(Cross-posted at M-Phi)
I was asked to write a review of Terry Parsons' Articulating Medieval Logic for the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. This is what I've come up with so far. Comments welcome!
(Cross-posted at M-Phi)
I was asked to write a review of Terry Parsons' Articulating Medieval Logic for the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. This is what I've come up with so far. Comments welcome!
(Cross-posted at M-Phi)
Last week I was ‘touring’ in Scotland, first in St. Andrews for a workshop on medieval logic and metaphysics, and then in Edinburgh for a workshop on philosophical methodologies, organized by the Edinburgh Women in Philosophy Group. In the latter, I presented a paper entitled ‘Virtuous adversariality as a model for philosophical inquiry’, which grew out of a number of blog posts on the topic I’ve been writing in the recent past (here, here and here). Quoting from the abstract:
In my talk, I will develop a model for philosophical inquiry that I call 'virtuous adversariality', which is meant to be a response to critics from both sides [those who criticize and those who endorse adversariality in philosophy]. Its key feature is the idea that a certain form of adversariality, more specifically disagreement and debate, is indeed at the heart of philosophy, but that philosophical inquiry also has a strong cooperative, virtuous component which regulates and constrains the adversarial component. The main inspiration for this model comes from ancient Greek dialectic.
And so I gave my talk, and somewhat against the spirit of it, everybody in the audience seemed to agree with pretty much everything I had said – where are these opponents when you need them? But one person, Amia Srinivasan (Oxford), raised what is perhaps the most serious objection to any adversarial mode of inquiry, virtuous or not: it may well minimize our endorsement of false beliefs, but it does so at the risk of also minimizing our endorsement of true beliefs.
There’s a discussion going on over at Leiter about the results of his latest poll: which modern philosopher had the “most pernicious influence” on philosophy? Heidegger was the strong #1, both in terms of the number of people who hated him, and the intensity of their hatred. This doesn’t seem that surprising, given that Leiter’s readers, um, lean analytic and since Leiter took their Derrida option off the table.
Much more interesting, it seems to me, is the historical skew of the results. Most of the figures in the top 20 are 20th century philosophers, and all but three (Descartes, Berkeley, and Kant) are 19th or 20th century (and it wouldn’t be conceptually wrong to put Kant in with the 19c). Does this reflect poor historical training? Do influential but controversial positions get absorbed into the ‘mainstream?’
“Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, in the same way that those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.” -- Seneca, Letter 4
“A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.” -- Spinoza, Ethics 4P67
“One would require a position outside of life, and yet have to know it as well as one, as many, as all who have lived it, in order to be permitted even to touch the problem of the value of life; reasons enough to comprehend that this problem is for us an unapproachable problem.” --Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
It’s been more than ten years, but the memory is very much alive of the night my stepmother called to tell me that my father had died, suddenly, while on a run the day before he was to race in the L.A marathon. Of the many overwhelming thoughts and emotions that came upon me that night, one of the first was the realization that everything had suddenly and irreversibly changed; things, I realized, will no longer be the same. This thought was much more than an intellectual grasp and insight; it felt much more real than that. Within 24 hours I was on a plane and back home in Laguna Beach. Walking in town that beautiful March night I couldn’t help but think of how, despite the fact that my father was no longer walking the streets of Laguna, the moon and stars that lit up the night sky were the same as the night before and will continue to be the same long after I succumb to the same fate as my father, the night sky being implacable and unaffected by the changes that affect our lives. It is no wonder the Ancients referred to the night sky as the heavenly sphere, the eternal realm distinct from the earthly sphere of changing human affairs.
I know that my thoughts and feelings regarding my father’s death are not unusual – it is from what I can tell a very common reaction to the loss of a significant person in one’s life. My reaction is also probably not unique to sudden deaths either. I had a similar reaction to my stepfather’s death from colon cancer. Although we knew his death was coming, the actual event of his death left me with a similar feeling of the transformative nature of what had happened. But there is something about sudden deaths that accentuates, or brings to an extreme, an important truth about our relation to death.
It is this truth about our relation to death that motivates, I would argue, the claims made in the quotes that lead off this post.
