all flockbinkers are treadknicious… and other salient observations

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

Tag: truth

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]

 

Okay, that’s it. I’m ditching philosophy and taking up extreme sports.

Look. I’ve had it. The philosophical life has just gotten too dang hard.

Given the times we’re living in, and the direction the world seems to be taking, there just doesn’t seem to be much demand for philosophical thought anymore. Contemporary discourse is being taken over by darkness and unreason; the irrational has gained ascendancy over logic and clear sense; there is a breathtaking lack of interest in truth; it is increasingly popular to ignore obvious aspects of reality in favor of bizarre flavor-of-the-month ideologies.

And that’s just in my morning carpool.

So i’m considering a pretty radical move.

I’m gonna give up on being a philosopher, and take up extreme sports instead.

Well… maybe….

Because, you see, being a philosopher (i haven’t taken up extreme sports just yet) i can’t just jump into a life-changing decision like this. I need to carefully, analytically and systematically examine all of the ramifications. What follows is my painstaking analysis of the pros and cons of giving up the leisured, cerebral life of philosophy, in order to climb up sheer rock faces with my fingernails.

The Advantages to Giving up on Philosophy
in Favor of Extreme Sports:

  • Among rugged outdoors types, you don’t ever catch someone making a stupid pun on “Kant” and “can’t.”
  • No one in your ice climbing group will be examining your epistemological premises for consistency or fidelity to the available evidence.
  • You get to experience terror of things other than the meaninglessness of existence.
  • Getting tangled up in webs of reasoning is ten times more exhausting than getting tangled up in a mess of ropes and carabiners.
  • When you see a reference to ‘Academy’ you will immediately think of a sporting goods store, not Plato’s archetypal think-tank.
  • The name “St. Augustine” does not conjure up images of morbid self-reflection; on the contrary, it calls up images of parasailing off of sunny Florida beaches.
  • The name “Schopenhauer” is more likely to remind you of an imported beer, than the raw, brute will at the center of the universe.
  • Parkour may look kind of ridiculous to a jaded onlooker, but it’s not nearly as ridiculous as a dorm room full of sophomores discussing critical theory at 2:15 in the morning.
  • Your nightmares will be haunted by visions of hurtling off of icy ledges three thousand feet up, rather than an image of Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed cadaver on display at University College, London…which, honestly, is much more terrifying.
  • No more dealing with asinine conundrums, like the parable of “Buridan’s Ass” or the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”… instead, you get to face dilemmas like, “Do we continue on toward the top, risking starvation and sub-zero temperatures, or do we turn back, thus risking starvation and sub-zero temperatures?”
  • Reading Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy is a bit of a yawn compared with the cool merch available at Mountain Outfitters (West Jefferson, North Carolina)

Possible Disadvantages to Taking up Extreme Sports
and Giving up on Philosophy:

  • Sitting in an armchair contemplating the mysteries of the universe turns out to be a lot less dangerous than a near-vertical-grade slab climb.
  • When doing philosophy in my own home, i get to eat my own “trail mix” that is, in fact, made up of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and cornbread, all arranged nicely on a big plate.
  • Whatever the disadvantages to being stranded in Plato’s Cave, it’s unlikely that they’ll have to send a rescue team in after you.
  • Hume’s “problem of induction” remains purely theoretical until you get out there and field test it: in reality, it turns out that every time i step on a loose rock, i will sprain my ankle.
  • Cracking your cranium open on a river boulder can seriously curtail your capacity for rational thought — a faculty that turns out to come in handy in a variety of life’s situations, not just philosophy.
  • Being a Socratic gadfly in the marketplace is not nearly so annoying to innocent bystanders as parkour.
  • The most violent thing that may happen to you is that you will be threatened with Wittgenstein’s Poker… and that only happens about once in a generation.
  • Heraclitus, schmeraclitus: You can step into the same river twice, and if the current is swift enough, suddenly the question of whether the Real World is in a constant state of flux will seem kind of silly and academic.
  • Sure, jumping to conclusions is a Really Bad Thing and all, but as it turns out, BASE jumping is far more dangerous.
  • The law of the excluded middle is a big deal in logic, but it’s an even bigger deal when you’ve inexplicably lost the middle section of your parachute
  • “Being and Nothingness” has such a vibey sound to it when you’re looking at a book by Sartre, but it loses its appeal when you’re hanging off the side of a cliff

