all flockbinkers are treadknicious… and other salient observations

Forays into Logic, Whimsy, Meaning, Hilarity, and Nonsense.

Tag: Elvis Wu

Elvis Wu and Jennifer Smith Further Explore the Impossible Relationship between ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Social Skills’

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Smith and Elvis Wu Talk About Whether ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Social Skills’ Are Mutually Exclusive Categories

 

Abstract:  So here’s a challenge for ya. Imagine a philosopher. Got him? Okay. Now imagine him entering into a normal, everyday conversation with someone. What, you say you can’t imagine that? Well, my dear reader, you are not alone. There are vast numbers of people out there who have no idea what philosophers talk about when they’re not philosophizing. Perhaps, then, this blog post will be of help to you. Because, please understand, Elvis Wu is the consummate philosopher…but he knows how to talk about all manner of things.


 

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Jennifer Smith is hanging out on the front patio at the Panera Bread in downtown Chattanooga, sipping a latte and reading something by Debbie Macomber. (If you were to ask her, “So what’s the title of the book you’re reading?” she would roll her eyes at you. She would probably not even know the title. She doesn’t typically make her reading selections based on their substantial content…and she figures that the title is more or less randomly chosen anyway.) However, when Elvis Wu spies her sitting at her table on the sidewalk, the first thing that pops into his mind is not the title of her book. He is, as ever, focused on matters of greater substance.

Elvis Wu:  Well, if it isn’t Jennifer Smith! Fond greetings to you!

Jennifer Smith:  Er, “fond greetings” to you as well, Elvis.  [she smirks playfully]

Elvis Wu:  Hah! Do you take exception to my somewhat unusual salutation? I guess no one else says “fond greetings.” Yet it’s precisely what i meant.

Jennifer Smith:  It’s okay. At least you didn’t say, “I choose to greet you with fondness in my heart,” or something extra uber-nerdy like that.

Elvis Wu:  [contemplative]  Wow, that one was really good. I’ll have to file it away for future reference.

Jennifer Smith:  Rar rar rar. So what are you up to today, good sir?

Elvis Wu:  It’s a beautiful afternoon, no? So i’m just walking about the downtown area soaking up some rays before the really wintry weather sets in.

Jennifer Smith:  Good plan. I guess that’s sort of what i’m doing, as well. You got big plans for Thanksgiving?

Elvis Wu:  Oh, i’ll be getting together with some friends for our own version of a Thanksgiving feast.

Jennifer Smith:  Sweet.

Elvis Wu:  And you?

Jennifer Smith:  Thanksgiving dinner with the fam. We all sort of live around the Chattanooga area.

Elvis Wu:  Nice! Well, i hope you and your family have a delightful holiday.

Jennifer Smith:  Thanks. I guess you’ll be spending your holiday wishing “fond greetings” to people.

Elvis Wu:  Well, probably something along those lines. Do you approve?

Jennifer Smith:  You know, it’s funny. We do have all these accepted ways of talking to each other, that have sort of developed as fixed conversation patterns. And even slight departures from the basic “hi, how ya doin” sort of thing really do come off as odd. I just never really bother to think about it.

Elvis Wu:  A terrific observation! I like to mess with those conversation templates a bit, when i think i can get away with it, to shake people up a bit–get them out of their fixed ways of thinking about conversation.

Jennifer Smith:  No wonder you seem to have a somewhat limited friend pool.

Elvis Wu:  Mmm. Mm-hmm.

Jennifer Smith:  I’m sorry–that didn’t come out the way i intended it to.

Elvis Wu:  No, it’s okay. You’re right. I choose my friends carefully, and not usually on the basis of whether they know how to talk like regular people.  [smiles]

Jennifer Smith:  Gosh, i just don’t know if i could be that committed. When i’m talking with someone, i don’t want to have to think through every single thing i’m saying to make sure it’s fresh and original and…

Elvis Wu:  Genuine?

Jennifer Smith:  Owch. Touché. Sure, okay–genuine. We all have these conversational patterns that we’ve learned–it sure does make talking with people a lot easier than if we had to come up with brand new stuff every time.

Elvis Wu:  I get that. And, really, the whole idea of “social skills” is largely attached to whether a person has mastered those ready-made templates for conversation. Philosophers, regrettably… [he smiles sadly] …tend not to have the reputation for making use of the regular conversational patterns that everyone else does.

Jennifer Smith:  Well, i mean, you’ve got excellent social skills. But then, i don’t think you represent all philosophers very well.

Elvis Wu:  Shall i interpret that as a compliment?

Jennifer Smith:  By all means.

Elvis Wu:  So. I wonder if it’s possible to be a true philosopher, and at the same time have excellent social skills?

Jennifer Smith:  Gosh, i don’t see why not. In principle, y’know? Philosophers like to talk about real stuff, real issues–but surely that can be done without wierding out the people you’re talking with.

Elvis Wu:  Fair enough.

Jennifer Smith:  Y’know, i have wondered sometimes–what it would be like if people had conversations based on what they were really thinking and feeling. So much of the stuff that we say to each other really does seem to be memorized junk. I do it. We all do it. Well, not you.  [she scowls at him]

Elvis Wu:  [laughs]  Why don’t we try an experiment?

Jennifer Smith:  Er, an experiment? Like what?

Elvis Wu:  Like, let’s try to have a regular sort of conversation, and analyze it as we go along.

Jennifer Smith:  Oohh. I do not EVEN know about that.  [she smiles]  But sure.

Elvis Wu:  Okay. Why don’t you start? Pretend that you just walked up to me, and you want to initiate a conversation. Do you start with a greeting?

Jennifer Smith:  Uh–sure. I’d say, like, “Hi, how’s it going.”

Elvis Wu:  Whoah, stop, stop! We could spend the next half hour just analyzing that!

Jennifer Smith:  Oh golly, let’s not. Please.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing]  Okay. Let me just make a couple of observations.

Jennifer Smith:  Fire away.

Elvis Wu:  First, there’s the word “hi,” which essentially doesn’t mean anything. Think about it. What does “hi” mean? It’s basically a way of acknowledging the other person. “Hi,” “hello,” “greetings,” etc. are basically just ways of saying, “I acknowledge your value and the relevance of your presence in my life,” something like that.

Jennifer Smith:  OMG. I do not even.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing]  And then there’s the part where you said, “how’s it going.”

Jennifer Smith:  Mmm-hmm. And now i’m thinking, i have no real idea what that means.

Elvis Wu:  Ah! Well, perhaps it means something like, “I wonder what the–long or short, depending on the circumstances of the conversation–table of contents of your life would feature, were you to lay it out for me.”

Jennifer Smith:  Elvis, you are so weird.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing again]  Oh, it’s probably gonna get worse. So then, if i were a normal sort of person, i might reply to you, “Oh, nothin’ much. You?”

Jennifer Smith:  Mmm, that sounds right.

Elvis Wu:  Which is a completely wasted opportunity to talk about real things, but we can set that to one side for now.

Jennifer Smith:  Good. Please.

Elvis Wu:  So it’s basically just a reflexion of what the first person said, and we’ve already covered that.

Jennifer Smith:  [breathes a sigh of relief]

Elvis Wu:  So then, what would you say next?

Jennifer Smith:  Um, i might say, “Not a whole lot.” Or, if i really wanted to talk about what’s going on in my life, i might mention something specific, like, “Well gee, i just got a raise! That’s pretty cool.”

Elvis Wu:  Nice! You’ve provided two possible branches the conversation might take. The first one isn’t very interesting, so let’s pursue the second.

Jennifer Smith:  Okay.

Elvis Wu:  If i’m really interested in you, and the circumstances of your life, i might pursue the idea of your raise. How much? Was it for doing good work? Will it enable you to expand your household budget?

Jennifer Smith:  People don’t usually go into all that.

Elvis Wu:  No: Because people usually aren’t all that interested in learning about what’s going on in your life. Sad but true.

Jennifer Smith:  Harsh!

Elvis Wu:  Am i wrong?

Jennifer Smith:  Er, well, not really. Most conversations take only a few seconds, and don’t go into any real detail at all.

Elvis Wu:  Well. So if i’m really interested in you as a person, i might pursue the details of your job situation. But if i’m not, or if time is limited, i might just say, “Sweet! That’s great.”

Jennifer Smith:  Sounds about right.

Elvis Wu:  And what would you say in response?

Jennifer Smith:  Well, maybe something like, “And what’s up with you?”

Elvis Wu:  Perfect! And, again, if they really feel like engaging you, they might come up with something interesting that’s going on in their life. Otherwise, they’ll probably just say, “Aw, nothin’ much.”

Jennifer Smith:  Yeah, that’s pretty much how it goes.

Elvis Wu:  And that takes us to the exit point, if the two people aren’t really interested in pursuing a real conversation, or they haven’t got the time. So one of ’em might say, “Well, all the best to ya!” And the other one might reply, “Sure, man, you hang in there!” Both of which could be translated, roughly, to mean, “I hope your future circumstances are consistent with your best plans and hopes,” something like that.

Jennifer Smith:  Something like that.

Elvis Wu:  And then they go their separate ways.

Jennifer Smith:  My word.

Elvis Wu:  Such a funny thing, conversation.

Jennifer Smith:  Y’know, from now on i’m going to be terrified–well, maybe half terrified, and half curious–about what you’re really thinking when we chat.

Elvis Wu:  Ah! Such a feeling of power.  [clasps his hands under his chin after the fashion of someone named “Smedley” or “Igor”]

Jennifer Smith:  Dude, you are SO strange, i cannot EVEN.

Elvis Wu:  [laughing heartily]  I assure you, my thoughts are nothing but charitable toward you, even when you’re talkin’ ’bout nothin’.

Jennifer Smith:  [smiles]  Well, that’s comforting. Sort of.

 

 

Let’s Go Through a Whole Post Without Once Mentioning Flockbinkers

 

Abstract:  In which our cast of characters–in a decided departure from common practice–attempt to go for an entire blog post without once saying the word… well, you know, THAT word. The word. The word floc… ooohh, you know. The word. THAT one.


