Monday, February 6, 2012

Writing philosophy

By listening to the two remaining lectures this morning, I completed my audit of Shelly Kagan's Philosophy of Death class that Shafik recommended to me a year ago. The lectures are freely available as both video and audio-only clips recorded from the spring 2007 semester Kagan taught at Yale.

Like with a lot of other great philosophical discourses, Kagan's lectures left me with the impression that I didn't learn much. But I know that impression is false; it's just that Kagan is so clear in making his points that everything I learned seemed obvious in hindsight, as though I was merely rediscovering my own knowledge rather than learning anything new. Kagan always has the perfect example to isolate philosophical principles and to exaggerate consequences to absurdity, such as with his example against the two-state requirement.

The two-state requirement has to do with the topic of suicide and whether it ever makes sense to say so-and-so Jones is better off dead. According to the requirement, such statements are always illogical because Jones can be better off following some X only if he's around to experience the effects of X. For example, Jones may be better off learning Spanish because he'll have a before state of not knowing Spanish and an after state of knowing Spanish and he may be better off in the after state than in the before state. But in the case of death, Jones has no after state because after dying Jones doesn't exist. Therefore, Jones can't ever be better off dead.

But against the two-state requirement, Kagan uses the following example.

Imagine that you've got some happy person, some incredibly happy person with a wonderful life filled with whatever goods you think are worth having in life—love and accomplishment and knowledge and whatever it is. He's walking across the street and he's about to get hit by a truck. And so, at some risk to yourself, you leap into the way, pushing him out of the way, saving his life. And happily, you don't get hurt either. He looks up, realizes he was this close from death and he says, Thank you. Thank you for saving my life.

And now what you have to say is, I'm afraid you're rather confused. Because to say thank you for my saving your life is to presuppose I've benefited you in some way. To presuppose I've benefited you in some way is to assume that you're—it's a good thing that your life has continued. But, you see, given the two-state requirement, we can't say it's a good thing that your life continued, because the two-state requirement says we can only make that kind of remark when there's a before state and an after state. And the after state would have been nonexistence. So, you see, you're really rather philosophically confused in thinking that I've done you some sort of favor by saving your life.

Brilliant! No amount of theoretical abstraction will dispel the two-state requirement as well as an example like that. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then examples are worth a thousand arguments.

As I continued listening to the lectures, I became increasingly impressed by Kagan's clear way of talking, and I thought about how to bring that clarity into my own philosophical writing. It's one thing to write clearly about other, less abstract topics, such as some maintenance work I did on my bike or having reinstalled Linux on my laptop. But philosophy is conceptual and thus hard to write about.

But there's more to writing well than merely producing better blog posts. If, as William Zinsser says, clear writing is clear thinking, then one's philosophical ideas are only as good as one's writing. That's the challenge in writing better philosophy.

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