Thursday, 24 March 2016

Free promotional copies of 'J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being'

James Frazer won a fellowship with an essay on the development of Plato's theory of the Forms or Ideas. In this essay he argued that there was no overarching theory of Being in Plato's mind before he embarked on the writing of his dialogues, and that consequently differences in approach and discussion apparent in his work are the result of development in his thought. Was he right?

Available now for pre-order from Barnes and Noble, Apple Itunes, and some other booksellers. Using the coupon code UR65H, the book can be pre-ordered for free.

From April 4, the book can be bought at:

To access the book via Smashwords, you will have to subscribe to their site, if you haven't already. The process is as straightforward as at other booksellers,

Purchasers should enter and apply the coupon number (UR65H) during the transaction to obtain a copy of the book (in ePub format) free of charge.

With the coupon, the book will be free from April 4 until July 22. After which the book will revert to its standard price of $2.99.

When you purchase a book from Smashwords you can find it listed in your library after the transaction. The button to take you there should be on the lower right of the page. You can download the ePub file from the library.

If you find any problems with the process of purchasing or accessing the book for free with the coupon, let me know at:

Readers without an eBook reader can read the book on a computer with Adobe Digital Editions, which can be downloaded free from:

Choose your region and download the version of ADE which will run on your computer.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Beyond Mathematics and Geometry

Everything has an inside and an outside. We live in a world in which we mostly react to what is on the outside of things, and readily apparent, rather than what is on the inside, and often invisible to us. What is on the outside is the phenomenon, what is on the inside is the noumenon.

The distinction between what is phenomenal, and what is noumenal, is a major idea in the philosophical outlook of Kant, who pointed out that what things actually are is not only generally unknown to us, but is in many cases actually unknowable.

The argument about this can be quite complex, since not only are there often many simple obstacles to understanding what a thing is, once the observer starts to think in terms of a contrast between a phenomenal representation of what that thing is, and the actual nature of the thing in itself (the noumenon), we become aware of just how little we may know or understand of the relationship between the two. The world is represented to us through the senses, and is interpreted in terms of the categories of understanding which we use to make sense of this information. But how that interpretation relates to what is represented to us in this way is mysterious. Speaking of representation is a good way of reminding ourselves that how something appears, and how it is in itself, is a matter of a conflation of the representation of a thing, and the conventions about what it is, or might be, which exist within the categories of our understanding.

So when we see a tree, we, as a matter of convention, treat the tree and its appearance as what the tree is, because in normal circumstances, there is not likely to be a conflict between our understanding of what is being represented to us by our understanding of the sense data available to us. The appearance fits with the categories of knowledge and understanding which we bring to bear on our experience.

Kant was not the first to observe that there was a distinction between appearance and reality, and between what is understood of a phenomenon by convention, and what the real nature of a thing is, This was a recurring thread in the development of Greek philosophy. Their understanding of the nature of their world was framed within the context of divine powers and agencies, so the idea that reality was hidden from the human understanding was highly developed among the Greeks and other ancient societies.

A question which is sometimes posed to children to illustrate the idea that the representation of something isn’t the same as what it is, is: ‘what is the colour of grass?’ The answer will usually be returned quickly, and be ‘green’.  But of course grass isn’t green. We see grass because the blades reflect particular wavelengths of light more strongly than others, and absorb some wavelengths. So we don’t see what colour grass actually is. In fact we are prompted to ask what we mean by an entity having a property of colour at all. Grass absorbs red transmitted light, and reflects green light, and those are the properties involved in our apprehension of the colour of the grass. We don’t know what the colour of grass in itself is, or even if it is an appropriate question, but we can describe the processes involved in how we apprehend it.

The categories of our understanding serve us from our earliest years, but in a simple form. The development of critical intelligence is the consequence of learning that what is presented to the mind and understanding is often more complex than it appears to be. What we need from our understanding at age six is hopelessly inadequate for us at age twenty. We learn (with the aid of education) to reprogramme the categories of our understanding so that we can process the information in a more sophisticated way than we did at six, and are no longer the prisoners of the illusion that the direct presentation of a thing is the thing itself.

This process of separating ourselves from an interpretation of the world in terms of simple apprehension is driven initially by the practical necessities of our existence. But this process does not need to stop there. Intelligence consists in being able to adjust the categories of our understanding so that we do not mistake one thing for another. It is a mental development which might have no end. This is essentially how Kant understood human intellectual development, which he framed (in his Prolegomena) in terms of a general theory of a priori concepts, not based on empirical sense data, or even a mathematical or geometric understanding of anything in the world. These a priori concepts can have a relationship with sense data and form in the phenomenal world, but they are not derived from these objects and constructs, and can be understood only as concepts entirely stripped of everything which would give them phenomenal or mathematical reality.

