Selected Minor Works: A Philosophical Exchange, of Sorts

Justin E. H. Smith

(For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com)

Many of us in the 3QD community have witnessed a recent assault on our inboxes from Australians with big ideas. It seems the land down under plays host to a vast network of retired insurance adjustors, used-car salesmen, accounts payable clerks, etc., who believe, against all probability, that they have discovered a number of very grand truths about the meaning of life, the right path for humanity’s future, etc. They live off their wives’ paychecks, sit in their pj’s in their basement romper rooms (at least this is how I imagine them), and post grandiose proclamations in tortured English about the decline of civilization, the one true path towards renewal, and (you guessed it) the deplorable takeover of the universities by postmodern feminist leftist brainwashers. They self-publish their ruminations, and declare that the lack of interest on the part of university presses can only have to do with the dangerousness, the epoch-making potency, of what they have to say.

I have long been fascinated with autodidactic self-styled “philosophers.” I always think to myself when I encounter them: it’s not like it takes a genius to be a real philosopher. I got my Ph.D. in the thick of a six-year haze of pointless partying, all-consuming “relationships” with people whose names I’ve since forgotten, and the usual twenty-something bon-vivantism that is at such great odds with the truly committed life of the mind. And here I am some years later, not exactly up there with Habermas in terms of the influence my proclamations carry, but also not down there with the cranky and alienated writers of letters to editors at small-time local newspapers, railing against tax-and-spend liberals, the immodesty of teen pop stars, etc. So why, oh why, would anyone choose the parasitic social role of the self-trained loner philosopher, who enjoys none of the social capital of the professional, and who inevitably will be unable to communicate with anyone whose opinion carries any weight at all in society, never having learned the appropriate behavioral and lexical cues that make communication possible? What are the social factors that make these men (and they are always men) possible?

Intrigued (and procrastinating), I responded to an e-mail sent to me by one Philip Atkinson, who had got in touch after reading a 3QD essay in which I acknowledged, innocently enough, that I do not know what philosophy is. I present to you below an abridged transcript of the correspondence that followed.

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Dear Sir,

Further to your confession that despite becoming tenured as a professor of philosophy you have no idea what philosophy is. I have spent the last few years challenging professors of philosophy to define or confess they cannot define what philosophy is. None would meet my challenge, so I am delighted to at last discover a university philosopher who confesses the truth. You are unique.

The purpose of my challenge is to demonstrate that philosophy is now unhelpful but demonstrate that this can be repaired by adopting a simple set of beliefs. And as proof of this claim, by using the proposed set of beliefs I recommend, I can explain the nature of civilization: a phenomenon that has defied all previous attempts at explanation.

So would you please read my claim about philosophy (or civilization) and confirm or refute it.

Kind regards,
Philip Atkinson

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Philip,

I don’t think you quite appreciated the tone or spirit of the essay of mine you are citing. If you had, you would have detected the sense of irony that motivated me to write it, and you also would have understood that my ironic distance from my own discipline is a result of my disappointment with systems of definitions and axioms, such as the one you are promoting.

Yours,
Justin

**

Dear Sir,

Thank you for responding to my letter, your reply is disappointing however. Your confession of ignorance about the nature of philosophy is independent of tone or spirit. No-one knows what philosophy is or what is can be used for; this is the very thing I am trying to repair. It was refreshing to see this simple truth confessed; but now you wish to recant.

You may well feel disappointment with definitions and axioms, but they are an essential part of understanding and everyone uses them, albeit unconsciously. The very meaning of words is axiomatic. The notions I am promoting as axioms of philosophy are easy to understand, and easy to use, unlike the pompous nonsense that generally is expressed by self-declared philosophers. I could sympathise with your disappointment with axioms and premises if I had to listen to the nonsense that now passes for philosophical expression in universities. My work is an attempt to make philosophy useful for everyone. It is an attempt to make the organisation to which we all belong, civilization, understandable.

I have asked you to do what I have asked every self-declared philosopher to do: refute, or confess you cannot refute, my claims. They invariably opt to behave like you and do neither; can’t do one, wont do the other. Please note that your failure to uphold truth is betrayal of your duty, your community, and yourself: but you do keep your job.

