Socrates in the Weingarten

By Paul So

This is a response to a Washington Post article written by Gene Weingarten, which can be found here. We highly recommend you check it out, before reading this dialogue.

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.

Gene: Ok.

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?

Gene: Yes.

Socrates: Likewise, the root word for the word ‘ontological’ is ‘ontos which pertains to being. You know that the word pertains to existence.

Gene: Sure

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?

Gene: No

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?

Gene: Yes

Socrates: Since you used them interchangeably, existence and knowledge should have the same meaning, yes?

Gene: Surely

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?

Gene: No

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?

Gene: Yes

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.

Gene: But…

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).

13 Comments »

  1. Don’t be too hard on Weingarten. He is (at times) a comic genius. This is from a column he wrote earlier this year (March 10) about a stray kitten he had adopted [I relate to this for personal reasons]:

    I haven’t yet learned how to discipline him effectively, because unlike dogs, who accept punishment with appropriate shame and learn from their errors, cats do not seem to grasp the concept of personal responsibility or atonement. Barnaby does not regard getting yelled at, or being put on timeout, as an occasion for attitudinal adjustment. If anything, he regards it as an opportunity for reprisal.

    Yesterday, when he kept leaping onto a windowsill until he managed to knock a plant to the floor, I banished him to the bathroom, with appropriate stern finger wagging. Within a minute, from inside, there came a terrible sound. When I opened the door, Barnaby was in the toilet bowl along with a full, sodden roll of toilet paper. (He had apparently ridden it all the way down, like Slim Pickens on the A-bomb in “Dr. Strangelove.”)

    Caught in flagrante, Barnaby did not apologize; he escaped. Darting past me, wet as a fish, he squished across the floor and leaped into an open pantry, where he immediately found and entered the most problematic hiding place available, a slightly open bag of flour. I do not believe in corporal punishment, even for animals, but that earned him a swat. He swatted me back.

    My body is a spiderwork of tiny scratches, most of which I do not remember sustaining. Barnaby sleeps in the bed near me, and my theory is that he spends half the night finding soft spots where he can inflict just enough revenge to break skin, but not enough to wake me. So most mornings I gingerly search my body for clues to what awful things might have transpired overnight. I imagine that’s exactly what it felt like to be Dr. Jekyll…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark English,
    Gene’s act of charity to adopt a stray cat is laudable, but my dialogue is more or less about how Gene’s lack of understanding of what “epistemological” and “ontological” shows he doesn’t understand one of the most rudimentary parts of philosophy. It doesn’t show that he is a bad person. It is possible that one can be a decent person who still has a lot to learn in (academic) philosophy.

    Like

  3. Paul

    I don’t know why you are suggesting that I was alluding to Weingarten’s putative moral qualities. My point is that he is primarily a writer and a humorist, and I think you may be misreading him slightly.

    In the piece you link to he writes:

    I use ontology and epistemology, and their derivative forms, whenever the subject involves an abstract idea and I want to convey a sense that I have given deeper thought to it than I really have.

    This is a funny line. He is saying he doesn’t care what they mean and uses them only for effect. A confession, right? But humorous.

    Then he makes the (more or less interesting) observation that nobody seemed to notice or care.

    Another thought that came to mind was that Wittgenstein (I like the oblique allusion to the poker incident with Popper, by the way) didn’t, as far as I’m aware, have any use for those two terms you are focused on here, and would probably have had some sympathy with Weingarten’s view of ontology, in particular:

    … The definition of ontology is even murkier: “The philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.” (Or, in other words, beeble beeble beeble.)

    And, yes, I know LW wasn’t big on definitions and you could see academic philosophy as a set of language games. But not everyone wants to play those particular games. Wittgenstein, always ambivalent about academic philosophy, certainly wouldn’t have liked the way that much analytic philosophy has developed.

    Personally I can’t help feeling that Wittgenstein (the quirky and linguistically fastidious writer, the fan of Karl Kraus, of American detective stories and silly musicals starring the likes of Ethel Merman) would be more likely to be waving his poker at professional ontologists than at Gene Weingarten. 🙂

    Like

  4. Mark: It’s interesting that you find Weingarten’s remarks funny. They strike me as extremely tired, overused, quite sophomoric criticisms. The sort of thing you hear out of the mouths of incurious, anti-intellectual types. “You’re just talking like that to *sound* smart.”

    As for Wittgenstein, he wrote an entire book — a very sophisticated, difficult book — on the subject of justification and warrant, called “On Certainty.” So, while he definitely had a major problem with the philosophy of his day, it was not of the “it’s just pretentious bullshit!” variety.

    I agree with you that Weingarten was *trying* to be funny. But he didn’t come even close. Rather, he just wound up looking and sounding stupid

    Like

  5. Hi Mark,

    I don’t think Paul is misreading him at all. Any quote like this is pretty much are sufficient evidence for me:

    “My growing suspicion is that philosophers invented these terms for the same reason I use them: To make them seem smarter than they are, and to make the reader feel smarter than she is.”

