Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

New OUP Book: Metaphysical Themes: 1247-1671

New Books in Philosophy discusses this title with author Robert Pasnau. The book addresses questions like,

What was the scholastic metaphysical tradition of the later Middle Ages, and why did it come “crashing down as quickly and completely” as it did towards the end of the 17th Century? Why was the year 1347 a “milestone in the history of philosophy”? And why didn’t philosophy itself collapse right along with the scholastic framework?

Hear the interview here.

The Gettier Problem: A Study—Part 5

Definite Descriptions and the Gettier Example

Christoph Schmidt-Petri in his “Definite Descriptions and the Gettier Example”[1] provides a framework for the argument I outlined in an earlier post in terms of a distinction between the attributive use and the referential uses of definite descriptions drawing heavily from Donnellan’s analysis of definite descriptions. A fairly standard definition of a definite description is of a term that describes a particular thing and takes the form ‘the x such that φx’ where the definite description begins (in English) with the definite article, “the x,” and can be used in any sentence. Russell held that the truth value of the definite description in the sentence “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” does not change regardless of what stands for “the man who will get the job” as long as the attribution “has ten coins in his pocket” is true of him.[2] Using “Jones” or “Smith” in place of “the man who will get the job” does not change the truth value of the sentence as long as having ten coins in his pocket can be attributed to either man. What Kripke calls names are, on Russell’s account, disguised (or, perhaps better, abbreviated) definite descriptions. It is what is attributed that is important regardless of the term we use for the object that is the recipient of the attribution.

It is easy to see how this account supports Gettier’s examples. If it turns out to be Smith that actually gets the job and not Jones, the substitution of Smith for Jones or even “the man who has ten coins in his pocket” modifies the truth value in no way as long as the sentence expresses a true proposition by attributing something true of the subject regardless of what term is used for that subject. Thus, when Smith comes to believe “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket,” the definite description, “the man who will get the job” can be replaced with a logical equivalent, “Smith” since he is the man who actually satisfies the predicate with no change in truth value.

Donnellan challenged Russell’s thesis and described two ways in which definite descriptions can be used. First, descriptions like P2 can be used attributively which is essentially Russell’s position. In attribution, we seek to assign an attribute to any object. The description in, “the businessman who started Microsoft is the richest man in the world” will yield a true proposition regardless of who that businessman is as long as that person satisfies the predicate of the sentence “is the richest man in the world.” It happens to be Bill Gates but could be anyone. Donnellan also describes a referential use of definite descriptions where the generalized term is intended to pick out a specific object and say something true about that object. In this usage, “the businessman” is intended to pick out Bill Gates specifically and describe him as the one who started Microsoft. On this usage, “the businessman who started Microsoft” refers to Bill Gates and is not satisfied by any other object.[3]

In the argument above, I outline three distinct beliefs Smith could have when attempting to understand Smith’s epistemic relation to P2 which are:

A. Jones will get the job and Jones has ten coins in his pocket

B. Smith will get the job and Smith has ten coins in his pocket

C. Some man will get the job and that man has ten coins in his pocket

Propositions A and B, I claim are specific beliefs about an individual and C is a general belief about any man whatever. Schmidt-Petri argues that Smith’s belief about P2 could be taken attributively but it could also be taken referentially but in either case, the reason Smith does not have knowledge is not due to a failure with JTB but due to Smith having a false or unjustified belief. Beliefs about referential descriptions should be taken as singular and the objects referred to in the sentence about the belief should be understood as a constituent. In attributive descriptions, the object being denoted does not contribute to the semantic content of the belief but merely to its quantificational structure. As I understand him, Schmidt-Petri is arguing that in existential propositions like ones used in attributive descriptions, the object referred to in the proposition is not related to the meaning; what the object actually refers to. Rather it is only related to the logical relation the object has to the rest of the sentence.

If taken referentially then, Smith’s beliefs would either be A or B. Smith would either believe that a particular person, Jones or Smith himself will get the job. If Smith believes A, he would not have a true belief and thus would not satisfy the requirements of JTB. If he believes B, he would have a true belief but would not be justified in believing it because he possesses no evidence that he Smith has ten coins in his pocket or that he would be getting the job and thus does not satisfy the requirements of JTB: he is not justified. Schmidt-Petri says it is certainly possible that Smith could believe C.[4] For example, he might have had evidence that every man that applied for the job was required to carry around ten coins in his pocket or that before the job is awarded, the committee deciding who gets the job gives the candidate ten coins and asks him to put them in his pocket. But Gettier in his case give us no reason to believe that Smith has any such evidence and thus most likely does not believe C. Even if he does in fact believe C, in this case he has not satisfied JTB because he lacks evidence for its truth and that is the reason Smith does not know C and, salva veritate, P2.

