Sunday, May 31, 2015

Back to Kant?

In ‘Human Spiritual Nature and the X of Neurophysiologists’ on my website I argued that ‘the world’s stage’ is organized in our minds in accordance with the space, shapes and movements of objects, animals, activities and interactions of people in front of us and around us, all of which is fundamentally different from the way in which the fabric of the brain is organized within the space of our skull and from the way in which the activities of neurons proceed in time, so that here must be at play an entity distinct from the brain, which transforms the information as it is processed in the brain into ‘the world’s stage’ in our minds. I noted that the process of this transformation is entirely subconscious.

I further pointed out that the ancients did not have any word for subconscious, and that the sceptics could therefore argue against the possibility of knowledge as follows: “The argument (ho logos) is compounded of judgements (sugkeitai ex axiȏmatȏn), but compound things (ta de suntheta) cannot exist (ou dunatai huparchein) unless their component elements mutually co-exist (sunuparchêi), as is pre-evident from the case of a bed and similar objects; but the parts of an argument (ta de merê tou logou) do not mutually coexist (ou sunuparchei). For when we are stating the first premiss (to prȏton lêmma), neither the second premiss nor the inference (epiphora) is as yet in existence (oudepȏ huparchei); and when we are stating the second premiss, the first is no longer existent (ouketi huparchei) and the inference is not yet existent (oudepȏ estin); and when we announce the inference, its premisses are no longer in being (ouketi huphestêken). Therefore the parts of the argument do not mutually co-exist (ou sunuparchei); and hence the argument too will seem to be non-existent (hothen oude ho logos huparchein doxei). (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, II. 144, tr. R. G. Bury.)

This argument illustrates the narrow straits within which consciousness apprehends the unfolding of speech. As one speaks and as one listens, sentences emerge from the subconscious into consciousness, where they acquire their form, while the posterior part of the train of thought gets submerged into the subconscious. Thus in the interplay between the subconscious and consciousness the understanding of what is said is being constituted. This argument of the sceptics ought to have alerted philosophers to the reality and the potency of the subconscious; apparently, it didn’t. – What about Kant? In my late twenties and early thirties I spent a lot of time with Kant, but all that reading had not helped me to answer this question. Should I return to Kant?

In the ‘Preface’ to the 1st edition of the Critique of Pure Reason Kant sets the task of ‘addressing the Reason with the demand (eine Aufforderung an die Vernunft) to face the most difficult of all its tasks (das beschwerlichste aller ihrer Geshäfte), that of undertaking self-knowledge in a new way (nämlich das der Selbsterkenntnis aufs neue zu übernehmen).’ (Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, nach der ersten und zweiten Original-Ausgabe neu herausgegeben von Raymund Schmidt, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1956, p. 7) In the ‘Preface’ to the 2nd edition he speaks of ‘the thing in itself’ (die Sache an sich selbst) as real for itself (als für sich wirklich), but unknown to us (aber von uns unerkannt, p 22). Reason can according to him know only mere objects of experience (blosse Gegenstände der Erfahrung), but in his view it must be noted (wohl gemerkt werden muss) that ‘we must be able at least to think those very objects as things in themselves, although we cannot know them (dass wir eben dieselben Gegenstände auch als Dinge an sich selbst, wenn gleich nicht erkennen, doch wenigstens müssen denken können). For otherwise the absurd proposition would follow (Denn sonst würde der ungereimte Satz daraus folgen), that there would be appearance without anything that appeared (dass Erscheinung ohne etwas wäre, was da erscheint, pp. 25-26).’

How can Kant speak of knowledge, if the only possible objects of knowledge are appearances, not things in themselves? For him, knowledge is possible only a priori, derived from Reason itself; what comes a posteriori is only experience, not knowledge. ‘Until now men supposed (Bisher nahm man an) that all our knowledge must look to objects for guidance (alle unsere Erkenntnis müsse sich nach den Gegenständen richten, p. 19)’. Instead, ‘objects must be determined and regulated by our knowledge (die Gegenstände müssen sich nach unserem Erkenntnis richten, p.20)’, for ‘in fact we can know about things a priori only that (dass wir nämlich von den Dingen nur das a priori erkennen), which we put in them (was wir selbst in sie legen, p. 21).’

In the ‘Introduction’ to the 2nd edition of the Critique Kant maintains that ‘this science (diese Wissenschaft), since it has nothing to do with the objects of Reason (weil es nicht mit Objekten der Vernunft), the multiplicity of which is endless (deren Mannigfaltigkeit unendlich ist), but is preoccupied merely with itself (sondern es bloss mit sich selbst), that is with the tasks (mit Aufgaben), which spring in their entirety from its own bosom (die ganz aus ihrem Schosse entspringen), and which are not given to it by the nature of things (und ihr nicht durch die Natur der Dinge), which are different from it (die von ihr unterschieden sind); it is preoccupied only with tasks prescribed by its own nature (sondern durch ihre eigene vorgelegt sind, zu tun hat); because (da es denn) it has beforehand acquired the complete knowledge of its own capacity concerning objects it can encounter in experience (wenn sie zuvor ihr eigen Vermögen in Ansehung der Gegenstände, die ihr in Erfahrung vorkommen mögen, vollständig hat kennenlernen), it can easily (leicht werden muss) and with certainty determine its own scope and set limits to any attempts of enlarging its use beyond the limits of experience (den Umfang und die Grenzen ihres über all Erfahrungsgrenzen versuchten Gebrauchs vollständig und sicher zu bestimmen, p. 54).


