Category Archives: Book Club

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”)

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 4, the Lysis and the nature of friendship

Achilles and Patroclus: philia, eros, or both?

The ancient Greeks had a number of words that translate to the modern English “love,” and rightly so, since there are different manifestations and nuances of the concept. The Lysis deals with one particular kind, rendered in the original as “philia,” which refers to fond affection, as distinct, for instance, from the kind of passionate love that goes under the term “eros” (the latter is the subject of one of the best Platonic dialogues, the Symposium, which I will not cover in this series).

Interestingly, the main characters in the dialogue are related by a complex web of philia and eros: the young Hippothales is in love with the title character, Lysis, and that love is definitely (homo) erotic (if, at the moment of the action, unreciprocated by Lysis). Indeed, Hippothales is explicitly referred to as the (would be) eron, or sexually active partner, because he is older, while Lysis would be the eromenos, or sexually passive one, since he is younger. Lysis, meanwhile feels philia toward another boy, Menexenus, and Socrates is also in a relationship of philia, toward all three boys.

Moreover, the dialogue connects philia and paideia, or education, because philia means you want to make someone happy, and education makes people happy — in the Socratic scheme of things — because it allows people to choose and then pursue what they want. This may sound strange, but remember that knowledge, for Socrates, is always knowledge of the good, even outside the strictly moral context. So a condition for happiness is to know what is good for you (as well as what is bed, and therefore to be avoided). As a generalization of this, then, everyone will feel philia for the wise person, and vice versa, a conclusion that later led the Stoics to imagine that in their ideal Republic (inhabited by wise people) everyone would naturally love everyone else, the perfection of the notion of cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is rather confusing, because of “Plato’s failure to distinguish between philia as a loving human relationship and philia as the pursuit of a loved object [in the abstract]. These are essentially separate questions, but Plato treats them as if they were the same [for a reason, as we shall see]. He starts off by investigating the former, moves without warning to considering the second, and then abruptly embraces the first again.” (p. 115)

It’s also noteworthy, in this dialogue, that although Menexenus is supposed to represent the sophists (and he is characterized as a “formidable opponent in debate”) we actually see Socrates himself engage in a bit of sophistry, as when he argues for one answer to the question at hand (what is friendship?), and then for its opposite. Despite its limitations, the scene setting and characters are captivating, and the eristics throughout the dialogue are dazzling, so the Lysis is certainly worth reading in its entirety.

The dialogue begins by setting the scene and then introducing the distinction between unreciprocated eros (between Hipothales and Lysis) and reciprocated philia (between Lysis and Menexenus). Just to give you a flavor, here is how Hippothales answers Socrates when the latter asks him what he and his friends are doing:

‘We spend our time there,’ he went on, ‘and we’re not the only ones. Lots and lots of other young men do too, handsome young men.’ ‘What is this place? What do you do here?’ ‘It’s a wrestling-school,’ he said, ‘built not long ago. We spend most of our time there having discussions. We’d be glad to have you join us in them.’

That’s no gym I’ve ever gone too… A little later, Socrates says to Hippothales:

‘I may not know much else, I may be useless at other things, but somehow God’s given me the power to recognize in an instant a man in love and the boy he’s in love with.’

So much for the notion of the philosopher lost in the clouds! Socrates goes on giving a veritable lesson on love to Hippothales, putting forth philia as a superior kind of love (and friendship), because one is concerned with the happiness of the other person, and wish to educate him in order to help him (remember that Hippothales is older than Lysis, and of course Socrates is older than both). Indeed, we even get some idea of how to conduct good parenting, also based on philia: we want to educate our children (in the broad sense of making them wise, not just giving them formal schooling) so that they will have the opportunity to pursue what they want, thus achieving happiness (eudaimonia). Moreover, knowledge in this broad sense makes one both useful and good, and therefore universally sought after as a philos, a friend.

Socrates is pretty pleased with his demonstration to Hyppothales of how to talk to the young Lysis, but he refrains from embarrassing his interlocutor:

“I looked at Hippothales and almost put my foot in it. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘There, Hippothales, that’s how one ought to talk to one’s boy, making him humble and unaffected, not, as you do, making him conceited and spoiled.’ Well, I noticed he was squirming with embarrassment at what we’d been saying and I remembered that, though he was standing near by, he wanted to avoid being seen by Lysis, so I checked myself and said nothing.”

The next section in the Lysis is where the confusion begins, because Plato alternates between the masculine (philos) and the neutral (philon) versions of the central term. Moreover, Socrates begins by asking “how does a person become a friend of another?” but then immediately switches to “when someone loves someone else, which is the friend of which?” After a complex series of steps, some leading to paradoxical answers that are rightly rejected (e.g., (i) I love wine; (ii) wine cannot love me in return; (iii) therefore, wine is not dear to me), Socrates gets to the important point: philia does not need to be reciprocated, which means that one can love one’s enemy, as counterintuitive as that may sound. Notice that this cannot be the case for eros, which cannot be fulfilled if not reciprocated.

‘Then, Menexenus, it would appear that what is loved is dear to what loves it whether it loves what loves it or whether it actually hates it. For example, some newly born children do not yet love, while others actually hate their mother or father when they are punished by them. None the less they are most dear to their parents at the time they actually hate them.’

Socrates then engages in a convoluted discussion aimed at determining whether friendship is something that happens between people that are “like” or “unlike” (meaning similar or opposites), and concludes by rejecting both possibilities (though not exactly in an airtight fashion). Where is he going? We get the answer when he concludes what a friend is by way of an analogy with philosophy (of course), i.e., with love of wisdom:

“The example of philosophy, the love of wisdom, is used to illustrate and summarize the results: (i) those who are already wise no longer love wisdom: like (good) is not friend to like (good); there is no presence of bad. (ii) those who are so ignorant that they are bad do not love wisdom: opposite (bad) is not friend to opposite (good); (iii) those who possess ignorance (a bad thing), but have not yet been rendered stupid (bad) by it (i.e. those who are neither good nor bad), do love wisdom: what is neither good nor bad is the friend of the good because of the presence of bad. Socrates concludes that (iii) gives the answer to the question of what a friend is.” (p. 142)

If you find yourself perplexed and unconvinced by this, you are not alone. I mean, I can sort of see the reasoning as far as love of wisdom is concerned (though even there, why wouldn’t the wise person keep loving wisdom even after she has achieved it?), but I doubt anything of substance follows about the nature of friendship. Again, this is because Plato confuses different questions and distinct possible objects of philia.

It doesn’t help that Plato, near the end of the dialogue, uses yet another analogy, this time with medicine: “what is neither good nor bad (the body) is the friend of the good (medicine) because of the bad (disease) for the sake of (another) good (health).” (p. 144) Sure, but the sort of “love” we may feel for abstract concepts (like philosophy, health) is not the same sort of love we feel for our friends, or our children. Yet, there is a reason why Plato is going about it this way: he is presumably beginning to explore notions that will be fully developed in the Republic, and particularly the notion of the Forms, where he explicitly does connect the ideal world outside the cave with its pale reflection that we perceive while stuck inside. In that sense, then, it is understandable why he is ambiguous about his objective throughout the Lysis. Remember, this is one of the early dialogues, in which Socratic philosophy is dominant, and yet in which Plato is beginning to articulate his own ideas, ideas that will become fully formed and better laid out in the middle and later dialogues.

