FRIDAY, MAY 21, 2021
The anthropologist's tale: We were thrilled, but also amused, when we stumbled upon the example of "Meinongianism" reproduced below.
In our view, the language was transparently silly. In our view, the language was so transparently silly that it illustrated a larger point in a way few people could miss.
The passage to which we refer was written by the leading authority on the work of Alexius Meinong Ritter von Handschuchsheim, an Austrian "philosopher" of the late 19th century.
We first broke the news on this matter in Monday's report. In words which mean nothing to anyone in the end, the leading authority had started by saying that Meinong was a "realist" known for his unique "ontology."
In the end, such argle-bargle can be explained by no one. At that point, though, the leading authority provides pure pleasure live and direct from the gods:
His theory of objects, now known as "Meinongian object theory," is based around the purported empirical observation that it is possible to think about something...even though that object does not exist. Since we can refer to such things, they must have some sort of being.
Pure delight! Continuing directly:
Meinong thus distinguishes the "being" of a thing, in virtue of which it may be an object of thought, from a thing's "existence", which is the substantive ontological status ascribed to—for example—horses but not to unicorns.
Pure pleasure, direct from the gods!
According to Meinong, because we can imagine objects or entities which don't exist, "they must have some sort of being!"
Their state of "being" differs from their state of "existence," the philosopher went on to say. Or some such thing of some type.
Because we can imagine a unicorn, "it must have some sort of being!" Presumably, the foolishness there is so undisguised that anyone can spot it.
Presumably, anyone can see the peculiar drive to complexification which animates such pointless formulations.
Presumably, anyone can spot the cult of compulsive mystification. The apparent addiction to comically useless mental activity.
The later Wittgenstein suggested that much of traditional academic philosophy was born within the Cult of Complexification. According to Professor Horwich, the academy eventually decided to deep-six Wittgenstein's later work, specifically because it showed the academy's traditional work to be incoherent and useless.
Can it possibly be that our greatest intellectual giants were lost in fogs of incoherence and comic complexification? This important question came to mind when we read Paul Krugman this morning.
Krugman was writing about the strange career of crypto-currency, which somehow lingers on. We thought of Meinong and the unicorn's "being" when Krugman offered this:
KRUGMAN (5/21/21): First, crypto boosters are very good at technobabble—using arcane terminology to convince themselves and others that they’re offering a revolutionary new technology, even though blockchain is actually pretty elderly by infotech standards and has yet to find any compelling uses.
Second, there’s a strong element of libertarian derp—assertions that fiat currencies, government-issued money without any tangible backing, will collapse any day now. True, Britain, whose currency was still standing last time I looked, went off the gold standard 90 years ago. But who’s counting?
According to Krugman, deluded cryptocurrency boosters "are very good at using arcane terminology to convince themselves and others" that they’re engaged in some sort of revolutionary advance.
In essence, the later Wittgenstein suggested that traditional philosophy was nothing but "arcane terminology" in service to such illusions.
Meanwhile, how about that second assertion—the assertion that crypto boosters like to suggest that the world will collapse absent their revolutionary services? Reading that, we thought about the most instructive passage in Professor Goldstein's highly-regarded book from 2005.
The book purports to explain why Kurt Godel was the greatest logician since Aristotle. At issue is Godel's famous incompleteness theorems—theorems built out of certain issues involving "paradox."
Goldstein's book is called Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel. The most puzzling (and instructive) passage in the book says this:
GOLDSTEIN (pages 49-50): Paradoxes, in the technical sense, are those catastrophes of reason whereby the mind is compelled by logic itself to draw contradictory conclusions. Many are of the self-referential variety; troubles arise because some linguistic term—a description, a sentence—potentially refers to itself. The most ancient of these paradoxes is known as the "liar's paradox," its lineage going back to the ancient Greeks. It is centered on the self-referential sentence: "This very sentence is false." This sentence must be, like all sentences, either true or false. But if it is true, then it is false, since that is what it says; and if it false, well then, it is true, since, again, that is what it says. It must, therefore, be both true and false, and that is a severe problem. The mind crashes.
"The mind crashes," Goldstein says, and we can't say that she's wrong.
But how about it? Should the mind crash in the face of the liar's paradox? Six decades after the later Wittgenstein's death, we were amazed to see a leading philosophy professor presenting such sillybill blather.
Should the mind crash over that "paradox?" Obviously no, it should not. The oddity here is easily explained. The explanation goes like this:
In normal circumstances, before we can say that a statement is false, someone must make a statement! There has to be a pre-existing claim before we can say that it's false!
In the case of "This very sentence is false," there's no pre-existing statement. No one has made a statement yet—and, until someone does, it doesn't make sense to seem to say that the (non-existent) statement is false.
There's no statement yet which could be false! As such, we're looking at a collection of words which don't make any definable sense, except as a bit of a parlor trick.
You can assemble other strings of words which don't make any sense. Here are a few examples:
Strings of words which don't make sense:
Up is down.
"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe."
It's now 3 o'clock on the moon.
For various reasons, those strings of words don't make exactly make sense, each in its own way. But we don't flip out and say that the mind should crash in the face of such presentations. Nor should we let our mind crash if someone seems to say that a statement is false, even though no one has actually made a statement.
Goldstein builds upon this ancient example as she explains, or at least as she tries to explain, Godel's famous theorems. For our money, her attempts to explain Godel's alleged theorems are so heavily jargon-laden—so weighted down by technobabble—that they will prove useless for the general reader, whether the general reader recognizes that or not.
That said, a top anthropologist came to us with a more radical tale. Tipping her cap to Cather's "Pioneer Woman," she told us this in the dark hour of night:
The anthropologist's story:
The human brain was wired in prehistory for tribal survival, this top expert said. The human brain was never wired for delicate analytical tasks.
The human brain was also wired for tribal solidarity—for consensus rather than nuance. According to this despondent scholar, this explains the way the academy joined ranks, as Horwich describes, to drive the later Wittgenstein from the public square, like the admittedly annoying Socrates before him.
This expert scholar connected her story to modern-day events.
Stop expecting rational conduct on any side, she despondently said. We humans were never the rational animal. We're tribal all the way down.
She also offered fascinating perspective on the phenomenon she called The Absence of the Scholars:
First, the logicians stayed away during the Reagan / Bush / Clinton-Gore years. The wider world needed their help with various major issues involving "daily logic." But this group has always lived in separation from the realm of the everyday.
In truth, they're largely a group of Meinongs, she said. They puzzle about the unicorn's "being" as opposed to its "existence." They're inclined to fiddle in such ways as the society burns.
Then we reached the most heart-rending part of this scholar's tale. Today, it's the anthropologists who need to speak up. But they won't, she declared.
"The anthropologists need to tell us why we're sliding toward the sea," this unparalleled expert said. "In the end, it happens to every large society. Now it will happen to us."
We humans are built to divide into tribes and force other points of view out. Or so the disconsolate scholar said, before shambling back into a cave from which loud wailing soon emerged.
Three cheers for Meinong, we'd happily said, thrilled by the banality of his comically complexified so-called "theory of objects."
No one could fail to see the absurdity, we had thoughtfully said. But according to the anthropologist's tale, we humans simply aren't made for such work. Also, we never were!