Neither in Kant’s a priori knowledge of Reason, nor in his concept of unknowable ‘thing in itself’ could I find any place for the subconscious or the unconscious. Moreover, I found it very difficult to think in English about what Kant said in German. I would have loved to consult an English translation of his Kritik, but I had none: ‘Should I get one on Amazon at the expense of my wife and my children, my only income being the state pension of £ 28.38 a week?’ (see ‘The Citizens Advice Bureau intervenes’, posted on November 22, 2014) – Instead, I wrote ‘Aristotle on Plato in Metaphysics A and Λ, and the strange case of the Phaedrus’, posted on March 24, 2015.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

An afternoon at Balliol – an invitation

Allow me to invite you to my reading of Homer’s Iliad, which will take place on Wednesday May 20 from 3pm to 6pm in front of Balliol College at Oxford.

If nobody comes, I shall enjoy reciting the Iliad just for myself. It will be a new experience. When I record Homer for my website I make mistakes. I read a dual ending (phȏnêsante, bante) when Homer speaks of two fighters or horses (autȏ,  Pandaros and Aineias, book V. l. 236), but he uses the plural (phȏnêsantes, bantes, l. 239); I scan two long syllables (ê ouch, V. 349) as a spondee when these two syllables must be scanned as one (by synizesis); sometimes I make eight or nine abortive recordings; then I begin to cough badly just as I am approaching the end of a perfect take. I always end by simply listening to what I have just recorded; I put it on my website only if I feel happy with it; enjoying it is a perfect reward for all this work. I must choose passages of manageable length, 50 lines on average, for the longer the passage I choose, the more mistakes I am prone to make. At Balliol I shall have the luxury of immersing myself in Homer for three hours, correcting my mistakes, but going on reciting. It will be the nearest I can get to re-living the experience of the rhapsodes reciting Homer to their audiences.

But the event could take an even more rewarding course. Oxford classical philosophers and classicists might come to question my approach to Homer and to Ancient Greek, or my views on Ancient Philosophy, as I questioned Oxford dons who visited my seminar in Prague thirty-odd years ago.  I have chosen Wednesday for my afternoon at Balliol, for my philosophy seminars were held on Wednesdays and they lasted on average about three hours.

The contention between me and my Oxford colleagues concerns Ancient Greek. For my colleagues, reading Greek texts in the original amounts to translating them into English. I do not translate texts I read; I understand them in Greek.

In the ‘good old days’, one became a true expert in Ancient Greek by virtue of translating English into Greek. Kenneth Dover speaks of his student years: ‘A very important ingredient of our work was “composition”, which meant the translation of sophisticated literary English into Greek or Latin prose and of passages of English poetry into Greek or Latin verse (Marginal Comment, p. 37). Speaking of his work at Oxford University, he says: ‘My tutorial work in the first two terms of the year was much the kind of thing I had experienced as an undergraduate in Mods: translation from sophisticated English, prose and verse, into Greek and Latin … I myself had always found that six hours or more spent on a composition (and I sometimes spent twelve) taught me more about the language than the same amount of time spent on reading texts (p. 67).’ ‘Reading texts’ does not mean understanding texts in Greek, but understanding Greek texts in English. Consider what he says on p. 128: ‘When we look something up in a Greek or Latin text, we do not translate the whole page, but home in on the words which tell us what we want to know.’

Dover says: ‘It is now more than a hundred years since classicists began to lament the decline in the part played by Greek and Latin in our educational system’. Willcock published his Commentary to the Iliad in 1978; by then the decline of classics was in full sway. Instead of directing his readers towards understanding Homer in Greek, he instructs them to translate Homer. In the first book of the Iliad Zeus addresses Hera as daimoniê (l. 561); Willcock remarks: “Translate ‘my dear’”. In the second book Odysseus addresses each king as daimonie (l. 190); Willcock says: “Translate ‘my friend’”. A few lines later Odysseus addresses a common soldier as daimonie, where neither ‘my dear’ nor ‘my friend’ is appropriate, for he commands the man to sit quietly, to listen to those, who are better than him, calls him unwarlike (aptolemos), impotent (analkis), of no account in battle (oute pot’ en polemȏi enarithmios) or in counsel (out’ eni boulêi, ll. 200-201). This daimonie Willcock leaves without comment, yet this is just the moment when he should draw the attention of the reader to the different shades of meaning of daimonie in different contexts. Explaining laisêia te pteroenta in Bk V. l. 453, Willcock says: ‘laisêia are clearly smaller and lighter shields than aspides or sakea. Most probably the laisêion had a fringe, or tassels, which would wave about in the air as it was moved. Thus “fluttering” will do as a translation for pteroenta.’

Willcock elucidates Odysseus’ daimoni’, ou se eoike kakon hȏs deidissesthai in Bk II. l 190 very perceptively: “The meaning of this line is ‘It is not right that I should try to frighten you as if you were a coward.’” His explanation of pteroenta I quoted is unobjectionable; those who aim at understanding Homer in Greek can derive great benefit from his Commentary. The decline of classical studies can be turned around, if our aim becomes enjoying the classics in the original instead of torturing the students with the task of translating them.

I should like to discuss with Oxford students and teachers the best ways of acquiring the ability to understand Ancient Greek. In the 1980’s, when I was permitted to give lectures and seminars at the Sub-faculty of Philosophy of Oxford University, I advised students to use translations as a help: ‘Read a sentence in Greek. Don’t translate it, read it in a translation, and if possible, in more than one translation. Then read the sentence again in Greek; don’t desist, until you understand it in Greek. Use French and German translations, if you can; for these translations will elucidate the Greek text, and after doing so ‘fall away’ without becoming attached to Greek. Read as much as you can, for you can’t learn Greek by virtue of reading one or two dialogues of Plato, one or two tragedies of Sophocles.’

