Discussion Question 8

Read: Stoic and Sceptics Selections

Some key notions for our discussion of stoic and sceptic views will be the notions of assent and impressions. While I am not in control of what impressions the world forces on me, I am in control of my ability to assent to that impression, or in the specific case of sensory experience, to accept a sense perception as true and as an accurate representation of the world. For example, I can’t decide to change my sensory impression that the chair is brown to a sensory impression that it is blue by my own will. In some sense that is beyond my power – no matter how hard I try, I cannot change the brown impression to a blue one.

The question will then be: when should I assent to the impressions I experience? We see lots of sort of answers in the reading, but I want you to think about this question on your own as well. Sometimes your experiences accurately represent the world, but sometimes they don’t (e.g. optical illusions, the way food tastes when sick). So for this post: give an example of one case where you couldn’t trust your sensory experience. How does that case differ from your normal sensory experiences, i.e. what sorts of criteria do your experiences have to meet (or do you have to meet while having the experience) in order for you to trust that sensory experience? Or is it that no matter how good the setting and your own health, you can never be confident that your experience is accurate?

If the former, is it always clear to you when you or the situation meet those criteria? If the latter, how do you explain your interactions in daily life where it appears you have to be confident in your impressions to get around most of the time?


Discussion Question 7

Read:  Aristotle, Physics IV (7-8), Epicurean fragments on physics, Selection of fragments from Zeno

Many of Zeno’s arguments rely on the infinite divisibility of matter and magnitudes, i.e. the claim that no matter how many divisions I make of some distance, there are always further divisions into more parts (e.g. fragments 6,7,8 in the pdf I gave you). What is the Epicurean response to these sorts of arguments in fragment 9A? Why must we not only say that we cannot cut an atom into infinitely many parts, but that we also cannot consider traversel to infinity? Do you find the arguments and view compelling?

Discussion Question 6

Read: Aristotle, Metaphysics, Books I, VII (7-9), Physics  I, II (1-3), III (1-3)
(This may seem like a lot of pages when you open the pdf, but the font is quite large so it is less than it appears.)

One thing we missed on Tuesday but we will discuss on Thursday is akrasia, or weakness of will. These are cases where you know or believe that some option is worse than another but do it anyway, e.g. I believe I ought not to eat the cupcake but I end up giving into my desires and in a moment of weakness I eat it anyway.

One way to think about the problems related to the existence of weak-willed action is with reference to an inconsistent triad of premises that we have from Donald Davidson, a modern philosopher. Imagine a case where Joan knows she ought to be working on a paper but ends up giving into weakness and going to a party instead. Take the following three claims (slightly altered from Davidson’s):

(1) Joan believes that writing is better than going to the party (i.e. she believes that she ought to write her paper).
(2) Whenever anyone believes that A is better than B, and voluntarily chooses between A and B, she does A.
(3) Joan voluntarily chose to go to the party.

Each of these individually seems to be true. For (1), Joan would report throughout the whole night that she ought to be writing her paper and that it was the better choice. For (2), it seems like a general truth about motivation that if I voluntarily choose between two options, I will always pick the one I think best – why would I ever choose to do the worse when I could just as easily pick the better? For (3), we want to say that Joan chose to go to the party and that she is responsible and blameworthy for her choice.

The problem is that when taken all together, the three are inconsistent – not all three can be true at the same time, so we must give one up and explain why it seems to be true even though it is not. We’ll talk in class about how our historical figures might respond to the triad, but at first glance, which of the three would you give up? Is it that Joan is just lying when she says that writing is better, so that (1) is false when she goes to the party? Or is it that sometimes we can freely decide to choose an option, make that choice, and then somehow end up doing something else entirely? Or is it that when we are weak-willed, we are forced to act by our appetites so that we cannot say that Joan voluntarily chose to go to the party – she was “overwhelmed by desire”? Explain your thoughts.



