Kant: The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.
Neurath: We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support.
Descartes: Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.
I would like to examine our capacity for ‘original’ thought in light of these three passages.
Assume that an original thought will take the form of a counterfactual.
- If there were unicorns Amelia would be pleased.
- If nudity were unexceptionable the world would be a better place.
But our encounters are (alas!) wholly lacking in unicorns.
So, while ‘dolphin’ is our name for dolphins, ‘unicorn’ is not our name for unicorns.
We have no name for unicorns.
Nor do we have a concept of unicorn. And since we have no concept of unicorn we cannot understand what the counterfactual expresses.
This, of course, seems manifestly nuts: “I understand what the counterfactual means perfectly well. Even Amelia understands it, and she’s only five.”
Actually, you don’t.
The concept ‘unicorn’ would be of a particular kind of animal; but that kind is over the modal horizon from us. And since our cognitive capacities are rooted in our encounters with the actual, it’s over our cognitive horizon too.
If the sentence expresses a thought, it’s a completely general one about animals vaguely like horses with a single horn in the middle of their forehead, etc. But that’s not a thought about unicorns.
The second example is where the constraints on thought really kick in.
The rationale for nudism lies in its preferred name: ‘Naturism’. Being naked, or at least not much caring whether anyone is naked or not, would be more natural to human beings. And if we acted more naturally, the evils deriving from entrenched oppressive conventions would appear less ineluctable.
As it happens, physical modesty, including the wearing of clothing, is a cultural universal. The best explanation for this universality is its presence in the cultural toolkit of that group of ‘behaviorally modern’ humans from which all present-day humans are descended.
This cultural toolkit has formed the human social world in which we live, and in which the developmental psychology of every human being for at least the last 50,000 years was formed. Clothing appears to be implicated in the control of sexual clues, and thus of sexual arousal, in the absence of a human estrus cycle.
But that’s not all. However skimpy, clothing has one universal feature: it has always been more than merely functional. Clothing involves aesthetic decisions in such a way as to make the wearer distinctive. It is self-adornment. And it is a particular kind of human person who finds a need to self-adorn.
How we dress does not just express certain facts. Our way of dressing can constitute what is expressed: facts about ourselves, our views about the world and about our relations to others. Clothing is a convention constitutive of important features of our humanity which would simply not exist without it.
While I generally disapprove of rhetorical questions, the force of these considerations demands one:
From what Archimedean point does the advocate of naturism advance his preference?
The naturist’s standpoint has to be the same as the rest of us. Thus he cannot after all be indifferent to whether people are clothed or not. Such preference is, like Amelia’s for unicorns, over the cognitive horizon.
This again seems manifestly nuts. Of course he can prefer that we be naturists.
This confuses the thought that we can be naturists with a completely general thought about creatures vaguely like us, with a different deep cultural history, different constitutive conventions, a different developmental psychology, etc. They could be naturists.
But that’s not a thought about us.
Naturism advocates commit what should be known as the ‘Kant’s Dove’ Fallacy. They pay so much attention to an unwanted feature of a state of affairs that they fail to realize that a change in that feature would not improve the state of affairs, but undermine it – and with it would go their capacity to disvalue the feature.
Suppose that behaviorally modern humans had adopted other arrangements. After all, nothing is less ‘natural’ than clothing. Likewise for other deep conventions. Then exactly the same human beings – members of the species homo sapiens – may have come to exist, the same gametes producing the same token zygotes, etc. But those individuals could not share our goals, our ways of flourishing, our values.
Nor we theirs – even though they would, in some sense, be us.
A misconceived Platonism ignores the particular, definite sort of creatures we are, and aspires to the status of bodiless pure minds. We are not bodiless pure minds but social creatures with a particular concrete history. That history sets limits to what we can think of, what we can value.
But we shouldn’t bemoan this fact, since our possessing some concrete history or other is also the condition of the possibility of our thinking, or of valuing, anything.
We’re all stuck here together on Neurath’s Ship. Don’t try to take apart too much at one time.
Take a lesson from the coherence of utopian projects of all sorts.
And for the Original Position as well.
Department of Philosophy