Hannah Arendt famously talked of, when writing on Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, the banality of evil: that it does not wear a mask of open contempt for moral standards, that it does not exalt in its violation of those standards, that it is not a Hannibal Lecter-like figure, smiling as it gleefully discusses eating someone's liver with expensive Italian vegetables, but tries to reassure itself of its probity, its basic moral uprightness, the difficulty of its position, that it was just following orders, that it comes not from a too perfect understanding of other people's pain, but from a failure of that capacity, a quite ordinary lack of empathy.
The little increments matter. Each extra indignity, the next small piece of suffering inflicted, failed, I suppose, for men like Eichmann to mount up, but were somehow seen in isolation, as acts and events missing important connections to other, similar, acts and events. Not just that though, for surely the point is that as well as missing the sum of these horrors, they missed them as horrors individually. Not only did the genocide of Jews and other so-called undesirables qua genocide pass these people by, but each of the steps, the downward cycle of chipping away at their status as a bearer of rights, each a crime, went un-noticed. The increments matter, because it is only when they go unremarked upon that the greater horrors can be widely enough contemplated to be achieved.
I remember the most heart-rending thing about studying Nazism through documents during my A-Level history course, for example, being the last document in the textbooks we used, a list of the numbers of Jews murdered in the Holocaust by country. Tens of thousands here, hundreds of thousands there, and eventually millions in Poland and the USSR. Six million can seem like an unimaginable thing until you see it laid out like that, increment upon increment, mounting and mounting on, seemingly endlessly, these already huge numbers piling on top of each other, their orders of magnitude growing, until the incomprehensibly evil becomes comprehensible through an understanding of each of its parts. It gives you a sense of scale. You understand how terrible it was by understanding that the horror of even the smallest of its parts is at the edge of understanding.
So, increments matter. The little details matter. Understanding things bit by bit matters. And now, the reveal: this, by John Emerson, is wrong. What it wants is grand systems, philosophy painted with broad strokes, Hegel's two page long sentences on the inquities of the Neapolitans and Montesquieu's theory that different climates have different effects on the elasticity of the nerves and thus on temprament. More, the less said about the idea of giving up on truth, the better. Much analytical philosophy may be badly written and obsessed with logic, and at times wilfully obscurantist and overcome with an urge to systematise. What it is good at though, is attention to detail.
My mother, having been fed a line by someone still kicking at Plato's shins, once expressed, half-jokingly, the worry that I might be drawn into the study of the theory of heaps. The theory of heaps, even though I'm not personally interested in it, matters: it is, as Rorty correctly identifies, about vagueness, about how precise and how knowable the boundaries between concepts are. The idea is, if we can get clear about the precision and knowability of the boundaries of the concept of a heap, we'll have better idea about how vague in general concepts are. Since if we don't have a good idea of how vague concepts are in general, we are liable to make mistakes when using them, to call things by the wrong name, to become confused, this seems to me eminently sensible work, even if initially apparently rather ridiculous. But then, it is easy to forget how the little increments, the individal details, matter.