I would go a step further and rule out C on the grounds that Gettier tells us that Smith derived P2 from P1. We’re told that Smith believes P2 based on a deduction from P1. It seems to me that in order to derive P2 from P1, the semantic content of P1—specifically the referent of the name “Jones”--must be retained in P2—specifically the referent of the description “the man who has ten coins in his pocket”--for the entailment to be satisfied in the technical sense of that term. This would mean that Smith’s belief in P2 would contain the semantic content of P1 in some sense and gives us further reason to reject the idea that Smith believes C as an attributive belief.

Regardless, Schmidt-Petri has shown that whether we take Smith’s belief as referential (he believes A or B) or attributive (he believes C) in all three cases he does not know P2 because he has not satisfied the requirements of JTB not because JTB is inadequate in some way.


[1] Definite Descriptions and the Gettier Example, Christoph Schmidt-Petri, LSE , Centre for the Philosophy of the Natural and Social Science (DP 63/02). See also his “Is Gettier’s First Example Flawed?” in Knowledge and Belief. Papers of the 26th Int. Wittgenstein Symposium (Contributions of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, Vol XI), ed. W. Löffler and P. Weingartner, Kirchberg: The Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, 2003: pp. 317-319.

[2] Schmidt-Petri describes Russell’s view of definite descriptions in terms of the existential statement ∃x (Fx & ∀(Fy →y=x)&Gx)): There is at least one x such that, F is true of x and for every y, if F is true of y then y is identical to x, and G is true of x. There is at least one thing such that that thing is a man and for any other thing, if that thing is a man then that thing is identical to first thing and the first thing has 10 coins in his pocket. The variable 'y' establishes the identity of any individual for whom the attribution is true.

[3] Saul Kripke uses the term “referent of the description” to refer to the referential usage of definite descriptions though in a footnote, he introduces the term “semantic referent” as the referent of a name or description. So if one man says to another, “Jones is over there raking leaves” but it’s actually Smith, the semantic referent is Smith, the man raking leaves even though the name “Jones” was used for him. The referent of the name “Jones” is Smith if the speaker uses Jones to “label” Smith in referring to the object. In the case of a definite description, e.g. “the man” (Kripke uses the term “description” here but I take him to mean a definite description), whatever satisfies the predicate of the sentence “is raking leaves” is the semantic referent. Note that Kripke appears to say nothing here about how reference is transferred by logical deduction. He appears to be only concerned with direct reference. If I see two men under a tree and one is raking leaves and the other is napping, when I refer to “the man who is raking leaves,” the definite description picks out the man who is raking leaves not the napping man. See Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980), 25,26, footnote 3

[4] Schmidt-Petri writes C as the existential statement: ∃x (Fx & ∀y (Fy → y=x) & Gx) and refers to this statement as the proper way to understand C as an attributive belief.

2012 Arizona Workshop on Normative Ethics

The Third Annual Arizona Workshop in Normative Ethics will be held at the Westward Look Resort in Tucson, Arizona, from January 5 through January 7, 2012.

Normative ethical theory addresses general questions about the right and the good and attempts to answer such questions as: What sorts of actions are right or wrong and why? What sort of person ought one to become and why? Normative ethical theories, including, for instance, versions of consequentialism, deontology, contractualism, natural law theory, and virtue ethics address such questions.

This annual Arizona Workshop features new work in normative ethical theory broadly construed, to include not only issues about the right and the good, but meta-theoretical questions about the project of developing and defending normative ethical theories.

Info and program here.

