29 September 2005

Philosophical Confession

A truly bizarre conclusion to an otherwise excellent review:

I will end this review with a confession. As I read these books, I often found myself persuaded on one or another point, and I could not help admiring the clarity and power of the presentation. Yet I also experienced a growing feeling of irritation and frustration, slipping at times into anger. Perhaps this review displays too much residual irritation, frustration, and even anger. I hope that it also conveys some of the ground for these feelings.
Actually, we wouldn't have guessed you were angry; we simply thought you cared about the truth.

Please, wait a day or two, edit if need be to remove lapses in courtesy, and then publish the critical review without sharing your feelings. If your anger is unjustified, confessing it cannot be a remedy, and if it is justified, then, that you confess it adds a fault where there was none.

Eleatic Question: 3

What's the difference between (i) someone who says that thinking is exalted and divine, and who holds furthermore that we can think only the thought that 'it is', and (ii) someone who holds that thinking is an irrelevancy?

Suppose a Cartesian is having a conversation with a Hobbesian. A Hobbesian believes that human cognition simply is the power of imagination, shared with animals; a Cartesian holds that human cognition involves additionally the power of 'understanding'. By imagination, the Cartesian claims, we picture a chiliagon; by understanding we know the distinction between a chiliagon and a polygon with one more side.

Hobbesian: "I've converted to your view. I accept at last that we humans have a power of understanding or thought. In fact, the truth of this was recently revealed to me, even, by a goddess. This power of thought is something very high, and very divine."

Cartesian: "So you admit now that an entire world of mathematical ideals, abstract principles, and speculative philosophy is opened up to us through the use of this power? You agree that we can soar above this passing world with our minds?"

Hobbesian: "Oh, no, no. Upon careful consideration, I am convinced that this power of thought is capable of forming only one judgment, and nothing other than this judgment: namely, the mystical realization (or 'empty tautology', if you prefer) that 'it is' or 'what is, is'. Everything else we might wish to say or believe is a matter of the imagination."

Would the Hobbesian's conversion impress you?

Eleatic Question: 2

How should one reply to the following?

It is clear that it is possible to think of plurality and imperfection. Consider a right triangle with unit sides. It has three sides (plurality); and its hypotenuse is essentially not commensurable with the sides (negation, imperfection).

But if plurality and imperfection do not exist, and we can think only of what exists ('it is'), then we do not in fact think of right triangles--we have only 'beliefs' about them.

That is, must Parmenides, on the standard reading, hold that mathematics too is an illusion, part of the deceitful web of mortal beliefs? But strange that thinking of mathematics should not be paradigmatic of thought. (One begins to wonder what thinking, then, is.)

28 September 2005

Eleatic Question: 1

I can post on Parmenides only if my questions are accepted in the spirit (again), what a non-expert might wonder about. One must allow thinking that wants to be intelligent but is not yet scholarly research.

Here is a question that, although small, nonetheless niggles away at me: What did Parmenides mean by a 'road' (path, way)? As you know, he distinguishes three roads ('it is'; 'it is not'; 'it is and is not'). But what sort of thing is a 'road'? Why did he select that word to mark out the alternatives?

You'll say that it is a road of inquiry, as Parmenides himself says. Fine, but what does that mean? A type of inquiry, and so there are three types of inquiry? Yet it seems clear that Parmenides acknowledges at most two types of inquiry ('it is not' being a complete non-starter). Moreover, a road suggests progress from a starting point to an endpoint, from premises to conclusion: but Parmenides allows only one of these. Also, are the tags--'it is', 'it is not', 'it is and it is not'--names of 'roads', or are they the starting points (premises) or end-points (conclusions)?

If this is a stupid question, why does it seem so difficult to give an answer, or to keep to an answer? Here's an example. Gwil Owen is an accurate thinker, for sure, and yet in "Eleatic Questions" he is constantly shifting about in what sort of thing he takes a 'road' to be. A 'road' is variously:

(1) a group of opinions, such as mortal opinions (49); or

(2) an'account of mortal ideas' (49); or

(3) a theory (such as Heraclitus') or a 'cosmology' (49n2); or

(4) a possible answer to the question 'Does it exist or not?' (56); or

(5) it's making a claim (viz. 'that there is nothing whatever in existence') (56); or

(6) it's a 'daily use of language' (60); or

(7) something that can be 'refuted from its premise' (60n47); or

(8) an argument or 'programme of an argument' (76).

Well, what is it?

27 September 2005

Schweine / hund

Since I don't have much to post while I'm pondering Parmenides (how could I?), by popular demand, here are pictures of




25 September 2005

Taking Scepticism--and Knowledge--Seriously

These concluding paragraphs from a review by Lloyd Gerson of a recent exploration of relativism in ancient Greek philosophy (by Mi-Kyoung Lee) seem to me quite important. And they show something of the 'cash value' of Gerson's approach (discussed in some earlier posts on this blog):

The principal strength of this fine book is the meticulous
reconstruction of the epistemological views of Protagoras and
Democritus. The principal weakness of the book is owing to the fact
that Lee is also or especially concerned to explore the engagement with
Protagoras and Democritus by Plato and Aristotle. Not unreasonably, she
does this based on the hypothesis that an undercurrent of skepticism
was to be found among the ideas of the two Presocratic giants. The
problem with this is that both Plato and Aristotle criticize their
predecessors based on their own firm views about what knowledge is and
their convictions that the Protagorean and Democritean approaches
cannot attain it. Plato holds that knowledge is exclusively of
separate, intelligible reality; Aristotle holds that knowledge is
exclusively of what "cannot be otherwise." How these two views are
related is another story. But the criticism of Protagoras and
Democritus -- which is what this book is to a significant extent about
-- comes from these perspectives.

Lee does not say much about the views of knowledge that generate the
criticism. Admittedly, a thorough exposition of these is the subject of
one (or more) additional books. Yet without a more explicit discussion
of these views, the criticism of the skeptical tendencies in Protagoras
and Democritus is rather captious. One way to defeat a skeptic or to
disarm her is to agree that there is such a thing as knowledge and to
insist that the word "knowledge" is merely to be applied stipulatively
according to whatever socially rooted criteria happen to be convenient.
To be a skeptic about knowledge thus construed would indeed be foolish.
This way of dissolving the skeptical challenge has always been
attractive to some philosophers. But it is not the way followed by
Plato or Aristotle. Lee's book would have been even better if she had
taken seriously Sextus' remark to the effect that if skepticism can be
made to prevail, then Greek pretensions to wisdom will be unmasked for
what they are. Plato and Aristotle took skepticism as seriously as did
Sextus and for exactly the same reasons.

Syllabus of Errors of Parmenides

I've been troubled by Parmenides recently. I thought I understood him but now doubt that I do.

On a lark, I googled 'Parmenides' and found lecture notes which, after giving a reconstruction, conclude:

7. A summary of Parmenides’ errors:

a. He thought that what does not exist could not exist (possibly confusing this idea with the truism that, necessarily, if something does not exist then it does not exist).

b. He thought that denials of existence are impossible (i.e., they cannot be both meaningful and true)

c. He thought that all denials, all “is not”s, are denials of existence.
One might have thought, rather:
7. A summary of Parmenides' errors:
a. He thought that only one thing exists.
b. He denied change.
c. He denied imperfection.
(Frankly, I was a bit surprised to find philosophy lecture notes which simply say, outright, that controverted philosophical views are 'errors'. No, these notes are not from a class given by an emeritus writer of scholastic manuals.)

24 September 2005

Obscurum Per Obscurius?

As might have been predicted from the title ("The Togetherness of Thought and Being: A Phenomenological Reading of Plotinus' Doctrine 'That the Intelligibles Are Not Outside the Intellect'"), Eric Perl's BACAP lecture last Thursday was an attempt to show the fundamental similarity of outlook between Plotinus and Husserl. In fact Perl is something of a pioneer of this approach to Plotinus.

I found myself agreeing with the drift of Robert Berchman's commentary--that Plotinus' motivations were so different as to make the doctrine different, no matter how similar in some places the words might seem; that Husserl's phenomenology is, of its nature, a reply to a kind of scepticism that could not even arisen before Descartes.

