Just returned from the Central APA which was wonderfully and surprisingly rejuvenating. In the past I have found such conventions numbing, but this time – and maybe ’twere just my ‘tude – I found a lot of nourishment at this one. (Also more general nourishment in the French Quarter.) One of my professional obligations was to provide a brief, conversation-starting commentary on Galen Strawson’s latest defense of his reading of the Appendix to Hume’s Treatise. As I have learned over the last few weeks, this is highly contentious territory, the battle raging between, on the one hand, the “Old Humeans” who believe Hume positively denied the existence of external objects, of necessary connections (i.e., real causes), and of any substantial self, and, on the other hand, the “New Humenas” who believe Hume was denying only systematic, philosophical knowledge of these matters. (For what it’s worth, I think Strawson and the New Humeans have the better interpretation.) While stewing over the possibilities, I crafted a little tale which I reproduce here for my own gratification:
“The Tale of the Prince and the Cobbler”
Once upon a time there was a Prince who desired both his court and his courtly philosophy to be secure, efficient, and rigorous. His predecessors had been lax in their administrations and had allowed many needless functionaries and figureheads to insinuate their ways into the royal system. “Enough!” cried the Prince. “I will no longer tolerate any entity that is not pulling its own weight!” And thus began the great ontological purge.
In his royal philosophy, the Prince tolerated no alleged ideas or concepts which could not be traced to actual sense-impressions. This seemed an eminently sensible approach, as it were, but others, and the Prince himself, were astonished to discover how little was left in the royal philosophy. For our actual set of sense impressions do not yield any well-founded ideas of causes, selves, or substances – the principal entities of any philosophical armory. Indeed, the Prince was so astonished that he found himself trying to explain how anyone ever came to believe themselves to possess these so-called ideas. He employed the royal psychology to this end.
Eventually the Prince wrote a treatise of his royal philosophy which aimed to demonstrate how little knowledge the combination of sense-impressions and reason really provide. And – while other philosophers of the realm cried out in consternation and disbelief – he felt satisfied in having brought greater security and efficiency and rigor to the royal philosophy.
Meanwhile, in the same princely realm, there lived a cobbler. He was a practical man, of course, though he was at the same time exceptionally well read in philosophy. But the combination of his practicality and his great learning had resulted in a great skepticism. For every day was filled with (on the one hand) seemingly endless disputes about the nature of mind and world, and (on the other) task after task of shoe production and repair, all of which met with great success. He began to suspect that not very much philosophical knowledge is really needed for success in navigating one’s way through the world.
To satisfy himself in this conclusion, the cobbler developed a philosophical epistemology exactly like that of the Prince, one rooted in sense-impressions and ideas drawn from them. And he then set about demonstrating how this philosophy fell comically short of providing any of the knowledge he employed on a daily basis in making and mending shoes. There could be no clearer demonstration, he felt, of the inadequacy of philosophical reason to provide the basic knowledge necessary for human life. And so he wrote a treatise demonstrating how little knowledge the combination of sense-impressions and reason really provide, and then returned to his work as a cobbler.
Amazingly, the Prince’s treatise and the cobbler’s treatise were identical with one another – word for word! As soon as he was informed of this, the Prince sent for the cobbler so that they could discuss their treatises (or their treatise?). But they were surprised to find they had very little in common. For the Prince was a great skeptic about knowledge: he thought there is very little of it, though we persuade ourselves there is more. The cobbler however was not this kind of skeptic at all – indeed, his daily work with shoes convinced him that he knew many useful things. Rather, the cobbler was a skeptic about philosophy’s ability to make sense of this knowledge. The two men finally agreed to go their separate ways – with identical books tucked under each arm.