Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.
Peter Adamson: In today's episode, we're reaching the 300th installment of the podcast, and as it happens, we've just wrapped up the series on medieval philosophy in Latin Christendom. So before moving on to Byzantine and Renaissance philosophy, I thought it'd be a good time to look back at what we've learned so far in the podcasts. In particular, I want to address a question that's come up often, but only rather incidentally along the way: What is the contemporary relevance of ancient and medieval philosophy? Do these historical texts offer answers to questions philosophers care about today, and when they don't, are there other reasons today's philosophers should care about the history of philosophy? It's a big question, so to answer it, I will be turning to no fewer than six colleagues with different perspectives on the topic. This means it will be a two-part episode, one part on ancient philosophy, and the other on medieval thought, with each part featuring three interviews. And to kick off the discussion of the contemporary relevance of ancient philosophy, we have Rachel Barney, who is Canada Research Chair of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Peter Adamson: You're an expert on Plato, and so I have to mention that I actually got into philosophy through reading Plato, and I think that a lot of people did. It's a very common thing for undergraduates to read him, be enthusiastic, and become philosophy majors. And maybe you even got into philosophy through Plato? But I think in a way, this is a kind of paradox, because Platonism is kind of a bad word in philosophy, at least if you think about distinctive, perhaps the most distinctive Platonic philosophical view: the theory of forms. Hardly anyone signs up to that as a philosophical commitment. And generally speaking, we seem to be living in a philosophical age when realism of all sorts is under threat in various ways. So is there any sense in which Platonic realism is still a living force in philosophy today?
Rachel Barney: Well, I wouldn't go so far as saying it's a bad word, certainly. And I wouldn't assume that realists are losing the philosophical battle at this point. It is true that Plato tends to get name-checked as the extremist, the arch-realist, the archaic granddaddy of realism who has a form of it in which, in most areas of philosophy, even most realists will want to say, 'well, I'm doing something subtler than that. I'm not a full-on Platonist.' Although in mathematics, of course, Platonism is still a perfectly live, viable metaphysical position. And I find when you talk to people, the assumption that contemporary realism is something massively more sophisticated than the theory of forms doesn't necessarily stand up. It's just that there's a kind of caricature view of what that theory is. I think really anyone who's a realist, and particularly a realist in ethics - that's to say someone who thinks that there are just objective truths, facts of the matter, about the virtues right and wrong, the good and its opposite - that person is still working in a Platonic tradition, whether they're fully aware of it or not.
Peter Adamson: But there's not too many people who would sign up to the full menu of Platonic forms, right?
Rachel Barney: To ascend to the form of the good, that's right.
Peter Adamson: And not just the form of the good, but also justice and maybe forms of things like humans - if he even thought there were forms of things like that.
Rachel Barney: True. I think you have to ask, though, what people think they're denying when they deny those things. I think Plato himself, and this is one of the fascinating things about the theory - I think Plato himself thought that in working out the theory of forms, he was actually just working out a pretty minimal set of commitments that's already embedded in ordinary use of language whenever people say things like: 'theft is unjust.' And if you actually work out the presuppositions for that to be a just plain true statement, he thinks you're going to end up with something like his theory. So I don't think he himself would agree that he's taking an extreme version of the realist view at all.
Peter Adamson: I see. So maybe when people say that they don't believe in Platonic forms, what they mean is something more like: 'I don't believe in the caricature of Platonic forms that you arguably find in Aristotle, like a separate world of additional paradigmatic individuals, and the individuals down here somehow resemble them.'
Rachel Barney: Yeah, I think that's a fair way to put it.
Peter Adamson: And I suppose that even anti-realists, in a way, they're showing that Plato remains relevant because if Plato is, so to speak, the father of realism, then they're at least reacting against him, right?
Rachel Barney: Yeah, that's right. And you get people like Richard Rorty who want to treat huge chunks of the Western philosophical tradition as working out Platonic ideas and influences, and I'm not sure that's wrong. You know the famous line about "all philosophy being footnotes to Plato," and that comes out when you read his enemies, too.
Peter Adamson: So that's a very general kind of influence that Plato still has today and relevance that he still has today, but it's also a little bit impressionistic and vague, sort of, 'Plato stands for realism.' So are there cases where individual dialogues by Plato or even individual passages from Plato have been taken up and championed or at least discussed in interesting ways in contemporary philosophy?
Rachel Barney: Sure, lots of them, and many of them actually don't have anything terribly directly to do with realism. They're all over the place. Things like Meno's paradox comes up all the time in, if you take an introductory epistemology course, it'll probably emerge somewhere. And that's just a very general puzzle about how we come to know things. Meno, who's Socrates interlocutor in the Meno, in a moment of frustration, expresses his fed-upness with the dialogue so far by saying, 'you know, Socrates, this business of inquiry that you're engaged in, how is it even possible? How are you going to, if you search for something you don't know, how are you going to recognize it when you find it? And if you don't know anything about it, then how are you going to search?' And the paradox actually gets framed in several different ways, and it's full of interest for interpreters to figure out exactly what is the philosophical problem here. But it's also something that's inspired generations of people doing contemporary epistemology trying to figure out what the right answer is.
Peter Adamson: And it would even be a pretty standard way to kick off an epistemology course, right? Perhaps even distribute that one page of the Meno.
Rachel Barney: That's right. And another one like that is the Euthyphro problem. So in the Euthyphro, Euthyphro, who's Socrates interlocutor there, wants to say - well, he raises a puzzle that's still very much alive in philosophy of religion and also metaethics quite generally, because it's a problem about the relation of value to the divine. So at Euthyphro, he wants to say two incompatible things. He wants to say first that what's pious is pious because the gods love it, and he also wants to say the gods love the pious because it is pious. And when you think about it, he can't have it both ways. Either what's pious is pious already, and that's why the gods love it, in which case piety is something essentially independent of them. It has to exist independently for them to respond to it by loving it. Or the gods create value. They love certain things and make them pious, or you could substitute in good any kind of value there. They make things good by having a certain attitude to them. And you really can't have it both ways, but many of us are attracted to saying both of the things that Euthyphro does. Certainly people with theistic perspectives often find themselves torn, and there's a long history of debate about which way Euthyphro should choose when he's faced with that choice.
