Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Plato on the soul, and Hume on tragedy

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on the soul, and Hume on tragedy
Date: 2 February 2006 11:47

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 21 January, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Does Plato offer good logical ground for dividing the soul into three parts?' and your email of 28 January with your essay in response to the question, 'Why do we feel pleasure in response to tragic works according to Hume and Feagin?'


The question is asking something quite specific: Plato bases his tri-partite theory on a 'logical' argument, and your task is to say whether the argument is any good or not.

In addition to the logical argument for the tri-partite theory Plato also offers the analogical argument in terms of the model city. It is OK to mention this as a way of providing a context for Plato's logical argument. However, remember that every word you use here is strictly speaking not an answer to the question set, so you should be as brief as possible.

The logical argument depends on the 'principle of non-contrariety' which your translation states as, 'the same thing clearly can not act or be acted upon in the same part or in relation to the same thing at the same time, in contrary ways; and therefore whenever this contradiction occurs in things apparently the same, we know that they really are not the same but different'.

Understanding exactly what this entails, is the key to assessing the validity of Plato's logical argument.

You offer basically two counter-arguments. The first is in terms of 'second-order desires'. I can desire that P and also have the second-order desire that I should not desire that P. The second argument is essentially ad hominem. If Plato's argument is accepted, then the same argument can be used to justify a four-fold division or even more divisions, without limit.

This is the meat of the essay, the place where you gain or lose marks. So you really need to do more here, use more words, explain more.

Let's look at your first argument. What is a second-order desire? You don't explain. Can there be third-order desires, fourth-order desires? An example of a third-order desire might be: Fred has the desire for sex, but this conflicts with his second-order desire not to have sexual desires, and this conflicts with his third-order desire not to have negative attitudes towards his sexual desires. If this solution is so obvious (as it seems to be) why didn't Plato think of it?

The question we have to ask is how this stratification of desires could happen in the first place. The second-order desire not to have sexual desires isn't simply the desire not to have sex, for in that case we would be dealing with a simple conflict of desires. (E.g. I like pickled cucumbers but they give me indigestion.) An explanation might be in terms of Fred's strict religious upbringing. What Fred has the second-order desire for is not to be the kind of person who has the first-order desire in question. The third-order desire might arise as a result of Fred's going into psychotherapy. What Fred has the third-order desire for is not to be the kind of person who has the second-order desire not to be the kind of person who has the first-order desire in question.

Plato would say that this confirms his view that there are different sources of first-order desires and higher-order desires. First-order desires are part of our physical nature, while higher-order desires arise from our beliefs about the kinds of desires that are desirable or not. Beliefs are sensitive to reason while desires are not. Ergo, reason and desire are two distinguishable parts of our nature.

Your second argument isn't helped by the reference back to the city analogy, because you are not criticizing the analogical argument but only the logical argument. So your argument rests on the food versus drink scenario. I want a coke and a hamburger but can only afford one or the other. This doesn't look to me like a valid counter-example. I do want the coke and I do want the hamburger. The conflict arises only because the world won't allow me to have them. A better argument might be one which relied on the hierarchy of n-order desires, taking Plato's possible response to the first argument as a starting point.

What will get you marks here isn't necessarily coming up with the definitive 'refutation' of Plato (it's always risky to make such a big claim) but showing the examiner that you have really thought hard about the issues raised.


The question asks you to give an exposition of Hume's and Feagin's arguments. Your main task is to present each argument in as compelling way as possible.

It is not always easy to judge how far one should go in criticizing the argument that you have been asked to present. I think the amount of criticism you offer is OK, especially in the present case where part of Feagin's case is that Hume's explanation is inadequate.

Your Romeo example illustrates the crucial difference between the kind of 'distress' experienced while watching the play and the kind of 'distress' we feel in a real live situation. You could have made the point more strongly by giving an impersonal example, e.g. watching a TV news report about an earthquake disaster. The point is not about whether the distress relates personally to you, but rather the difference between fiction and real life. In real life, someone really suffers.

Your second argument against Hume is effectively that he gives the wrong explanation of the source of pleasure. One way to generalize from your personal experience might be to say that you can be gripped by, say, a TV soap opera which you know is complete rubbish on an aesthetic level. Hume's explanation of the 'pleasure' in this case seems implausible. The main character dies and you have a good cry. A thoroughly enjoyable episode. Why?

Feagin seems better here. We enjoy the discovery of our own humanity. I'm so glad I'm capable of being moved by the plight of a one-legged bus driver who finally loses his fight with alcoholism. The problem here, as you point out, is that it is difficult to see how responses to fiction and real life differ. Feagin's argument rests on an essential asymmetry between the fictional and real life cases.

What would Feagin say in response? The key difference is that the real life case matters while the fictional case does not. In real life, someone really died. In the play they did not. This is stating the obvious. But it explains why responses which are appropriate in the case of fiction are not appropriate in real life. This is what Feagin is driving at with her examples of the selfish sentimentalist and the unimaginative moralist.

The problem that I find with this is that I still don't understand, and Feagin has not explained, why the fictional case moves me at all. If you know it didn't happen or isn't happening, why are you gripped in the first place? The answer has got to have something to do with the nature of what it is to be human, with our very ability to enjoy fiction. Maybe Martians have just as good an imagination as we do, but find our appetite for fiction totally perplexing.

It would be nice if we could identify the problem as the problem of how or why human beings are gripped by fiction. However, that doesn't seem to be correct either. I can thoroughly enjoy a historical account, e.g. a film about the earthquake of Pompeii while the same events on the TV news would give rise to a predominance of feelings of distress.

I'm pleased with both these essays. The one on Plato could have done with more argument over the key points. With the one on tragedy I struggled a bit to follow some of your arguments (you will excuse me if I don't offer a line by line commentary) but at least you were really getting stuck in to the topic which is good.

All the best,