Old Philosopher Yells at Clouds

I’m sure I can’t be the first to notice the ways in which Plato’s Protagoras is framed as a response to Aristophanes’ Clouds, but I’m not aware of any previous discussion of the connections I have in mind.

It’s old news, of course, that many of Plato’s dialogues, including the Protagoras (along with, e.g., the Euthydemus, Gorgias, Hippias Minor, Hippias Major, and Sophist) are devoted to distinguishing Socrates’ approach to inquiry and debate from that of the Sophists, and to that extent may be viewed as responding to what Plato saw as a Socrates/Sophist conflation in the Clouds. Continue reading

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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Plato on the Ridiculous and Donald Trump

Donald Trump is a fairly ridiculous human being. Though he has somehow managed to inspire admiration in many, even some of his supporters concede that he isn’t especially admirable, and many of his detractors apparently agree that he is not merely a bad person and unfit for public office, but positively absurd, a laughingstock of the sort we more readily expect from political satire than from political reality, perhaps all the more ridiculous for being real rather than fictional. Such, at least, we might infer from the frequency with which social media users and some traditional media outlets subject Trump to ridicule and present him as an object of derision and mockery. Admittedly, politicians in general, and especially presidents, are always easy targets for humor and satire, and the most successful comedians can find a way to make almost anything funny. In some conservative circles Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were — and in some, still are — laughed at with tedious regularity, and it may not be that Trump is made fun of more than they were, or by more people, but simply more often by people I happen to pay attention to. Even so, Trump gets made fun of. A lot. This worries me.

In some ordinary, imprecise sense of the word, I find Donald Trump ridiculous. What I don’t find him is funny, in any way, someone who inspires laughter of any kind. I share what some readers will no doubt regard as the Standard Liberal Elitist Disdain for Trump; pick a widely held complaint about Trump, and I probably at least sympathize with it. So my inability to laugh at him is not an expression of any kind of respect for the man or his office. I simply can’t laugh at him, or at any of the many discussions or representations of him designed to make me laugh at him, from Alec Baldwin’s caricatures to the latest post on my Facebook feed. This isn’t because I’m a generally humorless guy; anybody who knows me well will probably tell you that I’m at least occasionally too silly. It’s that I don’t think I should laugh at him. More than that, I don’t think you should either. I don’t think anyone should. Insofar as something that is ridiculous is something worth laughing at in a contemptuous, dismissive way, I don’t find Donald Trump ridiculous.

Plato explains why.

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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

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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Postcards from Abu Dis (2): Pedagogy Under Occupation

My political philosophy class here at Al Quds University has met either once or twice so far, depending on how you count. I’m told that 19 students are enrolled, but only one showed up on the first day, so I didn’t really teach that much. Four students showed up for class two, so we had a full class. I’m told that this pattern of attendance (or non-attendance) is a bit of a tradition in this neck of the woods: things start slowly at first, and then, little by little, build to a pedagogical crescendo. It’s the reverse of the pattern I’m used to at Felician, where everyone on the roster shows up on the first day of class, but fewer and fewer show up as the term wears on, so that by the last day, you’re lucky if anyone shows up–and at some level, they’re lucky if you do.

There’s a sense in which what I’m doing here at Al Quds is pedagogically controversial and a departure from my usual approach to teaching. Without literally engaging in advocacy in the classroom, I’m taking an overtly political approach to how I’m framing the class. I am, in effect, unapologetically teaching not political philosophy per se, but “Political Philosophy (and the Occupation).” Though it’s not what I would do in the average American classroom, I’d like to think that it could bear scrutiny by observers from back home. So I thought I’d say a bit about it, and invite some scrutiny.

There’s no way to teach political philosophy from a literally neutral perspective. You can’t successfully teach, say, Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’s Leviathan simply by showing up in the classroom, knowing nothing about the interests or psychology of your students, and “covering the material.” That’s a recipe for pedagogical failure. It may work in other disciplines, but it can’t work in philosophy. The problem with it is that philosophical “material” is too open-ended and protean to be approached in this way. There’s no single, standardized “right way” to teach a philosophical text. There are too many choices to be made–regarding translation, selections, questions to be pursued and not pursued–and too many legitimate ways of making them. Choices of that kind are dictated in part by the audience you want to reach, and what you want to achieve with them.


