An Entire Philosophy that Just Revolves Around Examining What Words Mean, Composing, 05/08/2013

I did some work on my ecophilosophy project today, specifically my edits on the introduction. Because I plan to pitch the book as generally accessible to an educated public as well as for professional environmental and ecological theorists, I rewrote some passages in a more casual tone, removed some passages that just weren’t working (nothing is ever as perfect as we want it to be), and added some passages that better situate my work in modern environmentalist conflicts. 

One part of my introduction that I didn’t change was the most boring part, though I did put a disclaimer on it. Those were my definitions. Two pages discussing seven words that are tremendously important for the entire project, and which I didn’t want misinterpreted. Anytime someone tries to give a reading of my work that misinterprets a key concept, I can just refer them back to the definitions section. 

Philosophy today has a weird history with definitions. For a long time in the twentieth century, there was a significant trend to focus philosophy on definitions. This was so significant that many history of philosophy textbooks define all of analytic philosophy as a movement to make the discipline focus solely on identifying the proper definitions of words. More poppycock, but far too easily picked up by students when teachers believe that they can’t handle the genuine nuance of philosophical concepts, or that students don’t have the intelligence to read primary material in full. Basically, this is another reason, in addition to the similar distortions they have in communicating the nature of science, why you should distrust everything you read in a textbook.

Austin was one more who we
lost too soon to the pipe. The
tobacco pipe, and its attendant
lung cancer, that is.
Still, it’s equally foolish to deny the real effect of ordinary language philosophy, and the best title any work of philosophy had in the twentieth century, How to Do Things With Words by J. L. Austin. This movement got philosophy focussed for a few key years on understanding colloquial definitions, philosophical inquiries quite literally taking their lead from everyday language. This is tremendously advantageous insofar as philosophy gets democratic: the knowledge of common people are taken seriously, which isn’t always the case in advanced sciences. Sometimes it isn’t appropriate for many inquiries, but we can still learn a lot. And the influence from ordinary language philosophy was felt in analytic thought for years afterward.

Yet it also causes problems. A little over a month ago, I came across a humiliatingly hilarious argument Mary Midgley once made about Richard Dawkins.* This was a while ago, when Dawkins was a legitimate philosopher of biology and not a shrill man who shouts at churches and immigrants for a living. The Selfish Gene dropped, and Midgley had what she thought was a devastating critique: the word ‘selfish’ was inappropriately applied to genes because the common sense definition meant that it only applied to people.

* As cited in Nicholas Agar's Life's Intrinsic Value.

This was thirty years ago, and I still feel humiliated as a philosopher just knowing this exists in journal archives to be read. It’s ordinary language philosophy and appeal to common usage gone to hell. Dawkins created the concept of selfish gene to describe an activity that best illustrated his theory of how evolution worked. Midgley was correcting a technical philosophical term with a reference to a common use of the same word in a different context. It’s as philosophically enlightening as someone refusing to keep their money in a bank that isn’t at the side of a river. Ordinary language thinking gone too far can make philosophers look like pedantic cartoons. Austin’s work taught a lot in the context of its time, and the discipline of philosophy needed the kick that Austin gave it to get it thinking democratically again. But it just isn’t a sustainable way to philosophize in the long run, because it just becomes conservatism of common sense for its own sake.

My seven words are “constitute,” “articulate,” “ethics,” “morality,” “ontology,” “epistemology,” and “metaphysics.” The assembly of bodies and relations into other bodies and relations; the movements and expressions of bodies according to their nature; philosophical consideration of the self and identity; the science of social rules, cultural norms, politics, and laws of transgression and crime; the study of what is, what can be, and the nature of existence; problems of how we come to know; and philosophical project legitimately bringing the previous four philosophical domains together. The first two are specific to my ecophilosophy project, describing the central ontological concepts the project uses to build its case. The latter five are a framework I use to approach philosophy more generally, setting out what I like to call the four domains of philosophy. Most philosophical inquiries work within a single domain, although the nature of the concepts we deal with sometimes expose connections and influences across domains. I’m still on the verge of working out that piece of metaphilosophy in detail.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Had to delete my last response due to a distressing number of typos.

    Anyway, here are my thoughts, for what it's worth.

    I for one was taught to write philosophy essays by starting with a general sort of overview, then moving through definitions, and then getting around to stating your argument. I had thought that was an idiosyncrasy of the teacher so it is interesting to see his idea put into context here.

    One point I think is worth mentioning is that the scholarly strategy of defining words is largely about gaining the high ground in the debate. That's a strong position, but it can also an indicator of deeper insecurities and hesitancy to engage on unfavorable terrain. That in turn seems much more a problem among German and French thinkers (oh, and Slovakian too of course) than English-speaking ones. But then again this unfolds into the older debate between Kantian precision, which requires high levels of mental activity on the part of the reader but seems to promise low levels of variance in interpretation versus pragmatist clarity, which is readily understandable but in every which way.

    I think it worth noting that so much of what you've written here, or at least what I've picked up on over the past few weeks, concerns the nature of the audience, of getting an audience you want, which is partly what defining things is about. When you define a word in your own terms, you are teaching the reader how to read you. On this topic, you've outlined various factors that create obstacles to getting readers that you would want, e.g. 1) professionalization processes creating bad readers (Anoraks); 2) problems with genre, e.g. unacceptable habits in writing (basing claims on intuition-- which pushes you outside the genre); 3) lack of institutional position/ relative deprivation of status (which I suppose is felt at all levels anyway, but certainly has more real consequences the further away one is from the sacred center). Less is mentioned on the other side of the ledger, although recently you paid a high compliment to your friends in noting that they have been a good audience. Just thought I'd point out that theme in case it wasn't entirely intentional. Certainly a natural aspect of being a young writer in any medium and one I feel as well -- and certainly one of the great benefits of being a grad student is making the sorts of friends who can become your readers.

    The sociological significance of this anxiety of readership is of course a conservative one for most people, since this is encouragement to adhere to genre conventions/ disciplinary norms. I guess the other side is the opportunities created for outsiders to make waves (preferably not of the Slovakian variety though).

    Anyway, just more grist for the mill is all.

    1. Please note that I disparage the people of Slovakia throughout this comment where I really meant to disparage the people of Slovenia.