Notes from the Library

Jan 2012

Tue, 31 Jan 2012

Plato was uneasy because he knew and feared the strength and the moral appeal of the forces he tried to break. He did not dare to challenge them, but tried to win them over for his own purposes. Whether we witness in Plato’s writings a cynical or conscious attempt to employ the moral sentiments of the new humanitarianism for his own purposes, or whether we witness rather a tragic attempt to persuade his own better conscience of the evils of individualism, we shall never know. My personal impression is that the latter is the case, and that this inner conflict is the main secret of Plato’s fascination. I think that Plato was moved to the depths of his soul by the new ideas, and especially by the great individualist Socrates and his martyrdom. And I think that he fought against this influence upon himself as well as upon others with all the might of his unequalled intelligence, though not always openly. This explains also why from time to time, amid all his totalitarianism, we find some humanitarian ideas. And it explains why it was possible for philosophers to represent Plato as a humanitarian. —K.R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 2nd ed., vol. 1, ch. 6, p. 109

Sun, 29 Jan 2012

Just quoted Nagel in a post on here as I have done before. When I read Nagel I always get the sense that something very deep is being investigated: this is both the feeling of depth and importance and also the intellectual realisation that what is being discussed here, if taken seriously, is going to have implications across philosophy.

The thoughts in the preface to Mortal Questions that I just quoted are driving me away from my pyrrhonism. There is the suggestion there that it is a foolish hunger for belief that backfires into the claim that there aren’t any answers to be had: more patience is called for.

Wikipedia’s characterisation of pyrrhonism is very nice:

According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic. They thus attempted to make their skepticism universal, and to escape the reproach of basing it upon a fresh dogmatism. Mental imperturbability (ataraxia) was the result to be attained by cultivating such a frame of mind. As in Stoicism and Epicureanism, the happiness or satisfaction of the individual was the goal of life, and all three philosophies placed it in tranquility or indifference. According to the Pyrrhonists, it is our opinions or unwarranted judgments about things which turn them into desires, painful effort, and disappointment. From all this a person is delivered who abstains from judging one state to be preferable to another. But, as complete inactivity would have been synonymous with death, the skeptic, while retaining his consciousness of the complete uncertainty enveloping every step, might follow custom (or nature) in the ordinary affairs of life. source

My own philosophical sympathies and antipathies are easily stated. I believe one should trust problems over solutions, intuition over arguments, and pluralistic discord over systematic harmony. Simplicity and elegance are never reasons to think that a philosophical theory is true: on the contrary, they are usually grounds for thinking it false. Given a knockdown argument for an intuitively unacceptable conclusion, one should assume there is probably something wrong with the argument that one cannot detect—though it is also possible that the source of the intuition has been misidentified. … What ties these views about philosophical practice together is the assumption that to create understanding, philosophy must convince. That means that it must produce or destroy belief, rather than merely provide us with a consistent set of things to say. And belief, unlike utterance, should not be under the control of the will, however motivated. It should be involuntary. —T. Nagel, Mortal Questions, pp. xx–xi

Thu, 26 Jan 2012

Very little to say about Maths. Only doing Set Theory. Have been to a couple of lectures, skipped one or two others, and spent about three hours in total over last night and this morning doing the first rather easy problem sheet, so that’s a quarter of the term’s Maths signed off six days in advance of the deadline.

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My new environment is setup and it’s so horrible. I’ve got everything I need working so far as I can tell but there are places where colours are not what I am used to and the Gnus->mutt transition is a HUGE step down. Urgh. Bitstream Vera within Emacs is being hinted all wrong, and it almost hurts my eyes.

What’s worse are the three tasks that remain: sort out my Mutt address book (have no idea how to do that right now), massively strip down Emacs, and then duplicate this setup on my laptop.

But this is the point. I’m using this as an opportunity to reshape my habits. I’m robbing myself of a certain degree of efficiency which will make me uncomfortable here and remind me that I probably shouldn’t be at the computer as much as I am. For the next week or so my laptop will remain on CRUX so I won’t have to suffer this discomfort all the time.

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