Peter Adamson: So for example, contemporary philosophers of religion who incline towards what's called divine command theory, they think that Euthyphro should say that the pious is pious because the gods love it, because it's the gods who actually confer normative properties on things. In other words, it's the gods who decide what's good and what's bad.
Rachel Barney: Exactly. And that's a perfectly live theory in contemporary religious ethics. And that position, that option, as a solution to the Euthyphro problem is one that gets that much more attractive when you're dealing, say, in the Christian or Islamic tradition with a god who's supposed to be absolutely all-powerful. Because the other option of saying, well, god just responds to value that's there already - that sounds like a kind of limitation possibly on divine power. But there are also attractions to the other position too, even if you are a believer in that kind of god.
Peter Adamson: Okay. Well, in these examples we have, like I said, people literally reading one page of Plato and then taking inspiration from it, but it would be nice if there was also some kind of relevance of whole dialogues and maybe we could start at the top with the Republic, because that's arguably his masterwork. And it seems like there has been quite a lot of discussion of the Republic in recent times, in fact, even recent months.
Rachel Barney: Yes, indeed. The Republic has never been hotter, I think.
Peter Adamson: Maybe right after Plato wrote it.
Rachel Barney: Well, I don't know. I don't think they really got it then the way we do now, because now it has very special resonances with political worries that a lot of people share right now. Am I allowed to say Trump? Since the election of Trump, all of us who teach Plato have been noticing that there's just an uptick in intensity in the discussions you get students to have about the Republic because he is so worried about many of the things that we now are worried about. He's worried about tyranny. He's worried about how democracy turns into a tyranny. Not that he's a huge fan of democracy to start with, but he has a story to tell about how democracy can self-destruct and give rise to tyranny, and it's a pretty frightening tale. He has a lot to say about how the personal pathologies of the tyrant mirror those of his society and vice versa. He has a lot to say about, well, about poetry, about art, but I think you can make a case for his worries about the psychological impact of poetry, mirroring a lot of worries people have about the media and even about the news media today. The worry is that we absorb false views about the world, false values in ways that can really do psychological damage almost without us realizing or noticing or doing it voluntarily, and that that can completely corrupt a political society. So he has very urgent things to say about a lot of things that are on many people's minds, and he also has, in the body of the Republic, a lot to say about the central questions that arise when you ask, 'well, how do we solve these problems or avoid them in the first place? So what are the qualifications for a good leader? What makes a healthy society healthy? What makes a just society just?' So there's this combination which I really don't think you get in any other political work of extremely abstract sort of first principles of politics grounded in ethics, grounded in human nature, and very vivid descriptions of the tyrant or the democratic city as it falls apart. So it's like reading this, well, it is a work of great philosophical depth and abstraction, but it also has some of the grip of a dystopian movie in some parts, and people are reacting to that very intensely right now. Not just professional philosophers, but magazine writers and ordinary students and everybody.
Peter Adamson: Yeah, I've actually had the same experience teaching the Republic recently in Germany. It's true there too. So in my career, I've gone from the problem of 'how do you teach the Republic and get students to take the critique of democracy seriously,' to 'how do you teach the Republic and get them to see that the critique of democracy isn't just obviously right.' It's sort of opposite problems. But you just mentioned that it's something that's come through in things like newspaper articles, blog posts, and so on. Do you think that that's something that's also true in political philosophy in the professional sphere? Sort of the paid up political philosopher?
Rachel Barney: Yeah, I think it's something that will happen soon. I think the way these things work is that people sense something new in the air when it first comes out in their teaching and then five years, ten years from now, we'll get a flood of books. I should say it's not just about Trump and it's not just this very recent thing. There's a leading French philosopher, Alan Bedoux, who did his own version of the Republic a few years ago. He called it a hypertext or hyper-translation, I think. But it's wildly different. He's put a female character in there and they're sort of worried about modern communism and so on. But I sort of hope that in five years we'll all be doing that, doing our own rethinking one way or another along with Plato.
Peter Adamson: And has Plato had a more prominent place - I mean, we were talking about metaphysics before - but has he also had a more prominent place in this side of philosophy over the last decades, like in ethics and politics?
Rachel Barney: I think that's definitely true and certainly in ethics. There are so many rich, Platonic ideas that aren't reducible to the theory of forms, but his whole theory of the soul, for instance, as being tripartite, his idea that desire is for the good, it's an extremely rich ethical system that you can appropriate and think about in lots of ways. I guess the main or one important person doing that now is Christine Korsgaard, who's a very influential moral philosopher at Harvard, who's built quite a bit of Plato's moral psychology into her own ethical theory, which is kind of interesting because she usually gets labeled a Kantian and she doesn't see any contradiction in putting those two things together. So there are people doing creative appropriations like that in ethics, and there's also a tradition which isn't immediately visible these days, maybe, of using Plato to argue about realism and anti-realism specifically in ethics. So you wouldn't necessarily see many explicit references to Plato in the last year's work in metaethics, so arguments about the truth conditions of moral claims and whether moral claims can actually be true and whether that implies that there are sort of moral objects of the kind Plato thought the forms were. But many people working on metaethics today are still in some sense reacting to the critiques of realism made by J.L. Mackey several generations ago now. And Mackey offered what you call the sort of error theory in reaction to moral realism, and it was based on a fairly devastating attack, although I think mostly consisting of sarcasm, but it was pretty devastating at the time. His attack was framed as an attack on the form of the good. So as soon as you go back, even that one generation, metaethics is being governed by totally explicit head-on engagement with Plato's ethics, and it's become a bit submerged since then in all the complexities of the back and forth, but he's still at the heart of the engine of metaethical debate.
Peter Adamson: And do you think that that debate is one that involved another caricature of Plato? I mean, did Mackey really engage sympathetically and sensitively with what Plato was offering when he wrote about the form of the good, or was he just taking that as a kind of stand-in for a kind of dumb version of moral realism?
