Being Cool

 

Being cool is something everyone aspires to be, but no one seems to know what it is. Also: is aspiring to be cool consistent with being cool? It isn’t the same as being good or socially desirable or beautiful, though elements of those qualities permeate coolness. It is an odd mixture of the moral, the aesthetic, and the likeable. It is, as has been remarked, a somewhat mysterious quality, elusive, hard to pin down–though there is a good deal of consensus about who has it and (more obviously) who does not. For me it begins with the shoes (and always has): a cool person must wear cool shoes. Then come the pants (or the skirt): this too has to be cool, though I am not so stringent when it comes to leg wear. The shirt or jacket is also judged for coolness (I like only three-button jackets). Then the hair reverts to the feet: a cool hairdo is a must, though the scope for coolness here is limited by the facts of nature (baldness being the main enemy of hair cool). What else must be added? It is generally agreed that independence is central—not following the masses. The cool person has autonomy, detachment, a willingness to make up his or her own mind. This independence covers everything from politics to fashion. It includes taste and judgment—in clothes, music, art, reading matter, comedy, speech, and even posture. It need not involve rebelliousness, though it can involve that; indeed, stridency of any kind is alien to coolness. The cool individual always maintains ironic distance, a sense of humor, a certain playfulness, and a reluctance to get overexcited. He or she is always tolerant and broad-minded (except where the matter of shoes in concerned). Cool headedness is part of coolness—not “losing one’s cool”. A cool person keeps his cool, his amused detachment, and his principled lack of enthusiasm (in the old religious sense). He tends not to say much and he speaks carefully, sometimes inarticulately (James Dean comes to mind). The cool person may suffer but he is not voluble about it—though it may be conveyed by the look in his eyes. Suffering in silence is the mark of cool. The shoes already speak volumes.

            An interesting aspect of the concept of cool is that things as well as persons can be cool. It is a question which of these is logically prior. A cool person wears cool clothes, but the clothes are not cool because the person wearing them is; and similarly for music, hairstyles, speech patterns, etc. Even in intellectual and moral matters the intrinsic coolness of the object is crucial: a cool person is one who favors cool ideas and cool values. Thus we can’t separate the coolness of a person from the coolness of her possessions, styles, and beliefs. If you want to be cool, you have to surround yourself with cool stuff (which may include no stuff at all). There are no cool people living in uncool houses, with uncool musical tastes, and uncool political opinions. For me choice of conversational topic is a sure marker of the cool and the uncool: someone who just mouths platitudes and repeats clichés is the epitome of the uncool, while someone who picks up on something unusual stands a fair chance of passing the coolness test. Of course, someone who is trying his hardest to be cool is not going to make the grade: one must not aim to be cool. Ingratiating oneself is also unlikely to qualify one as cool, though when done ironically it can do the trick; irony is always conducive to coolness. Naturally, writing about coolness, or claiming it for oneself, is death to coolness—but then again the cool person is happy to take a holiday from being cool. Not being cool can sometimes be part of being cool. You begin to see why coolness is so elusive, unpredictability being of the essence.

            One of the big problems faced by coolness these days is its commercialization. In the good old days very few people were cool and the concept itself hardly existed, but the marketers latched onto coolness as a selling point long ago (sometime in the 1950s). Now we are programmed to be cool and desperate to get our share of it: not being cool has become a source of shame and insecurity. So coolness has lost its minority appeal: it no longer sets a person apart. New ways must be found to assert one’s coolness. Fashions, in particular, spread like wildfire, so sartorial coolness can only be maintained for short periods. I remember when bell-bottoms came in around 1964: I was one of the first to wear them in my hometown of Blackpool and was looked at askance by many a straight-panted passer-by. It was cool for a while, but before long your Dad was wearing bell-bottoms. Ditto long hair and side burns. It has now become almost impossible to be cool in one’s mode of dress, because the clothing manufacturers are onto new trends so quickly. Rap music was cool for about twenty minutes, but then it was swallowed up by the fashion-entertainment industrial complex. Capitalism and cool are not natural allies. I have noticed that biker gear has not been commercialized in this way, probably because not many people ride motorcycles, so it is possible to retain some measure of cool by adopting the biker look (even fat old guys can pull it off). But in general it is hard now to generate new forms of cool that have not been debased by capitalism: you really have to go out of your way to find pockets of cool that you can dip into. Accordingly, coolness has become rarefied and difficult to detect; it is too easily exploited for commercial gain. Still, it is good to keep trying to find new varieties of cool and adopt them. Cool has always been creative and now we need to be creative about cool itself. I have some ideas but I’m reluctant to share them, because of the aforementioned bastardization.  [1]

 

Colin McGinn       

  [1] Clue: they involve playing with the ideas of diversity and inclusiveness, the latest rigid orthodoxy. I also think Minnetonka shoes are pretty cool viewed through an ironic lens that is not avowedly ironic. And Buddy Holly is cool again, especially his sentimental stuff.

