31 May 2007

Fruitless vs. Fruitful Mistakes

"That's a seriously mistaken view. It will set scholarship back for years as people try to argue against it."

--So spoke a friend as regards the most controversial thesis in a then recently published book on Aristotle by a very prominent scholar.

Perhaps under the influence still of Popper from my undergraduate years, I was taken aback by his remark. (Popper, you will recall, held that Zeno's paradoxes were among the most important ideas ever put forward by philosophers, since they inspired so many refutations--an unsurprising view for someone who held that science proceeds largely through falsification.)

Isn't it always worthwhile to put forward an interesting idea?, I thought to myself after he spoke. If that scholar's thesis--sharply formulated and controversial--generates attention and discussion, isn't that all for the better?

I couldn't understand my friend's view then, but I think I do now. Surely there can be fruitless as well as fruitful mistakes. Can't a scholarly community take a wrong turn in its discussion, just as an individual can in his research? (And by a "wrong turn" I mean one looks back and thinks that the time was simply wasted.) Doesn't it at least sometimes happen that considerations of soundness and truth outweigh those of ingenuity and originality?

Furthermore, as regards a major scholar in particular: Doesn't he have a responsibility simply to get things right? To the extent that a scholar has prominence, to that extent he is something of a leader: Can he be reproached, then, if he leads a community of scholars down a false path, just as a political leader can be reproached for a bad decision, even if made with the best of intentions?

My thoughts have turned in this direction as a result of reading Luc Brisson's contribution to OSAP XXVIII (which I am reviewing), "Ethics and Politics in Plato's Laws", which is a reply to Chris Bobonich's Plato's Utopia Recast. It's no surprise to readers of this blog that I find Bobonich's book to be misguided (see e.g. here and here). But is it misguided in a fruitful way? Have the various replies and critiques directed against it, such as Brisson's essay, led to new and genuinely sound insights, which would likely not have been achieved but for the putting forward of the mistaken idea that needed correction?

I'll say something more about this in my next couple of posts.

A One-Clickable Book

Every once in a while there is a book in ancient philosophy which one feels one must read or be from that time onward considerably impoverished as a scholar. Malcolm Schofield's Plato: Political Philosophy has been described to me as such a book (it's been described, even, as a page-turner that is difficult to put down).

Richard Kraut's informative review today confirmed that judgment, and made the decision unavoidable. After reading Kraut I went directly to Amazon One-Click....

(Now, if OUP wishes to use this as a blurb, they will have to cite a blog. I wonder if that's been done before?)

30 May 2007

Awe-Inspiring Meticulousness

It's not common that Brian Leiter draws attention to a book review. I too found Jeffrey Brand-Ballard's review of F.M. Kamm's Intricate Ethics noteworthy, although not quite for the same reasons as Leiter, who praises the review for being "generous and gracious in its praise for Kamm's work, but also perceptive and efficient in criticisms of a certain kind of approach to moral philosophy".

I noticed the criticisms (conveniently distinguished and lettered A through I), but I was unclear about what was being praised, and on what grounds.

Nearly all of my concerns show themselves in the first paragraph of the review:

Reading F.M. Kamm's latest book is like watching a brilliant astronomer map an uncharted galaxy. The details are often difficult to follow, but the meticulousness and the display of mental stamina must inspire awe. There is a kind of beauty in the performance alone. Intricate Ethics is a major event in normative ethical theory by a living master of the subject. Its innovations may not receive as much attention as they deserve.
I was lost by the comparison, myself never having watched a brilliant astronomer map an uncharted galaxy. What exactly would that be like? Brand-Ballard has evidently seen this many times, because it's only often that he has found the details difficult to follow: presumably on some occasions the brilliant astronomers he has watched are perfectly clear in their mappings.

I also wondered why mere "meticulousness" and "display of mental stamina" must inspire awe? What if the supposed galaxy does not exist? And what if it is not a galaxy but something less awe-inspiring that is being mapped (such as, say, the contours of one moral philosopher's hunches)? Consider: do the meticulousness and mental stamina even of a clever attorney, accountant, or engineer inspire awe? Must they?

In the next sentence: a book becomes an event. (He meant its publication, of course. Not awe-inspiring writing.)

Then: a declaration that someone is a living master over a "subject" the existence of which the review later tends to call into question.

Then: a final sentence which is a non sequitur relative to the paragraph, and which never gets substantiated in the review, because we are never told what the important innovations of the book are, or why they deserve attention.

(By this point in the review, admittedly, I would have found mere meticulousness at least a welcome relief.)

What does the reviewer praise about the book? Almost exclusively that it is "theoretically intensive", "dense", and shows a "formidable imagination". As for substantive theses, only two are pulled out for attention. First, that:
...one who denies that distance matters must reject a whole range of common intuitions according to which an agent has relatively greater responsibility to rescue victims or neutralize threats that are physically near to him, or to instrumentalities that he controls
(that is, if you deny that distance matters, then you deny that distance matters); and, second, the Doctrine of Productive Purity, which, whatever can be said for it, certainly lacks the beauty and simplicity of the astronomical theories that a brilliant astronomer would likely be relying upon:

(1) If an evil* cannot be at least initially sufficiently justified, it cannot be justified by the greater good that it is necessary (given our act) to causally produce. However, such an evil* can be justified by the greater good whose component(s) cause it, even if the evil* is causally necessary to help sustain the greater good or its components.

(2) In order for an act to be permissible, it should be possible for any evil* side effect (except possibly indirect side effects) of what we do, or evil* causal means that we must use (given our act) to bring about the greater good, to be at least the effect of a [greater good that] is working itself out (or the effect of means that are noncausally related to that greater good that is working itself out). (p. 164)

Something to live by, that.

29 May 2007

Xenophon Symposium

If you are on the SAGP mailing list, you've seen this already ...