What are we to make of all this? I think the best parts of the dialogue are the early ones, before Plato begins to equivocate in a more or less conscious pursuit of his own agendas. There is, indeed, more than one kind of love, and even the same kind (e.g., philia) can manifest itself in different ways (e.g., between parents and offspring, or friends of different ages, or mentor and student). Our modern vocabulary is poorer for not making those distinctions, which may even constrain people’s thoughts and limiting their imagination and understanding of that broad phenomenon we call “love.”

(next: the Charmides, on the nature of self-knowledge)

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 3, the Laches and the question of expertise in teaching young people

The Laches is the next dialogue we will explore from the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders. It is a splendid example of just how good Plato was at dramatizing situations, though precisely because of that it also raises the issue of whether good dramatic writing is helpful to, or gets in the way of, good philosophizing. The scene includes two elderly Athenians, Lysimachus and Melesias, who wish to know who is best qualified to teach their young sons, and how. They are watching a military display, so they end up asking two generals, Nicias and Laches, what their opinion is, and Laches, in turn, invites Socrates — who is nearby — to join the conversation.

Nicias happens to be in favor of professional instruction, while Laches is more skeptical. And Socrates turns the discussion into an exploration of the nature of bravery as an aspect of goodness, on the grounds that a good teacher ought to know what goodness is, before imposing his views on young boys. Nicias, incidentally, was the general that ended up in charge of the ill fated Athenian siege of Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, a siege he almost completed successfully, until the arrival at the last minute of the Spartan general Gylippus, who killed Nicias despite the fact that the latter had spared Gylippus on several previous occasions. Also noteworthy is that fact that this is the first dialogue in which Socrates brings up the controversial notion of the unity of the virtues, the idea that one cannot coherently be, say, courageous but unjust, an idea that makes sense only if one sees all virtues (including courage) as inherently moral in nature.

The dialogue is probably best seen as an example of the combination of two approaches to advancing a philosophical argument: the logos, obviously, i.e. the presentation of a given argument by way of reason; and what the ancient Greeks called the muthos, which translates to a story, or a myth, but that for them had a broader and more positive connotation than it has for us today.

So, the Laches begins with Lysimachus and Melesias wondering how to best educate their sons, in order for them to grow up good as men capable of enjoying a good life. They think that some sort of higher education is needed, perhaps of a military type, which is why they approach the two generals, Nicias and Laches. Lysimachus assumes that virtue can be taught, and that generals are suitable to advise him on the value (notice: as distinct from the specifics) of military training, two assumptions that Socrates eventually questions.

Laches is the one who notices Socrates nearby, and suggests that the philosopher joins the conversation, introducing him as an expert on education, something that Nicias wholeheartedly endorses. Laches also praises Socrates for his bravery at the recent battle of Delium, suggesting that had more Athenians behaved that way the battle would have had a far more favorable outcome for the city.

LYSIMACHUS: Socrates, and Nicias and Laches, people of my age really can’t keep in touch with the younger generation any more, we just potter around at home most of the time feeling our age.

SOCRATES: Well, Lysimachus, on that matter I’ll certainly try to give you any advice I can, and I’ll also try to do everything you invite me to do. But I think it’s only right that since I’m younger than these gentlemen and rather inexperienced in the field, I should listen to what they have to say first and learn from them.

At this point, Nicias talks about the advantages of military training, listing a number of them. The most important one turns out to be that military training makes one brave, which implies that virtue can be taught, and that it is, therefore, a kind of knowledge. Laches disagrees: for him bravery is not a type of knowledge, but a behavior that depends on one’s character.

It is at this point that the two generals ask for Socrates’ opinion, who says that military training here is just a means to an end, and since that end is the boys’ education, what is needed is an an expert in education, not military training. (And he immediately disavows being such an expert.)

SOCRATES: To follow on from what I was just saying, then, if we were wanting to consider which of us had the most expertise in athletics, how would we go about it? Wouldn’t we choose the man who’d learnt about athletics, who’d practised, and who’d been trained in the sport by top coaches?

MELESIAS: I think so.

SOCRATES: So, even before we consider that, we should ask in what subject we’re looking for teachers, shouldn’t we? … So what we have to consider is this: is any of us an expert in caring for the character, and able to care for it properly, and which of us has had good teachers?

Nicias candidly explains to Lysimachus how Socrates works:

NICIAS: You seem not to know that whenever anyone comes face to face with Socrates and has a conversation with him, what invariably happens is that, although they may have started on a completely different subject at first, Socrates will keep heading him off as they’re talking until he has him trapped into giving an account of his present life-style, and of the way he has spent his life in the past. And once he has him trapped, Socrates won’t let him go before he has well and truly cross-examined him on every angle.

Socrates then explains that whenever one claims that he can improve X by adding Y, he ought to know what Y is. Here Nicias and Laches think they can educate the boys by adding goodness to them, so they should know what goodness is.

SOCRATES: So the qualification we need is this: we need to know what goodness is, don’t we? Because if we hadn’t a clue what goodness actually is, there’d be no way in which we could possibly give anyone any advice on the best way of acquiring it, would there?

LACHES: No, I don’t think there would, Socrates.

Socrates then zooms into the obvious aspect of goodness that is pertinent to the discussion, since two of his interlocutors are generals: bravery. What is that? Laches attempts a definition by describing the behavior of a good infantryman, saying that to be brave is to stand and fight. But it doesn’t take long for Socrates to dispatch of this by counterexamples: sometimes the brave thing is to retreat in order to be able to fight another day, and at any rate, soldiers are not the only ones who can be brave.

SOCRATES: [bravery is standing to fight] with the possible exception, Laches, of the Spartan infantry. At the battle of Plataea, so the story goes, the Spartans came up against the troops with wicker shields, but weren’t willing to stand and fight, and fell back. The Persians broke ranks in pursuit; but then the Spartans wheeled round fighting like cavalry and so won that part of the battle.

LACHES: That’s true.

All right, says Laches, then let’s modify our definition: bravery is endurance. Well, responds Socrates, only if endurance is accompanied by wisdom, since endurance for its own sake is hardly a virtue. Here it is Nicias who offers help, fine tuning the definition of bravery by distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge: doctors and farmers, for instance, have technical knowledge that is different from the sort of knowledge that they are interested in at present, i.e., knowledge of good and evil. If they changed the definition of bravery as “endurance with knowledge of good and evil” the counterexamples put forth earlier by Socrates would lose force.

Socrates pushes back against Nicias’ revised definition, even though scholars seem to agree that what Nicias is saying actually reflects Socrates’ own preferred answer. If courage is endurance with knowledge of good and evil, then what about animals and children? Is Nicias denying that they can be brave too? That’s right, answers Nicias. Contra popular belief, animals are not brave, and children aren’t either, at least until they mature a certain understanding of things. Animals and children sometimes behave as if they were brave, but they cannot properly be described as such because they do not actually appreciate the dangers of what they are doing.

NICIAS: ‘Brave’ is not a word I use to describe animals, or anything else that’s not afraid of danger because of its own lack of understanding; I prefer ‘fearless’ and ‘foolish.’ … So you see, what you and most people call brave, I call reckless: brave actions are those coupled with wisdom, as I said.

I find this point to be analogous to contemporary discussions about morality: are primates who, say, show an inclination toward sharing resources fairly with other members of their group acting morally? No, they are acting in a moral-like fashion, but unless they are capable of understanding what they are doing and why (and there is no evidence that they do) applying the moral label to their actions is a category mistake.

