Author Archives: Massimo

About Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

Welcome!

Welcome to Footnotes to Plato! It began back in August ’15 as a blog on general philosophy, with a large component of philosophy of science. The blog has now moved to Patreon for reasons explained in this post, and which I hope you will appreciate.

However, the full archive of 330 posts and a whopping 31,450 comments will remain permanently available for free. You will also find here a list of my books, all my technical papers in philosophy, links to columns I wrote for a variety of magazines (Skeptical Inquirer, Philosophy Now, The Philosophers’ Magazine), several downloadable collections of essays, and a number of both public and technical talks I have given. You will also find links to my various online presences (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). These pages will keep being updated as new material becomes available.

I hope you will enjoy this site and that it will help you in your continuing quest for understanding and practicing philosophy.

cheers,

Massimo Pigliucci

(the City College of New York)

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The Patreon experiment

Dear Readers,

As you may or may not know, I have been blogging since 2005. initially at Rationally Speaking (here is the first post), then at Scientia Salon, and now both at Footnotes to Plato and How to Be a Stoic. Indeed, Rationally speaking actually began in 2000 as a syndicated “internet column,” before I had ever heard of blogging. Moreover, I have produced 132 episodes of the Rationally Speaking podcast (which my friend Julia Galef is still continuing), as well as 158 episodes (and counting) of the ongoing Stoic Meditations podcast. This without including countless appearances on other people’s podcasts, as well as a number of guest blog posts on various platforms. Indeed, I recently calculated that, on average, I put out the equivalent of four to five books of content every year. All of it for free.

Now, I am a professional academic, and I consider all the above part of my outreach activities, even though I get paid mostly for my scholarship (and for sitting on largely useless university committees). Over the last few years, however, the balance of what I do has shifted, steadily and rather dramatically, toward public philosophy. I have become passionate about the practical philosophy of Stoicism (no, not an oxymoron!), and I am convinced that public philosophy is a far better use of my time for the benefit of society at large than publishing only academic papers that will be read by a few dozen people (though, of course, I continue to do that, on behalf of the city College of New York).

But several people have pointed out to me that is fair, as well as better in terms of my own management of resources, time, and effort, to switch to a platform like Patreon, where some of the content will continue to be available for free, while other things will be accessible for a (very low, three-tiered) monthly fee. I felt squeamish about this at first, but it does seem like a fair concept, so I’m giving it a try over the next few months.

The broader picture here is that the online publishing landscape is changing, with journalists, writers, and other creative providers (e.g., musicians) struggling because we, the public, have gotten this insane idea that “information wants to be free” (and that’s how giants like Facebook, Google and so forth sell us advertisement and sell out our privacy). Setting aside the more than dubious implied metaphysics, be careful what you wish for, because you will get what you are willing to pay for. If your expectation is that you should pay nothing, then don’t be surprised when investigative journalism will disappear, and all you’ll get is an endless cacophony of increasingly ill-informed “opinions.”

Gaius Maecenas

Enter Patreon. The idea is, in a sense, a 21st century update of the old practice of patronage, which goes back at least to the Greco-Romans, in the Western tradition (and its found also in feudal Japan, traditional southeast Asian kingdoms, and elsewhere). Most languages other than English still use the term mecenate (or mecenatism), which derives from the name of Gaius Maecenas, a generous friend and adviser to the first Roman Emperor, Octavian Augustus. And of course we are all familiar with famous Renaissance patrons, such as the House of Medici in Florence, which was able to lure Galileo away from Padua to the Tuscan city. (Galileo commented in a letter to a friend that he accepted the offer because there was less teaching involved, and besides, the wine was better…)

So, here is how it’s going to work. Beginning this week, I am merging Footnotes to Plato and How to Be a Stoic into a single Patreon platform under my name (you can find it here.) New posts about general philosophy (i.e., in the style of Footnotes) and about Stoicism (in the style of HTBAS) will appear there. Some will be free, some will be accessible to patrons ahead of public release, and some will only be accessible to patrons. You can simply follow me for free at Patreon, in which case you will get access and notifications about all the publicly available stuff, pretty much like you are doing here. Or you can subscribe at the Aristotelian level ($3/month) and get the free things plus a monthly newsletter from me; or you can go to the Platonic level ($5/month) and get all the above, plus sneak preview of future public content, plus exclusive essays available to subscribers only; or, finally, you can go to the highest level, the Socratic one ($10/month) and get all of the above, plus access to the full archive of all my print-published public essays and technical papers, from the beginning of my career.

