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Paul Graham against philosophy and literary theory

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An good friend of mine did a PhD in philosophy at Stanford, specializing in language and mind and all things Wittgenstein. After several years as a professor at two leading universities, he left the field to earn a second PhD in neuroscience, working in a wet lab. I have a feeling he might agree with much that Paul Graham writes in the essay quoted below. In numerous conversations over the years about his dissertation research, I could never quite see the point…

Outside of math there’s a limit to how far you can push words; in fact, it would not be a bad definition of math to call it the study of terms that have precise meanings. Everyday words are inherently imprecise. They work well enough in everyday life that you don’t notice. Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.

I would say that this has been, unfortunately for philosophy, the central fact of philosophy. Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by “free.” Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by “exist.”

Wittgenstein is popularly credited with the idea that most philosophical controversies are due to confusions over language. I’m not sure how much credit to give him. I suspect a lot of people realized this, but reacted simply by not studying philosophy, rather than becoming philosophy professors.

…Curiously, however, the works they produced continued to attract new readers. Traditional philosophy occupies a kind of singularity in this respect. If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it’s hard to distinguish something that’s hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that’s hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand. To someone who hasn’t learned the difference, traditional philosophy seems extremely attractive: as hard (and therefore impressive) as math, yet broader in scope. That was what lured me in as a high school student.

This singularity is even more singular in having its own defense built in. When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they’re nonsense generally keep quiet. There’s no way to prove a text is meaningless. The closest you can get is to show that the official judges of some class of texts can’t distinguish them from placebos. [10]

And so instead of denouncing philosophy, most people who suspected it was a waste of time just studied other things. That alone is fairly damning evidence, considering philosophy’s claims. It’s supposed to be about the ultimate truths. Surely all smart people would be interested in it, if it delivered on that promise.

Because philosophy’s flaws turned away the sort of people who might have corrected them, they tended to be self-perpetuating. Bertrand Russell wrote in a letter in 1912:

Hitherto the people attracted to philosophy have been mostly those who loved the big generalizations, which were all wrong, so that few people with exact minds have taken up the subject. [11]

His response was to launch Wittgenstein at it, with dramatic results.

I think Wittgenstein deserves to be famous not for the discovery that most previous philosophy was a waste of time, which judging from the circumstantial evidence must have been made by every smart person who studied a little philosophy and declined to pursue it further, but for how he acted in response. [12] Instead of quietly switching to another field, he made a fuss, from inside. He was Gorbachev.

The field of philosophy is still shaken from the fright Wittgenstein gave it. [13] Later in life he spent a lot of time talking about how words worked. Since that seems to be allowed, that’s what a lot of philosophers do now. Meanwhile, sensing a vacuum in the metaphysical speculation department, the people who used to do literary criticism have been edging Kantward, under new names like “literary theory,” “critical theory,” and when they’re feeling ambitious, plain “theory.” The writing is the familiar word salad:

Gender is not like some of the other grammatical modes which express precisely a mode of conception without any reality that corresponds to the conceptual mode, and consequently do not express precisely something in reality by which the intellect could be moved to conceive a thing the way it does, even where that motive is not something in the thing as such. [14]

The singularity I’ve described is not going away. There’s a market for writing that sounds impressive and can’t be disproven. There will always be both supply and demand. So if one group abandons this territory, there will always be others ready to occupy it.

[10] Sokal, Alan, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Social Text 46/47, pp. 217-252.

Abstract-sounding nonsense seems to be most attractive when it’s aligned with some axe the audience already has to grind. If this is so we should find it’s most popular with groups that are (or feel) weak. The powerful don’t need its reassurance.

[11] Letter to Ottoline Morrell, December 1912. Quoted in:

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin, 1991, p. 75.

[12] A preliminary result, that all metaphysics between Aristotle and 1783 had been a waste of time, is due to I. Kant.

[13] Wittgenstein asserted a sort of mastery to which the inhabitants of early 20th century Cambridge seem to have been peculiarly vulnerable—perhaps partly because so many had been raised religious and then stopped believing, so had a vacant space in their heads for someone to tell them what to do (others chose Marx or Cardinal Newman), and partly because a quiet, earnest place like Cambridge in that era had no natural immunity to messianic figures, just as European politics then had no natural immunity to dictators.

[14] This is actually from the Ordinatio of Duns Scotus (ca. 1300), with “number” replaced by “gender.” Plus ca change.

Wolter, Allan (trans), Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings, Nelson, 1963, p. 92.

Written by infoproc

September 22, 2007 at 1:23 pm

Posted in sad but true