    Also when you said this I was puzzled, “Don’t be too hard on Weingarten. He is (at times) a comic genius.”

    Should we not be hard on Steven Hawking when he says philosophy is dead because he is a genius in physics? I think we should be additionally hard on those who have a large platform with which to mislead people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dan K.

    It’s interesting that you find Weingarten’s remarks funny. They strike me as extremely tired, overused, quite sophomoric criticisms. The sort of thing you hear out of the mouths of incurious, anti-intellectual types. “You’re just talking like that to *sound* smart.”

    Did I say that particular column was funny? I did not. I said one particular sentence was funny. (It was also self-deprecating: this is what I don’t think Paul was seeing.)

    I was not particularly impressed with Weingarten’s piece at all (even if I have some sympathies with his view on ontology).

    As for Wittgenstein, he wrote an entire book — a very sophisticated, difficult book — on the subject of justification and warrant, called “On Certainty.” So, while he definitely had a major problem with the philosophy of his day, it was not of the “it’s just pretentious bullshit!” variety.

    I don’t see how this undermines anything I said. Note that I was specifically targeting ontology not epistemology.

    Dan T.

    I don’t think Paul is misreading him at all. Any quote like this is pretty much sufficient evidence for me:

    “My growing suspicion is that philosophers invented these terms for the same reason I use them: To make them seem smarter than they are, and to make the reader feel smarter than she is.”

    Nowhere did I suggest that Weingarten is not insulting academic philosophers. Of course he is! And I don’t disagree with Dan K.’s assessment: a bit sophomoric etc. When I read this particular piece (by Weingarten) my first thought was: this is a bit weak. Take him to task, sure. But I think readers would be likely to be misled and confused by the way Paul is presenting him in the dialogue as a ‘philosopher’.

    Also when you said this I was puzzled, “Don’t be too hard on Weingarten. He is (at times) a comic genius.”

    Should we not be hard on Steven Hawking when he says philosophy is dead because he is a genius in physics? I think we should be additionally hard on those who have a large platform with which to mislead people.

    Fair enough. I wish I hadn’t said “comic genius” actually even though I qualified it with “at times”. The guy can be funny. But (apart from that one line) that particular piece is not funny and can justifiably be criticized.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Paul,

    I enjoyed reading your dialogue. From what I see here, in the comments and your story, Weingarten’s attitude is unproductive to say the least. If you have a link to the ‘original’ article i’d appreciate it.

    I’ve always been perplexed by the scope of the concepts epistemological and ontological, and their relation (maybe especially their relation). I think I get the basic idea and what general idea(s) are behind their particular usages but I also often find their usage problematic and I find myself checking to make sure I’m remembering correctly what the terms are about. I’m not sure exactly why I react that way, but I get the impression in those cases that it’s often about how author is contrasting the two concepts (directly or by implication) and I don’t find the definitions sufficiently grounded (or my understanding of them isn’t) to warrant the author taking those steps, and I find myself asking things like: does nature cut up that way, how are the terms being or existence being used (and of course knowledge too).

    Like

  8. Thanks Dan,

    I checked the description and the whole piece visually before asking but I still missed it.

    Like

  9. After reading the article I understand Mark’s comment about Weingrten’s humourous style. As I’m still learning the distinction I chuckled at some of his ‘jokes’ at the beginning but wished he’d looked at the issues more seriously as the piece progressed, and I get the impression he understands a lot more than he’s saying, because this seems, well at least to me, he isn’t completely lost when he says “Ontologically speaking, then, are they even words, from an epistemological standpoint?”.

    Studies the nature of knowledge, the rationality of belief, and justification / Study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relations — from wikipedia (Weingarten uses the same definition for ontology)

    After posting my first comment I decided to check out some links on the subject and found this paper where the author uses at least six ways of saying what he means: On the significance of distinguishing epistemology and ontology http://ethicalpolitics.org/seminars/neville.htm

    The study of knowing / the study of being —
    Studying what knowledge is and how it is possible / studying questions of what kinds of entities exist —
    Ideas about the natural world / about the natural world —
    How we know that such and such exists / whether or not such and such exists —
    Looking at [thought] as some sort of reflection of and about the world / asking what kind of thing thought is and how it is possible —
    The study of thought / the study of the world as it exists independently of thought —

    I think I’m making some headway. Maybe a bit more on ontology, if I’m not mistaken his last comparison seems particularly clear on ontology.

    But on epistemology, I wonder is thought (as brain process) enough to say that an ant has knowledge of heat after I see it avoid an amber placed in it’s path.

    Like

  10. In other words I’d appreciate a piece on the topic of epistemology and ontology and their relationship.

    This struck me as useful: “the axiology is explained by the epistemology which is explained by the ontology” (from Ask a Philosopher)

    And after some more thought on my ant question, I’m thinking that we can say it has knowledge of heat if our epistemology defines knowledge in a way that includes that.

    Like