Monthly Archives: September 2007

“Lady” athletes redux: a racial analogue

Adding to the previous post: Singling out certain university players as “Lady” athletes is akin to calling a really good professional soccer player who happens to be a person of color “the Black Beckham.” We would understand a black athlete’s frustration at working hard to achieve skill and notoriety in his own right, just to be seen as a secondary version of someone else. As noted, the terminology connotes that his role as a soccer player is merely derivative of somebody else’s, someone whose own more genuine or authentic performance provides a ‘model’ to which his own performance can merely aspire. If we can see this, we should be able to see the issue with Lady Raiders: A “lady” version of the real thing should strike us as as great a slight as a “black” version of the real thing.

Again, if the use of “lady” in college sports is just an innocent, benign way to distinguish between two teams (or even a compliment—as some suggest), it is incredibly odd that it never occurs to anyone to “benignly” distinguish or “compliment” male players in this way. Instead, we have a broad cultural practice that always qualifies the women by sex and no(!) examples of the reverse. What in the world could account for this strange disparity? Similarly, if “the Black Beckham” is told that the nickname equating him with this other good player is just innocent or a compliment, he would be smart to ask why not one person is calling Beckham the white version of him.

The reason, again, could only be that his identity as a player is considered derivative of Beckham’s, and not the other way around. The two players aren’t considered equivalent in value at all, and the fact that it never occurs to anybody to reverse the nickname proves this. Likewise, if “ladies’” and men’s teams were considered equivalent in value, we’d expect there to be roughly equal chances that men would be singled out by gender (the “Male” or “Gentleman Raiders” (as at MTSU)) with women as just the “Raiders,” as that the women would be singled out with the men not. But this isn’t the case at all. There is no 50/50 “wash.” So there must be something deeper at work than a random, innocent means of demarcating two things.

I admit that the above analogy is not perfect. Perhaps “the Black Beckham” is young and indeed looks up to Beckham as a kind of hero, a model to which he aspires. In this case the designation may be more appropriate. But of course, women’s teams don’t consider themselves idol-worshippers of their male counterparts, and it would be insulting to think of them as eager imitators. If this is what “Lady” in fact connotes, the problem is actually worse than I have been suggesting.

(Oh, yeah: Here is some of that bad press I mentioned on our “Lady” athletes panel discussion—a sneery Fox News blurb (scroll down) titled “Ya’ Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up”; also the MTSU student paper coverage, which sucks but inspired some hilarious comments below it. P.S. In the picture I look like a guy who lives in his grandmother’s basement and “never seemed like the type to do it.”)

If “lady doctor” is sexist-passé, why are “lady” athletes OK?

I have long borne, as the evangelicals say, a “burden” for communicating leftism to non-leftists. This mood has driven the bulk of the public speaking I have done. One instance, transcripted below, was part of a panel discussion sponsored by a branch of the socialist group Solidarity. We were challenging the use of “Lady” to designate the female athletes at Middle Tennessee State University and at colleges in general. Of course, the intention was to use the main topic to highlight more basic social points. Given negative critical press leading up to the event, I tried in my lecture to build an argument “from the ground up” without presupposing a feminist orientation in my audience. Thanks, as always, for reading. (Note: The MTSU teams are collectively the “Raiders” or “Blue Raiders,” the females Lady Raiders.)

* * *

I want to evaluate the claim that: the University’s use of the term “Lady Raiders” is an instance of sexist language; that it is anti-woman in some way—that it degrades or devalues women as a group relative to men as a group.

Now, the most obvious way in which the term might do this is in the way it is used to separate certain female athletes—on the basis of being female—from the male athletes. Of course, you can certainly separate things into groups without implying that one group is better than the other—but again, it is not the separation but the way in which it is made that is suspect.

On the one hand, since MTSU has both a women’s and men’s program for certain sports, there is sense in which there is a whole community of athletes who are all a part of the group we call “Blue Raiders.” For example, we know when we click to the website “,” it is going to link to all the teams we have, female and male alike. All are part of the collective “Raider” group.

