Miscellaneous Observations

So here are a few thoughts in no particular order:

I have nothing of great depth to say about Google’s decision to shut down Google Reader. I use it, and I’m sorry to hear that it’s going away. (At the moment, I’m planning to use Feedly as a replacement. If you’ve got a better option, let me know.) But it is clear that a lot of folks are not at all happy with Google. My Twitter feed lit up with righteous indignation seconds after the announcement was made. What came to my mind was a wonderfully understated line from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. When a relative goes on and on about the Belgian trading company bringing the light of civilization to the Congo, etc., etc., Marlow responds: “I ventured to suggest that the Company was run for profit.”

Over at Cyborgology, more work is being done to refine the critique of digital dualism, especially by Whitney Boesel. She does a remarkably thorough job of documenting the digital dualism debates over the last year or two here, and here she offers the first part of her own effort to further clarify the terms of the digital dualism debates. I may be making some comments when the series of posts is complete, for now I’ll just throw out a reminder of my own effort a few months ago to provide a phenomenological taxonomy of online experience, “Varieties of Online Experience.”

Speaking of online and offline and also the Internet or technology – definitions can be elusive. A lot of time and effort has been and continues to be spent trying to delineate the precise referent for these terms. But what if we took a lesson from Wittgenstein? Crudely speaking, Wittgenstein came to believe that meaning was a function of use (in many, but not all cases). Instead of trying to fix an external referent for these terms and then call out those who do not use the term as we have decided it must be used or not used, perhaps we should, as Wittgenstein put it, “look and see” the diversity of uses to which the words are meaningfully put in ordinary conversation. I understand the impulse to demystify terms, such as technology, whose elasticity allows for a great deal confusion and obfuscation. But perhaps we ought also to allow that even when these terms are being used without analytic precision, they are still conveying sense.

As an example, take the way the names of certain philosophers are tossed around by folks whose expertise is not philosophy. Descartes, I think, is a common example. The word Descartes, or better yet Cartesian, no longer has a strong correlation to the man Rene Descartes or his writings. The word tends to be used by non-philosophers as a placeholder for the idea of pernicious dualism (another word that is used in casually imprecise ways). The word has a sense and a meaning, but it is not narrowly constrained by its ostensible referent. When this is the case, it might be valuable to correct the speaker by saying something like, “Descartes didn’t actually believe …” or “You’re glossing over some important nuances …” or “Have you ever read a page of Descartes?” Alternatively, it may be helpful to realize that the speaker doesn’t really care about Descartes and is only using the word Descartes as a carrier of some notions that may best be addressed without reference to the philosopher.

This, in turn, leads me to say that, while I’ve always admired the generalist or interdisciplinary tendency, it is difficult to pull off well. In the midst of making a series of astute observations about the difference between academics and intellectuals, Jack Miles writes, “A generalist is someone with a keener-than-average awareness of how much there is to be ignorant about.” This seems to me to be the indispensable starting point for generalist or inter-disciplinary work that will be of value. The faux-generalist or the lazy inter-disciplinarian merely re-combines shallow forms knowledge. This accomplishes very little, if anything at all.

Come to think of it, I think we would all be better off if we were to develop a “keener-than-average awareness” of our own ignorance.

2 thoughts on “Miscellaneous Observations

  1. Descartes is an interesting example for showing up how the word “philosophy” has shifted historically.

    These days it is easy to assume that because Cartesian physics has no contemporary importance, and because philosophy and physics are now distinct disciplines, Descartes’ physics was never an important part of his philosophy. There’s a case to be made, however, that prior to the triumph of Newtonian physics, being a Cartesian primarily meant being an adherent of Cartesian physics; and that the restriction of Descartes to dualism and doubt (and coordinate geometry) was a consequence of the failure of his physics.

  2. Loved your last paragraph. Perhaps awareness of our own ignorance increases in direct proportion to the aging process. In such a case, I will be either the world’s wisest man on the day of my death, or, a more likely scenario, the world’s most ignorant. Thanks for the thought.

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