19 May 2012

A Philosophic Crank Immortalized

“Among the philosophic cranks of my acquaintance in the past was a lady all the tenets of whose system I have forgotten except one.  Had she been born in the Ionian archipelago some three thousand years ago, that one doctrine would probably have made her name sure of a place in every university curriculum and examination paper. The world, she said, is composed of only two elements, the Thick, namely, and the Thin.”   -- William James.

There’s a lot to like about this passage.  There is, to begin, the mild streak of misanthropy. James’ prose often gives you the sense that he did not suffer fools gladly, and someone of his prominence must certainly have heard from a lot of “philosophic cranks” out to sell their own brand of snake oil.

Secondly, though, and somewhat at odds with that: there’s a love of human variety. This woman was a “crank,” but she was a crank whose silly idea sticks in his mind, and might in the right time and place have made her famous.

Third, there is the point of it. For James, the distinction between thick and thin is critical in examining philosophies. Some are thin – they seem to proceed entirely by logic chopping, by the dance of bloodless categories. Such is the vice of intellectualism. Other philosophies are thick – they bring in the empirical world at every turn – and they draw James’ admiration.  He uses this anonymous woman’s distinction to introduce the works of Fechner, and the remainder of that chapter tells of his admiration for Fechner’s mind as a “multitudinously organized cross-roads of truth.”

It is the distinction, in short, between the hedgehog and the fox.      


Xerographica said...

Sometimes I wonder if I am a crank. My argument is that taxpayers should have the freedom to choose where their taxes go. At anytime throughout the year you could go to the Environmental Protection Agency website, check their fundraising progress bar and submit a tax payment.

See...politics fulfills the role that religion used to. When there is scarcity we expect our sacrifices (taxes) to result in abundance. Therefore, allowing you to choose which government organizations you give your taxes to is nothing more than religious tolerance. You sacrifice to your God(s)...and I'll sacrifice to my God(s). May the best Gods win.

So...am I a crank?

Christopher said...

You are surely not a crank. I go somewhat further than you, into anarcho-capitalism, which I see as the politics of anti-politics.

Xerographica said...

But why do you need to go any further? If you don't think something should be on the menu...then why would consumers (taxpayers) "order it" with their taxes?

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.