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Gilbert Ryle – An Oxford man who advocated “ordinary language”

Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) was an English philosopher who taught at Oxford from 1945-68. He edited the journal Mind from 1947-71.

Ryle and others like G. E. Moore developed the idea, forwarded by Wittgenstein, that philosophy is best expressed in so-called “ordinary language.” For Ryle, using abstract language is so removed from everyday experience and speech that it tends to be, for the most part, inaccurate and irrelevant.

Some philosophers are so heavily invested in their specialized language that they become blind to the ambiguities, limitations and sometimes absurdity of their claims.

A similar argument could be made about anyone who overly invests in a particular language game or symbol system, to include psychologists, biologists, physicists, economists, lawyers, environmentalists… The list goes on.

Not everyone agrees with Ryle. For a while, his views were trendy in philosophy but that didn’t last long. Today, philosophy is even more esoteric and symbolic than ever. Most modern philosophy degrees demand advanced courses in symbolic logic that, to the uninitiated, might look more like math than critical thinking.

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the main points for and against the use of ordinary language in philosophy and related disciplines:

For:

  • Language is dynamic, full of ambiguous connotation and a product of culture. Meanings are always open to interpretation.
  • Specialized language cloaks bias and subtly reinforces unequal relations of power. For instance, in psychology a person is “ADD” or “Autistic.” The scientific label makes it so. End of discussion. Who cares if these people have unusual abilities that the status quo is too biased to recognize or support?
  • Ordinary language isn’t patronizing to ordinary people and may, in fact, draw them into a discussion. This could lead to new insights and benefits for all.

Against:

  • Given the potential ambiguity and fluidity of language, shouldn’t philosophers try to define their terms as precisely as possible?
  • Isn’t it valid for specialists to use specialized language? For example, do you really want your operating room surgeon to say “give me that blade over there” one day and “hand me the knife” another day instead of always using the quick and precise, “scalpel“?
  • Specialized language increases precision and facilitates greater communication, efficiency and effectiveness among specialists. Popular writers can always translate the main points to the public, later on.

It seems each of these arguments has its pros and cons.

For some, the best approach – ironically an age-old advertising and entertaining technique – is to tailor one’s expression to fit the perceived audience. Instead of speaking above people, some believe it’s better to try to connect—unless, of course, you’re in a specialized group using shared terms (e.g. A Trekkie convention).

Some hard core philosophers seem to overlook the many nuances of human interaction. So they can come off dry, abstract or irrelevant. But every now and then specialized thinkers do come up with ideas worth considering. For me, one example is Hume’s critique of causality. I love and sometimes mention that idea if I feel my audience is ready to consider its transformational potential.

But to return to Ryle, he also published a popular work in 1949, The Concept of Mind, that questioned Descartes mind/body dualism. Ryle says Descartes describes the mind as a metaphysical ghost in a material machine. And from that we have the enduring phrase, “ghost in the machine,” an idea now morphing into new meanings with the rise of AI.


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Bertrand Russell – Temporarily lost his job for advocating peace

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell (Photo Wikipedia)

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a Welsh philosopher, mathematician and activist.

Russell taught at Cambridge in 1895, published Principles of Mathematics (1903) and, with A. N. Whitehead, wrote Principia Mathematica (1910-13).

He was let go from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1916 for advocating pacifism during World War I. This was scandalous even at the time because most of his Fellows opposed his firing.¹ Jailed in 1918 for six months, Russell eventually revoked his support for pacifism with the rise of Fascism.

Soon after his Fellowship was restored.

In the 1920’s he lectured and wrote widely. In 1927 he founded an experimental school with his second wife, Dora, a woman of achievement in her own right. And he toured the Soviet Union and lectured in China and America.

Russell’s best known publications are The Problems of Philosophy (1912), On Education (1926), An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940), History of Western Philosophy (1945), and Human Knowledge (1948). He also wrote probing essays on a variety of topics, such as Why I am not a Christian (1927).

After World War II Russell advocated a ban on nuclear weapons and corresponded with leading politicians around the world. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 and authored a three-volume Autobiography (1967-9).

English: Bertrand Russell and Conway Hall Behi...