I am currently supervising a student writing a paper on Wittgenstein’s notion of therapy as a metaphilosophical concept. The paper relies centrally on a very useful distinction discussed in N. Rescher’s 1985 book The Strife of Systems (though I do not know whether it was introduced there for the first time), namely the distinction between prescriptive vs. descriptive metaphilosophy (the topic of chap. 14 of the book).
The descriptive issue of how philosophy has been done is one of factual inquiry largely to be handled in terms of the history of the field. But the normative issue of how philosophy should be done – or significant questions, adequate solutions, and good arguments – is something very different. (Rescher 1985, 261)
Rescher goes on to argue that descriptive metaphilosophy is not part of philosophy at all; it is a branch of factual inquiry, namely the history of philosophy and perhaps its sociology. Prescriptive metaphilosophy, by contrast, is real philosophy: methodological claims on how philosophy should be done are themselves philosophical claims. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole chapter, only what google books allows me to see…) Rescher’s position as described here seems to be quite widespread, encapsulating the ‘disdain’ with which not only descriptive metaphilosophy, but also the history of philosophy in general, is often viewed by ‘real philosophers’. And yet, this position seems to me to be fundamentally wrong (and this is also the claim that my student is defending in his paper).
(Notice that to discuss the status of descriptive metaphilosophy as philosophy, we need to go meta-metaphilosophical! It’s turtles all the way up, or down, depending on how you look at it.)
With Robert Brandom (and for recognizably Hegelian reasons) I think that Whig histories are necessary. I also agree with conservative critics that American English departments damaged their own enrollments when the 1980s attacks on the canon led to too sweeping curricular changes. In every field, it's very important for students to master a Whig history that allows them to critically engage with contemporary work and that gives them an analogical jumping off point to apply their knowledge elsewhere. And students know this.
I also agree about 90% with Brandom on how this Whig history should be put together for philosophy. A philosopher must understand Kant, how Kant led to Hegel, how (and hopefully why with respect to the 19th century) Hegel was finally suppressed in the "back to Kant" movement, how phenomenology and logical positivism pushed the neo-Kantian moment to its breaking point, and how contemporary philosophy is a reaction to the agonies and ecstasies of positivism and phenomenology.
But as helpful commentators (Peter Gratton, Robin James, Ed Kazarian, Carl Sachs, James K. Stanescu (AKA Scu), and various anonymous people) pointed out in this thread's discussion, the Brandomian Whig history is populated exclusively by white males, which is extraordinarily problematic for reasons adumbrated there. What to do about this?
In my regular visits to Munich as an external member of the MCMP, a frequent item on my program is meeting with Peter Adamson, of ‘History of Philosophy without any Gaps’ fame, to talk about, well, the history of philosophy (there are still gaps to be filled!). So last week, after another lovely 2-hour session that felt like 10 minutes, Peter told me about a chapter of Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, where everyone goes to heaven and gets to do whatever they want for however long they want. After some years of pleasurable life, almost everyone then gives up and wants to die ‘for real’, but a particular group of people is remarkably resilient: the philosophers, who are happy to go on discussing with each other for decades and decades. They are the ones who last the longest in heaven. (I haven’t read the book yet, but coincidentally I was reading another one of Barnes’ books.)
Coincidence or not, a day later I came across an article by Nigel Warburton, of ‘Philosophy Bites’ fame, on how philosophy is above all about conversation. (Those podcasters like their talking alright.) The article points out that, while the image of the philosopher as the lone thinker, associated with Descartes, Boethius, and Wittgenstein, is still influential, it is simply a very partial, if not entirely wrong, picture of philosophical practice. Warburton relies on John Stuart Mill to emphasize the importance of conversation and dissent for philosophical inquiry:
A nice week for all things Carnapia:
Anyhow, please check out Eric's post and new blog. He's allowing comments, so I'm doing the unborglike thing* by closing comments to this post.
*And pre-empting any Pacino turns.]
