THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2022
Cable keeps serving us porridge: We wish, wish, wish we could focus today on the work of Saul Kripke, whose death, at age 81, is reported in the New York Times.
In the Times' obituary, Sam Roberts describes Kripke as "a pioneering logician whose revolutionary theories on language qualified him as one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers."
It may be surprising to think that you've never heard of one the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. But as we told you some years back, it's all anthropology now.
In fairness, Roberts isn't a specialist in the branch of alleged erudition known as academic philosophy. As a journalist, he's had a long career at the New York Times, dating to 1983.
In this morning's obituary, Roberts attempts to explain Kripke's enormous stature. The attempt begins in paragraph 3, then proceeds onward as shown:
ROBERTS (9/22/22): Professor Kripke’s classic work, “Naming and Necessity,” first published in 1972 and drawn from three lectures he delivered at Princeton University in 1970 before he was 30, was considered one of the century’s most evocative philosophical books.
“Kripke challenged the notion that anyone who uses terms, especially proper names, must be able to correctly identify what the terms refer to,” said Michael Devitt, a distinguished professor of philosophy who recruited Professor Kripke to the City University Graduate Center in Manhattan.
“Rather, people can use terms like ‘Einstein,’ ‘springbok,’ perhaps even ‘computer,’ despite being too ignorant or wrong to provide identifying descriptions of their referents,” Professor Devitt said. “We can use terms successfully not because we know much about the referent but because we’re linked to the referent by a great social chain of communication.”
Say what? People can use familiar terms despite knowing little about "their referents?"
Can that possibly qualify as a discovery in the field of "logic?" Can that possibly explain why Kripke is rated as highly as he is?
As he continues, Roberts stumbles ahead, keeping the Times from breaking faith with a companion elite. His attempt at explanation continues:
ROBERTS (continuing directly): The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, writing in The New York Times Magazine in 1977, said Professor Kripke had “introduced ways to distinguish kinds of true statements—between statements that are ‘possibly’ true and those that are ‘necessarily’ true.”
“In Professor Kripke’s analysis,” he continued, “a statement is possibly true if and only if it is true in some possible world—for example, ‘The sky is blue’ is a possible truth, because there is some world in which the sky could be red. A statement is necessarily true if it is true in all possible worlds, as in ‘The bachelor is an unmarried man.’ ”
According to Kripke, "The sky is blue" is only a possible truth—it isn't a necessary truth—because we can imagine a world in which the sky is red? As of 1972, could that possibly have qualified as some sort of major discovery in the field of "logic?"
On its face, that seems to make little sense. And yet there it is, offered precisely that way, in this morning's New York Times, with editors relying on subscribers to accept such work on the part of the Times without eye-rolling or spit-takes or snorting, or even comment or criticism.
(As we'll show you below, we think that passage is a bit unfair to what Taylor Branch actually wrote.)
The fact that such work can appear in the Times is a fact about anthropology. According to experts in the field, so it may go when major journalists attempt to maintain faith, in a transparently illusory way, with the world of academic philosophy.
Surely, no one can think that Roberts' explanation actually seems to make sense. As readers, though, we mumble each word to ourselves as we read through this strange account.
We agree to swallow our doubts. We agree to pretend.
In such ways, our tribe agrees to maintain faith in our intellectual elites. And that's how it works, it may possibly seem, with the way we accept the basic functioning of our upper-end mainstream journalism.
In our view, the New York Times has basically run a charade in today's obituary. In our view, the paper does a much more respectable job in the layout of its front page.
Even there, the paper basically splits the difference between two dueling events. The events in question are these:
On the one hand, Vladimir Putin has threatened to bring an end to the world. But also, an appeals court has rejected a frivolous appeal by Donald J. Trump!
How should the importance of those dueling events be weighed? As some logicians might be able to say, that is a matter of judgment—but, like Solomon of old, the New York Times has pretty much decided to split the baby.
In this morning's print editions, Putin's threat to destroy the world dominates two-thirds of the paper's front page (four columns out of six). Beneath a banner headline concerning President Biden's address to the U.N., the Times offers two reports:
In our view, that nuclear threat was thinly veiled, but that too is a matter of judgment. At any rate, this topic consumes two-thirds of the space at the top of page one—but it's placed to the left of the page.
The upper right-hand corner of the front page concerns Trump's legal troubles. Here too, a pair of reports appear, with one headline in all caps:
In our view, Putin's threat to destroy the world is a major event.
Depending how you want to score it, the legal events concerning Trump may have been given a larger display in the Times—though we'd say the Times played the two events as basically even-Steven in importance.
Reviewing, Putin has said that he damn-straight will use his nukes. Also, Trump got an expected negative ruling, by a unanimous vote.