When you take this group and proceed to divide it into two smaller groups (in this case, according to gender), that in itself may not pose a problem. But when you allow the first group to keep the basic name “Raiders,” while the second has to be set apart as some special kind of Raider (in this case a “Lady Raider”) within this larger group of athletes, I think a question is then raised. Now, perhaps the question can be answered in a way that deflects a charge of sexism, but it is nonetheless questionable.

To put the point another way: Even though they’re all “Raiders,” or members of that group, we’ve seen fit for whatever reason to qualify the membership of the women within that group, while there doesn’t strike us as being any need to do this for the men. The men get a name that suggests an identification with the whole group—they are ‘just Raiders’, and again, everyone in the program is some kind of “Raider”—but only in the special case of the women is there ever seen any need to specify what little subdivision of Raider they actually are.

Of course, many are going to respond that this is just a harmless, benign way of classifying the two teams—that it isn’t trying to suggest anything negative beyond this. But in co-ed programs across the country, it is always this particular benign, harmless way of distinguishing the two teams, and never the reverse. It is always the men who end up as “just ‘Team Name-x’,” and the women always get to be the lady version of it.

So MTSU is just one instance of a broad cultural practice. And while it may not strike us right away as an offensive practice, it should strike us as a quite peculiar one. For instance (to steal a thought experiment motif from Noam Chomsky), if we were Martian anthropologists, looking down on this cultural pattern for the first time, we would be puzzled by it—and we would demand some special explanation for the thing. We wouldn’t dismiss it as meaning nothing, in other words. We would suspect that something deeper— for good or for bad—is at work behind it.

My view is that there is something deeper at work behind names like “The Lady Raiders” and that we have reason to suspect that this ‘something’ is a negative thing.

Part of my reasoning for this is that very often when we use words (like “Lady”) to qualify the membership of somebody within a bigger group, we do it to say something negative about the thing we are qualifying.

For an extended example of this: I was once in a conversation with a very politically conservative man who was applauding the fact that (according to him) “everyone” in Texas is a political conservative. So in response, I pointed out a man we both know of who is very left-wing, very radical politically, who lives in Texas; and I said, “Well, what about that guy?” And the guy replied, “Well, he doesn’t count: He’s an Austin-Texan.” (Austin being a liberal hornet’s nest, supposedly, surrounded by a sea of conservative belief.)

So clearly, the conservative guy added this little qualification of “Austin” to suggest that the other guy wasn’t a ‘real’ Texan—a full and proper or authentic member of the broader group of Texans. The conservative guy wasn’t just trying to distinguish between two sub-groups of Texans for benign classification purposes; he was suggesting that one group is more valuable or important or desirable than the other.

He was saying, in other words, that the other guy’s membership in the bigger group of Texans is a limited membership: He’s sort of a Texan, but a kind of outsider at the same time.

And finally, the terminology here suggests that whatever membership an Austin-Texan has in the bigger group is just derivative of somebody else’s membership. Because clearly, you can’t have an Austin-Texan without having Texans; the Austin-Texan needs the bigger group to have his own identity as a “partial” Texan. But you can have Texans whether or not you have any Austin-Texans.

You see the same thing with the concept of “Lady Raiders”: If you dropped the Lady Raiders from the school, the other Raiders could go on like they always have—without much confusion to be expected; but if you dropped the men’s team from the school, there would be nothing left for the “Ladies” to be Ladies of. So there is a sense that the identity of the women’s team is just derived from the men’s identity, that it is conceptually “piggybacking” on the men.

So the point of this illustration is to suggest that a “Lady Raider” might be something like an “Austin-Texan”—and if it isn’t the same, we should be able to say why it isn’t, if we’re so sure.

Another good example is that of a “lady doctor.” Most people are clear that this phrase has negative or offensive connotations. Rare would be the doctor who, when asked if she is a “lady doctor,” would not be tempted to snap, “No, I’m just a doctor”; and rarer would be the observer who would be fail to find this response intelligible.

