Philosophy 4 by Owen Wister

Part I

Forward (Part II)





p09dropt.jpgWO frowning boys sat in their tennis flannels beneath the glare of lamp and gas. Their leather belts were loosened, their soft pink shirts unbuttoned at the collar. They were listening with gloomy voracity to the instruction of a third. They sat at a table bared of its customary sporting ornaments, and from time to time they questioned, sucked their pencils, and scrawled vigorous, laconic notes. Their necks and faces shone with the bloom of out-of-doors. Studious concentration was evidently a painful novelty to their features. Drops of perspiration came one by one from their matted hair, and their hands dampened the paper upon which they wrote. The windows stood open wide to the May darkness, but nothing came in save heat and insects; for spring, being behind time, was making up with a sultry burst at the end, as a delayed train makes the last few miles high above schedule speed. Thus it has been since eight o'clock. Eleven was daintily striking now. Its diminutive sonority might have belonged to some church-bell far distant across the Cambridge silence; but it was on a shelf in the room,--a timepiece of Gallic design, representing Mephistopheles, who caressed the world in his lap. And as the little strokes boomed, eight--nine-- ten--eleven, the voice of the instructor steadily continued thus:--

"By starting from the Absolute Intelligence, the chief cravings of the reason, after unity and spirituality, receive due satisfaction. Something transcending the Objective becomes possible. In the Cogito the relation of subject and object is implied as the primary condition of all knowledge. Now, Plato never--"

"Skip Plato," interrupted one of the boys. "You gave us his points yesterday."

"Yep," assented the other, rattling through the back pages of his notes. "Got Plato down cold somewhere,--oh, here. He never caught on to the subjective, any more than the other Greek bucks. Go on to the next chappie."

"If you gentlemen have mastered the--the Grreek bucks," observed the instructor, with sleek intonation, "we--"

"Yep," said the second tennis boy, running a rapid judicial eye over his back notes, "you've put us on to their curves enough. Go on."

The instructor turned a few pages forward in the thick book of his own neat type-written notes and then resumed,--

"The self-knowledge of matter in motion."

"Skip it," put in the first tennis boy.

"We went to those lectures ourselves," explained the second, whirling through another dishevelled notebook. "Oh, yes. Hobbes and his gang. There is only one substance, matter, but it doesn't strictly exist. Bodies exist. We've got Hobbes. Go on."

The instructor went forward a few pages more in his exhaustive volume. He had attended all the lectures but three throughout the year, taking them down in short-hand. Laryngitis had kept him from those three, to which however, he had sent a stenographic friend so that the chain was unbroken. He now took up the next philosopher on the list; but his smooth discourse was, after a short while, rudely shaken. It was the second tennis boy questioning severely the doctrines imparted.

"So he says color is all your eye, and shape isn't? and substance isn't?"

"Do you mean he claims," said the first boy, equally resentful, "that if we were all extinguished the world would still be here, only there'd be no difference between blue and pink, for instance?"

"The reason is clear," responded the tutor, blandly. He adjusted his eyeglasses, placed their elastic cord behind his ear, and referred to his notes. "It is human sight that distinguishes between colors. If human sight be eliminated from the universe, nothing remains to make the distinction, and consequently there will be none. Thus also is it with sounds. If the universe contains no ear to hear the sound, the sound has no existence."

"Why?" said both the tennis boys at once.

The tutor smiled. "Is it not clear," said he, "that there can be no sound if it is not heard!"

"No," they both returned, "not in the least clear."

"It's clear enough what he's driving at of course, "pursued the first boy. "Until the waves of sound or light or what not hit us through our senses, our brains don't experience the sensations of sound or light or what not, and so, of course, we can't know about them--not until they reach us."

"Precisely," said the tutor. He had a suave and slightly alien accent.

"Well, just tell me how that proves a thunder-storm in a desert island makes no noise."

"If a thing is inaudible--" began the tutor,

"That's mere juggling!" vociferated the boy," That's merely the same kind of toy-shop brain-trick you gave us out of Greek philosophy yesterday, They said there was no such thing as motion because at every instant of time the moving body had to be somewhere, so how could it get anywhere else? Good Lord! I can make up foolishness like that myself. For instance: A moving body can never stop. Why? Why, because at every instant of time it must be going at a certain rate, so how can it ever get slower? Pooh!" He stopped. He had been gesticulating with one hand, which he now jammed wrathfully into his pocket.

