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Hackers and Philosophers [Jan. 6th, 2009|12:01 pm]
[mood |sicksick]
[music |David Bowie, "Little Wonder"]

Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma.
--The Wizard of Oz (as portrayed by Frank Morgan)
Our society has very few public intellectuals. I have long lamented this fact, but I should be careful to immediately add that this does not mean that our society has few intellectuals at all; a public intellectual is not simply an intellectual, but an intellectual able to gain public access--an intellectual to whom the public wants (is willing?) to listen.

As a sociological overgeneralization, we could say that, in any society, the public intellectuals tend to come from the dominant intellectual field in that society. And so, in the Enlightenment, the public intellectuals were philosophers, scientists, and authors. ("And" in this case is a true conjunction: Enlightenment public intellectuals tended to be all of the above, not simply any one of the above...) America, over at least the last sixty years, has been a society dominated by the sciences; our public intellectuals--few and far between, to be sure--have thus followed suit. (Noam Chomsky might seem like the obvious counterexample; and yet, remember, his actual "field" is linguistics!) In the mid-twentieth century, physics was the dominant field; and so our public intellectuals were people like Richard P. Feynman, Albert Einstein, and--to a lesser extent--Stephen Hawking. Over the last thirty years or so, physics has been slowly eclipsed by biology within the hard sciences; and so our more recent public intellectuals have been people like Richard Dawkins. (Yes--I know, he's British. And yet his popularity is not constrained to the British Isles; in an age when America is outsourcing so much of its labor, should we be at all surprised that we're outsourcing our public intellectuals as well?)

While biology has certainly not yet been knocked from its position of dominance, especially within the inner circile of "hard sciences," there is a newer trend in America over the last ten years or so: More and more of our (still very few in number!) public intellectuals are hailing from the field(s) of computer science. Witness last year's best-selling "The Last Lecture," a guide to life, the universe, and everything by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon. The latest--for me, anyway--in this new trend is Paul Graham, programmer/venture capitalist (founder of Viaweb) and essayist-at-large.

I first encountered Graham's writing a year or two ago, when I ran across his excellent essay, "Why Nerds are Unpopular." It is, on the whole, an excellent diagnosis of the labyrinth of hell we've come to affectionately call "middle school" (and, for that matter, "high school" as well). On the strength of this essay, I asked for Graham's book, Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, for Christmas, and my sister was happy to oblige.

An aside--perhaps an obvious one--before I go any further: I tend to operate under the tacit assumption that the role of the philosopher is, or at least ought to be, to act as public intellectual. This is not to say that I feel that scientists are "invading philosophy's turf" when they act as public intellectuals; I am not trying to establish or defend some privileged entitlement of professional philosophers to any sort of limelight. I am, however, saying two things. First, that anyone, regardless of "career"--physicist, computer programmer, unemployed miscreant--necessarily takes on the role of philosopher anytime s/he takes on the role of public intellectual. This is philosophy in its true sense (as opposed to its academic institutional sense), as practiced by old Socrates himself. And second--though it's a discussion for another day--I take it as an explicit failing of professional philosophy--and professional philosophers--that so many who would call themselves 'philosophers' (and be so-called by virtue of their professional positions) make no attempt whatsoever to play the role of public intellectual. That so much of professional philosophy is directed toward arcane debates isolated by jargon and obscurity, that so many professional philosophers sneer at ideas like "engaging with popular culture," or even "writing for the layperson," is a failing of the profession, and one for which these professional so-called 'philosophers' deserve to be ousted from the limelight.

At first glance, then, Paul Graham represents everything that I look for in a public intellectual. He makes no bones about stepping outside of pigeonholing labels like "computer programmer," "startup capitalist," "hacker," or "painter" in order to take on the role of public intellectual. He draws from the strengths of his varied background, but sets his sights on a broad cross-section of contemporary culture. He writes clearly for the layperson, is not afraid to draw from popular culture where it might be of service, and he clearly disdains the pretensions that keep so many academics from participating in a meaningful public dialogue. The essay on nerds is, again, an excellent example of all that is good in Graham's writing.

Alas, there is another aspect of Graham's writing, one which is harder to avoid the more one reads of his essays.

