28 February 2007

(Com)puto, ergo sum.

Lizzie reached a new level of existence today, which raises all kinds of alarming possibilities.

Flux and Opposites

I want to say more about MM's interpretation, but for today, here's a thought about flux and the unity of opposites.

It would seem that no interesting view results if either is asserted of some things only. It's not interesting to say that some things change (nor, pace Graham, that some things remain the same by changing); and it's not interesting to say that some things show (in some way) a unity of opposites.

One gets an interesting, metaphysical view, it seems, only when a claim is extended to everything--to cover being qua being, as it were. Now if we were to entertain thus extending one of these ideas, presumably our first choice should be the flux idea, since that is what the tradition reports.

So then the question becomes: on the supposition that Heraclitus held that "everything gives way, nothing remains the same", what work could the thesis of the unity of opposites be doing?

Now we might want to pause and call into question whether there is simply one thesis of the unity of opposites. That is, Heraclitus might be appealing to opposites for a variety of purposes, and it would be a mistake to assimilate them all together.

For instance, one use: appeal to coexisting opposites as a confirming sign of change. Why? Because whatever changes, changes from F to something non-F, but if it were entirely F, or entirely non-F, it would not be changing. Thus: anything that shows coincident opposites is likely to be changing; change is the best explanation of this.

Another use: appeal to opposites to make it seem more likely that something that appears to be stable is in fact changing. For example: the wholesomeness or foulness of water depends upon the condition of the living thing in water; thus, although the quality of the water seems stable (quantity is admitted to be unstable), it is in fact exceedingly liable to change, as those living things are exceedingly liable to change. Again: the lyre and other structures are stable because they are composites, and composites are liable to change. (Admittedly in view of the tension of the parts they tend to equilibrium, yet precisely because of that they alter easily, through vibration, etc.)

Each of these lines of thought is a recognized topos after Heraclitus. (e.g. to_ de\ xrh&simon ou) diame/nei, a)ll' a1llote a1llo gi/netai. Aristotle, Nic Eth 1156a21-22, supposing that usefulness is a trait that a thing has only in relation to other things; ta_ de\ a1llot' a1llwj kai\ mhde/pote kata_ tau)ta&, tau~ta de\ su&nqeta, Plato, Phaed. 78c, supposing that composite things are more likely to alter and be dispersed.)

And I wonder if all of the appeals to opposites can't be sorted into kinds which correspondingly underwrite flux.

27 February 2007

A First Glimpse of 'Truth'

He had the virtue of 'ready wit'. And don't we, to that extent, admire him as good?

'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Pilate was in advance of his time. For 'truth' itself is an abstract noun, a camel, that is, of a logical construction, which cannot get past the eye even of a grammarian. We approach it cap and categories in hand: we ask ourselves whether Truth is a substance (the Truth, the Body of Knowledge), or a quality (something like the colour red, inhering in truths), or a relation ('correspondence'). But philosophers should take something more nearly their own size to strain at. What needs discussing rather is the use, or certain uses, of the word 'true'. In vino, possibly, 'veritas', but in a sober symposium 'verum'.
That's the very clever first paragraph of J.L. Austin's essay, "Truth". I've only read it for the first time today. (Shocking, I know.)

It was something I just had to share, and all that I could post until later ...

26 February 2007

A Provocative Interpretation

Justice requires that, before moving on, I say something about Mary Margaret MacKenzie's interpretation of the river fragments in her paper "Heraclitus and the Art of Paradox".

In my improvisations, I had suggested that "You would not step in the same river twice" was proposed dialectically by Heraclitus, and that it looks forward to or invites some kind of reply or resolution. It was on this point that my thought coincided with MM's interpretation. Here is how she puts it:

The outrageous 91 directly challenges common sense; and it requires no philosophical effort to understand it. It appears, of course, immediately absurd to deny us the ability to go on getting our feet wet--so that we immediately respond, 'No, it is possible to step into the same river twice'. Let us call this response to the paradox the doxa.
That is what I had thought also. MM continues:
This is the correlate of the paradox, the truth which the paradox denies; any paradox has a corresponding doxa, just because seeing a paradox to be surprising or paradoxical involves us in the judgement that it appears to be false.
But here I would want to dissent. I don't think that, in fact, every paradox functions in the same way: not all paradoxical claims are intended dialectically, and not all of them invite us to reply with the obvious. (That's why to refute the Dichotomy by walking away from someone who explains it is ingenious, not obvious.)

I had thought that the statement as reported by Plato, "You would not step into the same river twice" invites such a response precisely because it uses the potential optative (relying for the moment, as I was, on Vlastos' judgment that it can stand). Naturally if one thinks that all paradoxical claims are dialectical, then the mood employed must be irrelevant, and MM follows the usual view in dismissing it as archaic.

MM then argues: The initial paradoxical claim invites the listener to articulate (perhaps only to himself) the doxa; but then paradox and doxa together may be combined in a single statement that takes the form of a contradiction (perhaps generalized or formalized slightly, precisely to call attention to the contradiction); but then this contradiction is resolved by Heraclitus, when he supplies the needed (but previously implicit) qualifiers:
It is impossible to step into the same river twice. (paradox)
We do step into the same river. (doxa, implicitly thought)
We both step and do not step, are and are not in the same rivers. (contradiction, formed by a synthesis of paradox and doxa)
To those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters flow. (a non-paradoxical and non-contradictory resolution)
According to this sort of interpretation, Heraclitus states paradoxes only provocatively, to get a line of argument started. MM concludes:
So all three of the river fragments are in some way true; but for different reasons, and at different stages of discourse. The connection between the three fragments that I have offered shows how the fragments could be retained, and arranged in an argumentative sequence, moving from pre-philosophical assumptions to a formal grasp of the dangers of contradiction. From 91 to 49a we move from common sense to reflection; at 49a we shift from material issues to formal considerations (away from banks and water to the worry about contradiction); and at 12 we can account for and resolve the formal difficulty in a non-paradoxical truth.

24 February 2007

A Litany of Philosophers

I don't know whether these photographs of recent philosophers by Steve Pyke are now old hat on the internet. I found them just today.

For those who do know them already, you may find it amusing to guess my choices.

1. Best blurb.
2. Most pathetic (word meant literally).
3. Most approachable.
4. Most interesting.
5. Most petty, alas.
6. Funniest.
7. Most inviting reconsideration.
8. Most admirable.
9. Best intentioned.
10. Le Penseur.

This juxtaposition is crushing: this, and then this.

Oh, and though not a philosopher, largest glasses.

23 February 2007

Dissoi Blogoi, Gamma

Happy Second Birthday!
February 23, 2007

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Flowers in a Vase, c. 1760-63,
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Dear Readers,

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog, as I have enjoyed writing it.


22 February 2007

Awake We Are Asleep

The reply to the second part of MM MacKenzie's argument is easiest.

