Saturday, September 22, 2007

Paul Graham against philosophy and literary theory

A good friend of mine did a PhD in philosophy at Stanford, specializing in language and mind and all things Wittgenstein. After several years as a professor at two leading universities, he left the field to earn a second PhD in neuroscience, working in a wet lab. I have a feeling he might agree with much that Paul Graham writes in the essay quoted below. In numerous conversations over the years about his dissertation research, I could never quite see the point...

Outside of math there's a limit to how far you can push words; in fact, it would not be a bad definition of math to call it the study of terms that have precise meanings. Everyday words are inherently imprecise. They work well enough in everyday life that you don't notice. Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.

I would say that this has been, unfortunately for philosophy, the central fact of philosophy. Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by "free." Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by "exist."

Wittgenstein is popularly credited with the idea that most philosophical controversies are due to confusions over language. I'm not sure how much credit to give him. I suspect a lot of people realized this, but reacted simply by not studying philosophy, rather than becoming philosophy professors.

...Curiously, however, the works they produced continued to attract new readers. Traditional philosophy occupies a kind of singularity in this respect. If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it's hard to distinguish something that's hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that's hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand. To someone who hasn't learned the difference, traditional philosophy seems extremely attractive: as hard (and therefore impressive) as math, yet broader in scope. That was what lured me in as a high school student.

This singularity is even more singular in having its own defense built in. When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they're nonsense generally keep quiet. There's no way to prove a text is meaningless. The closest you can get is to show that the official judges of some class of texts can't distinguish them from placebos. [10]

And so instead of denouncing philosophy, most people who suspected it was a waste of time just studied other things. That alone is fairly damning evidence, considering philosophy's claims. It's supposed to be about the ultimate truths. Surely all smart people would be interested in it, if it delivered on that promise.

Because philosophy's flaws turned away the sort of people who might have corrected them, they tended to be self-perpetuating. Bertrand Russell wrote in a letter in 1912:

Hitherto the people attracted to philosophy have been mostly those who loved the big generalizations, which were all wrong, so that few people with exact minds have taken up the subject. [11]

His response was to launch Wittgenstein at it, with dramatic results.

I think Wittgenstein deserves to be famous not for the discovery that most previous philosophy was a waste of time, which judging from the circumstantial evidence must have been made by every smart person who studied a little philosophy and declined to pursue it further, but for how he acted in response. [12] Instead of quietly switching to another field, he made a fuss, from inside. He was Gorbachev.

The field of philosophy is still shaken from the fright Wittgenstein gave it. [13] Later in life he spent a lot of time talking about how words worked. Since that seems to be allowed, that's what a lot of philosophers do now. Meanwhile, sensing a vacuum in the metaphysical speculation department, the people who used to do literary criticism have been edging Kantward, under new names like "literary theory," "critical theory," and when they're feeling ambitious, plain "theory." The writing is the familiar word salad:

Gender is not like some of the other grammatical modes which express precisely a mode of conception without any reality that corresponds to the conceptual mode, and consequently do not express precisely something in reality by which the intellect could be moved to conceive a thing the way it does, even where that motive is not something in the thing as such. [14]

The singularity I've described is not going away. There's a market for writing that sounds impressive and can't be disproven. There will always be both supply and demand. So if one group abandons this territory, there will always be others ready to occupy it.


[10] Sokal, Alan, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Social Text 46/47, pp. 217-252.

Abstract-sounding nonsense seems to be most attractive when it's aligned with some axe the audience already has to grind. If this is so we should find it's most popular with groups that are (or feel) weak. The powerful don't need its reassurance.

[11] Letter to Ottoline Morrell, December 1912. Quoted in:

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin, 1991, p. 75.

[12] A preliminary result, that all metaphysics between Aristotle and 1783 had been a waste of time, is due to I. Kant.

[13] Wittgenstein asserted a sort of mastery to which the inhabitants of early 20th century Cambridge seem to have been peculiarly vulnerable—perhaps partly because so many had been raised religious and then stopped believing, so had a vacant space in their heads for someone to tell them what to do (others chose Marx or Cardinal Newman), and partly because a quiet, earnest place like Cambridge in that era had no natural immunity to messianic figures, just as European politics then had no natural immunity to dictators.