While the public intellectual must necessarily play the role of philosopher, this does not mean that public intellectuals must respect philosophy, its tradition or its history. Certainly Ayn Rand comes immediately to mind, but one even gets the impression sometimes listening to Dawkins that he thinks philosophy is just bad biology. The trick seems to be in drawing from one's background without remaining within one's discipline; to start from biology, or economics, or computer science, one cannot remain within these disciplines and attempt to speak about things like culture, the meaning of life, etc. This is not an invocation of philosophical privilege; this is simply a reminder that every science has a proper object of study. To apply economics to study the meaning of life is not better philosophy, it's bad economics. In many of the scientific public intellectuals, I see a tension between scientific method and structure, and the content proper to the humanities.

Graham has shown himself more than willing to work outside of boxes and disciplines, but this same tension crops up again and again. It comes through most clearly in his contempt for the humanities, and his valorization of the hard sciences. I first encountered it in his essay "What You Can't Say," which is actually an excellent list of exercises for freeing thought from moral compulsion--if you've read Kant's essay, "What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?" you'll know just what I mean. At any rate, Graham's essay is going along really well, until we come--late in the essay--to his one and only explicit example of Graham saying something "you're not supposed to say":

It could be that the scientists are simply smarter; most physicists could, if necessary, make it through a PhD program in French literature, but few professors of French literature could make it through a PhD program in physics. (43)
I am tempted to spend several minutes addressing the factual basis of Graham's claim--on what evidence does he base this "freethinking" declaration? I might point him towards this New York Times article from October, 2007, which mentions the difficulty graduate students across the board seem to have finishing doctoral programs. I might point out the little sentence that jumps out at me from paragraph four: "Most science programs allow students to submit three research papers rather than a single grand work." Oh? Humanities graduate students struggle with writing a dissertation, and so 50% drop out; science graduate students struggle with writing a dissertation, so science programs simply adjust the requirements to make it easier? I could spend my time arguing with Graham's claim. Or, I could simply quote something he wrote in the afforementioned essay on nerds:

In general, people outside some very demanding field don't realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. (3)
My hackles raised by this glancing reference in "What You Can't Say," I jumped online to read the essay "How to Do Philosophy." Here are paragraphs 4-6 of that essay:

The summer before senior year [of high school] I took some college classes. I learned a lot in the calculus class, but I didn't learn much in Philosophy 101. And yet my plan to study philosophy remained intact. It was my fault I hadn't learned anything. I hadn't read the books we were assigned carefully enough. I'd give Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge another shot in college. Anything so admired and so difficult to read must have something in it, if one could only figure out what.

Twenty-six years later, I still don't understand Berkeley. I have a nice edition of his collected works. Will I ever read it? Seems unlikely.

The difference between then and now is that now I understand why Berkeley is probably not worth trying to understand. I think I see now what went wrong with philosophy, and how we might fix it.
In other words, "How to Do Philosophy" is an essay, written by someone who doesn't understand philosophy, about how to fix philosophy. From here, Graham's essay can be broken into two major parts: Part I, in which Graham discusses the problem with "the current philosophical tradition," analyzing it "as an example of reason gone wrong"; and Part II, where Graham makes a proposal for a new philosophy. Part I basically argues that philosophy is a pyramid scheme: philosophers make their living by writing important-sounding nonsense; naive people who want to be smart read this nonsense, and want to know what it means, so they take philosophy classes; the smart people dismiss philosophy and move on to more important things, while some of the remaining people join the game, and learn how to write important-sounding nonsense to dupe the next generation of philosophy students. At best, Graham gives us a grossly uncharitable account of philosophy--at worst, a perniciously ignorant one. Why, asks Graham, do philosophers want to make their living by writing such nonsense? Because this is the easy way to get tenure: "In order to get tenure in any field you must not arrive at conclusions that members of tenure committees can disagree with. . . . In the humanities you can either avoid drawing any definite conclusions (e.g. conclude that an issue is a complex one), or draw conclusions so narrow that no one cares enough to disagree with you." This is, we presume, where the fact that Graham does not work in an academic field simply skews the data from which he's drawing his conclusions. At the very least, it's obvious he has no exposure to the way acadmic philosophy is currently practiced--a discipline, whatever its faults, in which heated debate within departments (even amongst those who want tenure) is very much the norm.

Graham's diagnosis of philosophy's problems leads him, in Part II, to pitch a new, better philosophy. What will be the test of good philosophy? Usefulness: "I propose we try again, but that we use that heretofore despised criterion, applicability, as a guide to keep us from wondering [sic] off into a swamp of abstractions." And what does Graham mean by "useful"? "The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we've written to do anything differently afterward." For all of Graham's handwaving about good science versus metaphysical nonsense, he seems not to have noticed that the most useful discipline, by his definition, is not science, but religion. Can you name a single book as viciously useful as the Bible?

