Abstract: This is part two of a dialogue that began several posts ago, between two of our thrice-worthy protagonists–Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major, and Jennifer Smith, budding philosopher-at-large. In the first part, the two of them talked about the nature of everyday conversation, and why it is that people approach it in the ways that they do. This time, the conversation moves to the even more interesting topic of whether philosophers are capable of having a normal conversation.
The scene: Elvis Wu and Jennifer Smith have been talking for a while on the patio out in front of Panera Bread in downtown Chattanooga. The topic? Philosophy, philosophers, and whether these people know how to talk about the same normal things that everyone else talks about. They started out talking about typical conversational patterns, and now they’re moving on into darker territory: What DO the philosophers talk about, when you catch them in an unguarded moment?
Elvis Wu: So here’s the interesting thing. Are conversations between philosophers substantially different from conversations between regular people?
Jennifer Smith: Um. I guess? Because they’re full of lofty thoughts.
Elvis Wu: Oohh! I like it.
Jennifer Smith: So, do philosophers skip the small talk? What in the world DO they talk about?
Elvis Wu: Well, you know, the usual: departmental politics, tenure tracks, the syllabus. That sort of thing.
Jennifer Smith: Hardy har-har.
Elvis Wu: Really, most philosophy professors talk about the usual kinds of things. That’s why i’d rather not use them as my examples of what philosophers are like. A real philosopher…you know, someone who actually lives it…would be more like your friend Little Biffy.
Jennifer Smith: Dang it! Somehow i knew–i just knew!–he was going to come up in this conversation. I just knew it.
Elvis Wu: Well.
Jennifer Smith: I just knew it.
Elvis Wu: The dude thinks things through, and he chooses his words carefully.
Jennifer Smith: That he does.
Elvis Wu: And he’s never afraid to call anything into question.
Jennifer Smith: You’re right. That he isn’t.
Elvis Wu: He’s a philosopher.
Jennifer Smith: I guess he is.
Elvis Wu: And he’s a really good philosopher. He’ll not let go of a question until he’s fully satisfied that he’s gotten an answer that makes complete sense.
Jennifer Smith: [sighs] Yes, you’re right about that.
Elvis Wu: Yet you seem not to appreciate these exalted qualities of his.
Jennifer Smith: Well… they can make conversation difficult.
Elvis Wu: Hah! Conversation isn’t always supposed to be easy.
Jennifer Smith: [muttering things under her breath that do not sound very nice]
Elvis Wu: There there, Jennifer. You’re a philosopher too, you know. It’s just that your philosopher side is not your favorite side of yourself. [smiles]
Jennifer Smith: [mutters a few more things]
Elvis Wu: And that places you in the weeny minority, and in highly exalted company!
Jennifer Smith: [mutters a couple more things, but at least she’s smiling now]
Elvis Wu: He’s a pretty sharp kid. You’re fortunate that he’s picked you out to be his friend. He doesn’t connect with most people. He obviously thinks you’re pretty smart.
Jennifer Smith: [stops muttering things, but doesn’t stop smiling]
Elvis Wu: [smiles back]
Jennifer and Elvis: [just a couple o’ grinnin’ fools]
Jennifer Smith: Okay. I surrender. So, can we get back to a point you were making a minute ago? About the differences between philosophers’ conversations, and the way regular people talk to each other.
Elvis Wu: Sure. It’s an interesting theme to explore.
Jennifer Smith: Um. Do philosophers talk about…the weather? Do they talk about professional team sports? Do they talk about men’s fashion? How about movies and books? I suppose yes, on the books. Do they talk about nerdy books, or the regular ones?
Elvis Wu: Whoah! That’s a lot of questions.
Jennifer Smith: And music! Do they care about music? Or art? Do they attend the ballet? Do they go to rock concerts? I have so many questions about what philosophers are interested in!
Elvis Wu: Apparently.
Jennifer Smith: I mean: if your life is all about digging into things and asking the tough questions, then is it possible to be interested in the normal things that everyone else is interested in?
Elvis Wu: Well, you’ve piled up a bunch of stuff for us to examine. Why don’t we start on in, and let’s use our little friend Biffy as the archetype of a philosopher.
Jennifer Smith: Um, okay. The little nerdo.
Elvis Wu: He’s a perfect live model to make use of here, because we both know him and we’ve got some idea of what sorts of things he would talk about, think about, take an interest in.
Jennifer Smith: Okay. I surrender. Little Biffy it is.
Elvis Wu: You mentioned art, music, and dance. Let’s start there.
Jennifer Smith: Sure.
Elvis Wu: So, if Biffy were to express an opinion about the arts, what sort of opinion would it be, and what sort of basis would he have for it?
Jennifer Smith: You’re asking ME?
Elvis Wu: Sure. You’ve dialogued with him enough to know what kinds of approaches he’s likely to take in the analysis of an idea.
Jennifer Smith: [sigh] I guess so. Well, let’s see. Biffy might say something like, “What is the purpose of art, and does this particular sculpture serve that purpose?”
Elvis Wu: Marvelous! I think you may be on to something.
