Nonfiction and Narrative Popular Philosophy

“The design features that make for good academic philosophy might make for terrible public philosophy…”

This is an excerpt from a guest post for Daily Nous by Barry Lam, Associate Director for the Marc Sanders Foundation, associate professor and chair of philosophy at Vassar College, and the creator and host of the Slate philosophy podcast Hi-Phi Nation (@HiPhiNation).

After my friend CH got his first tenure-track job in philosophy, he found himself with a “bourgeois longing” for a nice hi-fidelity stereo system. He didn’t want to listen to music any longer on a cheap boombox. So, he went to the nicer local electronics store and asked the clerk to walk him through various amplifiers, speakers, CD and record players, and so forth. Toward the end of the purchase, in what was sure to be a hefty bill, the one item that bothered CH was the price of the speaker wire.

“Is it really necessary for me to pay $50 for speaker wire?” CH asked the clerk.
“Well”, the clerk said, “I have this $5 speaker wire I could sell to you. Let me change the wires out and you can see if you hear a difference.”
The clerk proceeded to insert the cheaper wire into banana clips and ran it from the same model amplifier to the same model speakers for a side-by-side comparison with the thick-gauge, $50 copper wires.
“I don’t hear any difference,” CH reported.
“Okay, let’s stop it. We’ll go from one to the other again. We’ll try different songs, voice, different ranges of music and see if you can tell the difference.”
After many minutes of close listening among a range of other options, CH confirmed that he could hear no difference whatsoever between the $5 and $50 speaker wire.
“All right that settles it then,” said the clerk.
“Right of course,” said CH, “I’ll take the $50 speaker wire.”

I’ve told this story to my students and colleagues many times, because it’s a great story. I even asked CH to record it on tape, and I plan to use it one day on the right episode of my philosophy-through-storytelling podcast: Hi-Phi Nation.

CH’s story is a great story not because it is exciting, or dramatic, or even funny. The stakes in the story are not at all high, it is a matter of saving $45. The conflict is not particularly exciting; will he buy one or the other speaker wire? Still, I love the story because it exhibits the power of storytelling. Once you start on it, you want to know what happens next, even with a low stakes conflict. And once I present CH’s decision, the surprise of it generates a desire to know why.

Yet before I explain the reasoning behind CH’s decision, let me present to you a different way I could have started this column. You’re going to have to pretend you are coming to this article with fresh eyes, having not read any of the story I just presented.

There is a long-held assumption that perceptual indiscriminability is intransitive, such that for any series of objects o1, o2,….on and any qualitative feature Q, such as color or pitch, any adjacent pair on, on+1 is indiscriminable with respect to Q for a subject S, but on, on+2 is discriminable. The intransitivity of indiscriminability is thought to generate the sorites paradox for a class of features Q. In this essay, I will argue that…

This is a very compact and effective opening to a paper about perceptual indiscriminability and the sorites paradox. In fact, I adapted it from Diana Raffman’s paper “Is Perceptual Indiscriminability Nontransitive?” It is sure to take in a philosopher working on vagueness. And since Raffman’s paper was published around the time CH was shopping for his stereo, it was Raffman-style thinking about perceptual indiscriminability and the sorites paradox that led him to purchase the $50 speaker wire.

You see, CH immediately worried about being victim to sorites-like reasoning. The fact that he couldn’t tell the difference between $5 and $50 speaker wire did not speak to the fact that there was no qualitative difference between the two. If he were to purchase the $5 speaker wire, what principle would prevent him from purchasing the slightly cheaper speakers that sounded the same to him? And then also the slightly cheaper amplifier, and then the even cheaper amplifier, and eventually he would be forced to admit that his $35 boombox was good enough all along! No, the bourgeois longings were calling, and he would not be denied a nice hi-fidelity stereo system on account of fallacious thinking arising from perceptual indiscriminability.

Click to Daily Nous to read more.

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