It’s still new, so please don’t get too disappointed when you see it. For the moment it’s only on a free service, but if it gets enough interest over time, we do plan on upgrading.
This is something I must do. I didn’t intend it. I never wished for my life to turn out this way. Life is a tragedy and a farce; my concerns and my views, my position and my stature, my principles, all of these command me to this end. So here I am, defending the detestable, the corrupt, the deeply mistaken. So here I am defending Thomas Nagel.
Nagel’s concern is a problem, a singular problem, that lies at the heart of philosophical naturalism. This sort of naturalism aspired to a complete, objective description and explanation of natural phenomena. It failed. It failed in dozens of ways. Philosophers were swept up in the atomic age, that period of time where science had made inconceivable advancements in understanding the physical world, alongside a similar advancement in technology that stood in testament to the power of science. Science became the model for good philosophy, heralding in a flurry of novel philosophical problems and tensions. Philosophers simply weren’t prepared for this. They faced down problem after problem, from theory-ladenness to confirmation, explanation, and so on. And to escape these, they once again roused the traditional philosophical problems they originally sought to escape. By the 1980s, naturalism was on its deathbed. And Nagel could explain all of this.
In Nagel’s view, the naturalist project was doomed from the beginning: there will always be a lacuna that plagues the objective view. The scientific enterprise, despite its aspirations, always begins from some perspective. Though the objective view can be abstracted away from that perspective, it can only do so by negating that whence it began. That is, the subjective view, the engaged view, will always plague the naturalist project. There will always be this conspicuous discrepancy. There will always be this absurdity. Naturalism fails because it attempts to elide this inconsistency.
Where this inconsistency lies Nagel never makes clear. What stops the objective view from subsuming the subjective into its body? Is it simply incapable of representing those kinds of indexed relational facts? Nagel thinks it is. No matter how it attempts to do that, the objective view can never represent the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view. It can only accomplish this by imaginatively transposing our own subjective view onto others. And this works sometimes. I can imagine what it is like for Barack Obama to eat an apple, for example, only because I know what it’s like myself to eat an apple. But I cannot imaginatively transpose my subjectivity to creatures with very different faculties than my own. Human echolocation is rudimentary and insensitive: I cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat. Human taste receptors are very different than insect taste receptors: I cannot imagine what it’s like for a cockroach to eat scrambled eggs. There is a tension here, but there is no inconsistency. Two conceptual schemes butt up against each other, but inconsistency is not the kind of relation that can hold between conceptual schemes, except trivially. What matters is whether a single conceptual scheme can coherently represent the basic phenomena the other represents. That is, what matters is whether the conceptual schemes are translatable. And Nagel has not given any reason why they are not.
Instead of arguments to these ends, Nagel gestures. He asserts. He plants his heels in the sand and denies that the naturalist can account for the subjective view. And if Nagel stopped here, there would be nothing terribly wrong. Highlighting a tension is a good thing to do in philosophy, even if there is nothing deeper to be said. But he doesn’t stop there. Nagel wants to make substantive positive claims about consciousness and about life and about metaphysics. He reifies the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view into some kind of irreducible metaphysical thing so powerful that it can topple one of our most well-supported and well-conceived scientific theories: Darwinian evolution. This is absurd! Evolutionary theory has a number of conceptual problems—all large and diverse theories will. But this massive, well-supported theory cannot be overturned by a hunch about conceptual schemes. That’s just not the way philosophy works. David defeats Goliath not because he is the underdog; he defeats him because he is more capable, more resourceful, because he capitalises on Goliath’s weakness and fragility. And so it is in philosophy. Nagel doesn’t do this. Nagel highlights a tension that naturalists must take seriously—and that some have!—but makes no substantive moves to demonstrate that there is any fundamental, unavoidable inconsistency. This is bad philosophy. Thomas Nagel does bad philosophy. He is a bad philosopher.
But here’s the kicker: bad philosophers are a much greater, much more pernicious threat than bad philosophers. For while the bad philosopher promotes a bad argument, bad philosophers promote a toxic community. That is, there are two ways to be a bad philosopher. There are those who argue poorly and make no great headway on philosophical problems, or who highlight problems that are no great difficulty. Most philosophers, possibly all philosophers, are bad philosophers in this way. There is no shame in that. Philosophy is difficult. But there are also those who demean and belittle their philosophical opponents. They are those who in their hubris command that the dissenters be ridiculed and thrown from the windows of our great ivory tower.
