Video of my talk on philosophy as a foundation for success is now available, in two parts: the talk itself and the question-and-answer session. Thanks to Prof. Mitzi Lee for making the recording and posting it to YouTube!
In Book Two, Chapter Three of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes three forms of the good: what is pleasurable or enjoyable (τό ἡδύ), what is useful or advantageous (τό συμφέρων), and what is right or beautiful (τό καλόν). In other places in his writings on both ethics and biology, he distinguishes three forms of reaching or desire (ὄρεξις): craving or appetite (ἐπιθυμία), feeling or passion (θυμός), and decision or will (βούλησις). Various interpreters (such as John Cooper in his book Reason and Emotion) have attempted to align these two sets of three, whereas other interpreters (such as Giles Pearson in his book Aristotle on Desire) have criticized such attempts as forced, misguided, and not supported by the textual evidence. Although I tend to agree with the integrators because I believe Aristotle was a fairly systematic thinker, I think Cooper's connection of θυμός with τό καλόν isn't right. Instead, it seems to me that craving or appetite is for the pleasant or enjoyable, feeling or passion is for the useful or advantageous, and decision or will is for what's right or beautiful.
This line of argument is opposed to both Cooper and Pearson with regard to θυμός and τό συμφέρων, so I'll sketch out my thinking here. First, let's look at the things that one might gain in life, that might be useful, that might lead to advantage. Since these are not the things that are purely pleasurable or enjoyable (especially physical objects of craving like food and drink and sex - although Aristotle says that in an extended sense there is ἐπιθυμία for higher things like learning), nor the things that are right or beautiful (such as personal excellence, knowledge, and virtue), they must be something else. The best candidates seem to be external goods such as wealth, but especially honor, societal position, respect, and reputation (as pointed out by Fortenbaugh in Aristotle on Emotion and Konstan in The Emotions of the Greeks, at least in classical times the Greeks were very much oriented toward relative status in their communities).
If we look at Aristotle's various lists of the emotions in De Anima, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, and Rhetoric, we can see that most of them are, or can be construed as, fundamentally social or comparative: anger or ὀργή is triggered by being slighted or disrespected or attacked (and thus losing something you value or losing face in your community), envy or φθόνος is a desire to have what another person has, jealousy or ζῆλος is a desire that someone else not have what they have, fear or φόβος is a desire not to lose what you have (up to and including your own life), pity or ἕλεος is what you feel when someone undeserving loses what they have, regret or πόθος is what you feel when you have lost something, boldness or θάρσος is assertiveness about seeking advantage, shame or αἰδώς occurs if you lose face, delight or χαρά is what you might feel if you have gained something of great value, love or φιλία is what you feel for something or someone you want to gain (note that there are dozens of Greek words beginning with φιλο- such as φιλοθηρία for love of hunting or φιλοκυδής for love of glory), hatred or μῖσος is what you feel for something or someone that threatens you or what you have, etc. These emotions could all be varieties of θυμός or at least could arise in what Aristotle calls the θυμοειδής (the seat of or capacity for θυμός); although Aristotle never comes out and says that directly about all of these feelings, he says that about enough of them (e.g., ὀργή, φόβος, φιλία) that I think we can generalize.
For Aristotle, the conscious resolve to pursue what's right is distinctively human, whereas we share cravings for what's pleasurable and feelings for what's advantageous with other animals (ἐπιθυμία and θυμός are non-rational, whereas βούλησις is rational). Yet human beings are not disembodied minds: thus the best form of living is to integrate all three forms of the good by finding the highest pleasure and truest advantage in activities and practices for the sake of τό καλόν; the result is a seamless combination of right reason (ὀρθός λόγος) and right reaching (ὀρθός ὄρεξις). I'll have more to say about that in my forthcoming book on Aristotle.
