Gods, Grandmas, The Present King of France & Other Imaginary Beings

I regularly listen to NPR.

Say what you want about that. I ain’t gonna stop.

A few Saturdays ago, I was listening to a show called Radiolab.

It’s a pretty good show.

The topic that week was language.

They talked about Shakespeare, and how children and hearing-impaired people learn to speak. They even talked about rats and their inability to tie together concepts like “blue” and “to the left”.  Nowhere in the entire hour-long show did I hear the words “philosophy of language”. No Frege. No Russell. No Saul Kripke. No Hillary Putnam. No Ludwig Wittgenstein. Not a peep about the Vienna Circle.

Yes. There is such a thing as philosophy of language.

Philosophers have opinions about everything.

 

I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY ANYONE WOULD NEGLECT TO MENTION SUCH A GREAT LOOKING GUY LIKE THIS

I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY ANYONE WOULD NEGLECT TO MENTION SUCH A GREAT LOOKING GUY LIKE THIS

I was a little disappointed. And for some strange reason, I kind of felt left out. After all, what’s the point of taking a philosophy of language class if NPR won’t even discuss the topic?

I guess I should have figured that no one would mention philosophy of language on the show. When most people think of language (if anyone ever thinks of language at all) I thinking that very few people ever think about the fact that philosophers have anything to say about it. And really, I can’t fault the folks at Radiolab for omitting philosophy of language. They want people to listen to the show.

Other disciplines offer us explanations for the way the world works, but sometimes, even in the most disciplined of disciplines, we get confused about what we really mean when we say something or even about what we are thinking about. Philosophers of language aim to clear up our confusion over language and make clear the things we are thinking about.

Remember: we think of our world in terms of language. If we’re confused about concepts (we think about) or meaning (of the words that we speak), our beliefs about the world (aka reality) won’t do us much good.

Because those beliefs might be wrong.

Despite what NPR might have us believe, language isn’t just about acquisition or how many words William Shakespeare invented.

By the way, Shakespeare invented a lot of words.

If you’ve ever used the words uncomfortable, unreal, or lonely, you can thank Bill Shakespeare.

Language isn’t merely the proper usage of syntax and grammar. Language is also about meaning. It’s about what we are talking about. It’s about having the proper the correct thoughts about what we are thinking about.

There’s more to a simple phrase like “Clark Kent is Superman” than you might know.

Ok, let’s take the statement “The present king of France is bald”. First, we can see that we’ve made a claim about the king of France. Ok, now what do we mean when we say that the present king of France is bald? Well, we might ask if what we’ve said is true or false.

That’s because everything we say is either true or false*.

So, for the statement “The present king of France is bald” to be true, there must be a king of France, he must be bald, and he must be sitting on the throne right now. If we wanted to say this philosopher-like, we’d say something like this:

There is a X such that: X is the king of France and X is bald. And, for all Y, if Y is the king of France, then Y is identical to X.

The folks at NPR may have neglected to mention it, but language is about definite descriptions, propositions, sense, reference, sense-data, rigid designators, language games, signifieds and signifiers.

Oh man, wait a minute, why am I explaining any of this?

It won’t do you any good when you’re listening to NPR, anyway.

Practical Philosophy

I was recently corrected on a philosophical term.

It’s no big deal or anything. It actually happens quite often.

I wrote that I am a soft determinist or “even a compatibilist”.

Someone told me the two terms mean the same thing.

I know that.

Some people don’t. Some people don’t know what a soft determinist or a compatibilst is much less care that they mean the same thing. Some people don’t know they are the same thing.

That is to say, some people don’t know that a person who is a soft determinist is also a compatibilist. Believe it or not, there are people out there who are unfamiliar with one (or even gasp both) terms.

That’s why I wrote it that way.

Not everyone is a philosopher.

Anyway…

Definitions aside, my current correction reminded me of the reason why, although I consider myself a philosopher, I hate philosophy.

Or rather, why I tend to avoid conversing with philosophers. Philosophers pay a lot of attention to the technical stuff.

This focusing on technicalities thing it’s annoying.

Yeah, I know. Proper philosophy requires a specific and precise lexicon to construct proper, logically-correct arguments. And all of that is great. It would be difficult to make a convincing argument for anything, much less a philosophical argument if we made a habit of playing fast and loose with language. But when you get hung up on whether someone is using the word “intuition” Kantianly correct rather than trying to listen to what the person is trying to tell you, that old Gloria Estefan song (or is it Miami Sound Machine?  No, wait I think it’s just Gloria Estefan)

Either way whether it was Gloria Estefan or Miami Sound Machine, it’s now classic adult contemporary. Can you believe that? Does that make anyone else feel old?

