Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Coursera Update

I just finished my first Coursera course: Dr. Mohamed Noor's "Introduction to Genetics and Evolution."  I recommend it! (It's being offered again starting January 4.)

Here are the courses I've decided to take on Coursera starting next  month:

  1. Calculus: Single Variable
  2. Game Theory
  3. The Modern World: Global History since 1760 (Somehow I got an MA without ever taking a modern history course!)
  4. How Things Work 1
I'll probably have to drop one or more of them, since my comprehensive examinations are approaching. But I think a better grasp of these subjects will help me out with one of my biggest weaknesses as a philosophical explicator and inquirer: giving strong, lively examples! 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Starting Points

A brief essay on the conditions for the possibility that philosophy is not complete bullshit:

Epistemology may be practiced as a subdivision of metaphysics, inquiring after the ontological dimensions of knowledge, or it may be motivated by a practical concern for actually having knowledge. In the former capacity, it is dependent on the fundamental findings of metaphysics. In the latter, it is prerequisite to the sure success of metaphysics itself.

While this order may seem circular, it is not viciously so: epistemology as a pursuit of method does not necessarily require a comprehensive metaphysical self-interpretation, just as one does not need to understand the physical principles of buoyancy, muscle flexion, and action and reaction in order to learn how to swim. On the other side, metaphysics can make positive progress even before its methods are perfectly established, in something of the way the earliest astronomers began to gather observations about the celestial sphere.

To insist on a comprehensive interrelation of metaphysics and epistemology would indeed create a vicious circle and force the whole enterprise of philosophy to collapse. Thus, an understanding of the independence of epistemology from metaphysics is essential for the justification of epistemology and ultimately of an epistemologically funded metaphysics (if that is desirable), which would include the metaphysics of knowledge itself.

Should this epistemologically funded metaphysics of knowledge turn out to undermine or problematize the independence of epistemology by producing methodologically significant conclusions, this cannot be allowed to destroy the legitimacy of the starting point. Thus, the independence of methodologically oriented epistemology must be defined in such a way that its viability does not depend on its comprehensiveness or accuracy.

The point of all this is…well…something to do with Hegel, I think.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Spaemann on Persons, 1

I'm enjoying Robert Spaemann's recent article in Philosophisches Jahrbuch. I hope to have something to say about it soon. After I've finished it. Philosophy in German still takes me some time.

The gist of it so far: the common overemphasis on the root of the term "person" in dramatic roles ignores the better part of the word's history—namely, its use in grammar, as applied to theology, and subsequently by analogy to anthropology. The human being is a person by virtue of self-relation in community, echoing the structure of the Trinity. This self-relation is principally manifested in the phenomena of promising, regretting, and forgiving, each of which demonstrates (1) the capacity for second-order desires and (2) the special dignity of the freedom involved in relating oneself to oneself.

As I read the section on promising, I kept thinking how interesting it would be to compare it to Nietzsche's inquiries in the Genealogy of Morals, according to which the history of human society is a history of man's becoming a creature with the right to make promises. Then Spaemann cited it himself. A little glibly, though, since he doesn't address Nietzsche's historical contention that promise-making is a gift mankind give itself by means of generations of cruelty. So maybe something to work on there.

Spaemann also sharply distinguishes personhood in the radical sense from personhood in the sense of counting or having standing in a community of persons. I'd like to know why. That is, the distinction is clear enough but I would think there would be some overlap, considering the dignity involved in second-order desires.

It's actually the first I've read from Spaemann, so I don't know how much of this would already be familiar to Anglophone readers of, say, Persons. I have the feeling I'm just scratching the surface of something as I read this article.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bloom on Cephalus

To sum up and to clarify what I think is accomplished by all the foregoing reflections on Cephalus in Plato's Republic, let me cite and respond to a few prominent interpreters.

I will begin with Allan Bloom's reading, since among those I have studied it is the most different from my own . He identifies Cephalus as a representative of "ancestral piety" (Bloom, 312) which makes a claim to authority as "a practical substitute for wisdom." Socrates "forces [him] to leave" (314) and thus "takes command of the little community." He "must induce Cephalus to leave the scene, because Cephalus is beyond reason, and it would be impious to dispute him." The removal of the authority frees Socrates and company for a "critical examination of the ancestral code."

I have to say first of all that nothing in this description accords with the direct evidence of the text. Cephalus does not identify very closely with anything ancestral. He regards his own ancestors with marked disapproval, and has only recently come around to a respectful regard for stories about the afterlife (having laughed at them in his youth). He does not have a place of authority in the household, which is identified in the text as "Polemarchus's house," not "Cephalus's house," because Polemarchus has already taken over the estate. Socrates does not scruple to dispute Cephalus. On the contrary he raises a direct argument against him. Also, by Sorates's own testimony, he is eager to hear more from Cephalus, not eager to be done with him. We have no reason to think that Cephalus departs in reaction to the conversation, since we are given the very plausible explanation that he has to attend to the sacrifices.

I suppose Bloom could chalk all of this evidence up to a mixture of Socratic and Platonic irony, but this all-powerful magical hermeneutical device of appeal to irony would not excuse him from indicating some positive evidence explaining how he has come to get the inside story that the rest of us can't see. But all he can point to is the association of Cephalus with sacrifices, which we do not need to connect with "ancestral piety," since Cephalus has explained that he is more or less just hedging his bets.

More next time on Stanley Rosen, Leo Strauss, Julia Annas, and Devin Stauffer, before I finally move on to the refutations of Polemarchus.


Friday, November 23, 2012

The Character of Cephalus

Sorry, this one's a little long. It won't be interesting to you unless you are interested in reading Book I of the Republic (which I hope you are)!

Most commentators who discuss the character of Cephalus in the Republic take a dim view of his character. The disparagement seems to issue from two respects in which he is supposed to be significantly at odds with Socrates's views and interests:

  1. He represents "piety" and "tradition," as opposed to the open, critical freedom of reason.
  2. He values justice for its possible connection to eternity (and the more unambiguous connection to sleeping well), rather than for its intrinsic worth.
Each of these points has some basis in the tradition of interpretation of Plato, but it should be obvious that this grounding is not very secure, and so these judgments of Cephalus should be regarded as probable interpretative hypotheses, contingent on the correctness of the traditional interpretation of Plato. If you read the Republic as a replacement of a traditional external action-centered view of justice with a philosophical internal agent-centered view, you need Cephalus to be a narrow-minded traditionalist whose inflexibility obstructs Socrates's educational project, and who must therefore be gotten out of the way. Otherwise the literary structure of the Republic becomes incoherent.

