What Not to Say

Here's a funny phenomenon.  There are times when all parties to a conversation know that P is true, and also know that all the others know, but saying that P is still prohibited.  Everyone can know that someone's a racist, but it can be incendiary to say it. It can be mutually understood that someone's lying, but saying it can be more inflammatory then the fact itself.

Why do I bring this up?  Because I committed one of these speech crimes recently. I said that the very broad public (as in, the proverbial man/woman in the street) cannot grasp the most advanced ideas in  philosophy. You actually need to do some heavy duty reading, or maybe take some philosophy courses, or maybe even go to graduate school, to understand those ideas. As a matter of fact, my colleagues and I sometimes confess to finding the books of other philosophers difficult. We will outright say we can't follow x, y, or z. Of course.  In any discipline, there are many levels of difficulty, and for any given audience, some stuff is attainable, and some not.

Once people are offended, they like to fan up their own offense by pretending what you said is as offensive as possible.  (This is a strange truth about human psychology.)  So my saying some philosophy is too hard for the public square (folks, it's true) got transformed -- mostly at other blogs -- into the assertion that academics should stay in their ivory towers.  Never mind that I couldn't possibly have said that, considering that I've written two philosophy books for a "not just professionals" audience.  It was "Off with her head, immediately!"

Well, if it must be, it must be. I humbly submit to the will of the people.


Faust said...

No links? Will the execution not be televised?

Jean Kazez said...

Possibly on YouTube...do check (obviously I won't be able to).

PhysicistDave said...


I have a Ph.D. in theoretical high-energy/elementary-particle physics (Stanford, 1983).

When I tell folks that ordinary people really cannot understand quantum field theory, much less superstring theory, most of them seem rather relieved: I think they take that as a sign that I just might refrain from trying to explain it to them.

I’d suggest that the difference with philosophy is that most of us have a rather strong suspicion that so much philosophy is incomprehensible simply because it is meaningless.

You are, I am sure, aware of the “post-modernism generator.” Interesting that its output sounds like philosophy (or literary “theory”), not science.

I know that not all writings by philosophers are nonsense – I think Colin McGinn’s work is meaningful, and even, often, correct.

On the other hand, it is not only the Hegelians, existentialists, etc. that I suspect of verbal meaninglessness. An awful lot of “analytic philosophy” consists, in essence, of saying:
>Now, if we really use language clearly, we will use it in the way that just happens to make it impossible to argue for conclusions that I disagree with.

Whenever I see an analytic philosopher write “we,” I remember the punchline of the old joke: “What do you mean ‘we’, Kemosabe?”

Perhaps, if you could indicate some areas of actual substance in philosophy that members of the hoi polloi simply cannot grasp, we could take you seriously.

If you do not, I am afraid I will simply be left with a well-founded belief that most philosophers are simply organic versions of the “post-modern generator.”

Dave Miller in Sacramento

Jean Kazez said...

Dave, My father is a theoretical physicist, so I know what you mean--with a little encouragement, he will try to explain all sorts of stuff, and then...help!....

Let's see, what's hard for "hoi polloi," but not meaningless gibberish...? Lots and lots of stuff, actually. I would say that most philosophy is hard, if you really mean for "hoi polloi," and not physics PhDs. In fact, lots of philosophy is hard for philosophers too. My advisor in graduate school used to mutter often about how philosophy is hard.
Just one example of a hard (and non-meaningless) book: Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons. Hard for professional philosophers, very hard for undergraduates, impossible for the man/woman on the street.

PhysicistDave said...


Thanks for your reply. Incidentally, as your father will probably confirm, even physicists do not really understand superstring theory! It is unclear whether there really is a non-trivial, consistent theory underlying all our speculations. On the other hand, I do suffer from the conceit that if only people would listen to me long enough, they could indeed understand quantum field theory: alas, almost no one is that patient. (I’m not a university professor, having gone into industry, so I do not have a captive audience.)