It might be tempting to abandon Graham right here, as simply one of the "anti-intellectual public intellectuals" who seem to crop up more and more these days. However, taken more charitably, isn't Graham's complaint against philosophy simply another version of Marx's Thesis XI? Which is actually funny, because Graham's writing is peppered with snide comments about Marx and communism! But then, this is perhaps neither a humorous irony, nor a coincidence: Certainly, the plethora of articles on venture capitalism would suggest that Graham is not opposed to capitalism. But above and beyond this, take a look at his essay, "Mind the Gap." Paragraphs 2-4:

Like chess or painting or writing novels, making money is a very specialized skill. But for some reason we treat this skill differently. No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong.

Why? The pattern of variation seems no different than for any other skill. What causes people to react so strongly when the skill is making money?

I think there are three reasons we treat making money as different: the misleading model of wealth we learn as children; the disreputable way in which, till recently, most fortunes were accumulated; and the worry that great variations in income are somehow bad for society. As far as I can tell, the first is mistaken, the second outdated, and the third empirically false. Could it be that, in a modern democracy, variation in income is actually a sign of health?
What follows can only be called an unabashed apology for anarcho-capitalism. Graham manages to sidestep, deny, and/or ignore all exploitative features of free-market capitalism. He argues that making money is a skill which ought to be rewarded (with money, of course; why do I think of a passage from "How to Do Philosophy": "I took several classes in logic. I don't know if I learned anything from them."), and calls this skill "generating wealth." (A neat euphemism: Charles Foster Kane generates wealth. How does he do it? Excellently. Ah! We ought to reward him financially.) And Graham argues that we all benefit by allowing these generators to produce as much wealth as possible (because in order to get rich, they have to create goods to sell, goods which will improve our lives--one can almost imagine Steve Jobs slaving away in his garage every night, creating millions and millions of iPods all by himself...).

I could very easily devote an entire essay to simply answering "Mind the Gap" (Lenin always used to say: for every page of lies, it takes ten pages of truth to answer them). But the fascinating point, for me at least, is how all of the threads tie together here. Graham charges philosophy with not being "useful"--and therefore, falling into nonsense. But he does this by ignoring all "useful" philosophy, quickly dismissing such "lit-crit" ideas as "critical theory." He ignores these because they represent exactly the kind of change he doesn't want to see. And so, instead, Graham substitutes his own account of "usefulness": a pragmatism in which winning is its own reward. He draws his account, ultimately, from free-market ideology--competition as guarantee of truth. You will "win" if you "do what people want." Anyone can succeed; so those who do must have worked harder at it than you (poor people are lazy). What all of this means, in the end, is that Paul Graham's "philosophy" so often comes back to simply echoing the dominant ideology. Far from saying "What You Can't Say," Graham actively aids the censor--partially by taking on the role of philosopher in order to dismiss philosophy. And around, and around...

Perhaps this is still to abandon Graham among America's anti-intellectual public intellectuals. For the dominant ideology is exactly what I see at stake here. But again, this is simply one aspect of Graham's writing (albeit the red thread running throughout). In many ways, the positive aspect can act as a corrective to the negative one--you'll remember how I was able to quote Graham's essay on nerds against his dismissal of philosophy, for example. This goes to a larger point, one on which I ought to spend more explicit time: philosophy is not a Manichean affair. There are no pure heroes, nor any thoroughly evil villains. There are simply admixtures of the two, which tend to fall in either progressive or regressive directions. By exploring the contradictions within an author, we can start to open up breathing space in between the critical and ideological strands. In this way, even an anti-intellectual public intellectual can serve to further the conversation...

[User Picture]From: mavinga
2009-01-06 06:18 pm (UTC)
"I take it as an explicit failing of professional philosophy--and professional philosophers--that so many who would call themselves 'philosophers' (and be so-called by virtue of their professional positions) make no attempt whatsoever to play the role of public intellectual. That so much of professional philosophy is directed toward arcane debates isolated by jargon and obscurity, that so many professional philosophers sneer at ideas like "engaging with popular culture," or even "writing for the layperson," is a failing of the profession, and one for which these professional so-called 'philosophers' deserve to be ousted from the limelight."

I believe some would respond by saying; "Amen!"

