Discover more from Overthinking Everything
Reading philosophy for the examples
I thought I’d just share today one of my favourite things about reading philosophy books: The examples.
Sometimes you’re reading a long through a whole bunch of theory in a philosophy book, and they stop the theory and just drop a truly stellar example that you just want to sit with for a while and consider on its own, almost detached from the context of the book.
For example, here is one of my favourite examples from a philosophy book, from Matthew Strohl’s “Why it’s OK to love bad movies”:
Suppose I am taking an evening stroll and I bump into a man dressed in a purple tuxedo - complete with a purple top hat - who wants to talk about aerospace engineering. He clearly does not know anything about aerospace engineering, but that doesn’t stop him from volunteering his theory that a spaceship shaped like a duck would be far more effective than traditional rocket designs. He entreats me to join him at the duck pond for further discussion. At this point I could adopt [a severe and judgemental tone]:
My good sir! Don’t you think the esteemed employees of NASA would have shaped a ship like a duck if indeed a duck shape were advantageous? Do you mean to impugn the intelligence of these fine people? What qualifications do you possess that situate you to reach conclusions that are unavailable to them? None, I would think! I say good day to you, sir. I shall not accompany you to the duck pond to hear any further insinuations towards the good people at NASA.
But isn’t there another posture available that may in fact be more appropriate? Couldn’t I join him at the duck pond and play along with the conversation in order to enjoy and admire his display of eccentricity? To be clear, I don’t mean that it might be amusing to play along in order to make fun of him. That would be cruel. It is possible to appreciate this sort of eccentric display without implying an insult. If he were to ask me bluntly what I think of his ideas, I would proffer a fist bump and respond: “I’m not convinced by your theory, but I like your style and I admire your imagination and creativity, my purple dude.” This is an honest and open response that should not besmirch the dignity of our tuxedoed companion.
Strohl’s book is great, on many levels, and I’ve got a lot out of it. But one of the things that’s most stuck in my mind is definitely the question “how do you talk to the duck guy?”
This is particularly interesting to me because many of the books I read are in some sense (to me) obviously wrong, but I still want to derive value from them. Maybe I won’t learn anything about aerospace engineering from duck guy, but I bet he knows a lot about ducks.
Douglas Hofstadter thinks analogy is the core of cognition. I don’t know that I entirely agree, but I don’t know that I entirely disagree either. Certainly there is something where stories like this stay in my mind and form one of the anchors around which I build and organise my thoughts.
Part of this is that they are often incredibly memorable in a way that more conceptual tools are not - the concepts stay with you, but morph and get reshaped and refined through an endless process of Intellectual DIY, but the stories have more weight to them.
For example, I may not remember much of the details of the linked talk, but I do remember Danny at the Grand Canyon. Here’s the version of it told in his and Sander’s book “Surfaces and Essences” (which I haven’t read):
Doug and Carol arrive with their son Danny, fifteen months old, at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. While his parents are captivated by the huge chasm, Danny is riveted by a few ants and a leaf on the sandy ground, fifty feet from the canyon’s edge. For a moment Doug is surprised, but then he realizes that such a young child is unable to appreciate entities of dimensions greater than ten or twenty feet, let alone miles (and the Grand Canyon is many miles wide). Although his infant son’s reaction now makes perfect sense, Doug cannot suppress a smile at the irony of the situation.
Fast forward roughly fifteen years. Doug and his two children get off their cruise ship on the Nile in the city of Luxor. They are with their friends Kellie and Dick, and the whole group sets off on foot for the famed Temple of Karnak. While the other visitors are soon absorbed by the splendor of the great columns that surround them and by the erudition of their guide, Dick is irresistibly drawn to a few bottlecaps he spots lying in the dirt, and he leans down with joy to pick them up, thereby augmenting a modest collection that he’d started when they landed in Egypt just a few days earlier.
