'The Sentiment of Rationality'
You suggested that we try some episodes on readings. And so, this is our first
attempt on a reading and a reading you picked and the reading is…
William James' The Sentiment of Rationality. Maybe let me say what I think it
says, like really quickly.
And then we can talk about it. It says a bunch of things but I think the main
point is that philosophers in coming up with their conception, their big
theory are solving a kind of constrained optimization problem, where they're
trying to optimize, like, both for clarity and for unity, at the same time.
And that's a difficult problem, because those things pull against each other.
So, unity is getting one overarching account that fits everything. And he
connects up unity, in fact, with identity that you really only like connected
to things, if you see them as in some sense of the same thing. The moon is the
same as an apple and that they're both round. But then on the other side is
clarity. And clarity is the kind of concreteness that goes with being able to
grasp something with your mind in such a way that you've captured exactly it.
And so, he says, he uses the word representability. He says, it's that of
clarity, but I think what he means by representability is imaginability.
So, getting an account of each thing that does justice to the way in which
that thing is distinctive, that's clarity. And if identity is associated with–
if identification is associated with unity, then association is associated
with clarity, that is, when we grasp each thing clearly, we might see that
there's another thing nearby, but those two things are going to be different
that can be merely associated. Right?
So insofar as you're really into clarity, and like he cites Hume as a
philosopher who's really into clarity, you're going to tend towards thinking
that things are associated but ne resistant to identifying them. Insofar as
you're really into unity, you're going to be with a rationalist, Spinoza,
Leibniz, Kant, right? Then you're going to you're going to think things are so
to speak identified on the inside. So, this is James's basic framework for
like what philosophers are doing. There's more in the paper but I think that's
the basic point.
So, of course, I read the paper too. And I agree with roughly what you said.
He said there's unifying and clarifying. And these are two big things that we
want to do. He poses them as sort of a psychological impulse, that we just
sort of really want to do them. And he contrasts the philosopher's having a
stronger impulse than other practical people so he seems to suggest this isn't
an entirely practical and enterprise, it's some sort of philosophical impulse
to do both of these things.
He is interested in whether there are limits and so in the unification and he
postulates plausibly that eventually you reach some brute facts, which are
just facts and different than– and that can't be unified and that you'll have
to accept that. But he says, “We won't accept it and we'll just keep
psychologically pushing on anyway.” It doesn't seem to say whether there are
limits to clarification though, although, you know, in some sense, if there
were this key trade-off, there might be but I'm less convinced there is such a
fundamental trade-off between the two, I think you can try to achieve both.
He doesn't seem to give enough appreciation to sort of the practical useful
benefits of being able to find meaning and understand the universe. Because I
guess he seems to think that philosophers go beyond that. At some point, he
says that, simplifying is great to the extent things are actually simple. But
beyond that, that was just philosophers indulging themselves in simplifying
when reality isn't actually simple. And then of course, you might disapprove
that extra, you know, so I– there's an old famous quote from Einstein, I think
our theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. And sounds like
he's thinking we might go beyond to be too simple.
And he's got a lot of pop shots along the way against various philosophers of
his age and people that he thinks is too sloppy or too grandiose and
everything else. Like he criticizes Hegel for like unifying too much and not
having enough discipline to notice that there are really differences or
But anyway, the points that I would disagree with him would be again, for
explorer, are there limits to clarification, in addition to limits to
unification? And is this stuff actually more useful than he gives credit for?
And can we like, just – is it all to be attributed to psychological urges to
just want to– I mean, he talks about somebody wanting to organize a deck of
cards, make it like pretty. That's what philosophy is, it's just this
obsession to sort of make things, it’s like obsessive compulsive people
wanting to put all the things in a row and making sure they're spaced evenly
apart and facing the same way, and they get really upset if one of them is
faced the wrong way. I mean, he's kind of presenting philosophy as it was just
this sort of unique, rare obsession with a certain kind of compulsive
Yeah. So, I think that's roughly right. I think that one thing is he is
restricting his topic here to reason in its theoretical aspect, right? And
he's very clear that like, he would say very different things, if he were
talking about ethics, if you're talking about the use of any of this, he
thinks that's a different topic. Right? So, he thinks that sometimes people
engage in reasoning with no practical end in view. He doesn't think that's the
best or most important or whatever kind of reasoning, and he talks a lot about
the other kind of elsewhere. He's just restricted his topic. So, he talks
about that in the beginning of the end of the paper, right? So, you know,
So, I think we should relieve him from the need to explain what the practical
benefits are. Because he's just wants to grant that just sometimes, we think,
we engage in thinking, right, but not because of like, the action that's going
to issue from that thinking. And he's wants to study that activity. And he
thinks that it's very hard to get any kind of grip on what would count as like
success in that sort of activity, except for like, some kind of– there'd have
to be some kind of psychological registering of the success, right? You have
to know that you achieved it. And so that's why he frames it in terms of what
is the sentiment of rationality? What does it feel like when you've
accomplished rationality? The action– because we're not aiming at that, right?
Right to engage with that is, it seems to me that the prospect of making sense
of the world, which he's roughly talking about, finding ways in which
apparently different things really are underlying the same is a very useful
common practice that we do in our personal lives, and in academia in general,
and if philosophers do it, all the better. So, I would mostly look for the
rationale for it, and the structures of it in that useful purpose of it.
I don't– I think if you try to divorce this practice from its useful purpose,
and then you ask why, you know why we do it one way or another, you'll be
missing the sort of the main structure which would be, well, presumably, we
have habits of doing these things in many contexts, because those habits are
useful. And if we apply those same habits outside of – in a context where it's
harder to judge, presumably we’ll still be applying the same habits, because
they're the habits that work elsewhere.
So, and James wants to say like, this is why not many people are interested in
philosophy, because it involves ignoring all the things. He says, "This is why
so few human beings truly care for Philosophy. The particular determinations
which she ignores are the real matter exciting other aesthetic and practical
needs, quite as potent and authoritative as hers. What does the moral
enthusiast care for philosophical ethics? What does the Aesthetik of every
German philosopher appear to the artist? Why does it appear to the artist like
the abomination of desolation? What these men need is a particular counsel,
and no barren, universal truism."
OK, so James wants to sort of grant like, the thing he's talking about is a
very niche activity, very niche mental activity that is not useful in all
sorts of ways. And for that very reason, most people are going to have no
interest in it. James thinks it's interesting anyway, and it's worth thinking.
I don't want to grant that it's not useful. Why not? So, he gives many
concrete examples of unifying things and great– many of them look like quite
useful examples of unifications of things. He talks about sort of things that
produce a distorted view. And thinking of them as all having a common effect
of light waves changing speed in a medium. And that's very useful.
He even talks about say, the parts of a flower as modified leaves. And he
tries to give that as example as of like completely useless sort of
categorization, but it sounds actually pretty useful in biology. He tried to
talk about sort of Darwinian, talking about two things that's similar if they
had common ancestors as if that was almost useless but of course, that's
terribly useful way to think about how [0:10:07] [Indiscernible] people think
Oh, I don't think he thinks that's useless. I think he thinks that that's the
move that when you go from classification to explanation, he says, to find the
common ancestor, because that allows you to identify the two things. I think
he's suspicious of the sort of Darwinian Monism, right? The [0:10:25]
Yes. And he's suspicious of physics monism, and in the intervening decades,
intervening century, those have won out pretty spectacularly. So, the kind of
unification that he is being skeptical about here has been very useful and
profitable intellectually. So, this isn't at all useless.