In this morning's New York Times, these two events share the top of A1. But on blue tribe cable news last night, things were enormously different.
In the last two hours of the evening's broadcasts, the news about Putin's threat was mentioned in one (1) seven-minute segment. Other than that, it was tribal porridge and tribal pleasure all the way down:
Trump Trump Trump Trump Jail! This framework consumed the entirety of The Eleventh Hour with Stephanie Ruhle. It consumed all but one brief interview segment on The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell.
Lawrence ran that one short interview segment, starting at 10:52 P.M. Aside from that, it was two solid hours of Trump Trump Prison Jail.
Back in our youth, Slim Pickens hallooed and waved his ten-gallon hat as he descended to earth riding a nuclear weapon. What kind of news judgment was offered last night on blue tribe cable news?
As some logicians could probably tell you, that is a matter if judgment. As for the death of (the undoubtedly brilliant) Kripke, we call tell you this:
Taylor Branch was an historian, not a specialist in academic philosophy. Still, we think he was scoring points in the street-fighting Summer of 77, saying such things as this:
BRANCH (8/14/77): Though this may not be an age of philosophical gods, Robert Nozick, the Harvard political philosopher, has called Saul Kripke "the one genius of our profession,” and many of Kripke's distinguished colleagues, who are not by nature given to lavish praise, say that he could one day rank with such legendary figures as John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell.
It is remarkable that someone so young has approached such a ranking. yet is so little known outside his field. But philosophy has changed a great deal in the past century. While “social” philosophers like John Dewey and Jean‐Paul Sartre are practically household names, they do not represent the mainstream of contemporary philosophical inquiry, which has become such an arcane discipline that it leaves most laymen gasping for meaning. Those who can easily grasp formulations like Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” are befuddled by a modern “analytic” philosopher's equivalent: “To be is to be the value of a variable.”
British analytic philosophers have abandoned to science the “pursuit of truth” while claiming for their own the logician's and semanticist's “pursuit of meaning.” Even the most well‐educated persons in America today, who understand the metaphysics of Schopenhauer or the epistemology of Kant, flounder in the mathematical thickets of such 20th‐century figures as Rudolph Carnap and Willard Van Orman Quine.
This alone would explain why philosophy has become an isolated field of knowledge, increasingly neglected even by the must intellectual circles of society. But there is another, more important reason.
The analytic school to which Kripke belongs has taken philosophy into such esoteric realms that it is divorced from classic philosophic questions like “What is the good life?” The analytic philosophers do not seek to provide a synthetic, or universal, “theory of life.” Many students who came to philosophy drunk with Plato or spellbound by Santayana have dropped out after discovering that the ideas of the old philosophers are out of the way, refrigerated, while their professors work with equations. The professors speak of “ordinary language” with distance and long for a “perfect language” in which the meaning of all words will be as precise as that of numbers. The current philosophical journals are packed with so many equations and Greek variables that a large family of waterbugs seems to be skating across the pages.
Kripke's contributions to philosophy thus far have extended the boundaries of the most unfamiliar and technical regions of modern analytic philosophy—where philosophical reasoning intermingles with abstract mathematic theory. He has worked in the field of modal logic, a branch of formal logic that has introduced ways to distinguish kinds of true statements—between statements that are “possibly” true and those that are “necessarily” true.
Thank God for modal logic! According to Branch, it was that branch of formal logic which had allowed Kripke to note the fact that certain statements are only possibly true.
Branch isn't and wasn't a specialist in academic "philosophy." We wouldn't endorse everything he wrote in that passage, but we'd say he was occasionally in the turnstiles on his way into the ballpark.
Full disclosure! We were introduced to Branch on one occasion, right there in Baltimore's version of the Pantages. We'll only say what we've said before:
In our view, the logicians have largely walked off their posts. Along the way, they left some comical markers behind, including the hundreds of pages Russell devoted to proving that 1 + 1 equals 2.
The logicians have largely walked off their posts! That helps explain why you've never heard of one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.
At the Times, Roberts offers a puzzling account of Kripke's greatness. As in the old joke from the Soviet Union, Times readers agree not to notice.
(The old joke from the Soviet Union: We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.)
Within our tribal elites, we keep pretending that we have "logicians" guiding us in our various struggles. Also, we keep pretending that we have a wide array of functioning mainstream journalists.
Last evening, on tribal cable, the plight of the migrants had disappeared. But so it goes, again and again, when others arrive at our borders.
Tomorrow: Attention C-Span callers!
Fuller disclosure: O'Donnell mentioned Putin's threat, somewhat briefly, during his seven-minute interview with Karine Jean-Pierre.
For the most part, Jean-Pierre was allowed to spend the time extolling President Biden's unmistakable greatness. "Karine Jean-Pierre gets the last word," Lawrence said as he closed.