By Luke Hauser – copyright 2017 GroundWork – visit DirectAction.org
Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s untimely death occupied my troubled yet inquisitive mind as I stirred up a big glass of Ovaltine that evening.
The police were calling Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s death an accident, but I knew better. He died in precisely the same place as Mr. Testascrittore. Both victims were deeply concerned with questions of existence. And in each case, the skull had been crushed by a heavy, blunt object.
My first instinct was to suspect a serial murderer.
But on closer consideration I realized that the modus operandi were entirely different. Whereas Mr. Testascrittore had been killed by the Cambridge Compleat Dictionary of Philosophy (Unabridged), Mr. Zeitenschreiber met his fate at the hands of the Oxford One-Volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Given the centuries of bitter philosophical enmity between the schools, two more disparate instruments of death could hardly be imagined. A nuanced reading of the clues virtually ruled out a serial killer.
Then it struck me – Mr. Zeitenschreiber might have killed Mr. Testascrittore, and then been snuffed in a revenge killing. Had he been caught in the crossfire of a philosophical turf war?
The history of philosophy is a sorry tale of factional rivalries resulting in sackings, exile, and even death.
Thomism was the intellectual Mafia of its day, and Mr. Aquinas’s Dominican cadre exercised the full power of the Holy Inquisition in later times. Disagreeing with the Thomists on a point of logic was not a mere academic dispute.
The very name of Mr. Hegel, a leading university professor whose system formed the backbone of academic philosophy in nineteenth-century Germany, struck terror into the hearts of generations of philosophy students.
Or take Mr. Aristotle, founder of Athens’ leading philosophical academy. So dominant was his thought that many works attributed to him are probably lecture notes transcribed by students, who took his word as truth and preserved every scrap, including such statements as: “The heavier an object, the faster it will fall.”
Two thousand years later, Mr. Galileo questioned that assertion, along with the Aristotelean “fact” that the Earth was the center of the universe.
His inquiry ran afoul of the Inquisition and he was placed on trial for his life. Mr. Aquinas’s descendants prevailed, Mr. Galileo recanted, and the Earth resumed its rightful place at the center of all being and meaning, where it has remained to this day.
Yes, the Institutional Team boasts an imposing line-up, augmented by the likes of Mr. Bonaventure, Mr. Skinner, and of course the versatile Mr. Kant. All wielded institutional means for compelling conformity with their views.
But the opera’s not over until everyone regardless of gender or body type completes their final aria. Leading off for the home team we have Mr. Rousseau, vagabond critic of society and culture. He had not a single student, and was persecuted intermittently by the established authorities and incessantly by his own conscience.
Mr. Voltaire’s conscience gave him greater liberty, but the authorities so harassed him that he lived his later years a short gallop from the Swiss border lest the King of France renew his offer of state accommodations in the Bastille.
Mr. Spinoza comes to mind, the geometry-intoxicated Dutchman who declined university positions and labored as a lens-grinder to maintain his philosophical independence.
And lest we forget – Mr. Socrates – badgered by the Sophists and other professional philosophers of Athens and finally put to death by the authorities for his ceaseless questioning of society and religion.
Down through Western history, certain philosophers have wielded an enforcement division. Whether state, church, or the imposing edifice of academia, powerful institutions have buttressed their definition of reality.
Other thinkers were free agents, relying on the power of truth and the clarity of their ideas to carry the day.
Had Mr. Zeitenschreiber gotten caught in the feuding? How could I even begin to unravel this new twist? I’d need to understand every interpersonal dynamic in the entire Institute.
I could only think of two people I could turn to – Mr. Grosskase and Johann. And neither was beyond suspicion – at this point, no one was.
Not even me. I couldn’t shake my nagging doubts. I’d been in town a week, and two of my professors had died mysteriously.
Not to mention the Berkeley sweatshirt on the Wanted poster. Who wouldn’t be suspicious? Face it, if I knew what I knew about myself, I’d certainly be suspicious of me.
But was I supposed to take the accusations lying down? Even though I wasn’t certain of my innocence, I owed it to the Kantian Ideas of Truth and Justice to mount the strongest possible defense.
And the best defense was a solid offense. Apprehending the murderer would be the surest way to clear my own name.
The revised manuscript. Was that the key? Maybe someone besides me wanted the second manuscript and killed Mr. Zeitenschreiber to get it.
But why was the body found in Mr. Testascrittore’s office? Why would Mr. Zeitenschreiber have gone back there, except to continue the search? Maybe he’d never found the second manuscript after all…
If he didn’t have it, where could it be? A safe-deposit box didn’t make sense – Mr. Testascrittore would have needed his latest version handy for editing. It must be at either the villa or his office.
I’d examined Mr. Testascrittore’s office, and Mr. Zeitenschreiber had apparently searched it twice, with no evident result.
That threw the onus back on the villa. In between classes the next day, I needed to pay another visit.
Once in bed I tossed and turned, plagued by the Sartrean doubt planted earlier in the day. Considering that in the present I was supposed to be a sheer nothingness, I sure felt weighed down by the world.
A cold breeze stirred through the garret. I started to close the window, when a spectre floating across the room sent me diving back beneath the covers.
Over near the doorframe a vaporous tableau took shape – a well-dressed man of the Victorian era and an old grey draft-horse. The man appeared to be talking intimately to the animal, patting it affectionately and sharing a quiet laugh.
“Begging your pardon,” I called in a shaky voice, hoping to ward off the apparition. “This is not a stable. I pay rent for this garret, and I think I deserve a bit of consideration.”
My ethereal visitor left the horse and made his way over toward my futon. A droopy black moustache covered his mouth. Rings beneath his dark eyes bespoke untimely meditations that transcended philosophy.
“’Tis I,” he said in a voice that wavered uneasily between levity and despair. “I stand and wait, surrounded by broken tablets half-covered with writing. When will my hour come? First the signs must come: the laughing lion with the flock of doves. Meanwhile I talk to myself. Nobody tells me anything new. So I tell myself.”
I nodded to reassure the beleaguered spirit. “I often find that talking to myself leads to the most interesting conversations.”
He didn’t seem to notice my words. “When I came here, I found people laboring under the old conceit that they have long known what is good and evil. Whoever wants to sleep well talks of good and evil before going to bed.”
“Not me,” I said. “In fact, I often listen to audio recordings of your books and they put me right to sleep. You should try it.”
Mr. Nietzsche hovered over the foot of the bed. I wished he would hold still. But I figured it was better not to mention it on our first encounter. I’d heard that he was a bit unstable, and I didn’t want to set him off.
“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked, hoping he might take the hint and move along. “Otherwise, I need to get some sleep, if it’s okay with you and your horse.”
He wailed. The grey nag thrashed about. Mr. Nietzsche hurried over and soothed the animal, stroking its head and whispering gentle nothings in its ear.
I was tempted to suggest that the horse might not want to remain cooped up in a narrow garret. But before I could decide, Mr. Nietzsche floated back over by my futon.
“I bade them overthrow their academic chairs wherever that old conceit of good and evil prevailed. I bade them laugh at their great masters of virtue and at their gloomy sages. I sat down in the cemetery among cadavers and vultures, and I laughed at their history and its rotting, decaying glory.”
I spoke slowly, trying to sound sympathetic. “You know, sir, it’s interesting points you make, but talking to total strangers in the middle of the night about rotted corpses, particularly when their academic sponsor may have in all likelihood so recently been brutally murdered, is not generally recognized as a good opening line. It’s sort of off-putting.”
He drifted close, staring past me. “Ah me! I fly to distant futures which no dream has yet seen, where gods in their dances are ashamed of clothes – to speak in parables and to limp and stagger like a poet. And verily, I am ashamed that I must still be a poet.”
I reached out to pat him on the shoulder, but my hand met only vapor. “Hey, no one’s perfect,” I said, pulling my hand back and trying not to appear disconcerted.
The apparition began to recede, drifting back toward the horse and growing fainter. Suddenly I realized Mr. Nietzsche might have come to me with a message. “Wait! Don’t you have something more to tell me?”
To my relief, he floated back toward me: “You must strive to go under. You are a bridge and not an end. You are something that is to be overcome. Like the sun, you must go under.”
“But the sun rises again,” I said. “Is that your point?”
“Searching for a ‘point’ must go under.”
“This is getting really complicated,” I said.
Mr. Nietzsche leveled his harrowed eyes at me. “I strive constantly to make philosophy more complicated,” he said. “I leave it to the professors to make philosophy simple and easy to comprehend – a Sunday afternoon pastime. Only that which is difficult is worthy of our admiration.”
He drifted back toward the horse and began adjusting its halter, taking care to calm the animal. Knowing our time was short, I called anxiously after him: “What am I supposed to do? I’m trying to solve a murder that everyone else thinks was an accident. And now my top suspect turns up dead. What should I do?”
Taking the horse’s lead rope, he turned back to me. “Proclaim yourself blessed in the evening, as the path to a new dawn.”
I felt anything but blessed as I woke to the alarm clock. Sitting up, I looked out the window at the dingy concrete wall of the adjacent building.
I slapped the doze button and laid back in bed. Another school day here in Terre Haute. How my heart longed for Berkeley, for sunny strolls down Telegraph Avenue and quiet afternoons playing guitar along Strawberry Creek. Did anyone in Terre Haute schedule time for such frivolities?
A mouse scurried across my garret floor. I made a mental note to find a cat. Maybe there was a stray that I could condition to climb up to the top floor and perform rodent-control functions.
My behaviorist experiments with Watson, my Berkeley timeshare, had convinced me that such conditioning was a mutual benefit. Not only did the cat get free handouts just for stopping by and doing mouse patrol. I also taught my feline familiar valuable lifetime skills.
When I left Berkeley, the new tenant inherited my share of the cat. Last I heard, it was working out well – the new tenant had quit their job and dropped all their classes to devote full attention to Watson’s every need.
Such an outcome, while laudable from the vantage point of animal rights, goes a long way toward explaining why Mr. Skinner chose to work with pigeons instead of cats.
I pulled myself out of bed and splashed water on my face. Fifteen minutes to get to class. I hadn’t done any of the reading – I wasn’t even sure what the assignment was – but I figured I better show up and get back in stride.
The memory of talking with Mr. Nietzsche rattled around the edges of my mind. What had come over me that I was spending my precious sleep time talking with philosophers and their horses?
Too much stress. What with uprooting myself from my quiet California home and stepping into the maelstrom of Terre Haute, acclimating to a far more demanding academic schedule – and then having my philosophical mentor die violently within days after my arrival – no wonder I was feeling stressed.
I considered making an appointment at the campus health clinic. But my history with the medical profession was not such as to inspire the highest regard.
Back during my days at dear old USB, they had a student health-care program which mainly involved not getting sick and/or exercising autonomous self-care as training for a lifetime in the gritty modern world.
However, to ensure that they didn’t get a bunch of malingerers, they made you take a basic exam before you qualified for the treatment plan.
I showed up at the office a bit winded from climbing seventeen flights of stairs but otherwise in the pink of health.
Or so I thought. The doctor took my pulse, temperature, and eye-movement quotient. He stuck one of those pointy light things in my ears, then made me gag a few times. He looked at me, then studied the charts.
“According to my calculations, you’re running a dangerously high fever.”
I put my palm on my forehead. “I don’t feel a fever.”
“No – it appears that your circulation is so bad that it’s balancing out to a perfect 98.6.”
I gulped. “Do you think I’m going to be okay?”
“Only time will tell,” the doctor said. “As long as you don’t die, I think you’ll make it.”
To make a long story short, I apparently didn’t die, and now here I was in Terre Haute, facing a daunting academic schedule.
I should focus on my own responsibilities – getting to class and keeping up on my assignments. Where had all my sleuthing gotten me, anyway? My most diligent efforts weren’t going to bring Mr. Testascrittore back from the grave.
Of course, with Mr. Zeitenschreiber also dead and the killer still at large, it was difficult to relax and focus on epistemology. I’d never had the greatest concentration in the first place, and a couple of murders threw me completely off stride.
I had little choice. If I wanted to get my focus back on my schoolwork, I needed to clear up the mystery first.
But before that, I actually needed to get to class first.
My head spun round. Grasping for an anchor, I felt a sudden urge to immerse myself in the noble strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – considered by musicologists to be, along with Rainbow Connection, one of the two greatest works in Western musical history.
With class looming there was no way I could sit down and listen to the renowned symphony.
