Socrates’ heirs: Plato v. Diogenes

In “Socrates, Cynics and Flat-Nailed, Featherless Bipeds,” Nickolas Pappas describes two competing philosophical types that arose from the example Socrates set: sober Academics like Plato and mangy Cynics like Diogenes. “Philosophy has pulled in both directions, systematic and subversive, for as long as it has remembered Socrates. … The Academy had the originality to envision an intellectual society  … distinguished by the virtues of modesty and self-control, always ready to usher new students into the tradition. Philosophy as a tradition would have withered without an academy to live in. If it sometimes appears to be withering within the academy, that is because the subversive side of Socrates has its appeal: the virtues of the eccentric, above all eccentric courage, and the willingness to make your life an improvisation.”


Add your own egg

In “Bringing Philosophy to Life,” Nakul Krishna reflects on his introduction to philosophy by way of reading Bernard Williams. Along the way, there are many interesting points about ethics in general, utilitarianism in particular, other areas of philosophy, and what attracts people to philosophy at all. Williams brought “depth” to philosophy.

Williams never disdained rational argument, but he never thought it was enough by itself: “Analytic argument, the philosopher’s specialty, can certainly play a part in sharpening perception. But the aim is to sharpen perception, to make one more acutely and honestly aware of what one is saying, thinking and feeling.” Unhedged with cautious qualifications, his work goads you to distinguish what you actually think from what you think that you think. If his prose, compressed and epigrammatic, stands up to rereading today, as analytic philosophy seldom does, it’s because it leaves room for its readers to add something of themselves to it. A reader’s thought, Williams said, “cannot simply be dominated … his work in making something of this writing is also that of making something for himself.” For every reader comes to philosophy with “thoughts of his own, ways of understanding which will make something out of the writing different from anything the writer thought of putting into it. As it used to say on packets of cake mix, he will add his own egg.”

Test your problem-solving logic

David Leonhardt’s “A Quick Puzzle to Test Your Problem Solving” is quick, interesting, and useful. If I say anything more, I might give away the puzzle’s solution before you have a chance to try to solve it yourself, and you don’t want that. In fact, philosophy, thinking for yourself, and learning in general is like that: try to solve the puzzle on your own before you ask for the solution.

Whom does philosophy speak for?

In “Whom Does Philosophy Speak For,” Seyla Benhabib and George Yancy consider that sometimes philosophy speaks for and about everyone and yet at other times seems not to. Unfortunately, “a dynamic of freedom for some and domination for others is present in much of Western philosophy.” This has a significant bearing on our understanding of democracy. Benhabib says, “Western philosophy, as distinguished from myth, literature, drama and many other forms of human expression, speaks in the name of the universal. Philosophy emerges when Socrates and Plato show how we have to free ourselves from the ‘idols of the city,’ and when the pre-Socratics ask about what constitutes matter and the universe, rejecting the answers provided by the Greek polytheistic myths.” And yet she also agrees when Yancy points out “that within the Western philosophical tradition, the mind, coded as white and male, is privileged over the body, coded as female or a signification of blackness, creating a false, disembodied practice.”

No theory of everything

In “There Is No Theory of Everything,” Simon Critchley reminisces about his teacher Frank Cioffi. Along the way there are amusing anecdotes, distinctions drawn between explanation and interpretation, warnings about the twin dangers of scientism and obscurantism, and reflections on the value of philosophy (it scratches an itch!). “We don’t need an answer to the question of life’s meaning, just as we don’t need a theory of everything. What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy … a model for the rest of the internet

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “has achieved what Wikipedia can only dream of.” Lovers of wisdom have set a standard for the rest of the internet. “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may be the most interesting website on the internet. Not because of the content—which includes fascinating entries on everything from ambiguity to zombies—but because of the site itself. Its creators have solved one of the internet’s fundamental problems: How to provide authoritative, rigorously accurate knowledge, at no cost to readers. It’s something the encyclopedia, or SEP, has managed to do for two decades.”