It Sometimes Begins with Emerson

I just did this survey, “put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.” (You have to be an APA member to take it.)

https://delaware.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4McDN9ZhI7GVYCp

It was fun. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first encounter with philosophy, which, contrary to the old saw, didn’t begin with Ayn Rand. It began in a high school English class on American literature, where we read Emerson and Thoreau. I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers, but whatever you call them, they were my first contact with anything describable as philosophy.* I found them pretty enthralling, and still do. As it happens, I’m re-reading Walden for the first time in a couple of decades, and enjoying it immensely. One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists. I was offended at the time, but by George, he was right. Continue reading

An Essential Question

Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.

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Aristotle, Seneca, and Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

Aristotle gets a lot of flack for defending slavery. It’s not bad enough that he accepted it, like so many Greek thinkers before him; he went to the trouble of arguing for it. Worse still, his argument is, by almost universal scholarly consensus, pretty bad. The gist of the argument is that some human beings are so rationally deficient that they cannot lead autonomous lives and therefore need to be ruled by others in order to keep out of trouble, or at least in order to live decently; slavery is actually beneficial for them, and they’re better off being slaves than being left to their own devices.

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Mega-Bleg: Plato, Aristotle, and the Jews

This is the sort of question that never occurs to me when I teach Plato and Aristotle back home (itself a rare event), but it’s the kind of question I’m sure to get asked while teaching them here in Palestine next week. And damned if I know the answer.

Were Plato and Aristotle acquainted with Abrahamic monotheism?

Put more concretely for purposes of historical inquiry:

Were Plato or Aristotle familiar with the Jewish people or the Hebrew Bible?

I’ll bet that David Riesbeck has an answer, but I pose the question(s) above (as well as those below) for anyone with answers. Continue reading

Brains, Computers, Metaphor, Synecdoche, and People

Aeon has an interesting piece by psychologist Robert Epstein on why the brain is not a computer. In one sense, this is just a truism. Computers are machines made by human beings, whereas brains are animal organs that have evolved over a very long period of time; computers are made of metal chips, brains aren’t; computers aren’t neurochemical, brains are; brains can do lots of things that computers can’t (yet, anyway); and so on. This truism, though, depends on a rather imprecise, colloquial sense of the word ‘computer.’ More strictly speaking, a computer is just any device that computes, that is, “performs high-speed mathematical or logical operations or that assembles, stores, correlates, or otherwise processes information.”1 In this sense, many cognitive scientists believe that the brain is literally a computer. While it is of course not a ‘device’ designed by human beings, it nonetheless performs mathematical and logical operations and assembles, stores, correlates, and more generally processes information. Indeed, to many people, and not just cognitive scientists, it might seem that the truism is that the brain is a computer in this sense.

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The Philosopher’s Tomb

Looks like the archaeologists have found Aristotle’s tomb:

ATHENS — A Greek archaeologist who has been leading a 20-year excavation in northern Greece said on Thursday that he believed he had unearthed the tomb of Aristotle.

In an address at a conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, commemorating the 2,400th anniversary of Aristotle’s birth, the archaeologist, Konstantinos Sismanidis, said he had “no proof but strong indications, as certain as one can be,” to support his claim.

Everyone join me in wishing our buddy Aristotle a happy birthday. We’re still talking about him after all these years! What a guy.

Next question on the agenda: so who owns the tomb? Seriously.

Shameless Self-Promotion

I have been delinquent in contributing to this blog lately, and so it’s perhaps especially shameless for me to throw myself back in for the purposes of self-promotion. But I’m shameless, so I’m going to do it. After all, one reason I’ve been delinquent is that I’ve actually been getting work done, and there’s more than a slight possibility that a few readers will find the items promoted here of some interest.

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Morals and the Free Society: 9. Aristotelianism, Part 1—Natural Human Functions Can Be Investigated Scientifically

Here is the ninth chunk of the argument. To return to the eighth chunk, click here. To advance to the tenth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


The basic tenets of a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics are, I think, familiar. Therefore, I shall just provide a basic sketch of the sort of view I have in mind without dwelling overmuch on the details. The aim is to show how an Aristotelian ethics might resolve the difficulties that have been identified for any moral view that hopes to provide a moral vision for a free society. Those difficulties, to repeat, are: first, to provide a reason why agents operating within a free market should care about observing (a) the rules that create the free market (basically, individual rights to one’s own person and property) and ideally also (b) additional principles that reduce transactions costs, such as candor, loyalty, reliability, zeal for just punishment, and fair-mindedness; and second, to reconcile this reason to care about maintaining the free market with the sort of motives and behavior that are appropriate within the free market.

I take the fundamental claim of an Aristotelian ethics to be that the highest value for any organism is to be a good organism of its kind. Continue reading