A fragile glass couldn’t help but break

Philosophy Bites interviews philosopher Helen Beebee on The Laws of Nature and Beebee continually revisits the metaphor of a fragile glass throughout the interview as she builds this poetic line of thought:

When you say a glass is fragile, you’re saying something about how it’s going to behave in certain kinds of situations. If I say, “Oh be careful that glass is fragile,” you know that I’m telling you not to drop it on the floor, or to dry it very carefully, or whatever it is, because to be fragile is to be disposed to break in certain kinds of situations.

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On “symbolic creativity”

From the 1990 book Common Culture: Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Cultures of the Young, anthologized in the excellent Everday Life Reader, comes this observation from cultural theorist Paul Willis on his concept of “symbolic creativity”:

[There] is another kind of humanly necessary work — often unrecognized but equally necessary — symbolic work. This is the application of human capacities to and through, on and with symbolic resources and raw materials (collections of signs and symbols — for instance, the language as we inherit it as well as texts, songs, films, images, and artifacts of all kinds) to produce meanings. This is broader than, logically prior to and a condition of material production, but it’s “necessariness” has been forgotten.

Necessary symbolic work is necessary simply because humans are communicating as well as producing beings. Perhaps they are communicative before they are productive. Whilst all may not be productive, all are communicative. All. This is our species distinction. […] This is how we manifest and produce the social and dynamic nature of our humanity.

An advantage and a gift

Stanley Fish plumbs the benefits of pragmatism in a lengthy post for the NYT. Here are his closing thoughts:

But if pragmatism doesn’t have a real world payoff, if it is of no help when the next crisis comes your way, what’s the use of it? Why should anyone be interested in it? Behind these questions is a larger one: why should anyone be interested in philosophy in any of its versions? The usual answer is that philosophy, by identifying first principles, can serve both to guide and justify our actions. When pragmatism tells us that there are no first principles, it not only disqualifies itself as the source of guidance and justification; it disqualifies the whole enterprise, at least in its more ambitious forms. What it leaves are the pleasures of doing philosophy, the pleasures of thinking about thinking freed from the burdensome expectation that we will finally get somewhere. Now there’s an advantage and a gift to boot.

My own thoughts on pragmatism as a useful set of ideas for contemporary design here.

Errors found herein

The Preface Paradox stems from a common enough source — that bit of text found in the prefaces of many academic books along the lines of, “the errors that are found herein are mine alone,” absolving advisors and other editors of any blame.

While this may seem nice enough, with this single bit of text the author has asked us to accept two mutually incompatable beliefs:

  1. Such an author has written a book that contains many assertions, and has factually checked each one carefully, submitted it to reviewers for comment, etc. Thus, he has reason to believe that each assertion he has made is true.

  2. However, he knows, having learned from experience, that, in spite of his best efforts, there are very likely undetected errors in his book. So he also has good reason to believe that there is at least one assertion in his book is not true.

Somehow, despite these paradoxical facts, we know to trust the author, and trust that his or her mistakes, if any, will be few and far between, a wayward needle or two in the haystack of facts. The paradox is an epistemic one, related to how we know what we know, and, because of its relationship between what’s likely (the facts are correct) and what’s not (the facts are errors), classed with another paradox involving the lottery.

Collective vs. corporate justice

During a recent episode of Philosophy Bites on Genocide, philosopher Chandran Kukathas began his dissection of exactly where the crime of genocide resides by presenting two alternate perspectives on the structure of groups. In a collective, each individual member of the group benefits the whole, and the whole benefits each of the individual members. They are inextricable. In a corporation, the group and its members are separate things with occasionally distinct motivations and objectives. The type of structure you assign to an ethnic group, a religious group, or a national population affects how you frame, legislate, and ultimately prosecute the crime of genocide.

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Philosophy Bites has a wonderful episode with Derek Matravers on the definition of art (iTunes). Metravers argues that it’s just as dangerous to have “an arbitrary collection of objects” as it is to have “a collection of objects for arbitrary reasons,” so while the definition of art is a bit of a moving target—like the definition of marriage—it is nonetheless the result of a process whose reasons are important. He argues, “I think philosophers should get in there and dispute some of the reasons currently operative in th art world. The art world gets away with not defending those reasons.” He also makes the argument that as we get older and our leisure time is scarcer, the reasons for why something is art by definition must become increasingly material to us.

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From a short story by Robert Lewis Stevenson written in 1891, we get the "bottle imp paradox," a paradox that shares some qualities with both the Sorites paradox and the unexpected hanging paradox. As the story goes, the protagonist is offered the opportunity to buy, for whatever price he wishes, a bottle containing a genie who will fulfill his every desire. The only catch is that the bottle must thereafter be resold for a price smaller than what he paid for it, or he will be condemned to live out the rest of his days in excruciating torment. Obviously, no one would buy the bottle for 1¢ since he would have to give the bottle away, but no one would accept the bottle knowing he would be unable to get rid of it. Similarly, no one would buy it for 2¢, and so on. However, for some reasonably large amount, it will always be possible to find a next buyer, so the bottle will be bought. But where’s the limit? Makes me wish I could take Prof. Laurence Goldstein’s PHIL 2511 course on “Paradoxes.” Fascinating.

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"My view is, roughly speaking, that the Free Rider problem is, simply, the Sorites Paradox applied to human action or human decision-making." Richard Tuck discusses the concept of Free Riding on Philosophy Bites. More on the Sorites Paradox here. More on Free Riders here.

The paradox of the heap

A Sorites paradox is a key issue in the philosophy of language, with the word “Sorites” translating in Greek to “heap.” The paradox can be stated in two premises, 1) A heap of sand is comprised of a large collection of grains, and 2) A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. The problem is that if you continue executing premise 2, you’ll soon have neither heap nor even one sand grain left. The many possible resolutions to this problem suggest a cache of ways philosophers try to deal with problems of vagueness. Some resolutions trivialize the problem, casting “heap” as a basically meaningless term. Others try to set limits, either fixed by number (although what’s the difference between 9,999 grains and 10,001?) or positional (a heap has sand grains supporting other sand grains off the ground, multiple heaps cannot also belong to a single heap, etc.). So-called "fuzzy" logic allows not just for on and off positions (“heap” and “not-heap”) but also a third position, “unsure,” which may be subdivided into “mostly-heap,” “partly-heap,” etc. Other solutions may be as simple as group consensus (the majority of people would call it a “heap”) or as complex as hysteresis, which suggests certain systems make it impossible to predict an output from a given input and instead it must be taken into account whether the heap in question started out as a heap, a desert, or a single grain of sand. More on the wonderful podcast Philosophy Bites.

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At the suggestion of my friend Luke Bulman, the distinction between hedgehogs and foxes. The distinction is first found in the writings of the Greek poet Archilochus, who said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” See also "T-shaped people."