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Useful philosophy

Post #1112 • January 21, 2008, 9:11 AM • 25 Comments

Paul Graham on philosophy:

The field of philosophy is still shaken from the fright Wittgenstein gave it. 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. [Footnote: This is actually from the Ordinatio of Duns Scotus (ca. 1300), with "number" replaced by "gender." Plus ca change.]

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.

He makes an excellent suggestion:

Perhaps we should do what Aristotle meant to do, instead of what he did. The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they're useless, let's try to discover them because they're useful.

I propose we try again, but that we use that heretofore despised criterion, applicability, as a guide to keep us from wondering off into a swamp of abstractions. Instead of trying to answer the question:

What are the most general truths?

let's try to answer the question

Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general?

The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we've written to do anything differently afterward. Knowing we have to give definite (if implicit) advice will keep us from straying beyond the resolution of the words we're using.

This has Apply Me to Art and Art Writing written all over it.



Marc Country

January 21, 2008, 9:32 AM

I was just thinking about wise ol' Mr. Graham the other day. I used to see him linked to on Reddit often, but, it seems Reddit only has room to worship one 'Paul' at a time...

Here's Schopenhauer, on 'general truths':
"... for intellect engaged in art and science, that is to say active for its own sake, there exist only universals, entire kinds, species, classes, ideas of things. Even the sculptor, in depicting the individual, seeks to depict the Idea, the species... That is why the ordinary man has no sense for general truths, and why genius, on the contrary, overlooks and neglects what is individual: to the genius the enforced occupation with the individual as such which constitutes the stuff of practical life is a burdensome drudgery."



January 21, 2008, 9:56 AM

That's easy. The best writing using that "test of utility" would then be something like:

"You are hereby sentenced to spend the rest of your life in jail."



January 21, 2008, 10:20 AM

Another excerpt:

"If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students... 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."

Graham is very cool, no doubt.

The big problem is our insistence on treating words like things. They're not.


Timothy C.

January 21, 2008, 10:49 AM

I recommend Richard Rorty's writings in this regard. In an essay called 'Truth without Correspondence to Reality' in his book 'Philosophy and Social Hope' he wrote:

[p27-28] Pragmatists - both classical and ‘neo’ - do not believe that there is a way things really are. So they want to replace the appearance - reality distinction by that between descriptions of the world and of ourselves which are less useful and those which are more useful. When the question ‘useful for what?’ is pressed, they have nothing to say except ‘ useful to create a better future’. When they are asked, ‘Better by what criterion?’, they have no detailed answer, any more than the first mammals could specify in what respects they were better than the dying dinosaurs. Pragmatists can only say something as vague as: Better in the sense of containing more of what we consider good and less of what we consider bad. When asked, ‘And what exactly do you consider good?’, pragmatists can only say, with Whitman, ‘variety and freedom’, or, with Dewey, ‘growth’. ‘Growth itself,’ Dewey said, ‘is the only moral end’.

They are limited to such fuzzy and unhelpful answers because what they hope is not that the future will conform to a plan, will fulfill an immanent teleology, but rather that the future will astonish and exhilarate. Just as fans of the avant garde go to art galleries wanting to be astonished rather than hoping to have any particular expectation fulfilled, so the finite and anthropomorphic deity celebrated by James, and later by AN Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, hopes to be surprised and delighted by the latest product of evolution, both biological and cultural. Asking for pragmatism’s blueprint of the future is like asking Whitman to sketch what lies at the end of that illimitable democratic vista. The vista, not the endpoint, matters.

Also, after Rorty's death last June, one of the obits (this one by Mark Edmundson on said this about him:

He said that the first generation of pragmatists, James and Dewey, could be seen as taking the utilitarian standard of value—usefulness—and applying it to ideas. He had come along, then, and applied that standard to language. What was a good language to speak? The one that helped you to get what you wanted. (Not the one that you hoped “mirrored” reality; questing for that vocabulary wasn’t a terrible good use of your time. Claiming that you’d found it was likely to be oppressive, both to yourself and to others.) Dick thought of this as a fairly obvious step and sometimes expressed surprise that no one else had thought of it. He always took pains to explain that the phrase linguistic turn was not his coinage.

But bringing pragmatic values to thinking about language is a more consequential matter than Dick generally claimed it was. Among other things, doing so created a middle way between the deconstructionism of Derrida, whom Dick greatly admired, and science-based empiricism, which he didn’t admire much at all. Now there was a way of thinking about belief that was neither reductive, in the empirical mode, nor potentially nihilistic, in Derrida’s. On this matter, the matter of bringing a practical standard to the analysis of words and texts, there’s much more to say—almost all of it complimentary.