The Gettier Problem: A Study—Part 4

Shope’s Analysis

In an earlier article, I summarized a survey of responses to the Gettier Problem by Robert Shope. At the end of his survey, offers his own analysis of Gettier-style problems. While is his analysis takes a different turn than mine, he offers a distinction that I believe is both critical and helpful. His distinction turns on whether the intentional object of a belief—what the belief is of or about—is a proposition as typically construed or a state of affairs. Shope observes, “It is commonplace to answer a question of the form, ‘that h.’ It is harmless jargon to say that the ‘content’ of this knowledge is that h if all that means is that what is known is that h. But it is controversial to make the slide to the conclusion that the content is a proposition.”[1]

When we attempt to express the content of a proposition, Shope explains, we typically don’t use that clauses. Rather, our expression takes the form of the proposition itself, namely ‘h’. I believe that Shope is isolating the fact that the content of our beliefs should not confined by what can be expressed linguistically. In fact, it may be too restrictive to treat truth in terms of that clauses. When we consider the beliefs of children and animals (who almost certainly know things) it is odd to say that they know that something is true. “This concern provides one reason for shifting our focus to a state of affairs whose occurrence or obtaining can be asserted by affirming something of the form ‘h’. For instance by affirming that Marrakesh contains mosques, we assert the occurrence of the state of affairs: Marrakesh’s containing mosques.”[2]

I believe Shope’s comments here demand an exegesis of the relevant differences between states of affairs and propositions; an exegesis that is not within the scope of his paper but one I will try to articulate briefly in later articles. Still, he touches on the observation that a propositional understanding of the intentional objects of belief may be inadequate and this may partly be what engenders Gettier-style counter examples to JTB.


[1] Shope, 753-59 (Kindle edition)

[2] Ibid., 769-72 (Kindle edition)

Logic, What is It Good For?

A student in my introductory logic course expressed some frustration with the course this evening asking, “Does logic speak in terms of the English language??” Another student amplified that frustration. She replied, “Apparently not. I rather thought Philosophy was not all formulas.” I took both of their comments as a frustration with the relevance of logic. What good are all these formulas and terms and how do they relate to “real life?” Below is my response.

What do you think of how I answered them?

Symbolic logic is a system that symbolizes the structure of thought. A formal language (like English) symbolizes things in the world. So for example, the word "tree" is a symbol for a class of things in the world, namely, all trees. The sentence "That tree." is meant to specify a particular tree when used by a speaker to pick out an object in the world. It's still symbolic. Of course a formal language can be used to symbolize other things including other symbols (think of poetry here).

But logic symbolizes how ideas should relate to one another. So modus ponens for example symbolizes how two things should properly relate to each other in thought. If p then q, p, therefore q essentially is a symbolic representation for the relationship p ought to stand to q in order thought. Just like a formal language has a grammar ("a singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject takes a plural verb"), ideas have a grammar and that's captured in logic.

Ideally, as you learn the grammar of ideas, you'll become better at seeing and using those relationships to make arguments. Here's an example.

Suppose you want to get me to believe that Apple makes the best computers on the market. I ask you why. You could say, "I dunno, they just do." or "You'd have to be stupid not believe that." or "Because apples grow on trees and that's what makes them good." You've given me no reason why I should believe Apple computers are better than other kinds of computers. So, in a sense, our conversation really can't go anywhere.

But suppose you give me a modus ponens argument. You say, "If a computer maker uses the highest quality materials in their workmanship, their computers will be better than everyone else's. Apple uses the highest quality materials in their workmanship. So Apple computers are better than everyone else's." Now we have something to discuss. I can disagree that highest quality materials are the only factor in "being the best" (your first premise) or that Apple uses the highest quality materials (your second premise) etc.

For this to work you don't have to think to yourself, "I must now give a modus ponens argument." just like you don't generally think, "In order to write a complete sentence, I must have a noun, a verb, and an object." Once you learn English grammar well enough, you just write complete sentences. The same should be true of logic. Once you master the rules, the "proper" formation of arguments will just come naturally.

So in once sense, you can think of early studies in logic as an elementary grammar for ideas. If it feels odd or "fake" and disconnected from the real world, it might be because you're learning a new grammar. If you just started studying English grammar for the first time (without knowing another language) it too would most likely feel fake (what does noun, verb, and object have to do with anything? you might think in a sort of non-linguistic way—assuming that’s possible). If you invest in this though and stick with it, it will pay off.

The Gettier Problem: A Study--Part 3

Which Condition Isn’t Met?

The basis of the tripartite analysis of knowledge begins not with truth but with belief. Typically, philosophers view knowledge as a species with belief being the genus. Knowledge is belief that has been modified or strengthened or improved upon. Belief, then, is the basis of the structure of knowledge and any analysis of knowledge has to include a robust account of what it means to believe. Many Gettier cases end up not being about belief at all and this is where they go wrong. The cases exchange terms about belief but end up describing a problem about the relations between the terms in the case and not about what the person described in the case actually is said to believe. Many cases run afoul based on an equivocation of terms used to describe propositional belief and an actual description of the contents of what the believer actually has as the object of belief.

