Easter Eggs in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Philosopher Simon Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has been an invaluable resource in my studies, and to my general philosophical thought, since my undergraduate days. While decidedly British and “analytic” (whatever that means) in tone and focus (e.g. Bertrand Russell’s entry is fairly long, while Foucault’s is fairly short), it is by far the most comprehensive and useful philosophical reference work I have come across. It astounds me that every entry was written by a single author. I can’t imagine how to begin writing such a work. With the letter “a” I guess. Anyway, what makes this reference work particularly interesting is that Blackburn does not shy away from letting his own voice and implicit arguments emerge throughout the text, instead of trying to feign impartiality and authoritativeness. Over time, Blackburn’s philosophical leanings and sympathies reveal themselves as one gradually reads through the entries (making Blackburn’s entry on hermeneutic circles nicely reflexive). Overall the picture one gleans is of a philosopher with an expansive generalist grasp, and all around sensible interpretation of a vast range of philosophical issues. But one peculiarity that also reveals itself through repeated use of the book are the Easter eggs – small offhand jokes and cattily dismissive entries – that Blackburn injects throughout the book. Here are some examples: 

From the entry for Sex and Sexual Desire:

The difficulties the western tradition has had with sexual desire are spectacularly voiced by Kant: ‘Taken by itself [sexual love] is a degradation of human nature; for as soon as a person becomes an object of appetite for another, all motives of moral relationship cease to function, because as an object of appetite for another a person becomes a thing and can be treated and used as such by every one’ (Lectures on Ethics). Kant seems to be describing a gang rape rather than sexual love, but he thought the only, fragile, escape from the fate of being ‘cast aside as one casts away a lemon that has been sucked dry’ was a contractual relationship based on marriage, although he himself did not try it (nor, probably, sex).

From the entry on Kabbala:

Originally, in the Talmud, the books of the Bible other than the Pentateuch. Gradually after around 1200 the term became applied to the oral tradition supposedly handed down from Moses to the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud; it accumulated aspects of cosmology, angelology, magic, and gnosticism, becoming a mystical and esoteric tradition of interpretation of the books of the Old Testament. A specialist in this study is called a kabbalist. Like astrology, it is a magnet for the weak-minded.

Blackburn’s entry for Ayn Rand:

Russian-born novelist whose extreme and simplistic views give her a following on the political right. Her philosophy of ‘objectivism’ is in fact simple egoism, a doctrine widely thought untenable. Politically she could see nothing but good in unfettered capitalism.

(There are more, but these are the only ones I can remember offhand). Regarding the second and third examples in particular, some would argue (and they’d probably have a point) that Blackburn is kind of a bully for including such haughtily dismissive entries. On the other hand, they are probably meant in jest. The bit about Kant’s celibacy is arguably pretty funny. I find myself torn. On the one hand, I think it is probably a good principle to give all ideas a fair analysis, no matter how ostensibly silly, especially if one hopes to convince people of their silliness. Being condescending might have the effect of strengthening the resolve of silly belief holders. On the other hand, I, like Blackburn, am fairly contemptuous of celebrity-Kaballaism (his obvious target) and the pop-culture influence of Ayn Rand (and of Ayn Rand’s works themselves), so I find myself enjoying the joke. What’s “good form” here? Obviously making jokes about silly ideas is rhetoric, not serious argumentation. Are serious thinkers not allowed to make fun of bad ideas? Does that make one an intellectual bully?

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