Ammonius, Coming to an Understanding, and the murderous thinkers of Foucalt's Pendulum

by John MacBeath Watkins

I am delighted to learn, via Slate, of the existence of the Ammonius Foundation. It exists to encourage people to engage in philosophy, and not the sort of logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy that has made the field seem so irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people.

A Slate article, The Mystery of the Millionaire Metephysician, discusses a curious incident in which a number of philosophers were paid a princely sum to review a 60-page document called Coming to an Understanding. It was a paper on metaphysics, done, the philosophers involved decided, by a talented amateur.

Some reviewers went through the motions and collected their checks, others actually became engaged in the work. I recommend going to the link above, and reading the full story, it's priceless, and reveals much about why philosophy means so little to so many.

The document turned out to be written by Marc Sanders, a Princeton-area businessman. Once James Ryerson had discovered that Sanders wrote Coming to an Understanding, Sanders pleaded that he not reveal this to the world:

"Now that you have discovered that I am Ammonius," he wrote, "I know that you will think it your job to inform the world." He had chosen to remain anonymous, he explained, so that his "failure to become a professional philosopher" would not come to light and thus tempt professional philosophers to "simply dismiss the idea of reviewing my work out of hand because the work was known to be by a devoted amateur."
One might think, so what? T.S. Eliot was a banker, and seems to have liked being a banker. Socrates was a stone carver and former soldier. Baruch Spinoza made his daily bread as a lens grinder (silicosis from the glass he ground may have been the reason he died at 44.) Did being successful in the insurance business make Charles Ives a less important composer?

But the tribes of knowledge are as close knit as the crime families of New York and Sicily. When I was a freshman in college, I took the required class in philosophy, as it happened from the chairman of the department. He told me I seemed to have a talent for this, and should consider majoring in philosophy.

At his urging, I attended a conference and saw some real philosophers. I also looked around at the future philosophy offered.

I came to two conclusions. Academics must become wise to survive. The way to become wise is to narrow the scope of your enquiries to the point where few people are interested enough to bother with them, and at that point, you can become the person who knows the most about it.

And if you are not willing to narrow your thought in this way, well...let's just say I wasn't a good enough waiter to be a philosophy major. Waiting tables is a performance, if you do it well, and I am not a performer.

Besides, the project of the logical positivists was proved impossible by a slender volume called Gödel's Proof. And as to ordinary language philosophy, well, the Wikipedia article captures the futility of it:
Ordinary language philosophy is a philosophical school that approaches traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting what words actually mean in everyday use.
Nothing to see here, move along, philosophy is just a big misunderstanding. Not exactly a way to tell people your field is vital to human happiness, is it?

What made philosophy important enough to have its own departments in the best universities was its willingness to attack the big problems, to bring in the best minds and try to determine what it all really means.

Well, that was then. And by then, I mean about 400 BCE.

I thought I might find something more important to people by studying political theory, which at least is tied to human society. But at the time I was in grad school, you essentially had two flavors of political theory. There were conservative theorists who viewed the state as a sort of criminal enterprise (at a political science convention I saw one paper that talked about the social contract as if it were a protection racket, which I suppose is one interpretation of Hobbes' Leviathan) and the Marxists who, this being the 1980s, disparaged the "vulgar Marxists" of the Leninist/Stalinist variety and preferred the delicate lacework of theory the French and a few Germans were building as a rejection of both capitalism and the form Marxism took in all the actual societies where it took root. Oh, and they viewed the right kind of government as okay, but the private sector as criminal

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I'm a liberal, of the sort reviled by both Marxists and conservatives, the sort that considers neither the private nor public sectors as criminal. So not surprisingly, I was not attracted by an academic milieu dominated by delusional Marxism and criminal conservatism (I use the term because much of conservatism seemed dedicated to manufacturing justifications for policies favoring the rich, which made it seem a corrupt enterprise.)

On reflection, I suppose I could have built a career by professing to believe what it was most profitable to believe, but then I'd be no better than Mitt Romney.

So I'm rather delighted to see that there is at least one foundation out there that values things like intelligibility (take that, Derrida!) and epistemic progress (the notion that there is progress in human understanding.) I admit to reservations about teleology and monism, but they are clarity incarnate compared to deconstructionists who won't reveal their method (they don't have one, sort of like the ironic ending to Foucault's Pendulum, where the secret societies try to get the truth from a character who refuses to reveal that they are pursuing a nonsensical concoction.)

But will we ever get past nonsensical concoctions? They seem to play an important part in the academic and political spheres of our society, but I have to think that much of the philosophy of the 20th century will be looked back on with less regard than we give to those theologians who wondered how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. (None. They have no sense of rhythm, and if they get one, they fall right down to the gambling hells and jazz clubs where the rebel angels recite scandalous poems about Bishop Golias, the father of all bohemians.)


  1. 'Academics must become wise to survive. The way to become wise is to narrow the scope of your enquiries to the point where few people are interested enough to bother with them, and at that point, you can become the person who knows the most about it.'

    never have truer words been spoken.


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