I also wondered additionally about the purpose of such a project. In his conclusion, Perl urged that a phenomenological reading of Plotinus might help us respond to an 'alienation of external reality' which afflicts modern culture:

But the importance of reading Plotinus in this way goes beyond its value in helping us to understand his philosophy. For the subject-object dualism which both he and Husserl are opposing is not merely an isolated problem in epistemology, but an aspect of the ultimately nihilistic alienation between consciousness and reality that afflicts so much of our contemporary culture and life. Nihilism consists most fundamentally in a denial of the intelligibility of being, of its intrinsic givenness to thought. Being, thus stripped of its intelligibility, is objectified as something “outer,” over against and alien to consciousness, and is thus denied any sense, any meaning, any eidos such that being itself could be grasped by consciousness. All form, all sense, all intelligibility is considered to be subjectively constructed and imposed on being from without. Conversely, consciousness, thus denied any grasp of reality itself, is subjectified as an “inner” sphere, so that all meaning, value, and sense have no place in “external” reality. As a result, being is reduced to raw material for human projects. This externalization and alienation of being from awareness, the reduction of beings to objects, is the foundation for the human dominance and devastation of the world in the last several centuries. As Descartes saw, by objectifying reality we become “masters and possessors of nature,” but we thereby reduce nature, or indeed all reality, to a slave, something stripped of its proper personhood, dignity, and intrinsic value. Our present-day problems of, for instance, technology, biotechnology, and environmental destruction, are at bottom not merely social or ethical but ontological in nature, and must be addressed at the level of being and our comportment with it, and therefore at once ontologically and phenomenologically.
Perl wanted to claim that, in the face of these problems:
Plotinus’ doctrine of the togetherness of thought and being ... is not merely a historical curiosity, but an insight which our current nihilistic predicament makes it vital for us to recover. The affinity of phenomenology with Plotinus opens a way, within contemporary philosophy, for such a retrieval.

I'm all in favor of scholars believing that their work has benefits to society that go beyond, even, the great benefit of simply discovering the truth. And I'm willing to accept, also, that there is a large measure of truth in Perl's diagnosis of contemporary ills.

But I don't see how, even on these terms, Plotinus can be of any importance. Wouldn't it be the phenomenology of Husserl, not that of Plotinus, which would offer a timely response to the alienation and nihilism of today? It's not as though there are all kinds of followers of Plotinus, sitting idly about, ripe and ready to be enlisted in a phenomenological crusade against nihilism.

Moreover, to me it seems that a phenomenological reading of Plotinus carries with it a double dose of perplexity: it contains not merely all of the obscurities that affect phenomenology, but also all of the obscurities that are found in Plotinus--and aren't the difficulties in interpreting Husserl more than enough?

It seemed that nearly every passage of Plotinus quoted by Perl as relevant to his project contained an apparent contradiction:

... that which thinks (to nooun) must be one and two. For if it is not one, that which thinks and that which is thought will be different...but if it is, on the other hand, one and not two, it will have nothing to think: so that it will not even be that which thinks. It must, then, be simple and not simple (V.6.1.12-14)

Its nature therefore is to become other in every way...It is not then possible for the beings to be unless intellect is actively at work, forever working one thing after another and, we may say, wandering down every way and wandering in itself...But it is everywhere itself; so its wandering is an abiding one (VI.7.13.26-34)

But if it should stand still, it does not think; so that if it came to standstill, it has not thought; but if this is so, it is not. It is, then, thought, that is, all movement filling all reality...But intellect keeps always the same journeying through the things which are not the same...But it is also itself the other things, so that it is all itself (VI.7.13.39-52).

Husserl believed, as Perl noted, that the view of the relationship of object to consciousness, accepted in the British empiricist tradition following Descartes, "not only leads to scepticism but is intrinsically incoherent". Yet, given these apparent inconsistencies and contradictions in Plotinus (and not a few others), how could we be confident that Plotinus's view avoids being, in its own way, intrinsically incoherent?

22 September 2005

BACAP Lecture Tonight

I'm off later tonight to Eric Perl's lecture, in the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, at Boston College, at 7:30.

I'm not sure what I'll be able to make of this paper on Plontinus. Maybe I'll have something to post. But anyway see the previus post on this subject for location, if you are in the area and can attend.

I missed a lecture yesterday by Geoffrey Lloyd at Brown, on ancient ways of living in China and Greece. (Yes, I should have posted a notice for that.) Oh well, one cannot do everything.

The Road to Reality: Out of the Cave?

It looked like a deal that I couldn't pass up when I found it in a quaint Viennese bookshop: Roger Penrose's 1099 page The Road to Reality: The Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, an encyclopedic account of state-of-the-art physical science, for the bargain price of 30 Euros. (One might have called it, following Gamov: 1, 2, 3, ....1099.)

I greedily snatched it up as, I thought, the analogue today of Aristotle's Complete Works (or at least of the physical treatises thereof). With Aristotle on one end of the shelf, and Penrose's tome on the other, I'd be set; I'd own both the earliest and most recent authoritative surveys of physical science.

(I was doubly wrong about the book, hwoever. It wasn't a bargain: unbelievably, one can buy it new on Amazon for just over $17. And it proves to be rather eccentric in many places, and not comprehensive.)

Naturally at some point I scanned the book for its treatment of philosophers, especially of the ancient variety. Frege, Russell, Leibniz are mentioned in passing. Aristotle is dealt with briefly (but surely wrongly) in an elegant discussion of "Aristotelian" space-time--that is, absolute Euclidean space-time. Pythagoras is praised over a couple of pages as probably having originated the notion of a demonstration, and, of course, for his sense that reality is deeply mathematical.

But to Plato, shockingly, the first 383 pages of the book are dedicated. At least, that's how Penrose describes his preliminary discussion of the mathematical notions required for modern physics: it is, he says, an examination of 'Plato's world':

Let us now take a glimpse into Plato's world--at least into a relatively small but important part of that world, of particular relevance to the nature of physical reality (23).
This is 'Plato's world' because:
Plato made it clear that mathematical propositions--the things that could be regarded as unassailably true--referred not to actual physical objects (like the approximate squares, triangles, circles, spheres, and cubes that might be constructed from marks in the sand, or from wood or stone) but to certain idealized entities. He envisaged that these ideal entities inhabited a different world, distinct from the physical world (11).
Penrose gives Fermat's last theory as an example of the reality and objectivity of this 'world', and then also the Mandelbrot set:
The point that I wish to make is that no one, not even Benoit Mandelbrot himself when he first caught sight of the incredible complications in the fine details of the set, had any preconception of the set's extraordinary richness. The Mandelbrot set was certainly no invention of any human mind. The set is just objectively there in the mathematics itself. If it has meaning to assign an actual existence to the Mandelbrot set, then that existence is not within our minds, for no one can fully comprehend the set's endless variety of unlimited complication. Nor can its existence lie within the multitude of computer printouts that begin to capture some of its incredible sophistication and detail, for at best those printouts capture but a shadow of an approximation to the set itself. Yet it has a robustness that is beyond any doubt; for the same structure is revealed--in all its perceivable details, to greater and greater fineness the more closely it is examined--independently of the mathematician or computer that examines it. Its existence can only be within the Platonic world of mathematical forms.
This is an idea that does not easily go away. Penrose is no dummy; and I've heard many mathematicians (well familiar with set theory, logicism and intuitionism) say the same thing.

21 September 2005

Another Question about the Pre-Socratics

Maybe this is a dumb question. Hasn't Barnes answered it?

When I lecture on ancient philosophy, or philosophy at all, like other professors I like to put arguments up on the board, in 'list' version (numbering the steps), for ease of analysis.

In lecturing on the presocratics, however, if I try to be faithful to the extant fragments and reliable testimonia, then--to be honest--I can do that sort of thing, I think, only with Parmenides and Zeno, but not, it seems, with anyone else. What argument does Empedocles give anywhere? Or the atomists? Or even Anaxagoras? One finds no defense of premises (either by conceptual analysis or from observation), and no deductions of conclusions from premises. One can only say such things as "Empedocles insisted (apparently without a very good response to Parmenides) that there were four elements (without giving any reasons for this) and asserted (again, without giving reasons) that the universe went in cycles" etc. etc.

Admittedly, Aristotle gives lots of reconstructions--of why Thales might have thought that water was the first cause; or why proponents of the apeiron might have thought that body was everywhere and apeiron; and so on. But these are Aristotle's reconstructions.

And so, it seems, one is left with the following alternatives:

1. The presocratics indeed had arguments, which they did not care to give to us, or which our extant sources do not represent, and we therefore may rightly attempt to reconstruct what those arguments were. (This makes sense. After all, if we really did have a chance to pose questions to, say, Thales, do you think he would have nothing to say in defense of his view?)