This act, reflecting Dick’s fascination with rusty knickknacks on the ground as opposed to the splendor of the ancient ruins soaring above, reminds Doug of something far back in his past: the time when his tiny son was engrossed by a handful of insects scuttling about on the ground rather than by the awesome sights surrounding him.
“Danny at the grand canyon” by being both a story of Danny and a story of analogy formation ends up forming another memorable anchor.
Will Buckingham’s “Finding our Sea-Legs” in contrast, is about the relationship between ethics and storytelling, and as such is full of powerful stories.
The first chapter opens as follows:
We left the hotel in Darjeeling early, shouldering our bags and heading through the narrow streets to the bazaar where the jeep was waiting. The air was still a little chilly and the sun was low over the hills, but already the marketplace was crowded. As we hurried through the crowds, we heard the sound of wailing. There, to the side of the road by a flight of steps, was a man. He was seated on the ground amid the detritus of the market, sniffed at by mangy dogs. Nobody was paying him any attention. His clothes had slipped away from his upper body to reveal a hollow chest. His ribs stood out starkly in relief. Skinny arms protruded from his rags; he hugged himself with one arm while propping himself up with the other. But it was not his emaciated form that shocked me most. Instead, it was his face that I remember, an abyss of distress and misery. We faltered for a moment as he cried out, his face contorted in pain.
What would it have taken to have alleviated his suffering? Perhaps a universe, perhaps merely the touch of another human being’s hands. Or perhaps he was beyond helping, if there is such a thing as being beyond helping. But we were tired and ready for our journey to end. This man was a stranger, not our concern. So we turned away from his suffering. After all, suffering is - as certain Indian texts maintain - as inexhaustible as the ocean; and often it seems that there is little, very little, that we can do. Inevitably, there are times when we no longer try. In a moment - just long enough for the thought “there is nothing that we can do” to take root in our minds - we had turned away.
The crowds closed behind us, and the man was gone. We headed down the hill to where the jeep was waiting, unloaded our heavy bags, climbed in, and before long we were on our way down the winding road that led to Siliguri, speeding past signs reading “Arrive home in peace, not in pieces (Public Works Dept.) and, “Don’t test your nerves on my curves.”
Only then, with Darjeeling behind us, as we wound our way down towards the River Teesta, did my friend speak.
“We should have done something,” she said.
Again, this is a very good book that I got a lot out of. Partly because it has many other good examples. Here’s another one, that I’ve previously written about in Other people’s needs:
One day you are going home, and you see Mavis, a bad-tempered pensioner who is also your neighbour, struggling along the street with her shopping. Before you can stop yourself, and against your better judgement, you find yourself offering to help her. The next day when you see her, you are displeased to realise that the demands upon you are greater, not fewer: the experiential imperatives are more urgent and more compelling precisely because the day before you assumed the responsibilities that were incumbent upon you. There is Mavis with her shopping, and you really can't not help her after having helped her the day before... So once again you carry her shopping, and before you know it, you find that you are helping her unpack it when you get it home for her. Over the next few days, things begin to spiral out of control; by the time the week is out, you find yourself in Mavis's living room drinking a cup of weak tea and eating stale biscuits as she tells you interminably dull stories from the distant past. And you wonder: how did I end up here?
There is something about these stories that captures how we relate to others in a way that it feels like no amount of theory can on its own. I think part of it is that they are rich stories that feel like they could happen to real - or at least realistic - people.
In particular it feels like you can ask questions of them. They can’t answer when they’re written down, but you can form headcanon and explore the parameters of the story. It’s not a thought experiment like the trolley problem where asking questions is treated as somehow out of bounds, with the story entirely subservient to the theory it is there to force you to grapple with. They can be experienced richly.
Another story I like is from Articulating a Thought, by Eli Alshanetsky
At a philosophy seminar, I find myself disagreeing with the speaker. I canot put my finger on it, but something about what is being said just does not sound right. And then it hits me; I realize exactly what is wrong with the view. The objection suddenly dawns on me, “in a flash”. Before trying to communicate my objection to the speaker, I first try to sort it out for myself in inner speech. But the task quickly proves unmanageable. So I decide to remain quiet and to get clear on the objection after the seminar ends.
