THE THEAETETUS AND THEE: Rauch was impressed with the Theaetetus!

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2021

Our reaction may have differed: Today, we're going to take a guess:

Long ago and far away, we were assigned to read the Theaetetus.

This would have happened in the fall of '65, when we were a freshman at a well-known university. It happened to Jonathan Rauch maybe thirteen years later, when he was a freshman at Yale in the class of 1982. 

At the start of his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch describes his reaction to, in effect, first looking into Plato:

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!

To read Rauch's first chapter, click here.

We have no specific recollection of our own reaction to this text, but we'll guess it was somewhat different. We don't mean that as a criticism of Rauch, who conducted a highly intelligent discussion of his new book on C-Span just last weekend.

He spoke in dialogue with Steven Pinker, who once tweeted the offensive term, "urban crime."

We do recall our general reaction to the class in which we were enrolled. The class, Hum 5, was part of our university's "general education" program. It involved a survey of the great books of the western world's tradition in the realm which is still described as philosophy.

The first semester was taught by Professor Albritton, from whom we later took the undergraduate Wittgenstein course. Through no obvious fault of Albritton's own, "taught" may not be the correct word: 

In point of fact, Albritton lectured.

Each Monday and Wednesday—or it may have been each Tuesday and Thursday—500 students sat in the large lecture hall, scribbling 500 sets of notes. We wondered why the university didn't just mimeograph the lectures, then pass them out. 

This would have saved the 500 students the need to scribble those notes. They could have sat and listened to the professor, imaginably paying closer attention to whatever it was he said.

It could even have saved Professor Albritton, a perfectly decent person, the need to read his lectures to us freshmen! He didn't have to leave home. We could have strayed in our dorms!

We also remember multiplying the price of tuition for each course by the number 500. Having attained this measure of income to the university, we wondered how much it could possibly cost the university to pay part of the professor's salary and to heat the room.

We were puzzled by the economics of the tedium into which we'd been thrown; we were that naive at the time. As for the tedium itself, good God! The tedium was overpowering.

Alfred North Whitehead famously said it, and we quote: 

"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."

Whitehead made this frequently quoted statement in Process and Reality (1929), the tenth most important philosophy book of the 20th century. No one remembers anything else he said in this highly important book. Meanwhile, the leading authority on the book captures its essence as shown:

"The cosmology elaborated in Process and Reality posits an ontology based on the two kinds of existence of entity, that of actual entity and that of abstract entity or abstraction."

Perhaps you can see why no one ever pretends to discuss this book. (Along with Bertrand Russell, Whitehead also co-wrote the fourth most important book.)

What did Whitehead say in his book? No one has any idea! In truth, the logicians—the professional academic philosophy specialists—had already ceased to be part of the western world's faltering discourse.

That one remark has been remembered. It's all been "a footnote to Plato," Whitehead said, failing to voice the possibility that the heart of the ongoing problem could perhaps be found right there.

On Monday, we noted a surprising assessment of the Theaetetus. The assessment is offered by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and it goes exactly like this:

The Theaetetus, which probably dates from about 369 BC, is arguably Plato’s greatest work on epistemology. (Arguably, it is his greatest work on anything.) Plato (c.427–347 BC) has much to say about the nature of knowledge elsewhere. But only the Theaetetus offers a set-piece discussion of the question “What is knowledge?”

Arguably, his greatest work on anything! After all, only the Theaetetus offers a set-piece discussion of the question, "What is knowledge?"—a question which doesn't necessarily make obvious sense.

It's all been a footnote to Plato, and this was his greatest work! With that in mind, we show you how the discussion in the Theaetetus starts, after an exhausting amount of preliminary throat-clearing.

Socrates is speaking to Theaetetus, a young student of mathematics. He mentions Theodorus, the youngster's math instructor:

SOCRATES: In the first place, I should like to ask what you learn of Theodorus: something of geometry, perhaps?

THEAETETUS: Yes.