2. The presocratics had no arguments. What they were up to, rather, was simply sketching a way in which the world could be. They didn't think they had to establish, by evidence, that that is how it must be or was likely to be --perhaps because they thought it enough to establish something, rather, about themselves (namely, that the person putting forward a view was indeed a 'wise man'). (By the way, on this second alternative we needn't say the presocratics weren't philosophers. We might say, instead, that philosophy can take the form of sketching a novel picture of how everything might be.)

Perhaps this is overly pessimistic. But that's the philosophical mood I'm in currently.

What's wrong with looking at things in this way?

Theion Ti

Okay, I resisted bragging for a long time.

But I can't hold out any longer.
(This is a blog, after all.)

Elizabeth Bayley Pakaluk
13 September 2005
7 lbs. 10 oz.

Nature = The Non-Supernatural

An astute review in BMCR of Gerard Naddaf, The Greek Concept of Nature (see it here) contains , however, the following curious passage, noteworthy relative to some previous discussions on this blog:

GN's survey of these different pre-Socratic thinkers is undertaken in part to illustrate several general theses. First, GN believes that Anaximander's i(stori/a peri\ fu/sewj initiates a tradition of inquiry which is, on the one hand, a continuation of mythopoetic authors, in that pre-Socratic accounts of nature include a three part schema discernible in works like Hesiod's Theogony, namely a cosmogony (or account of the origins of the universe), an anthropogony (an account of the origins of humanity), and a politogony (an account of the origins of society); but on the other hand, pre-Socratic accounts of nature depart from such mythopoetic accounts in that they locate such explanations within human time and make use of naturalistic causal explanations, whereas earlier accounts had located their explanations in illo tempore and made use of supernatural elements as causes.
Okay, so what was distinctive about presocratic accounts of nature, in contrast with mythopoeic accounts, was that they involved naturalistic explanations, and didn't appeal to anything non- or super-natural. That helps.

17 September 2005

Sages, Sophists, and Philosophers

My thanks are due to a friend and reader of Dissoi Blogoi, who just wrote to draw my attention to what I agree is an excellent essay by Andrea Nightingale, "Sages, Sophists, and Philosophers: Greek Wisdom Literature" (in Oliver Taplin, ed. Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A New Perspective, OUP, 2000).

Nightingale argues that the presocratics are best understood as 'sages' who competed with one another, as well as with Homer and Hesiod, to be accounted 'wise men'. Their writings are records of 'performances' by which these thinkers, in a time before university degrees and other credentials, hoped to "put themselves on the map as intellectual authorities or 'masters of truth'."

Nightingale's remarks nicely complement my post, 'The Analysis of Presocratic Thought', and subsequent readers' comments:

In fact, scholars often ascribe to the early Ionian thinkers the heroic feat of liberating philosophic discourse from the shadowy realms of 'mythos' (since their 'naturalistic' accounts of the cosmos rejected the poetic accounts that attributed causality to the weddings and wars of the gods). But the many scholarly attempts to trace the movement from poetry to philosophy--'from mythos to logos'--have foundered on the problem of defining the intrinsic qualities of 'myth' and of 'rational argumentation', and of identifying texts that are either purely mythic or purely analytic. Since the Greek poets were quite capable of constructing arguments, and the 'philosophers' were unable to avoid metaphor and myth, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between mythos and logos. To be sure, we see in the Ionians a new way of thinking about the world; but we cannot say that their accounts are devoid of any mythical notions. What we can say is that these thinkers adopted a critical attitude towards received wisdom and were prized for their original speculations.
Nightingale additionally makes the extremely valuable point that the thinkers who are attacked by presocratics are presumably, therefore, up to the same thing; in their attacks, then, the presocratics reveal their understanding of themselves:
It is worth noting that Xenophanes attacks Homer explicitly, and Herakleitos inveighs not only against the poets Homer, Hesiod, and Archilochos, but also against Hekataios (a proto-historian ...), Xenophanes, and Pythagoras. Such attacks remind us that these thinkers conceived of themselves as rivalling 'wise men' in general rather than the specialized group of intellectuals who were later called philosophers. The fact that Herakleitos' opponents include poets and prose writers, as well as a religious/political guru such as Pythagoras, gives us a good idea of the breadth of 'wisdom' that he himself recognized as authoritative.

16 September 2005

The View from Nowhere?

I think Thomas Nagel is correct when he claims in "Subjective and Objective" (and also in his book, The View from Nowhere) that progress in science often takes the form of moving from a subjective or perspectival view of the world, to an ostensibly objective framework, in which the perspectival view is one among many other such views, and which accounts for why that perspectival view appears as it does.

We see the sun rising now. Problem is, people to the East saw the sun rising earlier. Did it, then, both rise and not rise? The difficulty is solved if we say that in fact the earth is turning, hence people in different longitudes see the sun cross the horizon at different times. That the sun 'rises' is perspectival; that the earth turns is (ostensibly) objective.

Similarly apparent versus absolute magnitude: I see the penny as an ellipse stretched out from North to South. You, at a right angle to me, see it as an ellipse stretched out from East to West. By supposing that, objectively, it is circular, and by supposing, too, the principles of optics, we can explain why it looks the way it does to each of us.

Heracleitus is clearly concerned these sorts of issues, with whether there are any claims that are non-perspectival: he suggests that predications (many? most? all?) which appear to be absolute are in fact perspectival because relative to some implicit class of comparison. Sea water is foul and fresh water healthy-- to us, of course; but to fish it's the other way round. Helen is beautiful--that is, only so long as we do not compare her with a goddess. (And yet, one might wonder, what about the claim, "A goddess is beautiful"? Is that similarly perspectival? What could show that claim to be true only relative to some class?)

Suppose we take Xenophanes to have a similar concern. There is a fragment which suggest that he does:

If god had not made yellow honey, men would consider figs far sweeter.

ei) mh\ xlwro\n e)/fuse qeo\j me/li, pollon\n e)/faskon
glu/ssona su=ka pe/lesqai

If he does have this concern, then we might plausibly take him to hold, furthermore, that remarks about gods cannot in this way be perspectival. In the theological fragments, then, he would be arguing, in effect, that the gods do not have bodies, on the grounds that any attribution of bodily form to the gods is evidently perspectival. His theological views would then become important because, like Milesian cosmology, they would be an example of someone's insisting upon the shift, so important for scientific progress, from a subjective to an objective point of view.

Now I am not proposing this, so far, as an interpretation. My point here is merely to sketch an interpretation which seems interesting and which has some plausibility, but which we wouldn't even happen upon--we wouldn't think we needed to formulate it-- once we had applied the crude 'reason/authority' distinction in interpreting Xenophanes.

15 September 2005

Upcoming BACAP Lecture, September 22, at Boston College

B. A. C. A. P.

The Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy

The Togetherness of Thought and Being:
A Phenomenological Reading of Plotinus’ Doctrine
“That the Intelligibles Are not Outside the Intellect”

By Prof. Eric Perl
(Loyola Marymount University)

Prof. Robert Berchman
(Dowling College, Bard College)

Thompson Room, The Burns Library, Boston College
Thursday, 22 September 2005 at 7:30 p.m.

Prof. Perl’s public lecture will be preceded by a seminar on
Ennead V.5 and V.9
Room (St. Mary’s Hall), 3:00-5:00 p.m.

Both the lecture and the seminar are open to the public
For more information, please contact:
Prof. Gary Gurtler, S.J., gurtlerg@bc.edu

The Analysis of Presocratic Thought

Refute me if I'm wrong. You'd be doing me a favor.

I've been harping on Xenophanes, I now realize, because I want to make a larger point about how we analyse presocratic thought and therefore properly assess its contributions.

The interpretation of Xenophanes that I see in McKirahan and Hussey strikes me as 'encyclopaedist' history, in MacIntyre's sense. It takes a distinction from the Enlightenment, which opposes Reason to authority and tradition; it holds that 'Reason' is a single, uniform, framework; it supposes that 'Science' arises once the viewpoint of 'Reason' is adopted; and therefore it looks to find, in the presocratics (who are at the origin of science) the adoption of this viewpoint and framework, to the exclusion of competitors.