When I get home, with the objection still fresh in mind, I open my laptop and try to write it down. But as soon as I plunge into thinking about it, the feeling of insight fades. I find myself stuck, facing the blank screen, with only a faint sense of direction, or of what the objection could be, and unsure of how to go about articulating it. My production of words at this stage is, frustratingly, unbound by any feedback about their adequacy. I could put down “penguin” or “Julio” or “conditional”; the effect would be just the same. The individual phrases and sentences that I type stimulate neither a positive nor a negative reaction. And as I sift through various things that I could write, none of them stands out as any more fitting than the rest.
It is as though, trying to find my way out of the woods at night, lightning had struck and illuminated something in the distance that seemed like a road. But now the glow of the lightning has faded and I am again wandering in the darkness, not knowing whether I am heading in the right direction, or whether there was anything there at all. Lacking any overarching plan or strategy for how to articulate my objection, my mind starts to drift to various points and objections that other people in the seminar have raised. Most of the things that I consider strike me as having no special bearing on what I had in mind. But some of them appear somewhat similar or related to it. As I move to consider other things—carried along by loose chains of association—I am reminded of a familiar objection to a different view, which seems to bear some analogy to my objection. Detecting such similarities makes certain phrases and sentences more accessible, or spring more readily to mind, and leads me to try out certain partial formulations. But the similarities seem rough; and my capacity to detect them is too coarse to help me abstract the exact points of resemblance (that is, the common properties or patterns of relationships), or to narrow down the possibilities of what my objection could be by any significant extent.
As I continue to rehearse words in inner speech in a more or less spontaneous and unruly fashion, certain constraints or limitations on my production of words gradually start to take hold. Many of the words that come to me and that I try out still seem neither to harmonize nor to jar with what I am thinking. But a certain sentence suddenly jumps out as one that I must definitely keep. As I pause, straining to seize hold of the objection, and with no idea of how to go on, all at once, as if out of nowhere, a surge of words comes that seems to be clearly on the right track. Once I type them, the words feel “heavy” on the page; I feel that I cannot easily erase them, or substitute them by any words with a different meaning. On the other hand, just as I come up with a plausible continuation, which seems to follow from what I had typed, I meet with resistance to putting it on the page; projecting ahead to the formulation that would result from adding it, I sense that I cannot type it without getting sidetracked and winding up with something different from my original objection. Likewise, in my impatience to get things over with, I am about to conclude that my objection is the same as one of the points that seemed to resemble it. But something inside me recoils and does not allow me to accept the resulting formulation in a wholehearted way. The constraints that manifest themselves in such reactions play a more decisive role in guiding me than the rough analogies and resemblances that I noticed at the start; I am more committed to adhering to them than I am to the similarity of my objection to the other points and objections that I consider.
As more words continue to accumulate on the screen, my acts of combination and completion become more likely to culminate in felt success. The points and objections that previously seemed to resemble mine now strike me as clearly different. I realize that my sense of similarity must have been thrown off by some superficial features of the speakers’ choice of words or of the ways in which they framed their points or objections. At the same time, some other point, which previously seemed unrelated or “out of range,” now appears closer to what I had in mind than I initially thought. I wonder whether its formulation may not, in the end, be sufficient to capture what I was thinking. Although I am still uncertain about the exact identity of my thought, I feel that I am starting to get somewhere, to home in steadily on the objection. I spend less time guessing and waiting for words to come, and more time pressing the articulation forward with each incoming sentence. But the constraints add up and ramify uncontrollably. Each step seems to bring with it exponentially more restrictions on what I can do. One kind of difficulty—the lack of constraints—slowly morphs into another: too many constraints. I am again stuck, but this time in a different way. At the outset, I was confronted with a myriad of possible things that I could write; I had to make a choice, but each possibility that I considered struck me as capricious, no more or less appropriate than the last. Now, I sense that I cannot leave my formulation as it is, but, as I go through various ways of changing it, I feel that each of these ways is wrong, something that I cannot do either. Each substantive addition or revision seems to interfere with some necessary parts of my formulation or strikes me as superfluous or detrimental to articulating my thought. My assurance erodes. I wonder whether I have gotten muddled, or made an early mistake that makes all such changes impossible to implement, and whether the only recourse left is to start everything from scratch.
