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All The World is a Stage May 18, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Philosophy, Teaching.

In “The Prestige”, a film about two 19th Century magicians competing for prestige, we learn that a successful magic trick contains three elements: the Pledge, in which the magician shows us something ordinary yet hints at an impending mystery; the Turn, in which the ordinary is made to do something extraordinary while the atmosphere grows thick with suspense; and the Prestige, the final act, in which we are led to see something shocking that we have never seen before.

Isn’t this how we teach philosophy? We take an ordinary concept that everyone takes for granted and we hint at a deep problem. We then make the concept disappear, dismantling the scaffolding that holds an idea in place, as our students anxiously wonder how something so obvious and necessary could be so doubtful. Finally, through a serious of logical maneuvers and much handwaving that must look like magic to our students, we make it reappear in a new guise, with the promise that it might disappear again if you come back tomorrow.

As the end of the semester approaches, I suspect that the trick is getting old.



1. Nina Rosenstand - May 19, 2007

That is a highly disturbing thought, because in that case we kill the bird, and just pretend to the students that we have brought it back to life, unharmed! Which I think we sometimes do: we show them another bird and claim the old one has reappeared…But I much prefer to think that we are like Tesla: No magic, just dramatically different insight!

2. Dwight Furrow - May 19, 2007

I think that we do kill the bird. The compatibilist’s view of freedom is not the contra-causal view of freedom with some new feathers. It is a different concept of freedom. The physicalist’s view of the mind is not the soul plus some new features. It is a different concept of the mind.

The new insight is not just different from the old–it is incompatible with it. So dead birds all around.

3. Charlette Lin - May 19, 2007

Why would that thought be disturbing? I highly enjoy my philosophy classes.

I suppose these classes are entertaining to me like a magic show, except instead of creating mystery, your lectures lead to understanding and inspire wonder.

“Dead birds” give off a negative connotation. When you open our minds to new ideas, I think you’re actually “killing” the close-minded beliefs that we have been raised to not question. After the death of the dogmas, you then present several interesting possibilities that spur us to decide what we feel are more true through reasoning.

4. Thea - May 21, 2007

Killing the bird is the only way to go. If you’re not killing the bird, the students will notice that it’s the same bird that they saw before. Despite the way that they look, Gen Y (of which I am not a part) digests information at warp speed. If they sense that you’re showing them the same bird as before, their brains will automatically turn the channel.

Personally, the part that I like most is when the bird disappears. The tension, the excitement! Is the next bird going to be shimmery? Is it going to be unfamiliar? Will it sound crazy? Those are the birds that make me look forward to class the most. Well, epistemology class anyway.

In values, I want to believe that there is one bird and I want it to stay put. In that class, it feels like there is a beautiful, glorious bird sitting in a pile of mud. We’re slowly taking Q-tips and water and painstakinly cleaning it off. There are millions of workers and the mud seems to have infinite volume.

Either way, the tricks are positively not getting old.

5. Dwight Furrow - May 22, 2007


I find it interesting that you distinguish epistemology from ethics with regard to “killing the bird”.

Isn’t the utilitarian concept of obligation a different concept than the Kantian concept of obligation? For Kant, obligations are categorical and overriding. For utilitarians not so.

The concept of eudaimonia for Aristotelians is a differenct concept than the idea of happiness promoted by hedonists.

6. Thea - May 22, 2007

Well, I really used the bird metaphor in two vastly different ways so, we’re dealing with a semantic issue for one thing. We started out with a bird or two and at this point, the thread is like something out of a Hitchcock movie!

In regard to epistemology, I believe that there is one reality, one truth, one justice, one true way of obtaining knowledge and that the more perspectives we have, the closer to truth we become. Like Descartes.

In epistemology, each of these birds that you’re talking about holding up in class, I would call perspectives. Put them all together and you might be a little closer to truth. But, to me, in my heart, there is only one true bird in epistemology, too. That bird is true knowledge or reality (we’re studying both in class).

I appreciate that each of the perspectives presented are valuable. (Dr. Campbell won’t let us move forward in class until about 80% of the class honestly acknowledges the value of each perspective. You can’t try to deceive her, she can see it in your eyes.), However, in my opinion, the duds are the ones I’m already just too familiar with. They are the ones that I put together myself at the age of five experimenting with the refrigerator light. They are the ones that my toddler was studying when he poured an entire gallon of milk out on the kitchen floor. Twice, to control for speed.

Every now and then we get what I call a shimmery bird. Someone who is far out. Someone with a new concept that’s totally unfamiliar, like Berkeley. That’s what I come to class for. That’s the good stuff to me. Because, let’s face it, there are really only so many ways that an over-trained and isolated White American, British or European male can view the acquisition of knowledge or reality. And, like everyone in this country, I’ve been studying the viewpoints of White males since the age of five.

To the shame of western philosophy and the loss of its students, its elitist nature precludes the study of the philosophies of other cultures, branding them with names like “religious” and “not rigorous”. In many, many years, philosophers will come to understand the ethnocentricity and exclusivity of the phrase “it isn’t written”. And, when the west transcends Enlightenment, spirituality and religion will no longer be a threat.

Until the tide turns, the brave and patient philosophy students wait and study with a fine tooth comb the thoughts of the similar few. And, I’m not talking about philosophy at Mesa; I’m talking about the entire western branch of the field. I’ve done research.