Please note that the usual features will be available on the new platform: posts organized by month with the most recent ones at the top, tags to navigate the site and zero in the topics that interest you, discussion threads per post (open ended, though I can still delete offensive comments), ability to share posts on social media, and the like. No functionality at all will be lost.

One more thing, before I go. Let me address a question potentially lurking out there: why are you doing this, Massimo, you greedy bastard? Isn’t your stipend from university enough? The answer is manifold: (i) I think it is fair to be paid for one’s work, regardless; (ii) I will still put out a lot of high quality free content; (iii) I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, where I’m borderline priced out of the local housing market, despite my academic salary; but most importantly, (iv) my long term goal is to switch to part-time teaching and devote more energy to public writing. I don’t know whether I’ll get there or when, and whether Patreon is the best path toward that goal, but that’s the goal.

I sincerely hope you will see the point of this and support my experiment. And that’s what it is. If it doesn’t work, we’ll come up with something else!

cheers,
Massimo

Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 140

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The philosophy of romantic comedy.

Academics present their research on emojis.

Aztec moral philosophy: not as different from Greek virtue ethics as this article suggests.

The Two Cultures fallacy: a brief history of the ever shifting divide between the sciences and the humanities.

Changing the concept of “woman” will cause unintended harms.

Generation wealth: how the modern world fell in love with money.

Monty Python accused of being too white. Terry Gilliam responds by declaring himself a BLT, black lesbian in transition… (Bonus link: watch Monty Python’s Loretta sketch from Life of Brian!)

Who really holds the power in our food chain?

Memo to those seeking to live forever. It’s complicated.

The evils (or lack thereof) of cultural appropriation.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

Sophia video: ontology, materialism, and all that jazz

Dan Kaufman and I have done it again. We have produced another fun (well, to us!) video conversation, this time on the pretty tough philosophical issues surrounding that branch of metaphysics known as ontology, i.e., the study of what is.

After a brief introduction to the general topic, we make a distinction between ontology and epistemology: it’s not just a question of what exists but, just as importantly, of how we know that something exists (or doesn’t). I make the suggestion that it is wise to always keep one’s ontology not too far from one’s epistemology…

But “know” here is yet another tricky word, as there are different theories of knowledge, and I suggest, in response to one of Dan’s excellent questions, that we deploy — sometimes without thinking — different conceptions of truth in different contexts. For instance, when we say that it is true that the Pythagorean theorem holds (yeah, yeah, in Euclidean geometry) we are not saying the same kind of thing as when we say that it is true that Saturn has rings. In the first case we deploy a coherence account of truth, in the second a correspondence account.

We then talk about materialism, and I admit to Dan that while I am a naturalist, I am not really a materialist, at least under certain conceptions of the term. I believe, for instance, that the Stoics virtues exist, but they are not made of matter, they are human concepts, necessary categories we use to talk to each other, tell each other what to do or not to do, and so forth. The same goes for a lot of other things, especially things that have to do with values.

Mind you, I’m not about to deny that every physical object is made of the same stuff (be it quarks, strings, or whatever physicists decide in the end). But I don’t think that an ontology based only on fundamental physics is sufficient to make sense of the world. Which, of course, brought Dan and I to discuss Wilfrid Sellars, the philosopher who introduced the famous distinction between the manifest and the scientific images of the world, and who was the subject of a separate dialogue published previously.

Near the end of the video we even get to re-examine Daniel Dennett’s famous contention that certain things (like consciousness, or the self) are “illusions.” We find that we may agree with Dennett only if we use the word “illusion” in a very specific metaphorical sense, and we are not positive that Dan (Dennett) would agree to be so constrained.

Enjoye the video!