Rachel Barney: Well, he was using a very broad brush, but I don't think the critique was essentially unfair in that way, because what he was getting at was the idea that... he used the term "queer," so 'peculiar.' There's something deeply peculiar about the Platonic idea that values - and let's say specifically, the good - could be written into the fabric of the world, could be really objectively there, because they would have to have all the properties of the other sorts of things that we think of as being objectively there, and at the same time be inherently motivating. And his argument was just that that's a kind of mistake. There aren't things like that - objects in the world that have inherent motivational force and normative force. And I think that's a fair depiction of what's at stake between the moral realist and the anti-realist, and it's not unfair for him to use Plato to do that.
Peter Adamson: I guess, though, wouldn't it be true to say that moral realists have more often taken their cue from Aristotle than Plato over the last few decades? I mean, so at least you have virtue ethics, which I suppose is some form of moral realism, and they look back to Aristotle more than Plato.
Rachel Barney: Yes, that's very true, and I think there are complicated reasons for that. It's partly that Aristotle is easier to work with, easier to appropriate philosophically. There are big differences between how one reads Plato and how one reads Aristotle, and they make Aristotle a lot easier to control as sort of raw material. So there are fewer works on ethics. They're mostly pretty consistent. With Plato the complexities are endless, the complexities of interpretation that you get to before being able to use him. So for instance, suppose you're thinking about friendship or erotic love. Those are topics on which Plato is still hugely vital - the Symposium and the Phaedrus. But the Symposium and the Phaedrus don't actually seem to give the same theory. And what's more, it's actually hard to tell what the theory of the Symposium is, because you've got all these speeches which are radically different from each other. And okay, it sounds like Diotima is speaking for Plato here, but you know, Alcibiades also has valuable things to say, and Aristophanes has this completely orthogonal account that's hard to reconcile, but also seems to be getting at the truth, and Plato's written all of it. So it's easy to use Plato in a sort of piecemeal way, but much harder to say, 'okay, I'm going to present a Platonic theory of love or whatever it is.' And I think for that reason, it's much easier to identify people who are working in a broadly Aristotelian tradition, especially in these ethical issues.
Peter Adamson: Actually, there's an irony there maybe, which is that even in ancient philosophy, I think one reason why Aristotle became the main figure in the curriculum that they taught, like in ancient Alexandria, in late antiquity, was what you just said, namely that it's so hard to use Plato as a kind of body of doctrines that address themselves to specific topics one at a time in different works, the way that Aristotle wrote the physics and the metaphysics and the ethics. It's really hard to extract just one body of teaching from Plato on any given topic. But it sounds like you think that he's a sort of vast reservoir of potential inspiration that people can still draw on today.
Rachel Barney: Oh, absolutely. And I think one kind of odd difference between him and Aristotle, and I think I'll make the Aristotle people mad by saying this, but why not? There's an odd contrast in the activity of interpreting the two of them, because I've written papers on both of them, and it's really a very different operation. And I find that when you're interpreting Plato, that really starts to feel like an end in itself because it's so hard and so complicated and so fascinating, and he's a great writer. So there's this kind of visceral pleasure to that activity of just immersing yourself in Plato's text. And so coming up with the reading tends to be very much an end in itself. By the time you've got a reading of Plato, you're exhausted. You're done. And it's hard enough, and it's extremely satisfying, so the tendency is to leave it at that. Whereas with Aristotle, and also you can reach, I think, maybe this shows I'm a crazy person, but I think you can reach often a very precise, if surprising, result. There will be a determinate view there. With Aristotle, on the surface, everything is very easy. He's very explicit. You don't have the complexities of the dialogue form. There's a view. You know where to look to find it. So it should be very easy. But I think there are quite a few central questions, especially in ethics, where Aristotle hasn't actually made up his mind at the level of detail and precision that we would now want him to philosophically. So many of the interpretive debates about Aristotle are somewhat undecidable. And when people start arguing about, you know, what is practical wisdom in Aristotle, or how does deliberation work, or is he fully a realist about what happiness or virtue is, those debates turn into philosophical debates very quickly, because the text of Aristotle is not actually going to decide them, no matter how good a scholar you are. So working on Aristotle is continuous with actually trying to solve these problems in ethics, whereas with Plato, they tend to be two separate operations.
Peter Adamson: Our next guest is going to be Christof Rapp, who is a professor of philosophy and holds the Chair of Ancient Philosophy, where I work at the LMU in Munich. And we run, together with Oliver Primovesi, the Munich School of Ancient Philosophy. We're going to continue talking now about the role that ancient philosophy has played in contemporary philosophy, and what contemporary philosophers have drawn on from ancient philosophy in terms of inspiration and ideas they've found useful. Do you want to say something general about how you see the role of ancient philosophy in contemporary philosophical thought?
Christof Rapp: Yeah, I mean, I think there's not one single way to draw on ancient philosophy for contemporary philosophers, but contemporary philosophers often appreciate it, for example, that ancient philosophical texts turned out to be an excellent didactic tool for introducing students into philosophy. They appreciated ancient philosophers as a source for many philosophical ideas and particular arguments. And very often, I think, ancient philosophical theorems are invoked as alternatives to certain contemporary debates or options. So in a way, sometimes philosophers have the impression that the contemporary discussion is too narrow, and they bring in ideas from antiquity as an alternative or alternative option to what are the prevalent options in the current debate.
Peter Adamson: Yeah, so there's both resonances, because you wouldn't use ancient philosophy didactically to introduce students to philosophy. You wouldn't do that unless you thought they were doing philosophy in some relevant and recognizable sense. But on the other hand, when you get into the answers that they give to the questions that are being posed, that you think that they're often answers that are alternatives to the answers that are given nowadays.
Christof Rapp: Yeah, I mean, at least many philosophers think so. And there's a number of examples for that tendency. So just recall the famous idea by Pierre Hadot that nowadays philosophers have a too narrow understanding of philosophy as a sort of theory, whereas in ancient philosophy, philosophy was looked upon as a way of living and introduced the art of living - which indeed inspired many books in the last decades on art of living, and on the question to what extent philosophy may be seen as a way of living indeed.
