Also in last week’s Sunday NY Times, the authors of Plato & a Platypus Walk Into a Bar (Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein) were outed for making up a quote they attributed to Tony Soprano. Now, it was in service of making a joke, and it is a joke book, it’s probably OK as far as it goes (the Times did mention that the quote might be removed in future editions). But they are also playing fast and loose with alleged dictionary entries, and that’s just plain wrong. Here’s what they say:
Look up “metaphysics” in the dictionary and it tells you the word stems from the title of a treatise by Aristotle and that it deals with questions at a level of abstraction beyond (meta) scientific observation. But this turns out to be a case of what is known in Latin as post hoc hokum. In fact, Aristotle didn’t call his treatise “metaphysics” at all, let alone because it dealt with questions beyond the purview of science.
They then explain (correctly) that the title was given in the 1st century A.D. because that part of the work followed the treatise on physics. There are so many errors in this, it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can always start with vague references to “the dictionary” (Jonathon Green calls this alleged book the “Unattributed Authorizing Dictionary”), which is a handy way of sounding authoritative without actually bothering to look something up. (This is perilously close to an appeal to authority, in my book.) In fact, every dictionary that I checked (whose etymology goes into any detail) notes that the name is due to the relative position of the treatise, and not because of its content, as the authors assert in the above quotation. In fact, even the fictional dictionary quoted by Messrs Cathcart and Klein doesn’t claim that the title “metaphysics” has anything to do with the actual definition, which they imply in the last sentence quoted above. It’s entirely unclear what this paragraph is doing in the book at all — it’s not part of a joke, like the false Tony Soprano quote, unless they were desperate for an excuse to use the phrase “post hoc hokum”; it doesn’t add anything to the discussion of metaphysics; and I’d think that the apparent disconnect between the etymology of “metaphysics” and its current definition is funny or at least odd enough to stand without recourse to a straw man. Besides which, one of the main features of a straw man is that it should be easy to knock down, but they don’t even manage to do that. So not only are they sophists, they’re bad ones (which is really the best kind, if you think about it). The book’s subtitle is “Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes”; perhaps it should be titled “Understanding Sophistry Through Jokes”.