Socrates isn’t done, though. He points out to Nicias that now he can no longer distinguish between bravery and goodness, and yet he had previously agreed that bravery is but a part of goodness. They now appear inextricably linked to each other.

That’s pretty much the end of the discussion, with Socrates admitting that they don’t really know the answer, and that they would all well served by looking for someone who can teach them this sort of things. But in reality Nicias’ final proposal is pretty good, and the issue raised by Socrates is answered by the (Socratic!) notion of the unity of the virtues. While nowadays we think that someone can be, for instance, courageous and yet unjust, for Socrates (and the Stoics who followed him on this) that’s an oxymoron. All virtues are unified by wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil, so that only a just person can be courageous, in the moral sense of the term.

As counterintuitive as the notion of the unity of virtues is, I have come to really appreciate its power, which i really prescriptive more than descriptive. It does not negate that someone can act in what looks like a courageous way even though that person is also acting unjustly, and perhaps we should simply use two different words to distinguish such cases. Common sense courage, call it courage-c, may be displayed by a daring criminal, for instance. But virtuous courage, call it courage-v, is precluded to such individual. More difficult is to account for the reverse situation, say someone who understands what is and is not just, and yet fails to act on it for lack of courage. Socrates would say, I am guessing, that such a person is not really just, he only understands justice at an abstract level, but he has not internalized the concept as a matter of practice.

Which brings me to the crucial issue mentioned above, yet only indirectly tackled in the Laches: can virtue be taught? The answer appears to depend on what one means by “taught.” Virtue is certainly not just a matter of theoretical knowledge, as the case of someone who understands justice and yet fails to act on it demonstrates. But it isn’t a matter of practice only either, since Nicias has made clear that one’s acts should be informed by one’s understanding, if they are to count as moral. So virtue can be taught, but such teaching is a combination of sophia and phronesis, i.e., theoretical and practical wisdom.

(next: the Lysis, in which Socrates investigates the nature of friendship)

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 2, the Ion and whether poetry can teach moral skills


Do poets know what they are talking about? That’s the question at the center of the dialogue known as Ion, from the name of the main character (other than Socrates) to appear in it. This — after last week’s introduction — is the first actual installment of our discussion of the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders, so let me give you a preview of how it’s going to work.

Each post from now on will summarize one of the seven dialogues in the book, beginning with a very short introduction, followed by a section-by-section analysis with selected quotes. Obviously, for a more in-depth treatment of individual dialogues readers are invited to read Saunders’ book. We will conclude each installment with a brief discussion of the main topic, above and beyond what Socrates says. I advise readers to look at the Socratic character with sympathy, in order to appreciate what Plato wrote and learn something, quite regardless of the fact that, obviously, philosophy has made progress in the intervening 24 centuries, so that a modern philosophical take on the specific subject matter would be different.

In the Ion, Socrates’ position is that poets have no idea what they are talking about, and do their thing in a state of madness. Peculiarly, though, Ion is not actually a poet, but rather a rhapsode, that is someone who went around gorgeously attired, chanting the works of Homer or other poets. What makes Ion (the character) interesting, however, is that he was one of those rhapsodes who also lectured on the subject matters covered by Homer, presenting himself as a teacher of human relationships and conduct, as well as a repository of technical information, on topics ranging from sailing to military command. That is why Ion is Socrates’ target here, because he makes claims to knowledge. So what we are about to witness is a demolition job, aimed at showing that rhapsodes — and by implication poets — are not, in fact, teachers of moral skills.

This discussion, in a sense, is still with us today, as one does often hear that literature in general, and (some) poetry in particular, are capable of providing insights into the human condition that are beyond the reach of empirical investigation or dialectical approaches (such as the sort of philosophy practiced by Socrates). Notice also, while following along, that when Socrates says that Ion is “possessed” by the Muses, there is an interesting sense in which he is talking about what we today refer to as intuition, as distinct from explicit knowledge. See this book review of mine on the allied topic of divination in the ancient world, and how it was considered both a type of skill and an inner sense tapping into hidden (i.e., subconscious) knowledge.

The dialogue begins with Socrates pointing out a peculiar flow in Ion’s alleged skills: apparently, the fellow is able to expound only on technical matters as presented by Homer, but by no other poet. If Ion possesses an actual skill, it certainly appears to be a rather strange one.

SOCRATES: It’s obvious to everyone that you are unable to speak about Homer with skill and knowledge – because if you were able to do it by virtue of a skill, you would be able to speak about all the other poets too. … So have you yet seen anyone who is an expert at demonstrating which paintings of Polygnotus, son of Aglaophon, are good and which are bad, but can’t do the same for the other painters? (532c-e)

Socrates then goes on to suggest that Ion does not possess a skill, but rather taps in some sort of strand of inspiration (from a Muse), and since there are several such strands, that explains why he can speak about Homer but not about other poets.

SOCRATES: This fine speaking of yours about Homer, as I was saying a moment ago, is not a skill at all. What moves you is a divine power, like the power in the stone which Euripides dubbed the ‘Magnesian,’ but which most people call the ‘Heraclean.’

(533d, the reference is to the phenomenon of magnetism, which was known to the Greeks.)

SOCRATES: Or don’t you think I’ve got it right, Ion?

ION: By Zeus, I think you have. Somehow or other your words touch my soul, Socrates, and I do believe good poets interpret these messages from the gods for us by divine dispensation.

SOCRATES: So you rhapsodes in turn interpret the words of the poets, don’t you?

ION: You’re right in that, too.

SOCRATES: So your role is to be interpreters of interpreters?

ION: Surely.


SOCRATES: One poet depends on one Muse, another on another. Our description of this is ‘he is possessed … Starting from these first rings, the poets, one man dangles from another and catches the inspiration – from Orpheus in one case, Musaeus in another; but most are possessed by Homer. You’re one of them, Ion: you are possessed by Homer … You say what you say about Homer not in virtue of skill or knowledge, but through a divine dispensation and possession. (536a-c)

Socrates then pushes the argument further, suggesting that the only people able to make a judgment about the sort of technical things Ion talks about when declaiming Homer (e.g., sailing, military operations, etc.) are those who are expert in the respective fields, because they possess actual skills. By implication, what Ion says about morality is also not to be trusted, but needs to be subjected to the expert opinion of those who have mustered that particular skill, i.e., philosophers.

As is often the case, however, the conclusion of the dialogue is aporetic, meaning that there is no firmly established positive account, only a negative one. We have not learned what poetry is, only that it is not a skill. But the implication is important, because the reader will have to conclude that if he wants to learn about sailing, military campaigning, or — most importantly as far as Socrates is concerned — ethics, he better not listen to poets.

(Referring to Homer describing chariots)

SOCRATES: Now, in these lines, Ion, which will know better whether Homer’s description is correct or not – a doctor or a charioteer?

ION: A charioteer, of course.

SOCRATES: Because he possesses this particular skill, or in virtue of something else?

ION: No, because he has the skill.


SOCRATES: So in the case of the lines you quoted, will it be you or a charioteer who knows better whether Homer puts the matter well or not?

ION: A charioteer.

SOCRATES: Presumably because you are a rhapsode, not a charioteer.

ION: Yes.


SOCRATES: Then again, will a rhapsode know better than a doctor what sort of thing is appropriately said by someone in charge of a sick person?

ION: No, not that, either.


Here Ion attempts to recover, stating that he does know what he is talking about, and as a consequence in the course of his performances, whenever he is talking about war he says what would be appropriate for a general to say.