Now it is true that Heraclitus could have proposed a thesis of indeterminacy without recognizing its consequences for the proposal itself, and without realizing that this commits him to self-refutation as soon as he opens his mouth; so that this is only indirect evidence against this interpretation of the paradoxical arguments.
But isn't this, rather, indirect evidence for the interpretation? No mistake is more common among philosophers than to propose a theory that cannot account for their own philosophizing. They do this repeatedly, even when they echo theories which have already been refuted in that way. When Hume said: "Pay no attention to statements belonging neither to mathematics nor to experimental science", he committed himself to self-refutation as soon as he opened his mouth, yet that didn't stop the Wiener Kreis from doing exactly the same thing 150 years later.

Plato refutes Protagoras in that way; he refutes Parmenides likewise. In fact, it's something of a special technique of Plato--isn't it?--to bring the theorist into his own picture and point out that the resulting complex is incoherent. (Hence the especial sting when in the dialogue Parmenides points out that the theory of Forms is exposed to exactly the same sort of objection!) That Plato thinks this way about the 'flux' interpretation of Heraclitus, I think, makes it more likely that that interpretation is correct.

Okay, let's turn to the first paragraph:
In the first place, the surviving evidence does not support it.
But doesn't that claim beg the question? If one accepts that Plato's report of the river utterance is genuine, one needs to explain why, by parity, one doesn't accept a saying along the lines of "Everything gives way; nothing remains"(see post below).
His cosmology has internal problems, as we shall see; none the less, it does not present us with a flux-ridden view of the world, but rather one in which the elements change in a regular cycle (cf. e.g. 31).
Perhaps that is Heraclitus' view, but even so, change in a regular cycle is still change! (I believe it's one of Guthrie's key arguments that a system oscillating between two extremes is nonetheless constantly changing.) --"But the cycle is regular." --Is it? Exactly regular? Why should we say that?
It is of course begging the question to say that the river paradox is an analogy for the flux of the world...
I'm not sure that relying on the interpretation that Plato supplies when he introduces Heraclitus' river image is precisely begging the question; also, it's certain that Heraclitus is not talking only about rivers. But, again, the question-- to be begged or not--is not whether the river fragment itself demonstrates that Heraclitus held to 'universal flux', but rather why we shouldn't ascribe this view to him.
... and even if it were, the river is conceded to remain stable and determinate ('the same river') even while the waters change.
But this consideration needn't move the flux advocate, as James Warren aptly points out.

Z Z Z Z Z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z z..... (I've lapsed back into my Guthrian slumbers).

21 February 2007

Aristotelian Natural Philosophy

A noteworthy conference at Rice University on March 24-5:

Saturday, March 24
9-10:30 AM: Robert Bolton, Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers, “ Causal Explanation and Demonstrative Knowledge in Aristotle”
10:45-12:15: Sean Kelsey, Associate Professor of Philosophy, UCLA, “Form and Matter in Physics I”
2:30-4:00 PM: Andrea Falcon, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Concordia University : “The Scope and Unity of Aristotle’s Investigation of the Soul”
4:15-5:45 PM: Mary Louise Gill, Professor of Philosophy and Classics, Brown University, “Elements in Aristotle's de Caelo”.

Sunday, March 25
10:00-11:30 AM: Robin Smith, Professor of Philosophy, TAMU, “The Analytics and Aristotle’s Scientific Method”

For further conference information, please contact Donald Morrison at donaldm@rice.edu.

Unflustered about Flux

I seem to be refuting the doctrine of universal flux all by myself, as I remain unchanged in my acceptance of a Guthrian interpretation of Heraclitus.

I ask: Why shouldn't one hold that, for Heraclitus, "everything is changing constantly"? (The authority of Plato and the tradition, to my mind, implies that the burden of proof goes that way.)

You cannot reply: "That's uncharitable. The view is full of absurdities. And it makes Heraclitus out to be holding contradictory things about the world."--since that's too strong. On the same grounds we should deny (e.g.) that Bradley was an Idealist; and we would need to dismiss half of Plato's philosophy. What is at issue, surely, is whether Heraclitus might have proposed a doctrine of universal flux in the service of some deeper point.

In recent posts I examined KRS' more focussed arguments and found them wanting.

Here are a new batch of arguments, from Mary Margaret MacKenzie's "Heraclitus and the Art of Paradox". Once again, I merely state these today. Are these arguments any stronger than those of KRS? I suspect not, and I'll tell you why--tomorrow. In the meantime, please feel free to share your judgments.

There are two difficulties in saddling Heraclitus with flux or total indeterminacy. In the first place, the surviving evidence does not support it. His cosmology has internal problems, as we shall see; none the less, it does not present us with a flux-ridden view of the world, but rather one in which the elements change in a regular cycle (cf. e.g. 31). It is of course begging the question to say that the river paradox is an analogy for the flux of the world; and even if it were, the river is conceded to remain stable and determinate ('the same river') even while the waters change.

Secondly, if things are indeterminate, whether over time or at a time, then nothing at all can be asserted to be true, not even the theory itself (cf. Plato, Theaetetus (Theat.) 181e ff). So the consequence, not to say the objective, of such theories of indeterminacy is scepticism or nihilism. As Aristotle points out (Metaph. 1005b 19 ff) if nothing is true of anything, then no utterance can be meaningful; not even the utterance. So the assertion of total indeterminacy amounts to the destruction of dialectic; and it is refuted dialectically, so that it is dialectically self-refuting. Now it is true that Heraclitus could have proposed a thesis of indeterminacy without recognizing its consequences for the proposal itself, and without realizing that this commits him to self-refutation as soon as he opens his mouth; so that this is only indirect evidence against this interpretation of the paradoxical arguments. None the less, it amounts to a prima facie reason against interpreting them that way, since it is clear enough that Heraclitus wishes to assert, not to deny, the possibility of dialectic, even if he allows that the truth is generally inaccessible (the complexity of his position will be further investigated in what follows).

20 February 2007

Evidence of Imperceptible Change

Is it unlikely that Heraclitus believed that "everything is always changing"? So KRS think. I gave their arguments yesterday; yet, in my view, these arguments are weak.

To someone in an agragrian society, such as Heraclitus, it would be evident that many things are changing imperceptibly: crops are growing, but we notice the change only if we look on widely separated days; animals grow, but we never see one growing; felled trees decay, but we may notice that they are rotted through only if our foot happens to fall through when we step on them. Change is exactly what one intelligently 'discerns' by paying close attention; imperceptible change is not something contradicted by experience.

It would hardly be surprising if someone were to generalize and hold that all living things, subject as they are to cycles of growth and decay, are constantly changing. One couldn't claim antecedently that it would be unlikely for Heraclitus to hold that.

(As regards Aristotle's,"all things are in motion all the time, but this escapes our perception", KRS say, "Aristotle here makes explicit what is implict in Plato, that many things (those that appear to be stable) must be undergoing invisible or unnoticed changes". But isn't it rather that Aristotle is merely making explicit what would reasonably have been the grounds for such a view in the first place?)

What is at issue, then, is whether Heraclitus might have extended this quite natural view to non-living things. Someone might maintain that the river example shows he was prepared to do exactly that. (On this point: Have you looked down at a large river, the sort that marks a boundary between states or nations, from a hillside or an escarpment? It appears solid and permanent, a 'ribbon of water'. Even to someone close up, only a river with rapids will evidently be moving. Surely in the 'river fragments' Heraclitus is wishing to draw a distinction between how a river appears to sight from afar, and how we test and confirm it to be, when we actually step in and feel the cool waters moving.)