 

Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 139

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The phrase “meaning of life” has a surprisingly recent origin

The elusive quest to demarcate science from non-science.

Imagine, if you can, a criminal justice system that doesn’t yield to the retributive side of anger.

The difference between true contrarians and the oxymoronic concept of a contrarian herd.

Hard data, or intuitive hunch? That is the false dichotomy.

Five features of better arguments. Good luck implementing them.

Moderation: the most challenging and rewarding of virtues.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 5, the Charmides and the nature of self-knowledge

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The Charmides, the next entry in our exploration of the early Socratic dialogues from the homonymous Penguin collection, is a big one. Its primary objective is an exploration of the concept of the cardinal virtue known as sōphrosunē. It is one of the four Socratic virtues found also in the Stoics, the other three being practical wisdom (phronesis, or prudence, from the Latin prudentia), courage and justice. But the dialogue is also about the “paradoxical” Socratic doctrine of the unity of the virtues, the idea that all individual virtues are really different aspects of one fundamental thing, wisdom.

The word sōphrosunē, etymologically, meant something like soundness of mind, but the popular usage in Plato’s time was akin to self-control, the same way in which the Stoics use it. In the Charmides, however, Socrates / Plato is giving it a far wider sense, closer to self-knowledge (from which self-control stems as a consequence). Needless to say, “know thyself” was the primary Socratic dictum, which Socrates inherited from the Oracle at Delphi, and the concept of self knowledge is central to Socratic philosophy.

It is interesting to note that the title character, Charmides, was a relative of Plato (his uncle on his mother’s side, as well as the son of Glaucon, who will play a major role in the Republic). Another major character, Critias, was a cousin of Plato’s mother. Both Critias and Charmides eventually became members of the Thirty Tyrants (indeed, Critias was their leader), who imposed terror in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. They both died in battle, while fighting against the democratic forces. Both Plato, in this dialogue, and Xenophon in his Memorabilia, try to show that Socrates attempted to educate Charmides and Critias in the matter of self-knowledge, but obviously failed.

Another interesting preliminary note is that at the beginning of the dialogue there is a brief appearance of a friend of Socrates, Chaerophon. He is the guy that was told at Delphi that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens.

We have seen while studying other dialogues that this sort of search is based on Socrates’ assumption that there is a ousia, an essence, to the definitions of the terms he is interested in. But they all end in a state of aporia, i.e., inconclusiveness, presumably because there is, in fact, no essence to any of these concepts — as Wittgenstein will remark more than two millennia later. That said, Plato was clearly aware of some of the limitations of Socrates’ approach, since even in this dialogue he has Critias articulate a general criticism of analogical arguments in dialectics.

In order to understand one of the main points of the dialogue, the one about the unity of virtue, we need to keep in mind that for Socrates the virtues were types of technē, i.e., skills or crafts, analogous to other technai like shoemaking and weaving. These were a body of precisely attainable knowledge (epistēmē), but there is a difference between knowledge of oneself and other technai: unlike the others, it does not seem to have a product (like shoes for shoemaking, baskets for weaving, and so forth).

The dialogue begins with Socrates saying that he just came back from the battle of Potidaea, which was fought in 432 BCE and was one of the catalysts of the Peloponnesian War. After exchanging some news related to the events, there is a shift to philosophy, and Socrates characterizes sōphrosunē — even before arriving at a definition of it — as “health of the soul.”

Critias tells Socrates that Charmides (who has not appeared yet on the scene) is exceptionally handsome and amazingly tall. To which Socrates responds:

“Goodness, how irresistible you make him sound, provided that he happens to have just one other little thing.’ ‘What’s that?’ asked Critias. ‘Provided that he happens to be endowed with a fine soul.’” (154)

When Charmides finally makes his entry, Socrates is duly impressed, and not by the youth’s fine soul:

“Everyone in the wrestling-school swarmed all round us. That was the moment, my noble friend, when I saw what was inside his cloak. I was on fire, I lost my head, and I considered Cydias to be the wisest man in matters of love.” (155)

Eventually, Socrates pulls himself together and gets around to inquire whether Charmides is equipped with self-control, and he is assured by Critias that he is indeed. But Socrates wants to make sure for himself:

“‘Well then, so that we can guess whether it is in you or not, tell me,’ I said, ‘what you say self-control is in your opinion.’” (159)

Charmides’ first attempt at defining sōphrosunē is pretty weak: he says that it is quiet conduct in society, an obvious result of his aristocratic upbringing. But Socrates dispatches of this pretty quickly, by pointing out that self-control is kalon (i.e., beautiful, admirable), while quieteness is not always kalon, therefore sōphrosunē can’t be quietness.