Besides going beyond the evidence, that sort of interpretation seems to me on broad grounds to be inappropriate. Thales perhaps takes his ideas from Near Eastern creation myths--or at least, if he did, no one would be surprised. Pythagoras is evidently not a proponent of Reason, in any usual sense. Parmenides presents his doctrine as if a revelation. So does Heracleitus (although he is doing the revealing). One sees the same thing in what comes after: Socrates accepts revelations from a spiritual being; he takes received views seriously, as received. Plato takes inspiration from myths. Aristotle's method of sifting through endoxa is all about giving authoritative views their due weight. Etc.

Yes, of course, there are various moves one can make--"It's insofar as they adopt the viewpoint of Reason that they are philosophers (or scientists)"; "The religious language is allegorical (conventional, demythologized)"; and so on--but at what point is theory driving data, then?

However, a more serious concern, for me, is that this reason vs. tradition opposition is too blunt. It may, therefore, lead us to overlook more interesting things, that perhaps better account for the importance of the presocratics ... even Xenophanes (yes, yet another post to come).

Once More with Xenophanes

There is a point to this. I don't want to be flogging a dead horse.

It's interesting that Hussey, in his admirably concise and elegant book, makes the same unjustified leap as regards Xenophanes that McKirahan does. After citing the four extant theological fragments, Hussey claims (on p. 14):

For the first time, a conscious and deliberate attempt had been made to set up a standard of what was and was not 'reasonable' or 'fitting' in theology.
This is undeniable; that such a thing has been attempted is clear. (And yet that this is the first time is not so clear. 'Second Isaiah', notably not a 'philosopher', attempts something similar, perhaps earlier than Xenophanes.)

But then Hussey says, in the next sentence:
Everything was to be judged in terms of this standard alone, and the authority of tradition, or of a general consensus, or of a great scholar, was to count for nothing.
But why should we go on to say this? What grounds do we have for saying that Xenophanes wanted to judge everything by this standard? Why should we say that authority, tradition, consensus, and scholarly judgment (even), for Xenophanes, were to count for nothing? (Quite outrageous, really. It makes Xenophanes into a lunatic.)

This looks to me like an Enlightenment polarity, imposed upon texts where it doubtfully belongs.

One might say, "Well, we interpret Xenophanes in the context of Ionian philosophy, and that is what the Ionians accepted." --And yet Hussey argues the other way round. He says that we can understand what the Milesians thought, by beginning with Xenophanes and using Xenophanes to represent or 'shed light' on them (see p. 13). It's a circle to say: 'We can be confident that Xenophanes rejected authority and tradition because he was like the Milesians in this regard; and we can infer what the Milesians are like by working back from what Xenophanes said.'

And yet that is how Hussey reasons.

14 September 2005

What Bloggers Might Do

I didn't post yesterday, contrary to my resolve, because it never even crossed my mind.

Bloggers can be fanatics, after all. I once saw a humorous cartoon about golf. A golfer with a worried look on his face approaches a foursome and says, "Mind if I play through? My wife is in labor."

Bloggers are so fanatical, that they might do the same: "Mind if I keep this post short? My wife is in labor?" Not I, of course--wouldn't think of it.

A Distinctively Philosophical Way of Thinking

I had the following exchange with Hilary Putnam when I was a grad student.

I had just read one of Putnam's papers (I can't recall which), where he says something to the effect that no one should even attempt to do serious philosophy without first gaining a good background in advanced mathematics. I was a serious student, so I took this very seriously. I had an ordinary mathematics background, up to basic calculus, and then the usual courses in first-order and meta- logic. This was clearly not 'advanced mathematics'. I therefore combed carefully through the course catalogue and devised a four-year sequence of courses, which I could take in the remainder of my graduate education, and which would certainly count as training in 'advanced mathematics.'

I presented this plan to Putnam when I next saw him. But I was taken aback by his response. Far from being pleased and excited by it, as I expected, he was disturbed. "Oh no, Michael", he said, "this is not what you should be spending your time doing. You need to devote your years in graduate school to acquiring a distinctively philosophical way of thinking. A sequence in mathematics such as that would be a distraction."

I thought about that. How does one acquire a distinctively philosophical way of thinking? What did that mean? Would that mean, perhaps, reading Naming and Necessity over and over again? Or were Quine's paradoxes especially illuminating for philosophy--Quine who effectively denied that there was any distinct discipline of philosophy? Quine who denied that the phrase 'in that respect' made any sense? Dreben I knew had an answer: grapple with problems from Wittgenstein--or perhaps Frege. But Dreben notoriously denied that one should ever assert a doctrine. How could philosophy not arrive at resting points in thought? Most of the literature of recent philosophy I dismissed, and I was (I think) taught to dismiss--largely 'logic chopping', the prosecution of a clever point in isolation from its real philosophical or historical significance. (This is harsh and exaggerated, admittedly, but perhaps not very far from the truth.)

When I turned to the history of philosophy, I found largely figures who (as Gilson says) were amateurs--who worked piecemeal, and who had one or two clever ideas or admirable intellectual traits (such as Hume)--or thinkers who were comprehensive in a way, but who nonetheless aimed too much to warp all of reality so that it fit within the scope of a few attractive but limited ideas (such as Leibniz).

I don't think I found the answer to my question until I began the systematic study of Aristotle (and I would include now Plato). In Plato and Aristotle one finds the breadth, flexibility, variation in types of argument, and array of viewpoints, that can help one to acquire, easily and reliably, a genuinely philosophical habit of thought.

And this seems to me the most important reason for graduate students, or more advanced undergraduates, to study ancient philosophy--to learn how to think philosophically.

What's the Use?

I like to begin lectures in ancient philosophy with something I learned from Aristotle, namely, I give some of the reasons why someone might want to study the subject.

I'm interested in whether others do the same and, if so, what you say. I've had a longer and a shorter list. This year, I mentioned three things:

1. The study of ancient philosophy helps us to know ourselves better, and this in two ways: (i) where we are like the ancients, because we have inherited something from them (and this will be frequent), then, by becoming aware of that inheritance, we can deal with it critically, and either accept it deliberately or reject it, accordingly; (ii) where we are unlike and differ from the ancients, then we are faced with the usually fruitful problematic of 'ancient vs. modern' (which Strauss rightly took to be important); this challenges us to see things in a new way, a way which very often proves to be intelligent, but which we could not have anticipated or conceived of beforehand; also it helps us to transcend the tyranny or bias of the present moment, by which we take what is recent to be ipso facto better.

2. The study of ancient philosophy helps us to develop those habits of thought, argument and speech which constitute civility. The ancients, and especially Plato, with the example he sets in his dialogues, and his explicit remarks on 'refuting and being willing to be refuted', teach us how to examine difficult and important matters, together--and with reasonability, tact, and a sense of humor.

3. Finally, it just might happen (shockingly) that the ancients are worth studying because they at times say something that is importantly true--and that we would likely not find this truth any other way.

But what would you add? What, perhaps, do you add?

12 September 2005

No Longer Bekos

Someone told me that the most common first word now of babies is 'goo-gle'.

Okay, google 'ancient philosophy' and you get, in this order:

1. The papers on ancient philosophy from the 20th World Congress of Philosophy in Boston.
2. Lecture notes for Philosophy 320, taught by S. Marc Cohen.
3. The website for the journal.
4. Lecture notes for Philosophy 201, taught by Cythia Freeland.

And Google stock keeps going up?

(This is not to say that Cohen's and Freeland's notes are not very good.)

He Would Have Missed the Photo Op

I saw this headline: "Roberts' Kids Steal Show As Hearings Open" and then perhaps unfairly thought of the following passage:

Well, Athenians, this and the like of this is nearly all the defence which I have to offer. Yet a word more. Perhaps there may be someone who is offended at me, when he calls to mind how he himself, on a similar or even a less serious occasion, had recourse to prayers and supplications with many tears, and how he produced his children in court, which was a moving spectacle, together with a posse of his relations and friends; whereas I, who am probably in danger of my life, will do none of these things. Perhaps this may come into his mind, and he may be set against me, and vote in anger because he is displeased at this. Now if there be such a person among you, which I am far from affirming, I may fairly reply to him: My friend, I am a man, and like other men, a creature of flesh and blood, and not of wood or stone, as Homer says; and I have a family, yes, and sons. O Athenians, three in number, one of whom is growing up, and the two others are still young; and yet I will not bring any of them hither in order to petition you for an acquittal. And why not? Not from any self-will or disregard of you. Whether I am or am not afraid of death is another question, of which I will not now speak (a)ll' ei) me\n qarrale/wj e)gw\ e)/xw pro\j qa/naton h)\ mh/, a)/lloj lo/goj). But my reason simply is that I feel such conduct to be discreditable to myself, and you, and the whole state. One who has reached my years, and who has a name for wisdom, whether deserved or not, ought not to debase himself. At any rate, the world has decided that Socrates is in some way superior to other men. And if those among you who are said to be superior in wisdom and courage, and any other virtue, demean themselves in this way, how shameful is their conduct! (Jowett)
Yet then I was struck by the italicized line, which I had not noticed before. The quoted passage comes, of course, from Plato's Apology (34b-35a), at the place where Socrates gives his summation, just before he is found guilty. A short while later in the dialogue, after Socrates has been given the death sentence, he then (apparently) speaks directly to this issue, explaining why death is not something to be feared.