If one were to object that rocks and bronze cauldrons are difficult cases, as they show no signs of changing at all, one might retort that large trees look unchanging, too, relative to corn or grass. Or: the fact that rocks and bronze cauldrons are constituents of things that show large-scale changes (think of Xenophanes on the revolutions of dry land and sea) indicates that they, too, must be changing.

You walk through a wood: the wind is changing; the leaves are changing; the trees are changing; the water is changing; the soil is changing. The rock isn't changing? Why? Why wouldn't the burden of proof be on someone who insisted on that?

As for the tendency to think of inanimate things as akin to animate: that is a commonly recognized characteristic of early Greek science. And which is the more difficult view: that rocks are changing imperceptibly, or that they have souls?

19 February 2007

A Changing Bronze Cauldron

After he discusses flux, Graham considers the 'unity of opposites' in Heraclitus. In the next few posts my plan is to discuss the relationship between those doctrines. For Heraclitus, does flux imply the unity of opposites? Does the unity of opposites imply flux? Or does each imply the other?

What Graham says on this key question, to me, is difficult to interpret:

Heraclitus' flux doctrine is a special case of the unity of opposites, pointing to ways things are both the same and not the same over time. He depicts two key opposites that are interconnected, but not identical.
I cannot figure this out, first, because 'pointing' has an unclear antecedent. (Is it the 'flux doctrine' or 'the unity of opposites' which does the pointing? If the former, then how can something 'pointing' also be a 'special case'? A special case is something seen to fall under a previously grasped rule.). Also, what are the 'two key opposites'? I believe that Graham means to refer to the river image, but then are the relevant opposites 'same river' vs. 'different waters', or 'at rest' vs. 'in motion'?

I'll consider these things more fully later.

But before going on I wanted to look at an objection raised by KRS (not mentioned in Graham's article). Let's take the doctrine of flux, for the moment, to be as Aristotle described it:
... all things are in motion all the time, but this escapes our perception (Phys. 253b9)
kai/ fasi/ tinej kinei=sqai tw~n o1ntwn ou) ta_ me\n ta_ d' ou1, a)lla_ pa&nta kai\ a)ei/, a)lla_ lanqa&nein tou~to th_n h(mete/ran ai1sqhsin.
KRS regard it as unlikely that Heraclitus believed any such thing. They give three arguments, which I number for clarity's sake:
  1. "Can Heraclitus really have thought that a rock or a bronze cauldron, for example, was invariably undergoing invisible changes of material? Perhaps so; but nothing in the extant fragments suggested that he did, and
  2. "his clearly-expressed reliance on the senses, provided they be interpreted intelligently, may suggest that he did not.
  3. "Before Parmenides and his apparent proof that the senses were completely fallacious--a proof that was clearly a shock to his contemporaries--gross departures from common sense should, we believe, only be accepted when the evidence for them is quite strong."
It's a question about the scope of application of the river image. Is everything like the river, or only some things? (Graham denied that the image applied to everything, but he also seemed to fudge the point with his phrase, "In general, at least in some exemplary cases,...".)

I think all three KRS arguments are weak. But what's your thought? Feel free to add comments before I give my view--tomorrow.

17 February 2007


My "Recent Comments" Hack started behaving strangely yesterday, calling up spam comments from last year.

Did some spreader of spam alter it maliciously? I don't know; but until I figure it out, I've removed the feature.

16 February 2007

A Private Logos?

My own question in approaching Dan Graham's article in SEP was, I suppose: What is state-of-the-art in Heraclitus studies? What is dispositive today for someone working in ancient philosophy?

I was prepared to be awoken from my dogmatic, Guthrian slumbers.

Yet I found the following, simply in the section on "Flux" (3.1):

1. Graham displays a confusion about the terms of his discussion: Is the 'Platonic interpretation' not sustainable (because it is 'uncharitable'), or is it sustainable, but 'less profound'? (We can put aside the question of whether it is uncharitable to Plato, Barnes, Guthrie, et al., to interpret them as being so uncharitable.)

2. Graham begs the question, insofar as he dismisses, without argument, Plato's report in the Cratylus as an 'interpretation', and does not ex ante regard it as a contender for being a genuine 'river fragment.'

3. He fails to recognize that Plato, in the Cratylus, intends to report two utterances of Heraclitus, not one, and that the first is apparently an utterance which precisely expresses a doctrine of flux.

4. Graham assumes, without good reason, that Heraclitus could not have made two statements about rivers.

5. He imputes an implausible (and anachronistic) view to Heraclitus, involving 'structures' that 'supervene'.

Why is this view implausible, even as an interpretation of the one fragment that Graham recognizes as genuine? Rivers don't have any supervenient structure. They are simply the waters that compose them, and any 'structure' they have is purely extrinsic, belonging properly to the riverbeds that they fill. This is especially evident in questions of the 'individuation' of rivers (which must go along with talk of 'the same'): Suppose two forks, the Rio and the Fleuve, merge into a single river: then is it the Rio which now continues, or the Fleuve, or neither? The decision is obviously conventional.

Suppose someone were to urge on you this philosophical view: "Things that lack unity may be put aside; but those that possess unity have exactly the sort of unity one sees in a river--and this includes you and me also." Why wouldn't you understand that as a doctrine of flux?

(I don't see, so far, how the fact that Heraclitus elsewhere refers to how things are 'measured' counts against this, since the most natural sense of 'to be measured' is, I take it, that some form or quantity be imposed accidentally and extrinsically--as in a river.)

Now all of this disappoints me insofar as Graham's article is part of an encyclopedia. What is an encyclopedia except the consolidation, if not of knowledge, then at least of opinion which is authoritative? (In contrast, KRS's "The matter is hard to be certain about" looks much more appropriate.) And once again I must bring in the viewpoint of students: Won't someone who has little Greek, and is unfamiliar with the scholarship, reasonably regard Graham's view as authoritative?

If I am wrong about any of these things, refute me (please).

15 February 2007

You Can't Speak about the Same River Twice?

(Apologia: Graham's article led me to think this out to a tentative conclusion. Why not write it as a post? The point is that one may arrive at an alternative view which equally, and perhaps better, accounts for all the evidence.)

I wonder why only one of the 'river fragments' can be genuine. Graham assumes this:

... on the plausible assumption that all sources are trying to imitate Heraclitus, who does not repeat himself, we would be led to choose B12 as the one and only river fragment, the only actual quotation from Heraclitus' book
I shouldn't have thought that giving two aphorisms about rivers would have counted has repeating oneself-- any more than that Heraclitus repeats himself since he wrote two aphorisms about war, or two about how wetness is bad for the soul. Why couldn't he have written two remarks about rivers?

Vlastos states a more generous and sensible canon:
...though Heraclitus may well have used the river image more than once, he is unlikely to have done so without significant variation in thought and expression.
But surely, "You cannot step into the same river twice" and "Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters flow" show significant variation--otherwise, why would Graham suppose that the sense of the first is inconsistent with that of the second!