SOCRATES: Well then, in the name of the gods, Ion, since you are the best among the Greeks at both activities, at being a general and at being a rhapsode, why do you traipse round them as a rhapsode, but not as a general? Or is it your view that the Greeks are in sore need of a rhapsode crowned with a golden crown, but have no need of a general at all? (541b-c)

(Please notice the Socratic sarcasm here, and at the end of the next bit.) In the end, Ion has to concede Socrates’ point, which leads him to suggest that having divine inspiration is actually better than having a skill:

ION: There’s a lot of difference [between skill and inspiration], Socrates: it’s a much finer thing to be thought divine.

SOCRATES: Well then, let’s grant you this finer status in our eyes, Ion: as a eulogist of Homer you are not skilled, but divine.


The modern take: So, what should we think of poets as purveyors of technical or ethical knowledge? Obviously, today we would separate the two issues entirely. I doubt any contemporary poet would seriously claim to have knowledge of sailing just because he wrote a poem that mentions boats, or of war strategy because he wrote about armed conflict.

Poetry is normally celebrated on aesthetic grounds, and so is literature more broadly. But there is also a sense in which (some) modern poets do claim a special insight, if not into ethics, at least into the human condition — which for the Greco-Romans amounted to the same thing. Clearly, that insight does not come from systematic empirical evidence (i.e., science) or dialectical-critical reflection (i.e., philosophy). It is, rather, intuitive, and intuition is not magic or divine (contra what Socrates might or might not have really believed), it is the result of unconscious processing of information about our experiences on the part of our brains. So, if a poet, or author, has had a significant amount of personal experience dealing with human beings under unusual or dramatic situations, then that person may, in fact, have developed intuitions that she is able to convey by way of prose or poetry.

My personal take is that literature is indeed a vehicle to improve our understanding of others at a personal, emotional level. Contra Plato, I wouldn’t ban it from Massimo’s Republic. But I do maintain a certain degree of skepticism about both literature and poetry as forms of knowledge (outside the aesthetic domain), because it is anecdotal knowledge, and it is conveyed in a way that immediately lends itself to emotional manipulation. And now it is time for me to leave you and go back to reading the two novels I’m currently going through: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (L’amica Geniale, I’m reading it in Italian) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

(next: the Laches, in which Socrates inquires into the best education we can give to our kids)

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 1, a brief introduction to Socrates

Time to start a new book, folks! This time I’ve chosen Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor J. Saunders for Penguin. This blog is called “Footnotes to Plato,” and yet we rarely talk about the guy, so. The book is nicely done because not only each of the dialogues comes with a good introductory note, but there is a running commentary that helps the reader to break down the dialogues by scene or topic, and to pay particular attention where it is due. If you have never read Plato, I highly recommend this edition.

The dialogues included in the volume, referred to as “early” because most scholars agree that they were among the first ones written by Plato (though there is no exact chronology, and the order of the dialogues is disputed) are: Ion, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Major, Hippians Minor, and Euthydemus. I will devote a post to each dialogue, but we begin here with the introductory chapter, by Saunders, on the figure of Socrates and the so-called Socratic method.

The philosopher is like a child who never grew up: she keeps asking simple, direct questions, because her job:

“([and] it is a surprisingly arduous one) is to analyse and clarify the assumptions, methods and criteria employed by those who are working ‘in the field’ on a practical level – scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, priests and so forth.” (p. 12)

As readers may recall, I published here an entire book, in serialized form, on the nature of philosophy, and yes, I tend to agree with the above definition. Which means that philosophy does make progress, but in a conceptual, not empirical landscape (like science, by contrast, does).

As is well known, philosophy had been going on in Greece for at least a century and a half before Socrates, but the Athenian sage is so pivotal that still today we refer to all those who came before him collectively as “pre-Socratics.” Cicero wrote that:

“Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the sky and put her in cities, and bring her even into homes and compel her to inquire about life and ethics, and good and evil.” (p. 14)

This is not quite true, but it’s close enough. Socrates shows little interest for what was later referred to as natural philosophy (i.e., modern science), or even metaphysics (unlike his pupil, Plato). He was all about ethics, the way we live our lives. His approach was informed, remarks Saunders, by two assumptions: (i) that moral philosophy can be as precise as practical skills like pottery or ship-building; and (ii) that knowledge in moral philosophy can be arrived at by an analysis of moral language. Both assumptions can be debated, of course, but Socrates surely got a lot out of deploying them.

How do we know about Socrates and what he thought? To begin with, there is Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Xenophon was a military man who admired Socrates, and presents him as a genial and edifying fellow, who would have never become as famous as he did if he really had been like Xenophon describes him. Another source of Socratic information is the playwright Aristophanes, who makes fun of the sage in the Clouds, where Socrates is portrayed as running a “thinking shop.”

“Fun,” however, needs to be qualified, as Aristophanes actually attributes some interesting and controversial views to his fictional Socrates. For instance:

SOCRATES: Zeus, indeed! There’s no Zeus: don’t you be so obtuse.

STREPSIADES: No Zeus up aloft in the sky! Then, you first must explain, who it is sends the rain; or I really must think you are wrong.

SOCRATES: Well then, be it known, these send it alone: I can prove it by arguments strong. Was there ever a shower seen to fall in an hour when the sky was all cloudless and blue? Yet on a fine day, when the Clouds are away, he might send one, according to you.

STREPSIADES: Well, it must be confessed, that chimes in with the rest: your words I am forced to believe. Yet before, I had dreamed that the rain-water streamed from Zeus and his chamber-pot sieve. But whence then, my friend, does the thunder descend? that does make me quake with affright!

SOCRATES: Why ‘tis they, I declare, as they roll through the air.

STREPSIADES: What, the Clouds? did I hear you aright?

SOCRATES: Ay: for when to the brim filled with water they swim, by Necessity carried along, They are hung up on high on the vault of the sky, and so by Necessity strong In the midst of their course, they clash with great force, and thunder away without end.

STREPSIADES: But is it not He who compels this to be? does not Zeus this Necessity send?

SOCRATES: No Zeus have we there, but a Vortex of air.

STREPSIADES: what! Vortex? that’s something, I own, I knew not before, that Zeus was no more, but Vortex was placed on his throne!

Strepsiades can make fun of Socrates all he wants, but the latter is giving the atomist account of natural phenomena, which was taken seriously in Athens at the time (and which turned out to be far closer to the truth, of course). Saunders rightly says that, contra popular opinion, Aristophanes portrays Socrates somewhat sympathetically, making him into a composite of various philosophers, uttering a number of theories that were then fashionable. Moreover, Socrates is also presented as a subversive influence, the very thing that later got him into trouble and eventually executed.

The third major source about Socrates, and by far the most extensive one, is of course Plato. Scholars agree that the early dialogues are more likely to represent something close to Socrates’ actual philosophy, while in the middle dialogues (e.g., Republic, Symposium) Socrates is more of a mouthpiece for clearly Platonic notions, such as the theory of Forms. In the later dialogues (e.g., Timaeus, Laws) Socrates is a secondary character and in a few cases does not appear at all.