As it went out philosophy, so I think, and I think he's actually already
granting that it is one out in his own time outside of philosophy. Maybe it
will be helpful to get to this question of what– is there a limit to
Because I think there is. So, like, I think that the kind of mystery of this
paper is that on the one hand, James is saying, "Look, philosophy, there
exists a weird niche activity of going in for a certain kind of absolute
unity, but not buying it too cheaply. The boor– the boorest person gets unity
cheaply, right? The philosopher gets it more expensive, and that– basically,
that's what James says, is the difference between them.
But the– you might think, well, what if we just didn't go in for this unity
thing? Like, what if we just went for clarity, right, and didn't worry too
much about unity? And what he says in like, section, I think that's what
section seven of this paper is about. It's about how actually you need to do
philosophy, like everyone does at least some philosophy.
Which page are we on?
So, like, go to page like 339.
So, this is in Section seven, right?
Just easily look at the page numbers as I scan through.
Yeah, OK. 339. So, he says... So right, like two-thirds of the way through the
page, enough simplicity remains however, do you see that?
OK, I'm going to read that bit. “Enough simplicity remains, however, and
enough urgency in our craving to reach it, to make the theoretic function –
and here he just means the philosophical function, one of the most invincible
and authoritative of human impulses. All ages have their intellectual
populace. That of our own day prides itself particularly on its love of
Science and Facts and its contempt for all metaphysics. Just weaned from the
Sunday-school nurture of its early years and with the taste of the Catechism
still in its mouth, it is perhaps not surprising that its palate should lack
discrimination and fail to recognize how much of Ontology is contained in the
nature, force and necessary law, how much mysticism in the awe, progress and
loyalty to truth or whatever the other phrases may be with which it's
sweetened its rather meager fair of fragmentary physiology and physics.”
OK. What's he saying there? He's saying, we all do philosophy, we just don't
necessarily notice when we're doing it. Right. And so that's why he goes on to
say it just on the next page, there's no such thing as doing no metaphysics.
There's just such a thing as doing good metaphysics and trashy metaphysics.
And what most people do, what most scientists do is what James wants to call
trashy metaphysics, which is to say, using concepts like in nature and force
and using them in a kind of mystical way, but not noticing that you're doing
that, and thus thinking that you've somehow, you've somehow been able to sort
of set aside this philosophical itch or urge for unity.
So, he's criticizing, in essence, sloppy or unthoughtful use of many terms and
concepts. And therefore, in his mind, correctly, there would be work to do to
try to clarify those concepts, then he would be thinking himself and his
colleagues is doing that work. And I'm happy to grant that that sounds
completely correct, that his people in his time and even today, using words
like that are being sloppy, in ways that we might hope we could be more
precise and clear about, if we thought about it.
But that doesn't suggest a limit to that. That how far we could go with that.
In the way– so when he talks about unification, I think he makes a more
plausible argument that in fact, what you just can't, in the end, unify
everything, they will end up being those intrinsic contingencies. I mean he
talks about in physics, even if you make everything part of the same physical
nature, there'll be sort of the initial conditions of the universe and you
won't have unified those.
And you know, that's quite plausible. But for clarification, he doesn't offer
an argument that you couldn't keep going in that direction. And this passage
certainly doesn't suggest, I mean, this passage to me suggests that, you know,
more work has to be done, and he's calling for more continue to work on those
Well, I don't think he wants to deny that there are limits– that he wants to
assert that there's limits to clarification in the sense that we get more and
more clear. The point is, what he wants to say here is that you couldn't just
do clarification and forget about the urge towards ultimate unity. That is,
the philosopher has this impulse to unify everything, right? And that impulse
creates, like, kind of metaphysical monsters, like the idea of substance,
right, the idea of being itself, whatever. And you might think you could just
do without those metaphysical monsters. You could just be a hard-headed
And what he's trying to point out in this passage is those people have their
metaphysical monsters too, they just don't notice it. A Philosopher is the
person you go weird that they're doing philosophy.
Sure. OK. But that's just saying that in the process of trying to do
unification, you will need to do clarification. And many people have chosen a
scope for their thought where they think it's all clear and they don't realize
there's a whole bunch of other concepts that they aren't being very clear on
that. Eventually, they will have to integrate, and in that eventual
integration, a unification will require that they clarify those other
concepts, and so…
But that would be saying that the effort to unify will eventually force people
to clarify more. It doesn't say that you couldn't have a motivation just to
clarify and not to unify. If you were that sort of person, you might claim
that those people don't exist. But still, they are, in principle, two separate
efforts one can do and maybe one is limited, but the other isn't.
Yeah. I mean, one thing that's a sort of theme that runs through this piece is
like, there are no essences. The essence of everything is relative to some
interest and purpose, right? It shows up in a lot of places, in footnotes too
I don't think it's right. He keeps repeating that, but in fact, like he makes
fun of, say, physicists who will try to sort of, you know, if you have a bunch
of concepts, they want to find a concept, such that it would be a thing you
could see in a microscope, right? And he distinguishes that, you know,
something could be white, and it could be noisy, and it could be fluffy, etc.
And most of the properties of objects we have around us aren't properties that
you might expect to see in a microscope. But he says physicists are obsessed
with this idea of finding properties you could see in a microscope and then
using those properties to explain all the other properties. And he thinks
that– he seems to suggest that it's a bit arrogant and presumptuous.
But that's exactly right, it's exactly the process, people have successfully
used quite well, to find the more fundamental descriptions. And I think that
it's correct that those properties you can see in a microscope have been the
most successful way to figure out, how to think about materials and objects.
And it isn't just, you know, it depends on your purposes for that is good for
pretty much all purpose.
So, I think he's making fun of something quite a bit more specific. And it is
a trend in his own time to talk about, like, mental molecules, so like
molecules of thought. And the reason he's making fun of this, he thinks it's a
certain kind of, like hypertrophy of the desire for clarity that you have to
be you're so into grasping that you can only grasp even the abstract as being
concrete. And I have to read his most hilarious example here. Right? So, he
Where are we?
This work... this is on page 323. But I'm about to turn the page, right.
Psychologie réaliste, by P. Sièrebois, OK, it says, “It is maintained that our
ideas exist in us in a molecular condition, and are subject to continual
movements… Their mobility is as great as that of the molecules of air or any
gas. When we fail to recall a word, it is because our ideas are hid in some
distant corner of the brain whence they cannot come to the muscles of
articulation, or else they have lost their ordinary fluidity. These ideal
molecules – he's now quoting – are material portions of the brain, which
differs from all other matter precisely in this property whence it possesses
of subdividing itself into very attenuated portions which easily take on the
likeness in form and quality of all external objects.”