I have to admit I'm on of those people that wonders why it is that Philosophy seems so inaccessible and wants to gauge it by an apparent usefulness. I see it that way more comically than seriously.

Because of my father, I understand that there are aspects of mathematics, for example, where no application currently exists. I remember somethings I was aware of as a kid that seemed far short of useful. At McFarlane, we recently ran into an issue with software and topological data, that drifted right into the material my father was working on before I was born. I immediately recognized it and discussed it with him. We explored ways to express the geometry with less data, and how a peice of software could do that to allow another to manage that reduced load. It's one of the best conversations we've ever had.

I imagine that philosophers are up to something, charting what's been, is, or what maybe coming and perhaps arriving at something. I acknowledge how vague and speculative that sentence is and as a pun, that is intended. Still, how often do we hear people say, "My philosophy is..." I would guess I hear that at least once a week. I suspect people are aware on some level, or perhaps more importantly they want to know how. Those that maybe not want to know how to do philosophy, think they can. Either way, when it rarely happens, one has to wonder why.

Do we blame philosophy today, or do we blame ourselves? Do we want access or are we denied it. I think what you mentioned about capital somehow factors into it. For whatever reason we're trying to measure everything in capital. I believe it's no wonder that a public platform today is usually directly connected to money in some way. A bestseller, or campaign funds, or just money in the family. I think Paris Hilton and Terrell Owens have stronger platforms--no matter the nature of that platform--to express philosophy than most of the brilliant graduate students in that field.

After rambling, I'll avoid attempting an answer. Instead, I'll share the following. I was once asked what I do all day, and I said "Mostly solve problems and draw the solutions, but you know, the bulk of it is, I get paid to think."

The response was a raised eyebrow, "Paid? Just to think? Must be nice."

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[User Picture]From: archas
2009-01-08 04:09 pm (UTC)
Heh; nice, indeed!

It's funny, I had a nice conversation with my mother over the holiday about my work. I had her read something I had written, and she said that she, too, had this complaint of philosophy. What are we supposed to DO with this? We got to talk about the importance of thinking through a problem instead of (or, at the very least, before) jumping to quick/easy answers...But overall, it was really helpful; I think I have a tendency to forget how useless so much philosophy seems from the outside--which is also to say, I need to work harder on building bridges in my writing between "inside" and "outside."

I've been thinking a lot about this phrase lately, "My philosophy is..." I think you're right, it has everything to do with this issue.

In completely unrelated news? We should meet up soon, perhaps for some museum drawing or something.
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[User Picture]From: mavinga
2009-01-08 07:45 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've been thinking we should go drawing too!

Not this coming weekend but the next, Garette or myself will be in touch. My art is becoming to stale from work.

As far as philosophy and reaching those on the "outside"...

I heard a rumor that you studied something related to comics once.

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[User Picture]From: mavinga
2009-01-13 08:42 pm (UTC)


Weekend of the 24th-25th perhaps?
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[User Picture]From: cxc
2009-01-06 07:53 pm (UTC)
Are you interested at all in reformatting this as a letter and sending it to Paul Graham?
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[User Picture]From: archas
2009-01-08 04:12 pm (UTC)
Heh; you know, I was thinking about writing directly to him, but my thoughts were too scattered, so I put them here to sort through them a bit. Now that they're in some sort of order, I may actually write up something for him. A little more heavy-handed than a "reformat," but the same basic list of grudges...

Most of his essays do have a link at the bottom that says, "Comment on this Essay." I wonder what he does with the comments?
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From: epictetus_rex
2009-01-07 01:51 am (UTC)
The worst sin of How To Do Philosophy, a sin which is up against a whole bunch of very stiff competition, is its uncritical acceptance of a philosophical position in the service of criticizing philosophy as a whole. This position, roughly, is that the answer to any important question can be obtained by consulting the dictionary, or simply by individual fiat, declaring the concept in question to have a certain meaning.

I've encountered this position amongst several of the more technical types I know. Their inability to see that their orientation to the world is (in and of itself) a historically conditioned philosophical position is frightening.

This is a fantastic post, and you're fighting the good fight.
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[User Picture]From: archas
2009-01-08 04:16 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the kind words!

I would agree; the most common problem with those who shun philosophy is--surprise, surprise--the failure to do exactly what philosophy is best at: Question the very position from which one speaks. Ergo, one can simply rely on certain authorities, the results of sedimented historical processes; dictionaries, "common sense," etc.
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