Just me?

Oh……

Anyway, Gloria Estefan is right even in philosophy sometimes the words get in the way.

Sometimes we get so focused on words that we ignore what someone is actually saying.

I think Wittgenstein said something like this.

What Wittgenstein didn’t say, however, is that average folks should get into the business of doing philosophy. He didn’t think that philosophy should be made simple for the masses.

I should have a quote of Wittgenstein saying this but I don’t.

Apparently, that’s because I’m not only philosophically sloppy, but I’m philosophically lazy as well.

This is my favorite position for thinking philosophically. It makes it easier to take a nap... do deep philosophical contemplation

This is my favorite position for thinking philosophically. It makes it easier to take a nap… err… do deep philosophical contemplation

Sure, Wittgenstein’s sentiment sounds just fine to philosophical types who delight in their esoteric philosophical mumbo jumbo and fancy themselves the smartest guys in the room. But what Wittgenstein says about dumbing down philosophy is exactly what, I think the problem is. If you’re so busy not thinking of thinks simply, you end up with ideas that are so complex and a language obtuse and technically dense that no one, even other philosophers, have any clue what you’re talking about.

Listen: Ol’ Ludwig Wittgenstein might not have appreciated making philosophy easy to understand but there’s something to encouraging everyone, no matter how dumb or philosophically un-adept they may appear, to think philosophically.

Even if that means we occasionally muddy up the language.

This is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He looks like the kind of guy who takes his philosophy VERY (perhaps even too) seriously

This is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He looks like the kind of guy who takes his philosophy VERY (perhaps even too) seriously

The ancient Greek philosopher Antisthenes stated that philosophy shouldn’t be exclusive or overly academic or esoteric. Antisthenes argued that academic philosophy is useless and that the right kind of philosophy (dare we say the only legit philosophy) is philosophy that is taught and understood by every man.

That means all that deep philosophical technical talk, though aurally pleasant to the auditory nerves of most philosophers, often does get in the way of doing real, or at the very least useful philosophy.

Any one of these people may be a philosopher… so long as philosophers stop talking like no one else should understand them.

Any one of these people may be a philosopher… so long as philosophers stop talking like no one else should understand them.

Ok. I hear all you philosophers. You think I want to destroy everything that makes philosophy philosophy, right?

Actually I kind of do.

I assure you my point isn’t to destroy philosophy (I think Wittgenstein wanted to do that, though) or to say that anything goes and everybody should be ambiguous and vague with philosophical arguments I’m not encouraging messy argumentation.

I’m not saying that at all.

What I am saying is that if you know what someone is saying or trying to say, don’t be so quick to correct a guy if he flubs a word or two. And don’t get so hung up on terminology that you miss the point of what was said.

There is such a thing as missing the forest for the trees.

I assure you if you do nothing bad will happen. Philosophy won’t be destroyed. Philosophically bad and fallacious arguments won’t be the order of the day. All possible words won’t come to a sudden end. Immanuel Kant won’t haunt you for using the word “intuition” wrong. And Wittgenstein won’t call you out for bad metaphors.

If you know what a guy is getting at, give him a break. Let a word or two slide.

Chances are you’ll mess up a thing or two, too.

And really, it you make a habit out of doing it, makes you look like kind of a jerk.

… Still, if you find yourself wanting to go all philosophy professor on someone you might want to silently hum this little ditty to yourself.

NOTE:

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit recalls a story about Ludwig Wittgenstein as told by Fania Pascal. Apparently Wittgenstein was no fan of hyperbole. (SEE: pgs. 24-34)

Kant Totally Allows Shameless Plugs

Some time ago, I wrote a book.

No, I’m not kidding. I wrote a book. With pages…. and words.

I think it’s quite dandy.

Did I forget to mention that it’s called Mindless Philosopher: How Philosophy Taught Me Everything I Needed To Know About Popular Culture, and that it’s available on Amazon?

this is the cover of my book… just in case you feel like buying it.

Like I said, I think it’s pretty dandy.

I wrote my book with all the best intentions; namely, people would read it and become philosophically enlightened. So far, that hasn’t exactly happened.

BUT then again, Nietzsche wasn’t popular until after he was dead.

