In the apartment where Susie and I live, there is a small utility room just large enough to hold a washer and dryer and some mechanical stuff. On the floor, in a corner of the room, is a toolbox with the collection of odds and ends that I have assembled over a long lifetime of making household repairs. There is a flat head screwdriver, a Phillips screwdriver, a hammer, a plastic box with little containers filled with odd washers, screws, clips, nails, and the other detritus of repair work. There are also several pairs of pliers and wrenches including one big old clunky job with the screw at the bottom of one of the handles so that you can widen or narrow the gap of the mouth. This last item, Google tells me, is an Irwin wrench. I have no idea what its inventor intended it to be used for but I use it to open bottles and cans. I drink a modest Cabernet that runs to $10 a bottle but Susie prefers Prosecco, a sort of poor woman's champagne. When the time comes to open a new bottle for her and I can't get the cork out with my hand I go get the Irwin wrench, adjust the opening, and with no trouble at all and a quite satisfying pop pull the cork out.
Tools are like that. Regardless of what they were designed to do, they can be put to other uses with a little imagination and sufficient desperation. But arguments are not tools, although students and some young aspiring philosophers seem to imagine that they are. Over the years I have quite often received a student paper or read a journal article in which the author says something on the order of "in this essay I shall use Aristotle in the beginning and John Rawls in my conclusion." I can never figure out what the author has in mind. A philosophical argument is not a home repair. It is like a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end and if the story makes sense than the argument proceeds comfortably from start to finish. Nobody in his right mind would start telling the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and halfway through say "at this point I will use a little bit of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
The only time I have encountered this kind of intellectual confusion among senior and supposedly serious academics was at a conference I attended at Columbia University in 1986 on the subject of "Immanuel Kant and the Law." At first, I was mystified as to what possible interest first rate legal theorists could have in the philosophy of Kant, but after a while it dawned on me that what I was watching was a sophisticated version of the game that my young sons played called Dungeons & Dragons. In that game, each player chooses a character as his or her representative in the game and then goes through a series of adventures designed to increase the strength of the character, which is measured by something called "hit points." The more hit points a character has, the more other characters it can conquer in encounters and the more daring the adventures it can undertake. I realized that to the legal theorists assembled for this upscale event, invoking Kant's name in a legal argument could confer considerable hit points. It was the academic equivalent of bringing an AK-47 to a knife fight.
It didn't seem to matter to these legal eagles what the structure of Kant's argument was or whether the premises on which his argument was based bore any relationship whatsoever to the legal issue they were interested in litigating. The name was enough.
Why on earth am I telling you this? Because at 3 AM I lay awake going through all of this in my mind and this is, after all, a web log or blog. Enough said.