I’ve heard of Parfit, of course, but I have to admit to not being familiar with the book. Here however is the (publisher’s?) description from amazon:
> Challenging, with several powerful arguments, some of our deepest beliefs about rationality, morality, and personal identity, Parfit claims that we have a false view about our own nature. It is often rational to act against our own best interests, he argues, and most of us have moral views that are self-defeating. We often act wrongly, although we know there will be no one with serious grounds for complaint, and when we consider future generations it is very hard to avoid conclusions that most of us will find very disturbing.

Frankly, that raises a lot of red flags for me. For over two thousand years, philosophers have thought that their “powerful arguments” were quite compelling, but, of course, few of those “powerful arguments” ended up seeming all that powerful to philosophers of later generations or centuries.

That suggests to me that “powerful arguments” are not in fact very powerful.

I remember years ago running across philosophers’ referring to “knock-down” arguments. I thought the idea quite humorous: I know of some “knock-down” arguments in math (e.g., Euclid’s proof that there is no last prime), but I have yet to get a philosopher to give me a “knock-down” argument on any issue of substance that even most of her fellow philosophers accept.

Prima facie, if I wanted to know about the issues listed in the summary of Parfit’s book – rationality, morality, etc. – I would look into subjects such as cognitive psychology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, history, etc.: i.e., subjects that actually try to learn about the real world.

Perhaps, I am being unfair to Parfit and he has done this. But I notice that few philosophers have. Again, prima facie, it is the sciences that have been far and away the most successful at generating novel, verifiable, and generally accepted knowledge about reality. It seems to me that philosophers who seriously want to learn about the world would try to start by building upon the work of the natural sciences, integrating and synthesizing that work, etc.

I know that some philosophers have done exactly that, but, they seem to be a rather small minority.

Incidentally, I am not trying to arbitrarily fetishize natural science: I would make a similar case that any philosophers interested in religion have to take seriously the results of Biblical scholarship and history, for example. Yet, the well-known text on philosophy of religion by Stairs and Bernard announces, in the introduction, “we won’t have much to say about scripture.”

Pretty typical, and, I fear, pretty damning. After all, the most conclusive disproof of, say, Plantinga’s views is that he does not see that the Bible is mythology.

Anyway, I will pick up Parfit’s book, but, pardon me for suspecting that it is difficult only for the reason that “Finnegan’s Wake” is difficult: it was designed to be.


Faust said...

Whenever someone comes along and comments on "philosophy" as a whole, well frankly, that raises a lot of red flags for me.

There is no such thing as "philosophy-the-unbroken-whole," and while it's good clean fun to complain about all those philosophers with their heads in the clouds, quite disconnected from "the real world," it's really not a line of "argument" with any weight to it, principally because "philsophy" is too sprawling a set of concerns to be argued against (or about) so generally.

Let's look at some of the more specific claims that tend to crop up in this context:

1. "Philosophy" is nonsense (literally producing gibberish statments)
2. "Philosophy" is impractical (offers no utility for any purpose)
3. "Philosophy" is more like literature than science (e.g. it is a kind of fictionalization of the world, it is a purely linguistic product unlike science which maps reality on a one-to-one basis).
4. "Philosophy" is arrogant or elitist in ways that can never be finally justified. (It purports to have authority over the subject of how we ought to live but is unable to produce independent justification of its authority).

Here is the difficulty:

In order to engage any of these claims in a serious way...one can only do so by doing philosophy. One can find Wittgenstein wrestling with #1, William James wrestling with #2, #3 has so many difficulites I'll not even attempt a list, and #4 is, in my opinion, the very problem of meta-ethics itself.

PhysicicstDave enthusiastically notes:

"Prima facie, if I wanted to know about the issues listed in the summary of Parfit’s book – rationality, morality, etc. – I would look into subjects such as cognitive psychology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, history, etc.: i.e., subjects that actually try to learn about the real world.

I say "enthusastically" because the notion that anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and history are going to give us independent grounds to adjudicate the sticky questions of "rationality" and "morality" in a way that side steps logic and meta-ethics is a very optomistic position to take! Indeed, I'm tempted to ask for a "knock down" argument.