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Personal Pronouns

 

Personal Pronouns

 

It has often been observed that there is something funny about “I” referentially speaking yet we use it all the time. I would say that we don’t know what we are referring to: we don’t know what the self is. This is an old story: philosophers have had a difficult time saying what the self is, even to the point of having no satisfactory word for it. People used to speak of the “spirit” and the “soul”, but this is now deemed suspect and spooky; today we prefer “person”, “subject”, or just “self”. None of this verbiage provides any clue as to what we are talking about, however. Is the referent of “I” a body, a brain, a part of a brain, a center of consciousness, a sequence of connected mental states, a primitive person, or nothing at all? The self is a mystery: we don’t know what it is. Yet we talk about it all the time (and think about it too)—the word “I” is always on our lips. You might think that we could define the self as “the bearer of conscious states”, but what is this bearer—is it a body or a brain or a center of consciousness, etc.? Given our ignorance of what it is, shouldn’t it be difficult to refer to it successfully? Some have said that we are acquainted with the self, as we are acquainted with pain or the color red; but if so, it is an acquaintance that provides no illumination as to what we are referring to. Do we introspect the self? Apparently not, as Hume famously observed. True, we know that it exists (at a given moment anyway): the Cogito supplies us with grounds for a bare existential claim. But this is cold comfort given that we don’t know what it is that so indubitably exists. Descartes thought he knew that the self is a thinking thing at least, but again that doesn’t settle what kind of thinking thing—it could be a brain or an immaterial substance or just a loose conglomeration of ideas. Still we happily bandy the word “I” about, as if we grasp clearly what it is that we are designating. We even have a semantics for it (content and character and all that); we just don’t know what kind of entity “I” refers to. The self is just whatever it is that “I” refers to. By contrast, we don’t think that pain is just whatever it is that “pain” refers to: we know quite well what pain is. The self is a stark enigma.  [1]

            It is often supposed that this is a peculiarity of the first-person pronoun, but that is not true. The same point applies to the other personal pronouns: “you”, “he”, “she”, “they” etc.: in each case we are referring to entities whose nature eludes us—the very entities that use ”I” to refer to themselves. I don’t know what I am and I don’t know what you are, or her over there. I don’t even know what it is when I refer to my pet lizard’s self with that demeaning pronoun. All these are words we use to talk about things whose nature we don’t grasp; and I don’t mean we don’t grasp this nature deeply—I mean we really don’t know what kind of thing we mean when we use these words. In a clear sense, we don’t know what it means to say “I am hot” or “She is smart” or “You are funny”. Do we really understand these sentences? True, they have a use, but that is all they have–they have no clear ontological content. No proposition is intelligibly conveyed by them, since we don’t know what the subject of the proposition is. Whatever meaning they have, it doesn’t convey the nature of the thing denoted. The sense is not a mode of presentation of the reference, if that means it enables the speaker or hearer to grasp what kind of thing is denoted. Since these expressions are at the heart of ordinary language use, we can say that our grasp of meaning falls far short of knowledge of the reference of some of our most common expressions. The mystery of the self thus infects linguistic understanding, rendering it at best partial. We are like people referring to colors but who have never seen any: such people would refer to things whose nature they don’t grasp. We know about things that are closely associated with selves, namely mental states, but the self itself is an unknown quantity—an I-know-not-what. Reference to the self thus proceeds in the absence of knowledge of the referent (though of course we know many things about selves).