(Cross-posted at M-Phi)
Formal/mathematical philosophy is a well-established approach within philosophical inquiry, having its friends as well as its foes. Now, even though I am very much a formal-approaches-enthusiast, I believe that fundamental methodological questions tend not to receive as much attention as they deserve within this tradition. In particular, a key question which is unfortunately not asked often enough is: what counts as a ‘good’ formalization? How do we know that a given proposed formalization is adequate, so that the insights provided by it are indeed insights about the target phenomenon in question? In recent years, the question of what counts as adequate formalization seems to be for the most part a ‘Swiss obsession’, with the thought-provoking work of Georg Brun, and Michael Baumgartner & Timm Lampert. But even these authors seem to me to restrict the question to a limited notion of formalization, as translation of pieces of natural language into some formalism. (I argued in chapter 3 of my book Formal Languages in Logic that this is not the best way to think about formalization.)
However, some of the pioneers in formal/mathematical approaches to philosophical questions did pay at least some attention to the issue of what counts as an adequate formalization. In this post, I want to discuss how Tarski and Carnap approached the issue, hoping to convince more ‘formal philosophers’ to go back to these questions. (I also find the ‘squeezing argument’ framework developed by Kreisel particularly illuminating, but will leave it out for now, for reasons of space.)
Francesco del Punta, a well-known and much admired scholar of medieval philosophy, sadly passed away yesterday. Upon hearing the news from his former student Luca Gili, I asked Luca to write an obituary for NewAPPS, and here it is.
After a long and dreadful illness, Francesco Del Punta (1941-2013) passed away yesterday evening. He was a great scholar and a great man, and he will be much missed. Del Punta is well known especially for his edition of Ockham’s commentary on Aristotle’s Sophistici Elenchi (St. Bonaventure, New York, 1978), and for his edition of Paul of Venice’s treatises De veritate et falsitate propositionis and De significato propositionis (Oxford, 1978).
This week, we’ve had a new round of discussions on the ‘combative’ nature of philosophy as currently practiced and its implications, prompted by a remark in a column by Jonathan Wolff on the scarcity of women in the profession. (Recall the last wave of such discussions, then prompted by Rebecca Kukla’s 3AM interview.) Brian Leiter retorted that there’s nothing wrong with combativeness in philosophy (“Insofar as truth is at stake, combat seems the right posture!”). Chris Bertram in turn remarked that this is the case only if “there’s some good reason to believe that combat leads to truth more reliably than some alternative, more co-operative approach”, which he (apparently) does not think there is. Our own John Protevi pointed out the possible effects of individualized grading for the establishment of a competitive culture.
As I argued in a previous post on the topic some months ago, I am of the opinion that adversariality can have a productive, positive effect for philosophical inquiry, but not just any adversariality/combativeness. (In that post, I placed the discussion against the background of gender considerations; I will not do so here, even though there are obvious gender-related implications to be explored.) In fact, what I defend is a form of adversariality which combines adversariality/opposition with a form of cooperation.
On the topic of useful teaching material available online (following up on Roberta's post on material for logic courses), I recently came across the series ‘60-Second Adventures in Thought’ produced by the Open University. These are short (60 seconds!) animated videos explaining some of the most intriguing philosophical puzzles:
(You can watch all 6 of them in a row here.)
“No variation of things arises from blind metaphysical necessity, which must be the same always and everywhere.” [A cæca necessitate metaphysica, quæ utique eadem est semper & ubique, nulla oritur rerum variatio.]--Isaac Newton, General Scholium (1713), Principia.
This week we're celebrating three hundred years since Newton published the General Scholium, attached to the second edition of the Principia. The passage above was only inserted in the final (1726), third edition. The argument of the sentence seems to be something like this:
A naturall foole that could never learn by heart the order of numerall words, as One, Two, and Three, may observe every stroak of the Clock, and nod to it, or say one, one, one; but can never know what houre it strikes...Nor is it possible without Letters for any man to become either excellently wise, or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs) excellently foolish. For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them: but they are the mony of fooles...one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty, what another Justice; one Prodigality, what another Magnanimity...such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and Tropes of speech: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their inconstancy; which the other do not.--Leviathan, 1.4
Night nursed not him in whose dark mind
The clambering wings of birds of black revolved,
Making harsh torment of the solitude.
The walker in the moonlight walked alone,
And in his heart his disbelief lay cold.--Wallace Stevens.