Fortunately during my years at USB I audited a course in Contemporary Sonic Access which taught us the latest techniques for dealing with the vast profusion of music in today’s cluttered aural world.
With the explosion of recorded works in the new millennium, musical frustration was rising to desperate levels. Critics listening 24 hours a day to a constantly changing playlist could sample no more than a tiny fraction of the available releases, rendering their annual “Best Of” lists utterly useless.
In response to the crisis, the Musicanomological Department at USB developed a set of protocols known as Multiple Source Manipulation which allowed even amateur listeners to take in not one song every three minutes, but hundreds of songs within a minute.
Techniques included playing up to a thousand songs at the same time (popular at freestyle dance parties), medleys consisting of 2-second snippets of one song after another, and my personal favorite, signitive listening.
Signitive listening – which following a suggestion of Mr. Husserl involved experiencing music as the barest of signs, not as a full, nuanced sequence of sonic micro-events – required that one already have heard and responded to a piece of music or to a similar work (for practical purposes, all Broadway tunes were deemed to sound the same, as was all country music.)
Lacking the time for a proper old-school listen to Beethoven’s entire Fifth, I decided to give it a quick signitive listen.
Drawing a breath, I settled my weight evenly on my feet, stretching my backbone tall. On a second breath, I pronounced the invocation: “Beethoven’s Fifth – be here now!”
On a third inhale, my breast swelled and flowed with the myriad emotions stirred by a complete listen to the famed opus.
With a final exhale I released the symphony and felt the closing chord of the fourth movement echoing in my soul as I departed for class.
Refreshed, I headed across campus at a brisk clip, contemplating my next move. With the number one suspect now the number two victim, I needed a fresh strategy.
And I needed it fast. Whoever was responsible for the first two murders – whether it was a single killer or a back-and-forth blood feud – death could strike again at any moment.
As I approached the Albertus Magnus Empirical Metaphysics Building, I formulated my plan: drop in on my Analytics class and see if Mr. Denkenschnelle was behaving suspiciously. Then visit Johann and find a subtle way to question him on his recent whereabouts. Then head for the villa and search for the second manuscript.
When I got to class, Mr. Denkenschnelle was nowhere to be seen. The students were clustered in little groups, talking in loud whispers about Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s death. Everyone seemed to have a theory, mostly involving a fugitive from the Terre Haute Hospital for the Heuristically Impaired.
Campus scuttlebutt whispered that an inmate had escaped a few days earlier and had been spotted lurking around the Institute. No one could actually give a description of the fugitive, which compounded the general fear and malaise.
As I took a seat at the back of the classroom, people’s heads turned my direction. As quickly as I made eye contact, they would look away. Their muttering got lower, and finally I felt compelled to stand and declare that I had only recently come to Terre Haute, and had never even set foot in the state hospital.
I employed my most eloquent voice, augmenting it with elaborate gestures and culminating in a long sigh to indicate an essential weariness of the burden of my peers’ suspicions.
When I sat down again, even more people were staring.
Not that it was the first time people had thought I was a bit daft. My poor distracted mother led that parade, reckoning me a lunatic for moving away from our hometown.
But so far as I knew, she had never suspected me of being an insane serial murderer.
Speaking of hometowns and death, how did Athens get this great reputation as the home of Western philosophy? A city that executed Mr. Socrates and drove Mr. Aristotle into exile? Some home!
The front door of the classroom opened. Who should step in but Perkins, followed by a police officer. “We’ve come to share some sad news,” Perkins said in a voice that cracked with tension. “I suppose all of you have heard by now that Mr. Zeitenschreiber died last night. I want to introduce Officer Narckenstein, who has a few words for you.”
Officer Narckenstein cleared his throat. “First, I offer my sincerest condolences. I’m here to assuage any concerns that this tragedy was the result of foul play. My department has investigated the matter thoroughly, and it is our definitive conclusion that the death was accidental. Apparently Mr. Zeitenschreiber was pulling the Oxford Encyclopedia from a shelf in Mr. Testascrittore’s office and met his tragic fate when the book tumbled down and crushed his skull.”
Students gasped at the graphic recounting. Officer Narckenstein raised his hand for silence. “One of the top construction firms in the country has already been engaged to make necessary adjustments to the shelves. I want to assure you that every effort is being taken to insure the safety of faculty and staff at the Institute, and that soon you will be able to approach any shelf in search of any dictionary with complete assurance that your skull will not be crushed.”
Perkins stepped in front of the officer. “So you see, there is nothing to worry about. Classes will proceed as usual, and the date for a memorial service and the unveiling of Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s plaque will be announced next week.”
He spun on his heels and marched out of the room, followed by Officer Narckenstein. Conversations resumed, but I noticed that fewer glances were directed my way.
Had people swallowed it? Did anyone believe for a moment that Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s death was accidental? I pictured Perkins standing smugly alongside Officer Narckenstein. Were he and the police in on a massive cover-up?
Or had Perkins pulled the wool over the police’s eyes?
Was Perkins the mastermind behind the epistemological murders? Behind the slow-witted face was a serial killer’s brain lurking?
As Perkins and the officer exited, Mr. Denkenschnelle entered. The short, rotund man strode to the front of the room and with much fanfare inscribed Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus across the lower portion of the chalkboard.
At first I was surprised that Mr. Denkenschnelle so avidly plunged ahead with class in the wake of the tragic death of another of his colleagues.
But I could see the reasoning – if classes were cancelled whenever a faculty member died, we’d have professors getting bumped off every time someone hadn’t adequately prepared for an exam.
I wondered if surviving faculty would be especially tough on us in the aftermath of the two deaths. Kind of like mass aversion therapy. Probably not a bad idea.
Still the vehemence with which Mr. Denkenschnelle announced the day’s discussion surprised me.
“Please open your Tractatus to paragraph 6.431!”
Wouldn’t you know it, I’d forgotten to bring my copy.
Luckily, I’d memorized the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus one summer when I worked at a camp for kids from broken homes. We taught them basic plumbing, sheet-rocking, and a spot of welding, then sent them back to fix their homes.
It was a rigorous program run by dissident Cartesian nuns, and we were allowed to bring just one book. Most of the staff naturally chose annotated versions of Mr. Descartes’ Meditations, but I wanted to travel lighter, so I selected Mr. Early Wittgenstein’s 74-page classic.
Perhaps I felt a tad guilty about neglecting Mr. Descartes, the progenitor of modern rationalism. I recalled a solemn pledge I’d made that long-ago summer, poring over the Tractatus – if ever I got the opportunity to actually take a class on Mr. Early Wittgenstein, I would spend at least half of my time reading Mr. Descartes.
Satisfied that the majority of people had found the correct page, Mr. Denkenschnelle began a dramatic rendition:
“Paragraph 6.431: Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death.”
I sat bolt upright. Was “death” the usual starting place for grasping Mr. Wittgenstein’s thought?
Even if it was, the philosophical aspects of the matter were less than entirely clear and distinct. How could you be sure you wouldn’t experience your own death if it hadn’t yet happened? It hardly seemed like consistent empiricism.
As Mr. Denkenschnelle expanded on his opening remarks, the frustration continued to gnaw at me. I hated to interrupt him so early in his lecture, but neither did I want to repress my innate intellectual curiosity.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, half-raising my hand to indicate that I was not actually interrupting, but posing a clarifying question. “How can I, who have never yet died, know that those who have died did not experience their deaths? Where would I get that knowledge?”
Mr. Denkenschnelle looked dumbfounded. “Why, right here in the Tractatus.”
“But if you’ve never experienced death, by what means will you verify that proposition?”
“Because ‘experiencing death’ is logically impossible, given the meaning of the words. If one has ‘died,’ then by definition you no longer have any experiences.”
“But you’re assuming that you know what death means and entails,” I said. “How could anyone know the meaning of ‘death’ until they go through it?”
“I’m discussing the meaning of death for us, the living.”
“What value can that have?” I threw my arms wide, palms upward, to emphasize the magnitude of my question. “For those of us who have never died, death is a phantom, a scarecrow, a grim joke.” I clutched my chest with one hand, elevating the other as I continued. “How can we mere proto-mortals possibly believe that our puny meanings compare with the grandeur of the truly dead?”
Several people were taking notes on what I’d said, although it was probably less a compliment than a compulsion. But most of the class seemed unsympathetic.
Still, I felt constrained by the interests of academic claritude to pursue the point a bit further. I couldn’t ignore the thematic connection of the lecture to recent events. Was Mr. Denkenschnelle simply taking advantage of people’s momentary interest in death to spice up his lecture, or was he involuntarily telegraphing his involvement in his colleagues’ murders?
“If experience is the font of all knowledge,” I said, then paused dramatically: “How then can we claim to know anything at all about death? How can we even talk about it?”
Mr. Denkenschnelle cocked his head. “We learn to use this word like we do any other – by observation. We see other beings die, and from that infer our own eventual death. The fact that we have a word for it shows that we have experienced death.”
“We have words for plenty of other things that we’d never experienced,” I said.
“Yes,” he said as he turned back to his lecture notes, “and that propensity of language gets us in trouble all the time.” He winked at the front row, which let loose with a round of appreciative laughter.
I wanted to respond, but my classmates seemed restless for more of the Denkenschnellegian discourse, so I reluctantly took my seat.
As the lecture resumed, I scowled to myself. “It’s a cheap shot against language,” I muttered under my breath. “When no other argument holds water, slander language.”
“It’s not so cut and dried,” came a voice from my left. I turned to see Mr. Later Wittgenstein slouching back in the desk-chair filing his nails. Had his words not seemed to respond to mine, I would have thought he didn’t notice me.
Up front, oblivious to Mr. Later Wittgenstein, Mr. Denkenschnelle settled into his lecture on the spirit’s Early avatar.
My guest yawned as if he’d heard it all before. He looked over at me, hard eyes perched beneath wavy brown hair.
“Language is hardly innocent,” Mr. Later Wittgenstein said. “It can clarify, but it also deludes. Philosophical analysis is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
His phrases were so euphonious that I was tempted to nod along. But something didn’t sit right. “With all respect, sir, that’s an argumentarius self-contradictarius. You’re using language to communicate your denial of language’s ability to communicate.”
He studied his nails, then looked me in the eye. “I’m not saying we can never communicate. But language often strays from reality without giving us any signal. The classic problems of philosophy arise when language takes an unannounced vacation.”
I frowned. If what Mr. Later Wittgenstein said was true, why was I spending my time analyzing what the various suspects were saying?
If language was so unreliable, what about clues that were expressed in language? And what chance would I have of communicating my discoveries to the reluctant authorities?
How could I afford not to trust language?
Seated in the back row of my Analytics class I looked over at Mr. Later Wittgenstein. “I still think you’re scapegoating language,” I said. “When reality and language clash, how do we know that it’s language taking the vacation? Surely reality could use a little vacation now and then. Imagine having to be ‘real’ all the time. It would wear the best of us down.”
My visitor continued his filing, using a violin-bow movement to round off the thumbnail. “Reality can’t be mistaken. It is what it is, a collection of facts which hold true regardless of whether we know them or not. Philosophical problems stem from our clumsy attempts to capture this given reality in words. If we clarify our use of language, the ‘perennial questions of philosophy’ will wither away.”
I sucked in a breath, my mind racing just ahead of my tongue. “Reality can’t be reduced to a single, precise expression. It’s always complicated. Meaning is inherently nuanced – which is to say, nuances are inherently meaningful. Or rather, inherences are meaningfully nuanced. Wait, I had it…”
Seeing me tying myself up in knots, Mr. Later Wittgenstein put away his nail file and stood to leave. If I were to salvage the dignity of language I had to act fast.
“Help, Mr. Copleston! Help me!”
In a flash my mentor was there. Behind him followed Mr. Gadamer, leaning hard on a cane. He was wearing a black beret and a loose-fitting white jacket. He paused for a moment to catch his breath, then addressed Mr. Later Wittgenstein.
“I challenge the assumption underlying your view, sir – that the world is a collection of basic, pre-given ‘atomic facts.’ Facts are not ‘given.’ Facts are discovered only within a particular paradigm or framework. No fact can be perceived apart from its context, its background. The reason we can see ANY facts, and the reason we see particular facts, is that we are employing a framework, a paradigm, that discloses them. And language is part of this framework. The language with which we frame our search will determine which facts are disclosed.”
“If facts are dependent on theories,” said Mr. Later Wittgenstein, “and then we use those facts to substantiate the theories, we’re in a vicious circle.”