I am writing to invite paper proposals for a panel devoted to Xenophon and Xenophon Studies which will be sponsored by the Society for Greek Political Thought at the 2007 NPSA annual meeting (Philadelphia, November 15-17). William E. Higgins, whose well-known study of “Xenophon the Athenian” was first published thirty years ago, has kindly agreed to serve as Chairperson/Moderator for this SGPT panel.

Higgins’ work appeared at a time when – with the exception of Leo Strauss – the writings of Xenophon had been largely neglected or dismissed by scholars. Within a few years, however, pioneers had emerged who studied Xenophon’s works with requisite seriousness, blazing trails and marking signposts for a new generation of Xenophon scholars. The subsequent and vital renaissance which occurred in Xenophon Studies, especially during the last decade of the 20th century, in part due to the publication of new translations and studies of Xenophon’s Socratic writings, has (thankfully) rendered superfluous the kind of apologia that all-too-often was necessary in the prolegomena to those studies.

Since 2000, a similar resurgence in studies related to Xenophon’s ‘non-Socratic’ writings has occurred, with the appearance of numerous annotated translations [Anabasis: Ambler (forthcoming), Waterfield 2005; Lak. Pol.: Jackson 2007, Lipka 2002; Hellenika: Doty 2006; Hiero, Poroi: Doty 2003; Cyropedia.: Ambler 2001; Cynegetikos.: Doty 2001], as well as full monographs [Waterfield 2006, Rood 2005, Bearzot 2004, Azoulay 2004, Nadon 2001] and edited collections of essays [Fox 2004, Tuplin 2004]. Articles and book chapters on Xenophon's Socratic writings have continued apace during this same period, so much so that a comprehensive bibliography has become a desideratum.

In the wake of this on-going revival of scholarly interest in Xenophon, it seems an appropriate occasion for reflecting on recent developments, trends, and even future prospects – for research and publication – in Xenophon Studies. Proposals for papers which undertake retrospective or prospective reflections on the state and/or character of Xenophon Studies (in politics, philosophy, classics, or history) will be given special consideration. Proposals for papers focusing exclusively on any aspect of Xenophon’s corpus, thought, or life are also welcome, as always.

Please submit brief proposals, with contact information and academic affiliation, by June 15. For further information about the 2007 NPSA annual meeting, the conference announcement is attached. It will be necessary at some point for all panelists to register their participation on-line through the conference website. Meanwhile, in addition to sending proposals, please feel free to contact me directly with any questions related to this particular panel, or other SGPT panels.

Thank you very much, and I look forward to hearing from you: gish@ohio.edu or dustingish@hotmail.com.

23 May 2007

What's the Point of Vengeance?

Two cases.

First case: A man in a heated argument with his girlfriend kills her and escapes to another country. Twenty years later he is finally apprehended, tried for murder (in a jurisdiction which recognizes capital punishment), and executed.

Now consider his punishment. It accomplishes nothing. The evil was done in the past. The punishment only adds evil to evil already done. Even apart from any objections we might have to capital punishment, we might find it difficult to approve of, or justify, his punishment. It can easily seem pointless, a mere exercise in vengeance.

Second case, taken from Monday's news:

A man trying to kill his girlfriend by stopping a car in front of an approaching train was himself killed Monday when the train hit the vehicle and launched it into him as he tried to flee, police said.

The girlfriend survived.

The man drove the car in front of a group of other vehicles stopped at a railroad crossing in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Sunland, Officer Mike Lopez said.

The driver, who was seen arguing with his girlfriend, parked the car on the tracks and jumped out, leaving her behind, Lopez said.

A northbound commuter train hit the rear of the car, hurling it into the man. The girlfriend was taken to the hospital, where she was in stable condition, Lopez said.

"She gets hit by a train and lives. He gets hit by his own car and he dies," Lopez said.

Now consider what happened to the man (not the woman's miraculous survival). It accomplished nothing. His evil act (of abandoning his girlfriend on the tracks) was in the past. His death only added evil to evil already done. --Yet, I think, we would find it difficult not to approve of and find justifications for his fate.

Casuistry and Internet Research

A news item yesterday raises questions about two topics of interest to this blog--casuistry and internet research.

The question about casuistry is this. Suppose you must decide a difficult ethical case, and you receive conflicting advice about its resolution. Must you act on the advice most likely to be correct (probiliorism), or the advice which is least problematic if wrong (tutiorism), or is it enough if you act on advice which has substantial merit (probabilism), even if another view would reasonably be judged more likely?

Here's the analogy from yesterday's news. Suppose a pharmaceutical company conducts several clinical trials for a new drug. All of them are ostensibly well-designed, but only one, and maybe not the best study of the group, gives evidence that the drug is effective. May the pharmaceutical company then claim that the drug is effective on the basis of that single study (cf. probabilism), or must it either conduct a meta-analysis of the various studies (probiliorism) or favor that study which (say) also attributes the worst side-effects to the drug (tutiorism)?

Now in casuistry probabilism has generally been judged the most sensible opinion. (Please don't raise here the problem of a regress, as opinion is also divided as to which view about casuistry should be followed!) Yet in pharmaceutical research the law seems to be tilting, rather, toward tutiorism. At least, in 2004 GlaxoSmithKline agreed to post on the internet the results of all its clinical trials for any drug, after it was prosecuted by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for consumer fraud:

Mr. Spitzer filed suit in June against GlaxoSmithKline, contending that it committed fraud by publicizing the results of only one of five trials studying the effect of its antidepressant, Paxil, in children. That single study showed mixed results. The others not only failed to show any benefit for the drug in children but demonstrated that children taking Paxil were more likely to become suicidal than those taking a placebo.
And the market apparently favors probabiliorism. Two days ago the New England Journal of Medicine published online a study by Dr. Steven Nissen, who used the GlaxoSmithKline database of clinical trials for its drug Avandia to conduct a meta-analysis and found that the studies, taken all together, suggest a link between Avandia and heart attacks. The following day GlaxoSmithKline's share price fell 7%.

