Logic-Chopping, Nitpicking, Quibbling, and such

I keep returning to Alexander Gray’s, The Socialist Tradition (1946) with praise for his scholarship and with reproval for his analyses and emotive disparagements.

As I was reading his account of Robert Owen (pp. 197-217), I came upon the following passage: “Perhaps those parts of his arguments which rest on general humanitarian considerations, rather than on logic-chopping discussions on Man’s will, make a stronger appeal to our generation, if only because here Owen is more universally human.” p. 208.

I want to reflect on this kind of criticism which is expressed by the phrase “logic-chopping” and its near synonym “nitpicking” or “quibbling.”This is criticism of something being done in excess of what is appropriate to the context. And a person who engages in excessive criticism is a “pedant.” And one who is oblivious to a need for any analysis at all and the need to make appropriate distinctions is a “philistine.” [I have put links for the meaning of these words.]

What is too much or too little depends on the context.

I personally have been constantly accused of “nitpicking” because I — almost invariably — ask: “What do you mean?” And I usually ask for the meaning of abstract words which have the suffix “-ism” (and for most political terms for parties and so-called “schools”), but also for the meaning of — what seem to me to be — names of fictions, like “God.”

I suppose the consequence of stirring up controversy in inappropriate contexts is being forced (in a metaphoric way of speaking) to drink hemlock.

Three films which linger with me

I have enjoyed watching many movies, but I can think of only three that have left a deep impression on me. They are: Zorba the Greek, Seven Samurai, and Apocalypto. Now, I am not going to focus on their aesthetic merits, which all three have in abundance, but on their didactic features.

Zorba the Greek reminds me of Nietzshe’s distinction in ancient Greek drama between the Apollonian and Dionysian traits of man. [See: Nietzshe, The Birth of Tragedy] Bates, playing the English gentleman, is full of conventional habits and beliefs which inhibit his emotional life; whereas Quinn, who plays the role of the vagabond Zorba, is in touch with his somewhat uninhibited emotions. What I got from the film is the need to unite — so to say — the head with the heart.

Seven Samurai is about a peasant village in Japan which is yearly assaulted by a band of horsed bandits who extort from the village most of its food supply, leaving them in a miserable condition. The villagers decide to obtain a defense against these yearly intruders by soliciting the help of seven samurai. The result is that in the ensuing defense most of the samurai are killed, but the village is saved. What I got from the film is the crucial need of weapons to defend oneself from enemies.

I value Apocalypto not for any didactic message as for a realistic depiction of historical and cultural realities. First, it depicts the life of hunter/gatherers as happy and fulfilling. To use Marshall Sahlins’ phrase, it depicts an “affluent society.” Second, it depicts the fact that other tribes took slaves; which is how African slaves were obtained by Europeans. Third, it shows a harsh contrast between the life of hunter/gatherers and the life of the inhabitants of the city, who are depicted as crowded, filthy, obedient, and poor. Fourth, the movie depicts the consequences of superstition: human sacrifice.

Together, these movies show the realities of human nature and of life.

My road to escaping from bullshit

Let me start by say something about how I came to appreciate the great benefit of having digitilized books and other media on the internet.

I remember the incident which revolutionized my thinking about the computer. It was sometime in the 1980ies when I was talking to a secretary at Keystone Junior College in Pennsylvania. I complained to her that I was working on a dissertation and had cut up my typed pages into various snippets and was assembling them all across the floor for rearrangement. In response she went to a huge computer and proceded to “cut and paste” written material on a screen. Wow!

Shortly after, I browsed through a book on the Basic programming language, and immediately the similarity to symbolic logic hit me. Shortly after this — I think it may have been 1984 that I bought my first computer, a Kaypro, with two disc drives : one for the operating system (CP/M) and the other for data.

Kaypro II
Released: 1982
Price: US $1595.
Weight: 26 lbs
CPU: Zilog Z80, 2.5 MHz
RAM: 64K
Display: 9″ green phosphor screen. 24 X 80 text only
Ports: Serial port Parallel port
Storage: Two internal 5-1/4″ SS-DD 195K drives

Soon I learned that there was a competitor operating system (DOS) on IBM computers, and a whole row of IBM clones was on the market. And the Kaypro company abandoned CP/M and went over to DOS.

I witnesses the emergence of the internet with a browser called Lynx (text-only), with which I learned to access a library catalog. Wow!

And then I bought an IBM clone which ran Windows 3.1, and soon came a browser from Cornell called Cello which introduces images. Wow!

Then came the web browser Mosaic in 1993 (with sound?), and the Web sprouted for me, followed by the brower Netscape, AOL, and the Internet Explorer — and here we are.

In 1990 I received my Ph.D. degree in Philosophy from Fordham University in Bronx, NY. One remark of one of the philosophers on the defense committee made a deep impression on me. He said something like this: “Too bad that such a fine dissertation will sit in the bookshelves picking up dust.”

