Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ancient Philosophy Society 2011 Meeting, Part One

I just returned from this year's meeting of the Ancient Philosophy Society at the Sundance Resort in Utah. I have been attending the APS for several years now and have had the opportunity to both present and repeatedly offer comments to this incredibly rigorous group. I am happy to say that this year's meeting was probably the best conference I have ever attended. It was sponsored by Utah Valley University and hosted by Michael Shaw. Michael and those who assisted him, primarily the two Program Coordinators of the UVU Honors Program Tiffany Nez and Allen Hill, all worked exceptionally hard to bring about a very successful conference. I would like to thank each of them, but especially Allen Hill who helped me repeatedly throughout my stay and was a lot of fun to hang out with.

I also had the opportunity to meet many of the UVU philosophy undergraduates and I found them all to be extraordinarily well educated and intelligent. They are a testament to the superb educational work of the UVU philosophy faculty. In particular they reflected the amazing talents of the faculty I had the pleasure to spend time with including Michael Shaw, Shannon Mussett and Pierre Lamarche.

In this and the following posts I would like to provide a summary of the conference for those who were not able to attend. I hope that it will also encourage those who have not previously been members of the Ancient Philosophy Society to join.

(In what follows I will provide brief summaries and comments on several of the papers I was fortunate enough to attend. These will attempt to be neither complete nor absolutely accurate. I will only comment on papers I attended and will mainly offer my impressions of the papers and what most stood out for me. Clearly, then, my summaries should be taken in the subjective sense in which they are written. It is also worth noting that I am not basing my choice of what to include upon some claim to these being the "best" papers. I saw most of the conference but, inevitably, there were some moments I missed. Also there were some papers at the conference I do not feel qualified to summarize or comment upon. Finally I am limited by the finitude of my own memory in cases where the papers were not included in the printed proceedings. I do not, then, intend to imply that anything not included in my summary was in any way less interesting or important than what I have included. I would also like to invite any authors who I discuss to offer corrections or additions to what I say here. Those I do not discuss are also free to offer summaries of their own if they so desire.)

Day One:

Panel: The Cosmopolitan (Dis)Advantages of Hellenistic Philosophy

Stoic Cosmopolitanism, Sceptic Quasi-Cosmopolitanism, and "Globalization"
by Pierre Lamarche of Utah Valley University

What I found most brilliant about Pierre's very rich paper was the way in which he inscribed contemporary debates between post-moderns and the inheritors of Enlightenment rationality within the ancient debates between Sceptics and Stoics.

Pierre attempted to answer the objection that scepticism leaves one unable to resist dangerous social movements such as fascism. The sceptic, undirected by a belief that certain social formations or standards of morality are better than others, seems to be damned to the fate of "going with the flow" and passively accepting whatever social formations happen to exist. The Sceptic, then, seems necessarily stuck in an uncritical conventionalism.

Pierre's response to this charge focused on scepticism as an attitude which refuses general claims of knowledge and seeks, instead, to respond to immediate situations as they appear independent of large scale moral and metaphysical interpretive frameworks. This attitude, in turn, explains why the Sceptics themselves did not generally lead conventional lives. Rather, guided by how things appear to them rather than abstract frameworks, many of them lived unconventional lives which often exposed them to ridicule. Pierre offered, as example, the story of a Sceptic who engaged in non-conventional romantic practices and performed the work generally reserved for women.

Such an attitude is in contrast to a Stoic cosmopolitanism which asserts the abstract equality of individuals but also asserts that there is a certain life which is most in accordance with nature. While Sceptics, in fact, treat others as equal without asserting the metaphysical grounds of such a practice Stoicism provides a universal metaphysical justification for equality which nonetheless grounds it on the view that there is a right and wrong way to live (or at the very least a better and worse way). The Stoic view was then related to contemporary globalization and the attempt to "develop" foreign nations through their translation into the market economy. It is assumed that the citizens of such "developing" nations are made "better off" from globalization because their way of life is transformed from that of sustenance, for example with local farming for the providing of individual needs, to participation in market economy through the sale of locally grown goods and the availability of money. This comes, however, at the price of the destruction of local traditions and sustaining practices. It is assumed, in short, that industrial development and participation in capitalism is the rational way of life which is to be preferred to the apparent poverty of a way of life focused on local sustenance. This assumption, however, still asserts the equality of the individuals in "developing nations" to those from "developed nations" despite denying the equal value or rationality of their way of life.

Pierre's most striking contemporary example of the Sceptic/Stoic debate appeared in the context of Camus' The Stranger. Identifying the book's main character, Meursault, with a contemporary nihilism to be associated with ancient scepticism Pierre noted the general belief that Meursault demonstrates the socially dangerous implications of scepticism. In response to this he dwelt upon the relationship between the character of Salamano and Meursault. Salamano is Meursault's neighbor and a generally dislike-able character with a mangy dog. When the dog goes missing, however, it is only Meursault who sees Salamano as a person like any other and so is willing to talk with him and assist him in looking for his missing dog. Others, who are blinded to Salamano's humanity through their pre-determining frameworks of social convention and subjective disgust, are unable to see the human in pain that Salamano represents. Despite, then, the dangers represented by Meursault's sceptical nihilism he also offers the promise of an appreciation of the human as human free of blinding, and often implicit, dogmatic commitments.

