Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Epicureanism: eat, drink, and be merry? Not quite, argues my CUNY-Graduate Center colleague Catherine Wilson.

A bit of a strange article on “progressive privilege” in academia, which would make Joanthan Haidt happy. Based on entirely anectodal evidence. But still…

It is a truism in moral philosophy that ought implies can. Now experimental philosophers claim that’s a mistake. I will likely comment on this extensively very soon…

The book that the New Atheists should read, but probably won’t.

Five years ago Susan Blackmore changed opinion about religions as viruses of the mind. But she still believed in memetics.

A long article in the New York Review of Books, challenging a number of claims about moral expertise that have lately come out of psychologists like Haidt, Pinker, Buss and the “positive psychology” crowd.


65 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. If real-world objects were a reflection of a fixed ideal form, wouldn’t that provide an anchor that prevented change over time, as in evolution?

    How? That would imply that Plato is claiming that babies can’t grow into adults. But Plato is always talking about how things are in the process of becoming, so he is clearly not denying change.


  2. The problem with equating idealism with essentialism is the same with equating ideal with absolute.

    An ideal is in reality a distillation. The perfect form extracted from its context. They don’t exist because form doesn’t exist in isolation from context. Consider a circle would be oval, if observed from any angle than straight on.

    On the other hand, the essential would be the elemental from which reality emerges, not the form distilled from it.

    As an analogy, form would be the skeleton distilled from the body, while the seed would be the elemental from which it emerged.

    So when you assume the ideal as elemental, then you get all these conflicts and contradictions, as it assumes some static form as foundational to the process giving form.

    Sort of like assuming those distinct little forms called quanta are the basis of physical reality and change emerges from them moving about.

    Think this through; Vacuum(space). Fluctuation. Waves. Time(frequency). Temperature(frequency+amplitude). Does that sound essential enough? What aspect of particle isn’t described by some form of energy?

    Or do we need; The Fabric of Spacetime. Quanta. Math. Statistics. Circles floating in that mathematical ether.


    Whatever. I’m in my own little world, but at least it makes some sense to me and that’s what counts.


  3. Vacuum fluctuation being positive and negative. Expansion and contraction, as they emerge and collapse.

    Form is emergent.


  4. Hi EJ, Dan,

    > Coel: An example is the philosophy of mind, where distinctions such as syntax vs semantics could be divisions caused by essentialism, and where it could profitably be asked how something like “meaning” could gradually grade into non-meaning.

    > EJWinner: The conflation is so obvious, and the contextualization so weak, that it is hard to see the sense of it.

    > DanK: Yeah, that statement is actually completely unintelligible.

    As usual, I think people are being unfair to Coel. I completely get what he is trying to say and I agree with him.

    Firstly, nobody is confused about what syntax or semantics mean. I’ll review not to tell you (I know you both know very well) but just to show that we’re talking about the same thing.

    Semantics is about reference, which is having a relation between a symbol and an object in the world such that the symbol can be used to communicate about that object. The symbol is said to have meaning when minds agree on its semantics.

    Syntax is about formal relationships between symbols and not about how they relate to anything else.

    The two are superficially irreconcilable. But it is not clear how semantics come about, what it is that causes this reference to exist so that mental representations (if there are such things, and Coel and I would assume there are) have semantics. Coel is just expressing a particular position on the question, a position I’m sure you would disagree with but which would be endorsed by some respectable philosophers such as Daniel Dennett: that the right kind of syntactic structure is responsible for causing semantics to exist.

    The view requires a rejection of naive realism, I feel (again, this is controversial, but some respectable philosophers reject naive realism) and the idea that we don’t perceive or refer to objects in the world directly but rather to our representations of them. If our representations are symbols, then we can have internal reference between our representations by means of syntactical structures alone — because syntax is about relationships between symbols.

    If I want to talk about an object in the world, say Obama, and have you understand what I am saying, this view has me thinking not directly about Obama but about my mental model of Obama (formed of symbols). I’m able to convert what I am trying to say to an English sentence which I utter and you are able to parse and activate the corresponding symbols and representations in your mind. Because you are able to convert the public symbols of my sentence into the private symbols of your mental representation (including your mental model of Obama), you would say my sentence has semantics, but every stage of what has happened can be explained in terms of symbolic manipulation (if you are a functionalist, which again is a controversial though tenable position).

    The superficially unbridgeable divide between syntax and semantics is an illusion which probably arises because of the impossibility of translating a public language sentence in an unknown language into a private mental representation. You need a key or some sort of Rosetta stone in order to develop competence in that language first. Babies do it by observing their parents and the context in which words are used. Older people do it largely by having dictionaries and teachers which explain the semantics of foreign languages in terms of their native languages.

    This is also why direct access to mental representations (e.g. via a sophisticated brain scanner that can show what all the neurons are doing) are unintelligible. In order to understand what the brain is doing, we would need a method for translating all this activity we see before us into the native mental representations of our own brains, and there is no way to do it (even if we are scanning our own brain). The activity of the brain is effectively an unknown language for which there is no dictionary. But for the brain being scanned, no such translation is required, because all this activity just is the native mental representations.

    Essentialism comes into it because of the assumption that syntax and semantics are essentially different, and that there is no way to tie them together into some kind of whole. Coel argues that non-meaning can gradually become meaning as the web of symbolic links in a data structure become richer and richer, relating not only to each other but to sense data. There is a continuum between the information processing of a bacterium and the information processing in a human brain, and meaning arises as the representations become more and more complex and self-reflective.

    Again, I’m not trying to get into a debate with you on this but I think it’s very unfair of you to accuse Coel of being unintelligible and that he shouldn’t have these opinions because he is an astrophysicist rather than a linguist. This is (I feel) a tenable, contemporary position to hold even if you don’t agree with it or think there are good arguments against it.

    I think this is more the area of philosophy of mind than linguistics anyway.

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