By way of illustration, let’s look at Gettier’s first case[1] in which he describes Smith coming to have good evidence that the following proposition is true,

P1: Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

He then comes to believe

P2: The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket

based on the fact that P2 is entailed by P1. Gettier tells us that Smith is clearly justified in believing P2 based on the evidence that he has accrued in coming to believe P1. As it turns out, Smith ends up getting the job and Smith has ten coins in his pocket. Thus P2 is true, Smith believes it, and Smith is justified in believing it. But our intuitions are clear: Smith does not have knowledge.

On the surface, Gettier’s scenario seems to present a clear case against the sufficiency of JTB. Smith has justified, true, belief but clearly doesn’t have knowledge so JTB is inadequate. But if we examine the belief component in light of Gettier’s case, something has gone wrong with the case, not with JTB. Gettier tells us that Smith believes P2 and is justified in so believing because of his justified belief in P1. The difference between P1 and P2 is that the particular term “Jones” in P1 has been replaced with the general term “the man” in P2. The claim is that Smith believes both. But what does Smith actually believe when it comes to P2? It seems he could believe one of three things.

Smith could believe that “the man” refers to Jones where the referent of the term picks out the specific person Jones. In other words, when Smith uses the term “the man” the content of his belief is the specific person Jones and the two linguistic elements “the man” and “Jones” have the same referent. Insofar as what Smith believes, the term “the man” does not refer to any other human being. If this is the case, then Smith ends up not having knowledge precisely because he does not have justified, true, belief and not because he has justified, true, belief but requires something else in addition. His belief was not about something true, namely, he believed that Jones would get the job.

We might also read this case such that “the man who will get the job” refers to Smith himself such that the content of his belief references only the person Smith. In this case, Smith would not have knowledge either because he was not justified in believing “The man [Smith] who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.” He had no evidence to support this belief. JTB remains intact and the belief fails to be knowledge because Smith is not justified in believing that he will get the job.

A final option is that Smith could believe that “the man who will get the job” refers to any man whatever. The content of the belief has no specific referent and means something like “whoever gets the job will have ten coins in his pocket.” Remember the claim here is that this is what Smith believes. But again, it should be clear that if this is Smith’s belief, he fails to have knowledge on JTB because Smith had no evidence whatever that any man with ten coins in his pocket would get the job; as with option 2, he was not justified in his belief.

In Gettier’s original argument, Smith derived the belief “the man who will get the job” from the justified belief “Jones will get the job.” In making this move, Gettier seems no longer to be analyzing the content of Smith’s beliefs. Gettier analyzes Smith’s knowledge in terms of the generalized sentence “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” where the term “the man” in the sentence can refer to any man whatever. But JTB describes what Smith must believe in order to have knowledge and, assuming Smith is rational, it seems entirely misguided to think that, for Smith, the term “the man who will get the job” has no specific referent or different referents depending on who gets the job. However, on any reading of the case where we’re concerned with Smith’s beliefs, we have no reason to believe Smith has knowledge and no reason to believe JTB is in any way inadequate. In each case, Smith has not met the requirements of JTB and that is why he does not know.

Admittedly, the description above is imprecise and addresses perhaps the simplest and most straightforward of the Gettier-style examples. It also doesn’t account for a number of epistemic tools on which we rely and ones that we most likely want to preserve: things like entailment relations in first-order logic. As noted above, there are many solutions that easily deal with Gettier’s original cases but fail with more complex cases and some of the more creative examples that deserve to be labeled Gettier-style cases. In order to see if the above account can be applied to the more complex cases, it will be necessary to articulate the above argument in more precise language and then apply the argument to further cases.


[1] Edmund Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge” in Analysis 23 (1963). Reprinted in Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske, Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 13-15

CFP: Edinburgh ‘Aims of Inquiry and Cognition’ Conference

The Epistemology Research Group in Edinburgh will be hosting a conference next May on ‘The Aims of Inquiry and Cognition’. Invited speakers include Ted Sider (Cornell), Carolyn Price (Open University), Asbjørn Steglich-Pedersen (Aarhus), Stephen Grimm (Fordham) & Kristoffer Ahlstrom (Copenhagen). There’s a call for papers here. There’s also a rudimentary conference webpage here, on which further details about the conference will be posted in due course.

