Saturday, October 22, 2005

Symptoms of a philosopher

I once heard it suggested that the sign of a potential philosopher is the ability to grasp the full force of the Euthyphro dilemma. I think that's a pretty good choice, actually, but I was wondering what other signals (or "symptoms") we might be able to come up with. Obviously understanding conditionals is a necessary prerequisite. More seriously, it helps to be able to abstract away superfluous details and take a thought experiment in the spirit in which it's intended. Fafblog had a wonderful post last year which poked fun at the pedantry typical of the literal-minded:
FAF.: Oh no Giblets! You have not been eatin pork to painful excess again have you?
GIBS.: Giblets does it... GLLGGLL... for national greatness. He stuffs himself with liquid ham... for the glory of the republic!
FAF.: But Giblets does the end always justify the means? For example say there is a man stuck in the opening of a mine shaft.
GIBS.: How would a man get stuck in a mine shaft? Mine shafts are huge.
FAF.: Well lets say he's a big fat man stuck in a mine shaft an there are like a dozen other people trapped in there because the fat man he is just so fat.
GIBS.: This is an improbably fat man we are talkin about.
FAF.: Maybe he has been eatin ham jello. For the glory of the republic.
GIBS.: Then he can stuff off. This is Giblets's ham jello.
FAF.: Anyway the question is should we blow up the fat man if there is no other way to get him out of the mine shaft to free the trapped an starving people inside when we know that blowin up the fat man is cruel murder?
GIBS.: Ha! I'd like to see you try! The explosives'll just make the mine shaft collapse an squish everyone inside.
FAF.: Giiiiblets, you're ruinin my moral dileeeema.

Well, okay, maybe they're also poking fun at the silly thought experiments we come up with. But all the same, it's a neat dialogue ;)

So, any other suggestions?


  1. Well "philosophers" are not really a distinct class, if you ask me. Philosophy is merely the art of examining assumptions, so almost everyone is a philosopher at least occaisionally. The mark of a good philosopher is being able to spot where underlying assumptions are leading others (or themselves) into error or causing two people to talk right past eachoother, and to clarify the issue accordingly.

  2. The cynical answer is that philosophers accept one or more of the statements in David Stove's What is wrong with our thoughts?.

    The fun game is to identify the philosopher responsable for each of those thoughts.

  3. Another fun game is to identify the sense in which each of those thoughts is true.

    Another cynical answer: a philosopher is a person who can identify those elements of a thought experiment that show him to be right, and dismiss all the others as superfluous details.

  4. Ha, yeah, I guess that's the other way of looking at it ;)

  5. Mike I applaud your cynicism!

  6. Which Mike?

    "Another fun game is to identify the sense in which each of those thoughts is true."

    Don't you mean "how many more assumptions would be added to create a sense in which each statement is true, in some strained and far-fetched manner"?

  7. Well "philosophers" are not really a distinct class, if you ask me.

    If you ask me, Matt thinks they're not really a distinct class even if we don't ask him.

  8. well I meant Mike B but you too - I find cynicism a admirable trait :)

  9. And if you ask me, Jim thinks that I think that they're not really a distinct class, even if we don't ask him.

    [fun with recursion!]

  10. "fun with recursion"

    Now that you mention it, that's probably a fairly reliable symptom too!

  11. How about the classic knowing that you don't know


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