Thus, a reinterpretation of Cephalus (especially with regard to his departure) would warrant a reconsideration of the whole of the Republic. With this consequence in mind, we should not allow presuppositions about Plato's philosophical purpose to take the place of actual literary evidence. (I'm thinking of Devin Stauffer here, who decides illegitimatly that Cephalus is probably laughing nervously, and Julia Annas, who calls his excuse a "polite fiction.")

Because Cephalus's family was involved in a high-profile murder case around the turn of the century (a few years before Socrates's trial), we can assume a few facts about him as background. (This historical significace of the family also makes speculations about the significance of the names implausible, BTW.) Cephalus is a Syracusan arms manufacturer who, in the middle of his life's way, came to Attica with his family at the behest of Pericles. He settled in the Piraeus (the port city outside the main city of Athens) as a metic (a resident alien), and after some decades retired, passing the shield-making business on to his sons, Polemarchus, Lysias, and Euthydemus. (No not that Euthydemus!)

So we know that he once made a fateful decision, which at the time of the dialog seems to have proven prudent. We gather that he made this decision with a view to the future flourishing of his sons, remembering that his own father was not so mindful. The evident dramatic irony is that under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, some years after Cephalus's death, his sons' property would be seized and Polemarchus executed. The futural benefit of property is contingent on the stability and equity of the rule of law which governs and guarantees it. so Cephalus may make mistakes about what will benefit his sons, if he cannot discern an unstable constitution from stable ones. But certain it is that he wants to do them good and thinks he has done so.

What good does he think he has done them? He has provided them with two things which he regards as the conditions for a happy, peaceful old age:
  1. money
  2. moderation
Of course, he cannot hand moderation over to them in the same way as he has handed over his tangible property, but perhaps he has lived in such a way that his sons will have an example to follow. If his youth was governed by "many mad masters" of passionate desire, still he was able to keep himself in line for the sake of his sons, unlike his profligate father and rapacious grandfather.

As death approaches, he grows fearful of the stories of punishment in the afterlife, and he treasures the freedom from occasions of injustice which his well-kept estate has afforded him. But that was never his motivation for living he has. Throughout his life he has though first of his sons' futures, and this thought has been the source of his moderation.

So it would be inconsistent for him to subject his sons to any danger which he himself knows how to avoid. is departure, then, cannot mean that he is afraid of Socrates's refutations. As I said before, if he thought that talking to Socrates could damage the benefit of his money by taking away the guarantee of his peace of mind, he would not casually laugh at the prospect of Polemarchus's suffering the same fate. Yes, people laugh when they are nervous, but they also laugh when they are at ease and someone has just made a joke (as Polemarchus has here).

No, Cephalus is pleased that his son should enjoy the remainder of the argument. At the same time, he does not think the conversation is anything serious. Conversation is a seemly pleasure, and Polemarchus's eagerness to engage in it is a heartening sign of moderation in him. Cephalus's failing is not inflexible traditionalism but easygoing refinement. His attitude towards conversation as a harmless pastime prevents him from enjoying its richest usefulness.

Next time, I'll try to compare this interpretation to Allan Bloom's (as requested by Pseudonoma) and some others, before going on to analyze the refutations of Polemarchus.


Correction: the original post attributed the "laughing nervously" interpretation of Cephalus's departure to Stanley Rosen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Is that all?

photo by Magnus Bråth
My last post may have seemed rather a let-down. At least, one KTL reader ("Proud Father") thought so:
I must confess, I was expecting something a bit more climactic after all this build-up. But let's see: Cephalus doesn't understand benefit because he thinks he knows what benefit is? His understanding is too morally ambivalent. (And "benefit" is such an elusive concept that we can almost assume someone is wrong who claims to know confidently what it is.)
But we're not done here. Many questions remain to be answered:
  • What is the nature of Cephalus's ignorance of benefit? Is he "morally ambivalent," as PF suggests? Or morally complacent, as others (e.g., Annas) have asserted? Does it matter?
  • Does the refutation do more than draw attention to a flaw in Cephalus's understanding? Or is it more than self-knowledge? Or is it self-knowledge of a sort which is intrinsically more than itself?
    • How can we learn anything from someone else's self-knowledge?
    • Does wisdom regarding benefit require this kind of self-knowledge?
  • Is the refutation of Cephalus dialectical?
    • If so, what is the nature of the dialectical transition? From seeming benefit to real benefit? From partial justice to comprehensive justice? Or what?
    • In whom does the dialectical transition take place? (I still need to give my reasons for thinking that Cephalus does not flee for fear of being affected by the dialectic.)
Hang tight, dear readers! I've got every spare ounce of brain-juice cogitating on all of these questions, just for you.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Any Coursairs Here?

I'm curious whether any KTL readers are taking or planning to take any courses on Coursera.

Here are a few coming up that might be of interest:
*Drugs and the Brain — Dec 1st 2012 (5 weeks long)
Game Theory — Jan 2013 (6 weeks long)
Neuroethics — Jan 2013
Introduction to Philosophy ­— Jan 28th 2013 (7 weeks long)
*Contraception: Choices, Culture and Consequences — Jan 28th 2013 (5 weeks long)
*The Modern and the Postmodern — Feb 4th 2013 (13 weeks long)
Know Thyself — Mar 4th 2013 (10 weeks long)
*Thinking of taking these myself.
Would anyone be interested in seeing a KTL supplement to one of these courses?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Bequest of the Question

image © Marie-Lan Nguyen
Wikimedia Commons
This post is part of a series on
Republic. It is intended to
continue the line of
 summarized here.
So when we come to Plato asking about the nature of dialectic, how we can learn it, and what it is for, we are trying to learn from him how to think truthfully about a certain set of questions, and what worth those questions have. And by thinking truthfully we mean thinking in freedom from some initial way of taking things which takes the truly one as many and the truly many as one. We want Plato to teach us what this initial way of thinking is, in what its untruthfulness consists, and how this untruth can be overcome.