This is what I mean to defend Nagel from. He receives a great deal more abuse than he warrants. Just read the reviews of Mind and Cosmos. Philosophers ask “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” and move to much harsher statements about his intellect and abilities. Some say that “[Nagel is] a self-contradictory idiot.” Others go even farther: “Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are. In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” And this is not just a phenomenon present in book reviews. It is a communal activity. As Andrew Ferguson relates, at a conference in the Berkshires entitled “Moving Naturalism Forward,” Dan Dennett was “appalled to how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang . . . They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” Dennett did not specify who these philosophers were. Alex Rosenberg obliged: “And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever. And it’s by Tom Nagel.” This… this is disgusting. All of it. Every last insult. Every last word. This is not how good philosophy is done. This is not how good philosophers comport themselves. These men—and they are all men—are a stain on philosophy.
If philosophy is worth doing, if philosophy is worth anything, we must root out this kind of bad philosophy. We must foster a healthy community, one in which philosophers are free to explore their varied interests and methods. Thomas Nagel should be free to do philosophy as he wishes; if they do not like it, these mean-spirited naturalists are free to respond. But in the present case, this I think is the major crux of the issue. The Rosenbergs and Dennetts and so on of philosophy, these bad philosophers have no substantive response to Nagel. Nagel employs an established method—a bad method, but an established method nevertheless—that naturalism disavows. Naturalists are doing the same thing. They promote naturalism as a viable philosophical method, one which is distinct from Nagel’s intuitionism. But in their position, they are not warranted to hurl insults across the divide. They must first puncture holes in Nagel’s hull before they can tell him he’s sinking. They must first take seriously Nagel’s method and show that he cannot address the central problems of philosophy before they can insult him. And good luck with that.
Until then, let Nagel prosper. Let Nagel write what he wishes to write. Let Nagel teach what he wishes to teach. Let the light of reason bleach away his errors and ours. Our students deserve this. We deserve this. Philosophy deserves this.
I’ve begun one of my periodic re-readings of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that coalesced during the late Warring States period (476-221 BCE). It’s an intricate text, the work of many voices representing many perspectives. Stylistically, it consists of parables, anecdotes, poems, arguments, and much else besides. It’s often impossible to tell whether a given story is a straightforward depiction of a great sage or simply an elaborate prank (or both). My aim with this reading is simply to move through it slowly, picking apart each anecdote and seeing what results. I have no axe to grind and no clear sense where I am going. I am writing about it here simply to force myself to elaborate and organize my thoughts. Should any other readers find what I write interesting or useful, that is an added bonus.
This post concerns the first fable in the Zhuangzi. Here is how it begins (all passages are from the Ziporyn 2009 translation):
There is a fish in the Northern Oblivion named Kun, and this Kun is quite huge, spanning who knows how many thousands of miles. He transforms into a bird named Peng, and this Peng has quite a back on him, stretching who knows how many thousands of miles. When he rouses himself and soars into the air, his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens. The oceans start to churn, and this bird begins his journey toward the Southern Oblivion. The Southern Oblivion—that is the Pool of Heaven.Ziporyn 2009
Already in this paragraph, Zhuangzi confronts us with three of his central themes: perspectivism, transformation, and forgetting. I’ll take up each in turn.
The Zhuangzi delights in the variety of perspectives that the world offers. Were there a view from nowhere, I do not think Zhuangzi would see much value in it. Our first taste of this comes in the very name of the mysterious fish in the Northern Oblivion: Kun (鯤). The name literally means “fish roe.” The Kun is simultaneously unfathomably huge and extremely small. A later passage in the fable discusses how other animals perceive the Peng as it flies:
The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at [Peng], saying, “We scurry up into the air, leaping from the elm to the sandalwood tree, and when we don’t quite make it we just plummet to the ground. What’s all this about ascending ninety thousand miles and heading south?”Ziporyn 2009
Zhuangzi comments: “What do these two little creatures know? A small consciousness cannot keep up with a vast consciousness; short duration cannot keep up with long duration.” Here the emphasis is on the largeness of the Peng—its size makes it incomprehensible to smaller creatures. Yet in naming the fish Kun, Zhuangzi asks us to consider whether there is not some further perspective in which it plays the role of the small, uncomprehending creature. Even as he praises the lofty perspective of the Kun/Peng relative to the cramped laughter of the cicada and dove, he seems to be grinningly deflating any attempts to treat that perspective as ultimate.