Now, I wonder if you also don't like the plural ("rivers") in B12:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμβαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.
Even if we deny that, according to Heraclitus, a river is a paradigm of everything that is, surely rivers are meant to be paradigms of some other things. The river fragment is not simply an observation about rivers. But in other fragments where Heraclitus uses one thing as a paradigm of something that occurs more generally, he typically talks about that thing in the singular. The road up and down (not 'roads') is one and the same. Thunderbolt steers all things. (Not: "Thunderbolts steer all things.") A dry soul is wisest and best. Etc. (Are there any exceptions?)

Of course that is how it should be, since such language is more didactic and concrete. Plato's "You could not step twice in the same river" is like that.

Also, the plural is not well suited to remarks about identity, because it leads easily to ambiguities. ("Those stepping into the same rivers..." One person at different times? Many persons at one time? Many persons at many times?) Even Graham finds himself constrained to switch to the singular when he wants to state clearly his 'subtle and profound' point: "It makes perfectly good sense: we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters; if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river, but a lake or a dry streambed. ... There is a sense, then, in which a river is a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains."

So consider again:
di\j e0j to_n au)to_n potamo_n ou)k a2n e0mbai/hj
--not a statement about how things are ("You do not step into the same river twice"), or a modal claim about impossibility ("You cannot step into the same river twice"). Rather, it's a claim about what we might try to do, but can't succeed in doing. As such it invites a response.

Suppose someone were to tell you: "You simply are unable, try as you might, to step into a river twice." Caveat: as this might mean that one could not step into river B after having stepped into river A, one would have to clarify by adding "the same":
You simply are unable, try as you might, to step into the same river again, once you've stepped in it once.
Bu this sounds strange and arbitrary. "What's keeping me?", you would ask, "You think I can't? Well, here I go...."

And then one gives the reason:
When people do step into the same rivers, different and different streams of water flow.
That is, what you say is (taken altogether):
You would not step twice into the same river;
On those stepping into the same rivers, different and different waters flow.
(When you say this, someone takes to you be saying both that we do not, and that we do, step into the same rivers: 49a.)

Many sayings of Heraclitus have a similar structure: they consist of an initial, extremely paradoxical statement about a particular thing, followed by an statement that is law-like in character, and typically in the plural, giving an explanation of the paradox, e.g.

"Sea is the most pure and the most polluted water;
for fishes it is drinkable and salutary, but for men it is undrinkable and deleterious." (KRS)

θάλασσα ὕδωρ καθαρώτατον καὶ μιαρώτατον.
ἰχθύσι μὲν πότιμον καὶ σωτήριον, ἀνθρώποις δὲ ἄποτον καὶ ὀλέθριον

"And as the same thing there exists in us living and dead and the waking and the sleeping and young and old;
for these things having changed round are those, and those having changed round are these."

ταὐτό τ' ἔνι ζῶν καὶ τεθνηκὸς καὶ τὸ ἐγρηγορὸς καὶ καθεῦδον καὶ νέον καὶ γηραιόν·
τάδε γὰρ μεταπεσόντα ἐκεῖνά ἐστι κἀκεῖνα [πάλιν] μεταπεσόντα ταῦτα

"Things taken together are wholes and not wholes, something which is being brought together and brought apart, which is in tune and out of tune;
out of all things there comes a unity, and out of a unity all things."

συλλάψιες ὅλα καὶ οὐχ ὅλα, συμφερόμενον διαφερόμενον, συνᾷδον διᾷδον·
καὶ ἐκ πάντων ἓν καὶ ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντα

"God is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger, [all the opposites, this is the meaning];
he undergoes alteration in the way that fire, when it is mixed with spices, is named according to the scent of each of them."

ὁ θεὸς ἡμέρη εὐφρόνη, χειμὼν θέρος, πόλεμος εἰρήνη, κόρος λιμός [τἀναντία ἅπαντα· οὗτος ὁ νοῦς],
ἀλλοιοῦται δὲ ὅκωσπερ πῦρ, ὁπόταν συμμιγῇ θυώμασιν, ὀνομάζεται καθ' ἡδονὴν ἑκάστου

13 February 2007

Interlude on Nic. Eth. I.1

Everyone is familiar with the chestnut about the opening lines of the Nicomachean Ethics:

In arguing from "Every craft and mode of inquiry aims at some good" to "The good is what all things aim at", does Aristotle commit a Quantifier Shift fallacy?
One way out is simply to say that the conclusion, ta)gaqo&n, ou{ pa&nt' e0fi/etai, means "Goodness is what anything aims at"; it's a definition rather than a claim about unique existence.

I've liked this solution, but I wonder if there isn't a better way out. Here's my idea. Tell me what you think of it.

This solution depends on our recognizing that it is common for Aristotle to propose a generalization that, he thinks, is meant to be applied by our adding appropriate qualifications to both the subject and predicate. That is, frequently he intends that a generalization serve as a schema for a class of resembling statements. He often does this when he thinks that the resembling statements are related analogically.

Suppose we understand "The good is what everything aims at" in that way. Then it is a schema that is meant to be applied through the addition of appropriate qualifications to each side of the 'equation'. For instance:
The good in medicine is what everything in medicine aims at (viz. health).
The good in shipbuilding is what everyting in shipbuilding aims at (viz. a vessel).
The good in generalship is what everything in generalship aims at (viz. victory).
These claims are true definitionally. That is, if something associated with generalship does not aim at victory, then, strictly, it does not fall under the craft of generalship. 'The good' for generalship simply is what collects together various actions, practices, and instruments, and allows us to identify them all as belonging to generalship. Thus there is an essential connection between a good and everything collected together under that good.

We misunderstand the intent of Aristotle's statement, because we take "everything" to be an unrestricted universal quantifier that ranges over the universe. But that's not Aristotle's meaning. As far as he is concerned, the 'universe of discourse' for the quantifier is not yet fixed. One could use the quantifier in that unrestricted fashion, but then to signal this one would have to qualify each side of the equation accordingly:
The good of the universe is what everything in the universe aims at.
Now, observe that this interpretation accords well with Aristotle's subsequent argument, where he is precisely concerned with the correlation of goods with crafts (1094a8-9, cp. 1097a16-17), which he then uses as a starting point for an argument about how crafts are in turn collected together under higher crafts. Are there any signs that in I.1-7 Aristotle has an interested in isolated actions? No, his concern seems to be with actions as collected together under crafts.

Now suppose that this is the correct interpretation of "The good is what everything aims at". Does that follow from the first line of Nic. Eth.? Would the opening lines of the Ethics escape the charge of fallacy? Obviously so: from the observation that "Every craft and every method aims at some particular good", it follows trivially that generally the good of a craft (or method) is that at which everything that falls under it aims.

Now what might seem to be a hitch in this interpretation is the second phrase of the opening line. Recall that the opening line in full is:
Pa~sa te/xnh kai\ pa~sa me/qodoj, o(moi/wj de\ pra~ci/j te kai\ proai/resij, a)gaqou~ tino_j e0fi/esqai dokei.
Rowe translates:
Every sort of expert knowledge and every inquiry, and similarly every action and undertaking, seems to seek some good.
Ross has:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.
Doesn't this line speak of individual actions and 'undertakings' as also aiming at a good? That wouldn't fit with the inference to the claim that everything under a craft aims at the good of that craft.