Now, James comments, “In other words, when I utter the word “rhinoceros” an
actual little microscopic rhinoceros gallops towards my mouth.” So actually,
he's making fun of the idea that the mental has to be understood as the
physical in order for the mind– we can grasp the idea of a rhinoceros and so
the idea of a rhinoceros also has to look like a rhinoceros.
So, in economics, that's, you know, made fun of through the phrase physics
envy, that is, physics has been so successful and other sciences try to mimic
physics in their style and concepts and approaches. And so, that's what that
looks like. Here, he's saying, OK fine, that may work fine in physics, but
it's just not going to work very well in psychology, stop trying so hard to,
you know, structure everything as if your mind was more like the physical
systems you're trying to analyze, which is correct. I mean, that is, even
today, our best ways to think about the mind don't look much like the way we
analyze materials in terms of molecules. That's quite correct.
But it still doesn't mean that when we eventually analyze the mind well, there
won't be some sort of key concepts that a way you want to think about it that
help you explain all the other concepts. It wouldn't necessarily be true that,
you know, there's just, it's just arbitrary, which concepts of the mind you
focused on, depending on what your purposes are. If there's actually a real
structure there, then knowing that real structure is key to lots of different
It's not at all clear to me, if you were to try to pick which scientist is
most concerned with clarity, as over against unity. I don't think I'd pick the
physicist. That is like what are stuff made out of for physicists? I mean,
it's not atoms anymore. It's not even like electron, it get– you keep, you
break it up to a point where my mind can't grasp but it doesn't feel very
concrete. It feels extremely abstract. And the tendency is toward like, a
unified system, right? Like if I wanted the really concrete science, I'd pick
biology. And in this example, the mental molecule notice is like, a
rhinoceros, like, it looks like the rhinoceros. And that we can…
So, I mean, this is exactly where the difference between unification and
clarification split apart. I would say, you know, you're not going to put them
on a single axis here. I would say, yes, physics has managed to unify to an
enormous degree. But that isn't at the cost of clarification. But it might be
at the cost of contingency, right? So, if you say biology, or you know, is
full of contingency, that would be the key way we would tend to talk about it.
That is, we have a few relatively general theories of biology and they give
you some understanding of overall patterns. But then you've just got an
enormous contingency, you've got this particular species in this particular
place with this mountain and this river. And this particular way, it does have
snails that you know, and there's just all this detailed contingency which
isn't unified by any grander theory. It's just contingency you have to
remember and memorize.
I remember when I took college classes, the molecular biology classes were
this horror of massive amounts of detail to memorize without many general
principles to understand them and I hated that. I liked physics where there
was a small number of principles interacted in different ways, and I can just
understand them and clear them. But they're both clear. That is, they have
both admirable clarity.
Now, I would think, where you have the less clarity in biology is in places
where you're just trying to make sense of say, ecologies for behaviors, in
intuitive ways to grasp the complexity where you haven't, you know, you might
talk about aggressive or something, but not be very clear what aggressive
means. But you have an intuitive sense, and you'll use the word as long as you
can get away with it. And so, there is lack of clarity in areas where we've
got so much contingency that we don't find clear words to be as useful as
vague words. And that's an interesting fact about when we find clarity useful.
And in physics, we have enormous clarity, and we rarely give it up, we can
almost always be very precise about what we mean. Nevertheless, you know, it's
unified. So those things are different, the concepts split apart.
I think that… I think that what James means by clarity, like, it’s something
more like what you're calling contingency. That is, it is a recognition of the
distinctness of things. Where… that's why I said, I think the idea of
imagination is very important. Basically, something can only be very clear if
you can imagine it. So almost none of the concepts of physics are clear,
according to this step, which doesn't mean they're unclear, it doesn't mean
they're like, but it means that when the mind tries to focus, it's sort of
like I don't quite have a like visceral sense of what I'm grabbing on to.
And maybe, I mean, I don't know if this is right, but I would think that in
accordance with this mathematics would be completely unclear. That is, it
would be a science that is– that has zero clarity to it. Right? Why? Because
in this sense of clarity, OK, in the sense that he's interested, in the sense
in which Hume is the philosopher of clarity, because there aren't distinct
existences that you can encounter.
So, I think what's really– what James is really interested in here is to give
a – one thing he's interested anyway is to explain what empiricism is. So, he
sees himself as a radical empiricist. Right? And what he means by that is that
like when you encounter the world, you just like, face this thing that is in
some way other in that it's something over and above your theory is no matter
what, right? And that he says you have this experience of like wonder of…
Well, let me read from the key introduction to the concept of simplification.
OK, what page is it?
Beginning on Section III, page 322.
“But alongside the passion for simplification, there exists a sister passion
which in some minds –though they are perhaps the minority – is its rival. This
is the passion for distinguishing the impulse to be acquainted with the parts
rather than comprehend the whole. Loyalty to clearness and integrity of
profession, dislike of blurred outlines, of vague identifications, are its
characteristics. It loves to recognize particulars in their full completeness,
and the more of these it can carry the happier it is. It prefers any amount of
incoherence, abruptness, and fragmentariness, as long as the literal details
of separate facts are saved to a fallacious unity, which swamps things rather
than explains them.”
So, I have to say, this paragraph is ambiguous between the two concepts that
you are talking about. And at this point is where I will invoke the– my
priority to say, I don't really care what he meant. I'm more interested in
like, what distinctions can we think about and what can we say about them? So,
let us name these two distinctions, right?
One is just wanting to make sure you've made distinctions, i.e., that you
don't confuse two things that are different for the same. That would be one
key passion. And another might be the passion two, when you refer to something
or name it or have a concept for it, you know exactly what you're saying. That
is the vagueness or ambiguity in language or descriptions, is a separate issue
from the making sure you have a full set of distinctions. So…
I actually don't think either of those is quite what James is getting at. So,
there's– in what you read, there was a word that stands out to me.
“particulars”. OK? There's such a thing is sort of like the mind encountering
an individual thing set off from the rest of the world. Like if I hold up a
pencil, and you look at this particular, part of what you're doing is you're
separating it from everything else. And you're like, there's a– there it is,
right? It's particular.
And I think that that's a distinctive kind of encounter. And in some places,
he calls it aesthetic, like, almost sensory, right. And when, when you try to
create– when you try to make that sort of encounter with something like a
thought or an idea, you want to make the thought of an idea to be like a
thing. And so, you talk about the thought of a rhinoceros, and you imagine a
rhinoceros galloping into your mouth from your brain, right? Because what
you're trying to do is concretify or particularize, the thought so that it has
boundaries, so that it's separate from the things around it, so that you can
encounter it as a whole. That's what clarity is, how he's using the word
But even what you said isn't very clear to me. So… But, again, it's less
important what he meant, than different concepts we might distinguish. And
then we might ask how important they are. So…
Yeah, the problem is we might not be that much better than him, right? This
might be a hard thing to get.
But we can at least endeavor to be clear what we mean, in a way that we can't
clari – because we can't ask him questions and clarify what he meant. But we
can certainly ask many. So, for example, you held up a pencil, and to me it
looked red. Now, if you hold up another pencil, and I want to know, is it the
I have a lot of red pencils.