Reposted from Certain Doubts

The Gettier Problem: A Study-Part 2


A Brief Remark on Intuitions and Gettier Cases

Gettier cases assume a particularist methodology in that they appeal to our intuition about what knowledge consists of. When encountering a Gettier case, we tend to say, “I may not know why, but that’s not a case of knowledge.” Pure intuitions are quite different, however, from intuitions that have been shaped by study or influence. 5585-WWU_smAn epistemologist who has studied the question of knowledge deeply may no longer be able to look at a specific case with virgin eyes. Her “intuition” may be deeply affected by what she consciously has come to learn about what knowledge should be or what she may be committed to in her theory. If this is true, then it might explain why Gettier cases continue to get more and more complex and why each case—and its subsequent solutions--may feed a new set of intuitions giving birth to new cases.

In an introductory philosophy course that I’ve taught for many years, at the beginning of each quarter I ask each batch of new students to create three columns on a sheet of paper and write “Faith,” “Belief,” and “Knowledge” at the top of each column. I then ask them to fill in the columns with examples from their own noetic structure. We then review the list. The knowledge column generally tends to contain the least number of items but typically contains things like “I am sitting in a chair” or “We are now located in Seattle” and the like. Being a philosophy professor, I forcefully challenge their knowledge column providing irrefutable evidence (at least irrefutable for beginning philosophy students) that they actually don’t know what they claim to know. When I then ask if they would like to change their minds, some students will easily move items from the “Knowledge” column to the “Belief” column now realizing they were “mistaken.”

This admittedly anecdotal experiment illustrates a difficulty in dealing with Gettier cases. The cases themselves demand that we rely on intuition in order to “see” that such cases do not constitute knowledge yet the intuitions we’re expected to appeal to are not pure and most likely are as varied as the people have them[1]. The more one studies Gettier cases, the more likely one may abandon their particularist intuitions and employ more of a methodist analysis simply because they know so much. I preface my own response to Gettier with this caveat. For my own intuitions are quite strong about why Gettier cases go wrong. But I fully acknowledge that my reader may not share them.


[1] This may be why solving the Gettier problem tends to be so difficult. William Lycan goes further warning, “It is well to remind ourselves that no effort of analytic philosophy to provide strictly necessary and sufficient conditions for a philosophically interesting concept has ever succeeded.” (William G. Lycan, “On the Gettier Problem problem”) Lycan’s ominous claim applies not only to Gettier problems but to many problems in philosophy and is worth remembering at the beginning of this study to avoid too much frustration at the end.

The Gettier Problem: A Study-Part 1


Gettier – What’s the Problem?

Philosophers who believe that Gettier-style arguments pose a substantial problem for the tripartite theory of knowledge vastly outnumber those who do not. In this series, I’m going to throw my lot in with the latter group and argue that Gettier arguments do not present substantial counterexamples to the justified true belief theory of knowledge as commonly construed. I will argue that while Gettier arguments do surface some problems in epistemology, they do not undermine JTB. Specifically, I will argue that JTB describes the justification of beliefs while Gettier arguments merely show the limitations of language that reference beliefs. I will argue that most Gettier-style counterexamples fail to make a distinction between a proposition (or a statement that exemplifies a proposition) and beliefs about or of propositions.

Treatments of the Gettier problem are expansive, complex, and varied. In his excellent article “Conditions and Analyses of Knowing,” [1] Robert Shope places responses into 5 distinct classes each class having multiple variations. In general, philosophers tend to attack the problem by attempting to amend or shore up the justification condition or by attempting to establish a (heretofore elusive) “fourth condition.” It will be useful to rehearse Shope’s taxonomy in order to better categorize my own response in light of the current literature.

Under the largest category which Shope titles, “Challenges to the Justification Condition” he outlines two main sub-classes elucidating problems with each. Causal theories attempt to demonstrate that the justification condition is unnecessary by arguing that knowledge consists of beliefs that are directly caused by the object of the belief. Some have tried to add a “nonaccidentality requirement” which states that the causal chain that is responsible for the belief not include any causes that might accidentally bring about the belief in question.