Since the demise of Ancient Greek as a living language, it never has been so easy to enjoy Greek authors, as at present, when we can derive all the help we need from good dictionaries, commentaries, and translations, which past generations of scholars have prepared for us. But even with all this help, learning Ancient Greek is an arduous and a life-long task. Is it worth the trouble, worth the expenditure of energy it requires? I should like to discuss this question with Oxford neurophysiologists.

Carpenter and Reddi in their Neurophysiology define the fundamental problem of neuroscience as that of tracing the relationship between molecular and cellular mechanisms in the brain ‘all the way to what was going on in Michelangelo’s head as he painted the Sistine Chapel … The trick is to force yourself to think of the brain as a machine that carries out a well-defined job. The job is to turn patterns of stimulation, S, into patterns of response, R: the sight of dinner into attack and jaw-opening; a page of music into finger movements. How it does this is clear, in principle at least. The brain is a sequence of neuronal levels, successive layers of nerve cells that project on to one another. At each level, a pattern of activity in one layer gets transformed into a different pattern in the next. Thus the incoming sensory pattern S is transmitted from level to level, modified at each stage until it becomes an entirely different pattern of response R at the output.’ (5th edition, Hodder Arnold, 2012, p. 9)

There is a fundamental flaw in the S (stimulus) → R (response) scheme presented by the authors, for they define S as ‘the incoming sensory pattern’. On p. 10 of their Neurophysiology they write: ‘Receptors in the eye convey information about only a miniscule part of the retinal image, in effect a single pixel; but after a few levels have been passed, in the visual cortex, we find units that are able to respond to a specific type of stimulus, such as a moving edge, over wide areas of the visual field.’ – The sight of dinner is a response to the information conveyed to the brain and processed on the way, beginning with the receptors in the eye, chemical transmitters on synapses, and electric currents in neurons. What happens in the visual cortex? The information that reached the visual cortex is coded there by the interaction of chemical transmitters on synapses with electric currents in neurons. Whatever may be the shape of the vast network of neurons involved in the coding, it is completely different from the shape of the dinner we see it in front of us on the table. There must therefore be something, which receives the information coded in the brain and transforms it into the sight of dinner. This ‘something’ is the subconscious part of our human spiritual nature, HSN.

Carpenter and Reddi maintain that ‘it is now simply superfluous to invoke anything other than neural circuits to explain every aspect of Man’s overt behaviour’ (p. 294).’ But they propose to view consciousness as ‘a spectator, watching from its seat in the brainstem the play of activity on the cortex above it, perhaps able in some way to direct its attention from one area of interest to another, but not able to influence what is going on.’ (p. 296) But a spectator watching from its seat in the brainstem the play of activity on the cortex above it would be unable to watch anything but a bewildering network of neurons with their axons and dendrites, chemical transmitters moving in and out of neurons, opening and closing ligand channels, action potentials propagated in neurons. None of all this enters our consciousness. Our consciousness is inseparably linked to the subconscious part of HSN, which transforms the brain activities into the world in which we live. HSN is as real and factual as are the scientific data provided by physics and by neurophysiology. When we realize this, our view of ourselves as human beings changes dramatically.

The ability to produce the world of our consciousness, the ability we all have as human beings, could not be acquired by our individual activities in our early childhood. Think just how long it takes a child to learn its mother tongue. This ability must be the result of the evolutionary process that started with the first living organisms acquiring the capability of sensing and avoiding external danger, of sensing sources of sustenance outside of themselves and moving towards them. Only spiritual nature, however primitive it may have been in its initial stage, could produce within itself what was outside these organisms, doing so on the basis of the effects that the environment had on those primitive organisms. Space and time, which Kant rightly views as a priori representations (a priori Vorstellungen), which precede and make possible all our sense perceptions (Empfindungen), are in fact the result of all this development, are its a posteriori. It is within the framework of this evolutionary development that we should view and appreciate human cultural development and the benefits that can be derived from Ancient Greek.

In the Phaedrus Plato’s Socrates introduces the theory of Forms, such as justice (dikaiosunê), self-control (sȏphrosunê), knowledge (epistêmê), wisdom (phronêsis), and beauty (kallos), these are true beings accessible only to intellect. He maintains that prior to their incarnation, all human souls had seen the Forms, for speech is communicated by a flow of perceptions, which must be gathered together by reason and understood according to Form (249b-c). The philosophic affinity between Plato’s Forms and Kant’s a priori concepts is obvious. In the last brief section of his Critique of Pure Reason Kant proposes the history of pure reason (Die Geschichte der reinen Vernunft) as the task that remains to be done; it is to be the history of philosophy as it culminated in the discovery of truth. A German philosopher W. G. Tennemann undertook this task, and he began to fulfil it with his System of Platonic Philosophy (System der Platonischen Philosophie, published in 1792). On the assumption that the more truth a philosophic system contains, the more it approximates Kant, he rejected the ancient dating of Plato’s Phaedrus as his first dialogue. In his view, Plato’s philosophy developed towards the theory of Forms in the Phaedrus, as all the subsequent philosophy developed towards Kant’s idea of a priori.

Paradoxically, Socrates’ idea that human speech is possible only on the basis of the Recollection of Forms, and that therefore all human beings saw the Forms prior to their incarnation, provided me with the main philosophic argument for taking seriously the ancient dating of the Phaedrus. For in the Republic Plato’s Socrates maintains that only those who can see the Forms should be allowed to study philosophy (496a), and in the Timaeus Plato’s sage from Italy, Timaeus, tells his listeners, Socrates among them, that only a tiny race of human beings (anthrȏpȏn genos brachu ti) can see the Forms (51e).