Despite the helpful reminder of 3AM Magazine, we at NewAPPS failed to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. Seneca's mysterious, terse (under 325 words) tenth Letter, brought me back to Stevens' early poetry. Stevens talks of the (nightly) "torment of solitude," faced by the poetic mind (who happens to be a religious skeptic). Yet, Seneca seems to suggest that some of the very best people should seek solitude; in particular they should living with their conscience [conscientia] (recall eight letter). But presumably Stevens's poetic disbeliever is expressing his conscience faitfully.
"I have no great faith in political
arithmetick, and I mean not to warrant the exactness of either of these
computations." Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
As it happens, Adam Smith's two best friends in old age, James Hutton and Joseph Black, the editors of his posthumous (1795) work, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (EPS), understood what was at stake. For, in 1785 Hutton gave a public lecture, “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and Stability,” at University of Edinburgh. Due to Hutton's illness, Black gave the lecture on Hutton’s behalf. In the lecture Hutton used geological and fossil evidence to argue that the Earth was almost certainly older than 6000 years. We do not know for sure if Smith attended the lecture, although he was in town.The argument was elaborated in far greater detail in Hutton's (1788) Theory of the Earth, which made him an international celebrity. The significance of this episode to the history of geology and Darwinism is much studied.
But what does this have to do with the history of economics?
Smith's closeness to Hutton may provide additional clues for one of the enduring mysteries of the history of economics: why did Adam Smith forsake the deployment of a mathematical model in the Wealth of Nations (1776)?
Leiter is encouraging discussion of nominations for the The Schock Prize. I hope our readers chime in for an enjoyable and enlightening conversation. (I vote for Nussbaum.)
All nine of the Schock winners thus far were or are eminent philosophers, and most of us can only aspire to emulate the quality of their work as best we can. Even if one allows that "The Schock" only seems to go to male, analytical philosophers, each winner is an important and interesting philosopher, deserving of significant honor. Having said that, The Schock Prize judges had four or five chances to honor David Lewis, and failed to do so. (Lewis died in the Fall of 2001.) Lewis is arguably the most significant and influential (analytical) philosopher of the last quarter of the 20th century. (Perhaps, Deleuze is the only contemporary that will match his enduring significance, but he and Foucault died before the Schock got up and running.) So, while one can excuse the members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) to play it safe and not award the prize to, say, Derrida (and, thus, avoid the predictable outcry), not giving it to Lewis means they failed to grasp the nature of analytical philosophy in their own time. That in addition, they passed on Gadamer, Ricœur, Goodman, and, thus far, Habermas suggests that the Schock has a long way to go before it can establish itself as the ultimate arbiter of general philosophical excellence.
Meena Krishnamurthy has a blog post about the relative absence of political philosophy in the The Philosopher’s Annual since 2002. This surprised me a bit because it seems to me a field that has been very fertile over the last decade. From afar it looks as if the grip of Rawls on the field has been loosened, and there is a lot of important and urgent work on legitimacy, international (and inter-generational) justice, democratic theory, and, of course, the role of religion today. (Of course, a lot of this is pursued in critical discussion with Rawlsian ideals.) Not to mention that the period has seen Libertarian ideals articulated and renewed with remarkable philosophical ability, and ongoing formal work in social choice theory. Anyway, go read her post.
UPDATE: Ryan Muldoon points out that formal work in political theory by Peter Vanderschraaf has been recognized!
Below the fold some further reflections by me.
Reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for the soul, if it be great, naught is great.—Seneca, Letter 8.
Over half a decade ago I invited Peter Sloterdijk to a workshop; twenty-four days later, I inquired if the invite was received. I went ahead and planned the workshop without him. Not long before the workshop I heard from his 'assistent,' who was volunteered by Herr Prof. Dr. Sloterdijk to take his place. I felt bad for the 'assistent,' who confessed to having lack of time to prepare. I declined to put him on the program. But I did ask him to convey to Prof. Sloterdijk the thought that "he needs to realize this is no way to treat a colleague who (for example) may write his obituary one day."* (Not nice, admittedly, but it captured my outrage.) Much to my surprise, Sloterdijk answered the following week that there must have been a confusion because he had already written me a letter to inform me of his absence. After a round of apologies, we left it at that.**
By 'celebrity philosopher' I mean to convey a philosopher whose name is familiar beyond her own academic milieu; possibly her ideas and works are discussed not just in professional venues, but also in a wider context. So, I am not talking about somebody who offers a 'philosophy' to media-stars nor does a 'celebrity philosopher' have to possess mass fame. In our day, my old teachers, Daniel Dennett and Martha Nussbaum are paradigmatic celebrity philosophers. When I label somebody a ‘celebrity philosopher’ I do not intend to convey a judgment of quality one way or another.