 

The Blogger:  [addressing a small group of people gathered in his living room]

So hey there, fellas. Thanks for coming! I wonder if each of you would mind glancing down at the piece of paper that you’ve been handed. It explains the one big, basic ground rule for this particular post. Note that your attention is being called to one word in particular: the one word that none of us is going to use in this here blog post.

Jennifer Smith:  Blog post? What blog post? Biffy, what does he mean by ‘blog post’? He’s making strange remarks again. I’m already feeling disoriented.

Little Biffy:  Just roll with it. Pretend he’s talking about a “log post” that you tie your boat off to, right when you’ve returned from a satisfying morning of fishing.

Jennifer Smith:  You just made things ten times worse. NOW i seriously do not EVEN.

Little Biffy:  Oops.

Jennifer Smith:  No, come on. Log post? I’m feeling disoriented.

Little Biffy:  Heh heh. Forget i said anything. Post? Where’s the post? I don’t see a post. Nobody said anything about a post. There’s no post. Not a post in sight.

Jennifer Smith:  [begins breathing heavily; her eyes start to roll back in her head]

The Good Reader:  It’s okay, Jennifer. Here, come sit next to me. We can be sensible together in the midst of a whirlwind of chaos and nonsense.

Jennifer Smith:  Thanks, sort of. Um.

Elvis Wu:  [gazing intently at the note he’s been handed]  Ahh! So we are to conduct ourselves normally, except that there is one word, one particular word, that we may not, under any circumstances, allow ourselves to say.

The Blogger:  Precisely.

Elvis Wu:  And that word is Flo–

The Blogger:  [with hands over ears]  Aaaahhh aahhhhhhhhhhh aaaaaaaaaaaahh aaahhh aaaaaaaahhhhhh aahh aaaaahhhh…

Elvis Wu:  Just kidding, my good man. I just wanted to see what you would do. That reaction was actually a bit more interesting than whatever i was expecting.

Aristotle:  Hmmm. Interesting. I can’t help thinking… hmmm.

The Blogger:  [consumed with curiosity–after all, this is ARISTOTLE we’re talking about]

Um, yes? What’s on your mind? Something profound and philosophically spiffy, i’ll bet!

Aristotle:  Well, it’s just that, if we were to think of all human behavior, or perhaps all human tendencies of personality…

The Blogger:  Yes, yes, hmmm?

Aristotle:  …as being laid out on a kind of grid, with one sort of extreme at one end, and the opposite extreme on the other end, and a satisfying, happy medium in the middle…

The Blogger:  Uh-huh, yes?

Aristotle:  Well then, we… hmmm. I’ll need to put a bit more thought into this one.

Confucius:  Sounded like you were on a roll there, o most eminent among Greeks. Don’t let that one drop. I think it’s going to lead somewhere.

The Buddha:  First we go through the fire, then we go through the water, and then we go through the, um, the wasteland of ice, and then we go through, uh, umm, the place where, uh, earwigs come from, and then, then, uuhhh… that bottom dresser drawer that we rarely open and there’s no telling what’s in there.

Confucius:  The wise man know when to remain silent; the fool go on and on about ridiculous fire and earwigs and other nonsense.

The Buddha:  Bearded Greek is allowed to make no sense, but not the Lord Buddha?

Confucius:  Sometimes we must take one for the team.

The Buddha:  Um, okay. Not fair.

Scotsman #2:  My bonnie lies over the ocean.

The Good Reader:  Wait. What?

Scotsman #2:  My bonnie lies over the sea.

The Good Reader:  No. Stop.

Scotsman #2:  My bonnie lies a couple of blocks past 57th street, but you gotta jog left when you get to that stop sign where it looks like the road comes to an end, but it really doesn’t.

The Good Reader:  He can’t even hear me. Hello! Hello!

Scotsman #2:  Oh bring back a couple of ham loaves, some ginger and cinnamon and clove, a box of cigars, two earwigs…

Confucius:  Again with the earwigs! What is this, National Earwig Day?

Scotsman #2:  …and maybe one of those oversized lollipops with all the colors in them.

The Good Reader:  Of course.

Scotsman #2:  [triumphantly]  …to ME.

Your Mom:  [enters]  Hi, i hope i’m not late! It was really sweet of y’all to invite me.

[The Blogger hands her one of the explanatory cards, which she glances at for half a sec and then stuffs into her purse]

The Blogger:  Welcome, Someone’s Mom–perhaps yours! Well, i mean, not YOURS [glancing at Your Mom] but probably someone else’s. As long as you’re prepared to observe our one simple rule, come on in and join the party!

The Good Reader:  The joint’s rockin’. You got here just in time.

Jennifer Smith:  I still don’t understand what he meant by the word ‘post.’ Isn’t this bothering anyone else?

Little Biffy:  Think of a ‘post office.’

Jennifer Smith:  Is there a word that means “the opposite of a helpful comment”…? Cause that’s the word i’m looking for right now. [Gazes menacingly at Little Biffy]

Elvis Wu:  Biffy’s a good fella. He means well. Perhaps we ought to be thinking of ‘post’ as meaning, in the present context, something like, “that bounded range of trans-rational yet rule-bound [within a subjectively established set of expectations] experience, in which The Blogger is able to enact any one of a potentially infinite number….”

[Jennifer, bless her heart, has summarily yet placidly passed out cold by this time]

Your Mom:  So, okay–[glancing again, oh so briefly, at the card she was handed]–sorry, i’m just curious–what ARE flockbinkers, anyway?

The Blogger:  Dammit! Oops. Sorry.

The Good Reader:  Okay, calm down. It’s not an emergency that someone said the word “flockbinker.”

The Blogger:  Oooff! Stop that!

The Good Reader:  It just means we can start taking ourselves a bit less seriously about this admittedly stupid blog post.

The Blogger:  Doggone it!

Your Mom:  Did i say the wrong thing? I just wanted to know a little bit more about these, what did you call them? FLOCKBINKERS.

The Blogger:  [hacking, gagging, hopping about on one foot]

The Good Reader:  Oh, come on. You know i’m right. Setting yourself the goal of having a blog post in which no one says the word “flockbinker”–

The Blogger:  Owww! No! Cut it out!

The Good Reader:  –ranks waay down on the list of significant things for you to be concerned about.

Your Mom:  Am i pronouncing it right? Flok – bing – ker?

The Blogger:  [the agonized eruption of a thousand dying suns upon his face]

The Good Reader:  Now now. Be nice. She’s your guest.

The Blogger:  But doggone it, The Good Reader, it’s MY blog–i should be the one determining what people do or don’t say on it!

The Good Reader:  You just go on believing that. We all need something comforting to hold on to in the darkest days of winter.

Jennifer Smith:  But it’s summertime. Well, okay, as of a few days ago, it’s fall. As if you could tell that from these temperatures.

Little Biffy:  Which leads us, if you think about it, to this ultimately arbitrary (and really, somewhat unhelpful) cultural habit of ending ‘summer’ and beginning ‘fall’ on the same day–well, you know, basically–every year, as if the annual shifts in temperature and seasonal dynamics…

The Blogger:  [to everyone’s consternation, he begins to expand, turn green, sort of roar–sort of–kind of loudly, and transform into The Incredible Hulk]

Elvis Wu:  Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Great party, guys!

 

 

Epilogue

[A few hours later. The room has pretty much cleared out.]

The Good Reader:  You’ve thrown another winner, buddy!

The Blogger:  [sniffling]  It was awful.

The Good Reader:  Oh, come off of yourself. You have the worst attitude. I think they all liked it. It was fun!

The Blogger:  It was an unmitigated disaster. I throw the worst parties.

The Good Reader:  What! You’re a weenie. Buck up. Everyone had a great time. [a glint in her eye]  Especially Your Mom. My goodness, i don’t think i’ve ever heard anyone say the word ‘flockbinker’ that many times in a single setting! She was great.

The Blogger:  [gazes, glumly, a man bereft of hope, off into deepest space]

 

What IS a Flockbinker, Really? The Philosophers Weigh In

 

Abstract:  One of the ongoing challenges we’ve experienced in association with this blog, is the fact that some of our most essential vocabulary never seems to have been defined. Flockbinker? Wamwam? Someone’s Mom? Perhaps even yours? The assembled throng furrow their brows; heads incline with justifiable concern; someone passes out and falls over from the mental strain. So we’ve brought in some brainy types to see if this problem can be rectified. These include some of the leading luminaries in the history of philosophical thought, as well as some of our regulars here on the blog. This exchange ought to be a real treat.


 

The Blogger:  Okay, fellas, so here’s the question. What is a flockbinker?

Ludwig Wittgenstein:  A flockbinker is all that is the case, in that particular realm of discourse in which the term ‘flockbinker’ is applied as relevant.

Rene Descartes:  [Scoffing in a particularly French manner]  That was ridiculous and did not mean anything.

Ludwig Wittgenstein:  Your Mom is ridiculous and doesn’t mean anything.

Rene Descartes:  [Deliberately ignoring this remark]  Rrmff. I would say that a flockbinker is that which (in its capacity as a flockbinker) thinks the thoughts of a flockbinker, and therefore, is, a flockbinker.

Ludwig Wittgenstein:  Wut.

Rene Descartes:  Well, it was better than that stupide thing you said.

Plato:  Okay. Here it is. In order to ascertain what the term ‘flockbinker’ applies to, we must first determine whether we are talking about a feature of the ultimate realm, or merely an item in the world of appearances. Of course, if a flockbinker is a feature of the Real world–that realm from which the world of our ephemeral appearances derives–then it will of course have its analog in the world of our perceptions.

Rene Descartes:  [mutters]  That, too, was ridiculous and did not mean anything. These people who have chosen to call themselves philosophers!

