Part 3—Masterful incoherence: For years, we've wandered in the world's deserts, searching for the "philosophers," hoping to hear their voices.
We've wondered if any such people exist, even if there is any such subject. (For Professor Horwich's ruminations on the latter question, see his 2013 post at the New York Times blog, The Stone, an offshoot of The Opinionator.)
For many years, we've even blamed the "philosophers" for the fail. This dates to Campaign 2000,a twenty-month journalistic gong show built upon fanciful paraphrase.
For starters, let's be fair! You simply can't have journalism without the use of paraphrase. Indeed, you can't have human discourse of any kind without use of this ubiquitous, everyday human tool.
That said, paraphrase is powerful. In the hands of a "journalist," it lets the scribe substitute his account of what a politician has said for the politician's actual statement—for the statement-in-itself.
Realistically, you can't discuss the world without employing paraphrase. But as we told you long ago, the power to paraphrase is also the power to spin:
You get to say what the candidate said. Never mind what he actually said!
Back to that ancient campaign! For twenty months, the nation's "journalists" kept inventing ridiculous statements, which they kept attributing to a certain targeted candidate. They hated him because his principal sponsor had received ten acts of oral sex, and sadly enough, they hadn't.
Like prophets in the desert lands hoping to hear the voice of God, we waited for the nation's logicians to address this runaway conduct. We'd have done substantially better hoping to hear from Godot!
Our campuses are crawling with people who claim to be philosophers and/or logicians. But none of them spoke during that campaign, raising an ancient question:
Are these life-forms actually human? Could it be that they're simply jokes of the Olympian gods? Could they even be misprogrammed cyborgs, not unlike Yul Brynner's cowboy in the feature film, Westworld?
Do our "philosophers" really exist? Or have we been abandoned? Last Wednesday, the ancient question came center stage when Professor Appiah, the "house philosopher" of the New York Times, visited The Brian Lehrer Show, an officially brainiac Gotham-based NPR program.
How ironic! We were attracted to this particular program by a summary of the discussion on the New York Timers' reimagined page A3, which bears this controversial motto:
You are the dumbest people on Earth.Last Thursday, page A3 recommended Appiah's appearace with Lehrer. And its summary quoted Professor Appiah making intriguing remarks!
We at the Times want to serve you.
In fairness, it quoted him referring to "fallibilism;" this was a dangerous warning sign, acceptance of jargon-wise. But good lord! The summary also quoted the philosopher telling the journalist this:
APPIAH (8/23/17): I think that they're a response to the fact that we are very cognitively limited. We're better at this than any other creature on the planet, so we notice our superiority, but we should also recognize the way we fall far below many reasonable aims that you might have for being able to think reliably about the world. We're not very good at that.No clear antecedent was offered for "they're." But that's very much the way the new page A3 rolls!
At any rate, say what? We humans "are very cognitively limited?" We're not very good at being able to think reliably about the world? These strike us as very important ideas—and these ideas are rarely offered to us, the self-impressed "rational animals."
Hungrily, we played the audiotape of Appiah's 21-minute chat with Lehrer. When we did, the analysts gnashed their teeth, convinced again that human life is a joke played upon us by the gods, just as sacred Homer repeatedly said.
Could it be that Lehrer and Appiah are really misfiring machines? Could they be mere apparitions, play-acted by the gods?
Surely, no one could doubt these possibilities after reviewing those 21 minutes, especially to the first ten. The colloquy started with Lehrer seeming to summarize the basic thrust of the philosopher's new book:
LEHRER: His new book is called As If: Idealization and Ideals, and it looks at the idea that our best chance of understanding society is to be open to a range of imperfect descriptions of the world to create something close to truth.Say what? This new book provided the rationale for Appiah's appearance as a guest. That said, our analysts' eyes began to tear up as Lehrer provided that capsule.
"Our best chance of understanding society is to be open to a range of imperfect descriptions of the world to create something close to truth?" How could so insipid a premise possibly provide the spine for a leading "philosopher's" book?
Perhaps Appiah could answer that question. Lehrer never asked.
In the moment, we told our young analysts that they may have misheard what the journalist said. But then, minutes later, he hauled off and said it again:
LEHRER: At the core of your book is the idea of "strategic untruth," as you put it, the idea that our best chance of understanding the world is to be open to a range of imperfect descriptions of the world to create something close to truth.By now, it was clear; the journalist was reading from a press kit. Also, what he was reading seemed to make no earthly sense.
"We should be open to a range of imperfect descriptions?" In what way would any sane person disagree with that?
This obvious question never arose during the day's discussion. Instead, the journalist acted as if some potent new bromide was being expressed—and the philosopher was soon advancing the puzzling claims about Donald J. Trump which we cited in Tuesday's report:
APPIAH (8/30/17): It's true that almost everything the current president says is strictly speaking false. But a lot of it is false in the mode of hyperbole, and I don't think we should object to those ones. We shouldn't object to the ones where he's overstating the case. People overstate the case all the time!We should expect him to overstate! Twenty years ago, he said he likes to overstate in his ridiculous book!
LEHRER: Didn't he use a phrase like that in his book, The Art of the Deal? Your phrase [in the book As If] is "strategic untruth," that so many people employ as a method of dealing with reality. And I think he said "strategic hyperbole," or something like that?
APPIAH: Yes, he did, yes. So that's overstatement. So we should expect him to overstate...
"Another machine seems to be misfiring," one the youngsters mordantly said. Glumly, she hurled her pencil down, then stared off into space.
It was hard to say she was wrong! Seven minutes into this chat, the leading philosopher had seemed to say this:
Almost everything Donald Trump says is false. But we shouldn't complain about that! He said that's the way he rolls!Seven minutes into the program, the analysts began to sense that something was badly wrong. The philosopher was making peculiar remarks. The journalist wasn't seeming to notice.
Our thoughts turned to the secrets revealed by glorious Homer. Beyond that, we thought of the way no logician spoke up during those years of bad paraphrase. We pictured Yul Brynner at the Westworld resort, firing his gun at the guests!
The youngsters were hurling their pencils down and shoving their iPads away. But the proof of their hypothesis—Appiah and Lehrer are jokes of the gods—would only come when the famous philosopher discussed that challenging road in Princeton, the road by the railroad tracks.
Tomorrow: Comical world-class incoherence, evoking our ongoing fail