How to Use the Phrase 'X is just a Y.'

To call the ancient redwood 'just a tree' is an attempt to diminish it:


  1. Not necessarily. If I claimed the ancient redwood had psychic healing powers and was put on earth by aliens as some sort of intergalactic monument, you would be justified in saying "Come on. It's a great tree and all, but it's still just a tree."

  2. But Watoosh, your example backs my point: I would be saying your view of redwoods is exaggerated, and I am talking them down relative to that claim.

  3. Fair enough. I thought you used the word "diminish" in the meaning of "look down on", thus I somehow thought your point implied that there's something fundamentally different about redwood trees (and humans, assuming this is linked to the evolution debate a while back) that sets them categorically apart from other trees (and primates).

    I think I agree with your assessment, then, but I would qualify it (at least to myself) by saying that diminishment need not entail a negative or derisive view, as it would be in the context of the advertisement - sometimes it can simply be a down-to-earth view.

  4. Well... it's "taking it down" relative to a bad claim if you want to think of it that way - which is how "just a..." has been used in other discussions recently.

    But that's a pretty depressing way of looking at the world.

    Saying "just a..." can also be a way of enriching our sense of what it can mean to be a tree.

    In our past conversations over "just an ape" the whole point of that line was that we don't need to make up stories about some kind of spiritual transcendence or mythology about the specialness of humans. Our amazing behavior is fully explained by our primate lineage and is even expressed in flickers in our primate cousins.

    "Just a..." can be used purely as a put down. Every single time I've used it I thought the context was clear that I was (1.) disabusing people of false notions about man, and (2.) giving a sense of the grandeur of the family we're a part of.

    I'm amazed that being the pinnacle of evolution to date could make you guys feel so downtrodden.

  5. I guess my way of affirming but also expanding Watoosh's point is this:

    What do you think is taking mankind down a peg:

    1. Saying that we are loved but servile creations of another being, which is the real source of every cool thing we've ever done, or

    2. We're actually not that - we're just apes - and all the wonderful beautiful things we've done are things that we've achieved as apes struggling and adapting over the course of several hundred thousand years.

  6. "we don't need to make up stories about some kind of spiritual transcendence"

    We certainly do not need to "make up" such stories, given that we have the testimony of Paremenides, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Aristotle, Buddha, Milarepa, Lao-Tsu, Confucius, Zoroaster, Jesus, Augustine, and so forth, all atesting to the reality of that transcendence. The fact that all civilizational order has been founded upon such experiences of transcendence give as much scientific (in the sense of wissenschaft) evidence for transcendence as we have for Darwinian evolution!

    "I'm amazed that being the pinnacle of evolution to date could make you guys feel so downtrodden."

    1) I do not feel downtrodden in the least.
    2) This is a well-known fallacy: "One of the more common misconceptions, with a history long before Darwin, is that evolution is progressive; that things get more complex and perfect in some way." -- TalkOrigins
    In the NeoDarwinian theory, there is no pinnacle, no progress, no direction, etc. etc.

  7. Daniel, Daniel... Ask your brother if the standard theological position is that humans are "servilve beings."

    And materialism just makes meaningless movements of atoms the source of "every cool thing we've ever done."

    You have adopted a religious view of evolution itself (see Midgley on this), surely a nonsensical position. There is no moral merit in "struggling" or "adapting" in the Darwinian scheme -- it is just what these bits of matter happen to do. In the Darwinian scheme, we haven't done anything anymore wonderful or beautiful than has a flatworm or a mold.

  8. Oh, and why do you think God doesn't love apes?


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