In terms of values, to my deep discomfort, I’m coming to realize that I am a hard universalist. Like most people, I have a fantasy that there is one true path of righteousness and I happen to be on it. That’s why I chose the phrase, “I WANT to believe that there is one bird.” My skepticism precludes me from deeply believing that I can know that there is.

In the metaphor above, the people cleaning off the bird of righteousness represent the perspectives; the ideas like Kant’s obligation and utilitarianism. But, we all know that they are after the same thing: righteousness.

I called the bird of ethics glorious because to me, the purpose of knowledge is to become a better servant. Although I recognize the blasphemous nature of this statement, I do not admire knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It is at the top of Maslow’s Heirachy of Needs and I view it as indulgent. When someone gives back through being better, making better choices, following a righteous path, that’s when philosophy has its best value to me. (Teaching, by the way, is a noble profession and not what I would call indulgent.) As a result, I view the bird of ethics as beautiful and glorious.

That being said, it may interest you to know that this generation is taught the dangers of ethical relativism in every class, not just philosophy and we learn it with the furvor that the baby boomers learned to hide under their desks in the event of a bomb. The students turn the phrase, “Because what about Hitler?” with the same regularity that you can count on, during the first week of every class, one of the students’ eyes to glaze over and respond automatically to the word, “Russia” with the phrase “Communism doesn’t work” like a scene out of The Manchurian Candidate.

7. Lindsey - May 23, 2007

As a student currently in a Philosophy class I feel as though rather than a huge “shock” at the end of the course, it’s been more of a semester filled with encouragement to think critically. Perhpaps some philosophy professors utilize this method similar to the process in the Prestige, however, I think an effective teacher teaches the class to think critically and ask questions. I think there are deep problems and it can be confusing when conflicting ideas and indoctrination occurs. This is a common occurence in Philosophy because it’s easy to add personal theories while discussing the theories of Philosophers in the past and present. I hope philosophy teachers make it a point to take an ordinary concept and in a sense confuse students only to return to the original concept if it should “appear.” I have received a great understanding about past philosophers/philosophies without being confused about concepts, and have actually been able to analyze them. I think the more perspectives we have, the more commonly we are lost in a world of theories. I think people have invested so much in this ethical relativism junk (for lack of a better term) that it has left many of us students in an utter state of confusion with jumbled ideas of “what’s right for me is right for me, but maybe not you.” Ethical relativism leaves no room for truth, only matters of preference or opinion. I agree that religion should not be viewed as a threat. Religious philosophers deserve a portion of the philosophy class, just as much as any of the atheists. Ultimately philosophy can help students question many important questions regarding life… where did we come from? What’s our purpose in life? Where are we going when we die? And of course everything in between: how to treat others, whether we should use rationality or emotions to make decision, etc. If philosophy courses are being taught in the fashion of presenting a concept, hinting at a problem, creating doubt, then disappear only to reappear, than I would say teachers are not doing their job.

8. Abdul - May 24, 2007

Lindsey –

I’m a philosophy student as well who has asked my self the same questions you have at one point this semester. I’m taking my first philosophy course this semeseter. I signed up for the course initially to satisfy a G.E. requirement. However, the subject matter that I’ve covered so far has kindled within me an interest for philosophy that will extend far beyond this semester. Whether I choose to take more philosophy courses or to study this subject on my own is a question I will have to answer soon.

I believe that part of the reason why I’ve become very interested in philsophy has to do with the fact that many philosophical concepts and ideas are relative. The male instinct within me to fix things reacted to this relativism within philosophy. But, especially when it comes to ethical questions, I’m beginning to realize that there is no single solution. I might develop a book of ethics that I deem to be perfect and applicable to every human at all times, but my personal views shaped how the book turned out. So, for instance if I grew up in a society in which pedophilia was acceptable, and I included within my book a law which permitted people to engage in such acts, or a statement which condoned such acts, I could not expect a person who grew up in a society where pedophilia was not acceptable to find my views appealing, nor could I judge him or her by my standards.

I do believe at the moment that there are ultimate answers to common metaphysical questions, and that eventually we will discover them. But as far as ethical questions go, there aren’t any.

9. Melinda - June 2, 2007

More than Magic*

Can philosophy be taught? I love Dwight’s metaphor of teaching philosophy as a kind of magic, a sleight of hand, prestidigitation, prestige. It brings up so many interesting thoughts about that particular enterprise. Doing, teaching philosophy is indeed a way of saying, “Now you see it, now you don’t”; but the philosopher is not “killing the bird” only to introduce new imposters, she just changes the way we see it (here I go, as Thea remarks, with my “perspectives”…).

“Look,” she says, “Look at this bird—now really look by altering the way you see it—don’t just use your ordinary eyes; see it for what is really is. As we look deeper and deeper into the nature of the creature, it fades and then poof! it suddenly disappears. A new world opens, but we cannot stay there for long, for we want our illusions back, we need them. But what the philosopher does, before she allows the illusion to reappear, is to remind us that our life is but a dream, a solid, ongoing, essential dream. The knowledge she gives us, the point of the magic trick, is the same as saying that Socratic ignorance is better than plain old ignorance, knowing we are dreaming is a step above, a step beyond, just simply dreaming.

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