“It’s Super Serious, Right, Babe?”

Before we get to the value of open-endedness, let’s take a moment to consider the alternative. We shouldn’t just assume that precision in language is inherently better, any more than we should assume that building a LEGO X-Wing according to the instructions is inherently better than building a spaceship of your own design.

In The LEGO Movie, Wyldstyle and Batman® present a case study in the value of precision in language. Every time she says their relationship is “super serious,” we see he’s on edge. He agrees a little too quickly, doesn’t he? And he’s a little too convincing when he runs off with Han, Chewie, and Lando on the Millennium Falcon. Yes, he’s duping everyone so he can steal the hyperdrive, but the only reason the deception works is that it’s totally in character for him to bail on his girlfriend. When Wyldstyle says “super serious,” she’s trying to get Batman to commit—that is, to agree on the precise nature of their relationship. It’s that drive for precision that gives Batman cold feet. He’d prefer to leave things vague, and in that way he’s a bit like the early Daoists.

On the other hand, Wyldstyle’s approach is much closer to the dominant traditions of Western philosophy, which you can trace all the way back to ancient Greece. The Greeks were obsessed with precision in a way you don’t see in many other places in world history. Plato (427/9-347/8 вс) writes entire dialogues dedicated to defining a single concept: courage in the Laches, piety in the Euthyphro, friendship in the Lysis, virtue in the Meno. He seems to have inherited this fascination with precision from his mentor, Socrates (469/470-399 вс), and he certainly passed it on to his pupil, Aristotle (384-322 вс). It’s a popular theme throughout Greek philosophy: precision is better than imprecision. Why this preference, and not the other way around?

Here’s one reason: in ancient Athens, choosing just the right words could be really good for your career. Unlike most of the ancient world, Athens was a democracy. A young man could make himself immensely powerful if he could convince others to agree with him. Hence the rise of the Sophists, who made quite a name for themselves (and quite a lot of money too) educating wealthy young men in the arts of argument and persuasion. Plato’s mentor, Socrates, had little time for sophistry. For him, the purpose of philosophical debate was to find truth, not to score points. He never claimed to have found truth—in fact, he famously insisted he knew nothing at all. He did a lot of thinking about how best to govern, though, and he concluded that you’d have a very hard time knowing how to rule justly if you didn’t know how to define justice.

Like the LEGO brick, that Greek distaste for imprecision has proven to be nearly indestructible, such that two thousand years after Socrates, the American philosopher William James (1842-1910) would define philosophy as “the uncommonly stubborn attempt to think clearly.” Yet the Daodejing has had remarkable staying power too. This may come as a surprise given its famously enigmatic approach, but there’s a big difference between Daoist philosophy and the way Batman deals with Wyldstyle: Batman is being deliberately evasive and non-committal, whereas Daoist imprecision is actually a highly nuanced philosophical stance.

 
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