There really IS a problem here. But it is not a problem with "philosophy." It is the problem of taking ANY expert discourse and communicating it to non-experts, and this is especially the case when one claims to be in possession of helpful knowledge that all those non-experts really OUGHT to care about.

It just so happens that to the degree philosophers claim to have a very important discourse with a list of "oughts" that are supposed to direct all the non-experts, that all those non-experts are going to get very irritated when they get saddled with an "ought" that they don't understand the basis for.

Jean Kazez said...

Aggghh...no time for a long response, but father is both a theoretical physicist and interested in philosophy. I've been his "supplier" over the years. Both philosophy and physics are about "ultimate realities"--what the world is made of, in the very most basic sense. It doesn't surprise me at all for the same person to be attracted to both.

PhysicistDave said...

Faust wrote to me:
> In order to engage any of these claims in a serious way...one can only do so by doing philosophy.

And that strikes me as one of the central fallacies of philosophy: the double bind that claims that even to criticize philosophy one must do philosophy.

There is an equivalent trick with psychoanalysts: if you criticize psychoanalysis, you are showing “resistance”… which just proves that you need more psychoanalysis! Now that Freud has gone out of fashion, it is perhaps easier to see that that is simply a con game, but there was a time when people took such mendacious nonsense seriously.

I think my central point is that any supposed intellectual discipline – whether astrology, physics, theology, chemistry, phrenology, psychoanalysis, Nazi “race science,” literary theory, Marxism, or philosophy – should be provisionally judged guilty until proven innocent. Human beings have invented so many mental mind games over the centuries, so many complex but deceptive ways to manipulate their fellow human beings, that we should *always* take seriously the possibility that any “discipline” is simply one of those con games.

My own mentor in physics, the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, said that the scientific method was simply our way of doing our best not to fool ourselves. The core idea of the scientific method – making prospective falsifiable predictions about future observations or experiments – has proven to be a pretty good way of not fooling ourselves. Indeed, few people really try to maintain that all of science is nonsense (I invite anyone who does to give up everything that has flowed from science -– antibiotics, electricity, cell phones, jet planes, etc.).

The burden of proof lies with practitioners of any discipline to show that their “discipline” is not the equivalent of astrology, phrenology, or Nazi “race science.”

Based on the historical record, a discipline that fails to meet that burden of proof most likely is the intellectual equivalent of phrenology or astrology.

If anyone seriously believes that philosophy is more intellectually serious than phrenology… well, I suppose that I can simply point out that the most avid debunkers of philosophers have been other philosophers.



Jean Kazez said...

If you want to criticize philosophy, you might not have to "do it," but you certainly have to know a lot about it. Do you?

Faust said...

"If anyone seriously believes that philosophy is more intellectually serious than phrenology… well, I suppose that I can simply point out that the most avid debunkers of philosophers have been other philosophers."

I see...so ethics is no more intellectually serious than phrenology. I'll have to keep that in mind the next time someone tries to engage me in moral debate.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Faust--Let's drop it. Dave's getting more and more aggressive about this topic (I've had to delete several comments). So: done.

PhysicistDave said...

Well, Jean, since you have banned me, I can use this commenting box to send a personal reply to you. Alas, there is no practical way for you to respond personally to me (my gmail address is a dead drop -- any messages sent there disappear without being read). Kind of a paradox.

You're a pathological liar.

You wrote:
>Dave's getting more and more aggressive about this topic...


Boy, if you truly think that is "aggressive," you are one mentally ill dude!

I merely tried to raise some very serious questions about the validity of philosophy that any serious philosopher would be willing to address -- at least in her own mind, even if she does not have time for a debate about it on the Web.

I honestly did not know who you were when I stumbled upon this post.

I was sincere in my comments; I had no ulterior motives; I did not use crude language or make nay threats. I certainly did not lie.

Not exactly "aggressive" by the standards of non-mentally ill people.