This is further confirmed by Zhuangzi’s remarks on dependence in this passage. Zhuangzi notes that the Peng has to fly especially high to fly at all:
And if the wind is not piled up thickly enough, it has no power to support Peng’s enormous wings. That is why he needs to put ninety thousand miles of air beneath them. Only then can he ride the wind, bearing the blue of heaven on his back and unobstructed on all sides, and make his way south.Ziporyn 2009
Later, toward the end of the parable, Zhuangzi draws the moral more explicitly, when he discusses the cases of Song Rongzi and Liezi. Song Rongzi is admirable because he “clearly discerned where true honor and disgrace are to be found.” And yet he is not fully admirable: “there was still a sense in which he was not yet really firmly planted.” Paralleling the Peng even more closely, “Liezi rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful.” And yet, “there was still something he needed to depend on.” None of the three—not Song Rongzi, not Liezi, not Peng—have fully achieved independence. None are quite able to go “wandering far and unfettered” (the title of the chapter).
So how might one unfetter oneself? Here the second and third themes are relevant. If the Zhuangzi has any central message, it is that one should make peace with change. In particular, one should come to recognize even death itself as merely one more change. Thus, in a later parable, we see Zhuangzi being berated by a skull for thinking that life is obviously preferable to death. In another episode, presumably after the incident with the skull, we see Zhuangzi happily banging away on pots and pans after his wife has died. When his friend Hui Shi confronts him about this, he admits feeling sad at first, but then he remembered that death is merely one of the changes, and his sorrow left him.
It is striking, then, that the Zhuangzi opens with a drastic transformation: Kun becomes Peng. This is a total transformation: from one kind of creature to another, from one form of life to another, from one element (water) to another (air). What identity is preserved across this transformation? In what sense can we say that Kun and Peng are the same? It hardly seems there is any. And yet there is no lamentation, no sense of loss or regret. Kun simply transforms, and then, as Peng, goes on his journey. It is as if Peng has totally forgotten his former existence. And that brings us to the final theme: forgetting.
What is the significance of Peng’s journey? It is noteworthy that we are told little about the journey itself, beyond how it looks to an observer (“his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens”). What we are told is the journey’s endpoints: Peng travels from the Northern Oblivion to the Southern Oblivion. (The Southern Oblivion is identified with the “Pool of Heaven”, though later in the parable it is the Northern Oblivion that is so identified.) Oblivion indicates forgetfulness, the absence of memory, its total destruction. It is hard, at least for me, not to read this journey as a metaphor for life: from the oblivion before death to the oblivion after death. We have no experience of either state; we simply move from one to the other.
But oblivion is not limited to the periods before birth and after death. There is a case to be made that forgetting plays a central role in Zhuangzi’s conception of the sage: the sage is one who forgets. (On this point, I have learned a great deal from this interesting paper by Linna Liu and Sihao Chew.) I have already mentioned the story of Zhuangzi playing drums after his wife’s death: he has forgotten his sorrow. The third story in the Zhuangzi praises the great ruler Yao because, on seeing the “masters of distant Mt. Guye […], he forgot all about his kingdom.” The sage’s ability to forget appears to free them from their past. As the later commentator Wang Fuzhi glosses the chapter title: “’Unfettered’ means echoing beyond the dissolving tones—forgetting what has passed.”
The first parable of the Zhuangzi ends with a summary statement of its moral: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no one name.” I have long found it puzzling how this moral emerges from the stories that precede it, but now I think I see. Those stories show us a variety of perspectives, show us transformations between them, and counsels us to forget, at least to an extent, one’s past. It is not that this ideal person has no identity, no merit, or no name. Rather, their identities, merits, and names are inconstant and shifting. One forgets who one was and becomes someone else, and so wanders far and unfettered.
I want to end by drawing attention to one last feature of this parable. It overflows with laughter. Zhuangzi cites a (probably made up) text in his support; the name of this text is The Equalizing Jokebook (see my thoughts on this here). The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at Peng. In another version, a quail laughs at Peng. Song Rongzi “would burst out laughing” at a man “whose understanding is sufficient to fill some one post.” It seems that everyone, whether they are being held up as admirable or as limited (or both), is always laughing. This is one of the most endearing features of the Zhuangzi.
- Liu, Linna and Sihao Chew. 2019. “Dynamic Model of Emotions: The Process of Forgetting in the Zhuangzi.” Dao 18 (1):77-90. DOI: 10.1007/s11712-018-9642-6
- Ziporyn, Brook. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett.