Exactly, right? So, we can think of…
But they’re all slightly, slightly different shade of red.
Or you could think we might want to have a way to talk such that it could be
clear that we were talking about the same pencil, so that we could make more
discussion of it, we're comparing it to a different pencil, for example. And
in that case, we might want to clarify, well, you know, is it the same pencil
at the same time? Is it the same orientation? Like maybe you're showing me the
opposite side of the red pencil, or maybe we want to make sure we had you make
sure it was facing the same direction when we looked at it again, to see if it
was– if we had a dispute about whether it was reflecting or not, or whether it
looked the same as the red on your blouse or whatever, right?
You know, we could try to just be– try to have enough detail of how we talked
about it so that we made sure we were distinguishing each particular thing and
could refer reliably to the same thing that we had meant to refer to, right?
And make the distinction of one side of the pencil or the other, the upside
from the pencil to the bottom side, how it looks in a fog or how it looks in
clear air and like, how it looks when the temperature is hot or cold, right?
So, we could have this instinct to just try to make sure we have a language
and a procedure for talking about it, such that we could reliably go back to
the same thing, if we wanted to talk about the same thing.
And it does seem that like that habit is, you know, somewhat different than
the habit of trying to unify things, if I'm, if I'm just saying all red– I'm
making a theory about red pencils in general, I don't much care which side of
the pencil it is or which red pencil, it is, right? I will slide over those
things. And I'll allow you to substitute one for another without caring very
much. But if I worry about these abstractions, and I'm not so sure about them,
I want to make sure that we check if it's the same red pencil on the same
But for that purpose, it seems like clarity, and language is an important
input and tool, right? I won't be able to be clear with you about which exact
thing I'm talking about unless the words I'm using and the descriptors I'm
using are clear enough to serve that purpose.
Sure. And like James, I think– so I think you fastened onto something here,
which it's right to be skeptical of, namely, a certain kind of idea of
impossibility of making progress on a certain problem. OK, that is– he doesn't
explicitly say it but that's an undercurrent here. There's an undercurrent
here of philosophy bases itself with a problem that it can't really make
progress on. And I think it's good to ask whether he's right about that.
But he doesn't want to deny that one can make all sorts of progress on all
sorts of extra philosophical problems that have real upshots. Right? And that
one can make that progress by making better distinctions and unifying in
better ways etc. So, we do want to separate the question of what's true about
this bizarre intellectual activity that doesn't aim at some further, like
viewed purely as a theoretical activity, right? And some people might do
physics or math that way, right, purely as a theoretical activity with no
interest in what any kind of upshot.
I'm just not seeing that line. I mean, it sounds like you’re trying to draw
You don’t think there’s anyone who does that in the whole world?
No, no, I don’t see what their motive has to do with what they're exactly
doing, right. I mean, look, you can saw a log for all sorts of purposes, you
could do it out of artistic desire just to see what it feels like the saw the
log, or to hear the sound of the log being sawed, or just to have a pile of
log pieces. Or you could do it to make a house or make a piece of furniture.
There's a lot of reasons you could have for sawing a log.
But we could still look at the process of selling log and talk about what–
that it will break into two pieces and all sorts of things about it,
regardless of knowing your purposes here. So, the general topic here is
unification. And I would say there's lots of very valuable common uses of the
concept of unification. He could declare that he doesn't care about any of
those purposes but I don't care…
But he does, he's just interested in this paper and talking about a specific
thing. He talks about those things in other places lots and lots. That’s
actually what he’s more interested.
Right. Right. But it's not clear that this thing is a different thing, because
he has a different purpose.
Well, I mean, you might think– so I think you're right, that unification and
clarity, and he would agree that those function in all thought, including
practical thought. And he would probably agree that in all those other
domains, one can make, you know, often make lots of progress by adding some
clarification or adding some unity and thus achieving better whatever the goal
was that you were trying to achieve. Right? He doesn’t want to deny that.
But you know, if you were talking about people sawing logs, right, and you
noticed, OK, everyone who saws logs has to whatever, make this kind of motion.
But then depending like, if people are sawing logs for a particular purpose,
right, let's say they were sawing logs like to demonstrate how people used to
do it in the olden days, or something. Mostly or somebody who saws logs in
that way, there might be some distinctive features of their log sawing that
show up because that's their purpose.
And James thinks that that is true about philosophy, that is the way that
unity and clarity function in the philosopher’s thought is distinctive because
of the kind of goal the philosopher has, which isn't a practical goal, but
it's the goal of battling a certain kind of demon, the demon of the
impossibility of complete unity.
Well, he's failed to convince me that there are interesting differences so
far. So, all I see him is describing issues of unification and clarification
and mentioning many particular people who do it different ways and complaining
about some and praising others, but I don't see him having identified
interestingly unique different issues that philosophers have when they try to
unify or clarify than anybody else does.
So, one… like one thing that James– one thing that I think is distinctive of
James as a philosopher is that he's very sensitive to the phenomenon of like,
human psychological heterogeneity, in a way that I don't know any other
philosopher who is like, James, when you read James to get his idea of there
are different kinds of people and they're really deeply different, right? And
that's one thing this paper is about. You have the philosopher whose mind
works like Hume, and you have the philosopher whose mind works like Kant or
something. And you're more like the Kant one, right? You've already actually
classified yourself. You said that when you had to learn all this biology or
whatever, you know…
…stuff, you didn't want to learn a big list of things, you like unity, right?
So, one thing that this paper can do for you is show you that the way your
mind works is that when it wants to solve these optimization problems, it
privileges unity, which I think is true about you, you actually do privilege
No, I completely agree that different people have different personality with
respect to these unification and clarification, but that's also true in all
the other areas where we unify and clarify, that's not unique to philosophy.
I think that's right. So, I think… maybe a way to think about it is the
philosopher is somehow solving this problem, absolutely. Like without,
without, not towards some other end, right? That is, like the philosopher is
in some way grappling head-on with unity versus clarity, in a way that other
people, like they're solving it for some purpose and that purpose could
dictate how much clarity you need here and how much unity you need. The
philosopher doesn't have those like guardrails or whatever, and they just have
Well, let me rephrase that and maybe see if you'll accept the rephrasing. I
might say that we have different areas of inquiry. And in some areas, we can
produce rapid and volumous feedback in a way that helps us hone our efforts in
those areas. And then in other areas, where we're going to use roughly similar
tools to do roughly similar things, we just don't have the same rapidity or
volume of feedback. And then we're often at a loss to know how far we're
succeeding. But, you know, a reasonable strategy is to take the strategies
that work in the areas where you do have rapid volumous feedback, and then
just apply them hoping they will continue to work in the areas where you
So, for example, in forecasting, you know, I'm into prediction markets, and,
you know, basically giving people feedback of winning and losing in a betting
market to get them to make accurate forecasts. And then there are forecasts,
say, about a million years in the future, or at least 100 years are just far
off, or forecasts where there aren't very many, and you say, how are we going
to get forecasts there? And what some people want to do is just take the
people who are good at one kind of thing, or the methods that are good at one
kind of thing, and just apply them to the other and hope that works out
because they don't have another way to make that work.