But look again at that opening line. Notice that Rowe and Ross supply a quantifier in that second phrase which is not explicit in the Greek. Presumably they wish to carry over the force of the two quantifiers in the first phrase (pa~sa te/xnh kai\ pa~sa me/qodoj). But why is Aristotle careful to quantify separately 'craft' and 'inquiry' but not quantify at all 'action' and 'pursuit'?

In fact it's not unnatural to take that second phrase as something of a parenthetical remark:
Every sort of expert knowledge and every inquiry--and action and undertaking similarly--seems to seek some good.
Then this parenthetical remark can be handled in either of two ways.

1. Take it to be referring to those actions and undertakings that fall under the crafts and modes of inquiry already mentioned. After all, what is a craft or inquiry except some way of organizing actions, undertakings, along with instruments? We would correctly view a craft as something that is precisely constituted by actions and undertakings. Compare: "Every orchestra and ensemble, and instrument and instrumentalist likewise, ...." Doesn't the second phrase naturally mean the constituents of what are mentioned in the first phrase? In fact, pra~cij is used in just this way, to refer to sorts of actions as constitutive of a craft, a few lines later, at 1094a12: au3th de\ kai\ pa~sa polemikh_ pra~cij u(po_ th_n strathgikh&n.

2. Alternatively, understand pra~cij and proai/resij here to mean, simply, a craft or mode of inquiry. (In which case the parenthetical remark adds nothing.) Strange idea? Think again: pra~cij is used in just that way at 1094a7 (pollw~n de\ pra&cewn ou)sw~n kai\ texnw~n kai\ e0pisthmw~n polla_ gi/netai kai\ ta\ te/lh), and proai/resij at 1102a13 (ei0 de\ th~j politikh~j e0sti\n h( ske/yij au3th, dh~lon o3ti gi/noit' a2n h( zh&thsij kata_ th_n e0c a)rxh~j proai/resin).

12 February 2007

Deep or Shallow?

Today's comment risks seeming nit-picky, I acknowledge. However, I did wish to make this point before proceeding. And, in any case, it raises a perplexing question about what makes a viewpoint interesting philosophically, and how exactly the 'principle of charity' works when we are interpreting a philosopher.

My concern centers on this paragraph from Graham's article:

According to Barnes’ version, Heraclitus is a material monist who believes that all things are modifications of fire. Everything is in flux (in the sense that “everything is always flowing in some respects,” 69), which entails the coincidence of opposites (interpreted as the view that “every pair of contraries is somewhere coinstantiated; and every object coinstantiates at least one pair of contraries,” 70). The coincidence of opposites, thus interpreted, entails contradictions, which Heraclitus cannot avoid. On this view Heraclitus is influenced by the prior theory of material monism and by empirical observations that tend to support flux and the coincidence of opposites. In a time before the development of logic, Barnes concludes, Heraclitus violates the principles of logic and makes knowledge impossible. Obviously this reading is not charitable to Heraclitus.
Graham then goes on to ascribe to Heraclitus the view that a river is "a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains (cf. Hume Treatise 1.4.6, p. 258 Selby-Bigge)". This is a view which, he thinks, is "much more subtle and profound":
On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all). In general, at least in some exemplary cases, high-level structures supervene on low-level material flux.
Now my question for today concerns an ambiguity in Graham's discussion. Does he hold:
1. Graham's interpretation of 'the river fragment' should be favored, because Barnes' interpretation simply cannot be charitably ascribed to anyone. The reason is that it ascribes contradictions to Heraclitus.
2. Graham's interpretation of 'the river fragment' should be favored, because it is more subtle and profound than Barnes'.
(By the way, by "Graham's interpretation" I mean the interpretation he favors; it is of course not original with him, and he follows others in advocating it.)

Graham seems to begin his discussion of the 'river fragments' as if he believes 1., and that the purpose of his exercise in interpretation is simply to find some interesting view in the fragments. But he seems to conclude his discussion as though he thinks 2.

Now I doubt we should accept 2. That is, unless on the proposed interpretation Heraclitus gives some interesting account of 'high-level structures' and 'supervening' (compare: Aristotle on form), then Graham's interpretation would seem, rather, pedestrian. Wouldn't it simply be a view that avoids the really deep difficulties? And I don't see that Heraclitus gives any such account. (More on this tomorrow.)

(By the way, can someone please explain what "In general, at least in some exemplary cases, ..." means?)

However, as regards 1., putting aside the question of whether Barnes' interpretation is a fair representation of Plato's (as Graham presupposes), there would still be several places at which that sort of interpretation could, in principle, be contested, short of rejecting the doctrine of flux--in which case 1. is not sustainable. That is, one could hold that contradictions are assertible only of non-ultimate reality (as many Idealists held), or that knowledge of material reality is in one sense is impossible, but in another sense is possible (much as Plato in the Timaeus holds), or that knowledge is impossible, but that that's not a difficulty, because something other than knowledge is most desirable. And so on.

Graham cites Hume as holding the "subtle and profound" view he finds in the river fragment, and I suppose this functions as an argument from authority: we are to think that it's charitable to ascribe to Heraclitus any doctrine found in Hume. But Hume also held in the Treatise (as did Wittgenstein in the Tractatus), that a changing object is not identical to itself at different times--the very interpretation of the river fragment that Graham supposes it would be uncharitable to accept!

11 February 2007

This Quintessence of Dust

Two anecdotes (or three--see below) from today.

Gregory (3 years old) approaches me as (believe it or not) I am baking a cake in the kitchen. He's crying about a fight he's having with his brother, Nicholas (5 years old). "Nicholas doesn't want to add the garage to the train tracks but I do!" (I have no idea what this means, what the fight is about.) "Let Nicholas decide," I say, "Do it the way he wants." "Why?" Gregory asks. "Because Nicholas is older than you," I reply. Gregory then exclaims, lifting up his arms as he speaks, exasperated (in his imperfect pronunciation), "But you MOH older than Nick!"

Now I ask you: What does it mean about us, that a 3 year old can instantaneously frame an impeccable a fortiori argument like that?

Then today also a conversation with Joseph.

J: "Dad, was space always here?* Did it just go on and on?"
M: "No, space was created by God." (Of course I answer as I think true.)
J: "Oh, but then what did God make it from? Wasn't there space before that."
M: "He made space from nothing. There was nothing, and then God created space."
J: "I don't get that. I thought that there was space for a long time, and then God came along."
M: "No, if he came into existence, he wouldn't be God. If a thing came into existence, it couldn't be God."
J (very puzzled): "Wow, I don't get it. My mind just doesn't get these things."

Now, consider: Joseph spent most of the day today crawling around on the floor playing with wooden trains and cars. Every now and then he gets up and asks a question about space and infinity. My question is: What kind of being is that? I find it frightening, frankly.

I'm not talking about any special intelligence of my own children. Joe's a smart kid, that's clear, but any child whose mind or emotions has not been dulled is, I believe, basically the same.