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On October 10th I'll give a talk entitled "You're Majoring in What?!? Why Philosophy is a Foundation for Success" at the University of Colorado Boulder (Hellems Arts and Sciences building, room 199, 6 PM). Although I don't believe it will be recorded, at the least I'll post the slides afterward. And if you live in the vicinity, feel free to stop by - I'll use my typical "performance art" presentation style, so it might even be mildly entertaining. :-)
Recently I've revisited a field that's intrigued me for some time: philosophical counselling, or more broadly philosophical practice. Most of those active in this field are almost anti-method, and what methods they do employ are derived from hermeneutics, phenomenology, existentialism, Stoicism, and Socratic questioning - some of which I find interesting but none of which I find deeply congenial. Philosophical practice emerged in Europe around 1980 among thinkers influenced by hermeneutics and existentialism, and even the American philosophers in this area are mostly existentialists (associated with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association) or Stoics (associated with the National Philosophical Counseling Association) - for instance, Elliot Cohen, the progenitor of logic-based therapy, was a disciple of Albert Ellis (inventor of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy). By contrast, my philosophical orientation is toward eudaimonia (the ancient Greek term for happiness, flourishing, living well) and the focus of my writing and living is on solving problems that hinder the pursuit of happiness. Upon reflection, I'm starting to see the possibility of developing a more joyous approach to philosophical practice that takes its inspiration from positive thinkers - especially the six I'm writing books about: Rand, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Thoreau, Epicurus, and Lao Tzu.
Thus while I read deeply in Aristotle for my forthcoming book Complete Yourself, I'm pondering how to apply a more Aristotelian methodology to philosophical practice. In many of Aristotle's books, he starts with what he calls aporia - perplexity, getting stuck, reaching an impasse. Plato's early Socratic dialogues all end in aporia but never "break on through to the other side" of solving the problem. Aristotle goes beyond Socrates using a methodology of asking questions, describing prior opinions and theories, analyzing alternative explanations, and synthesizing his findings. Perhaps a similar methodology can be applied to solving the problems of life, too. Consider the following cycle:
Eventually you might reach another impasse, sending you back to the first step (however, if you've been guided through the process before, this time you might be able to serve as your own counselor instead of working with someone else).
This is the merest sketch of a method that might serve as an Aristotelian foundation for philosophical practice. Naturally I need to think about it, research it, and try it out before I consider it valid. But I feel it has some promise.
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An essential lesson of philosophy is the ancient Greek formula "know yourself". It sounds easy, but it's immensely difficult. One model of self-knowledge I'm exploring is to look at your path in life from six different perspectives: beginning, end, above, below, side, within.
Although this model makes intuitive sense to me, I have not yet had the time to flesh it out, connect it fully to psychology and philosophy, or define the various practices involved in applying it to the pursuits of happiness and wisdom. I plan to do that over the next few years.
As previously mentioned, I have in mind to write a novel about the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho and his journey to central Asia and northwestern India with the army of Alexander the Great. As part of my research I'm reading a great deal of philosophy, history, and fiction. It's been fascinating to return to the reading of fiction after a lapse of many years - I feel like I have fresh eyes for everything. My readings in the genre of philosophical fiction have ranged all over the map - during a business trip last week I devoured The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, before that I re-read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I'm currently reading both The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Alongside these works of fiction I'm reading books of philosophical scholarship (the latest were a full-length study of Pyrrho and an exploration of epistemology after Protagoras) and I'm starting to explore the historical background to the massive cultural change from classical to hellenistic Greece. Umberto Eco's book in particular has given me a new ambition of combining the story of Pyrrho's intellectual development with a mystery novel about the still unexplained death of Alexander the Great! It turns out the Pyrrho was probably not quite the radical skeptic he's usually taken to be (although he did believe that the entities we encounter in reality are indefinite and thus hard to pin down in many ways). Combine this with political intrigue on an imperial scale and perhaps regicide (indeed, there's an ancient legend that Aristotle himself was somehow involved in the assassination of his former pupil Alexander, perhaps in revenge for Alexander's execution of Aristotle's nephew Kallisthenes), and we might have the makings of large-scale novel that hinges in part on the validity of the law of non-contradiction! This is all quite speculative at this point because I have over 200 more books to read during the research phase, and I would also need to intensively study how the better authors construct their novels (an art of which I am mostly ignorant). Although I'm not sure if I have a book this big in me, I'm enjoying the exploration of possibilities. And all this reading has kept me from blogging, thus my absence here. Hopefully the results will be worth waiting for...
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