So, we could say, philosophers are people who have chosen a task where it's
just harder to get feedback on a timescale and volume and because it's a very
high-level abstraction. They're working on a similar sort of problem unifying
and clarifying, but they're struggling with less feedback. So, again, I think
the reasonable approach is to say, well, whatever seems to work elsewhere, you
know, look at that, and then try to use it here. I would be wary of trying to
invent whole new approaches to work in an area where you just don't have much
feedback to tell you if it's going to work.
Let me ask you a phenomenological question, which is, I mean, James just makes
an assertion about what the sentiment of rationality is like, I guess, based
on his own experience, that is he tells you what does it feel like when you're
being rational? Right? He wants to answer that question at the opening of this
paper. And he just makes an assertion as to what it feels like. He's like, it
feels like relief. It feels like a feeling of ease and peace and rest. And the
kind of, you know, the movement of thought without impediment, something like
that. I can't remember the exact phrase he uses, right?
I mean, I think he is, you know, accurately describing one element of the
mental state, but it's not a comprehensive description.
What I'm saying is –what I want to ask you is, what does it feel like to you
to be rational? Is there a feeling, like does it feel some way? Can you notice
it in yourself?
Well, I mean, I think it's just a very large, complicated feelings so the
challenge is to, you know, find a language for describing it and find the
useful elements to point– pick out. He is…
Really a large complicated feeling?
Of course. Sure. I mean, it's almost like you know, half of my life. So, I
would say, you know, half my life is involved with trying to think through
things and so there's just a lot of different feelings. I have a lot of
I'm not talking about the trying part, I'm talking about the succeeding part.
Is there a way that the succeeding part feels?
It's connected to the trying. I think the way we feel about succeeding at
anything is interconnected with the ways we try all those things. And so, yes.
Yeah, here’s a sort of meta point that I think is a virtue of this piece. If
you read basically, any, like op ed or whatever public commentary, somewhere,
you'll come across a sentence that says something like, people are
oversimplifying, right? It's more complicated than you're inclined to think.
This is actually quite complicated, right, as you were just inclined to do
what it felt like…
I mean it’s very complicated. It's not just one thing.
Right. Yeah, yeah.
And that’s like… It almost, it seemed like a truism like, well, we always need
to make things more complicated, we should always – we have this this bad
impulse, like his original sin, that the mind wants to move towards
simplicity. We're lazy and we go for simplicity. And we should realize that
things are complicated. And one thing that I think James brings out, and that
I think philosophers are pretty sensitive to is understanding is simplifying.
Those are one in the same thing, so that when people tell you “Oh, it's
complicated.” What they're saying is not give up on understanding it, you
can't understand it anyway.
I don't think that's entirely fair. That is, I think, when you understand
something roughly, you can have a sense of how many detailed understandings it
will take to cover it. You can have a sense of how big a thing you're trying
to sense, right? So, for example, if you were trying to like get a map of a
building, if it's a little tiny, you know, little tiny hovel, then you have a
sense that you'll be able to get that map pretty quickly by walking in the
front door, because there's only one room and you'll look around and you'll
have the map. If it's this enormous building, you'll know that a few seconds
after you walk in the front door, you'll still have a lot to learn. So, you
know, but you still want to add.
So, I mean, I would say the way you understand a big thing at first is usually
just collect a lot of small ways to understand it and try to add them together
so I'm happy to throw in James's description as one of the small ways we're
going to add to our description. You know, definitely, we do have some senses
of like frustration, or, you know, resistance where something isn't making
sense, or there's something that's puzzling that something is bothersomely not
And then, upon finding a unification, finding a way to make, have it makes
sense, there's a sense of relief and satisfaction and, you know, brought other
view that you can see more things at once from a point of view that now makes
more sense. And so that's certainly true. That's one of the things that
happens in rationality is, but it's not, you know, by far a full,
So, James's answer is right, the relief of identification, that is the feeling
that A is B, and then that goes with a kind of relief. So that's his answer.
And using that, like part of the story, or whatever,
I mean, I would just say that we're looking to make sense of things. And
there's a lot of ways to make sense. And saying A equals B is one of many,
it's not the only kind of pattern you can find. And so, it's not the only way
to make sense of things but it's certainly one of them.
So let me make James's case for why that is the only way to make sense of
things, ultimately. So, he wants to say that when there is an inward
connection between two things, that is when the mind can sort of pass from the
one to the other by reasoning. He gives an example, I'm going to give his
example that I like, which is, suppose you've noticed that in August, the
asphalt becomes soft, right? And he wants to say like, “Well, at first, all
you have is an association, the association of like, the month of August, the
asphalt and softness. But then you learn, then you realize, oh, well, like
heat is of the essence of August.” That's where root claim, by the way, right?
I mean, I suppose you have to know something about the sun and whatever. But
OK, heat is of the essence of August, right? And you think that, you know,
softening is of the essence of pavement change or something, I guess.
And then you think, but you're not done yet. You just have association, and
you're like, wait a minute, the heat and the pavement change is both just the
movement of molecules. And there's one thing there that underlies those two
things. And actually, it's just one thing, there's just one thing at that
moment, James thinks it clicks. And he thinks that's the feeling of
rationality. And he wants to say anything else before that point, when you've
just associated the two, you may feel fine or whatever, if you're not a very
philosophical sort, and you don't have these high demands for unity. But you
haven't really achieved that understanding to its maximum point.
I mean, it is true that you find an integration and a simplification in that
case, but I don't think just saying it's A equals B is an adequate summary of
that case. That case has a bunch of structural parts and they all need to be
there to make that work and that context is an important context in addition
to the A equals B. So…
Right. Because he wants to distinguish between the boorish person who's just
like, Yeah, whatever A equals B for any A and B, right, just some idiot. He
wants to say that person just gets this feeling cheap. It's possible to get
this feeling very cheaply, right? And he wants you to buy it with expense, he
wants you to start with these heterogenous things, and then see that and then
click into seeing their unity, right? And he thinks that that's kind of like
this insight that you have.
I would say it's about you have this sort of different models of different
things. And then somehow, when you merge two models, in some sense, you can
sort of pull out some extra parameter that's no longer needed, because it's
redundant. That as you're sort of reducing the number of parameters in your
model, for example, would be one way of thinking about it. And that's, you
know, not necessarily identifying two things. It could be, you know, three
turns to two, for example, or something.
But it's still, the key idea is that, you know, what we're often doing is
trying to find a more integrated, simple picture that incorporates all the
different things we're looking at. That's quite true. And it's it is a feature
of rationality. But again, I think that instinct and feeling is mixed up with
a lot of other feelings about our heuristics for doing things, including our
practical purposes for these things. And unless, you know, want to sort of
separate it out as just this human psychology independent of everything else.
I mean, I think you agree with James more than I do. In that, like, if I had
to just name what is the feeling of rationality? Someone asked me that before
I read this paper, so I'm not polluted by giving them these answers and like,
what does it feel like… if someone asked me, “What does it feel like to you,
when you're being rational?” Where what I have to do is select out those
moments where in some sense, I know I'm being rational, right? I wouldn't pick
these moments where like I say, A equals B. Because in those moments, I'm also
like, yeah, it seems like but what if I'm wrong or something? You know, like,
I don't know, if I got it right.
