Simon Noriega-Olmos (PhD Princeton, 2008) is the FCT-Researcher at the Center of Philosophy of the University of Lisbon, History of Philosophy Group. His field of research is ontology and language in Plato and Aristotle, but he is also interested in all aspects and periods of ancient philosophy, as well as in contemporary philosophy of language and ontology. In the area of classical studies, his interests lie in ancient grammar and the history of moral and aesthetic concepts as it is reflected in Greek and Roman classical literature and rhetoric.
What books have changed your life?
I tend to associate personal intellectual changes with book chapters or shorter texts. Plato’s Meno and Russell’s On Denoting were crucial at an early stage of my education and played a role in my decision to pursue academia as a way of life. The reason these texts were so influential may be that they encapsulate a high concentration of philosophical analysis in just a few pages. The Meno has everything I admired in philosophy, e.g. reductio ad absurdum, paradoxes, disambiguation of terms and questions, quest for definitions, systematic critique of answers, and questioning the very possibility of inquiry. As if that weren’t enough, it also contains a lapse into mythical discourse that convinced me that in order to understand ancient philosophy, I needed incredible proficiency in Greek and deep knowledge of classical culture and literature. Russell’s On Denoting and its theory of description allowed me to find points of confluence between linguistic and philosophical issues. However, the most important lesson I first learnt from this text is that clarity, simplicity, elegance, and explanatory power go hand in hand in philosophy. How to achieve these four things is something I immediately wanted to learn, and later on I also wanted to teach them.
What excites you about philosophy?
That philosophy is all about asking and answering questions, and not any old questions and answers, but questions open to rational evaluation and answers open to rational critique and falsification. I admire philosophy’s honesty and transparency, precisely because it is not only the answers that are up for scrutiny and rebuttal, but also the way the questions themselves are formulated. I think highly of philosophy because it fiercely challenges accepted personal views, as well as entrenched social beliefs, but it is ready to accept defeat should science prove it wrong. I am aware that in this day and age we teachers are compelled to highlight the countless practical applications of philosophy, its positive role in shaping society, and the life changing personal rewards it can offer. I myself enjoy such personal rewards, and I also use my courses to equip students with the toolkit of critical thinking they need to be independent and change society for the better. As a matter of fact, I make a point of instilling the mental skills to fight all forms of chicanery, discrimination, intimidation, humiliation, and marginalization in all aspects and levels of society. Nonetheless, much like the Greeks, I think philosophy—like mathematics and science—has an intrinsic value of its own.
What are you most proud of in your professional life?
‘Proud’ is a word that brings me unease. Sometimes, we call ‘proud’ those who have an excessively high opinion of themselves and take their views to be unquestionable. Unsurprisingly, totalitarian regimes usually exploit to their own advantage this way of being proud and their adherents fervently buy into it. I am aware, however, that we also call ‘proud’ those who experience a feeling of satisfaction in their own achievements. Thus far, I haven’t produced research of which I am utterly satisfied, and if I have ever been satisfied in this respect, satisfaction hasn’t lasted too long. Teaching though has offer me the opportunity to accomplish results of which I can be reasonably satisfied. I have had the chance to teach small groups of fresh first semester students which I have successfully transformed into philosophical writers.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently working on Plato’s Sophist, specifically the critique of pluralism, monism, materialism, and forms the character of the Eleatic Visitor develops in the central sections of the dialogue. I would like to pin point what formal features of these theories the Eleatic Visitor finds troubling. This should help me conjecture not only what mistakes, according to him, a theory of reality is to avoid, but also what general requirements such theory must satisfy. My hunch is that clarifying these points will shed light on the theory of reality and truth the Eleatic Visitor himself formulates in the Sophist.
What is your most treasured memory?
I remember learning my first numbers and asking Mum how many numbers there were. The answer I got struck me like lightning and left me flabbergasted:
You can add a number to any other number and there is no end to adding numbers this way. Numbers are innnnn-finite.
Rather than satisfying my curiosity, the answer flamed my inquisitiveness and made me crave for more questions and more answers. There is a pleasure to this sort of craving, and if there is no end to it, all the better, in this case I am happy to be a junkie.
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