Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Inscrutability of Reference

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

Sam writes,
Seriously Bro,
When we all talk to each other, have conversations or engage with a language in any way, how do we know that the content (meaning) of our words is the same as the person we're talking to?
It's like Wittgensteins [sic] beetle in a box thing only for EVERYTHING! Like the words and sentences we use are consistent with the language framework we're using (eg. English) BUT, since these words can only be defined in terms of other words, we can never know what anyone is saying even if we ask them to carefully explain it. No?
Well Sam, The simple answer to your question is that we don't know that the other person knows what we're talking about. You're going to want to look at W.V.O. Quine's idea of the inscrutability of reference. The idea here is that when we hear someone speak, there is always a bunch of different ways to interpret whatever they say. Let's say you're a bro out hunting with some indigenous tribe you discovered like a boss, and one of the hunters points to a rabbit and goes, "Gabaga." Now maybe you take out your notebook and you write down, "Gabaga = rabbit. BOOM." And maybe you're fucking wrong and shouldn't assume shit. Maybe it means "rabbit feet" or "small white thing" or "potential food" - you'd have to spend a lot more time with them to eliminate those possibilities. But even once you were sure he was referring to the thing that you call a rabbit, and not some part of it or a general description or whatever, the problem still hasn't gone away. Maybe this culture has a religion that, among other things, teaches that everything is part of the same, unified life-force. So where you see rabbit, hunter-bro sees life-force part that looks like a rabbit. And to understand that, you would have to not only know enough language to eliminate the other options, you'd also need a pretty good grasp on the culture of this tribe, so that you'd know they don't really ever refer to individual things so much as distinguishable parts of this life-force situation.

And honestly, if it works for some language you learn later on in life by studying some random tribe, this idea also probably works for the language you learn early on in life by studying the tribe around you. Your roommate that you just met this week from the other side of the country from you? Maybe he's thinking something completely different from you when he's like, "so, we getting hammered this weekend?" You think, "Hammered = really, really drunk" but he thinks, "hammered = having reduced control of faculties as a result of alcohol in particular".

Monday, August 22, 2011

No Mailbag Monday

Hey kids,

I spent all day today taking care of some stuff I needed to take care of before the semester kicks off, and I need a night to sit around with my bros and shoot the shit for a while. So. I'm not going to get to the Monday Mailbag, from which I usually draw questions on Monday.

Instead, I've got summaries in the works for this week, because it's time to start ramping those up again, so stay tuned as I get back into the swing of things. It's going to be awesome.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Aesthetics

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

Rocket writes,

Bro, I have a few questions about Aesthetics. It seems that beauty is defined by both objective features and subjective experiences, but how do they come together? You see, most of us seem to agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yet many of us would more likely agree that a Manet painting is more beautiful than a stick figure drawing. So despite what they say about subjective beauty, there seems to be a fairly objective standard to art, or at least the kind of art that we could put in a museum, charge people to view and convince intellectuals to write endless papers about. At the same time, many artists we respect today weren't always respected or their works would not have been appreciated by an audience from a different period. And I don't just mean fine art, but literature and film and the next cover girl of vogue too. How can art or beauty be both subjective and objective at the same time?

Fucking aesthetics.

If you go to the Stanford Encyclopedia and search for 'aesthetics', you get a bajillion pages titled '[Some guy]'s Aesthetics'; there aren't schools of thought in aesthetics so much as wholesale attempts to explain the phenomenon that is art by practically every important bro in history. Okay, maybe not all of them. But a fucking lot of them.

I'm no aesthetician, and here's why: Kant? Hegel? Dostoyevsky? Hume? Heidegger? Every single one of them said the same thing: "Fuck those assclowns. I know what beauty is, and I'll fucking school you in it." And it's exactly for the reason you give: it seems so simple on the face of it. Beauty is tantalizingly obvious; we're all drawn to it, and we all recognize it when we're confronted with it. Like the Sirens themselves, it calls out to philosophers. And like fools, philosophers fucking dash themselves on the rocks, the whole time insisting, "I fucking got this. How hard could it be?" Anyone giving a final answer to the question, "Is beauty objective or subjective?" isn't something I see happening. But I think I can shed some light on your question anyway.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

David Hume's "Of the Different Species of Philosophy": A Summary

Okay, so recently there's been this fucking incredible surge in philosophy, which is sweet, but no one is making sure that it's done properly; everyone is just sort of saying shit all willy-nilly, without any attempt at real understanding of exactly how philosophy is supposed to work. We should probably have a framework for all this before we go on, wouldn't you say?