But I think its important to understand why it holds these negative connotations for us. My own feeling is that the phrase “lady doctor” probably means the same thing as “lady version of a doctor.” (I can’t prove that this is what it means—but I’m pretty sure that if you didn’t have a problem using the phrase “lady doctor,” you wouldn’t have a problem if “lady version of a doctor” were substituted for it—and that should tell us something.)

Clearly, “lady version of a doctor” means “lady version of a male doctor.” (If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need to add the “lady” in the first place; for what else are lady doctors being distinguished from if not the male ones?) But if “lady version of a doctor” means “lady version of a male doctor,” it follows that the component phrase “a doctor” is equated with “a male doctor.” Once more, males in the group rate a term of description that suggests identification with the entire group; male doctors get to be simply “doctors,” while females warrant the designation only in some special sense. The males’ status as doctor is allowed to speak for itself, while the females’ must be accompanied by a kind of explanation.

Finally, when you suggest that somebody is a “lady version of a doctor” you are suggesting that the woman is merely aspiring to the role—a role that a man is more “at home” within. So again, like the “Austin-Texan,” the woman is kind of a member of the group (of doctors), but her membership is a qualified, limited, conditional one.

I would add something to this: I would argue that a team name like “Lady Raiders” is actually more questionable than “lady doctor.” Think of it this way: Whereas doctors are scattered across various institutions, all of the Raider athletes are members of the same institution—MTSU, or the athletic program, the local community—however you want to skew it. In a sense, then, each one of them is working toward the same project—they are contributing something to the same athletic program. So when you add “lady” to the name in this case, then, in addition to implying that the women are not full members of the “Raider” group, it suggests that they make a lesser contribution to something, than the ‘fuller members’ can make. The contribution, then, becomes qualified, limited, and conditional. And if this is the case, then the most the “ladies” can hope to put into their role as “Raider” is to “help out” with what the other, “fuller members” are doing. The women are cast as helpmates or auxiliaries of the men when you use this kind of language.

(As a sidenote: I don’t believe many people consciously believe that the women contribute less. That isn’t the point. We have all heard heard very nasty, overt, intentionally malicious ways of insulting women (or any people) as a group. So if “Lady Raiders” is an instance of sexist language, it won’t be this kind of sexist language. However: If it is possible to insult somebody in very obvious and overt ways, then it is possible to insult them in more subtle ways also. And you can certainly insult somebody inadvertently. So it isn’t some crazy idea to think that there could be an instance of sexist language that doesn’t jump right out and grab everybody who sees it as sexist.)

So this does beg the question of: Just how do we decide whether something is sexist language or not? Is there some kind of “litmus test” for the subtler cases such as this?

Well, again, how we don’t do it is by just examining the intentions of the person who makes the statement. Very often, people want to defend offensive-sounding language by saying the speaker doesn’t intend it to be offensive—“they don’t mean it that way.” But since it is possible to insult someone without meaning to do it, we might have to look beyond the feelings of the speaker to figure out the real meaning (or implications) of what he or she is saying.

I suggested earlier that it is a very odd thing that you find female athletes singled out as “ladies” and never the reverse case, with the males singled out by name. So, one way to test whether the name “Lady Raiders” is a subtle instance of sexism is to imagine how we would react if the situation were reversed:

For instance, someone could open up a college, set up two basketball teams, call the women’s team simply the “Raiders” and the men’s team the “Male Raiders.” (It has been suggested that “Gentleman Raiders” is more obvious, but I don’t think it’s perfectly analogous—so we’ll say the “Male Raiders,” for lack of anything better.) If a representative of this school were to describe this program to us, as prospective students on a tour, and leave it at that, we would not just take this information in stride. Again, we would feel that some kind of explanation were in order.

We might ask the representative some questions for clarification: “Are you trying to highlight the women’s program for some reason?; Or, historically was this perhaps an all-women’s school that only got a men’s team much later?”

“Well, no,” the rep says. “This is just a benign distinction between two groups. What’s the problem with that?”

Unsatisfied by this answer, we might keep pressing the point: “Well, then, perhaps the program was set up by a private donor—who stipulated that the names had to be done in this way?”

“No. We’re just classifying two teams. People do it everywhere.”