            Why don’t we know the nature of the self? What is it about the self that precludes knowledge of its nature? I don’t think we know the answer to that question either; indeed, our ignorance seems distinctly odd considering how close we are to our own self (it isn’t as if selves exist on the far side of the moon). We ought to know the self much more intimately, but in fact we have to admit epistemic defeat in the face of the self: nothing in our self-knowledge reveals the kind of thing that the self is. The personal pronouns seem merely to point without specifying what kind of target they are pointing at. They operate in such a way as to compensate for our natural ignorance of the self rather than to express our knowledge of the self (as many acts of reference do). I think their peculiar semantic character should receive more attention.  [2]

 

  [1] It would be wrong to suppose that our ignorance of the self is like other sorts of philosophical ignorance such as not knowing the correct analysis of knowledge, or the metaphysical status of color, or whether “good” expresses a primitive property. Our ignorance of the self is far more radical than that: we really don’t know what order of thing we are dealing with. Hume was right: we have no concept of the self such that its general nature is revealed by that concept. This is why a person unlettered in philosophy can be made quickly to accept that he or she is ignorant about what a self is. This is ground-floor ignorance, not ignorance of high-flown philosophy. Compare color: a blind person is far more ignorant of color than a sighted theorist trying to come up with the right analysis of color. Similarly, our access to the self reveals almost nothing about what kind of thing it is: we are effectively self-blind (though self-obsessed).

  [2] The connection between meaning and knowledge has been explored but not the connection between meaning and ignorance—ignorance of a very basic sort. Somehow language had to cope with the deep-seated ignorance we labor under in the case of the self, and it came up with the apparatus of personal pronouns (and associated expressions). It converted deep ignorance into a viable system of reference. How did that happen? How did language manage to latch onto selves in an epistemic vacuum? 

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Tennis Sublime

Tennis Sublime

 

I can’t let what happened at the US Open this year pass without comment. First we had the transcendent victory of Emma Racunadu over her equally transcendent rival Leyla Fernandez. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so sublime in sports: the skill, the style, and the determination. Just look at Emma’s return of serve! She didn’t drop a set in ten matches. Leyla was equally phenomenal and the match was closer than the score indicated. Together they have transformed the tennis world, and perhaps more than that. Pure joy! As for the men’s final, that was sublime in a different way: to see Novak Djokovic lose like that was itself a sublime moment in tennis history (despite robbing him and us of the calendar Grand Slam). Medvedev simply outplayed him with a remarkable display of defense and attack. Note the way Novak congratulated him at the end of the match and in his acceptance speech: true sportsmanship. It was two days of quality and purity such as we seldom see these days (no Americans were among the players). I return to the court with a new spring in my step.

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9/11

I do sometimes wonder whether the appalling degradation in American culture, morality, and intelligence that we have winessed in the last twenty years (including in universities) was caused by the horrific events of 9/11. At the time I feared that the American reaction to these events might exceed in harmfulness the events in question. Can there be any doubt that American paranoia has increased markedly because of that day?  

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Is Shape Physical?

 

 

 

Is Shape Physical?

 

Shape is included on the traditional list of primary qualities, but that doesn’t settle the question of whether it is physical. Indeed the question is seldom raised: is the shape of an object a physical property of it? Nor is it an easy question to answer—largely because of vagueness in the word “physical”. Is geometry a physical science? It is not usually so described, since it deals in abstract objects. Such objects are ideal: perfect circles, perfect rectangles, etc. No physical object (so called) exhibits these properties, so it seems reasonable to say that perfect shapes are not physical. Shapes are mathematical abstractions imperfectly exemplified by physical objects. We apply geometry in physics, but the objects of geometry are not themselves physical entities (in so far as we know that means). Moreover, there are no laws of shape recognized in physics, as there are laws of gravity and electromagnetism: shape doesn’t act as a force producing motion. A physics textbook doesn’t have a chapter on the laws governing shape. Shape is irrelevant to gravity and electromagnetism: the mass of an object is relevant to its gravitational force but the shape is not. Physics would be essentially the same if every object had the same shape. So there seems every reason to deny that shape is physical. But does that imply that it is mental? Not at all, and the idea seems obviously wrong (short of generalized idealism). Shape is neither mental nor physical. It may be causally consequential but it is not thereby a physical property. Someone who believed that the world is fundamentally geometrical would not ipso facto be a physicalist (or materialist). Nor would it be correct to say that size, number, motion, and dimensionality are physical properties: they too belong on the mathematical side of things. Maybe it is necessary truth that anything that has such properties is a physical thing, but that by itself doesn’t entail that they themselves are physical properties (the same might be said of colors). One is then left wondering what indisputably is a physical property, if shape isn’t one. Is mass a physical property? But mass is defined in terms of inertia, which is a dispositional mathematical property (measured by how much force is needed to initiate motion). What about electric charge? But that too is dispositional and mathematical, and has historically been regarded as clearly non-physical (like gravity). Is it perhaps that no property is physical but that objects are what fall under that (alleged) concept? But in virtue of what—don’t we need some viable notion of a physical property? The very idea of the “physical” starts to slip through our fingers once we focus hard on these questions. It is entirely conceivable that the whole subject called “physics” has no intelligible notion of the physical—and that this is no objection to the science known by that name. Here we reach a conclusion that has persistently threatened the would-be philosophical physicalist: we simply have no workable general notion of the physical. Shape might have seemed to provide at least a paradigm of the physical, but that has turned out to be a frail reed. All we are left with is the idea that a physical property is what the subject called “physics” talks about, but that is a variable and pragmatic matter. We have no clear idea of what a physical property is intrinsically—unless we decide to stipulate that everything is to be counted as physical, the term being equivalent to “real”.

