Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Twitter Tour of Western Philosophy

[Reprinted from the Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0928/p09s02-coop.html]

When both neocons and lit profs are all atwitter about the same thing, you know it's got to be big.

It seems that two young undergrads at the University of Chicago, Emmett Rensin and Alex Aciman, recently landed a deal with Penguin Books to publish their book "Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books, Now Presented in Twenty Tweets or Less."

Why plod through 3,000 pages of Proust, after all, when you can just get the gist while listening to podcasts on the subject with your iPhone? Just think how much more time you would have been able to waste in college if you hadn't had to splash through the stormy seas of of "Moby Dick"!

In fact, though, I think Mr. Rensin and Mr. Aciman could do better: Who has the time, these days, for a leisurely meander through 20 whole tweets about anything?

So here, for those of you seeking, between tweets, to plug some gaps in your education, is a brief tour of Western philosophy up to the 20th century, a very manageable one tweet at a time.

Socrates: Drinking hemlock; toes tingling; legs getting numb. Maybe unexamined life worth living? Guard!

Plato: Symposium 2nite 7pm, @ The Cave. Open mike, open bar. Under 21 admitted free.

Aristotle: 2 say of what is, that it is, is true; 2 say that it is not true, is false. And this is what is, and thus true; and there4 not false.

(Early) Augustine: In Carthage w/the Smashers 2nite total caldron of lust here XXX!

(Later) Augustine: John 3:16.

Anselm: God must exist, for otherwise that than which none gr8ter can b conceived would b 1 than which a gr8ter CAN b conceived, fool.

Aquinas: How many angels can dance on a pin? I answer that it depends on whether the tango, fandango, or the Mexican hat dance is in question.

Descartes: Check out the new Facebook fan page 4 my fav starchy tuber! I link there4 a yam.

Spinoza: Mind is God. Matter is God. I m God. Only thing not God is God.

Locke: Our minds @ birth are like blank slates, except 4 all the ideas, dispositions, and powers we are innately born with.

Leibniz: Optimist says this is the best possible world. Pessimist agrees.

Hume: No sense can b made of anything, nothing can b known, crud just happens. I'll b @ the pub.

Kant: The thing as it appears is white, creamy, and delicious; we cannot know whether it is, in itself, just mayonnaise.

Hegel: God's long path toward realizing, in His highest form, Himself, all of history is, namely German bureaucracy.

Schopenhauer: All is empty, pointless. Deep, dark despair. Could use snack.

Marx: Hegel wrong. It's not spirit that moves bodies. It's coffee.

Kierkegaard: OMG heartsick again today. OMG Regina, luv of my life, still hasn't called. OMG.

Nietzsche: Restraints too tight, barely wriggle fingers 2 type. Renfield brought some flies to munch, a real ├╝bermensch. But what, no dip?

For any acquisitions editors at Penguin who may be reading – follow me @60SecondPhilosopher.

Friday, September 11, 2009

“It Depends On What The Meaning Of The Word ‘Is’ Is”

Philosophers, lawyers, spin doctors—and the former U. S. President who infamously uttered the title sentence to a grand jury—all suffer from a bad reputation: they play games with words. That may well be true, but we shouldn’t blame the philosopher in a person for those offenses. We should blame the English language for making those offenses possible in the first place.

For English, like other languages, is a mess: it’s vague, ambiguous, and inconsistent. And it is most notoriously unclear with respect to one of its most basic words: “is.” Sometimes (for example) “is” indicates the present tense: “Fred is eating now.” But other times it indicates the future: “Fred is coming later.” And other times it is used timelessly, as in “The number 3 is odd,” or “'Is’, simply, is a mess.”

And even if we restrict ourselves to the present tense, “is” is no better. For consider the following sentences:

Fred is red
Fred is lead
Fred is Ted
Fred is

To say that Fred is red is to say that redness is one of his properties. (Maybe he’s blushing.)

But to say that Fred is lead is to say that he is composed of lead—maybe “Fred” is the name of a statue—in a way we’d never say that blushing Fred is “composed of” redness.

When we say that Fred is Ted we’re identifying Fred with Ted: Fred and Ted are one and the same person. (Perhaps he’s been two-timing some women by using different names). But we don’t say that Fred the statue is “identical” to lead. After all there’s plenty of lead in the world that’s not affiliated with Fred.

Finally, when we say “Fred is,” we’re not saying anything about his properties, what he’s composed of, or what he’s identical to. We’re merely saying that he exists.

So “is” is a very difficult word. So many possible meanings packed into so few letters! And the language only gets messier for more complex words. So don’t blame the philosophers, the lawyers, the spin doctors, nor the former U. S. President (who may be all of the above)—it’s English itself which deserves to be impeached.