There is a new edition of Toland's (1704) Letters to Serena, edited by Ian Laesk. It is the first modern, English language edition. (I have not read it yet.) In order to celebrate this great news, I want to point to one non-trivial, generally overlooked feature that helps to explain the enduring significance of Toland's Letters (for other features, recall here, here, here, and here).
The official aim of the fourth (out of five) of Toland’s rhetorically complex Letters is to show that Spinoza’s “system is without foundation.” While there may be “incidental truths” to be found in Spinoza’s system, it is “false” (Letter 4.4, p. 135 [I quote by letter, paragraph, and page-number). In particular, throughout the fourth letter, Toland echoes Henry More’s criticisms of Spinoza[or so I claim] and argues that Spinoza’s account of motion and its relationship to matter is confused. Toland claims this criticism sets up his own positive argument, to be offered in the fifth letter that matter is “necessarily active as well as extended.” (Letter 4.17, 161; repeated in Letter 5.1, 164). In particular, he praises those mathematicians, which
“compute the quantities and proportions of motion, as they observe bodies to act on one another , without troubling themselves about the physical reasons of what every person allows, being a thing which does not always concern them, and which they leave to the philosophers to explain.” (Letter 5.9, 177).
To this claim Toland attaches without comment a quote in Latin from the scholium to proposition XI of Newton’s Principia. An innocent reader could not avoid thinking that Newton endorses Toland’s stance.
He may say with Parmenides, who, upon reading a philosophical discourse before a public assembly at Athens, and observing, that, except Plato, the whole company had left him, continued, notwithstanding, to read on, and said that Plato alone was audience enough for him.--Adam Smith
The English Bill of Rights (1689) expressly forbids ""cruel and unusual" punishment, and this found its way into the U.S. Constitution. One important, enduring argument against such punishment -- and many other forms of cruelty that may not, in fact, constitute 'punishment' -- can be found in Seneca's Letter 7: viewing and otherwise participating in the degradation and cruelty of others, even in the context of justified punishment [ille meruit ut hoc pateretur], can harm not just the victims or punished, but perpetrators and spectators alike. This is especially so if the cruelty produces pleasure as it is likely to do at public spectacles [spectaculo]* because then this pleasure makes our soul receptive; a desire for more cruelty creeps up on us [per voluptatem facilius vitia subrepunt].
Seneca's particular target is the institution of aestheticized, public spectacles of cruelty and inhumanity [crudelior et inhumanior].** He emphasizes the significance of audience participation [spectatoribus suis obiciuntur]. He reorients and subtly transforms Plato's arguments for censorship of the arts to focus on the more pernicious institutions that indirectly teach people to celebrate cruelty. Seneca's argument applies to a lot of issues that we are not likely to consider primarily in terms of political speech: mass sporting events; war coverage; disaster tourism, and any form of entertainment that rely on the pleasures derived from exposure to the suffering of others. (This is not to deny that the targets of Seneca's argument can overlap with Plato's, and that his argument is indebted to Plato's moral psychology.)
"What Tarquin the Proud said in his garden with the poppy blooms was understood by the son but not by the messenger.--Hamann,"--Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard.
"If wisdom were give me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it."--Seneca (Letter 6).
Can philosophical writing legitimately call attention to its own limitations? By 'limitation' I do not merely mean (a) the ways in which it its possible philosophical aims are constrained by or even unattainable due to the written form, but also (b) the ways in which it might fall short of other philosophical activities. (Let's leave aside the ways in which it falls short of non-philosophical activities.) For, while (a) can be viewed as a species of self-awareness or truth in advertising, when (b) is true, we might wonder why one is writing at all and not just engaging in those other activities (which by stipulation are better at whatever one is trying to achieve)--at its extreme, then, there might be circumstances where persisting in philosophical writing, however much required (say) for one's sanity, might be an instance of ἀκρασία.