In desperation we might ask: “Are you a socially progressive school?—Maybe you’ve been to a Solidarity teach-in and you have reversed the traditional way of naming teams in an effort to make up for a history of discrimination against women?”

(And so on and soforth….)

In short, if a school gave the women’s team the mascot name, pure and simple, and set the men apart by name as the designated male counterpart to this—it would blow people’s minds. Everyone would have the sense that there must be more to the story: The representative is either ill-informed about his own program, or he’s pretending not to notice the oddness of the thing for Public Relations purposes.

But while we would question why somebody would think to distinguish between the groups in this way— virtually nobody questions it when we set the women’s teams apart from the rest.

And so the point is that, I think, we have some explaining to do: If we feel it is more fitting and natural that men get to be Raiders and women get to be a special sub-species of Raider, while it would not seem as fitting to us that women could be the Raiders and men the special case—then Why? Again, this inconsistency doesn’t automatically mean that sexism is at work here—and I don’t think that the subtle sexisms are the kind of thing you can get an absolute proof for, the way you could with the very nasty, overt examples—But it increases the degree to which the “Lady Raiders” name becomes, again, questionable.

The final point I would like to suggest is the following: If there is such a thing as sexism in the world—that is, if there is a very widespread feeling in the culture that women are less valuable, or capable, or worthy of being taken seriously, than men—then, to the extent that this is the case, it becomes even harder to dismiss (what I have called) those “questionable” pieces of ‘gendered’ language—such as the “Lady Raiders”—than it would be if we lived in world in which there was no such thing as sexism.

Well, I believe that sexist, anti-woman, ideas and attitudes are well-rooted in this culture, but it would be hard to argue the point convincingly in a short span of time. But it’s somewhat simpler to show that women are an example of an “oppressed group.” That is, aside from what kind of ideas we have about women, it’s just a fact that as a group they do more poorly than men as a group, in terms of social welfare. We see this as soon as we divide men and women into groups, and look for patterns between them: By virtually any measure of wealth, power and status we could come up with, we would find that the women fell far behind the men. (For just two examples, 95% of corporate executives are male while almost 70% of poor people are female.) And as society turns over, as it reproduces or “re-peoples” itself over time, the imbalance in the relationships maintains itself. So either this is the Mother of All Coincidences or we have a social system which is someway biased against the women, relative to men. In a sense, it is the system which undervalues themeven apart from what the individuals within the system think about each other. And to put the point very (too) briefly, anytime we have a dominant social group and a subordinate group in this way, there emerge ideas about the oppressed group which suggest that they are less valuable than the rest. So it would be very odd if gender were some kind of exception; a preponderance of sexist, anti-woman ideas and attitudes is just what we would expect from a social system that looks like ours.

So in conclusion, again, I’m not “proving” anything here, but I hope this is suggestive:

We can safely assume that sexism is alive in our culture. And part of this is the idea that women are better at helping with things than at actually doing things. Because this is so, when we are confronted with a piece of language—like “the Lady Raiders”—which seems to suggest a derivative or auxiliary role for women (if you buy into what I’ve said)—We should pause before dismissing this piece of language as having nothing interesting to say about the culture that came up with it. Again, it requires an explanation. And a tradition of sexism is simply the most handy, available hypothesis we have. It is far easier to believe that the “Ladyfication” of women’s teams is just one more in a long, tradition of representations that devalue women. And if sexism is behind the name, then keeping the name validates that sexism and helps in its way to keep it going. And we should change it for that reason.

Instead, support other stuff with troop-like vigor


Found in Larry Flint’s [sic] Nashville store amid the silicone.