Suppose you decided to teach Plato’s Republic, and “simply” wanted to “cover the arguments,” whether in the sense of merely summarizing them, or summarizing them, laying them out in deductive fashion, and testing each of them sequentially for validity and soundness. I suppose you could do that, and at some level, anyone would have to do a bit of it. But you couldn’t leave things there. The “material” you’d ideally want to cover is not reducible to a summary of the arguments in “the” text, or even reducible to a summary plus a sequential set of tests of the soundness of each argument (assuming that that’s even possible, and waiving questions about how to individuate the arguments in the text). At a minimum, what you’d need in addition to all of that is analysis of the contested concepts of each of the premises of every major argument–and not just a straight “conceptual analysis” as analytic philosophers often use that phrase, but a sort of dialectical and rhetorical analysis that takes stock of what those concepts mean to your students both cognitively and emotionally.

Putting things slightly differently: if you want the material to sink in—in any sense of “sink in”—you have to ask how it connects with the beliefs, desires, habits, practices, preoccupations, etc. (call it the ‘context’) that the students bring to the text. How do they conceptualize “justice,” “friendship,” “harm,” “advantage,” “promises,” “debt,” and so on? If you ignore that personal context, the class will backfire: the text becomes a series of alien and alienating abstractions without connection to the students’ experiences. That’s what makes teaching both challenging and enjoyable, and somewhat analogous to psychotherapy. Whether you’re teaching philosophy or engaging in therapy, you can’t waltz in, hit your “audience” with a Power Point presentation and waltz out. You have to interact with themgoing back and forth between the text and the context they bring to it, until each thing manages actively to illuminate the other. (By the way, this is why online teaching will never become a literal substitute for on-the-ground teaching in philosophy.)


The issue becomes particularly acute when you’re teaching a dialogue like the Republic: dialogues are stories, and readers either relate or don’t relate to a story.There is no successful way to teach “the arguments” of Plato’s Republic while ignoring how students relate to Socrates, Glaucon, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus as characters. You might as well read The Brothers Karamazov “for the arguments” while ignoring the brothers.

In fact, the dialogue form is what makes Plato’s Republic such a hard but great text to teach. What would make Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Mill easier to teach would be some way of presenting them in dialogue form. But that, of course, is what a class on such texts has to become. What Socrates says to those characters in the Republic is informed by his knowledge of their personalities, and the same thing has to be true of a successful instructor teaching Aristotle and the rest. Absurd and presumptuous as it may sound, once you teach Plato’s Republic, and move on to the rest of the class, you the instructor have to play Socrates to the Glaucons, Adeimantuses, Polemarchuses, and Thrasymachuses in your classroom–but on Aristotelian, Machiavellian, Hobbesian (etc.) material. The classroom has to become an extended dialogue.


As an American, 99.99% of the teaching I’ve ever done has been done in the United States. Even there, regional and institutional differences have always necessitated adjustments to my pedagogical methods. I saw this with blinding clarity one semester when I happened simultaneously to be adjuncting at Princeton University, The College of New Jersey, and Mercer County Community College—three institutions within a few miles of each other, but that may as well have been located in different galaxies. Princeton is an Ivy League university, TCNJ is a small state college, and MCCC is a two-year county college devoted to remedial work.

I’ll admit that I had a few Stand-and-Deliver-type fantasies about teaching my MCCC students by exactly the same standards and methods as my Princeton students, but mercifully, those plans didn’t get past the fantasy stage. The differences between Princeton and MCCC students, learning philosophy within five miles of one another on different sides of Route 1, are a blog post in themselves, but suffice it to say that they demanded drastically different pedagogical treatment. I didn’t happen to teach the same class at both places, but if I had, they’d have to be taught in radically different sorts of ways. And what applies to two or three different schools in Mercer County a fortiori applies to a school thousands of miles away in the Jerusalem Governorate. It makes no sense to teach Palestinians philosophy the way I teach it to Americans.