I don’t remember the date, but I noticed that a graduate student at the University of Chicago was given space on the university’s computers for philosophical projects. I contacted him and received some space which I turned into a Wilfrid Sellars site. Soon however I purchased the domain “ditext.com” (url search reports 1998 as the year of registration) and transferred the material to this domain, giving my main web page the title “Digital Text International.”

Seeing the international reach of the internet, my ambition was to make everything about Sellars available, refusing to let my dissertation and other works “pick up dust on a library shelf.” And I was inspired to do other projects — like the Meta-Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

However, my sort of endeavor to make literature available on the internet has totally been superseded by such depositories as Wikipedia, Gutenberg, Archive.org

Since moving to Chicago in 1999, and discovering anarchism (which was never mentioned in any of my courses — ever), I have become an advocate of anarchism. And since bibliographies on anarchism, Switzerland, secession, and land rights are not sufficient to inspire readers, I decided a couple of years ago to do a Blog, in which I propagate my views. You see, while teaching introductory courses in philosophy at Wright College, Chicago, I came to realize from all my informal writings that I have ever done that my concern — private and philosophical — has always been to escape from bullshit.

Can one escape from bullshit?

It was while I was teaching introductory courses in logic and philosophy at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, that I got the idea that the core of philosophy has always been escaping from bullshit. Of course, philosophers almost never used the word “bullshit” — though they used something like its cognates: absurd, nonsense, ridiculous, invalid, fallacious, moonshine, etc.

Socrates — to go to the beginning of philosophy — would simply assist his companions in dialogue to note that their hypotheses led to contradictions; which meant, of course, that their hypotheses were wrong, or, in other words . . .

Now I have always been careful not to claim that one can actually escape from bullshit. I deliberately use the word “escaping,” which means that one is trying to escape — only to the extent of having plans which may or may not be realizable.

But to evaluate something as being bullshit, one has to have a knowledge of the criteria of evaluation: one has to have some facility in clarity of language (i.e., as Stuart Chase put it: to be wary of the tyranny of words), general knowledge of the state of the world (i.e., an informed Weltanschuung), and an ability — as Susan Stebbing, in step with Robert H. Thouless, said — to spot twisted and crooked thinking.

What is extremely difficult to change are bullshit political and economic institutions. The greatest immediate danger is the ecological one. The ice caps are melting and the Brazilian rainforest is burning. The UN recognizes these dangers, and is calling for a Summit, September 23, 2019, in New York.

Now, our ecological problems are directly linked to the fact of human overpopulation. More people; the need for more resources and products. The more production, the greater pollution. However, nothing is really done about this — or even discussed.

And why not? Because the world is run by capitalism which controls governments and most of the mass media, and whose only interest is profit.

So, the situation is like this. If you were a slave, how could you escape? If you were a serf, how could you escape? And if you are a proletarian, how do you escape?

Individual escape is possible, but how does one change the institutions for the benefit of all?

Identifying default intellectuals

Richard Wolff keeps repeating that in trying to assess the merits of some claim, it is wise to listen to the proponents and the opponents of the claim. His interest is in the evaluation of capitalism. However, he does not tell us who he thinks is the best proponent of capitalism, but he does tell us that a formidable opponent of capitalism was Karl Marx.

Well, I am not ready to become a Marx scholar — there is too much to read. I want some trustworthy intellectual to tell me in a succinct formulation what I should learn from Marx. Who should I listen to?

And the above reasoning applies to all claims. The problem is this. It is living people who are writing and speaking on popular media and making an impact. And this is what creates something like “current popular opinions.” Couple this with a belief that the new is better than the old — a sort of belief in the inevitability of progress — and the “old” is placed in the dustbin of the antiquated.

It is true that the natural sciences and technologies advance, but this does not seem to be true of the moral and social studies where there is ongoing controversy.

To deal with this problem, I have sought to find intellectuals who have an aura of wisdom and authority. In the past — until the scientific revolution — Plato and Aristotle played such a role. They acted as a “benchmark” for evaluating claims. A few years ago I advocated treating the views of the British philosopher C. D. Broad for this role of a “benchmark,” giving the name “default philosopher” to such a role.

This is not to deprive other philosophers of a high status, but the fact remains that someone who lives later and can critically evaluate the scholarship of the past — has an advantage, provided he has done so well.

For topics not dealth with by C. D. Broad, I would extend the status of a default philosopher to Bertrand Russell.

As to present global affairs — involving war, economics, and politics — the current “default intellectual” — if I may use this phrase — is, for me: Noam Chomsky.

What is the practical implication of this view? One should read Chomsky, and when listening or reading where a claim is made about present global affairs, ask yourself: What is Noam Chomsky view on this?