After our discussion on the Phaedrus in May 1980, I suggested to Kathy Wilkes that we should read the dialogue together. She obtained a grant for that purpose, and we spent four weeks in July and August 1980, my last weeks in Prague before going to Oxford, reading the Phaedrus. The summer was lovely, and so we did most of our reading in Stromovka, formerly a deer park of the Czech kings. Without being aware of it, we were photographed by secret policemen. My brother, who after the Velvet Revolution became the Head of the Police supervisory commission, donated the photos to me. Four of these photos follow.

Our joint reading provided me with a powerful argument in favour of the ancient dating of the Phaedrus. In the dialogue Socrates presents Polemarchus as a model philosopher. This follows Socrates’ assertion that those who pursue philosophy live a blessed and harmonious life here on earth. Polemarchus died at the hands of the Thirty Tyrants in 404 B. C., five years before Socrates’ death. The ancients believed that a man’s life can be considered good only if he meets a good end. Polemarchus’ end was not good; his brother Lysias gives a graphic description of the circumstances in which he died in Against Eratosthenes, written shortly after the demise of the Thirty. In my view, the Phaedrus had to be written and published prior to Polemarchus’ death. Kathy agreed. After arriving at Oxford we wrote together ‘Socrates in the Phaedrus’, which Kathy sent to The Classical Quarterly. The Editor, Anthony Long, replied that it was well written and that he thought of publishing it and be damned, but that in the end he decided not to do so, for publishing it would destroy my prospects as a philosopher. Later I learnt that Kathy had to return the grant she had received for her month in Prague.

These are some of the themes that I should like to discuss with Oxford colleagues.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A fool’s hopes?

In the ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ (available on my website) I wrote: ‘My discussion with Anthony Kenny on the right pursuit of philosophy took place in Prague in April 1980. At that time my philosophy seminar had been harassed by the Czech police but we still managed to meet. The arrival of the Master of Balliol was anticipated with great expectations. Some expected a catastrophe which would definitely finish my seminar. I could not imagine the police interfering once Kenny was granted the visas. That is why I hoped for a breakthrough. If the police refrained from harassing us in this case they would hardly interfere on future occasions. My aspirations would have been fulfilled. Prague would have had a place where once a week young people could come and openly discuss philosophy. That would have given us strength to be as free as the physical parameters of the situation allowed, free enough, I felt – even without the possibility to travel abroad, to publish and to speak in public – to confront the system with the problem of governing a society with free people in its midst. I hoped the regime could grow up to the task and so get positively transformed without falling apart in the process. Hoping for the continuation of my seminar I hoped for the optimal development in our country. Our philosophy seminar was a step on the road towards a society which would maintain the social and economic framework of socialism but would allow free development of individuals.’

I wrote the ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ at Oxford, some three years after leaving Prague (it was published in the History of Political Thought in 1984). In Prague, in 1977, John Pilger had asked me how the Charter 77 signatories were affected when people like President Carter spoke out about human rights. I answered by expressing my doubts whether President Carter really wanted to help us: ‘The question before which we stand is how to develop socialism freely, and to develop socialism freely doesn’t mean to impose upon us the kinds of freedom you are living with. We must develop new concepts of freedom which come from our own situation. The voice of Carter is so strong that it may deafen our initiative in developing the questions of freedom from the inside, making us expect that it will come from outside; it must come from the inside.’ – See

My interest in Ancient Greek literature and philosophy played a crucial role in my getting involved in the Czech ‘underground’. In Prague was, and I believe still is, a French Library, a joint venture of the French Embassy and Prague University Library. I began to visit the Library when I decided to learn French in the mid-1960's. In 1970's I discovered that in the French Library was a complete Budé edition of the Greek classics. I think I was the only one who ever used it; it was there just for me. The reading room was at the top of the building; one day, going downstairs I saw a door open to a room that was normally always closed. There were some French students in the room, and on the table was lying Le Monde from Sunday 29th – 30th June (1975). I found in it a letter entitled: ‘Following the confiscation by the police of a part of his manuscripts, the Czechoslovak philosopher Karel Kosík writes to J. P. Sartre ˂My existence has acquired two forms: I am dead and at the same time I live˃ [A la suite de la confiscation par la police d’une partie de ses manuscrits Le philosophe tchécoslovaque Karel Kosik écrit à J.-P. Sartre ˂Mon existence a pris deux forms: je suis mort et en meme temps je vis˃].

I quote from Sartre’s answer: ‘I cannot become engaged for anybody except myself [Je ne puis m’engager pour personne sauf pour moi]; but I have discussed your dear and unhappy country often and at great length [mais j’ai assez souvent et longuement discuté de votre cher et malheureux pays] so that I may assure you that you have many friends [pour vous affirmer que nombreux sont vos amis] who will join me in shouting [qui crieront avec moi]: “If Karel Kosík were guilty [Si Karel Kosik était coupable], then every man [alors tout homme] (not only the intellectuals [non seulment les intellectuels], but the farmers, the workers [mais les paysans, les ouvriers]) who thinks on what he does [qui pense à ce qu’il fait] is equally guilty [est également coupable].” Starting from this simple thought [C’est à partir de cette idée simple] it will be necessary to envisage actions by which [qu’il faudra envisager les actions par lesquelles], by helping you [en vous aidant], we shall help ourselves [nous nous aiderons nous-mêmes].'

Sartre’s words must have sunk deeply into my subconscious. In ‘The celebration goes on’ (Post of April 15) I wrote: ‘The Petition [of 60 Czech Charter 77 signatories against the publication of my paper ‘Inside the Security State’] did not prevent the publication of the article in the New Statesman, but it appears to have exercised its influence. When a Dutch journal wanted to publish it – it was already translated into Dutch – the Editor of the New Statesman refused to give permission for its publication. I learnt this from the Editor. He told me while donating to me Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals). Coincidentally, Alan Montefiore, one of the Oxford dons who had visited my seminar in 1979, asked me: ‘Do you think we have betrayed you?’ I answered: ‘How could you betray me? It is you whom you have betrayed.’ – When I told Alan Montefiore ‘It is you, whom you have betrayed,’ my reply must have been inspired by Sartre’s words.