Francis Bacon:  Well, what Plato calls the “world of appearances” is simply reality. Let’s strip away the foolish hocus-pocus. If a flockbinker can be demonstrated to exist–if he is available to our senses in the world of the real and concrete–then he is a real object. We cannot begin the discussion of his attributes until we have settled the issue of his existence.

The Blogger:  Well, of course he exists! He’s at the very center of what this blog is about!

[Francis Bacon looks the Blogger up and down in the way that one would examine a particularly fascinating centipede.]

William James:  Well, you know, this Plato fellow made a helpful distinction between different levels of reality. I’d like to, if i might, distinguish between the mental and the physical parts of the real world. It might be argued that any mental state in which a flockbinker is featured as real, according to the consciousness of the individual, is one that is, in a certain sense, peculiar to its own flockbinkerosity.

Everyone Present:  Wut.

Little Biffy:  So much philosophical talent assembled in one room! Gosh, i’m practically speechless! But not quite, heh heh. I would say that a flockbinker, insofar as it has any kind of independent existence, is a sort of logical placeholder for use in certain kinds of (generally quite funny) philosophical dialogues and syllogisms created by The Blogger.

The Blogger:  What an excellent answer! This little fellow’s a winner if ever i saw one!

Little Biffy:  [grins innocently]

Elvis Wu:  Hmmm. The flockbinker, he is like a cup of the very finest rice wine that can be imagined. Each saloon claims to feature it on their menu.

Everyone Present:  Wut.

Elvis Wu:  When one has a reputation for being wise and inscrutable, it’s necessary to invest some effort from time to time in cultivating the impression.

[Francis Bacon looks at him sort of cockeyed. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, has obviously had his respect for Elvis Wu’s intellect considerably deepened.]

Jennifer Smith:  Okay, here’s my question. If a flockbinker is not a real thing–

Plato:  Define “a real thing.”

Descartes:  Yeah. Define “a real thing.”

Jennifer Smith:  Okay. A real thing is a thing that actually exists in the real world.

Plato:  Define “the real world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein:  Yeah. Define “the real world.”

Jennifer Smith:  [rolling eyes]  Um. Okay. Whatever. Pass.

The Good Reader:  Well, my question is, so long as we’re getting all serious about nonsense words and such, why do we need to define a flockbinker specifically, as if it were a real item, like my purse? Are we also going to define a squibblymidget?

The Three Scotsmen:  Arrrgh!

The Blogger:  Well, of course a flockbinker is a real thing! It’s what this blog is about!

The Good Reader:  Okay. My little finger is a real thing. Is a flockbinker a real thing in the same sense that my little finger is?

The Blogger:  Well, um, we would kind of need to, um. Uh. Hmmm. Yo.

The Three Scotsmen:  Arrrrgh!

 


Epilogue

The Good Reader:  I’m thinking that this discussion didn’t go quite the way you expected.

The Blogger:  [Pouts, refuses to look her in the eye]

The Good Reader:  [Not to be put off]  Mmm-hmm, so, ya didn’t get the kind of conversation going that you were hoping for?

The Blogger:  Go away.

 

Introducing Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major

 

Abstract:  In which we are, at long last, formally introduced to one of the more important characters on this blog, that champion of truth, the honorable Mr. Elvis Wu: The Last Philosophy Major.


 

If you’ve been following for any length of time, you’ll recall that in one of the early posts to this blog, there appeared a character named ‘Elvis Wu.’ In that episode, he related a story about a zen philosopher named Bodhifarma (which apparently means ‘the knowledge of agriculture’). Sound familiar?

Wu has also made guest appearances in a few other posts to the blog: for instance, this one, and this one over here, and that one over there.

Well. You are now about to be formally introduced to him.

“Elvis, meet my readers. Readers, please give a warm welcome to Mister Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major.”

[scattered polite applause]

“Hey, look, guys, you can do better’n that! I said let’s have a vigorous round of applause for Mister Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major!”

[nobody claps this time except for one greasy-looking guy in a blue and grey flannel shirt and a Pillsbury baseball cap, about three rows from the back]

“Jeepers, fine, whatever.”

 

Elvis Wu:  It’s really all okay, Blogger. Why don’t you just go on, and they can applaud at the end if they want to.

The Blogger:  But it’s the principle of the thing, Wu. This is just unacceptable behavior. It’s as if all sense of decorum or public civility has completely evaporated.

Elvis Wu:  Another possibility you’ve failed to mention, is that hardly anybody actually reads your blog.

The Blogger:  Ahem, so now i think it’s time that i shared with the assembled throng, the teeming masses, some of the main points of your biography.

Elvis Wu:  Sure, you do that! Tell the assembled throng what you think they ought to know about me.

The Blogger:  Terrific. I think i’ll do just that.

 

How he and i first met

Elvis Wu and i first met at a philosophy congress in Atlanta about 20 years ago. In the opening session, Wu was sitting in the row ahead of me, and i noticed that he would nod vigorously, or shake his head violently, when he agreed or disagreed with whatever the person on the stage was saying. I also noticed that his disagreements tended to come about five times as often as his positive appraisals. I grabbed him after the first morning session and made him sit down to lunch with me. What i discovered was a man deeply disaffected with the way philosophy and truth are being approached in the modern academy; and i was able to plot out some of my own misgivings alongside his. It was a significant moment in my own “coming of age” as a philosopher.

I tell the story of my creating him to teach my students philosophy

Well, that story about the philosophy conference… was on one level of reality.

The ‘Origin Story,’ as it were.

[the blogger snickers gleefully]

In a somewhat more real sense, of course, ha ha, Elvis is a creation of my own for this here blog. I invented him about 20 years ago for a philosophy class i was teaching at the time, and he has grown prodigiously since then. Back then, he was an interesting character i used in written dialogues to teach principles of logic. He has, since then, taken on a life of his own! The posts featuring him have been some of the most interesting and challenging ones. He’s among a handful of characters at the very center of the All Flockbinkers world.

Wu counters with an–obviously!–spurious story about me

“Actually, Mister Blogger,” interrupts Wu, with an odd smile on his generally impassive Oriental features, “it was i who created you, to teach philosophy to my students in North Georgia a few years back. Your first appearance was in a dialogue on the topic of ancient Chinese philosophy, built around an extremely clever pun. And you have been among my most popular and successful creations. I like to build you into logical syllogisms, for instance, and create dialogues in which you are one of the chief characters.”

The Blogger:  Dang it, i should have guessed that Wu would try to pull something like that. And, owing to the format of this blog post–which, may i emphasize, i am writing and in which he is an entirely fictional character–i’m not really able to respond to the scurrilous accusation. The clever wretch. The dirty dog! Dang him!

A bit about what he does for a living

He’s a private tutor [putatively, that is, since he isn’t actually real, ha ha, ha ha] and offers private classes in various subjects to the home-educating community. He teaches literature, history, cultural studies, and of course, the queen of the sciences: philosophy. Every year he advertises his programs, and every year there ends up being a waiting list ten yards long of kids wanting to get into his classes. He’s an excellent teacher, and has proven to be very good at transmitting a heightened sensitivity to wisdom and truth to the upcoming generation. Putatively speaking, of course, since he doesn’t actually exist, ha ha.

“Doctor Wu”

One of Elvis’s favorite songs–not surprisingly–is the Steely Dan classic, “Doctor Wu.”

“Are you with me, Doctor Wu? Are you really just a shadow of the man that i once knew? Are you crazy? Are you high? Or just an ordinary guy? Have you done all you can do? Are you with me, Doctor? Are you with me, Doctor?”

I’ve asked him, more than once, about the personal significance of these lyrics to him, to his life. He just looks at me and smiles in complete silence. Sometimes i wonder if everything going on inside that there noggin is entirely healthy.

A bit about his college studies

Elvis majored in philosophy, in the late 1970s–back when a philosophy major still actually involved–at least, in part–the study of real ideas. He studied metaphysics, ontology, the philosophy of science, philosophy of art, philosophy of language, textual analysis, axiology, epistemology, game theory, truth-value, philosophy of mind, the perennial wisdom, philosophy of culture, philosophy of history… and, of course, logic. You name it–if it was a division of the academic study of philosophy–he took a class in it. According to the records department at the college he attended, he took way more than twice as many philosophy classes as he needed to for the completion of his major.

If you give him space, Wu will wax rhapsodic on the joys of his philosophical training, and the subsequent disappointment he has experienced attending philosophy conferences and seminars. During the past couple of centuries, says Wu, philosophy has been falling on harder and harder times, and has now gotten to the point where it’s getting kind of pointless trying to learn it from philosophy professors. It’s not as if they know anything about wisdom. You just have to know which books to read.

Why Is He “The Last Philosophy Major”

The problem with the field of “philosophy” today is that it has come to be dominated by people who are not really interested in wisdom. They may, of course, be interested in certain models of knowledge or value. They may like the idea of appearing to be part of an intellectual elite. They may be interested in being classed as cutting-edge theorists. They may be interested in being perceived as part of an ongoing “project” of some kind. Many of them are self-conscious about being involved in a discipline that isn’t taken seriously by many practitioners in other fields. The one thing, however, that they are not interested in, is the genuine pursuit of truth. Indeed, they are often the ones in the Academy who are most vociferously denying the very possibility of discovering truth.

The Phuture of Philosophy

According to Mister Wu, the future of philosophy–at least, in formal academic settings–is a somewhat depressing one. As the culture around us deteriorates more and more into a relativistic morass of materialism and self-centeredness, the academic centers of philosophical “research” appear to be falling into step with the program. As Elvis Wu sees it, the real philosophy these days is being done by individuals who are not (typically) associated with the major academic institutions. They quietly search out that which is real and true, they write books, they conduct small seminars tucked away in this or that corner of the social world, they conduct their debates in whispers. They are a vanishing breed. They are the last seekers and defenders of wisdom. They are the last brave individuals willing to take a stand for truth. They are the heroes of our generation.

 

The Blogger:  Well, Wu, how does that sound? Did i set out a pretty good introduction?