In general, the American students I’ve taught—twenty-one years’ worth of students at seven institutions in three states—are politically disengaged. They’re preoccupied with personal concerns and personal pleasures that push political concerns to the side: clubbing, drinking, drugs, sex, sports, shopping, and parties on the frivolous end; friends, family, romantic relationships, career choices, money, logistical worries (e.g., transportation, child care, etc.), and medical-mental health issues at the more serious end. Military veterans aside, the political world doesn’t interest them, and to put the point somewhat uncharitably, they rarely have anything of interest to say about it, either. The political issues that concern them are hyperlocal issues of direct consequence to them, e.g., the rules and regulations governing student loans. (It seems to me characteristically New Jersey-esque to think that defaulting on one’s college loans is a significant form of political protest. But I’ve complained about this attitude too recently to spend time on it now.)

The sort of issue that consistently makes its way to the front page of The New York Times strikes most of my students as distant, abstract, and ultimately meaningless. Take the headlines above the fold in today’s edition of the Times (meaning the June 9 edition): “Justices Reject Passport Law on Jerusalem”; “A Raid on ISIS Yields a Trove of Intelligence”; “Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights”; “A Rare Gambit Seeking Justice for a Shot Boy.” I can just hear my students asking:  What does any of that have to do with my life?

It’s tempting to respond that while the details of these stories aren’t directly related to their lives, surely justice, rights, intelligence and passports/constitutionalism are relevant. Isn’t that enough to get students engaged with politics? The answer is “no.” The response presupposes a concern with principle and a degree of empathy for others that isn’t always there (=usually isn’t there), and can’t easily be taught, if it can be taught at all, at least in a classroom (cf. Plato’s Meno).

In my experience, not even crime and race relations are an exception to the general rule of political disengagement, at least not in suburban New Jersey. The events of the last year–Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.–haven’t really changed anything. After all, race relations on campus (my campus) are generally good, and a black guy is president: that tends to be good enough to preserve the equilibrium of complacency. As far as my students are concerned, Ferguson, Cleveland, and even Staten Island may as well be foreign countries. So the pedagogical task in the American context is to find a way to make the political personal–to make it matter to students in a personal way.

Here in Palestine, the situation is just the reverse: the political is already personal; the (merely) personal is relatively unimportant. More specifically, for the Palestinian students I’ve met, occupation is their preoccupation. Like anyone, they may well be preoccupied, more remotely, with personal concerns and pleasures (hookahs, cigarettes, coffee, hanging out in cafes), but the burning issue that concerns them is life under Israeli military occupation. What they need (as I see it) is a means of standing back and taking a broader perspective on things than the daily grinding outrage they feel about the situation they’re in. That said, one can’t expect them simply to ditch the outrage and theorize in the abstract.

There’s a balance to be struck here, and it’s a hard balance to find. From experience, I’ve decided this time to push things in the politically engaged direction after having made the mistake last time I was here of pitching things in an overly abstract way. When I lectured here two years ago on Locke, I’d intended to give a relatively uncontroversial overview of themes in Locke’s political philosophy, along with a sketch of Locke’s relevance, at a very high level of abstraction, to the Israel-Palestine dispute. That first lecture (of three) didn’t go well, and its failure was a valuable learning experience for me. (I learned quickly enough to make the second and third lectures more successful, but they were on different topics anyway.) I still don’t think I said anything false, but much of what I said was irrelevant to the audience I was facing. And it’s not that I knew nothing about my audience’s concerns; I knew that they were living under a military occupation and resented it. But I had misjudged the degree and intensity of that resentment. I also knew less than I thought I did about the occupation itself.

Psychologically, I came to realize, my Palestinian audience simply could not focus on Locke qua Locke, abstracting entirely from Locke’s relevance to the occupation. My Locke lecture was, for them, like an outlandish two-hour thought-experiment offered for reflection to people in prison. “You keep talking about rights,” I remember one guy saying. “But we don’t have any of these rights.” And not having them became an insuperable barrier to hearing what I had to say about Locke. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, an objection to anything I had said. I hadn’t after all said that they had the rights Locke says we have. The objection was that in jumping straight into Lockean theory, I had made demands of them that flouted their experience.