On 4th July 1975 I wrote to the Editor of Rudé právo, the daily newspaper of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. I referred to what Kosík wrote to Sartre: 1. He has been deprived of the possibility to do work, for which he is qualified. 2. He is excluded from participation in the activities of our scientific institutions. 3. He cannot publish what he writes; his books have been removed from public libraries. 4. The Police confiscated 1000 pages of his preparatory notes for the works On praxis, and On truth. I asked the Editor, whether these allegations were true: ‘If true, is all this happening in compliance with our laws? If not, what can I do as a citizen, so that the respect for the law may be restored in this country? If it is in compliance with the laws of this country, what can I do, so that the laws are changed, so that it becomes prohibited to treat citizens of our republic in this way?’


As far as my Oxford colleagues and the British Press are concerned, Kosík’s words apply to me: ‘My existence has acquired two forms: I am dead and at the same time I live.’

Saturday, May 9, 2015

2. Why in May?

Kathy Wilkes visited Prague later in May. She was interested in what happened when Dr Kenny, the Master of Balliol, visited my seminar. It was on that occasion that it occurred to me that the ancient story might be true according to which the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue. The moment I expressed the thought I became aware of its significance, but I had no idea at that moment that my whole subsequent life would be influenced by it, for it would put me at loggerheads with the entire Platonic scholarship as it developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Let me quote Barry O’Brien’s ‘Philosophers in knots over Dr Tomin’s Plato thesis’ published in The Daily Telegraph of August 25, 1988: ‘A leading scholar responded yesterday to complaints by Dr Julius Tomin, the Czech dissident philosopher, that he cannot get his controversial work on Plato published in Britain.’ The scholar referred to was Dr David Sedley, editor of Classical Quarterly and director of studies in classics at Christ’s Church College, Cambridge. Barry O’Brian says: ‘If Dr Tomin were right, it would affect a great deal of Platonic scholarship,’ quoting Dr Sedley: “I think people just have a great difficulty in seeing how it can be right. It means he is asking people to give up nearly everything else they believe about Plato’s development, but he is not telling us enough about why we should give up all these other views.” – Dr Sedley would not publish my views on the dating of the Phaedrus because I was not telling my colleagues enough about why I thought it was Plato’s first dialogue, and I could not tell my colleagues why I thought it was Plato’s first dialogue because I was not allowed to present a paper on the subject to my colleagues, let alone to have my views published. To cheer me up, an Oxford don donated to me Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

I described Kenny’s visit in ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ which I have put on my website. It was published in the History of Political Thought in 1984. I shall use it to refresh my memory.

The Master of Balliol arrived at our apartment about half an hour before the actual beginning of the seminar. He told me that he would be talking about the pursuit of happiness as it is discussed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean and the Eudemian Ethics. He asked me to translate Nicomachean Ethics 1177a12-6 and Eudemian Ethics 1218b31-1219a39 for my students at the beginning of the seminar, for in his talk he would refer to these two passages. My text of the Nicomachean Ethics was heavily underlined and marked with exclamation marks; though I had not read it for three or four years, I was confident I could manage. But I never read the Eudemian Ethics, and so I left Kenny and his wife in care of my wife and went to the kitchen to read the Eudemian text. I just read it once when my wife summoned me to open the seminar: ‘The living room is packed with people.’ Kenny opened the seminar by asking me: ‘Julius, would you translate Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 1177a12-6 and Eudemian Ethics 1218b31-1219a39 for your students? For I will refer to these two passeges in my talk.’ I replied: ‘I shall read each sentence aloud in the original and then translate it in Czech.’

When I finished translating, Dr Kenny argued that in the Nicomachean passage happiness consists in the contemplative activity and philosophy becomes thus the primary source of happiness, whereas in the Eudemian Ethics philosophy is one of the optional activities, which only those should pursue who are called upon to do so. Kenny argued that the Eudemian conception was critical of the Nicomachean conception. If a person organized his life with a view to the promotion of philosophical speculation without being called upon to do so he would be not wise but cunning, not phronimos but panourgos. ‘The type of person whom many regard as the hero of the Nicomachean Ethics turns out, by the standards of the Eudemian Ethics, to be a vicious and ignoble character,’ Kenny maintained. ‘In the Eudemian Ethics happiness consists of an ideal functioning of every part of the soul,’ he said.

At this point I exchanged the role of an interpreter for the role of a discussion partner: ‘In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle considers the life in philosophy to be the source of happiness because the activity of intellect is the highest one. Why should I see it opposed to the ideal functioning of the other parts of the soul in the Eudemian Ethics? May not Aristotle be pointing in the direction of the theory fully developed in the tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics when he says in our Eudemian passage: ‘The End (telos) is the best as being an End, since it is assumed as being the best and ultimate, for the sake of which all the other things exist’? (1219a10-11). In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that philosophy is the ultimate source of good life for it is independent of external circumstances. Even if deprived of exchanging ideas with his colleagues (sunergoi) he may do philosophy (1177a12-b1). This is especially important for us in Prague who may face imprisonment any day. It further reminds me of Socrates. In the Apology he says: “as long as I am able to I will not stop doing philosophy (29d).” In prison, he transformed his last day into the best day of his life by discussing philosophy with his friends. Phaedo opens his narrative of Socrates’ last day by remarking that he could not feel sorry for Socrates, as one would be expected to be at the approaching death of a good friend, ‘for the man appeared to me to be happy’ (eudaimȏn gar moi hanêr ephaineto, Phaedo 58e3), and Socrates compares himself to swans who sing most beautifully and rejoice most on their last day (85b).’