In an otherwise effusive letter (six), Seneca explicitly calls attention to the limitations of his writing when it comes to pursuit of wisdom [sapientia]. At first it seems (echoing Plato's Phaedrus 275a) that he is primarily interested in claiming that "the living voice [viva vox] and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word."[Plus tamen tibi et viva vox et convictus quam oratio proderit.] We might think we're in Derrida's territory. But not all speech is created equally; in context, Seneca rejects learning by attending lectures or even philosophical dialogue. What really facilitates philosophical learning is observing exemplary behavior that can be copied [breve et efficax per exempla]. It's not clear this primarily involves speech at all. Rather, it requires living together with a proper model. Seneca advocates this residential-college approach by comparing it favorably to his own way of teaching, which (among other things) in each letter involves, (i) assigning (authoritative) maxims to be memorized (recall, and here, here) [deinde quia longum iter est per praecepta], and (ii) assigning selected admired texts. In fact, Seneca insists that what, say, Socrates said was far less relevant than his practices (or norms) [plus ex moribus quam ex verbis Socratis traxit] to Plato and Aristotle.*
It is the profession of philosophers to question platitudes that others accept without thinking twice. A dangerous profession, since philosophers are more easily discredited than platitudes, but a useful one.--David Lewis, Convention.
Of course, as philosophers, our commitment to challenging and questioning norms is real, and important. Far be it from me to claim that we’d be better off if we all had to be more conventional or couldn’t play around with taboos. Doing so is essential to both the philosophical method and the high quality of life we enjoy as philosophers.--Rebecca Kukla.
Recently, Rebeca Kukla published an insightful post at Leiter on the significance of the norm of social-norm violation among philosophers, including the one that encourages avoiding the appearance of concern with looks and dress. She argues that the benefits (i.e., "high quality of life") of the norm of social norm violation are unevenly distributed within philosophy. Her cogent argument against the norm turns on "the cost of the most vulnerable members of the profession." While Kukla does not spell it out entirely, it seems she thinks that if we adjust the internal-to-philosophy norms we could distribute the current benefits to philosophizing more widely within philosophy without "undermining our commitment to challenging and questioning norms." She, thus, views philosophy as a moral or at least professional community.
Seneca, too, is concerned with the norm of social norm violation and warns against "repellent atire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard..." (Letter 5.) Seneca rejects the excesses now associated with the Cynics, but apparently commonly thought to be the 'philosopher's way' (even if "discretely pursued"). Anticipating Mandeville and Veblen, Seneca treats these instances of social norm-violation as expressing the desire to be conspicuous [conspici]. The "self-display" associated with self-punishing [poenam] norms (or what Hume would label 'monkish virtues') comes at the expense of making a contribution to society [proficere].
Cuiuscumque humanae mentis ideae aliae adaequatae sunt, aliae autem mutilatae et confusae.--Spinoza, Ethica 3p1dem
Last week I had the good fortune to examine a PhD dissertation, "Lutheran Astronomers after the Fall (1540-1590): A reappraisal of the Renaissance dynamic of religion and astronomy," by the Ghent historian of science, Nienke Roelants (now: Dr. Nienke Roelants). One thing (among many) that I learned is that Luther and Melanchthon promoted an epistemology that includes a doctrine that has something like these five components: (i) in our Post-Lapsarian state, we need (ii) a mental emendation, that (iii) makes exact/clear (iv) the (innate) confused idea [of God] we already posses; (v) this emendation is rarely complete in an ordinary life. Part of the process of such emendation is (a) by way of the rigorous (mathematical) study of nature, and (b) by copying the right sort of exemplars.
Descartes' version of the doctrine of innate ideas is that these are always clear and distinct in us. (Is that so? Descartes scholars should feel free to correct me.) So, that once one learns to recognize what is already in one's mind by way of the study of geometry, one has access to clear and distinct ideas. (He attributes a version of this to Plato's Meno in a letter, I think, to Voetius.)