What I mean is that Gregory has just been potty-trained. A year ago he could hardly speak. And now he rattles off arguments as if he were breathing. Joseph is 6 years old but talks as naturally about infinity and the origin of worlds as he does about his toys. He doesn't see himself as going off into some special realm of the 'metaphysical'; it's just another thing to talk about. (Although tellingly he recognizes a limit to his comprehension that he does not find in other things--those he takes himself to understand, even when he doesn't.)

As I said: this frightens me, the kinds of beings they are--we are.

*It occurred to me later that I'm not sure how he was using this word, "space". Yesterday I had told him--in the course of a similar conversation, between his playing with blocks--that if one looks far away in space through a telescope, then one looks back in time, because space and time are "the same thing".

Greg, Joe, and Nick.

I thought I would add an anecdote concerning Nick, for completeness' sake. We went for a walk in the afternoon along the Charles River, which, although not frozen through, has a sheet of ice on top. Joseph was enjoying throwing broken sticks out onto the ice, watching them skid almost to the middle of the river. Nick for his part busied himself with scooping up handfuls of dirt from the river bank and throwing the dirt like a shower onto the ice. "Hey, that's--what do you call it?--cinnamon!" (He was thinking of how I make capucinno. And notice how a homely image such as that can stay in the back of a child's mind, ready to be brought forward.)

10 February 2007

Plus ça Change

Here's a first question I have about Graham's article on Heraclitus. It has to do with how he handles a line from Plato. Graham is certainly not alone in doing this; he follows common opinion. That opinion may be well-founded. But to me it appears at first glance not to be. So I simply raise this question, and later I will attempt to answer it more conclusively for myself, or, if you know the answer, please tell me.

The line from Plato is a very famous passage from Cratylus 402a:

Le/gei pou 9Hra&kleitoj o3ti pa&nta xwrei= kai\ ou)de\n me/nei, kai\ potamou~ r(oh|~ a)peika&zwn ta_ o1nta le/gei w(j di\j e0j to_n au)to_n potamo_n ou)k a2n e0mbai/hj
Fowler renders this:
Heraclitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream.
Now my question concerns the status of the two phrases in red, in particular, whether we should treat them differently or the same. Graham (following lots of others) presupposes that the first phrase is an interpretation and the second a direct quotation. But what is the reason in the text itself to treat them differently? If we understand Plato to be intending to give a direct quotation in the second phrase, then mustn't we understand him to be intending to do the same in the first?

I am not raising a question about whether Plato actually succeeds in getting the words right or remembering them correctly. My question is simply about his intent: From the way he writes this passage, should we take him to be intending to refer to two passages in Heraclitus that he regards as distinct? And my first impression is that the answer to this question is "Yes". Plato is intending to refer to two distinct passages. (In that case to dismiss the first and give credence to the second, or to explain the first as a recasting of the second, would--without independent evidence--be misguided.)

The argument for taking them as intended in the same way is simply that they are introduced in the same way.

One might respond that the first is introduced with pou ("you know", "I take it", or perhaps even "somewhere"). But if this means, "I take it", its force carries over throughout the sentence, and if it means "somewhere", then it only strengthens the case for an intended direct quotation. (If anything, isn't it the second phrase that is introduced in a weaker way, with w(j rather than o3ti?)

Furthermore, a TLG search quickly reveals that elsewhere le/gei pou o3ti is used by Plato only to introduce (what is taken to be) a direct quotation:

Cratylus, 402b6
le/gei de/ pou kai\ 0Orfeu_j o3ti
0Wkeano_j prw~toj kalli/rrooj h}rce ga&moio,

Protagoras 339a6
le/gei ga&r pou Simwni/dhj pro_j Sko&pan to_n Kre/ontoj u(o_n tou~ Qettalou~ o3ti

a1ndr' a)gaqo_n me\n a)laqe/wj gene/sqai xalepo&n,
xersi/n te kai\ posi\ kai\ no&w| tetra&gwnon, a1neu yo&gou

In the Protagoras the introduced quotation is taken to be so familiar that both Socrates and Protagoras could recite it from memory. Thus pou apparently does not itself indicate any unclarity or vagueness. (Presumably it is used, rather, in a polite and self-depreciating way: a speaker uses it to pretend that he only vaguely remembers what in fact he has a complete grasp of.)

I don't see why "All things move and nothing remains the same" should be regarded as too blunt, not sufficiently paradoxical, to be similar to Heraclitus' original words. It seems paradoxical and clever enough to say that everything remains moving, that constantly nothing stays the same. (Yes, that can be the suggestion of the present tense. And compare the repetition, sc. constancy, in ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα in B12, which brings out exactly the same paradox.)
In recent decades ... some scholars have become skeptical about the accuracy of the Platonic-Aristotelian interpretation of Heraclitus' views on change; and with good cause, for the fact is that there is nothing in the extant fragments about the constant flux of all things, even though one would have expected the survival of some original support for a view so widely popularized in the fourth century.
Thus Kirk in 1951. My question, in a sense, is why this sort of interpretation isn't simply an exercise in circular argument. It excludes at the start the evidence for the "Platonic-Aristotelian interpretation" (i.e. as much independent evidence as one ever gets as regards Heraclitus), and then it considers that it is making an argument when it says that there is no evidence for it.

09 February 2007


I'll be discussing over the next several days an article published just yesterday in SEP by Daniel Graham on Heraclitus. (How's that for currency?) Please read along if you wish to join me.

My first impression (I grant that first impressions are often misleading) is that I'm struck by what seems a double-standard in the article: lots of rigor and a commendably high standard of evidence when the interpretations of others are examined, but a certain breeziness when the author's own interpretation is being advanced.

(Why give a first impression? This is a blog after all. I can easily give second and third impressions.)

Also, I wonder if the article really is suitable for an encyclopedia. It even has a footnote. (This ties into the earlier point. The author's quickness when putting forward his own view is certainly understandable, if he writes as relying on work published elsewhere. But then the article would not be suitable for an encyclopedia, as not being on its own terms self-contained.)

Of course, one might wonder whether an encyclopedia article on Heraclitus is even possible.

Answer to the Mystery Passage

You may find it in small print, in the earlier post.

To make small print readable, in Firefox hold down Control and press the "+" key as many times as you wish (reversible by pressing the adjacent "-" key).

In IE, pull down the View menu and choose a larger text size.

08 February 2007

Haven't a Clue

Here's a passage that I've looked at for years but the other day realized, "I don't have the slightest idea what it means." Fortunately, I'm in good company in thinking so.

The passage is from Aristotle's famous critique of a Platonic theory of the Good in NE I.6. In the midst of his critique (1096b5-8), he takes time out to mention and praise, in contrast, a Pythagorean view:

piqanw&teron d' e0oi/kasin oi9 Puqago&reioi le/gein (5) peri\ au)tou~, tiqe/ntej e0n th|~ tw~n a)gaqw~n sustoixi/a| to_ e3n: oi[j dh_ kai\ Speu&sippoj e0pakolouqh~sai dokei=. a)lla_ peri\ me\n tou&twn a1lloj e1stw lo&goj:

Rowe and Broadie translate:
The Pythagoreans seem to have something more persuasive to say about the matter, when they place the One in the column of goods; and apparently Speusippus followed their lead. But let us leave these people for another occasion.
You may see the passage in its context here. ("these people"? Apparently because of the change from singular to plural. Yet the plural is idiomatic; only the singular should be given special treatment, viz. "something more persuasive to say about it".)