We have learned from the refutation of Cephalus that, when it comes to the matter of benefit at least, the untruth of the initial position consists in a kind of obviousness, and that thinking truthfully about benefit requires first thinking of it as something obscure and questionable. But very little in Platonic dialogs does not ultimately involve itself in the question of benefit. Certainly anything with a claim to worth has to be understood in the light of benefit. And we now know that this "light" is more like a shadow.

Does Cephalus sense a creeping horror in this cast of obscurity spreading over his view of things, and does he flee back to the sacrifices for fear of facing the uncertainty of his own way of life? This seems to be the standard reading of the character of Cephalus (Rosen, Bloom, and Annas all see him roughly this way), but if he really found Socrates so appalling, would it not give him pause, rather than provoke his laughter, to think of his son as "heir of the argument?" He so prides himself on having benefited his sons through a moderate guardianship of his wealth, that it is hard to imagine him suddenly wanting that inheritance to include a destruction of the very peace which that wealth is supposed to provide.

Since this interpretation (which I first learned from Rainscape's unpublished paper on the subject) contradicts the usual line on Cephalus, we need to analyze the action more closely, to see that:

  1. Cephalus genuinely wants to benefit his sons, and cares more for their future happiness more than any self-indulgence.
  2. Cephalus's understanding of the benefit of money logically determines his sense of this bequest.
  3. As a reminder: the truth of the definition of justice concerns Cephalus in terms of the benefit of money.
In view of these three facts about the character of Cephalus, it will become obvious that it would be incoherent for Cephalus to depart out of some pusillanimous fear of the truth or narrow-minded conventionalism, and we will have to look for some other reason more in keeping with his character.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Step Back: "What is Dialectic?"

You work for hours trying to disentangle two strands from a messy, knotted pile of string, only to discover that they are actually one and the same string.

You aim a telescope at a bright point of light in the night sky, and the closer view splits the star in two.

In reading an astronomy textbook, you learn that the morning star and the evening star are the same star.

All these experiences share a common pattern and all of them are images—not examples but images—of dialectic. Something that was somehow one is now somehow two, or vice versa. In each case, the second position is more truthful, and you won't return to the first position except through forgetfulness.

Dialectic does concern itself with the truth, with regard to questions of unity and multiplicity. But it is not about "looking closer" or "straightening things out" or "expanding your perspective," although each of these expressions can be (and often are) used to indicate the practice of dialectic in a vague way. It does not concern matters which present themselves at particular locations within a spatial field of vision in the first place. Rather, it aims at truth in universal matters, such as being, knowledge, justice, and the soul.

      • (NB: Experienced dialecticians will tell you that this opposition between the particular and universal is not as tidy as it sounds, which means that the present indication of the nature of dialectic is only a starting point, but don't worry about that now—you'll have the occasion to savor that twist later.)

The earliest natural scientists established the pattern of discerning unity and multiplicity as the basic structure of scientific thinking. On the one hand, the science of anatomy sorted the seeming unity of the body into a multiplicity of systems that function together, and astronomy broke the mythically simple sky into a field for the complex motions of individual bodies. On the other hand, early philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes thought that the seeming multiplicity of kinds of things in the world could be completely reduced to a uniform component (although they disagreed about what this component would be: water, air, or perhaps something less palpable). Parmenides later expressed the spirit of these early scientific thinkers as a choice: the decision to order one's thinking according to being, which is one and whole, rather than seeming, which presents what is really one as many and fragmented.

But this transition from seeming multiplicity to real unity is only one possible model of dialectic, and it is not obviously the right way to approach being, justice, and such. Perhaps the transition which makes our thinking more truthful is not from seeming to being, but rather from the partial to the whole, or from the relative to the absolute, or from the temporal to the eternal, or somehow a mixture of these, or something else entirely. To ask after the nature of dialectic is just to ask what it means to consider the "big questions" more truthfully, and to be precise about this is the first task of philosophy.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Obscurity of Benefit as the Proper Context for the Question of Wealth

image © Marie-Lan Nguyen
Wikimedia Commons
This post is part of a series on
Republic. It can stand
alone, but is
 intended to
continue the line of
 summarized here.
Last week, I said that in order to see the substance of Socrates's argument in opposition to Cephalus (and so to see the difference from the contentious sophists and debaters from whom Socrates is to be distinguished), we would have to ask how Cephalus's unstated opinions about justice obstruct his view of the benefit of wealth. We should expect that it would be easier for Cephalus not to see benefit itself than to make a miscalculation about money.

In fact, if we follow up on Socrates's refutation as it is developed in the ensuing conversation with Cephalus's son, Polemarchus (not to mention Thrasymachus, we do find that benefit, especially with regard to the possibility of being mistaken about it, is a crucial turning point in the question about justice. According to Polemarchus, the hard cases of justice in which it supersedes the determinations of legal property are governed by the principle that "friends owe it to their friends to do good for them, never harm," and that justice "gives benefits to friends and does harm to enemies." So you would not give a deposited weapon back to an enraged friend because you know it would not benefit him but harm him to have it.

I just can't think about the
idea of the good when you
look at me that way.
But what is benefit? And who is a friend? Depending on the answers to these questions, justice could be marvelous and powerful or completely superfluous. We already want to benefit our friends; that's contained in our considering them friends. But justice must add something to the natural state of affairs, or everyone will be just except for a few fantastically twisted souls. (As Seth Benardete points out in Socrates's Second Sailing, this superfluousness of the just intention is what moves Socrates to construe Polemarchus's justice as an art — a method of application of the intention which we all in fact already have.) So the problem becomes one of identifying what it is that justice could know about friendship and benefit that we don't know just by wanting to benefit our friends.

Socrates's refutation of Cephalus does not turn explicitly on the question of benefit, but it does make clear that Cephalus cannot have seen the benefit of money, precisely in its relation to the idea of benefit, if he thinks that it facilitates justice by way of paying what is owed. For it equally facilitates injustice, if paying what is owed is sometimes unjust.

Thus the obstruction in Cephalus's view of the benefit of wealth is his own presumption of knowledge. He does not see benefit because he does not look for it in a place of darkness — in the field of his ignorance. Socratic wisdom is famously knowledge of ignorance. Here we see that this knowledge is a positive power, that orients the knower in the direction of what he would learn. To get the benefit of Cephalus's report, Socrates needs to place it in the light of something obscure. Benefit itself needs to be seen as something that somehow hides itself.