“Or a Hermeneutical circle,” Mr. Gadamer said with a twinkle in his eye.
“You’re in a circle just the same,” Mr. Later Wittgenstein said bluntly.
“Better a circle than a box, sir.”
Mr. Later Wittgenstein bristled. If I wanted to get any clarity, I was going to have to intervene.
“Mr. Gadamer,” I said, “I’d like you to address Mr. Later Wittgenstein’s point concerning a vicious circle, which I find has direct bearing on my investigations. Your Hermeneutics seem to imply that the clues I discover are being framed by my expectations that I will find precisely such clues. If ‘facts’ are a product of our viewpoint, how do we escape the loop?”
Mr. Gadamer shook his head. “Facts are not a ‘product’ of a viewpoint. Theories and viewpoints don’t create facts – they disclose them. Facts have no meaning until we become consciousness of them, until we disclose them. The function of a paradigm or a theory is to help us to see what is in front of us. How best to disclose these truths is the Hermeneutical challenge.”
“What’s Hermeneutical about it?” I asked, never averse to adding a polysyllabic word to my active vocabulary.
He took a breath. “Hermeneutics is the way we approach any mystery in life, whether it’s a contemporary mystery to be solved or an ancient text to be unraveled. When you disclose facts – let’s say for example clues about a possible murder – discovering these facts is not a result of a random search that excavates an assortment of unconnected data, which we then stack together like building blocks to create our theories.”
“We see connections because the given reality itself is connected,” Mr. Later Wittgenstein said. “We’re simply seeing what is there.”
“It’s not that simple,” said Mr. Gadamer. “We often have to learn how to see or hear certain things, certain nuances. We have to learn where to look. The ability to see particular aspects of reality is shaped by our paradigms, by our points of view. The disclosure of particular facts stems from our theories ‘shining a light in that direction.’”
Mr. Later Wittgenstein crossed his arms. “But then the ‘facts’ you discover are simply corroborating the theory that you already held.”
“Not necessarily,” said Mr. Gadamer brightly. “If we’re lucky, reality comes crashing in, and what we discover is completely at odds with our pre-existing theory.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “That doesn’t sound very lucky to me.”
“Oh, but it is!” A slight smile played across Mr. Gadamer’s lips. “It’s how we gain new knowledge. Consider what happened when Columbus sailed westward from Spain, bound for India. Without a basic theory that the Earth was round and that India could be reached by sailing west, he and his crew never would have embarked on the expedition. But when he landed in the Caribbean, no amount of theorizing could make those islands be part of India. So following the theory disclosed the truth – and the truth forced a change in the theory. There you have it,” he concluded. “Hermeneutics 101!”
“Bravo, great example,” I said. Apparently I spoke the words aloud, because my classmates turned and looked at me. Mr. Denkenschnelle, for his part, seemed rather pleased with my outburst.
Mr. Gadamer doffed his beret to me. Mr. Later Wittgenstein ignored my farewell as they departed, deep in conversation.
The clock showed seven minutes till the bell. Having inadvertently ingratiated myself with Mr. Denkenschnelle, I was now uncomfortably aware that he was casting furtive glances my way, apparently in hopes that he might elicit a further exclamation.
Knowing I was on the spot, I made myself pay attention to his closing remarks, in which he restated the theme of his lecture.
“We learn of death by witnessing it in others,” he said. “We see that others die, that no living being escapes its clutches – and we infer that we, too, will die.”
I raised my hand slowly, not without a certain sense of drama. “I don’t believe, sir, that we ‘infer’ death. Death is a purely personal, inner experience.” I struck my fist on my breast for emphasis. “We know of death only by becoming aware of finitude in our own lives – by experiencing suffering and loss. As we slowly grasp the meaning of suffering and loss, we extend it to encompass death, the ultimate loss – not by inference, but by intuition.”
Mr. Denkenschnelle’s lip curled in a sneer. “Intuition? I believe that theory has been discredited.” He turned to the chalkboard and began scrawling an elaborate equation which he insisted proved that the experience of death could not be intuitive, but must be inferential.
Around me, people diligently copied the equation into their notebooks. I started to raise the objection that in order to understand the anti-intuitive equation, you’d still need to intuit that the two sides of the equation actually were equal, and also that the equation validly applied to the current situation. No equation can prove itself true and valid.
Or could it? That would certainly be handy, if along with a proof you could certify that the proof was valid.
The problem seemed to stem from Mr. Aristotle’s recognition that sooner or later, any chain of reasoning has to go back to an unprovable assumption. Any rational sequence ultimately rests on enthymemes – on statements of the form, “everyone agrees that…”
Unfortunately for Mr. Aristotle and all subsequent generations, “everyone agrees” has covered a stupendous amount of nonsense ranging from bogus physics to outright racism. As the sordid history of social logic has shown, starting from oppressive assumptions leads inexorably to oppressive conclusions.
So how would we go about constructing a chain of reasoning which does not depend on unproven assumptions? Various approaches have been tried.
Mr. Augustine and his followers held that it was a beneficent and omnipotent deity who guaranteed the validity of reason, and that God had granted the boon of rationality exclusively to humans so we could prosper in our divinely-appointed task of dominating the rest of creation.
The ongoing failure of humans to outwit cats long since disproved this theory.
Mr. Descartes, Mr. Spinoza, and the Early Moderns took great pains to establish airtight logical sandcastles in which even our doubts returned to verify our proofs. Sadly, Mr. Sartre and the Existentialists washed away their foundations by questioning the existence of a doubting subject, and the rationalist castles collapsed.
Mr. Hegel postulated that all history and all human thought followed a dialectical path toward Absolute Truth, insight into which was guaranteed by the philosopher’s participation in the movement of Absolute Spirit. This magnificent machinery endured for barely a generation before Mr. Kierkegaard and Mr. Nietzsche conspired to hurl their wooden shoes into the gears.
In our epoch, the generous-spirited Mr. Russell and co-author Mr. Whitehead believed they had laid out once and for all the solid if somewhat arbitrary foundations of logic and human knowledge in their Principia Mathematica, only to find their handiwork demolished within a decade by the probing questions of Mr. Godel, who asked in essence: How can we ever be certain we have not overlooked something?
No, at the end of the day, no matter how extensive your proof, the final step requires a leap of intuition that endorses the validity and applicability of the proof. Whether it’s 2 + 2 = 4 or the meaning of life, the final step must be intuitive.
At that moment, the bell rang. I sprang from my chair, slightly embarrassed to be the only person to rise. As I headed for the door, the rest of the class scribbled the final terms of Mr. Denkenschnelle’s grand anti-intuitive equation.
I knew there was a risk we’d be tested on the material. But I couldn’t bring myself to take it seriously. Understanding death by inference? Calculating our grasp of reality? What an absurd notion. Still, even as I pushed Mr. Denkenschnelle’s Analytics out of my mind, I reminded myself of the topic of his lecture: Death.
The last professor I’d heard lecture on Death went on to experience it firsthand.
Was Mr. Denkenschnelle flirting with disaster?
Did the exponent of the coldest Analytic philosophy secretly harbor a Neo-Romantic death wish?
Mr. Denkenschnelle’s lecture on death made me anxious to visit Mr. Testascrittore’s villa. Unfortunately, my applied metaphysics class came first. I gritted my teeth and climbed the stairs to the penthouse lab.
Our grades from the previous day’s quiz were posted. Most people got between 75 and 90 percent correct. My name, however, had only an asterisk in the grade column. “See instructor.”
Well, no wonder – I’d made up my answers. I sought out the lab assistant, preparing my contrite explanation.
She informed me that my results were one hundred percent correct – an outcome so statistically improbable that I was suspected of using loaded rune stones. She issued me a new set with an unbroken seal, and warned me that my future results would be carefully scrutinized.
I pursed my lips and said nothing, vowing to pay better attention from that point on. If I were charged with cheating on my metaphysical statistics, they’d run a warrant check which might connect me to the Wanted poster. One little slip-up and I could find myself in a beaker-full of hot water.
Paying attention during the interminable lab was difficult, but I had to stay with it. Skipping out would put me way behind. It was hard enough to catch up on missed lectures without trying to make up a three-hour lab session.
Back at dear old USB I mainly avoided lab classes. The notion of working three hours for one hour of credit aggravated my latent Marxian tendencies.
Who was appropriating the two hours of surplus labor? Didn’t the student proletariat deserve the full fruits of our intellectual efforts?
One semester, though, I couldn’t avoid it. I was majoring in comparative religions, where we examined various spiritual traditions to see which one would win in a fair fight.
The program commenced with a biblical studies course that included a mandatory lab component. Although the course was required, you got to choose between Old and New Testament studies.
The Old Testament textbook was massive, since you had to master not only the entire Hebrew canon, but also all relevant Talmudic commentaries plus the magical Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses.
Jesus, on the other hand, tended toward pithy pronouncements such as “Love thy neighbor,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “Don’t eat meat on Fridays.” Further, He authored no extant books on celestial magic or demonic invocations.
Christ’s brevity has long endeared Him to those with better things to do than read textbooks, and nearly clinched the issue.
The only hitch was the New Testament Practicum, which included a Martyrdom Intensive.
It wasn’t as gruesome as it sounds. You didn’t actually have to get crucified or ripped apart by circus animals, although that was the surest way to get an A.
But the alternative – interning as a galley slave – took several years to complete, and I was anxious to move ahead with my education.
So I cleared my schedule and pitched into the Old Testament curriculum, suffering through Constitutional Decalogics, Extrapolatory Nomonomics, and Pentateuchal Numerosophy (where you analyze the chapter and verse numbers, ignoring the cumbersome words around them).
Sacred Mountain Climbing and Stone Tablet Smashing were more enjoyable, and Prophetic Public Speaking proved invaluable, particularly the prophetic gesturing exercises, which I have subsequently found many occasions to employ.
Old Testament Practicum taught the best way to kill a fatted calf, how properly to gird one’s loins, and key survival skills for wandering in the desert for years on end.
The most tantalizing aspect was the final exam, which required you to know a classmate in the biblical sense.
Some of my fellow students dedicated the entire semester to preparatory research, but I followed my usual pattern of last-minute cramming, dropping by the Bacchian Orgies right before finals in hopes of scoring a good grade.
Sadly, my social skills were a tad rusty, and despite my most ardent efforts, I wound up taking an Incomplete in the class.
The rest of the lab was uneventful. I was a bit distracted by my upcoming investigations, and I wasn’t entirely certain of the purpose of the experiment. Thankfully my partners seemed competent, and I was content to sign off on their results.
Finally the bell rang out our freedom. Now to get down to the real work.
The villa was first on my list. I needed to go right away if I was to make it back in time for my Hermeneutics class.
Recalling the vicious Anaximander, I grabbed a box of deluxe dog biscuits, then hurried down South Sixth, leaving the shopping district behind as I entered mansion row.
On my previous visit I was too focused to appreciate the neighboring architecture. Now, even as I picked up my step, I couldn’t help admiring the buildings: a baroque chateau, a faux-Medieval castle with moat and drawbridge, a thatch-roofed cottage with an operating windmill. Mr. Testascrittore’s Roman villa blended right in.
As I approached the villa, I surveyed the grounds through the cast-iron fence. No sign of Anaximander or the gardener. My pebble was still in the gate-latch, which opened freely. I wondered whether the gardener would recognize me. At least I’d gotten rid of my tell-tale Berkeley sweatshirt.
First, I had to be sure no one was home. That brought me to a standstill. If I’d learned anything in the past few days, it was that I couldn’t prove that something didn’t exist – only that I hadn’t found it. The chances of proving the house’s emptiness seemed nil. I was going to have to devise a pragmatic test to satisfy my skepticism.
After intense thought, I settled on a plan. I rang the bell, then pounded frantically on the door as if trying to rouse the victims of a fire. I figured at the very least they’d peak out from behind a curtain. But I saw nothing.
I walked around back and tried the same tactic. Nothing. So far, so good. Even if someone was inside, they’d probably hide from an intruder out of sheer social embarrassment at not having answered the door.
The door was locked. I tried opening the porch window with no luck. Time to take more drastic measures. I found a fist-sized rock and cracked a windowpane on the back door. Reaching through I unbolted it and stepped in.
The interior surprised me. The spartan modern decor clashed with the classical exterior architecture. Track lighting and tubular furniture dotted the large rooms, where Mr. Testascrittore reportedly had lived alone.