Just at the point when I am completely paralyzed by the constraints, repulsed by the pieces of the formulation in front of me, ready to give up, obliterate everything, and leave my desk, I realize that a part of the formulation that I thought I had to keep was not really necessary after all. My attachment to it was purely “aesthetic”—dictated solely by the medium of expression—and had nothing to do with what I wanted to express. Its presence has tangled up my efforts and barred the way to articulating my thought. Once I remove the part, a certain continuation, which formerly struck me as out of place, now latches on perfectly to what I have. I adjoin it, edit a few words, and the correction puts everything in order. As I read over what I wrote, I recognize that, even though it leaves room for polish, and could well turn out to be false, the objection is perspicuously there, staring at me on the screen. There is no longer anything that I must do to articulate it. All the requirements imposed by the thought are satisfied, and then I stop.
This seems to be an exceptionally rich and relatable account of the process of trying to come to understand a problem, which I appreciate a lot. Which is why it’s a pity that I don’t get along well with the rest of the book at all. I find it too dry, and it does the analytic philosophy thing of spending too much of its time arguing with other analytic philosophers, real and imagined.
Another excellent example of a philosopher articulating a thought process comes from Elijah Millgram’s “Practical Induction”:
Alison works for Devil’s Island Repertory Theatre, but she is negotiating the terms of a new and more interesting job at the Tragic Mews, down the coast. She does not yet have a contract in hand, and she has a policy of not giving notice, or letting it be known that she is planning to leave a job, until the next job is settled: she does not want to fall between two chairs, or have undercut her effectiveness if she ends up staying.
Tomorrow the Devil’s Island management will make plans for the coming season. Alison will be at the meeting, and sticking by her policy will mean lying; her lies will become the basis of her colleagues’ almost-sure-t-be-disrupted plans. Alison is averse to lying, because she feels loyal to her colleagues and the organization of which they are a part. Which of the two competing practical judgments should take precedence in these circumstances? Is the [principle] that tells her to keep her plans to herself [overruled] by her aversion to lying?
Alison cannot say which of the two considerations she feels more strongly, which is not to say that she is indifferent; her desires do not have strengths that can decide the practical problem for her. But she realizes that were her current employers planning to fire her, they would not tell her, if there were business reasons not to. And she thinks that it is generally inappropriate to show more loyalty to others than they are prepared to show to oneself. (Certainly, she muses, one would be a fool to feel guiltier about it than they would.) She decides to continue to play her cards close to her chest; until she has a signed contract in hand, she will act as though she is staying on at her current job.
I don’t totally agree with the analysis of this example that follows in the book. I think it’s plausible that in this story what we are seeing are Alison’s true reasons, but I think it’s also plausible that this is just a post-hoc justification on Alison’s part to take the path of least resistance that she wanted to take anyway. But it sure is an interesting example.
I don’t think you can do a philosophy solely on stories, but stories like this do seem to be at the heart of what makes reading philosophy worthwhile to me.
Philosophy, at its best, is often (but not always! Some of my favourite philosophy books are only OK sources of examples) a great source of this kind of rich example that rewards thinking about, because philosophy is concerned with the project of living, and of what it’s like to be human. When you grapple with those problems you hit on some interesting theory, and then that theory in turn acts as a generator of stories against which to test it.
Often this fails to produce anything terribly interesting, because the story you generate is more like a trolley problem - too narrowly scoped to the exact point you want to make to feel truly human. But when you actually put in the work to anchor the story to a rich experience like this, it frequently generates stories which long outlast the theories that brought you to them.