Bertrand Russell and Conway Hall Behind bust of Bertrand Russell (by Marcelle Quinton 1980) in Red Lion Square the entrance to Conway Hall can be seen with Royal Mail van parked outside. (Photo: Wikipedia)

¹ Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m posting this revision on Good Friday. Seems a lot of people run into bad luck for advocating peace. †

Related » Ludwig Wittgenstein


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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

Related » Enlightenment

The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau

² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

 Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (3quarksdaily.com)

  New New Left Ideology Controls the Democratic Party (americanthinker.com)

 The Concept of Facts Is Newer Than You Think (time.com)

 Scots sick and tired of Sturgeon’s independence referendum ‘rabble rousing’ (express.co.uk)

 Eurozone economy overtakes UK as France and Germany accelerate (telegraph.co.uk)

 [Nelson Lund] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Not a nut, not a leftist and not an irresponsible intellectual (washingtonpost.com)


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Comte Henri de Saint-Simon – His concern for the poor shines above everything else

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) or, more commonly, Saint-Simon is one of those figures who comes up regularly in sociology courses, especially so-called “classical” or “classical theory” courses.¹

Until writing this entry, I knew little about him. But I felt he was important because so many books and professors (the better ones, anyhow) mention him in passing.

Looking over Wikipedia this morning to update my 2009 entry, Saint-Simon turns out to be quite interesting.

Born in Paris as a French Aristocrat, he spent some time in America, fighting under George Washington in the siege of Yorktown. Back in Europe, he took up the cause of the poor, which lead his being called the founder of French socialism.

He supported the French Revolution but was put in jail during the Reign of Terror because of unwarranted suspicions that he was a counter-revolutionary. Luckily for him, he was released from prison in 1794 before literally losing his head. By this time French currency was devalued, which left him rich. But he was cheated out of his fortune by his business partner.

After an unhappy marriage that ended in a year, he wrote and tried to recover his lost fortune without success. He then spent time in a sanatorium. Ten years later, discouraged by his lack of influence on the world, he attempted suicide. According to the story, shooting himself six times in the head didn’t kill him, although he did become blind in one eye.

Nederlands: Portret van Claude Henri de Rouvro...

Portrait of Claude Henri de Rouvroy from the first quarter of the 19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relatives helped him out but Saint-Simon lived his final years in abject poverty. Perhaps this had something to do with his earlier concern for the poor.²

Saint-Simon reacted against the brutality of the French Revolution and envisioned a society where science and technology would guide the workings of religion and politics. He disliked government intervention in the economy, making his approach differ from how we usually understand “socialism.”

Concerning religion, he believed in a divine power but wanted to strip away the dogmas and routines of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity to get to the core of Jesus’ message as he saw it. For him, theory wasn’t done for mere pleasure or, as a twisted professor I had allegedly once said, for a “paycheck.” For Saint-Simon, theory and practice should go hand in hand to alleviate suffering and elevate all peoples to the highest possible good.

Saint-Simon’s writings remain influential in sociology. He had particular impact on the political views of Auguste Comte (17981857), especially with regard to the concept of progress. Comte in turn influenced Emile Durkheim, now hailed as one of the founding fathers of sociology.

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

¹ Sociologists tend to join the dots for us, telling us what is important according to how they see things today. The word “classical” should be taken critically too. It’s full of connotations about legitimacy and importance.

² If the soul is beyond space and time, as some mystics tell us, quite possibly Saint-Simon’s future state influenced his younger concerns. You won’t find this idea among the rank and file of psychologists and psychiatrists in the 21st century, but I think it’s quite possible and hopefully an idea that future theorists will pursue.


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The System

Lost in the system: id iom

Lost in the system: id iom via Flickr

The system is a term that enables individuals to speak about interlocking social institutions, discourses and practices in a positive, negative, ambiguous or ambivalent manner. It can imply almost anything, so it’s (usually) a safe way to talk about the undesirable aspects of society and human nature without fear of repercussion.

Along these lines, the idea of the system often carries negative connotations about systemic corruption. Sometimes the system is used to advocate some kind of practical compromise. For instance; “You gotta work the system” (i.e. play the game).

More commonly, we hear people say something to the effect of… “s/he’s a nice person… I hope s/he doesn’t get gobbled up by the system.”¹

This whole conundrum is perhaps best expressed in the arts.

In the song “Maybe the Poet” (1984) by Canadian folk-rock musician Bruce Cockburn we hear:

Don’t let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you

Cockburn, who is a bit of a green/social/spiritual activist, nevertheless played a concert sponsored by a major cigarette company, with a visible billboard ad on stage.