Peter Adamson: And do you think that in terms of the way that ancient philosophy is received by contemporary philosophers who are not historians, do you see that engagement as being deep and interesting? Or do you think it's more like superficial, just plucking ideas out of what they might have read from introductory texts about Aristotle or maybe heard in a podcast?
Christof Rapp: Well, it varies a lot. Think for example of Bernard Williams, who really got many interesting ideas from a deep understanding and interpretation of classical texts, maybe deriving from the canon of ancient texts in Oxford, but I think this relies clearly on a deep philosophical understanding. There are other examples in which interesting ideas derive from the serious attempt to solve exegetical problems. So for example, in the exegesis of Aristotle, there's a question of how two models in the theory of action can be combined. The model of the practical syllogism, which is essentially a deductive model on the one hand, and on the other hand means and reasoning where you consider how to reach a certain given end. And I think the way in which David Wiggins and John McDowell discussed ways of combining these things led to an interesting philosophical suggestion about the role of the so-called minor premise in the practical syllogism, whether it is just about subsuming a given case under a general rule or whether it is, for example, about specifying a certain way of action which expresses or manifests a more general end so that the serious attempt to solve exegetical problems can indeed lead to an essential and not just superficial contribution to contemporary philosophy. Or to take another example, in the current debate, Aristotelian or neo-Aristotelian naturalism is a big issue. Now naturalists like Philippa Foot seem to assume that vices of character are comparable to the defect of, say, a bird, a cuckoo bird who fails to cuckoo. And one might say that this is not exactly what Aristotle had in mind. And to be honest, I don't think that this is what Aristotle had in mind. But I mean, the point is that it leads philosophers to think about the limits and the possibilities of naturalistic arguments on the one side. And it encourages Aristotle's scholars to think more deeply about the purposes of the use of nature in Aristotle's texts.
Peter Adamson: And you're a specialist especially on Aristotle. And I wonder, therefore, if you think that Aristotle has a kind of unique place in the contemporary scene. I mean, I was just talking to Rachel Barney about the way people have used Plato in recent times. It seems to me that, whereas Plato - I'm not sure if this is fair, but I'm going to say it anyway - it seems to me that Plato probably has more resonance in the general public than Aristotle does. But Aristotle probably has somewhat more resonance among specialist philosophers and academic philosophers than Plato does. So first of all, I wonder if you agree. And second of all, I wonder if you could say if that's true, why it would be true.
Christof Rapp: Yeah. Yes, I agree. I think this is the case. And maybe one reason is that Aristotle's peculiar style of rational analysis of almost all fields of reality - his way of conceptualizing philosophically salient phenomena, makes it actually easier to engage with his thoughts in spite of the historical distance. And it's easier to see the arguments in his texts. So you don't have to deal, as in the case of Plato, with several characters in a dialogue.
Peter Adamson: And none of these problems with literature.
Christof Rapp: Literature, with irony, no such problems at all. And now, for example, in the case of Aristotle's moral philosophy, it's interesting that people seem to think that Aristotle's ethics is easier to access than Plato's ethics, although Aristotle's moral thinking is adapted to Plato in many ways. But the reason might be that the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, presents thoughts that can be easily isolated from the context and more easily isolated from Aristotle's metaphysics and metaphysical background than in the Platonic context. So for example, without knowing anything about the unmoved mover, without knowing anything about Aristotelian logic and his theory of substance, it's relatively easy to understand the core intuition of what "eudaimonia," happiness, consists in, the relation between certain character traits, virtues, and the happy life. It's easier to understand the case of the "acratic" person, the uncontrolled person, without relying on any particular metaphysics. Whereas in Plato's Republic, being faced with the form of the good, you run into very serious metaphysical considerations and problems. This might be sometimes misleading because, after all, Aristotle contrives his moral thought also from his overall conception of the universe, the place of human beings in the universe, that they are not the best in the universe, that they resemble the unmoved mover in a way, but not in many ways, and these are also metaphysical theses. But on the whole, it seems to be easier to isolate them indeed from the context. And maybe this is one answer to why Aristotle is more popular in this respect.
Peter Adamson: It's interesting. I mean, if you're right about that, and I think you probably are, it's interesting that that means the contemporary way of using Aristotle is very different from the way that he was used in history, because he tended to be read as a very holistic thinker, where every part of his corpus needed to be brought into relation with every other part. So in late antiquity, in the Middle Ages, they read him much more the way you're suggesting we now read Plato as sort of one big whole. Let me ask you about something more specific, which is a topic that leaps to my mind when I think about contemporary philosophy and where Aristotle fits into it. So this is kind of a technical debate that came out a few decades ago, and was already part of the standard literature on Aristotle when I was a student. So there were some people who thought that Aristotle's philosophy of mind can be described as functionalist, which at the time was a very kind of hot theory in philosophy of mind. And then some other people came back and said, 'no, no, that's wrong. You've got Aristotle completely wrong here.' So this is, I think, a really interesting case of attempting to bring Aristotle into the contemporary debate, and then a debate that ensued about whether this works or not. So can you sort of explain what this debate was about?
Christof Rapp: So in this situation, some people thought that it's instructive to refer to Aristotle's model of body-soul-hylomorphism, which means that the soul is the form of a living body, and that the psychic or mental states cannot occur without the body. And now a similar third way between dualism on the one side and reductionism on the other side at this time was functionalism. Functionalism describes mental states as certain functions that can be materialized in various physical ways. And it was tempting at that time to think that Aristotle, who too insisted that psychic states cannot occur without an alteration in certain parts of the living body, must be congenial with the idea of functionalism. Of course, the point was not that modern functionalism was just a revival of Aristotle's body-soul theory. However, the alleged affinity between functionalism and Aristotelian hylomorphism was a way to say first that ancient theories about the mind and mental states are not necessarily obsolete because they are ancient, and second, that the idea of functionalism was not just an ephemeral invention, but actually gained support from an old tradition of thinking about the relation of body and mind or soul, which was possibly obscured by the influence of Cartesianism, or so they said.