SOCRATES: And astronomy and harmony and calculation?

THEAETETUS: I do my best.

SOCRATES: Yes, my boy, and so do I; and my desire is to learn of him, or of anybody who seems to understand these things. And I get on pretty well in general; but there is a little difficulty which I want you and the company to aid me in investigating. 

Will you answer me a question: Is not learning growing wiser about that which you learn?

THEAETETUS: Of course.

SOCRATES: And by wisdom the wise are wise?

THEAETETUS: Yes.

SOCRATES: And is that different in any way from knowledge?

THEAETETUS: What?

SOCRATES: Wisdom; are not men wise in that which they know?

THEAETETUS: Certainly they are.

SOCRATES: Then wisdom and knowledge are the same?

THEAETETUS: Yes.

SOCRATES: Herein lies the difficulty which I can never solve to my satisfaction—What is knowledge? Can we answer that question? What say you? which of us will speak first?

To peruse the full dialogue, you can just click here. Now, let's consider that text:

In a sign of the tedium to come, Socrates establishes the fact that the wise are wise by virtue of wisdom. Also, that men (sic) are wise in that which they know.

From these observations, he concludes that wisdom and knowledge "are the same." As a minor aside, we'll suggest that, if they were really the same, we might not have two separate words.

At this point, Socrates makes a somewhat peculiar confession. His confession concerns a difficulty he says he could never solve:

Socrates could never answer the question concerning what knowledge is! In some ways, this confession may seem a bit odd.

In fact, we all know knowledge when we see it. The youthful Theaetetus proves this point without stating the point, instantly offering examples of knowledge. 

Socrates doesn't deny that he has cited examples of knowledge. Eventually, though, it becomes clear what Socrates wants to find:

Socrates wants to find a simplistic definition for "knowledge." This seems to mean that he wants to find some attribute which all examples of "knowledge" possess.

Several thousand years later, the later Wittgenstein helped us see that this isn't the way these things work. (File under: "family resemblances.") It may seem strange to think that this had to be explained several thousand years later, but let's recall the inappropriate observation Professor Horwich recently offered, in the New York Times no less:

[The later Wittgenstein's] attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on—and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?

If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress—by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.

Say what? Has traditional philosophy been marked by "an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues?" 

More to the point, is Professor Horwich allowed to say such things? Who gave him the right to do that?

Plato ended up talking about ideal forms and shadows on the wall of some cave. Twenty-four hundred years later, it fell to the later Wittgenstein to introduce the highly useful understanding that objects or states which share a name will be marked by a warren of "family resemblances," rather than by some one single "distinguishing characteristic."

That's a throw-away part of the later Wittgenstein's work—but, according to Horwich, Wittgenstein's later work has largely been thrown away. We won't try to settle this matter today, but we're willing to tell you this:

The Theaetetus is an unreadable, brain-jangling mess. In fairness, this wasn't Plato's fault!

Plato worked at the dawn of the west. To all intents and purposes, there was no prior work to draw on.

These were the earliest attempts to make sense out of anything much at all. But no, these attempts generally didn't make sense—unless you're a college freshman, assigned to read unreadable texts while saddled with the cultural conceit that they contain vast insight.

Simply put, they don't. But on this Planet of the Toffs, the duffers can't seem to quit these texts. Embarrassingly, the Stanford Encyclopedia tells us this about two dueling schools of thought:

The Theaetetus is a principal field of battle for one of the main disputes between Plato’s interpreters. This is the dispute between Unitarians and Revisionists.

Unitarians argue that Plato’s works display a unity of doctrine and a continuity of purpose throughout. Unitarians include Aristotle, Proclus, and all the ancient and mediaeval commentators; Bishop Berkeley; and in the modern era, Schleiermacher, Ast, Shorey, Diès, Ross, Cornford, and Cherniss.

Revisionists retort that Plato’s works are full of revisions, retractations, and changes of direction. Eminent Revisionists include Lutoslawski, Ryle, Robinson, Runciman, Owen, McDowell, Bostock, and many recent commentators.

