Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, July 28, 2018

"I can tell that we are gonna be friends"

I've mentioned before an exercise I do with students sometimes, asking them to define "thing," and pressing them to avoid the word "thing" in the definition. This is more than a semantic rehearsal or an trap for inexact or circular thinking; for some it is actually their first foray into (explicit) ontology, and it's always fascinating to see which students move fastest towards defaulting to science ("a thing is a collection of matter..."), which to formalism ("a thing is whatever can be the subject of a sentence...") and so on. Most students pretty quickly see the point of avoiding circularity, but some are actually interested in it.

I have yet to encounter any student who digs in and defends circular reasoning per se, though some do try to get away with distinguishing between the words "anything" or "something" and plain old "thing." No one's yet persuaded me that this is viable. But the other day I did encounter a student who defended using a word in the word's definition. It wasn't the word "thing," however; it was the word "friend."

"I just don't know how to define 'friend,'" said one student. I was perhaps a little too pleased to see my students recapitulating the Lysis (backwards, no less), but I tried to stay out of the way as they went along. The conversation moved through various sub-issues and tangents (must you trust your friends? can you fight with your friends? How does friendship start? or end?) when suddenly another student exclaimed: "I think I know a definition of friendship! It's when two or more people say they are friends." Hmmm, I mused aloud. Can we use the word to define the word?

I genuinely try to cultivate an openness to being surprised in my class, but I admit I was expecting her to see a problem and move to modify her account. She did not; she doubled down. "Yes," she insisted; in this case, there was something important about including the word, something non-negotiable that she felt couldn't be done any other way. She was moving towards something like a formal necessity. It wasn't just that our pre-theoretical intuitions needed to be validated (though this was part of it); it was that you had to recognize the reality for it to be real. Friendship existed only in the enactment of it, and the enactment included the naming.

I know there are many teachers of "philosophy with children" for whom "staying out of the way" means essentially foregoing doing any philosophy themselves, but I'm not one of them. In any case, here was an instance when I really couldn't stop myself; the force of a thinker being true to her own insight was, like all integrity, powerfully attractive and brought out an answering enthusiasm. It was like hearing the ontological proof being carefully and gropingly thought out: I wanted to be sure I understood, but I also wanted to think along with her.

I see genuine philosophy happening in front of me all the time, in moments like these. It doesn't always sustain itself -- it takes work, and it's easy to slip into rote ways of thinking -- but it is possible. Which is why it takes friends.


  1. I would like to stick up for the position that "something" and "anything" should be available in the definition of "thing".

    I propose that "A thing is anything you can..." carries the same non-circular meaning as "a thing is that which may be..." in a more friendly, modern register.

    Technical language, as in a formal definition, is a tool to convey meaning, and the meaning is clear: that we are seeings forth sufficient conditions; not that we are making some exclusion on a circular basis.

    Anyone who insists on playing this flavor of game with me gets to learn Russian in order to understand my definition of вещь.

  2. I have no philosophy background, but can't we frame the circular "friendship" definition as a speech act? There are all sorts of qualities of a marriage (e.g. in many societies, having intertwined finances) but these qualities or implications of marriage vary from society to society, meaning marriage can't be defined by them. Instead we're pushed to a more abstract level where the only thing that defines "being married" is having said "I do" (in other words, having married), in front of authorities if necessary. This to me seems analogic to the idea of friends being friends because they mutually believe they are friends. "Friendship" is a concept in social reality which is therefore created by speech-acts.

  3. Graham: I see this, and yes, this is (plausibly) what my student was getting at -- that friendship must be enacted and that (an essential) part of the enactment is naming it. In fact, i wish I had thought of this that day in class. (I prefer to say "enacted" rather than "created," to skirt certain subjectivist implications about "social construction," but this might just be finicky.)

    Ransom: I apologize for somehow missing your comment when it got posted. I'm certainly down for allowing for differences between formal and informal language, and perhaps, yes, "that which..." is a more formal marker or placeholder for "anything that..." This would be an interesting complication to the argument about speech-acts: it suggests a formal distinction which is informally enacted. Or, wait, maybe the enactment (the official pronouncement "We are friends") is the formal part -- kind of like articulating a definition, axiomatically. I'm not sure about this -- I don't know whether I really want to aspire to formalizing friendship, or anything else for that matter. Nor do I want to commit to learning Russian, at this late stage.

  4. Just trying to clarify my own thought/understanding, so thanks for the response!