The related question about internet research is this: For which academic disciplines is it already the case that facility with the internet is indispensable for responsible research, and, is ancient philosophy (or classics generally) such a discipline?

The question is raised because Dr. Nissen said that he had discovered the GlaxoSmithKline database, which was not widely-advertised, only through a Google search!
Through a Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ) search, Nissen found a Web site put up by Glaxo that contained results from all of its clinical trials. The site had been created as a result of a settlement with former New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. He found the 42 studies, and he and statistician Kathy Wolski did the analysis and wrote the paper in a matter of days

20 May 2007

At Carnuntum (Thoughts to Myself)

I've been leading a seminar on John Rawls' philosophy in Vienna these past days and today, after it was finished, had the chance to visit Carnuntum (about 25 miles East of Vienna), the site of the largest Roman encampment north of the Alps, and the place where Marcus Aurelius is said to have written parts of his remarkable Meditations. (But someone told me that recent scholarship has indicated that Vindabona--Vienna--is where he actually wrote, but that he used the name 'Carnuntum' since that was the better known place. Is that true? I haven't been able to check it.)

I enjoyed most of all seeing a reconstruction of a Roman house at the excavation of the town associated with the encampment, in Petronell. The reconstructed house was built entirely using authentic materials, designs, and tools similar to those used by the Romans.

Carnuntum itself has an excellent museum but no ruins, except for one of the most important and well-preserved gladiator amphitheaters outside Rome (see Mary Beard's book on the Colosseum), where gladiatorial munera are regularly re-created, as this one between a secutor and retiarius.

16 May 2007

Difficulties, Lecture II

Sarah Broadie's second Whitehead lecture may, I think, be encapsulated in two assertions:

(I) For Aristotle, divinity is manifested in the natural world solely in the perfect, physically necessary rotational movement of the heavenly spheres;
(II) yet on Aristotle's own principles, this movement is 'natural', and so it is unclear why he would need to appeal to anything outside of nature to account for it.
But there seem to be many texts at odds with (I). Consider simply the passage from Cicero with which Broadie began her lecture, and which she took as exemplary of Aristotle's attitude: the evidences of divinity (opera deorum) mentioned there include many sublunary phenomena, such as land, sea, sky, clouds, and wind (terram et maria caelumque vidissent, nubium magnitudinem ventorumque vim cognovissent).

And then I think of the famous passage at the end of Parts of Animals, book I, where Aristotle says that the study of living things yields the same sort of marvelous insight, though in a different way, as the study of the heavens--and he even quotes Heraclitus to make the point, "gods are present there too."

I wonder too why Aristotle would use the word theion (godlike) for human nous unless he thought it somehow manifested divinity.

(Doesn't (I) seem plausible only if we leave animate things out of the picture, and put to the side Aristotle's willingness to view living things and their powers as organized in a teleological hierarchy?)

I'm doubtful about (II) also, for two reasons:
  • Aristotle explains the movement of earth, air, fire, and water as the realization of a tendency to go to a place: but what would be the place toward which an eternal rotational movement is tending?
  • To say that the terrestial elements have a natural movement is to say that they admit of being hindered in that movement: e.g. to say that earth tends to the center is to say that it can be hindered from going to the center, and that it resumes its movement to the center when the hindrance is removed. That's just what a natural tendency is. But presumably the celestial spheres could not be hindered.

15 May 2007

Difficulties, Lecture I

The following are in my view the chief difficulties in Broadie's first Whitehead lecture. (One of these I have already stated in a post.) I don't regard these as decisive objections.

1. The answer to the question, Why did Plato postulate a maker god in addition to a pantheistic cosmic god?, is presumably that a pantheistic, cosmic god is corporeal; thus (for Plato) it 'comes into being' and has an unstable existence on its own; thus its continuing existence must be attributed to a cause which does not similarly 'come into being'. Plato gives this argument explicitly at Tim. 28b-c. Thus there is no need to say that he postulates a Maker god to account for human action.

2. Broadie says that if human beings were not made by the Maker god, but were temporary portions or manifestations of the cosmic god, then their being 'first causes' of their actions could not easily be accounted for. But why should the fact that we are made (produced, manufactured) serve to account for our autonomy as causes? Products seem to have nothing in them except what is put in them by their maker. (It's implausible to hold that Plato is relying here on his limited acquaintance with automata.) Doesn't generation lead to autonomous offspring more than production? But then if human autonomy were his concern, wouldn't he have favored an image involving generation?

3. Again, Broadie claims that, for Plato, if human beings were portions of the cosmic god, then there would be no guarantee that we could have access to the Forms we need as paradigms of human government. But: presumably the cosmic god would have in its intellect suitable enough Forms or ideas of goodness and order at least, as well as mathematical forms (since the cosmos is so beautiful, according to Plato); and Plato nowhere suggests that harmony with the cosmos would be inadequate as a standard for human virtue and sociability (quite the contrary--cf. the Gorgias); and in the Republic, at least, the order that Plato thinks human society should take is presented as something natural (the three natural classes in a natural order); and what would be the reason to think that any Forms above the intellect of the cosmos would be those especially relevant for human society?

4. It would seem that Broadie needs to explain, not merely why Plato would be dissatisfied with a cosmic god alone, but also why, if he were especially concerned with vindicating human beings as 'first causes' of their actions, he did not adopt another hypothesis which was available to him--I have in mind the view that the souls of human beings are immortal and divine, insofar as they consist of self-moving substance (a view that he seems to flirt with in the Meno, Phaedrus, and Laws).