And so, for me, like the feeling of rationality is, I would say one word is
humiliation. That is, it is when I'm, like, I'm giving an argument, right? And
like, here's my argument, I think it's pretty good. And I think it's like
pretty rational stuff. Right? And then someone says, “Wait, but what about
this? Or, what… and they point out a problem. And I can see that it is a
problem with what I've just said. I see it. I'm like, I see, but I'm wrong.
And it's like, the last thing I want to be doing is to see that that's wrong,
because I'd like to think that I was right, but I can't. And that feeling of
like, I don't want to be thinking that this is right but it just is right for
me. That's the feeling about, then I know and being rational. Because there
are all these costs I'm paying, right? It's not– I'm not making myself feel
That for me is the feeling of rationality. And for me, it's a feeling of pain
and not a pleasure. That's totally different things.
But I mean, you know, let’s say if you talk about people who go to school,
right? So, a lot of people go to school and they go through school, if you ask
them, what was the essential moment of school? They might point to different
moments of school when they thought it was the most schoolish?
That could be a graduation ceremony or being on about to take a test or just
finishing a test, or getting their letter grade after the course, right? There
could be all sorts of ways people frame in their minds the essence of
something. But the key point is, there's just it's a lot of parts. And, you
know, there's a lot of freedom we have about where we flagged the essence,
because they're correlated pretty strongly and doesn't, you know, they all
work roughly, to sort of anchor us and connect us to it. So…
No, I don't think that's right. I think that's too, that's too quick to be
like, well, there's many different parts of the elephant and people can focus
on different parts, I think the place I'm focusing suggests a radically
different conception of rationality than the place that you and James are
So, you and James, when you're thinking about being rational, you're imagining
yourself sitting in a room by yourself thinking about a problem. And you might
say, well, there are all different parts of this problem and there's the early
stage, the later stage, in fact, that's most of my life so it has all this
flavor and this texture and whatever. Fine, but basically you have the same
scenario as James. And James just highlights this final moment as A is B
moment, right? And he might say, “Sure, reducing the number of parameters.”
That's fine. The way you reduce them is by identifying some of them, so you're
basically agreeing with me, right?
Whereas for me, the scenario of rationality is a communicative scenario. And
there is no feeling of rationality for me that is like not part of
communication. And that suggests two really different…
But both of them are parts of this larger process, all of which needs to
happen for any of the scenarios to play out, right? The scenario we're talking
about and the scenario you're talking about both need a lot of other things to
happen. And, you know, if we want to pick one part of it as the essence,
that's somewhat arbitrary, because in truth, you need all of them.
So yes, you will have to have some sort of insight, and then you will have to
try to explain it to people, and then you will have to get pushed back. And
then you'll have to see if you can succeed and you know, you have to see the
moment where you're willing to push at it, and to sort of identify yourself
with it. And then the moment where you find out whether or not other people
accept it. I mean, those are all parts of the total process. And…
Those are all, like, associated with the activities of rational people. But
there's a question, do you think those are essential? Like, could a person be
rational without them? And I think James anyway, would say, “Sure, that's
like, that may be how this feeling shows up. And it may be that in a given
case, I was talking to somebody else. But that's not important. The important
thing is that if I look inside my own mind, there's like a psychological
process. And that can be happening, whether there's someone there or whether
someone else is not there.” And my picture says, “No, there has to be someone
there. You have to be interacting with someone in order to feel rational, the
feeling of rationality is a social feeling.” So, I think that's a real
But it's about this word rational. So, what is the other reference of rational
such that we could take away this word and say, “What is this thing that's
really there when you have this feeling?” If it's just about the word
rational, I don't care, right? You could…
Good. I mean, look, anytime you have a big disagreement, there's going to be
like, a moment, right? The moment where it's like, do we stay married or do we
get divorced? That is, like, do we hold on? Did we have a concept? Do we keep
the concept as one and say, “We're really disagreeing about this concept? Or
do we say, “No, look, there are just two things, and you're talking about one,
I'm talking about the other.”
And my own feeling is that the word rationality is a placeholder, right? For
something that we want to have a better grip on. And it's a placeholder for
something like whatever it is, that in virtue of which a process of
theoretical reasoning in this case, I'm direct question like, is going well,
I mean it's more than that, right? Basically, you know, as an economist or
social scientist, I would say, the world is divided up into places that are
seen as more or less rational. And that rational places are higher status and
referred to in a great many ways. And in society, we often– when there's a
dispute elsewhere, we point to the rational part, and we say, “Well, those
people agree with me, and that carries a lot of weight.” And so, there's this
description of parts of the world that are more rational, that should be
believed more. And then there are people there who fight over controlling
that, and fight over sort of the different parts of that, and which ones will
dominate it, which ones will be stronger. And therefore, and within that they
fight over who should win and lose for his jobs in publication contests. And
part of how they fight is with method like saying my method is better than
yours, and your methods shouldn't be used so much.
And so, we've got all these rich, you know, conflicts of people doing things
different way talking about different things all trying to sort of, you know,
gain the upper hand in terms of percent of authority, and who will be deferred
to when there's disagreements, and rationality is kind of one of our main
words to talk about, in essence, who does win, or who should win that contest?
And that's what makes it awkward to define, because, you know, that's a big
complicated process, right?
I mean, so one thing is I would distinguish rationality from knowledge
ability, right? So, you can be quite rational, but no, I think relatively few
things. You would have to manage that relatively small amount of information
well, in order to count as rational. I think, in a way, it's easier to be
rational, but less you know…
For sure. But as a practical matter, when we're having a dispute, we say,
“Well, that person is rational.” So, they don't know much about dispute now,
but if we invite them in and we show them our disputes, then it would be
capable of assimilating the key elements of our dispute, and then they would
make a judgment and we would defer to that judgment because they were more
Right. So, they would be– they're good at processing the information. They
don't need to have it already. Right. But I do think that we speak of the
virtue of being knowledgeable already as being an intellectual virtue.
That some people have and sometimes we're willing to defer to people because
they're knowledgeable, not because they're rational. We wouldn't want them to
be irrational, but they don't need to be the most rational.
Right. But fundamentally, we say we defer to you, and then they would say,
“Oh, well, if you’re thinking we want the people to know more about that, and
that's these people in the way I say, OK, fine, we'll go to those people. But
sort of the rationality would be the people we trust to decide who we should
go to the list– to know about the thing. And that's going to sort of be more
primary than the knowledge because we don't know who knows, and we're not sure
if people who knows know how to use what they know. And so, we need a rational
person to sort of make those judgments.
I don't know that the rational person is the best at knowing who knows. I
mean, it may be that the best known who knows is like the connected person.
That may be another virtue, right?
