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.