Professor of Philosophy; Phi Beta Kappa
29 May, 2004
Twenty-nine years ago this week, I was initiated into Phi Beta Kappa, the day before graduating from a small liberal arts college whose granite administration building, with a white cupola on top, stands at the head of a tree-lined walk down into a small town. Like those of you who are to be initiated now, I thought it was nice, and I liked it, but I had little or no idea what, if anything, it all really meant. I felt a bit like a back-of-the-pack high school miler who has just run a personal best of 5:13 — great; but so what?
Now twenty-nine years later, it is my occupation as a philosopher to think about the meanings of things, even where definite answers come slowly, if at all. One way to begin thinking on this occasion is to recall the history and the election procedures of Phi Beta Kappa.
Phi Beta Kappa is an honorary society whose purpose is to recognize distinguished academic achievement that is in service to humanity. Begun in 1776 at the College of William and Mary, Phi Beta Kappa places a high premium on successful completion of a well-rounded, liberal-arts-oriented course of study embracing the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. At many other colleges and universities, where there is overwhelming pressure to provide professional and vocational training, the local Phi Beta Kappa chapter plays an active role in arguing for the importance of liberal education. Happily such arguments are not necessary here, where liberal education is what we do. At Swarthmore, activities sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa include a fellowship for graduate study and a distinguished scholar lecture series.
The Swarthmore Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, chartered in 1896, seeks to achieve its goals by honoring those students who best exemplify them. You have been chosen for induction into Phi Beta Kappa on the basis of the high quality of your academic work, as indicated principally by your grade point average.
To be more precise, the decisions at the margins come down to the third decimal place of the GPA. As a result, that B+ rather than a B that you got in Bio. 1 or Intro. to Philosophy or American Politics makes a difference. To take such differences seriously sounds like ridiculous arithmetic proceduralism, and in one light it is. But think for a moment about what many such differences spread over 28 or so graded courses over 4 years actually means. It is possible to do quite well in many courses at Swarthmore with a combination of intelligence and diligence, a combination that is possessed by nearly every Swarthmore student. But that extra half-grade in every one of Physics, Art History, Sociology, and so on, as well as in your major indicates something more than even the considerable intelligence and diligence that Swarthmore students possess. When that extra half-grade happens 28 times, it indicates compulsive imaginative involvement in thinking things through. In short, you couldn't help it.
This being one of my either better or worse days — depending on your point of view — I am going to spend just a few moments talking about the importance in life of thinking things through, and I am going to do this by talking about the metaphysics of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. On the one hand, this might amount to explicating the obscure by reference to the unintelligible; on the other hand, since you are so good at making sense of things, there is very little that is for you unintelligible.
Most of you know Leibniz, if you know anything about him at all, as either the co-inventer (or is it discoverer?) of the calculus along with Newton or the figure who is being made fun of by Voltaire in Candide. Leibniz also, however, articulates a systematic metaphysics that both is connected with his work in mathematics and with what made him a figure of fun for Voltaire.
His metaphysical theory arises, in part, out of a very simple worry: how can there be smallest bits or ultimate atoms of extended or space-occupying matter? If they are extended, then they, no matter how small they are, they can't be smallest, for everything extended is divisible. The very idea of an absolutely smallest bit of genuinely extended matter makes no sense. Instead of atoms, then, Leibniz argued that the universe must be composed of monads — extensionless points that are real, indivisible unities. (This is the part of Leibniz that has to do with the calculus and properties that are possessed absolutely instantaneously, that is, for no time at all.) (If it troubles you how ordinary, medium sized things could be aggregates of parts that themselves take up no space, you have hit upon a big problem for Leibniz. But let this pass for the moment.) Besides rejecting atomism, Leibniz was also opposed to the reality of causal interactions. He thought that causal interaction between two distinct things required real influence via transmission or transposition of parts. Since the ultimate bits of the universe are extensionless points, they have therefore no parts to transmit or transpose. Hence causality cannot, ultimately, be real. Instead of atoms causally interacting, the universe is composed of what Leibniz famously described as "numberless, mirrorless, windowless monads." About them he wrote,
"There is no way of explaining how a monad can be altered or changed internally by some other creature, since one cannot transpose anything in it, nor can one conceive of any internal motion that can be excited, directed, augmented, or diminished within it, as can be done in composites, where there can be change among the parts. The monads have no windows through which something can enter or leave." (Monadology 7).
