Here is Why Philosophy is Often Filled With Pinheads

-By Warner Todd Huston

OK, you read that headline and assume I’m some anti-intellectual, backwoods rube, right? Don’t jump to conclusions yet. I am not saying that all philosophy is foolish, pointless, or idiotic. But often times people that study philosophy end up more interested in absurd postulations mounting on an always increasing scale until they are simply babbling nonsensically — but using big words to do it.

Take the so-called Sorites Paradox, for instance. Here is the claptrap that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lays on us to define the idea.

The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.

This phenomenon at the heart of the paradox is now recognised as the phenomenon of vagueness (see the entry on vagueness). Once identified, vagueness can be seen to be a feature of syntactic categories other than predicates, nonetheless one speaks primarily of the vagueness of predicates. Names, adjectives, adverbs and so on are only susceptible to paradoxical sorites reasoning in a derivative sense.

This is an idiotically longwinded way to say that the Sorites Paradox tries to address this interesting question: at what point does a “heap” stop being a heap as things are removed from it?

Naturally the original question is not from our modern times. It is taken from the paradoxes associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Eubulides of Miletus, a contemporary of Aristotle.

But, just as naturally, our philosophers have made a mountain out of a mole’s hill. Eubulides seems to have simply meant his “heap” question as a simple exercise in logic. They were just word puzzles meant to cause one to think in a more critical manner. In his formulation it seems more like a young student’s exercise or a sort of throw away thought.

Oh, but Stanford has to turn it all into the mess you saw above, filled with “syntactic categories,” and “subsequent indeterminacies,” all wrapped up in the “phenomenon of vagueness.”

The problem here is that the whole question is a farce to begin with. The fallacy is obvious but Stanford approached the question as one built on specific definitions. The problem is that the word “heap” is not a definite quantity but only a generality. Eubulides knew that and so did everyone of his day. No one assumes that a “heap” is quantifiable. It was all just meant to show that language can sometimes be imprecise.

But leave it to the silliness of modern philosophers to invest so much effort to muck up such an elegantly simple exercise. Leave it to today’s whizzes to start throwing around your “indeterminacy surrounding the predicates,” and your always handy, “vagueness of the predicates whose adverbs are susceptible to derivative senses”… and stuff.

We go from the ancients asking, “when is a heap no longer a heap,” to modern philosophers saying…. well, saying the garbled junk that I quote above. The sad fact is modern philosophers and their university hangers on have inelegantly mucked up what is a cleaver and simple little exercise.

But I am the idiot, right?

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Tags: Education, Philosophy


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  • There is too much jargon in philosophy. If that had been the main thrust of your argument, and you had argued in an informed way, then your comment would welcome.

    However, anyone with your level of ignorance with regards to the kind of reasoning and issues involved in contemporary philosophy is in no position to make an informed comment. And so it turned out.

    Firstly, the Stanford encyclopedia is intended for academics and students of philosophy: it describes itself as a publication that satisfies "the highest academic standards" i.e it is not for the layperson.
    Obviously a philosopher would not explain the paradox to a non-philosopher in the terms you quoted; all 'claptrap' is reducible to everyday terms if necessary.

    Secondly, you completely misunderstand the Sorites paradox. Writing off the combined thought of hundreds of academics who are more intelligent, more informed and who have thought infinitely more about the problem than you have, you triumphantly announce that "the fallacy is obvious". Hurrah!
    Oh. But then one reads on. And one is disappointed. Not only has the blogger just used one of the aforementioned 'claptrap' words, he has used it incorrectly. 'Fallacy' is a technical philosophical term; if what you go on to point out had turned out to be valid, it would not have been a fallacy anyway.
    As you might have guessed, I do not think your point is valid. Unless 'valid' means fatuous, unintelligent and exhibiting the analytical ability of a masturbating gorilla. 'Heap' is indeed a general term in one sense - it describes many things. Moreover, as you aptly point out, it is 'imprecise', or vague. You managed to crawl out of the yawning chasm of ignorance long enough to simply restate the question, before sliding inexorably back again.

    That is not to say that all your article was off the mark. You seem to have arrived at a true conclusion from false premises: the final sentence was right on the money.

    Having a pop at a subject like philosophy is easy, especially if one starts off by trying to shame the reader for his snobbery. Your article is, contrary your protestations, anti-intellectual. Furthermore, it is an example of the most base and execrable aspect of human nature: you are hitting out at something because you cannot understand it, because it is different. That is why I have decided to write here - silence lends your article a semblance of respectability that it does not deserve.

    Final thought: taking one word away at a time, at what point would your article be worth reading? I'll give you a clue - there's no vagueness involved.

  • In reply to seanscoltock:

    Lighten up, Francis.

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