction of answering this question, I would probably dance joyously like a five year old whose had his first cup of coffee. Professor Brennan, being a bit more of a Platonist, it seems, should feel free to point me toward (a somewhat different?) enlightenment as well, if he has a few moments to spare.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Is ancient philosophy, because it presumes teleology in nature, inconsistent with natural science?--An excellent question, very much worth pursuing.

Some initial points:

1. Not all ancient philosophers accepted teleology in nature. (Apollodorus would probably not find them congenial.) But Plato and Aristotle did accept natural teleology.

2. Even if modern science and teleology are incompatible, ancient philosophy may not for all that be worthless. For instance, Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue held that they were incompatible, but he argued that Aristotelian ethics could be reformulated without loss, using notions taken from sociology. (MacIntyre later changed his mind on this.)

3. Etienne Gilson argues for compatibility in From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again--not convincingly, in my view.

4. There is much new literature in philosophy of science to the effect that teleology is unavoidable in science. But this is so far not to say that there is such a thing as human nature, with its own distinctive purpose.

5. Apollodorus' concern is not something new, arising because of Darwin and sociobiology. His question was already posed by Francis Bacon and becomes more pressing after Newton.

6. Perhaps most importantly: ancient philosophers are bound, I think, to give an answer to Apollodorus' question, if they wish to study Aristotle and Plato, not simply as history but as possibly true.

Ralph Wedgwood said...

Δίσσοι βλόγοι -- what a truly inspired name for your blog! you made me laugh out loud when I read it!

Ralph Wedgwood said...

.. Er, didn't you say that pasting in Greek from Word would work..?!

Ralph Wedgwood said...

Oh look it does work, just not right at once.

Apollodorus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Apollodorus said...

MacIntyre's rejection, in After Virtue, of Aristotle's 'metaphysical biology' clarifies the basic problems that a thoroughgoing eudaimonist ethics faces. It is, to my mind at any rate, instructive that even MacIntyre eventually rejected the possibility of formulating a satisfactory ethics of virtue without any reference to biology. Dependent Rational Animals, whatever its other merits, seems to me to have failed precisely in demonstrating that biology as MacIntyre presents it provides the foundation that he seeks. I don't have a copy with me, but in the first half of the book MacIntyre engages in a short debate with Bernard Williams on none other than the question of whether there is anything that can be said to be good for us qua human beings. Williams, of course, denies this, with his insistence on the irreducible agent-relativity of motivations. MacIntyre, in my estimation, here does better at clarifying the problem for anyone sympathetic to his project than he does at supporting the idea that anything is good for us qua human being.

I certainly am not up to the task of critiquing the entirety of MacIntyre's picture of human beings as he develops it there, but he fails, I think, to adequately face challenges that could be raised from the sociobiological camp (or rather, on the basis of that work, since sociobiology, er, excuse me, evolutionary psychology, seems to have learned to be timid after the E.O. Wilson fiasco). Namely, if valuation as such and particular valuations ('moral' or otherwise) are the products of unconscious biological features which are selected for, due to any number of factors, then it becomes unclear whether the privileging of any particular valuation or set of valuations can ever be more than the imposition of whichever values are imposed by whoever has the ability to impose them. We can perhaps still be act utilitarians, we can deliberate together about what paths of action will have the outcome that we all most prefer, but our own preferences become once again the bottom line. They can have no justification other than themselves, and each and all of them are, qua human being, equal, whether they're preferences for treating people as ends-in-themselves or purely means.

Now, I recognize that some ancient philosophers (the Epicureans, most obviously) had no use for teleology in nature and could perhaps be quite content with the above sociobiological account of things, since pleasure as the good requires nothing that the sociobiological account fails to give. But I, at least, have studied philosophy largely because of my sense that there is more to 'ethics' and human life than what the sociobiologists and even the Epicureans have to offer. In either event, an Epicurean or a sociobiologist must surely think of Plato as at best a dreamy idealist, at worst a complete fool. Though there are those who profess an allegiance to sociobiology and to a broadly Aristotelian ethics, I fail to see how that is possible except insofar as Aristotle's 'naturalism' is held up as the antipode of Platonic 'supernaturalism'; it seems rather that an Epicurean, Hobbesian, or (to follow MacIntyre) Nietzschean approach is much more in keeping with the sociobiological account than anything in the Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian-Stoic tradition.

Your last point is precisely the one that interests me most here: ancient philosophers (i.e., scholars) are bound to give some kind of answer to my question if they want to entertain the possibility that major aspects of that tradition can be, in some sense, true, and not merely of historical interest (I strongly doubt that many historians of philosophy really consider their subjects to be of interest for merely historical reasons). I've raised the question here because I suspect that most people working in ancient philosophy do have some idea about this question, whether they could argue for their position in any kind of exhaustive way or not, and I'm curious to hear what y'all have to say since about your own approach to the issue. How do you deal with the question in your own mind? I, personally, would like to reject the evolutionary-biological account's privileged status for explaining human beings, and have found Charles Taylor's handling of the question intriguing but obscure (Sources of the Self, Ethics of Authenticity). But Taylor may be committed to scientific anti-realism in general, which is bolder than even I, quamvis audax sum, could comfortably claim to be in public space.


sean kelsey said...

Michael, nice work starting this blog. Looking forward to it!


Eric Brown said...

I am happy to see this, Michael, and I think it is a great idea to include BACAP papers.

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

I really appreciate the time you are putting into this blog. I am learning a great deal already, and am very glad of the opportunity it provides to share ideas and talk to fellow ancient philosophers.


Sam Rickless