Unitarianism is historically the dominant interpretive tradition. Revisionism, it appears, was not invented until the text-critical methods, such as stylometry, that were developed in early nineteenth-century German biblical studies were transferred to Plato.

In the twentieth century, a different brand of Revisionism has dominated English-speaking Platonic studies. This owes its impetus to a desire to read Plato as charitably as possible, and a belief that a charitable reading of Plato’s works will minimise their dependence on the theory of Forms...

Remember what the anthropologists say: We humans will always divide ourselves into tribes, with tribal warfare to follow!

Right on through the 20th century, the Revisionists battled the Unitarians about the Theaetetus! As they did, they retreated farther and farther from real events occurring in the real world.

Along the way, they subjected innumerable college freshmen with the task of trying to read, or pretending to read,  the Theaetetus, a study in overpowering tedium and lack of technical skill.

Right on through the 20th century, the Duffers had their noses buried in these tired old texts. The kids were encouraged to think this made sense. When it came to the failing discourse, we were pretty much left on our own. 

The logicians walked off their posts long ago. Tomorrow, they ignore an obvious epistemological problem, ripped from last week's headlines!

Tomorrow: ESPN and justified true belief. Not to mention "the Gettier problem!"


62 comments:

  1. "This would have happened in the fall of '65, when we were a freshman at a well-known university. It happened to Jonathan Rauch maybe thirteen years later, when he was a freshman at Yale in the class of 1982. "

    Easy to see why Somerby was not a math major. The span between 65 and 82 is 17 years not 13. Saying "maybe" doesn't help.

    Journalists are taught to check facts such as this, but Somerby, merely a critic of journalists, has no such obligation.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Oops, he says "class of 1982" so one must subtract 4 years, assuming Rauch graduated in a timely manner. So Somerby is correct to say "maybe thirteen years later". But it is still fair to call his construction confusing to readers, as Somerby did when he griped about using acres as a measure of land.

      Delete
    2. Luckily, confused readers can always quit reading Somerby and go read some New York Times or watch some Fox News.

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  2. "The Theaetetus is an unreadable, brain-jangling mess."

    And unfortunately so are you quite often recently, dear Bob, if we may say so.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Rauch was impressed with the Theaetetus!"

    Rauch describes what impressed him, and it wasn't Theaetetus or his reasoning. It was this:

    "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. "

    And Rauch goes on to talk about the importance of pursuing truth for a journalist.

    This relentless deconstruction and analysis is common across philosophy and is not only a property of Plato and Theaetetus.

    Somerby admits that he himself was unimpressed by anything he encountered in his class. This is a classic example of leading a horse to water. Somerby appears hell-bent on wasting the tuition paid for his education. In contrast, Rauch became a skilled journalist.

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    Replies
    1. But is it deconstruction? Is it analytical? When it's all based on word games and an almost forced, intentional misunderstanding of basic concepts like knowledge and wisdom?

      I'll give that it's relentless; relentlessly stupid and wasteful.

      Delete
  4. "We wondered why the university didn't just mimeograph the lectures, then pass them out. "

    Somerby, himself a former educator, asks this stupid question because he knows nothing about how the mind works (specifically memory) and nothing about pedagogy.

    The reason why you do not simply mimeograph and distribute class notes is that the effort of summarizing the most important points of a lecture and the act of writing them down engages the mind in processing what it is heard (evaluating what is important enough to write down) instead of passively listening. That results in better memory and understanding of the lecture because the student is engaged with the material, not sitting there wondering about such things as Somerby's mind was wandering to (cost of tuition, why notes couldn't be distributed, why he was there at all instead of playing in his dorm).

    From things he has said in the years since he was a teacher, Somerby has continued to think of students as passive receptacles of learning, instead of humans actively trying to construct their own understanding. Techniques to encourage students to engage actively have been incorporated into teaching for the past several decades, based on findings in cognitive science about how people learn.

