Monday 5 November 2018

Distilling Philosophy’s Essence (2018)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVI No. 2 Autumn 2018

 Distilling Philosophy’s Essence in a Quest for Clarity

By Keith Tidman

‘What is the meaning of these words:
“The first cause does not necessarily inflow anything into the second, by force of the essential subordination of the second causes, by which it may help it to work?” When men write whole volumes of such stuff, are they not mad, or intend to make others so?’
That’s Thomas Hobbes, quoting and chiding the Scholastics of the Middle Ages. His challenge steers me back to an old term in computing called ‘lossless’. It refers to reducing digital file size by dropping some detail for ease of handling, but with no loss of quality. The process is analogous to what Martin Cohen and Robert Arp have done in philosophy with their recent book Philosophy Hacks — that is, to ‘distill the essence’ of one hundred of the big ideas they selected from thousands of years of philosophy — but, importantly, to do so without compromising the quality of the original theories. To this point, might Hobbes have been spared the hazard of going ‘mad’ if the words of the Scholastics had been parsed, reduced, and clarified in the process of similar distillation?

So, what is the path the authors take to arrive at philosophy’s ‘nuggets of insights’? The idea of a ‘lossless’ approach to compressing philosophy’s archetypal theories down to what Cohen and Arp refer to as ‘their barest of bare essentials’ is itself worth exploring. Since philosophy entails contemplating foundational ideas about life and our world writ large — a way of reflecting on, testing, framing, and sharing a wide expanse of issues — the argument in favour of distilling philosophy has merit. First, distillation translates to a wider audience by breaking down barriers; second, the situations in life in which the ‘big ideas’ (original iconic thoughts) might apply are more evident; and third, the ideas’ place, relevance, application, and vividness in contemporary thought (informed by snapshots of historical context) are brought to life.

And their approach seems to work. But so that I don’t inadvertently compromise quality by compressing their clever three-part method, let me quote the authors: ‘Helicopter view: This offers an overview of the philosophical idea, and usually its creator too, as well as a brief sketch of the context within which the insight was created’. ‘Shortcut: This strips the idea down in order to expose and explain the core elements of the theory’. ‘Hacks: Short and to the point, this part offers a shortcut to making sense of the idea — and, crucially, remembering it’. Yet, nothing was shortchanged: the book’s scope is ambitious, starting with the Ancients (Eastern and Western), proceeding to Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, then early and late modern philosophy, and finally twentieth-century philosophy.

As philosophy has historically explored the fundamental nature of the world, of knowledge, of human conduct, of reasoning, of reality, of existence, of cognition, of values, of proof, and of truth, there has, perhaps too often, been a tendency by some of the great thinkers to default to opaque abstraction that shrouds meaning. This tendency has mattered even as philosophers have talked to philosophers, leading to interminable debates about what was meant. Interpretations abound. More to the point, dense abstraction has proved off-putting to a larger audience, disinviting many otherwise intelligent people from the philosophical table. Yet, the fog of abstraction is not always necessary — and has handicapped the democratising of philosophy by rendering it inaccessible. That’s where Philosophy Hacks, Cohen and Arp’s book, self-described as a ‘word map with 100 firmly located landmarks (iconic ideas)’, comes upon the scene.

As an example of unfortunate obfuscation, I would point to this passage — section 5.3 of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Truly, the heavily clouded passage might excusably discourage some readers who would like to learn from history’s otherwise deepest thinkers:
‘All propositions are results of truth-operations on elementary propositions. A truth-operation is the way in which a truth-function is produced out of elementary propositions. It is of the essence of truth-operations that, just as elementary propositions yield a truth-function of themselves, so too in the same way truth-functions yield a further truth-function. When a truth-operation is applied to truth-functions of elementary propositions, it always generates another truth-function of elementary propositions, another proposition. When a truth-operation is applied to the results of truth-functions on elementary propositions, there is always a single operation on elementary propositions that has the same result. Every proposition is the result of truth-operations on elementary propositions’.
To cut otherwise complex philosophical ideas to the core and, in doing so, making sense of them implies favoring simplicity of expression — all the while still attempting to organise the rich dimensions of human experience and thought, and to penetrate often-elusive reality. However, making ideas simpler — to engage in philosophy’s equivalent of ‘lossless’ file management — should not be equated to reducing the ideas to pointlessness or meaninglessness. Indeed, very much the opposite. The process of simplification in philosophy is to deconstruct deep theories, temporarily set aside what’s nonessential or merely misdirecting, and then faithfully reconstruct the kernel of the ideas’ meaning — at the crux, what matters about the theory for those edifyingly shiny eureka insights.

Besides, there’s a natural appeal of theories with fewer moving parts whose relationships and contributions to the so-called ‘helicopter view’ of a big philosophical idea are unpretentious, transparent, and obvious. Larding a theory with myriad assumptions, parameters, postulates, and what-ifs branching in head-spinning fashion in all directions risks consigning otherwise noble ideas to dusty shelves. Immanuel Kant (for example, The Critique of Pure Reason), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (for example, Phenomenology of Spirit), Martin Heidegger (for example, Being and Time), and the writings of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are just a few among the many whose philosophy has been criticised, fairly or otherwise, for sometimes being obscure and even bordering on impermeability. Let me offer an excerpt gleaned from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra to further illustrate the point here:
‘But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?’
In fact, I’ve never heard a specialist, in any field, beg colleagues for more convolution and abstraction and incoherence. Indeed, this is the very antithesis of Cohen and Arp’s book, which holds the excusable, if mildly radical, notion that philosophy’s big ideas should not only be crystal clear but also be alive, sharable, digestible, and actionable. Ready, possibly, to be set against competitive theories.

