Pseudo-profundity vs. philosophy

by Jonasan

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’.