Friday, November 2, 2012

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle interprets perception of moral and divine particulars as, roughly, a natural power that develops over time through experience. Thus he maintains that in our pursuit of the sources of actions and of being, we ought not to rely exclusively on our own perceptions but to listen to the reports of the aged and experienced, even if they are quite naïve in their understanding of their own experience:
So one ought to pay attention to the undemonstrated statements and opinions of people who are experienced or old, or of people with practical judgment, no less than to the things they demonstrate, for by having an eye sharpened by experience, they see rightly. 1 (emphasis added)
 It is as important to keep the reports of our elders and moral exemplars in mind as it is to go in "whatever direction the argument blows us." 2 To extend the naval metaphor, the wind won't be able to blow us anywhere if we abandon the ship in order to follow it.

We need not assume, however, that the reports we receive have been properly interpreted, with regard to the sources (since knowledge, not intellectual perception grasps the sources), or to the implications.

1 translated by Joe Sachs, 1143b10.
2 Republic, translated by G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve, 394d.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What's in it for Socrates?

image © Marie-Lan Nguyen
Wikimedia Commons
This post is part of a series on
Republic. It can stand
alone, but is
 intended to
continue the line of
 summarized here.
What kind of conversation are Cephalus and Socrates sharing at the beginning of Plato's Republic? Are they intently pursuing an abstract point of intellectual interest to both? Or just shooting the shit on a very high level?

The conversation features an oath (329a1), two references to poets (329b-c, 331a), and several fine distinctions (329b, 329e, 330b, and of course 331b-c) — all signs that something fairly serious is happening. On the other hand, the conversation strays rapidly from one theme to another: old age; wealth; inheritance and money-making; the afterlife; and finally justice. People who are taking a theme seriously do not usually so easily abandon it.

Also, Socrates and Cephalus clearly do not play equal parts in the conversation. Socrates poses questions and Cephalus answers. The questions leading up to the refutation are basically of a personal nature: they ask about Cephalus's experience of old age, the basis of his ease, the source of his wealth, and his experience of the usefulness of that wealth. This pattern more nearly resembles an interview than either a casual conversation or a joint investigation of a theme.

The common presumption about Socratic interviews is that they are aimed at a demonstration of the interlocutor's ignorance on a theme he thinks he knows about, and that he poses as a learner only out of irony. However, Cephalus never presents himself as an authority on justice, and the interview with him centers at first around themes with which we can presume Cephalus is intimately familiar: wealth and extreme old age, two things of which Socrates has no experience.

So it is best to assume that, at least in the present case, Socrates genuinely thinks he can learn something from his interlocutor, especially as he reports his own motivations as though this were the case, not only in his speeches to Cephalus but also in the narration accompanying it. ("I admired him for saying that," Socrates says in the narration, "and I wanted him to tell me more, so I urged him on" (329d-e).) Later, he indicates that he thinks Cephalus among all the wealthy is especially likely to see the truth about money because he does not love it too much (330b-c).

The final question before the refutation, then, seems to indicate precisely what Socrates thinks he might be able to learn from Cephalus: what money is good for. Whatever else we may say about him, we must admit that he occupies a unique position for seeing the answer to this question, because he neither lacks experience of wealth nor suffers the distortion which besets most of those who do have such experience. Even if he does not have knowledge (in the sense of being able to give an account) of the answer, at the very least his report will be useful, even indispensable, for those who wish to give thought to this question, and whatever he says will have to be remembered even if it is somehow refuted.

Now if what is to be gained from Cephalus's speech at 330d-331b is a reliable perspective on the usefulness of wealth, then anything which might skew this perspective or throw it out of frame has to be dealt with before Socrates can learn from it. It may be Socrates's greatest virtue is that he can see clearly when someone who would gladly teach is unable to do so without the assistance of his student. If the way in which the youths in the Republic treat Socrates is due to his example, we may say that he has even taught this art to the younger generation.

The question, then, is what obstructions does Socrates see in Cephalus's presentation, and how does this warrant the sudden shift of emphasis from wealth to justice?


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Summary of the Prolegomena to tomorrow's post (yes it's as boring as it sounds)

So, to sum up:
  1. The dialectic that Plato recommends must first be likened to the destructive, skeptical patterns of questioning and answering normally attributed to the Sophists, in order to be distinguished from them, since Plato himself represented dialectic in terms of this likening and distinction. (see "What is Dialectic?")
  2. The distinction in terms of which this dialectic shows up must be pried open at the point at which it seems least distinct: refutation, the activity in which Socrates is most easily confused with a Sophist. (see "Socratic Refutation")
  3. In analyzing an instance of Socratic refutation, the first step should be maieutic: it should deliver as fully as possible the reasons for the interpretation of the refutation as essentially identical with a sophistic refutation (as opposed to assuming that Plato is merely dramatizing the logical deduction of a proposition in opposition to other positions (see "The ductility of arguments and the futility of moral propositions")).
  4. In the case of the refutation of Cephalus, these reasons are:
    1. Socrates puts words in Cephalus's mouth, attributing a definition of justice to him which he never stated.
    2. Socrates may have an ulterior motive for destroying Cephalus's moral attitudes, since they tend to suggest that the Socratic way of life is imprudent. (see "Cephalus Confuted")
I should add above all that the textual structure of the refutation has roughly the form of what Aristotle will later call a hypothetical syllogism. The hypothesis that all acts of speaking the truth and paying one's debts, together with the observation that some acts of paying one's debts give power to friends who will use it to arm themselves, leads to the conclusion that sometimes it is just to help your friends harm themselves. Since, however, the opinion that harming your friends in this way would be unjust and bad is more firmly fixed than the hypothetical definition, the original assertion is destroyed, leaving its contradictory standing as an absolute certainty.

So the examination of the refutation of Cephalus will have to show two things

  1. what in the preceding conversation legitimately motivates the imposition of a definition on Cephalus's musings, and what interest Socrates has in the usefulness of money.
  2. what kind of conclusion Socrates thinks his counterexample produces.
The first of these goals I will undertake tomorrow.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

The ductility of arguments and the futility of moral propositions

It's the damnedest thing about Plato: so far are we from a consensus on the method of interpretation that we have to justify ourselves not only in our interpretations, but even in our identification of the essential interpretative problems. We have to do a fair bit of work just to have the right questions.

