Monday, August 28, 2006


My favourite book was written in 1852 by a medical doctor, influenced by Bentham but far surpassing him in philosophical genius. He was a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and is known principally for two books, Animal and Vegetable Physiology considered with reference to Natural Theology – and the one that I adore. The first was commissioned by the Earl of Bridgewater to propound "the power, wisdom and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation", which might serve as a motto for the second.

The book is Peter Mark Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, the most prodigious work of systematic metaphysics that England has produced. We owe to his son, John Roget, the glorious expansion of the index. But it was Peter Mark who conceived the sublime arrangement of opposites – Mixture and Simplicity, Life and Death, Necessity and Will – displayed in parallel columns like Kant's "antinomies".

The comparison is apt. Like Kant and Wittgenstein, Roget turned metaphysics against itself. His work is not only a fearsome cannon in the war against cliché, but a fortress against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. He must have been consulting his own book when he wrote this splendiferous passage from its introduction:
Truisms pass current, and wear the semblance of profound wisdom, when dressed up in the tinsel garb of antithetical phrases, or set off by an imposing pomp of paradox. By a confused jargon of involved and mystical sentences, the imagination is easily inveigled into a transcendental region of clouds, and the understanding beguiled into the belief that it is acquiring knowledge and approaching truth. A misapplied or misapprehended term is sufficient to give rise to fierce and interminable disputes; a misnomer has turned the tide of popular opinion; a verbal sophism has decided a party question; an artful watchword, thrown among combustible materials, has kindled the flame of deadly warfare, and changed the destiny of an empire.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Meta and Meta*

A fun game to play while reading is verbal tics, in which one attempts to identify and list the idiosyncrasies of the author's style. Is he in love with the first person? Unable to resist the parenthetic remark? Wedded to the footnote? Or obsessed with rhetorical questions?

Sometimes, the task is embarrassingly easy, and one has to wonder whether the repetition is deliberate. A recent example of this is can be found in Rebecca Goldstein's memorable book on Kurt Gödel, Incompleteness. In a scathing review in the LRB, Solomon Feferman points to Goldstein's misuse of "metamathematics" to mean philosophy of mathematics (not the mathematics of formal systems), as part of a more general linguistic quirk. Among the best examples of its expression are these:
metaquestion, metaconviction, metaimplications, metaresult, metalight, metaview,
and, best of all,
Such extremes of self-parody cannot be accidental. Nor can Goldstein's cute description of the incompleteness theorems as "prolix" – speaking to questions about logic, arithmetic, philosophy, and the mind – and later as "loquacious", "verbose", and even "gabby".

I hesitate to say what is going on in Goldstein's book, but presumably part of it is a relentless informality – which blurs into carelessness, and thus infuriates Feferman – intended to bring out, by contrast, the distinctive reticence of Gödel himself. The over-excited use of "meta" is precisely "gabby", and (perhaps?) deliberately so. None of this would excuse the errors of fact that Feferman describes. But it makes one sympathetic to the otherwise distracting tics of Goldstein's prose.

Monday, August 14, 2006

On the Nature of Things

In the early chapters of his recent book, Paul Boghossian considers a generalized relativism about facts that he attributes, with some hesitation, to Richard Rorty. The idea is to make sense of Rorty's remarks about the equal validity of conflicting worldviews – like those of Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmine – by interpreting their claims as follows:
According to such-and-such theory, which we accept: p.
Rorty is therefore saved from self-contradiction: when he insists that two conflicting views are equally valid, he is not committed to the truth of both p and not-p.

According to Boghossian, however, a problem remains. We cannot make sense of sentences like the one that appears above without conceding their absolute truth, or initiating a vicious regress on which the facts take an infinitary form:
According to such-and-such theory, which we accept, there is a theory we accept, and according to this latter theory, there is a theory we accept…according to which: p.
Such facts would correspond to "propositions that we could neither express nor understand".

It is true that Rorty interpretation is "tricky" – as Boghossian complains in a footnote – but this is not the only way to conceive his view. We are led to the relativistic theory if we take "conflicting" to mean "contradictory", so that conflicting theories cannot both be true. There is an alternative pragmatist reading, which attends to the rhetoric of passages like this:
Given that it pays to talk about mountains, as it certainly does, one of the obvious truths about mountains is that they were here before we talked about them. If you do not believe that, you probably do not know how to play the language games that employ the word "mountain." But the reality of those language games has nothing to do with the question of whether Reality as it is in Itself, apart from the way in which it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in it.
Here, and elsewhere, the picture seems to be one in which propositions about mountains are simply true, as we can see when we use them to think about the world. The question is whether it pays to do so. In the background is a theory of intentionality on which employing a concept is a matter not only of inferential habits but habits of action. The kind of conflict that reality does not resolve is not between p and not-p, but between families of propositions that do not contradict one another, but whose concepts are incompatible in practice: one cannot act on both conceptual schemes at once.

This approach is tempting for pejoratives: a natural response to propositions about "Krauts" is not to contradict them, but to refuse the concept, even though one knows what it would it be to use it. (Hence the scare-quotes in the previous sentence.) This analogy is invoked by Rorty, when he refers to "true" and "justified" as "compliments we pay to propositions".