The fourth source is Aristotle, Plato’s student, who writes in his Metaphysics:

“There are two things which you may fairly attribute to Socrates: inductive arguments and general definition.” (p. 17)

Those are two crucial components of the Socratic approach. I assume people are familiar with induction, so I will briefly discuss what Aristotle means by Socratic definition. Saunders describes it as a logos, an account of something:

“For instance, a table may or may not be large, or black, or three-legged; but these qualities are not essential to it qua table; they are not part of its ousia, its essence. The bundle of essential properties Socrates often calls an eidos or an idea.” (p. 20)

As we shall see throughout our discussions, this is both important and, ultimately, a limitation on the entire corpus of Socratic philosophy. Modern philosophers, after Wittgenstein, have largely given up the search for essences, or for precise definitions bound by a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. This does not mean, however — as we shall also see — that we can’t still learn a lot from the Socratic approach and from his investigations into the nature of piety, friendship, and so forth.

Socrates also differed from the prevalent opinion of the time in terms of his belief that there are moral truths, which is why he is often pitted against the sophists, who represent the more common view at the time, a sort of ante diem relativist deconstructionism. As I’ve written several times in the past, my own modern perspective is that there are objective moral statements one can make, but that they are not “absolute” (whatever that means), but rather constrained by the specific nature of humans as social beings capable of rationality. Still, there is quite a bit of enjoyment and food for thought to be derived from the dialogues we are about to discuss together.

There is much else of interest in Saunders’ introductory chapter, but I’m going to finish here with a few words on the famous elenchus (i.e., testing, or refutation), known as the Socratic method. Socrates enters his conversations on the basis of three conditions: (a) the other guy has to believe what he is saying (no sophistry allowed!); (b) the objective is to arrive at a general definition of a given concept (such as piety); and (c) mere descriptions, or lists of properties, are not a sufficient substitute for an actual definition of the concept. For instance:

“‘Justice is the returning of what we have borrowed.’ ‘But not, surely, if the borrowed object is a weapon, and the lender has now gone mad?’” (Republic, 331c)

The typical sequence is:

  • The interlocutor begins with a proposition, A
  • Socrates put forth a second, reasonable, proposition, B
  • Step by step, Socrates gets his interlocutor to agree with an apparently inevitable conclusion derived from B
  • B, it turns out, is at odds with A
  • The bewildered interlocutor then either modifies A or puts forth a new proposition, A’
  • Repeat
  • The discussion ends in a state of aporia (i.e., impasse, puzzlement), where we have learned something negative, but have not arrived at a positive conclusion.

The point of the elenchus is not to tell the interlocutor what the truth is, but rather to stimulate him to question his own assumptions, which he has so far taken for granted, and to embark in his own quest for new and better answers. As Saunders puts it:

“Interlocutors, however, so far from feeling gratitude for being relieved of their misconceptions, would often become decidedly irritated, not only at being refuted, but by the frequent protestations of ignorance from Socrates himself; for they suspected him of knowing but concealing the right answer.” (p. 30)

In general, the elenchus was one of a number of educational methods used in ancient Greece, and it is worthwhile keeping the others in mind as well, and perhaps comparing them all to our modern approaches:

Epideixis: a lecture or exposition that aimed at persuading an audience discursively, rather than by presentation of a tight argument.

Eristic: a type of aggressive conversation that uses any available rhetorical trick with the aim of winning an argument, rather than ascertaining the truth (this is what the Sophists were teaching, and modern lawyers still practice).

Antilogic: a disputation by contradiction, attempting to refute the interlocutor’s position by showing that it leads to a contradiction. This could be done eristically (i.e., without regard to the truth), or not.

Given this classification, then, the elenchus is a type of antilogic, which however Socrates never uses eristically, again differentiating him from the Sophists.

(next: the Ion, in which Socrates inquires into the nature of poetry)

Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 9, the arts

painting elephants“The logic of cultural evolution is identical to that of biological evolution, even if the details differ. New ideas, behaviors, or products are devised through diverse creative processes; these differ in their attractiveness, appeal, or utility, and as a result are differentially adopted, with newfangled variants superseding the obsolete,” says Kevin Laland at the beginning of the last chapter of his book, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (p. 292). It is, therefore, with a brief commentary on this chapter, focusing on the arts, that I will end my series on Kevin’s fascinating view of the young field of cultural evolution.

That introductory gambit actually illustrates where Laland’s and my views begin to diverge, though perhaps not as sharply as each of our perspectives differs from standard evolutionary psychology. I see cultural evolution as linked to its biological counterpart in two ways: first, because it originated from it; and second, because there is a broad analogy between the two. But I fall far short of Kevin’s strong statement that the two are “identical” in logic. They are not, in my mind, fundamentally because biological evolution is propelled by the teolonomic process of natural selection. Cultural evolution, by contrast, is moved by the teleological process of human cognition. The two are not the same, and I maintain that no currently available theory of cultural evolution satisfactorily accounts for either the difference or the relationship between the two. (I hasten to say, which should not be necessary, that I see nothing magical or “mysterian” about this. At all. It is simply an open scientific question, like many others.)

The cultural evolution of art is, obviously, a huge topic, which would require a book of its own. So Laland takes a reasonable approach, focusing on aspects of the evolution of a particular art form: dance. As we shall see, he has lots of interesting things to say, but not much that would surprise a historian of dance, and definitely not much that originates specifically from a biological evolutionary perspective.

Before getting to dancing, Kevin briefly discusses another art form, acting, making the case that it crucially (though not solely, of course) depends on imitation, which he has argued previously, is an important evolved skill in the human lineage. Since dancing also fully deploys our ability to imitate others, and given that neither acting nor dancing presumably were direct targets of natural selection, he can then conclude that both art forms are in fact a byproduct of natural selection for the capacity to imitate.

“Imitation is no trivial matter. Few other animals are capable of motor imitation, and even those that do exhibit this form of learning cannot imitate with anything like the accuracy and precision of our species.” (p. 295)

Our ancestors at some point became able to solve what Laland calls the correspondence problem: imagine, for instance, that you are trying to learn how to use chopsticks. This is done by imitation, which requires translating the visual cues obtained by watching someone using chopsticks into the motor control that our own muscles have to exercise in order for us to be able to do the same. The sensory experiences involved in watching and doing are utterly different, and yet somehow our brain has to be capable to solve this correspondence problem.

Recent research has shown that human beings solve the correspondence problem by using neural networks similar to the so-called mirror neurons discovered in other primates. Kevin suggests that it is plausible that the mirror neuron or equivalent network has been selected precisely to facilitate imitation, that this particular skill has been much more refined by natural selection in humans, and that one of its most astounding and least recognized byproducts is our ability to do and appreciate art — not just movies and dancing, but also painting, sculpture, theater, music, and even computer gaming.

Kevin doesn’t think much of the alleged ability of other animals to produce art, and I think he is right:

“The motor control that allows humans to produce artistic works and performances spontaneously is a capability that no other animal shares. … The claim that chimpanzees [for instance] are artists, in any meaningful sense, is greeted with skepticism by animal behaviorists and art scholars alike.” (p. 299)

He also thoroughly debunks the idea that elephants in Thailand can paint, referring instead to evidence that the animals have been well trained to respond to subtle cues provided by their handlers, through the simple device of tugging at the elephant’s ears.

What about dancing? Here again the suggestion has been made that some animals do it, though as Laland points out, much of the answer depends on how one defines dancing, and what counts as instances of the art form. Regardless, and more importantly, he highlights the fact that the only good candidates for dancing animals are, not surprisingly, those species that are most capable of imitation. (The same considerations apply to singing animals, by the way.)

