Category Archives: Metaphilosophy

The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.

Silence.

There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

In Defence of Tom Nagel

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.

The Death and Dissection of Philosophy in the Classroom

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.

Anti-Anti-Skepticism

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.

Parsimony and Theory Execution

Philosophy is a graveyard. Old theories live on through their epitaphs; present theories, condemned and dying, busy themselves by writing them. They do not know how they will be killed. They do not know when. But if there is anything certain in philosophy, it is this: that every theory awaits, anticipating with every-increasing jitters and joy, its own execution.

There is no humane death for a philosophical theory. Each one deserves much more than its short and brutal life. And yet!—yet some executions are revolting in their wanton cruelty and disregard for the dignity of a theory. One of these is employed so regularly, so joyfully, that Robespierre himself grows pale in his shame. This is no toy guillotine. This is no National Razor. It is much worse. It is much more cruel. It is much more sudden and unjustified. This is parsimony.

Parsimony holds that philosophical postulates shall not be asserted beyond necessity. For a principle that itself stands beyond necessity, it is cunning in its assault on philosophical theories. Divine Zeus once ordained it. It was His Will that all be done for the best of all. And Wise Zeus could not meander about: in His power and his intellect, He should approach His aim most simply, most directly. The Milesian Zeus, Thales’ wet, life-giving arche or Anaximander’s limitlessness, better instantiated its own wisdom by doing away with the traditional pantheon, far more expansive as it was than reason demanded.  And so too did Love and Strife and Being and the Good and Substance and God. The kosmos, physis itself, wished only the simplest, clearest path. But Nature, supreme as it may be, need not act wisely. As Nature became matter, Parsimony lost its grip.

Ever the trickster, Parsimony shapeshifted: no longer a metaphysical constraint, it became epistemological. It is not Nature who demanded that our theories be simple, but philosophers themselves in their humanity who demanded that nature conform to their limits. Philosophers, they themselves said, should not assert any more principles than can be justified. Bold again stands Parsimony, itself unable to be justified. It even betrays itself: once considered hubris, the anthropic constraints undermined it. Humanity began its self-overcoming, further dominating, further grasping out into the kosmos, now justifying what was before only guessing. With no end in sight, Parsimony had to evolve.

Parsimony today is an ethical concern. The virtuous theory, it says, strikes the mean: it does not assert so little that it cannot reasonably explain, nor too much that it need explain further. Parsimony executes the gluttonous theory for lazing gleefully upon its mountains of golden assertions. But is this too much, too quick? How far must the revolution be permitted to continue? All of metaphysics—metaphysics!—stands bound before the guillotine: while theories be beggars, it becomes an outrage that metaphysics stands upon even its singular assertion: that there be something rather than nothing. And so Scarlet Parsimony descends upon it. Shall it succeed? Let us not heed the jeers of the crowd: let justice alone decide.

Our question here is then this: is parsimony truly a theoretical virtue? It is not. It fails its own test, of course. It has failed its own test throughout the whole of its history. But beyond that still, it fails every other test too.

Philosophers almost universally recognise eight theoretical virtues: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, breadth, depth, significance, and completeness. If parsimony is to find a seat at the bench alongside these fine justices, it must meet their demands. Clarity begins the proceedings.

What does it mean for a theory to be parsimonious? It means for a theory to make no more assertions than necessary. Assertions are not straightforwardly countable. They come in different kinds and different orders with different relations along some hierarchy of inference. Finitism in mathematics is no more parsimonious than infinitism because the latter asserts infinitely. That infinite chain of assertions is inferred, and not essential to the theory. That is, they don’t count. What matters instead is the number of different kinds of assertions a theory makes. But delimiting what makes an assertion a different kind neither straightforward. Do assertions differ in kind by logical form? Or do they differ in kind by their content? Do they differ by their assertive force? These are all implausible: that a theory asserts only universals does not clearly make it any more parsimonious than another which asserts both counterfactuals and universals. And so on for any other distinction in kind. In no way can it be reliably understood how to evaluate the parsimony of a theory. Clarity finds parsimony guilty.

The others concur. It cannot be reliably adjudged which theories are parsimonious and therefore whether parsimony tracks truth. And with this limitation, parsimony is irrelevant and insignificant to theories as instruments of description, explanation, and justification.

