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.
Quite a bit of what masquerades as philosophy reminds me of the behavior of a severe obsessive-compulsive sitting on his bed repeatedly tying and untying his shoelaces — because he just never gets it quite right. A good number of philosophers (present company naturally excluded) lack the rather essential philosophical virtues of lucidity and common sense. They seem to suffer from a bad case of what could aptly be called the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome:
“ ‘When I use a word,‘ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be the master – that’s all’.”
Paraphrasing Kierkegaard: What many philosophers have to say about reality is often as deceptive as when you see a sign in a second-hand store which reads ‘Pressing Done Here.’ If you went in to have your clothes pressed you’d be fooled, because the sign is for sale.
“You can observe a lot just by watching.” Yogi Berra
Hi, Harry – I agree that there is a lot of tedium in philosophy – more or less than in other disciplines, I can’t say, but it is especially disappointing in a discipline that can be so alive to the biggest questions, problems, and paradoxes we can find. But sometimes what appears as tedious chatter actually turns out to be about a central point that, after long discussion, has been found to be pivotal. My favorite example is a topic often used to ridicule metaphysics – the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The question was raised because people weren’t sure bodies needed to have some sort of size in order to have a location. Can an extensionless being have location? That’s an interesting question (I think). Angels came into the discussion only for the sake of exploring that thought.
I guess what I was trying to say is that I’m somewhat less than enthusiastic about thinkers who embrace enigmatic ideas, preferentially their own, so passionately that reality has a rather tough time living up to their expectations. One is well advised to keep in mind that philosophers who have only one idea and propound that in thirty successive volumes and barbarous neologisms (the philosophical verbiage of Sartre and Heidegger comes to mind) seem to have an almost guaranteed future in universities, where they find a plethora of ways to divert public funds without any risk of a jail sentence. So many unfortunate thinkers have probably been lost to modern departments of philosophy because they were insufficiently sophisticated, read: obscure, and did not sponsor theories mad enough. What is much cultivated nowadays is a ‘philosophy of ingenuity and virtuosity’ which prides itself on its irrelevance to life, and needs to be taken cum grane salis, i.e. with a generous helping of the proverbial salt.
It helps a good deal, taking my own experience as a benchmark, to challenge folks in personal encounters by humbly asking: Could you please explain that to me like I’m a five-year-old? It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that they, more often than not, find themselves unable to meet this reasonable request. At least to me, that does not serve as an indicator to the presence of superior intelligence.
If points cannot be made in plain language, albeit less ‘elegantly,’ we are usually confronted with nothing less than bad philosophy — besides receiving a rich helping of the aphoristic monkey’s allowance, which is a bit like buying a ticket to see the sun set. Who needs it?
I like this elucidation of Hume and of course I identify more with the cobbler’s reading. Now that the philosphicobbler has said his piece, subsequent cobblers are free to write about cobbling and you know, actually add something to human know^H^H^H^H habit.
There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.”
Luis Borges Book of Imaginary Beings