Software Musings

I Ate the Salted Peanuts

Posted on: 14/10/2006

This is the second post I’ve made about an article in the London Review of Books. The issue that arrived in Ottawa yesterday is dated 21st September 2006 so I suppose it was dispatched from London by sailing ship before being put onto a dog sledge in Quebec City for the trip up river.

Anyway, the article that has sent me to the keyboard this time is entitled Who ate the salted peanuts? by Jerry Fodor, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. In the article he reviews Michael Frayn’s latest book, The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe. I must confess that I haven’t read Frayn’s book, although I’ve been very impressed by his earlier works (particularly Towards the End of the Morning and Copenhagen) and Fodor’s review might encourage me to buy it, but, as things stand, this is a review of a review.

The Human Touch is apparently a book of philosophy. Not a book about philosophy as so many are, but a book of philosophy itself. Fodor’s negative review seems to be based on three premises:

  1. Frayn has taken on a “staggering” range of issues stretching from the laws of nature, the structure of space/time, intention and purpose, the act of deciding, sense and syntax, how words have meaning to the gift of analogy. “And”, continues Fodor, “these topics are not treated narrowly…”. To this point all seems well but then Fodor turns at bay and says “Could anybody conceivably have views worth hearing on all those topics?” Although this question may have been meant to be rhetorical I think it deserves an answer. Yes. Many philosophers through the ages have had opinions on all those topics and more. I can accept that Frayn might or might not have worthwhile opinions on these subjects but not that no one could. Sorry Kant, no one can have opinions on all the things you’ve written about so we won’t read you any more. I don’t say that Frayn is another Kant but there is no evidence in Fodor’s article that he isn’t.
  2. Frayn is not a naïve realist. In fact, many of his ideas shew him up as “something of an old-fashioned positivist” who has a “partiality for inferences from epistemic premises to metaphysical conclusions”. As Fodor himself says, Frayn is hardly alone in this. Apparently “quite a lot of 20th-century anglophone philosophy made it a matter of principle to make this mistake”. Well, yes. Apparently the only acceptable philosophical thought at present is naïve realism and Frayn is totally mistaken by exploring anything else. As Fodor gently explains to those of us who may have previously thought there were philosophical questions worth answering, “…that, by and large, things are much as we suppose them to be, and that we suppose them to be that way mostly because that’s the way they are.” So there.
  3. Frayn is not a professor of philosophy. This is less explicit in Fodor’s review than the other two criticisms but it appears to be the continuous undertone. I’ve blogged before about the strange website of philosophy blogs and how it’s separated into “Philosophers” and “Students” as though these are mutually exclusive categories. Thinking about it, I suspect that “Philosopher” means a lecturer of philosophy and “Student” means someone studying philosophy in some recognised seat of learning. Apparently, when one passes some examination (perhaps GCSE Greek Philosophy or a PhD in naïve realism) one gets promoted from one group to another. Very strange.

So, what about the salted peanuts? These are mentioned in a paragraph which begins with the bald statement, “For example, nobody is really a solipsist about other minds….”. It is wonderful to learn this because it simplifies a lot of things although it’s a pity no evidence is given. Anyway, the question then comes up about whether you, as my associate, can be thirsty (having eaten the salted peanuts) unless I have a story that says you are. Fodor doesn’t need much in the way of argument to answer that question: “People say: ‘Is there anything to drink? I’m thirsty.’ Why would they say that they were if they weren’t?” I had my postcard ready with my answer to this question, assuming that I’d win a prize awarded by the London Review of Books, but couldn’t find the address to which to send it.

So, apparently Frayn’s book is no good because (1) he tackles a lot of topics and we know that people brighter than him have neatly divided philosophy into clearly delineated academic subjects and no one is allowed to address more than one of them (2) the only true philosophy is naïve realism and (3) only academics are Philosophers (with a capital P).

Fodor does, however, end with a neat joke that I hadn’t heard before.


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October 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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