In suggesting that the core confusion preventing the interpretation of Socratic refutation is its similarity to contentious logic-chopping, I have ignored the most obvious interpretation—at least, what is most obvious to anyone who has been told by a book or a teacher, or simply heard it somewhere, that the Republic is Plato's philosophical treatise on justice. Its presentation as a conversation with a setting, characters, and even something of a plot surely means nothing more than that the Republic wants to charm us into listening to a series of thoughts which we might find too tedious if presented directly. In that case, it would really be splitting hairs to ask about what Socrates is doing, when all that really matters is that Plato thinks he can prove you wrong if you want to say that justice is paying back debts and giving what is owed, and that he has his own idea about what we should say justice is unconditionally. Socratic refutation is just a literary vehicle for philosophical debate.

Happily enough for me, this (stubbornly ineradicable) analytic reading of Plato the author transforms itself into the same problem as does the public reading of Socrates the historical man, the reading of his character which condemned him to death. To be sure, the hypothetical Plato Debate-o, as described in the preceding paragraph, is a nobler type than Euthydemus or Gorgias, since he at least thinks that what he is persuading you of is the sole truth of the matter, and that he could not equally easily persuade you of the opposite.

However, if the difference between White Hat and Black Hat debaters is that the White Hats will not allow their arguments to be overturned into their opposites, then not much can stand on this difference. The standards of debate are comfortable turf for the Black Hats, and they can easily demonstrate the fallacy of maintaining that a logically argued position cannot be overturned—it is their power of demonstrating precisely this point on which their whole reputation is founded.  Gorgias forcefully declare this supreme strength of persuasive speech in his Encomium of Helen:
Persuasion belonging to discourse shapes the soul at will: witness, first, the discourses of the astronomers, who by setting aside one opinion and building up another in its stead make incredible and obscure things apparent to the eyes of opinion; second, the necessary debates in which one discourse, artfully written but not truthfully meant, delights and persuades a numerous crowd; and third, the competing arguments of the philosophers, in which speed of thought is shown off, as it renders changeable the credibility of an opinion. (translated by Brian Donovan)
Indeed, aside from the examples he gives of the power of persuasive speech over opinion, Gorgias is his own most impressive example, since he affirms this point in the very act of demonstrating it by persuading his audience to admire someone whom the poets had made "a byword for calamities." If Gorgias can make you like Helen he must be capable of proving anything. So if the White Hats of logical debate are distinguished from the Black Hats only by their more honorable application of a naturally neutral instrument, they turn out to be nothing but dupes of conventional thinking who have allowed their rational powers to be subordinated to some extraneous authority. The success of the sophistical teachers and orators argues undeniably against any claim that logic lends itself to any given position more than it does the contradictory.

In that case, the White Hats could hardly be taken seriously as guardians of truth. They seem to have maimed themselves, cutting off half of their art of guardianship (the half that might be likened to an art of theft) and imagining that to do so makes them more capable defenders. This cannot stand as an interpretation of the origins of philosophy (which an interpretation of Plato and Socrates must be), unless by "interpreting" its origin we mean robbing it of its foundations.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Cephalus Confuted

As I tried to show in my previous two posts introducing the problem of dialectic in Plato:
  1. The correct understanding of what Plato means by "dialectic" hinges on a correct interpretation of Socratic refutation.
  2. The structure of refutation itself naturally encourages an interpretation of it in terms of conflicting propositions and personalities, and no alternative to this interpretation immediately presents itself.
Thus the interpretation of Socratic refutation must begin with a refutation of its own. The true nature of his elenchus will not be able to show itself as long as a more obvious form of refutation loudly declares itself, any more than, say, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" can be appreciated in all its deep wit while we continue to mishear the title as though it said "The Road Less Traveled."

In order to achieve this necessary refutation as completely as possible, we should follow the pattern of refutation of Socrates himself. That is, instead of throwing ourselves directly into disputations, we should first let the very thing which is to be refuted show itself in its entirety. Socrates called this practice of attentive drawing out of a hypothesis the "maieutic art." The son of a midwife, Socrates claimed to have a kind of art of midwifery himself, by virtue of which he could positively contribute to conversations despite his own ignorance of anything worth knowing. He knew how to ask questions in just such a way that a thought could come out entire, in all its dimensions, without anything held back. Only after this complete publication or externalization of the thought would he inspect it to determine whether it was a real understanding or only "a phantom" (a problem his mother never had to deal with, unless maybe she did some work in L.A., circa 2000, via time machine1). A thought has to be delivered in its most comprehensive form before it can be decisively affirmed or dismissed. In the same way, we should try to see as fully as possible why Socrates might seem to be playing the sophist or setting up counter-positions and paradoxes when he proves Cephalus wrong. 

The refutation is as follows:
A fine sentiment, Cephalus, but, speaking of this very thing itself, namely, justice, are we to say unconditionally that it is speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred? Or is doing these things sometimes just, sometimes unjust? I mean this sort of thing, for example: Everyone would surely agree that if a sane man lends weapons to a friend and then asks for them back when he is out of his mind, the friend shouldn't return them, and wouldn't be acting justly if he did. Nor should anyone be willing to tell the whole truth to someone who is out of his mind. 
That's true. 
Then the definition of justice isn't speaking the truth and repaying what one has borrowed. (331b-c)
But Cephalus never claims that "speaking the truth and repaying what one has borrowed" is the definition of justice. In fact, he never makes any claims about the definition of justice at all. He hardly even mentions it. He refers to "injustices" (330e) and being "unjust" (330d) and once to a "just and pious life" (331a), only in order to explain what he thinks money is useful for. Socrates seems to be pouncing on the opportunity to prove someone wrong, even if he has to put words in Cephalus's mouth to do it.

Furthermore, on a literary level, Socrates seems to have some motivation for showing Cephalus up. He has just been told that his way of life is a sure path to misery, since "a good person wouldn't easily bear old age if he were poor, but a bad one wouldn't be at peace with himself even if he were wealthy" (330a).

So is Socrates just jamming some dialectic sauce down an old man's throat for thrills? We'll see next week.


1HOLY CRAP everyone let's write a fanfic where Dr. Who takes Socrates's mom to… um, you know what let's finish this post first)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Socratic Refutation

So I owe you an analysis of Socrates's refutations of Cephalus and Polemarchus in Book I. Now if I were the type to put noble things to paltry use, as someone with no sensibility might use a heartfelt letter as scratch paper, I might say that justice, not being identical with paying one's debts, does not require me to do so — and that I could prove it. Because I, Sam-I-am that I am, being clever as clever as clever can be and having read Plato's Republic know Socrates's argument against Cephalus's definition of justice by heart.