Yours sincerely,
Philip Atkinson

**

Philip,

You are not going to get anywhere attempting to communicate with professional philosophers using such a heavy-handed and arrogant approach. Trust me: your website is of absolutely no interest to anyone trained in philosophy. It is not at all surprising that no one has been interested in ‘refuting’ what you have to say. What you have to say seethes with outsider frustration. It is a call for attention, not an invitation to dialogue.

My advice to you –and I mean this sincerely, as advice that will benefit you– is to delete the website, forget everything you think you know, and spend the next 10-15 years of your life reading the great works of philosophy with an unprejudiced spirit: that is, do not read them hoping to confirm what you already think you know. Read them hoping to learn from them. I would recommend starting with Plato’s dialogues. Get back to me then: I will be in my early fifties.

Best wishes,
Justin

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Dear Sir,

Thank you for again responding to my letter, your reply is dishonest however. You make no attempt to answer my simple claims but merely attack my character with innuendo. You publicly confess you do not know what philosophy is, but when this claim wins my attention you try to tell me you did not mean it. So please tell me what philosophy is so that I can recognise a philosophical claim when I see it.

Please note that the truth or falsity of a claim is independent of the character of the author. A claim is either true or false depending upon the claim. If you can refute a single claim that I make, please do, otherwise I will believe you cannot.

Why do you suggest I destroy a simple theory that you cannot contradict? Especially as it clarifies the very subject that you are a professor in.

Kind regards,
Philip Atkinson

**

Philip,

I’m going to try this one more time, because I continue to believe that all of us are capable of developing intellectually, even the most hard-headed.

I did not use any innuendo in my last message. I stated outright, in no uncertain terms, that your website is not interesting. I stand by that. It is wholly and completely without philosophical interest, not just to anyone who is a career philosopher, but to anyone who values subtlety of mind.

If the project is interesting at all, it is so only as a window into the world of a curious product of our society (and I’ve come across many similar cases (you would get along famously with Ronald Jump of Toledo, Ohio)): the autodidactic outsider who retires from an intellectually undemanding career in which he was never able to cultivate stimulating idea-based relationships, and at some point gets it into his head that he has something far more important to say than he in fact does. You fit this demographic to a tee.

I wrote the essay you cite using stylistic and rhetorical techniques about which you appear to know nothing. But fine, let us suppose I meant, literally and bluntly, that I do not know what philosophy is. That does not entail that I do not know what it is not. And I definitely know it is not what you have posted on your website.

When I move into a more serious rhetorical mode, I am indeed confident enough to proclaim a few things about philosophy: it involves, ineliminably, humility and openness, two traits you appear to lack entirely. Socrates is, for example, a philosopher, and again, I think you could learn from him if you would just get over yourself. I think, indeed, there are plenty of professional philosophers working today who are by no means world-historical figures, but who are smart enough and from whom you could learn a thing or two if you were not so arrogant. I’ve learned from many of them, and I do my best to pass on what I’ve learned to my students.

If you insist, then I am happy enough to indulge you in your little fantasy and confess that I cannot “refute” your claims. Does that give you a little thrill? Have you won? If it does give you a thrill, then you really are a hopeless case, and you are certainly no philosopher. I also cannot refute the claims, such as they are, of the lonely souls I meet on the streets of Montreal promoting the ideas of Lyndon LaRouche, Sun Myung Moon, or Rabbi Schneerson. This does not mean that these are good ideas. Indeed it is often the case that the weaker a claim is, the harder it is to engage it substantively: one cannot get a foothold in shared background assumptions, and communication proves impossible. This is why I cannot “refute” your project. I could pick it apart critically, bit by bit (I could, for example, point out that, whatever reality is, it is certainly not, as you claim, a “criterion” of anything), but that would be a commitment that I would only be willing to make to someone who has proven willing to enter into dialog with me. And you do not seem ready to do this.

If on the other hand you find that a victory like this lacks dignity, then, again, I repeat my advice: go learn from some people who have managed to say some profound and insightful things, and get back to me in a decade or so.

Best wishes,
Justin

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Dear Sir,

Thank you for again responding to my letter, your reply is silly however. Instead of replying to my simple questions, whose answers are crucial, again you digress.

