Anti-ism-ism

I can appreciate the desire to be part of a group. And I can appreciate the desire to label things and to put them into boxes.

But when it comes to humans and human systems, things are rarely so simple.

I’ve never felt comfortable identifying myself personally with any one specific philosophy or ideology. And I’ve never loved the idea of imposing that on others.

For example, I consider myself pragmatic and I like the writing of William James, but I don’t think I’m an according-to-Hoyle pragmatist.

And I consider myself rational, and I like a number of so-called rationalist thinkers, but I don’t self-identify as a rationalist or actively participate in the rationalist community.

I’ve been influenced by the Stoics, some Zen Buddhists, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Joseph Henrich, Cal Newport, Martha Nussbaum, Steven Pinker, and EO Wilson, among others, but I’m not sure what that makes me intellectually or philosophically.

For me, I think ascribing wholeheartedly to any particular school of philosophy limits your ability to use different solutions to different problems. This is what I think Charlie Munger means when he says to someone with a hammer every problem is a nail. It’s better to go through life with an ample toolkit, learning as much as you can, and when a new problem shows up, to evaluate flexibly how to solve that problem.

I studied philosophy in college. I thought for many years that I would be a philosophy professor. But it became obvious that so much of what we did was to learn arguments, learn their names (usually an –ism of some kind), and then learn the counterargument to that philosophy (which also usually could be summarized with another –ism of some kind).

In a typical philosophy of mind class, you’d learn the different historical theories of the philosophy of mind: dualism, materialism, behaviorism, monism, type identity theory, functionalism, and so forth and then you’d learn why contemporary philosophers generally think that each of those ideas are flawed.

This creates a jargon that’s unique to philosophers. It helps us identify and quickly work our way through different complex thought patterns: “How would a deontologist/utilitarian respond to this problem?” and so it is useful when philosophers talk to other philosophers. But when philosophers try to communicate with anyone else, the jargon is useless.

To use a music analogy, learning jargon is like learning to play different types of chords. To become a philosophy professor, you must become a master with the jargon. And to become a professional musician, you need to know a lot of chords. If you don’t know many chords or you are limited in the chords you can play, you’re going to be a limited musician. But knowing a lot different chords and playing beautiful music are very different things. The former is a tool and the latter is a process or a product. And so, too, with philosophy. Knowing all the arguments and having good ideas are not the same thing.

It just strikes me that too many thinkers conflate facility with the jargon and the –isms with the practice of philosophy.

Either way, while jargon can be frustrating to outsiders, whatever two consenting adults want to do with their –isms is usually fine by me. If people want to use an –isms to speed up a discussion, I have no issue with that.

But what really bothers me is the instinct or tendency to foist –isms onto people and arguments that don’t want to be associated with them.

I prefer not to be so easily pigeonholed, and I do not relish in the act of pigeonholing others.

In this vein, beyond those who self-identify with some kind of –ism, there is a strong desire by many to label others with an –ism that the recipient might not like: liberalism, conservativism, alt-rightism, fundamentalism, neoliberalism, socialism, libertarianism, and of course, racism, sexism, and fascism.

But to me, all those feel like different forms of epithets. They’re shortcuts, ad hominem arguments meant to cut down someone’s ideas or put them into an easy category, whether the originator of the ideas wants them there or not. And it’s often an excuse to place limits or boundaries around arguments where they don’t always belong.

Don’t like someone or their arguments? Label them with a certain –ism and you don’t have to bother with persuasion anymore. It’s cheap, insulting, and dismissive.

Life is too rich, too complex, and too diverse to expect any one philosophy to encapsulate a human being’s life or ideas. Any such parsimony of explanation will invariably be incomplete or false.

I say let life come at you one moment, person, and idea at a time; you can’t know for certain how to resolve a problem until it happens. Any presumption that you’ve figured all problems out in advance, or can dismiss someone else in totality in advance, is simply confabulation or fabrication.

If you dislike my ideas and arguments, that’s fine. But if you dismiss my arguments with a label, rather than a counterargument or an appeal to some form of reason, you will never earn my respect.

Rapoport’s Rebuttals

  1. Sometimes basic jargon (or –isms) are necessary to have an intelligent conversation. If Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne are trying to have a conversation about free will, for example, to restrict them from using basic terminology about free will such as determinism, indeterminism, libertarianism, or compatibilism, would be to hamstring them in their ability to have a clear and intelligent conversation. While those unfamiliar with those terms might not be able to follow along, anyone who is truly interested could learn that terminology and then follow along with that conversation.
  2. If someone is making a sexist or racist argument, you need to call a spade a spade. By pretending that Steve Bannon or the alt right don’t have real fascist or racist tendencies would be to play pretend and do a disservice to any person who needs to be warned about the genuinely dangerous tendencies of those people.