Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Vomiting up Plato's Poison: A Guide to Thinking


"One thinks that one is tracing nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 114.

  1. What is justice?
  2. What does it mean to really know something?
  3. What makes something art?
  4. Is a thought experiment the same kind of thing as an empirical experiment?
  5. Was imperialism good for the world?
If any of these questions seems interesting to you on its face, I know exactly how you feel. This post is meant to free you: you are living in a prison of words.

There is an assumption behind all of these questions: a word corresponds to an essential thing, and if we can clarify exactly what the word means, we can understand the essence better. The process will help us understand the world that we live in.

But defining words can't do that at all. As Wittgenstein says in the book I cited at the beginning, words are simply devices for communication, and they only bear meaning insofar as we use them successfully to get our point across. If I use the word "justice" in a conversation about the Nuremberg trials, and my listener understands it and responds, that's all there is to it. Perhaps Plato used the word differently. So be it! That's none of our business. After all, I would have used the word "artichoke" if I thought it would have the same effect.  We only want to make a specific point about Nuremberg.

Along the same lines, sometimes we'll use "democracy" to describe a slave-holding Greek city-state with a low land requirement for voting rights, and sometimes we'll use it to distinguish the United States from China. But the similarity of the uses should not lead us on a hunt to discover the hidden essential connections between the United States and ancient Athens. Of course, there are similarities. But the cities are not related because they are both called democracies.

Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it very well: Consider, he says, the paradox that has driven many a nine-year-old bananas: "if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" A difficult question, until you realize that the answer is trivial: it depends on how you define "sound." If a sound is an auditory sensation, then the answer is no. If a sound is a vibration in the air, then the answer is yes. There is nothing more to say.

The best replies to the questions that I started with should now be obvious. But just to drive the point home:

  1. People use "justice" in all kinds of ways. Let's figure out what those ways are.
  2. 〃        〃  "know"  〃 〃 〃    〃  〃    〃      〃    〃   〃    〃     〃    〃.
  3. 〃        〃    "art"     〃 〃 〃    〃  〃    〃      〃    〃   〃    〃     〃    〃.
  4. It's similar to a regular experiment in some ways but not in others. Let's make a list if we care.
  5. My God. Let alone "good", what do you mean by imperialism? In what period? In which countries? Do you have all of next week to hash it out?
Colossal octopus by Pierre Denys de Montfort.jpg
If you ever see question 5, sail away really, really fast.
(Credit to my professor Constantin Fasolt for bringing this one up.)

Though the forms of these replies differ, they are motivated by the same corrective urge. When we stop insisting that words are sacred, and that only things matter, we burn away the thick brambles that can ruin our thought.


I should give a concrete example. First, this is what can happen when words ensnare us:

Teacher: We only have a minute or so left, but I'm curious as to what anyone thinks about the last part of the article. Is history a natural science or not?
Student A: [eagerly raising hand.] History is infested with too much interpretation to be a real science. Can you imagine a chemist telling a story about calcium? That's just way too open ended.
Student B: Yeah, but think about how empirical history is! Historians are subject to just the same standards of proof as chemists when they publish their work in journals. The proof looks different, but it's really the same kind of thing.
A: I don't think that what historians do counts as proof in the same way. Can you show that the American Revolution was fundamentally ideological just like you can show that cesium explodes in water?  That's why it just doesn't make sense to me to call it a science.
Teacher: Really good questions being raised here, guys. We're out of time, but keep thinking about this kind of thing as you do the next reading.
(I just read an entire book that read exactly like that argument.) This is how to do it better:
A: Well, history is like science because it makes testable empirical propositions just like in chemistry and biology.
B: It looks like you're using science to mean "a system of testable propositions." But if you define science as a discipline that excludes ideological narrative, then it might make sense to distinguish it from history on that ground.
A: Okay, that's fair. I guess my definition of science is just as well founded as yours. We don't really disagree.
[Bell rings.]

Once you realize that you don't have to worry about definitions, you can start focusing on real problems. Problems like: "Is gun control a good way to prevent death?" "Why did the Weimar government succumb?" "What problem is the doctrine of Grace designed to solve?" Intellectual life gets much easier after you banish the demon of confusing language, but that's only because it's basically impossible before you do.

You must be the master of your definitions, not their slave. And a master must be watchful. So to free yourself from words, pay a lot of attention to them. Make sure you are either consistent with your definitions or conscious of when you change them. And let this be the refrain in university classrooms from Chicago to Beijing: What do you mean?

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