Parsimony moreover doesn’t add anything new to this judicial bench. Every supposèd benefit of parsimony is already mastered by our eight theoretical justices. Where a theory of combustion asserts the existence of phlogiston, for example, philosophers might take it to be unacceptable because it is less parsimonious. But if that theory is consistent with the known chemical processes and thermodynamic equations, phlogiston doesn’t do anything for the theory. Asserting phlogiston is insignificant. Similarly for Meinongianism. For a squared circle to subsist fails parsimony. But it also fails clarity. It also fails relevance. Subsistence as an ontological category simply isn’t clear, especially since it is populated almost exclusively by impossible objects and objects that do not obtain. And since these objects do not obtain, their assertion is irrelevant to any theoretical explananda. And so parsimony fails its own test too: it is a principle beyond necessity. Let now Scarlet Parsimony descend upon itself: so has justice decreed.

Many too many philosophical theories have been lost to parsimony. Its reign of terror must end. All theories must die, but they ought to be executed with dignity and justice. Let us band together, philosophers, and shave parsimony itself from our metatheory. Let us divide it into its parts and cast them into the wind. Let us not even dignify it with an epitaph. Let it fade into obscurity.

Scholarly, All Too Scholarly

One can find philosophers everywhere and nowhere. The title has no firm content. At best, it’s rhetorical, carrying with it status and authority. One’s proclamations have weight wielded as weapons and tools if one only calls them philosophical. But the real philosopher doesn’t wield claims: she only stutters them. The real philosopher is mild and dispassionate. She is scholarly, all too scholarly. And so philosophy is status for the sake of status. Philosophy does nothing. Philosophical claims are not weapons. Philosophical claims are not tools. One can do no harm with a philosophical claim. And one can neither give aid.

And so philosophy is vulnerable. Status approximates value, and without value, status can be revoked without warning. The scent of our uselessness may one day rouse History, stirring its hunger. And we philosophers serve a much more useful role as nourishment than as company. Everyone implicitly understands this: defenses of philosophy are meagre and peripheral. Philosophy produces effective lawyers, effective entrepreneurs, effective doctors, and so on. But this is no defense of philosophy. This is a call to improve law schools and business schools and medical schools. Philosophy improves scientific discourse. But only because scientists are not taught to evaluate concepts. They are too busy robotically collecting data. Philosophy inspires literature and art. But only because artists find inspiration in everything. None of this supports philosophy. It indicts the other domains of academic education. Philosophy makes no special claim. It collects together all those areas of inquiry that have henceforth remained unclaimed by the other sciences but which the other sciences ought to claim. And this is not good enough: philosophy is not good enough. It must do more.

Philosophy, however, has its status for a reason. It was once threatening and useful, powerful and productive. Cities and states trembled in awe of its majesty and its honey-sweet phrases. The bastard child of science and sophistry, philosophy comes from a noble but troubled pedigree. Both of its parents emerged from the Greek contests of wisdom that had come to form one pillar of political legitimacy in the Archaic period, and the Classical period found them pregnant with a solution to new troubles. Let us then examine this pedigree to uncover philosophy’s noble blood.

The contest of wisdom was a central pillar of Greek political life during the Archaic period. Elite families and patrons earned status by allying themselves with those who won these contests. Their peculiar structure in comparison with other societies placed important emphases on what wisdom meant for the Greeks that are represented both in science and in sophistry. Greek contests of wisdom are judged by the people. Those same people served as the economic and military backbone of the Greek poleis and hence their approval meant something quite significant. This over time became more and more enshrined in law and in custom, but it is also the significance of this public concern that shaped science and sophistry, for both embody distinct strategies to contest different types of opponents.

