Functionally Pragmatic Salesmanship
Crispy Chicken isn’t my real name, though CC are my initials.
Perhaps keeping my initials in my pseudonym was foolish, and perhaps I’m foolish for revealing it now, at the beginning of the end of the American defense of radical openness on the internet. But I want to tell you why it was important for me to keep these initials. In the YA Anime Code Geass there’s a character whose name is CC. Cursed to live forever by someone who simply passed-on their own curse, she wanders the earth attempting to do the same, but doesn’t when she gets the chance.
All the writers who love making living forever a curse and other such lovely inversions of human desires have never lived for a very long time themselves—rarely even a century. I don’t know what living forever would be like, but it seems difficult to believe it has a finite synopsis. Instead, we recognize in the inability to die a loss of control that leads to the world running through our fingers, as if the dying was just another action in the game. And it is. “There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide.”
Wrong. This is the classic analytic mistake: the belief that if you can partition a space with words then you’ve made a meaningful distinction. I either commit suicide or I don’t, that much is true. These arguments are not what make people kill themselves. People are what make people kill themselves. They build themselves up to it because of what suicide might mean to them in their specific time and place. When I was 16 I didn’t step in front of a train even though I tried to, because the train was big and scary and I couldn’t fight my own instincts. I couldn’t get the action to mean the thing I wanted it to in my head—and I kept thinking about how misinterpreted my actions would be.
I have suffered from depression for most of my life. On and off. Anxiety. Bipolar. Words, words, words—I am not very convinced by the people who tell me that these clusters mean very much. They are pharmacological categories, not mental ones. But in the midst of my deepest depression I awoke from a dream with a vague story in my head. The mind of an animal, forced into different environments, transferred to different bodies, tortured by the universe in a way the book of Job should have studied up on first—but always simply trying to manipulate its space not merely to survive, but simply to entertain itself, because these were not really so different. I’m that animal. I’m CC.
When I was very young I wanted to be a Scientist. I wanted to understand how things worked and for there to be a way to prove that’s really how things were, not just the way I was choosing to think about it. But the more I pried away at the philosophical onion, the more I realized I wasn’t ever going to prove much of anything. Even though all the evidence points to there being some kind of objective universe, proving anything about it turns out to be tough and everybody who continues down that route either ends-up believing in things that require a level of faith I lack or require one to tone-down one’s hopes to the kinds of things people felt were meaningfully provable. Despite the incredible extensions of the scientific apparatus into every facet of life, the kinds of “proof” we are willing to countenance have continually shrunk as we’ve moved to the idea that knowledge-production is so complex it can only be handled by experts behind closed doors.
In most sciences this comes down to some kind of test of statistical significance or power. This kind of hypothesis-falsification theory of knowledge is so painfully incomplete that I will not bother with a comprehensive study of why. Instead consider why you are able to operate in society: you reason by counterfactuals without ever being able to repeat your experiments. You compare experiences to each other and see which variables you can alter much like a scientist without control of their laboratory. But, then again, where do these discrete “variables” even come from and are you sure that your notion of “good mood” as in “my boss is in a good mood when I sell more Generic Product” is well-defined? You have an intuitive theory and more importantly you can use your intuitive theory to communicate with others, so it sticks because you want tell Katie that the boss is in a good mood today.
If you see a stork with an arrow in its throat, you know it has been in contact with the place the arrow came from:
When I was 14 my uncle took me on a roadtrip. I tried to convince him that the universe was meaningless: we could not reach objective truth, even through intersubjective agreement so it was all a big loss. He told me that when he saw his children born it was meaningful and it didn’t mean much if someone else agreed or not. I thought about that, and I realized I couldn’t take the meaning away from him, how could I deny his claim to have caught meaning by its corner?
For a while I tried to force my own mind to find meaningful whatever I consciously decided to find meaningful. If I had continued for long I might have been a rationalist, but alas I was not so strong-willed. Instead, I noticed that my feelings were telling me what was meaningful and it was actually my job to describe the whole.
Was there a whole?
I could do things many times and sometimes they became meaningful. Was the meaning just latent? If it was, I still had the choice to activate it in certain ways, isn’t that making meaning?
I have been trying to become an academic for a few years and might well continue for years to come. The situation is dismal, people do the things that get them papers and people let in the papers that look like papers. All of this for a theory of what?
No big theory is coming out of the Academy, not one that explains the kinds of things I want to know about like: How is it that I’m able to establish shared terminology on the internet with others, purely linguistically?
