Philosophers: Neats, Scruffies, and In-Betweens

Thinking about the world can be a messy affair. You can do it with the right tools, which come with a warning.

Steven Yates

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Neats and Scruffies.

The history of philosophy shows us two broad kinds of thinkers. And a few of a third.

There are those who, like Plato, liked things neat, tidy, pristine. A place for everything, and everything in its place. And everyone, as becomes clear from his Republic.

These philosophers’ ideal is mathematics, sometimes geometry which is mathematics gone spatial. Math is pure. It’s precise. It’s predictable. If you can apply it, you know exactly what you’ll get. Every time.

Let’s call these philosophers neats.

Neats include many pivotal figures, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Modern formal logic is very neat. (When I was teaching, I had students in logic classes who took my course to get out of taking math — and discovered they’d not escaped having to pass a course on a formal system: mine involved precision of language and category instead of quantity.)

Neatness has an important place in the world, obviously. We wouldn’t have engineering without it. Nor electricity. Nor airplanes. Nor computers nor the Internet. If neatness disappeared, most of our technological society would disappear along with it.

But as we’ll see in a minute, neatness has its limits.

For there’s another group of philosophers we’ll call scruffies.

Scruffies look around and see messiness: in language, life, the world itself. They look at neatness and find it, well, inauthentic. They don’t see the point to formal approaches to anything outside math and geometry and their direct applications, because … life outside those limited domains just isn’t neat. It’s scruffy: inexact, often unpredictable; in a word, messy like a chronically unkempt room.

How are relationships neat?

Politics? Messy as it gets!

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Steven Yates

I am the author of What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory. I write about philosophy (especially the Stoics), health and systems, and the future if we have one.