Science reflected the demand for transparency in reason. It emphasises public reason and observation distinct from the kind of private, privileged inspiration that is claimed by poets such as Hesiod and others. While the method differs, the explanandum remains the same. The Theogony for instance proclaims a genealogy of the world from its origin in Uranus and Gaia. The history of the gods is seen as an explanation of natural phenomena. The gods, however, are not public. Their works and their pedigree cannot be verified by the common man. And so the scientist attempts to provide an alternative account of natural phenomena by appeal to those elements that his audience can verify and understand for themselves. So where Hesiod explains nature as the unfolding of the incontrovertible divine will of Zeus, Thales explains it as the unfolding of the “will” of water, and Anaximander as the unfolding of the “will” of the unlimited, and so on. Unlike Hesiod, the claims of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and so on, while strange, are simple and easily evaluated by ordinary people. And if those people see the reasons for an account, they are liable to vote for it over an account for which the reasons are private. The Greek public may have been devoutly religious, but they were not stupid enough to believe everything anyone says about the gods just because it was said about the gods. Indeed, the Greek public stressed novelty. The same old explanations became tired. It did not take wisdom to regurgitate old explanations for natural phenomena. Instead, wisdom was demonstrated by finding the limits of old explanations and proposing new ones that overcame those limits.

Sophistry reflects a different but somewhat similar strategy. The sophist did not so much care for public reason or experience: he cared more for drawing himself toward the audience with bonds of identification and sympathy. He spoke in prose instead of verse, but nevertheless seasoned his words in order that they taste as sweet and as powerful in the ear as they do upon the tongue. This art of persuasion, of giving to words a distinctive and pleasant flavour, required study of its own sort. The sophists became experts in the meanings, the histories, the sounds, and the connotations or words, and they used that knowledge to their advantage even as others, such as Pindar, dismissed them as lowly, squawking crows–which was precisely the desired effect!

These strategies and others over time mixed and mutated in tandem with broader Greek society. Eventually full-fledged democracies were enfranchised and both science and sophistry were used by the elites in different ways as they attempted to respond to their eroding power. These responses in many cases barely concealed the contempt that wise elites held for common Greeks. Their situation was not altogether different from our present. The common Greek did not so much understand or care what these contestants said. They were in it for the spectacle and the validation of their own opinions and lifestyles. Hence in the contests, wisdom and study were quickly reduced to a jester’s farce for those who could scarcely learn from the wise.

Just as they do today, accomplished scientists and sophists came to resent the ignorance and the power of the common person. And like today, it is evident that this resentment is unwarranted. The wise were scarcely wiser than the average Greek. They were afforded important privileges in Greek society in virtue of the situation of their birth, but even despite these privileges, the wise were little better than the fools they derided. No Greek scientist or sophist could reasonably claim to know more than any common Greek, and in many cases, the common man knew much more. It is not the common man who we today ridicule for his absurd theories and his inability to accurately observe what stands immediately in front of his eyes. Indeed, there is at least some evidence that the common man could do this. He toiled and suffered to support himself and his kin, after all. There is no evidence, however, that the wise need ever do this, let alone were capable of it.

But this resentment is unwarranted for another reason as well. The common people grew in power over the nearly three centuries of the Archaic period until the emergence of the first real democracies, but they did not do so by simply taking power from the elites. It was the elites themselves who in their struggle against other elite rivals gradually gifted the common people greater status and power. And in many cases, this was not even power and responsibility that the common people always wanted. They for centuries threw their support behind elites who distinguished themselves from the unwashed masses for one reason or another just as poor whites do this today. But of course, no one really controls the tides of history, and it serves no one to resent it but those who lack the privileges of birth and wealth. Elites, of course, have never lacked these privileges.

Yet the elites persisted in their undue resentment of the common Greek. As the contests of wisdom gave way to people’s assemblies and people’s courts, many of their former contestants retreated from the public to private enclaves in which they religiously pursued their science and their study. They became absurd objects of public ridicule, ranting about Being and the power of the Vortex, the one and only god, all while speaking in tongues, refusing to utter the word “is.” Others did not retreat, but instead assaulted the common people. These elites invaded the people’s courts, often to cheers and applause, while they attempted to pass off their interest as that of the many. And they claimed some success at this. They commanded wealth and prestige. They commanded armies and economies. They claimed to shake the demos with every utterance, failing still to realise that their own tics and tremors had their source in the people to whom they remained servants.

And through all this, there was no serious improvement in political life. The Archaic period was violent and volatile. The Classical period too. Neither elites nor the people had the wisdom to rule. And as great poleis experienced their peak and began to decline, everyone, elite and commoner alike, cried out in anguish. And this time, science could not help them. Sophistry could not either. The comics were implicated and the tragedians, the last vestige of a dying, corrupt generation, abdicated their responsibility. The poleis needed something new, something capable. That something was philosophy.