The awesome rapper Guru, rest his soul, had this to say in “Living in this World” (1995):

It’s critical, the situation is pitiful
Bear in mind, you gotta find somethin’ spiritual
We never gain, ’cause we blame it on the system
You oughta listen whether Muslim or Christian
Or any other type religion or creed
‘Cause what we need is less greed²

Personally, I don’t think anyone can totally remove themselves from the system. Even the street person who eats garbage from fast food garbage bins survives on food that, in its production, is endangering the South American rainforest.³

¹A similar situation is found with the words “politics” and “political.” When people use these words in the small-p sense, they’re probably saying, “I know what the heck is going on, but I’m not so stupid as to say it outright.”

² Read more: Guru – Living In This World Lyrics | MetroLyrics

³ See http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/amazon/problems/unsustainable_cattle_ranching/


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Noam Chomsky

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegr...

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre) in 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Noam Chomsky (1928 –  ) is an American intellectual, political activist, and professor Emeritus at MIT who initially distinguished himself in linguistics.

During the Vietnam war Chomsky became increasingly visible, criticizing those who believe the United States sets the standard as a moral and ideological leader for the rest of the world. Since then he’s never looked back.

He and others like Michael Moore figure prominently in the 2003 film, The Corporation. The film offers some insights into the nature of human hypocrisy, especially when connected to the profit motive. However, as one reviewer at http://www.imdb.com put it, “the film is useful but incredibly biased.”

The same could be said of Chomsky’s work. Specifically, Chomsky seems to downplay the positive aspects of corporate production. Chomsky’s critics say that the capitalist impulse and profit motive are necessary for technological social progress. And they note that human rights records and charitable donations are often weaker in communist countries than they are in capitalist countries.

Those sympathetic to Chomsky’s views would argue that more egalitarian, socialist-style systems could also be creative, progressive and humane. In fact, he’s become something of an inspiration for some leftist activists who are appalled by the shortcomings but perhaps not mature enough to fully appreciate the good in capitalist democracies.

A particularly vehement attack against Chomsky’s views on terrorism and the post 9/11 Iraq war is found in The Anti-Chomsky Reader by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, eds.

According to Chomsky, parroting his Marxist mentors-what Uncle Sam really wants is to steal from the poor and give to the rich. America’s crusade against Communism was not a battle for human freedom, but actually a war “to protect our doctrine that the rich should plunder the poor.” This is why, according to Chomsky, we have busied ourselves in launching a new crusade against what he regards as a fictive terrorism after the end of the Cold War.”¹

Despite his criticisms of the US, Chomsky still chooses to live and make his living there, which definitely says something.

¹ The Anti-Chomsky Reader by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (eds.), Encounter Books, 2004, p. 185.


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Chaos Theory

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-li...

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-linear dynamical system. Studying this system helped give rise to Chaos theory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With roots in the mathematics of Henri Poincaré (where very small initial system differences can produce significant variations in outcome) in sociology Chaos theory is a popular idea centering around the view that social organizations and businesses operate more like clouds in the sky than a railroad train (not to be confused with the recent and hip term, cloud computing).

Sociologically speaking, interactive Chaos theory systems can be perceived and predicted in a general, non-linear sense but precise numerical and linear-based predictions are beyond its reach.

Chaos theory is not about randomness. In Chaos theory causes and effects are taken as highly complicated, making prediction and control far less precise than in linear systems. This absence of linear precision, however, enables individuals to set off explosive social effects, providing they’re adept at perceiving trends. A small act within the right part of a system can create chaotic social reactions, not unlike an atom bomb.

An example of Chaos theory in nature would be the popular idea of the butterfly effect—could a butterflies’ wings at one side of the globe cause a chain reaction of events to bring about a hurricane at the other side of the globe?

The sociological notion of the butterfly effect actually borrows from mathematical Chaos theory, where name was first coined.

Like many new theories, the idea of universal morality is generally omitted in chaos theory, being replaced by the belief that cleverness, alone, is the appropriate criterion for social engineering. Allison Brown at the University of Chicago points out more issues concerning the sociological idea of Chaos theory: Has chaos theory found any useful application in the social sciences?

Not surprisingly, a Toronto fashion line called Chaos Theory has recently been launched. Like any catchy phrase that resonates in the social imagination, Chaos Theory will likely be reinvented in countless ways.