Someone may not be that knowledgeable. They may not be the best but they are
really well connected. And they're like going something…
So even here, we see we have a set of different words that are all associated
with this high per– high powerful, high deference world. And within that
world, people will fight over these different words, right? You know, I might
say, we want the rational people and you say, “No, you want the knowledgeable
people or the connected people.” And, you know, we're not even going to be
clear what these different words mean. But we're going to have different
people associated with different ones, and we're going to… are fighting over
what the words mean will be interlaced with our fighting over who gets the
highest prestige, and who should be listed and why.
OK, but like, I think you're looking at this backwards. That is, you're
looking at rationality by looking at a shadow that it casts in a set of
contests that we have, right? So, like, there's a bunch of competitions and
contests and we use rationality, in part, to adjudicate some of these
contests, some of these power struggles or whatever. That's true, right?
But there's a reason we use rationality to do that. It's because rationality
is super important and good. And it's a real thing that describes the
operation of reasoning, right? And it’s because it does that, that we then use
it to adjudicate the content. So, we first want to know is what is it to
reason well? And it’s that– you know, then we're going to – we’d reference to
that, decide like, who wins a contest, right? But that's the second point.
So, I mean, I agree, but the fact that the people are fighting over this means
I don't want to immediately say what does rationality mean? I want to set
aside the word rationality and start to say, what are some concrete words we
could use that would describe, you know, better or worse, or more useful, or
more admirable reasoning, and not be committed to how many– there might be
five of them and then I have to like, do a wait it out? I mean, I don't know
how many there are but the key point is just to start to identify and make
these distinctions between the different kinds of useful reasoning.
Right. But I think part of James's point is, it's really hard to do that,
because there are two and they are in tension with one another, namely unity
and clarity. Those are the two things that make thinking good. And just as
theoretical thinking, I think he wants to say there's lots of other virtues
that thinking can have is practical, namely, is it going to give rise or a
give an upshot, right? But even…
I'm not even convinced these things are in conflict, still. I actually not
that is, I can see how you might focus on either one as a priority, but I
don't actually see the conflict.
Can I give like, I think the best case scenario for seeing the conflict is at
the most radical point, the Hegelian point? So, he says of Hegel, that, like
Hegel is the philosopher who tried to ultimately solve philosophy. And he did
it by like saying, even the principle, even the law of non-contradiction,
like, you know, A is not…
We can sort of have a unity in which both of those things. And he's like the
person who can somehow create a unity of those things and think they have
thought anything at all, that has think there is any clearness at all on that
thought, that person will not be troubled by any further difficulties in
philosophy. He says– it’s tongue in cheek, but he also means it in the sense
that that would be it, you would have– you would be done. Right?
Right. So he also…
There’s no clarity that part.
He also says, when he's talking about boors, and others, he says, “Well, look,
you know, one of the– the simplest way to unify is to just make up data or
ignore the data.”
Right? I mean, and so you can say there's a fundamental trade-off between
looking at real data and unifying. But of course, since we all kind of agree,
no, we're not going to make up the data, then it’s not a very interesting
trade-off. We're all pretty much agreed that we want to unify the actual data
that made up data and not ignored data, right? We want to unify the actual all
of the actual data. And so given that we agree on that, that’s not interesting
to talk about the trade-off between unification and making this stuff up.
Well, first of all, I think in real life, in fact, there are very real
trade-offs there about ignoring data and in effect making up data. And that
like, as far as I understand that that's an actual real problem, he’s put his
finger on, but even he says, that's the– that's the vul– let's ignore those
vulgarities. That's a vulgar version.
The fact that scientists will ignore data or makeup data. Yes, it's true, they
actually do it. And they do it because they want to achieve unity. But the
deeper issue is that there is– from the philosophical point of view, there is
a kind of brute reality that you come into contact with that where you can't
ever quite get all the unity that you wanted into the story. And that shows up
at the very least, like even if you have – even he says, OK, I really like
He says, “Look, first of all, there's like the mind and the body and there's
like mental things and physical things. And like, how are we going to have a
common denominator between those two things? How are we going to have
something where there appears to be an identity, where the mind can pass from
the one to the other?” And he says, “Look, let me suppose you could do that.
OK, let's suppose there's some kind of mental atom, right?” And I've got the
physical atoms and mental atoms. He said, but after that, he goes it – the
bilateral atom of being, right? So, there’s this bilateral atom that's going
to have the mental and the physical properties fine, right? Even if you had
that, and even if you explained all of reality has built up of this bilateral
item of being right, you've got all reality. You still got like, what about
all the things that could have happened? Right? You know what, like…
And at the very end you've got Why is there something rather than nothing?
That is, you've got this, you've got this specter of the nothing, right? The
nonbeing that could have been but isn't, the nonbeing that could be
everywhere. And you're like, “Why? Why isn't that the case? The nonbeing? Why
is the being the case instead of a nonbeing?”
And he thinks that, like, you know, at the end of the day, there's no answer
to that there is just the confrontation with being, right? What he says is,
like, at some point, you just look at what there is, and write it down. Like
there's a reality, you're just like, that's the way it is. And that aesthetic
reaction of like the brute force of the way things are, I think he thinks
that's like a fundamental limit to how much unity you can get into your story.
So, I mean, I agreed with that, at the very beginning, I said, you know, it's
clear that there are limits on unification, that there are going to be brute
facts that can't be unified. And you know, that is almost surely going to be
the case. But I just was questioning the trade-off between that and
clarification, just like I could say, there are many of these other trade-offs
that aren't so interesting, because we already agree on which side we want to
go. That is, if there's a trade-off between unification and having the real
data as opposed to made up, or ignored data.
And sure, there's a trade-off between unification and sort of vague
descriptions. Or because you can't really do real unification until you get
accurate, you know, the accurate descriptions. But I still think– we all agree
that will eventually want clear concepts and clear, you know, lack of
ambiguity and lack of vagueness in our descriptions of things. And that will
help but that will still won't let us fully unify.
And, you know, so I think we're running somewhat out of time here. So, I
guess, you know, we might stand back and ask, like, what, what does James have
to say that we might not have gotten from more recent authors? So, there's
this sort of basic question I have about reading old authors, because that is
a bit more work, their language is a bit harder to understand, you don't know
their references to what they're talking about. The words are a little
unfamiliar. Somebody could have rewritten this, perhaps whatever insights they
thought they have for us, but why is it good to read James, the original James
here, as opposed to sort of we could have just talked about abstraction and
clarification issues today.
Well, what's your answer? You didn’t…
I'm not yet persuaded. But, you know, I think, basically, most any essay could
remind you of issues that other people don't remind you of, and then be a good
jumping off point. The thing I'm most wary of is trying to get too much into
the details of what exactly they meant. I have more skepticism about the
usefulness of that. But I am quite happy to admit that, you know, academics
just get stuck talking about the same set of issues and they forget about
others. And so, the farther you dig into history, and a wider range of
thinkers across a wider range of styles and schools of thoughts, et cetera,
the more you will come across issues that are once mentioned are sort of
obviously important, but that people just don't talk about lately. And so
that's what I would most think of the value here.
So, I don't know who talks about this lately but I could believe that maybe
people haven't talked much lately about the value of, you know, the limits of
unification or the value of clarification or the psychology of trying to do
these things. And so, you know, that would be what I might hope to get out of
something like this is just to be reminded of something that matters that
people don't talk about.
