Paul Dundon’s Weblog


A little cheese and a little whine

Someone is Wrong on the Internet

(Credit is due to the excellent XKCD comic)

Many years ago I read an article in Philosophy Now (I think) which compared the activity of philosophy to that of a detective: gathering clues which pointed to the truth, seeking out mysteries, identifying the things that didn’t add up. While I liked the metaphor (I like to boast that I have three things in common with Wittgenstein; unfortunately these are a liking for detective novels, pork pies and men) it didn’t seem entirely satisfactory. Neither did that presented in the article’s predecessor, that of the surgeon: the philosopher as one who makes incisions, cuts to the heart and cures the disease.

Some years later I read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. Here the philosopher is characterised as one who is constantly surprised by life, who sees a puzzle in that which to everyone else is commonplace. When the Doctor asks “how do you know it’s a duck pond if there aren’t any ducks?” he’s thinking in this sort of way, seeing a problem where to most there is none. I like this conception rather more – it fits with the sort of delight my philosopher friends find in making things difficult. Not in an obstructionist way, but rather, in a way that takes a certain joy in finding a tension or a contradiction or a puzzle in something which seems at first glance to be perfectly straightforward.

None of these ideas struck me as so insightful, though, as something I heard in an interview with Paul Churchland. One of his students had asked, “Should I become a philosopher?” and Churchland had replied, “Do you have a choice?” For Churchland, being a philosopher was not simply a matter of a point of view, but a certain kind of drive; not just seeing problems, but being determined to find them.

This attitude is reminiscent of a passage in Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music, where he describes the composer as “…a human being who is sensitive to nature’s many voices, of course, but who in addition feels the need of putting them in order and who is gifted for that task with a very special aptitude.”

For the musician, this desire for order can become very pressing. There is a story that Rubenstein’s wife would wake him in the morning by playing a dissonant chord on the piano; he would have to jump out of bed to play the chord’s resolution; and in that moment she would steal the blankets from the bed to prevent him going back to sleep.

Perhaps this story isn’t true, but it will strike a chord, so to speak, with most musicians; and I think in its outline, with many philosophers, too. To parallel Stravinsky’s position, the philosopher is one who is appreciative of ideas and arguments, but who, in addition, feels the need to put them in order. Sloppy thinking, muddled reasoning and inadequate evidence grate like an augmented fourth, not just attracting one’s attention but demanding change, re-ordering and resolution. Sometimes, as when one listens to a beginner on the violin, the problem is obvious; sometimes, as when one violin in the orchestra is a little sharp, we only have an inkling, to begin with, that anything is wrong at all. But that inkling is enough to make us want to listen again, to probe, to unravel,  to find the source of the dissonance and correct it. The philosopher cannot hear an ambiguity without wanting to point it out; cannot let a non-sequitur pass even if it’s inconsequential. Error is not just apparent but uncomfortable, painful; philosophers seek to order thought as composers seek to order sound and painters light.

The internet, from this point of view, is a curious place. Social networking and blogging mean have created an unprecedented outpouring of opinion, while the demand for immediacy and responsiveness means that those opinions are less considered than ever before. Of course, no-one does real philosophy in this way, but that isn’t the point; people express muddle-headed opinions, commit the most egregious errors of reasoning and cite as evidence complete and blatant untruths. It is, philosophically, a place of chaos, and the temptation to constantly tidy is enormous, especially since the possibility of doing so is so immediately present. A click on “comment” and a few keystrokes is all it takes to set things to rights.

Does it do any good? Here, Gentle Reader, I defer to you. Do you think there’s a value in pointing out where people’s opinions are ill-considered, or founded on falsehood? Or should we go placidly, as it were, amongst the discord, and leave people to say what they will?

UPDATE: For another view on the nature of philosophy, see Simon Critchley’s recent article


Filed under: Philosophy

3 Responses

  1. MDR says:

    We should correct every smallest thing. Even when it’s not a philosophical error. I think there’s a typo in this phrase: “Social networking and blogging mean have created an unprecedented outpouring of opinion […]”.

    Unless ‘blogging mean’ is just the way that most people go about their blogging.

    Also, ‘opinion’ changes from a mass to a count noun in that sentence, which monkeys with the anaphoric target of ‘those opinions’. Perhaps that’s acceptable.

    Was that a test?

    • pauldundon says:

      Well played. The word “mean” was a typo (now corrected). The use of “opinion” as both a mass noun and a count noun is clumsy, I agree, but the idiomatic nature of “outpouring of opinion” makes it hard to know what rule would apply here in determining whether or not it is wrong. It certainly seems unacceptable to use opinion as a count noun in the first mention or a mass noun in the second, so it’s hard to see how else one could have an anaphor with “outpouring of opinion” as its target.

  2. MDR says:

    I think there’s a similar mistake in that reply, now that I look at it.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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