To be sure, it looks to us as though some things cause other things, but that is because we confusedly focus on medium sized objects, not on ultimate extensionless simples.
Instead of genuine causal interaction, non-interacting ultimate monads have internal representational states that are co-ordinated according to a divine plan that is for the best. (This is the part that Voltaire made fun of.) Each monad — the individual person as simple thinking mind; as well as all the other monads that are the substance of the world — moves through its own internal representational states, which may be either cloudy and confused or clear and distinct.
Now you may well be wondering at this point — you should be wondering at this point — what if anything any of this has to do with Phi Beta Kappa. The answer is about to come. Leibniz held further that there are three distinct kinds or levels of monads: bare monads, souls, and spirits. Bare monads are capable only of bare, simply occurrent, and quite frequently confused perception and harmonious representational coordination within an environment; souls are capable of some heightened awareness and memory and more sophisticated representational coordinations with environments (Leibniz is thinking of sensate mammals here); and spirits or persons are capable of distinct memory, self-awareness, and thought. Spirits or persons can apperceive or be aware of their own representational states, and they can by the exercise of an internal power of reasoning modify and develop their representations from the confused and cloudy to the clear and distinct, thus achieving more apt, flexible, self-conscious and apt understanding of all the other monads of the universe. Leibniz held that formal logic, suitably developed, would be the perfect instrument for this rational development of awareness and harmonious coordination via understanding.
Now the penny can drop. I am not quite sure about this last bit. Leibniz never finished the identification of principles of all possible reasoning to his satisfaction, nor has anyone ever managed to do so. While there seems to be a core of principles of good deductive inference that are respected in every discipline — so that everyone should take Logic in the philosophy department — there are also non-deductive inferences — sometimes known as hunches or just seeing how things have to be — that are non-formalizable and that come from within considerable substantive experience of a particular discipline and its problems. Though I might like it to be true, I am also by no means sure that all extensionless points of the universe are coordinated in pre-established harmonies that we can simply understand.
But what I do think is right is that there are certain languages and procedures of reasoning the use of which produces clearer and more distinct awareness, more self-consciousness, and at least greater chances of fruitful coordination of various aspects of environments (from research environments, to family environments, to institutional environments, to political environments, among many others). It would be wise to command a considerable number and variety of such languages and procedures. If we could genuinely achieve clearer, more distinct, more detailed, better founded awareness of ourselves and our worlds, then we might, among other things, not only make fewer mistakes, but also realize our internal rational appetites for understanding and have more fun. It might — dare I say it? — even be politically important to think things through thoroughly, in many ways.
This, I think, is exactly what you have shown that you can do — indeed that you can't help doing it. You were not content until you had worked through that physics problem set or that Shakespeare essay, that Greek grammar exercise or that regression analysis, in such a way that your thoughts — as your teachers testify — were no longer cloudy and confused, but were now clear and distinct. As a result of your internal compulsion to think things through, you know from the inside how empowering, exhilarating, and clarifying it is to be an economist or a historian, a chemist or a classicist, and you know also how to find sense and value in some other disciplines that you love second or third or fourth best. The work you have done shows that you know this imaginatively and intimately. So you have as good a chance as there can be in life, for anyone your age, not to be bored, depressed, and alienated, but instead day-to-day to find your own life worthwhile. That is an achievement worth celebrating, if anything is, and even with an honorary society. I congratulate you all for it, and I urge you to go on with this kind of academic achievement in service to humanity. But happily you won't need my urging: like Leibniz's spirit-monads, you have an internal appetite for it.