But there’s another aspect of Dick’s contribution that’s perhaps even more consequential, and that has to do with style and voice. When Dick’s work began to get discussed in the early 1980s, it was the moment of high theory. Academic writers stood on their toes, or even went on stilts. To use Freud’s language, you could say that they talked from the super-ego, and not from the ego, the self. But then Dick came along, and he not only championed conversation as a goal, but wrote in a graceful conversational style himself. Sometimes he was actually funny. Dick brought intellectual talk a step closer to the marketplace and the everyday push and toss of life. With books like Consequences of Pragmatism and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, he invited people into the discussion who had been sidelined for not knowing all the key terms. He did a tremendous amount to democratize intellectual life. He also established a standard for a whole generation of younger writers that demands that one be clear and available, without losing touch with due complexity.



January 21, 2008, 10:51 AM

I think that the visual experience, like the musical one, is fundamentally non-verbal. Words can be useful, and obviously more idea-based art is more describable with language, but for my part Theory has no place in my studio. It just gets in the way. It's like there's a viscous coupling between my ideas and the images I create; they don't actually touch even tough one effects the other. And I love words, and language(s) in general, but at the end of the day I think that we're very much in a "dancing about architecture" place here.



January 21, 2008, 11:38 AM

opie:"The big problem is our insistence on treating words like things. They're not."

I have a toddler and sometimes we watch a PBS show called "Super-Why" where the cartoon characters go into a storybook and, by changing spellings and context, change the story. So when a "log" blocks the path, they change it to "frog" and step over it.

I know this is to teach the kids how to read and spell, but I can't help seeing it as a "theorists" paradise - the words ARE the things, and can be changed by just rearranging them. Text as universe.



January 21, 2008, 11:41 AM

Pretty much everything, other than words and speech themselves, is "fundamentally nonverbal." Language does no better job describing feelings or attitudes as it does art or music. The problem of finding adequate words is not unique to writing about art, and criticism shouldn't be discounted because of the limits of language it must work within. Art and writing both work with restraints, and are both probably better for it. But on to Graham's closer:

"Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general?
The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we've written to do anything differently afterward. Knowing we have to give definite (if implicit) advice will keep us from straying beyond the resolution of the words we're using."

I think the idea that philosophy should aim to be "useful" is good, but I don't know if it must give "advice" or cause people to do things differently. Certainly this can't be the "test." People may act differently after reading gibberish, and they may resist perfectly lucid direction. Plus "advice" implies that there is a problem to be solved. Is that the case in art? Is art problem solving? Is criticism? Should our criticism be advising artists to, say, paint this way or that to better touch the sublime? The problem is that art itself would fail the test of utility. Why should we expect our writing about it to be so verifiably useful?

Lucidity and clarity in criticism can exist without reducing it to a stimulus-response relationship to readers. On a personal note, I often sit idly and stare off into space after reading great criticism. But maybe that's what the criticism was advising.



January 21, 2008, 1:06 PM

Timothy, Rorty's criticism is a bit silly because he is judging pragmatism unpragmatically. No pragmatist is interested in ultimate good; he is interested in present and immediate effect, effect which can be demonstrated. That this does not approach "ultimate truth" is beside the point.

Furthermore, following "useful for what", from a common sense standpoint, usually leads to some self-evident good, such as 'helps me stay alive" or "makes me feel good", which as as much or more of what a pragmatist wants anyway.

I am no phiilosopher, but as an artist I am naturally sympathetic to this point of view. All I want is what works.

Peter "they don't actually touch even tough one effects the other" is a nice thought if you make it "though" and "affects". I am not trying to be a pedant but I like what you said and it should be clear.

McFawn really good criticism can tie you right into something and open it up for you. Certain passages in Greenberg, about Pollock and Degas & Eakins and others, have a touch of that transformative power, where words are organized in such a way that something about things is almost palpably revealed. But it is very, very rare and very, very hard to do. We seldom are able to do better than to say "this is good. Go see it" and be right.


Chris Rywalt

January 21, 2008, 1:06 PM

I apply the "advice" standard to my art writing. I think of my reviews as suggesting improvements, even if one of those improvements is that a given artist give up art and take up driving a street sweeper.