Pedagogically, one has to make a choice here that one doesn’t, I think, have to make back home. If I’m going to get students here to open up psychological space for theorizing, I can either motivate that theorizing as a good thing in general, or as a good thing as a form of resistance to the occupation. And I’ve decided to go with the latter. I don’t see the point in pretending that I’m neutral on that subject, or even that the purpose of the class is neutral with respect to it. I’m not neutral, and neither is the class. The occupation is unjust. The class is a form of resistance to it. Enough divides me from these students as it is, even in the context of that agreement, to justify using the agreement to forge a common bond, and letting it promote classroom rapport. I’m teaching here to help them think their way out of the occupation, insofar as that can be done.

I’m teaching Plato tomorrow, but I think the point can more easily be conveyed by thinking about Locke. In teaching Locke here last time, I realized that one can’t teach Locke in Palestine by putting the text of the Second Treatise at the forefront and keeping the occupation on the backburner. One has to bring Locke to the occupation, and vice versa. To give a sense of what I mean, imagine a hypothetical class or set of classes on the first five chapters of Locke’s Second Treatise, as follows.

The class begins with Locke’s account and definition of “political power” in ST I.3. The definition seems straightforward enough; I don’t recall any of my teachers or interlocutors spending much time on it. But the details of the definition have a certain subtle significance in a Palestinian context, as applied to the Oslo definitions of Areas A, B, and C in the West Bank. Who (it’s worth asking) has Lockean “political power” in each place under that arrangement–Israel or the Palestinian Authority? That way of asking the question turns out to be both illuminating and disorienting. On a conventional view, the Palestinians rule Area A, there’s joint rule in Area B, and the Israelis rule Area C.* But that’s not the question. The question is: Who has Lockean political power over the West Bank? And the answer is that the Israelis do. That’s why the tripartite division of the West Bank doesn’t change the fact that the West Bank remains as occupied as it ever was: it remains occupied by Israeli political power in the specifically Lockean sense, not the conventional one, something worth bearing in mind when one faces someone who insists that the West Bank is “no longer occupied.”

Move to book II of the ST, which discusses Locke’s conception of the State of Nature. Most of PoT’s readers can probably recite some version of an undergraduate lecture on this topic: “A Lockean State of Nature is a hypothetical state of affairs in which persons exist with rights of freedom and equality, but without a common political power.” The sticking point is “hypothetical.” Yes, that’s what the words say, but what is a State of Nature really like? Nozick is somewhat helpful in clarifying this a bit:

To understand precisely what civil government remedies, we must do more than repeat Locke’s list of the inconveniencies of the state of nature. We also must consider what arrangements might be made within a state of nature to deal with these inconveniences…Only after the full resources of the state of nature are brought into play…will we be in a position to see how serious are the inconveniences that yet remain to be remedied by the state, and to estimate whether the remedy is worse than the disease. (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 10-11).

At this point, however, Nozick offers a very abstract (some would say implausible, fantastic, and rationalistic) account of protective associations, dominant protective associations, invisible hand explanations, and the task of backing into the state. It’s intended as a just-so story, but it sort of seems like a fairy story.

But there’s another way, a more concrete way, to see how serious are the inconveniences of life without a state. Go to a place that doesn’t have a state and take a look around. For instance, go to Area B in the West Bank and ask: is Area B a Lockean State of Nature? What inconveniences arise from the absence of a state here? What improvements, if any, would be made if a state could be brought into existence? What kind of state would improve things, and how? Your answers may not generalize to every State of Nature, but they may tell you something that you won’t get by reflecting from your armchair (a la Nozick) on Proudhon, Schelling, Rothbard, and Boulding. (Incidentally, go back and re-read p. 4 of Anarchy on this very under-remarked issue–how exactly do we conceptualize the State of Nature–and the question turns out to be both central to Nozick’s conception of political philosophy, and totally unresolved. But that’s a topic for a different post.)