Jennifer Smith: And then he might say, “This sculpture, for instance, looks like a lobster whose innards were blown out by a hand grenade and then swept into a little pile. In what way does this serve the purpose of sculpture as an artistic medium?”
Elvis Wu: You’re nailing it. I almost feel like he’s speaking through you.
Jennifer Smith: [smiles] And then he would say, “If a sculpture is supposed to represent some aspect of the concrete world, then this one has failed. But might there be other aspects of reality that the sculptor was attempting to capture?”
Elvis Wu: Wow. Go on.
Jennifer Smith: And then he might say, “Why don’t we start by laying down some definitions. What do we mean by the term ‘art,’ and what are we saying when we claim that a given work of art is ‘good’?”
Elvis Wu: I’m in awe. It’s almost as if you ARE Little Biffy.
Jennifer Smith: I’ve had enough conversations with him by now, to guess where he might go in our little scenario.
Elvis Wu: You’re doing great. So, let’s stop there, and examine what he’s said so far.
Jennifer Smith: The little dude’s barely getting started.
Elvis Wu: [laughing] I realize that, but you’ve already given us some good material to start with.
Jennifer Smith: Good-o.
Elvis Wu: So, one of the things he’s wanting us to do is to start out with definitions. How very Socratic! Our man Socrates would have done exactly the same thing. What is art? And what does it mean for something to be good? If we’re not clear on these two things, then the whole discussion turns out to be pointless.
Jennifer Smith: But doesn’t everyone just sort of intuitively know what art is? I’m not Biffy right now, i’m me. Forgive me if it’s a stupid question.
Elvis Wu: [laughing] Not at all! The majority of people would probably say something similar. So, here’s my response. My little nephew recently created an art installation that involved some play-doh, a pile of weeds from the back yard, and one of his own bowel movements.
Jennifer Smith: Eewww!
Elvis Wu: Right, right! So, how should we approach this body of material… as an art object? As a pile of nonsense? Or something else?
Jennifer Smith: You’re not being fair. Most art isn’t like that.
Elvis Wu: It’s astonishing, the range of material that’s being offered to the public these days, under the title of ‘art’.
Jennifer Smith: Um, okay. I guess that’s true. So how WOULD we define art?
Elvis Wu: Well, i suspect our young friend Biffy would say something like, “Let us define ‘art’ as that which has been created not primarily for its usefulness, but in order to satisfy our ideas of what constitutes ‘beauty,’ or, at any rate, ‘the visually interesting’.”
Jennifer Smith: Okay, i give up. You’re way better at channeling the Biff-ster than i am.
Elvis Wu: Ah, i have learned from a master! So do you like the definition?
Jennifer Smith: Sure, i guess. I’d have to think about it for years to really decide whether i agree fully with it or not. So let’s just say: yeah. It’s a good definition.
Elvis Wu: Honestly, it’s as good a definition as we’re likely to come across anywhere in the literature on art, or philosophy–or, for that matter, philosophy of art.
Jennifer Smith: [smiles] I’m not even going to ask you if there’s really such a thing as “philosophy of art.”
Elvis Wu: Oh, there are branches of philosophy for everything. Philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of knowledge, philosophy of education, religion, history. Every academic field has a corresponding body of philosophers who’ve taken an interest in that particular area of study… but they approach it as philosophers, not as scientists or religious leaders.
Jennifer Smith: I mean, wow. I had no idea that the field of philosophy was so diverse!
Elvis Wu: That’s a whole conversation by itself, and we probably want to get back to the one we were having–about art, examined philosophically.
Jennifer Smith: Wow. But okay.
Elvis Wu: So, Biffy–that is, you playing Biffy–also wanted to know what would be a good definition for a ‘good’ work of art. Even if we can establish what art is, in general, how do we decide whether a particular work of art is a ‘good’ one?
Jennifer Smith: Yeah, wow. That *is* a good question.
Elvis Wu: Everyone’s heard of the Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo’s David, and maybe a painting or two by Picasso. What sets these monumental works of art off as examples of what art can be, at its best?
Jennifer Smith: Wouldn’t you have to have a degree in art, or something, to even begin to be able to talk about that? I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
Elvis Wu: Certainly, it’s a complex topic. And maybe we don’t need to get into it for now. What we were trying to do, if you recall, was to figure out what a properly ‘philosophical’ approach to things would look like, and i think we’ve at least made a start at finding out.
Jennifer Smith: You’re letting me off easy.
Elvis Wu: Well, to be honest, i’ve got a class coming up in a bit, and i need to get over to the university. Which means you’re off the hook for now. [smiles]
Jennifer Smith: Um, do you think we might be able to pick this conversation back up at some point? It was starting to get interesting.
Elvis Wu: Well, you really ARE a philosopher, aren’t you!
Jennifer Smith: Um. Maybe. I think the jury may still be out on that one.
Elvis Wu: Well, when the jury convenes again, we shall discuss the philosophy of art in more detail! For now, mademoiselle: adieu, adieu, adieu.
Jennifer Smith: Um, adieu right back at you, dude.