Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Blimp and the Savoryists

I’m out on this long stretch of road, driving the old silver Honda. The day is hot, and things that don't stay green year round aren't. I'm not sure why I'm out here by myself. I guess I went to check out some beautiful and rarely seen area and Jen stayed at the camp. The camp is some hippie-ish nature preserve (sort of like Esalen or Indralaya) near Mt. Rainier. I think I was there giving a philosophy talk there or something. So I'm driving by myself on this long straight road, heading back to the camp from whatever beautiful place I just checked out, and the car starts to die. So I’m coasting down this long straight road. I don't want to be caught out in the sun because heat makes me panic. Suddenly I'm under a cloud and I think, "Oh good, I can park the car under this cloud.” But then I look up and it’s not a cloud, it’s a blimp. And the blimp is only slightly larger than a school bus. It’s only about 20 feet above me, and coming closer with every second. It appears to be deflating. It starts to deflate all around the car and I don’t want to get trapped underneath it, so I aim the car to the side of the road and narrowly escape. I get away from the blimp, but I’m thinking if I get trapped out here I might walk back to them and see if they have any water or air conditioning. I’m hoping I can coast the car at least to the main highway where I might get cell reception and I can call Jen to come get me.

It occurs to me that there’s a better way to coast: I climb on top of the car, lying on my belly, sort of like body boarding. The wind is in my hair and it’s really fun, but then I think, Oh shoot, I might need to steer. So I jump off, run along side the car, open the door, and roll down the window. Then I jump back on the top lying down and I can reach my left arm down through the window and steer if I have to.

I manage to reach the main highway and I pull the car to the side of the road, just narrowly missing going into busy traffic. Almost immediately a convertible car pulls over to help. (At first I think it’s a jalopy hot rod, but then I see that it’s a Miata or something modern like that.) Two gray haired old women are in the front and a gray haired old man is in the back. They stop their car facing away from me, so they’re all swiveled around in their seats, smiling at me in a “we know something you don’t” kind of way. The man talks to me:

“So, car trouble, eh?”

“Uh, yeah, guess so,” I reply. I’m just hoping they’ll leave me alone so I can call Jen.

“You must be from the camp!” He says. I can tell by the way he says it that they have no respect for those damn hippies at the camp.

“Well, I don’t know much about it, I’m just visiting. I never knew it was even out here until recently.” I’m trying to distance myself from those camp people, and somewhere in the back of my head I feel bad about it. Why should I care what these strangers think?

There’s a pause. The man is still smiling at me.

“So what’s your day trade?” He says.

“My what? Oh, my trade, during the day, my, uh, job. I’m, well, I’m a philosopher. I mean, I teach philosophy. At, uh, college.” This is always an awkward conversation for me. You never know what people are going to think of you. All three of the old people’s smiles get bigger. They look at each other and then at me. The old man beams,

“I knew it! I’m also a professor. Over here at Jules College.”

“Uh, where?” I think I must have mis-heard him.

“JULES COLLEGE,” he repeats. I’ve never heard of it, and I realize it must be one of a million community colleges out here in the back woods. I don’t want to offend him so I pretend I know it.

“OH! Jules College. Right. Um, great! Cool. Uh, yeah, so, er, what’s your field, or department or whatever?” When are these people going to leave me alone?

“Philosophy.” he replies.

“Oh! Hey, that’s… that’s great. Uh, yeah. Great.” Oh no. Not another philosopher. I surreptitiously reach for my phone. I’m going to try to text Jen while I’m talking to this guy. I try to be polite: “So, uh, what area do you specialize in?”

“The Climatists.” The who-what? They sound like philosophers that study climate or something. I’ve never heard of this particular philosophical movement, but instead of just admitting as much, I try to bluff and play along.

“Oh, cool. Uh, yeah, right. The Climatists. So, uh, they’re a kind of Pragmatist, right?” I’m just guessing. I have no idea.

“Oh no,” he replies, “They’re Savoryists.”

I have no idea what the fuck a Savoryist is. By this time I’ve got my cell out behind my back. The screen on which I am furtively texting has blue clouds scrolling past it, which apparently is the indication that the reception here is crappy and my message may or may not go through. My text says:


It’s actually quite common for one philosophy professor to have no worldly idea what another is talking about. This is because philosophy is so fractured. One of the major splits is between “Continental” and “Analytic” philosophy. Although the split was taking place in the 19th century, it became much more entrenched and pronounced right before and during World War II. By the 50’s and 60’s, (some) philosophers on either side were having a hard time understanding each other, and misunderstandings were all too common. Continental philosophy gets its name because it was the philosophy done primarily on the continent of Europe (as opposed to the island of England): France and Germany especially. On this side of things, you get philosophers like Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and you’ve also got views like phenomenology, neo-marxism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, the ideas of The Frankfurt School and um, lots of other ideas. And because I got my doctorate at a philosophy department that was very analytic, I know almost nothing about these philosophers and ideas, even though many of them will sound familiar to the average person on the street. Analytic philosophy (done primarily in England, the US and Australia), as separate from continental, came to prominence in the 30’s and 40’s, and some continental philosophers still think that all or most analytic philosophers hold views that were held by some analytic philosophers from back then, most notably the views of Carnap and the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle. So the stereotype of the analytic philosopher is a person who thinks that all philosophical problems can be solved by a logical (or “conceptual”) analysis of language. Analytic philosophers were also heavily influenced by and involved in the advances in logic and set theory, and so way back then (like in the first third of the twentieth century) it was thought that these new tools would help solve all the old problems of philosophy. It was also thought that these tools could help move philosophy into a more scientific mode, so that old problems of philosophy would either be shown to rest on conceptual mistakes of language or be recast as a problem that empirical science (as opposed to armchair philosophy) could provide the explanations for. Contemporary analytic philosophers don’t believe anything that simple, but they still like to think of themselves as being committed to a certain rigor and clear-headedness that prevailed when the science of logic was held to be the analytic philosopher’s primary weapon.