Move now to book III of the Second Treatise, on the State of War. It might be valuable to apply a similar approach to this topic as to the last one. We can all read Locke’s definition of the State of War without any trouble, but how does it apply to particular cases? For instance: is the Palestinian Authority in a (Lockean) State of War vis-à-vis Hamas and/or Israel right now? Can the Palestinians be in a State of War vis-à-vis the Israelis if Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has sworn off “armed struggle” as a means of dealing with the occupation? Can a State of War obtain between two parties, like the PA and Hamas, that have formed an alliance with one another, albeit in a state of nature? Questions like that give Locke a poignancy in the Palestinian context he wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Book IV of the Second Treatise discusses slavery: some sensitive topics come up here. On Locke’s view, slavery is “the State of War continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive” (ST IV.24.16ff). Does that mean that the Israeli occupation is a form of slavery in Locke’s sense? Arguably, it does. Though Locke is famous for the view that suicide is morally impermissible (since we’re all God’s property, ST II.6.19), he leaves the door open for suicide under slavery (ST, II.23.13) while “resisting the will of [one’s] master.” But if you can commit suicide under slavery as a form of resistance to your master, can you kill your master while you’re at it? If the occupation turns out to be a form of Lockean slavery, that gives Locke a closer kinship to Hamas and Islamic Jihad than anyone might have expected, a thought that seems to have escaped most academic interpreters of Locke I’ve read.

Finally, consider Locke on property, with an explicit view to the implications of his views on property disputes in Israel and the West Bank (ST V). Here’s a short laundry list of questions that occur within the first few paragraphs of Locke’s discussion:

  • If, as Locke tells us, we’re to rely on reason and revelation for our account of property (ST V.25.5), does that mean that Islamic sharia is a legitimate source of norms regarding property rights? Sectarian prejudices aside, why wouldn’t it be?
  • While we’re on the topic: Is Locke pro-Palestinian or pro-Zionist or neither? Is Locke’s labor-based conception of property an implicit defense of the Palestinians’ natural right to stay on the land in defiance of legal processes that evict them, or is just a set of anachronistic apologetics for Labor Zionism?
  • According to Locke, initial appropriation of land proscribes wasting it, demands its improvement, and requires leaving ‘enough and as good’ for others (ST V.31-33). The model Locke seems to have in mind is agriculture—even more specifically, the English enclosure movement. But how does that relate, if at all, to nomadic Arab Bedouins in Israel/Palestine?
  • According to Locke, God gave the use of the land to “the industrious and rational” (ST V.34.5). Do Bedouins qualify as “industrious and rational” in the relevant sense? Or is Israel right to think that they’re neither: that nomadism wastes land, environmentally degrades it, and uses too much space, so that there’s a justification for expropriating Bedouins by force and putting them in settled and civilized housing projects?

That’s just a hypothetical set of classes on Locke. I doubt even the most proficient instructor could do more than scratch the surface of the issues I’ve mentioned in an actual class. But what’s true of Locke ends up being true across the board. To teach Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli (etc.) in Palestine, you have to ‘Palestinianize’ those texts. I don’t mean, of course, that you read them for things that aren’t in them. I mean that you have read them for what’s in them in relation to the context that surrounds you, where the context picks out features of the text or approaches to the text you might not otherwise have focused on.

The irony is that doing so makes these texts both easier and more difficult to teach at the same time, but in different respects. Easier because it gives them a concentrated focus that they would otherwise lack. More difficult because one rarely reads them in this way back home, and the task of integrating theory and practice is a difficult one where an outsider like me is forced to do a fair share of groping in the dark.

I told my students the other day that life under occupation gave them an advantage that few people have, and that as students of political philosophy, they ought to be grateful for it.

That got their attention. One of them asked me (with all due respect) what the hell I was talking about. I told her (them) that the advantage in question was epistemic: few people in the world live under military occupation, from which it follows that few people know what it’s like to live under one. Arguably, that goes for most philosophers, including most (though not all of) the philosophers we’re about to read in the course. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Mill didn’t (as far as I know) live under occupation-like conditions, though arguably, Machiavelli, Locke, and Marx did.

Since (I suggested) Palestinians can’t wish the occupation away, they might as well capitalize on whatever features of it can be put to their advantage. Political philosophy gives its devotees a perspective on their immediate political situation that facilitates a comprehension that they might not otherwise have had. But it works the other way around as well: ‘naïve’ readers may well have something to teach the giants of philosophy what they would never have thought of on their own.