On this form of conceptual pragmatism, we dispense with the relativity that Boghossian finds troubling. But we still get to say that no language game is favoured by "Reality as it is in Itself": the choice of concepts is not a matter of correspondence, but of whether it pays to think of mountains or molecules, or both, of justification-as-science or justification-as-scripture. In this limited sense, "there is no description-independent way the world is".

In the end, I don't think any of this can be sustained. But its confusions are at least a bit more subtle than those of the relativist. One puzzle emerges when we try to think through a case of conflict, in which we respond to practical inconsistency by rejecting another's concepts altogether. If we do not understand those concepts, the disagreement makes no sense. But if the concepts are ones that we can grasp, it is unclear what we can say to ourselves in setting them aside. As pragmatists, we are not permitted to deny the claims of our interlocutor, since they are on a par with our own and do not contradict them. What we have to say is something like, "That's quite true – but it's not how we think about these things." The problem is that one can't acknowledge the truth of a proposition without being compelled to think it. Once we are inside the alien perspective, there is no rational way to give it up – short of concluding that its claims are not correct.

I doubt that this perplexity amounts to a refutation, or that the interpretation I have sketched is exactly right. But in its attention to the pragmatist theme, it seems to me more promising than the forms of relativism – global and epistemic – that Boghossian's book confronts.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Petros: a Dialogue

[The speaker is Aristotle, who repeats to his companion a conversation he heard from Plato, and had already once narrated to Theophrastus.]

Ah, yes, I do know something about the questions you've asked. A month ago, I was talking to a student of mine, who said that he had heard from Acastos about a report by Antisthenes of a conversation in which Xenophon mentioned vaguely that someone had heard of a meeting once between Socrates and Petros at which I was present.

Your informant must have been vague indeed, I replied, if you imagine that the event was recent or that I could have been there. Nor did I hear of it from Socrates himself, but from Plato, many years ago; and he remembered it only in part. Unlike him, I am blessed with perfect recall, so it is easy to repeat the dialogue exactly as he told it to me…

PETROS: Socrates! You don't know me, but perhaps I can be of use. Since coming to Athens from New York City, I've been following the news of your trial. I have prepared what I think is a compelling defence. You should appeal to the right of free speech, which lies at the heart of Athenian democracy. How can the assembly turn their backs on this sustaining principle, and so convict you of corrupting the youth?

SOCRATES: I know who you are, Petros, and if you know who I am, you must know that I would never consider such a defence. I am no friend of democracy and the liberties it protects. Plato, here, rightly depicts me as deriding the license of the city, in his beautiful Republic.

P: I'm well aware of that. In fact I've written a book about it, and about your shameful association with Critias and Charmides, who plotted the dictatorship of the Thirty only five years ago. Why did you teach those monsters? Why did you tolerate them? Why did you never try to intervene?

S: I think, perhaps, you don't accept that I'm sincere! I believe that it's worse for one to do injustice than to suffer it. Critias and Charmides were more deeply harmed by those events than were the ones they killed. In teaching them, I tried to save their souls.

P: I shouldn't have asked. I knew you'd respond with a paradox, some stratospheric nonsense designed to baffle me. But it's irrelevant, in any case. I won't have you convicted for your unorthodox views, or executed through guilt by association. I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

S (laughing): To the death, eh? Yours or mine? No matter. I am interested in your ideas about free speech. Perhaps you would be willing to answer a question or two about them?

P: I suppose so, if that would persuade you to accept my defence.

S: We'll see. Presumably, the speech that should be free is the sort of thing that plays a role in politics, in the assembly, and so on?

P: That's right.

S: And it must be sort of speech that can alter a vote or turn a jury?

P: Sometimes, yes, if the rhetoric is good, and the argument persuasive.

S: Well said! If speech were impotent, why struggle to defend its freedom? But then you agree that speech could deceive the public, rouse an army – or inspire a dictator?

P (cautiously): It could.

S: Ah, but now I become confused. Why do you call the charge against me "guilt by association"? You know that I was the teacher of Critias and Charmides?

P: Yes.

S: And I taught them to despise democracy.

P: That's true; it is part of what my book was about.

S: And they became tyrants: they overthrew the democracy of Athens, participating in a brutal oligarchy.

P: Yes.

S: Then how can you be sure that my words had no effect, and not the most violent? Would you say of a man who brings his children up as thieves that this is "guilt by association", and nothing more?

P (reluctantly): No, Socrates, I would not.

S: Then how can you say it of me? You find it ironic that I stayed in Athens, depending for my freedom to do philosophy on the democracy that I reject. It is more ironic that you are able to defend free speech only by ignoring the power that makes it worth defending. If you were ever to acknowledge that my words could have effects, you would see that your view is indefensible. By your lights, my conversations were the political equivalent of Nazi propaganda, and the "Socratified" aristocrats, the Hitler youth. You frame the trial as a test for my political principles; my influence – or even its possibility – is a sterner test for yours…

At this point, Plato recounts, Petros rolled his eyes in disgust and walked away, muttering that, while Socrates had the freedom to speak, he had the freedom not to listen.

In a final irony, Socrates did employ the freedom-of-speech defence – but was convicted anyway. The prosecutor showed that he was guilty of impiety, on the basis of a dialogue that Plato had written down. At the trial, Socrates denied that he had ever said the things attributed to him, and Plato confessed to having made them up. But he was not believed. Such is the power of words.