One of the curious features of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that emerged during the Warring States period (476-221 BCE), is its apparent citations of other texts. For example, the book opens with a parable about a fish named Kun that transforms into a bird named Peng and undertakes a long journey. Immediately after describing this, the text continues:
The Equalizing Jokebook, a record of many wonders, reports: “When Peng journeys to the Southern Oblivion, the waters ripple for three thousand miles. Spiraling aloft, he ascends ninety thousand miles and continues his journey without rest for half a year.(Ziporyn 2009, p. 3)
This alleged quotation adds little information to what comes before it. So why is it there? One hypothesis, defended by A. C. Graham (1981), is that these quotations are the product of scribal errors. Some later commentator noted a parallel between the Zhuangzi and some later text, and these comments were eventually copied into the Zhuangzi itself. A more traditional hypothesis is offered by the commentator Lin Xiyi (1193-1270?):
This doesn’t mean such a book really exists, necessarily. Zhuangzi invents a story and then cites this book as his own verification. This another example of his playful theatrics.(Ziporyn 2009, p. 130)
On this view, Zhuangzi’s invented citations satirize the Confucians, who sought to support their claims with references to various authorities. For my part, I do not know that evidence will ever resolve this dispute. Nor need it. The Zhuangzi is unquestionably a polyvocal text, with contributions from authors separated in both time and thought. Zhuang Zhou himself lurks as an elusive presence within it, ostensibly the author of its first seven chapters (the so-called “inner” chapters), though none of it can be definitively attributed to him. The book contains a cacophony of perspectives—a state of which Zhuangzi himself would surely have approved. Ultimately, there is only the text as we have received it, shaped by many hands with many and clashing intentions. In this regard, I think it best to treat these citations as proper parts of the text, and see how they contribute to its overall effect. (Henceforth, I will speak of Zhuangzi as “the” author of the text. This should be understood as referring to the whole conglomerate of authors, not merely the historical Zhuangzi.)
Seen in this light, I can only take Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook as itself a rather clever joke. Looking at the Zhuangzi as a whole, two features especially stand out. First, the book is very funny. Wittgenstein famously said that a work of philosophy could be written consisting entirely of jokes; he was apparently unaware that this had already been done more than 2000 years ago. The authors of the Zhuangzi are constantly pulling the reader’s leg, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. (Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio have written a very good book, Genuine Pretending, that takes seriously the Zhuangzi’s status as a “jokebook.”) Second, insofar as the book does have a central philosophical aim, “equalizing” captures it fairly well. The second chapter is called “Equalizing Assessment of Things”, and the book constantly works to upset our attempts to draw conceptual divisions, one side of which can be viewed as good/desirable and the other as bad/undesirable. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the word 諧 (xié)—translated by Ziporyn as “joke”—can also mean “harmony”, a meaning that Zhuangzi is surely exploiting.
My proposal, then, is that Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook is in fact a humorous citation of the Zhuangzi itself. Were it not customary to name such books after their alleged authors, I doubt one could find a better name for the Zhuangzi. One advantage of this proposal is that the citation is not merely made up. After all, by including the citation within the text, the quotation does indeed become a part of the text. Such a self-validating self-reference would, I think, have appealed to Zhuangzi. It’s his kind of humor.
Even more important, however, is the way that this view allows us to expand on Lin Xiyi’s commentary. There is a serious philosophical point hidden in Zhuangzi’s “playful theatrics.” It is, as suggested above, a parody of the Confucian practice of supporting their claims with references to certain authoritative texts. What I want to suggest is that treating the citation as self-referential helps to sharpen this satire, in a way that merely citing a made-up text would not. The reason for this concerns Zhuangzi’s comments on independence in this parable.
I will post a more detailed interpretation of the whole parable at some later point. For now, however, I simply want to focus on a passage toward the end of the parable, as Zhuangzi starts to home in on his central moral. There, he discusses the example of Liezi, a central figure in Daoist thought. For Zhuangzi, however, Liezi is admirable but imperfect. Though he “rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful,” and though “he did not involve himself in anxious calculations,” nonetheless “there was still something he needed to depend on” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 5). That dependence on something external is Liezi’s key flaw. It opens Liezi up to being hindered. Zhuangzi goes on to paint an image of one who escapes even this last vestige of dependence, such that “your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on—what?” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 6).
It is in this context that self-citation matters. For authentication of the story of the Kun/Peng, there is nothing outside the Zhuangzi on which one can rely—not even a fictional text. The text rests on itself, validates itself. Yes, Zhuangzi is mocking Confucian epistemology. But he is also exemplifying his own.
- Graham, Angus C. (trans). 2001. Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters. Indianapolis: Hackett.
- Moeller, Hans-Georg and Paul J. D’Ambrosio. 2017. Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Ziporyn, Brook (trans). 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, with selections from traditional commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett.