Peter Adamson: So it's actually almost like the ancient philosophers win because, oh look, Aristotle said something that seems really current and relevant. And the functionalists win too because they're saying something that Aristotle already said back when, and Aristotle's really brilliant and everyone's heard of Aristotle, so it kind of lends this theory an air of authority. Can I just try to see if I've really got the point though? So the idea of functionalism is that you have the same mental event or state or whatever realized in different material situations. So like a dog could get angry and I can get angry even though we have very different bodies, or you could get angry and I could get angry even though our brains may work slightly differently. A Martian could get angry even though his whole body may be made of silicon. He's not a carbon-based life form, let's say, but he could still be angry, right? And so the reason why Aristotle is thought to be a functionalist is that he thinks that there's a material component of anger, which is like the blood boiling around the heart, let's say. But then there's also what it is to be angry, which is like a desire for revenge. This actually goes back to something I talked about with Martin PicavÈ in another interview not too long ago. And then was the idea that Aristotle would then admit that that formal kind of criterion could then be realized in different material situations? Did they go that far?
Christof Rapp: I mean, there is the idea on the one side that those mental states must be materialized in one way or the other, but that they can be independently described, as you said, anger as a kind of desire for revenge. Now the other question, whether there are various ways of materializing one type of psychic state, whether this is also true of Aristotle, is exegetically more difficult to answer. Sometimes Aristotle seems to be so negligent about the particular physiological conditions that one might have the impression he's not interested in that. And he allows the possibility of various ways of materializing these functions. On the other end, there are clearly examples in which he seems to insist that one and the same form, or one and the same mental state can be realized only in one particular bodily condition. So that the majority of scholars came to reject the idea that the affinity between Aristotle and modern functionalism is really significant.
Peter Adamson: And I guess the first real powerful skepticism came from Myles Burnyeat, right? So he wrote a paper where he rejected the functionalist interpretation and said some nasty things about what the relevance might be of Aristotelian philosophy of mind. Didn't he say there is something we can do with the Aristotelian philosophy of mind, we can junk it?
Christof Rapp: Exactly. Now, I think, indeed, in this particular case, it's really interesting to observe how the more scholarly community of Aristotle experts reacted to the idea that there is such a close affinity between Aristotle and modern functionalism. Many scholars were not at all happy about the actualization and adaptation of Aristotle's theory of the soul, but tried to prove the anachronistic character of the attempt of reading functionalism into Aristotle and vice versa. Myles Burnyeat even made the point of insisting that Aristotle's account of matter is obsolete and cannot be compared to modern notions of the physical. And the character of this debate is interesting, since it shows that sometimes the adaptation of ancient philosophical positions comes with a significant cost, namely the cost of neglecting hermeneutical or scholarly principles and of turning the historical positions just into a position that we modern thinkers happen to favor. And I think there are several ways to approach ancient philosophical texts. You can write commentaries about them. You can say, well, they inspired this particular interesting idea I go on to develop and to elaborate on. These are various ways of dealing with ancient texts. Both ways of approaching ancient philosophy are valid in a way. But clearly experts and scholars have the tendency to defend ancient texts against too anachronistic readings.
Peter Adamson: It's almost like there's a balancing act. So the harder you try to make Aristotle relevant today, the greater risk you run of anachronism. But the more you insist on embedding him in his context and reading him only as a Greek thinker engaged with Greek problems, the less relevant he might seem to us today. So let's finish by talking about something else that leaps to mind and is maybe the most prominent way in which Aristotle is featured in the contemporary philosophy scene. And this is virtue ethics. And I think this is a rather different case because it seems to me that the heroes of virtue ethics like Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foot, who you mentioned before, and others, they certainly knew Aristotle and took inspiration from him. But they typically don't represent themselves as just giving you Aristotle's position, nor did they kind of develop virtue ethics separately, like that's what happened with functionalism, and then go back and say, 'oh, look, Aristotle was already saying this.' It's more like a whole direction of philosophy that's inspired by Aristotle, isn't it?
Christof Rapp: Yes. Indeed, I think virtue ethics is a peculiar example because it was inspired by the Aristotelian theory of virtues, partly by Thomas Aquinas' account of virtues. And it was clearly introduced to counteract certain tendencies in contemporary moral philosophy. Elizabeth Anscombe, in her famous article on modern moral philosophy, used traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics as an alternative to kinds of moral philosophy and moral thinking that she found to be problematic in many ways. So she opposed utilitarianism. She opposed kinds of moral philosophies that focus on duties and the question of what we should do. And I think in this situation, Aristotle's ethics was used as a model for an alternative style of moral philosophy, the details of which must be filled in. But without just interpreting Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Bernard Williams, for example, was always very clear about his view that what Aristotle says about virtues and the combination of virtue and the good life is very inspiring, but that other parts of Aristotelian thinking: his views about women, about slaves, his doctrine that virtue is a mean, must be ignored in order to make sense of his account of virtues.
Peter Adamson: Or Alistair McIntyre wrote this famous book called After Virtue, which develops a kind of virtue ethics theory, but doesn't make any use of Aristotelian metaphysics or physics, for example. So it's like he's just taken part of Aristotle and taken inspiration from that and is developing it further without thinking he has to be committed to other things Aristotle says - which actually is an example of something you mentioned earlier, right? They're kind of picking parts and leaving other parts.
Christof Rapp: Yeah. I think McIntyre's early book is a good example of this eclectic and selective approach to Aristotelian ethics. For he clearly opposed to Aristotle's tendency of biological metaphysics, i.e. to base parts of moral thinking on the supposed essence of human beings, because in McIntyre's at least early few virtues are dependent on the conception of the good in a particular community, which is quite different from saying that virtues must be based in a sort of account of the human nature.
Peter Adamson: But still the virtue ethicists are all inspired by something that I guess you would agree with me is genuinely Aristotelian, which is that somehow the good for humans and the good in action is grounded in virtuous character. And so in some sense, what is right and wrong in ethics is defined with reference to certain character traits, like 'what would the courageous person do,' rather than, for example, being defined in terms of the best possible outcome as in utilitarianism or consequentialism, or rather than in duty as in Kantian ethics.