What is proposed in the Prolegomena is that real intelligence and understanding is what is shown to the mind by the mind alone, and that these concepts make sense only as purely mental constructs, manipulated and understood by the mind.

So Kant was talking about understanding what is beyond all representation, except in terms of mental abstractions, shorn of scalar and mathematical properties. They are entirely a priori abstractions. The focus of Kant’s metaphysics therefore is the noumenal reality behind all phenomenal appearance. This form of metaphysics he regarded as the basis of a scientific understanding of reality, and that all approaches to understanding the world through how it presents itself to us are faulty, and will not tell us what we may wish to know about what lies behind appearance. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

An Uneven Distribution: Research and Scholarly Resources in the 21st Century (I)

There are lots of digital resources out there for scholars and students of ancient history and ancient languages, which are my main interests. A really useful searchable version of the classic Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon for example, and the wonderful resources at the Perseus project; the electronic corpus of Sumerian literature at Oxford (ETCSL), The Sumerian Dictionary at the University of Pennsylvania (PSD), the Melammu database on Assyria and Babylonia at the University of Helsinki,  the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, (TLG), which gives access to the whole corpus of Greek literature from Homer onwards to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE, and so on. Most of which I had occasion to use in the course of writing The Sacred History of Being.

My bread and butter for many years was in scholarly communications – we built and ran repositories and encouraged open access deposit of scholarly papers in those repositories. Open access, for anyone who doesn’t know, is an important subset of digital publishing, which is about improving the circulation and use of research by taking it from behind a publisher paywall, where possible.

The presence of papers available on open access terms with the appropriate licenses has been invaluable for many researchers, including myself. The physics community knows this better than any other part of academia, since they have had the facilities to upload their papers to Paul Ginsparg’s Arxiv, formerly run as a site using the File Transfer Protocol (FTP), a repository of electronic preprints (note the archaic description!) originally based at Los Alamos from 1991, and at Cornell since 2004 . Papers are available via a searchable interface shortly after uploading. CERN has also maintained an active repository in High Energy Physics for many years. To some significant extent, the Web itself owes the necessity of its invention to the need to find an easy way to organise and disseminate the large collection of papers generated by the research done at CERN.

The publishing community naturally was not very happy about the idea, when it began to be more generally promoted as a solution to a number of problems in contemporary scholarly communication, since it threatened the subscription fees that the publishers charge the academic libraries, if all research was to end up freely available in institutional repositories, or otherwise on author websites. Without those subscription fees, commercial publishing would find itself largely cut adrift from the academic business of doing research, and disseminating that research.

In the early days, some minor concessions were made by the publishing community, in that they would perhaps offer a downloadable unformatted version of a paper in addition to the formally published paper, behind a paywall. Sometimes ‘unformatted’ was taken to extremes, so that the papers were virtually unreadable. Formatting information was present visibly in the text, cluttering the view, but not contributing anything useful to the documents.

Formatting became the thing that the publishers clung on to, as their main value-added contribution to the publishing process, in addition to copy-editing and the organisation of peer-review. They also clung to the practice of authors signing away their copyright in the published articles as part of the acceptance of the article for publication. So along the way we ended up with distinctions being made between preprints and post-prints; the author’s final copy, and the publisher’s final copy; green and gold routes to open access publication; and the invention of rules concerning what authors and institutions could and couldn’t do with these different versions. From the publisher point of view, they argued that what they were doing was maintaining the integrity and quality of the publishing process, and their important role in that. Then we ended up with the invention of article processing charges, which attempted to envelop the research publication process entirely within publisher dictated assessments of cost.

Naturally I’ve compressed a number of years of development in the foregoing, but that is the broad shape of the struggle which has developed since the late 1990s. The publishing community cannot be blamed for attempting to protect their interests, but ultimately it seems to be obvious that research should not be a free resource for publishers which can be used to extract increasingly expensive subscriptions from university libraries. In theory at least, it should be about the quality of scholarship, and its dissemination.

Unfortunately that is not the perspective of many university administrators and senior academics. Early on in the progress of open access, it became possible to see how the community would divide. We spent a lot of time talking to senior academics, with the idea that if we persuaded them of worth of the open access idea, they would encourage their research students to stop signing away their copyrights, and to deposit their work in institutional repositories. Some were interested. Others responded with the specious objection that If they wanted a paper to make an impact they would submit it to Nature, or another publication of similar status. As if we were suggesting that no-one should submit papers to high status, high-impact publications. But that fracture in the nature of the response was a phenomenon which should have told us something important about how senior academics understand publishing, and how open access would fare in succeeding years. It’s about status and its modern double, research funding.

Eventually open access began to be promoted as an aspect of institutional reputation management, which of course is about how an institution and its component faculties and departments are perceived. Of course a perception of quality is not necessarily the same thing as quality itself, so reputation management is more problematic than a real assessment of research output. Publish or perish was an attitude which was already well established In UK academia however, and reputation management became another way to raise an institutional profile, even if the quality of the research was not clarified by doing this. ‘Width’ was also important.