    Despite saying there was nothing wrong with his professor's lecturing, Somerby implies that the teaching in his large humanities course was substandard because it was a lecture at which he was required to participate. His reaction to being there is juvenile, about what you'd expect from a freshman who is forced to attend college, without any investment in career goals or any genuine interest in the subjects he was "studying."

    Colleges cannot prevent services from taking and selling lecture notes, or students from sharing them informally, but when a student relies on notes he or she did not take, they will not remember the material well. Modern textbooks include questions intended to cause students to stop and reflect on what they have just read, because it is the thinking, the reflection, that causes material to become part of one's memory, not skimming someone else's lecture notes or reading a textbook without full attention, which must include posing and answering questions (preferably self-generated).

    It is frustrating when Somerby spreads misinformation here, in this case about how students best learn.

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    1. Sure, we remember things that we write down. In a "what year was the battle of Hastings" or "things to get from the grocery store" sort of way. It doesn't lead to a deeper understanding the material, which can obviously best be achieved by not continually copying text that could have been provided. but don't let that stop you from ranting endlessly.

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    2. Different methods are used to achieve different goals. If it is a matter of "deeper understanding" you are not lecturing but using demos, examples and in-class exercises such as writing assignments, group discussion, etc. Listening doesn't lead to deeper understanding either, without mental effort on the part of the listener. Somerby described the way his mind wandered. Had he been taking notes, he would have been better able to focus on the lecture.

      I am not ranting. I am explaining how learning works and why it is a bad idea to mimeo lecture notes instead of requiring students to take them themselves.

      Philosophy is not comprised of simple facts that can be looked up anywhere, such as the date of the Battle of Hastings. Notes don't consist of grocery list items. They outline and organize and distill the main points being discussed for later study. That requires THINKING about what someone has said, summarizing it, since there is not time to write down a lecturer's words verbatim.

      You can try this yourself. Read a paragraph from the newspaper, take away the page and then try to summarize what was said. The look back and see how close you came to the original. I guarantee that you will remember the content of that paragraph much better than if you had simply read it (or heard someone read it to you). That's what notes do for you.

      I am not ranting. I am trying to cure you (and Somerby) of ignorance. Like Somerby, you can refuse to learn. That's up to you and you will bear the consequence. Somerby did too -- he has reported several F and D grades in his courses.

      If he had learned to take competent notes, his essays today might not be as rambling, repetitive and unreadable as they are.

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    3. So many assumptions, mixups and incorrect statements... I'm left wondering if we are even reading the same blog.

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    4. You say this and yet you point to nothing incorrect or mixed up. One of us is actually a teacher and it clearly isn't you.

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  5. "As a minor aside, we'll suggest that, if they were really the same, we might not have two separate words."

    And here Somerby shows that he is no linguist. If he understood the contribution of several other languages to English (or Greek or most other languages), he would know why there are several words having the same meanings but roots in different precursor languages, each contributing synonyms or regional variations. A little bit of thought might have prevented Somerby from making this goofy remark. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_English)

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Wisdom and knowledge are not the same. But don't let that stop you, you're on a roll!

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    2. Maybe they are not the same to you, but they appear to be the same to Socrates, who wasn't writing in English.

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    3. Correction for the excessively literal: All right, it was Plato who was writing, Socrates was speaking Greek, assuming Plato got it right.

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    4. >but they appear to be the same to Socrates, who wasn't writing in English.

      There's this thing called Google...

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    5. 1. Wisdom is knowledge of a certain kind. It is a type of knowledge.
      2. Socrates says they are the same. If you reject that, then you are closed to his argument and have no business reading the rest of the book.

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    6. Ha! Easy there. I'll read whatever I want.

      Wisdom is the application of knowledge.

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    7. ‘ wisdom is the application of knowledge?’ That’s conveniently simplistic.