Whether a subject is interesting to a reader or not is only of concern to that reader; it has no bearing on the truth or falsity, importance or unimportance, of the ideas in question. So why bring up such a claim? You keep using a term whose meaning you do not know, cannot define and therefore cannot understand. This must mean you do not know what you are talking about whenever you use the term philosophy; no statement you make using the word philosophy has a sensible meaning. And when you claim “I definitely know it is not what you have posted on your website” you are lying. Unless you can refute a claim, you cannot know if it is true or false.

The popular opinion that the public have about philosophers is that they are pompous, tiresome, fools who spend their time demonstrating that black is white. My simple theory, that you cannot refute, not only confirms this view but offers a way of making philosophy useful. You can neither refute my simple claims nor answer simple questions; this is evidence of your inadequacy; but you do not have the courage to admit your inadequacy.

I apologise for asking you to do something that is beyond your ability.

Philip Atkinson

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Philip,

OK: your claims are false (as well as uninteresting). Reality is not a criterion of anything; truth is a relation that obtains between a belief and a state of affairs in the world, and so cannot itself be a belief; philosophy cannot simply be the study of the understanding, because this would leave out other important faculties such as reason, perception, emotion, etc. It would also leave out all areas of philosophy other than epistemology. You might want to collapse all of these faculties into understanding, but the burden is on you to explain how this could be done. You do not do that. If you had read any serious philosophy, you would know about important distinctions such as that between understanding and reason.

“Philosophy” is not a synonym of “civilization” as you indicate in your first message to me. If it were then we would get, by substitution, the odd claim that civilization is the study of understanding, a claim so foolish I don’t think even you would be willing to support it. You say on your “Theory of Civilization” page that “civilization is an understanding”. Well, what is it: is civilization an understanding or is it (by substitution) the study of the understanding?

You say that understanding is the invoking by reason of a set of values, or a morality. But earlier you had said that understanding is the bestowing of meaning. Which is it? If you want to say that these two definitions amount to the same thing, you have to explain how they could. In particular, you would have to explain in what sense the meaning of a word like “the” or “and” has anything to do with morality.

You say that morality (together with knowledge) FORMS truths. That makes you a subjectivist and a relativist about truth (though you probably didn’t intend this). If morality and knowledge form truths, then truth is not an objective state of affairs independent of us, which is something you have been intent on claiming. You are therefore contradicting yourself.

I could go on (and on, and on) explaining all the problems with your claims. But I have rational and thoughtful people to deal with, and that is more rewarding. Your claims are false. They are wrong. And they are the consequence of your apparent total inability to learn from others.

I repeat my advice: if you wish to be a philosopher, you will have to wipe the slate clean and make yourself ready to learn from great philosophical minds. You are not (yet) a great philosophical mind, or even a middling one, but you may have it in you to become one if you are willing to scrap this false and frivolous website of yours and start afresh.

Good luck,
Justin

**

Dear Sir,

Thank you for again responding to my letter, your reply is mistaken however. It is idle merely to state your beliefs as truth, it merely tacitly confirms the notion that all truth is, or is founded upon, a belief or set of beliefs. Hence all reality is the creation of an understanding. And to study understanding is to study the creations of understanding, which includes epistemology – knowledge. As a civilization is an understanding then it is the proper study of philosophy.

You appear to be unable to differentiate between the study of civilization and civilization. Civilization is not philosophy, but the study of civilization is. You again repeat your mistake of using the word philosophy, whose meaning you do not know, to advance an argument. To bestow meaning an understanding has to invoke its values (beliefs), and this process is called reasoning. Reasoning is the manipulation of beliefs.

I explain that morality is the set of values (beliefs) that an understanding uses to recognise right from wrong, which are permanent for the life of the understanding. This is separate from those values an understanding uses to recognise true from false, which are knowledge, and vary depending upon the experience of the understanding.

What is it you cannot understand about this simple explanation of understanding? How do you think you understand, except by using this process?

I can bestow no sensible meaning upon your paragraph claiming I am a subjectivist.

You have failed to refute a single claim; you have only demonstrated an inability to think clearly.

Philip Atkinson

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Philip,

You have proven me wrong in at least one sense: it turns out that some people really are incapable of improving their intellects. I hope you continue to find your project rewarding, and I hope your wife will be willing to continue sponsoring it. Have you asked her, by the way, if she has any interesting ideas about philosophy?

I wish you many years of blissful, ignorant, self-righteous tranquility.

Justin

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