But the italicized sentence seems strange to me. (Grube incidentally renders the line: "whether I'm boldly facing death or not is a separate story"'--which seems even less understandable. Fowler has: "Whether I fear death or not is another matter.') Why does Socrates say this? Is it that he would make a bad impression on the jury, or encourage them in finding him guilty, if he appeared not to fear death? Also, hasn't it already become clear in his speech that he isn't afraid of death?

I'm probably not seeing something simple and obvious.

11 September 2005

Hermeneutic Hype

Okay, this will be my last post on Xenophanes--except to disclose, tomorrow, the Magical Mystery Text. (Hint: You may easily arrive at the answer, if you look without ease.)

You are familiar, no doubt, with what is probably the most famous fragment of Xenophanes, used as the motto of the journal, Ancient Philosophy:

ou)/toi a)p a)rxh=j pa/nta qeoi\ qnhtoi=si u(pe/deixan,
a)lla\ xro/nw| zhtou=ntej e)feuri/skousin a)/meinon.

Yet the gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning;
but by seeking men find out better in time. (KRS text and translation)
I find Richard McKirahan's comment on this interesting. He says that the fragment "unsurprisingly rejects divine revelation as a source of knowledge. That is not the sort of thing that Xenophanes' god (note the plural in the fragment) does" (67-8). In a footnote about the plural, 'gods', McKirahan adds: "The point of [the fragment] is that knowledge does not come from divine revelation, not that there are gods that reveal things to mortals."

Yet last time I looked, 'not everything' meant the same 'at least one thing not'. And even if 'not everything' were a litotes, it would still mean no more than 'few things'. So how does McKirahan get from this the interpretation that nothing is revealed? And this interpretation is so settled and clear, in his mind, that he uses it in his footnote to rule out other things in the fragment, as not seriously meant. That is, he uses something not in the fragment to dismiss something in the fragment.

He's not alone in this, of course. I find the same interpretation of the fragment in other sources. (A common claim is that a deity who 'shakes all things by his thought' wouldn't be the sort of deity who revealed anything. Oh, really?)

But what I wish to emphasize is simply that the interpretation is unjustified. It's an instance of what I shall give the name 'hermeneutic hype', quite common in the interpretation of the presocratics:
hermeneutic hype. Def. The magnification of a philosophical view without warrant, especially by assimilating it to some position, similar to it, which is clear and attractive because exaggerated.
The view that 'nothing is to be accepted on authority' or 'only reason, not tradition or revelation has merit' is attractive because it is so clear and simple. We make out Xenophanes to be proposing something novel and radical if we make him out to be saying something like this. The only trouble is, the attributed view isn't warranted by the text.

How Did Adam Do This So Quickly?

We thought carefully and for a long time about 'Wozzeck' but in the end decided to call the dog 'Lulu' (allowing family members not fond of serial music to call her 'Lu', with the mental reservation, 'Lucia di Lamamoor').

We're still undecided on a name for the pig.

10 September 2005

Magical Mystery Philosopher

If you know it, it's easy. If you don't know it, it's not easy. What is the source of the following?

Those who intended to control a house or a city, he said, needed the help of divination. For the craft of carpenter, smith, farmer or ruler, and the theory of such crafts, and arithmetic and economics and generalship might be learned and mastered by the application of human powers; but the deepest secrets of these matters the gods reserved to themselves; they were dark to men. You may plant a field well; but you know not who shall gather the fruits: you may build a house well; but you know not who shall dwell in it: able to command, you cannot know whether it is profitable to command: versed in statecraft, you know not whether it is profitable to guide the state: though, for your delight, you marry a pretty woman, you cannot tell whether she will bring you sorrow: though you form a party among men mighty in the state, you know not whether they will cause you to be driven from the state. If any man thinks that these matters are wholly within the grasp of the human mind and nothing in them is beyond our reason, that man, he said, is irrational. But it is no less irrational to seek the guidance of heaven in matters which men are permitted by the gods to decide for themselves by study: to ask, for instance, Is it better to get an experienced coachman to drive my carriage or a man without experience? Is it better to get an experienced seaman to steer my ship or a man without experience? So too with what we may know by reckoning, measurement or weighing. To put such questions to the gods seemed to his mind profane. In short, what the gods have granted us to do by help of learning, we must learn; what is hidden from mortals we should try to find out from the gods by divination: for to him that is in their grace the gods grant a sign.
I ask because the passage seems to me entirely consistent with the texts on human knowledge, its scope and limits, one finds in Xenophanes. (By consistent I mean: there is nothing that would hinder someone who wrote what is attributed to Xenophanes, from accepting this.) And yet the person to whom these views are attributed, it seems, did not share the epistemological views often attributed to Xenophanes (scepticism, rejection of the possibility of divine revelation, thoroughgoing fallibilism)--or did he?

What Has Athens to Do with Vienna?

Carlo Celluci is a mathematician and philosopher of mathematics at the University of Rome ('La Sapienza'), who has written a series of provocative articles, widely discussed, arguing that no received view in the philosophy of mathematics is tenable. The basic problem, he thinks, is the failure of professional philosophers of mathematics to follow out seriously the implications of Goedel's work: "[M]athematical logicians are most illogical people," Celluci writes, "even when they agree that the axiomatic method provides a distorted picture of mathematical practice, they go on as before as if they had forgotten their own criticisms or the latter did not concern them."

It's not that he thinks Plato or Aristotle's views are satisfactory either; but he does seem to hold that a familiarity with the views of the ancients can help one to appreciate the diverse character of mathematics, as it is actually practiced:

As Wittgenstein points out, even centuries ago a philosophy of mathematics was possible, a philosophy of what mathematics was then. Indeed, centuries ago there were philosophies of mathematics incomparably more articulated than those produced by the foundational schools. For example, Plato and Aristotle developed views of mathematical knowledge where the latter is seen as part of scientific knowledge, forming an integrated system with it, contrary to the foundational schools where theoretical mathematics is treated as a secluded subject, essentially unrelated to the rest of scientific knowledge...

It is not accidental that the most passionate supporters of the view that mathematics is a profoundly uniform subject based on the axiomatic method should be found among mathematical logicians rather than among mathematicians. While for the latter the axiomatic method is just a tool, for mathematical logicians it is the essence of their subject: without the axiomatic method, there would be no mathematical logic. Thus for mathematical logicians to defend the axiomatic method is to defend their very right to be on the map.

The axiomatic method provides an extremely simplified view of mathematical knowledge. From the viewpoint of mathematical logic, this has the advantage that the method can be easily approached in terms of straightforward notions, such as set-theoretic consequence, formal system, or mechanical process. On the other hand, such notions are patently inadequate to dealing with the variegated features of past and contemporary mathematics. On account of this it appears amusing that Kreisel should claim that philosophy deals only with immature notions and that preoccupation with them draws attention away from genuinely rewarding questions. As a matter of fact just the opposite is true. As already mentioned, both Plato and Aristotle developed a philosophy of the mathematics of their time incomparably more articulated than the limited view of contemporary mathematics provided by mathematical logic. In particular Aristotle--the first theorizer of the axiomatic method--was wise enough not to claim that the latter is the method of mathematics: he only claimed that it is a pedagogical method. Contrary to his modern followers, he did not confuse the presentation of mathematics with the process of mathematical discovery. It is somewhat ironical that the misconceptions of mathematical logicians about the nature of mathematics should be rectified by historians of mathematics like Crowe rather than by professional philosophers of mathematics.
The last line I take as implying a rebuke, also, to the Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics, for its shortsighted view of 'history'.

