J'ai une plume

"Qui plume a, guerre a."

Month: August, 2012

Pseudo-profundity vs. philosophy

The work of philosophers is often misperceived by people of other professions thanks in part to the existence of a great many other things which call themselves philosophy. The sort of ‘wise’ aphorisms which can be read in magazines, heard at lifestyle conferences and spouted by one’s elders at the dinner table rarely stand up to any form of analysis, but nevertheless are seen by a great many people as the currency in which philosophy deals.

“Love is only a word” is an example of this pseudo-profundity which Daniel Dennett calls a ‘deepity’. A deepity is a phrase which sounds like it contains a great depth of wisdom by virtue of being perfectly ambiguous. On one level it is clearly false that love is only a word. ‘Love’ is a word, but love itself is not (inverted commas are important). The fact that ‘love’ is a word is also trivially true. We are thus left with a statement which can either be interpreted as obviously false or trivially true. By failing to exercise our powers of analysis on this statement we end up thinking about both meanings together rather than separating them and perhaps seeking clarification about which meaning is intended.

I would risk the hypothesis that the sense of awe which these aphorisms can evoke in people is created by the logical impasse of the self-contradiction. Our mind has been following the flow of a conversation or of a written work and is suddenly forced to stop at the chasm in reasoning created by such examples. Unless one is able to separate out the meanings effectively, we are stuck with something which we know to be obviously true, and yet also know to be false. Such a feeling borders on the sublime and leads to a mental response of ‘that seems very interesting, I’ll have to go away and think about that.’

Of course it is usually the case that the resolution to think about it further is forgotten while the initial interest and sense of wonder is retained, leading to the conclusion that the utterance is a particularly wise one.

Stephen Law has pointed out that you can also achieve this effect without the need for an ambiguity in meaning. Ordinary trivially true platitudes such as ‘death comes to us all’ can be elevated to the level of profound insight if enunciated with enough gravitas. Likewise one can take the other side of Dennett’s deepities – that of self-contradiction – and use it without even needing the trivially true side. Law again gives us one of the finest examples in ‘sanity is just another kind of madness’. It sounds profound doesn’t it? Except that sanity cannot be a form of madness because they are defined as opposites. Nevertheless perhaps an important point has been uncovered?

It is at this point that pseudo-profundity and philosophy separate more fully. The ‘guru’ will be content to say ‘sanity is just another kind of madness’ and sit back smugly. The philosopher will instead begin the project of trying to understand how someone could be seduced by such a contradiction. If Socrates were to muse on madness, instead of making this mandarin statement he would seek out someone who claimed to be able to define the difference between sanity and madness and begin questioning her in order to understand. It would perhaps turn out that our initial attraction to this contradiction was that we are suspicious of the legitimacy of sanity and insanity as categories. Perhaps Socrates would show us that they are meaningless concepts, or perhaps that they lack any concrete existence but are instead merely useful tools of classification in a medical context. Whatever the result of his investigation, he would not simply be content to reel off conciously ambiguous, trivial or self-contradictory statements and expect the title ‘philosopher’.

Dear diary, today cycling made me a Kantian

At the risk of becoming any other banal blogger who seems more interested in the contents of his sandwiches than the contents of his thoughts, I would like to relate a banal little story from my banal little life.

As I was cycling home the other day, I was stuck behind a couple of frustratingly slow cyclists. They were cruising along in the cycle lane smoking and, irritatingly, travelling two abreast, making overtaking difficult. We cycled alongside a group of stationary cars caught in traffic. As we approached a pedestrian crossing the light turned red, indicating that we should stop. The cyclists ahead of me continued at their own pace and sped through the lights in spite of this. It turns out that at this point there was a man in his 40s crossing the road on his bike who decided to jump on that legal high horse which afflicts men in middle age (to say ‘moral’ high horse would be incorrect and would legitimise it) who yelled at the kids, “Stop! Stop! You have to stop at the red light! Stop!” After being ignored he proceeded to mount the pavement and continue on his way.

Personally I object to such displays and in this case I had legitimate reason. I continued along the road until I caught up with this man who was on the pavement waiting to cross another road. I turned to him and said, “For reference, it’s just as illegal to cycle on the pavement.”

The angry abuse which followed me as I cycled away proved that I had done my job. Not only was he obnoxious and abrasive, but he was an unbearable hypocrite. Cycling through red lights is indeed illegal and potentially dangerous, but cycling on the pavement is (in the UK) also completely illegal and is statistically far more likely to harm a pedestrian. I could go on at length about why this man deserved to have his home repossessed and his eyes put out, but that’s not the point of my story.

The point of my story is that my anger with him did not arise from any feeling that he was overall in the wrong. On the contrary, he was right to call them out for potentially endangering other people’s wellbeing by cycling irresponsibly. At the point where he squawked in indignation at these other cyclists, I had actually stopped at the red light, leaving me in the clear. My anger arises from the hypocrisy of the situation; he was ready to make this comfortably outraged judgement on others while breaking the very rules he purported to be upholding. Rarely does an example of hypocrisy present itself so clearly.

Hypocrisy is the ultimate Kantian crime because it amounts to what Kant calls a ‘contradiction in conception’. Kant’s Categorical Imperative can be formulated as “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.” This is usually formulated in the housewife version, “What would the world be like if everyone did that!?”

As much as he tried, this man could not be a good Kantian in his indignation. What makes cycling through red lights worse than cycling on the pavement if both are illegal and dangerous? Probably the tiny mind which treats a red light as an infallible deity but other human beings (especially unfamiliar ones) as tools. But as Kant also believes, human beings are ‘ends in themselves’, meaning you specifically should not treat them like tools.

It is extremely tempting to continue this ad hominem against a nameless man indefinitely, but I shall simply finish by apologising to this strawman whom I have abused so thoroughly. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and that clearly also applies to the Highway Code (paragraph 64, if you care), which you ought to actually read before you get self-righteous again. Idiot.