“The most transparent connection between dance and imitation … will be readily apparent to just about anyone who has ever taken or observed a dance lesson; that is, dance sequences are typically learned through imitation. … It is no coincidence that dance rehearsal studios around the world almost always have large mirrors along one wall. These allow the learner to flit rapidly between observing the movements of the instructor or choreographer and observing their own performance.” (p. 307-308)

The other thing that makes for a good dancer is the ability to learn a long sequence of actions, and Kevin has shown before in the book that this type of learning is very difficult in a non-social setting, because it pretty much requires teachers. So the evolution of teaching, which he has discussed previously as a crucial component of early cultural evolution in the human lineage, is also a prerequisite for the wonderful byproduct of our biology that we call dance.

Much of the remainder of the chapter concerns itself with the history of dancing, and it is there, I think, that the limits of insights from biological evolution are most painfully clear. Laland asks whether dance could be said to have evolved in any “rigorous” sense of the term, by which he means to ask whether dance as a “system” possesses the characteristics that any evolving system has to possess: variation, differential fitness, and inheritance. But it should be obvious that while the evolution of dance does display all three, we have essentially no account whatsoever of the second element, differential fitness. This deficiency, I argue, at the moment makes cultural evolution into a tautological theory of the kind that Karl Popper (mistakenly) thought the theory of biological evolution was. While Darwin and his successors solved that problem in the biological case, neither evolutionary psychologists nor the more sophisticated approach advocated by Kevin and colleagues has been able to solve it in the case of cultural evolution.

Kevin presents readers with a number of examples showing that there is much variation among the world’s dances, and that this variation is culturally inherited via imitation (though, crucially, the equivalent of biological “mutation” and “recombination” result from conscious or unconscious human decision making, which follows, and indeed also shapes, human aesthetic judgments).

We therefore learn about European sword dances, which apparently first appeared in ancient Greece and were brought to Britain by invading Danes and Vikings. Waltz is Kevin’s favorite example of cultural fitness, as he calls it. And yet, here the limits of his approach are stark, in his own words:

“Relative to other dances in the late eighteenth century, the waltz could be said to possess high ‘cultural fitness,’ which really means little more than it was unusually appealing and as a result increased readily in frequency.” (p. 311)

Right. And that, right there, is the problem. Strip the fancy wording and we are left with: “waltz (at that particular time, in that particular culture) had high fitness because it had high fitness.” That’s the sort of vicious circularity that rightly annoyed Popper. You don’t find it in evolutionary biology because a separate discipline comes to the rescue: functional ecology. It is the latter that allows us to make predictions about which organismal traits are going to be adaptive in one environment or another, given the organism’s anatomy, physiology, and ecology (and given the laws of physics and chemistry). We don’t just say that natural selection favors the fit, and then immediately turn around and define the fit as those that are favored by natural selection. But that’s pretty much what cultural evolutionary theory does, at the moment, and it shares this limitation with other approaches, such as evolutionary psychology and memetics, though for different reasons that are specific to each approach.

To be fair, Kevin does attempt to sketch an elementary functional ecology of dance. For instance we are told that waltz was attractive in late 18th century Europe, in part because of the “dance’s intoxicating swirling, and the dangerously intimate contact between male and female were a major draw.”

Okay, but presumably swirling and close male and female contact have always been intoxicating. So why late 18th century Europe? Moreover, I don’t know much about the history of dance as an academic field of study, but I doubt anything Laland says in this chapter will come as a surprise to historians of dance — and I mean everything, from the genealogical patterns of evolution by imitation to the “mutations” introduced by different cultures at different times, to ad hoc explanations (which may even be true) like the intoxicating effect of a particular dance. In other words, invoking Darwin here does no work at all, or almost.

I don’t have a better alternative. I chose Kevin’s book precisely because I think it is one of the best in the field of cultural evolution, reflecting the incredible vigor and ingenuity of Kevin as a principal investigator, not to mention the many collaborators he gives due credit throughout the book. It’s all tantalizing and very, very interesting. But it falls far short of a comprehensive theory of cultural evolution. It is good to learn about the importance of social learning, of teaching, and of imitation throughout the history of hominins. It is fascinating to think that such biological history has a lot to do with the subsequent shaping of cultural evolution. But we are still nowhere near giving a decent scientific account of sword dancing, waltz, flamenco, polka, jitterbug, or rock’n’roll. Not to mention Michelangelo, Picasso, and de Kooning; or Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; or Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. And so on and so forth, encompassing the bewildering variety of manifestations of what we call culture.


And now for something completely different: our next book will be Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor J. Saunders, Penguin 2005. I figured that this is a blog called Footnotes to Plato, and yet we have hardly talked about Plato. So, here we go…

Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 8, foundations of cooperation

reciprocal altruismThink about the complexities involved in allowing you to do something that nowadays is fairly normal: getting on a plane and fly to another city, across an ocean. It’s not just the sophisticated machinery, ground transportation, the airports, and so forth. It’s the people. Accomplishing such a feat requires the coordinated cooperation of a large number of people who don’t know each other, and don’t know you or why you wish to get on that plane in the first place. This observation sets the stage for the next to the last chapter of Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, which we have been discussing for a while now.

The first point Kevin makes in this chapter (n. 11 in the book) is that conventional evolutionary explanations, such as kin selection and other gene-based explanations are insufficient to account for the degree and sophistication of cooperative activities that have characterized human civilization ever since the agricultural revolution. A fully formed theory of cultural evolution is needed, to draw the outlines of which, of course, is Kevin’s goal. Obviously, the idea is not that cultural evolution is independent from its biological counterpart, but rather that it is a novel mode of evolutionary change that resulted from the particular path of biological evolution that hominins happen to have taken.

Two of the factors that make large-scale human cooperation possible are the ability to teach others, and language, which Laland has already argued itself evolved to facilitate teaching. A third factor was the origin of social norms. These specify how individuals are expected to behave within a group, including how to treat individuals who violate norms. Crucially, norms also make possible for people to identify with a particular group, as abiding by its norms carries privileges for in-group members.

Moreover, humans are pretty much the only animals capable of trading goods (there are a few alleged cases in other primates, but they are disputed), and certainly the only ones that arrived at that convenient abstraction we call money. This level of sophistication requires language, and it is both facilitated and made necessary by the existence of division of labor, something that evolved to a high degree of sophistication, again, after the agricultural revolution, which made possible the existence of large and stable groups of humans.

All of this coordination is beneficial thanks to the advantage provided to individuals by indirect reciprocity: I do something for you, you do something for someone else, and at some point down the line another person that has been benefiting from in-group membership does something for me. Like allowing me to safely cross the Atlantic to get from New York to Rome. Repeated bouts of indirect reciprocity require gossip, so that people have a sense of who they can trust and who to stay away from. Needless to say, gossiping, and hence the building and destroying of social reputations, is not possible, again, without language.

Language, in turn, also evolves, quickly generating local dialects. Dialects then rapidly become a mark of local membership, a quick heuristic to tell apart in- from out-group members. They increase within-group cooperation, and likely across-group conflict, which sets the stage for group selection at the cultural level:

“Cultural processes generate plenty of variation among human groups for natural selection to act upon. Extensive data now demonstrate that the differences between human societies result far more from cultural rather than genetic variation. … Symbolic group marker systems, such as rituals, dances, songs, languages, dress, and flags, make it considerably easier for cultures to maintain their identities and to resist imported cultural traits from immigrants, than it is for local gene pools to maintain their identity by resisting gene flow.” (p. 283)

This is something important to keep in mind, as it is intuitive to say that cultures change more rapidly than genes. While this is true if we are talking about mutations (which are, indeed, rare), it is not the case once we consider gene flow and genetic recombination, which happen far more frequently, as Kevin points out, than some types of cultural change.