Kenny did not oppose my ‘Socratic’ interpretation of the Nicomachean passage. He questioned instead the philosophic credentials of Socrates: ‘Julius, wouldn’t you consider Plato a much better philosopher?’ I replied: ‘Tony, you obviously make such a cut through Plato’s dialogues that you find Socrates only in dialogues, which you find unworthy of being called philosophy, and Plato in dialogues which you find worthy of it. I do not make any such cut through Plato’s dialogues.’

At this point I told Kathy: ‘I’ve suddenly realised that in I have found nothing in Plato’s dialogues that would compel me to reject Diogenes Laertius’ story that the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogues.’ (III. 38) – Kathy exclaimed: ‘It can’t be his first dialogue.’

Friday, May 8, 2015

Why in May?

On Wednesday May 20 I shall read in front of Balliol Homer’s Iliad. Why in May? Thirty five years ago, in May 1980 I was visited in Prague by Roger Scruton and Kathy Wilkes. Both visits were memorable. Roger came on Saturday May 10 or Sunday May 11. I was in bed, holding a hunger strike in protest against the continued harassment of my philosophy classes by the Secret Police. I had just written a letter of complaint, addressed to the Minister for Internal Affairs bearing the date of May 10; I gave Roger a copy of it. When I was summoned to the Police on May 21, the Police had on their desk an English version of my letter, published in New Statesman on 16 May 1980. As I have learnt from Kathy Wilkes, Roger went to a park with one of my students, Lenka Dvořáková; together they translated the letter (Roger was learning Czech) and Roger published it. I appreciated his speedy action. The letter was as follows [where an explanatory remark is needed I put it in square brackets]:

‘Mr Minister, On Wednesday 7 May at noon I delivered in person to the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs a letter in which I informed you about my serious worries that servants of your department intend once more to misuse the 19th paragraph of law 40/74 which empowers members of the security forces ‘to demand the required explanation from anyone who could contribute to the clarification of matters important to the investigation of a civil offence, or other breach of statutory duty, or help in the search for missing persons or property’. I then let you know of my serious anxiety that members of the security forces would like to misuse the above paragraph in order to impede me and my friends from engaging in our joint study of the elements of philosophical thought.

On Wednesday the 7th at seven o’clock in the evening I wanted to give a class on Aristotle’s Metaphysics in my flat, to a few of my friends. I told you [in my letter] that, should my anxieties prove justified and the security forces, under your command, prevent me by force from lecturing on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 1, I would in protest begin a 10-day hunger-strike. Mr Minister, let me describe to you the manner of my last interrogation following the invitation ‘to give an explanation in accordance with paragraph 19 of law number 40/74; and in the case of non-attendance to face a summons’.

As I informed you in my last letter, I was invited to the police station on Františka Křížka no. 24. I accepted the invitation and came at three in the afternoon: I waited a moment in the entrance hall until the arrival of an elderly gentleman, who informed that he was not acquainted with the matter, and the investigating officer was on his way. Then he began to talk about music, and its part in the life of the nation, saying that, so long as our country lives, so too will we play the music of Smetana.

He turned to the subject of baroque music, and of the deep impression which it leaves in the human spirit: ‘Without music, Mr Tomin, I could not imagine my life. I do not want to reproach our modern youth; nevertheless, nowadays young people do not understand music as we older people understand it. Bach said that all men should learn to understand music, and it is true that, in my case, I did not grasp the meaning of Smetana’s Bartered Bride as I now do. As a boy I could not understand my mother when she asked me to sit in the meadow and listen to the song of a skylark. Music is like love. Sensible women tell us that best lovers are men between forty and fifty. Take Beethoven, for example. How pure and sensitive a soul, and yet how revolutionary was his music! He would have been killed among the first by the Nazis, for they could not understand such music. So gentle a man, and how loved by women! His nephew took advantage of it, indeed appropriating for himself as mistresses the women who loved his uncle. But Beethoven needed to express, in love just as in music, sensitivity before all other things. And so he lived, in the end, with a hunchback.’

The elderly gentleman in civilian clothes recounted that he worked as an extra in the Theatre, and that he had managed to talk about art with our greatest artists. He described to me the structure of a violin, and the art involved in making one and mentioned that he had discussed the problem with some of our greatest scientists. [Probably no vain boast; the officers of the Secret Police could discuss any time anything with anybody they chose; anyone daring to spurn their advances was bound to face dire consequences.] Then, changing the subject, he referred to the concerts arranged for the Prague spring festival, and commented on the various performances of Smetana’s My country. ‘Mr Tomin, how Smetana must have loved Czech people; what beautiful relations must he have had with the peasantry!’

At about 5.30, the elderly gentleman with musical interests was replaced by a young man, also in civilian clothes, who announced that I could have been sentenced for damaging the interests of the state abroad, and he began to read extracts from the foreign press which described, for the main part accurately, the harassment by the police of our Wednesday discussions of philosophy.

Shortly after half past six I was transferred to the police station at Bartolomějská Street [the Police headquarters]. There members of the Secret Police worked on me. Two of them in particular impressed themselves on my memory. Policeman A – they neglected to introduce themselves – walked around the interrogation office, and every time he passed me, struck me bluntly on my head, and then he pulled my hair, saying, ‘Don’t go to sleep here, Mr Tomin’. He took a step to the door, a step back, and repeated the performance. I could relax only during the five steps he sometimes took towards the window and the five steps back to me. For variety, policeman A merely pulled violently at the hair of my temples, one side when going to the window, and the other side when walking to the door.