That, at any rate, is my bet. I’m curious to see if I win it.

*Thanks to Kate Herrick for spotting a typo in the original version of this sentence.

“Just What Is a Platonic Virtue?” Greg Sadler on Plato

As mentioned in an earlier post, my friend Greg Sadler came by Felician’s Lodi campus yesterday and gave a nice presentation on Plato’s conception of virtue. I’m sure Greg will be posting a video of the presentation somewhere,* but I thought I’d jot down a few very brief thoughts here on what he said.

As I understand it, the issue that motivates Greg’s project is something like this:

(1) Suppose we accept the paradigmatically Platonic conception of virtue we find articulated and defended in Plato’s Republic. This account presupposes the tripartite conception of the soul that Plato defends there, and proposes an account of the virtues as regulatory capacities internal to the soul that allow mind to govern the soul’s lower (spirited, appetitive) elements. Plato proposes four virtues–wisdom, justice, moderation (sophrosune), and courage–to play this role. On this view, the virtues are psychological dispositions that inhere in particular souls.

(2) But Plato also regards virtues as Forms, and this fact sits uneasily with (1). Forms are, on the Platonic account, entities distinct from the natural world we inhabit. They are essentially impersonal and non-psychological, and can’t be conceived of as inhering in particulars. They are separate from (chorista) particulars, and particulars depend on them, while somehow “participating” in them. (I’m relying here on the account of Plato’s “middle theory” in the Introduction of Kenneth Sayre’s Plato’s Late Ontology: A Riddle Resolved, but see also the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on the subject.)

The question, then, is either how to make (1) coherent with (2); or if they’re not coherent, how to defend a distinctively Platonic virtue ethics without recourse to the Forms–or failing that, without recourse to the problematic aspects of the theory of Forms.

As Greg pointed out, the first disjunct of the preceding disjunction arguably leads us, via neo-Platonism, to some form of Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism. The second disjunct leads us to a sort of Aristotelian (or possibly Freudian) naturalism. An interesting modern version of the first form (highly influenced by Freud, among others) can be found in the work of Iris Murdoch (see, e.g., her The Sovereignty of Good). An interesting modern version of the second form (also highly Freud-inflected) can be found in the work of Jonathan Lear (see, e.g., his book, Open Minded). (Those are my examples, not Greg’s.) It’s a question whether a distinctively Platonic view is still plausible or viable. We had an interesting and somewhat freewheeling discussion of that issue, but I’ll focus on a single theme here.

One worry I have is about the motivation for the project as a whole. The motivation for the project arises from the ontological oddities of Plato’s theory of Forms: Plato thinks that virtues are Forms, but Forms don’t seem particularly virtue-like, at least on any recognizable (to us) conception of virtue. That’s true enough, but Greg seemed to want to suggest that there is a distinctively ethical problem here for Platonism–a problem specific to ethical Forms–that can be raised in abstraction from entirely general questions about the adequacy of the theory of Forms as a metaphysical doctrine. Greg insisted that he wanted to set aside specifically metaphysical questions about the theory of Forms.

I don’t think that that’s possible. To me, Greg’s problem simply looks like the ethical version of the age-old problem of self-predication in Plato. The problem is that Forms are supposed to be paradigmatic exemplars of whatever they’re Forms of. But Forms qua Forms have features that are incompatible with the properties some Forms are supposed to have. No Form is supposed to have physical dimensions, for example, but Forms for physical dimensions are supposed to be paradigmatic exemplars of those dimensions. So the Form of Length is supposed to lack physical dimensions and yet be long (or have length). Likewise with the Forms of Size, Weight, Mass, Height, etc. (my examples, not Plato’s): they’re supposed to lack physical dimensions and yet exemplify size, weight, mass, height, etc. It seems to me that Greg has simply isolated and articulated the ethical version or counterpart of the problem of self-predication in Plato: Forms for moral qualities ought paradigmatically to exemplify moral qualities, but to have moral qualities, a thing must in some sense be psychological or personal, and Forms qua Forms aren’t sufficiently personal to have such qualities.

