For many people, philosophy is the ultimate exemplar of a useless discipline—or at the very least, high in the top ten. I recall that on the first day of my high school drivers’ ed class, our instructor began by asserting that this was probably the most practical subject most of us would study, in contrast to subjects like philosophy, which might be very nice to mull over on a lazy afternoon, but wouldn’t have much bearing on our daily lives. (Even at the time, something about this rang false. I didn’t then have the presence of mind to suggest that we do philosophy constantly—though mostly subconsciously, and therefore badly.) Perhaps I’m just rationalizing four expensive years, but readers will not be surprised to hear that I think otherwise. One reason the utility of studying philosophy isn’t always apparent, though, is that unless you go on to teach philosophy, you’re more likely to make routine use of the methods and strategies, the mental toolbox, that the training imparts than you are to deal explicitly with the traditional subject matter of philosophy. In the interest of not annoying our fellow humans more than necessary, most of us don’t call explicit attention to this or use philosophy jargon when we’re doing it—and often these strategies become so ingrained that their deployment is basically automatic. Since many of these strategies are useful in a wide variety of discursive contexts, I thought it might be nice to do an occasional series of posts highlighting useful ones when they occur to me. Maybe I’ve been doing this for years without quite noticing it—but giving these posts a common title might itself be helpful. If nothing else, I can turn them into a Kindle Single someday.
Let’s start with precisification—a process by which we try to dissolve merely semantic disagreements (and a surprising proportion of our most heated disagreements are at least partly semantic) by stipulating more precise definitions for contested terms that may be vague or ambiguous. I tried this in a recent post on a debate over “coercion” in the workplace that was playing out between the bloggers at Crooked Timber and Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Instead of arguing about which types of situations, actions, or social systems were “coercive” simpliciter, I suggested it would be more fruitful to eliminate the contested, morally-freighted term and replace it with a series of more precise terms, such as “exploitative coercion” and “baseline-sensitive coercion.” The disputants might continue to disagree about which forms of coercion were morally significant—serious ethical disagreements among educated people are seldom wholly semantic—but we could at least hope that there would be less disagreement about which precisified conception of coercion might be properly applied to different situations, or at least that the persisting disagreement would be more illuminating.
For this reason, I sometimes think of this as the elimination strategy: If disagreement seems to hang crucially on some contested or normatively loaded term, eliminate that term and see how it alters the conversation. (This does have its own pitfalls, because some terms are intrinsically normative, and cannot be usefully eliminated. The attempt to reduce normative terms like “good” or “wrong” to strictly descriptive conditions has come to be known as the “naturalistic fallacy,” though disagreement about whether it is actually a fallacy persists.) Elimination of this sort—not to be confused with “eliminationism,” which sometimes refers to the substantive denial of the existence of a class of entities, like moral facts or mental states—serves a couple of helpful functions. First, it forces everyone to make it clear to both themselves and others just what they mean. Every student of philosophy, starting with the hapless Athenians interrogated by Socrates, has had the disconcerting experience of discovering how hard it can be to clearly explain concepts they use every day, and had thought they understood completely. Second, it can clear away some of the emotional and normative baggage that inevitably attaches to terms like “liberty” or “coercion” even when we pledge with all sincerity to use them in some neutral and descriptive sense.
The late novelist Robert Anton Wilson advocated a rather extreme version of this strategy by urging the use of “E-Prime,” or English written without any form of the word “is.” Aside from being grammatically awkward, that’s probably neither necessary nor sufficient, even if it might be a useful exercise on occasion: You can make essentialist errors without using the word “is,” but happily, you can also avoid them while retaining it. The key move is to remember that saying “X is a Y” either asserts strict logical identity—which is only true in the trivial case when you’re asserting that an entity is identical to itself, or that one entity is known by two names—or, more often, is shorthand for ascribing a property that’s almost always more conditional or relational than the straightforward grammar of “is” implies. The Coke can on my desk “is” red, which is to say, under conditions of “normal” illumination, it will emit light of a wavelength that produces a phenomenal experience of “red” in a “normal” human observer when viewed through air, vacuum, clear glass, and so on. Any scientifically literate person will quickly acknowledge that this is what they “really” mean, implicitly, when they say “the Coke can is red.” Obviously nobody wants to lay all that out explicitly in normal conversation, both because it’s incredibly clunky and because there’s not much practical value, outside of dorm room bong sessions, in perpetually reminding ourselves that the “red” isn’t really in the can, but a mental property generated by an object-observer interaction that occurs within specific parameters. But in more theoretical discussions, even when at some level we know better, the beguiling simplicity of “is” grammar can obscure details that do make a difference.
So, for instance, you may recall a little flurry of debate a while back over the Republican rhetorical trope of characterizing Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, and the ensuing boomlet of essays and blog posts vehemently insisting that obviously the program is or is not an instance of one. A more productive frame might have been: In what respects can Social Security be meaningfully analogized to the classic Ponzi scheme, in what respects does that analogy break down, and on which dimensions would these similarities render the two susceptible to the same concerns or objections? That’s not a frame that lends itself to catchy slogans, and probably any thoughtful person who participated in that debate would readily agree that this was the real question under dispute all along. But I suspect you get a different and more instructive dialogue lingering a bit in that matrix of similarities and differences, rather than seeing it as a brief waystation on the road to the crucial all-things-considered verdict on whether it ultimately “is” or “isn’t.” If you don’t like this particular example; pick one of your own—there’s no shortage.
So that’s the first handy can-opener in our intellectual Swiss Army Knife: Haunted by a sneaking suspicion that a seemingly substantive debate is getting tangled in the weeds of semantics? Drop the contested term, and make up as many as you need to say what everyone means. If the hang up depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is, give up on trying to determine whether X is essentially Y and look at all the varied dimensions of similarity and difference to see which actually matter; whether they add up to an overall equivalence probably won’t. These moves will seldom entirely dissolve a serious disagreement—thoughtful people will generally notice if a difference in views is merely and wholly semantic before they waste much time arguing about it—but they’ll often make the disagreement more productive.
Update: My ever-astute commenters note two related resources: David Chalmers’ essay “Verbal Disputes” (which similarly recommends what he calls the “method of elimination”) and a sharp post at Less Wrong cataloging “37 Ways That Words Can Be Wrong.”