The right word

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by
Paul Burman

Can a person jump into the same river twice?

Six years ago, I was asked to teach a basic philosophy course to teenagers. It came as something of a surprise because the only time I'd attempted to study philosophy was twenty-five years previously, as a short unit in an Arts degree, when each tutorial had always left me so confused I invariably walked away with a headache. Not only was this a slight problem, but apparently there was no course outline, and I was expected to work out the whole show as I went along.

It probably isn't difficult to imagine the dread with which I approached those first classes, wondering if I could keep a single step ahead of the students or whether they'd discover what a fraud I was. There were a couple of sleepless nights thrown in for sure, and a new sort of headache.

However, not only did it soon become one of the highlights of my job at that time (because teenagers love talking about the nature of time and dreams and reality and how they know what they know and ethics and how we know that green is green, and there's nothing better than working with that sort of interest and enthusiasm), but I soon learned that it was dramatically changing the way I, as a writer, thought about words and the way I shaped ideas with words. It became a honing stone for making language use more precise and sharpening the logical development of ideas. Philosophy is, in part, about language.

Can a person jump into the same river twice?

Most people would say: Of course. Others, when pressed, might suggest it would be the same river, but the experience would always be different.

Try it on a warm day and then on a cold day. Try jumping in the middle of winter when it's frozen, or after a drought when a snarl of rocks are exposed.

This question inevitably led to another question: Are we the same person at eight months old as we are when we've got eighty years on the clock, or have we become many different people in between? Are our thoughts the same, or our feelings, or our memories, or our physique, or our eyesight?

The doubts arise. The certainties get muddier. For every answer there are two more questions, and the doubt brings its own brand of headache.

Are two plastic chairs, cast from the same mould, the same chair or different?

If the qualities of two chairs are the same, but the chairs are actually different chairs, then how can a river, which will acquire very different qualities from one moment to the next (to say nothing of one season to the next) be the same river?

Can a person really jump into the same river twice?

Such doubts, I learned (two small steps or one quick jump ahead of my students), can only be solved if we measure our words and our meaning more carefully and -- in this case -- define and distinguish the nature of Sameness.

To wit: numerical and qualitative sameness. I'd never heard of these distinctions before.

The river is numerically the same river, but qualitatively different.

The chairs are qualitatively the same, but numerically different.

One of the chairs is qualitatively and numerically the same today as it was last week, unless someone bends a leg or scribbles graffiti on it in the interim, in which case it becomes like the river...

Call me a freak, but I delight in this stuff. It might take me even longer to write a sentence these days (and there are many days when I can have fewer words on a page at the end of the day than I did at the beginning), and I might spend too long gazing out the window at the grass and wondering what form of greenness other people might see, or whether it's the same grass I gazed at yesterday, but my brief flirtation with philosophy has made me think about the significance of each word more than I ever did before.

P.S. It is an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.

6 comments:

Stella said...

I've never thought of philosophy as a way to sharpen words. (Rather, I've thought of it as a way to confuse brain cells.)

Excellent post, Paul.

Mike French said...

Great thoughtful article Paul!

Got to comment on this:

"It is an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth."

LOL:This disproves itself of course!

kathleenmaher said...

I love this post, Paul. While I've never had the honor of teaching philosophy, I majored in it in college, and I loved it almost as much as I love fiction. At least back then, I loved it, because I was desperately trying to find something else, anything else, to be besides a fiction writer.
By graduation, however, I had concluded that the world rewards philosophers much the way it does fiction writers. So if I was destined to unappreciated and solitary work, better face up to my real love. Dread and doubt factor large in both, don't you think?

Paul said...

Stella: For me, it was a happy accident. It happened despite me, not because of anything I did or planned. Made a welcome relief to the confusion. 8~)

Mike: It's an enjoyable paradox, akin to admitting that I only ever tell lies!

Kathleen: Absolutely. The dread and doubt factor is considerable. I think I'd do better with studying Philosophy these days than I did back then. I'm a little more logical than I used to be, I think. (If I think it, does that mean I am?)

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

...'how we know that green is green.' This is so true! I debate this with my (color-blind) husband - how do I know that what I see as red is not what he sees as red except that he is told it is different? We only identify something by the labels we are taught. I am reminded of this daily by my two-year old who parrot-repeats what I say. My choice of language has become, more 'considered' in recent weeks. But I hadn't yet thought of it as related to my writing - now I will have to. Enjoyed this very much.

Paul said...

What children do to our understanding of language and our perception of reality is worth a post of its own, ABB. They certainly have a wonderful habit of making us carefully consider our words (and actions), especially if we don't want to hear some of those words broadcast back at us, full volume, in the most public of places.