Elvis Wu:  Golly, it’ll do until a better one comes along.

The Blogger:  Ha ha, i’m not exactly sure what that meant.

Elvis Wu:  [smiles mysteriously, and says nothing]

The Blogger:  No, man, seriously, i have no idea what you meant by that.

Elvis Wu:  [continues smiling mysteriously]

The Blogger:  Oh, come on, Wu, you’re kind of freakin’ me out, here.

Elvis Wu:  [continues smiling mysteriously]

 

Baby, It’s Treadknicious Outside

Abstract:  Oh my, but it’s been a long time. Should it be any surprise, then, that in this episode–basically–everything happens, everybody (basically) says everything, and Elvis Wu is (um, basically) revealed to be pregnant?

(Okay, not really that last bit. Just kiddin’ around wid ya.)

 


 

Okay, fellers. Let’s just come out and say it. This has tended to be a terrible blog in the matter of posting instability: what i mean is, we’ll jump in vigorously for a few weeks, then drop out for a few months. Lather, rinse, repeat. As of today, it has been…umm… [counting on fingers]… oh dear, it’s been precisely one year–to the very day!–since our last post. Ouch! Sorry there, old fellows.

Today’s post, then, will have to involve a bit of catching up.

The Good Reader:  Oh dear. What might “catching up” happen to mean?

The Blogger:  The Good Reader! Well, howdy there. I’ve not seen you in a while.

The Good Reader:  Well, duh–you’ve not seen me since the last of those blog posts that you wrote, i being apparently (according to YOU) a figment of your creative impulse. [makes grumbling sounds]

The Blogger:  Jeepers, Reader, i’m not sure i’d want to put it exactly like that… um… umm… uhh… well… oh golly… as a matter of fact, that was an excellent way of putting it. Let’s not dance around the issue. You have delineated the art of war. You have nailed the head on the donkey. You have committed the perfect storm.

The Good Reader:  [Goes somewhat cross-eyed for a moment, then decides not to pursue the material about donkeys and perfect storms. You have to choose your battles.]  Anyway, what might “catching up” happen to mean? It’s basically a random blog. You blog about whatever philosophical or quasi-philosophical or pseudo-philosophical topics you happen to have on your brain at the moment.

The Blogger:  Unfair, unfair! And also unanswerable, unless we’re prepared to devote a whole blog post to that obvious untruth, which we at present are not. So here’s what i mean by “catching up.” The last few posts to the blog involved…

…an oddball Christmas event in which The Good Reader, Little Biffy, Jennifer Smith, Elvis Wu, and i enjoyed the benefits of a Christmas fireside while analyzing terms associated with the holiday season,

…a scintillating introduction to The Photographer, who turned out to be quite the astonishing gal,

…a horrific invasion of Tribbles, accompanied by an equally horrific invasion by Mister Spock, Mister Sulu, and Captain Kirk,

…a delightful–simply delightful!–analysis of the concept of extreme sports,

…a delightful–simply–um–well–never mind–in-depth discussion of marketing strategies,

…a whole freaking bunch of people going into a freaking bar, a species of behavior which we at All Flockbinkers can hardly condone–and it’s a shame, really, that this sort of thing is even finding its way into the blog,

…an in-depth and strangely satisfying analysis of the concept of extreme sports,

…some further analysis–and there can never be too much, really–of that classic jape about the three Scotsmen sitting on a fence…

…yet another attempt, fruitless as usual, to figure out what flockbinkers are,

…and, of course, yet another fascinating look at our Reader Mail.

So what we need to do with this one, is figure out how to pick up where we left off.

The Good Reader:  There’s no need for that. I’ve hardly ever read something so random as this blog. Just write about something. It’s not like your four readers will notice. Personally, i think you should write about what a flockbinker is. You’ve been promising to do that for, what, several years now? Or maybe the treadkniciousness of tribbles. You completely failed to address that topic in the post that was supposed to be devoted to it. Or you could talk about whether tribbles would make good Christmas tree ornaments.

The Blogger:  Four readers? You must mean, of course, the four readers who have engaged the most substantially with the content of this blog…?

The Good Reader:  How did i KNOW that would be the only part of my statement that you’d pay attention to.

The Blogger:  …Because, seriously, i have WAY more than four readers.

The Good Reader:  Okay.

The Blogger:  Anyway, here’s my plan. Having briefly reviewed the material we covered in our last few posts, i think we’ll turn this one into a big Christmas party. You know, like the one we had last year?

The Good Reader:  Christmas is long over, dude. It’s May. May comes after Christmas.

The Blogger:  Well, i mean, it depends on what you mean by ‘Christmas.’ They’re apparently getting snow in the upper midwest. Can you believe that?

The Good Reader:  Oh, bother.

The Blogger:  ANYWAY, You can’t know if Christmas is going to be treadknicious, unless you first know what treadknicious means.

The Good Reader:  If you’re not just yanking me around–i mean, if you’re really about to deliver–then, wow, go for it! What DOES treadknicious mean?

The Blogger:  Well, that is to say, i… didn’t actually say i was gonna define it.

The Good Reader:  Mm-hmmm.

The Blogger:  I just said you can’t know if Christmas is going to be treadknicious.

The Good Reader:  Ah.

The Blogger:  But it may well be.

The Good Reader:  Mm-hmm.

The Blogger:  That’s all i’m saying.

The Good Reader:  Righto.

The Blogger:  So, um, anyway.

[They sit in contented silence for a moment.]

[And, just when you were tempted to think that we’d gotten to the end of this blog post…]

[Ah! Ho, ho!]

[Elvis Wu suddenly and quite unexpectedly joins in, having appeared as from the aether, from the vastness of cold space, from the undifferentiated void]

Elvis Wu:  A terribly treadknicious holiday to the both of you!

The Blogger:  Well, my stars and garters! If it isn’t Mister Elvis Wu!

Elvis Wu:  [bows humbly]  At your service.

The Blogger:  It’s really good of you to come. I imagine you have a grillion things on your schedule.

Elvis Wu:  Oh, i’m always down for an All Flockbinkers Are Treadknicious reunion.

The Good Reader:  But, no, just waittasecond. Where, Elvis, did you just come from?

Elvis Wu.:  Ah! From the Undifferentiated Void.

The Blogger:  Seriously?

The Good Reader:  No, goofball, he’s not being serious. Seriously! Where DID you just come from?

The Blogger:  Well, if it’s not Little Biffy and Jennifer Smith!

[The two of them enter as from a gathering haze, from the towering cloud of nothingness, from the blooming manifestation of the Outer Dark]

The Good Reader:  No.

The Blogger:  It’s good to see the two of you!

The Good Reader:  No. Just no. What in the world.

Jennifer Smith:  What? OMG! Where am i? What is this? Are we… what? I am so confused. Please. I cannot EVEN.

Little Biffy:  Mister Blogger!

The Blogger:  What up, Biffy! How’s it going, Jennifer.

Jennifer Smith:  I do not EVEN. What in… WHAT in the world.

The Blogger:  It’s our little reunion party! Since it’s been about a year since the blog has seen the light of day… if, um, that’s the sort of thing that blogs do… see the light of day, i mean… we’re having a bit of a soiree to celebrate!

[Jenn finds a convenient chair to sit in, contemplate the Deeper Things, and nurse her wounded sense of How Reality Works]

The Good Reader:  So i’m still confused. Are these people real, or fictional?

The Blogger:  Are you?

The Good Reader:  Am i what?

The Blogger:  Are you real, or fictional?

The Good Reader:  I’m real! Well, i mean, i’m as real as you are… whatever THAT means.

Biffy and Elvis:  Wassail!

Bertie Wooster:  I say!

Jennifer Smith:  Waittasecond. Who’s that?

Bertie Wooster:  Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, at your service, what?

Jennifer Smith:  Oh. My. Word.

…and wouldn’t you know it, we find ourselves in the continuation of last year’s Christmas party–with the somewhat inexplicable addition of Mr. Bertie Wooster–as if nothing has happened in the interim!

Elvis Wu:  [singing joyously]  Baby, it’s treadknicious outside!

Little Biffy:  I think it’s pretty darn treadknicious inside!

Jennifer Smith:  Wooh, talking about ‘treadknicious’-ness, i feel a pretty treadknicious headache coming on.

Bertie Wooster:  You know, Jeeves used to have the perfect potion for that sort of ailment. I wish i could tell you what the ingredients were.

The Good Reader3:  Reality, as we know it–or as we think we know it–is nought but the breath of a passing moment, the exhalation of the lonely hours.

The Good Reader:  Okay, that was not even me. I have no idea who that was.

And, as if in answer: “Wassail!” cry the assembled throng.

 

Epilogue:

The group disappears, as into a gauzy haze–or perhaps a hazy gauze–or maybe even a hazy, gauzy mist–and we are once again left with just The Blogger and The Good Reader.

The Good Reader:  I thought a throng was supposed to be a much larger group of people.

The Blogger:  What?

The Good Reader:  Well, if that was an assembled ‘throng,’ i’d have expected there to be, oh, i dunno, at least 20 people.

The Blogger:  Well, Good Reader, we could explore at some length what the term “throng” can be used to mean in a variety of contexts….

The Good Reader:  Let’s not, never mind.

The Blogger:  As you wish.

The Good Reader:  So, wait, i have an even more pressing question. Was all of that a dream sequence? And if so, whose dream? Yours or mine?

The Blogger:  Perhaps the good reader’s dream?

The Good Reader:  But i AM the Good Reader!

The Blogger:  Well, i didn’t capitalize it now, did i?

The Good Reader:  How should i know? I can’t tell what you’re capitalizing and what you’re not. This is conversation.

The Blogger:  Okay. I was referring to the meta-good reader.

The Good Reader:  The meta-good-reader?

The Blogger:  Sure. The embodiment of the blog’s readership, in general.

The Good Reader:  BUT THAT’S ME!

The Blogger:  Hmmm. Yes. Good point. Well, i can see that, once again, we need to distinguish between “The Good Reader” #1, #2, and #3.