Christof Rapp: Yeah. I think it's indeed distinctive of virtue ethics that they base their thinking, as Aristotle did, on the consideration of positive character traits like justice, moderation, generosity, and that they see a certain connection between the development of such positive character traits and the search for a good life. For the virtue ethicist, there's a clear connection between having certain virtues and having a good life. So in a way they are connected intrinsically or instrumentally so that it's clear for the virtuous person what is the benefit of being virtuous, whereas in a duty or obligation based style of ethics, one can always raise the question, why should I be moral? Why should I do that? What's the benefit?
Peter Adamson: What's in it for me? Yeah. I mean, if I follow the categorical imperative, things might actually seem to go worse for me in some cases, whereas Aristotle can explain to you why it's good to be good, it's good for you to be good, because you'll be a flourishing human being or a happy human being in some rich sense of the concept happiness. And so do you think that this is the most kind of powerful echo of Aristotle in contemporary philosophy: virtue ethics?
Christof Rapp: In terms of books and articles written, it is perhaps the most powerful inspiration.
Peter Adamson: Most effective in tenure review decisions.
Christof Rapp: Yes indeed. Also, I mean, it has many different branches and it is indeed one of the most significant branches of contemporary philosophy that relies on Aristotle. But I think another branch in which Aristotle is quite influential nowadays is metaphysics. For a long time there was the idea that metaphysicians mostly deal with the question of whether certain entities do or do not exist. Do universals exist? Do substances exist? Numbers, abstract beings, and so on and so forth.
Ethical properties, maybe.
Peter Adamson: Christof Rapp: Ethical properties. Current development is that metaphysicians became more interested in exploring the notion of grounding and saying that metaphysics is about determining such grounding relations, i.e. that the existence of one entity is grounded in another entity. So Peter's baldheadedness might be grounded in a way in Peter. And it seems that this is a way to deal with metaphysics that is familiar from Aristotle's question of priority in being. There are many ways in which, according to Aristotle, entities can be related as ontologically prior or posterior. And his way of unfolding metaphysics shows that he is primarily interested in such dependence or independence relations. And this is an idea to which, as it seems, contemporary metaphysicians nowadays return to and which they find fruitful for their own research.
Peter Adamson: Our next guest will be Mark Kalderon, who is professor of philosophy at University College London. And the reason I asked you to appear on this episode about contemporary relevance of history of philosophy is that you're a contemporary philosopher who thinks that the history of philosophy is relevant. And this is particularly clear from a book that you wrote recently, which is about the philosophy of perception. So could you just tell us the name of the book and what it's about?
Mark Kalderon: Yeah, so the book was Form Without Matter - Empedocles and Aristotle on Color Perception. And as the subtitle made clear, it's about Empedocles and Aristotle on color perception. I was initially drawn to this material sort of just by accident. I had taken a break and decided to reread De Anima and got hooked. But I think in my own case, I had previously done a lot of work on color. And unlike early modern theories, I don't think colors are anyway secondary qualities. So it made a lot of sense for me to look at pre-modern sources because of the way my own work on both color and color perception seemed to be in tension with some central claims in early modern philosophy.
Peter Adamson: And why is there a philosophical problem there? I mean, okay, things are colored. So what?
Mark Kalderon: So the philosophical problem about color tends to be driven by other metaphysical commitments. So suppose you're an atomist, right? You think there's nothing but colorless atoms spinning in the void. You might be puzzled about how exactly these give rise to the colors that we seem to experience when we look out onto the scene before us.
Peter Adamson: And that's something that you just mentioned. There's this distinction in early modern philosophy, which we haven't gotten to yet, but we will, I hope, between primary and secondary qualities. So the primary qualities would be the properties that the underlying matter really has, like maybe the shape of the atom or something, whereas the color would be some kind of other property that comes on top of that. And you don't think that.
Mark Kalderon: No. So there's this tendency to deny that there's nothing in a perceived body that exactly resembles our color experience of it, right? And that denial can be understood in different ways, but unlike this, I think that colors are qualities that inhere.
Peter Adamson: So they're just as real as shapes. And is this something that a lot of other contemporary philosophers are worried about or agree with you about?
Mark Kalderon: Yeah. So I think, for example, I've got a similar view to John Campbell's, to Stephen Yablow's, about color. So there's been, and also more recently, Keith Allen has written a nice book on naive realism about color. So there are people who - contemporary philosophers who are thinking about colors as other than secondary qualities, but this is a fairly recent trend and it's not the dominant view.
Peter Adamson: Yeah. I think it's interesting that it's not the dominant view. I mean, you just, in a way, gave a reason for thinking it shouldn't be, namely that the underlying material constituents of things doesn't really have color, but people don't usually think that there are no tables just because tables are made of atoms. So it seems to me a little bit odd to say that because atoms aren't colored, that there's no such thing as color or that color is somehow metaphysically dubious or second rate or supervenient or whatever they would want to say.
Mark Kalderon: Yeah. Well, I'm happy with claims about supervenience. The idea that, well, fix whatever fundamental level reality there is. Let's say if it's physical facts, if you're a physicalist, I'm happy that they'll fix a lot of other things as well. I guess it's just the thought that colors are somehow less real or a mental reaction to physical stimulus or somehow or another having a different ontological status from the primary qualities. That's what I'd like to resist.
Peter Adamson: People might think that colors are something that only happens in the mind when maybe a stream of atoms or light particles or whatever - to be honest, I don't know very much about how color works, you probably do. But whatever the physical process is by which we see, they might think that the color is something that's only in the head. Whereas you want to say that the color is actually a property in the thing outside us.
Mark Kalderon: Maybe not a terribly interesting property from an explanatory perspective. It probably has a rather narrow cosmological role in the range of things it's capable of explaining. It's probably not very natural from a physicist's perspective. But I think it's nonetheless an objective quality out there in the world.
Peter Adamson: Before we start talking about the history of philosophy, let me just ask you one other question which is what about other sensible qualities? Are you going to say, 'well, once I figure this out for color, whatever I say for color is also going to apply to sound, smell, taste?'