Laland also remarks on the widespread existence of practices that synchronize the behavior of individuals, like group dancing, or military marches. These activities result in the simultaneous release of endorphins, which in turn promotes within-group bonding. The broader point is that humans evolved a psychology of group behavior that is entirely unknown in other animals, and that cannot be explained on the basis of standard genetic models of evolution. Pace the evolutionary psychologists, of course, for whom we have seen Laland has relatively little patience.

We are reaching the end of this series of posts on Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony. The next and last installment will focus on the cultural evolutionary origin and significance of art.

Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 7, the dawn of civilization

Egyptian agricultureHomo sapiens is the only species on planet Earth to have experienced three phases of evolution: the standard biological one, driven by mutation and natural selection; gene-culture coevolution; and now the period of evolution driven primarily by culture. This is how chapter 10 of Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, begins the transition to the author’s discussion of that very last, novel, and crucial phase. (More entries in this ongoing series here.)

It’s an obviously crucial topic for a variety of reasons. First off, to help explain why on earth we evolved such large and metabolically expensive brains. Keep in mind that the human brain accounts for only 2% of our total body weight, and yet it consumes a whopping 20% of our daily caloric intake. (It’s unfortunate that thinking harder doesn’t lead to weight loss…). Second, as Kevin has documented in the previous chapters of the book, it is our capacity for social learning (and teaching) that accounts for the incredible success of our species, as the third mode of evolution is what has made possible for us to build giant cities, go to the Moon, and waste our existence on social media.

Kevin begins by addressing a related question: why did it take so long for our species to develop complex civilizations, while hunter-gatherer societies still today have very limited technology and simple cultures? The likely answer has to do with the severe limitations imposed by a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. To begin with, of course, hunter-gatherers have to be constantly on the move, changing base location once the local resources are depleted. This means that it is impossible to settle down long enough to develop a large population size and the division of labor that foster new technological developments. And even if some new technology were to be developed, it would have to be of limited size and complexity, again because the entire population has to pick up and move every few weeks or so.

Similarly, in hunter-gatherer societies the birthrate is typically low, with new pregnancies well separated in time, as a human female cannot carry and care for many small children when the group is constantly on the move. Small population size and temporary abodes also means no accumulation of wealth of the kind that makes division of labor possible, leading in turn to the origin of specialized classes of workers that can rapidly accumulate specific technical knowledge over few generations.

“This helps us understand why hunter-gather technology was only slowly changing for such a long time, and also why, even today, many small-scale societies possess limited technology. Hunter-gatherers are effectively trapped in a vicious cycle that severely constrains their rate of cultural evolution.” (p. 248)

That’s also why the invention of agriculture, which took place multiple times after the last Ice Age, is tightly linked with the origin of complex human technological cultures. The reason agriculture did not originate earlier is because the conditions following that Ice Age, about 11,500 years ago, have actually been the most favorable — climatically speaking — for such an event over the last two million years of hominid evolution. And before then our ancestors simply did not have the required brain power and ability to communicate through language.

Plant and animal domestication of some sort preceded the full blown agriculture revolution, and the first plants to be domesticated were annuals, characterized by a rapid life cycle and hence easy to select artificially. These included peas, wheat, rye, barley, and maize. A new form of wheat, for instance, appeared around 9,600 BCE in the eastern Mediterranean region. Maize was farmed in southern Mexico around 9,000 years ago. Millet appeared in China between 10,300 and 8,700 years ago, rice around 9,000 years ago.

The invention of agriculture was not without its own problems. The more stable source of food led to population explosions, which in turn caused periodical famines. Indeed, the archeological data show that Europeans became shorter by about 7 cm. between 2,300 and as little as 400 years ago, because of poor nutrition.

As Laland points out, agriculture is a great example of niche construction on the part of human beings. The old idea, in ecology, that niches are “out there,” waiting to be filled by new species of organisms, has been questioned for some time now. Rather, living beings actively alter their environment, co-evolving with it, if you will. By far the most spectacular example in the history of earth is the fact that we have high levels of oxygen in our atmosphere, a byproduct of photosynthesis, an organic process that has made animal life possible in the first place.

Since agriculture was not an unqualified good, it is reasonable to ask how come the new mode of life largely and rapidly replaced the old hunter-gathering. Kevin offers two main reasons: first, agriculturalists simply outbred hunter-gatherers, because of the larger population size made possible by a sedentary lifestyle. Before the advent of agriculture the world’s human population had stabilized at around one million people. By the time of the Roman empire it was up to 60 millions.

The second factor was a wave of innovations triggered by agriculture. For instance, the invention of the wheel, which appeared simultaneously in Mesopotamia, Russia and central Europe around 5,500 years ago. The first organized religions also sprang in agricultural societies, with different cultures, predictably, worshiping gods related to agriculture: Inti, the sun-god of the Inca; Renenutet, the Egyptian god of harvest; Ashnan, the goddess of grain in Mesopotamia; and Ceres, the Roman goddess (counterpart of the Greek Demeter) who was credited with the discovery of wheat, the invention of ploughing, the yoking of oxen, and similar.

Here is another way to appreciate the difference between pre- and post-agriculture humanity:

“Prior to the advent of agriculture, each population would have possessed at most a few hundred types of artifacts, while today the inhabitants of New York are able to choose between 100 billion bar-coded items. … One recent estimate of the amount of information now stored on the internet is 1,200,000 terabytes.” (p. 263, 269)

Kevin points out that all this innovation has had dark sides, including environmental destruction, not just today, but throughout the last 10,000 years or so, with humanity being responsible for countless extinctions of other species; as well as of course the scale of war that technology has made possible; and the increasing inequality (compared to hunter-gatherer societies) among human beings themselves. It seems like both natural and cultural selection don’t really care about ethical considerations, although of course we should. But that’s another story.

Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 6, gene-culture co-evolution

lactose tolerance

map of lactose tolerance

Kevin Laland’s book, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, which I have been discussing for several posts now, is basically one long argument in favor of the thesis that human evolution has been shaped by a feedback process involving a cultural drive mechanism initiated by natural selection, a mechanism that favored the acquisition of accurate and efficient copying. Chapter 9, to be examined here, is devoted to the classic approach of gene-culture co-evolution, the fundamental notion that cultural changes affect genetic evolution, and indeed that the more time passes the more human evolution is increasingly driven by culture and less so by biology (though biology always remains a fundamental constraint to be reckoned with):

“Genetic propensities, expressed throughout development, influence the cultural traits that are learned, while cultural knowledge, expressed in behavior and artifacts, spreads through populations and modifies how natural selection affects human populations in repeated, richly interwoven interactions.” (p. 217)

While the chapter begins with an interesting treatment of the phenomenon of right-handedness, the standard example of gene-culture co-evolution is, of course, lactose tolerance. In most humans, the ability to metabolize milk disappears in adulthood, as it was not pre-historically needed. But some populations have large numbers of adult individuals that retain a functional version of the gene coding for lactase activity, resulting in the phenotype of lactose tolerance. We now know that lactose tolerance evolved independently at least six times, and that this happened after the switch to agriculture following the last glaciation, making it a strong candidate for culture-driven genetic change in humans. Interestingly, mathematical models show that the rapidity of spread of the genetic trait depends on the fidelity of transmission of the cultural one: the more likely children of milk drinkers are to become milk drinkers themselves, the stronger the selection coefficient favoring the continued expression of the lactase gene into adulthood.