The Good Reader:  Oh, bother.

 

 

Marketing and the False Dilemma: or, “I don’t know which one to click on!”

Here, o most excellent reader, is a quickie lesson in critical thinking. You’re about to learn about false dilemmas, and then you’re going to learn to recognize them when you encounter them in sales scenarios.

If the expression “false dilemma” sounds familiar, it may be that you’ve read one of the recent posts to this blog (“There Are Two Kinds of People in the World“) in which The Good Reader, The Blogger, and Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major, discussed the idea of false dilemmas at some length. If you read that post, then you’re already ahead of the game. If you didn’t, then fear not: here’s a bit of a primer to get you started.

 

When i was in the 6th grade, the following joke was popular among certain of the fellows:

Dude #1:  Are you a [something unpleasant] tied to a tree?

Dude #2:  Um, no. Of course not.

Dude #1:  Aaaugh! Aaaagh! [unpleasant thing] on the loose! [unpleasant thing] on the loose!

Nicely done, Dude #1! Do you see what he did there? He craftily set up the scenario such that only two possible answers were provided: either you were a [something unpleasant] tied to a tree, or you were [same unpleasant thing] at large. And that, my friends, is a classic example of a false dilemma.

A false dilemma is any situation where only two options are presented as the possible answer to a question, and you are expected to select one of the two… despite the fact that there are actually other possibilities that have not been mentioned. Here, let’s look at another one.

Is a grilled cheese sandwich an example of (1) a meat casserole, or (2) a sports utility vehicle?

You see the problem. I have provided you with two answers, but regrettably, the correct answer was not one of them. Yet i seem to be expecting you to choose one of the wrong answers that i gave you.

Let’s look at the issue of the “false dilemma” from another angle. If i were to ask you the following question, you would be correct in choosing precisely one of the two options i set you up with:

“Pardon me. Are you a postal delivery worker, or something else?”

If you are, in fact, a mail carrier, you could select the first option. And if you’re not, you could select the second one. There’s no problem. I have given you a logically satisfying range of options. It is possible for you to give the correct answer, based on the options i’ve presented you with.

But what if i were to ask you the following:

“Hello. Are you a postal delivery worker, or an aquatic crustacean?”

You would be quite within your rights to say, “Excuse me, i’m not either one… perhaps you’re confusing me with YOUR MOM?”

This would be a philosophically sound approach to the situation.

The person setting up a false dilemma will usually be either (1) a sloppy thinker who doesn’t realize that the scenario he’s setting forth is flawed, or (2) a canny manipulator who is very much aware of what he’s doing, and wants to shepherd you into choosing one of the two options: the one that he agrees with.

Which leads us to today’s topic.

 


 

Is it just me, or have online vendors been making increasing use of troubling false dilemmas? They’ll present you with an advertisement of some kind, and then offer you two options to click through, like this:

  • Yes, i want to learn more about this exciting offer!
  • No, i am a moron and should not be allowed to breed!

I have been noticing these kinds of dilemmas with increasing frequency. The other day as i was making a purchase using one of those vast, behemoth-scale online retailers… i won’t identify the company, but its name rhymed with “diazepamazon”…i was met at one point in the checkout process by what i thought was an odd choice (and here i indulge in the liberty of paraphrase):

  • Yes, i would like to be charged an additional fee to enroll in a program that will result in superior customer service, substantial eventual savings (if, that is, i end up spending at least nine grillion dollars a year through this website), and a streamlined checkout experience!
  • No, i am content with the irritating, substandard shopping experience to which i have grown stoically accustomed!

Something just didn’t feel completely right about the choice i was being offered. What i wanted was superior customer service and substantial savings, without being charged an additional fee! But [sigh] they did not offer that as one of the options. So i selected the second one, even though it wasn’t really what i wanted.

Once you train yourself to recognize them, you begin to see false dilemmas everywhere throughout the world of marketing. For instance, you’ve probably seen this sort of thing. A certain whiskey is being advertised, and, although the ad doesn’t come out and say it directly, it is strongly implied that you have two options before you:

Either (1) you are a drinker of Whiskey X, and a favorite among the ladies, or (2) women look at you with pity in their eyes, similar to the way they would look at a fellow who has a yellow discharge draining out of one ear, and they whisper to each other in phrases that sound as if they include the words “welfare recipient” and “venereal disease.”

Never mind that you have never touched their whiskey and, nevertheless, seem to get along perfectly fine with women. The advertisement does not appear to take this possibility into account.

Here’s another one. An advertisement in which two women are pictured, one decked in the athletic gear that is being advertised, and the other wearing some other perfectly reasonable athletic wear. And, just through the photograph and the brilliantly worded text, an implied false dilemma is set forth:

Either (1) you wear our athletic gear, you’re fit, gorgeous, self-possessed, and the cool slogan “Just Go For It” applies to you, or (2) you are 23, already going through menopause, and look as if you are no stranger to snack cakes filled with trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.

Never mind that you wouldn’t be caught dead in the athletic gear being advertised… you tried it on once and found it hot and uncomfortable… yet you just got finished running your third half-marathon and finishing in the top ten percent.

Here are some more examples.

Imagine a laxative company with an advertisement that says, “…so the next time you’re feeling a bit irregular, try StoolExpress… unless, of course, you enjoy feeling bloated and having a painful bowel movement once every five weeks.”

It’s entirely possible… hear me out… that those are not the only two options.

Or this:

“So join the multitudes of homemakers who have discovered that they don’t have to live with perpetually sticky countertops, accompanied by a faint but apparently ineradicable whiff of cat urine. Switch to ultra-absorbent WipeOut paper towels!”

Could it be that there are other solutions to the problem of soiled countertops? Just thinking out loud here.

Or imagine being presented with an online poll set up in the following way:

  • Yes, i support Congressman McDrennahanahan in his fight against the forces of wickedness and injustice!
  • No, i hate my country and feel that the sooner the Bill of Rights can be forcibly ripped out of the Constitution (which, by the way, i also hate), the better.

Maybe… just maybe… it’s possible to love and be committed to one’s country, even if Congressman McDrennahanahan’s agenda does not entirely represent your civic ideal.

 

I hope this little tutorial has been helpful to you, o gentle reader, in your struggle to sift through the messages that we are all bombarded with on a daily basis.

If not, then i’m afraid you’ll just continue to be a witless, gullible weenie who is utterly at the mercy of ad agencies, politicos, and snake oil salesmen.

 

There Are Two Kinds of People in the World. (It’s Not What You Think!)

No, it’s true. There are. There are two kinds of people in the world.

(You know it’s true. Come on. Seriously. Don’t even.)

And actually, while we’re talking about this, we must go on to observe that there are even more than that. There are at least seven billion kinds of people in the world, if you stop to think about it: one category for each individual human person.

But seven billion categories might be just a bit much for most of us to manage. Who can think about that many categories of people? Who’s got the time? Who’s that good at math? Seven billion? I have trouble remembering which cabinet i keep the Vienna Sausages in.

So it’s convenient to reduce all of those people down to just two categories.

And the two categories are:

1. The people with massive, grotesque tufts of fur poking out of their nostrils, and
2. The people who have at least one Led Zeppelin poster on their bedroom wall.

Those are the two categories of people in the world.

If those two categories don’t sound familiar to you, it may be because you aren’t very observant, or you’ve not done much heavy thinking about The Human Condition.

Or (and this is a possibility that, as philosophers, we must always be prepared to consider) it may be that something is wrong with the system of categories we’ve set forth.

Not that this last one is very likely — The Blogger wouldn’t have put something on his blog if it weren’t true — but we ought to explore it, y’know, just so as to be sure we’ve covered all the bases.

So: If there should happen to be something wrong with our two categories, what might that something be?


 

The Good Reader:  Where to start. I literally do not know where to start.

The Blogger:  An inauspicious beginning, The Good Reader! You’re going to have to do better than that.

The Good Reader:  [mumbles something that sounds as if it might be awfully un-ladylike, but we can’t tell for sure]

The Blogger:  What was that?

The Good Reader:  Wienerschnitzel.

The Blogger:  Excuse me?

The Good Reader:  I said “wienerschnitzel.” It’s an innocent enough word, but i find it convenient for blowing off steam.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  If i may step in at this moment, i think The Good Reader should be commended for her display of self-control.

The Good Reader:  THANK YOU.

The Blogger:  What in the world are YOU doing here, Wu? I wasn’t expecting you to show up on this post!

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Well, the topic was so interesting, i could hardly stay away!

The Good Reader:  And who is this courteous gentleman?

The Blogger:  What, you two haven’t met before?*  The Good Reader, this is Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major. Elvis, this is The Good Reader. She reads my blog and then dials in to deliver her (often tart) opinions.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  The pleasure is entirely mine.

The Good Reader:  [blushing]

The Blogger:  So, Elvis, what makes you think this topic is so interesting?

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Well, for one thing, it’s an area in which false dilemmas tend to thrive. And hunting down false dilemmas is one of my chief recreations.

The Good Reader:  What’s a false dilemma? The Blogger has probably tried to explain it to me at some point, but his explanations are murky and confusing.

The Blogger:  [reddening]  Well, now, i say, that’s just not —

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  A false dilemma is a situation where the person you’re talking to sets up two options as if they were the only two possibilities, and expects you to pick between them. Very often, they will make one of the options sound stupid or wrong, so that you will feel that you have to choose the other one. In reality, though, there may be other possibilities that have not been mentioned.

The Good Reader:  That makes sense! What’s an example?

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Well, a great example would be the one that the Blogger led off with. He said that there are two categories of people in the world:

1. The people with massive, grotesque tufts of fur poking out of their nostrils, and
2. The people who have at least one led Zeppelin poster on their bedroom wall.

Now, it is entirely possible that those two categories do not cover the territory. There may be other kinds of people — many other kinds — and large numbers of people who do not fit into either of those groups. It’s a false dilemma.

