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Philosophers like Wittgenstein and Plato are known for their distinctive, and challenging, writing styles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, commentators generally don't write like Wittgenstein and Plato in writing about them. Does this show that works like the Tractatus and the Republic could have been written just as well in ordinary prose? My underlying presumption here is that when people write about philosophers, this largely amounts to restating the claims of those philosophers. So if a Wittgenstein scholar insists that Wittgenstein's oracular style is essential to his philosophy, and yet argues as much in an article written in straightforward, conventional prose, she is actually contradicting herself in a way.

Not all of Plato's writings are challenging or difficult. But some are, the Parmenides for example. And Wittgenstein writes perfectly ordinary sentences in the Philosophical Investigations , though people complain that the writing is hard to follow. I can't agree with this, as I think it's a view that insinuates itself when you don't know the arguments very well. The Tractatus is of course different. But both the Parmenides and the Tractatus could have been written in ordinary prose, apart from the symbolic bits, for example in connection with the symbol omega and the theory of numbers, say, or the theory of truth-functions and the general form of the proposition. But your presumption is wrong. When people write about philosophers' work, very little restates the claims of those philosophers. The only point of that would be educational. Much more of the writing about works of philosophy is about what the claims mean and whether they are true. So your contradiction disappears. It is possible to try to unravel the meaning of sentences in the Tractatus and then to argue that they are true or that they are false or that we can't decide, without just repeating what the book says, and so, by your premise, descending in oracularity.

I am currently working on an article whose core argument hinges in part on a premise that refers to Socrates'/Plato's take on beauty, and its relationship to justice, truth and goodness. Put plainly, the premise goes as follows: in opposing the Sophists' privileging of art and poetry, for Plato, beauty is nothing but a sign of the truthfulness, justice and goodness of something. Said otherwise, in Plato there is an implicit yet inextricable correspondence between these four realms- only what is just can be good, and only what is truthful can be just and good, whereas whatever partakes of all these qualities can only be deemed beautiful. Is this premise correct? Does Plato's texts support it? My knowledge of ancient philosophy, and particularly of Platonism, is rather partial, and I am deriving this premise from a rather intuitive interpretation of my piecemeal reading of some of his dialogues. Also, can you specifically suggest some of Plato's dialogues where this premise is apparent? Can you suggest some recent scholarly material that expands in this direction? Thank you in advance!

The terms in which you pose the question are not alien to Plato's dialogues, but in the dialogues his character rarely describe things in such abstract systematic terms. Socrates, for one, is always moving back and forth between the abstractions about what is beautiful and good and specific objects (a fine horse, a golden spoon).

If anything it is the neoplatonic tradition that uses the terms found in your question. And although philosophers like Plotinus have brought great insights both to the study of Plato and to our understanding of the world, they are far from the last word on what the dialogues say. So I begin by cautioning you away from these ways of summarizing Plato.

The dialogue Hippias Major is the first place to look for what you are discussing, both because Socrates tries to understand "to kalon" (what is beautiful, fair, fine), and because he asks how it might be related to the good. Diotima's speech in Plato's Symposium, and the long speech Socrates makes in the middle of the Phaedrus, also contain essentials of the Platonic account of beauty.

If you want to know more about how I understand Plato on beauty, I refer you to my entry on ancient theories of beauty in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, which also contains suggestions for further reading; or you can go to my entry "Plato's aesthetics" in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (I'm referring you to my own writings not because I think they're better than everyone else's but because any summary I give you here will be a summary of what I say in those entries.)

But let's go back to your question, despite what I said at the beginning about the difficulty of answering in those terms. I suppose I dispute one assumption at the heart of what you attribute to Plato. To say that beauty is "nothing but" the truthfulness and goodness of a thing is to describe what Kant will call "dependent beauty," which is to say a beauty that follows from the goodness or intelligible coherence of the thing. If beauty is dependent beauty then, as it were, we need to know why a thing is good in order to perceive it as beautiful.