[14] This is actually from the Ordinatio of Duns Scotus (ca. 1300), with "number" replaced by "gender." Plus ca change.

Wolter, Allan (trans), Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings, Nelson, 1963, p. 92.


Anonymous said...

"When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they're nonsense generally keep quiet. There's no way to prove a text is meaningless. The closest you can get is to show that the official judges of some class of texts can't distinguish them from placebos."

There is good stuff in philosophy. The problem is that there are some very bad philosophers. I do think that the smartest people do something else. And then you can't get rid of the remainder, it is self-perpetuating.

Anonymous said...

Heh. I'm so happy I never wasted many of my brain cycles studying this discipline.

And of course it would be churlish to draw obvious parallels between philosophy and anthropic string theory, so I won't go there.

Howard Johnson said...

Hi Steve;
I followed your link from the 4-19-08 post on John Searle. I see philosophy slightly differently. (I studied ed psych not philosophy. My main interest is how philosophy relates to measurement and psychology)
1. I see the task of recent philosophers (like the 1930s Vienna School) was to make philosophy exact like mathematics, a science of meaning. I thought Wittgenstein in his 1st book was credited with coming as close as anyone, but then gave up the goal in his second book. Since that time, people like M.M. Bakhtin have gone in the opposite direction, emphasizing how words are dependent on context to the extent that a word never means quite the same in each use. From the book The Dialogical Imagination:
"Due to stratifying forces resulting from the dialogical contextual use of language;
there are no “neutral” words and forms - words and forms that can belong to “no one”; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents.  For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a heteroglot conception of the world.  All words have the taste of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour.  Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.  Contextual overtones (generic, tendentious, individualistic) are inevitable in the word.
My own work (see a recent post on includes the nature of constructs in measurement and how language bleeds into the math in measurement. The first thing I generally look for is intention. Like when my kids fight with each other. The words they use are not damning in themselves, its the implications that create the real meaning, it's in how your saying it. Maybe it's just philosophy getting down and dirty in the pig pen of life.

Winston Smith said...

Graham's essay is smart, but wrong in many important ways--though I'm sympathetic with much of what he says. (And note: only someone who hasn't read much philosophy would think that his ideas are novel.)

Take his example of Berkeley. Berkeley is certainly not spouting nonsense, and certainly not flailing about just because he is unclear about his terms. He poses a genuine problem for empiricism, and a genuine challenge to metaphysical realism. He's asking about which types of inferences are warranted, not so much about the meanings of words. Now, you and I would probably agree that Berkeley's phenomenalism is nuts. But presumably you don't think we get to reject his position out of hand, and presumably you'd agree at least that we've learned many interesting things trying to respond to him.

Much philosophy is hard. Much philosophy is BS. Problem is, many of the best minds humanity has yet produced (including, in case you care to challenge that, e.g. Leibniz) have thus far been unable to untangle the tangle. Science is easier in a certain way--we've largely settled on a method, ergo it's easier to make moves that are non-laughable. And: most scientists don't ask fundamental questions. They take up where their thesis advisers left off, and, with luck, move the ball another couple of inches. Philosophy forces everyone to start over again from the bottom and re-think everything. (Note: this is sometimes thought to be one of its problems...)

Hell, I certainly don't know any philosopher who doesn't think "I shoulda gone into something respectable (meaning: science)" about a thousand times in his life. But you should at least glance at the issue from the other side, the Aristotelian side that Graham denigrates. Scientists often pride themselves on the fact that they are striving for pure understanding without any regard for the usefulness of their findings. Now, if you think that IS noble, then you have to admire the philosopher's similar quest. And you can't switch positions in order to make an ad hoc you're-research-is-useless argument against the philosopher...

Parting thought: it's kind of funny to see science and computer folks sitting around saying "har har! Look how much smarter we are than philosophers! har har!"... And then proceed to say things about philosophy that are, well, rather embarrassingly dopey.

But again: I'm sympathetic to many points in Grahams essay--and so are very many contemporary philosophers.

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