The Metaphysicals

December 15, 2008

Shhh… I’m doing some auditioning for The Metaphysicals using One Look. It’s this new dictionary search engine. Should be interesting. Listen in, if you want…

Ladies and gentlemen, today’s first contestant is commute, a nice common word, easy to pronounce, a good solid two syllables, seems pretty stable—and One Look finds him in 29 different sources, which is 24 more than Google using the ‘define:’ special syntax pulled up. Pretty impressive, Commute. I just hope you’re not going to be too repetitive.

No, not at all.

Sure, we all know commute can mean more than a meaningless shuffle between two points in order to earn a living…

In addition to ‘travel back and forth between work and home’, I can also mean ‘transpose and remain equal in value; exchange a penalty for a less severe one; change or replace with another’.

So, if you’re on death row, you’re kind of hoping the governor does a lot of commuting, right?

(The audience laughs here.)


One Look is emphasizing the action side of commute, but I can be a good solid noun too, something you have—though to be honest no one thinks of commute as a valuable possession anymore. I function quite well as the subject of the sentence, ‘My commute is going to be the death of me.’ Still, you’ll miss me when that job is gone.

One Look doesn’t tell you everything about commute, though, does it?

It doesn’t tell you that commuting is a reflection of a change in land use patterns, that one doesn’t live over one’s shop any more, and one doesn’t bring the geese inside on a cold winter’s night. It neglects to mention that commuting is also a reflection of developing transportation system, whether it be bicycle or mass transit or the evil automobile, and that for most of us walking to work is a thing of the past. Besides, if you walk to work, you call it ‘walking to work’, not commuting. It doesn’t tell you about Dave Givens who does a seven hour a day, 372 mile round trip and won a prize from Midas for the world’s longest commute a couple of years ago, nor does it tell you that there are people out there who would scoff at a measly seven hours. ‘Why seven hours… I’m only half way there.’ Nor does it tell you that there’s at least one person in this vast country who takes the train or a bus into the wee small hours of the night, gets off the bus, changes his shirt, and catches the next bus back into town—but perhaps there’s a reason for that.

Wow, commute, thank you, nice job.

(Polite applause from the audience.)

Our next guest is a less common word, incommensurability. Let’s make him feel right at home. One Look gives 12 sources. Are you happy with that Incommensurability?

‘Not having a common factor; impossible to compare in value, size or excellence’ are my quick definitions, but I think my most cogent use is in the realms of philosophy of science and ethics. Go down to the Wikipedia entry and you’ll get taken to a disambiguation page for commensurability that will send you to pages on philosophy of science, ethics, mathematics, astronomy and law. Thomas Kuhn uses me to distinguish scientific paradigms. Ethics also finds me useful. It is frequently said that two values are incommensurable if and only if, when compared, neither is better than the other nor are they equally valuable. How do you like that? Alasdair MacIntyre uses me to explain why we can’t come to some agreement about common decency these days, pointing out the conceptual incommensurability of rival arguments that seem to characterize our ethical thought. Frankly, I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to have much use in aesthetics—a particularly avant-guard artist’s work might be plausibly described as ‘simply incommensurable’, don’t you think?

But what about this ‘impossible to compare’ stuff? Surely this is the result of a lack of trying. I mean, even apples and oranges can be compared ‘as fruit’, and we do think the heliocentric view as being better than the geocentric one…

Incommensurable, aren’t you just a fancy word that’s functioning as an impediment to a higher synthesis?

The Wikipedia comes to Incommensurable’s rescue here. ‘Generally, two quantities are commensurable if both can be measured in the same units. For example, a distance measured in miles and a quantity of water measured in gallons are incommensurable (thus stressing the point that they cannot rationally be compared).’

So, we’re talking ‘units of measurement’, are we? The way we think about A and B is what makes them incommensurable, is that right?

This is epistemology, sir. It’s a slippery subject.

Audience, I’ll let you decide.

(A murmur runs through the crowd.)

Okay, you know the rules. In order to qualify for The Metaphysicals you have to have serious philosophical chops…but remember ordinary language counts too. Commute: social significance, both a verb and a noun. There was also this ‘transpose and remain of equal value’ thing; he was modest about that, but it sounds pretty important… Incommensurable: a fancy package, obviously used in philosophical circles, but a faint whiff of intellectual insincerity…

There’s a button under the cushion in your seat. One buzz for commute, two for incommensurable. Vote now. And good luck to the two contestants.


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