Mark Kalderon: No. I think there are important differences both between the various sensory modalities as well as their objects. I think even within a given sensory modality, you can find interesting differences between their objects. I think there are really interestingly different things that are visible. You can see events. You can see property instances. You can see objects. These seem to belong to different metaphysical categories. I see there's no expectation per se that these are all going to be handled in a similar fashion. But in general, I tend to be a perceptual realist. So if I smell something, then I think there are smells. If I hear something, I think there are things to be heard and so on.
Peter Adamson: And is the idea of turning back to the history, and we've looked particularly at ancient history, though you're interested in actually a whole range of historical figures who've talked about perception - but your book is mostly about Aristotle and Epitocles, as you said. Was your idea that you wanted to use them because they share your intuitions about color?
Mark Kalderon: Well, I had a couple different thoughts. One, although kind of convinced that elements of the early modern paradigm are mistaken, still it's reigned for four centuries. It's really hard to disrupt those habits of mind. Thinking about pre-modern figures was, in a way, a bit of therapy to disrupt these modernist habits of mind. Partly it was also to try to discover new problems or new puzzles that had perhaps been overlooked in the shift in the early modern period, but might nonetheless be fruitful to think about. So those were the two main motives.
Peter Adamson: I suppose that if you're working in a period before this distinction between primary and secondary qualities was taken for granted, if they were kind of working within that kind of default assumption of what you're calling naive realism, so: 'I see a color, so there must be a color there' then the things that would interest them wouldn't necessarily even be defending that position, but rather working out other problems. Like for example, 'what makes something the color that it is' rather than 'is there a color there at all?'
Mark Kalderon: In the book though, I was less focused per se on the metaphysics of color, more on its perception. In part because there were some puzzles that arose about the nature of perception if you make some background assumptions that arise specifically with color vision. This is why Empedocles came in the story. Empedocles, like many ancient thinkers, thought of our sense of touch, as it were, a kind of exemplary form of perception. There was a very common assumption that if you could understand some sensory modality in terms of touch or at least by analogy with touch, that would suffice for making sense of that particular sensory modality. The thing about touch is you have to be in contact with what you're touching. Well, that immediately raises a problem with respect to color vision, because color vision seems to be a distal sense in the sense that the colors that we see seem to inhere in objects located at a distance from us. But if they're at a distance from us, how can we be in contact with them? If we can't be in contact with them, how can color vision be modeled on touch? That was a puzzle that motivated Empedocles. In a way, I wanted to say a generalization of that puzzle motivated Aristotle's thinking in De Anima as well.
Peter Adamson: One idea you sometimes get in antiquity is that vision must work by something coming out of the eyes - like a ray. This is sometimes even compared to reaching out and tapping the thing with a walking stick, which shows you how seriously they take the idea that sensation needs to be somehow compared to touch. It's interesting, isn't it? Usually I think when philosophers start thinking about perception, they go for vision as the most interesting of the five senses. And yet they are, at least Empedocles, is trying to think of vision on analogy with touch as if that was the most fundamental. So how does he solve this problem?
Mark Kalderon: There's an interpretive question about Empedocles because you can find passages such as a famous analogy he gives between light seeing and a lantern, which suggests that he's got an extramission view that you were just describing where something comes out of the eyes. There are other bits and other bits of testimony, for example, the view that Socrates attributes to Empedocles in the Meno, which suggests the other way around. In here we're told a story where a colored object gives off affluences and these somehow fit into the eye, so instead of reaching out we get something coming from the colored object. So it's controversial how to exactly understand Empedocles. I myself am inclined to try to reconcile these seemingly contradictory elements of his thought and see the extramissive elements as somehow making possible the intramissive elements. But on either way, whether something has to go out and touch the colored object or something from the colored object has to come in, on both interpretations the colored object needs to be in contact with the perceptive part of the soul and that's the important principle driving.
Peter Adamson: And Aristotle would agree with that except in so far as he then says it's okay for the contact to be via a medium, is that right?
Mark Kalderon: Yes, although he's clear that the sense organ can't be in contact with the colored object because he says famously: 'put a colored object on the eye, you don't see anything.' So he wants to rule out the kind of physical contact as the principle, but nonetheless we have to somehow or another assimilate - where this isn't a material mode of assimilation, the sensible form of the object and this non-material mode of assimilation is really - trying to understand that is really the difficult thing about trying to understand his definition of perception in De Anima.
Peter Adamson: And that goes back to what we started talking about because for him it is absolutely crucial that there's really a color outside because his whole view is going to be that the perceptible, perceptual faculty becomes assimilated to that form or that quality and so the same property, or 'form' is what he would call it, happens in sight, that happens in the visible object. And you think this is a good move?
Mark Kalderon: I think it provides us with a very interesting take on perceptual objectivity because if something has to be informed in order for you, the perceptual faculty, to assimilate to it, then well, if it's not informed, there's nothing to assimilate to and hence no assimilation. So the story you get builds in a very strong and interesting notion of perceptual objectivity that I think is attractive.
Peter Adamson: And so when you and I both look at the same red apple, the thought would be that you are perceiving that red and I'm perceiving that red because both of our sensory faculties are being actualized by the same redness that's in the apple. Isn't there a problem here though and maybe this is where we start getting into the puzzles, or as another puzzle in addition to this thing about action to distance. What about cases of perceptual illusion? Because there we have a case where maybe you're seeing something from a certain perspective that makes it look bigger than it is or maybe or you're seeing it in conditions that make it look like a color - it has a color that it doesn't really have. And isn't Aristotle now stuck with saying, 'well, it really has the color that you're seeing because otherwise it wouldn't be causing the color that you're aware of' and yet we don't want to say that it really has that color.
Mark Kalderon: It kind of depends on your take on illusion, right? If you're thinking of illusion as an experiential misrepresentation, right, then that's probably a notion he can't help himself to. That's not really the only way you can understand things and in particular there's a little bit of wiggle room that he can exploit because he thinks that there's no one way a particular sensible object will appear. He's sensitive to that. How it appears can vary with your perspective or the circumstances.
Peter Adamson: Like lighting conditions.