I made my way through the villa as if traversing a dreamscape: an exercise room, a small movie theater, an massage studio, a bowling alley. All were sparsely furnished and meticulously maintained. Nowhere did I see anything so out-of-place as a stack of papers. I checked cupboards and drawers, but they were nearly empty. Even a search under the mattress turned up nothing more exciting than a few well-thumbed books of Archaic Greek nudes.
At the end of a long hallway I found what appeared to be Mr. Testascrittore’s office. All of the clutter in the entire house seemed to have coalesced in this one room. Papers were strewn everywhere. Most were covered with Mr. Testascrittore’s nearly-illegible scrawl, making collation next to impossible.
Mr. Zeitenschreiber must have been here on his visit, I realized, and given the place a thorough going-over. How was I going to find the manuscript if it was lost in this mess?
If Mr. Zeitenschreiber had thrown the papers around like this, he must have been pretty sure they weren’t part of the manuscript. But I had to take a look for myself. I started at the far side of the room, sifting through scattered stacks of paper, notepads, and folders in search of telltale phrases.
I’d made it halfway across the room without finding more interesting than a Phenomenological description of a bad case of athlete’s foot when I heard a rustling outside the door. I jumped to my feet, ready to bolt.
There was nowhere to run. Standing four-square in the doorway loomed Anaximander. The pekingese-pitbull glared at me, a squeaky growl rising from its throat.
Avoiding sudden moves. I eased my hand into my pocket and produced a doggie-snack. I held it aloft, then tossed it gently across the room.
The biscuit landed right at his feet. Anaximander’s growl stopped. He bent his neck down and sniffed the treat. Then he snatched the biscuit up and crushed it.
As he masticated, my eyes roved around the rest of the office. If Mr. Zeitenschreiber hadn’t found the manuscript, what were my chances of turning it up?
Of course, if I failed to find anything, it didn’t prove the manuscript wasn’t at the villa. But maybe I didn’t need proof. If I could establish a reasonably pragmatic probability that the manuscript was in all likelihood not here, I’d reckon my time was better spent elsewhere.
A hacking sound jerked my attention back to Anaximander. With a guttural snarl the miniature mutt spewed the biscuit back onto the carpet, then leapt across the room and lunged at my throat.
I swatted at him with a folder. He skidded across the floor, spun back to his feet, and charged again. This time he came in low, and I was defenseless. I felt his teeth rake across my ankle. But his jaws were too small to get a grip. With a ferocious snap he dug his teeth into my sock.
I kicked my leg frantically, trying to dislodge the savage animal. But nothing could shake him loose. At last I stopped fighting and stood still, looking down at the tiny dog fastened firmly to my sock. His snarls turned into long, throaty growls.
Threatening as he was, he wasn’t big enough to impede me. I saw no alternative but to deal with my new appendage. The gardener or another servant could show up at any moment. I had to get back to work.
My eyes were by now quite accustomed to Mr. Testascrittore’s scrawl. Judging from the papers I was perusing, my late mentor’s interests had ranged far and wide, from ontology to ethics to aesthetics and back again.
I flipped through one sheaf after another, but didn’t come across anything resembling the epistemological manuscript I was seeking.
My eyes were growing bleary when suddenly I heard a door open.
Stranded amid the chaos in Mr. Testacrittore’s home office, I ducked behind the office door, dragging the dog with me. Anaximander stopped growling but didn’t turn loose of my sock.
Footsteps came down the hallway. I peeked through the crack between the door and the frame. Legs came into view, then a torso – the gardener!
I held my breath. Thankfully Anaximander remained silent. I had no good excuse for being in the ransacked office, and the gardener would surely call the police if he saw me.
As his footsteps padded down the hall, I crept from behind the door with Anaximander still affixed to my sock. I looked over the disarray on the office floor. Further searching was pointless. However messy the office was, I was pretty sure that a 700-page manuscript was not hidden among the clutter.
Now I needed to get out without alerting the gardener. I considered abandoning the sock to Anaximander. But his teeth had drawn blood. With my DNA all over the sock, I knew that leaving it behind was a mistake.
Quickly I assessed my options. If I had a crowbar and/or a tank of nitrous oxide, I could coax the mutt loose. But neither was handy.
Down the hallway I could hear the gardener on the phone. Suddenly I remembered the window I’d broken. He might be calling the police that very instant. I had to move fast.
I dragged my leg around the room searching for a tool, with Anaximander thrashing my sock the whole while. By chance I crossed a cooling vent on the floor. The gentle stream of air made the part-pekingese’s hair stand on end, and the little creature expanded like a puff-fish. Despite my desperate predicament, I couldn’t resist turning and dragging him across the vent again to admire the effect.
As his hair fluffed to enormous proportions, an inspiration seized me. I looked around the walls and spotted the thermostat. Dragging the dog across the floor, I switched the fan to high. Air rushed through the vent. I lurched back across the room and planted my foot so Anaximander was centered over the jet of cool air.
The dog’s hair fluffed wildly. His rear end floated upward. Only his teeth, tethered to my sock, kept him anchored. If I could make him let go for just an instant, my plan would work. I looked around the room, searching for something I could use as a crowbar.
Then I remembered the dog biscuits. They hadn’t exactly been a raging culinary sensation. But given the predictable limits of canine memory, they might serve a momentary purpose.
I pulled out a biscuit, scratched the surface to activate the aroma, and held it under Anaximander’s nose. He emitted a low growl, then snapped. As his mouth opened, the air jet caught hold and lifted him several feet off the ground.
The growl died in his throat, replaced by a bewildered whimpering. He hovered three feet over the vent, rotating slowly counter-clockwise.
There was no time to appreciate the spectacle. As soon as the dog barked, the equal-and-opposite reaction would push him out of the air-jet and he’d tumble to the ground. I sprinted out of the office and down the hall.
Anaximander howled, and a moment later I heard him clunk to the floor. I knew he’d be hot on my tail, more vicious than ever. In seconds I was out the front door and racing across the lawn.
Sirens wailed in the distance. The gate was too risky. I darted across the side yard and headed for the wall.
Anaximander sailed off the front porch, hot on my heels. Frantically I clawed my way up the stone wall, dropping unceremoniously into a drainage ditch on the other side. My shoes got soaked, but I ignored the discomfort and hurried along Seventh Street with my head down.
Behind me, the sirens halted on the distant side of the villa and a bullhorn screeched: “Come out with your hands up! We have you surrounded!”
They could wish! The bullhorn and Anaximander’s yapping faded as I hurried on toward campus.
Back on the Quad, I stopped and took off my wet shoes, then examined the sock Anaximander had attacked. It was shredded beyond repair. I’d risked both arrest and physical mutilation.
And for what? Not a trace of the missing manuscript. For all my risks, I hadn’t accomplished a thing.
Not quite true. Despite my physical discomfiture, I’d come as close as empirical verification protocols allowed to inductively ascertaining that the second manuscript – if it existed at all – was not at the villa.
Had Mr. Zeitenschreiber found it after all? What if the manuscript was in his office? Maybe he’d found it, then been murdered before he could dispose of it.
Was this the insight I’d been missing? I’d been focusing on Mr. Testascrittore’s office and home. But maybe Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s office was where I needed to be looking. Manuscript or no manuscript, I might turn up a clue to his sudden demise.
If I was going to make my Hermeneutics class, I needed to grab my books and get over to Schleiermacher Hall. But my feet had different ideas, and I found myself steering toward Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s office on the second floor of the Albertus Magnus Empirical Metaphysics Building.
What did I expect to discover? Even if Mr. Zeitenschreiber had found the manuscript, whoever killed him may have stolen it. But if I was going to be thorough I had to explore every lead, despite the disturbing fact that it meant missing a class and ruining my chance at a personal record.
Maybe the search wouldn’t take that long, and I could enter unnoticed at the break.
Then again, attendance quite likely was counted at the start of class, and showing up for the second half was tantamount to missing altogether. I wondered if there was some way to find out before I wasted my time sitting through the second half.
I looked quickly up the hallway, which was deserted as the new period commenced. The door to Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s office was ajar. I knocked lightly, then slipped in, leaving the door slightly open so I could hear anyone approaching.
Books and stacks of papers were piled everywhere. Floppy disks and other archaic media littered his desk and floor. Fortunately, Mr. Zeitenschreiber used a computer. If Mr. Testascrittore’s handwritten manuscript was here, it should stand out.
A quick search convinced me that the missing manuscript wasn’t in the office unless it was well hidden.
But what about Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s own work? Might it contain a clue to his demise? What was he working on when he died? Anything connected to Mr. Testascrittore’s research?
I leaned over his desk, trying to see the papers without touching anything. I found nothing pertinent except a scathing essay accusing Mr. Sartre of tiresome word-play on the concept of “reflection.”
The essay was certainly a stinging rebuke. But I was skeptical that Mr. Zeitenschreiber had been killed for criticizing Existentialist puns.
Suddenly I heard footsteps in the hall. I jumped away from the desk, realizing I hadn’t concocted an alibi for being in Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s office. On impulse I grabbed the wastebasket.
The door swung open, and I stood face to face with a startled Perkins. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. “This is a private office.”
“Just tidying up a bit,” I improvised. “Johann is busy with repairs and I thought I’d help out a bit.”
Perkins said nothing. He circled around the desk, as if trying to determine whether anything had been moved. “This office is off limits to anyone except authorized departmental personnel,” he said. “I must demand that you leave at once.”
“Yes, sir!” I gave a crisp salute and set the wastebasket down. “Empty your own trash.”
I turned on my heels and headed out the door. For a moment I thought of going to my Hermeneutics class.
But what was the point? I’d just be calling attention to my tardiness by showing up late. With a sigh I went down the stairs and headed for the Quad, resolving to take extra efforts to make a good impression next time.
It was only when I was outside that I stopped and wondered why Perkins had been in Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s office. He’d been Mr. Testascrittore’s assistant, not Mr. Zeitenschreiber’s. He might have no more right than I to be in that office. Was he on the same quest as I?
Should I go back and confront him? No, that would just tip him off as to my suspicions. Better to lull him into a false sense of security by obeying his order.
Besides, I needed to find Johann and be sure that he was in the boiler room and not upstairs cleaning offices, where Perkins might see him and ask whether I was actually helping out.
Speaking of Johann – wasn’t it about time to get clear about his role in this whole business? Maybe this was the moment for a few subtle yet probing questions about his whereabouts the past few days. If he could provide airtight alibis, I’d have one person I could trust.
And if not? Maybe I’d have a new prime suspect. Now that Mr. Zeitenschreiber was dead, Johann was as likely a culprit as anyone.
When I got to the boiler room, Johann was once again glued to the Metaphysical Channel. He was watching Peripatetic High, starring Mr. Aristotle as a no-nonsense logic teacher at an inner-city philosophical academy. The school was so poor that they couldn’t afford desks and chairs, so courses were taught while strolling around the ’hood.
“You just missed a great episode,” Johann told me. “Mr. Carnap guest-starred as the founder of a zero-tolerance anti-drug program. He was tossing kids into jail right and left, until Mr. Aristotle proved via syllogistic deductions from first principles that the zero-tolerance program was simply driving drug-use underground, while Mr. Epicurus’s pilot program providing free marijuana to students dramatically lowered their use of harder drugs. Then at the end, the anti-drug guy was arrested for embezzling confiscated cocaine.”
“Wow, sounds pretty realistic,” I said. I was hoping Johann would turn the TV off so I could ask him a few questions, but as luck would have it, Hermeneutical Jeopardy was coming up next.
“And after that comes Leibniz of Scotland Yard.” Johann gestured toward the screen. “Mr. Liebniz solves the cases by applying his insight that every Monad – every moment of being – is actually a window into the whole. Last week he broke up a Logical Positivist ring by demonstrating that Mr. Early Wittgenstein’s contention that all basic facts are independent is itself a dependent fact, and is part of a unified world view explicable only on Monadistic grounds.”
“Pretty clever,” I said, although I couldn’t really get excited about it. Philosophical TV lost its fascination for me the year Plato’s Cave, with its hyper-realistic portrayal of the Forms of Truth balanced with the shadowy depiction of mundane reality, was cancelled.
Cruelly schooled in the transitory nature of Earthly pleasures, I found the endless rehashes of Situationist comedies and Deconstructionist dramas tedious.
Worse yet was the new craze of made-for-TV “reality” philosophies, world-views tailored to fit precisely into half-hour television time-slots. Each episode presented bite-sized nuggets of Western wisdom, with none of the annoying indeterminacies or loose ends of pre-television philosophy.