How Is It Relevant? How Is It Philosophy?

Questions I sometimes hear about ancient philosophy.

Suppose someone were to raise these very same questions as regards Sarah Broadie's Whitehead Lectures. After all, the Whitehead lectureship is a distinguished position, held in the past by such philosophers as Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Cora Diamond, Syndney Shoemaker and Tyler Burge. How does a discussion of naturalism and theology in Plato and Aristotle count as the same sort of endeavor? What is its contribution to a contemporary understanding of the world, or to truth?

My first reaction is to think it unfair that any particular excercise of philosophical skill should have to defend its existence in this way. Broadie's lectures were excellent exhibitions of "ancient philosophy" , that is, philosophical reflection as at work on classical texts; so her lectures can be defended on whatever grounds ancient philosophy as whole can be defended.

My second reaction is a tu quoque, and a reminder of how frail the existence of any philosophy really is. I understand Hume's Fork ("Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? ... Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?") as a demand for relevance. (Recall that Hume begins his first Enquiry defending the importance for society of the 'abstruse' philosophy he engages in.) And what havoc must we make if we approach any other Whitehead lecture with these demands. Shoemaker's ruminations on the inverted spectrum problem? Kripke's idea that the base ten number system is metaphysically privileged? Diamond's reflections on conceptual change?-- Commit these to the flames.

I am willing to bet a large sum that no paper in mathematics or natural science ever cites a Whitehead lecture.

Let's not deceive ourselves, then (or suppose that a contribution to the program of philosophical naturalism is the same thing as a contribution to natural science).

But if we can articulate criteria for excellence in philosophy, I am confident that Broadie's lectures will fare as well as anything else.

14 May 2007

Comments Un-Blocked

I don't know how it happened, but somehow comments were blocked on my post on Sarah Broadie's first Whitehead lecture. That's now been remedied.

Nature and Divinity in Aristotle's Cosmology: A Precis

Sarah Broadie's second Whitehead lecture was an exploration of Aristotle's conviction that heavenly spheres are divine, and of the resulting dualism, and tensions, in his philosophy of nature.

Broadie began by recounting Aristotle's cave argument, as reported by Cicero in De Natura Deorum II.95:

“If there were men who had always lived underground in fine and well-lit houses which had been adorned with statues and paintings, and equipped with all the things which those who are considered well-to-do possess in abundance, who had, however, never come forth into the upper world, but had learned by fame and hearsay of the existence of certain divine powers and natures, and had then at some time, through the jaws of the earth being opened, been able to come forth from those hidden regions, and to pass into these parts which we inhabit,—when they had suddenly obtained a sight of the land and seas and sky, and had marked the vastness of the clouds, and the force of the winds, and had beheld the sun, and had marked not only its size and beauty, but also its power, since by diffusing light over the whole sky it caused day,—and when, again, after night had overshadowed the earth, they then perceived the whole sky studded and adorned with stars, and the change in the light of the moon as it alternately waxed and waned, and the rising and setting of all these bodies, and the fixity and unchangeableness of their courses through all eternity,—when they saw those things, they would assuredly believe both that the gods existed and that these mighty works proceeded from them (haec tanta opera deorum esse arbitrarentur).”
The passage, Broadie said, gives an elegant version of the Argument from Design. It is not unlike an Ideal Observer argument, as the hypothetical circumstances of the cave dwellers are constructed in such a way as to eliminate circumstances that could hinder their arriving at a sound judgment, e.g.
Q. Why doesn't everyone agree that the gods exist? A. Because we take for granted the evidence of their existence, from familiarity.
Q. Isn't it only the humble outlook of primitive peoples that leads them to believe in gods, when they see impressive phenomena in nature? A. No, even if people lived all their lives in luxurious circumstances, they would still be so impressed by nature as to be disposed to believe in gods.
The passage, if it truly does express Aristotle's view (as it was taken from a dialogue, On Philosophy), would however simply be one among many examples of what seems to have been constant feature of Aristotle's thought, viz. he is not disposed to explain away the gods or belief in gods.

Aristotle was a theist. However, his theism is not to be located principally in his famous arguments for a Prime Mover: these arguments are not intended as bits of theology but rather as basic explanations in a philosophy of nature. Rather, his theism is bound up with his belief that it is physically necessary that the heavens are in eternal, rotational motion. Yet this belief leads to a certain dualism and tension in his theory of the universe.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle holds that the universe is eternal, going back into the past, and not only going forward into the future. For Plato, eternity into the future was guaranteed by each thing's having a kind of 'stamp' of its divine origin, an immaterial pattern, which, when we grasp it, leads us back to a consideration of the original, divine Mind. But for Aristotle, because the universe is eternal stretching back into the past, every generation of mortal beings must have come about by natural processes. Admittedly, these processes are end-directed and craft-like, but the ends are non-mental, and the 'craft' never involves control by external agency. Explanation by appeal to natural processes is internal to the things explained and "naturalistic through and through". Thus, for Aristotle, in the sublunary world the 'craft of God', so important for Plato, is "completely out of the picture." Thus, we cannot survey the realm of generation and passing away and see in it the stampt of the same deity who made the heavens. The evidence for theism, and its chief object, becomes the heavens alone.

Note that it is not appropriate to regard Aristotle's philosophy of nature as part of some general project of 'demystification', and then wonder why he didn't extend the same outlook to the heavenly spheres. Aristotle did not develop his philosophy of nature as part of such a project; and he thought the universe could not be explained apart from the view that the movement of the heavenly spheres is eternal and physically necessary.

The result is that one finds in Aristotle a radical disparity between the sublunary and the celestial, which cannot be bridged in the manner of Plato, by tracing both back to a common cause.