 

The Conclusion

Having carefully weighed the pros and cons, i think i may hold off for a bit on taking up extreme sports. My cranium has become very dear to me over the years…

…and i Kant bear the thought of fracturing it.

 

We happen upon Little Biffy and Jennifer Smith in the middle of a rousing philosophical discussion. Let’s listen in.

If i’m not mistaken, you people…

(and here i refer to The Good Reader, in both his singular and plural capacities… that is, as an individual human person reading the blog, and as an archetypal personage representing all three of you who are readers of the blog… as well as in both his male and female manifestations)

…well, anyway, it is you, Good Reader, whom i am addressing, and it seems to me that i’ve not yet introduced you to Little Biffy and Jennifer Smith.

Which seems extraordinary. How many posts to this blog have we gotten through thus far, and still have somehow managed not to introduce these two characters who are so near the very center of what the “All Flockbinkers Are Treadknicious” thing is all about? Too many, that’s all i can say. So it’s high time you were introduced to them.

Let’s leave the detailed introductions for a future post. For now, suffice it to say that Little Biffy is a budding young philosopher and a student at Foundations Collegium in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He’s somewhere around, oh, maybe ten years of age. It’s hard to tell. He’s really kind of ageless. As evidence of this, i offer the fact that he was created at least 15 years ago, and he’s still the same age now that he was then. YOU try pulling that off. (What’s that? You’ve tried, you say, and you’ve got thousands of dollars in plastic surgery bills to prove it? Well, i’m not sure we’re talking about exactly the same thing, but sure, okay, that’s fine.)

Little Biffy is sort of like a half-pint Socrates. He cannot imagine anything more enjoyable than the pursuit of truth. He loves exploring ideas with people, and plying them with questions until some sort of satisfying conclusion is reached.

One of his regular victims …er… fellow explorers, is Jennifer Smith. Jennifer is in her late 20’s. She’s a business graduate from UTC, and is presently working at Unum in some kind of decently-paying but not-terribly-inspiring desk job. She likes to wind down after work at the Panera Bread on Market Street, sitting at one of the tables on the sidewalk out front with a chai latte and a frothy bestseller, and forget that she finds her career and her life pretty unfulfilling.

Jennifer is a fairly typical twenty-something, in a lot of ways: she’s bright and did well in her college classes, but she has given very little thought to the big questions that life is built around. Or, to put it the way Little Biffy would, she has given insufficient attention to the sharpening up of her worldview.

Biffy met Jenn a few years ago while hanging out at Panera Bread, and she has been one of his favorite interlocutors ever since. She finds him amusing, annoying, and challenging, and puts up with his insistent lines of questioning because, deep down, she really does value truth, and enjoys his challenges to her way of seeing things.

The following excerpt is from one of their early conversations, one sunny spring afternoon a few years back, at a coffeehouse called the Stone Cup.

Little Biffy:  Allright, Jennifer… I think it’s time for a lesson in logic.

Jennifer Smith:  Wow. My friends are going to be so jealous.

Biffy:  Heh heh. I think you’re kidding. But, well, anyway, here goes. Listen closely. All flockbinkers are treadknicious.

Jennifer:  Wait. I thought you said this was going to be a lesson in logic.

Biffy:  Exactly! Yes. It is.

Jennifer:  But what you just said didn’t make any sense whatsoever. Maybe i’m letting my ignorance of philosophy show, but i thought logic was supposed to be about things that make sense.

Biffy:  But Jennifer, it makes perfect sense to say that all flockbinkers are treadknicious.