The validity of the various schools of philosophy was assessed by their respective Nielsen ratings, and those with sagging ratings were always in danger of being canceled – a fate that had recently befallen the entire British Idealist school.
As Hermeneutical Jeopardy got underway, Johann cranked the volume higher. “I was almost a contestant one time,” he said. “But my final test covered philosophers’ favorite desserts, which I hadn’t studied well enough.”
“Too bad,” I said.
“Yeah, if it had been breakfast treats, I would have nailed it.”
The game’s host reviewed the rules, emphasizing Jeopardy’s “the answer must be phrased as a question” stipulation. Johann drew a grid on his notepad, preparing to play along.
The simpler categories, such as Philosophers’ Hairstyles and Epistemology of Table Manners, went quickly. Seeking to pad her bankroll, the leading contestant took a shot at Ontological Proofs for $500.
“In this proof, God’s existence is proved by assuming that existing is better than not existing.”
Bzzzz. “‘What is Mr. Augustine’s proof?’”
“No, sorry,” said the host. “The correct answer is, ‘What is Mr. Anselm’s Proof?’”
With the game down to the wire, one of the trailing contestants took a shot at Nietzschean Ramblings for $300.
The announcer read the answer: “Sex, the lust to rule, and selfishness.”
The contestant frantically pressed his buzzer. “What are the three best-cursed things in the world?”
“Correct! Mr. Nietzsche cited this triad in his famous comedy, Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
“Nietzschean Ramblings for $400.”
“‘This makes us stronger,’” read the announcer.
“’What doesn’t kill us?’” shouted the contestant. “Nietzschean Ramblings for $500.”
The announcer paused and let the drama build. “If you get this right, you will be the leader of the first round! Are you ready?”
The contestant gripped the lectern with both hands and nodded sharply.
“The answer is: ‘How wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary this appears.’”
The contestant slammed his fist down on his buzzer. “What is the human intellect?’”
“Yes!” declared the announcer as the audience went wild. “Now it’s time for Ultimate Jeopardy, where our contestants wager some or all of their bankroll on one final challenge!”
While the three contestants pondered their stakes, the show broke for a commercial.
“Feeling the heat during your metaphysics final? Grappling with section 43 of the Principia? It’s time for Scholasti-Guard – worn by leading metaphysicians everywhere.” Mr. Aquinas strolled onscreen, casually faced the camera, and held up a can of Scholasti-Guard. “When I was defending the Summa Theologica against all comers in Paris, I worked up a righteous sweat! I’d have had some devilish stains under the sleeves of my robe if it hadn’t been for Scholasti-Guard – now in spray, roll-on, or the handy Summa-Stick!”
When the cameras returned to Ultimate Jeopardy, the three contestants had already jotted down their responses to the final challenge. The host swept his arm dramatically toward the big board as he read aloud.
“The answer is, ‘The Socratic Method.’ Contestant Number One, what is your question?”
The first contestant revealed his response: “What is skepticism?”
A harsh buzzer sounded. “No, sorry,” said the host. “Socrates, although he raised many questions, was not a skeptic, but an ardent believer in the eternal truth of the Divine Forms.”
He turned to the second player. “Contestant Number Two: ‘The Socratic Method.’”
“What is Dialectical Idealism?”
Again the buzzer sounded. “No,” said the host. “While Socrates’ biographer Plato has been accused of fostering Idealism, Socrates’ views would best be described as Metaphysical Realism, since he seems to have believed in the ultimate reality of the Forms and their efficacy in our daily lives.”
The host turned to the final contestant. “A correct answer would make you the new champion of Hermeneutical Jeopardy. Contestant Number Three: ‘The Socratic Method.’”
A hush fell over the studio audience. Johann leaned forward in his chair, eyes wide. The contestant took a moment to review his written response, then spoke slowly and deliberately. “What is the origin of Hermeneutical Jeopardy’s ‘the answer must be phrased as a question’ format?”
“Correct!” The audience exploded in cheering. When it faded, the host spoke again. “It was Socrates’ practice of responding to statements or assertions with a question that gave Hermeneutical Jeopardy’s creators their inspiration!”
The audience applauded, and the theme music faded in. Johann picked up the remote and turned the volume down. I knew I had just a few minutes till Leibniz of Scotland Yard came on. If I was going to query Johann on his whereabouts at the time of Mr. Testascrittore’s death, I better get going.
But how exactly do you introduce a topic like that? I couldn’t just casually toss it into the conversation. It would take a little preparation. I groped for an ice-breaker. “So, how’s the Paralogic project coming along?”
“Good.” Johann pointed to a pipe on the edge of the workbench. I lit it and took a toke as he continued. “I’ve been sketching a plan for a one-semester certificate program to get paralogicians on the streets as quickly as possible. With this basic training, they could intervene in situations involving faulty inference, inappropriate use of inductive reasoning, or mistaking tautologies and truisms for statements about the real world. We’d see changes instantly.”
I handed him the pipe. “You’ll put ad agencies out of business,” I said.
He took another hit and passed it back. “If I were head of the Epistemology Department,” he said after exhaling, “we’d do things differently around here. We’re graduating people who are brilliant in their paragraphs of expertise – but when it comes to correcting faulty logic at the dinner table, they’re helpless. We need to get philosophy out of the laboratory and into people’s daily lives.”
The next show was about to start. It was now or never.
But I couldn’t bring myself to raise the issue of Mr. Testascrittore. What was the point, anyway? Presumably Johann had an alibi.
Sure, I could put my sleuthing skills to work and check it out. But suppose I found evidence one way or the other – how would I know I could trust that?
In the end, no matter how much evidence you gather, it finally comes down to intuition. I was going to have to trust my gut sense of what was true. So why not cut to the chase and ask myself what my intuition told me about Johann in the first place?
I hadn’t quite made up my mind what I was intuiting when the theme song for Leibniz of Scotland Yard started up. Johann settled back in his chair. Too late to ask any more questions.
If the show was starting, my history class must be starting as well. Having already missed one class, I was doubly committed to attending my next one. I leapt up, waved a quick goodbye to Johann, and headed out of the boiler room.
I hastened across the Quad on a beeline for my history class in Herodotus Hall, a sprawling building which was less an architectural unit than a melange of details taken uncritically from every age and epoch.
Starting up the stairway, I realized I hadn’t done any of the reading. By the time I reached the fifth floor, my enthusiasm for attending the lecture, which quite possibly would heavily reference the readings, had considerably waned.
If I hadn’t done my homework, was I really going to get much out of the lecture? I made a mental note to catch up on my reading and show up early the next time.
I turned and headed back down to ground level. Didn’t I have more pressing concerns, anyway? With my most recent suspect ensconced in a coffin, the need to check up on the others was more pressing than ever.
But how exactly was I supposed to proceed? I still hadn’t come up with a way to interrogate the suspects, as was shown by my feeble attempt to question Johann. Without that, what chance did I have of getting to the truth?
“This is a task for Phenomenology!” Mr. Husserl materialized on the landing next to me.
“Good to see you again, sir,” I said as we went down the stairs and out to the Quad. “But what exactly does Phenomenology have to do with my investigations?”
He held up his palms as if summoning reality. “Everything. Apply your observational skills. If you can’t interrogate people, then interrogate the situation.”
It took a moment to realize he wasn’t joking. “What exactly are you suggesting?”
“Go back to the things themselves and question them,” he said. He ticked off the points on his fingers. “You know where the murder took place, and how it was done. Go back and ask more questions.”
“Good idea,” I said, picking up his drift. “I’ll go back to Mr. Testascrittore’s office and interrogate it. But what if it refuses to answer? What threat can I hold over the office’s head if it won’t cooperate? ‘Talk, or I’ll mess you up but good!’ ‘Confess, or we’ll turn you into the student lounge!’ But suppose the office still refuses to divulge its secrets?”
He shielded his eyes from the mid-afternoon sun. “You can’t just play rough. Think like Sam Spade. Sometimes you play tough. Then you turn around and sweeten them up. You lay back, act sympathetic, inviting things to present themselves exactly as they are. If you carefully observe, the clues you’re missing just might present themselves.”
I stopped in the shade of a tall hedge along one side of the Quad. “I like the idea,” I said. “But suppose I notice something new. How can I be certain of what I’m seeing? What if it’s my imagination, or wishful thinking?”
“That’s always a danger,” Mr. Husserl said. “All you can do is systematically reduce your doubts.”
Doubt Reduction. The phrase had a promising ring. Maybe it could be part of Johann’s Paralogic program: doubt-reduction counseling, including emergency doubt-control intervention.
And what about Doubt Consolidation? I imagined the infomercial:
“Tired of an endless barrage of doubts plaguing you night and day? Changed jobs, addresses, and partners, but your doubts still find you?
“Don’t despair! Here at Montaignean Doubt Consolidation Services, skilled technicians are standing by to help manage your doubts. End harassment, extortionate demands on your attention, and the nagging fear that friends or co-workers might find out.
“This is not moral bankruptcy! Montaignean Doubt Consolidation Services will combine all of your concerns into one easy-to-manage monthly episode. No longer will you live in anxiety and fear lest the demons of doubt catch you unaware. You’ll be able to plan your life and know that your doubts are being taken care of.
“Call today! Operators are standing by!”
Mr. Husserl looked at his watch. “I have an appointment with Mr. Derrida,” he said. “I don’t want to be late, or he’ll start deconstructing something.”
I had to focus quickly or I’d lose him. “Reducing doubt is a noble goal, sir,” I said. “But how long will the situation last? Fresh doubts pop into my head all the time. My understanding constantly comes up with new ways to undermine itself. It seems like that’s a fatal flaw in human knowledge.”
“It’s not a flaw,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “It’s a feature! The flux you describe is reflective of how the world actually reveals itself. Situations and people grow and change. If the world is in flux, how can ‘the facts’ stay the same?”
“Okay,” I said. “So I go to Mr. Testascrittore’s office to interrogate it, as you suggest. How exactly do I get started with this Phenomenological questioning thing?”
Mr. Husserl gazed past me. “Start with whatever information you have – you believe that there might be a missing manuscript, or that Mr. Testascrittore’s killer may have left a clue in the office.”
“Those are just conjectures.”
“You have to start somewhere – why not start with your best conjecture? After all, you’ve been doing this all along. When you began searching for Mr. Testascrittore’s killer, you weren’t just stabbing in the dark. You started off with some grasp of where to look, some idea of which horizon to explore.”
I nodded. Mr. Husserl continued: “You knew the killer was probably connected with the Institute. You also assumed that there was a clear motive, and that uncovering the motive would point to the killer. All of this you ‘knew’ before you ever got started. Based on this, you were able to begin gathering evidence.”
“What if it’s all wishful thinking, and I simply see what I want to see?”
My guest smiled. “Entirely possible. That’s a constant question: how do we break the spell of our own expectations? That’s where Phenomenology comes in – the art of observation. We keep searching for ways to test our findings, to let things and situations speak for themselves. You have to be ready to revise your notions at any point, and to discard fruitless projections. But still, in order to search for answers, you must first ‘project’ the general expectation of what you think will be found.
“I was doing that – I projected Mr. Zeitenschreiber as the killer. I was sure I had my man, and all I needed to do was gather the proof. Next thing I know, my top suspect is dead. I’d say my search came up empty.”
“And yet on account of that search, you know more than you did before. You’ve eliminated one suspect, and gained a more nuanced picture of the terrain.”
I tossed up my hands. “Great – I’m marginally less confused. Now what?”
“As my student Mr. Gadamer might say, you start the Hermeneutic cycle again,” Mr. Husserl said. “You take what you’ve learned, project new expectations, and go out in the field and start testing them against your lived experiences.”
“I see,” I said, sinking into thought. “How exactly is that different from just muddling through?”
Mr. Husserl shrugged. “It’s an ongoing process.”
As my guest bade me auf wedersehen, I’d arrived at my destination. I headed into the Albertus Magnus Empirical Metaphysics Building and started up the stairs toward Mr. Testascrittore’s office. A few students were scurrying to classes, but otherwise the halls were deserted.
As I approached the office, I pulled out my spare key, hoping the locks hadn’t been changed.
But the key was unnecessary. The door stood wide open.
I gaped into Mr. Testascrittore’s office. Books and papers were thrown everywhere. Desk-drawers were dumped on the floor and then smashed against the wall. A potted plant was completely unpotted. The trophy for Greatest Living American Philosopher was knocked askew. Even the classical bust was dethroned, lying on its left ear in front of the desk.