Several other traits have been shown to have evolved in a similar fashion in recent human history, including genes involved in skin pigmentation, salt retention, and heat stress, all obviously related to the sorts of climate changes experienced by human populations during their migrations. Unfortunately for us today, some of these strongly selected genes facilitate a highly efficient usage of food sources, as well as storage of energy into fats. Hence the trouble that many moderns are experiencing with obesity, leading to diabetes and heart problems, among other negative effects. Another fascinating example is the sarcomeric myosin gene MYH16, expressed mostly in the jawbone. A sizable chunk of the gene has been deleted, leading hominins to lose a lot of jaw muscles. This genetic event occurred at about the time we invented cooking, which made strong jaw muscles unnecessary (and likely metabolically expensive). And of course, many genes involved with brain development, particularly the neocortex, are now known to have undergone very strong positive selection in recent time.

As Kevin is careful to point out, none of this means that natural selection stopped working in humans. So long as there will be differential survival and reproduction, selection will be active on our genomes. But its mode and tempo have been dramatically altered by the onset of cultural evolution, which has become a drive, rather than an outcome, of natural selection in our species. As Laland puts it:

“Theoretical models consistently find that gene-culture dynamics are typically faster, stronger, and operate over a broader range of conditions than conventional evolutionary dynamics. … This picture of the evolution of the human mind is radically different from the portrayal advanced by evolutionary psychologists and many popular science writers.” (p. 239)

I think Kevin is a bit too mild when he discusses the limitations of evolutionary psychology (whose initial central hypothesis, a massive modularity of the human mind, has now been definitively rejected empirically). He states that current research in gene-culture co-evolution shows that the degree of mismatch between our genetic endowment and our culturally created environment is “far more limited” than evopsych authors envisioned. I’d say that’s a dramatic understatement, but certainly still an observation that should lead serious evolutionary psychologists to revise a great deal of what they are doing, abandoning the increasingly silly idea that the Pleistocene was a crucial “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA), as if the genetic evolution of Homo sapiens had suddenly stopped at that point in time.

“Far from being trapped in the past by an outdated biological legacy, humans are characterized by a remarkable plasticity. Our adaptiveness is reinforced by both cultural and biological evolution.” (p. 240)

If people who write about evopsych were to take this conclusion a bit more seriously, especially when they write for a general public, there would be a lot less garbage floating around the pop science literature. But I ain’t holding my breath…

Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 5, the evolution of language

LanguageWhy is it that only the species Homo sapiens has evolved language? Well, aside, possibly, for other, now extinct, species of our own genus. Despite much talk of animal communication, that’s just what other species do: communicate. Language is a very special, and highly sophisticated, type of communication. Characterized by grammar, capable of recursivity, inherently open ended. Nothing like that exists anywhere else in the animal world. Why?

That’s the topic of the eight chapter of Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, which we are in the midst of discussing. A major problem here, as Laland points out, is not that we have no idea of the possible answer, but rather that there are too many explanations on offer, none of which seems to quite do the job. Here is a partial list. Language evolved:

  • To facilitate cooperative hunting.
  • As a costly ornament allowing females to assess male quality.
  • As a substitute for the grooming exhibited by other primate species.
  • To promote pair bonding.
  • To aid mother-child communication.
  • To gossip about others.
  • To expedite tool making.
  • As a tool for thought.

And of course it’s very possible that language evolved to fulfill more than one, or even all of those functions! The stumbling block isn’t the imagination of researchers, but rather the dearth of relevant empirical evidence (something, of course, that isn’t the case only in some areas of evolutionary biology).

Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that the evolution of language was a singular event, which precludes the use of one of evolutionary biology’s standard tools of investigation, the comparative phylogenetic method. Moreover, languages don’t leave much of a fossil record, thus taking out a second major tool from the biologist’s box.

Kevin proceeds by listing six criteria (and adding a seventh of his own) that a successful theory of language’s origin should meet in order to be further considered (I refer the reader to the chapter itself for more in-depth explanations concerning each criterion):

  1. The theory must account for the honesty of early language. (If words are easy and cost-free, why should anyone believe what others say?)
  2. The theory should account for the cooperativeness of early language. (Why should people, early on, have gone out of their way to help others by passing to them valuable information?)
  3. The theory should explain how language was adaptive from the onset. (As it is hard to imagine how it could have been a spandrel.)
  4. The concepts proposed by the theory should be grounded in reality. (That is, how did words acquire meaning in the first place?)
  5. The theory should explain the generality of language. (As opposed to the specificity characteristic of every other animal communication system.)
  6. The theory should account for the uniqueness of human language. (Why us and not anyone else?)
  7. The theory should explain why communication needed to be learned. (Why is it that language needed to be socially learned and capable of changing rapidly?)

Laland then concludes that no theory suggested so far meets all seven of these criteria, and I think he’s right. His preferred answer should, at this point in our discussion of the book, come as no surprise:

“[This] raises the question of why humans alone should exhibit a culture that ratchets up in complexity. Theoretical studies answer this question by showing that high-fidelity information transmission is necessary for cumulative culture, but then pose the supplementary question of how our ancestors achieved high-fidelity transmission. The obvious answer is through teaching.” (p. 183)

Kevin then proceeds in orderly fashion by comparing his preferred hypothesis — that language evolved in order to teach relatives — to the seven criteria just listed, finding that the language-to-teach scenario satisfies all of them.

At this point it will be good to step back for a second. To begin with, I’m sure that other students of the evolution of language will dispute both of Laland’s claims: (i) that no other hypothesis is a good fit for all seven criteria, and (ii) that only the language-to-teach hypothesis does a good job with the same criteria. Or perhaps (iii) someone will question the adequacy or necessity of one or more of the criteria in the first place.

For me, though, what makes this chapter the least convincing of those we have read so far is that even if we grant Kevin everything he is arguing for, we are still left, at best, with an hypothetical scenario that falls far short of empirical verification. Yes, maybe language evolved so that we could efficiently teach valuable information to our relatives, and things then went on from there. Or maybe there is a clever variant of one of the other hypotheses now on the table that will be even more convincing than the present analysis. Or perhaps there is yet another scenario that simply nobody has thought up yet. We just don’t know. And to be honest I don’t think we are likely to know any time soon, if ever. Precisely because of a major stumbling block acknowledged by Laland himself: the evolution of language was a unique historical event, and unique historical events are exceedingly difficult (though not impossible) to study.

While reading the chapter, I was reminded of some sharp, and I’m sure very much unwelcome words written by one of my scientific role models, the Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin. In a book chapter entitled “The evolution of cognition: questions we will never answer,” he presents a critical analysis of the literature on the topic, making an argument that builds up to the following conclusion:

“I must say that the best lesson our readers can learn is to give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood. History, and evolution is a form of history, [often] simply does not leave sufficient traces. … Form and even behavior may leave fossil remains, but forces like natural selection do not. It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck.” (p. 130)

Seems to me that one could easily replace “cognition” with “language” and still be largely in the right. I’m sure Kevin will disagree, and I look forward to his comments.


(Note to the reader: this commentary covers that major part of chapter 8, devoted to the question of the original function of language. The latter part of the chapter addresses a different, if related, question: how was it computationally possible for hominins to learn language, regardless of which selective pressured favored it? While interesting, I elected not to cover this bit, in order to focus discussion on what I think are the more crucial points of the chapter.)