There is no escaping that the humanities, and philosophy in particular, are facing an academic crisis. Student enrolments have declined to their lowest level in decades, and many departments have been cut completely from universities or merged together with others, such as religious studies. Much of this can be explained by public misconceptions about the nature and practicality of a philosophy degree. But this is not the whole story. We philosophers bear some of the blame. What I mean is this: philosophy classrooms, in large part, are sterile and lifeless. It should not be this way. Philosophy has always been one of the most lively and engaging genre of literature and scholarship. Philosophy engages with those questions which immediately affect people’s lives. Philosophical questions occur to everybody everywhere, and often rouse and capture those who consider them. Many of these questions are idle, yes, but just as many are profound and important, addressing the most human of human concerns. So what is going wrong in our pedagogy? Why are our students so unaware of philosophy’s promise not only as a university major, but as a life-changing experience? In short, it’s academic philosophy that has signed the death warrant of academic philosophy.
Philosophy is a difficult subject to teach in universities. Classes have regimented curricula and learning outcomes. As with much of academia today, the model here is the science classroom. So jealous is philosophy of the notoriety and success of science that it attempts everywhere to imitate it. The science classroom is analytical. Instructors dissect bodies of knowledge to give students a glimpse into its parts. They are not immediately interested in its physiology or its behaviour—that all comes later. The instructor and students are observers. They do not participate. No one within the classroom contributes to or even interferes with that body of knowledge. And they cannot. It is dead. It is static. Students of science do not do science in the classroom. They merely experience it having been done. These students do not even experience the development or evolution of that body of knowledge. They are not made aware of its environmental demands, its developmental constraints, or its selection pressures. And this all makes for good science education: the facts must come first before the theory, and the object must be considered independently from its subject.
But in philosophy, this is inappropriate. It suits science to consider itself dead and sterile in isolation. But philosophy is not like this. There is much more to philosophy than static, atemporal theory. Philosophy is embodied. Philosophy is alive. Philosophy is social and personal and active. It is not a body of knowledge at all, but a practice, a way of living. Its parts cannot be endlessly replaced and recombined into something new. That’s not how philosophy functions. Philosophers are not primarily in the business of explaining.
And yet, in the classroom, philosophers treat philosophy little different than they do science. The great theories of the canon are dissected before the student body, who sit at a distance from the spectacle they are to witness. The instructor carefully teases apart each muscle and tendon revealing bones and ligaments. As a system, a view, a theory is analysed, we take it to be fully understood. And then we proceed back to our offices and engage living systems, seeing no inconsistency with what we just taught. And yet, we miss something important. This is evident most clearly in two of philosophy’s most challenging and common objections: 1) philosophy is useless; and 2) philosophy is mere opinion. I will begin with the first.
Philosophers tire of hearing about their uselessness. It is not difficult, they say, to find testimony to philosophy’s awesome power. But just try to measure this. Just try to count all those who have benefited from philosophy’s presence. There is no ruler for this. There is no scale which shows the absolute weight of being leave one’s body as she is first overcome by philosophy. And as we try, we are faced with this simple fact: most students are not so overcome. Most students never meet philosophy in the flesh. They only meet its bones and sinews as it is sprawled out before them.
This is no worry, say philosophers, for we can measure philosophy’s benefits. Just look! Philosophy students perform better on the GRE, the GMAT, the LSAT, the MBAT, the ACAT, and the ISAT. This is truly impressive and wonderful! But as you are regaled with these successes, as your eyes glaze over in the monotony, just remember that the last three don’t exist and the first three don’t mean much of anything. Of course philosophy prepares students for logic tests. We’re the only people who pretend to teach logic. The other disciplines are too busy teaching students useful facts and skills that erect towers and treat typhus. Philosophy races out of the gate teaching thinking skills; the other disciplines require a great deal more background knowledge before they can even start. And without this handicap, it is not clear that philosophy would ever perform any better. But that it currently performs better highlights something else: philosophy doesn’t require background knowledge, and indeed adds next to nothing to students’ epistemic inventory. So philosophy quickly develops analytical skills and problem solving but teaches nothing while other disciplines teach quite a lot and more slowly develops analytical skills and problem solving. The preference is obvious and reflected in student choice.
“Now hold on!” someone might say, “Philosophy students learn about Locke’s theory of substance. Doesn’t that matter at all?!” And, well, no. It doesn’t. Locke’s theory is one of many. As it is dissected, its relations to Locke’s other theories and the theories of others are drawn out. The instructor, as observer, does not render judgement. She teases out its muscles for display. Should the student endorse this view? Or shall she endorse this other, or this other, or this other, or this other, or this other, or…? No one can say with certainty. It is up to the student to decide. And with such a diversity of options and no clear, agreed upon criteria of success, how else is the student to decide between dead and sterile theory parts than by opinion? This is not a problem that faces the sciences. When the scientific body of knowledge is dissected, students are presented with a largely coherent set of facts that can be endlessly reused and reassembled into new and better theories.
