Views | Need of the Hour: High Voltairage

Philosophers for dummies. Also, what they actually do for a living

Since I wrote my last column on The Meaning of Liff, a dictionary of words that we need for all those common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, and for which words don’t exist, I have discovered The Philosophical Lexicon (available for reading free on the net). The Philosophical Lexicon, created and developed by cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett and philosopher Asbjorn Steglich-Petersen, does for the higher realms of thought what Liff does for the mundane and everyday.

photoAs the authors clarify: “The pantheon of philosophy has contributed precious little to the English language, compared with other fields. What can philosophy offer to compare with the galvanizing volts, ohms and watts of physics, the sandwiches, cardigans, and raglan sleeves of the British upper crust, the sado-masochism of their Continental counterparts, or even the leotards of the circus world?... There are, of course, the legion of pedantic terms ending in ‘ian’ and ‘ism’, such as ‘neo-Augustinian Aristotelianism’, ‘Russellian theory of descriptions’, and such marginally philosophic terms as ‘Cartesian coordinate’ and ‘Machiavellian’, but these terms have never been, nor deserved to be, a living part of the language. To remedy this situation we propose that philosophers make a self-conscious effort to adopt the following new terms."

So we have ‘bertrand’, n. (1) A state of profound abstraction of mind and spirit; a trance. “He went into a bertrand and began to babble about the class of all classes which are not member of themselves." (2) The state of a person who suffers from delusions (e.g. as of one who doubts that, when he sees a table, he sees a table), or has visions (e.g. of the present King of France). (3) A state of linguistic amnesia, as of one who believes that “this" is a proper name and “Plato" a description. That calls for a wolf-whistle from anyone who has struggled for breath at the higher altitudes of the great Russell’s works.

Similarly…’buber’, v. To struggle in a morass of one’s own making. “After I defined the self as a relation that relates to itself relatingly, I bubered around for three pages." Hence buber, n. one who bubers. “When my mistake was pointed out to me, I felt like a complete buber." Also, ‘derrida’, n. A sequence of signs that fails to signify anything beyond itself. From a old French nonsense refrain: “Hey nonny derrida, nonny nonny derrida falala." And, ‘chomsky’, adj. Said of a theory that draws extravagant metaphysical implications from scientifically established facts. “Essentially, Hume’s criticism of the Argument from Design is that it leads in all its forms to blatantly chomsky conclusions."

‘Hume’ is a powerful word. It is an indefinite personal and relative pronoun, presupposing no referent. “Useful esp. in writing solipsistic treatises, sc. ‘to hume it may concern’." As a verb, it means, to commit to the flames, bury, or otherwise destroy a philosophical position, as in “That theory was humed in the 1920s." Hence, ‘exhume’, v. to revive a position generally believed to humed.

Some words in the lexicon try to define the many pitfalls and perils that the intrepid philosopher faces. For instance, ‘kripke’, adj. Not understood, but considered brilliant. “I hate to admit it, but I found his remarks quite kripke." The verb ‘scheffle’ is to try to gain one’s footing between two jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive positions “such as consequentialism and agent-centered moral theory". ‘Schell’, n. is an impermeable protective covering made entirely of German technical jargon, on the premise that what cannot be understood cannot be refuted; a useful hiding place for Ideas (though it may hold only one). Hence ‘schell’, v. to hide within a schell.

A ‘schanksmare’, n. is a recurrent, obsessive dream of walking into restaurant after restaurant, ordering a meal, and leaving a small tip. I suppose philosophers have such dreams and need a word for it.

Personal favourite? ‘Voltaire’, n. a unit of enlightenment. Hence ‘voltairage’, as in the warning to would-be purveyors of superstition and tyranny: “Danger: high voltairage in this vicinity."

High voltairage is something we very dearly need in these confusing times.