High Modernism

Grand Schemes to Improve the Human Condition

About Me

Hi, my name is Nick Whitaker. This is a rambling intellectual biography. It begins with a section on philosophy and language, then a bit of politics, then rationality and strategy, then film, then finally my current interests.

I recently finished college at Brown University. I studied philosophy, with a concentration in logic and language. Those interests were the product of a long intellectual rabbit hole that began when I read Wallace’s Authority and American Usage, Stevenson’s Cryptonomicon, SlateStarCodex’s Social Justice and Word, Words, Words, and Logicomix while on a gap year between college and high school. I became obsessed with questions around how words and sentences’ meanings are created, and these meanings are connected with logical operations and truth values.

Another way I think about this is through my interest in public speaking and rhetoric in high school. I used to see these — and especially debate — as the arena where truth could be discovered. But I began realizing that debate was often superficial and insincere, as participants aimed to impress rather than convince. Only later, reading the Phaedrus and similar texts, did I realize that my angst had a long history from early conflicts between philosophers and rhetoricians.

So I decided to study philosophy. You can think of the traditional areas of philosophy as something of a hierarchy: Politics is the question of how governance can be good; ethics is the question of what is good; epistemology asks how we can question and know at all; and, metaphysics asks what is there to know about. (Aesthetics sits somewhere off to the side doing its own thing). Yet the act of doing any sort of philosophy at all requires language. So in a sense, questions of how language operates underlie all philosophy.

I later learned that the complete awareness of this — of how language may mislead and distort philosophical investigation — constituted an actual event in the history of philosophy, the “linguistic turn” of the early 20th Century. Rather than being about natural language, though, it actually arose from a mathematical project.

The late 19th Century was a strange time for mathematics. Perhaps the most controversial happening was Cantor’s famous diagonal proof of different-sized infinities. Cantor’s proof doesn’t look like a typical mathematical proof.

Other mathematicians suspected that insufficiently rigorous proof rules were misleading them. That is to say, they suspected that the language of mathematics was misleading them. So began the logicist project: Convert mathematics into logic and prove the true theorems of mathematics in logic.

Serious progress was made towards these ends, most notably by Gottlob Frege. He invented logical quantification, the most important advance in logic since Aristotle. Yet he ran into issues when analyzing “=”, mathematical identity. It turns out that this leads to larger questions about the relationship between names and the objects to which they refer. That relationship is called reference. Frege, and later Russell in a similar but distinct way, argued for an intermediary layer between names and their referent. Saul Kripke, in his famous 1970 Naming and Necessity lectures, delivered a series of incisive criticisms of this position. The consequences of these criticism are the subject of my senior honors thesis.

To summarize the most interesting aspects of this briefly, if there is in an intermediary layer between name and object, what Frege calls “sense” and what Russell calls “definite descriptions,” we cannot, in some important sense, talk about the world directly. We become “stuck in a web of senses,” only able to refer to objects as they exist in one’s mind. Kripke’s direct reference suggests we may be able to talk about the world in a plain and objective sense.

The logicist project ultimately failed, and indeed proved itself to be impossible per Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems for reasons that I would not be able to elegantly explain here if I wanted to. I remain fascinated by it, though, both because it was an attempt to find a bedrock through intellectual rigor and because of how it brought to light other problems about our imprecision, especially imprecision in the tools which we thought we could rely upon.

Like any good intellectual rabbit hole, this has gotten quite obscure. I take it that I’m not the first one to go down this hole; I was struck by how much Paul Graham’s How To Do Philosophy essay reminded me of my own experience. Wittgenstein seems to have had similar concerns too, albeit with an intellectual force I cannot imagine. In a way, the journey does show that much of philosophy is empty debates over words. But, unlike the ignorant argument to that effect, it is actually incredibly interesting and useful to understand just how and why the debates are meaningless.

The journey has left me with keen attention to how words are used. The number of political debates that are predicated upon misunderstandings and manipulations of language is staggering, i.e., “feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings” and debates over the meanings of sex and gender. Irrespective of one’s object-level views on the subject, there are ways that both sides attempt to “cheat” the debate by arguing about the meanings of words rather than issues of substance. Essentially, learn about language so you can focus on what is of true import: That which is not language.

As a general review of a philosophy degree, I still would recommend it quite highly, especially among the humanities majors. It is actually true that a philosophy curriculum, if one approaches it thoughtfully, will endow one with valuable modes of thinking and an ability to quickly deconstruct arguments. There are certain tricks to solving philosophical puzzles, certain ways of thinking up counter-examples, that one is able to generalize for life. Philosophy is also among the best ways to improve one’s writing. Philosophy teaches clear thinking, and clear thinking leads to clear writing, not silly prose tricks.

[Stategy and Rationality]

Though I see my interest in philosophy as centering around these questions of language and logic, I also spent a lot of time thinking about political philosophy, especially ancient political philosophy. These interests led me to spend some time in DC. In 2018, I attended AEI’s Summers Honors Program, studying for a week with Charles Murray. That summer, I also attended a public choice seminar at GMU with Alex Tabarrok, Bryan Caplan, and Robin Hanson.

In 2019, I was selected to be a Hudson Institute Summer Fellow, a program which I had wanted to do for years. []. After the program concluded, I spent some time in England and attended the Adam Smith Insitute’s Freedom Week in Cambridge. I returned home to California and attended Hoover’s Summer Policy Bootcamp. I wrote up my experience with these programs and more here.

As to my actual views on these subjects…

These interests also led me to a brief love-affair with classics.

I strive to read as much fiction as possible (see my bookshelf) and engage with other art often, especially film. I used to think that these were mostly pointless but have since come around on them. I’ll write up my thoughts on that at some point.

I see mentors as incredibly important and am incredibly thankful to the people who have mentored me. I hope to pay their efforts forward someday (See Cowen’s 8th Rule for Life). So far, those people include:

  • Tyler Cowen
  • Sam Bowman and Ben Southwood
  • Dan D’Amico and Ryan Murphy: Who have taught me to see the world through a unique and powerful lense
  • Richard Kimberly Heck, Matthew Lockard, & Robert Howell: Some of my philosophy professors, whose teaching and guidance especially impacted me. Dr. Heck served as my honors thesis advisor.
  • Justin Germain
  • John Myers
  • My peer mentors and close friends: Brad Davis, Aristotle Magganas, Alexander Magganas, Jack Shaw, and Jack Wrenson, whom I learn from often.
  • And, of course, my parents