The tutor must have derived great pleasure from his own smile, for he prolonged and deepened and variously modified it while his shiny little calculating eyes travelled from one to the other of his ruddy scholars. He coughed, consulted his notes, and went through all the paces of superiority. "I can find nothing about a body's being unable to stop," said he, gently. "If logic makes no appeal to you, gentlemen--"

"Oh, bunch!" exclaimed the second tennis boy, in the slang of his period, which was the early eighties. "Look here. Color has no existence outside of our brain - that's the idea?"

The tutor bowed.

"And sound hasn't? and smell hasn't? and taste hasn't?"

The tutor had repeated his little bow after each.

"And that's because they depend on our senses? Very well. But he claims solidity and shape and distance do exist independently of us. If we all died, they'd he here just the same, though the others wouldn't. A flower would go on growing, but it would stop smelling. Very well. Now you tell me how we ascertain solidity. By the touch, don't we? Then, if there was nobody to touch an object, what then? Seems to me touch is just as much of a sense as your nose is." (He meant no personality, but the first boy choked a giggle as the speaker hotly followed up his thought.)" Seems to me by his reasoning that in a desert island there'd be nothing it all--smells or shapes--not even an island. Seems to me that's what you call logic."

The tutor directed his smile at the open window. "Berkeley--" said he.

"By Jove!" said the other boy, not heeding him, "and here's another point: if color is entirely in my brain, why don't that ink-bottle and this shirt look alike to me? They ought to. And why don't a Martini cocktail and a cup of coffee taste the same to my tongue?" "Berkeley," attempted the tutor, "demonstrates--"

"Do you mean to say," the boy rushed on, "that there is no eternal quality in all these things which when it meets my perceptions compels me to see differences?"

The tutor surveyed his notes. "I can discover no such suggestions here as you are pleased to make" said he. "But your orriginal researches," he continued most obsequiously, "recall our next subject,--Berkeley and the Idealists." And he smoothed out his notes.

"Let's see," said the second boy, pondering; "I went to two or three lectures about that time. Berkeley--Berkeley. Didn't he--oh, yes! he did. He went the whole hog. Nothing's anywhere except in your ideas. You think the table's there, but it isn't. There isn't any table."

The first boy slapped his leg and lighted a cigarette. "I remember," said he. "Amounts to this: If I were to stop thinking about you, you'd evaporate."

"Which is balls," observed the second boy, judicially, again in the slang of his period, "and can be proved so. For you're not always thinking about me, and I've never evaporated once."

The first boy, after a slight wink at the second, addressed the tutor. "Supposing you were to happen to forget yourself," said he to that sleek gentleman, "would you evaporate?"

The tutor turned his little eyes doubtfully upon the tennis boys, but answered, reciting the language of his notes: "The idealistic theory does not apply to the thinking ego, but to the world of external phenomena. The world exists in our conception of it.

"Then," said the second boy, "when a thing is inconceivable?"

"It has no existence," replied the tutor, complacently.

"But a billion dollars is inconceivable," retorted the boy. "No mind can take in a sum of that size; but it exists."

"Put that down! put that down!" shrieked the other boy. "You've struck something. If we get Berkeley on the paper, I'll run that in." He wrote rapidly, and then took a turn around the room, frowning as he walked. "The actuality of a thing," said he, summing his clever thoughts up, "is not disproved by its being inconceivable. Ideas alone depend upon thought for their existence. There! Anybody can get off stuff like that by the yard." He picked up a cork and a foot-rule, tossed the cork, and sent it flying out of the window with the foot-rule.

"Skip Berkeley," said the other boy.

"How much more is there?"

"Necessary and accidental truths," answered the tutor, reading the subjects from his notes. "Hume and the causal law. The duality, or multiplicity, of the ego."

"The hard-boiled ego," commented the boy the ruler; and he batted a swooping June-bug into space.

"Sit down, idiot," said his sprightly mate."

Conversation ceased. Instruction went forward. Their pencils worked. The causal law, etc., went into their condensed notes like Liebig's extract of beef, and drops of perspiration continued to trickle from their matted hair.


Forward (Part II)
Date created: 3/6/97
Last modified: 3/7/97
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