Tag Archives: philosophy

The current reads

  • From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
  • Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham
  • The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
  • Parmenides by Plato
  • Theogony by Hesiod
  • Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Graphs on the rise of scientific fascism…

I somehow got diverted to a spate of blog posts on the website “Gene Expression” today.  The first was relatively compelling, until I got to the writer’s conclusions: by tracing the occurrences of certain words in academic journals and reviews over the past 100 years, one can come to a relatively good idea of the standing that certain theories have in Academia.  Even if a theory is contentious, its critics will still invoke it in articles.  This means that any theory that entertains active, contentious discussion will have many mentions, while theories that are truly in decline (mentioned neither by supporters or contrarians) will see less use.

Here’s a graph showing the use of the word ‘postmodern’ and ‘postmodernism’:

post-modernism's use

From Gene Expression

Thus far I am with our friend ‘agnostic’, whose compelling method seems to indeed say something about the current state of scholarly discourse.  Then he goes and says this:

Fourth, the sudden decline of all the big-shot theories you’d study in a literary theory or critical theory class is certainly behind the recent angst of arts and humanities grad students. Without a big theory, you can’t pretend you have specialized training and shouldn’t be treated as such — high school English teachers may be fine with that, but if you’re in grad school, that’s admitting you failed as an academic. You want a good reputation. Isn’t it strange, though, that no replacement theories have filled the void? That’s because everyone now understands that the whole thing was a big joke, and aren’t going to be suckered again anytime soon. Now the generalizing and biological approaches to the humanities and social sciences are dominant — but that’s for another post.

Also, as you sense all of the big theories are dying, you must realize that you have no future: you’ll be increasingly unable to publish articles — or have others cite you — and even if you became a professor, you wouldn’t be able to recruit grad students into your pyramid scheme, or enroll students in your classes, since their interest would be even lower than among current students. Someone who knows more about intellectual history should compare arts and humanities grad students today to the priestly caste that was becoming obsolete as Europe became more rational and secular. I’m sure they rationalized their angst as a spiritual or intellectual crisis, just like today’s grad students might say that they had an epiphany — but in reality, they’re just recognizing how bleak their economic prospects are and are opting for greener pastures.

Well, I daresay “poppycock.”  These conclusions, though entirely within the possible realm of acceptance, are nowhere near the sphere of influence that this man’s premises include.  For one, he does not mention whether the total number of scholarly articles has decreased, thereby leading to the decline in use of these terms.  Even discarding this objection, he doesn’t mention whether evolutionary biology or any other sort of ‘scientific rationalist’ theory of social science is taking the place of these old theories.  In a follow-up post, agnostic makes a few graphs that seem to show an increase in the use of ‘population genetics’ and other words en vogue within the biological sociology elite.  But the scales aren’t even comparable between the two sets (“Marxism” being used in the thousands and “Population Genetics” in decimal points).

Most of all, however, agnostic’s method fails to account for the internet; the humanities is a medium particularly well-disposed towards expression on the internet.  Now, agnostic might object that any neophyte with a computer and an internet connection can now attest to some contribution to academic dialogue, and that theirs is a contribution best derided, not listened to.  We are talking about the marketplace of ideas, however; and any idea (No matter how idiotic) ought to be accepted into the dialogue.  Agnostic should amend his models to include Google hits for each specific term.

Finally, a word or two about Agnostic’s general disposition towards the humanities: he is not much else than a determinist, and of the lowest variety.  His writing seems to hint at his views of humanity: “Try talking to a college student about human evolution — they’re pretty open-minded. My almost-30 housemate, by comparison, was eager to hear that what I’m studying would show that there’s no master race after all. What a loser.”

I’m not a humanist, or even a multi-culturalist.  I have no problem with theories that postulate a race of humans that are somehow better than everyone else.  What agnostic has done, however, has shown that he has no part in this race, if it exists.  If he is willing to acknowledge that this race of people has normally manifested itself in the aristocracy of any society (a concession that I find hard for him not to make), then he must acknowledge aristocratic values: namely, a scientific theory proving the inferiority of the ruled will do little to cement the status (and, most importantly, the morals) of the rulers.

