Flash Philosophy — A Pre-ramble

by Asher Kay

I’ve recently started writing about philosophy again. Even though I haven’t written much of anything for public consumption in years, I’ve never really stopped thinking about philosophy. And the bone that I keep returning to and gnawing on is the question of why I keep returning to and gnawing on the bone.

A super high percentage of the philosophy I read is deeply frustrating to me, and seems wrong to me in a way that is almost intractable in terms of argumentation. So why do I keep coming back to it? It’s not a perverse thing either. I’m not like the person who hates a TV show but keeps watching it religiously. It’s not a thing I “love to hate”. I’m more like the person who loves video games but only very occasionally finds one that doesn’t disappoint me. And when I’m disappointed, I’m truly disheartened because I have some sense of the promise of the medium.

I think philosophy (small-P philosophy, at least) has as much or more promise than any artistic medium. I think it’s vital. In fact, I think it’s unavoidable. Each one of us is a practitioner, whether we like it or not. Every move we make manifests our model of the world, however blind we are to it. Denial and willful ignorance are not only philosophies, they are probably more workable philosophies than rigorously thought-out ones that are orthogonally wrong.

The problem for me is wrongness, and the nature of the wrongness. Wittgenstein’s flybottle always seemed to me so spot on, but even from that perfect vantage on that cloudless day, Wittgenstein couldn’t see past language. The nature of the wrongness is not language — it’s concepts.

Show me a lively, decades-long debate in philosophy, and I can almost guarantee you that at the heart of it you will find a thought experiment. It will be honed, shined, shimmed, and shaved; exquisitely crafted and exquisitely wrong. And there will be nothing in the world more exasperating than trying to argue against it. At the heart of the heart of it is a wrong concept or a wrong set of concepts that will defeat you by virtue of the fact that you’ve engaged with them.

To argue against a set of concepts is to accept their structure. You are given a bowl of dirt which you are told is pie. You eat it, and you say, “this is shitty pie”. It’s not shitty pie, though. It’s just not pie.

People do try to deal with thought experiments without accepting their structure. They step back one level and reject the whole set of concepts. But if you don’t engage with the structure, your primary problem becomes the fact that you haven’t engaged with the structure. The argument you have made is, in some very real sense, a non-sequitur. And the net effect is that the dirt people keep eating dirt and the rejecter eats nothing and nobody eats any pie.

I think what needs to happen is for people to ignore the dirt completely and just go try to make pie.

In non-metaphorical language: philosophers are not wrong — they’re doing philosophy wrong. If you did the philosophy right, it would mean making the concepts you used so painfully clear that they would argue against themselves. I do not see that happening very often. What I see is shaving and shimming and bolstering; obfuscating, eliding and conflating.

So that’s where I am. I’ve wiggled outside of these architectures that I spent so long trying to build into or knock down or renovate, and I’m sitting in an empty field wondering if there’s anything to build with.

Here’s what I think there is to build with. I think there’s the idea that philosophy is something we all do, unavoidably. I think there’s the idea that philosophy is about making concepts painfully clear.

I am also in possession of a couple of concepts which are incredibly useful in understanding and navigating the world — one of which is a concept that explains why being incredibly useful is way more important than being true.

The question is how to communicate these concepts to regular people in a way that they can understand and actually use. And the answer is “in 700-word increments, as simply and engagingly as possible, and with utter disregard for dirt pie”.

So that’s why I started doing Flash Philosophy.

8 Comments to “Flash Philosophy — A Pre-ramble”

  1. Nicely put! They are the thoughts I have whenever I write about philosophy for ‘the person in the street’. An example is the weary problem of the tree in the forest question. The whole thing is based on an impossible concept, viz. that the question itself indicates that a tree may have fallen. It is, in fact, an ontological question, not an epistemological one. This is just a small example of the unviability of concepts on which philosophical discussions are based.

  2. Right. I was thinking about this in relation to self-driving cars and the trolley problem, as raised by JohnD. There are some philosophers really working this over and it’s quite the puzzle. Except in all my life I’ve never had the trolley problem come up – who has? With just a little defensive driving and a touch of luck you can never be in a situation where you have to make a split second decision between smushing that guy or those guys. But more than this, if you do in fact find yourself in this situation it’s still sort of a non-problem. Either choice sucks no matter what, you’ll make or fail to make one for split second sorts of reasons, there will be one or the other smushing, and the world will go on accordingly. Put a randomizer in the robot for when the not smushing algorithms break down and move along.

    Which then raises the point I’ve made before around these questions. The problem with philosophy as such is philosophy as such. Imaginary worlds of unlikely scenarios and purified concepts aren’t about anything enough to sustain a responsible intellectual practice. All of the ways philosophy teaches us to think are fantastically useful if we use them to make a better kind of sense of things, broadly speaking. Philosophy has to be about something other than philosophy, otherwise it’s just philosophy.

  3. “Practice” is the key thing for me. The structure that I want to trap other people into is one in which practice is embedded in an inextricable way. That is the job that usefulness as an alternative to truth does. Looked at from the standpoint of usefulness, the trolley problem has almost nothing at all to say.

    It is interesting to me – although I haven’t quite figured out how to put it into words – that a philosophy that is necessarily about practice ends up subsuming a bunch of topics – epistemology, ontology, ethics – that are usually seen as being separate realms of thought in traditional philosophy. It’s a quasi-Wittgensteinian thing where epistemology, ontology and ethics are all just issues of use.

    The thing about my project that worries me the most is whether people can learn to practice a sort of “personal phenomenology” where they listen to and form concepts about their own thoughts. There’s a sense in which this practice can’t be scientific, even if it’s informed by our knowledge of the brain, cognition, etc. We all have a sort of “folk” model of our own processes of thought whether we like it or not, but making that model useful (I think) requires this kind of personal listening practice. I don’t know whether it can be taught, but I’ve had some small successes with it, so I’m hopeful.