In fact however Plato's dialogues seem to move in the opposite direction. As I understand him, the beauty he speaks of is what Kant calls free beauty. We see a thing as beautiful and are motivated to understand more about that peculiar property beauty, and our effort to approach beauty leads us to philosophize about what is good. Beauty is the only intelligible property that stimulates our perceptions; that's why it plays such an important role in bringing people to philosophy.

The Sophists have nothing to do with this. You are quite right that they talk about poetry a lot. It doesn't follow that they're talking about beauty. Indeed, from the point of view of modern thinkers for whom aesthetics somehow combines beauty and art, the most striking thing about Plato's discussion of beauty is that it has very little to do with art. Plato speaks as negatively about the arts as any major philosopher has; but as enthusiastically about beauty as any philosopher could. The two don't mix much.

When Bernie Sanders talks about healthcare being a "right", is he talking nonsense? If you consider any other right in the Bill of Rights (eg right to bear arms), it's about freedom from government interference. It's something I can hold against the government. But what Sanders wants seems to be the opposite of that. To pay for a healthcare system, you need to tax people. So, basically, a so-called right to healthcare really means an obligation on the government to interfere with my money. This so-called right would limit my freedom instead of protecting it!

You seem to be assuming that the idea of a positive right is nonsense, though perhaps you don't intend anything quite that strong. If that's what you do intend, then I'll leave it to others to say moe about the debate, but I'd simply note that it's not just obvious that only negative rights can be genuine rights. What I wanted to do instead is to highlight an assumption that lies behind your example and point out that it's open to question. It's the assumption that there's some antecedent fact of the matter about what's "your money." Like it or not, the money you earn (whether as salary or as an entrepreneur) comes to you within a system in which government is already deeply involved. There are courts and police. There are regulatory bodies that keep the banking system (for example) from turning into the wild west. There's a vast network of infrastructure that in fact is provided through the government. The list could clearly be extended. That background of rules, institutions, personnel, physical systems... is the setting in which you make "your" money, and it's not unreasonable to speculate that without it, most of us, yourself included, would be much worse off. But all that machinery in the background doesn't come for free, and so your nominal earnings shouldn't be thought of as all properly "yours," with the government coming along and depriving you of some of what rightfully is your property. There's no simple a priori fact about what part of "your" money is really yours.

Saying all that is consistent with a wide range of views about how much we should be taxed and how big or small government should be. But there's another point. "Freedoms" that are merely nominal and that you aren't in a position actually to exercise aren't worth much. One of the arguments in favor of a welfare state of at least some extent is that it provides people with a background level of security against which they can exercise their freedoms without undue risk. In fact, health care provides a way of focussing the point. In the United States, most people get their health care through their employers, and many of them couldn't afford to pay for the insurance on their own. For many people, this means that their freedom is actually limited. If you have a medical condition that makes insurance essential, you may simply not be in a position to strike out on your own as an entrepreneur, even if you otherwise have the pluck and the talent to succeed in the long run. If health care were a socially guaranteed benefit, you would have more freedom in this case, not less.

The logic and metaphysics of rights is a big topic, and there are many people on this board who have real expertise. I hope some of them chime in. My point here is just to clear a little ground. Whatever the best overall analysis may be, and in particular whether we should treat heath care as a right, there's no quick way of settling the matter.

Is their really an objective answer as to where the world came from?

The current evidence and theory from cosmology almost conclusively give us the objective answer that the first event was the Big Bang. If God brought about the Big Bang, that too is an objective answer, or if the Big Bang came about due to fluctuations in a sea of quantum gravity, that is an objective answer. As Stephen observes, the steady state theory (the universe was always there) is equally objective. The Big Bang and the steady state theory may be counter-intuitive, but they are objective answers.