January 21, 2008, 1:55 PM

Comments close after a week? Re that other thread, how am I to defend my honor on these morals charges? But the boys and their comic books were about to set off the geek alarm, so I suppose it's just as well that we wrap that one up.



January 21, 2008, 2:00 PM

Yeah, I am not a big fan of those comics they all like. Besides, Franklin was uncomfortable with all the infighting.


Chris Rywalt

January 21, 2008, 2:14 PM

At least no one compared anyone else to Hitler.



January 21, 2008, 2:20 PM

Chris, I think the rule is that when you use the word "Nazi"...oops!



January 21, 2008, 3:02 PM

That's OK, Oriane, we can overlook it this time, but do not, under any circumstances, make any allusion to any sort of, well, you know, woman's problem. We just can't handle that.



January 21, 2008, 3:10 PM

Timothy C has linked to a tremendous interview with Rorty on his site - link above.



January 21, 2008, 3:28 PM

Opie, thanks. I was in a hurry.

I'm not such a big comics fan, but George Herriman might be one of the best American draftsmen of the 20th century, and the inexhaustible richness of his riffing on the same gag is astonishing.



January 21, 2008, 4:35 PM

The musical experience, whenever there are lyrics involved, as in most popular music and obviously opera, also has a verbal component. Of course, especially in opera, it can be argued that the sound of the words is as important as what they signify, if not more so (which relates to why opera sung in translation is never the same as in the original language).



January 21, 2008, 5:34 PM

Peter, Herriman was the best. His drawing was wonderful and the color he got out of the limited rotogravure palette was just as wonderful. He was a better Surrealist than any of the "serious" ones. I was a fan practically as a toddler.



January 21, 2008, 5:53 PM

And he also fused image and language/narrative into a seamless whole, much in the way song or Opera does. Which is pretty "useful," as is the philosophy of comic futility.

I think one of the differences with music, though, is that if the music is compelling enough, it can support some pretty banal words/lyrics- and I think that's true throughout the various genres of music. In Herriman's case, the text is often as good as the drawing.



January 21, 2008, 9:22 PM

I really enjoyed this PG essay, though I'm not sure I'll do anything different because of it. I'm just encouraged because I've known for a long time that where I commonly forget bitty details (like dollar figures and art titles, and birthdays) I tend to appreciate and remember general gists.



January 22, 2008, 7:03 AM

Good essay. I just finished it on the crapper at work. Starting out with a clean slate and focusing on practical or utilitarian knowledge is a great idea in the world of philosophy. I remember going to a burger joint near Columbia University years ago in my bachelor days and getting jealous when I overheard philosophy majors duking it out. I would be busy reading art history or a novel or sketching a salt shaker and I was envious of their vocabulary and ability to argue about obtuse subjects. Thanks to my own readings of the pragmatists, Dewey, James, etc., I learned that philosophy was mainly bullshit. I am all for simple and direct language in art criticism. Most of the artists I have spoken with in galleries or studios did not use art speak that often. Usually they spoke simply and directly. When they start to get obscure I sense that they are borrowing from things that writers have written about their own work and that they are simply repeating/rehashing. Unfortunately most 'important' magazines want their writers to use a certain type of vocabulary, including important key words that are floating around the cultural atmosphere at the time (specialized vocabulary=sophisticated thought in the minds of most editors). Artists tend to be more down to earth in live conversations than they are when they put together a press release or artist statement. Most art writers use big words as a form of self defense (“I have no original ideas so let’s spice things up with a big word.”).



January 22, 2008, 10:16 AM

Artspeak is frequently a way to dress up inferior work to make it more presentable or respectable, or a way to avoid simply telling it like it is (which could be costly), or a way to sound more "profound" or sophisticated--especially if the user has no real eye, in which case some sort of compensatory mechanism must be employed (copious name-dropping is another such ploy). It is also a way to impress or persuade the susceptible that the work in question is "important," "relevant," "daring," "innovative" or what have you, particularly with a view towards selling the stuff to those with far more money than taste or discernment. Unfortunately, as with politicians, BS isn't shoveled with abandon for nothing--all too often, the shit works.



January 22, 2008, 10:37 AM

Good. A new slogan.

Instead of the bad old negative fatalistic "shit happens" we should adopt a new positive approach:

"shit works"



January 22, 2008, 12:15 PM

Yes, OP. That's one big reason there's so much of it.


Chris Rywalt

January 22, 2008, 3:21 PM

"I am full of that which aids plant growth."



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