The Third Stupidest Idea
"There's a progress we have found /
A way to talk around the problem"
-R.E.M., "Don't Fall on Me"
In an earlier post, I wrote about the stupidest idea and the second stupidest idea. Now I want to talk about the third stupidest idea. [Remember that I'm using a specific definition of "stupid". "Stupid" doesn't necessarily mean "false".]
The third stupidest idea is so stupid that it's difficult to articulate.
Lots of times, in philosophy, there ideas that are so smart - so insightful, so original, so distinctive, that they are difficult to express and difficult to understand. This is because there is an enormous danger of misunderstanding them. When I'm reading, I have difficulty understanding them: precisely because they are so intelligent and original and distinctive, they've probably never occurred to me before, which means I don't already have the language to describe them built into my brain. So there's an overwhelmingly gigantic possibility that, upon coming across these ideas, I will misrecognize them, mis-identifying them with an idea that has already passed through my brain. Therefore, a skillful writer of philosophy will be at pains to distinguish these original ideas from the banal ideas I already have- a difficult, if not impossible task. It will be tremendously difficult to put these ideas into words. (This mere difficulty should, in itself, point out to us that language isn't all there is to thinking.)
But that's not the problem with the third stupidest idea. The problem with the third stupidest idea is that it is so stupid, that merely to express it is to point out how stupid it is. Indeed, merely to express this idea points out its stupidity so clearly that it reveals itself not to be an idea at all. It is not an idea, really. It is too stupid to be an idea. Sometimes people speak of "half-baked" ideas. This idea is not even half-baked. It is so unbaked that it is completely raw - just a wad of goo that comes apart in your fingers.
I'm worried that I won't be able to express this idea. Someone reading this may think to themselves "I don't really understand what Ian is talking about. I don't get it." But what they're missing is precisely that there's nothing to get. If ever there was one, this is a naked emperor.
But I'll do my best to express it, anyway - to dress it up in smart-enough sounding words that it sounds like there's something there.
Okay, here goes. The third stupidest idea is that you can avoid metaphysics if you [something something something] language. I want to say: the idea is that you can avoid metaphysics if you manipulate language. But people who are in thrall to the third stupidest idea would probably like to avoid the word "manipulate". I'm trying, guys. "Rearrange"? "Carefully choose"?
A corollary, or subordinate idea included in the third stupidest idea is that you can avoid ontology if you [something something something] language. Does that make it a fourth stupidest idea? Well, it's tied for third, and it's really part of the third stupidest idea. In reality, the third stupidest idea is not a single idea, but a whole family tree of related stupid ideas. Perhaps the number of stupid ideas here is infinite, because there are so many different things you could substitute in for the "[something something something]" part. It's probably not actually infinite, but it is very large. This is really not a single stupid idea, but an algorithm for producing stupid ideas.
For instance, here's one example of a stupid idea, an idea so stupid that it barely can be considered an idea at all: the idea that you can solve serious metaphysical questions, simply by asking them the correct way. (To my mind, if you have eliminated the question - that is, in some sense, made it unaskable, this is evidence that you have asked it incorrectly. The goal should be to become more articulate, not less.)
Now, personally, I believe that you can't avoid metaphysics. Period. And specifically, you can't avoid ontology. Those people who claim to be avoiding metaphysics, or ontology, are usually making all kinds of metaphysical and ontological commitments, often without realizing it, and usually committing bad metaphysics, making some obvious metaphysical errors. In my experience, they are not avoiding metaphysics, they are just really bad at it.
Does that mean that it is impossible to avoid metaphysics? No, not really. Is it possible to avoid metaphysics? I don't know. But I doubt it. I certainly don't see how anyone could possibly avoid metaphysics. But maybe that's just the limitation of my own imagination. It's certainly possible that I'm too stupid to understand. At some point in the future, could some human genius will come up with a way to avoid metaphysics? Maybe, maybe not. That sure would be impressive. Even if it turns out that it's impossible for human beings to avoid metaphysics, that doesn't mean that it's impossible in principle to avoid metaphysics. Maybe it's possible for an extremely advanced artificial intelligence, or an alien, or an angel to avoid metaphysics. Maybe. Who knows?
But the idea that you can avoid metaphysics merely by manipulating language seems amazingly stupid. I'm hedging my bets by saying that it "seems" stupid, and by calling this the "third" stupidest idea. Again, "stupid" doesn't mean "false". It's possible that the third most stupid idea is true. I guess, what I'd have to say to a true believer in the third most stupid idea is: prove it. Show me.
But it sure seems unlikely. It seems far more likely that what appears to be the third stupidest idea is actually just the stupidest idea in disguise. The stupidest idea, remember, is that nothing exists except language - which is, of course, a profoundly metaphysical statement. If the third stupidest idea is the first in disguise, then the third stupidest idea did not help us avoid metaphysics. If so, then it is just as metaphysical as what I have called the stupidest idea, only its metaphysics - and its stupidity - are presented in a disguised form, hidden, obscured, made less explicit, less articulate, less clear. Indeed, it is so unclear, so inarticulate, that we may never be able to fully untangle it and reveal it to be the stupidest idea, pure and simple. Since we are defining stupidity here as anything that obstructs our capacity to build the skill of working with the material world, and since this disguise, this obscuring constitutes an obstruction, a frustration of our work, I think one might easily argue that what I have called the third stupidest idea is even stupider than what I've called the stupidest idea. So then I should have retitled this essay, "the stupidest idea," after all. But, again, I'm hedging my bets, and I'm giving those who believe in some version of the third stupidest idea (I'm looking at you, Wittgensteinians) the benefit of the doubt. Prove it. Show me.
To my mind, if we can solve philosophical problems simply by rearranging the symbols that we call words, that implies that the substance of these problems never consisted of anything except words. Which in turn implies that the world is made out of words (or perhaps, as Wittgenstein puts it, more euphemistically, the world consists of "facts").
To my mind, the devotees of the third stupidest idea have not come up with a way of solving problems, but of avoiding problems. But you can't avoid problems forever. Eventually you have to do something.
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