As I approached the doorway, Mr. Grosskase emerged, shaking his head. He saw me and nodded. “I already called the police,” Mr. Grosskase said.
“The police?” I couldn’t keep from laughing aloud. “What are they going to say? ‘Wow, another accident!’”
He nodded glumly. “Look at this mess. It must have happened last night.”
The manuscript – someone must have turned the place upside down looking for it! And judging from the drawers smashed against the wall, it had been a fruitless visit.
Mr. Grosskase called to me in a hoarse whisper. “They’re coming!”
I nodded and stepped out of the office as the police arrived. It was the same officers as before, plus an academic investigations squad. I watched from the doorway as they photographed and jotted notes about one item after another, snickering among themselves as they thumbed through a Late Byzantine lingerie catalogue.
At last they finished and came out into the hallway. They motioned Mr. Grosskase over. I remained at a discreet distance, close enough to eavesdrop. The break-in, they said, exactly fit the modus operandi of a notorious international textbook ring which specialized in stealing autographed first editions of mid-century Continental Existentialists.
Mr. Grosskase absent-mindedly nodded along as the inspector described how the thieves rapidly and methodically searched books for inscriptions. When they found one, they verified the signature, then recorded the publishing and copyright information with a handheld scanning device. Only after checking their exhaustive database of signed first editions did they bother to steal a book.
One anomaly stood out in this case, the police added. Ordinarily the thieves reshelved unstolen books, even replacing misfiled volumes in their proper order. But this time they must have been in a hurry, leaving the office a shambles.
The police concluded their account of the break-in and produced a written copy of the report. Without reading it, Mr. Grosskase scrawled his initials at the end and waved them away.
Once the officers were gone, I went back in the office. Mr. Grosskase followed, and began randomly stacking fallen books onto the shelves.
I started to say something about preserving evidence. But obviously the police considered the case closed. Might as well clean up. I scooped up a bunch of Logic texts and piled them on a top shelf. Hermeneutics took up a shelf, and Existential Ontology most of another.
Working my way down, I reached the bottom shelf, which I knew well from my earlier visits – Mr. Copleston’s History of Philosophy.
I gathered the fallen volumes. They weren’t imposing books. Mr. Copleston’s magnum opus consisted of nine paperback volumes of about 500 pages each, easy to carry around and read in spare moments.
I fondly remembered immersing myself in Mr. Bacon on the bus, Mr. Bentham in a bank line, and Mr. Schopenhauer at the laundromat.
The only drawback was that every time I smelled fabric softener, I became convinced that the entire world was the product of my will and representation. I took to carrying a pocket edition of Mr. Kierkegaard as an emergency antidote.
I arranged five of the Copleston books in chronological order and set them onto the shelf, which wobbled. I stacked the other four next to them, but the whole row fell over. I placed a dictionary on the other end to secure the shelf, then straightened the row of Coplestons so their titles lined up.
I leaned back and admired the sequence: Greeks to Romans to Medievals to Moderns to Idealists to Positivists.
I thought back to my visit to the Gallery of Philosophers, and how in Mr. Copleston’s Hegelian-inflected estimation philosophy was a cumulative, ongoing quest for truth and meaning.
It made sense. Western philosophy didn’t merely “have” a history. I was seeing that the essence of our tradition was its history.
It was this tradition to which I dedicated my life when I chose the philosopher’s lonely, meandering path. Seeing the precious Copleston volumes lined up on my late mentor’s shelf, I felt a surge of confidence in my career choice.
How thankful I felt that my distinguished forebears had blazed the path of truth and enlightenment! Suppose philosophy had never been invented. What would I do then?
And what would the great thinkers of yore have done with their lives?
I pictured Mr. Plato as an award-winning high school drama teacher. Mr. Aristotle would be an investment banker. Mr. Diogenes would still loll about making pithy pronouncements to passing generals.
Mr. Augustine would be one of the those pesky panhandlers who try to tell you their entire life story every time they ask for change.
Mr. Heidegger would be a ski instructor, Mr. Sartre a theoretical physicist. Ms. Beauvoir would likely be a cocktail chanteuse whose career blossomed in her later years.
I’m thinking Mr. Kant would be a department store manager, Mr. Spinoza an accountant, and Mr. Leibniz a sales associate proming you the best of all possible deals.
Mr. Socrates I see bagging groceries at the health food store and asking the sorts of questions that make you think you bought the wrong brand of exfoliating gel. He’d be no more popular today than he was in his own lifetime.
Mr. Camus would be a Superior Court judge, while Mr. Skinner would run for prosecutor and Mr. Voltaire for public defender.
Only Mr. Aquinas comes to a bad end. Deprived of the opportunity to redefine reality according to a rigid, legalistic schema which claims to articulate God’s word when in fact its primary purpose is to uphold the power of institutional church and secular authority, Mr. Aquinas drifts from job to job seeking an outlet for his unusual skills, winding up managing a pest extermination company.
As I placed the last of the fallen Copleston books back on the shelf, I looked around Mr. Testascrittore’s office. I still needed to Phenomenologically interrogate the space. But I couldn’t very well do it in front of Mr. Grosskase.
Although I wished I could confide in the Rector, I was resolved not to trust anyone until they were proven innocent. I’d have to wait until I was sure he’d left the building before I returned and did a more thorough investigation.
Johann – did he know about the office-trashing? I wondered how often he made the rounds of his domain.
Surely it wasn’t he who tore the place apart. Or was it?
I headed to the basement to find Johann, following the familiar overhead pipes to the boiler room. I framed my greeting – a quick statement that the office had been trashed, then watch his reaction.
The door was closed and my knock produced no result. I knocked again, harder. Nothing.
Well, he had to work sometimes. Maybe he was around the building. I went upstairs. There was no sign of him on the first floor. On the second floor, where Mr. Testascrittore’s office was located, I spotted Mr. Denkenschnelle. I started toward him to ask if he’d seen Johann. But he turned away as if he hadn’t seen me and hurried down the stairs.
“Mr. Denkenschnelle!” I called. “Could I have a word –”
By the time I reached the top of the stairs, I could hear the door closing below. Was the Analytics professor simply running late? Or was he fleeing from my interrogatories? I went to the window at the end of the hallway and pressed my face against it, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. Denkenschnelle’s direction of flight. But there was no sign of him.
Wait – how could I be so sure? What exactly would constitute a “sign of him”? How would I know whether I was seeing a “sign of him,” or actually seeing “him?”
“It’s all signs.” Mr. Eco, the eminent linguist, stopped en route to a graduate seminar on monastic library cataloguing systems to offer his view. He joined me at the window. “Everything that has meaning is a sign. There is no distinction between seeing a sign and seeing an object.”
“Really? I’m looking down at the Quad now, and I see a woman walking a dog. I don’t see the ‘sign of a dog.’ I see the dog, pure and simple.”
“No,” he said, pointing out the window. “Literally, you see signs – you see the curly white coat, you see the slobber coming out of the mouth, you see the wagging tail – and you infer, ‘dog.’”
I looked again, and still saw the dog. “I’m not ‘inferring’ the dog – I’m seeing it.”
“Pray tell, what is the difference?”
“Well,” I said, stroking my stubbly chin as a sign of my careful consideration of his question, “when I see a pile of fresh dog-droppings, that’s a sign. I infer that a dog was present. But when I see the dog itself, I don’t ‘infer’ anything – I experience it.”
He crossed his arms. “Are you so certain of this difference?”
“Quite,” I said. “When I see the dog-droppings, I intuitively steer away, whereas when I see the actual dog, I go over and pet it. If you can’t tell the difference, I’d rather not shake your hand!”
Mr. Eco groused about being the butt of a semiotic joke, but I explained that time was of the essence, and promised to say a word in his favor if he would allow me to move on in my quest for truth.
Gratuitous word in favor of Mr. Eco: Name of the Rose is a very entertaining novel, although I would have preferred some gay sex scenes. I mean, it’s set in a monastery, for crying out loud! Let’s have some realism.
Monks had sex. Monkesses had sex. Most philosophers, on the other hand, are not recorded as having done so. The Medieval logician Mr. Abelard is a notorious exception, sleeping with his student Heloise.
Of course, he paid dearly for it. The moral of the story is, don’t have sex with philosophy students unless you are prepared to take a vow of celibacy.
By the way – was it a coincidence that Mr. Abelard became so enamored of logic after his calamity?
I, on the other hand, had no such excuse.
From down the second-floor hallway a silhouette advanced toward me. I called out, asking if he’d seen Johann, before I realized who it was – Perkins.
“Why are you asking?”
“I need to report a leaky pipe,” I improvised warily.
“Where’s the leak?” Perkins demanded.
“Uh, in the bathroom.”
“Show me. We should take a look right away.”
I stood my ground. “No, I’ll just report it to Johann.”
“That won’t do you a lot of good,” he said with a supercilious smile. “Unless you want to haul the leaky pipe down to the jail.”
“The jail? What’s going on?”
“Johann was arrested. A SWAT team dragged him out of the boiler room in handcuffs. It was quite a commotion.”
“What did they arrest him for?”
“Who knows? But whatever it was, I’m sure he did it. The guy was a walking time-bomb.”
Johann in jail? My mind reeled. He must have been arrested right after I left him.
Had the police arrested him for the murders? However much I’d tried to see Johann as a suspect, I never truly believed that he was involved. But now the police had taken him into custody.
Had they known all along that it was a case of murder? Had the police said “accident” merely to lull the killer into a false sense of security while the net tightened?
Surely he’d be interrogated. Under questioning, who knew what he might say? He might start spewing names just to get attention off himself. My name might get dragged through the mud along with all the rest.
I needed to find out what was going on – to talk to Johann if possible. But how could I get near the police station, with my face adorning a Wanted poster at the front door?
It was time for a disguise, a completely new look. My clothes rack, monocrop that it was, would be no help. It was time to do some serious shopping. And what better place than the vintage philosophical shops of the Historical Latin Quarter Preservation District?
On the fringes of the Historical Latin Quarter Preservation District a street carnival closed a couple of blocks to traffic. I got a baton of pink cotton candy and wandered along the midway.
The Witch Hunt Dunking Booth proved popular, as local witches, magicians, and assorted oddball types lined up to take a shot at dunking priests and bishops.
For five dollars you got three baseballs. If you hit the target, the crimson-robed holy man would plunge into a vat of ice water. Most people took their best aim at the target, but a few latter-day witches fired their hardballs directly at the priests.
The Spinoza Cakewalk featured a life-sized Monopoly-type layout, with each square offering a pastry prize. Contestants would circle the board as a Motown ensemble performed choral readings from Mr. Spinoza’s Ethics.
When the passage ended and the singers harmonized the ultimate “Q.E.D.,” everyone received the prize from the square on which they stood. Some won delicious chocolate eclairs or thick slices of marbled cheesecake. Others came away with stale donuts or year-old fruitcakes.
At the far end of the midway stood a beanbag toss crowned by a flashing sign: The Oracle at Delphi.
“Know thyself!” called out the barker. “Step right up and know thyself!”
Fifteen feet behind the counter a colorful wheel-of-fortune painted with cartoonish faces of classical deities rotated slowly. When a beanbag landed in one of the grinning mouths, the machine would broadcast a cryptic oracle along with its payoff in points which could be redeemed for valuable prizes.
Sometimes the oracle was broad and inspiring, leaving people nodding reverently: “I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless,” the loudspeaker intoned. “Twenty points.”
Other times it was vague and poetic: “I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea. Thirty points.”
Then again the oracle could be so specific as to mystify all but the most adept: “The smell of a hard-shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot. The cauldron beneath is bronze, and bronze is the lid. Fifty points.”
I paid my ducats, picked up a beanbag, and squeezed it. The beans shifted under the pressure. I rotated my arm like a baseball pitcher, went into my windup, and fired a wild pitch that smacked against the backboard.
“Zzzzzzz!” went the machine. The attendant laughed and handed me another beanbag.
Winding up more deliberately, I unleashed a second wild one. I shook my head. I used to be good at this!
“Settle down, champ,” came a voice from behind me. I turned to see a round-faced man with dark, curly hair. A white cravat shown under his wide-collared jacket.
I recognized the eminent Mr. Fichte, interpreter of Mr. Kant and inceptor of the German Idealist school that culminated in Mr. Hegel.
“Uh, good day, sir. I’m having a hard time concentrating here.”
