The philosophy of love and friendship, metaphysical essentialism and ancient modal logic, ancient cosmopolitanism, aesthetics, and, of course, virtue ethics, other than death, is what Prof. Ashoka examines, in the second part of his erudite research paper, exclusively for Different Truths.
On a more serious note, there does seem to be a growing sense, at least among younger colleagues, that they can get on with interesting work without having Frege looking over their shoulder, and that they do not necessarily have to formalize an argument to clarify it or to say something philosophically significant. Cynics may attribute these changes to a general sense that, as in literary studies, many have started to feel that they are losing their way. So perhaps one reason so many philosophers have given in to more laissez-faire attitudes is that the love affair with the linguistic turn is slowly going cold. That is, it is not so much that people no longer dismiss historical philosophers because they harbour hopes of discovering new creative philosophical possibilities, but only because a general disenchantment has given way to a certain wistful nostalgia and a longing, perhaps, for a time when individual philosophers were considered important, even beyond their professional blogs.
Or it might be that as each specialism becomes more entrenched and develops an increasingly technical and complex apparatus, the texts of the past offer a place where one can again think about some of the traditional central issues of philosophy in a more synthetic way. Ancient philosophers typically think in larger systems, and it may be, for example, that Aristotle is wrong to believe that he can explain everything in the world, even the soul, by means of his form/matter distinction. Yet, it is hard not to admire, even wistfully, his intellectual courage and grandness of ambition in comparison with that of the colleague down the hall who says, “I just do metaphysics. I couldn’t possibly have anything to say about how that relates to the philosophy of mind.” In ancient texts one can again try to see the forest for the trees, especially since philosophical forests are not always on offer at the moment.
The texts of the past offer a place where one can again think about some of the traditional central issues of philosophy in a more synthetic way.
Whatever the truth of such suppositions, those studying ancient philosophy these days do seem, on the one hand, less self-consciously desperate for an interface with contemporary work, yet on the other, more likely to fall upon just such a connection, in part, perhaps, because the movement away from earlier more narrowly linguistic paradigms is again starting to blur the divide between ancient and contemporary methods and concerns. Rather than trying to catalogue these many possibilities, however, it might be more useful to look at one salient case of a major creative engagement between the old and new in greater detail. In so doing, I will pass by important work that continues to be done in, among other areas, the philosophy of love and friendship, metaphysical essentialism and ancient modal logic, ancient cosmopolitanism, aesthetics, and, of course, virtue ethics. The latter probably remains the most visible area, though there has been considerable pushback from scholars about how much the ancients actually subscribed to the doctrines about virtue and morality that they have been credited with originating. I want to focus, rather, on the recent resurgence of contemporary philosophical work on death, since, by chance, it also affords the opportunity to raise a more general question about philosophers today and their audience.
The notion that old views of death are new may strike the lay ear as odd; what, after all, could be new about death? Yet, if one were to read what is often taken to be the fundamental work of political and moral philosophy of the last century, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), and compare it to other central texts in the tradition from Thucydides to Hobbes, one striking feature would be how far the subject of death has dropped out of sight, along with the notion that trying to understand the nature of death and the fears it can generate is a fundamental requirement for any systematic ethical or political theory. Moral theorists – the sort that Williams characterised as empty and boring – typically discussed topics like rational deliberation and life plans, and the formation of social contracts in a way that gave scant notice to the fact that we are mortal and that our attitudes toward death may seep into many of our moral and political opinions and decisions. The entry on death in the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (1967), for instance, summarised: “Most Anglo-American analytic philosophers probably regard the paucity of materials on death as evidence of the subject’s resistance to serious philosophical inquiry,” adding the caveat that the subject may be “more adequately dealt with by psychologists and social scientists.”
The notion that old views of death are new may strike the lay ear as odd; what, after all, could be new about death?
Hobbes, on the other hand, thought that the fear of death was an important topic for philosophers because it is crucial in the formation of societies; unless agents feared death, it would be hard to see why they might give up their desire for power over others in exchange for what they want most of all: their self-preservation. Thucydides had a grimmer view about the possibilities of civil society: he thought that by falling into factions, individuals would willingly sacrifice not only their interests, but even their lives on account of shared hatred, desire for revenge, or partisan political goals. But, in any case, generations of philosophers had thought it important to address this particular disagreement as part of “serious philosophical inquiry.”
Anyone who reads ancient philosophical texts, and those influenced by them (like Hobbes), can hardly fail to be struck not only by the way that questions about death are central components of ancient philosophical discussions, but also by the fact that almost all those philosophers (except, with some qualifications, Aristotle) think that death is not an evil and that it should not be feared, since it cannot harm a good person.
Many contemporary philosophers who have become interested in the topic disagree, and this disagreement has sparked a fruitful debate between the old and new Indeed, the philosophy of death has recently become an important new area of analysis that cuts across many subdisciplines of philosophy, implicated in a host of questions about personal identity, the nature of time, and the wrongness of killing (including capital punishment, abortion, killing animals for food, and warfare). The extent and sophistication of these arguments about the nature of death and whether it harms us is reflected in a slew of new positions owning precise but forbidding names: actualist comparativism, eternalism, subsequentism, concurrentism, and priorism, to list a few. In an important sense, these positions have all been developed in an attempt to address a few deceptively simple arguments formulated by the ancient Epicureans, with some defending Epicurus, and others thinking him wrong (although disagreeing about how exactly he is wrong). But it is no exaggeration to say that it was by engaging with these Epicurean arguments that an important new area of contemporary philosophy has taken root, giving rise to classes, graduate seminars, and a steady stream of publications.
The philosophy of death has recently become an important new area of analysis that cuts across many subdisciplines of philosophy, implicated in a host of questions about personal identity, the nature of time, and the wrongness of killing
What are some of these arguments and why have they been so generative? Epicurus begins with the assumption that upon our death we will be annihilated. That being the case, it is a mistake to think, he insists, that we can be harmed by death. When we are dead, we cannot be harmed, since we do not exist. When we are alive, death does not harm us, since we are alive. If one thinks that our death causes us harm, the philosophical challenge is to answer the basic kinds of questions one can ask about any harm: Who was harmed? When did the harm occur? Of what did the harm consist? This turns out to be extremely difficult. One initially might think, for instance, that I am the one harmed by my death. But if I do not exist after my death, how can I be harmed? If I persist in thinking, however, that I am harmed by my death, it may be because I believe that I somehow will be deprived of something when I am dead. But how can something that does not exist suffer deprivation? And how could a deprivation in the future, even if we were to concede that death is a future deprivation, harm me now without appealing to an unhelpful notion of backward causation?
(To be continued)
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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