Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To the undergraduate ear (tiny philosophical adventures)

1. Philosophy is often a matter of stepping back from something and asking fundamental and general questions about it: “What do we mean by ‘a person’?” “What is a ‘law’?” “What is an ‘object’?” I tell my students that such questions are inevitable, unavoidable. I mean, you're not going to make much headway understanding, say, the nature of scientific knowledge unless you delve into the meaning of "law," or "law-hood," as we might say.

There’s no use scoffing at such questions, even though they are highly abstract, seemingly ridiculously so.

One of my old professors used to tell this story. He was taking a philosophy course at a certain Ivy League University—this would have been in the early 50s—and the lecturer was discussing the general idea of a “property.” You know, a quality, a characteristic. (See Properties.)

Philosophers (at least in the Anglo-American tradition) routinely use or borrow from formal logic, and, in logic, when one chooses a letter to represent a property, one chooses among A, B, and C—or P, Q, and R. Don’t know why. That’s just the way it is.

A, B, C...
P, Q, R...

That reminds me. A couple of days ago, my best friend asked me, “How come you called your new blog ‘Contra PalaVerities’?”

“I dunno. I just called it that. It sounds good, I guess.”

“But what does ‘Contra PalaVerities’ mean?”

“Mean? It doesn’t mean anything, dude. It’s just a name.”

Philosophers are the only people guaranteed to understand that answer. (See Rigid designators.)

Anyway, this philosophy professor decided to refer to “some property” using the phrase “A-ness.” The thinking, here, was that “-ness” is a suffix for properties—e.g., redness, tallness, knuckleheadedness, etc.

So he commenced referring to A-ness, writing it on the blackboard. "A-ness, A-ness, A-ness," he said. Unfortunately, to the undergraduate ear, there is no difference at all between the sound of the word “A-ness” and the sound of the word “anus.” So students commenced tittering and murmuring and whispering like they do.

After a while, the prof swung around and asked what all the commotion was about.

“Well, you said ‘anus,’ explained some brave soul, pointing at his rear end.

The prof was mightily embarrassed. But he soon recovered. Naturally, he erased all the A-nesses from the board, replacing each one with a “P-ness.”

2. I’m a bit deaf, owing to an incident that occurred maybe twenty-five years ago. I went out to the desert with my crazy little brother Ray, and when we got there, Ray pulled out a Saturday Night Special. He said, "Let's shoot at somethin'." Well, I was always looking for opportunities to do things with my black sheep bro, so, despite my utter lack of interest in guns (I support lots and lots of gun control), I joined him in shootin' up a cactus or something. (In those days, we didn’t know any better.)

He gave me the little pistol and I squeezed the trigger a few times. Boy did my ears hurt. And they rang. I said, "Is it supposed to be so loud?" Ray laughed.

Well, that was over twenty years ago, and my ears have never stopped ringing.

Excuse me, I've gotta get the phone. —Well, no. That's just the ringing in my ears. Huh? Did you say something? D’oh!

Which reminds me. In grad school, I had a colleague named Fong or Fang. I like to think it was Fang, but I suppose it was Fong. He was Chinese, and, as it turns out, his English was terrible.

Then there's my deafness.

So, we were kind of friends, but I never understood a thing he said. You see, judging by his body language and facial expressions, he was a great guy. I was raised by wolves (i.e, German immigrants), and so body language is important to me. (I sometimes find myself not listening to what a person is saying at all. And yet, in some sense, I am listening intently.)

Well, one day, I asked him what his dissertation was about. We were both in the philosophy doctoral program over there at UCI. And, again, philosophers tend to focus on seriously abstract issues. I think my brother (my non-crazy brother, Ron), who got a doctorate in philosophy from UCLA, did his dissertation on the idea of a "property." Or was it on "somethingness"? Not sure.

So I asked Fong what his thesis was about. Without hesitation, he asserted: "WHAT DUH FUK!"

Huh? What was that again?


Ok, Ok. That sounds pretty good I guess.

Well, judging by his expression, he still seemed like a nice guy, so I figured I just didn't understand how that particular phrase could be associated with a dissertation in philosophy. Whadoo I know? Could be, I guess.

A few months later, I found a copy of a draft of Fong's dissertation on somebody's desk. I picked it up. Its title:


I laughed pretty hard about that one, boy.

Somebody get the goddam phone!

(Part 2 adapted from my Help the hearing challenged.)

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