Mr. Fichte bowed his head toward me. “You’re focusing on the target. Know thyself first and foremost. Focus your attention on the being of the target not in itself, but as an object of an act of the self-positing self.”
“Pardon me, sir?” I said. “What does self-positing have to do with hitting a beanbag target?”
He smiled knowingly. “The presence to the self of any object already presupposes its own act of self-positing, or its own act of being for itself. In any discussion of the self, we must observe the founding act of all systematic philosophy – the act of self-positing, which is the act by which the self posits itself for itself.”
“Before I throw the beanbag I have to engage in a self-positing act?” I felt embarrassed saying the phrase in public.
Mr. Fichte seemed untroubled. “The act of self-positing is the act by which the self enacts its being and its being for itself insofar as its being consists of being for itself. All that the self is, is the act of being for itself. And conversely, all that is for the self is simply its act of being for itself.”
I cast a glance at the beanbag barker. He seemed frozen in time. Realizing I had a moment to question my spirit visitor regarding this whole issue of the self – which seemed possibly to bear some relation to my broader quest to rescue Mr. Testascrittore’s proof of his own existence as well as hopefully extending its benefits to myself – I looked back at Mr. Fichte.
“I see. So where exactly do I start with becoming this self-positing thing?”
He nodded as if he had puzzled long over the question. “It would be a mistake to regard the self-positing self as a kind of thinking thing, or thinking substance. The self-positing self is nothing but the activity of the self being for itself.”
My eyebrows beetled. “So the self is an act, not a thing?”
He brightened. “Exactly. The self is pure act, and nothing more. It is not even an ‘active substance.’ Simply act.”
I nodded. While it didn’t answer every question, I could see where treating the self as pure act could come in handy in the world of beanbags.
Mr. Fichte stepped back. The carnival barker came to life and harangued me to get on with the game.
“Let’s go,” he cried. “Know thyself!”
“Alright,” I muttered, turning the beanbag over to get a good grip. “I’ll give you a little of your Know Thyself!”
Focusing on a pure act of self positing, I reared back and fired a perfect strike. The oracular loudspeaker crackled to life: “You are the pilot. Grasp the helm fast. You have many allies. Fifty points.”
Nodding to Mr. Fichte, I wound up and blazed another one into the hole. “White-browed, they need a true seer’s wisdom,” blared the speaker. “Fifty points.”
Two strikes. One more strike and I could choose among several prizes including a handy pocket flashlight.
Positing my self as a self-positing act one more time, I leaned forward as if taking the sign from the catcher. I gripped the beanbag along the seams, slowly wound up, and fired it toward the target.
Strike three! “Make your own nature,” came the loudspeaker. “Take not the advice of others as your guide in life. One hundred points.”
I pumped my fist in the air. I looked for Mr. Fichte, but he had disappeared into the crowd.
The barker handed me my prize – a small plastic flashlight complete with battery. I flicked it on and off a couple of times and dropped it into my pocket.
Then I turned my attention to the task of finding a new disguise.
“This jacket was worn by a woman who always used to talk about the day she bumped into Roland Barthes,” said the clerk at Isidore of Seville’s Recycled Ideas, Attitudes, & Attire Shoppe. “The stain on the sleeve is where he spilled his coffee on her.”
I looked at myself in the mirror. “No, I don’t think red and black polkadots is what I’m looking for.”
“We have it in other colors,” he said with a hint of disapproval. “Although you sacrifice the Barthes connection.”
“No, I don’t want a jacket at all. I’m a sweatshirt kind of guy.”
He looked crestfallen, and I wondered if he was the designer of the polkadot jackets. “We don’t have much in the way of sweatshirts. Just this one rack.” He pointed to a long rack that stretched twenty feet toward the rear of the store.
Within minutes I’d found the perfect disguise – an Indiana State Fighting Sycamores sweatshirt. The Wanted poster featured the Berkeley sweatshirt – the Sycamores logo would throw them off completely.
But a more drastic change was needed to disguise my face. It called for the ultimate sacrifice – shaving. I stopped at the corner store and bought a razor, went up to my garret, and with shaking hand rid myself of my moustache and several days of well-groomed stubble.
It was the first time in some years I had been clean-shaven, a look scorned among my Berkeley peers. It would grow back, I knew, but the principle of the thing still bothered me.
I splashed on a little Old Spice, ran some Bryl-Creem through my hair, and headed for the Saint Thomas Aquinas Police Substation.
The disguise worked perfectly, and I waltzed into the cathedral-like nave of the police substation without anyone raising an eyebrow. I was delighted with my success, although wearing the Fighting Sycamores sweatshirt in public proved a bit of an embarrassment.
I mean, I’m not anti-environmentalist or anything, but it’s hard to get excited about a team whose mascot is a Sycamore. How worked up can the pep squad get if they’re cheering for a tree?
To compound matters, the Sycamores’ football team was off to a terrible start, getting leveled by the Oregon State Beavers, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, and the Southeastern Missouri Clearcutters.
With the Wisconsin Tech Golden Chainsaws coming up next, it looked like a long year on the old gridiron.
A sign I hadn’t noticed on my earlier visit, hand-lettered but of sufficient discoloration to indicate a certain antiquity and therefore stability, pointed toward the Jail Reception office. I stepped around a partition, and found myself in a spacious, dimly-lit hallway.
On the tall walls hung a series of faded tapestries depicting the Triumph of Order. Scantily-clad nymphs paraded solemnly under faux-classical archways bearing the symbols of victory over the forces of chaos, anarchy, and general untidiness.
Along the tapestried hallway stood large urns from which rose the smoke of incense. The walkway descended slightly, which lent it a touch of grandeur.
The squeaking of my shoes was the only sound. At the end of the passageway, a door opened to the left. A narrow flight of metal stairs descended into the subterranean regions of the building.
I remembered my first visit, how I left the building through a basement passageway. But this time I seemed to be going deeper underground. My first instinct was to stop, until I saw a hand-drawn arrow pointing down the stairs.
Obviously it was intended to bolster dubious visitors such as myself, although as Mr. Later Wittgenstein observed on one of his crankier days there’s nothing inherent in an arrow that compels you to follow the pointy end.
Nonetheless, I embraced the social convention and followed it.
At the bottom of the stairs, a metal doorway opened noisily. I entered a small concrete vestibule with an empty ticket-vending machine in the center.
After a while, I started to wonder if I was the only visitor.
“Hey! Anyone down here? Anyone home?” I thumped my fist on the opposite door, which I assumed led me closer to the jail cells.
I stood with hands on hips, wondering what I had to do to get service. I could demonstrate my dissatisfaction by leaving. But I’d lose any chance of finding out about Johann. I owed it to him and to myself to stick it out, however long I had to wait.
I pounded again. Finally, the door swung open. An older man in a plain brown uniform peered at me. “Yes?”
“Who are you here to see?” The guard, whose wrinkled brown uniform looked suspiciously like a UPS castoff, rocked on his heels as if impatient to refuse my request.
“Johann, the custodian of the philosophy building.”
“Which philosophy building?”
“The Albertus Magnus Empirical Metaphysics Building.”
“Oh, of course, Johann.” The guard’s demeanor relaxed. “Good kid. Hate to see him messed up in something like this.”
He bade me follow. Despite his appearance of assistance, my gut tensed. Was this some sort of elaborate ruse, taking advantage of my good nature and trust to lure me into the depths of the police cathedral and hold me incommunicado?
The guard nonchalantly led me down a concrete passageway with cells on each side. I trailed a bit behind, checking out the occupants.
One cell held a man dressed in a tattered suit. His space was lined on three sides with chalkboards on which he was carefully writing:
I promise that1
(1) I will not plagiarize my footnotes2.
(2) I will not plagiarize my footnotes3.
(3) I will not plagiarize my footnotes4.
(4) I will not plagiarize…”
A few cells down, a woman sat cross-legged on a stool. In front of her was an hourglass with its sand almost run out. “It’s true that the true is true,” she said in a sing-song voice. “It’s true that the false is false. It’s false that the true is false. It’s false that the false is true. If the false be false, then ’tis true to believe in its falsehood. But if the true be true, ’tis not false so to believe.”
She looked my way, although her hollow eyes seemed to focus beyond me. “Might this not lead us to conclude that the false is actually true, in its falsity?”
I started to respond, but at that moment the sand ran out. The woman turned the hourglass over and began the process anew. “It’s true that the true is true…”
Further along was a young man of about my age, stripped to the waist and chained against his cell wall. Behind him stood a hooded executioner with a crudely-knotted whip.
“All A’s are B,” said the executioner with exaggerated patience. “And all B’s are C. Therefore, all A’s are what?”
The young man rattled his chains as he gasped out: “All A’s are letters!” He shrieked in pain as the executioner slashed the whip across his back.
“Incorrect,” snarled the whip-wielder. Again he lashed the man’s bare flesh, then repeated the question through clenched teeth.
I stepped forward to intervene, to insist that the young man’s answer was technically correct, even if it was not the precise answer being sought.
But one cold glance from the hooded figure curbed my charitable impulses. After all, I reminded myself, the victim must have committed egregious logical errors to merit such drastic punishment.
Disheartened, I hastened after my guide.
We passed a row of empty cells. The bars were rusty except where they had been worn smooth by prisoners’ hands. Finally the guard stopped and gestured to the left. “Johann, someone here to see you.”
Johann, alone in the two-person cell, was lying on his bunk. He stood and came over to the bars. A harried expression cloaked his usually-relaxed face. “What are you doing here?” he hissed as soon as the guard stepped away. “They’re looking for you, too!”
“I’m in disguise. They’ll never connect me to the villa break-in.”
“No, not for that – you’re wanted for burning the sweatshirt last night.”
“What? How did they know about that?”
“Club Pascal must have gotten suspicious of how dirty we were. They called in a search squad, who found our firepit. They matched my DNA from a fragment in the ashes. I guess I left a few skin cells on one of the sticks.”
“How did they get yours and not mine?”
“Oh, I’m sure they got yours, too. But they probably don’t have your DNA in their files.”
My spirits sank. “I gave a DNA sample at registration. They told me it was for a library card.”
“The library will share the data with other authorities. Fortunately, they’re so backlogged that they probably haven’t gotten around to your specimen yet. But it’s just a matter of time. At any moment they’ll match the DNA and put out a warrant.”
“Damn,” I said, then stifled any further comment. What if our entire conversation was being recorded, and I had just confessed my involvement? Was Johann in league with the cops?
Or was his arrest for burning the sweatshirt a smokescreen? Maybe the authorities suspected Johann of the murders, but didn’t want to tip their hand in case there was an accomplice. So they used the DNA as a pretext to hold him, counting on me to blunder into the trap.
“Listen,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “I can only hold out so long. I can make it through one or two sessions, but not indefinitely.”
“Hold out? For what?”
“You have to find some place to hide,” he said urgently. “I think I can hold out tonight, but at some point, they’re going to get me to talk, and I’ll have to name you.”
“You think they’re going to interrogate you?”
“Oh, yeah, It’s just a question of what degree. There are all sorts of stories about this place.” He forced a laugh. “Torture chambers and all that.”
“So it’s true? No wonder they named the building after Mr. Aquinas.”
“Supposedly there’s another floor below this one, much deeper, with no windows or lightshafts. The bedrock is ten feet thick, and the ceiling is an arch of poured concrete. No sound can escape its confines.”
“You don’t think they’ll take you down there for burning a sweatshirt, do you?”
His eyes looking fearful. Then he gave a nervous chuckle. “Isn’t this what it’s all about? Mr. Socrates stoically awaiting his death. Mr. Boethius writing his most profound work in prison. Mr. Voltaire sharpening his wit on the whetstone of the Bastille. This is the true test of philosophy.”
I clenched my teeth. “I prefer the part where you stay up late smoking weed and talking about the meaning of life.”
The guard came back down the hall. He held out his hands apologetically. “Visiting time is up.”
Johann cast me a hard, searching gaze but said nothing more. I mumbled a farewell and glumly followed the guard back to the receiving area. “You can leave you came in, or take a short cut through the underground exit. It leads directly to the street.”
“Just show me the quickest way out,” I said.
“Go down that hall, take the first three lefts, then up three flights of stairs, back down one, up three, down two, and another left.”
“Okay, I think I got all that,” I said. I started down the hall.
“Wait,” the guard said. “There’s more. After that last left, you come to a fork in the hallway. Now you don’t want to take the right fork, that leads into the sewers. And whatever you do, don’t take the left, which leads down to the…”
“Down to the what?”