My friend sent me this quote:
When I arrived, in 1992, at Warwick University—a dour, concrete campus set in the UK’s grey and drizzling Midlands—I was a callow and nervous teenager, also filled with the hope that philosophy would afford me access to some kind of ‘outside’—or at the very least, some intellectual adventure. Almost entirely overcome with disappointment and horror at the reality of academic life within weeks, it was a relief to meet one lecturer who would, at last, say things that really made sense: Think of life as an open wound, which you poke with a stick to amuse yourself. Or: Philosophy is only about one thing: making trouble. Land was tolerant of my hanging out in his office smoking and drinking coffee, as he (habitually hyperexcited and quivering with stimulants) worked on his comically antiquated green-screen Amstrad computer, and eagerly relayed the latest insights he had garnered from molecular biology, nanotechnology or neuroscience. One could not help but be impressed by the sense of a man whose entire being was invested in his work; for whom philosophy was neither a nine-to-five affair nor a straightforwardly life-affirming labor; and who took seriously the ridiculously megalomaniacal aspiration of philosophy to synopsize everything that is known into a grand speculative framework. He was uniquely able to open up students’ minds to the conceptual resources of the history of philosophy in a way that made philosophical thinking seem urgent and concrete: a cache of weapons for ‘making trouble,’ a toolkit for escaping from everything dismal, inhibiting, and tedious.
from this article. And there it is. That’s really all there is to it.
We live in a certain kind of a society: it views knowledge production certain ways, it delegates certain kinds of powers, it imposes certain kinds of definitions. Forget all this for a moment—the point is that making trouble is good because that is the only thing there is to make. Suicide isn’t the only question, but it is one possible answer to the only important one: What now?
When I came to Academia I was hoping to find allies to pursue in earnest the goal of systematizing our understanding of language. Even then I knew it was a naïve hope and now I can only chuckle. Academics were not having it, but that’s not even the main problem. The main problem is that it’s not clear what systems should look like. Not just this one, but any of them. If I told you to invent language from scratch what would you make it look like? I was so used to the notion that systems can be described and built from the bottom-up because computers are somehow possible that I convinced myself that natural phenomena were as isolatable as those systems we have made tractable by construction.
And yet people talk to each other. Words exist and, unlike so many other things, are repeatable. A “the” is recognizable as a “the”, a pointer to something that nowhere exists held-up by a system we have no really good description of the mechanics of. What point would there be in building-up such a stamp collection for describing these interactions? The Academics would scorn it and the layperson would never have incentive to even learn it existed. Forget it.
Our philosophy must pay rent, and it must do so by letting us create trouble. Of course, most successful people know this as they ride on the backs of ideas they don’t believe because those ideas are incomparably more powerful than any individual. Meanwhile those who flatter themselves as loving wisdom or searching for truth like to complain that people are either stupid or disingenuous. It is time that we allowed more of both in the search for truth, because the real question is why does philosophy care so much more about belief than action?
We say that people do not believe their espoused ideas when they appear to demonstrate behavior we would consider against their interests if they believed such an idea. Are we not, instead, creating a very synthetic notion of “believe” that just tries to impose a kind of order that’s not there?
The most seductive idea in the history of thought is that words can say what they mean, and it is wrong. Words say what they do
After the epidemic of construction and deconstruction it has become difficult to talk about pragmatism. Pragmatic about what? We must be even more radically pragmatic and accept that we cannot change ourselves fully. I would like to understand how language works or at least grind my ego into dust until it points in a different direction. I would like others to join me, but they are trapped in a system just as much as I am and I should not convince them with arguments alone—but actions that shape the system.
When I say, words say what they do, I am declaring myself a Functional Pragmatist. When I declare myself a Functional Pragmatist, I am saying something very simple: I want to explain all the things that make me curious, but only in ways that let me do something. Of course, Academia has long been like this. That “something” is getting papers accepted by the community, but this point is not widely accepted. Instead, most insist that the results that get accepted by the community are statistically robust if you squint at the word “robust”.
There are many kinds of knowledge we cannot capture statistically, nor with falsifiability. I cannot falsify the process that created the word “doomscrolling”, but I can make a theory that allows me to popularize new words or convince people to accept a frame within which to discuss this process. This is blatant snake oil salesmanship—I can clearly sell you things like this that will later be falsified. Science is already like that—remember “There’s no evidence masks work on COVID-19.” There wasn’t statistical evidence of the variety that we have to come view as the only island to stand on.
The professionalization of Science is a tragedy, because we are not very good at standardizing things that are supposed to change. So we have decided the kinds of results that can exist in order to make it practical for a profession to be built out of the search for what’s new.
We can have more truth than statistical truth: we can describe the systems that allow our descriptions to keep holding up. Words are a weak substance, and we can keep remolding them forever. Perhaps we will. But what patterns are consistent when we remold them? And how can we use them to cause enough trouble to keep asking fun questions?
There is no community that would eat a theory of everything enough to make it interesting or useful, except as a political coordination mechanism. But there are ideas that coordinate people into eating communities—the way commas and periods have changed the global linguistic landscape forever, the way money has redefined the relationship between two people. What is the idea that eats the current global order and poops out something more playful?