“But, my friend, if at the most there are in fact as many quiet actions which are more admirable as there are vigorous and quick ones, it still wouldn’t mean that doing things quietly would be self-control any more than doing them vigorously and quickly would.” (160)

Charmides then moves to a second definition, shifting to the description of an inner condition that manifests itself outwardly as modesty. But Socrates will have none of that either, since self-control is not just admirable, but also good. Modesty, by contrast, is not always good, from which it follows that self-control is not modesty.

[Charmides] “Well, I think that self-control makes a man feel shame and be bashful, and that self-control is the same thing as modesty.” (160)

[Socrates] “Self-control can’t be modesty, if it really is a good thing, and if modesty is no more a good thing than a bad one.” (161)

The third definition proposed by Charmides is that self-control is akin to doing one’s job well. Which Socrates rejects along similar lines as before: self-control is good, but sometimes doing one’s job properly is not good, so self-control is different from doing one’s job well. Socrates then turns to Critias, who proposes the fourth definition: self-control is the doing of good things.

Socrates then investigates whether it is possible to be self-controlled without knowing it, by presenting the following argument: (i) self-control is doing what one should; (ii) doing what one should is doing good; therefore: (iii) self-control is doing good; but (iv) one may do good without knowing it; therefore: (v) one may be self-controlled without knowing it.

[Socrates] “‘So sometimes,’ I said, ‘the doctor does something beneficial or harmful without knowing which he has done. And yet, according to what you say, in doing what is beneficial, he has done what is self-controlled. Wasn’t that your point?’”

[Critias] “Yes, it was.” (164)

Socrates aint’ happy with this:

“If you think that that must follow as a result of what I admitted earlier, I’d rather retract part of that admission – and I’d not be ashamed to say that I was wrong – than ever allow that a man who does not know himself is self-controlled.” (164)

The fifth definition proposed is that sōphrosunē is knowledge of oneself. But Socrates attempts to deny this too, by pointing out that sōphrosunē does not seem to have a product, unlike, say, knowledge of medicine, which produces health (and so it is not a type of knowledge). Critias rightly responds that other kinds of knowledge also lack a product: arithmetics, for instance. Socrates says that while this is true, it is also the case that arithmetic is knowledge of numbers, but numbers are not arithmetic itself. At this point, the definition of sōphrosunē is modified to knowledge both of the other knowledges and of its own self, that is, knowledge of knowledge.

[Critias] “Indeed, I’d almost say that is what self-control really is, knowing oneself. I agree with the man who dedicated the inscription to that effect at Delphi.” (164)

[Socrates] “If indeed self-control is knowing something, it will obviously be a knowledge and a knowledge of something, won’t it?”

[Critias] “‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Of oneself.’” (165)

[Critias] “‘But Socrates,’ he said, ‘your method of investigating the question is wrong. It isn’t like the other knowledges, and they aren’t like one another either; but you’re conducting the investigation as if they were. For tell me,’ he went on, ‘what is the product of the art of arithmetic or geometry.” (165)

[Critias] “‘That’s just it, Socrates,’ he said. ‘You’ve come in your investigation to the question of what the difference is between self-control and all the other knowledges. You’re trying to find some similarity between it and the others. There isn’t any. All the others are knowledges of something else, not of themselves. Self-control alone is the knowledge both of the other knowledges and of its own self.” (166)

Socrates attempts again an argument from analogy, in this case with vision. Vision sees color, but it does not see itself. Similarly, desire desires pleasure, it does not desire itself. And so on.