It is no secret why students flee philosophy (and the humanities more broadly) en masse. It is no secret why they almost completely enrol in STEM programs. But it is also no longer mysterious what philosophy is doing wrong in its pedagogy: philosophers are playing the scientist’s game in the academy, and they are losing badly. Philosophy is not the kind of thing that can be dispassionately dissected for students. Instructors in philosophy classrooms can’t simply stand aside as an observer: she is a participant. Philosophy must be lived. Philosophy must be embodied. Students must be given philosophy in the flesh. Only then can they be captured and entranced by it. Only then can they be improved by it. Philosophy does not speak herself: we must speak for her.
I am not certain how to do this. I have no idea how to bring philosophy to life but by doing it. But some things are clear still: instructors and students are not observers but participants. In the philosophy classroom, philosophy must be done. And in this, of course the history and the diversity of views is relevant. These are options to be presented, to be thought through, and evaluated. And to do this, students must be faced with the kinds of problems philosophers work to solve and their motivations. Only then shall philosophy demonstrate its use. Only then shall we recognise that philosophy is about more than just one’s opinion.
It was a day at the races for two young boys in Gimli, Manitoba. As crowds gathered to watch cars flick back and forth on the track, they took their bikes a few hundred metres away to re-enact the races on a derelict runway. Unbeknownst to them, a giant silently bore down upon them. Air Canada’s flight 143 had run out of fuel and was attempting to glide to a safe landing. We can’t imagine their terror. We can’t imagine what it was like to see their short lives flash before their eyes as they turned to see the jet nearly upon them. They stood still in shock for a moment then raced down the runway as fast as they could. They made it. Barely.
This crash was no tragedy. But it could have been. Hundreds of people could have been injured or killed. And for what? For a conversion error. The ground crew thought that they were adding fuel in kilograms but were actually adding pounds. Hence only about half the fuel was added than intended. That is, the Gimli Glider was a casualty of Canada’s metrication process. There were others, though much less severe. And yet, metrication is worth it. The metric system is the best measurement system we have available to us.
This is a weird claim. All measurement systems are arbitrary. Rulers and thermometers were not the gifts of Heaven like those law tables carved in stone. Humans have always used what was available to them to keep track of weights and measures. Humans have used stones and feet and thumbs and brines and cups and so on. The metric system is just one more in this long list of arbitrary measures.
But arbitrary things can also be more and less apt to accomplish what it was designed for. For metrics, there are at least three primary criteria we use to evaluate aptness: ease of use, ease of conversion, and its ability to represent real difference.
Most metrics throughout history were designed with ease of use in mind. Weights and measures needed to be compared to some standard, and that standard had to be readily available. The cubit is the gold standard in ease of use: what is more available to a carpenter than her own forearm? If she wishes to measure out a board, she need only count how many of her forearms it is long, and she has some measure. And since her forearm does not change in size, everything she measures with it will be bound to the same standard.
Now, the problem with a cubit is that it isn’t easily convertible into other measures. How many thumbs go into a cubit? How many feet? It isn’t obvious, and the carpenter must determine that for herself. If another carpenter were to use her measurements, he might find that his cubits are of a different size, and the ratios of his feet to his cubits might be different altogether. People solved this long ago by standardising their previously variable measures into formal units. The foot no longer corresponded to the carpenter’s own foot but to some arbitrary standard foot, say the king’s. And so too with thumbs and all the rest. And once this is established, the ratios between different measures remain static. There are twelve thumbs in a foot. There are sixteen ounces in a pound. There are two pints in a quart. And so on. This may slightly reduce the ease of use for these measures, but it vastly improves the overall utility of the measurement system.
Finally, the ultimate purpose of any measurement system is to record real differences in the world. We want to know whether two boards are the same size or different. We want to know whether our apple-only diet is helping us lose weight. We want to know whether it is warmer or cooler outside than it was yesterday. And this is the hardest part about any measurement system: some of those differences are more important to us than others, and our measurement system must recognise this.
So given all this, why metrication? There are of course practical questions. Metric is the international standard; US manufacturers lose millions of dollars every year because they have to convert quantities into metric for export, a phenomenon that does not plague manufacturers elsewhere. This also puts American students behind their peers from other countries. Metric is the official measurement system of science, and so students in American schools must not only learn the imperial system, but also the metric system. However, these pragmatic questions say nothing about metrication. The US could without too much difficulty exert its influence to motivate other countries to switch back to imperial. If we want to justify metrication, we need to do this internal to a theory of measurement alone.