Cellucci's complete article, "Mathematical Logic: What Has It Done for the Philosophy of Mathematics?", may be found here . (The reference to 'Crowe' is: M. J. Crowe, "Ten misconceptions about mathematics and its history", in W. Aspray and P. Kitcher, eds., History and Philosophy of Modern Mathematics, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. XI, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, 260-77.)

09 September 2005


[Xenophanes' god] had a body of sorts because totally incorporeal existence was inconceivable, but that body, apart from its perceptual-intellectual activity, was of secondary importance, and so perhaps was its location.
Thus KRS. But I'm not sure I understand the claim that "totally incorporeal existence" was "inconceivable". Is it inconceivable now, as well? Or did it become conceivable at some point? (But not because someone had first conceived of it?)

Also, doesn' t the claim that the deity "without toil shakes all things by the thought of his mind" show that "totally incorporeal" action, and thus existence, has been successfully conceived?
That thought or intelligence can affect things outside the thinker, without the agency of limbs, is a development--but a very bold one--of the Homeric idea that a god can accomplish his end merely by implanting, for example, Infatuation ( )/Ath) in a mortal (KRS, 170).
If it is without agency of limbs, then presumably it is without agency of body. (And, if Xenophanes were some kind of pantheist, then why wouldn't he explain divine action, more naturally, as akin to the way the soul moves the body, rather than in the way that he does, which suggests action from the outside?)

Why Xenophanes?

Forgive me for pressing the point, but why is Xenophanes important?

An odd question for a blog, perhaps, but relevant to professors who actually teach Xenophanes. Why teach him? Why include him as a philosopher? Why is he interesting?

The problem is illustrated well by Hussey, who seems to contradict himself on this matter. Moreover, in chapter 2 (p. 14) he promises to say more about Xenophanes, whereas in chapter 3 (p. 33) he refers back to the preceding chapter, a nearly empty circle.

The seeming contradiction is this:

..whether or not any inspiration came from these quarter, Xenophanes' theology is still something quite new. ...He relies on entirely on certain general principles--certain conceptions of what it is reasonable or fitting that a god should be....This way of thinking, it must be repeated, was something quite new. For the first time, a conscious and deliberate attempt had been made to set up a standard of what was and was not 'reasonable' or 'fitting' in theology. Everything was to be judged in terms of this standard alone, and the authority of tradition, or of a general consensus, or of a great teacher, was to count for nothing (p. 14, my emphasis).

Xenophanes, a poet and a professional reciter of poetry who wandered about the Greek world, was not an original or systematic thinker (p. 33, my emphasis).
The circle involves this reference forward (coming after the just quoted lines):
Xenophanes will be considered again in the next chapter. He has been introduced here, out of turn, because it is by working back from his fragments that one may best hope to understand the intellectual atmosphere of the earliest Presocratics, the thinkers of sixth-century Miletus (p. 14).
Followed by this fulfillment of the promise:
Xenophanes, a poet and a professional reciter of poetry who wandered about the Greek world, was not an original or systematic thinker. There is nothing to suggest that he tried to improve the Milesian framework where it seemed in danger of inconsistency. His own views were in certain crucial places vague and incoherent, if we may trust Aristotle, and in one fragment (fr. 34) he takes refuge in the thought that, after all, no man can know anything for certain. Still, Xenophanes is illuminating: he casts light, as has been seen, on the Milesians, and his difficulties and deficiencies cast light on the situation as it presented itself to the other Ionian thinker of this period, Heracleitus of Ephesus (p. 14).
That's all on Xenophanes' importance in Hussey, about 30 lines of text, less than a full page.

KRS are equally uninformative on this point. They say that "Widely different views have been held on the intellectual importance of Xenophanes," but then they quote a difference in the extent, not the nature, of his importance, with Jaeger saying that he was enormously influential in theology, and Burnet saying that Xenophanes would have been amused to find that he had become regarded as a 'theologian'. "He was a critic, primarily," KRS add, "with an original and often idiosyncratic approach...His opinions on almost all subjects deserve careful attention" (168).

Okay, but why?

08 September 2005

You Can't Get There from Here

Quine said on a variety of occasions (I heard him say it once myself) that he always regretted that he hadn't studied more medieval philosophy of logic. Perhaps it was his friendship with Geach which had led him to think this.

This seems to be a true counterfactual: He wouldn't have been helped in this regard by the new Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic--at least if the review in NDPR is accurate (see it here). According to the reviewer, J.C. Beall, the history covered by the handbook begins with Mill and Kant, entirely neglecting ancient and medieval logic. Here is Beall's summary:

Section One: Historical Background

Lisa Shabel. 'Apriority and Application: Philosophy of Mathematics in the Modern Period'. This essay discusses Kant's relevant views, and the views of his predecessors.

John Skorupski. 'Later Empiricism and Logical Positivism'. This essay lays out the influence of later empiricism on the target fields, and discusses the impact and ideas of John Stuart Mill and the logical positivists.

Juliet Floyd. 'Wittgenstein on Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics'. Like the other chapters in this section and their target figures, Floyd's essay nicely sketches the content and history of Wittgenstein's thought, as well as the ongoing impact that surfaces in different interpretations -- for example, inconsistency approaches to truth, and so on.

What explains the omission of about 2200 years of philosophy of logic? Not having the book, I can only conjecture. Perhaps the editor thinks that ancient and medieval logic have already been covered elsewhere. True, but then the philosophy of recent mathematics and logic, too, have been covered elsewhere. Isn't the point of a handbook to have it all in one source? Or maybe the Handbook takes itself to cover only 'mathematical logic' and its philosophy. Fine: but then the book misses entirely the question of the 'two logics', surely an important part of the philosophy of logic .

Beall writes:

If I were introducing someone to 'core, analytic philosophy', I would send them to the philosophy of mathematics and logic -- or, at least, I would like to, if a suitably accessible guide were available. As it turns out, there is now such a guide: Shapiro's Handbook does the trick.

Good enough, but then call it the Handbook of Analytic Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics. One must concede, of course, that the analytic movement is most important in this area. But if only that contribution is to be covered, make that condition explicit.

Evidence of Body?

Does the following fragment imply that, for Xenophanes, the deity has a body or not?

170 One god, greatest among gods and men, in no way similar to mortals either in body or in thought.
ei}=j qeo/j, e)/n te qeoi=si kai\ a)nqrw/poisi me/gistoj,
ou)/ti de/maj qnhtoi=sin o(moi/oj ou)de\ no/hma.

KRS say that it does: "The one god is unlike men in body and thought--it has, therefore (and also in view of 172), a body; but it is motionless, for the interesting reason that it is 'not fitting' for it to move around."

The other fragments that KRS are referring to are these:
171 Always he remains in the same place, moving not at all; nor is it fitting for him to go to different places at different times, but without toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind.

ai)ei\ d' e)n tau)tw=| mi/mnei kinou/menoj ou)de/n
ou)de\ mete/rxesqai/ min e)pipre/pei a)/llote a)/llh|,
a)ll' a)pa/neuqe po/noio no/ou freni\ pa/nta kradai/nei.
172 All of him sees, all thinks, all hears.

ou(=loj o(ra=|, ou(=loj de\ noei=, ou(=loj de/ t' a)kou/ei.
But here's a problem about 170. It seems to contain at the start a contradiction: there is only one God, it says, but there are also many gods.

Commentators handle this by saying that the phrase "among gods and men" is used by Xenophanes poetically, as a 'polar opposition'. That is, he picks out extremes in order to pick out an entire dimension, of which these are extremes. Thus, "among gods and men" means, formulaically, something like "in the universe" or "in the realm of life".

Very well. But then why should we interpret "either in body or in thought" any differently? Why isn't that phrase, too, an example of 'polar opposition'? (It's possibly even a better candidate for it.) In that case it means something like "in nature", and all that Xenophanes would be saying in the fragment, in a poetical way, is that the deity is one, and that the deity is very much unlike us (and the gods also, as these are usually understood).

I don't see that the one opposition can be interpreted so lightly and the other so demandingly, as the KRS interpretation requires.

One might add that it's not clear that 'mortals' (qnhtoi=sin) means 'men'. If it means 'mortal creatures' generally (as seems preferable, because then the new contrast does not overlap with the preceding one) it would be even clearer that the fragment is merely emphasizing the distinctness of the deity from other things.