You ask about the existence of an objective answer to the cosmological question in particular. I cannot see anything about the question where if anywhere the universe came from that raises questions of objectivity. Or is there a religious question behind your question? Does your question really mean, 'Is there an objectively true answer as to where the world came from, rather than a religious answer?' Then is the assumption that religion is subjective? That may be all wrong about what is behind your thinking, but I offer it hoping that it clarifies part of your question, or a possible part of it rather.

Does logic rule out the possibility that someone could travel into the past and affect events so that they turn out otherwise than we remember them?

Does logic rule out the possibility that someone could travel into the past and affect events so that they turn out otherwise than we remember them?

No, because our memory of those events could be mistaken.

But:

Does logic rule out the possibility that someone could travel into the past and affect events so that they turn out otherwise than they in fact did?

Yes, so far as I can see.

Hello philosophers. I have a question I was hoping I could get some insight on. Do teachers have obligations to develop the talents of their students as much as possible? And if they don't, are they in the wrong? If someone who could have been a great pianist becomes an alcoholic, and fails to develop her potential, people sometimes regard that as a tragedy; but is the situation so different to a promising student falling in with a bad teacher, and for that reason failing to develop her potential?

Great question(s). I am in agreement with those philosophers (including Kant) who believe that persons do have a duty to develop their talents, sometimes called a duty of self-cultivation. If musical works are good, and the way to bring about musical works is by cultivating musicians, then the latter is a fitting, good act. Of course complicated issues emerge when, for example, one cannot cultivate all (and in some cases most) talents of persons. The teacher-student relationship may also have complications, depending on time, resources, and the receptivity to learning and growing on behalf of the student. One might also wonder whether the duty to self-cultivation is entirely grounded in the goods that such cultivation will produce or is it also supported by self-interest or a duty to other people, e.g. perhaps I have a duty to be educated because I have a duty to be part of a democratic society and being educated is essential for me to play that part. Your use of the term "talent" also brings to mind that the word comes from the English translation of the New Testament when Jesus calls on persons to develop the talents they have, when "talent" was a unit of money. So, on top of all the above "issues," we might also see a duty to develop talents within the realm of religious ethics.

Taking the term "philosophy" to mean "the love of wisdom" (literal meaning of "philo" and "sophia") I think a wise professor of philosophy will seek to contribute to as many students as she can that are in her care in developing talents, such as the ability to think and act wisely, the virtues of humility in the pursuit of other virtues (integrity, justice...) and that failing to do so on her part, just as the failing of students that might occur when they are unresponsive and unwilling to grow ethically and intellectually, would be like your example of a promising, great pianist who loses her or himself in a disabling, life-destroying addiction.

Is taxation theft?

obviously a highly oversimplified, underspecified question ... to which I might return some similar questions: is using a road you didn't pay for theft? is going to a school you didn't pay for theft? is being treated by an ambulance you didn't pay for theft? .... there are many important concepts that need elucidation before one could answer such questions with any substance, but at bare minimum (seems to me) we need to take into account that the vast majority of us (at least in the US and Europe, say) live in communal structures, and that we cannot avoid recognizing that the bare minima for comfortable lives involve people working together whether they want to or not, and at least within that framework the idea of taxation, to support communal necessities (say), would not prima facie count as a form of theft .... but clearly much more to be said here --

hope that's a useful beginning ...

ap

I am an undergraduate student who is interested in attending medical school. My primary reason for wanting to work in the medical field is to improve access to medical care in underserved further along my career path. However, attending medical school costs quite a bit. While I am fortunate enough to likely be able to pay for med school without crippling debt, I can't help but think that the money going towards my education could go towards better causes, such as improving infrastructure in rural, underserved communities and improving vaccination rates. Would the most moral option here be to donate money going towards my education to these causes or to go to medical school and use my education to improve access to healthcare in underserved populations?