Of syphilis.

Anyway, in the spirit of shameless self promotion, I’ve decided to post the introduction of my book here.

Enjoy. It’s pretty dandy.

INTRODUCTION:

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.)

I know I shouldn’t say this, but I dislike Aristotle. Honest. I know that philosophers are supposed to get all hyped up and saucer-eyed over the ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Heraclitus, Thales, and whatnot, but given my druthers; I’d rather watch an all-day marathon of season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race or thumb through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly or read the suitable-for-bathroom-reading of Deep Thoughts by Saturday Night Live resident sage, Jack Handey, or even re-read The Secret than to hear another lecture about Plato’s Beard.

I admit it. I am a philosopher.

I hate Aristotle.

Ok, maybe the word hate is a little extreme. When I was a kid, I was told never to use the word hate if I really didn’t mean it. I don’t actually hate Aristotle, as I have never met the guy, it’s just that whenever I’m reading philosophy, I’d rather be reading or looking at or doing something else.

No. It’s not even that I’d rather be reading, looking at, or doing something else. I like philosophy. I do. I’d truly like to believe that the practice of philosophy is the world’s second oldest profession (we know someone had to be around to conjure up some theory about the oldest profession). I’ve always liked philosophy, even before I’d ever heard of Aristotle or Socrates or Saul Kripke. Do you know those old TV shows where the host asks a bunch of little kids what they want to be when they grow up? Remember how some little kids know exactly what they want to do? When these kids grow up, they’ll tell you that they always knew that they’d grow up to be a doctor, a high school phys ed. coach, or an astronaut. Some people like priests and nuns even say that they were called to do the Lord’s work. Folks like that are lucky. When I think about my relationship with philosophy, if someone had asked me when I was eight years old what I wanted to be when I grew up (and I had an inkling of what philosophy is), I would have said that I wanted to spend my time thinking. I might have not have known the word “philosopher” when I was eight years old, but I certainly knew that I liked thinking about stuff. I guess I’m lucky that way.

Now, if I thought about how or why I found myself drawn to the systematic study of knowledge, morality, and existence, looking back, I suppose I’d have to say that it had something to do with jokes about Ludwig Wittgenstein and being a latchkey kid.

*     *     *     *

     I spent a lot of time alone when I was a kid, perhaps too much time alone. My mom worked evenings and my older siblings, who were much older than me, weren’t interested in hanging out with a kid still in elementary school, so instead of coming home to mom and a plate of warm peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, I came home to a cupboard full of Fruit Roll-Ups, an occasional squeeze pack of Capri Sun, and the comfort of a warm, glowing TV set. Now that we’ve grown older, many of my fellow latchkey kids have bemoaned their lonely childhood after school experiences, but from my own childhood experience, spending so much time alone after school meant that I had plenty of time to amuse myself with my own thoughts. In those hours spent alone staring at the television set, I discovered that I enjoyed thinking. I enjoyed thinking about anything and everything. My love of thinking was surpassed only by how much I enjoyed watching TV.

I’m not that old (I’m in my thirties. There. I said it), but I’m old enough to remember when MTV aired music videos 24-hours a day (I could lay down some anti-MTV rant about how the network formerly known as Music Television used to show actual music videos and now MTV is nothing but a reality TV show cesspool, but that rant has been overdone. Honestly, Bully Beatdown is more entertaining than any Adam Ant music video ever was or could ever hope to be), and I remember the big stink among music video fans when MTV added non-music video programming to its weekday line up. Those folks who complained about MTV’s non-music video programming way back when can claim they were soothsayers, and that their hubbub over non-music video TV shows on MTV fell on the same deaf ears like Cassandra warning the Trojans of their impending defeat at the hands of the Spartan army. They would be well within their rights to say so. But as every dark cloud has a silver lining, for me, the end of music television on music television shone one ray of sunshine: my philosophical awakening through watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Thank God for cable television.

There are many firsts, no matter how much time has passed, that we will always remember: first kiss, first love, first non-all ages concert, first DUI… the first times that shape our lives and who we are. Every Monty Python fan remembers exactly which movie or sketch, where they were, and what they were doing when they experienced their first encounter with Monty Python‘s Flying Circus. When I watched my first episode, I knew that I thought the show was funny, but it was funny in a way unlike any other television show I’d ever seen. Monty Python’s Flying Circus wasn’t just funny, like Full House and Family Matters were funny; it was smart. The show seemed almost tailor-made for people who spent a lot of time entertained by their own thoughts. The day after my first episode I asked my friends of they had seen the incredible television that I had witnessed the day before. None had. When I tried to tell them what I saw, they were disinterested in hearing about what I’d seen. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited by re-enactment of the “Cheese Shop” sketch (my Michael Palin impersonation was spot on). I absolutely could not believe that my friends were unaware of, and worse yet uninterested in Monty Python.