In either case, I reach the same conclusion. The problem of self-predication suggests that the classically Platonic conception of Forms is untenable, whether in the ethical cases or the non-ethical ones. There’s no way to defend such a theory; it just has to be junked. If we want a virtue ethics that is in any residual sense Platonic, it has to be naturalized and developed in an Aristotelian or Freudian or Aristotelian-Freudian way. Paradoxically, perhaps, Aristotelianism is about as Platonic as a viable Platonism can get.

I wonder whether the intuition that motivates Greg’s attraction to Platonism (and to the problem that comes along for the ride) has something to do with the possibility (or rather, impossibility) of moral perfection. At one point in his presentation, Greg seemed to be suggesting in passing that moral or aretaic perfection is impossible to mortal humans. No just act we ever perform is perfectly just, and no putatively just person is perfect in his possession or exercise of the virtue of justice. Something about our materially embodied selves gets in the way of perfection, and something external to us holds out a standard or criterion of perfection to which we’re obliged to strive, but that we can never hope to reach. In that sense, Platonic Forms seem attractive because they function asymptotically as regulative ideals in a sense that straddles what Plato had in mind in defending them, and what Kant had in mind in defending his conception of pure practical reason.

If you hold this sort of view, and find Plato’s moral psychology generally plausible, Greg’s problem will seem a live one: how do you marry a plausible form of that moral psychology to a plausible theory of Forms? I suspect, however, that if you reject the relevant intuition about moral perfection, as I do, the project ceases to have the same urgency. You can just admit that aspects of Plato’s moral psychology have a certain plausibility; that Aristotle and/or Freud (and their successors) appropriated the best aspects of this psychology; and that we don’t need anything like Platonic Forms to perform the ideal-regulative role that makes moral perfection impossible to us. But that’s just a speculation, and I’m curious whether it’s at all on target.

Anyway, my thanks to Greg for coming down to do the talk. I hope readers get as much out of reading about it here as I did attending it in person.

*Postscript, Sept. 26, 2014: This link takes you to the video for the presentation.

Postscript 2, October 5, 2014: Greg now has a blog post on the issue at his own blog, Orexis Dianoetike.

Friedman and Frederick on Nozick; Sadler on Plato

Reason Papers 36.1, which came out a few weeks ago, included a nice review essay by Danny Frederick of Mark Friedman’s recent book, Nozick’s Libertarian Project. Friedman has now responded to the review on his website, with a short rejoinder by Frederick in the comments.

For other recent work on Nozick in Reason Papers, check out Dale Murray’s October 2012 review essay of Ralf Bader’s Robert Nozick and Bader and Meadowcraft’s Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Also relevant is Lamont Rodgers’s “Self-Ownership and Justice in Acquisition,” from the October 2012 issue. Digging back in RP‘s archives, I was astounded (and a bit dismayed) to discover that the journal ran no review of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia when the book came out in 1974, though it did, in 1980, run a Nozick-oriented paper by Richard B. McKenzie, “Entitlements and the Theft of Taxation.”

If you happen to be in the vicinity of Lodi, New Jersey this Wednesday the 24th around 1 pm, and you’re interested in Plato and/or virtue–a small, self-selected population, I realize–you might want to stop by Kirby 206 at Felician College and hear Greg Sadler’s presentation, “Just What Is a Platonic Virtue?” The talk–officially a Current Research Workshop–is sponsored by Felician’s Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs. Here’s a summary:

Plato’s dialogues talk quite a bit about the virtues — including the cardinal ones: wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage — but it’s not always clear just what these virtues are in his work. Do they exist in persons? Or are they Forms? In this workshop… I’ll be presenting my current research on the subject — aimed at clarifying the metaphysical status of virtue and virtues in Plato’s thought, and thinking how we would apply such a perspective in our own contemporary lives.
If you’re not in the vicinity of Lodi, New Jersey this Wednesday–never fear, I’ll blog it here (at some point). Incidentally, if you’re interested in doing a Felician Current Research Workshop, contact me at my Felician address (click the “Current Research Workshop” link for that), and I’ll try to  set something up.