Someone recently e-mailed me asking my take on this famous quote by Nietzsche. Nietzsche is studied by both analytic and continental philosophers (but probably more by the continentals), so this might be a good way to explain the difference between continental and analytic. The famous quote is this: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Here’s a caricature of a continental philosopher’s take on that quote:
“Yes, of course that’s true. Everything that is put forward as a ‘fact’ is really only that person’s interpretation of the world, filtered through the ultimately distorting lenses of culture, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc, etc, etc. There is no ultimate, special, unbiased way to look at the world. There is no such thing as THE correct view of the world. Is abortion moral or immoral? This question is ridiculous! It depends on what moral framework you adopt, what culture you are from what experiences you have had. To assume that there is a single answer to this or any other question is to assume that there is One Correct Viewpoint. And those who have held the view that there is One Correct Viewpoint have typically been the ones pushing an imperialist agenda, forcing all the others of the world to adopt their supposedly One True View, the FACTS. We must abandon that old conceit and instead let a thousand flowers bloom: every view is just as correct as every other view.”

Here’s a caricature of an analytic philosopher’s take on that quote:
“First of all, the view is self-refuting. Is this idea [that there are no facts, only interpretations] itself a fact, or just another interpretation? If it is a fact, then the view contradicts itself and must be false. If it is just another opinion, then it’s not universally true, but only true for Nietzsche and those who like to say it too. (Just as “chocolate ice cream is gross” is true for me but not for many others.) In this case, there is no reason to take the quote seriously. Secondly, we should make a distinction between realms of discourse in which there are no facts of the matter (only opinions) and those realms in which there are. For example, many people agree that there are no aesthetic Facts and that it would be ridiculous to, for example, claim that there is a Fact of the Matter about whether the music of Stevie Wonder is better or worse than the music of the Beatles. But that does not imply that we should say the same thing about, for example, scientific claims, or even ordinary common sense claims like, “trees exist.” We run the risk of sounding like we are spouting gibberish if we really try to claim that it is merely a matter of opinion whether trees exist or whether the Earth is flat or round. Moral claims may be controversial, but surely there are SOME objectively true moral claims. For example, “It is wrong to be wantonly cruel to innocent children for no reason.” -- Do we really want to say that this is just a matter of opinion? Should we say that whether the Holocaust was good or bad is a matter of opinion? Is there really no right or wrong in our going to Iraq? Are questions of morality no different than questions about what kind of ice cream is good or bad? This kind of moral relativism insulates one from having to make difficult decisions, and can lead to apathy, and intellectual laziness. Thirdly, we must make a distinction between there BEING facts, and our KNOWING facts. We are limited fallible beings and we don’t always get the answers right, and we often disagree with each other, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t answers out there. I may never know whether there are an even number or odd number of hairs on my head, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no fact of the matter. Denying that there are facts makes discussion and disagreement impossible and pointless. Yes, of course our culture, gender, class, upbringing, etc. affect the way we think about things, but we shouldn’t blow out of proportion the amount of ‘bias’ that these things produce. Surely none of that stuff gets in the way of my being able to see that trees exist. And also, one way to compensate for the possible distorting or biasing effect of our varied backgrounds is to TALK to each other and try to understand, as best we can, the alternative perspectives. Then we can help each other overcome these biases and get closer to the facts. According to the relativist, there’s no point in anyone talking to anyone because there’s (a) no facts to talk about, and (b) no way around our biasing backgrounds, so we probably don’t really even understand each other anyway. That’s a view that has little evidence for it, and let’s face it, it’s awfully dismal.”

Ah well. This Tuesday classes start up again. This quarter I’m teaching a Philosophy and Music class and an Ethics/Religion/Meaning-of-Life class. It should be fun.

And I now have the record for longest “Awesome” blog post.



Rob said...

That's just great. I finally get a blog posting up (picture included, even) and then along comes the Doctor with a 3,000 word posting that pushes mine down below see level. Oh well.

The Bitch said...

If this were Slog someone would be bitching about using an "after the jump" cut. Hell with it, USE A G-D JUMP CUT YOU HIPPIE. I feel better already.

Clam Mouth Cletus said...

I don't think Blogger allows jump cuts.

Kirk said...

Thanks Mudede.

sandi said... sound a bit like a Platonist/Kantian/Continental guy to me...when I took a class on Kant at UW, Bonjour handed out a logical syllogism that worked out the Transcendental Aesthetic in one page. QED.I wasn't sure if we were going to have anymore classes! Coming from ST. John's College and The New School, I just laughed, and laughed, and about caricature of an analytic!