And I could very well stoop to that, because I do think very much of how clever I am. But above all I want to show you that Socrates would not do so, that his form of refutation is completely different from this kind of artful dodge that "takes refuge in words." A Platonic dialectician is not a debater. He does not refute to hide from the obvious, nor to display his wit, nor even simply to prove a point (as one does for whom refutation just means proving the contradictory of the position to be refuted). He refutes as one who, knowing that he does not know, pursues wisdom.

But what do these high-sounding words actually mean? How do we see this knowledge and this pursuit in the refutations of Cephalus and Polemarchus — particularly as they may seem to us to be far from artless, and that they may seem to disclose Socrates as a teacher rather than a learner? This question sets the task of an analysis of these refutations, and with it, this analysis begins. In other words, the first step in understanding Socratic refutation is the refutation of the way in which Socratic refutation appears.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What is Dialectic?

This post is the beginning of a series on Plato's Republic. For those of you reading along with the Syllabus of Sam, I'll be writing about the first few pages (327a1-336a8) all this week, as well as on other topics (maybe?)

Throughout his dialogs, Plato praises something called "dialectic" as the highest form of reasoning. As the name suggests, it takes place by way of conversation. More precisely, it takes place through skillful questioning and answering aimed at refutation, and it tends to break up into a rapid back-and-forth pattern rather than long speeches.

Are you talking to me? 'Cause I don't see
anyone else here, so you must be talking
to me. But on the other hand you are
speaking very disrespectfully and no
one disrespects Euthydemus, so you
must have been wrong when you agreed
that you were talking to me.
If that doesn't make you think of Socrates, you…I don't know, maybe you haven't heard of Socrates? (Here's a good introduction for you.) But we shouldn't conclude too easily that "dialectic" just means what Socrates does, since the word was in Plato's time broadly applied to a whole range of public activities involving questions and answers. The average Athenian reader of Plato would not necessarily have seen a distinction between Socrates's patterns of questioning and those of, say, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, two brothers who built up an enthusiastic following by twisting arguments cleverly back and forth between the two of them, making it appear ridiculous even to think of arriving at truth through speeches.

That is, it is not immediately clear that dialectic is not what most people today think philosophy is: a systematic deployment of bullshit in an unprincipled campaign to undermine common sense and morals. Without this caveat we will not be able to appreciate the extent to which Plato's praise of dialectic addresses itself precisely to this confusion.

The most precise account of the dialectic praised by Plato, then, will compare it to those destructive, skeptical, patterns of questioning and answering. But this will seem too subtle, since I have already said that the dialectic praised by Plato is aimed at refutation. How can something aimed at refutation fail to be skeptical and destructive of the starting points (which will naturally be common sense and morals)? How, that is, can a practice of refutation possibly cohere with a love of truth?

To answer this question, I will analyze Socrates's refutations of Cephalus and Polemarchus in the first half of Book I of the Republic. Tomorrow. Here. Tell your friends.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

All Quiet on the Macroeconomic Front

It's a good time of year to read John Locke. One can't help but think that political discourse would go better if we could
set down any Measures of the Certainty of our Knowledge, or the Grounds of those Perswasions, which are to be found amongst Men, so various, different, and wholly contradictory; and yet asserted some where or other with such Assurance, and Confidence, that he that shall take a view of the Opinions of Mankind, observe their Opposition, and at the same time, consider the Fondness, and Devotion wherewith they are embrac'd; the Resolution, and Eagerness, wherewith they are maintain'd, may perhaps have Reason to suspect, That either there is no such thing as Truth at all; or that Mankind hath no sufficient Means to attain a certain Knowledge of it.1
One might infer two dangerous consequences of excessive assurance on controversial matters:

  1. that erring partisans, happening to have the upper hand, might act too precipitously on their errors.
  2. that witnesses of the contention might conclude that no well-measured action is possible, and adopt an even more reckless quietism.
Locke is more concerned about the latter danger. I am, too.

But I am not so optimistic as he that the matters about which we are told we ought to weigh and to decide can be measured at all, even if we do not "intemperately require Demonstration, and demand Certainty, where Probability only is to be had, and which is sufficient to govern all our concernments" (46).F

Show me the measure according to which we can accurately (even probabilistically) prognosticate and manipulate macroeconomic affairs, and I will begin considering the economy a legitimate issue on which elections should be decided.

1Locke, John. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. 44.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


The syllabus of Sam! (Sam I am.)

Every month or so I'll update this reading list. Read along if you want!

Right now I am about to begin reading:

  • Aristotle, Ethics and Metaphysics
  • Plato, Republic
  • Locke, Essay Concering Human Understanding (selections)
  • Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Now is a good time to read one or all of these books: reading books is better with Sam.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A picture of piety?

It is possible while waiting to learn the truth to let the crucial moment for action slip away. But it may also be possible that this very waiting is in some cases the most essential action.

The eponymous agonist of Plato's Euthyphro tells the story of his father's crime:
The victim was a dependent of mine, and when we were farming in Naxos he was a servant of ours. He killed one of our household slaves in drunken anger, so my father bound him hand and foot and threw him in a ditch, then sent a man [to the king-archon] to inquire from a priest what should be done. During that time he gave no thought or care to the bound man, as being a killer, and it was no matter if he died, which he did. Hunger and cold and his bonds caused his death before the messenger came back from the seer.
Well, Euthyphro, what ought he to have done? Perhaps it was not the god's will that this polluted man be fed and sheltered.

Suppose that someone dearer to you than a household slave—say, a great teacher and pious man—were killed by your city, if not in drunken anger then under the influence of distorted ideas of the good. How might you then treat this city? Could you do worse than to let it lie in bondage to its own madness while you turn away and wait for the good itself to reveal itself to you?

Perhaps this treatment would be only just. The city that killed Socrates deserves what it gets. But such a judgment could only be made after the messenger returns.

On the other hand, what is one to do in the meantime in such a case? Is there a pious waiting in contrast to an impious presumption on the message yet to be delivered (as perhaps we must attribute to Euthyphro's father)?

