Kwame Anthony Appiah is a writer and thinker of remarkable range. He began his academic career as an analytic philosopher of language, but soon branched out to become one of the most prominent and respected philosophical voices addressing a wide public on topics of moral and political importance such as race, cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, codes of honor, and moral psychology. Two years ago he even took on the “Ethicist” column in The New York Times Magazine, and it is easy to become addicted to his incisive answers to the extraordinary variety of real-life moral questions posed by readers.
Appiah’s latest book, As If: Idealization and Ideals, is in part a return to his earlier, more abstract and technical interests. It is derived from his Carus Lectures to the American Philosophical Association and is addressed first of all to a philosophical audience. Yet Appiah writes very clearly, and much of this original and absorbing book will be of interest to general readers.
Its theme and its title pay tribute to the work of Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933), a currently neglected German philosopher whose masterwork, published in 1911, was called The Philosophy of “As If.”1 Vaihinger contended that much of our most fruitful thought about the world, particularly in the sciences, relies on idealizations, or what he called “fictions”—descriptions or laws or theories that are literally false but that provide an easier and more useful way to think about certain subjects than the truth in all its complexity would. We can often learn a great deal by treating a subject as if it conformed to a certain theory, even though we know that this is a simplification. As Vaihinger says, such fictions “provide an instrument for finding our way about more easily in the world.”
One of the clearest examples Vaihinger offers is Adam Smith’s assumption, for purposes of economic theory, that economic agents are motivated exclusively by self-interest—that they are egoists. Smith knew perfectly well that human motivation was much richer than that, as he demonstrated in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work less widely known than The Wealth of Nations. But as Vaihinger explains:
For the construction of his system of political economy it was essential for Adam Smith to interpret human activity causally. With unerring instinct he realized that the main cause lay in egoism and he formulated his assumption in such a way that all human actions, and particularly those of a business or politico-economical nature, could be looked upon as if their driving force lay in one factor—egoism. Thus all the subsidiary causes and partially conditional factors, such as good will, habit, and so forth, are here neglected. With the aid of this abstract cause Adam Smith succeeded in bringing the whole of political economy into an ordered system.
Vaihinger explored the phenomenon in a wide range of cases, from mathematics, the natural sciences, ethics, law,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.