Conceding Intelligence



Conceding Intelligence


In footnote 76 of Naming and Necessity Kripke writes: “I have been surprised to find that at least one able listener took my use of such terms as ‘correlated with’, ‘corresponding to’, and the like as already begging the question against the identity thesis. The identity thesis, so he said, is not the thesis that pains and brain states are correlated, but rather that they are identical. Thus my entire discussion presupposes the anti-materialist position that I set out to prove. Although I was surprised to hear an objection that concedes so little intelligence to the argument, I have tried especially to avoid the term ‘correlated’ which seems to give rise to the objection.” (p.149) He then goes on to point out that such terms don’t presuppose the anti-materialist position, being quite neutral on it. The identity of this “able listener” is not disclosed and I would expect that he must feel a surge of acute embarrassment whenever recalling this artful footnote (I especially like Kripke’s use of “so he said”). The “objection” in question is utterly ridiculous and Kripke’s reply to it perfectly devastating; one wonders how anyone could say anything quite so idiotic. I can almost hear the dripping sarcasm in Kripke’s voice as he stoops to deal with this nonsense.  What could possess a person, able or otherwise, to voice anything so silly? Was he simply not thinking at all? Was Kripke’s ready answer not even contemplated by this “able listener”? What did this individual think Kripke would say? Did he not notice that Kripke is pretty astute logically and would be unlikely to make such a glaring and obvious mistake? At most a point of clarification might have been requested—but not an accusation of grotesque logical blunder. One imagines Kripke thinking as this “objection” is raised, “Does this guy really think that I am capable of such an elementary mistake? Does he think I am that dumb?” And then he has to manufacture a way of replying that doesn’t expose the questioner as a compete fool—hence the tiptoeing around with “able listener” and “so he said”. He has to try to maintain a degree of politeness in the face of abject imbecility. This is a highly unedifying occasion, but not an uncommon one.

            And so he came up with the timeless and convoluted phrase “concedes so little intelligence to the argument”: that is, the objector is not allowing even a minimal degree of intelligence to the person offering the argument, viz. Saul Aaron Kripke. Consider that for a moment: the guy is listening to Kripke’s groundbreaking and (to put it mildly) highly intelligent lectures and says to himself, “This supposed big shot has just committed an elementary blunder and I am going to speak up and expose his stupidity for all to see”. He thinks he has the perfect gotchawhile in fact he has shown how desperate he is to score points off the speaker, or is perhaps as dense as his question suggests (can anybody be that dense?). I think this episode should be engraved on the heart of every American philosopher young or old—and isn’t it a distinctively American moment? Hesitate before ascribing an elementary mistake to an obviously sharp and distinguished philosopher! Maybe you have got something wrong; maybe you have misunderstood: it is vanishingly improbable that such a speaker would be guilty of an error of this magnitude. Don’t just leap into the fray and accuse the speaker of logical ineptitude or total ignorance! You will only go down in history as the biggest twit ever to walk the face of the planet. Do you really want to be that guy? Do you want to be the guy who told Kripke he doesn’t understand what the identity theory says? Try to find the intelligence in what is being said by an obviously intelligent person! Don’t daydream of the glorious and spectacular takedown you imagine is within your reach! The kind of stupidity exhibited by this anonymous “able listener” (and has he ever come forward to own the “objection” Kripke so deftly demolishes?) deserves to be given a special label so that it is always at the forefront of the eager objector’s consciousness: maybe the Failed Kripke Gambit or the Reverse Stupidity Mistake or the Unintelligent Unintelligence Accusation. By conceding so little intelligence to Kripke’s (highly sophisticated) argument the objector revealed himself to be the one sorely lacking in that quality. To put it simply: Don’t make dumb objections! Think before you speak! Don’t just assume that smart people say silly things! If you think that the speaker has made an obvious mistake, frame your question carefully so as not to impute a complete lack of intelligence to said speaker. I can’t tell you the number of times in my career I’ve been reminded of Kripke’s footnote as I say to myself, “Does this guy really believe I am capable of the kind of foolishness he is attributing to me?”  [1] Then I have to come up with some polite way to avoid replying, “The person not thinking clearly here is you not me, for the following obvious reason…” So I urge would-be objectors to bear Kripke’s footnote in mind and try to concede a little more intelligence to the speaker. Just keep in mind the simple words “footnote 76” and you won’t go far wrong.        


  [1] And of course it’s not only guys who come up with this kind of stuff—but it is mainly guys. No doubt it springs from a misguided desire to compete, or else a simple lack of thoughtfulness. The same point applies to book reviewers (I name no names).

3 replies
  1. Chris Hutchinson
    Chris Hutchinson says:

    I think that even if one isn’t being some egotistical fool, it is still a thing to bear in mind when one supposes an eminent philosopher has made a howler. I’ve mentioned his name before, so sorry to harp, but I was taught by Jonathan Lowe, and one thing that I learned was that if I thought he was obviously wrong on a point, it was better to ask, as he always had a sophisticated answer (kindly delivered) as to how he might not be (the ‘might not be’ was characteristic of the man, every time he clarified for me, he was just plain not wrong, in the way I had thought). When he died, I realised on any of the points I could have sort clarification, now I could not. This made me work extra hard when reading him. If I thought he was wrong, I wouldn’t assume that he would have laid down had he been there, so it made me WORK to try and think of how I myself had got him wrong. I don’t mean this to sound overly deferential and un-philosophical, but that attitude spread to how I read other philosophers. Yes, be critical, but just remember, these big figures are usually big for a reason; they tend not to make elementary mistakes (most of the time). I think that was as good a part of my philosophical education as any. I certainly get more out of any philosophical works I now read, thinking that way..

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Everything you say here is spot on–exactly the attitude I was trying to encourage. And I’m guessing you are not an American, not by a long chalk. It’s always fine to ask questions and probe what a philosopher says, but think hard first, put in the work, and go easy on the overconfidence.


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