            I say all this to make a metaphysical point, viz. that we should stop trying to divide the world up into the physical and the non-physical. We can talk about what is mind-dependent and what is mind-independent, but we should drop the assumption that anything can be usefully described as “physical”. This means that falling under that term is no measure of ontological primacy or clarity: we can’t contrast other types of putative property with physical properties and hope to formulate a useful distinction. We can’t characterize mental or moral or mathematical properties as “non-physical” and hope to join a genuine metaphysical debate: for there is simply no such thing as the category of “the physical”. We might have supposed that shape would give us a firm foothold, but shape turns out not to be a good candidate for fixing the notion of the physical. The word “physical” has an everyday use (or several such uses) but as a theoretical term it lacks any clear definition, as has frequently been pointed out. That is why we hesitate when asked if shape is physical—as we do when asked if color is physical (or beauty or moral rightness). Let me put it more forcibly: if we can’t say whether shape is physical, we may as well retire the term from serious theoretical employment. It’s like asking whether shapes are holy: the term belongs to an outmoded theoretical framework and survives mainly as a term of approbation. Are circles more holy than rectangles? Are circles less physical than irregular figures? Such questions have no meaning, because “holy” and “physical” lack determinate content. I would say that shapes are clearly not physical if we mean by “physical” something like “tangible and concrete” or “relating to the body” (as the OED has it): for shapes are abstract, and they are not peculiar to the body. Nor are they physical in the sense that they are perceived by the senses: they may sometimes be imperceptible to the senses, and they may never be perceived as they really are. Shapes are just not intuitively physical (though intuitions about the concept of the physical are notoriously slippery). So the world contains properties that are not mental and not physical, and these properties are among the most salient in our experience. We can intelligibly ask whether everything real reduces to the standard list of primary qualities, but that is not the same question as whether everything real reduces to the physical—which is pretty much vacuous. I can imagine a “shape-ist” metaphysics in which geometrical form is taken to be the most basic property in the universe, but it would be misguided to describe this as a form of physicalism. Maybe everything comes down to the motion of shaped objects, but it is not helpful to describe this as a type of physicalism. The doctrine known as “physicalism” survives largely on the lack of clarity in the term: we should abolish it and speak directly of specific kinds of properties such as shape and color. Whether these properties count as physical is an empty question best ignored.  [1]

 

  [1] The familiar (and good) point that gravity is not physical according to traditional notions of the physical (deriving from mechanism) is the usual way of questioning the utility of the term “physical”; my point here is that even shape poses problems for that term. In what sense precisely is shape to be deemed physical? Would Plato and Pythagoras so characterize it? It is hugely tendentious to count circularity as a physical property and is not remotely warranted by tradition—you may as well declare that beauty is a physical property because physical things (whatever that may mean) have it.   

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Social Interactions

 

 

Social Interactions

 