Some people hold the view that if we're doing what we really ought to, we'll give up to the point where giving more would decrease the overall good that our giving produces. The most obvious arguments for that sort of view come from utilitarianism, according to which the right thing to do is the action that maximizes overall utility (good). If I could give more and overall utility would rise on that account, giving more is what I should do.

Other views are less demanding. A Kantian would say that our most important duty is avoid acting in ways that treat others as mere means to our own ends. Kantians also think we have a duty to do some positive good, but how much and in what way is left open. I'm not aware of any Kantians who think we're obliged to give up to the point where it would begin to hurt.

Who's right? I do think there's real wisdom in the idea that a system of morality won't work well if it's so demanding that few people will be able to follow it, and so I'm not persuaded by the point of view that goes with the first paragraph above. (That's entirely consistent with agreeing that most of us do less positive than we should.) But there's another point: it might be that if you, in isolation, were to take the large sum of money that medical school would cost and give it to Doctors Without Borders, then that would produce more good than if you were to go to medical school. But even if this were true in each individual case, taken one by one, the net effect of having everyone act this way would be that there would be no doctors. And that would be a very bad thing. At the least, it's not clear that you're under any special obligation to make this sacrifice.

Add to that the uncertainties of real life. Do you (or anyone else) actually know that more good would come from having you give your tuition money to charity? Doctors, after all, can do a lot of good.

It's not clear that the demanding view sketched in the first paragraph is actually the right one. And even if it is, it's not clear that acting accordingly calls for you to give up your plans for medical school. I'm not convinced that there's anything wrong with you simply making up your mind based on your own inclinations. After all, it's not as though either choice is ignoble. But I'd go further. If you pass up the chance to become a doctor based on a dubious abstract argument, there's a real chance that you'll eventually end up regretting your decision. A moral outlook according to which people are routinely required to set their own goals and desires aside on the basis of abstract calculation about imponderable outcomes strikes me as a recipe for moral anomie.

What drives all the squabbles about free will and determinism? Is it anything more than a desire to reward and to punish, especially to punish?

What you're asking is really an empirical, psychological question -- What motivates the various sides in a particular controversy? -- rather than a question that philosophers, as such, are well-equipped to answer. But I'll hazard an answer anyway.

Take some carefully, even painstakingly, considered decision, such as U.S. president Obama's decision to order the May 2011 hit on Osama bin Laden. If that decision wasn't one for which the agent is morally responsible -- i.e., morally liable to praise or blame -- then I don't know what could be. But according to the incompatibilist side of the debate, if determinism is true then Obama bears no more responsibility for his decision than someone high on PCP bears for his/her decision to try to fly from the roof of an apartment building. According to incompatibilism, if determinism is true then all decisions are equally unfree, equally lacking in responsibility, regardless of how sober, well-informed, and deliberate the decision-maker is.

The philosophical question is simply this: Is that view of the relation between free will and determinism correct? Is our practice of morally distinguishing Obama from the PCP user baseless if every choice is the deterministic result of prior causes? I myself answer no: I think incompatibilism is seriously mistaken. But I can't see how the question is unimportant or how the debate over it is merely a squabble.

Is it strange that you can't divide by zero?

It may seem strange at first blush, but there's a pretty good reason why division by 0 isn't defined: if it were, we'd get an inconsistency. You can find many discussions of this point with a bit of googling, but the idea is simple. Suppose x = y/z. Then we must have

y = x*z

That means that if y = 2, for example, and z = 0, we must have

2 = x*0

But if we multiply a number by 0, we get 0. That's part of what it is to be 0. So no matter what x we pick, we get x*0 = 0, not x*0 = 2.

Is it still strange that we can't divide by 2? If by "strange" you mean "feels peculiar," then it's strange from at least some peoples' point of view. But this sense of "strange" isn't a very good guide to the truth.

On the other hand, if by "strange" you mean "paradoxical" or something like that, it's not strange at all. On the contrary: we get paradox (or worse: outright contradiction) if we insist that division by zero is defined.

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