Not that Aristotle does not try to bridge this gap through various devices:
  1. he reaffirms Plato's dictum that mortal animals participate in immortality through reproduction;
  2. he holds that processes of mortal generation depend upon regularities in celestial motion;
  3. he emphasizes that every science, even one dealing with the sublunary realm, must be general and appeal to universals;
  4. his view of human investigation is such that this also binds the sublunary to the celestial, as human beings have always existed, and have always wondered at the heavens;
  5. the cycles of the four sublunary elements, he holds, mimic the rotational movement of the heavens;
  6. indeed, in Met. XII he refers to both domains as including "perceptible substances", which unifies them in constrast with the non-perceptible.
  7. he employs the same notion of natural locomotion to explain both the natural motion of the four sublunary elements and the motion of the celestial spheres.
Broadie then focussed attention on 7. for the remainder of her lecture. She said that this particular way of binding the sublunary to the celestial "backfires", because it ends up actually highlighting, rather, the immensity of the gap between them.

The theory of natural motion of the elements is that each element moves through space in a way natural to itself, towards its natural place, and that it moves away from its natural place only because of the continuous application to it of external force. Aristotle wishes to apply this theory to the celestial spheres: a necessarily eternal motion could not be enforced from without; therefore it must be the manifestation of the natural motion of sui generis celestial stuff, the 'aither'.

However, the consequence is that this 5th element has no role to play vis-a-vis the other four. It cannot enter into sublunary processes. And, although the 5th element has a place (it surrounds the sublunary), it does not really share the same space as the other four elements, because it is not as though there is some common space, to which in principle they might all go.

So the dualism remains. Aristotle seems content with it, because of his conviction of the eternal, physically necessary motion of the heavens.

But one might wonder in the end: Why wasn't Aristotle tempted to extend to celestial stuff the same outlook as he applied in the sublunary, which apparently "takes the craft of God completely out of the picture"? Why didn't he say that it is as absurd to view the motions of the heavens as the work of divinities, as to view the motion of earth, air, fire, and water as the work of 'minds' implicit in them?

But Aristotle regarded it as absurd to postulate minds to explain the motions of the four sublunary elements, because they are formless. Yet the celestial spheres are not formless. They maintain forever a perfect spherical shape. But he would think that this could not be achieved by a mere body or element. (Compare what it takes for the body of a terrestial animal to maintain a certain shape, on Aristotelian grounds, and one might begin to see Aristotle's way of looking at this.)

11 May 2007

Nature and Divinity in Plato's Timaeus: Precis

In Sarah Broadie's first Whitehead lecture yesterday afternoon, she posed the question, "Why couldn't Plato have been satisfied with pantheism?", and her answer was that he thought that he needed to postulate a God who is above nature, and who makes human beings, in order to account for our responsibility as individuals for our actions.

Broadie began by recounting the basics of Plato's creation story (Tim 28bff.). Since the universe is visible, tangible, and corporeal, it comes to be. Everything that comes to be, comes to be through an intelligent cause which fashions it with respect to some model. The universe is visible, tangible, and corporeal; therefore it has been fashioned by a Maker who made use of a model.

Broadie drew attention to Plato's language in these passages suggestive of a religious prohibition (themis, 29a4, 30a6), and said that this indicated that we were dealing here with Plato's most fundamental premises; we shouldn't expect that we would find them obvious, but we would have to grant them if we wanted to keep company with Plato in the remainder of his discussion.

Broadie offered a correction of a common interpretation of Plato's famous remark that the Maker lacked envy (phthonos): "He was good, and one who is good can never become jealous of anything. And so, being free of jealousy, he wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible" (29e). Because of its resonances with some religious traditions, Broadie said, this has often been interpreted in the sense that the goodness of the Maker overflows, in the manner of bonum diffusivum sui. But Broadie claimed that it had a different sense: Plato was explaining why it is that the Maker could indeed make another god. For the cosmos which he makes is a god, and a very great god, according to Plato. Since the Maker lacks jealousy, he isn't concerned about making a god who might compete with him, or obscure him.

Broadie contrasted this idea of a god making a god with traditional theogonies, in which once a new god is begotten, it typically destroys the parent god. Plato's Maker isn't threated or destroyed by the god he makes, yet at the same time, after he makes the universe, he fairly withdraws to the background and does not remain as the most prominent god.

She then raised the key question of her lecture. Plato postulates two chief gods:

(1) the ultimate Maker god, and
(2) the cosmic god.
Thus, if he admits (2), why does he think he needs to postulate (1) as well? Why does he need two chief gods? Why isn't one god sufficient, and why can't it be simply (2)? Plato is unlike moderns who might think they need to postulate a Maker god because otherwise there would be no god at all; he accepts a pantheistic god. Thus the question for him is not "Either a Maker god or no god" but rather, "Either a Maker god together with a cosmic god, or a cosmic god alone." The latter seems the simpler hypothesis: why wasn't that Plato's view?

That there was available to Plato a serviceable notion of a cosmic god is shown by Diogenes of Apollonia. Simply add the Forms to his pantheistic god, and the result would presumably be a satisfactory enough pantheistic god for a follower of Plato.

Broadie then considered, and set aside, two possible answers to her question.

(i) One might argue that here Plato was simply influenced by Anaxagoras, whose Nous is separate and unmixed. We know that Aristotle and Socrates admired Anaxagoras, and surely Plato did also. --But Broadie pointed out that Plato did not accept Anaxagoras' reason for making Nous entirely separate, and so he would have no reason for following him on this point: Anaxagoras believed that only a completely separate agency could effect the "separating out" which was the process by which the universe was formed, but Plato did not accept this.

(ii) One might argue that Plato postulates a Maker because this kind of causation is easier for us to imagine. After all, we have experience of making things by deliberate action, whereas we do not experience (say) the organization of our bodies as the effect of deliberate agency. --But Broadie replied that considerations of what it's easier to imagine would have little force with Plato, and, besides, in fact it's not very easy to imagine how an incorporeal being might make anything in the way that we do.