After observing your pathological lying, I have however looked into you a bit. Seems you are involved in some bizarre grand atheist vs. atheist Web War over a pathological liar named Walter H. Smith, a fellow much like you I take it.

I do not know any way to get you fired, but I am sure you should be.

I wonder what you are afraid of -- if we dig into info about you a bit, will we find some info connecting you to Smith and his ilk that really might get you terminated? Perhaps I need to contact your university directly and find out more about your bizarre and unbalanced behavior.

I will report fully on your behavior in any venue that strikes my fancy.

You are an evil liar, Jean.

I hope your life is brief.

Jean Kazez said...

Just thought others might enjoy knowing what I mean by "aggressive."

Jean Kazez said...

p.s. I've never banned anybody at this blog. Not one.

Justin F said...

Sheesh... I completely agree that that rant sounds horribly aggressive.

I was actually interested in a general question that creepy-Dave raised though: What sort of track-record of notable successes does a field need to display to overcome outsiders' reasonable default suspicion that it might just be a self-perpetuating bullsh!t party?

(I agree with Faust that it probably wouldn't make sense to ask this question for philosophy as a whole -- it's much too heterogeneous -- but it might make sense to ask it about certain traditions or subfields of philosophy.)

Here are two relevant thoughts:

Thought #1: When I teach intro to philosophy, I suggest that one way of thinking of philosophy is as the frontier of knowledge. Any problems that we've figured out how to address in a fruitful specialized manner have spun off their own departments and no longer count as "philosophy". So, e.g., Newton called his physics "natural philosophy", but since then, physics has been spun off into its own department and the only visible remnant of its history as philosophy is that the highest degree in physics is still "Doctorate of Philosophy", an irony that I hope creepy-Dave -- the alleged physics Ph.D. -- appreciates.

Anyway, one might point to all the fruitful fields that have spun off of philosophy over the years -- all the fields that still offer Ph.D's -- and brag about this as an impeccable track record for philosophy! Alternatively, one might say that my proposed negative definition of philosophy (as anything we don't yet understand well enough to assign to its own department) guarantees that philosophy won't be able to pass an immediate fruitfulness test -- for, whenever a branch of philosophy becomes highly fruitful, it ceases to be counted as "philosophy".

Thought #2: There might be other less direct signs that a field is doing good work and isn't just spouting bullsh!t. For example, many outsiders who dabble in philosophy acknowledge that it develops skills that are broadly useful, for example, in formulating arguments carefully, attending to relevant possibilities, and articulating definitions. So the usefulness of these skills might serve as an easily observable -- even to an outsider -- indicator that philosophy is not just another phrenology.

Along similar lines, one might also note the productive collaborations between philosophers and scientists: e.g.,between Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson or Peter Godfrey-Smith and Ben Kerr, to name just two philosopher-biologist pairs. When serious people working in clearly-productive fields find it helpful to collaborate with philosophers on clearly scientific work, this certainly weighs in favor of thinking that there really is something to (at least some subfields of) philosophy.

ʘʊʚ said...

Wow, Jean, I'm sorry you receive these kind of hate mail. I follow your blog and I always thought you had an open and balanced approach to the problems of philosophy.

"Dave" is obviously an articulate person, and it's very sad to see how an intelligent mind can waste his potential and resort to these personal attacks.

The "I hope your life is brief" line is really beyond any possible line of civil disagreement.

I wonder what might push Dave to this, obviously it is not simply love of "truth", whatever that might mean. Sounds like someone who was abused by philosophers in some way ...

Ophelia Benson said...


Physicist Dave re-posted that disgusting comment at my place, and a few more disgusting comments over the 14 hours or so when I was offline. He won't be posting any more comments at my place. I do ban people when they're that vicious! But it doesn't happen often.

I think he's playing the kind of game Wally used to play. But whether he is or he isn't, he's no friend of mine.

Jean Kazez said...

Thanks Ophelia. Yeah, he would be a good candidate for my first banned commenter. Except it might be impossible to make that stick, what with changing IPs and all. For the moment, I must continue to wield my vast powers (joke) as moderator.

March Hare said...

Jean, that's not strictly what you said. I seem to recall you saying that philosophers/atheists shouldn't discuss Moral Error Theory in public.

Yes, it's a tricky subject, yes, people will initially be put off by the claim that there are no objective morals, but so what? Without experts putting the theory out there how can we every broach the subject and/or avoid being slammed in interviews by theists pandering to the fallacy that atheists have no morals?

Surely the best way round this is a host of articles explaining in simple terms what Error Theory* is and, most importantly, what it is not.

* Insert whichever philosophical term you like, but this is one that the public will actually care about - as is free will.

Jean Kazez said...

Here's what I said--

"Suppose Russell gets lots of fame and acclaim, and starts promoting the error theory all over the place. So he starts influencing people to think that atheists must believe the sentence above is false, or at least not true."

It's not for nothing that I talk about "fame and acclaim" and "all over the place" and "influencing people." I do because that's the worry--the error theory being put before the *broad* public.

I have no particular worries about philosophy afficionados (outside of philosophy departments) reading metaethics. I'm a writer of philosophy for the public myself--so it's inconceivable that I would be against that. But if a person has "fame and acclaim" -- like Sam Harris, for example --then I think you should take care about the impact of what you say. That includes careful thought about how it might be misunderstood or misconstrued.

I don't agree with your "*" footnote. Different ideas have different potential to be misconstrued or cause harm. In the old thread, I gave several examples of particularly dangerous philosophical ideas.

Unknown said...

Man, Jean, I just don't get it. In the (dear God, has it really been)twenty-four or so years I've known you I've never known you to be intellectually antagonistic (unless mightily provoked)or to hold views that aren't reasonable and moderate. I wouldn't have picked you for a lightning rod for haters. But so it is. As I said, I don't get it.

J. J. Ramsey said...

March Hare: "Surely the best way round this is a host of articles ..."

If that were true, this world would be a whole lot saner than it is.

Imagine Bill O'Reilly, Bill Donahue, Glenn Beck, and/or Rush Limbaugh getting a hold of one of those articles. They'll of course willfully misread it and spread that misunderstanding to others, who spread it to others, etc. Indeed, even without provocateurs with large audiences like O'Reilly, there's still the problem that willful misreading is likely, and such misreadings are bound to get spread amongst the water cooler conversation.

Jean Kazez said...

Thomas, Yeah...I know. I can't say any of that is any fun. With any luck, it will all stop, SOON! By the way--we did meet when we were 3, right? We can't be THAT old!

Jean Kazez said...

JJ--That's another major factor I've been thinking about. When people are hostile to the messenger, the message tends to get totally distorted. (Yes indeed, I have experienced that first hand.) I can just imagine how people would react to atheists who go around talking about how all moral claims are false. The types of people you list are obviously not going to read that charitably. For messengers already under suspicion, there must be no charity! All must be twisted and distorted, until the messenger is shown to be utterly diabolical...just like everyone always thought.

March Hare said...

Jean, JJ, that's the whole point!

Currently people are being slapped around by Bill O etc. in interviews when he says things like "so where do you get your morals from then?" when the discussion is about, say, church/state separation. To most of his viewers that's a home run and all the reasonable good arguments about e.g not having prayers in school are lost. The viewers come away with the impression that Bill is right and the secularist is wrong.

This would be worse if they came out and asked, "so you think that it is not objectively wrong to torture babies for fun and you're telling em to get prayer out of school? I think this shows exactly why we need prayer in school."*

We have two ways round it - lie, or try to educate the public. Sure, a lot of Bill's audience is set up to ignore facts, but there are Americans who will read, who will understand the nuance and may agree or not. I think people should reach out to those open-minded Americans and try to engage them.

Many people already think atheists have no morals, so lets go out there and tell them we do, they're personal, subjective, and very similar to yours.

* I should be on Fox, that was pretty good. Of course, the correct response is not to play along, it is ask what that has to do with the topic at hand and try to steer the topic back to prayer in school.

Jean Kazez said...

March Hare, I think the worry about atheists being immoral can be dealt with without offering an alternative to the divine command theory--the view many religious people are attracted to. You just need to ask some questions, like--

(1) What if you woke up and the newspaper headline said "There is no god"? Would you really now think you didn't have to feed your children, or you could torture puppies? Of course not!

(2) Could God really somehow make it the case that feeding your kids is evil, but torturing then is good? Of course not.

Using such questions, you guide people to the realization that even they don't actually think that morality depends on god. They think there are robust rights and wrongs that are independent of any divine realm. That's what atheists think too, so there's no reason to worry about atheists' grip on morality.

Now--what accounts for these robust rights and wrongs? That's a good question, and there are lots of theories--realist, anti-realist, etc. That's all very interesting. But I think getting into metaethics is strictly for people who have an interest in philosophy, not the right way to correct common, ordinary worries about atheists.

s. wallerstein said...

I suspect that many religious Divine Command believers are not so much afraid of atheists torturing babies (which very few of us are tempted to do), but of atheists (and thus, themselves without God to guide them) being tempted to commit sins of the flesh, adultery, gay sex, masturbation, etc.

Many relgious people use God's word to defend themselves against their own impulses. Without God, they (and their wives, etc.) will be "prey" to sin.

Jean Kazez said...

Right, they're not worried about atheists torturing babies, but that's immaterial. The point is to challenge the assumption that all morality proceeds from God. The baby example is very effective toward that end.

s. wallerstein said...

I followed the link, and it is incredible that Dave has not been banned and that his comments have not been explicitly repudied by the blog owner.

(I didn't read to the end, since the thread is endless, but his comments about "suicide" are (what can I say?) sick, but sick in the sense that Nazism is sick.

Jean Kazez said...

Just had to hit "delete" on a comment. All--Please read the comment policy. Reasonable, respectful, relevant. That's all I ask.

Also--I will be busy for the rest of the day, so won't have time to moderate. I'll publish comments later, so long as they conform to the policy.

March Hare said...

Jean, huge apologies, that'd be me. What happened was I came back at the same thing twice because I was called away and the half criticism I intended became a doubled up monster that I in no way meant.

I respectfully disagree with your position but would not intentionally resort to ad hominen or silly personal attacks to misrepresent or demonize your position.

I disagree with your position on how certain people should represent their actual opinions to the public because it involves lying (by omission at the least) to the public and artificially supporting their moral belief systems. In order to make some very important point they are ignoring the unimportant (to the world at large) meta-ethical point they had been asked about.

That is a pragmatic position, and I can see the short term benefits, but I feel the long term harm of experts not telling the public the truth will outweigh the benefit. I could be wrong but I strongly believe that giving people facts, in context if at all possible, is the best course of action.

Jean Kazez said...

MH, Thanks for being so reasonable about that.

I don't think it's dishonest to try to dislodge the divine command theory with those questions--(1) and (2) above. In my view, and the view of most philosophers, the DCT is not correct and those questions help you see that. Yes, there are those who defend the DCT, but I don't (the defenders are in a small minority). In my experience (teaching ethics), asking these questions does get people to question the DCT very quickly. People find them thought-provoking.

When I say that morality is a robust phenomenon without God, I'm saying something I believe 100%. Now, what if I myself believed the error theory? Well, even on that view, morality is a robust phenomenon without God. Error theorists think we should take "dos" and "don't" very seriously. So there's no deception at all here.

Now, I think it's all to the good to follow up by saying the nature of morality is a very difficult question. But you don't have to go on and actually give a positive account of the nature of morality. Really, you just can't in situations where time is limited and the audience has no philosophy background.

So I think it's fine to leave it at that--morality does not depend on God, but it's robust, and it's...well, it's a hard question what it is. Anybody who wants to pursue it is obviously free to do so.