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The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician
February 12, 2012 7:50 AM   Subscribe

The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician "In June 2000, the philosopher Dean Zimmerman moved from the University of Notre Dame to Syracuse University with his wife and three kids, only to see their new house catch fire the day they moved in." Months later, he received the second hopeful fortune cookie since the fire, which told him "A way out of a financial mess is discovered as if by magic!"; the next day, magic arrived in a letter offering Zimmerman a generous sum of money, which he later learned was $12,000, to review a sixty-page work of metaphysics titled "Coming to Understanding."

At least nine other philosophers received the same notice, and when the article arrived, along with a contract, it all seemed above board but still equally mysterious.

In a 2001 issue of the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca, James Ryerson published an article about his search for the person behind the A.M. Monius Institute (and its purse strings); his search led to a similarly named professor named Anne Monius, 3rd century philosopher Ammonious, Sigourney Weaver, and the the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. With permission from Ryerson, Slate has published the story again.

Bonus past Lingua Franca material:
Previously on Metafilter ("Who killed it?)
Lingua Franca Article Archive
posted by MCMikeNamara (45 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Extra bonus but article-spoiling link: The Ammonius Foundation Press)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:53 AM on February 12, 2012


Donald Foster's suggestion that Monius might be "a bright and ambitious, but somewhat shy, Rwandan gorilla" was preposterous. Everybody knows that when gorillas write philosophy, they prefer anodyne New Age pop philosophy, not metaphysics.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:08 AM on February 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Interesting article, but . . . the whole thing had a bit of misdirection to it. The article's author found the MS author, one of two people listed on the articles of incorporation -- albeit with a common name.

I didn't get any sense that we understood the millionaire metaphysician, beyond a bit of speculation. I mean, was it so hard to find out his line of business, or what others in the community knew of him? "I could have pushed harder on these questions, but my deadline was nearing, and my leads had run dry." Bah.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:13 AM on February 12, 2012


Fascinating story, with a bit of an anti-climactic ending. I'd love to hear about the continuing reception of "Coming to Understanding" by the philosophical community, if there has been any.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:20 AM on February 12, 2012


I enjoyed that article, very interesting.

I'd love to hear about the continuing reception of "Coming to Understanding" by the philosophical community, if there has been any.

It's really not the sort of thing that professional philosophers are interested in. Even if the author had been a tenured philosophy professor, I doubt that "Coming to Understanding" would have received the attention and engagement he craved. Philosophers today tend to work on smaller questions.
posted by jayder at 8:31 AM on February 12, 2012


Saxon, I suspect there IS no continuing reception. They reviewed it for the money. It doesn't represent part of their academic discourse, and so there's not really a place for it. There's no room in academic philosophy for a new Critique of Pure Reason coming completely out of left field. Unless it's phenomenally good (and even still), it's going to come off as crank-y. Given that, in addition to that, the philosophers reviewing it indicate that there appear to be some basic logical errors in the paper, that would be enough to completely write it off.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:33 AM on February 12, 2012


Yeah, ditto jayder. Interesting how philosophy does interest itself in smaller and smaller questions. It's almost as if academic philosophy parallels religion's retreat from science. Philosophy is the "reasoning within the gaps," growing smaller each year.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:35 AM on February 12, 2012


But the small questions are so big.
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:41 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


With respect, I don't think those of you saying that philosophy is in retreat from the big questions have any idea what you are talking about.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:48 AM on February 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yeah, that seems like that perspective only takes into account the Anglo-American tradition of logical positivism and ignores all the work coming out of the continental tradition.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:53 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's no room in academic philosophy for a new Critique of Pure Reason coming completely out of left field.

Lest the apparent implicature here be taken for truth, it should be noted that the first CPR didn't come completely out of left field.
posted by kenko at 8:53 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that seems like that perspective only takes into account the Anglo-American tradition of logical positivism and ignores all the work coming out of the continental tradition.

It also ignores all the Anglo-American stuff that came after logical positivism, which hasn't been a live program for decades.

Mind and World, for instance, could hardly be taken to be something interested in "small questions". Fuckin', like, what is the mind's place in the world! That's a big question!
posted by kenko at 8:56 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


With respect, I don't think those of you saying that philosophy is in retreat from the big questions have any idea what you are talking about.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:48 AM on 2/12
[1 favorite +] [!]


Isn't it Philosophy 101 that the question is not about what we know, but about whether what we said is true? Your comment seems an odd way to respond to us, why not just say "no you're wrong, philosophers today are working on big problems"?