So why is metric the gold standard? In no uncertain terms, it unambiguously meets the measurement criteria better than any other measurement system. Metric is no more difficult to use than any other measurement alternative. Both imperial and metric require standardised instruments, and both are equally available. But metric makes conversion easier than any other measurement system. Imperial maintains constant ratios between different units, but these ratios are not uniform. There are twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, and 1280 yards in a mile. A person needs to remember each one of those ratios, or at least look them up in some rule book, before one can complete even the simplest conversions. Metric dispenses with this difficulty. The conversion ratios in metric are not only constant, but also uniform. Every unit is distinguished from the others as multiples of ten. And when in doubt, the conversion ratio is included in the name of the unit. A kilometre is a kilo-metre, or a thousand metres. Easy.
Perhaps the most impressive benefit is the metric system’s ability to represent real difference. The metric system employs a greater diversity of units, in part due to its uniform conversion ratios, than any other measurement system. Objects as small as atoms and molecules or as large as stars and galaxies can be easily and coherently represented in metric units without ambiguity. And while the very small and very large do not affect ordinary people very often, the metric system does a better job with ordinary measures as well. The best example of this is temperature. The Fahrenheit scale is pinned to three different benchmarks: ice and salt brine, the freezing point of pure water, and human body temperature. These correspond to 0, 32, and 96 degrees respectively. These choices are arbitrary, of course. But they are also meaningless. There is no firm relationship between these standards that ties their temperatures nicely to a single scale. And moreover, they tell us nothing about what the temperature of a thing is like. The Celsius system is very different. It is pinned only to the phase changes of water. 00 is freezing. 1000 is boiling. This too is arbitrary, but it does tell us quite a lot about the world we live in. Water is fundamental to Earthly life, and its properties determine life’s conditions. It is plain that negative temperatures represent a different kind of weather than positive temperatures. Negative temperatures are associated with snow and ice. Positive with rain and warmth. Fahrenheit never gives us that clean divide. It could be snowing at 300 but raining at 350. Those five degrees are far more important than the scale lets on.
This is the reason the world has adopted the metric system. This is worth all the troubles metrication caused. The metric system is completely and unambiguously the superior measurement system. Now we need only for the most powerful country on Earth to catch up.
We live in an era of anti-skepticism. Skeptics are the enemy. They must be destroyed and overcome. This is what drove Descartes and Leibniz, Locke and Hobbes, and even Hume. They sought to naturalise the world, to conquer it, knowing its features with certainty. But this new tradition of anti-skepticism is very different. Philosophers today do not claim to certainly know. They in no way claim to refute the skeptic. The older eras held knowledge to be something lofty, fragile, godly. Knowledge was something not for man but for gods, for elites, for those deserving of special authority. In this new era, the anti-skeptics have lowered knowledge. It is not lofty: it is mundane. It is not godly: it is human. They have not refuted the skeptic: they have made her irrelevant. And the consequence is dire.
I begin by motivating contemporary anti-skepticism from its roots in Moore and Wittgenstein. Then I show how this tradition fails to overcome skepticism.
Moore begins with knowledge. Of course he knows that idealism is false. Of course he knows that he has hands and was once smaller than he currently is. What he doesn’t know is how to correctly analyse any sentence saying so. This looks dumb. Surely Moore cannot possibly know that he has hands: what if he is dreaming? What if he is hallucinating? What about Descartes’ evil demon or any of Hume’s or Kant’s skeptical challenges? But Moore is not troubled by these suggestions: these are only competing analyses of what it means to know. And these others are inferior. Why? As Moore suggests in “A Defense of Common Sense,” the skeptical analysis commits skeptics to far more than Moore’s analysis. Moore is committed to the truth of only a small set of basic claims—that there is a world, that he is an element of that world, that he was once younger and smaller than he currently is, and so on. The skeptic, on the other hand, is committed to these basic claims plus their skeptical claims. As Moore notes, the skeptic does not stop herself from going about in the world as a normal human being. She still wakes in the morning, commutes to work, constructs arguments for skepticism, and presents them to an audience of other philosophers. She demonstrates that she knows these things through her actions. Only she does not claim to know them: she both knows them and commits herself to not knowing them. This is extravagant. This is impossible. The consistent skeptic sits demure like Johannes Climacus, never stirring, never speaking, never thinking.