Discussion Question 5

Read: Selections from Aristotle’s Topics, Nicomachean Ethics Bk.I

Since we didn’t finish the Theaetetus this week, let’s focus on one suggested definition from the remaining part: knowledge is true judgment with an account. Imagine the following example, embellished from the dialogue: you are stuck in jury duty, listening to an argument that the defendant Joseph stole a pineapple from a grocery store. The prosecution brings forwards several witnesses who attest that they saw a man dressed in a pineapple shirt and wearing an allergy mask (so they could not see his face) acting suspicious around the premises, lifting pineapples up and looking around as if to check if anyone was watching, just before the theft took place. They then bring up a police witness that attests that he caught Joseph 30 minutes after the incident, with the remnants of a pineapple and wearing a pineapple shirt. They bring the shirt Joseph was wearing into the courtroom, having been collected as evidence, and all the witnesses confirm this is the shirt they saw the suspicious man wearing. You listen to the evidence, judge that Joseph is guilty, and think that you know, “Joseph stole the pineapple.” Further, you think that you have a good account or reason for judging that Joseph is guilty, since you know many people saw a man in a pineapple shirt looking suspicious at the right time and Joseph was found in a pineapple shirt.

Unbeknownst to you, the man wearing the pineapple shirt that all the witnesses saw was just a pineapple connoisseur with terrible allergies, lets call him Jonathan, who was in the store to view a rare shipment of the pineapples and a bit embarrassed to be checking them out in such detail in public. It was his bad luck that Joseph caught him outside after stealing the pineapple from the grocery store, and Joseph, in his adrenaline-fueled state after the robbery, held Jonathan up and forced him to switch clothes with him so that the police (he thought) would not be able to track him.

You judged that “Joseph stole the pineapple,” and it was in fact true that Joseph stole the pineapple. On the one hand, you have a good account for why you believe that: all the witnesses, the policeman catching Joseph in the shirt, the confirmation of the shirt as the same shirt. On the other hand, it was only by pure luck that Joseph was wearing the pineapple shirt that all the witnesses saw. Would you say that you know, “Joseph stole the pineapple”?

If so, why do you think this counts as knowledge? If not, and you think it is a counterexample to Theaetetus’ suggested definition, what exactly is wrong with his account? Can you fix it?

Discussion Question 4

Read: Plato, Theaetetus, Selection of fragments from Heraclitus

This dialogue is very difficult and meanders through multiple issues. Accordingly, the discussion question for this week is mostly targeted at trying to figure out what is going on in one part of the text.

At 151d, Theaetetus defines knowledge to be perception, and Socrates follows up by introducing Protagoras’ theory that man is the measure of all things at 152a. How would you characterize Protagoras’ claim in your own words? Socrates also connects Theaetetus’ definition to a Heraclitean picture of the world at 152d. How would you characterize this corresponding metaphysical view? (try to get each down to a sentence or two – a very hard task, but a useful one to practice.)

Do you think these related views are required to make sense of Theaetetus’ definition? If so, why? If not, why not?

Discussion Question 3

Read: Republic, Books VI and VII, Selection of fragments from Parmenides, Selection from Plato’s dialogue Parmenides (latter two on Courseworks)

At the end of Book V (476), Socrates makes a distinction between the Philosopher and the Lover of Sight and Sound, where the former has knowledge but the latter only has opinion. Further, we get the interesting exchange at 476e, “[D]oes the person who knows know something or nothing? – He knows something – Something that is or something that is not? – Something that is, for how could something that is not be known?” You saw similar sorts of claims in the Parmenides fragments, which also suggest the one can only know things about objects that are (i.e. that exists).

A general, very abstract, question: do you know (vs. believe, imagine, etc) anything about an object that doesn’t exist (e.g. a unicorn, Santa Claus)? If you think you might, give a candidate example, what you know about it, and how you came to know that. Why do you think your psychological attitudes constitute knowledge? If you think you can never have knowledge about things that don’t exist, why do you think that? Do you have other attitudes? Why those attitudes instead of knowledge? Either way, what do you think separates the two cases of objects that are and objects that are not in the case of knowledge?

Discussion Question 2

What to Read: Books 1.352d-354a, II.368c-end, IV, V.471c-end, VIII, IX.

In the passage from Book II, Socrates and crew decide to continue the investigation by the method of hypothesis, assuming that Justice is one and the same in the just city and the just individual. Why might one think that Justice is the same thing in cities and individuals? Why might one think the contrary, i.e. that justice might be different in each? If you think the former, do you think it makes sense that Justice would be easier to find in the larger? If you think the latter, is there any meaningful connection between Justice in the city and the individual, and how might one investigate that?