“Never mind,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Just don’t take it. Stick to the middle path, with the stacks of books. After that you’ll go up and down a bunch more stairs and lots of doors, but don’t turn off, whatever you do. Follow it until you come to a glass door. Knock there, and they’ll let you out.”
His directions worked perfectly, and soon I found myself at the fork in the hallway. Three paths diverged under a massive stone portal, over which was a stunning modern art mural which on closer inspection turned out to be elaborate stains from incessant leaking.
The right and left paths, against which I had been warned, were well-lit and unobstructed. But the middle path, so highly recommended by my guide, was piled high with out-of-date library books, the sort that have no apparent value but which must be saved for the sake of posterity and the accounting department.
The Seussian stacks, which reached nearly to the 20-foot ceiling, wobbled precariously at my slightest breath, and I found myself uncomfortably reminded of the means of death of my two professors.
Was I being sent to my doom? I stepped lightly toward one stack, and several books slid off the top and came crashing down. None was heavy enough to kill me, but some of the other volumes clearly were.
I leaned forward and read the covers: Mr. Mach, Mr. Juarez, Mr. Proclus. Worthy ancestors all, but hardly the sort of authors one would wish to be buried under. At such a pivotal stage in my philosophical career, I couldn’t bear the ignominy of being crushed, not by a comprehensive and authoritative encyclopedia or dictionary of philosophy, but by a bunch of outmoded texts.
I stepped back and took a breath. Should I go to the right, through the sewers? But I might get swept into the processing plant and mulched.
Or should I go left, down to – down to the dungeon? What else would be below the jail level?
My innate sense of morbid curiosity called me that direction, but I didn’t dare risk it. Not when I was already wanted both for the villa break-in and as an accomplice to Johann in the bonfire incident. I might never emerge.
My only path lay through the towers of books. I sucked in a slow breath and watched the stacks tremble. A few more stray volumes came tumbling down. I saw only one hope – to outrun the falling tomes. I stepped back, turned my head, and took a deep breath. Then I gritted my teeth and with a burst of adrenaline dashed down the center hallway.
The rush of air unleashed by my passing broke the delicate balance. Stacks teetered precariously. Inches behind me, a massive atlas slammed to the floor. Two oversized books of art-plates tumbled simultaneously, and only their chance deflection spared me a direct hit.
Ahead I spied a glimmer of light. I lunged between the final two stacks just as they came crashing down. The force of their impact drove me against the wall. I tumbled away as a cascade of books crashed down behind me.
Gasping for air, I raced through hallways and up and down stairways till I arrived at the promised glass door. I rapped sharply, and sure enough, a bellhop opened it. He seemed irritated at the interruption, but escorted me to a small door leading to the street.
Coming suddenly into the fading sunlight, I squinted. I ducked my head and hustled away from the building, not stopping until I spotted the neon sign atop Logico’s.
Logico’s was crowded as the weekend approached. I wished I felt more sociable, but with my best friend and number one murder suspect behind bars, I wasn’t in a festive mood.
I took a seat in the far corner, ordered a pint of Hautian Homebrew, and picked up the Menu de Jour. I was tempted by the Salade Derrida, but the waiter wouldn’t tell me the ingredients, only that it was different from any other salad on the menu.
“Viva la differance,” I said, then changed my mind and chose a Pre-Socratic Greek Salad, a Mediterranean smorgasbord featuring the Heraclitian boast that however many times you returned for more, “you never visit the same salad bar twice.”
Mr. Heraclitus, of course, noted that “one never steps into the same river twice.”
Less known is his pseudepigraphical comment that “one all too often steps into the same puddle twice.”
I took a swig of Hautian Homebrew and let the warmth flow through me. I thought back over the day, remembering my earlier resolve to visit Mr. Testascrittore’s office and “interrogate” it.
Clever idea. But at the moment, the last thing I wanted to do was set foot inside the philosophy building. It’d be just my luck to run into Mr. Denkenschnelle again, and he’d have the heat down on me in a moment.
Unless he was the killer himself. But in that case, I wasn’t much more excited about encountering him alone at night.
Suddenly a wave of exhaustion swept over me. A good night’s sleep was what I needed most. No visions or visitations, no epiphanies or insights – just restful slumber. Maybe the next day I could swing by Mr. Testascrittore’s office and have a look. After attending all my classes.
Honestly, even the classes didn’t sound too appealing. Was I already hitting my November slump? Here we were, one week into the term, and I was already in mid-semester form.
If I were back home in Berkeley, the solution would be obvious – take a few weeks off and get a fresh perspective, returning in time to bluff my way through mid-terms. But here in the pressure cooker of Terre Haute, I knew that such a lapse could prove fatal.
I headed back to the Heraclitian salad bar for a refill, and was pleased to see the offerings had indeed changed, now featuring locally-farmed couscous and organically-grown croutons.
A bell pepper compote looked intriguing, but aware of the notoriously hot Indiana spices I wasn’t sure it was the best idea even to taste it, lest I bring on a deluge of night spirit-visitors.
Still, it was tempting. I started to take a sample, then hesitated. It looked so good. Was I asking for trouble?
From across the salad bar, Ms. Beauvoir blew a cloud of smoke past me. “Ah, uncertainty,” she said. “The bane of Western philosophy.”
I gave a dry laugh. “Uncertainty is my middle name.”
“Well, that makes you human,” she said. She adjusted the red scarf tied round her hair. “If you ever do achieve certainty, you simply are not looking at the complexity of the situation. The human condition is ambiguous to the core.”
I scowled. “If there’s no certainty, how do we ever know how and when to take action? In particular, how will I know when to confront a suspect or go the police with solid evidence of Mr. Testascrittore’s murder?”
“You’ll never know for certain,’ she said. “The existential challenge is not to attain certainty, but to decide and take action in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.”
“Then we’re resigning ourselves to confusion?”
She exhaled another plume of smoke. “No,” she said. “We learn to balance awareness of uncertainty with constant attempts to sharpen our awareness and to learn from our past efforts.”
I waved the smoke away. “I don’t know,” I said, thinking of the seven-year program I had just begun. “It makes sense to do like Mr. Descartes or Mr. Husserl and take some time out to examine the foundations of knowledge. If I can attain a reasonable certainty of basic truths like my own existence or how to know whether something is true or not, it would make the rest of my efforts a lot more valuable, wouldn’t it?”
She gave a dry laugh. “Why do we imagine that wisdom lies in inactivity and reflection? Christian hermits retreating to desert caves to find God. Mr. Descartes retiring to his study to contemplate his own being. Mr. Heidegger moving to a remote mountain to await the unveiling of truth. Why? Humans don’t thrive on inactivity. We need to go forward, to act, to transcend the given situation.”
“I’m not averse to moving forward,” I said. “But unless we’re sure of our foundations, how do we even know which way is forward? If we haven’t established the foundations of knowledge, what difference does it make how much else we ‘know’? ”
“Speak for yourself,” she said sharply. “The obsession with epistemology and achieving certainty is a peculiarity of white male philosophers. Others of us – women, people of color, and other marginalized groups – find a lot less certitude in the ‘selfhood’ of the dominant social caste.”
Feminist epistemology – I recognized its novel strains. My brow furrowed. “Are you saying that epistemology and knowledge are gender-specific? How could that be? Surely truth is truth, knowledge is knowledge, regardless of who sees it.”
“Perhaps in the limited realms of mathematics or physics,” she said. “But what about the human sciences? What about art and literature? The dominant caste – those who are so concerned with being a ‘Self’ – overwhelmingly influence which truths can even be heard and seen.”
I nodded. “I see your point about art and that sort of thing. But what about the sheer facts of a situation? The ‘given reality,’ as some call it.”
“What’s given? Meaning is always received, interpreted – filtered through one’s own paradigm. When I published The Second Sex, Albert Camus said to me: ‘You make French men look ridiculous.’ The only ‘truth’ that he was capable of apprehending concerned men!”
I laughed sadly at my literary hero’s solecism. “That says more about Mr. Camus than about truth.”
She shook her head as if mimicking me. “What is ‘truth’ apart from what human activity discloses? There are not random facts floating around waiting to be noticed. Our actions and our theories – in short, human subjectivity – shape the contexts in which any truth, any knowledge, can be disclosed. And that context in turn shapes us, ‘subjects’ us, to the regimens of the dominant group. In Western culture, subjectivity reflects overwhelmingly the privileged viewpoint of men, of white people, of the owning class.”
“That can’t be right,” I said. “Reason isn’t the privileged possession of one gender or class. It’s the common right of every person. If Mr. Testacrittore proved his own being, that proof extends to every conscious person, not just to his own subgroup.”
“Perhaps in some ideal way,” she answered. “But for most of us, what we see represented is the outlook of the elite. For the white male owning class, to think truly is to be – they see their thoughts objectified in industry, in culture, in financial and educational institutions. Small surprise that they represent their kind as ‘Self,’ while the rest of us are taught that we are ‘Other.’”
“I see what you mean,” I said, thinking how students are cast as Other to the Selves of privileged professordom. “But it seems fatalistic. How do we ever get outside that framework?”
She blew another cloud of smoke past me. “That’s the role and challenge of social action, of radical critique, and of art and culture especially – to break the spell of this privileged viewpoint. This means accepting that reality is not as clear and distinct as male academics insist it is. It means accepting ambiguity and uncertainty.”
“Naturally, ma’am, I am reluctant to ally myself with the forces of social oppression and its concomitant intellectual tyranny,” I said, drawing a slow breath. “But my immediate task is to discover and apprehend Mr. Testacrittore’s killer. It seems that accepting ambiguity undermines my quest. I need more certainty, not less.”
“Certainty,” she said with a derisive laugh. “There you go again. Epistemology forever sharpens the axe but never cuts the tree. Isn’t it just an excuse for not acting in the world? ‘I need more information before I make a decision.’ Or my favorite: ‘We need to do another study.’ Well, life isn’t certain. Sometimes you have to make the best decision you can and take action.”
I shook my head. “And what if your best decision is completely mistaken, as I so recently have had ample occasion to experience?”
She shrugged. “It’s a process. You observe, you decide, you act, and you let the world give you feedback. You take that feedback and start the process anew. What could be more scientific?”
- Pop Quiz
If Ms. Beauvoir is correct and the fixation on epistemology is pre-eminently an owning-class male preoccupation, which philosophical issues will be seen as most important in coming generations?
(A) How to prove one’s own existence.
(B) How to prove that one has proven one’s own existence.
(C) How to prove that one has proven the existence of a proof that one’s proof of existence actually exists.
(D) Developing a truancy calculus to determine as precisely as possible the best days to skip, arrive late, or be present at a given class.
If you answered A, B, or C, you are mired in the past, and will doubtless waste your best years chasing after proofs that the aforesaid proofs prove anything in the first place.
If you answered D your eyes are set on the future, and you will in all likelihood make great contributions to the Western philosophical tradition.
I gazed across the salad bar at Ms. Beauvoir. To such an epistemologically-wrought mind such as my own, her words were unsettling. Yet I was intrigued by her use of the word “science” to describe a process of observation and action. Maybe Phenomenology was onto something.
“You might be right,” I finally said.
“Yes, I might be,” she said crisply. Someone waved to her from a table across the floor. “Bon soir.”
As she walked away I looked around Logico’s. No one was paying me any attention. I made my way back to my booth and silently finished my salad. As I downed the last of the Hautian Homebrew, another wave of exhaustion swept me.
I staggered to my feet. Was West Central Indiana beer that strong? Was I losing my tolerance?
No, it must be sheer physical exhaustion. Accustomed as I was to getting a solid ten hours sleep back in Berkeley, the hectic pace of Terre Haute was bound to be draining. And being awakened by a ghost every night wasn’t helping matters.
I needed a vacation. But how could I take one now, when the police might catalog my DNA and arrest me any moment for complicity in the burning of the sweatshirt?
From there it might be just a short step to accusing me of the break-in at the villa, and perhaps even linking me to the murders – assuming the authorities finally acknowledged that the deaths weren’t accidents.
With my main ally in jail, what chance would I have of clearing my name? Even Mr. Grosskase might have to abandon me to my fate.
Time was slipping away. Whatever chance I had of solving the mystery and salvaging my reputation before the pitiless bar of philosophical history was fast disappearing.
I stopped at the counter, got a glass of ice water, and knocked it back like a shot of cheap whiskey.
Then I headed out the door.
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