Archive for April, 2011

12: Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’

Most philosophy courses require students to tackle Aristotle at some point and for good reason: not only does his work cover almost the entire breadth of human interest, but much of what he had to say still informs modern discussions in biology, psychology, ethics, physics, politics and law, not to mention philosophy itself.

Aristotle’s method is unlike that of his predecessors and his work requires a somewhat different approach by the critical thinker. Not only did he make heavy use of observation and classification but he also took care to consider the opinions of both experts and lay people. He was, in this sense, the forerunner of both modern empirical method and academic credibility. This means that the reader must handle a wide range of differing assumptions and examples when reading his work.

Approaching ancient texts always requires some caution. Vocabulary in particular presents a unique challenge: translations from one interpreter to another can be inconsistent, and some terms can only awkwardly be forced into modern parlance.

In this excerpt from Book II of Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, we will meet Aristotle’s concept of virtue, which is not easily rendered into modern English. A virtue, in Ancient Greek, is often parsed as being ‘an excellence’, but this hardly makes the notion much clearer to the modern reader. The Greek concept of virtue is not, as is our modern English one, solely concerned with moral behaviour. Rather, referring to some thing’s virtue is understood as referring to ‘its best or highest quality’. Thus, Aristotle can make the distinction at the beginning of Chapter 1 between man’s best intellectual qualities and his best moral qualities by use of one and the same word.

The word ‘passions’ is also used with a slightly different meaning to our modern one. It is synonymous with ‘desire’ in the general sense, rather than the ‘intense desire’ of our modern word.

You will find paragraph main ideas, answers to the questions and a commentary in the answer key.

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11: Thomas Paine’s ‘The Age of Reason’

In ‘The Age of Reason’, Thomas Paine offers devastating arguments against the “Christian mythology” that make the rantings of people like Richard Dawkins look infantile in comparison. Paine rejects both organized religion and the bible’s portrayal of a vindictive, vengeful God. Like Aristotle, he argues in favour of deism and rejects any appeal to divine revelation. Rather, the belief in God is a logical conclusion to the question of why anything should exist at all.

In this excerpt from ‘The Age of Reason’, there are twenty-six short paragraphs. Be sure to follow the reading technique as set out earlier. You should get into the habit of making notes while you read, and especially of noting down the main idea of each paragraph.

At first, you will find this slow-going, but after a little practice you will become adept at it, and you will find it saves you an enormous amount of time and thought when you come to writing your essays and revising for exams. Equally, once you’ve made your notes, don’t forget to write a 50-75 word word summary of the text (paragraph main ideas are given in the answer key, the link to which is at the end of the excerpt).

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9.1 On meaning and understanding

Let me tell you a short story about a cat, a mat and a couple of people. We’ll start with Jack.

Jack says: The cat is sitting on the mat.

What Jack says is true. However, Jill’s reply is also true:

Jill says: No it isn’t.

How can Jack and Jill’s utterances both be true? Surely, one of them must be wrong? The simple answer is that Jack is speaking on the telephone, and he is referring to the black cat and the blue mat in his living room. Jill, in her home, is thinking of her white cat, who is sitting on her knee.

Now suppose Jill’s white cat is, coincidentally, sitting on Jill’s green mat. Jack doesn’t know this, when he says, truly

The cat is sitting on the mat.

Jill, who doesn’t even know Jack has a cat, agrees that Jack has spoken truly. However, there is something wrong with Jack and Jill’s agreement. They both agree the statement is true, but the statement has a different meaning for each of them, and in a very important sense, Jack and Jill, while superficially agreeing with each other, are not actually agreeing at all. The agreement is an illusion. They are, in fact, miscommunicating rather than communicating successfully. (The miscommunication would soon become obvious once either of them started adding more details, such as Jill saying, ‘Yes, but I wish it was easier to get all those white hairs out of the mat!’. Jack would be quite confused.)

What has all this got to do with developing our reading skills? When we read a text, we enter into a relationship with the author that is similar to that of Jack and Jill. When an author says

“Intelligence is an inherited ability”

he could be right and he could be wrong at the same time; alternatively, we could think he is right — correctly — but still not understand what he meant. Just as with the cats, it depends on what the author was referring to when he used words like “intelligence’ and ‘inherited ability’, and whether we understand the meaning of those words in the same way.

