Delight Springs

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The sharp and narrow path

We discussed Ockham and his razor yesterday, mixing several metaphors. Is parsimony demanded by logic and metaphysical necessity? Is simplicity an aesthetic preference or an ontological imperative? Is it an affront to parsimony to pour a pint into more than one glass? Do we sacrifice babies when disposing of waste water?

Our chapter "The Razor's Edge" prompted an un-parsimonious question about Somerset Maugham, whose novel of that name features a protagonist who is obsessed with William James's Principles of Psychology. Why that title? The epigraph, a diligent student discovered after class, holds a clue. "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over, thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” That's from the Upanishads.

The razor's edge is sharp, and that's the metaphor we notice mostly with Ockham. But perhaps the point is not its sharpness but its fineness, its narrowness. Salvation's path must be carefully trod, lest we slip and fall. Sage counsel for a walking philosopher. Mind your steps.

So, what is salvation for a secular philosopher and peripatetic inspired by Ockham? If it's not resistance to the multiplication of entities and ideas per se, but only to the gratuitous ones, how do we spot those? And what will we save, by spotting them? Error and falsehood, presumably.

But what would William James say? He'd remind us that our errors are "not such solemn things," most of the time. They give us something to talk about, they bound our path, they populate our landscape, they propel our progress. "In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher."

Some forms of salvation may not be worth the trouble.

5:55/5:31, 58/88

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