WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2021
...the logicians debated Plato: On June 14, 2020, Steven Pinker made a major mistake.
Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but this was a major mistake. In fact, Pinker may have made two such mistakes that day, depending on how you count them.
On that day, Pinker tweeted links to two opinion essays which had appeared in the Washington Post. One essay had been written by Patrick Sharkey, a sociology professor who's currently at Princeton.
The other essay had been written by Rod Brunson, described by the Post as "the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. professor of public life in the school of criminology and criminal justice and the department of political science at Northeastern University."
Pinker had tweeted links to those two essays. These were his major mistakes:
When he linked to the essay by Sharkey, he described Sharkey as "a researcher on urban violence & its decline." And not only that! When he linked to the essay by Brunson, he described Brunson as an "expert on urban crime."
In that way, Pinker committed two major mistakes. Here's what happened next:
One month later, more than five hundred academics "signed a letter seeking to remove him from the list of 'distinguished fellows' of the Linguistic Society of America."
(We're quoting from Michael Powell's news report in the New York Times.)
The scholars cited several grounds for Pinker's removal. One complaint concerned the fact that Pinker had used the terms "urban crime" and "urban violence" in those recent tweets.
According to the marauding linguists, the two-word phrases used by Pinker had been a pair of "dogwhistles." More specifically, they said the word "urban" "signals covert...support of views that essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals."
No, we aren't making this up—and no, there's no longer any point in discussing or debating such matters within the tents of our own failing blue tribe. As our rapidly failing nation has slid into undeclared civil war, there's no way to slice the baloney too thin for various embattled groups, including some in our tribe.
In this case, the more than 500 academics are a subset of our own blue tribe. There's no longer any point in discussing or debating any matters concerning gender or "race" within that failing tribe. The ability to conduct such discussions is, by now, long gone.
At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf hadn't yet thrown in the towel on such attempts at discussion. Last July, he went through several of the charges levied at Pinker, and—believe it or not—this one wasn't the dumbest.
You can read Friedersdorf's full piece if you want, but there's no longer any way to discuss or debate such matters within our blue tribe. By now, our practices are too far gone. Quite literally, it's all over now but the shouting.
Last weekend, we watched as Pinker and Jonathan Rauch discussed such matters on C-Span. For the record, the gentlemen agreed on a basic point:
The "trolling culture" of the right is a more serious problem at this point than the "cancel culture" of the left, Pinker and Rauch both said. But the cancel culture is very dangerous, they agreed, because of the role it's playing with our universities.
What is happening within our universities as our current breakdown proceeds? More specifically, where were the nation's logicians over the past (let's say) three decades as various groups—the mainstream press corps very much included—increasingly made a rolling joke of our failing discourse?
What were the logicians doing? How about the rest of the academic philosophy crowd? Over the weekend, we got an extended glimpse of that matter, thanks to the way Rauch started his new book.
Rauch's book is called The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Based on his hour-long conversation with Pinker, we'll guess that it's very good.
But dear God! The book starts with the Theaetetus! As we noted on Monday, Rauch starts off like this:
In the public square of Athens, a homely, snub-nosed, bulgy-eyed old man encounters a homely, snub-nosed, bulgy-eyed young man. Hailing the young man and remarking on their resemblance, Socrates begins a conversation with Theaetetus and sets out to determine whether they also resemble each other in their love of philosophy. Theaetetus protests that he is no great intellect; philosophical puzzles make him quite dizzy, “wondering whatever they can mean.” Ah! Then you are a philosopher: “This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” insists Socrates. “Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”
With that, in a conversation imagined by Plato 2,400 or so years ago, the old man commences to lead his new friend on an expedition into the densest thickets of epistemology. What is knowledge? What is error? How does error arise? Why is error even possible? Each question would seem to have an obvious answer, yet each obvious answer collapses upon examination.
"What is knowledge? What is error? How does error arise? Why is error even possible?"
To the extent that those questions (in the abstract) make sense, it does seem that they might have fairly obvious answers.
("How does error arise?" Today, the more relevant question might be, "How doesn't error arise?")
The Theaetetus is apparently viewed as one of Plato's major dialogues. Shortly after offering that account, Rauch volunteers a confession:
At age eighteen, as a college freshman, I encountered Theaetetus with a jolt. I sensed that it asked an important question, yet it provided no answer. Instead, it was an exercise in relentless deconstruction, in gentle but ruthless analytical demolition. Plato’s message came through in bold relief: this business about truth, about distinguishing reality from error—it is not easy, and if you think otherwise, go away!
When Rauch was a college freshman, he thought the Theaetetus was asking an important question (of some sort). You can't blame a freshman for that!
We're fairly sure that we were assigned that astoundingly tedious text in our first year of college too. Over the weekend, we learned more about the way the text has been treated by the academic powers-that-be down through these long, failing years.
Even as our failing society has been sliding toward the sea, the logicians and their colleagues have still been thumbing the Theaetetus! Tomorrow, we'll offer the shocking details.
After that, it's on to the saga of Rachel Nichols. Our logicians aren't going to notice, but that saga raises the age-old question concerning justified true belief.
Tomorrow: From The Planet of the Toffs, a shocking state of affairs!