The Bum and the Professor: A Hypothetical Conversation

Bum:  “Spare some change?”

Professor:  “No.”

Bum:  “Not even a quarter, or a nickel?  No change at all?”

Professor:  “Sorry. If I had some, you can rest assured that I’d give it to you, but I just don’t have any.”

Bum:  “Why can I ‘rest assured’ of that? I don’t know you.”

Professor:  “True, but I know you, more or less. I have spent decades lecturing and writing on the plight of the underprivileged. So I understand your hardship enough to know that if I honestly had any money to spare, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to you at once.”

Bum:  “All these decades you’ve spent lecturing and writing about someone like me, did no one ever pay you?”

Professor:  “Of course they did.”

Bum:  “And yet, you haven’t got a quarter or nickel to spare with the guy that earned you a paycheck?”

Professor:  “I resent that remark. I’ll have you know that I have given a large sum of money over the years to various charities to help people in need.”

Bum:  “Good for you. That still doesn’t put either a quarter or a nickel in my hand, right now.”

Professor:  “You’re judging me for not being able to give you money, right now? A bit self-righteous for a man who spends his days begging for a portion of other peoples money, don’t you think?”

Bum:  “No judgment here, honestly. I’m just following your train of thought, which I admit can seem pretty ‘self-righteous’. Probably about as self-righteous as being told that someone knows me, just because they’ve written something about poor folks here and there.”

Professor:  “I see. Well, allow me to clarify: While I don’t know you personally, I do understand, because of my extensive research and studies on the subject, the hardship that comes along with residing within the parameters of today’s socioeconomic hegemony.”

Bum:  “Parameters of what?”

Professor:  “Socioeconomic hegemony.  It’s a phrase I coined in one of my papers. Roughly it means that the conditions of a person’s environment are so dominating that they are naturally setup to be disadvantageous to the underprivileged in said environment. You understand?”

Bum:  “I understand what you said. I don’t understand what good it does to have it said.”

Professor:  “Identifying and defining a problem is the first step to having it resolved.”

Bum:  “When did you first write this?”

Professor:  “About 30 years ago.”

Bum:  “How long until it starts to ‘resolve’ the problem?”

Professor:  “It doesn’t work that way.”

Bum:  “Why not?”

Professor:  “Because social theories aren’t meant to fix people’s problems just by the power of the pen.  People have different perspectives, and one social theory can yield an innumerable sub-theories on how to implement reforms. Not to mention, there is always nuance to consider.”

Bum:  “So some other guy can come up with a different ‘social theory’ about the exact same problem your social theory talks about, and his would be just as good as yours.”

Professor:  “I think you’re getting confused, remember we’re talking about hypothetical thought experiments here.”

Bum:  “So they’re imaginary.”

Professor:  “No, they are normative descriptors of reality.”

Bum:  “How do you know they’re describing reality, if they haven’t been tried out yet?  That is what hypothetical means, right?”

Professor:  “It’s more abstract than that.”

Bum:  “I bet. But I still don’t see the point of coming up with all of these social theories, if they can’t actually resolve the problems they’re addressing. Seems to me like a man might as well be doing nothing and still get the same results.”

Professor:  “I told you, social theories recognize a problem and allow for the future assembly of working models to be implemented by society.”

Bum:  “Hypothetically.”

Professor:  “Yes, hypothetically.”

Bum:  “See that building over there? 30 years ago I was part of the crew assembling the foundation of dozens of buildings just like it, all over town. Most of them are still around. People can use them, live in them. They can like them or hate them. But they can’t ignore them. If they decide to get rid of them, they have to put some physical effort into removing them from the spot we put them on. You understand what I’m driving at?”

Professor:  “Not really, no.”

Bum:  “Before we put down the foundation, when we were barely carving out the dimensions on the ground, the buildings were what you would call hypothetical. Now, 30 years later, I guess someone a little better with words than me, would say that these buildings are ‘descriptors of reality’, at least in the little, tiny spot of reality where they stand. You couldn’t describe the area where these buildings are without mentioning the buildings themselves.”

Professor:  “Okay, I get what you’re driving at, but you’re wrong. This is completely different from my academic discipline; you’re simply not comparing like with like.”

Bum:  “Yeah, probably. All I know is that 30 years ago, we identifies a problem: no building in this spot. Now, 30 years later, problem is resolved: building is there, whether someone likes it or not. 30 years ago, you identified a problem; now, 30 years later, you’re identifying of the problem all those years ago hasn’t done squat to resolve whatever problem it is you felt needed to be identified in the first place–because if it had I wouldn’t be sitting here like this, would I? So, let me ask you, are you sure your social theories are actually describing reality, or are you just defining reality to your liking, and cramming your social theories into it so you can have something to lecture people on?”

Professor:  “My theory is sound, but to understand it properly would take many years of study.  Hence, this conversation is inconsequential. Here’s your quarter, and have a nice day.”

Bum:  “Much appreciated, good sir. You have yourself a good one, too.”

The Death of Philosophy

1704, is the year that Isaac Newton published his revolutionary work Opticks; this is also the date that Philosophy, as a means of evaluating the world, conclusively died.  The work looked at the phenomenon of light, not through introspection propositions, but through strenuous experimentation and analyses.  Newton went so far as to stick a bodkin under his eye to see the effect it would have on his ability to see and register light.  No matter how many logical premises a philosopher erects, s/he will never be able to come close to providing this sort of insight about reality.

On the same note, there is no solely philosophical argument that can be made to conclusively demonstrates that two objects dropped from the same height, but of different mass, will hit the ground at the same time.  Nor that the earth orbits the sun.  (In fact, based on observations, a logically philosophical argument could be made to argue against the heliocentric model.)  For any of these things empirical data must be gathered.  When it comes to actually proving the soundness of its premises, philosophical studies today, have to always yield authority to the results of other academic disciplines.

Apologists will insist that my definition of philosophy is a strawman; that I’m stretching its definition in such a way, so I can then turn around and denounce the entire thing when it naturally fails to live up to my faux-interpretation.  I don’t consider this as much of a refutation, but more of an attempt to sidestep the conversation.

Philosophy was once a necessity in academic thought, because it was the pith of academia.  There was once a time when one individual’s musings would have been sufficient to overturn whole paradigms worth of our relations with reality.  However, for the last three centuries, the center of knowledge has gone through a transitional period; that is to say, the worthy functions of philosophy have evolved to more systematic and critical disciplines of thought, and what remains is a thrown away shell of sophistry.

It is no longer enough to ponder about ideas, and be satisfied by a speculation simply because it sounds philosophically plausible.  No!–there must be a convergence on ideas, and these convergences must be verified with broader (and narrower) ideas still, backed by a plethora of tangible empirical evidence.  Otherwise no reliable account of reality has been given, and to continue to build possibly false premises on top of an unverified structure is the antithesis of loving wisdom; it is a desecration of wisdom.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say.  I am fully aware that a great deal of our species intellectual development of the last few centuries–even millennia–has been spearheaded by philosophers, and philosophical intrigue.  And at the most fundamental level, it can be argued that all people of functioning mental facilities use philosophy to evaluate the world around them.  What I mean when I say philosophy, is strictly confined to philosophical scholarship.

Indeed, Philosophy, as a viable academic discipline, is dead.  But knowing the nature of man, its shadow is bound to haunt the lecture halls for generations to come.