These times in which no action is possible—perhaps they are the most crucial times. It may be that the one who acts most piously is the one who may later say, "I refrained from action, waiting for the proper time" (Plato, Seventh Letter, 326a).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Platonic Pious and the Piety of Thinking

Stanley Rosen explains that when Plato's Socrates in the Republic identifies the Good as the source of the being of Ideas, he cannot mean that the Good brings them into existence (since in that case, the Ideas would be unreliable and temporally limited, which is incoherent). Rather, he must be saying that if, per impossibile, the Good was not, the entire edifice of Ideas would collapse. The existence of the world, however, threatens this very foundation. It is good, conditional on its bearing fruit in philosophy. Without philosophy, the existence of the world contradicts the community of ideas.
But neither term [to einai or ten ousian] allows for the inference that the Good causes to exist in the sense of bringing into being the Ideas. That would be disastrous for the entire doctrine. Socrates must mean that the Good is a necessary condition for the being of Ideas, but a condition that always obtains. It would be very difficult to say exactly what this means, but I take the general sense to be this: Being (in the sense of beingness, not existence) is good; it is better that the cosmos exist than that it not exist, for more than one reason but primarily because this makes philosophy possible, and it is philosophy that redeems and sanctifies life. On the other hand, if there were no life, such redemption would be unnecessary. Plato's view is very likely that philosophy itself justifies the existence of the cosmos.
Did Plato ever give a definition of the pious? In the Republic, where we can turn for definitions—albeit provisional ones—of the other virtues. But we can find no definition of piety there, or even in the dialog of which piety is ostensibly the theme. The closest the Euthyphro will bring us is to suggest that piety is that part of justice (complete virtue) which concerns care of the gods, intending by this service of them. But Euthyphro categorically refuses to speculate on what work of the gods we might give our service to, recurring instead to a feeble catalog of pious observances.

This marked silence on the work of the gods is perhaps endemic in Plato's works. At least, it is notably omitted in the Republic as well as in the Euthyphro. When Plato considers the ways in which a god might turn falsehoods to use, he considers only whether a god has a need [to supply gaps in the historical record] or something to gain [by protecting himself from enemies or mad friends] (the two possibilities which remain for piety after service in the gods' work is left behind). The gods have no ignorance of history, no enemies or mad friends. But what of their work? Is it not embattled on an earth in which the bad outweighs the good?

A world, if Rosen is correct about Plato's vision of it, which is an egregious (even logically impossible) error on the part of its sources, unless by some miraculous rescue it comes to bear philosophy—which is up to us.

If we cannot distinguish "the piety of thinking" from this sort of anthropogenic redemption of the divine origin of the world, we must reject it (even if this means rejecting our beloved Plato) as blasphemous.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Paradigm of the Ridiculous?

Can we all agree that this (from Quine) makes no sense?
‘The stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world’.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Humanism as Transhumanism

Stanley Rosen gives his--let's call it his post-Straussian take on the contemporary political relevance of the Republic:
When philosophy seeks to bend the city to its will, it turns inevitably into ideology and tyranny. From this standpoint, we can regard the contemporary effort of the biological sciences to transform human nature as the "postmodern" version of Platonism, in which the rhetoric of scientific progress replaces the altogether less politically persuasive doctrine of the vision of Platonic Ideas. History as it were triumphs over eternity, but the motivation is the same: to protect humanity against nature. It seems heretical to attribute this view to Platonism, in however degenerate a form, but the point follows directly from the doctrine of the natural division and illness of the human soul, and the correlative thesis that this illness can be cured only by philosophical psychiatry.
The sly implication of transhumanism in an antagonism against the open society strikes me less than the possible implication of visionary education. For what is "seeking to bend the city to my will" if not seeking to prosecute a programmatic, efficacious transformation of the human soul?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Some Questions About Education and a Hint of an Answer

What is the difference between a vision of education and a sinister program of behavioral modification?
Does an education which refuses to define itself as a neutral tool for individual success necessarily become instead a transformation of its students into tools of a higher operation envisioned by the framers of the education?

[to be filled in: why would anyone take such appalling questions seriously in the first place, when everyone already knows that education is a great good, even one of the supreme goods of a society? and that an education which answers to no fundamental vision only succeeds in arming all the combatants of history with greater and more destructive cleverness?]

A vision of education is not a plan for the betterment of society, but the provision of society with a dwelling within which questions of betterment have a home.

Principled Contradiction and the Non-Principle of Non-Contradiction

In response to my objection to those who object to denial of the principle of non-contradiction, Pseudonoma wonders
whether one shouldn't be careful to draw a distinction between someone who is willing to accept what to them "will sound like contradictions" and one who is willing to deny non-contradiction IN PRINCIPLE.
I think this fine as long as one doesn't make the distinction so carefully that one fails to notice that in the normal case these two "someones" are the same person. For the refusal to hear statements which (as they are formulated) contradict each other or themselves, typically justifies itself on the basis of the interpretation of non-contradiction as a principle. If I can test the logical cogency of a remark or set of remarks by applying the principle of non-contradiction, as though this remark or set of remarks were a particular case of what non-contradiction universally governs (namely, discourse)—if I can verify the validity of particular remarks by seeing how the square with this universal principle, then I can excuse myself from engaging essential dialectical situations with the same self-assured alacrity with which I dismiss the ravings of the man on the street who says he has just come back from the moon with a message for humanity. On the other hand, I will subject myself to these dialectical situations—which is to say, I will have the opportunity to learn—only if I do not think of non-contradiction as having the kind of applicability to the remarks I am listening to that a universal has to particulars: only, that is, if I deny that non-contradiction is a principle. And in what other way can anyone be willing to deny it?

All of this is really to say less elegantly what Pseudonoma himself says in continuation of his reply:
It may well be true that this person is "unintelligible"—at least in principle. However it also occurs to me that this only MAY be the case. There is perhaps more than one kind of denial—and for that matter, more than one meaning of a principle. One might indeed say that there is something contradictory about formulating non-contradiction as a principle—but this problem, which I first stumbled upon years ago in a tiny undergrad thesis, opens up, as they say, a whole can, not to say diet, of worms.
That tiny undergrad thesis, by the way, I blame for my having spent the last five years in fits of agony—that is, in a graduate program in philosophy.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Contradiction and Conversation

I sometimes hear people say that it is impossible to have a rational conversation with someone who denies the principle of non-contradiction. I've read this claim in editorials, I've heard it from friends and family, and I've heard it from the pulpit.