NewAPPS is about three years old now. We have a wider, more durable, and pleasingly engaged audience than we ever imagined. Our activism and discussion about professional issues have generated quite a bit of publicity and controversy. Yet, one feature has not received much public comment: week in week out, we produce free-standing philosophical essays (generally between 800-1200 words) that are nothing like journal articles nor (generally) even appropriate as drafts of journal articles. Of course, often we develop themes and even an identity over (explicitly and implicitly connected) series, but, in principle, each of the posts is independent. While plenty of other philosophical blogs also offer free-standing philosophical essays, these tend to be longer, or more narrowly focused on an area of expertise, and (generally) not as frequent. (Of course, many of us were inspired by Crookedtimber and Thoughts Arguments and Rants.) To be 'historical' about it, our philosophical blogging is -- despite our analytical or continental identity -- closer in spirit to the kind of thing one might find in Bacon's or Montaigne's essays than anything we have been trained to write.
Can you tell I am pretty proud of this? (Yeah, check 'vanity' in Montaigne!)
While there are precedents in the Ancient world (Epicurus' and Cicero's Letters), Seneca's Letters are the ground-zero for philosophical essayists. (I welcome alternative candidates.) I have been blogging about the Letters, but an extended discussion with my PhD students* made me realize the significance of Seneca's adopted constraints of form. For, the first four letters conform to a very tight 'template.' (These letters have an average of 383 words!) I am using 'template' to capture something about structure/form.
No man has ever been so advanced by Fortune that she not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths.—Seneca, Letter 4.
In context, Seneca’s acceptance of epistemic uncertainty (or here) is as much about natural events (the sea) as political events—in the previous line we’re reminded of the fates of Pompey, Crassus, and Lepidus. Political mastery does not guarantee immunity against a violent end. Seneca is not blind to the probable destination of his political fall. More important, the violent underpinning of Roman political institutions means that nobody is truly master [dominus] in their “own homes” [domesticis]: “just as many have been killed by angry slaves as by angry kings.” Somebody that “scorns his own life” [vitam suam contemptsit] will not be afraid to die, in order to kill. Seneca offers a veritable picture of a state of nature under the rule of law: “every one possesses the power which you fear.”*
One might think that Seneca is anticipating Spinoza: the state of nature is never fully absent in civil society. But Seneca’s position here is compatible with a more optimistic possibility: if one can remove the sources of anger and scorn of self, one might have a more secure and, perhaps, even less uncertain environment. One may not be able to calms the sea, but the ship of state might be made more even-keeled. It is an open question if Seneca’s proposed emendation of minds [emendato animo] is strictly limited to a kind of enjoyable [freuris] self-help (recall), or (if we cheating-ly glace ahead toward Letter 7) also by way of improved state institutions and social norms.
Posted by Eric Schliesser on 19 September 2013 at 06:09 in "Austerity"? You mean class war, don't you?, Early modern philosophy, End of life issues, Environmental issues, Eric Schliesser, History of philosophy, Metaphysics, Political Economy, Seneca, Spinoza | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
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"Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day."--Pomponius, quoted by Seneca, Letter 3.
Our personality shapes, as Pomponius's maxim suggests, how we view the world. This is why any interpretation of a layered text often reveals as much about the interpreter as it does about the text. In the third letter, in the context of discussing a discussing true friendships [verae amicitiae], Seneca discusses three kinds of human types: (i) the gullible, (ii) the suspicious, and (iii) those that trust after a considered judgment (if this were a Platonic dialogue, we'd be looking for a fourth.)
Seneca does not explain much how good judgment is attained. He does exhibit a feature of it in the start of the letter:
You have sent a letter to me through the hand of a "friend" of yours, as you call him. And in your very next sentence you warn me not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this; in oother words, you have in the same letter affirmed and denied that he is your friend. Now if you used this word of ours/a in the public [publico] sense, and called him "friend" in the same way in which we speak of all candidates for election as "honourable gentlemen,"...