This discussion is as much about communication as it is about philosophy. Even the most competently distilled essence of philosophy’s big ideas needs to be comfortably couched in concise, clear language. Some specialists, from the humanities to the sciences, are more instinctively concerned with and skilled at that than are others. Meanwhile, what others regard as the ‘imperfections’ of the world’s thousands of natural languages — like their imprecision and uniquely different vocabularies and syntax — add to the challenge of clear communication. Clumsy language, language that is intensely abstract, incoherent, and indecipherable, can fundamentally undo the good accomplished by even the artful distillation of big ideas. So, ‘messaging’ matters, something the most effective specialists — philosophers or others — are eminently aware of as they reach out to express their ideas plainly. And, as many observers have said, clear, critical thinking and clear, lucid writing often go hand-in-hand. Since, however, some (perhaps too many) philosophers lost sight of this simple axiom of communication, there’s all the more need for books like Philosophy Hacks — to unravel philosophy’s mysteries and shed light on them through the trifecta of a ‘helicopter view’, a ‘shortcut’, and that ‘hack’.

Unfortunately, for many (including well-educated) readers, too often ‘philosophy’s mysteries’ have doggedly stayed mysteries. Not because of their presenting recondite ideas, which might be excused, but for the ideas’ laboured presentation. A.J. Ayer, in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), includes another example of a passage that risks unnecessarily marginalising prospective readers, its calling out for some kind of clarifying shortcut:
‘For, roughly speaking, all that we are saying when we say that the mental state of a person A at a time t is a state of awareness of a material thing X, is that the sense-experience which is the element of A occurring at a time t contains a sense-content which is an element of X, and also certain images which define A’s expectation of the occurrence in suitable circumstances of certain further elements of X, and that this expectation is correct: and what we are saying when we assert that a mental object M and a physical object X are causally connected is that, in certain conditions, the occurrence of a certain sort of sense-content, which is an element of M, is a reliable sign of the occurrence of a certain sort of sense-content, which is an element of X, or vice versa, and the question whether any propositions of these kinds are true or not is clearly an empirical question’.
At the same time, it is worth remembering that philosophy has broad shoulders. By that I mean that, following thousands of years, and despite necessarily increasing specialisation, philosophy still manages to crisscross with issues of sociology, psychology, politics, literature, theology, history, anthropology, physics, cosmology, biology, mathematics, artificial intelligence, and technology, among other fields of study. The passage of time and the evolution of human thought may have prompted change in some philosophical theorising, but much other theory has endured largely intact — continuing to underlie humankind’s exhilarating forward leaps in intellectual endeavour. Philosophy Hacks reflects that observation, when and where the intersections across fields are important in order to clarify and advance the story about philosophy’s touchstone ideas.

One confounding factor in this discussion is that the available methods and metrics for determining comprehensibility in philosophy are not neatly and uniformly laid out along different dimensions, handy for anyone to pick up and wield according to a formal set of rules and criteria. Conclusions are usually not consecrated by fine-tuned granularity in comprehensibility or by reassuring consensuses. Clear-cut definitions in this process of evaluation are few. Besides, conclusions regarding comprehensibility may be hampered by subjectivity and consequential vagueness. This is the case whether we are evaluating a single philosopher or contrasting styles across multiple philosophers — philosophers being heavily influenced by immersion in different periods in history, by the natural and irresistible evolution of language usage itself, and by their own individual approach to articulating profound theories. Indeed, one might be forgiven for concluding, based on ample instances, that the bias has been toward complexity of expression, even at the discouraging expense of shackling comprehensibility of otherwise laudably big ideas.

All this said, throughout history there have been plenty of philosophers who have been able to sum up their ideas presentably, without gumming up basic concepts with lots of extraneously branching thoughts and without elaboration that requires meandering clauses piled upon meandering clauses. Here are three Ancients who have done such a nice job: Confucius’s description of the Golden Rule is an example of clarity and brevity: ‘Perfect is the virtue which is according to the Mean’. Indeed, in his Analytics, Confucius goes on to say, ‘Never impose on others what you would not impose on yourself’. And Lao Tzu, the sage credited with the original concept of yin and yang, the two elements both simultaneously opposite and yet the same, saw the virtue of simplicity, with aphorisms or axioms such as:
‘Human beings are born soft and flexible; yet when they die are stiff and hard ... thus the hard and stiff are disciples of death, the soft and flexible are disciples of life.’ 
And Thales of Miletus, often attributed with having kick-started Western philosophy and science, who explained that the single material substance underlying everything was water. Their meritorious styles are pithy, visual, clear, evocative, accessible and to the point.

In going from thousands of pages of the original classic works of the philosophers to an approachable, accessible — and ‘lossless’ — distillation of some of the more iconic ideas, multiple potential audiences are served: there are those who may be satisfied in treating the curated shortcuts as endpoints, the latter offering enough philosophical grist to ponder further. And there are those who may be inspired by the shortcuts to venture deeper into the waters by either picking up more expansive descriptions of select topics or, even, seeking out some of the original, sometimes-rarefied works to laudably tackle head-on. Either way, I think that books like these serve a worthwhile purpose on philosophy’s behalf, parsing, illuminating, and bringing concreteness and contemporaneousness to some of history’s memorable, hallmark ideas about life and the world.

*Philosophy Hacks: Shortcuts to 100 ideas
By Robert Arp and Martin Cohen
(Cassell 2018)

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