But anyway, it's not really disputable that philosophers today tend to work on smaller problems in the form of academic papers; yes, these smaller questions are part of a bigger project addressed to big questions, obviously, but totalizing metaphysical theories in a seventy page paper are not typically how philosophers today work. Today philosophers are working more in the model of Gettier and less in the model of Hume.

Are you saying they do work that way, Jonathan?
posted by jayder at 9:37 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's no room in academic philosophy for a new Critique of Pure Reason coming completely out of left field. Unless it's phenomenally good

I see what you did there.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:38 AM on February 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Isn't it Philosophy 101 that the question is not about what we know, but about whether what we said is true?

… no?
posted by kenko at 9:44 AM on February 12, 2012


Oh, I see, I misunderstood you; I thought you meant something like, "aren't philosophy 101 classes taught in a totally metalinguistic way?".

Anyway, there are those who think that truth is the norm of assertion, but the position is controverted.
posted by kenko at 9:45 AM on February 12, 2012


I'd love to hear about the continuing reception of "Coming to Understanding" by the philosophical community, if there has been any.

If you read some more at MCMikeNamara's link, the author has continued to update and refine his work, and published new editions in 2007 and 2010, with more critical comments from professional philosophers. (.pdf downloads are available if you want to dive in!)

On a quick read, the comments are very kind but also fair, they point out that the work is flawed and full of mistakes, but they do acknowledge (like the article) that the mistakes are still interesting and typical of an amateur. Ultimately, his philosophy and theology is flawed, but he has devoted a huge amount of his time and resources to trying to understand why he might not have succeeded. The performance alone should make us appreciate him as a diamond in the cosmic sands.

There is room enough in this madhouse for the joy that we get from a rich businessman giving away their fortune to philosophy professors!
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 9:58 AM on February 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Lingua Franca was a great magazine, by the way. Rick Perlstein and Corey Robin both began their careers there.
posted by jonp72 at 10:03 AM on February 12, 2012


Also Scott McLemee, I think. Or maybe he didn't start there, but he was associated with them.
posted by kenko at 10:10 AM on February 12, 2012


The thing that people like Sanders and Ayn Rand and others hoping to be outsider revolutionaries tend to ignore is that philosophy as a field of activity is, literally, millenia old, and as such, it's built up a long history of failed attempts and partial successes and well-explored areas that simply aren't really in question any more.

That cumulative history isn't a dam that needs to be exploded, it's a hill that needs to be climbed before you start doing new work. I did an honours thesis on Richard Rorty. My advisor at the time said something I remember quite clearly: That Rorty appealed strongly to undergrads because of his iconoclasm, but the undergrads lacked the knowledge of the history of philosophy to really appreciate what was interesting in Rorty's attack on "the academy", and what was misguided or fluffy or inessential.

Spend years and a fortune getting your new metaphysical thesis read, without appreciating the history of the field, and you might turn the academy on its head. But most likely, you'll simply make a fool of yourself and be dismissed as an "intelligent amateur". That's not cliquishness, that's you not doing your homework.
posted by fatbird at 10:12 AM on February 12, 2012


Uh, what are the 'small' questions that academic philosophy looks at, rather the 'big' ones you think they're annoying?
posted by delmoi at 10:14 AM on February 12, 2012


In fairness, there are a bunch of "small" questions, and it's possible to get involved in scholastic-seeming debates whose significance to the big questions whence the small ones are ultimately derived is unclear. (Philosophers are not unaware of this.) Part of that is disciplinary pressure, which is getting amped up in This Modern Age; you've got to get published and it's easier to do that if you take on small problems in relatively uncontroversial ways. This really is worth getting annoyed about. But it's hardly the case that (a) everyone investigating some small question has lost the thread connecting it back to some larger question; (b) everyone is merely investigating those small questions as such.
posted by kenko at 10:22 AM on February 12, 2012


Just FYI, the Ammonius Foundation has branched out from "hey, I'll pay you to read my MS" -- which, by the way, a lot of professional philosophers thought was somewhat dodgy at the time.

These days, the Foundation pours money into mainstream academic philosophy, offering grants to established scholars, and endowing several prizes for younger scholars. (One in metaphysics, on in philosophical theology... there's one in epistemology, too, but I'm honestly not sure whether Ammonius funds it.)

The grants to older scholars often go to people with a philosophy of religion bent, and I don't know how they're awarded. But the foundation has no control over the younger scholars prizes.
posted by kestrel251 at 10:25 AM on February 12, 2012


Oh, I see, I misunderstood you; I thought you meant something like, "aren't philosophy 101 classes taught in a totally metalinguistic way?".