The Good Reader:  Take me, for instance. I don’t particularly care about Led Zeppelin, and i don’t think i could even name one of their songs —

The Blogger:  [still bruised from The Good Reader’s comment a minute ago]  “Stairway to Heaven.” Everyone’s heard of that.

The Good Reader:  Okay, fine, but i certainly don’t have any Led Zeppelin posters on my walls. What are we, still in college?

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Very good. And what about the other category?

The Good Reader:  Grotesque tufts of fur sticking out of my nostrils? I don’t THINK so. But you would be a better judge of that, from where you’re standing.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Not a bushy thicket of nose-hair anywhere to be seen.

The Blogger:  [sulking]  You two are interpreting my categories extremely literally.

The Good Reader:  Mister Wu, would you say that i have any figurative or metaphorical tufts of nose-hair?

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Even in the realm of metaphor, i would say that you are blissfully nostril-hair-free. The fact is, those two categories are not even remotely parallel; they aren’t about the same kinds of things, and so they don’t divide the field of possibilities in any kind of sensible way. A person could, for instance, have a nose-hair problem and walls papered with Led Zeppelin posters. Or they could be in just one or the other of those categories, or, like most people, they could be in neither one.

The Blogger:  [rapidly losing patience]  We should maybe get back to the point, which is that there are numerous ways of dividing the human race up into two groups.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Absolutely! Perhaps an inexhaustible variety of ways. For instance, at a pretty basic level, there are (1) men and (2) women. There we have a set of two categories that divide the field pretty cleanly. Another scheme would be (1) people who are 5’6″ or taller, and (2) those who are shorter than that. Or (1) people who have traveled outside of their home country, and (2) those who have not. Or (1) people who are named “Taylor” and (2) those who are named something else.

The Blogger:  Or (1) the people who eat Corn Flakes at least three mornings a week, and (2) those who only eat them a couple of times per week.

The Good Reader:  What? That doesn’t sound right.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  I suspect, although i cannot be sure, that the Blogger is messing with us. He is challenging our powers of logical analysis.

The Blogger:  [slightly disoriented]  Um, exactly. That’s just what i was doing.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  What would you say, Good Reader, about the Blogger’s ‘Corn Flakes’ breakdown of people into two groups?

The Good Reader:  Well, i mean, it sounds like one of those false dilemmas you were talking about. I don’t think those two categories exhaust all the possibilities. What if someone never eats Corn Flakes at all? Or only a few times a year?

The Blogger:  Unthinkable!

The Good Reader:  How do those people fit into his categories? According to the Blogger’s setup, those people don’t even exist. But i have to say, i’ve only eaten Corn Flakes a few times in my life, and i don’t remember finding it a thrilling experience.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  They taste kind of like little chips of soggy cardboard, don’t they.

The Good Reader:  That’s exactly what they remind me of!

The Blogger:  What.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  In order to work properly, a categorization scheme needs to be complete; it can’t have gaps in it. We could say this, for instance: everyone on earth either (1) has tried Corn Flakes at some point, or (2) has not.

The Good Reader:  That seems to work. It doesn’t have any holes. It covers the territory, like you said earlier. Everyone in the world would have to fit into one of those two groups. No one would be left out.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  If we imagine all the human beings inside a vast circle, and we want to structure them into two groups, it would be like drawing a line from one side of the circle to the other. Everyone in the circle would be on one side of the line or the other —  they would be in one category of the other.

The Good Reader:  Why don’t you guys come up with a bunch more examples. Just for yuks. I think i’m getting the hang of this.

The Blogger:  Okay. Everyone on earth is either (1) a Patriots fan, or…

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Don’t say it.

The Good Reader:  What?

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  [to The Good Reader]  He was going to say, “An Eagles fan.” But lots of people didn’t have a dog in that fight, as it were. Not everyone watches the Super Bowl, and not everyone cares who wins, and even of those who did watch this past Super Bowl, not everyone who was pulling for either the Patriots or the Eagles would have said that that was their favorite team. Maybe their favorite team didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, and they had to settle for a team they weren’t completely thrilled about.

The Good Reader:  So it would not be accurate to say that everyone is either a Patriots fan or an Eagles fan, but maybe you could say that everyone either (1) cares about football, or (2) doesn’t?

The Blogger:  Hrmmff. That would work.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  It would indeed. You can always get away with saying that everyone either has a certain attribute, or they do not. That’s a clean, perfect division. For instance, everyone is either an accountant, or something else. Everyone either has smoked a cigar at some point, or they have not. To put it in somewhat Aristotelian terms, everyone is either ‘A’ or ‘not-A.’ They either have a certain characteristic, or they do not.

The Blogger:  Either they fit into a certain category, or they do not, in which case they fit into the category of people who do not fit into the first category.

The Good Reader:  Um.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  [laughing]  That was actually a pretty good way of putting it. Take Fred, for instance.

The Good Reader:  Fred? Who’s Fred?

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  He’s some hypothetical guy that we just made up. Now, Fred is either a barber, or he is not. Right? He can’t be both a barber and not a barber. That’s a logical impossibility. You can’t be something and, at the same time, not be that thing. And he can’t be neither a barber nor not a barber. There are only two possibilities: either he’s a barber, or he ain’t.

The Good Reader:  He could be a part-time barber.

The Blogger:  Then he’s a barber.

The Good Reader:  He… could be a guy who was once a barber, but now he works for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Then he’s not a barber.

The Good Reader:  He could be a barber sometimes, and not a barber sometimes.

The Blogger:  Then he’s a barber. Unless you’re saying that he fades in and out of existence. He’s a barber sometimes, and at other times he gets sucked into the insubstantial ether of the vast cosmic void.

The Good Reader:  Um, no.

The Blogger:  Good. Because that would complicate things somewhat. He’s a barber.

The Good Reader:  Hmmm. Okay. what are some other examples?

The Blogger:  Everyone either makes $40,000 or more dollars, or they make less than that.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Everyone either thinks that Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here was the greatest album of the 1970s, or they do not.

The Blogger:  Everyone either has an authentic Wish You Were Here concert tour shirt, or they do not.

The Good Reader:  Wait. That first category has got to be a tiny one. Is that fair? What if one category is WAAAAYYY bigger than the other? Is that a good way of dividing the human race up into groups?

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  There’s no rule that says the two groups have to be equal in size. We could say, for instance, “There are two groups of people in the world: (1) those who are currently the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and (2) those who are not.”

The Good Reader:  But there would only be one person in that first group. And like seven billion in the other group!

The Blogger:  Mmm-hmm.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  That’s the point. It’s still a perfectly valid way of divvying up the human race.

The Good Reader:  Okay. Whew! A few more examples, and then i’m out.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  The people who have read David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, and those who have not.

The Blogger:  The people who live in a certain remote village in Botswana, Africa, and the people who live somewhere else.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  The people who have ever, at some time, even once, been picked first for a team in gym class… and those who never have.

[All three look kind of sad, and the conversation continues.]

The Blogger:  The people who have tried that broccoli slaw they’ve got at the deli counter at The Fresh Market, and those who haven’t.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  The people who own a pet that can talk and weighs less than ten pounds, and those who do not.

The Blogger:  The people who have ever gone trick-or-treating dressed as Conan O’Brien’s haircut, and those who never have.

The Good Reader:  You mean, dressed as Conan O’Brien, complete with the haircut?

The Blogger:  No, i mean they are going as Conan O’Brien’s haircut. The haircut, specifically. “And what’s your costume?” someone might ask them, and they would reply, “I’m Conan O’Brien’s haircut.”

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  The people who have watched that episode of House, M.D. in which Dr. House has himself admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and those who somehow missed that one.

The Blogger:  Man, that was a hard-hitting episode.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Yeah, it really caught me right here.  [He indicates the middle of his chest.]

The Blogger:  The people who have something hanging from their rear-view mirror, and those who do not.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Ah, but that’s assuming that everyone has a car.

The Blogger:  No, the people who don’t have a car go in the category of people who don’t have something hanging from their rear-view mirror.

Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major:  Touche! Nice one. Good game.

 

* Actually, if you’ve been following the blog, you’re aware that Elvis Wu and The Good Reader have met before, once, at a Christmas party the Blogger threw for some of the people he populates his blog with. But you know how these fictional online characters can be: selective amnesia, not very good with faces and names, that sort of thing.

 

May Your Days Be Merry and Delicious, and May All Your Christmases Be Treadknicious

 

Well, my gentle readers, it’s that time of year again. When the air is filled with tinkling bells / And the trees are white with crusty shells / And the frost is on the windowpane / It’s December time again! It’s time for evergreen wreaths and holly boughs, sleigh bells and silver bells, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, eggnog and spiced cider. Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

The Good Reader:  Well done, Blogger! You managed to populate that introduction almost entirely with song lyrics.

The Blogger:  It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Isn’t it?

The Good Reader:  Mmm-hmmm. I think so.

The Blogger:  And may i just say, it’s good of you to show up to the party.

The Good Reader:  The party? What party?

The Blogger:  My little Christmas party. I’ve invited a few friends over to celebrate the joy of the season and share eggnog and fruitcake.

The Good Reader:  Real friends, or characters from your blog?

The Blogger:  Oh, c’mon, Good Reader, is that a distinction we really have to make right now? It being Christmas and all?

The Good Reader:  Hey, don’t mind me. You’re the one who’s all into making fine metaphysical distinctions and talking about everybody’s ontological status.

The Blogger:  Gracious heavens, Good Reader, i didn’t realize you even KNEW those words! You may blossom into a real philosopher yet.

The Good Reader:  Grrrrr.

The Blogger:  Speaking of which: will you look at that, here come some of my other guests! Jen, Biff, come on in, it’s great to see you!

Little Biffy:  It’s terribly good to see you as well, Mr. Blogger!

Jennifer Smith:  Um. What. Where are we. What in the world. I’m so confused.

Little Biffy:  Jennifer, may i introduce you to The Blogger? He’s a philosopher friend of mine. I suppose you could say, in one sense, that he has taught me everything i know.