Now Rowe and Broadie are also at a loss to explain the passage. Here is their note:
The followers of Pythagoras (6th-century BCE mathematician, philosopher, and ascetic) based their metaphysics on pairs of contraries forming two columns:

Limit Unlimited
Odd Even
One Many, etc. (Metaph. I.5, 986a22-6)

Ar. refers to the left-hand one as 'the column of goods' even though Good itself appears as an item in it lower down. His comparison with Platonism presumably has to do with the relations in each theory between Good and One. Plato, Ar. tells us, identified them (Metaph. XIV.4, 1091b13-15), whereas the Pythagoreans distinguished them. We can only guess why Aristotle prefers the Pythagorean theory to Plato's.
Rackham cites an article by Burnet (in Classical Review , vol. 3, p. 198; see JSTOR), who does make a guess. For Burnet, Aristotle is asserting: 'It is more plausible to say that the One is good than that the Good is one.' (?) But the text so understood is out of place, he thinks; it would be 'simpler' if it were placed after 1096a, 34, gumnastikh/ :
Perhaps the present position of the sentence is due to the 'editor' having supposed that there was some reference to the view of Speusippus and the Pythagoreans that the Good was not eternal, for which Met. 1072b, 30 and 1091 a, 34. But it seems hard to find such a reference in the sentence as we have it.
Does this clarify things for you? It doesn't for me. And why move the text if it doesn't really clear things up?

07 February 2007

Mystery Passage: Guess the Book and Author

I've thought of adding this feature to my blog, and today I'll do it. Once a month, I'll give a quotation from a book, and your job is to guess which book it is, by which author.

Today's inaugural post along these lines has a bonus. You can also try to guess an author quoted within the text.

The mystery passage I have in mind is found within a section of the book which carries this curious subtitle:


And the passage is as follows. (You will see that it contains a quotation. Your task is to guess also the source of the quotation.)

We are wilful, and are so from infancy. We may think that when a baby cries and screams for the breast this shows that he is the helpless victim of his physical needs. Yet we do not have to think that. Do we really know that a baby's physical needs are objectively greater and therefore more overwhelming than those of adults, and that the baby is simply overcome by his needs? We could equally think that a baby values his needs in an infantile way. What is overwhelming is the baby's peremptory will, his desires, his demands. ______ tends to come down in favor of the second opinion:
At first ... the child is much more dependent and in much more need than the animal. Yet in this, too, the child already manifests its higher nature. It at once makes known its wants in unruly, stormy, and peremptory fashion. Whereas the animal is silent or expresses its pain only by groaning, the child makes known its wants by screaming. By this ideal activity, the child shows that it is straightaway imbued with the certainty that it has a right to demand from the outer world the satisfaction of its needs, that the independence of the outer world is non-existent where man is concerned.

Answer (increase text size to view):

I wasn't entirely fair. The subtitle in Latin would understandably throw someone off. But the passage comes from John Casey's Pagan Virtue (Clarendon, 1990), and the text he quotes is Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, sect. 396.

05 February 2007

What is Philosophy?

John Marenbon's Early Medieval Philosophy, which I've been reading after encountering his SEP article on Boethius, in its second edition Preface offers some provocative comments on the history of philosophy.

Marenbon describes how he changed his view of philosophy, and therefore of the history of philosophy, between writing Early Medieval Philosophy and Later Medieval Philosophy.

When I wrote Early Medieval Philosophy ... I thought of philosophy as a single, identifiable subject. Although I tried in passing to provide a definition of it ('rational argument based on premises self-evident from observation, experience and thought'), in practice I assumed that any thinker who appeared to share the methods and interests of modern British philosophers was a philosopher, and that all other thinkers were theologians, mystics, poets, scientists or whatever, but not philosophers.
One would think that ancient Greek philosophy is presupposed for the study of medieval philosophy; and yet few would be tempted to define 'philosophy' in that way for the ancients, or to distinguish it thus from theology, science, and other fields of inquiry. Acknowledging this, Marenbon continues:
I knew that early medieval thinkers themselves did not make any such distinction between philosophy and non-philosophy. Indeed, I prefaced the book by noting that 'philosophical speculation was one--often minor--part of their activity, which they rarely separated from other types of thought, logical, grammatical, scientific or theological'. But it was part of my duty as an historian of philosophy, I thought, to distinguish the texts and passages of the period which were philosophical from those which were not. In this way I would show that 'it is possible to speak of early medieval philosophy, just as it is possible to speak of antique, later medieval or modern philosophy'.
Yet this is not entirely satisfactory, as it supposes that the main difference between medieval thinkers and ourselves, is that we are more fastidious in flagging and observing boundaries between disciplines than they, and that they were more often polymaths.

It is not surprising, then, that Marenbon, as he composed Later Medieval Philosophy, rejected this view :
I began--gradually but firmly--to consider that my earlier approach was misleading. ... I suggest that there is no single, identifiable subject -- 'philosophy' -- which has been studied by thinkers from Plato's time to the present day. Although some of the problems discussed by thinkers in the past are similar to those discussed by philosophers today, each belongs to a context shaped by the disciplines recognized at the time. The historian who isolates 'philosophical' arguments of the past from their contexts, studying them without reference to the presuppositions and aims of their proponents, will not understand them.
But there are three things going on here. Marenbon claims: (i) philosophy is not a definable, integral field of study; (ii) there are no enduring philosophical 'problems', which are addressed by philosophers at different times and in different contexts; (iii) even what is called 'philosophy' at a particular time cannot be understood except in its relation to other disciplines, not regarded as 'philosophy'.

Marenbon next gives the following example, ostensibly as an example of (iii):
For instance, the treatment of human knowledge by Aquinas, Duns Scotus and Ockham should be seen in the context of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century theology, where investigation of the human intellect was conducted, not for its own sake, but as a way of exploring the nature and cognitive powers of disembodied souls, angels and God.
Surely that is too strong: he should say, 'not merely for its own sake'.
The historian of philosophy is indeed entitled to select which problems he examines, and he may, if he wishes, explicitly choose those which seem closest to modern philosophical concerns; but he must then be able to relate past discussion of them to its context, otherwise he will misunderstand the arguments he is trying to interpret.
But this looks like a much weaker claim than (ii) or (iii) above. We can grant that, in coming to understand a problem, we need to pay attention to the context, without however also holding that the problem, even as formulated then, cannot be fruitfully investigated apart from that context. Yet Marenbon's phrase, 'seem closest', suggests that, in his view, the problem is always affected by its context.

This suggestion is confirmed by Marenbon summary of the development of his view:
The earlier book offers a history of how thinkers in its period discussed some of the supposedly perennial problems of philosophy. The later book describes the organization, presuppositions and aims of studies in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century universities. It goes on to consider how some thinkers of the time treated one important question, the nature of intellectual knowledge. This question has similarities to some which modern philosophers try to answer, but it is not identical to any of them.
But then is the later book is misnamed? Should it be called, rather, 'A History of the University in the Late Middle Ages'? It would be a history of the university which (a common approach in history) illustrates historical trends by looking at one particular theme.

