Thursday, October 21, 2010

A philosopher walks into a bar and says to the
bartender, “I’ll just have a coke” (perhaps because she agrees with
Thoreau: “I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite
degrees of drunkenness”).

Let’s assume she does want a coke, and that she knows she wants a
coke. (It is strange to say “X knows she’s in pain,” but “X knows
what she wants” sounds normal to me.) By saying this, she brings it
about that the bartender also believes she wants a coke. At least,
that presumably is the immediate point of saying this.

However, she does not thereby make it possible for him to know, by the
same method she has followed, that she wants a coke. That is: she
doesn’t prove to him that she wants a coke. Rather, she gets him to
accept this belief by virtue of her (apparent) authority (in this
case, the apparent authority vested in her by the legal system as
apparent owner of the money he assumes she will use to pay her tab).

Question: is this permissible for a philosopher?


  1. Are you going to give us any indication as to why you think it isn't, Socrates?

  2. I first thought of this as a counterexample, because Eric (Schliesser) was saying some people would be shocked to learn that Spinoza thinks philosophers engage also in, say, rhetorical, or mythological, or "prophetic" teaching. I thought, well, duh, everyone has to do that.

    But then I realized that there are some philosophers other than Spinoza, Socrates being one of them (also Thoreau, Diogenes the Cynic) for whom the counterexample might not work so well. Maybe they actually do think a true philosopher would engage in no interactions like this at all?

  3. I admit to being completely mystified as to what is going on here. And that is not an exaggeration in any way.

  4. lol you were the one who was so keen for me to start a blog. What did you think would be in it, trolley problems?

    But to try again:

    Spinoza says (following Socrates in the Meno and elsewhere) that philosophers teach by making others like themselves, whereas prophets teach by authority.

    Eric said, Spinoza claims philosophers sometimes do the latter, as well.

    My first reaction (to Eric) was, well duh, you can't even go into a bar and order a coke without doing that. But my second reaction was: and is it certain that a true philosopher would ever do even such a completely trivial, ordinary, but unphilosophical thing as going into a bar and order a coke?

  5. That is much clearer, thank you. Certainly not all forms of authority are created equal. And there is a certain sense in which all of us have to rely on authority for most of the things we know. I simply do not have the resources, as a finite human being (which you are fond of pointing is an important consideration of what it means to be philosopher), to learn everything for myself. I must rely on the expertise of others in many facets of my life. Now, if you want the philosopher to be some sort of super-human, incapable-of-being-reached exemplar, I could see you having some sort of requirement in this way. But I was under the impression that our finitude is an important consideration in figuring out what we should be doing, as human beings and potential philosophers.
    I'm not sure you could "teach" the bartender to identify with you empathetically to the extent that he could be privy to your inner episodes. But this might be an issue that I don't know enough about, given that things like "desires" as mental episodes have come under sustained attack by people like Ryle and my boy Wittgenstein.

  6. Also, I think it is somewhat unfair to mock my mystification. It wasn't exactly clear what the problem was just from the way you laid it out initially.

  7. Sorry, did not mean to mock. I was responding to your mystification as if it were a complaint against me.

    It's true that Thoreau seems to have no problem with relying on authority, and giving his own authority, in some cases: for example, the history of ant battles. In fact I suppose that's inseparable from his activity as a naturalist? So maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree.

    I do think it's right that a philosopher, when doing this, is not functioning as a philosopher.

    As for the bartender: yes, given the nature of the relationship (e.g. that anyone can walk into the bar, and, iff they have the money, ask for anything), I think teaching him would be out of the question. Which would mean that this type of transaction is inherently unphilosophical.

  8. Which is ok, right? It's kind of like the utilitarian's contention that every decision is essentially a moral decision, and we get absurdities like Singer on giving away your money. Philosophy shouldn't end up like that. Or rather, it shouldn't reduce one to a position of complete paralysis--which is really hard to avoid, btw--in some misguided quest for purity (ascetic ideals).

  9. The conclusion appears to be that a philosopher who walks into a bar is at that point no longer a philosopher but a customer. Which seems fitting, really.

    Though it might pose some trouble for Monty Python.