Thursday, July 07, 2005

Through the Looking Glass with Leiter

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, Chapter VI, Humpty Dumpty*

Reminds me of B. Leiter (blighter), who uses his command of philosophical argot to call easy questions "hard" and hard questions "easy":
Start with some examples of hard questions, the kinds of questions I largely avoid on the blog (though some of them are the subject of my scholarly work):

Does the now orthodox thesis of the token-identity of the mental and the physical (the supervenience of the mental on the physical) have the unintended consequence that the mental is epiphenomenal? (Relatedly: is there really an intelligible kind of metaphysical relationship between properties [i.e., supervenience] that is intermediate between property-dualism and type-identity?)

Is there any reason to think that putative moral facts will figure in the best causal explanation of any aspect of our experience?

What exactly is Nietzsche's doctrine of the will to power, and what role is it playing in the argument of the Genealogy?

Do authoritative reasons in Raz's sense really have to be exclusionary reasons, or will it suffice if they simply have more "weight" than other kinds of reasons?

What reasons, if any, does (or can) Quine give for his naturalism, and are they sound?

Is it an obstacle to descriptive jurisprudence that the concepts central to law are (as I have called them) hermeneutic concepts, i.e., concepts whose extension is supposed to be fixed by the role they play in how people understand themselves and their social world?

What is Foucault's view of the cognitive and epistemic status of the claims of the human sciences?...

By contrast, here are some easy questions:

Was the U.S. justified in invading Iraq?

Are Bush's economic policies in the interests of most people?

Is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection a well-confirmed scientific theory?

Is there a social security "crisis"?

Leiter goes on, in his usual egotistical manner, to assume that he has a monopoly on the answers to the "easy" questions (presumably "no," "no," "yes," and "no," respectively), which entitles him to dismiss those who have different answers:

These questions, and many others, are easily addressed in the blogosphere, since there is no serious--or at least no honest or intelligent--dispute about the epistemic merits of the possible answers. Where I get into "trouble," of course, is with those who can't tell the difference between the two kinds of questions, the ones who think that the dialectical care, caution, and intellectual humility required for the genuinely "hard" questions ought to apply to the easy questions as well. These folks are a bit miffed when I dismiss their positions out of hand. But that is what their positions usually deserve.

Part of intellectual maturity is being able to tell the difference between questions where humility is required and questions which are not worth one's time. The so-called "blogosphere," like the public culture in general, is not a rich repository of intellectual maturity, needless to say. And, unsurprisingly, intellectual lightweights with trite opinions, and limited analytical skills, take offense when I make it all too clear what the answers to the easy questions are. Many of these folks are no doubt honest, well-intentioned, decent people, who have been led down unhappy paths by circumstances or indoctrination. It is an important question, far beyond my ken, what can be done to set them straight. But it is not the aim of this blog to do so.

Leiter's "hard" questions are nothing more than the kind of intellectual pornography that stimulates professional academics and pseudo-intellectuals to engage in endless, meaningless bouts of mutual, mental masturbation.

Leiter's first two "easy" questions are in fact hard questions with indeterminate, political answers and real consequences for real people (as opposed to academics). Leiter's third "easy" question is in fact a hard scientific question which cannot be answered "yes" or "no" because it pertains to a falsifiable hypothesis. Leiter's fourth "easy" question is easy only because of the way Leiter has framed it. The real question (what to do about Social Security) is as hard as his first two "easy" questions.

Leiter would object that I am not using "hard" and easy" as he intends them. But I am using "hard" and "easy" as they are commonly understood; Leiter is not. He has no monopoly on the terms of public discourse, just as he has no monopoly on the answers to truly hard questions, his delusions of intellectual superiority to the contrary.
* Who must look like this:

Source: B. Leiter's homepage.