Another policeman stayed in the room meanwhile, standing motionless by the window. They did not interrogate me, but conducted a dialogue between themselves. A: ‘Could this be a philosopher?’ B: ‘Fortunately his philosophy can be seen through by a little child.’ A: ‘He is crazy and belongs to a mental hospital.’ A: ‘They say he has a doctorate. I would like to know what he gave for it.’ B: ‘He is in the business for money, what can you expect? He must have bought the degree as well.’ After some time A exclaimed: ‘We forbid your lectures! And you will listen to us! And get up! You will stand up when I talk to you!’

I recalled, Mr Minister, the second paragraph of law 40/79 concerning the security forces [i.e. the police]: ‘The security forces help the citizen to exact his rights and to maintain his dignity and personal freedom in accordance with the law and interests of our socialist society.’

I remained sitting. Policeman A and B jumped on me, pulled me up to my feet, seized me by the collar of the shirt and pushed me to the wall. Policeman B: ‘Don’t lean against the wall! Don’t make our wall dirty! Take one step forward!’ I made one step forward. Policeman B: ‘Now we see that you can learn obedience! And it didn’t take very much.’ So I went to sit down. They shouted, and demanded that I stand up; then jumping again on me they twisted my arm behind my back, and finally through me to the floor. When I tried to lift at least my head policeman A hit it down. They were breathing heavily, and moving wildly around the room. Policeman A kicked my head and, for a moment, they jumped on me once more and, by twisting my arms, raised me almost to my feet before letting me fall again. Then they took my legs and began to lift them, in order to hold me standing on my head. [Had I had a headache, it would have been unbearable.]

At last, no doubt through fatigue, they called for help and with the help of a third policeman made me sit down on the chair. Others arrived and were told: ‘Imagine! He has been lying on the floor again! What an exhibitionist!’ Their reply was: ‘He should be in a mental hospital. Everyone knows that!’ After a while B picked some of the official record paper: ‘We warn you; stop your lecturing activities immediately. Otherwise we prevent it by every lawful means. Do you take this warning?’

I dictated and they wrote in the record: ‘I cannot accept this warning since it involves a contradiction. I am certain that there are no lawful means in our country’ At this moment they interrupted me, saying that I had no right to the words ‘our country’ since my country is England. The official record then remained unfinished and unsigned.

The group of policemen who had worked on me for two hours left, to be replaced once more by the elderly gentleman who had spoken previously to me about Smetana’s My country. He seemed a little tired now, and so he spoke about his father whom he loved very much, and who smoked a hundred cigarettes a day. In the mornings he would cough heavily and he was now very ill; they all, mother an children, had to sit continually in the atmosphere of cigarette smoke. Apparently this habit of his father’s had begun in the war, and it was for this reason that the elderly gentleman remained a non-smoker. He spoke of his mother who had prophetic dreams which would be confirmed on the radio in the mornings. He himself was a materialist; nevertheless it seemed to him that dreams could be transmitted, just as radio or television waves are transmitted, through space; a doctor had explained to him that the brain is more sensitive at night and able to pick up influences which would not affect it by day.

Then policeman B returned with his company, and I was taken to Konviktská St where I was detained for 48 hours in a cell. The reason for the detention was not given. When I at last got home I learned that during that same evening [of May 7] eleven of my friends were taken from my flat, interrogated and detained for forty-eight hours. Mr Minister, I thereby announce that on Wednesday 7th at 6.30 pm in the evening I began a ten day hunger strike.’

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Bringing Homer to Oxford

On Wednesday May 20 I shall go to Oxford. In front of Balliol I shall read Homer’s Iliad for three hours, from 15.00 to 18.00.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ancient Greek and the interplay of consciousness and the subconscious

In 1977 I opened in Prague a seminar on Plato for young people who were deprived of higher education. We met once a week. In preparation for each session I chose a text of Plato which I read during the week in the original and then presented to my students in the seminar. This opened to me unprecedented insight into the interplay of my consciousness and my subconscious. For during the week the text ‘went in’ in Ancient Greek, in the seminar I reproduced it in the Czech language. In what ‘form’ did Plato’s thought reside in my subconscious? In Ancient Greek, Plato’s sentences were entering the narrow straits of my consciousness word by word, passing through it, and sinking into my subconscious, losing their verbal form; my understanding of what Plato was saying transcended verbal expression in my subconscious; this is why his thoughts, which ‘went in’ in Ancient Greek, could ‘get out’ in my Czech.

In 1978 I invited Oxford dons to my seminar; the first to visit us was Dr Kathleen Wilkes, in April 1979. She spoke without notes. I let her talk as long as I could follow the thread of her narrative. I stopped her each time at the point when I would have lost what she was saying if I let her go on. In this ‘timing’ of her talk I relied entirely on my subconscious, for my consciousness was absorbed by listening to her. Each time I reproduced in Czech what she had said in English. What had been entering the narrow straits of my consciousness and passing into my subconscious in her English was emerging from my subconscious into the narrow straits of my consciousness in my Czech.

We may become aware of the interplay between our consciousness and our subconscious whenever we listen to the radio and observe how the words enter our consciousness, pass through it, and sink into our subconscious. [Why radio? When we listen to a person speaking, we are absorbed by that person’s speaking and have no mental space for observing what is happening in our consciousness and our subconscious.] When we observe how narrow is the strait of consciousness in which the words we listen to are actually present to our consciousness, we begin to realize that our understanding of what we listen to is the result of the interplay of our consciousness with our subconscious, completed in the subconscious – we have ‘a feeling’ that we understand.

Asked to show that we understood what we had listened to, we must ‘look’ into our subconscious and put our understanding into words. As we undergo the process of expressing our understanding in words, we can observe again how the words emerge from our subconscious, pass through our consciousness, and word by word sink into your subconscious. Each sentence is pre-formed in the subconscious, acquires its form as it passes through our consciousness, and becomes a meaningful whole in our subconscious. Our understanding, and thus the subconscious involved in acquiring it, deepens as a result.

