Paul Ziff   (1920-2003)

      Paul Ziff was an American philosopher specializing in semantics and aesthetics. David Berlinski, in his book Black Mischief (1988), makes fun of Ziff for spending well over an hour to draw a distinction between "the gnashing of someone's teeth" and "someone's gnashing his teeth".

      It is true that Ziff at times illustrates the very worst sort of trivial pedanticism to which analytic philosophy is prone. And yet, at other times, he illustrates that there is really something worthwhile in that approach if done correctly.

      An example of this is Ziff's classic analysis of the meaning of the word 'good' in the last chapter of his book, Semantic Analysis (1960). His carefully arrived at definition of 'good' is "answering to certain interests". In other words something is good if it "answers to" the interests, or (close to, but not quite the same) meets the needs, of the person or agency implied by the context, and in the situation implied by that context. A good knife is one that answers to our normal interests in knives, such as that they be sharp, keep their edge well, don't rust or corrode, and so forth. A good apple is one that is not spoiled or damaged, looks appealing, tastes good, and so forth. But if the context is slightly different—say someone is painting a still-life of an apple—then what counts as a good apple changes because of the non-standard set of interests of the painter. (He or she doesn't care how the apple tastes, only how it looks.)

      The following poem of mine pays tribute to Ziff's explication of this very important word 'good':

Answering to Certain Interests      

One of Ziff's most welcome antics,
A contribution to semantics:
He showed that 'good' should be defined
In terms of interests—but keep in mind
The context shows (don't let this miss you)
Just whose interests are at issue!
—JSH (1998)      

      The definition of 'good' that Ziff arrived at is so abstract mostly because the word is used in such widely differing contexts. However, there is something here that Ziff really did not fully explore, namely that the meaning of this word (like all words) gets modified somewhat, or becomes more specific or less abstract, in more restrictive spheres of discourse. Thus, in ethics (and politics, which is really an extension of ethics), it is clear that those whose interests we are concerned with are simply the people in general, and the specific interests we are concerned with are simply those basic ones which the people have in common. Therefore we may explicitly specify these facts in the definition of 'good' within ethics and morality, rather than leaving them to be implied by the general context. So the most general meaning of 'good' in ethics is "answering to the common, collective interests of the people".

      This definition serves just fine as long as the people have most of their basic interests in common, as they did in primitive communal society, and as will be the case again in some future communist society. But in class society this is definitely not the case; the common, collective interests of the people have been split into incompatible sets of class interests. In slave society, for example, the interests of the slaves was fundamentally in conflict with those of the slaveowners, and there could thus be no common morality for both groups.

      Consequently in class society the definition of 'good' in ethics and politics has to be further modified: it means "answering to the common, collective interests of one or another social class." We are stuck with different class moralities as long as class society endures.

      All this brings out the real limitations of not only Ziff's philosophy, but of analytic philosophy in general, and—indeed!—of any kind of bourgeois philosophy: Even in areas where it provides some significant insight, that insight will only get you so far.

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