Richard Dawkins for good and for bad; Intelligent Design still fails

Richard Dawkins is an important apologist for evolutionary theory and, less deservedly, for atheism. However, I am uncomfortable with his focus on the “bad outcomes” of religious faith—say, the violence it historically engenders. How should a religious person respond to the charge that her view engenders violence? I mean, if she already has good reason for believing in God (and implicit reason to think (a) she should do whatever God sanctions and (b) God sanctions [that] violence), then what of it? Surely Dawkins would not argue that anything and everything which engenders violence is automatically illegitimate—that nothing could possibly be worth fighting for. Of course, he would clarify that it is not so much that religion causes fights but that it causes them for no good reason. But then the question becomes, Just how is religion shown to be poorly reasoned (that is, what reasons do we have for not believing in God)? I agree that there is no good reason for believing religious claims—and that, alone, is my argument. If there were good reasons for being religious, and if these legitimated violent defense or conquest of territory or whatever else, then, by God, so be it. But there are not, so it does not.

To elaborate: The “religion is violent” argument is like arguing to a man who tends to fight over his girlfriend, “Look at all the trouble your belief in her causes—she must not really exist.” At most, we would argue instead that he is right to believe in her but wrong to fight so over her. Actually, Dawkins’ argument is more analogous to a case in which some crazy stranger keeps fighting over someone else’s girlfriend: Most religious people in Dawkin’s audience probably don’t approve of the author’s examples of religious violence (that is, they would be opposed to using violence to promote their religion). Telling these peaceful believers to stop being religious because someone else thinks its OK to fight over their religion is like telling the boyfriend to stop believing in his girlfriend because some other, random guy keeps fighting over her. What does he—or what do the Crusades—have to do with me?, it will be asked.

(All of this is not to shortchange the argument that the historical wars “over religion” are always epiphenomenal on more bread-and-butter concerns—fights which then would have erupted regardless but with other pretexts. But more on this another time.)

In any case, I like Dawkins’ latest book The God Delusion for driving home an argument which may be ‘the’ refutation of intelligent design (ID) theory. ID theory is mostly the very old idea that certain aspects of the natural world (or, the whole natural world itself) are best explained as the handiwork of an intelligent, personal cause. ID is promoted as a rival to Darwinism and any other theory of an unintelligent, impersonal cause or causes of these phenomena. It seeks to show that complex, highly ordered systems can only be the product of an “orderer,” the alternative being sheer, random accident, the probability of which is prohibitively low. Crudely put, if the neatly interworking parts of a sewing machine imply a designer, no less should those of, say, biological “machines” like spermatazoa or elephants (or the finely-tuned universe embracing them as “parts” in turn).

ID’s novel aspect rests in its refusal to officially posit just who this designing agent is or what he/she/it is like—or conversely, its stress upon the point that an inference from nature to a designer does not in itself imply any particular idea of the character of that designer. I remember many years ago reading David Hume’s argument to this effect and laughing out loud: The simple inference of a designing agency does not get us to the God of Christianity; there could be a bungling designer, upset and embarassed with we, his imperfect, earthly first attempt, or perhaps a concert of twelve designers who hate and compete with each other. (As we shall see, however, ID theorists do believe in the God of Christianity and conceive the ID movement as a way of pushing this view.)

Dawkins stresses the rejoinder that the ID “hypothesis” never ultimately explains anything because the designer itself requires its own, similar explanation. This argument I take to be decisive: If all complex entities require a designer to account for their existence, then what of the designer him/her/itself—who must be at least as complex as the entities it so cleverly crafts? Either we have an “actual infinite” regress—which is probably impossible—of designers, each one invoked to explain the one before it; or the ID theorist must accept that the Designer’s existence somehow requires no special explanation. (Thus that not all complex entities must be designed.) But if that complex entity is permitted to stand on its own, logically speaking, then why not the whole complex world (or biological entities within it) itself? Why should that need a special explanation but not God?—How better then to obey Occam’s razor and minimize our explanatory variables.

Here is a paper I wrote for a philosophy of science class which treats the ID hypothesis in, I think, its strongest and most interesting form. Seeing the above weakness of the concept of “complexity,” some ID theorists have replaced it in their arguments with the qualified “irreducible complexity.” An “irreducibly complex” system might have five “parts” that work together so neatly that removing any one of them would render the whole system non-functional. The implication is that a Darwinian explanation—whereby an initial, simple entity evolves by accretion to have the second part, then the third, later the forth, and so on—is inapplicable to such a system. Nothing less than the “whole” combination of “parts” could operate (i.e., survive)—thus, nature could not have selected for the “parts” individually. And since the whole interlocking system could not have sprung into random existence fully-formed, the designer, again, must be called up to account for it.

