Distinctions

The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once told us that the way to begin any philosophical discussion is to first “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” I gather what he meant is that we must begin discussions with definitions to make sure we know what we are talking about. If we debate, for example, who is the greatest athlete to ever perform on the public stage we must  start with some sort of stipulation as to just what “greatness” means. Otherwise we are much like the fly in the milk bottle: we beat our heads against an unforgiving surface.

This reasoning allows us to solve the age-old question of whether the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound. That depends on what we mean but “sound.” If we mean vibrations in the air, simply, then surely it makes a sound. If we mean vibrations heard by at least one person then, obviously, it made no sound.

But I have always found that making distinctions is also extremely helpful in showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle. For example is the distinction between WANT and NEED. I have made mention of this in previous posts and it remains a focal point in my thinking about so may complex issues — as in the case of what students need as opposed to what they want.

Take, for example, the current discussion over whether or not collegians should or should not play football this Fall. This is what is known as a “hot” topic and everyone and his dog has an opinion.

In a recent informal poll on a sports show I learned that nearly twice as many people say”yes” to the question as say “no.” The vast majority want to play or to watch football this Fall. Additionally, a football player at Ohio State has initiated a petition among football players nationwide and has nearly a quarter of a million “yes” votes that show clearly that a great many football players in this country want to play football this Fall. Even the President of the United States, who cannot keep his fingers still, has plunged in and insists that it would be a “tragedy” if the game were not played this Fall.

Seriously? A tragedy. Let’s define our terms! I jest, of course, but the word does seem a bit overworked, to say the least. If the absence of football this Fall is a tragedy then what do we call the death of a grandmother whose young son brings back the Covid-19 virus after football practice, infects her, and she dies? Surely there are tragedies and there are simply unfortunate or even sad circumstances: things we don’t like.

For a great many Americans what they like or want amounts to what they need (in their minds). As a people we are not very good at denying  ourselves what we want. Calling those things “needs” makes us feel better about our choices, I suppose. The petitions and the polls show us clearly that many people want to play (or watch) football. But do the polls and the petitions show us anything about what the people need as far as football is concerned? Surely not.

It might be argued that a great many people genuinely need to play or watch football for their own psychical well-being — as a release of pent-up frustration, perhaps. But it is a game, after all, and the one thing we know for certain is that given the circumstances these days, it is a game that courts danger: it is risky, at the very least. We know nothing about the long-term consequences of infection from this virus. There are indications that there might be as many as one hundred possible side-effects, some of them very serious. And the wise choice in this case is to err on the side of caution. In general that might serve as a viable general rule, one would think.

But in the end, we do not really need football. We (or many of us) want it. And that is something entirely different.

 

Words and Meanings

While sitting uneasily at the Mad Hatter’s tea-party Alice is engaged in the following exchange with the March Hare and the Hatter:

“. . . why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you can find out the answer to it?” asked the March haste.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice replied hastily; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!'”

“”You might just as well say” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.'”

And so it goes in Wonderland. Poor Alice!

In our world, where we seldom wonder, we occasionally puzzle over the problem whether the tree falling in the forest with no one around can be said to have made a sound. Or, to quote William James, we ask whether in going around a tree with a squirrel on the other side do we go around the squirrel if he remains always on the other side of the tree?

Well, some of us worry about such things. Mostly stuffy philosophers in their closets. These appear to be real problems when, in fact they are somewhat spurious. They are merely verbal problems and they can be solved by simply stipulating what we mean by “sound,” in the first case, and “around” in the second case. To take the second case, we go around the squirrel if by “around” we mean we circumscribe the squirrel; we do not if we mean by “around” that we see all sides, front, and back of the squirrel.  In the first case it is clear that depends on what we mean by “sound.” It all depends on saying what we mean.

If we mean what we say, on the other hand, then we are probably not modern parents who challenge their kids with threats they seldom or never carry out: “Peter, if you don’t stop hitting your little sister you will be sent to your room!” But, as so often happens, Peter keeps hitting his sister and is never sent to his room. Parents so often don’t mean what they say and the kids grow up not knowing where the line is drawn — if, indeed, there IS any line!

Thus do logical and linguistic puzzles translate into real-life experiences where kids are spoiled and we both eat what we see and see what we eat. Or we seem always to get what we like even if we really don’t want it — and we certainly don’t need it.

But, in the end, as Ludwig Wittgenstein told us long ago, we need to show the fly the way out of the milk bottle: we need to make clear to others what we mean when we use words — words such as “socialism,” “capitalism,” “democracy,” “conservative,” or “liberal.” Otherwise the fly will buzz around in the milk bottle and never get out — and we will debate endlessly about matters that really don’t matter and insist that facts are really fictions and truth is a matter of opinion.