March 10th, 2007


all them sons of bitches

Максим Лебедев ([info]maxim_lebedev) kindly refers us to the politically influential 2005 Demos Lecture by Dr Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, which contains the following anecdote:
I just love the story of the philosophy professor who was invited to give a lecture on epistemology to the University of Beijing. He did so and not being about to speak Mandarin was provided with a Chinese interpreter. He began his lecture and after a sentence paused to let the interpreter translate into Chinese but the interpreter said: No, carry on — I’ll tell you when to stop. After 15 minutes and the interpreter said ‘stop’ and delivered five words to the audience in Chinese — I will not even attempt to say what they were — and said ‘carry on’. The same thing happened after 30 minutes — five more words, 45 minutes — another five words and at the end of the lecture — an hour — four words and the audience duly stood up and filed out. The English philosophy professor went to the interpreter and said: I’m absolutely astounded. I have given an extremely complicated lecture about epistemology. How were you able to summarise it in so few words? And the interpreter said: Easy — after 15 minutes I said ‘so far he hasn’t said anything new’; after half an hour ‘I said he still hasn’t said anything new’; after 45 minutes I said ‘I don’t think he’s going to say anything new’ and after an hour I said ‘I was right — he didn’t’.
We may relish the independently attested implication that philosopher is undergoing a transvaluation equal and opposite to the Foucauldian reverse discourse that encouraged “homosexuality [to] beg[i]n to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified.”[1] Thus Richard Cartwright:[2]
Except for beginners who want to learn and who try to say what they really think, I do not like talking philosophy with nonphilosophers and avoid it whenever I can. In response to inquiries from fellow travelers on airplanes, I say I’m a mathematician. So far I’ve gotten away with it, for it appears that people who travel on airplanes never were any good at mathematics. I ease my conscience with the thought that, anyhow, non-philosophers would expect a philosopher to be something I’m not.
Once upon a time,[3] Augustine of Hippo referred to yonder vir gravis et philosophaster Tullius. His usage inspired numerous XXth century philologists to argue that the passage in question could be squared with its author’s high esteem for Cicero only by amending to vir gravis et philosophus Tullius. Now that we have established that every kind of philosopher has an ass in it, no such emendation is necessary.
    Or, as a more consequential man might put it,[4] “When you call me that, smile!


[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, translated from the French by Robert Hurley, Part Four, The Deployment of Sexuality, Chapter 2, Method, Vintage, 1990, p. 101.

[2] Introduction to Philosophical Essays, The MIT Press, pp. xxi-xxii.

[3] De Civitate Dei, ii.27.

[4] Owen Wister, The Virginian, Chapter 2, Signet, 2002, pp. 21, 22.