Magic Words [Was (surprisingly enough): Sex Change]
Sat, 16 Aug 1997 09:48:14 -0700 (PDT)

On Fri, 15 Aug 1997, Robin Hanson wrote:
> On Mon, 28 Jul 1997, Robin Hanson wrote:
> > O.K. This seems to be a direct application of a general rule that
> > something that wants to get chosen gains an advantage by having the
> > choosers be less aware of other choices.
> responded:
> >When I scolded that we should never underestimate the normative weight of
> >the "real," I had more in mind than this truism -- tho' you're definitely
> >in the ballpark. My point -- and I think it is a stronger point -- is
> >that there is a constellation of "magic" words whose function seems to be
> >little more than to "block the road of inquiry." These are the words
> >"Right," "Good," "Beautiful," "True," and most of all, "Natural" -- and of
> >course I mean these words in their perverse Philosophical as opposed to
> >their everyday usages (hence the initial capitals).
> Your stronger claim may well be true, but I am drawn to focus on
> explanations that I can ground out in evolutionary terms. If you are
> right, that just raises the puzzle of why there should be such "magic"
> words for us.

In this case, the explanation will rely less on the notion of evolution
than on *consolation*. It has been among the principal functions of
philosophy to provide its adherents a kind of consolation that no other
enterprise could afford. For finite beings imperiled by death, desease,
and the disasters of politics, philosophy promised a method by means of
which one could presumably rise above the discord, to attach oneself to
something greater than finitude and so make some sense out of the human
condition. Needless to say, times have changed. To the extent that
philosophy has any role at all, it should be one of problem-solving. I
like to think of philosophers as people suited by talent, temperament, and
circumstance to provide new descriptions that shake up complacent
perceptions and effect reconciliations among apparently antagonistic
viewpoints. Philosophers are hardly the only people in our society who can
undertake this task -- novelists, journalists, and songwriters are often
far better at it, for example -- but this still seems to me a worthy
*contemporary* (and future) task for the discipline. Certainly, the
provision of the so-called "metaphysical comforts" stands in the way of
this task and it's high time for philosophy to bag its sadly medieval
self-image for disposal.
I guess this discussion is inexcusably far from the conversation
that initiated it... suffice it to say that philosophy has disastrously
exacerbated the human tendency to treat the familiar as the inevitable, by
stoking the fantasy that there can be descriptions of the world (e.g., the
magical ones that are Right, Good, Beautiful, and True) that are not just
the best on offer but which halt the quest for the better by somehow
"saying the way the world is". Philosophy as an institution (read
Aristotle, or practically any philosopher up to and including Nietzsche
and Freud) and the philosophical sensibility more generally, have no small
share in the sociocultural maintenance of retrograde conceptions and
institutions of sex, race, gender, beastliness, madness, age, ability,
criminality, health, etc.
Best, Dale

Dale Carrico |
University of California at Berkeley, Department of Rhetoric

It is impossible to make significant change by force.
The only way to make significant change is
to make the thing you want to change obsolete. -- R. Buckminster Fuller
"Death, where is thy sting-a-ling?" -- Noel Coward