The paper argues against the “irreducible” version of ID theory. It is long and as cerebral as a philosophy paper should be, but I hope somebody gets something from it. [n.b. The footnotes are superscripted but not live–you gotta scroll to the bottom to read them. I’m working on putting the links to the websites mentioned in the text.]

On Accusations of “Overthinking” (inaugural post)

I’m regularly accused of “overthinking” some matter. First, it isn’t immediately clear what the concept should mean. The charge typically occurs while in the process of interpretation. For instance, in the process of training for my last job, I pointed out to my instructor ambiguities in a test question preventing me from committing to an answer. The instructor urged me to stop “overthinking” the question, confident that this would help me to correctly interpret its meaning. On their faces, such bits of advice ask one to “brake” or “pull back” one’s energies in aim of some answer. Thinking in proper measure is cast as a kind of restraint.

A “plumbing” analogy immediately comes to mind. Think here not of a plumb to discern depth but to catch some prize spelled out in advance—say, a fishing pole. We might pull back the line on the advice that our prize rests in shallower levels—that we have “overdipped” the cast beyond the point at which the fish resides. By analogy, “overthinking” must be a way of overextending one’s intellectual powers beyond some figurative point where the desired answer can be expected to rest.

This suggests the dubious usefulness of charges of “overthinking”: The fishing example only makes sense because there exists a “touchstone” in view of all by which to judge the extension of the cast as too deep. The cast is not just too deep but too deep for x- or y-type fish to be found. (Or better, it is deeper than 50 feet, coupled with the understanding that the fish don’t live there.) In this way, “over”-doing anything always takes an object: One casts too deep for finding x-fish, or thinks too much for gleaning x-piece of information. Whoever knows that “too much” of something is being done has to know just what it is too much for. The charge of “overthinking” is unhelpful because the conclusion for which one is thinking too much to locate is precisely the answer he seeks but doesn’t yet have. If one can comprehend the advice at all, he is already in a position of not needing it.

Put in other terms, thinking seems unlike fishing in that, since we don’t know what we’re looking for in advance, we cannot know when the process of “restraining” our thoughts is complete. We don’t know when we have actually followed the advice. We don’t know when to stop putting the brakes on thought and just “coast.” But perhaps a defense is arguable: Perhaps it is possible to think less without knowing how much less to think—we could simply decrease this quantity continuously, and stop when the right answer is struck. We would recognize it as the right answer by the “click” of remembering something we know but had forgotten. Perhaps this, to stretch the analogy, is like plumbing for a fish whose type we don’t recall by are assured by our fishing “instructor” rests in the water somewhere; we have reason to think we can recognize the right fish (among all the wrong ones in the same pool) after we catch it. When told we have “overcast,” we simply pull the line up gradually until we catch something that the “click” of recognition confirms as the one we seek.

But most cases in which one is accused of “overthinking” are substantially unlike this. I was once accused of “overthinking” during a workplace discussion of abortion. In a case where one is rendering an opinion—let’s say, crafting what he thinks about the issue—there is likely no “remembering” a position on the topic which one had forgotten. (At best, one can experience an “aha!” moment wherein one in a sense “recognizes” that the answer he has come up with is one he had held all along, implied in other things he believes.) In such cases, “overthinking” an issue probably means pursuing opinions which are untimately not selected; perhaps I started out thinking along the right lines, but I keep analyzing in a way that leads away from the correct answer. (I start properly investigating a murder and then consider that an animal has been slaughtered at the scene instead. Of course, I will never guess the murderer’s name down this path of thought.) Maybe I even draw the right conclusion, but keep thinking anyway, unconfident that I have “dug deeply” enough.