Mark Kalderon: Lighting conditions, right. And so it's possible then for something to appear a certain way because that's how it appears in those circumstances. But those appearances might be misleading in the sense that we might be inclined to make false judgments about it. But that's not the same idea as having an experiential misrepresentation, right, because you're presented with the red thing. The red thing in this circumstance looks this way because that's how red things look in those circumstances. Except it's hard. It's got a misleading look and so you might be tempted to judge it's brown or something else.
Peter Adamson: He gives this famous example of the sun looking like it's very small, like only a foot across, and I guess what you mean is that he would say 'if you judge that the sun is really small then on the basis of the way it looks then you've made a mistake but you're not making a mistake when you see it looking that size because that is the size that it looks from where we're standing, namely very far away.' And what would you say to someone who said to you, look Mark, this is all very cute that you're interested in Empedocles and Aristotle but why would you turn to figures like this to understand vision and color given that they evidently didn't have the first notion about how vision and color really work right there. Optics is incredibly rudimentary. They don't even know how light works. Aristotle thinks that light doesn't travel, for example. So it's obvious that their ideas about color are going to be hopelessly antiquated in every sense of the word.
Mark Kalderon: What we would now describe as their scientific ideas about light and color are obviously antiquated. However, I think philosophical reflection on perception isn't necessarily limited to what we can make from the science, and moreover, I think there are philosophical puzzles having nothing to do with the science that can be found in these writers. But in addition to these things, I suppose I was sort of drawn to philosophical ethnography as a potential mode of doing phenomenology. So if you decide to interpret and comment on a late antique treatise on the soul, though it's written by a respected predecessor, it's still a product of an alien philosophical culture and because it is, you're going to have to bracket your philosophical presuppositions if you're to sympathetically and imaginatively interpret it. So how are you going to go about sympathetically and imaginatively interpreting it? Well, you'll look to the phenomena and ask, what is it about it that's prompting these people to describe it the way they are? And so in a way, it's a way of using the text as a guide to attend to the phenomena. So that's what I meant by philosophical ethnography as a form of phenomenology. And it's really that possibility that got me excited when I was working on the Aristotle book.
Peter Adamson: Does that mean that in a way this methodology for you might actually be pretty restricted in its application? Because it seems like what you just said somehow depends on the idea that, 'well, look, they can see and we can see and it's interesting that they would think vision works like this because they're having the same or very similar phenomenological experience to what we're having.' But that seems like it's not maybe uniquely true of perception. The perception is a much better example of that than many other philosophical issues that you might worry about: free will, the existance of god, whether we have a soul, maybe even consciousness - which I guess a lot of people think might be quite theory-laden as a supposed phenomenological experience. Whereas I agree with you, it's very natural to assume that when Aristotle looked at a red apple, he had the same kind of experience we have. Does that mean then that you think that philosophy of perception is kind of an unusual case in the way that it could interact with the history of philosophy?
Mark Kalderon: Possibly. Sticking with the special case for a moment and picking up in a different way a theme from earlier, there's a tendency to overlook the richness of the phenomenological descriptions of our experience provided by ancient texts, in part by a rush to see it as a bit of antiquated science. To take another example, one that you brought up about extramission theories, the idea that there are these rays, visual rays coming out of our eyes. There are no visual rays coming out of our eyes. There's a temptation then to see extramission theories as just antiquated physiology. However, I'm inclined to think that they, and perhaps they were to a part, in part, they were certainly supposed to be answering causal questions. But I'm inclined to think that they also contain a fair amount of phenomenological truths. If you think about looking and seeing, well, looking is an active outer-directed activity and maybe a lot of the extramissionist metaphysics was trying to capture this aspect of our phenomenology and it might be useful to recover that. Whether we can extend this kind of methodology to other topics, to be honest, I'm not sure. One would have to try it out. But in principle, it's not a bad way to interpret a text by looking at its subject matter as we understand it to be and asking, what is it about it that's prompting the author to describe it in the way that the author is doing.
Peter Adamson: And so even something more abstract like free will that I just mentioned, there's a phenomenology of what it's like to make choices. And maybe someone like Augustine or other figures who have talked about free will might give us insight into that as well. And just one last question. Is your message to other contemporary philosophers of perception, let's say, or philosophers of mind, would you say: hey, folks, we should really be reading these historical texts more than we do? Or do you think it's more optional than that? Like it could be a good idea, but it maybe depends on what topic you're working on. Or maybe you would even be willing to admit that as a kind of a quirky thing about you personally that you happen to like working on historical texts.
Mark Kalderon: I think it's both a quirky thing about me and something that I would happily recommend to others. I suspect in a way a lot of this goes on, but without it being advertised. That is, I know lots of people who are contemporary analytic philosophers who don't write about historical materials, but nonetheless have detailed knowledge of at least one historical figure. But I think in particular there's a lot of very interesting metaphysics in classical antiquity that are relevant to our understanding of perception. So for example, Aristotle's distinction between "kinesis" and "energeia," namely motion, broadly understood, and activity, is something that contemporary philosophers are rediscovering for themselves. Recent work on the stream of consciousness interestingly rediscovers for itself distinctions that were raised among the Platonists in particular. The Platonists mark a distinction between "gnoetic" and "diagnoetic" reasoning. In gnoetic reasoning you grasp the intelligible object as a whole and all at once, whereas in diagnoetic reasoning it's unfolded in a series of steps. Importantly they argue it in a series of discrete steps. So the stream of consciousness, if it's a stream of thoughts - can't be continuous, but it's got to consist of one thought after another. This gets reintroduced in the 20th century by Geech and was taken up by Matsutairyo in his recent book. So yeah, I do think there are lots of elements of ancient metaphysics that are directly relevant to contemporary philosophers' concerns.
Peter Adamson: I especially like the idea of lots of analytic philosophers in privacy reading Locke and Plato - and not coming clean about it.
Mark Kalderon: You know, I mean, probably the most notorious example of this would be Gilbert Harman, right, who's notorious for saying 'just say no' to the history philosophy. But of course, you know, he's got pretty detailed knowledge of Adam Smith's theory of moral sentiments, in a way that might be surprising given his rhetoric.