Sunday, February 26, 2017

Blogging in the balance

I like the blogging aspect of the course. It gives everyone a platform, at her or his convenience, to frame a question or start a conversation; it helps keep our sunousia going between our too-infrequent class meetings; it allows me to contemplate your thoughts and responses at leisure, so I can give a somewhat more measured response. However, unless everyone is doing it full-on every week, it doesn't work. So unless that happens this coming week, I will have no choice but to substitute a different kind of weekly written assignment for the balance of the course.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

This week's blogs

A handful of us are fully engaged in the blogging process; the rest need to join in.

Some glitch prevents me from commenting on Clara's very challenging post, so here is a reply. In class I suggested an analogy between the following arguments:

1) Socrates in Phaedo suggests that we are likely to live better lives if we hold to a good hope that "this, or something like this, is true..." (my emphasis). The background is aporia -- we do not know what if anything happens after death, but since we have no choice but to operate on some assumption or other, the claim is that we need to make a careful, hopeful choice.

2) To illustrate how an argument like this might work, I suggested that even climate change skeptics should support conversion to renewable energy, since in the absence of absolute, a priori knowledge about the climate (but good reason to think something is going on), the economic cost  of transition is quite small, and there are enormous potential benefits even if climate science is mistaken.

The analogy is inexact, of course. The latter argument sounds a bit more like a Pascalian bargain than does Socrates', so doesn't fully capture what I take to be its force. Hence the Gandhian argument:

3) Gandhi urges that we not be discouraged from taking action, even though (for all we know) our efforts may come to nothing. My gloss on this is that persisting in the absence of certainty is wise because it leaves open the possibility of having a good effect, whereas allowing ourselves to be discouraged guarantees, in a self-fulfilling way, that nothing we do matters.

All of these arguments have difficulties. We can reasonably ask whether it is true that living our lives in the hopeful expectation of an afterlife is actually healthy (we seem to need some limits on what counts as a 'good hope'), and we can wonder, as Clara does, whether the manner of the transition to renewables might be hijacked for another agenda. We can even ask about Gandhi's assumptions concerning what constitutes a good action. These are legitimate questions. But at issue is the possibility that there is a non-fallacious role for the fact of incomplete knowledge, in a context where we must make a consequential choice.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Why it's dangerous to think of Socrates as 'essentialist'

In response to Miles's first post, I want to say a little about so-called essentialism (we can say more in class). The historical Socrates was prone, apparently, to ask what something is on the whole (kata holon -- later combined by Aristotle into a word for something like 'universal concept' -- katholou). For example, if two sticks are equal to each other in length, and we can correctly judge whether this is true, and if two rather different kinds of things are ALSO equal to each other (say, two runners are equally fast), then it would seem that there must be something both pairs of things, sticks and runners, have in common. That would be equality. But if both claims of equality are true, and we're using the word properly, then we must in some sense know in advance what equality is before we start in with the comparisons. Raising questions like this seems to be about as far as Socrates the man got.

Others later developed this into something like a theory of universal meanings, and it got turned into some kind of dogma (hence the oft-attributed "theory of forms," to which Plato may, or may not, have subscribed at some point or other in his life). But to project this back onto Socrates and call him essentialist is anachronistic and extravagant. This is so not least because the term itself, 'essence,' was coined in the late middle ages by the Arabic scholars Ibn Sena and Ibn Rushd (known as Avicenna and Averroes among Europeans). Reading Aristotle more closely than anyone else (they are largely responsible for restoring much of the Aristotelian corpus to European attention), they noticed that Aristotle uses the one Greek term 'ousia' in two distinct ways: first as being (in the sense of the bare existence of something), and then as being (in the sense of what is unique or singular about the kind of thing it is). The first they called Existence (from an Arabic phrase for 'that something is,' or that-it) and the second Essence (the 'what-it-ia' of the thing). This was of course about a millennium and a half after Socrates died.

So while it's fair to say that Socrates was interested in finding the truth about things, and thought there must be some important and difficult truth to be learned about general concepts such as piety, it is a stretch to saddle him with essentialism.