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The art of shaving in philosophy

Untitled by Reginald Marsh, 1935

The practice of philosophy is an apprenticeship in simplicity. Ideas are clear when they are formulated in a simple way: we say the essential without spreading ourselves too thin by adding unnecessary elements.

In the 13th century, the English philosopher William of Ockham formulated what would become a methodological principle in philosophy and science, known as « Ockham's razor » :

One should never posit a plurality without being compelled to do so by necessity.

The formulation of an idea must be kept to the strict minimum and be as simple as possible.

Surprisingly, being simple is often complicated. Especially when one has been trained in academic philosophy and has an extreme requirement of clarity and precision, which seems paradoxical. When the requirement of clarity and precision becomes excessive, it can blind the mind. We will tend to quibble over details, to give importance to secondary elements, to question what does not need to be questioned and finally to lose sight of the essential.

Let's get our ideas straight!

I was recently noticing this phenomenon during a dialogue with a philosophy professor.

We were examining the argument that « A person can love a poem that he or she does not understand because he or she is sensitive to its beauty.»

The professor considered that this argument does not work because it lacks precision, It should say « A person can love a poem that he or she does not understand because he or she is sensitive to its conception of beauty.»

- Why do you want to replace « its beauty » with « its conception of beauty »?

- Because the person's sensitivity to the beauty of the poem depends on her own conception of beauty.

- But if I say that a person is sensitive to the beauty of a poem, isn't it implicit that his sensitivity depends on his conception of beauty?

As he continues to insist on the difference between the two formulations and seems to lose sight of the argument, I ask him:

- Does it change anything essential in the argument whether we say « its beauty » or « its conception of beauty »?

- No, it's true that it doesn't change anything essential.

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