And if the world weren’t broken?

It is often said that the world is broken and thus in need of fixing. I do not think so.

We would not say that something is broken unless we also thought that it had once been intact. Something that is intact has all its pieces together, with each piece connected in the proper fashion to the next. Whatever is unbroken is not just intact; it makes up a whole.

The running thesis is that the world, once a whole, has come apart, resulting in shards, pieces, and fragments strewn about here and there. Thinking this to be so, one first searches for the causes of this fragmentation and second seeks to intervene by restoring the world to a prior state, creating a better state, transforming the whole, or creating something entirely new. (These four responses I wrote about yesterday.)

This can’t be right way to understand things. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein points out that certain concepts are at home within certain language games (or discourses). There is no conceptual trouble with claiming that a bike is broken and in need of fixing nor with insisting that a leaky faucet needs to be fixed. Yet there is conceptual trouble once ‘brokenness’ is ripped out of its discursive home and broadened well beyond the scope of its normal, everyday application with the result that ‘the world’ is said to be broken and thus in need of fixing. I am not sure how that is possible or what it would possibly mean to ‘fix the world.’ It strikes me as a misunderstanding of the character of the world in the first place and as an act of hubris on the part of the agent in the second.

Certainly, however ‘the world’ turns out to be, we would do well to return to the beginning: How is the world a whole?

Slowly, I am making my way around to connecting all of these arguments from the past month concerning the penchant for problem-solving (the world is a problem that needs to be solved), the idea that the world is fallen and in need of saving, the view that human beings are weak and thus yearning to be helped, and the thesis that the mind is prone to sickness and therefore in need of healing. How they are connected I do not know yet.

4 responses to the world’s being broken

Suppose you begin with the thought that the world in its entirety is broken. Then, there are only four possible ways of responding to its brokenness: return it to a prior state before it was broken, bring it to a new state that is better off than the broken state, smash the broken thing and begin again, start something new that will, in time, replace the broken system.

The first view could be called, variously, nostalgia, romanticism, prelapsarianism, antiquarianism, or conservatism. The second view would likely be a form or style of incrementalism. The third view would be anarchist, eschatological, utopian, Maoist, etc. The fourth view would be innovative or entrepreneurial.

The assumption that the world in its entirety is broken seems to me false. I do not think the world is broken, and so I do not believe that it has to be fixed. Were this to be demonstrated, then none of these responses have to follow. Naturally, I will have to give an account to demonstrate why I believe this to be the case, and I would have to further show that action under a different stripe and based on different, better reasons is still very much possible.

‘All things could potentially go wrong’

I have returned from Banff and now take up again the arguments that make up our modern moral metaphysic. They are:

1.) Because the world is lost and fallen, it needs to be changed or ultimately saved.

2.) Because the world is broken or out-of-order, it needs to be fixed or restored.

3.) Constituted by problems, the world requires solutions.

4.) In virtue of our being inherently weak and prone to suffering, we human beings yearn to be helped.

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

So far, I have argued that 3) – 5) are based on errors. I have not yet addressed the errors in 1.) and 2.). In the next set of posts, I turn my attention to the argument that the world just is broken and therefore in need of fixing. I begin with a letter I wrote to one philosophical friend rather recently.


We inquired into the belief that things could potentially go wrong. After our conversation, I happened to skim a review of the English writer Geoff Dyer’s recent work. The book reviewer Kathryn Schulz writes in passing, ‘All of them [that is, his works of nonfiction and those of fiction], meanwhile, contain things that could go catastrophically wrong.’ Surely, it could be said that I am looking for evidence of those who believe that things can go wrong in order to test my thesis. A case of cherry picking. Why else would my eyes alight upon this line as opposed to many others in this review? Granted, I would reply, yet this hardly changes the fact that the most lauded English writer living today is an example of this all-pervasive way of thinking.  Here–to select another example–is Symantec’s own write-up of Security Best Practices:

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Mind and world: Isolation or world-involvement

Recall where we are. We are in the midst of dismantling an erroneous picture of the mind and, in so doing, we are making it possible to inquire into the everyday mental activities we perform: into how they operate, into how they involve us n the world, and into how to bring them out when they are going well.

Part of that erroneous picture of the mind seeks to ask and answer the mistaken question of where the mind is and then to describe what goes on in there. The mind, it is held, is (a) a substance that exists (b) within the head and (c) in which certain functions are executed. These assumptions can be combined to form a picture of the ‘private drama’ about which Gilbert Ryle writes with a critical eye.

What makes this picture suspicious, at least in part, is the distinction it assumes between ‘inner contents’ and ‘external reality.’ The question for epistemology then becomes how the inner contents of the mind represent the external world. Given this puzzle, the epistemologist seeks to tell a certain kind of story about representation in order to show how the mind is connected to the world.

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How the ‘problematized world’ can never become a home

My last post rushed to this conclusion: ‘Thus, the problem-solver who tries to make the world into a home cannot do so.’ Let me try again, this time more slowly, in order to reach this conclusion.

Recall that the kind of person we are describing believes that, in a basic sort of way, the world is full of problems and is therefore demanding human solutions. We have to imagine how typical this form of consciousness is today: this person looks around himself and sees the world as problematic. All the subjects his mind ranges over are problematizable, are always already problematized. For him, everything from food to sex, from transportation to the natural world, from political to the personal, from the workplace to the home are problems demanding solutions. (So, he can have no trouble speaking of ‘a problem child’; these words are second nature to him.)

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