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Suppose I read a work, and I don't understand it or see its meaning, then it could be that either the information itself is inconsistent/non-sensical or I don't understand it personally. How do I know which of the two it could be?

More elaborately: I find it that often when I read even reputable works (eg: of mathematics) that I don't understand much after a reading, but, I put some blind faith that the book has some truth beyond me and I keep reading trying to understand. I think that I could equally spend time in trying to make meaning from something which is actually utterly gibberish by supposing that it has some truth in it. Is there any way to justify to one self why reading a textbook written by a scientist has any more meaning than perhaps reading what would at first glance be perceived by one self as utter gibberish?

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    The sad news is that a brief overview of history will reveal that many ground-breaking works were dismissed as crankery, even though even more works dismissed as crankery fully merited, so the odds are that you can't in the end be certain.
    – Mary
    Jun 26 at 1:44
  • Indeed it's extremely confused and perhaps until you fully assimilate enough a posteriori specific knowledge and a priori philosophy first principles then your 3rd eye is formed... Jun 26 at 5:22
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    If there were an objective answer to this question, the academic world would look a lot different. I'm voting to close on the grounds that it doesn't have an objective answer, even though it's an interesting question. Jun 26 at 6:09
  • I mean there is a big element of subjectivity to any sort of question which could be asked in philosophy. I'm searching for a subjective opinion which could help me navigate my life experiences @DavidGudeman Jun 26 at 17:10
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    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 26 at 18:59

4 Answers 4

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How do I know which of the two it could be?

  • Look for somebody who does understand it. People who come up with novel thoughts often (but not always) find it difficult to describe those thoughts in terms of more pedestrian philosophies, so it can be difficult to break into their work.

  • Look at the author's earlier works, and those of contemporaries. Even if those works have different ideas, it could help you get a feel for the author's style of writing and the other ideas that they were familiar with at the time they wrote the work you're struggling with. A biography of the author might help, too; most writing does not exist within a vacuum.

  • Don't accept philosophy blindly. There are many widely-respected philosophers who produced crank theories. Perhaps worse, some people have a tendency to follow "trendy" philosophies without really understanding them. Unlike mathematics, where many proofs are step-by-step logical implications of accepted axioms that you can trust even if you don't "get", most philosophy cannot be verified unless you understand its meaning.

    If you don't understand a particular work, even after looking into it, feel free to put it aside and come back later; there's plenty more philosophy in the sea.

Some things are just nonsense, but I'd hesitate to make that claim about something I didn't understand. I call crankery what I do understand, if I see it's hugely self-inconsistent or relies on egregiously false claims. Most philosophy done in earnest doesn't meet these criteria, even if I disagree with it.

If it reads as incomprehensible, but it's grammatical… it might be genuine philosophy, really badly written. Crank or not, I'm better off reading somebody else who talks about those ideas in a way I can understand.

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    I'd add, look at what the author has to say about what area you are comfortable with. Most cranks are multidisciplinarian, unable that they are to keep their uninformed opinion to themselves. If you see someone confidently pushing what you know is false information while never admitting when they are wrong or don't know, chances are they have the same attitude about topics you don't know.
    – armand
    Jun 26 at 3:22
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The obvious answer is that you have to make a serious effort to understand the matter from first principles. For mathematics, that would mean reading all of the definitions of all of the individual terms, and if any of those definitions are unfamiliar to you, looking them up in standard reference materials (such as textbooks) and recursively reading those definitions until you get to something you understand. Realistically, this is extremely time-consuming. You could spend months or even years trying to understand a single paper. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a superior alternative.

An example. Several years ago, the renowned mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki publicly claimed to have proven the abc conjecture. It quickly became apparent, however, that he had basically invented an entire new branch of mathematics in order to do it. It took the broader mathematical community several years to evaluate all of this, eventually culminating in Peter Scholze and Jakob Stix writing a rebuttal to Mochizuki's proof, to which Mochizuki responded by claiming that they had misunderstood his argument. The proof was subsequently published in PRIMS, a mathematical journal of which Mochizuki is the chief editor (he was recused from peer review). The broader mathematical community still regards abc as a conjecture rather than a theorem, despite the published proof, because they feel that the proof is either incorrect, or at best, incomplete.

The point of this example is that the only way to find out whether something is nonsense or meaningful is to make a concerted and serious effort to engage with it. There are no shortcuts, even in perfectly objective contexts such as mathematics. If an amateur had presented this proof, it likely would have been rejected out of hand, but it just goes to show that people with credentials can still make bad (or at least, unconvincing) arguments. Conversely, people with limited or no credentials can make correct arguments whose correctness may not be immediately obvious. For example, Srinivasa Ramanujan developed a lot of important mathematical results despite a relatively modest education, but his arguments were highly unconventional and he had to contact several different western mathematicians before G. H. Hardy finally recognized his genius.

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The primary objective of philosophy is the role of the reader as thinker.

The subject is interpolated into a mental realism that includes reality as a whole. Thus, philosophy promotes the use of cultural narrative to challenge society.

Foucault uses the term ‘society mental realism’ to denote the futility, and some would say the defining characteristic, of neo-patriarchial truth. It could be said that the premise of the cultural paradigm of consensus implies that the law is dead, given that mental realism is invalid.

Baudrillard suggests the use of the cultural paradigm of consensus to attack and modify thinking processes. But the subject is contextualized into a textual post-deconstruction theory that includes consciousness as a totality.

Von Junz holds that we have to choose between the cultural paradigm of consensus and conceptualist neostructural theory. Thus, the rubicon of narrative intrinsic to philosophy is also evident in all his work, although in a more self-fulfilling sense.

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There is an easy and straight forward answer to this question, but most people don't like it:

Wait and see what happens. In the modern world, with its huge population and communications networks, if something important is discovered, it will be put to use. It will be built upon. It will be applied to whatever problems it can be. If these things happen, then it is good mathematics. If these things don't happen, then it is quackery. The only question you have is how long to wait. That depends on how important the breakthrough is. The bigger the news, the less you should have to wait for confirmation. My general rule of thumb is two years for big new, ten years for all other news.

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