This is, of course, a general problem about language, meaning and communication. However, in many situations such as face-to-face conversations or textual exchanges, we may have access to the author to find out his or her real intent.

If we realise a miscommunication has occurred (‘What white hairs?’ says Jack), we can ask for clarification from the author. But often, also, we do not have access to the author or to the original intent.

Then we have to rely on other things: background knowledge, experts who know more about the author’s thoughts from other works, our linguistic intuition (in the case of dealing with a foreign language or a translation), and finally — perhaps most importantly — logical coherence. What interpretation of the text makes the best sense, given all that we know?

Some postmodernist thinkers believe that this last consideration is the only one worth attending to. They suggest that even the author’s own intent, which perhaps we can never truly know, cannot help us interpret the best meaning for us in a given situation.

I don’t wish to discuss this view here, though I will note that, in my opinion, it is probably not a coherent position if we try to fully cash it out. However, whatever the truth about that, the fact is that there is often more than one possible interpretation of a text. Some interpretations make more sense than others, some may be equally valid, and some may make no sense at all (they may lack logical coherence with other ideas in the text, may misunderstand vocabulary, may not cohere with other things known about the author or topic).

This is why we say there is sometimes more than one right answer, that some answers may be just wrong, and always that we need to discuss and share our interpretations.
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10. Descartes’ ‘Meditations’

The twelve paragraphs in our first excerpt are from one of the most famous and influential texts ever published in Western Philosophy. They belong to Rene Descartes ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, which is a standard reading for philosophy students all over the world. Descartes writes in a fluent and narrative style, but what makes it difficult for modern readers is not just the occasional low-frequency vocabulary but also the old-fashioned grammatical structures.

Set aside around 50 minutes to read the text and to make your notes. As you read, remember to follow the steps as set out in the reading technique. After having read the text and made your notes, try to answer the questions at the end of the excerpt.

Answers to the questions, paragraph notes, and a commentary are provided on the answer page, the link to which is at the end of the excerpt.

Enjoy! 🙂

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9. Preparing to read

Philosophy is notoriously difficult to read. The reasons are various: the subject matter rarely lends itself to an entertaining style; it commonly treats of abstract rather than concrete objects which can be difficult to conceptualise; authors’ writing styles vary widely; texts are often littered with formal expressions and technical vocabulary, not to mention smatterings of Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian. Sometimes, texts are difficult to read because they were written or translated a long time ago using different grammar patterns from modern English; other times, texts are hard to read just because the author is not a good writer.

We will practice techniques that can be applied to ameliorate all these problems throughout the posts in Part II, but the first and most effective thing any prospective philosophy student must do is improve their vocabulary.

Even ordinary ideas are often expressed in what English teachers call ‘low-frequency’ vocabulary; that is, words that are rarely used or met. A good example of a low frequency word is the term ‘ameliorate’ used in the previous paragraph, which means ‘to make better’ or ‘to lessen the effect of something.’

Meaning is context-dependent. That means although you can look words up in a dictionary, you need to make sure that you hit on the right meaning for the context in which they appear in any particular instance. Take the word ‘lateral’. A dictionary may tell you that it means ‘side’ or ‘crossways’, but when conjoined with ‘thinking’ it forms a phrase that means being able to re-evaluate a situation by changing the assumptions you have about it.

Because context is so crucial to meaning, it often happens that we can understand unfamiliar words without looking them up in a dictionary, just because we understand all the words around them. We normally ignore novel words on a first reading so long as we feel we have a sense of the overall meaning or ‘gist’ of what it said.

This is a common and useful reading habit: it is ordinarily too inconvenient to look up every new word when we are trying to just get a general sense of a passage. However, when you are reading philosophy for academic purposes, this habit can be fatal to your chances of successfully understanding and responding to a text. When you are reading philosophy, you are never just trying to get a general sense of the text: you are always trying to understand it intimately, down to its very nuts and bolts.

Analysing a philosophical text means looking for intentional and unintentional meanings, as well as subtle and implied consequences and relationships. Herein lies one of the chief reasons students find reading philosophy challenging and, to be frank, often boring: there are many low-frequency words that make reading slow and laborious.