Broadie then said that she thought that the correct answer to her question could be found, rather, in Plato's anthropology.

Suppose Plato had postulated only a cosmic god. Then how could he have accounted for the origin of human beings from this cosmic god? There would seem to be only two alternatives, neither of which would be acceptable to Plato.

(a) Human beings are the offspring of the cosmic god.--But Plato would reject this, because the cosmic god is immortal, and Plato thinks that reproduction occurs only insofar as mortal things aim to imitate the immortal. The cosmic god has no need of this, thus it would have no need of reproduction.

(b) Human beings are a transient portion or image of the cosmic god (a view like that sometimes ascribed to Heraclitus). --But then everything about how we are constituted does not belong to us; it belongs rather to the universe. And there would be no principles for our action other than those that we might have borrowed from the cosmic god. In short, this view cannot account for our individual responsibility.

Thus, Plato needs to postulate some distinct origin for us, and, given that he does so, it is simpler for him to make this cause also the cause of the cosmos.

Broadie then supported this suggestion with a brief recounting of the story in the Timaeus about how human beings are fashioned--where each human soul is assigned to a star, and the human body is composed of stuff left over from the making of the universe. Plato is purposefully describing a process that is analogous to the making of the universe: "Human beings are more like siblings of the cosmic god than offspring," she said, "We are not parts of the cosmic god but as it were parasites living within it."

Again, suppose that Plato had postulated only a cosmic god, and that the intellects of human beings were therefore parts or sparks of the cosmic intellect. Broadie insisted: on that picture, it is at least doubtful that a human intellect could gain access to intelligibles other than those that were available to the cosmic intellect. But if our ability to go beyond what the cosmic intellect thinks about is in doubt, then it also becomes doubtful that we can arrive at suitable ideal paradigms for human government--since certainly systems of government of human society mean nothing to the cosmic animal.

In conclusion: Plato's reasons for postulating a Maker god have nothing to do with "raising up human beings above the natural world." That project makes sense only on a naturalistic view of the world, but (as Plato's willingness to regard the cosmos as a god reveals) Plato is not concerned with naturalism in that sense. Rather, he wishes to explain how we can have responsibility for our actions, as being in some way 'first causes' of our actions, and he therefore traces our origin to a cause which is responsible for the cosmos as well.


That' s the precis. If you have observations or objections, why not raise them as comments? I suspect some of the objections you might have were raised also in the Q&A, and I can tell you how Broadie replied then. (I have some concerns of my own--of course!--but for now I prefer to hear what you think.)

Other Music Based on Greek Philosophy (or Philosophers)

From Nick Denyer:

What other musical works are based upon ancient Greek philosophy?
From Klaus Döring's fascinating "Socrate sur la scene de l'opera", Philosophie Antique: Problemes, Renaissances, Usages, 1 (2001) 205-220, I learn of Socrates operas by Ernst Krenek (Pallas Athene Weint, 1955) and Antonio Draghi (La Patienza di Socrate con Due Moglie, 1680). Krenek wrote his own words; Draghi used words by Nicolo Minato. Draghi/Minato did other pieces too, among them Gl'Atomi di Epicuro (1672).
Do not forget the way that the winged souls of Plato's Phaedrus reappear as the fairies in Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe.

And there is the influence of Heraclitus' doctrines of the unity of opposites, and the flux, on Cole Porter: "Wrong's right today, and day's night today, and black's white today; and heaven knows, anything goes."
Telemann, too, wrote an opera, The Patience of Socrates and his Two Wives (Der geduldige Sokrates), although not as philosophical as Cole Porter, it seems.

10 May 2007

Eric Satie, Socrate

Gymnopédie is, I think, unusual as a French word. In English the OED lists only "gymnopaedic, a., The distinctive epithet of the dances or other exercises performed by naked boys at public festivals." LSJ of course reference the Spartan gumnopaidi/ai.

But it's not entirely clear what Satie meant by the word, or whether he meant anything at all having to do with ancient Greece:

The anecdote of Satie introducing himself as "gymnopedist" in December 1887 runs as follows: the first time Satie visited the Chat Noir cabaret, he was introduced to its director, Rodolphe Salis, famous for serving sharp comments. Being coerced to mention his profession, Satie, lacking any recognisable professional occupation, presented himself as a "gymnopedist", supposedly in an attempt to outwit the director.
Thus Wikipedia (wikipedie?), and corroborated by Grove.

We all know Satie's three Gymnopédies. But did you know that his most influential work is considered to be his three-act "symphonic drama", or quasi-opera, entitled Socrate?

I didn't know that, until Victor Caston yesterday told me about his find, in a used record shop, of:
Eric Satie, Socrate: Drame Symphonique avec voix (1919)

which includes
  • Portrait de Socrate (Le Banquet)
  • Bords de l'Illissus (Phédre), and
  • Mort de Socrate (Phédon)
with a text based on the translation of Victor Cousin.

Victor pointed me to the lengthy article in Wikipedia and an old site for discography. "Originally it's for four voices and chamber symphony," Victor wrote, "but the version I found (on Nimbus, 1977) is just for voice (Hugues Cuenod) and piano (Geoffrey Parsons)."

I later discovered in Grove that Virgil Thomson conducted the American premier in 1922-3 when he was an undergraduate at Harvard; and the world premier of a stage version was in Hartford ("a famous production designed by Alexander Calder, with Eva Gauthier and Colin O’More") in 1936.

Satie's Socrate inspired John Cage to write a piece with an appropriately Platonic title, Cheap Imitation (1969). (Excerpts from both may be heard here.) I'm quite sure, however, that John Cage's use of the I Ching in composing the piece is incompatible with Plato's understanding of technê.