Aristotle’s concepts dunamis (potentiality) and energeia (actuality) may help us to conceptualize the interplay between our consciousness and our subconscious. Energeia signifies ‘being in action’, not just actuality, and as such is suited to describe what’s going on in our consciousness; dunamis signifies power and ability, not just potentiality, and as such is suited to describe our subconscious.

We can become aware of the interplay between our consciousness and our subconscious in what we think, say or listen to when it is being said, but not in what we perceive by our senses outside the sphere of thinking. The question therefore is, whether our subconscious is involved in ‘sensory’ perception of the world around us. To answer this question, we must consider the ways in which we ‘perceive’ the world with our eyes. I put ‘sensory’ and ‘perceive’ in quotation marks, for physics and neurophysiology inform us that we do not actually perceive the outside world with our eyes. Physics informs us about the world outside us, which comes to the fore in scientific experiments and can be registered by scientific instruments. It tells us that our eyes are affected neither by the objects we see around us nor by their images, but by the waves of ‘light’ scattered by those objects. – I put ‘light’ in quotation marks, for there is no light in the world outside us. – Neurophysiology tells us that the ‘light’ waves affect photoreceptors on the retina of our eyes, which in their turn affect optic nerves. These effects are then processed on the way to the brain. Again, just as there is no light in the outside world which is the domain of physics, so there is no light in the brain itself, which is the domain of neurophysiology. On the basis of the physiological processing of the optic information in the brain that something in us generates light in us and the world which we see in that light as being outside us.  In ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ on my website I have adopted for this ‘something in us’ the term human spiritual nature, HSN.

HSN is as real and necessary as the scientific data provided by physics and neurophysiology. Unfortunately, physicists and neurophysiologists fail to see this fact; the ‘outside world’ of human experience intrudes into the way they think and talk about the findings of their sciences. Let me give two examples of such intrusion. Light is defined on Google as follows: ‘Light is a transverse, electromagnetic wave that can be seen by humans.’ In fact, electromagnetic waves cannot be seen by humans; HSN produces light on the basis of brain processes initiated by the effects of electromagnetic waves on the photoreceptors in our eyes.

For the second example I refer to R. Carpenter’s and Reddi’s Neurophysiology. The authors open their chapter on ‘The nature of sound’ with the words: ‘Sound is generated in a medium such as air whenever there is a sufficiently rapid movement of parts of its boundary – perhaps a moving loudspeaker cone, or the collapsing skin of a pricked balloon.’ (5th edition, Hodder Arnold 2012, p. 108). In fact, what is generated ‘by a moving loudspeaker cone or the collapsing skin of a pricked balloon’ is not sound, but ‘a local movement of molecules that tends to make the pressure differences propagate away from the original site of disturbance’. The authors write further on: ‘The sound impinges on the eardrum tympanic membrane’ (p. 112). In fact, it is not sound that impinges on the eardrum, but the waves propagated from ‘the original site of disturbance’.  There is no sound in the outside world of physics and there is no sound in the brain explored by neurophysiology. Sound is the product of our HSN.

These conceptual contaminations are not innocuous. Carpenter and Reddi write: ‘It is not easy to think clearly about our own sensory systems, as we all have this overpowering feeling of sitting inside our head as in a cinema, with all this sensory stuff being projected in front of us and providing us with “conscious sensation” … we naturally therefore imagine that the purpose of sensory systems must be to deliver as accurate a picture of the outside world as possible to this little man in the head … If the only purpose of sensory systems was to relay as exact an image as possible of the outside world to the little man in the head, there would be no need for “sensory processing” at all.’ (pp. 77-78) – If sounds were generated in the air, propagated through the air and impinging on the eardrum, they could go directly ‘to the little man in the head’.

Since we can experience the interplay of our conscious and subconscious activities in the realm of language, we can use this experience for our benefit, choosing activities that best suit and most effectively cultivate and invigorate our HSN. Ancient Greek gave rise to the poetry of Homer and was cultivated by his poetry; it enabled Aristotle to develop his thoughts and was in turn enriched by Aristotle’s thinking. Homer represents the beginning and Aristotle the culmination of the cultural development of the Greeks. In Homer the activity of thought is valued only as means to ends, Aristotle views thought contemplating thought as the best and most pleasurable activity. Homer marked a gigantic step towards Aristotle, for when the Ancient Greeks were listening to rhapsodes (professional reciters of poetry: rapsantes aoidên, ‘stitching up poetry’, Hesiod fr. 357) reciting Homer, they could live for hours in the poetic world of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Then came the writers of tragedies who presented on stage the lives of great men and women involved in tragic conflicts – Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (Aeschylus); Antigone, Creon, Oedipus, Tiresias, and Iocasta (Sophocles); Medea and Jason (Euripides) – and the writers of comedies, who made their audiences laugh not only at the leading poets, philosophers and politicians of the day, but even at their gods (Strepsiades asks Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds: ‘Who makes rain?’ Socrates answers: ‘The Clouds’ [capital C, for in Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds figure as Socrates’ deity]. Strepsiades remarks: ‘And I thought it was Zeus pissing through a sieve.’) Herodotus and Thucydides invited the Greeks to travel in thought into their past, and thus enrich and cultivate their reflection of and interaction with the present.  Philosophers of nature transcended the limited world of sensory perception and embraced nature in its totality in their thought. Then Socrates promoted the quest for self-knowledge as a key to a truly good life. And then came Plato; think of Aristotle contemplating all this when you reflect on the delight that he derived from ‘thought contemplating thought’.  – All this we can make our own by appropriating the Ancient Greek language.