A little later, repository technology was spotted as a way of automating the submission of a sample of research papers in what was called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). So the deposit of papers in a repository became an important part of the way in which universities would be assessed for research funding. Open access was now about academics not keeping research information (and their papers) hidden away in their departmental records, but making them available to the institution as a whole, as a component of both the institution’s reputation management, and its pursuit of research funding.

So open access, and the associated technology, in the end became an adjunct to the already established importance of reputational status and the acquisition of government research income for the universities. Yet it still isn’t regarded as a proper publishing route.  Is this a strange state of affairs? I think it is, and I will write about this  in my next post. 

Thomas Yaeger, March 2016

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Recasting the History of Thought: J.G. Frazer's 'Golden Bough'

In the 1980s I had read the two volume version of The Golden Bough, miraculously reduced from thirteen volumes by the expedient of removing all the footnotes, and was struck by the absence of any discussion of a relationship between magical patterns of thought and ideas of divinity and Being. I knew about the existence of this relationship principally from an interest in Platonism in the European Renaissance. But there was a puzzling absence of discussion of these ideas. In The Golden Bough, patterns of magical thought are discussed in terms of the association of ideas; as a phenomenon of human thought, rather than as something which is a corollary of a model of reality.
Frazer was a disciple of John Locke, who originated the idea of the association of ideas, and he understood the functioning of the human mind in such terms. His earlier criticism of Plato is largely along the lines that, since he did not have this understanding of the nature of mind, he mistakenly converted an epistemology into an ontology. Since having the capacity to think of a thing and give it a name, does not give it reality, Plato had made a fundamental error.

 Frazer also shared Locke’s interest in the progress of man, and imagined that the technical and industrial production of the British Empire represented how far the human race had come. Philosophy for Frazer was about practical things. It is clear in the text of The Golden Bough that the idea of progress was seen by him in two ways - he drew a parallel between the gulf between the ideas of the ancients and of modern man, and the social and intellectual conditions in contemporary society, where the intellectual difference between those at the top and those at the bottom was likely to be just as great. In both cases, we should find frightful things, if we dig down deep.

Finding and providing explanations for both the existence and the nature of those frightful things was a major part of his work. He wanted to put unbridgeable distance between ourselves, the inheritors of enlightenment rationalism, and the ancient cultures whose ways of understanding the world were based on intellectual error. And that intellectual error he in part explained in The Golden Bough, treating magical thought entirely in terms of ideas of sympathy and contagion, or the faulty association of ideas in the ancient mind.

Did Frazer not know about the relationship between magic and the idea of Being?  He was extremely well read, as his work testifies, so this is hard to believe. And I do not think I believe it. He wrote a study of  Plato's  work early in his career.  He ought to have noticed the crucial passage in the Laws (XI, 933), where Plato clearly distinguishes between two levels of magic, and the penalties for each: is not easy to know the nature of all these things; nor if a man do know can he readily persuade others to believe him. And when men are disturbed in their minds at the sight of waxen images fixed either at their doors, or in a place where three ways meet, or upon the sepulchres of parents, there is no use trying to persuade them that they should despise all such things because they have no certain knowledge about them... he who attempts to... enchant others knows not what he is doing... unless he happens to be a prophet or diviner.

Leaving out of The Golden Bough any consideration of the idea of magic as something whose nature depended on the nature of Being was a choice he made. It was not a choice forced on him by the evidence.

In writing The Golden Bough Frazer was transforming ancient thought about the world and its underlying reality into examples of intellectual error, and by the parallels he made with ‘savage’ thought, through his definition of magic, he sealed the case against the thought of the ancient world. Frazer did this by writing a thirteen volume implicit denial that magic had ever been an idea associated with the idea of Being. Though the elephant in the room (Being) was never directly discussed.

The agenda of the classicists from the outset of the (mainly German) professionalization of the discipline in the middle of the eighteenth century, was, in part, to recast the significance of classical Greece, and classical thought. They wanted to render Greek civilization as something distinctly european, and not something belonging to the cultural orbit of the east. This meant a purification of sorts, an alchemical transformation of the cultural realities in classical Greece.

This purification necessarily involved a degree of fabrication, a falsification of the actual nature of Classical Greece. Aspects of the history of this falsification were discussed in Martin Bernal’s Black Athena of 1987, which had the word ‘fabrication’ in the subtitle. A large number of features of classical civilization could not be outright denied, since they were very common in the body of evidence. The worship of divine statues could not be questioned or denied; sacrifice was a regular feature of importance in public and private life, performed at every important juncture. Magic likewise, was a feature of ancient life at all levels of society.