The idea is this: language is a practical thing. It has consequences. It does not matter whether we are dreaming, for we do not act like we are dreaming. If a debate is predicated on something so ethereal, something so benign, then it is not predicated on a correct understanding of language. Language is substantive and effective. We all know this: we all use language for some purpose. Our claims bear in some way on our lives. And what skeptics mean is just this: that when we say such and such, we could be wrong. This is trivially true, but the skeptic overstates her case. And for Moore, there is no sense in which we could ever be meaningfully wrong about whether there is a world or whether we were once smaller than we are now. There is a subset of propositions (Moorean propositions) that we cannot consistently and meaningfully deny.
Moore did not succeed in this argument. But, says Wittgenstein, he is not wrong. He has rather failed to carry his insight to its logical conclusion. Moore remains vulnerable to skeptical attack by those who do not understand what it means to be certain, to know, and to doubt. Wittgenstein does. He will finish what Moore began.
For Wittgenstein, knowledge is located within a discourse: one knows such and such only if competent others recognise her as knowing such and such. This means that the claim must be recognised as true, but also that the reasons she gives for her claim are recognised as appropriate. This is not to reduce knowledge or even truth to something communal or legislative. A community cannot agree to collectively upend their knowledge system by changing what they believe and accept as valid reasoning. We are bound to a language in which we have no say. Our language gives us the concepts and thoughts to which our perception of the world conforms. In Kantian terms, language is the source of the categories of experience. Some of these are grounded in our form of life. In this Wittgenstein agrees with Moore. Others are grounded in particular grammars. But in neither case is the result a kind of relativism. It is rather a kind of contextualism: language merely shapes the world; it does not construct it.
The skeptic here has no room to move. Doubt can only occur concurrently with certainty. That is, where one aspect of a discourse is brought into question, it is questioned on account of other aspects of that discourse. When Copernicus doubted that the Sun revolved around the Earth, he did so on grounds acceptable to him, namely the simplicity of the heliocentric model and God’s preference for simplicity. Without these certainties, it is incoherent to doubt geocentrism. Doubt itself must be justified. The skeptic does not do this. She holds an apple in her hand and asks “Is this apple an apple, or is it something else?” The question is senseless. Of course the apple is an apple. If it were not, it would not be an apple. The skeptic’s only reply undermines her claim: “You miss my point, Wittgenstein. I mean to say that we all know what an apple is, but cannot with certainty suppose that this object I hold in my hand is an instance of the general concept. And so also with any instance of any general concept.” This may be a legitimate and sensible question. Surely someone once pointed to a whale and asked whether that fish is a fish only to be answered in the negative. Surely it is never obvious when any object is an instance of a concept. But skepticism this isn’t. The relevant doubt is localised and predicated on a kind of certainty: that one knows what an apple is. And in general, if one is comfortable identifying the object of doubt with a name that is under dispute, the doubt is easily assuaged. Of course the apple is an apple: we call it an apple.
Whether a doubt is sensible and appropriate always depends on the context it is present. Some contexts place a greater demand on one’s knowledge of a claim than others. And some others will open up the possibility of doubt from some claims and not others. This is the skeptic’s greatest error. They always wish to doubt that which is never open to doubt. They wish to doubt those claims that are predicated on our form of life. They wish to doubt Moorean propositions. It’s curious that the skeptic claims to doubt the external world, yet stands upon the stage to address an audience. It really makes one think.
But in truth, the skeptic is well within her rights to do this. The most pressing questions in philosophy are not about apples or astronomy. They are about who we are and how we ought to live. There is nothing more fundamental to our form of life than not knowing who we are or how to live. And answering those questions requires inquiring into our history and our constitution. Not everyone who so inquires is a skeptic. The skeptic is only one who has so inquired and found herself at a loss. She is one who feels uneasy about who she is and how she ought to live. This is not absurd. This is not incoherent. It strikes me that this is the most natural, the most human feeling possible. For who among us truly knows how to live?
Contemporary anti-skeptics don’t satisfy these questions. They rule them out from the outset, and they themselves know this. Both Moore and Wittgenstein famously stood in an odd relationship to philosophy’s most pressing questions. For Moore, “the good is good, and that is the end of the matter.” (PE, §6) Wittgenstein agrees. Value is indefinable. It is something nonsensical: though it is everywhere present to us, it cannot reside in the world of facts. Both Moore and Wittgenstein surrender to a kind of bland mysticism. And what good is mysticism in answering our deepest questions? What good is anti-skepticism if it cannot actually overcome our skepticism? Moore and Wittgenstein offer no authority. They offer no guidance. Anti-skepticism is useless.