Moreover,172 cannot have the implication KRS claim. Presumably their line of reasoning is: seeing and hearing require sense organs, which implies a body. Yet in the fragment Xenophanes puts seeing, hearing, and thinking all on the same level, and that line of reasoning wouldn't evidently work for thinking. Also, surely Xenophanes denies that the deity has human or animal-like sense organs. But if so, then all bets are off: why suppose that he believes that these require a sense organ at all? (Maybe he does, after all, but you can't get that from 172.)

As for 171, doesn't that imply, rather, that the deity does not have a body? As KRS themselves point out, if the deity had a body, it would be the 'stuff' of the entire universe, and yet that is rotating. And if he had wanted, perhaps, to claim (strangely) that, although the universe was rotating, its 'stuff' (the divinity within) was not, it would be odd to express this as he does, by saying that it would be unseemly for the divinity to travel from place to place (a phrase which is clearly meant to evoke the wanderings on earth of Homeric deities).

07 September 2005

If You Have to Explain a Joke...

Courtesy of a friend:

Q: Why is one side of a flying "V" of geese always longer than the other?
A: Because there are more geese on that side.

To some, it's obvious why this is funny. If not, here's an explanation: According to Aristotle, our natural tendency is to look for the cause. When we see that something exists, we inquire into its cause. Now apply this to the joke. Presumably, anyone hearing the joke would have experience of the phenomenon, but it's very unlikely that the reason would be known. So when the question is posed, the hearer naturally awaits the reason. This sets up the laughably unsatisfying answer.

According to Aristotle, there are four causes in nature: the formal, material, agent, and final. Take for example a sculptor sculpting: the causes of the statue would be the idea the sculptor intends (formal cause), the marble block (material cause), the sculptor himself (efficient cause), and the finished product(final cause). In this case the equivalent of the joke would be to explain the finished statue by saying that the marble is in the cause of the statue, without even a reference to the sculptor. But that clearly doesn't say why there statue is there, or how, only what it is.
And then Milesian philosophy becomes a handbook of humor, e.g.:

Q. What is the reason for the universe?
A. Water.

Very funny.

And yet I think that my friend analyzes the joke incorrectly. We laugh because we see that it must be the case that, in a V formation, one side is longer than another: even in a balanced V, the side that includes the lead goose is longer than the other. That is--if we must use Aristotelian language here--we take the question to be looking for an 'efficient' or 'final' cause, and an obvious 'formal' cause is given instead.

Golden Doodle Doo

No, it's not the cry of the coq d'or, but rather what I must be careful to avoid, now that we have yet another addition to the household, namely, a 5 month old puppy dog, which is a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle--hence the name, 'golden doodle'.

Now, can you guess why we got a dog? It has to do with our pig. (Answer: storgh/ now has another object.)

They called her 'Cindy Lou' at the store, which is a stupid name. We're all at odds over what new name to use in its place. Current favorites: Dixie, Lu (for 'Lucia'), Sandy, and Ginger.

Does Xenophanes Attack 'Anthropomorphism'?

It's one of the few things having to do with Will Durant that I actually like. Google 'define: anthropomorphism', and one finds, at willdurant.com, "the interpretation of God in the likeness of man", which is very nice.

That seems to me exactly the sense that is meant when commentators say, as they do, that one of Xenophanes' great contributions was his critique of 'anthropomorphism.' To wit, McKirahan:

Like the Milesians, Xenophanes does not question the presence of the divine in the universe, only the way it was conceived. His attacks imply that god is not immaterial or responsible for evil, is not anthropomorphic, is eternal, self-sufficient, independent and master of everything, and unmoving (62).

In keeping with the Milesian conception of the divine, god is demythologized and impersonal, but not isolated from the universe, of which he is fully aware (though not through human sense organs) and over which he exercises control ('shakes all things'), though not by physical might, but effortlessly and through his thought, without having to move from place to place.
It's clear that McKirahan takes Xenophanes to be criticizing anthropomorphism in the Will Durant sense, because he says that Xenophanes' God is impersonal. (Yet then in a footnote McKirahan must explain why he nonetheless refers to Xenophanes' God as 'he': "In describing god, Xenophanes uses masculine forms of adjectives." --Well, yes, but not only that: it's hard also to see how an impersonal being "sees, hears, and thinks" (DK 21B24).)

And yet there is a narrower sense as well of 'anthropomorphism' as applied to God, namely: 'taking God to have a human shape or appearance', that is, a human or human-like body.

So, my question: Is Xenophanes' criticism directed at anthropomorphism in the broad or narrow sense? I think: in the narrow sense. Xenophanes wishes to deny that God has a body, yet he does not wish to deny that human thought and reasonability give a clue as to what God is like.

Admittedly, DK 21B23 (KRS 170) might seem to count against this:
One god, greatest among gods and men, in no way similar to mortals either in body or in thought.

ei}=j qeo/j, e)/n te qeoi=si kai\ a)nqrw/poisi me/gistoj,
ou)/ti de/maj qnhtoi=sin o(moi/oj ou)de\ no/hma.

I'll say something about that tomorrow.

06 September 2005


Josh Dever at the University of Texas, Austin, is compiling a modern list of successions, a 'family tree' of dissertation supervisors and their philosophical descendents. You can see it here and add to the genealogy, if you wish.

The influence of Mourelatos, Owen, Cooper may be discerned. Some smile-provoking reconstructions of ancient successions are added. But Vlastos is conspicuous for his absence so far, and European universities are hardly represented. Still, it's a worthy and time-honored project. (Do we still all flourish at 40?)

BACAP 2005-6

I'm very pleased that the commentators as well as speakers for this year's Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy have now been settled. It looks to be an excellent program.

All lectures are on Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm. (But note: the April 25 lecture is on a Tuesday.)

~September 22, at Boston College~
Eric Perl (Loyola Marymount)
The Togetherness of Thought and Being: A Phenomenological Reading of Plotinus' Doctrine 'That the Intelligibles are not outside the Intellect'"
commentary by John Berchman (Dowling College)
seminar topic: Ennead V.5 and V.9
contact: Gary Gurtler, gurtlerg@bc.edu

~October 27, at Clark University~
Kevin Flannery (Gregorian)
Force and Compulsion in Aristotle's Ethics
commentary by Thornton Lockwood (Fordham)
seminar topic: Force and Compulsion: Texts in NE and EE
contact: Michael Pakaluk, mpakaluk@clarku.edu

~November 17, at Holy Cross College~
Ed Halper (Georgia)
Metaphysics X
commentary by Arthur Madigan (Boston College)
seminar topic: "The One" in Met. I.2, 7-8
contact: May Sim, msim@holycross.edu

~February 9, at Boston University~
Deborah Modrak (Rochester)
Aristotelian Substance, Functional Unity, and Embedded Matter
commentary by Mary Louise Gill (Brown)
seminar topic: Substance in Met. VII.17 and VIII.2
contact: David Roochnik, roochnik@bu.edu

~March 16, at Boston College~
Suzanne Stern-Gillet (Bolton Institute)
Introspection, Plotinian and Augustinian
commentary by John Kenney (St. Michael's College, Vermont)
seminar topic: The Concept of Introspection
contact: Gary Gurtler, gurtlerg@bc.edu

~April 25, at Brown~
Pierre-Marie Morel (Paris I, Pantheon-Sorbonne)
Method and Evidence (enargeia): the Epicurean Prolepsis
commentary by Brad Inwood (Toronto)
seminar topic: Preconception in Epicurus
contact: Mary Louise Gill, mlgill@brown.edu
N.B. This is a Tuesday night lecture.

~May 18, at Dartmouth~
C.D.C. Reeve (North Carolina)
Plato's Goat-stags: Philosophers and Cities in the Republic
commentary by Mark McPherran (U. of Maine, Farmington)
seminar topic: Glaucon's Challenge to Socrates in Republic 2
contact: Margaret Graver, margaret.r.graver@dartmouth.edu

03 September 2005

Did Anaximander Accept "Sufficient Reason"?

This post falls in the category: what a non-expert wonders about when teaching X. (I expect to post many things of this sort, as I work through "History of Ancient Greek Philosophy" this Fall. May I hope that others, on the same path, will find such posts of interest?)

For years I've repeated the common claim that Anaximander, especially in his teaching about the earth, was relying upon something like the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Here are those familiar texts about the earth (texts and translations from Kahn):

The earth is aloft, not dominated by anything; it remains in place because of the similar distance from all points (Hippolytus).

th\n de\ gh=n ei)=nai mete/wron u(po\ mhdeno\j kratoume/nhn, me/nousan de\ dia\ th\n o(moi/an pa/ntwn a)po/stasin.