Jennifer:  In some other solar system, maybe.

Biffy:  Well, there is that. Heh heh. So stay focused. All flockbinkers…

Jennifer:  Stop. What’s a ‘flockbinker’?

Biffy:  You’re missing the point. Just hang with me. All flockbinkers are treadknicious.

Jennifer:  Okay. Fine.

Biffy:  And all wamwams are flockbinkers.

Jennifer:  I don’t know what a wamwam is, either.

Biffy:  That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Just stay with it. It’ll make sense eventually.

Jennifer:  Terrific. Got it. All flockbinkers are wamwams.

Biffy:  Actually… that’s not it. All wamwams are flockbinkers.

Jennifer:  It’s the same thing!

Biffy:  Well, really, no. But we’ll get back to that.

Jennifer:  Oh, come on. How can it not be the same thing? All flockbinkers are wamwams. All wamwams are flockbinkers. Not that it even matters, ‘cause you’re talking gibberish. All pooh-poohs are hubbabubbas. All blahblahs are froomfrooms too, i bet.

Biffy:  Heh heh. That sparkling wit. It never gets old. No, Jenn, you see, just because all wamwams are flockbinkers, that does not at all necessitate the opposite scenario, that all flockbinkers are wamwams. Try this. Imagine the category of all wamwams.

Jennifer:  I don’t dare. I’ll have nightmares for weeks.

Biffy:  Okay. Fair enough. Imagine the category of all dogs. You like dogs, do you?

Jennifer:  Dogs are great, and they have the added virtue of not sounding like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Okay. I’m picturing all the dogs.

Biffy:  Now imagine the category of all mammals. All the mammals in the world. Got it?

Jennifer:  That’s a bit harder to picture. There’s lots of mammals.

Biffy:  Right, but you know what mammals are, so you can at least imagine what that particular category would involve. Imagine all the mammals in the world, standing in a big circle the size of Alaska.

Jennifer:  Would they all fit?

Biffy:  Sure. Easily. Under factory-farming conditions, anyway.

Jennifer:  That was not even remotely funny.

Biffy:  Uh, sorry. [turns beet-red] So, anyway, all the mammals are in a huge circle the size of Alaska, with lots of room to walk around and graze and joyfully prance upon the grassy hillsides.

Jennifer:  Much better. Okay, all the mammals are in Alaska, prancing. Some of ‘em are freezing their little mammal buns off.

Biffy:  Great. I mean, not that the beasts are cold, but that you’ve got the picture. Now, imagine that all the dogs are also in that Alaska-sized circle. Got it?

Jennifer:  Sure. Well, wait a second. Aren’t they already there? ‘Cause they’re mammals, too.

Biffy:  Excellent! You’re getting it! You’re halfway there. So all of the dogs are mammals.

Jennifer:  Right. Every single one. And if you keep patronizing me, i’m going to tweak your nose. I’m old enough to be your… mmm, your aunt.

Biffy:  Oops. Sorry. [turns red again] So all the dogs are mammals. Now, are all of the mammals dogs?

Jennifer:  Of course not! Some of them are gerbils, and some of ‘em are wildebeests.

Biffy:  So: all dogs are mammals, but not all mammals are dogs.

Jennifer:  That’s right… oh. I see. I’m embarrassed now.

Biffy:  No need! No need. So it’s clear to you that even if all wamwams are flockbinkers, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all flockbinkers are wamwams.

Jennifer:  Yes. I get it. You don’t have to rub it in.

Biffy:  Okay then! Moving on. So if all flockbinkers are treadknicious, and all wamwams are flockbinkers, we can reasonably conclude that….

Jennifer:  We are visiting a zoo in wonderland?

Biffy:  Heh heh. You never seem to lose that lively sense of humor. That’s good. No, Jennifer, what we can reasonably conclude is that all wamwams are treadknicious.

Jennifer:  I guess so. And all borogoves are mimsy. And the mome raths, outgrabe. I think I’m getting the hang of this.

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