I actually feel like I can't talk to people who say this. At least, I can't imagine a conversation of much depth with a person who polices the boundaries of logic so assiduously. How are you going to expand my understanding of reality without uttering what to me will sound like contradictions?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Essaying the Good

Who were the philosophers Plato and Aristotle? If you demand an answer as terse as the question, it has to be something like "Proponents of forms and of moderate realism,  respectively." Plato believed that universals (such as "the Good") were simple, substantial entities (ideas or forms) from which particular things and actions (such as a good city or a good deed) received their identity by participation. Aristotle believed more or less the opposite, that particulars were primary and universals existed only by being the substantial form of particulars.

The ethical theories of the two philosophers would seem to derive from their respective ontologies as follows. If the ability to discern good things from bad depends on some relation to a substantial "Idea of the Good," then it is of paramount importance for one's life to establish the relation to it which will allow one to use it as a measure or reference for the good and bad in things. But since this Idea is simple, having it available as a measure seems to be a matter not of knowing some essential fact or facts about it (i.e. having a definition), but rather of simply having it in view in some sense which is very difficult to define, but which is more like a transformation of the soul than the acquisition of a piece of information. Or, if the good in primary substances is dependent on them for its existence, and indeed is only in a secondary sense, then one has to have a keen eye for the ways in which things are, and this perceptiveness develops only through a life of virtue, which is to say, a life devoted to such action and restraint as eradicates confusion and promotes clarity whenever an occasion arises to do so.

Despite the coherence with which these two philosophers seem to have produced models for living based on theories about particulars and universals, the emphasis on this ontological point of tension between the teacher and the student distracts from the real worth of the ethical thinking of both. It turns the true story on its head by implying that each of them believed he had reached a fundamental understanding of being which had then to be applied to a certain set of beings, namely, those which are good, in their relation to the universal "good." On the contrary, the writings of Plato and Aristotle are saturated with a sense of humility before the good, and from the beginning of every inquiry, an attentiveness to its intimations.
Then would not an awareness of [the good] have great weight in one's life, so that, like archers who have a target, we would be more apt to hit on what is needed? But if this is so, one ought to try to get a grasp, at least in outline, of what it is and to what kind of knowledge or capacity it belongs.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.2  (emphasis mine)
"But, you blessed men, let's leave aside for the time being what the good itself is—for it looks to me as though it's out of the range of our present thrust to attain the opinions I now hold about it. But I'm willing to tell what looks like a child of the good and most similar to it, if you please, or if not, to let it go."
"Do tell," he said. "Another time you'll pay us what's due on the father's narrative."
"I could wish," I said, "that I were able to pay and you were able to receive it itself, and not just the interest, as is the case now. Anyhow, receive this interest and child of the good itself. But be careful that I don't in some way unwillingly deceive you in rendering the account of the interest fraudulent."
Plato,  Republic, VI 506e-507a (emphasis mine)

Terms like idea or phronesis should not be regarded as elements of formal ontological or anthropological systems, applied as an afterthought to ethics. Rather, they are in themselves essays upon the good. Thinking the Good as an eminently substantial entity, thinking it as a teleological perfection—these are ways toward the Good itself, thrusts in its direction, not unshakable propositions on which to found judgments about it.

Should we avoid using these terms that fall short of an absolute cognition of the good itself as it is in itself? Yes, we should, if and when we see an occasion for another, deeper thrust, for which we should be ever watchful. But in the meantime our inheritance of these advances on the good must be well-invested. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Thesis Concerning Liberal Education

The task of educating free men is one of bringing them into an unimpeded relation to the good, insofar as such a relation has already been made possible by the ideas of the good in the light of which the various human sciences have found freedom. This task has two purposes: 1) primarily, to ground as deeply and rationally as possible a respect for the mysterious being and self-relation of the good, and 2) secondarily, to remove as far as possible the obstacles to the perfect operation of prudence in all dimensions of human relatedness to the good.

photo by jitze
The secondary purpose is accomplished by directing students through a carefully sequenced, pedagogically principled, distinct course of study in each discipline, not to the point of mastery, however, but only in the measure in which thorough comprehension of the special character of the discipline requires acquisition of a considerable amount of its particular content. This includes the discipline of philosophy, whose function is to reflect on the natures of the dimensions of human relatedness to the good in as comprehensive a light as possible, and to determine their interrelations in that light.

The primary purpose of liberal education presupposes the accomplishment, at least to some degree, of the secondary purpose. The conventional Socratic seminar seems to have this function of creating a space for the mysterious undisclosedness of the good to show itself. It demands a careful letting-things-be, which at times brings those bold enough to venture it and patient enough to endure it into an acute sensitivity to the good not yet revealed in things. The traditional concept of a disciplinary major also contributes to this sensitivity, by bringing the student closer to the crisis or crises at the boundaries of his own elected discipline. Because the approach to this purpose involves discovering limitations, ambiguities, and cross-purposes in the synoptic framework determined by philosophy, it requires that this framework be already articulated as clearly and completely as possible. Unlike the secondary purpose, the primary purpose cannot be executed according to any preconceived plan. Its success cannot be measured. Indeed, it can easily be faked by combining a cynical attitude towards human endeavor with a habitual lip service to pious truisms. It requires patient courage, sober hope, and a good will. We call it "thinking."

Two notable consequences follow from the above thesis:

  1. For the purposes of liberal education, a curriculum cannot be defined by a selection of texts or even by a selection of disciplines, but by a certain way of dealing with all disciplines. This result imposes a challenging requirement on liberal education that it incorporate not only the traditionally liberal studies, but all dimensions of human relatedness to the good, ranging from agriculture to music. On the other hand, it eliminates the need for much vagueness and embarrassed silence on the question of what qualifies a field of study to be included in a complete liberal education.
  2. The two purposes of liberal education articulate the means for the accomplishment of its task into two distinct activities, which must always be held apart. The attempt to construct interdisciplinary confrontations when the disciplines themselves are not yet clear can only issue in confusion or cynicism regarding philosophical reasoning. This prematurely poetic form of education amounts to a beautiful invitation to the skeptical ersatz thoughtfulness which enables many a liberal arts major to pass for educated.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Q: What is a philosophy professor? A: Someone who disagrees with other philosophy professors about what a philosophy professor is.