One of the great delusional fictions that bloggers operate under¯something I have discovered only when I started contributing to this page¯is that there are people out there who actually care what a blogger has to say! Speaking personally, I am not so naive as to think that, if I had the computer skills (let alone the time) to set up my own blog site, anyone would care to look up what I had to say. (Mechanisms that tell the bloggers how many souls visit their sites each day must be, I would imagine, rather mortifying for most of these cyber-opinionators.)
But I have been writing this past month on this site at the invitation of the editors and have thus found myself strangely addicted to the forum, not least because so many readers seem to consult it (is that, too, a function of August?). For that reason, I find I am also addicted to the same narcissistic delusion of most bloggers: that there are people out there who actually think my lucubrations worth the trouble of reading.
OK, it’s a delusion, but I cannot help but think that you all out there are simply dying to know what I think of poor Pluto’s new status as a dwarf planet. ("You’re fired!") In Roman mythology, Pluto ("Hades" for the Greeks) was always considered the ugliest of the gods, no doubt due to his role as "overlord of the underworld," and so I guess his demotion from the banquet hall of those other Olympian deities that make up the "true" eight planets should come as no surprise.
I guess I support this new devolution of Pluto to the rump group of those other iceballs and stubby rocks that make up the rest of the detritus of the solar system, in the same way I would welcome the renaming of Mount Anthill to a more humble nomenclature. I mean, who cares if geologists think a foothill near the Rockies is actually so much higher than its neighbors that it really should be accounted as the first member of the mountain range, or vice versa? (Who wants to be so foolish as to be accused of making a "mountain out of a molehill"?)
But as soon as that concession is made, I get to thinking of the medieval nominalists (based on my apparently now superseded Jesuit training in Thomistic philosophy), who claimed that all words (or at least nouns) are but terms of convenience. For the nominalists, the debate over Pluto could only arouse bemusement. Planet for them could only be a functional term to begin with. There being no essence of planet, or asteroid, or plutonian, the rules for the use of these terms should only be adjudicated by the convenience of astronomers (or, apparently, of grade-schoolers, encyclopedeists, mobile manufacturers, and toymakers).
I only recall this debate, which by now probably strikes most moderns as hopelessly jejune, because most historians of medieval philosophy now regard nominalism as an unmitigated catastrophe for philosophy. Certainly professional medievalists like Etienne Gilson hammered away at that thesis with unrelenting fury. But also thinkers like the Yale philosopher Louis Dupré (who shows no particular parti pris toward medieval philosophy over against modern philosophers) also trace back, in their genealogical labors, nearly all the woes of modernity to the nominalist turn.
In my opinion, this thesis of the Nominalist Disaster only works if one can first resolve a much more fundamental problem that has beset philosophy since Plato first became enraged at the Sophists, who very definitely held that language is fluid, whose meaning is entirely functional and based on the uses to which it is put. For centuries untold, Plato was regarded as having won the debate. But the view that language is essentially a matter of convention, mere convenience, was given a whole new lease on life by the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein .
Bertrand Russell liked to tell the story of the time he gave a lecture after which an elderly lady came up to inform him that the universe actually rested, as the Hindus rightly knew, on the back of a turtle, to which he, in true tortoise mode, snappily replied, "And just what does the turtle rest upon?" to which she (allegedly) said, "Oh sir, you don’t understand, it’s turtles all the way down."
One of the central debates in philosophy centers on this question: What goes all the way down: numbers or words; the a priori truths of mathematics or the conventions of language?
August is supposed to be, in normal times, a slow month for news. Unfortunately, history is not cooperating, as the headlines testify. But at least we have, for a few days, the diversion of Plutonic nomenclature. And with it the chance to think some Deep Thoughts to get ready for the new school year. Which leaves me with this nagging question: So just what is the difference between a tortoise and a turtle?
(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)