However classical civilization could be purified in part by changing the interpretation of how these things came to have significance to the ancient Greeks. The answer was plain: the Greeks were prone to a degree of irrationality in their public and private lives. So, the divine statue of a god as a place inhabited by the divine was a mistake, possibly the result of failing to distinguish between the image of a thing, and the thing itself.  The idea of the reality of the plethora of gods themselves was also a mistake, where the Greeks converted ideas of natural forces and powers into personifications of these things. Likewise all the other strange practices could be ascribed to an irrationality, a primitive stupidity, for which the Germans have a very ugly word.

Frazer was a late contributor to this process of purification. But in writing The Golden Bough, he applied Locke’s theory of the association of ideas to the relatively new subject of anthropology. So the strange beliefs were ascribed to a failure to distinguish between things which had the appearance of similarity, but were in fact different, or to a mistaken notion of contagion, in which things which were once in contact, are understood to be still in contact (the lock of hair, the parings of fingernails, etc.)

All ritual action throughout history could thus be explained as intellectual error, along with the very idea of the sacred. Even now, patterns of behaviour and belief are understood by anthropologists in terms of the product of intellectual associations, which may be the outcome of local cultural social dynamics, or even some kind of pathological response to the world. They aren’t looking for a rational explanation for ritual and sacred phenomena arising from an idea of Being.

By the process of purification it became possible to argue that the real achievement of the Greeks could be understood in terms of the quality of their philosophical thought; and the interpretation of their sculpture, along with their architecture, in terms of aesthetics and proportion. Their literature and language could be appreciated in terms of style. All of which could be approached with minimal taint from the irrationality of other aspects of Greek culture. What resulted from this process was the cultural gold which the scholars were after.

[revised text, April 10, 2016]

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Idea of the Plenum in Babylon

The Babylonian Creation was twofold. The first creation was the product of a plenum, and describes a hail of impossible animals tumbling out of it, with features and limbs which were interchangeable, resulting in some creatures which were utterly fantastic. The creation is from a plenum, because all the characteristics of living creatures are already present, though the way these characteristics are distributed is the stuff of nightmares. This first creation was without reason and rational order, and chaotic.

We are also told that the creatures shared each others features. This is another characteristic of a plenum. All things can pass into everything else. Nothing is fixed. The initial state of the world does not have fixity of any sort.

Were the gods already present? Some of them were, at least in a sense. The Babylonians had the idea that they could call gods into existence, by naming and describing them, and performing ritual which set them up in the Babylonian Heaven. 

There is a curious aspect to the Babylonian creation story, in that the god Marduk, who became the head of the pantheon of Gods, and was the defining power for the organisation of the second creation, was said to have been ‘held prisoner’ during the time of the first creation. This imprisonment can be understood in at least two ways. First of all, if Marduk had been active at the time of the first creation, why would he have allowed its irrational nature? Therefore it was decided that the explanation for his inaction was that he was not free to act. A second interpretation of his imprisonment may be that the initial irrational creation was inevitable, and had to happen before it was possible to establish good order. Something about the first creation resulted in his release and his presence.

In either case, the idea of the plenum is indicated, and in its most pure form.

The gods in the Babylonian creation story are indicative of abstract powers and properties, and some of them have reality before the advent of the second creation. Anshar, is King of Heaven for example (in fact he has no name as such, since An Shar is the description ‘King of Heaven’. It is important to know what he is).  The Babylonian Heaven is clearly the underlying plenum, where all things are present as potencies, so Anshar is the abstraction of the potency of the plenum. In the complex narrative of the liturgy for the New Year Festival, Anshar is father to Marduk, but Marduk is also presented as the equal of Anshar. In fact as Anshar himself. Marduk is also the equal of other important gods representing abstract ideas in the earliest times of the creation.

Description of these early gods natures, associations, and actions is a way for the Babylonians to discuss and understand the nature of the plenum from which the gods emerged. What Marduk eventually became as head of the Babylonian pantheon, described in the passage in the liturgy known as 'The Fifty Names of Marduk', is the totality of the powers of Anshar and the other gods, and therefore signifies that Marduk embodies the character of the underlying pleroma. 

After Marduk established control, and began to call the other gods into existence, these later gods now represent something like a human understanding of the world, and how it might be made.  The gods represent in abstract form the good things in human life and social organisation. Each god is represented as an aspect of Marduk and his exemplification of good kingship. Thus the gods names and descriptions indicate that he supplies places of refuge for man, the cultivation of crops, the provision of quays and landings for trade, the maintenance of good order in the world, and so on.

Sometimes the gods are brought into being as twins, with slightly different names. This can indicate a division between an abstract concept and a state. Marc Van De Mieroop in his book ‘Philosophy Before the Greeks’ gives an example of a pair of these names from a genealogy of divine names, one of which means ‘mud’ and the other means ‘muddy’.