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News: June/July 2024

Last days of Plato revealed in new scroll • Philosophy dept chair arrested at protest • No future for Future of Humanity Institute — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Plato News

The combination of a 2,000 year old papyrus scroll and cutting edge scanning technology has yielded new information about Plato’s last days and death. We now know that he was buried in the garden of his Athens academy. The information was recorded on a papyrus scroll found in the ruins of Herculaneum, according to a statement from Italy’s National Research Council. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., it destroyed both Pompeii and the wealthy resort of Herculaneum. A villa there, possibly belonging to the family of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, contained thousands of scrolls, including many works on philosophy. The lava flow charred and buried the papyri, thereby preserving them. This treasure trove of ancient texts, first discovered in the mid-18th century, is “the only large-scale library from the classical world that has survived in its entirety,” according to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Attempts to unroll some of the scrolls proved disastrous, immediately crumbling the carbonised material to fragments, so no scrolls have been physically opened since the 19th century. A new technique combining AI with ultraviolent and infrared imaging has made it possible to reassemble chunks of text from one of these scrolls, containing Philodemus’ ‘History of the Academy’. It reveals fascinating new information about Plato’s death, including that he received a Chaldean visitor during his last days, and that on his final evening despite having a fever he was lucid enough to criticise a flute performance for faulty rhythm. The Herculaneum Society point out that “the new edition of Philodemus’ book was actually published in German a year ago by Dr Kilian Fleischer … His imposing volume is a masterpiece of Herculaneum scholarship and he deserves much of the credit, though almost totally unacknowledged in the extensive press coverage about these discoveries.”

Villa of the Papyri
Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum: the labyrinthine building, still mostly underground, where the scrolls were found. Plan drawn by its discoverer, Karl Weber, in the late 18th Century, after years of tunnelling work.

Future of Humanity Institute shuts

Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) was suddenly and unceremoniously closed down on 16 April 2024. In a final report, FHI Research Fellow Anders Sandberg reflected that FHI’s rapport with its mother organisation, Oxford University’s Philosophy Department, had been less than perfect: “We did not invest enough in university politics and sociality to form a long-term stable relationship with our faculty.” There were organisational problems too: “The early informal structure cannot be maintained beyond a certain size, and must be gradually replaced with an internal structure … in my opinion we somewhat failed.”

Founded in 2005, FHI was a research organisation bringing together academics from diverse fields such as “philosophy, computer science, mathematics, and economics to study big-picture questions for human civilization.” Its focus was on ‘existential risk’: ways in which “humanity can fail by going prematurely extinct or lose its long-term potential.” One of the main areas of interest that emerged from FHI is ‘macrostrategy’: “the study of how long-term outcomes for humanity may be connected to present-day actions” (Bostrom) or “investigating which crucial considerations are shaping what is at stake for the future of humanity” (Sandberg). This is connected to ‘longtermism’, the moral view that “safeguarding the wellbeing of future people becomes as salient as safeguarding present people.” This position that has been much debated and has faced severe criticism, notably from philosopher Émile Torres, who argues that longtermism’s focus on the future may lead to immoral side effects. FHI scholars also explored the ethics of human enhancement, effective altruism and different aspects of AI.

The FHI is strongly associated with its founder and director Professor Nick Bostrom. Best known for his bestselling book Superintelligence, which warned of the existential dangers of artificial intelligence, as well as his paper ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’, which argues that we are. Bostrom’s ideas and the projects of the FHI attracted the attention and praise of Silicon Valley tech billionaires, leading to FHI receiving funding from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz as well as Elon Musk.

Philosophy Professor Arrested Amid Protest Chaos

Pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses across the US have been forcefully handled by police, resulting in more than 2,000 arrests in three weeks according to NBC News. During peaceful protests at Emory University in Atlanta, Professor Noelle McAfee, Chair of the Philosophy Department, left her office and walked to the protest encampment because she was worried that university leaders would call in outside law enforcement agencies, causing the situation to escalate. She says she saw an officer ‘pummelling’ a student. She asked him to stop, he told her to back away, and she said no. She was handcuffed by an officer wearing a balaclava and taken to the county jail. Once released, she called an Uber, returned to her office on campus for a meeting. Her arrest was recorded in a video that circulated widely on social media. McAfee commented: “It was traumatic, and for four or five nights I didn’t sleep for more than an hour. The incident of being taken to jail, frankly, does not fluster me at all. What has been so awful is that my own university administration did this to our students,” referring to the decision to call in police. You can see her giving a description of the events here: https://tinyurl.com/ProfMcAfee.

Nenad Miščević

Nenad Miščević was very active in bringing analytical philosophy to Central and Southeast Europe. His philosophical interests ranged widely over philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy. Internationally, he was best known for his work on philosophical thought experiments and within political philosophy for his studies of nationalism. Originally educated in Continental philosophy, he later turned to Analytical philosophy, committed to bridging the two traditions. From the late 1970s until the early 1990s he worked at the Philosophy Department of the University of Zadar, Croatia. He was ousted from there by influential political figures backed by the nationalist Croatian government in the early 1990s as a proponent of “the false liberalism and Western democracy, and that so-called analytic philosophy…”, as Nenad’s colleague Dunja Jutronić put it at his funeral. From 1993 until his death, Nenad was based at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Maribor (Slovenia). He had a formative influence on several generations of philosophers in Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and beyond. He was also a driving force behind the establishment of philosophy departments at the University of Rijeka in Croatia, University of Maribor in Slovenia, and the Central European University (formerly based in Budapest and now in Vienna). An organiser of many conferences, he served as the president of the European Society for Analytic Philosophy from 1996 to 1999. Nenad Miščević died on 11 May 2024 at the age of 74.

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