Fortunately for the serious student, this is a problem most easily solved. Every philosophy student needs to have two things on his or her desk (or desktop!) alongside the text they are reading: a good standard English dictionary, and a comprehensive philosophical dictionary. The technique for reading a philosophy text is quite different from that used in reading, say, a Harry Potter novel, and it is failure to appreciate this that holds many students back.

Reading Technique:

1. Prepare: you need the text, a standard dictionary, a dictionary of philosophical terms, scratch pad, pen/pencil and / or highlighters. If you are reading online and/or taking notes on screen, you need some kind of text editor. Although any will do, some are better adapted for note-taking and for drafting than others. My favourite is Scrivener, but there are a number of other alternatives.

2. Interpret: Read the text through once without pausing to look up new words. Highlight or jot down every word whose meaning you are unsure of.

3. Analyse: Read the text again, paragraph by paragraph. At the end of each paragraph, consider carefully what the author’s central idea in that paragraph is. Look up any vocabulary you need to in order to do this. Then, jot down the main idea of each paragraph.

4. Synthesize: After you have read the whole text, and using the notes you made in 3, write a 50-75 word summary of the text’s main ideas. Omit all details and examples; focus only on the main ideas.

5. Revise: Read the text a third time, making sure you cover all the unknown vocabulary. In particular, make sure you now understand all the explanations, illustrations and examples, for most often it will be in these details that you find the angle for your criticisms and essays. Adjust or supplement your notes as you do this.

6. Organise: Finally, never throw away or delete your notes, but keep them organised and retrievable. They will save you a lot of re-work, re-reading and re-thinking in the future. Think of the time you spend reading your philosophical texts as an investment – and protect it, like you would any other.

Wow! That’s a lot of work you say! Yes it is, and its worth being upfront with yourself about it from the start. There is no shortcut to deep understanding. While youtube videos and other media can be useful for a general introduction to material related to your courses, only reading, analysing and thinking for yourself will produce the kind of deep understanding you need to master philosophy. And despite the work, the method outlined above is a tried-and-tested efficient way to read your philosophy texts, to understand them, and to record what you learned for future use (such as your term papers 🙂 ).

It is precisely this reading technique that we will be using on the first of our philosophical texts, an excerpt from Descartes’ ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’.

• Recognise that you will need to build your vocabulary by looking up unfamiliar words and some ordinary words that are used in a technical way in philosophy.

• Use both standard and specialised philosophy dictionaries

• Read methodically and take notes. Summarize main points and spend time keeping your notes well organized and logical.

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8. Welcome to the solar system

This post marks the end of Part I of Essential Thinking for Philosophy. If you’ve been following from the start, you will have by now had a pretty rigorous introduction to the techniques of critical thinking. However, if you are a philosophy major, you need to start applying those skills to particular philosophical texts.

That’s precisely what we’ll be doing in Part II – Analysing Philosophical texts. However, to help you make the transition, in this last post of Part I, we will look at a fairly straightforward contemporary argument that concerns an empirical rather than philosophical matter (though that’s not to say it does not have philosophical consequences!). Nonetheless, in this text you will have the chance to practice the skills we’ve been rehearsing over the last fifteen posts or so and to prepare you for the challenges of Part II – Analysing Philosophical texts. The questions at the end of this text are precisely the same questions that you should ask yourself after reading any philosophical paper.

Enjoy! 🙂

Exercise 8
Read the text and try to answer the questions that follow.

Space is enormous. The average distance between stars out there is over 30 million million kilometres. Even at speeds approaching those of light, these are fantastically challenging distances for any travelling individual. Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of miles to amuse themselves frightening some poor guy in a pickup truck on a lonely road in Arizona, but it does seem unlikely.

Still, statistically the probability that there are other thinking beings out there is good. In the 1960s, Frank Drake worked out a famous equation designed to calculate the chances of advanced life existing elsewhere in the cosmos. Under Drake’s equation, you divide the number of stars in a portion of the universe by the number of stars that are likely to have planetary systems; divide that by the number of planetary systems that could theoretically support life; divide that by the number on which life, having arisen, advances to a state of intelligence; and so on. At each such division, the number shrinks colossally, yet the number of advanced civilizations, just in our own Galaxy, always works out to be somewhere in the millions.