Jennifer Smith:  Uh… well, it’s nice to meet you, Blogger. Do you have a real name, or are we all going by job descriptions here? In which case, i’m “Meaningless Desk Job at a Faceless, Soulless Behemoth of an Insurance Company.”

The Blogger:  Oh, Jennifer, i know all about you. That was clever, by the way. Come in, come in! Have some eggnog.

Jennifer Smith:  How do you know all about me? Biff, how does this man know me?

Little Biffy:  It’s kind of complicated. Ooohh, look, fruitcake! C’mon, Jen, there’s snacks.

The Blogger:  Make yourselves at home. Mi casa es su casa. Literally, sort of, heh heh.

Jennifer Smith:  He keeps saying mysterious and creepy things. Who is this guy, Biffy?

Little Biffy:  I’ll explain everything to you in a sec. Let’s go look at the appetizer table. Ooohh, yum, cheezy sausage balls!  [Biffy and Jennifer go to the other side of the room]

The Good Reader:  Blogger, seriously, is this young lady not aware that she’s a character in your blog?

The Blogger:  Ssshhhh. Keep your voice down. Sometimes the weaker ones will panic.

The Good Reader:  Pfft! It sure took me a long time to get used to it.

The Blogger:  Okay, here’s the scoop on Jen and Biff. He, being more philosophically inclined, grasped early on that his conscious experience of reality might be only one level or mode of participation in the larger matrix in which he is embedded as an existent entity.

The Good Reader:  Mmm. Exactly how i would have put it.

The Blogger:  Biffy casts a critical eye on his world, takes nothing for granted, and he asks all the right questions. Jennifer, on the other hand — although she’s pretty bright — tends to take things at face value.

The Good Reader:  So Little Biffy knows that you’re his creator?

The Blogger:  Sure does.

The Good Reader:  And he’s okay with that?

The Blogger:  What sort of objection is he supposed to raise?  “I don’t like the fact that i am a figment of your creative imagination. Make it stop! Waa-a-a-a-a-a-anh.”

The Good Reader:  Well, if you put it that way.

The Blogger:  He’s got a good attitude about it. We’re all somebody’s creation, after all. No sense getting all bent out of shape about it.

The Good Reader:  Hark! Looks like somebody else is at the door.

The Blogger:  Well, that would be Mister Wu! Elvis! Come in, dude! It’s so good of you to stop by.

Elvis Wu:  A strong argument could be made that i had no choice in the matter. [smiles] But the pleasure is, at any rate, entirely mine.

The Blogger:  Fellas, i’d like to introduce you all to Elvis Wu, the Last Philosophy Major.

Jennifer Smith:  The very last philosophy major? Ever?

Elvis Wu:  [bows gallantly]  At your service.

Little Biffy:  I’m happy to actually be able to meet you at long last, having heard so many rumors of your existence.

Elvis Wu:  Or perhaps, my ‘modal’ existence.

[They both laugh, The Good Reader rolls her eyes, and Jennifer looks grumpy]

The Good Reader:  Well, Mister Wu… or should i call you ‘Doctor Wu’?

Elvis Wu:  Good one. I’m a Steely Dan fan, myself.

Little Biffy:  [Singing from near the appetizer table]  “Are you with me, Doctor Wu? / Are you really just a shadow of the man that we once knew?”

The Good Reader:  Ever since the Blogger first introduced you on this blog as “The Last Philosophy Major,” i’ve been curious about the same thing that Jennifer just asked. “The Last Philosophy Major.” What does that even mean? Surely you don’t mean that there are no more colleges or universities with philosophy departments. There must be.

Elvis Wu:  The answer to your question is actually kind of complicated.

The Good Reader:  Oh my gosh, you’re as bad as this guy!  [She indicates the Blogger.]  I can’t get a straight answer out of him either! No wonder you guys hang out.

Elvis Wu:  There are still academic departments at many institutions of higher learning that continue to label themselves ‘philosophy’ departments, if that serves as a partial answer to your question.

The Good Reader:  It’ll probably have to do for now.

Little Biffy:  [Still singing]  “Are you crazy, are you high, or just an ordinary guy?”

[Jennifer slips away from Little Biffy, and approaches The Blogger.]

Jennifer Smith:  Blogger, can i talk with you for a minute?

The Blogger:  Sure thing, Jen. What’s on your mind? As if i don’t already know. Heh heh.

Jennifer Smith:  That’s not funny! See, that’s what i wanted to talk to you about. I find it unsettling at best that you and Biffy seem to think that i’m your creation. But no. Come on. I’m an actual person, Blogger. I have my own thoughts and experiences. This “I created her” stuff has got to go.

The Blogger:  It doesn’t seem to bother Little Biffy.

Jennifer Smith:  Biffy’s a freak of nature. I have no idea who or what created him. I think he may have sprung fully-formed out of a Black Hole in outer space. But i know who i am.

The Blogger:  If that’s true, then you’re a rare one indeed. Hardly anybody knows who they really are.

Jennifer Smith:  You’re going all philosophical on me, and i’m just trying to make a simple point. Stop telling Biffy that you created us! It’s sick and twisted, and he’s just a kid. You’re messing with the head of a little kid.

The Blogger:  He’s a boy genius. I don’t think he’s in any danger of being bamboozled by a story that is completely without credibility. And, as it happens, this story is a true one.

Jennifer Smith:  Okay… okay… then, how about this. You and i are standing together in the same living room right now, in what i assume is your house. Right? Here we are, you and me. I’m just as real, and as present, as you are. Or vice-versa.

The Blogger:  That’s because we’re both creations of the REAL Blogger.

Jennifer Smith:  Oh my word.

The Blogger:  Yup. You might want to think of me as an avatar of the guy writing the blog. I mean, i’m him, but i’m not really him, you see. I’m the version of him that he sticks into the dialogue to represent him.

Jennifer Smith:  I’m just going to sit down over here for a minute.

Little Biffy:  [From the appetizer table]  How’s it going over there? These cheezy sausage things are terrific!

The Good Reader:  I just tried some of the fruitcake, and it’s actually not bad! Everybody likes to make awful jokes about fruitcake.

The Blogger:  Mine is homemade, from a family recipe. You’re thinking of those rubbery inedible brick-shaped things wrapped in cellophane that they sell at truck-stop convenience marts.

Jennifer Smith:  Yeah, what are those made of, anyway? It looks kind of like, hardened jell-o with sediment and petrified fruits embedded in it.

Elvis Wu:  I’ve never spoken with anyone who has actually eaten one of those. I think they may be poisonous.

Little Biffy:  Or even caustic! They’re wrapped in cellophane because they cause burns if brought into contact with the skin!

Elvis Wu:  “Turn and run! Nothing can stop them, / Around every river and canal their power is growing…”

Little Biffy:  “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”!  The Last Philosophy Major knows his early Genesis! I salute you, sir.

Elvis Wu:  Except, in this case, it would be “The Return of the Giant Fruitcake.”

Jennifer Smith:  I have no idea what they’re talking about. What a frustrating Christmas party.

Little Biffy:  The Giant Hogweed is a terrible invasive plant species that looks pretty but can burn, scar, or even blind you if your skin comes in contact with it. And the British rock group Genesis recorded a song about it in the early 1970s.

Jennifer Smith:  Back when you were just a wee tot.

Little Biffy:  [Turning red]  I wasn’t born yet. But i listen to my parents’ records.

The Good Reader:  Yikes! Is this appropriate Christmas conversation? People’s skin being burned off by hogweeds and fruitcakes? I’m with Jen. This party needs a jump-start.

The Blogger:  Okay, we’ve covered fruitcake. What’s eggnog?

Little Biffy:  [Sings]  “Christmas is a-coming, and the egg is in the nog…”

The Good Reader:  I know this one! It goes back to the Middle Ages. Authentic eggnog is made from milk, cream, sugar, spices, eggs, and whiskey or rum.

Jennifer Smith:  Well, why don’t they call it an ‘egg shake’ or an ‘egg smoothie’? What does ‘nog’ even mean?

The Good Reader:  I think it was an archaic word for whiskey. Eggnog: Egg whiskey.

Little Biffy:  Yum. Egg whiskey.

The Good Reader:  My Grammy made it from scratch every Christmas. Mighty strong stuff.  [Hesitates.]  She was a bit of a lush, my Grammy.

The Blogger:  Fantastic! And what about the Yule log? Where did that come from?

Elvis Wu:  That one’s easy. You know the problem some people have, confusing the words “your” and “you’re”?

The Good Reader:  Mm-hmm.

Elvis Wu:  Well, people used to have a similar problem related to their Christmas fireplace logs. The “You’ll” log was traditionally the one that a family saved for when they had holiday guests over — as in, “you’ll be at home here with us,” or something like that — but the tradition apparently fell into the hands of illiterate people and thus we have the Yule log.

Jennifer Smith:  Ugh. You’re not the Last Philosophy Major. You’re the Appallingly Terrible Puns Major.

Elvis Wu:  I enter a plea of ‘guilty’.

Little Biffy:  Given that we’re in the South, maybe we should start calling it the “Y’all” log?

[Groans all around, except for Elvis, who looks at Biffy with renewed admiration.]

The Blogger:  Well, i think it’s time for a holiday toast. Elvis, would you mind doing the honors?

Elvis Wu:  I would be honored.  [He pours himself a fresh cup of hot spiced cider.]

Jennifer Smith:  I have no idea what to expect. I mean. This guy.

Little Biffy:  Expect the unexpected.

Jennifer Smith:  But if you’re expecting ‘the unexpected,’ then what you’re actually expecting is… wait, he’s about to offer the toast.

Elvis Wu:  [Lifts his glass]  May your days be merry and delicious, and may all your Christmases be treadknicious!

The Assembled Throng:  Wassail!

 

 

A Fine, Honest, Admirable, Heartfelt Attempt to Define ‘Flockbinkers’

 

To begin with:

We talk a lot about flockbinkers ’round these here parts.

