Thursday, July 19, 2012

Res Civicus, Res Cogitans (The Town That Thinks)

In Corigliano d'Otranto, a little Apulian town just south of Lecce in the heel of Italy's boot, academic politics has invaded civic politics, illustrating again the cautionary observation that academic politics is so vicious because nothing much is really at stake. The town has passed civic resolution 72, citing the tradition of such luminaries as Socrates and Spinoza to create the post of municipal philosopher, stipulating that the first holder of the office, Graziella Lupo, be available for consultation at the town hall "between 15.00 and 19.00 on Fridays." It's nice that the mayor has elevated a fellow woman (if that's the phrase I want) to the post, as women philosophers during the classical ages of philosophy were in short supply - there was a Rene Descartes, but never Renee.

Under the mayoralty of Ada Fiore, a teacher of philosophy, the town has installed ceramic plaques with quotations from the likes of Saint Augustine and has distributed postcards in bars and shops that ask existential questions, such as "Why were you born?"

"Who, me?"

Personally I can think of little that promises more entertainment than sitting in a neighborhood public house listening to a group of the local umbriagi discoursing on why they were born, whether existence is a predicate, or whether one can logically derive an 'ought' proposition from an 'is' proposition. But evidently the local confrerie of psychologists takes a dimmer view of the mayor's bald attempt at an academic coup d'etat. Upon Lupo's official appointment as municipal philosopher, Mayor Fiore received an excoriating letter from the head of the psychologists' professional society in Puglia, the Italian province that includes Corigliano.

 Federatione di Psychologismo Pugliano

Dr Giuseppe Luigi Palma, who has probably never set foot in a companionable Coriglianese auberge nor ever lifted a congenial glass with his fellow man, insisted that the use of a consulting philosopher was "not only misleading and confusing, but utterly perilous," and vowed that his organisation was ready to take "all the most appropriate actions to combat any offence that may be identified."

Lupo, who engages her clients in Socratic dialogue, assured the psychologists that she does not "dwell on their past, but their present and their perspectives on the future." And unlike the psychologist, although she did not say it, she does it all upright. Her rejoinder was brisk and au point: "I don't think the college of psychologists knows what a philosophical consultant is," she said. And, being a philosophical consultant, she added: "Their criticism is in any case devoid of epistemological content." Which is just the nice way a fellow academic would tell Dr. Palma to bugger off. Still, one might hope for a deeper sense of irony in a philosopher - how about "Physician, heel thyself." (Can a bad pun be ironic? Can something arise from nothing? If a tree falls on your car will your insurance pay for it?)

This raises all sorts of further questions for the body politic, which heretofore has had to deal merely with the mundane, concrete particular - traffic violations, zoning regulations, taxation, and maintenance of public spaces such as the new "philosophy park" in the quattro vecchio featuring "trees that talk, walls that light up and images that flow." The introduction into municipal life of philosophical offenses, an idea which Dr. Palma seems to float, will surely require a specialized law enforcement - an epistemological judiciary, an existential enquiry team, a linguistic analyst, a deconstructionist to take down all the ceramic plaques when the posted questions have been irrefragably answered, and so on. Imagine being apprehended by the logic police for perpetrating the following fallacy:

Ants are numberless.
This little fellow is an ant.
Ergo, as I have just unimpeachably demonstrated even to the satisfaction of a wit so dim as yours, this ant is numberless.   

Or again: 
All elephants are large.
Your dog is large.
Therefore, I am led inexorably by the bonds of logic to the conclusion that your dog is an elephant.

Clearly it would require a certain expertise to be able to say to the offending party, "Awright, Bub, yer comin' wid me." And I haven't even touched on formal syllogisms in quantified logic, for example: 
(x) . φx ⊃ ψx :(x). ψx ⊃ χx :: (x) . φx ⊃ χx

"You kids quit writin' syllogisms in formal notation, dammit!"

Ms. Lupo, the civic philosopher, acknowledged that people brought problems to her. One of her clients was a young man hopelessly bored with the company of his peers (go figure), another could only relate virtually to people of his own age (are virtual people the same age as you are? if they are in fact of any age, how would you determine it? are your virtual friends different from or the same as your imaginary friends?) These may not strike some as philosophical problems so much as social shortcomings, or simply as no problem at all. Still, a problem is a problem and anything is worthy of discussion to a philosophical soul.

"Oh, youbetcha I'm philosophical!"

Mayor Fiore may have bitten off more than the Coriglianesi can chew. An epistemological court of law would first have to vet whether the wrong under legal examination is a fact in any absolute sense; whether, if it is a fact in that sense, it is knowable as a fact; or whether it is merely a fact of law; and if only a fact of law is it worth being tried; and whether any worth whatsoever is a matter of certain knowledge or merely a matter of belief and opinion; and if of certain knowledge, demonstrably so? and if merely of opinion, reasonable and justifiable opinion?

Or again, who exactly is the defendant in any case before the court clearly becomes a matter for the existential enquiry team. If said defendant is a person, which person is it, assuming of course that anyone besides me is in fact a person and not merely some appliance with non-self-conscious behavioral capacities; and of course raising and answering the question whether a person is some self-conscious amalgm of physical and spiritual substance, or merely a corporeal machine capable of rational behavior and utterance, or merely a bundle of perceptions loosely associated with a body. And to what extent any of said entities, should they exist, are capable of freely initiating said actions which led to the etc. etc. etc. And if not capable of initiating said action freely, spontaneously and independently of any prior or supervening system of metaphysical causality, then in what possible sense and to what degree responsible for said event or action?

I think you see the problem here. Dr. Giuseppe Luigi Palma's caution is probably well-advised, but even he doesn't have a clue.

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