Others have attempted to analyze Getter cases in terms of reliability requirements. These models have the belief being formed by way of reliable processes but not necessarily starting from the event or state of affairs that the belief is about. A variation on the model (which Shope labels “Reliable Indicator analyses”) does include the target event or state of affairs and views the connection between belief and its target as the indicator of the strength of the causal chain. A third variation (“Conclusive Reasons analyses”) uses subjunctive conditionals to state the reliability factor: if not h then S would not believe that h (this is one example among many variants).

Shope then considers analyses done in terms of defeasibility. This class and the two that follow attempt to add a fourth condition to the standard account. Shope describes a defeasibility condition as one that describes the impact that a hypothetical circumstance (typically stated in the form of a subjunctive conditional) might have on an aspect of the knower’s epistemology if that circumstance brought the knower, unsuspectingly, into some relation with a true proposition or propositions.

Before providing his own analysis, Shope reviews two more approaches the first of which are analyses in terms of virtue epistemology. On Shope’s read, virtue-based solutions involve reference to characteristics true of the knower rather than merely of the process of coming to believe. Reliabilist theories would fall under virtue analyses on this read. A more specific type virtue analysis involves a deontological component and would include “some positive normative characterization” of the way the knower goes about attaining epistemic goals.

Plantinga gets his own category in the final approach in Shope’s list. Plantinga’s proper functionalism combines elements of reliabilism and virtue epistemology but includes the idea of belief producing mechanisms aimed at truth in the proper environment as a background requirement.

Shope carefully explains that each approach above deals with a certain subset of cases but no approach deals with all variants of Gettier-style examples. As he unpacks each view, he isolates a variant that each solution fails to address. In addition to Gettier’s original two cases, Shope isolates 11 new strains (with clever titles like “Neurotic Grabit” and “The Careless Typesetter”) that pose problems for one or more of the solutions he examines. Shope’s own approach contains specific elements of mine so we will examine elements of his solution in a later article. Shope’s detailed survey, however, demonstrates the obvious complexity of an adequate analysis of knowledge and the enormous effort epistemologists have exerted since 1963 in an attempt to answer Gettier.


[1] In this paper, Shope explores the various responses to the Gettier Problem (as well as surveys the critiques of the tripartite theory of knowledge in general). See Robert K. Shope, “Conditions and Analyses of Knowing” in Paul K. Moser, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). For the purposes of this paper, I will assume that the three conditions, justification, truth and belief, are individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for knowledge. My only claim at this point is that whatever belief, truth, and justification turn out to be, one does not have knowledge without meeting all three conditions. When the three conditions are met, one has knowledge.

Philosophy and Obscurity

In the 20 or so years I’ve spent trying to get people to appreciate philosophy, I’ve learned that most people find the discipline irrelevant, obscure, and kind of pointless. The general idea is that philosophy may be fun for some people but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter all that much to how people live and that’s where we really should put our energy. I tend to get verbal pats on the head, and the kind of smiles that one gives to small children who think they are doing something important. Few people I’ve met who aren’t in the discipline think philosophy has any bearing on the things that really matter in life.

I’ve kind of gotten used to it. I’m attempting to write an article for the Huffington Post and had a friend read my draft. His feedback was typical of what I usually get: you don’t draw any conclusions, you don’t take a position, you use a lot of big words that I don’t understand and the like. Of course he was absolutely right—all those things were true. But as I thought about his feedback, I had to admit that they were somewhat intentional. Philosophy is like that. It’s hard to take a hard-and-fast position on topics for which there shouldn’t be hard and fast positions. Big words help consolidate ideas that might take 2 or 3 sentences to describe. Opinions are legion so I try to avoid them. But in order to make my article palatable and relevant to a larger audience I have to break all the rules of philosophy (or become a better writer which is something I know I need to do).

I was browsing through my RSS feeds this evening and I came across a quote that somewhat summarizes the situation. The quote applies to poetry—an equally obscure discipline—but it applies to philosophy just was well. Paul Dirac said:

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite."

In philosophy its exactly the opposite as well. Philosophy attempts to dig into things most of us know and “unpack” them. It tries to go beyond the surface and bring clarity to ideas with a goal of understanding them better. What it ends up doing much of the time is bringing clarity only to other philosophers. Non-philosophers typically ask for a common sense rewording of the philosophical jargon and then respond with, “Oh, I already knew that. You needed all those big words to say that?” followed by the polite and slightly irritated smile and a request for more wine.

In response to the feedback on my paper, I joked to my reviewer that I would just add longer and deeper quotes. “So you like obscurity then . . .” he replied. Maybe I should look into poetry.

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