I had discovered this wonderful thing and none of my fellow latchkey kids gave a damn about it.

I knew that my friends, even if they emphatically told me that they “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about Monty Python’s Flying Circus,had to know that they were missing out on something pretty special. They had to have seen that I had experienced the miracle of Python and I needed to share it with others. I was determined that my friends experience Monty Python. I sang “The Lumberjack Song” while hanging out with my friends after school, recite lines from the “Dead Parrot” sketch in the middle of English class, or attempt to explain to my dumbfounded and irritated friends why “Fish Slapping Dance” is so funny during lunch period. I would randomly yell “albatross!” and “my brain hurts” in public places. Nobody understood me. Nobody wanted to understand me. I felt alone. I reluctantly realized that Monty Python was the least popular thing I’ve ever encountered. Sharing it with my friends was hopeless. They would never be converted. Eventually I gave up.

For some time I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. I was completely in love with a TV show that no one else I knew cared about or wanted to see. In their eyes, Monty Python was British humor. They said it wasn’t funny. They told me the only people who were nerdier than Monty Python fans was people who like to think and I was both. So I hid my love of all things Python, stopped thinking so much, and learned to enjoy Jean-Claude van Damme movies just like everyone else. On the outside I appeared to be a perfectly normal person. I even learned to appreciate the Jean-Claude van Damme classics Bloodsport, Hard Target,and of course, Universal Soldier. Here’s the thing: I realize the reason why I became a Monty Python fan all those years ago was because there was something more to the humor than sketches with John Cleese yelling at the top of his lungs and jokes about Spam and naughty bits. I realize that it was then, during those afternoons spent alone after school, munching on Teddy Grahams, sipping on a can of Pepsi Clear that I first heard of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus didn’t just make me laugh, it made me think, and for the first time in my life I started to think about what I was thinking. I wanted to know more about the men whose names I heard as punch lines. I wanted to know more, period. The something more that I wanted to know was philosophy.

*     *     *     *

     I read somewhere that an anonymous sage said, “the only difference between graffiti and philosophy is the word ‘fuck’ ”. I’m not so sure if that’s true. I may be a little slow witted, but I really don’t see the connection between the “187” scrawled in large English Gothic letters on the wall of the liquor store down the street from my house and logical positivism. Everybody has an opinion about philosophy, I guess. Back when I was a very moody, impressionable teenager, the pre-grunge era alternative rock band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians song “What I Am” that suggested that philosophy can be found on a cereal box.

That might be true.

Although not everyone may consider themselves philosophers, everyone has a general attitude on life or a set of rules that we live by; what we might call our “philosophy”. Our individual philosophies not only encompass our values and beliefs about what’s important in our lives, but our philosophies also include questions about the meaning of life, reality, knowledge, and morality. It’s probably safe to assume that most of us haven’t spent hours gazing at our navels or sitting under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment about life’s big questions, but I doubt there is one person who has never questioned why we are here, what is the meaning of life, or what it means to be moral. The problem with philosophy is when we talk about philosophy (personal or in general), we often mistakenly assume that everyone defines “philosophy” the same way. As any professional philosopher will tell you, a clear and precise definition of the word “philosophy” doesn’t just pop out at you waving its arms and screaming, “Here I am. This is the real me. This is what philosophy is!” If we asked a hundred people what philosophy is we might get a hundred different answers. We know that the general idea of philosophy has to do with asking questions and looking for answers; but still, philosophers can’t exactly define what philosophy is. I think it’s safe to say that a roomful of philosophers will agree that the primary objective of philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, however, a consensus on one answer to one question (that question being “what is philosophy?”). Believe it or not, philosophers are people, too, and like most people, philosophers disagree about everything. Unfortunately for philosophers, who tend to prefer concise terminology, the definition of philosophy is ambiguous at best.

So then, what is philosophy?

