Creative Energy III: Becoming Adjective, Research Time, 08/12/2017

When a thinker develops a concept comprehensive enough to think through as a framework for understanding the world, his activity changes from just regular old writing about philosophy. What I’m doing right now, obviously, isn’t writing at the intensity and density that actually creates new concepts.

Neither is writing a philosophical lecture. Neither is writing most articles for peer review in journals of philosophy. Creating new concepts is a weird enough process that it can only be snuck past peer review processes.

Imagine if you could achieve immortality. Ask what the
biggest jerk of a genie would do with that wish.
It creates by implication, always present in the text, but it only comes to a reader when she thinks for a second about what she’s read. The true weirdness of creative philosophical writing appears in disguise as something more ordinary.

Example. The key paper by Edmund Gettier is the best example I can think of. Looks like an absolutely mundane little thought experiment, built around some pretty clear symbolic logic. Read it. It looks utterly ordinary.

Think about it. A clear, easy-to-understand demonstration that you can have a justified true belief that isn’t actual knowledge of the situation. It’s a transformative moment.

You realize what he’s done in those three pages, and you understand what it means to break an entire discourse. The philosophy of pure knowledge would never be the same again.

Gettier had an immensely destructive effect. I’m not sure that pure epistemology can find a way out. Thinkers in that discipline frequently return to the problem of justified true belief, but are never able to develop a standard for what knowledge can be so apparently unassailable as the old one.

I don’t know that they ever will. My old friend Walther is a pure epistemologist. I’ll ask him what he thinks.

It’s a cheeky way to think about it, but it makes a good label. Gettier turned himself into a noun – the Gettier Case. Becoming a noun is a very dangerous thing for a person to do – imagine freezing thought in carbonite like Han Solo. That’s what Gettier did with himself.

Good way to secure tenure, but it’s sad that our era considers academic tenure so precious and rare that stasis is a fair trade-off. It’s a joke, but it’s true. There are already plenty of Gettier Cases. But there’s never going to be a Gettian.

Not everyone who looks like a marxist is one. Not necessarily,
There are plenty of Kantians – some willing, some unwilling, and some coincidental. A few Cartesians, some Platonists, plenty of Marxists but not nearly as many as most people think, Habermasians, Foucauldians. Some annoying Spinozists and some precious fun Spinozists. I have a friend who’s a Rawlsian, though I’ve never been able to understand why.

Whole traditions have become Aristotelians for centuries. There are all kinds of Platonists, a couple of deranged Heracliteans, plenty of Thomists, not enough Ockhamists, There might be one lonely Scotist left in the wild.

There are a few dull Quineans, intensely argumentative Wittgensteinians. Davidsonians who can never agree on what it means to be Davidsonian. The Arendtians are vibrant, but feel so sad. Countless Hayekians who won’t shut up even when they should.

When you pump out primary material – when you create concepts – you create texts that people can get lost in. There are countless nooks and crannies to explore in thinking about those concepts. You re-read a book, and it expands fractally for you, as different details emerge in the return.

That’s a philosophical concept – a framework for understanding the world should have the same infinite possibility to surprise as real life does. When people encounter this concept, they’re able to pick it up and use it to understand their lives, the cosmos, and the philosophical or theoretical problems they write about.

They may never be able to create a concept themselves – to become an adjective* – but they can become experts in carrying it forward, applying it, advancing it.

* Or at least having the potential to become an adjective. It helps to have a good publisher, or at least get into the right people’s hands.

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