Unfortunately, space being spacious, the average distance between any two of these civilisations is reckoned to be at least two hundred light years. Figure that one light year is the distance traveled in one year by a pulse of light, and that light travels at 299,792 kilometers per second, then one light-year is, give or take a klick or two, about 9.46 trillion (9.46 x 1012) kilometers. A jetliner traveling at a speed of 800 kilometers per hour would need to fly for 1.34 million years in order to travel one light-year. Multiply that by 200 and we’re talking about a distance that is so far beyond us as to be, well, just beyond us.

So even if we are not really alone, in all practical terms we are. Carl Sagan calculated the number of probable planets in the universe at as many as ten billion trillion – a number vastly beyond imagining. But what is equally beyond imagining is the amount of space through which they are scattered. ‘If we were randomly inserted into the universe,’ Sagan wrote, ‘the chances that you would be on or near a planet would be less than a billion trillion trillion (less than 1 x 1033).’

a. What is the author’s main claim in this article?

b. What are the main premises of his argument?

c. What type of argument is it?

d. Is the argument convincing (i.e., do you believe it)?
Give reasons for your answer.

This excerpt is (C) copyright Bill Bryson and has been adapted for non-commercial, educational purposes from his ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything‘ – a book nearly every educated person should read. 🙂

When you are ready, check out the answer key here, or continue on to Part II

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7.5 Resisting denial

Some truths are not pleasant to contemplate. They may make us feel uncomfortable, threaten our view of ourselves or even our way of life.

When such truths surface, so do arguments that seek to deny them. We convince ourselves a departed loved one is coming back, or must be waiting for us in another realm; perhaps we believe human cruelty on the scale of the Holocaust could not be real, and allow ourselves to be persuaded by denials; some cannot tolerate the idea of a black US President, and turn to the belief that he must be a secret Islamist, a Communist, a non-American and so on. Even when the factual evidence is overwhelming, there are often some that will construct arguments to rebut inconvenient truths.

In the following short essay, the author constructs what looks like a powerful denial of global warming. Try to use all the tips and tricks that we’ve covered since post 1 to see holes in the argument. We don’t need to add any other ideas or look for competing data; the most effective way to resist denials is to tackle the denier on their own terms, and to show how and why their argument does not add up to the conclusion they think it does.

Exercise 7.5: Read the following passage and see if you can answer the questions.

Despite the fact that the Earth’s atmosphere has been cooling since 1979, environmentalists, anti-industrialists and other luddites who would happily see the economy cruise into recession continue to insist that global warming is a survival-threatening challenge to the human race. Whatismore, they insist, it’s a man-made problem and therefore only a man-made solution will save us. ‘Stop burning fossil fuels and break out the windmills’, they cry. Meanwhile, using a brush instead of a hoover and cramming your neighbours into your car every time you want to take a ride downtown seem to be the only ethically correct things to do. But before you trade in the electric mower for a grass-munching Dolly-the-sheep, let’s just look at the evidence.

In the first place, the computer climate models that predict global warming are poorly designed. There are many factors that the models are unable to simulate, including the role of sea ice, snowcaps, local storms (like Hurricane Katrina), and agricultural feedback loops. Secondly, 70% of this century’s warming occurred in the early part of the century, long before the large-scale carbon emissions of modern industry were produced. Therefore, it seems unlikely that modern industrial output is somehow to blame for global warming. In addition, it is a largely ignored fact that fossil-fuel burning not only generates greenhouse gases, but also produces cooling gases such as SO2.

Still, if the weight of scientific evidence is not enough to put an end to the nonsense of the ‘man is causing global warming’ hypothesis, perhaps we should take a longer look at history. Long before man came about, the Earth was experiencing periodic changes in its climate: warm periods and ice ages are all part of the natural cycle, and man’s tiny activities will make little difference one way or another. If the planet is getting hotter, and we’re still not sure that it is, the causes are likely to be far larger than our day-to-day activities. Dolly might provide a nice new pet for the children, but substituting her for your lawnmower is not going to change a thing.

1. What is the main claim of the text (be specific)?


2. What are the premises that support this claim?

i. _____________________________________________

ii. ____________________________________________

iii. ___________________________________________

iv. ___________________________________________

Why is this a bad argument? (remember, you only need to examine the premises for what the argument itself says; do not bring in other information or facts to support a counter-argument).




When you are ready, check out the answer and explanation here, or continue reading

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