What is the nature of a social interaction? The subjects interacting have their own nature, but what about the interaction itself? It will no doubt reflect the nature of the interacting subjects, but it may be expected to have a nature of its own. There have been varying views of this, more or less explicit, in social psychology and elsewhere, which I will list. The simplest view might be called causal: the idea would be that individual subjects causally interact in the manner of physical bodies, so that there is nothing distinctive about human social interaction—it’s all just pushes and pulls. A second view brings in the concept of information: in a social interaction information is exchanged, linguistically and otherwise, so that the informational state of each subject is altered. A third view might be called epistemic: each subject has a certain kind of knowledge of the other, typically mutual knowledge, as in “x knows that y knows that x knows etc.”. Fourth, there is the interpretative view: each subject is engaged in interpreting the other’s behavior, linguistic and non-linguistic, either radically or domestically, using psychological and semantic concepts. Fifth, the relation is one of influence: one subject influences another in certain ways, say by inducing conformity. Sixth, the idea of power is invoked: subjects exercise power over other subjects, sometimes detrimentally, this being the essence of social interaction. Seventh, the notion of competition is added: individuals compete with each other, biologically or economically or in some other way, the result varying from death to status superiority. Eighth, cooperation is taken to be the essence of social interaction: people bond and band together to achieve a joint goal, as in hunting parties, political parties, and party parties. Ninth, we have the existentialist view of social interaction: individual subjects of consciousness confront each other in their radical freedom, sometimes in bad faith, possibly in a condition of authenticity. Tenth, there is the theatrical conception: the nature of social interaction is inherently dramatic or histrionic, as each party plays a part on the social stage. Eleventh, we have what might be called the spiritual theory: social interaction is a meeting of souls, an escape from spiritual solitude, and a glimpse into the inner spirit of the other. Finally, there is the moral conception: social interaction is the exercise of moral duties, an expression of virtues and vices, the place where our moral nature shows itself.

            I take it these positions will seem familiar, with familiar names attaching: Shakespeare, Goffman, Rousseau, Marx, Sartre, Foucault, Quine, Davidson, Darwin, Kant, Hume, and many more. Clearly, not all of these views are in competition with each other, except perhaps as declarations of emphasis; but we can see that different concerns, practical and theoretical, lead to different conceptions of the nature of the social. One might adopt an eclectic position: all the views mentioned have an element of truth to them, social interaction being a multi-dimensional affair. But one might hope for something a bit more organized and systematic; one might seek to identify the kernel of social interaction, from which other features flow. So I will suggest a conception that seems to me to capture the basic character of the social: it combines the epistemic, the existential, and the theatrical conceptions. In a social interaction we possess a certain kind of mutual knowledge, as we recognize the way the other is forming a view of our views of him or her; and so on indefinitely. I know that you know that I know that you can’t be trusted, say. This doesn’t apply to social interactions involving animals or small children, but it is the bane of adult human social interactions: we are always wondering what the other thinks of us, especially with regard to what we think of them. The existentialist component comes in via free action: we see the other as a free agent who may or may not act as we would wish. We are aware that the person we are interacting with may not act as we desire—that she might, say, suddenly decide to leave, or to end the relationship. This awareness of freedom hovers over all our social interactions: they are nothing like our interactions with inanimate objects. Anxiety is the natural outcome, so the social encounter is always fraught, always tenuous. The theatrical component concerns our methods for handling social interactions: we have to construct a social self (or selves) that we present to others for their consideration and treatment. We must play a part that will oil the encounter, produce the requisite attitudes in others, and manage the freedom that we know hovers ominously in the background. Thus our social interactions combine a special type of mutual knowledge, an understanding of freedom, and theatrical skill. That is their basic structure, from which other features emanate. And it is what might be lacking in abnormal cases—a certain package of cognitive competences. This could come about by way of upbringing or innate endowment, resulting in social incompetence or worse. And it is not as if this stuff is easy, some people being much better at it than others. It is a developed skill, a specific mental module, with a rich internal structure. It grows in the child and can atrophy in the adult. Disease can disrupt it. Practice helps. It needs nurturing.

            There should really be a philosophy of social interaction—a systematic attempt to delineate its structure. It would identify the basic components and seek to derive the social phenomena we observe in various contexts—economic, marital, athletic, musical, familial, pedagogical, etc. Philosophers have analyzed the human subject and human society, but they have not developed a branch of study dedicated to the nature of social interaction as such, except as this might serve some other agenda. Social psychology, too, might benefit from this kind of philosophical attention. It never hurts to be clear about what you are talking about.  [1]

 

  [1] When I studied social psychology in the late 1960s there was much concern with issues of obedience and conformity, possibly as a consequence of prevailing social conditions. But I don’t recall any preliminary discussion of the general nature of a social interaction, so the subject matter was left vague and indeterminate. If I were teaching social psychology today, I would spend some time exploring different conceptions of social interaction: what is it to interact socially with another person? And I would frame the issue as concerning a certain mental competence, Chomsky-style. What is this competence, how is it acquired, how is it expressed, what are its pathologies, how might it be improved? The philosopher might be useful here.  

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