By Paul So
Socrates: Hello Gene.
Gene Weingarten: Wait….is that Socrates? It can’t be….you’re dead! You must be some homeless guy, impersonating Socrates. Where did you get that toga…?
Socrates: Oh, I just returned from Elysium. The gods decided to bring me back to life, because they realized that the world needs me again. They also made me infinitely lingual, so I can speak any language, including English. I could also speak Klingon, but that’s another story. On top of all this, and not to brag of course, I know a lot more philosophy – thanks to a crash course from Athena.
Gene: Bollocks. You’re just a crazy bum. Get lost.
Socrates: No, I’m quite serious, so stop insulting me and let’s start a dialogue.
Gene: A Socratic dialogue? Wait … ok … suppose everything you said so far is true. Why did the gods send you to talk to me?
Socrates: Oh, I don’t know. They gave me what looks like an arbitrary list of thousands of people I need to talk to. You’re on the top of the list, along with people like Lawrence Krauss, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and….
Gene: Ok, ok, you don’t need to go through all of them. I’ll play along with your little game, “Socrates.”
Socrates: Ok, great! So, what’s up with you?
Gene: I just wrote an article for the Washington Post.
Socrates: What’s it about?
Gene: It’s about the highbrow, linguistic sophistry, common with academic philosophers. They use words with little or no substantive meaning.
Socrates: Could you give some examples?
Gene: The examples I used in the article are ‘epistemological’ and ‘ontological’. I’ve used them myself many times. I’ve even used them interchangeably.
Socrates: Explain to me what you think these words mean.
Gene: Well, that’s the problem. I looked them up, and all I can find is that “epistemology pertains to a theory of knowledge…” and “ontology pertains to being…” and such. I don’t know what they mean exactly, and…
Socrates: Gene, let me stop you there. As you probably already know, I’m Greek. I know the etymology of the terms. Perhaps we can start there.
Socrates: Let’s start with the word ‘epistemological’. The root word is ‘episteme’, which means “knowledge.” Surely, you do know the word ‘epistemological’ pertains to knowledge?
Socrates: Likewise, the root word for the word ‘ontological’ is ‘ontos’ which pertains to “being.” You know that the word pertains to existence.
Socrates: Then the meaning of the words should be obvious to you, yes?
Gene: No they aren’t obvious. That’s why I’m asking what they mean.
Socrates: But you know that they mean different things, right?
Socrates: Well, earlier, I pointed out that the word ‘epistemological’ has to do with knowledge and the word ‘ontological’ has to do with existence. Furthermore, earlier, you said that you have used those words interchangeably. In order to use two words interchangeably, they must have the same meaning, correct?
Socrates: Since you used them interchangeably, ‘existence’ and ‘knowledge’ should have the same meaning, yes?
Socrates: But ‘existence’ and ‘knowledge’ clearly have different meanings. Moreover, we use these words in different contexts. Hence, ‘epistemological’ and ‘ontological’ should be different from each other.
Gene: You’re doing one of your classic “reductios” on me. Clever. But in which contexts, exactly, is it appropriate to use the words ‘ontological’ and ‘epistemological’?
Socrates: Ok, let me provide you a brief crash course in philosophy. My student Plato defined ‘knowledge’ as justified true belief. Since his definition, we use the word ‘epistemological’ when it pertains to justification. So testimony, perception, memory, reason, scientific method and such may be justifications for (true) beliefs. When we’re talking about justification or anything that makes true beliefs knowledge, we use the word ‘epistemological’. My great, grand apprentice, Aristotle, came up with the categories of being: substance, properties, relation, quantity, space, time, and so on. Since then, we have used the word ‘ontological’ in those contexts in which we’re talking about different aspects of being.
Gene: I see, but you’re just proving my point.
Socrates: How so?
Gene: Because you just showed that these words don’t really mean anything. I can use these words in so many different ways! You’ve given examples, but no definition. And yet, you’re famous for demanding definitions from everyone. I think you just proved that you really are an impostor.
Socrates: Gene, how do people learn words?
Gene: What’s the point of the question?
Socrates: Just answer it.
Gene: I don’t know. Through experience, I suppose.