Day Two:

Panel: Pessimism, Pity and Proto-Philosophy

Poetic Pessimism, Mortal Fools, and the Transition to Philosophy
by Karen Gover of Bennington College

Karen's paper focused upon problematizing Jim Lesher's argument that the transition from poetic myth to philosophical rationality was a move from poetic pessimism to philosophical optimism. The heart of this transition rests in the move from a sense in the poets that true knowledge is reserved to the gods in contrast to philosophy's sense that human rationality can achieve understanding of the world. Karen suggested that this reading of the move from poetry to philosophy is an imposition of Enlightenment conceptions of rationality onto the intellectual scene of the ancient world.

Karen suggested that what underlies the appearance of a shift from pessimism to optimism is a change in what counts as the object of knowledge. For the poets the object of knowledge was the history of heroes and gods while, for the Pre-Socratic philosophers, the object of knowledge became the natural order which grounds all events. (Personally I object to a naturalistic reading of the Pre-Socratics but that will come up more fully later when we discuss John Sallis' paper. Despite this small disagreement Karen's paper made a very convincing argument.)

Despite this shift in the object of knowledge both poet and philosopher tend to share a sense that true knowledge is lacking in most people, the "mortal fools", and that the general failure of most people to achieve true knowledge does not amount to an inaccessibility of knowledge to all mortals. As Karen rightly points out, the poetic cry that knowledge is available only to the gods is often followed by dramatic demonstrations of the poet's own ability to describe in detail the workings of the divine and human world. In this way the poets were not nearly as pessimistic as they might seem.

The interesting heart of Karen's paper is found in her engagement with the issue of authority in poet and philosopher alike. In each case the poet and philosopher draws closer to the gods than to mortals through their ability to understand and explain the unseen. In each case the power of the poet or writer to do so is bolstered through the use of conventional social forms of authority. In this regard it is important that both Xenophanes and Parmenides wrote in meter which carries with it the authority of poetic inspiration. Similarly, in the case of the Pre-Socratics we see a replacement of one type of divine authority and access to truth with another. Parmenides has his goddess, Heraclitus his logos. For these reasons it seems clear that proto-philosophy, and Karen also extended this point to include Socrates on several points, is far from proposing that human rationality in general has access to true knowledge in the manner that Enlightenment rationality may be assumed to be universal.

Logos and Pity in Sophocles' Philoctetes
Marina McCoy of Boston College

Marina's paper offered a fabulous analysis of the failure of logos and centrality of embodiment and pain in the Philoctetes. The main character of the play, Philoctetes, has been abandoned on a wild island by his fellow Greeks due to an injury which he has suffered which causes him to uncontrollably scream out in pain. This affliction, in turn, was disruptive of religious ceremonies and so he was exiled from participating in any religious observance. Philoctetes, then, exists in a boundary position between the wild and the human world. Neither beast nor man he is unable in many cases to control his speech, which instead degenerates into the grunting and screaming worthy of a beast, and yet still harbors in his island exile the trappings of civilization (he obsessively tends, for example, a hearth fire like onto that found in the center of the Greek polis).

The plot of the tragedy consists in the need the Greeks have for the bow of Heracles which Philoctetes possesses. For this reason Odysseus sends Neoptolemus to the island to get the bow from Philoctetes. It is at this point in the plot that Marina's analysis brings to light the interesting interplay between logos and embodied pain. What Philoctetes most desires, upon the arrival of Neoptolemus, is an engagement with speech. "I want to hear your voice" he states. Marina sees Neoptolemus to begin a process of Philoctetes' rehabilitation through the use of a speech which, though deceptive, creates an empathetic connection between the two characters. They find a connection in each having been wronged by Odysseus. Though this is the start of a healing for Philoctetes, who Marine argues will go on to develop an alternative narrative concerning his own suffering which will allow him to once more be reconciled with Greek society, Neoptolemus is himself in need of a sort of healing.

Neoptolemus' development consists in moving beyond the lying speech he had intended to use in order to take the bow and once more leave the injured man exiled to the attainment of a true sympathy with Philoctetes. This occurs not through the logos which had proven the start of healing for the injured man, but rather through Neoptolemus' experience of Philoctetes' screams of pain. These screams, and the emotional rather than rational response they produce, is the origin of Neoptolemus' decision to bring back both the bow and the injured man to the Greeks.

As Marina puts it, "Philoctetes willingly rejoins the political community with openness to the reality of his vulnerability within it. Just as importantly, Neoptolemus rejoins that community with an understanding of the vulnerable one as he who possesses dignity and who is fundamental to the success of the community. But the moral growth of each has arisen not only from their logoi, but also from discovering the limits of those logoi, and a more basic form of contact beyond such words. They discover a sense of human community deeper than the reasoned accounts that we offer about ourselves." 

Some Personal Observations: Whether it is their intention or not, the work of Pierre, Karen and Marina each problematize from different angles the promise reason is said to hold in cases of interpersonal relationships. For Pierre and Marina it is something other than a universalizing reason or logos which offers the foundation of humane relationships. In Karen's case reason, at least in its early Greek formulation, is revealed to rest upon foundations of authority which call into question its own ability to ground all human relationships independent of social structures.

(I will finished my summary of Day Two, including the book panel discussion of Christopher Long's Aristotle on the Nature of Truth and Peg Birmingham's keynote address in the next blog entry.)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, William, for this initial post and for taking up the invitation to blog about the conference and to use digital media to continue our discussions. I appreciate what you say about the conference being both rigorous and, well, fun. Part of what makes the APS so important for me as a scholar is that we have developed a community in which we can support and challenge one another in an atmosphere of friendship. My hope is that we will find ways to continue to do this throughout the year via digital media, so I am particularly grateful for this post.

    I look forward to reading more about your experience at APS11 and am glad you made it home safely.