So, I think as a matter of fact, that's true. That is the psychology of
philosophizing is like certainly, it's not a topic in philosophy anymore. And
he speaks at a level of– I don't want to say abstraction, but let's say
generality, that's very, doesn't– people don't talk this way anymore. So, he
can cover a lot of ground that, he covers around in the history of philosophy
in a lot of different ways.
But I guess my own feeling is I, you know, I just have a very different view
about like reading old stuff. I don't find it as painful as you do or as
difficult. So, for me, a lot of new stuff is quite painful to read. Because
people– a lot of contemporary stuff, people are not trying to make it at all
interesting, or fun to read. James is kind of snappy and fun to read. So, in
terms of the fun-ness, like, you know, this one you know are fun for me.
But the deeper thing is, have you ever had like a friend who dies, and you're
really sad because your friend had like a mind, like a way of looking at the
world that was distinctively theirs and you could tap into it sometimes when
you talk to them. And you know that there's stuff in that mind, there's a
framing, whatever that like will not be reproduced ever. Because that was just
their way of seeing. They had a way. They had a point of view.
And I think James is like that, like, he's like this person who had a way of
thinking about philosophy and psychology that nobody has ever had since. He
had a grip on it. The only place you can get it is by reading him. And that
grip that he has on it, for instance, I mean, I gave an example, which is like
he's a philosopher who is sensitive to heterogeneity, to the idea that there
really are different kinds of people. And there are different impulses in the
soul that might push you towards empiricism or rationalism.
And I– so it's like, there's this mind, right, that I can interact with, when
you say, “Oh, we can't ask him questions.” like so sort of if we can ask him
questions like, this is how we ask him questions. And there isn't, there just
isn't another version of him in the same way that when your friend dies, there
isn't a– you just don't get to replace them. And so, I want to interact with
this mind. And the only way I can do it is by reading James.
So that to me is a surprising and apriori unlikely thing to do. That doesn't
mean it's wrong, it just means it's not in my usual expectations. So, the
thing I can most easily relate to is, you know, an old thinker might have made
some claims or made some– ask some questions, and that they could be
forgotten. And that we might want to sort of be reminded of them and pick them
up and carry them on. And that would just be a different thing, we could get
out of an old reader than trying to sort of create a simulation of their mind
in our head, which would require you to read an awful lot of their stuff,
which you couldn't do for very many people, right?
So, you could go back to a lot of old people and sort of find things they had
forgotten to mention that we don't mention and just make a long encyclopedia,
perhaps of like forgotten topics that people should get back to you someday.
And how it would be great to have a huge encyclopedia of forgotten topics that
people should get back to someday. But to browse that encyclopedia, I could go
to one entry and read it and go, “Oh, that's interesting, I wouldn't have to
spend much time on that one entry.” But the thing you're asking me to do is to
pick out of all these ancient readers, a few of them to really read a lot of
them and get this whole model of them in my mind. And that's, that's a pretty
expensive thing to ask basically.
Yes, but it's more complicated. Now, I guess it’s more complicated than that,
because what you do is, every time you read anyone, you create a simulation,
like, but it's just a poor simulation, right? So, if– I'm just starting to get
into reading– James, I've read for a long time, but I'm reading Dewey now for
a class I'm teaching. And this is really my first time reading him. And I'm
creating my little model of Dewey, right. And like at the beginning, it's kind
of poor and weak. And there are many philosophers for whom I just have a kind
of very simple weak model, right? And then there are others where I've read
more. So, it's really that there's like a levels of model.
And you, you want to make the detail of your model be sensitive to how much
you think you can get from mentally…
But let me… what this is going up against is, for example, I can sort of read
some modern geologists, and then have a mental model of the typical geologists
in my mind, or I could read a star physicist and have a model of star
physicist. So, I've got all these options to take whole fields, and sort of
read the basics of them and get a model in my mind of what this whole field
thinks. And that seems pretty attractive, I could do a lot with knowing a lot
of different fields and putting them together.
And now you want me to take one guy from 150 years ago, with his kind of weird
ways of talking with other people back then. I'm going to go, but how is that
going to compare in terms of the insight I could get out of him from going to
whole new fields today. Because fields today really do try to sort of write
and speak in a way that you can assimilate without knowing that author very–
in much detail. They try to share styles of writing and method such that once
you've learned the style of a particular subfield, you can just read each new
thing and quickly assimilate their claim.
So, in some sense, that's what this one, this one guy, James is going up
against, say, a whole field of people who all write things together, I'd have
to sort of read enough papers in that field to assimilate like what, you know,
geologists about, you know, Moon geologist say, but I mean, that's, that seems
to me like a pretty attractive alternative.
So, let's take geo– how much geology do you know?
I believe it’s one of the things I picked that I haven't learned very much,
that I was just reading about.
OK. So, you've made a selection, right? Like you've decided to learn physics
but not geology, right? And then presumably, even within physics, right,
physics is big and you might, you know, you're going to specialize, right? And
then even within the thing you're specializing, you're going to pick up on
certain things as being like important. And so, you might think, like, even
when you're reading a textbook, you're reading it as a particular person, you…
right? Robin Hanson, who has a very particular sort of idiosyncratic mind,
It’s like William James, right, you have a particular penchant for unity, a
bit of an aversion to what James calls clarity. And you're studying all this
stuff, right? From the point of view of the person who has that mind. And the
way I'm looking at it, who are you? You're just trapped. That's just the one
mind you've gotten, you're sucking everything up into that one point of view
that one mind, that one frame, right? And for me, it's like, I don't want to
be trapped as me. I want to be able to think of the world in the way William
James does, and he's going to select out different and maybe selects out
OK, but could you really like take a geology textbook and tell me how James
would react to that textbook? Or could you really take a newspaper article in
today's newspaper and say, “James would react to that newspaper this way…” I
mean, that doesn't seem like something you could feasibly do just by reading a
few things by James.
No, I'm not that able to animate him. So, in order to interact with James, I
generally have to interact with it over his own writing. That's my only way of
Right, which means you couldn't apply it to all these other topics. That’s
why. So, if you say, if I go…
I’m not claiming I can apply it.
No, no, but I'm saying if I go read geology and saying, for me, I'm only
reading geology as me not as somebody else. But I said, “You're not going to
let me read geology as anybody else. That's not going to be an option here.”
No, my thought was not that you could read geology as somebody else. My
thought was, you're approaching the whole intellectual space as yourself.
Right? In order to approach it as James, there are a cost to that, right,
which is you have to just approach the bit that James did, read James's
writing, that's the only way you can do it.
But they're still, I think, to me, anyway, something very appealing to the
prospect of being able to think as someone else and to like to think, for me,
the feeling of rationality is humiliation. I wonder what it would be like to
have a mind where the feeling of rationality were relief, right? And that
feeling of rationality being humiliation that permeates how I encounter all
different situations, right? But when I read James, I'm like, “Wait, maybe it
could be relief. That's a different way to think about the world.”
I think we’ll have to let that be that for now.
A bit over our time, but nice talking again.