Socrates: Ok, let me rephrase my question. Do people learn the meanings of words by looking on Google (Yes, I know about Google. My greatest student, Plato, has been talking about it nonstop, ever since he was brought back from the dead), the dictionary … those kinds of places?
Socrates: You just said we learn the meaning of words through experience. Can you elaborate?
Gene: Well, we pay attention to how people use words in various contexts.
Socrates: Good. So is it necessary that we need to know the definition of a word from the outset, in order to use it properly?
Gene: Perhaps not.
Socrates: If that’s the case, we do not need to know the exact definitions of the words ‘epistemological’ and ‘ontological’ to use them properly. We need only to pay attention to usage and context.
Gene: But … but … you’re going against everything you taught in Plato’s dialogue!
Socrates: In all honesty, he was a little bit nutty. Extremely zealous with my teachings, which, at the time, I appreciated. But, by the gods, thousands of years in Elysium has taught me the lesson that man cannot live by definitions alone! I learned that from Wittgenstein.
Gene: So no definitions for ‘ontological’ and ‘epistemological’? What about the dictionary?
Socrates: You’re kidding me, right? The dictionary is the worst place to find the right definition for a philosophical term.
Gene: My entire argument begins with the dictionary, so…
Socrates: You’re a philosopher, right?
Socrates: And you went to the dictionary to find out what those words mean, yes?
Gene: That’s correct.
Socrates: (Socrates sighs and facepalms) This makes no sense whatsoever. Your very existence makes the world less intelligible. How can a philosopher do this?! If only there were a simpler explanation!
Suddenly, the earth begins to rumble and the wind cleaves through the cloudy sky. A celestial being descends upon the earth. Soon, it becomes apparent that this being is actually William of Ockham, carrying an enormous razor.
William of Ockham: I am here to make the world simpler and more intelligible!
Socrates: William? What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be cutting down a bunch of dead ideas, back in Hades?
William of Ockham: I was sent by Athena to make the world more decipherable.
Socrates: How will you do that?
William of Ockham: (He looks straight into Gene’s eyes) Gene, show thy philosopher’s license
Gene: Oh, ok…give me a sec…let me check my pocket…no…my back pocket….ok, right, here it is.
William raises his razor and brings it down on Gene’s philosopher’s license. In a split second, the license is cut in half. Its pieces fall to the ground, like leaves from a tree, and as the remnants land on the earth they disintegrate.
William of Ockham: There you go, the world is now simpler and more intelligible. Gene cannot be a philosopher. The simplest explanation is that he’s just some pretentious dumbass, who pretends to be an expert in philosophy.
Gene: Wait! You can’t do that! You can’t just destroy my license like that!
William of Ockham: I have a duty to make the world a simpler, more comprehensible place. You having a philosopher’s license makes the world less simple and comprehensible. Therefore, I have a duty to destroy it. Whoever gave you that license multiplied entities beyond the number needed to render the world intelligible.
William of Ockham: My work here is done. Good bye (He ascends back to the heavens).
Socrates: Wait, William, I have one question!
William of Ockham: (Turns his head back to Socrates) What?
Socrates: Did the gods bring me back to the mortal realm to humiliate pretentious fools again?
William of Ockham: What else would you do?
Socrates: Crap. I’ll probably be forced to drink more hemlock…
William shrugs and returns to his ascending.
Socrates: (Releases a heavy sigh) Let’s see who’s next on my list. Oh, it’s someone named ‘Bill Nye’! (Looks at Gene) Well, it was nice meeting you, but I have to find this Bill Nye guy. Apparently, he also said something really stupid about philosophy.
Suddenly, the earth opens up beneath Gene’s feet, and he falls into the abyss. When he lands in the depths of Hell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, sporting devil’s horns and a tail, appears in a puff of smoke, brandishing an enormous poker.
Gene: But … Socrates told me you were in Elysium!
Wittgenstein: This is only a part time job. I’m here to torture phony philosophers, who use the dictionary to find the definitions for words, rather than participating in the relevant language games. After I am finished torturing you, I will return to Elysium. Shall we get started? (Wittgenstein begins stabbing at Gene with the poker).
Gene: What the fuck?! (Runs away from Wittgenstein)
Wittgenstein: Come back here!!! (Chases Gene, waving the poker above his head).