Generally speaking, philosophy is divided among three main branches: epistemology, the theory of knowledge, metaphysics, or ontology, and ethics.  Within the three main branches of philosophy we find diverse areas of study such as: philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of education, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, political philosophy, aesthetics, medical and business ethics, philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, and New Age philosophy. The point of philosophy isn’t merely ask questions (although that’s important), nor is philosophy merely descriptive. Philosophy tells us how to act. Philosophy teaches us to think clearly and critically, to think about what we are thinking. Philosophy means never stop looking, always seeking, always examine our lives. Philosophy provides us with the tools we use to answer life’s big questions.

Understanding what philosophy is, however, does not remove the reputation that philosophy has earned over the centuries — it’s too technical and abstract. It’s too academic. It’s a waste of time. The somewhat negative image of philosophy and of philosophers is often well deserved. Philosophy is often extremely technical, even for those who study philosophy. Let’s face it; philosophers are often guilty of missing the forest for the trees (any one who has attempted to engage a philosopher in the simple act of chit chat  may have discovered that philosophers are incapable of answering simple questions, especially if the answer is yes or no). But, as much as we’d like to leave the philosophers to associate amongst themselves in their hallowed halls of academia, their habit of using appallingly technical language and alienating nearly every other human being who engages them in conversation is no reason to throw out the philosopher with the bathwater. At least before we toss Aristotle out of the tub, we should have some idea of what a philosopher is.

*     *     *     *

    

The philosophy of head colds

This morning I woke up with a sore throat. I think it might be a pre-summer cold, but then it might be due to the fact that I tend to sleep with my mouth open. Either way, when I woke up, my throat felt like it was on fire.

My morning illness got me thinking about something. I don’t think in the entire time that I studied philosophy that I ever read anything any philosopher had to say about being sick. After all, the first physicians were philosophers — they must have had something to say about it. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wrote

what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life.

I had figured that thinking about illness and disease is at least as important as thinking about phenomenalism or Fregean truth-functional statements, so I decided to spend a little time trying to find out what philosophers have to say about the state of ill-health.

I wish I looked this good with a sore throat

 

I already knew that Aristotle (and ancient Greek philosophers in general) wrote about matters of health and medicine — Aristotle wrote about (everything) causes, including his theories of the causes of disease. The ancient Greek Philosopher Hippocrates, known as the “Father of Medicine” (and also for the Hippocratic Oath) established medicine as a discipline separate from philosophy. And the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina (also known by the Latin name Avicenna) not only wrote extensive treatises on topics ranging from philosophy to medicine, astronomy, logic, and physics, but also Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine (1025) was the standard text used in Medieval universities. The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) is not only one heck of a political philosopher, but was one of Europe’s most respected physicians… even if he didn’t have a medical degree.

Ok, so what does this mean?

After looking for information about philosophy and medicine for approximately fifteen minutes, I concluded that any one who spends even a minimal amount of time on Google can find the philosophical history of modern medicine. But the history of the study of illness wasn’t really telling me what to think about my sore throat. I was still wondering: what do philosophers have to say about illness and disease?

This is what I found:

When philosophers think about illness, disease, and health, philosophers often ask questions like, “what is health?”, “Are disease-causing entities real?”, and whether a reductionist approach to medicine is correct. While I was reading about ontological and epistemological debates concerning the metaphysical status of “disease-causing entities” I couldn’t help from thinking about what Wittgenstein said about philosophy needing to be about improving our thinking about everyday life. I know that discussing epistemology is all in good fun for philosophers, but is this really helping me get any closer to getting rid of my present malady?

Not really, no.

I think this is why, when we think about illness, disease, suffering, and death, we often look to New Age metaphysicians rather than to philosophical metaphysicians. A philosopher might be good for a debate about “the diminution of complex objects or events to their component parts.”, but if I’m thinking about healing and/or the origin or end of suffering, I might open up a book written by Dr. Wayne Dyer rather than by Aristotle.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that philosophers have missed the mark entirely on matters on medicine (although I will say so about philosophers and philosophy of religion). Philosophers in the field of medical ethics question and debate issues of every day medical and philosophical importance: abortion, euthanasia, organ donations, stem cell research, quality of life, end of life — even the doctor-patient relationship (itself).  I know that when I read Peter Singer’s writings on suffering or on irreversibly brain damaged patients, think about the pros and cons of universal health care, or when I hear the words “death panels”, that someone is making not only a statement about modern medicine, but about medical ethics as well.

All of this still does absolutely nothing for my sore throat.