23 January 2020

The utility of the useless

The utility of the useless

This subject is quite a common topic in the literature dating back into the mist of history. A quick search in a search engine will lead to many useful links. I include a few references at the end of the essay, although I won’t be discussing these references specifically.

I shall start my essay by referring to a number of words and common expressions in the language that express the idea of uselessness. Then, I follow up with what we mean or can mean by useless and utility. I’ll finish off with a short discussion on the question: Is philosophy useful?

Regarding direct synonyms for ‘useless’ we have, amongst others: worthless, ineffective, futile, junk, and for people we might use words such as hopeless, stupid, unskilled, unqualified, and so on. We can expand this list with expressions: not fit for purpose, white elephant, to buy a pup, and for a person, an incompetent person, an inept person and so.

Although in our language we recognise the concept of “useless” it seems that the meaning is always one of not being able to perform the function intended. However, we’ll be hard pressed to find a varied vocabulary to mean something without an intrinsic and intended function. If we accept that useful is always one of function then surely usefulness cannot refer to something which never had or does not have a function. But rather we really use “useful” in terms of something being able to perform a function it was intended to have.

On the one hand, usefulness (or useless) can refer to a feature that stopped performing its intended function: for example my finger print security device on the PC has stopped working (probably due to a corrupt driver) as opposed to a function that the intended utility is indeed not worth it. For example the flash fitted on top-end digital cameras. They are fine to take the occasional photo but useless to take repeated photos in complex situations.

So what is useless (useful/utility)? A more import aspect of our subject is that something might be useless because we do not know how to use what we are calling useless. For example, the function of manually adding or subtracting an exposure value on a camera from what the camera meter indicates. In art we can refer to some paintings that are dark (Goya), or seemingly random brushstrokes (Sisley/Renoir etc). We might get the impression that these works of art have no soul and therefore useless (as art) with no utility as works of art.

In the case of the exposure compensation function it can have a utility or value if we understand how a camera meter can be biased because of how cameras interpret light. In an art painting the chances are we are not viewing the painting under the correct light conditions and from the correct distance. Don’t forget the first duty of a museum is not to create the best conditions to view a painting, but rather to create the best conditions to preserve that painting without causing it any damage.

In trying to understand utility or usefulness we have to ask ourselves two questions: useful for whom? And useful for what? In other words, who has the authority to justify what is useful and what is useless?

Leandro Herreo, in his blog entry discussing the essay by Nuccio Ordine “The usefulness of the useless”, refers to money as a possible meaning for usefulness. In the Zhuangzi tale, Carpenter Shih comes across a serrate oak near the village shrine. When his apprentice questioned him why he didn’t look at the tree he told the apprentice that the tree was useless which explains why it grew old. In a dream the tree asks the carpenter how he knew that the tree was worthless, especially when other trees are abused. From the tree’s perspective being near the shrine saved its life since no one abused it.

In today’s world we are told that usefulness is indeed a function of money. We speak of investments rather than purchases for example a house in a prime location, or an art painting by a master and so on. Of course, a house is a place where we live and a painting is something we enjoy and admire. But buildings and paintings have always served as things to project wealth and power. Not to mention that especially buildings/property are also means of keeping money safe: assuming a steady increase in inflation.

Thus, surely, as the Carpenter’s tale suggests useful for those who can unlock and release the utility in the thing in question.  An aperture compensation function is useful for the photographer who is well skilled in photography. Ironically, even the carpenter knew the usefulness of the tree eve if it came to him in his dreams; maybe he was upset for not being able to cut the tree.

At this juncture the subject really hinges on the Zhuangzi quest for the useless or the question whether there could ever be something that is intrinsically useless but has a use; it sounds like a contradiction to me.

Finally, what is the usefulness of Philosophy? Or, if you like, is philosophy useful? As I have argued when it comes to utility we have to ask ourselves the two questions: Useful for whom and for what? But this leaves us with who is asking the questions. Unfortunately, it is a pity that philosophy is highly criticised by scientists who, themselves, are performing philosophy and asking philosophical questions. In effect, philosophy is what one does and not what one says one is saying one is doing. People in general also speak of philosophy as if there was one sort of philosophy, in the same frame of mind that painting is only one form of painting, oil painting.

I won’t go into the various forms of philosophy suffice it to say that the philosophy that fits the context of science is analytical philosophy, in other words the validity of methodology and more recently analysis of language. It is not that there is only one valid philosophy style but that each philosophy style has its own domain.

Maybe we can conclude that usefulness or utility is a matter of things being in their natural domain or habitat.

The usefulness of the useless
Blog Entry by Leandro Herreo discussing the subject in the essay by the Italian Professor, Nuccio Ordine.

The Zhuangzi translated by Burton Watson from the Chinese (The History of Chinese Philosophy): Carpenter Shih and the serrate oak.

The Utility of the Useless1. Nature 100, 176–178 (1917). https://doi.org/10.1038/100176b0

Best Lawrence

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