I mean, there are two different kinds of philosophy, and you probably don't even know the difference. First, there's the easy, obvious shit that's written all poetically to guide the man on-the-go. You know what I mean - the exhortations to "be excellent to each other" and "give it our all" and all that fun bullshit. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it, I'm just saying, you know, how hard can it be to tell people not a be a dick? None of the great orators were ever like, "The children? Feed 'em to wolves!" because if they said that, they wouldn't be great orators, they'd be just be eloquent fuckwads, and we all know plenty of those. I'm just saying it's hard to fuck up the easy stuff. That's all.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mailbag Monday: An Assortment of Questions

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

This week, I'm diving into the Monday Mailbag, which contains the questions for Mailbag Monday; I'll answer readers' shorter questions, questions that don't require a full post; these questions usually go neglected in favor of longer treatments of interesting questions. Well not today, kids.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince: Sections XIV-XIX": A Summary

You should probably be a fucking boss at war. If you wanted to juggle you, should have been a juggler. You're a Prince, dammit, and if you're shitty at war, your enemies will be relentless, and your soldiers will be like, "this motherfucker has no idea what he's doing, and we have to die? Fuck that." And now you've got a rebellion on your hands. See? This is why we can't have nice fiefdoms.

Instead, you should always be on your toes. If shit is peaceful right now, don't kick back for a leisurely bubble bath - this is your chance to get way the fuck ahead in preparation, so that when someone does invade, they're like, "Holy shit, it's like he's been preparing for this attack for years!" You sure have.

Wouldn't it be great if shit was all unicorns and rainbows, and you were perfect? This is the real world, sunshine, and you better know how and when to be a little evil. You don't need to be the perfect human being to succeed; you only need to be good enough.

You should be cheap as fuck. Yeah, people love a generous prince, until the bill comes and they have to pay taxes for it. Sure, at first they'll be like, "man, this fucking guy doesn't even have velvet suits for his hunting dogs. What the fuck kind of poor-ass prince is he?" And then when tax time comes they'll be like, "That's it? Really? I take it back, this dude fucking rocks." Plus, that way if you get invaded, you won't have to try to squeeze money out of an oppressed populace. They'll be thrilled to give you extra taxes because they know it's for an important thing: not getting their shit ransacked. If they're already poor and you're like, "hey, I need that slice of bread, too." They'll just wonder where all the other tax money went. And also, they'll try to hate you to death. I've seen it happen.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Patriotism

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


Alam writes,
Bro, what's the deal with patriotism? Isn't patriotism (or being proud of your heritage) just being proud of some arbitrary bullshit? It seems like we have no really good reasons to be proud of where were were born or what our genes are; we sure as hell didn't get to decide that shit. Am I right, or am I way off base here?
What's up, Alam? This seems to be a growing sentiment, even if it’s not a new one; George Carlin maybe put it best: 
I could never understand national or ethnic pride, because to me Pride should be reserved for something you achieve on your own. Being Irish isn't a skill, it's a fucking genetic accident. You wouldn't be proud to be 5'11". You wouldn't be proud to have a pre-disposition for colon cancer. 
Really, who gives a flying fuck where you were born? What does that say about you as a person? I was born in America, but I'm perfectly literate and I even believe in evolution. Sweeping generalizations about any nationality will be false. I have certain habits that I've acquired culturally, sure, like my preference for "fucking" over "bloody", but why should I be proud of those? Aren't those as arbitrary as where I was born? How does my being American give me any title or claim over the American victory in WWII? I wasn't even a glimmer in someone's eye yet. Shit, I barely have anything to do with the course of American politics now. What exactly have I accomplished to justify this pride?

Where your ancestors were born is even more arbitrary. The Jersey Shore cast is fucking thrilled to be Italian, but that doesn't really inform how they go about their days at all. Plenty of Italians are intelligent, hard working members of society who make valuable contributions; it's not like all, or even most, Italians are fuck-ups with abs. And plenty of fuck-ups with abs aren't Italian. In fact, being Italian has nothing to do with how those fucking assclowns act. Besides, how far back are we supposed to go? We all likely came from Africa at some point - why aren't we all just fucking thrilled to be African? Wherever your ancestors are from, their ancestors were almost certainly from somewhere else.

So it seems like this all boils down to tribalism, a tendency left over from the ancestral plain where it was useful evolutionarily to identify strongly with a group of bros who had your back. We naturally want to belong to tribes, which is why people get so fucking worked up about sports teams that they have no connection with, except maybe a city. Isn't nationalism just that same tribal urge, and wouldn't we be better off leaving it behind?