Last year I had blogged on Leonard Bernstein's Symposium for solo violin and orchestra. Victor Caston's discovery (for us at least) of Satie's Socrate raises the question: What other musical works are based upon ancient Greek philosophy?

09 May 2007

2007 Whitehead Lectures

Sarah Broadie
University of St. Andrews

"Nature and Divinity in Plato's Timaeus"
"Nature and Divinity in Aristotle's Cosmology"

Thursday and Friday, May 10 & 11
4 pm
Emerson 210
Harvard University

08 May 2007

Genesis and Timaeus

It seems that the following exchange stemming from an earlier post might itself be promoted to a post.

Thomas Johansen
My penny’s worth. I tend to agree that we should not think of genesis simply as the moment of birth but the process of coming-into-being. This is a process that begins before birth (cf. 91d4: megala entos ekthreptôntai) and continues after (cf. 44b1ff.). There are two ways of looking at this genesis in Timaeus’ account: as the coming-into-being of the individual and that of the original human being. The duality is deliberate and Timaeus makes it explicit at 44a8: nun kat’ arkhas te. Compare genesis at 69c4, the reference here is to the entire process by which the human being is to be generated.

As for en tôi paronti at 43c7, it is right that it marks a particular moment in the coming-into-being of the embodied human being. But note that the orbits of the soul have already before that been disrupted by exposure the bodily rectilinear motions, through nutrition in particular (43b5-6: pollou gar ontos tou katakluzontos kai aporreontos kumatos ho tên trophên pareikhen…). The moment when the circle of the Same is stopped and that of the Different is thrown off course is the moment when the motions caused by perception join in with those of nutrition: meta tou reontos endelekhôs okhetou, ktl. So the corruption of the soul is rightly understood as occurring not just at the moment of birth (assuming that this is the moment that perception starts: certainly there can be no vision of the sort described at 45bff. prior to birth), but throughout the process of growing up which started before birth (cf. again also 91d4) and continues afterwards. Compare 44a7-b1: ‘And it is indeed because of all these affections that today, as in the beginning, a soul becomes irrational when first bound within a mortal body. But when the stream of growth and nourishment flows less strongly, the soul’s orbits take advantage of the calm and as time passes steady down in their proper courses, and the movement of the circles at last regains its correct natural form…’. ‘All these affections’ clearly refer not just to perception but also to the nutritive affections, whose disruptive influence continues as we are growing up. The cessation of growth is here singled out as one of the two factors that will allow the soul to regain its circular motions. The other (mentioned next, 44c1) is the right education; this clearly includes the regulation of the perceptual affections, through observation of the planetary revolutions.

Given my view of the relevant meaning of genesis (i.e. not so much a datable event as a type of process which causes continuous disruption to the intellect), I’m sceptical about relevance of the chronological peri. But Sedley's understanding of peri (LSJ C.3 'the object about which one is concerned') is not the only other option. It seems to me preferable to invoke the use of peri in which it means ‘in respect of’, ‘in regard to’, ‘in connection with’; LSJ (s.v. C.5). So the sense would be 'the revolutions in the head that were corrupted in connection with our coming into being'.

I note also what seems to me to be a problem for Sedley’s reading. For Sedley, genesis stands in contrast with ousia, eternal being, which is the object of the study by which we should correct our psychic motions. But in the immediate context (90d3) Timaeus tells us that we should learn from 'tas tou pantos harmonias te kai periphoras', which can mean nothing other than the circular motions of the world soul. And the world soul is not an instance of eternal ousia, as opposed to genesis. Rather the world soul came into being (37a2: aristê genomenê tôn gennêthentôn) as a mixture of eternal ousia and the ousia that comes into being in bodies (35a1-4). That is the immediate context: that is not to exclude that immortal being should also be studied (cf. 90c1-2), and probably even more so that the generated cosmos (cf. 59c7-d2). But it is to say that it cannot be Timaeus’ point at 90d to exclude any kind of genesis as a worthy object of study for him who would become a better man.

David Sedley
Far from posing a problem for it, the lines Thomas cites at the end of his post seem to me strong evidence for my interpretation. What Timaeus recommends is learning the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, not as an end, but as a means to rectifying the revolutions in your head and thus re-assimilating your intellect to its object. This has close continuity with Republic 7, 528e-530c, where the advice is to study the heavenly motions created by the demiurge in order to focus your mind, precisely not on those visible revolutions, but on Being (529d, to on tachos kai he ousa bradutes en twi alethinwi arithmwi; cf. 529b4-5), i.e. on the immutable principles that lie behind the celestial motions. (Those who think the point of astronomy is to look at what goes on in heavens will according to Timaeus be reincarnated as birds, so that they can go up and take a closer look, 91d-e.)

Michael Pakaluk
Sedley's reply to Johansen's problem seems sufficient: it's thoroughly Platonic to say that we should strive to attain to the immutable by attaining to that which best approximates the immutable and is available to us....

Thomas Johansen
I quite agree with Michael’s observation that ‘it's thoroughly Platonic to say that we should strive to attain to the immutable by attaining to that which best approximates the immutable and is available to us’. However, my concern is with a somewhat different matter. On Sedley’s interpretation, if I have understood it correctly, the soul has been corrupted through its attention to genesis as opposed to ousia. I am quite happy with the idea that the study of the heavenly motions may in some way help towards the study of the forms. I am also quite happy with the idea that some, or most, kinds of attention to genesis will corrupt the soul. My problem is with the suggestion that the attention paid to genesis understood generically and without further qualification explains why our intellectual motions have been corrupted. (I infer that this is Sedley’s suggestion from n.12 of the 1997 version of ‘Becoming like god’ – I’m sorry I don’t have the later version to hand – where he says that he takes genesis with the definite article at to be used in the sense of “becoming” in general, as opposed to ousia in general’.) But since the study of the motions of the world soul is the study of something that moves and has come into being, there is at least one case of attention to genesis which will not corrupt the soul, but rather cure it. Readers may compare the similar comment on Sedley’s reading by G.Carone (Plato’s Cosmology and Its Ethical Dimensions), p.222, n.49: ‘Becoming as such could hardly be bad for the soul when the intellections of the world-soul themselves that we are recommended to imitate in this passage are described as motions (90c8-d1), and to that extent pertain to the realm of becoming (35a).’