Partial Brief Overview of the Republic for Context

In the Republic, we get two main questions: (i) What is justice?, (ii) Is it advantageous to be just?

The second question turns out to be very hard, since it looks like a lot of unjust people do quite well. Throughout the Republic there are a series of arguments that intend to show that one is better off if just, although it is flagged as very difficult to show.

For the first question, the interlocutors decide to “found a city in speech,” in particular, they are trying to describe the best city. First they try to find a satisfactory answer to “what is justice?” by looking at justice as a virtue of an individual person and are unable to find an answer. Socrates suggests that perhaps it is easier to see what justice is if it is studied in a political setting, as a feature of the best state/city. The idea is that one might more easily see the details if the object is larger. Once a blueprint of this best city is on the table, it should be easier to see what justice is. Discussion in the early books of the Republic explores what kind of education is needed in the best
city. Namely: children must come to love the good. The idea is that games, architecture, poetry, and everything that contributes to the designed environment and cultural environment in which children grow up makes a difference. Poetry should present you with heroes who really are good; the gods shouldn’t be portrayed as committing crimes, but instead as good; and so on. Note: it’s a remarkable fact about a political philosophy that it spends so much time on education. There is very little about laws, and a lot about the kinds of attitudes that people should have.

However, it is assumed that not everyone has the same talents. Plato proposes that people should engage in activities that they are good at. Everyone should do ‘their job’ (ergon), that which they are talented for, and they should do it well (and be trained for it, and to the extent relevant to their job in society).

This leads to a distinction between three classes: those who receive the most extensive education (including many years of mathematics) are the so-called guardians. They are the care-takers or rulers of the city. Second, the guardians need someone at their side to support them and to protect the city, and this is the ‘auxiliary’ class, the class of warriors. Third, there’s the class of those who have what today we might call ‘a regular job’: they have some skill and they make money by performing the relevant tasks, say, shipbuilding or shoemaking or farming.

Eventually, Plato will make explicit that the guardians are the philosophers. That is what is known as the claim that philosophers should rule (‘philosopher kings’). Plato is aware that no one trusts philosophers with this kind of job and that it is going to be perceived an outrageous idea. He calls it a “wave,” which means that it will create a stir – a wave of resistance is to be expected when one says this aloud. It is the third of three waves. The first wave is that there should be the same education for men and women. The second wave is the so-called community of women and children, which (roughly) means that life in the best city should not be arranged in such a way that the small-scale family we are used to is the most basic unit relevant to the social fabric. Instead, there are lots of communal arrangements, eating together, kids growing up with other kids (one should feel like a parent to every child of the next generation, not just to one’s own child), etc.

Discussion Question 1

We talked a bit today about ‘What-is-X?’ questions, and we examined an example in the Euthyphro with the case of the question, ‘What is Piety?’ For Socrates, not all answers count as good answers to these types of questions, but now you have an idea of what an appropriate sort of answer should look like. In particular, we don’t want an answer that only gives us a particular instance of an X (i.e. doing action A is pious), but a general description that captures all and only the characteristics shared by all things that are X.

Let’s take what we learned and apply it to a modern case that I (and maybe you) have been thinking about a lot recently: civility in modern politics, i.e. what is civility? While there a disagreement about whether we ought to be civil to one another despite our political views, it seems like there is pretty wide agreement over what actions count as civil or not (e.g. we might disagree about whether or not one ought to kick someone out of a restaurant for being part of a political group you strongly disagree with, but it seems most agree that such an action is a breakdown of civility). So what is civility? Try to formulate a sentence definition of the right sort, and then give a couple of sentences defending your reasoning. Not each answer has to be unique, but if you agree with someone else try to give further reasons or considerations in response to their post.

Some things to think about (but not necessarily to respond to): How is civility different from politeness (if it is)? from etiquette? Is civility the same for every sort of civil society? If so, it must not appeal to facts about our particular society. If not, it must. Is civility something that applies most directly to actions? or most directly to a person’s character? If civility is political, what makes it political?