      What kind of application? Just a random application? You have to know how to apply the knowledge you have in order to make ‘wise’ decisions. So, wisdom is the knowledge of how to apply the knowledge you have.

      Delete
  6. Somerby says: "In fact, we all know knowledge when we see it."

    And that's why Q-Anon believers are taking Invermectin to cure Covid.

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    Replies
    1. You didn't even spell it right.

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    2. Should it be spelled right, when it is damaging to people to use?

      How do you know whether the mistake is a spelling error or a typo? Socrates would want to know.

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    3. >Should it be spelled right, when it is damaging to people to use?

      Well if you think crazed, rabid Q-Anons looking for info on it might accidentally come across your post via a search engine and consider it to be an endorsement of the drug, perhaps not.

      >How do you know whether the mistake is a spelling error or a typo?

      I don't make any claims regarding this. :)

      Delete
  7. "Socrates wants to find a simplistic definition for "knowledge." This seems to mean that he wants to find some attribute which all examples of "knowledge" possess."

    Somerby uses the word "simplistic" here, but what he actually means is that Socrates wanted a rule-based definition of knowledge. Wittgenstein showed that there are categories that exist without rule-based definition (no definitional attribute) but are defined by extension (using examples of valid category members). The existence of such categories does not eliminate the possibility of rule-based definition, which also exists and can be complex and not necessarily simplistic.

    I think Somerby is out of his depth here.

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    1. Somebody certainly is.

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    2. 1. Somerby is mind-reading Socrates.
      2. Somerby proposed the nature of definition desired by Socrates.
      3. Somerby's term "simplistic" means "treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are"

      It seems likely that Somerby is the one being simplistic. Rationalist, you say nothing about @11:57's discussion, just a snide remark. What did you find wrong with it?

      Delete
  8. "Plato ended up talking about ideal forms and shadows on the wall of some cave."

    Plato wasn't talking about shadow on a wall. He used those shadows as a metaphor for the nature of human experience, which is mediated through our senses and never directly experienced and thus not immediately known except as a reflection, like a shadow on a wall.

    Somerby's lack of respect for philosophers and professors is as irritating as his lack of respect for journalists. Perhaps he respects no one, especially himself, but that doesn't change the annoying nature of his tone and his lack of rigor in discussing his self-chosen topics for essays.

    There is no possibility of talking about knowledge with someone who has no respect for knowledge and no interest in taking such a discussion seriously. Somerby is wasting everyone's time here today.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. >Plato wasn't talking about shadow on a wall.

      Oh really? Let's read on.

      >He used those shadows as a metaphor...

      Well that's enough for today... I'm getting tired.

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    2. World War II was a storm that overtook Europe. Am I talking about WWII or about storms?

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    3. Both. Why does it have to be a choice?

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    4. So, you’re saying, ‘rationalist’, that thunder/lightning/rain/wind/hail was what WWII was? Because that is the literal original meaning of ‘Storm.’ Metaphors are a form of word games. Would Wittgenstein approve?

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  9. "Remember what the anthropologists say: We humans will always divide ourselves into tribes, with tribal warfare to follow!"

    Differences of opinion do not constitute division into tribes. If Somerby had paid attention during an anthropology class, he might know what a tribe is and stop spouting this nonsense.

    "Tribe, in anthropology, a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups (known as bands), having temporary or permanent political integration, and defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology."

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hate crimes are part of the reason why racism must be taken seriously, instead of ignored as Somerby suggests:

    "In the seven-minute video clip recorded on a Saturday in mid-August, the woman poured lighter fluid outside the church," said the report. "Then, she threw bricks at the building's windows in the early morning, making two separate attempts to set the historically Black church ablaze ... Pastor [Kevin] Craddock said he didn't notice the damage until the next day after the Sunday morning service."

    Police believe that the attack was a hate crime.

    "By the grace of God the lighter wouldn't take, it wouldn't come on full force and nothing was being lit up," said Craddock. "It was very painful to watch. Very concerning in 2021 to see someone attempt to burn down an African American church. I feel it deeply."