For the point that attention paid to genesis as such does not explain the corruption of the soul, it is worth comparing the activity of the word soul itself at 37b3-8. In Cornford’s transl: ‘Now whenever discourse that is alike true whether it is takes place concerning that which is different or that which is the same, being carried on without speech or sound within the thing that is self-moved, is about that which is sensible, and the circle of the Different, moving aright, carries its message throughout all its soul – then there arise judgments and beliefs that are sure and true.’ It cannot simply be attention to what is perceptible that corrupts the soul if the world soul, while moving aright, has true and certain beliefs about what is perceptible.

In his reply to me, David points to two supporting texts. I read the reference to the ‘bird brains’ at Tim. 91d-e1 differently from David, namely not as a reference to those who have neglected the study of the forms – though no doubt they have also neglected this – but to those who have not studied the motions of the world soul in the right way. The contrast is between two ways of approaching the motions in the heavens: one by mathematically calculating the numbers of the motions of the world soul, where the world soul itself is invisible (36e6), the other simply by observation of what can be seen of the heavenly bodies without any attention to the underlying mathematical regularities. (For the parallel case of music, cf. 47d.) The important point for my purposes is that both kinds of student are studying the motions of the heavens – one doing so correctly, the other not – rather than one kind of student studying the motions in the heavens and the other something else, the forms. As for the relationship between Republic VII and the Timaeus this is clearly a very complicated matter. My own tentative view is rather along the lines of Geoffrey Lloyd’s interpretation: ‘[In the Rep.] Plato is not concerned to discuss astronomical methods as such and in general, but has the limited purpose of identifying the contribution that astronomy can make to training the Guardians in abstract thought’ (Methods and Problems in Greek Science, p. 334). I think both the methodological passage at Tim. 29b-d and later passages such as 59c5-d2 (where producing likely accounts of genesis is something we do when we have set aside the study of eternal being) make it clear that the subject-matter, objectives and standards of cosmology in the Timaeus are distinct from those of the study of the forms as such. On this reading, the Timaeus is not inconsistent with Republic VII; it is just that its project is a rather different one.

07 May 2007

A Few Reasons Too Many

"For the most part" (hôs epi to polu) --either a fudge, or an indispensable apparatus of philosophical elegance. Shall I say, then, that this blog deals with ancient philosophy "for the most part"?--since clearly that is true.

And then, if the link with classical sources seemed too tenuous, I would be dispensed from having to give further explanation for why I would wish to post on a fascinating review by Alexander Pruss of a book by Graham Oppy.

Among many arguments in the review that caught my attention, perhaps it was the following that most intrigued me (especially the highlighted sentence):

However, it is not rational to assign to theism a credence interval containing zero, unless one actually has a valid deductive argument for the non-existence of God from indisputable empirical observations and/or from self-evident truths, and Oppy has not given us any evidence to think he has such an argument. For let E be the following event: the skies brighten, everyone's computer screen flashes the words "I am God: listen to my revelation" in colors beyond the chromatic range of one's monitor, each mathematician finds a gold-edged piece of paper (the gold turns out to have no impurities at all and no impurities can be introduced) with a correct solution to a difficult open problem, signed "God", every turned-on Geiger counter has a gold-edged piece of paper on it listing, in very small print and with 20 digit precision, the exact time of every click over the next 48 hours, signed "God", all those with any physical ailments or abnormalities find these ailments and abnormalities gone, and instead find themselves holding a gold-edged piece of paper saying: "I wish I could have done this earlier, but I could not reasonably do so due to reasons you would not understand -- God". Barring a deductive argument against the existence of God from indisputable premises, the occurrence of E should rationally make one believe in God. But if one initially assigns a credence interval containing zero to the existence of God, then (this is a theorem) no evidence whose probability is greater than zero on the no-God hypothesis can in a Bayesian way raise the credence to an interval that does not contain zero. But the probability of E is greater than zero given indeterministic quantum physics -- E could occur out of purely naturalistic causes. Hence, assigning a credence interval containing zero to the existence of God is irrational as it makes it impossible to respond as one rationally ought to possible evidence such as E.
Pruss' argument against Oppy's way of modelling 'credence' with a probability range seems to me ingenious.

Yet as regards Pruss' particular choice of E, I am ready to side with the existentialists and wonder:

1. Suppose E really did happen, then, whether you are an atheist, agnostic, or theist--would you thereby have any more reason to believe that God exists than you have already?
2. Suppose you think that, if God existed, he would not be the sort of being who would try to make others believe that he existed: then how would you interpret this evidence?
3. Does the explanation "I wish I could have done this earlier, but I could not reasonably do so due to reasons you would not understand -- God", seem especially godlike to you (compare: the book of Job). Or doesn't it rather seem, well, foolish?
4. What if very pure silver were used around the edges of the paper, instead of gold?

05 May 2007

Identify the Fake

Something one needs to do in scholarship all the time, and not simply for vases or coins.

I can't claim, however, that any skills I might have in that regard assisted me in --correctly-- picking out the fake from this group of four passages from Beethoven's 7th Symphony. One of them was generated by a computer; the others are performances by actual orchestras.

Two experts asked by the Wall Street Journal were stumped. After you make your attempt (and good luck!), I'll tell you how I was able to pick out the fake on my first try. Let me know how you did.