But in such cases, unlike the testing example, there is hardly that “touchstone” of truth in effect; there is no authority who knows the rights and wrongs of abortion in the same independent, uncontroversially understood way that my instructor knows what he himself means when he uses a certain phrase. Unlike test question #7, there is not ‘The’ answer to the question of abortion to which resides somewhere in prior, prearticulated fashion and to which my mind can be said to be “aiming” at even before it is made up. Far less which could be used to verify or disprove my views on abortion after I formulate them. My accuser has no such authority to invoke to prove that I am “overthinking” the issue; she has only her ability to argue to case to my satisfaction. Once she convinces me of her side of things, if she can, I am free to match it with own thoughts and see that I had been “overthinking” indeed. Of course, I could always accept that I am “overthinking” on her authority—just give up the debate and take her word for it. (Unlikely for anyone prone to “overthinking.”) But I could not know that I am “overthinking” in advance of formulating the “right” opinion for myself.

The point is all the more relevant to cases where “stop overthinking” is given as a guide not for some particular, present train of thought but as broad advice for living: Any Simpsons fan can recall a time Marge lectured Lisa for “thinking too much.” By this she was criticizing not any one behavior but a personality style, an approach to questions in general. Even if I could take my accuser’s word that I’m “overthinking” in a particular instance, she will not be around for all the future instances she hopes I will follow her advice. These cases will require varying “degrees of thought” to yield the right answers just as one needs to extend a measuring tape varying lengths to assay a variety of distances. Considering an issue is, as “considering” would suggest, about trial and error—throwing up hypotheses and reflecting on them until one “sticks.” I only know that the wrong ones are wrong—that is, that I was “overthinking” to entertain them—by considering them at first. So I have to “overthink” to think properly at all, and I can’t know I am overthinking until after, and from the perspective of, having done so in the first place.

But worse than its poor utility as a piece of advice, “overthinking” seems incoherent even as a concept. That screwy talk of “decreasing quantities of thought” until we can mentally “coast” to the correct answer should have already suggested this. Yes, one can plumb for fish in deeper levels of water and then switch to shallow. But thinking is disanalogous to fishing: In the business of “aiming” for an answer, one can think along other lines, pursue different conclusions than one is presently after—but it isn’t clear how these are in any way “under” the others; it is unclear how reorienting our thoughts along lines other than we started is a case of doing “less” of anything. (No map advises a left turn by demanding the driver restrain oneself from turning right, or that he turn right like before but less right this time.) If, by comparison, I were to ask you how you feel about Earl, and you give me your thoughts on Earl A. the county librarian whereas I was intending Earl B. the county Mayor, it would be odd and misleading to accuse you of “overthinking” my question. Even if you were dead wrong for assuming I meant the other Earl—let’s say we are at a ceremony to honor the Mayor’s years of service, and I call on you to give a few remarks accordingly—it isn’t clear how you have “overdone” anything by this. The idea of the librarian is not set “deeper” than that of the Mayor; in transposing the two, one does not “go beyond” and “above” the latter to apprehend the former.

Perhaps the analogy can be salvaged: For instance, my teacher might have meant that I should interpret the question less literally (or colloquially, etc.). “Literalness” and “colloquiality” are descriptions that would seem to admit of degrees: If I ask you to “grab me a lid from the counter, and please interpret my request as colloquially as possible”—I can hardly complain if you hand me a ballcap (for which “lid” is slang) instead of the top to my cooking pot. In this way, interpreting a question in figurative terms can be said to be doing less of something than interpreting it in highly literal terms.

But even so, this ‘something’ is hardly “thinking” per se. Neither “thinking in literal terms” nor “thinking in colloquial terms” are synonyms for “thinking”-proper; thus overdoing one is not synonymous with overdoing the other. At stake here are degrees but not degrees of thought; in thinking less literally about a term one is not thinking less—but still, only differently. This reiterates the dubious worth of “overthinking” as a directive or piece of advice: If the “over” aspect of my “overthinking” is always code for overdoing some very specific aspect of the thinking, then being warned against it will not tell me in terms of which particular dimension (literalness, colloquiality, or whichever) to “restrain” myself—any more than being told to “stop driving too much” will get me to slow my speed, turn down the radio, or reduce effort toward any other specific aspect of the driving.

this blog is under construction–stay tuned