Thursday, November 4, 2010

This Week In Philosophy

One philosopher greets another: "Hello, why are you?" (Peter Serafinowicz)

Plato: portrait bust by Silanion

Just in case your brain needs its daily exercise, here’s a little of Plato’s metaphysics:

“And what about the one itself, which we say partakes of being? If we grasp it in thought alone by itself, without that of which we say it partakes, will it appear to be only one, or will this same thing also appear to be many?”
“One, I should think.”
“Let’s see. Must not its being be something and itself something different, if in fact the one is not being but, as one, partakes of being?”
“So if being is something and the one is something different, it is not by its being one that the one is different from being, nor by its being being that being is other than the one. On the contrary, they are different from each other by difference and otherness.”
“Of course.”
“And so difference is not the same as oneness or being.”
“Obviously not.”

Make of that what you will. It is from Plato’s Parmenides, one of his later dialogues, in which he has his characters question the very basis of his whole life’s work in philosophy, the proposal that there are metaphysical Forms which represent the essence of qualities such as ‘equalness’, ‘beauty’ or ‘justice’, and which exist (?) in the world of thought (?) and are separate from the particular things in the sensible world which ‘partake’ of these essences. The debate over how particulars might ‘partake’ of these mysterious Forms has not been resolved in 2500 years. Parmenides queries a young Socrates about this concept of the Forms, and asks whether each Form is ‘one’ (what Aristotle – and we – might call ‘a universal’) and indivisible; or whether each Form is divisible into many. Socrates replies rather cleverly that the Form is one, like a day, which can be in many places at the same time and yet not be divided or separate from itself. Parmenides then says:

“ neatly you make one and the same thing be in many places at the same time! It’s as if you were to cover many people with a sail, and then say that the one thing as a whole is over many. Or isn’t that the sort of thing you mean to say?”

Socrates should not have conceded that the analogy of the sail was the same as his analogy of the day, since the ‘one over many’ argument leads to all kinds of inconsistencies and pages more argument. But is a day divisible? The class on Tuesday was divided. Pun intended.

Plato in his academy,
drawing after a painting by Swedish painter Carl Johan Wahlbom

And in Ethics this week:

Professor Frankfurt
Princeton University
‘A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.’ Discuss. A famous paper published in 1969 by a moral philosopher named Harry Frankfurt argued that this particular proposition is false. Consider Frankfurt’s counterexample:

Black wants Jones to do x (e.g. murder Smith), but wants to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily. Jones is already considering doing x for his own independent reasons. Black decides to proceed as follows: if Jones does x on his own, Black will do nothing; but if Jones looks like he is not going to do x, then Black will intervene and force Jones to do x. The situation then plays out as follows: Jones decides to do x for his own reasons, and Black does nothing.
Most people believe that Jones is morally responsible for doing x: after all, he would have done the same whether Black was there or not. But Jones could not have done otherwise: unbeknownst to him, Black was there to ensure he did x in the event of him deciding against it. So the proposition is false.


Arthur Schopenhauer as a young man
b.1788 - d.1860
And how about a little Schopenhauer on the metaphysics of sexual love?

The true end of the whole love story, though the parties concerned are unaware of it, is that this particular child may be begotten; the method and manner by which this end is attained is of secondary importance. However loudly those persons of a lofty and sentimental soul, especially those in love, may raise an outcry over the gross realism of my view, they are nevertheless mistaken. For is not the precise determination of the individualities of the next generation a much higher and worthier aim then those exuberant feelings and immaterial soap-bubbles of theirs?

So far we might – perhaps – agree with Schopenhauer’s words from Book II of ‘The World as Will and Representation’ (1844). However when he delves further into the details about how all this works, we may beg to differ:

Age is the primary consideration that guides our choice and inclination....we [men] give a decided preference to the period between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight. Outside those years no woman attracts us; an old woman, that is to say a woman who no longer menstruates, excites our aversion. Youth without beauty always has attraction; beauty without youth has none.
...The fourth consideration is a certain fullness of flesh, a predominance of the vegetative function, of plasticity, since this promises abundant nourishment for the foetus; hence great leanness repels us strongly. A full female bosom exerts an exceptional charm on the male, because, being directly connected with the woman’s functions of propagation, it promises the new-born child with abundant nourishment.

Well, perhaps there’s a few grains of truth in that last bit. And how about this: nature man is inclined to inconstancy in love, woman to constancy. The man’s love diminishes perceptibly from the moment it has obtained satisfaction; almost every other woman charms him more than the one he already possesses; he longs for variety. On the other hand, the woman’s love increases from that very moment. This is a consequence of nature’s aim, which is directed to the maintenance, and thus the greatest possible increase, of the species. The man can easily beget over a hundred children in a year, if there are that number of women available; on the other hand...the woman could bring into the world only one child in a year...The man, therefore, always looks around for other women; the woman, on the contrary, cleaves firmly to one man; for nature urges her, instinctively and without reflection, to retain the nourisher and supporter of the future offspring.

This seems to describe a recipe for disaster; but might we reluctantly agree with the gist of it? Now consider the conclusion Schopenhauer then reaches:

Accordingly, conjugal fidelity for the man is artificial, for the woman natural; and so adultery on the part of the woman is much less pardonable than on the part of the man, both objectively on account of the consequences, and subjectively on account of its being unnatural.

There are many things to be said about this conclusion (and if you’ve read this far, I can probably hear the echo of you saying a few of them). But one thing is clear: Schopenhauer’s arithmetic was out. The man wishing to beget the hundred children with all the different women, perfectly pardonably, is surely going have a difficult time finding said women if it is ‘unnatural’ for a woman to commit adultery. The plan needs a re-write, from several points of view.

I’ll be interested to hear what the class tomorrow thinks about this. And feel free to add your own comments.

Schopenhauer as an old man 

Photos from these websites:


  1. Where do i even begin???

    So instead just a small counter-proposition for the Man of Will. Viz, the male is naturally monogamist, the woman polygamist. Why? The male wants to certainty and exclusivity of the genetics of progeny (hence traditionally royal European bloodlines were patrilineal).

    But the female, with her propensity for multiple orgasms with multiple partners (what's that's got to do with it? hey, who worries about logical consistency when we can simply flex our social stereotypes and prejudices), wants genetic diversity in her brood to ensure the maximal adaptive advantage in her family’s struggle with natural selection. See, anyone can make this stuff up as we go along.

    And Schoppy was not alone. Freud suffered from the same patriarchal delusions and predilection to pompous pronouncements. I think they just sat and sucked the end of their biros, cast their eyes contemplatively to heaven for half a mo, and then just scribbled down whatever misogynist wishful thinking came into their heads.

    Just as well philosophy has now been made redundant by empirical science!

  2. AND .....

    Schoppy and Freud need to watch THIS re fictional truth and the truth of fiction:

    It will help them justify making it up as they go along as a model for praxis!

  3. Hi Harry - thank you very much for this. I know someone who actually shares Schoppy's views on this subject and your excellent riposte will come in very handy - I will quote you.
    Schoppy of course was affected rather sadly by the need to make life fit in with his depressing metaphysics, to say nothing of his unfortunate relationship with his mother (who was more famous than him during her lifetime - she was a novelist. We can imagine how emasculating that must have been). The lengths he went to to make the world fit his views (you should hear him on homosexuality) are splendidly contortionist. As to Freud, he would of course have read Schoppy in Vienna in his early days. We have a lot to 'thank' Schopenhauer for.
    I shouldn't get too narky. I like the way he works Buddhism and the Upanishads into things.