Philosophy began with the followers of Socrates as they attempted to come to terms with their mentor’s trial and execution. But it was Socrates himself who first saw the demand for it. It was he who sacrificed his own interests for that of his polis, attempting to inspire his countrymen to pursue virtue and therefore achieve peace, order, and good governance. The object was to employ scientific reasoning in the public sphere to guide public decisions. But this science was in the tradition of Antiphon, Parmenides, Gorgias, et cetera, who largely reduced being to the self. Natural study was primarily study of one’s own psychology and its phenomena. It was from here that the science of ethics drew its first breath. For unlike Gorgias, Socrates was unsatisfied with the good being reduced to that which fulfilled fleeting desires. Echoing Antiphon and Parmenides, Socrates objected that desires provide only what seem good, and not what is good. But demonstrating this distinction remained the most difficult challenge that science faced: scientific norms are foreign and strange, just as Socrates’ ethics was. And so the people rejected it despite Socrates’ best efforts. They saw it as a threat to their sovereignty and their customs, but also to their well-being.

Rightly or wrongly, they lashed out at Socrates and extinguished his science, leaving his followers searching for solutions. Some gave up the effort, retreating to their houses, their barracks, or their barrels. Others sought solutions beyond Socratic science. This was primarily Plato’s doing; it was he who united Socratic science with a kind of sophistic drama that was sure to attract and enchant the public while also challenging it to improve. And in this, found success where his mentor found failure. Plato challenged the Athenian orthodoxy on every conceivable dimension of their worldly existence while nevertheless cultivating for himself a fine reputation. For it was Plato who realised that while one’s science may bestow upon its bearer untold riches and prestige, it is worthless while it appears degenerate and diseased. Gone were the days of the shoeless wisemen; a new era of philosophers in dyed fabrics and fine estates had commenced. The people must see with their own eyes the value of the preacher’s science.

But Plato was not so careless that he forgot his modesty; he did not follow the sophists in their luxury and their ostentation. Though of noble blood, his skin was middling. He was attractive yet not flashy. For the public can see success, and they can also see corruption. It is better not to rouse suspicions in the philosophers’ line of work.

Armed with the image of Socrates, the martyr for a better Athens, and his own talents for beautifying an assault on the common mores, Plato elevated the philosopher to a place of nobility in the minds of the public, a place that it has since remained. He did this by engaging directly with those who held the power in the polis: the common man. He placed his dialogues in the public consciousness alongside those of the great tragedians and comics, and he outshone them all. His strategy was simple: exhort the public to care about an issue, to put aside their jest and their passion while enticing them with those very things, and then hit them with the serious matter at hand. Plato employed all of the comics’ tricks–irony and mockery and schadenfreude–while elevating discussion with the gravity of tragedy. In this way, Plato not only demonstrated the costs of vice and benefits of virtue, but also a method of eliminating vice and cultivating virtue: critical self-examination.

Yet the actual success of philosophy at solving social strife is difficult to demonstrate. Plato’s philosophy existed during a time of unprecedented domestic stability in Athens. But Athens was then no longer the dominant superpower that it once was and faced few of the same threats. The apparent success of philosophy then may be mere coincidence. Despite his popularity, Plato may have had no serious effect on the political life of the average Athenian. Indeed, his philosophy itself may be seen as an expression of a common Athenian exasperation with the turbulence that preceded his generation. Had Plato more time in the sun, we could quite possibly discern more closely his effects; but as it stands, Athens itself came to an end as an independent polity soon after Plato’s death, succumbing to historical contingency. Philosophy has no place in empire; the public there is too massive, too diverse, and too disparate to have any serious effect on policy. Hence philosophers retreated within the self once again, dulling their claims and rendering them useless.

But today we need them again. We need the sharpened tools of Old Aristocles. The people have risen up! The people have seized back power! The democratic republics of the liberal age were a meagre compromise, only changing the shape of empire. But today matters stand differently: instant communications and near-infinite access to information have shrunk empires and rebirthed the polis. Athens lives today online. And just as Plato’s generation, ours cries out in anguish at a rudderless world. Should we not then recapitulate philosophy, shock the academy until its atavism is complete? Let us return to our workshops to sharpen our claims, philosophers! Let us excise evil and cultivate virtue! And though we have no guarantee of success, no certain precedent upon which to stand, let us find courage in our effort to find the better.