No doubt both of the earlier and later positions are mistaken. British philosophy in the late 20th century is not the standard for philosophy. Philosophy is not well-defined as "deductions from self-evident premises". But also: it is false that there is no such thing as philosophy; that the history of philosophy must be the history of institutions and contexts.

Yet then: How do we characterize the correct view?

03 February 2007

Author's Viewpoint in the Consolation of Philosophy

The question of whether Boethius wrote his Consolation as a Christian should be resolved, it seems to me, not in a general fashion, but rather through a detailed study of how Boethius adapts, for his purposes, references and allusions to classical authors.

The specific question we need to ask is:

In these references and allusions, does Boethius use a manner of statement, or form of speech, that is best explained on the hypothesis that he is deliberately altering classical sources with a view to integrating them with Biblical ideas or themes?
I see something of what I have in mind in an article by John Magee, "Note on Boethius, Consolation I.1,5; 3,7: A New Biblical Parallel" (Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 42, No. 1. (Mar., 1988, pp. 79-82), which argues that Boethius' image of Philosophy in torn robes is meant to allude, in part, to the image of the tearing of the garment of Christ-- since that image was used by Augustine and other Fathers to represent the division of the true faith by heretics, yet Boethius likely viewed his own imprisonment as a result of the plots of heretics.

Gruber points out that the image has possible antecedents in Homer and Proclus. But, again, the key question is (the Baysian one of) whether Boethius uses this perhaps not uncommon image in a form that would be unexpected if he were drawing solely from these sources, but that would be natural if, on the other hand, he intended at the same time to suggest an allusion to a Christian image.

That is, we need to consider whether there are expressions in the text of the Consolation, which fall short of the rather explicit allusion to Wisdom 8:1 in III.12P, but yet which, through how they have been changed, indicate a subtle and pervasive adherence to a Christian viewpoint.

I have carried out no systematic study along these lines (yet does any such exist?). But here are three examples from my rather quick inspection, in this spirit, of simply Book I.

(1) (Boethius to Philosophy, I P4, 38)

instillabas enim auribus cogitationibusque cotidie meis pythagoricum illud e(/pou qew=| .

Kirk and Raven give qeoi=j e(po/menoj as the original. A deliberate change to the singular may be explained, of course, by Boethius' wanting to make the maxim broadly consistent with monotheism. Yet note that the altered maxim at the same time reverberates with perhaps the most common exhortation to Christian discipleship, "follow Christ daily" (e.g. a)ra/tw to\n stauro\n au)tou= kaq' h(me/ran kai\ a)kolouqei/tw moi, Lk. 9:24).

(2) (Philosophy to Boethius, I P5 4)
si enim cuius oriundo sis patriae reminiscare, non uti atheniensium quondam multitudinis imperio regitur, sed ei(=j koi/ranoj e)stin, ei(=j basileu/j, qui frequentia ciuium non depulsione laetetur, cuius agi frenis atque obtemperare iustitiae libertas est.
The Greek is a quotation from Iliad II, where Agamemnon urges the Achaeans not to compete for supremacy, as if they were all kings. Yet in its new context, where the quotation serves as a profession of monotheism, for which Boethius has changed the verb to the indicative (Homer has e)/stw), it now becomes similar to the Septuagint, Deut. 6:4: ku/rioj o( qeo\j h(mw=n ku/rioj ei(=j e)stin.

(3) (Philosophy to Boethius, I P5):
postremus aduersum fortunam dolor incanduit conquestusque non aequa meritis praemia pensari in extremo Musae saeuientis, uti quae caelum terras quoque pax regeret, uota posuisti.
A strange prayer, on Boethius' part, quae caelum terras quoque pax regeret! Whatever its antecedents, did Boethius intend also that it resonate with: sicut in caelo, et in terra?

The question, I say, cannot be decided in any way but this. And one suspects that, when it is looked at in this way, we will find, not an absence of evidence of the author's Christian (or, rather, Biblical) viewpoint, but rather hardly anything except this.

02 February 2007

Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire

Philosophical theology, it seems, is often a matter of choosing the least misleading image.

Consider these options: "God knows something because it happens" vs. "Something happens because God knows it." The latter might seem problematic, since, among other things, it can seem to make freewill problematic. (Indeed, as we have seen, because Boethius affirms the latter at the very end of the Consolation, Marenbon is even tempted by an ironic reading of the work.) But if the latter is problematic, the former is even more problematic.

Suppose God knows something because it happens. (i) Then did it happen first, without God's knowing it? Then God would either not be omnipotent, or not an intelligent cause. Also, (ii) God's knowing it, since this is a consequence of the thing's happening, would seem to be a matter of some pathos in God, and thus God would not be an entirely actualized being--in which case he would not be a first cause. Also, (iii) when something changes, God's knowledge would seem to change, and thus God would exist in time. Also, (iv) if its happening were prior to God's knowing it, then, it seems, it could in principle happen without God's knowing it, which would seem to imply that God requires a medium for knowing it.

I think Boethius is aware of these difficulties and gestures at them briefly (in the highlighted phrase):

So that the difficulty you put forward a short time ago, that it was unfitting if our future is said to provide a cause of God's knowledge, is solved. The power of this knowledge which embraces all things in present understanding has itself established the mode of being for all things and owes nothing to anything secondary to itself.

42. ex quo illud quoque resoluitur quod paulo ante posuisti, indignum esse si scientiae dei causam futura nostra praestare dicantur. 43. haec enim scientiae uis praesentaria notione cuncta complectens rebus modum omnibus ipsa constituit, nihil uero posterioribus debet.
Yet note that Boethius says more than that the alternative is unacceptable. He says actually that he has solved (or dissolved: resoluitur) that difficulty also. That is, he thinks that, in dissolving the difficulty about divine foreknowledge and human freedom, he has thereby dissolved the difficulty about divine omnipotence and human freedom.

And it makes sense that he would think this, because both difficulties would appear to arise in the same way. We suppose that God's foreknowledge of future human actions implies that we are not free, because we imagine that God is constrained to know the future in the same way that we do, when we know something in the future (i.e. by tracing forward necessitated chains of cause and effect). Similarly, we suppose that God's power over future human actions implies that we are not free, because we imagine that God is constrained to affect the future, in the same way that we are, when we control something future, viz. by changing something in the past, which necessitates that the thing about to happen in the future will proceed differently from how it would have happened on its own.

Note also that the main theme of book III had been that God suaviter omnia disponit: that God acts on nature precisely without that sort of violence. Marenbon's interpretation in effect demands that Boethius take up this theme all over again. Indeed, Marenbon can get the problem going only by stating it in such a way that it presupposes that created things do not have their own natures. Marenbon wrote:
Although Philosophy considers that she has successfully resolved the character Boethius's problems, the reader is left asking whether this final concession, which makes God the determiner of all events, does not ruin the elaborate defence of the contingency of human volitions she has just been mounting.
But Boethius is not an occasionalist. He denies that natures can be analyzed into bundles of 'events'. For Boethius, God does not cause 'events', which somehow constitute or are taken to constitute natures. God causes things qua having natures, and among these are rational natures.