This is the logical conclusion of scientism, and it will bring about the disintegration of western society of we are not careful.  Scientism posits the individual as the apex of human society.  For atomism, an atomic theory of culture, politics, and morals.  Agnostic entertains the possibility that a superior segment of humanity exists not because this group ought to rule but because he should be a part of it.  This is the kind of slavish behavior that gives rise to militant fascism, not enlightened rule.

In any case, this is a fertile subject, one which I am thankful to agnostic for beinging up.  He is, after all, right about the death of the theories that he has cited.  However what distinguishes a period of decay from one of production is the ability for some one or some group to come up with a coherent theory that will allow for intellectual progress.  This period, so far, has proved itself to tend more towards decay and decadence than intellectual foment.  If agnostic is right, it hardly exonerates scientism, because science has provided little other than incoherence where there once existed order.

Against meaning essentialism

this post is one of hopefully many that will track my progress in writing my Senior Thesis for my degree in Philosophy at Vassar College.

Steven Pinker is the author of the bestselling survey-of-the-field The Language Instinct.  Like other “popular science” books, Pinker’s is a book that is light on raw data but attempts to compensate for this in easily-digested arguments and succinct evaluations of the various different theories and experiments that amount to the ‘state of the science’.

On pages 56-59, Pinker attacks probably the most strident philosophical objection to a cognitive-science perspective on language, namely that language determines thought, or language determinism.  As Pinker would have it, language determinism (as typified by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) is the belief that thought is actually shaped and molded by the language of the thinker.  Pinker argues that this implies that thought is dependent on language, rather than vice versa.  He proceeds from this point onwards via an argument against absurdity: how can this possibly be true if 1) we invent new words for new thoughts, and 2) we oftentimes say what we do not seem to mean?

The first conclusion is a little more  difficult than the second, so I’ll address it later.  The idea that we might sometimes say what we do not mean is a classical case of what Pinker himself calls a “conventional absurdity.”  By latching onto a commonly-held emotion or memory, Pinker considers a problem solved.  The implications borne out by his conclusion, however, are ignored.  If there are thoughts that cannot be articulated into words, what are they?  Well, you can’t say, because they cannot be articulated.  So then why does Pinker talk about the thoughts as if they are meaningful?  Here’s the crucial point: meaningful thought must be able to be articulated into words.  This does not make thought dependent upon language; it makes the meaning of thought contingent upon language being possible.

Pinker, a scholar no doubt well-trained in the field of science, is probably just unused to picking out the “berries” as he strolls through the woods, to borrow one of Wittgenstein’s metaphors.  There is a lot more that can be said about this first objection, but we’ll move on to the second.

Pinker seems to raise a valuable point: how can thought be dependent or determined by language if new words are invented?  This is to say: if we were struck at one point with the inability of our current language to capture the notions of a thought we had, a mind determined by language would be unable to improvise.  But here is where Pinker makes his biggest mistake.  First, he argues that a language determinist sees language as the same as thought (=identity), and then argues that thought is dependent upon thought.  However, two objects cannot have the relation of identity and also of dependence.  They can, however, have the relation of co-dependency.

Pinker’s argument fails because it puts forward a philosophical argument (language=thought) and then disproves an entirely different one, namely language>thought.  It is ridiculous to presume that language as an entity possesses some sort of superior relationship to thought, as another metaphysical entity.  However it is equally if not more ridiculous to see thought as wholly independent of (and therefore having no relation to) language.

A little more about my Thesis.

Jessica asked me to talk a little more about my thesis topic for my Philosophy major.  I’m one to oblige all requests, especially if they involve me talking at great length.  This particular request is helpful, because as I type out this elaboration I am refining my thoughts concerning my thesis in my own head (something I have not done yet).  Spoiler: some esoteric knowledge and grammar will be necessary, but I’ll try and keep it to a minimum. Continue reading

Homer’s Iliad

Pushing through this all-time classic today for my Mythology course in the classics department.  Quick thought: How awesome is it that basically all these guys live to do consists in little else than Continue reading