There are some who say that the earth remains in place because of similarity, as did Anaximander among the ancients; for a thing established in the middle, with a similar relationship to the extremes, has not reason to move up rather than down or laterally; but since it cannot proceed in opposite directions at the same time, it will necessarily remain where it is. (Aristotle, De Caelo, 295b11-16.)

ei)si\ de/ tinej oi(\ dia\ th\n o(moio/thta/ fasin au)th\n me/nein, w(/sper tw=n a)rxai/wn A).: ma=llon me\n ga\r ou)qe\n a)/nw h)\ ka/tw h)/ ei)j ta\ pla/gia fe/resqai prosh/kei to\ e)pi\ tou= me/sou i(drume/non kai\ o(moi/wj pro\j ta\ e)/sxata e)/xon: a(/ma d a)du/naton ei)j ta)nanti/a poiei=sqai th\n ki/nhsin: w(/st e)c a)na/gkhj me/nein.

And here are typical things that people say about this:
"...this explanation is the earliest certain instance of an appeal to the principle of Sufficient Reason" (Hussey, 26).

"For the history of ideas, Anaximander's theory of the earth's position is of an entirely different order of importance. Even if we knew nothing else concerning its author, this alone would guarantee him a place among the creators of a rational science of the natural world. ... More important for us is Anaximander's own use of this geometric idea [sc. of a circle] , as a general expression for the principle of symmetry or indifference. It is indeed the same notion which was glorified in modern times by Leibniz as his Principle of Sufficient Reason, according to which everything which is true or real implies a reason why it is so and not otherwise" (Kahn, 77).
But did Anaximander in fact accept this principle? I think not:

1. His famous fragment specifically supposes that Sufficient Reason is false. Extremes dominate at different times and places (e.g. hot in summer, cold in winter) for no apparent reason; the only 'reasonability' of the scheme is that these extremes get equalized over time.

2. An appeal to equipollence of forces or conditions is not an appeal to Sufficient Reason. Suppose I embed a glass marble in a slab of heavy jelly. Someone asks why it doesn't move in the jelly. I reply that it is similarly affected by the jelly on all sides. No 'Principle of Sufficient Reason' there.

3. The correct way to describe Anaximander's innovation (and he does have an innovation) is something else. It involves (we may say) "re-characterizing the explanandum". E.g. Galileo postulated that a body in motion remains in motion: in doing so, he re-characterized the explanandum, from "Why does this continue moving'?" to "Why is this not slowing down?" Anaximander does this also with his theory of heavenly objects. E.g. we might want to ask: "Why is that planet shining brightly there?" But since (it seems) Anaximander takes a planet to be (roughly) a tube with a puncture, he thinks the question is properly posed, rather, as "Why is Venus not shining everywhere else?" (Answer: Because the tube with fire inside is punctured only there.") Similarly also with the earth. The correct question to ask is not: "Why isn't it moving?" but rather "Why shouldn't it remain at rest?" This sort of shift happens all the time in science; it is not a matter of an appeal to Sufficient Reason.

02 September 2005

The Problem Is That I Read Too Fast

Can you guess which two volume work is referred to by the following?

Wittgenstein once wrote, "Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the right tempo. My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly". Similarly, to benefit from reading these volumes you need to read slowly. Read quickly, they can seem a superficial, repetitious, somewhat incoherent collection of allusions to halfway developed ideas -- or, worse yet, a sham version of a style Wittgenstein perfected in his later thought, but which it is well-nigh impossible to imitate with any authenticity.
Answer here.

But of course it's one thing to say that sentences won't be understandable if they are read quickly. It's another to say that they will appear to be superficial, repetitious, and half-baked sham imitations.

The Uniqueness of Persons

Did ancient philosophers lack a proper appreciation of human individuality, and does their ethical thought show this? Such is the charge presented by John Crosby, a leading ‘personalist’ philosopher, in his book, Personalist Papers (which I recently reviewed for the Journal of Markets and Morality).

According to Crosby, ethics is properly based on some notion of the ‘dignity of the human person’. Ancient philosophers, correctly so, recognized that the rational powers of the human soul conferred a special dignity on human beings. But they failed to see that there is a distinct and additional basis of human dignity, namely, an ineffable individuality, which is bound up with the fact that each human being is, as we say, a person.

Crosby argues that, if this individuality is not taken into account, then we must treat human beings as fungible, objectionably so, because each human being would serve equally well as an instance of rational nature. To illustrate this, Crosby uses a problem posed by Peter Singer. Singer says: suppose that a woman of limited means, who already has one child, has a second child who upon birth is discovered to have severe Down’s Syndrome; the woman believes with good reason that she could conceive another child, who would likely be healthy; she barely has the means to care for this Down’s Syndrome child in addition to her healthy child. Why, then, shouldn’t she kill the Down’s Syndrome child and ‘replace’ it with a healthy child? Crosby argues that, if all that is important about us is captured in this notion of ‘the dignity of our having a rational nature’, then there is no reason why she shouldn’t. By ‘replacing’ the Down’s Syndrome child, she brings into the world a better instance of rational nature, and a human being whose rational powers may be more fully developed.

We can avoid this conclusion, Crosby maintains, only by stressing that each human being has some ineffable individuality, which is not replaceable.

A similar argument has been put forward by Linda Zagzebski, "The Uniqueness of Persons." The Journal of Religious Ethics 29 (2001): 401-23, for which I give the abstract:

Persons are thought to have a special kind of value, often called "dignity," which, according to Kant, makes them both infinitely valuable and irreplaceably valuable. The author aims to identify what makes a person a person in a way that can explain both aspects of dignity. She considers five definitions of "person": (1) an individual substance of a rational nature (Boethius), (2) a self-conscious being (Locke), (3) a being with the capacity to act for ends (Kant), (4) a being with the capacity to act for another (Kant), and (5) an incommunicably unique subject (Wojtyla). She argues that none is capable of grounding both aspects of dignity since they are incompatible kinds of value; it is impossible for the same thing to ground both. Human persons are infinitely valuable in virtue of shareable qualities of their nature, whereas they are irreplaceably valuable because of a nonqualitative feature of their personhood.

And thus, two questions:

(1) Is it correct that ancient philosophers were blind to human individuality?

(2) Is it correct that, if individuality is not taken into account, then we must treat one another as in some sense ultimately replaceable?

(Vlastos’ “The Individual as Object of Love” seems to answer ‘yes’ to both of these questions, as regards Plato at least.)

01 September 2005

Eristic, or Deep Nonsense?

Christopher Shields has a review in NDPR of Gail Fine’s collected essays, Plato on Knowledge and the Forms (see the full review here), which focuses mainly on the paradox about inquiry in the Meno. Shields poses the question: if the paradox involves fallacies, and Plato (as it seems) is aware that it does, then why does Plato bring in the doctrine of recollection to answer it?

Here is Shields’ representation of the paradox:

(1) For all x, either S knows x or not;
(2) If S knows x, S cannot inquire into x;
(3) If S does not know x, then S cannot inquire into x; hence,
(4) For all x, S cannot inquire into x.
If S is any arbitrary inquirer, then for any x unknown by S, S should not waste her time with x.

And here is Shields’ attempt to show that it involves fallacies:

…if (2) has any chance of being true then 'know' must mean something like 'knows all about x', whereas if (3) has a prayer, 'does not know' must mean not 'does not know all about x' but rather 'does not know anything about x' with the result that either (2) is true and (3) is false, or (3) is true and (2) is false, or, if we give both (2) and (3) true readings, then (1) is false and not the instance of the excluded middle it may have first seemed to be.

To simplify: Shields claims that the paradox commits the fallacy of false alternative. It is false that we either know a thing or we fail to know it. Things have parts, and thus we can know them in part and reasonably wish to inquire about the rest.

But this doesn’t really get around the problem, does it? For instance, suppose one holds (as it seems Plato does) that true objects of knowledge cannot have parts?

Or, even if we granted that they did, the problem would break out all over again, as regards each part. You either know that part, or you do not. Assume that you know it. Then you know all about that part. But then you know, in particular, the whole of which it is a part and to which it is connected—and then, once again, there would no need for inquiry. (And if you retort that you knew only a part of that part, an infinite regress results.)

So perhaps Plato reasonably thought that he needed something like the doctrine of recollection to resolve the paradox? Of course, the paradox would still, for all that, be a piece of eristic, insofar as it was proposed with the intent merely to dazzle or stun.