I was immediately hooked on philosophy when a graduate professor in the department of philosophy was forced by his department head to teach an introductory class due to the unexpected withdrawal from the academic commitment by an undergraduate itinerant instructor more than forty years ago.
The graduate professor was irritated that he had been ordered to teach first semester freshman who were right out of high school and, who were, to his way of thinking, wholly incapable of thinking at a level barely exceeding those of their primate cousins just a mere 1% or so removed from the full complement of critical genetic material.
The professor got my rapt attention the moment he proclaimed “I hate undergraduates and I hate freshmen even more because there is nothing I have to teach that any of you would have even the remotest capacity to learn! I will do no more than to waste my precious time and academic brilliance on intellectual Cretans and prevail upon each and every one of you to dare not take up valuable space with your pretensions of knowledge!”
It was difficult to feel warmly welcomed to my introduction to philosophy with the concomitant aspirational and educative foci upon the essential twin foundation-stones upon which the study of knowledge is usually predicated, viz., epistemology (i.e., how do you know whatever it is that you think you may know?) and semantics (i.e., what do you mean by whatever it is that you mean you may mean?).
The first assignment was to write an essay on the importance of eating babies which was enough to incite dozens of university students to drop his class out of fear they might eventually be required to do so, at some later time during his course, and frantically scamper to register for other required or elective courses which had already been filled to their limit.
I vaguely remembered that an Irish essayist by the name of Jonathan Swift had written A
Modest Proposal and it occurred to me that, perhaps, I ought to read the “Swift Notes” version before rushing to comply with an assigned task I thought to be so very silly, disrespectful and punitive to me and my fellow classmates.
However, during my research, I serendipitously stumbled upon an emergent awareness about how powerfully written commentary can sometimes be directed against a silly, disrespectful and punitive political, social and economic system which can, nonetheless, be effectively criticized through the literary medium of satire and which may also provide for its indirectly proselytizing author, a potential “back door,” so that if accused of crimes against the State, by he or she simply engaging in the plausible deniability of creative artistic license.
Hmm, I thought. My professor may be a condescending pedant, but I suspect he may have something of value to teach me if only I am willing to give him the opportunity to teach myself! (The logic assuredly made perfect sense to me back then, although I’m not altogether sure I follow it very well right now in my encroaching old-age).
So I argued the case in my assignment on the importance of eating babies, all-the-while, pretending that Mr. Johnny Swift was my imaginary mentor and I must have gone a little too far because my professor queried me if what I wrote was, actually, how I thought and my reply was: “Sir, what exactly do you mean by your question and how do you know that what I say I thought you will know will be in the way it was meant to be known?”
With that challenge from the philosopher-neophyte, the professor’s wry smile betrayed an overtly snobbish and clever intellectual trap and he said: “You are a clever boy, but I fear not clever enough, for now I must ask you to tell me if you can, Mr. Smarty-pants, exactly how high is up?” Without hesitation, I replied: “Sir, the answer is but two times half the distance...”
And then, unabated, I continued: “...three times a third, four times a fourth, five times a fifth... Shall I go on, sir?” He shook his head to indicate “no” and inquired “What exactly is your point young man?” at which point I tersely reminded him that “the quality of our answers are inextricably interwoven within and between the interstitial lattices and textures of the quality of our questions. Therefore, if a question is in the category of excrement, then the answer will be a variant of excrement, as well!”
I then suggested that the specific question: “How high is up?” would appear to lack, in its restricted and sophomoric linguistic formulation, insufficient information to facilitate a meaningful and knowledgeable response which might have any practical or theoretical relevance and, hence, was tantamount to a waste of any good philosopher’s valuable time.”
A brief digression is in order about an old college tale regarding a harried undergraduate student at an Ivy League school who accidentally walked into the wrong class, reportedly a philosophy class, to complete one of his final examinations. The student was handed a blue essay booklet with several pages of blank lined paper for him to respond at length to a single query: “Why?” to which he is alleged to have tersely written: “Why not!” whereupon, the errant student received the sole “A” in the class for a final grade!
The moral of my particular story has less to do with the importance of whether or not one should actually eat babies or with the pros and cons of resorting to the specific literary vehicle of satire in order to rail against unfair taxation by an unresponsive government or to ask an irrelevant question like “how high is up?” because, in the end, I suspect that theoretically and practically matters are embedded within the quality of the question and the quality of the answer relative to the context within which, and out from which, both will be considered, applied and evaluated.
There is an answer to every question but it is always in the refinement of the question that the specificity of the answer shall, in all likelihood, reside.
Oh, by the way! I got the only “A” in that introductory philosophy class!
Author Note: Dr. Larry B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor
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