    It’s also possible that there are people who simply don’t have a “philosophical bent”. I know software designers who are good designers without having any clear idea (or interest in thinking about) what makes a good designer good. In my case, I’d say without hesitation that the “being philosophical about” being a designer is very much part of my practice of design. It doesn’t operate at a separate level from it, and it’s not something that guides my practice from the outside.

  4. I wonder how having or not having a philosophical bent is different from Max Weber’s observation that individuals may or may not be “religiously musical.”

    My mind now skips to a passage from Clifford Geertz to which I often turn when considering my goals as an anthropologist: “Toward the end of his recent study of the ideas used by tribal peoples, La Pensee Sauvage, the French anthropologist Levi-Strauss remarks that scientific explanation does not consist, as we have been led to imagine, in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists, he says, in a substitution of a complexity more intelligible for one which is less. So far as the study of man is concerned, one may go even further, I think, and argue that explanation often consists of substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones.”

    Then, a more recent discovery, a comment (not sure who’s) on Stanley Cavell’s philosophy: “Language, to Cavell, is ambiguous not because it is imperfect, awaiting precise definition, but because we do not all see in the same way; it is a reflection of our basic predicament as distinct human beings. Thus, we must dare to mean what we say, take responsibility for all the meanings our words might be taken to have—even if those meanings go beyond what we understand as our intentions—because in our unintentional (though perhaps meaningful) slips, and the misapprehensions, mistakes, and insights of those with whom we speak, we bring together not just words but worldviews.”

    As I read them, what these passages have in common is a rejection of the simplistic view of clarity I was taught in the course in symbolic logic I took as a freshman at Michigan State. In that class we were handed a series of ordinary language statements and asked to convert them into the formulas of propositional (if p then q) or predicate ( for all or some x) logic. The assumption was that there was only one way to do this correctly and that statements in ordinary language that could not be formalized in this way were meaningless. (It was, after all, way back in the heyday of logical positivism.)

    But what is the alternative if we are to “dare to mean what we say” and “take responsibility for all the meanings our words might be taken to have”? I have found it useful, as an anthropologist, copywriter, and translator, to begin by mapping the possible meanings and usages of terms and stock phrases and thinking about the position I wish to occupy in that n-dimensional manifold of possibilities.

    I wonder what techniques others here have discovered.

  5. “I think philosophy (small-P philosophy, at least) has as much or more promise than any artistic medium.”

    I wasn’t quite sure how to read this, Asher: is philosophy part of the larger category — more promise than any other artistic medium — or is philosophy a realm distinct from all art?

  6. John D – From the standpoint of use (which is pretty much my 24-7 standpoint these days) there’s not a lot of space between philosophy and art. The way I use art in my own life is usually as a way of gaining understanding of the world, the human condition etc. I often see art as a way of communicating concepts that are way harder to communicate using expository language. I imagine that a lot of people would have a problem with this conception of art, but when I pay attention to what my mind is doing when I’m reading a novel, looking at a painting or whatever, that’s what I see it doing. I think philosophy (on the rare occasion when it’s done well) tends to be more explicit about this intent. Play and emotional experience – things philosophy doesn’t generally pursue as primary goals – do expand our conceptual range, but in a more sneaky or maybe just less considered or conscious way.

    John M – Wow, I really like that quote. As a sort of corollary, there’s no real way to privilege one meaning over another, except in terms of how useful that meaning might be for some intent we have. Both language and concepts tend to hop around into different domains in the same way, and I think the ensuing messy mappings do tend to pull things together.

    When I was young, I had the idea that it might be possible to devise a language in which there was only one possible way to express a given thing (I was young enough to think this was an original idea). Spending even a couple of hours thinking through how to begin designing such a language is enough to make you realize that all the redundancy and profligacy and ambiguity of language are structural necessities.

  7. The following bit of flash philosophy popped into my head this morning.

    What is theory? And why should we care?

    To me a theory is a set of ideas that directs my attention to observations I would not have made without them. Some theories are mathematical formulas that predict empirically observable results. Some theories are stories that bring together scattered observations and suggest a coherent narrative.

    Some theories identify patterns. Before reading Heinrich Wölflin, I had never noticed the difference between linear and painterly styles in art. Had I never read Radcliffe-Brown’s “The Mother’s Brother in South Africa,” I wouldn’t have noticed the special role assigned to the brother of the mother of the groom at Taiwanese weddings.

    Some theories are cosmic in scale, others local, or even confined to a single case: “Yes, indeed. The butler did it, beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    But what all theories worthy of the name have in common is these three elements: ideas, observations, and the logic that connects them. Without the observations, the theories are vacuous. Without the logic, they are pointless.

    And so-called theories “applied” unthinkingly to hearsay are crimes against humanity.

  8. Asher writes, “There’s no real way to privilege one meaning over another, except in terms of how useful that meaning might be for some intent we have.” Isn’t this a wee bit solipsistic, assuming that we are the ones privileged to decide the meaning of what we say?

    I think of Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s title, “It isn’t what we say, it’s what they hear” and find myself reflecting on the standard form for a creative brief in the advertising industry: Target (who is our intended audience), Objective (how do we want them to respond?), Proposition (the message that we want to stick in their minds), and the Rationale (a brief explanation of why we believe that communicating that Proposition to this Target will achieve our Objective). Note, too, that this is only the brief, the start-line for the creative work that will find the words used to express the proposition and associate them with visual imagery, casting, music, gesture, etc. The idea that we determine our meanings feels increasingly naive.

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