Editor’s Note: The blogger lives in Tennessee and occasionally lapses into a charming but grammatically substandard regional idiom. We, the AllFlockbinkers Editorial Staff, allow this, because it gives a sense of local color to the blog.

It’s true. We talk about flockbinkers. We just do. And we’re not ashamed to admit it. We’ve been doing so for a long time, and i can’t see that changing anytime soon. Sure and we’re a wee bit fond o’ th’ flockbinkers.

Editor’s Note: The blogger has never lived in either Scotland or Ireland, and we are scratching our beards over the mystery of where that last bit came from.

From time to time, a weary reader will call to our attention the fact that we haven’t yet defined the term “flockbinker,” which makes things a wee bit somewhat difficult when they are everywhere present on the blog. “How can i sit around and listen to you talk all day about frockbrinkers,” a typical reader might protest, “when i have no idea what they are?” An understandable objection, even if the misguided reader struggled a bit to get the word quite right. But no matter. Today we shall address the difficulty full-on. We are about to take the flockbinker by the horns.

The Good Reader:  You just said it again.

The Blogger:  Said what? Flockbinker? Of course! It’s a blog about flockbinkers.

The Good Reader:  No, you said they have horns.

The Blogger:  Oh, right, right. We talked about this a couple of years ago, didn’t we.

The Good Reader:  That was actually ‘The Timid Reader’ that you had that conversation with. I’m ‘The Good Reader.’ But she and i might actually be the same person. Maybe i was going under the name of The Timid Reader at that time. Maybe. Your blog is so weird. It’s impossible to know WHAT is up.

The Blogger:  That’s a very good point, and if i may say so, ontologically astute.

The Good Reader:  Thanks. So, back to flockbinkers and their horns. You said they had horns then, and when i (or she) tried to pin you down about it, you wriggled out of it by saying philosophical things that probably didn’t have an actual meaning. Or you might have said “it’s complicated.” You like to get out of making clear statements by saying “it’s complicated.”

The Blogger:  Actually, i did not say they had horns then. But yes, i remember, i did say we were going to take the flockbinker by the horns. And we did! Sort of. And that’s what we’re going to do right now!

The Good Reader:  Using the horns that they actually have, or horns that they don’t have?

The Blogger:  You’re becoming more of a philosopher with each passing minute, The Good Reader! I’m proud of you.

The Good Reader:  [says a word that we have chosen not to print because we feel it would detract from the family-oriented reputation of this blog]

 

But, ahem, back to the point:

The thing you need to understand about flockbinkers is that they can be used as placeholders in a logical scenario, without anyone actually knowing what they are, or even whether they exist… and, if they do exist, in what way.

Example:

1. All flockbinkers are treadknicious
2. All wamwams are flockbinkers
3. Therefore, all wamwams are treadknicious

…or, if you’re not particularly partial to wamwams… and let’s just be honest, not everybody is…

1. Some flockbinkers are nomnomnomnom
2. No fruitcakes are nomnomnomnom
3. Therefore, no fruitcakes are flockbinkers

[Oops. It appears we made a boo-boo. You get extra credit points if you can explain why that second syllogism was not valid.]

[And, by the way, if you’d like to learn more about logical syllogisms, you can find some marvelous examples of syllogisms in this post right here.]

So here’s the thing. Despite the fact that we are frequently referring to them in these logical syllogisms, it still may or may not be the case that such entities as flockbinkers, wamwams, and fruitcakes exist. And even if they do exist, there may be considerable uncertainty regarding what they are. I’ve never talked to ANYBODY who could give me a satisfying account of what fruitcakes are.

 

An excursus on ontology

Ontology is an area of philosophy that has to do with being and identity. It deals with (among other things) the question of what things are. You know? What they really are.

So, for instance, if you had a question about the ontological status of fruitcakes, and you chose wisely to consult a philosopher, you might get a response something like this:

The Philosopher:  Well, what is the fruitcake made of? Is it part of something larger? Is it subdivided into component parts? Can the fruitcake be assigned to a larger category, and do you know what that category is? Might it be assigned to several distinct or overlapping categories? Perhaps a plethora of categories? An El Guapo-esque plethora? What is the purpose of the fruitcake? How, when and where did it come into existence? Were there other things that came into existence along with it? Did someone give it to you at Christmas? I hate it when that happens. I don’t think anybody ever actually eats them. Have you ever heard of someone eating a fruitcake? I don’t even know whether they are edible. They sure don’t LOOK edible. I used mine to plug up a hole in the bathroom wall right behind the shower.

That’s what a trained philosopher might say if you asked him about fruitcakes.

Similarly, the questions about the ontological status of flockbinkers, wamwams, unicorns, Tiny Tim, the milk of human kindness, efficient postal delivery, the person who creates those Facebook memes with monstrously broken grammar, or a bargain item at Whole Foods might be addressed in the same manner.

 

So. Here we are. What ARE flockbinkers, anyway?

Whether they (flockbinkers) exist or not, it would be nice to know what they are.

Of course, the question of what they are might seem to hinge on the question of whether they exist. This was a sticking point in a conversation i had a couple of years ago with The Good Reader, who (in my estimation) seemed not to appreciate the nuances of the discussion. But might it be the case that a nonexistent entity can still have recognizable characteristics? You could all describe a unicorn, if called upon to do so. You could describe a planet that is in the throes of being blown up by the Death Star (or one of its many successors). You could describe the experience of what it would be like to check out for less than $75.00 at Whole Foods. This last one might require a strenuous exercise of the imagination, but i am confident that you could pull it off.

So, you see, it might be possible for a thing to have attributes even if it is not a real thing.

So, without further ado, why don’t we assemble some experts on logic, metaphysics and semantics, and see if we can come to some understanding of what sort of critter the ‘flockbinker’ is. Or isn’t. If there even is one.

 

Our panel of experts weighs in:

And by “our panel of experts,” we mean “the somewhat random group of people we were able to assemble by offering to let them look at a McDonald’s hamburger we’ve kept in its wrapper for seventeen years and which has not decomposed at all.”

The Good Reader:  I’m dumbfounded that you would even ask me this, given the large number of frustrating conversations we’ve had about flockbinkers and unicorns and other things that don’t exist but that you claim do exist, or something — and if you say, “it’s complicated,” i will reply with a very rude word. You know i will.

The Timid Reader:  Why do you insist on embarrassing me like this? I don’t even get it. You have it in for me. You lose no opportunity to expose my ignorance in front of your thousands of readers.

Editor’s Note: The Timid Reader is referring to a conversation that occurred in one of the early posts to this blog, in which she was publicly revealed as not knowing what a syllogism was. Which really wasn’t a big deal, but she took it way personally.

Editor’s Note2: Apparently The Good Reader and The Timid Reader are two distinct people, after all. But according to The Good Reader, earlier in this very blog post… oh dear. Curiouser and curiouser.

The Blogger:  I wish.

The Timid Reader:  To expose my ignorance?

The Blogger:  No, the part about thousands of readers.

Elvis Wu:  Well, if i understand correctly the things you’ve told me, and the posts i’ve read on this blog — really interesting blog, by the way! —

The Blogger:  Gosh, thanks, Wu.

Elvis Wu:  — it would seem that the flockbinker is a modally existent entity that is often characterized as if it were a kind of semi-mythical beast, but is at other times spoken of as if it were a small appliance, like a toaster, or a blow-dryer.

One of our British readers:  I’m not entirely certain i understand what it is that i’m being asked. Then again, i’ve been following this blog for a couple of years now and have never felt that i had any idea what was going on. It is awfully amusing, though, isn’t it?

Jennifer Smith (of “Little Biffy and Jennifer Smith Talk About Philosophy” fame):  Okay, i’ve got this. The flockbinker was originally created for use in logic exercises you wrote up for your students. He is a logical placeholder with a deliberately absurd name, and is of uncertain ontological status. [pauses to catch her breath]  Don’t be too impressed; i’m sure i stole every word of that from one or more conversations i’ve had with Little Biffy.

Jennifer Smith’s Uncle Hubert, who happens to be visiting from Spokane and was fascinated by the idea of a seventeen-year-old hamburger:  Well now, Jen’s told me about this blog, and i have to say i think it’s just a terrific idea. A terrific idea! The young people these days are in such need of guidance and critical thinking skills and such —

Jennifer:  Uncle Hubert, he’s asking you to define a ‘flockbinker.’

Uncle Hubert:  Right, right, right. Well, i have to just say i don’t really have the background to be talking about specialized foreign terms, but i think the whole idea’s a terrific one, i really do. The young people today, they just don’t seem to —

Jennifer:  Thanks, Uncle Hubert! Blogger, you may want to move on to the next person.

Random elderly woman in Coolidge Park:  They took my purse. They ran up from behind and took my purse.

The Blogger:  Flockbinkers did this?

REW:  Who? I said they stole my purse!

Tharg, the Primordial Man:  Ooog, bunga bunga, froom froom ooga froom, frockbinger tredmishus, bonga froom ooga wamwam ontological status mooga mooga.

One of the anonymous people who took the quiz a couple of weeks ago:  So what i remember from that quiz is that you offered five choices for whether flockswingers exist… yes, no, maybe, both, and… um… all of the above? Or something.

The Blogger:  [in a hoarse stage whisper]  No, those were NOT the five choices i gave you on that question, and you haven’t even identified the question accurately, never mind your inventive pronunciation of the term ‘flockbinker’…

Anonymous quiz-taking dude whose strong suit is apparently not precision:  And i think i selected “all of the above” because the question seemed really hard and i figured “all of the above” was probably my safest bet. Yeah. That’s what i did.

_____________________________________________

So there you have it, patient readers. I hope you have found this discussion of flockbinkers at least somewhat enlightening. I don’t think it went in exactly the direction i’d had in mind when i started out. I’m going to go for a long walk now through desolate places and contemplate the lonely existence of the philosopher in modern life.

 

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