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.