[Socrates] “It would appear we’re saying that there is some such knowledge, which is the knowledge of no branch of learning, but is the knowledge of itself and the other knowledges?” (169)

Interestingly, at this point Socrates grants the possibility that sōphrosunē is knowledge of knowledge, but points out that then it follows that in order to know other things, for instance that an alleged doctor is actually a quack, one needs a different kind of knowledge, namely knowledge of medicine. It would seem, then, that one must possess both sōphrosunē (knowledge that one knows) and technē (professional skill).

[Socrates] “Supposing there is a knowledge of knowledge, will it be able to determine anything more than that one thing is knowledge and another is not?”

[Critias] “No, just that.”

[Socrates] “Is it the same thing as knowledge and ignorance of what is healthy? Is it the same as knowledge and ignorance of what is just?”

[Critias] “Not at all.’’ (170)

[Socrates] “How will he know by that knowledge what he knows? For example, he knows what is healthy by medicine, not by self-control; what is harmonious, by music, not by self-control; what makes a building, by the art of building, not by self-control; and so on. Doesn’t he?”

[Critias] “So it seems.” (170)

[Socrates] “So the man who is ignorant of that won’t know what he knows, but only that he knows.”

[Critias] “It would appear so.” (170)

[Socrates] “So he won’t be able to distinguish the man who pretends to be a doctor, but isn’t, from the man who really and truly is one, or indeed to distinguish any other of those who know from any other of those who don’t.” (170)

If sōphrosunē doesn’t help us with deciding things like whether an alleged doctor is a quack, what is it good for? Well, it is a kind of super-knowledge, which presides over the performance of the other kinds of knowledge, insuring their correct functioning. While a good practitioner of any skill (like medicine) will require the pertinent technical knowledge, technical knowledge by itself is not a guarantee of a good and happy life.

[Socrates] “Does knowing knowledge and ignorance, which is what we are now discovering self-control to be, bring the following advantage, that the man who possesses this knowledge will more easily learn whatever else he learns, and everything will appear clearer to him inasmuch as he will see, in addition to each thing he learns, its knowledge?” (172)

Critias now suggests that sōphrosunē is knowledge of good and bad. Socrates is skeptical, however, that this sort of knowledge can be beneficial, again because unlike other forms of knowledge, it doesn’t produce a product. Here, however, it seems like Socrates is getting a bit stubborn and even sophistic, while Critias’ position, though not necessarily logically airtight, is more sensible. Consider this exchange:

[Critias] “‘Why wouldn’t self-control benefit us?’ he asked. ‘If self-control is in the fullest sense the knowledge of knowledges and presides over the other knowledges too, it would certainly govern the knowledge of good too and consequently benefit us.’”

[Socrates] “‘Would it make us healthy too,’ I asked, ‘not medicine? Would it make the products of the other arts, instead of each of them making its own? Weren’t we solemnly declaring all this time that it was knowledge only of knowledge and ignorance and of nothing else? Isn’t that so?’”

[Critias] “Apparently.”

[Socrates] “So it won’t be the producer of health?”

[Critias] “Certainly not.” (174)

But Socrates/Plato is going somewhere with this. While the dialogue ends in the usual aporia (inconclusiveness), with no clear winning definition, Socrates does say that sōphrosunē is beneficial, he just can’t prove it, blaming his own shortcomings as a philosopher for that. The translator of the dialogue takes this, rightly I think, to be a strong hint that the preferred definition is that sōphrosunē is knowledge of good and bad. This, however, would be a definition not of a specific virtue, but of virtue itself, which means that — as in the Laches — Socrates is arguing for the unity of virtue. It also follows that virtue is a type of knowledge, a famous Socratic paradox (meaning “uncommon opinion,” not a logical contradiction).

(next: the Hippias Major on what it means when something is “fine”)

Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 138

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Was autism a Nazi invention? (Not really, but it’s an interesting story.)

People’s egos get bigger after meditation and yoga, says a new study.

“Because I don’t think we should legitimise personal experience as the final arbiter of truth it’s worth gently questioning what it means to experience ego dissolution.”

How we got to be so self(ie)-absorbed: the long story.

The omnigenic model: research suggests pretty much every gene affects pretty much every complex character.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!