Source: p 272, Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy (1 ed, 1999) by Simon Blackburn

  [1.] It might be suggested that when we have a concern there must be something in the offing that we desire. If I am concerned to cut the grass, but do not want to do it, then if I do it, this must be because I do want something else: perhaps just peace of mind, for instance.
This introduces another very dangerous mistake, which is that of thinking that whenever a person has a concern, what she "really" desires is some state of herself, such as her own peace of mind.
[2.] Psychologists, especially, have been apt to think of desire in terms of a kind of build-up of tension, and what the agent is driven to do is to release the tension. It is then easy to think that the release of tension was the real object of desire all along. This too can introduce hurtful words: "You weren't really concerned about the starving children, you were just wanting to feel good." And all behaviour is diagnosed as fundamentally selfish, as though it is always your own state that concerns you, with other goals and aims a kind of mask.
  [3.] This set of thoughts (sometimes called psychological egoism) is entirely wrong. [...]

I do not comprehend 3: why are 1 + 2 + 3 entirely wrong? The use of entirely in 4 appears too extreme and unconditional, because 1, 2 really constitute some (but NOT all) possible reasons for a desire (of respectively: peace of mind, catharsis of tension).

  • Please pardon my use of majuscules in the title; I know not how else to emphasise 'entirely' there. – NNOX Apps Feb 7 '16 at 2:04
  • a phrase such as "This set of thoughts is entirely wrong" appearing in a text book raises some red flags for me. – M. le Fou Feb 7 '16 at 5:22
  • Well, I think the "form" of this argument is that the text after "wrong" purports to explain that evaluation. It would be helpful to see it. – Jeff Y Feb 7 '16 at 12:07
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    for future questions, please don't ask them in utterly universal terms when they are really about understanding a quote -- explain who you are quoting. – virmaior Feb 7 '16 at 12:10
  • Are you just asking about he word "entirely"? If so, it's show of emphasis and indication of the author's considered stance, not a logical proposition drawn from (1) and (2). – Nelson Alexander Feb 10 '16 at 16:15

You've had some interesting quotes from that introductory philosophy book. In this case, the author seems to have believed they built up enough of an argument that they can issue a statement like (3) and presume the reader will bother actually working through the proof for them.

In this case, it appears the author is starting from the assumption that you can draw a boundary around a "self," dividing the universe into a Self and its Environment. In such a system of thought, the argument is that the only things one really wants are in the "self." However, this implies that individuals care nothing for the state of their environment, only their internal state. Concerns for external state of the Environment around the Self are presumed to always be proxies for a desire for something within the Self. Thus desires regarding the Environment are caused by desires in the Self.

There are approaches to this interaction which suggest there is no problem here. Some might challenge the causality, some might challenge intent. Some might argue that people in fact do want to change the environment for change's sake. Some, like Arne Naess, may use definitions of the Self which are inherently so all encompassing that it becomes reasonable to assume all springs from the Self.

It appears the author does not consider any of these approaches. The author appears to assume there is only one possible definition of Self, a narrow one, which one might presume the author believes is the true meaning. If you assume this narrow meaning, phrases like "entirely wrong" start to develop merit. However, if one wishes to explore other philosopher's opinions on the Self, brutal negative phrases like "entirely wrong" will just get in the way.

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  • Yet, if something is in fact entirely wrong, there is no point in wasting time philosophizing about it. It should be killed and buried. The author made a gambit something like this: "if I am correct, much time and effort will be saved, and if I am wrong, I'm wrong, so mincing words will make no difference whatsoever." Whether you feel that a rhetorical device is appropriate in Philosophy or not is separate from the truth of the claim. As Robert M Pirsig said, the biggest fool in the world can say it is daytime, but that doesn't make it dark outside. – user16869 Feb 8 '16 at 2:46
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    @nocomprende I agree it's a gambit, but a questionable one. Consider just how much time and effort is spent trying to justify a falsehood. Take your favorite popular debate topic, and consider just how much time the other side has spent developing their clearly wrong position. If you're arguing how much time and effort can be saved you can get into dark places that way. I think it's worse because this is an introductory book to philosophy. Closing minds to entire branches of thought seems counterproductive. – Cort Ammon Feb 8 '16 at 5:15
  • I always thought it would be good if someone knew what was really true and false and could foreclose entire areas of inquiry before anyone wasted any more time on them. Apparently this is not what life is about. Everyone has to start at square one and build all knowledge entirely for themselves (at least in areas that are not like physics, where unsupported objects always fall to earth, etc). I can't imagine why 99% of the things people get hung up on were not decided completely long ago. I got out of Philosophy because my professor told me it could only determine truth "after the fact". – user16869 Feb 8 '16 at 14:47
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    @nocomprende Of course, if they knew what was really true and false, they could manipulate the rest of the world using their misconceptions, doing all sorts of nasty things to your life. You really need someone who knows true and false and is also "good." Interestingly enough, a lot of the monotheistic deities have this property =) And as for physics, if you watch a baby learning the ropes, they have to build the knowledge of physics one square at a time, just like everything else! – Cort Ammon Feb 8 '16 at 14:51
  • I can't say that you have not answered the question, since it did stress the phrase. But to construe the question as why did he use the word "entirely" is somewhat narrow. It's just a rhetorical flourish to emphasize a position presumably Blackburn feels capable of defending. And he just writes that way, rightly believing that philosophy become utterly dull and unpopular couched in qualifiers. But the other, more important part of the question is "why" does he reject this form of "psychological egoism." – Nelson Alexander Feb 10 '16 at 15:30

Like others here, I am a little unclear on whether you asking why Blackburn rejects psychological egoism? Or merely asking why he uses the word "entirely"?

If the former, I would guess it has to do with "desire" being used in a simple causal manner, while it is in fact a very poorly defined cause that is never falsifiable and subject to an explanatory infinite regress or tautology. If we call "desire" that which causes us to struggle to write a great poem and equally that which causes us to remove our hand from a hot plate, then we have a causal entity as handily vacuous as God's Will. If we use "desire" to imply material reduction, then we face many well-known problems with naive physicalism. But, of course, we'd have to see more of Blackburn's context.

If you are merely asking, on what grounds does he use the unqualified "entirely," I'd say on purely rhetorical grounds. It is a stylistic flourish or punctuation point, not a logical proposition. And quite properly so. Like any philosopher, I'm sure Blackburn accepts that absolutes cannot be so indisputably grounded. But one must assume at the very least a considered, coherent stance, within which certain concepts or conclusions will be "entirely" incompatible. And presumably Blackburn holds such a position vis a vis psychological egoism... one he feels entirely willing and able to defend as required.

And like philosophers who feel their field is important enough to engage a general readership, he realizes that you simply cannot write engaging prose laden with qualifiers, cautions, footnotes, and equivocations...like a rabbit ever ready to retract himself into his burrow. So in such a context, to use disputative words like "entirely wrong" actually makes it more clear that this indicates the author's considered stance. It is, many would say, far more "balanced" than a tedious covering up of one's axiomatic tracks or the textbook pretense of a Fox News "fair and balanced" philosophy.

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