    Hate crimes increased under Trump's term in office.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whoa, suddenly dembots care about buildings. Wasn't building-burning the most virtuous endeavor just recently? Confusing.

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    2. Is it really only a building that burns when someone sets fire to a church?

      Delete
    3. Oh yes, how could we forget: Saint Floyd starts crying on all his murals.

      Delete
  11. It's time for people to admit to themselves that academic philosophy has very little effect on anything.

    It's hard to stomach, I know. I enjoyed taking Philosophy in College. First semester as a Freshman, I took two courses right off the bat.

    You can enjoy academic philosophy and also understand that it is basically mental masturbation. It's entertainment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ‘Mental masturbation?’ That must be what Somerby is doing here writing about it endlessly. However, he did not find it entertaining. The tedium was overpowering, he said. Perhaps it is a masturbatory compulsion in his case, tedious but unavoidable.

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    2. Mental masturbation? Tell that to the philosophy majors who become bioethicists. Or the ones who become litigators in law firms, arguing important cases. Or computer scientists and mathematicians who depend on logic.

      Those who call philosophy mental masturbation perhaps also see little value in art, music, literature, architecture, city planning, and any number of fields that improve our quality of life while being inessential to survival.

      Delete
    3. Philosophy is not held in to account in the real world. It is just a study, a theory. It means very little when cast upon the sharp rocks of reality. Or as Mike Tyson said, "a plan is just a plan until you get hit in the face". Any philosopher or person engaged in philosophy is a lucky motherfucker. Probably rich and white. Lucky as hell to sit outside the real world and theorize. It is a little bit like having your dick in your hand. These people are lucky but also probably unhappy too because getting beat up in the real world is what life is all about ... as Dostoevsky implied.

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    4. There was an interesting email exchange with Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky where Sam Harris really wanted to speak with Chomsky about the morality of intention and how we can make moral evaluations of state's actions based on their intentions and Chomsky seemed very confused and kept saying over and over that there was nothing to say in general about intentions because who the hell is the ultimate judge of what their intentions are? They all will claim benign intentions. Harris wanted to create these neat little boxes and prioritize which state's intentions made their actions more moral than the others and Chomsky seem to be thinking that there was no point to that because the real world is so confusing and there are millions of different intentions and circumstances that make up a state's action. So much so that they're all impossible to quantify. And furthermore when you're speaking about Muslim countries and the United States, it's all immoral action. What is the point of sitting there and ranking whose actions are less immoral than the others? Why not deal directly with the immorality of the actions in the state in which you live where you have some sort of power to change it?

      In that exchange, Harris came across as the masturbating philosopher, sitting in his fancy office somewhere in some fancy house aching to lustily engage in provocative thought experiments, to passionately squeeze every drip out of his self-created philosophical fantasies until they explode in an orgasmic release of intellectual satisfaction. Where Chomsky seem to be more concerned with what is out there in the real world and impossible to categorize and prioritize and put simple labels on yet still is real and must be dealt with in one way or another.

      The masturbating philosopher has the luxury of being able to put his scenarios in a drawer and forget about them when he is finished. They are not real. Outside though, real life is not rational or axiomatic.

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    5. Neither is real life chaotic. If you understand the regularities of life it will provide an enormous advantage in changing events to suit human purposes. Science is partly about finding causal relationships and using them to improve lives.

      Delete
    6. Thanks for the brilliant insight, whitey.

      Delete
  12. “Has traditional philosophy been marked by "an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues?" “

    Has physics solved the origin of the universe? Has biology solved the origin of life, or of consciousness?

    There are certain questions that human beings ask (aside from Somerby, apparently) that are difficult if not impossible to answer. That is not philosophy’s fault, and it doesn’t render them pointless.

    We are part of creation, and it is therefore difficult to understand creation. We are a part of the thing we are trying to analyze. It is stupid of Horwich to make such a complaint.

    ReplyDelete
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