I was a little sloppy there. I just meant that, if Jonathan Livengood takes issue with what we said, it seems most philosophical to address the truth or falsity of what we said, rather than to sniffily declare that we don't know what we're talking about and then say nothing more.
posted by jayder at 10:36 AM on February 12, 2012


I read all the links but I missed the motive for the guy's pen name. It's not like he was promoting illegal or embarrassing ideas. Does he belong to some cultish religious group that would shun him or something if it became common knowledge that he had some agnostic views?
posted by bukvich at 10:41 AM on February 12, 2012


Uh, what are the 'small' questions that academic philosophy looks at, rather the 'big' ones you think they're annoying?

Er, how did I type 'annoying' when I meant 'ignoring'?

Anyway, I'm still curious what they might be.
posted by delmoi at 10:42 AM on February 12, 2012


This came up on another site a couple of years ago, and other professional philosophers also opined that the paper was "full of mistakes".

I tried to get a clear explanation, but all I got was quibbles about not speaking the same language - not even claims that he used language imprecisely, which would be a serious charge, but that he didn't use exactly the same jargon that "professionals" did.

As someone with a degree in mathematics, I'm dubious of such claims. Consider Ramanujan, a brilliant mathematician whose work was almost ignored because he wasn't using professional jargon.

I skimmed the paper the last time and was very favorably impressed - it jibes with my own thoughts, and some schools of Hinduism and Buddhism. I wouldn't say that I read each sentence critically, however.

Can anyone explain what the "numerous mistakes" really are?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:54 AM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


> I read all the links but I missed the motive for the guy's pen name.

From the first link:

"He had chosen to remain anonymous, he explained, so that his "failure to become a professional philosopher" would not come to light and thus tempt professional philosophers to "simply dismiss the idea of reviewing my work out of hand because the work was known to be by a devoted amateur.""
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:56 AM on February 12, 2012


Uh, what are the 'small' questions that academic philosophy looks at, rather the 'big' ones you think they're ignoring?

I'm not sure if you're addressing me. But I don't think philosophers today are ignoring big questions, rather I think they are approaching philosophy in a more collective manner, proceeding by attacking smaller problems that are part of an overall philosophical program that is addressed to the same big questions that the ancients and early moderns addressed. So when I said, earlier, that philosophers don't really work in the way this businessman works, that was not to say they are ignoring big questions, but rather that his grand attempt to solve metaphysics in a seventy-page paper would be regarded as foolish and naive by philosophers who work with very careful, slow attention to smaller parts of big questions, writing and publishing papers that don't presume to Solve Metaphysics Once And For All as he apparently was trying to do.

As an example of the smaller, incremental approach, I mentioned Gettier (I'm sure there are a thousand better examples). But he wrote a very brief paper that was hugely influential that triggered a lot of back and forth about the epistemological question of whether knowledge is justified true belief, and whether, if what you thought justified your belief was actually an illusion, but your belief was still true, did that count as knowledge? There were numerous responses to Gettier that have stood out for me as a model of the kind of careful, incremental progress that contemporary philosophy strives to achieve.
posted by jayder at 11:02 AM on February 12, 2012


"What does philosophy do that the sciences and math don't?"
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:17 AM on February 12, 2012


Can anyone explain what the "numerous mistakes" really are?

The explanations have been given, its just the acoustics of the words reverberating off the ivory tower make it hard to understand.
posted by rough ashlar at 11:20 AM on February 12, 2012


There was an interesting blog post earlier this year by Eric Schwitzgebel, "Where Are the Kants?," exploring whether the increasingly specialized nature of philosophy today makes it unlikely that a figure could emerge with a Kant-like impact across the field of philosophy as a whole. Schwitzgebel makes the case that there's no reason why another figure of Kant's impact could not emerge.
posted by jayder at 11:33 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, I just realized that "Where Are the Kants?" was not the title of Schwitzgebel's post, but was the link from Brian Leiter's blog where I found it.
posted by jayder at 11:36 AM on February 12, 2012


Thank you lupus_yonderboy. Yeah I saw that but I guess it didn't register for me as credible. Which is weird; it's his paper and his reason and he surely knows his own business way more than I do.
posted by bukvich at 12:06 PM on February 12, 2012


I didn't realize until now that the author of this piece (which I'd read long ago) is also the author of the introduction to DFW's published undergraduate thesis and that recent piece about philosophical novels. He's editor at the NYTimes magazine; nice to know that they have a philosophically-savvy journalist working there. (Although I thought the DFW introduction was just awful.)
posted by painquale at 12:27 PM on February 12, 2012


I like Pirsig's phrase 'philosophology' for the practice of philosophy. Stuffy, arcane.

I suspect that if their 'numerous fundamental mistakes' are all utterly incomprehensible to an intelligent layperson (and I'm willing to be they are) then the fundament in question is their own.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:00 PM on February 12, 2012


Dean Zimmerman

Unrelated to anything really, whenever i see someone with "Dean" in their name, i immediately think they are or should be a dean of a school. I don't know why. :\
posted by usagizero at 1:03 PM on February 12, 2012


The article describes several of the "numerous fundamental mistakes" in some detail:

Bencivenga complains in his review that there is feeble hand waving at critical junctures in the argument. For instance, the impersonal purpose, or fundamental good, that A.M. Monius believes makes reality intelligible is "just a name for a mystery," Bencivenga explains, "which itself calls for a solution." A major problem that struck Sider was the manuscript's failure to address "the typical, atheistic, materialist response to this sort of argument." Namely, if everything must have an explanation, then everything—including the coming to understanding of Being—must have an explanation. Something is going to have to remain unexplained. So, Sider asks, "why not just be content with the mundane, materialist description of the world, rather than bringing in God or Coming to Understanding or whatever you like?"

Those objections do seem pretty clear to this (atheistic materialist) layperson.
posted by ook at 1:58 PM on February 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: When one has seen all things as they really are and feasted upon them, one sinks back inside heaven and goes home.
posted by Twang at 6:45 PM on February 12, 2012


jayder and others,

Working on big (important) problems and producing big (voluminous) works are not the same thing. However, restricting attention to book-length works in Anglo-American philosophy since 1960, one finds the following, among many, many other excellent books (the summaries indicate the topics addressed, but they are very rough and ready):

Quine (1960) Word and Object -- on how language connects to the world

Rawls (1971) A Theory of Justice -- on the nature of justice; widely regarded as one of the most important works in ethics in the last 200 years

Kripke (1972) Naming and Necessity -- on the nature of proper names, modal logic, and necessary truth

Lewis (1973) Counterfactuals -- on the logic and truth-conditions of subjunctive sentences, like "If Caesar had had nuclear weapons, he would have used them."

Plantinga (1974) God, Freedom, and Evil -- the title basically sums it up

Mackie (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong -- on values, the good, obligations, determinism and responsibility, and more

Rorty (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature -- on minds, persons, and the nature of philosophical inquiry into things like minds and persons

van Fraassen (1980) The Scientific Image -- on the nature of science and realism

Parfit (1984) Reasons and Persons -- on rationality, personal identity, and morality

Earman (1986) A Primer on Determinism -- on determinism (especially in physics), laws of nature, chance, computability, and free will

Lewis (1986) On the Plurality of Worlds -- on modal realism: the idea that "possible worlds" other than ours, which appear in the semantics of modern modal logics, really exist

van Fraassen (1989) Laws and Symmetry -- on laws of nature and against any metaphysical account of them: van Fraassen really doesn't like analytic metaphysics!

Earman (1992) Bayes or Bust? -- on scientific method, confirmation, and Bayesian epistemology

Gupta and Belnap (1993) The Revision Theory of Truth -- on an alternative theory of the nature of truth

Haack (1993) Evidence and Inquiry -- on evidence, inquiry, and the nature of knowledge

McDowell (1994) Mind and World -- on the relationship between the mind and the world, and on the occupation of philosophy

Chalmers (1996) The Conscious Mind -- on the nature of consciousness

Soames (1999) Understanding Truth -- on truth-bearers, the nature of truth, paradox, and vagueness

Spirtes et al. (2000) Causation, Prediction, and Search -- on the possibility and limits of drawing causal inferences under various constraints; includes a mathematically precise account of causal structure and algorithms for causal search!

Smith (2002) The Problem of Perception -- on direct realism and the problems of illusion and hallucination

Gupta (2006) Empiricism and Experience -- on the skeptical challenge, the possibility of empiricism, the nature of experience and knowledge

Priest (2006) Doubt Truth to be a Liar

Field (2008) Saving Truth from Paradox

The volumes by Priest and Field are both massive treatments of how to get out of the Liar Paradox -- possibly by rejecting the principle of non-contradiction

van Fraassen (2008) Scientific Representation -- on representation, including measurement, in science and elsewhere

Korsgaard (2009) Self-Constitution -- on agency, personal identity, the nature of persons, the nature of normativity, practical reason and action, etc.

Parfit (2011) On What Matters -- self-explanatory?


So, the reason I replied the way I did earlier on is that one has to be pretty profoundly ignorant of what has been going on in philosophy since 1960 to be able to say that philosophy does not take on big problems or advance through serious, heavy volumes any more. It is true that philosophy also advances through journal articles and conference presentations, but books have a huge impact on the field.

I probably should have just given refuting evidence earlier, but I find it bothersome when people make sweeping claims without evidence or, really, without having made any attempt at checking the claim to see if it's true. I don't see how anyone at all familiar with contemporary philosophy could say that philosophy doesn't engage with big problems or doesn't do so through big books. Hence, I felt the need to say, not just that the claim was wrong, but that it comes from a place of not knowing the subject under discussion.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:23 PM on February 12, 2012 [16 favorites]


I suspect that if their 'numerous fundamental mistakes' are all utterly incomprehensible to an intelligent layperson (and I'm willing to be they are) then the fundament in question is their own.

I was going to take this as a challenge, especially since the text says that the critics all wrote long reviews that have been posted on the site, but no such luck: there are only short blurbs. If anyone can find some of the actual reviews, I could take a shot at explaining some of these mistakses.

But anyway, the conclusion that we are here because we can come to understand the Reality of Being As Such is pretty much the conclusion reached (read: narcissist position of human uniqueness and transcendence started from and then rationalised post hoc) by every other theological metaphysician going back to the mists of time.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:23 AM on February 13, 2012


Ehh, I'm an idiot. The reviews are in the pdf-s you can download. I'll go take a gander, but it's basically all theology, I'll probably get bored after ten minutes.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:28 AM on February 13, 2012


As the OP, I agree that the 'mystery' is a bit of an anticlimactic tease for the rest of the article, and though I did the same thing to get people to read it, I hope it wasn't too disappointing.

As neither a philosopher nor an academic, I found what the article said about philosophy, academia, and the relationship of money (or maybe more accurately what the article implies) of interest, and was curious to hear the thoughts of MeFites smarter than I am, especially those who were professionally in philosophy and academia. Thanks for not disappointing!

(I do wish I had thread-sat a little bit more so I could read some of these on a lazy Sunday at home rather than at work, since, despite 'multitasking' being one of my best skills, philosophical treatises require fuller attention.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:35 AM on February 13, 2012


Jonathan Livengood -- just curious, do you know how many of the books you listed are accumulations or expansions of papers that were written and published, and received peer review and possibly feedback from colleagues in the pages of journals prior to being published in book form? It seems like many major books in philosophy were actually published in the form of journal articles that were expanded, or collected, into book form.

Glad you came back to say your piece.
posted by jayder at 1:37 PM on February 13, 2012


Do you know how many of the books you listed are accumulations or expansions of papers that were written and published, and received peer review and possibly feedback from colleagues in the pages of journals prior to being published in book form?

I'm pretty sure that none of the books I listed are collections of articles into book form. Maybe one or two of them is, but I was trying to avoid such books when I drew up my list, so if any of them is such a book, it was an oversight on my part. However, you are right that many influential books, like Quine's From a Logical Point of View or Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie, are essentially edited collections of previously published journal articles. And many other very fine books are edited collections of essays by several different authors.

Some of the books I listed -- Naming and Necessity and Mind and World -- are edited versions of lectures. And that seems to happen a lot as well.

How many of the books are expansions of earlier papers is a much more difficult question. Most philosophers develop their ideas more or less systematically over their careers. They come back to the same themes and central concerns over and over again. Insofar as philosophers publish in journals at all, the books they publish are likely to be developments of the ideas they publish in the journals in some sense or other. On the other hand, it is often hard to say which comes first -- a book or some articles -- since for many (most?) philosophers, their early papers get spun out of a dissertation, which is typically a more or less unified monograph.

Anyway, reading over the thread, it seems to me that you softened your initial claim into something that I don't really disagree with. Lots of philosophy today involves working out solutions to puzzles in the depths of this or that larger philosophical system. The puzzles themselves are often not "big" problems, though solving them is often in service of solving a big problem. It is a mistake, though, to think that (a) philosophers do not build systems today or (b) philosophers do not engage with the traditional, important problems today or (c) philosophers do not produce major book-length works today or (d) philosophers don't take those big books seriously, so they have very little impact on the discipline today.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 4:42 PM on February 13, 2012


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