Thus, a discerning judge pays attention to (a) the match between words and actions, and (b) does so by relying on (some) logic. More subtly, such a judge is aware that (c) the meaning of words is very context sensitive; in particular, (d) Seneca relies on a distinction between public the and private speech.* As we have seen, public speech is encountered in the market-place and politics, both the realm of uncertain uncertain and fickle popular opinion. One can have thousands of Facebook friends, but one's popularity need not imply credibility (and not all followers are steadfast).
The reader may have a sense that we have gone off the rails. To be honest, I share that sense. The claim that the category of sentence carves at the joints, for example...strains to the breaking-point my intuitive grip on the notion of joint carving...[I]t's evident from examples that there just is a metaphysically significant notion of saturation. I invite the skeptical reader not to simply dismiss the issue, but rather to join my struggle to make sense of this notion, and perhaps come up with something better. T.Sider, Writing the Book of the World (257) [emphasis in original--ES.]
An uncharitable -- not to be confused with the "skeptical" -- reader might interpret the passage above as a rhetorical way to dismiss an important worry (recall my earlier post). But this would miss what is at stake here; Sider here recognizes (to speak pompously) the crucial, world-historical significance of his project, which madly pursues the 'linguistic turn' to its near-breaking point within analytical metaphysics. For, with 'saturation' Sider makes clear how his knee-jerk realism and his embrace of the method of final (or fundamental) language come together: the world consists of joints and these correspond to "a linguistic category: that of the complete sentence in a fundamental language. In a fundamental language, a language in which the category of sentence carves at the joints, sentences are always "metaphysically complete"--saturated." (254)
Now, this is not the place to offer Sider's ingenuous and persuasive argument for his idea that "there's something metaphysically distinctive...abut all parameters being filled. When all parameters are filled, we can call the result a [metaphysical] fact." (252). Let's accept that a fully regimented fundamental language contains a primitive operator that attaches to a dummy sentence-variable. We have here a way of thinking about submission to fact (recall and here) that is internally satisfying (and consistent). To put Sider's insight more informally, but it in the spirit of Sider, "when God created the world" she needed sentences to write the book of the world.
Sider's picture comes attractively close to offering a metaphysical bedrock that dispenses with the Principle of Sufficient Reason (and, thus, exorcise the ghost of Bradley's infinite regress that has haunted analytical philosophy since inception).
Omnia, Lucili, aliena sunt, tempus tantum nostrum est.--Seneca, Letter 1.
At 280 words -- shorter than most frivolous blog posts -- Seneca's first letter to Lucilius takes full advantage of the economy of Latin prose. Its brevity may, thus, be thought to be an exemplar of what it seems to preach (in the first sentence): not to lose time.* Economy is a major theme of the letter as it explores the nature of possession, scarcity, value, profit, and other familiar economic concepts. In fact, in the brief span of the letter Seneca introduces two conceptions of economy (or axiological frameworks): in one we exchange commodities governed by the values established in the market, that is, uncertain popular opinion; in the second necessary loss reigns.+ Given that Seneca devalues the "foolish" attachments formed in the former (and seems to embrace the latter), we ought to reconsider the idea that losing time is a problem.
In order to teach a political economy that is an alternative to the usual one, Seneca turns to a bit of metaphysics: time is our only intrinsic property--our other properties are alienable. Seneca suggests that time's supreme value is due both to this peculiar fact and the necessity of our mortality. In this first letter, Seneca does not fully explain why the time(s) of our lives is the only such intrinsic property. (One may wonder why not the space of our lives?) If we substitute dying (for time(s) of our lives), the thought presents itself that the reason why the time of our life is our only intrinsic property may be that one's death(s) is the only necessity in a life. (We can, after all, not pay our taxes.)
Clearly, for Seneca to think or have a name is not necessary.
If time is of the essence, why write 280 words?
"Scientific philosophy" as I will be using it here is an eighteenth century invention by now-forgotten philosophers (McLaurin, 's Gravesande) or not read as philosophers anymore (Euler) (and then opposed by now-canonical philosophers like Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and folk that are fun to read like Mandeville and Diderot) that, after the split between philosophy and science, was re-introduced into philosophy by people like Russell, and echoed by Carnap, and Reichenbach. Scientific philosophy has six characteristics: