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June 21, 2009

The Consolations of Philosophy...and Detection

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I’ve written before about the role light entertainment plays as a stimulus in my mental economy. Given that I’m naturally something of a depressive, I use regular doses of light entertainment to keep me at an even keel.

Over the years, this has often translated into a taste for detective fiction. Perhaps surprisingly, in the past six months or so, this has translated into a taste for reading philosophy.

And perhaps more surprisingly, I find that I get very much the same sort of pleasure out of philosophy that I did out of detective stories.

The pleasure I’m talking about does not lie in proving that I’m smarter than the authors of detective stories, at least if that implies attempting to figure out the guilty party before the book’s denouement. On the few occasions I’ve been tempted to do this, I’ve learned two things: (1) few authors are so dense as to fail to scatter three or four red-herrings about their plot and (2) few authors actually provide enough clues to logically (or in philosophical language, necessarily) eliminate all but one of the potential suspects. Hence, the actual solution often ends up striking me as arbitrary, being at the whim of the author.

Occasionally, when dealing with authors who are fairly relaxed about their standards of plotting, I strongly suspect that the decision as to whether this suspect or that suspect is the guilty party wasn’t made by the author until the final chapter of the book was being written. Under these circumstances, my native laziness (or perhaps a spirit of methodological economy) bids me to abstain from such pointless problem solving, and to wait patiently for the solution to be revealed while sipping a glass of red wine. After all, I’m paying the price of the book for the fictional detective to do the work, not me!

No, the pleasure I get from detective stories usually boils down to appreciating the interaction of the characters, often with some witty dialogue tossed in, as they attempt to solve a problem. When I decide to buy additional books by the same author, I inevitably ask myself if I care to spend more time in the company of the characters of the last book.

Now, the situation in philosophy strikes me, being a seasoned consumer of light entertainment, as closely parallel. I’ve read enough philosophy books and encyclopedia-of-philosophy articles at this point to notice that the same basic problems keep coming up over and over again. Even when one philosopher explicitly argues against the views of another, they often share more ground than they fight over.

Just today I spent a leisurely morning examining a case of this occluded commonality when I read that Kant, in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, trash talks his Scots contemporary, Thomas Reid, for failing to “probe more deeply into the nature of reason,” and for "putting on a bold face without any proper insight into the question, by appealing to the common sense of mankind." Apparently Kant somehow neglected to note that Reid, like himself, (1) wrote to refute to Hume’s skepticism while appreciating it profoundly, and (2) asserted that because the very structure of the human mind dictates the metaphysical assumptions that will be used to interpret our sensory data and our view of the world around us, further metaphysical speculation is likely to prove pointless or even harmful. I dunno, maybe Kant was jealous of the fact that Reid could get to the more-or-less same conclusion as the author of Critique of Pure Reason with a much less elaborate philosophical apparatus and was suffering methodological economy envy.

In any event, because various philosophers keep hashing out the same problems and coming to different conclusions, we have a situation which seems to me quite analogous to the lack of a necessary villain in most detective story plots. The philosopher walks you up to a mystery, analyzes it (hopefully without too much technical language and with a little wit) and then proposes an ingenious but essentially arbitrary solution.

So why do I read philosophy, if it’s not for the, ahem, insights? Because I’ve found a few philosophers who I am happy to spend time with. Chief among these is Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), progenitor of Pragmatism, father of semiotics, and all-round logical whiz (who understood that electrical circuits could model logical operations 50 years before that insight started the development of the modern computer). Many consider him the most significant American philosopher. But of course, that’s not the real reason I read Peirce -- heck, I read him for his prose:

Do you think, reader, that it is a positive fact that

Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;

Or do you think that this, being poetry, is only a pretty fiction? Do you think that, notwithstanding the horrible wickedness of every mortal wight, the idea of right and wrong is nevertheless the greatest power on this earth, to which every knee must sooner or later bow or be broken down; or do you think that this is another notion at which common sense should smile?

Who could not want to spend time with a guy who could write like that, and could crack some pretty funny jokes on philosophical topics as well (not to mention one who was ingenious enough to use probability theory to attack Kant’s doctrine of synthetic a priori judgments)?

And the best part is, I’ve got over two thousand years of this stuff to read in a hot bath or in the middle of the night. Not much chance of running out.



posted by Friedrich at June 21, 2009


Great blog post.

hmmmm, Peirce.

I've never thought about reading him (instead, i've read some James and Dewey...I'm sure it would drive Peirce crazy that so many skip his work to those that copied him).

Friedrich, do you have a recommendations of which work of his to read?

Posted by: thehova on June 21, 2009 10:18 PM

If you like philosophy written in beautiful prose, I can think of one author that fits the bill: John Henry Newman.

I've read his "Idea of a University" and was stunned by the prose. Although I disagree with his philosophy (Roman Catholicism), I will always fondly remember his writing. A true pleasure to read.

Posted by: B on June 22, 2009 12:55 AM

In any event, because various philosophers keep hashing out the same problems and coming to different conclusions, we have a situation which seems to me quite analogous to the lack of a necessary villain in most detective story plots

That's because in these philosophical mysteries, the villain is the the detective.

Posted by: slumlord on June 22, 2009 1:06 AM

Refreshing to read someone else can appreciate philosophy as more than just a power-lifting sport. There's good jokes, jarring personalities, a bestiary of creatures from which philosophers craft hypothetical and yes mystery and detectives. Once I batted around a theory that philosophy department's role was to be the academic internal affairs department, but they were ill functioning because who watches them?
A favorite college professor, said with really good philosophers it becomes very hard to tell the straight-lines from the jokes. Is the entire Republic meant ironically, the prince meant as satire, wittgenstein said that there "are no surprises in logic" but I'm really just quoting because I wanted to quote wittgenstein.
Micheal's post got me thinking about how we tell something is parodic. In fact Frederic, I'll confess (gasp), to reading a bit of lightness into this very posting to which I'm replying, neigh the comment as well.
For its substance, the same favored professor admitted in his office (with the door closed) that he thought philosophy had a fugue quality to it (each note playing into multiple arguments, ideas, themes and coming to some conclusion). Maybe fun to trace through the workings of a piece, maybe better just to listen and appreciate.
Philosophy as arbitrary and sudden as a mediocre detective novel, eh? Result unimportant to appreciation, no?

My God, I detest being a new york lawyer. BB buzzing got to go.

Posted by: PhilosopherzAreBallerz on June 22, 2009 2:45 AM

Great point about philosophers:

The philosopher walks you up to a mystery, analyzes it (hopefully without too much technical language and with a little wit) and then proposes an ingenious but essentially arbitrary solution.

My current favourite philosopher, Colin McGinn, does all of the above, except the bit about the arbitrary solution. He argues, with wit and style, that the core philosophical problems that have vexed us for centuries--mind/body, self, freedom, the a priori, and others--do so, not because they do not have a solution, but because the solution is opaque to our minds. Philosophical problems are the signposts of our conceptual closures, our intellectual ineptitudes.

Two examples of his style:

on the "hard problem" of consciousness:

...[consciousness] is a puzzlement easier to experience than to formulate, since it is exceedingly difficult to say precisely what it is about consciousness that makes it so uncongenial to physical explanation. Our intuitions outrun our diagnostic powers. Something is wrong somewhere, deeply so, but even putting one’s finger on it can prove testing.

on philosophical perplexity:

We do not have to revise any of our ordinary beliefs about the kinds of thing the world contains: we are not required to reject what we cannot explain. We have the freedom to accept what is terminally baffling.


And second with much enthusiasm your love of C.S. Pierce, far and away the greatest American philosopher, and the one philosopher I can think of whose work offers the possibility of a bridge between continental and Anglo-American analytic philosophy.

the hova: Chance Love and Logic is often recommended as an intro to Pierce. It's been years since I read it, but it was great! However, despite FvB's accurate mention of Pierce's admirable style, some of his stuff can be very heavy sledding indeed, esp. in philosophy of science and logic. He gets into Godel/Tarski territory in some of that writing.

But great, great, great. IMO, one of the top five philosophers ever. He's that good.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 22, 2009 9:34 AM

Lest we forget.

Posted by: dearieme on June 22, 2009 2:43 PM

See Maugham's "Summing Up", his autobiography. He devotes many chapters of his book to an exploration of philosophy and the great philosophers, including ones you mentioned. I would consider this book to be "light" entertainment. You would enjoy reading Maugham as he explains how he explored the world of the mind.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 23, 2009 11:11 AM

Reid was perhaps the most influential philosopher in American colleges for most of the 19th Century, but then was largely discarded from the canon.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 23, 2009 7:59 PM

"And as for me, all that I think about in this plodding sad pilgrimage, this pathetic drift between the eternities, is to look out and humbly live a pure and high and blameless life, and save that one microscopic atom in me that is truly ME; the rest may land in Sheol and welcome for all I care."

For the best philospher, Americans need only look in their own backyard, no need for fancy intellectuals and highbrow pondering - Mark Twain's The Man when it comes to philosophy -IMHO.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on June 28, 2009 1:31 AM

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