Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Satire of Philosophy by Washington Irving

You know a book is a satire when the author claims someone else wrote it...
On a recent trip to the wonderful used bookstore The Dawn Treader (admittedly the initial purpose of the trip was to get a bubble tea at TK WU next door), I happened upon Washington Irving's satirical first novel from 1809, Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York.

Is there anything that isn't funnier in German?
Not unlike Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (a book which inspired not only Irving to write his History, but Karl Marx to write Scorpion and Felix), Irving's History begins with some philosophical reflections on the origins of existence. However, whereas for Sterne this involved Shandy recounting the story of his own conception, for Irving this involved recounting the story of the philosophical conception of the Earth itself.

"Diedrich Knickerbocker Philosophizing"
As Irving writes:
It is a mortifying circumstance, which greatly perplexes many a pains taking philosopher, that nature often refuses to second his most profound and elaborate efforts; so that often after having invented one of the most ingenious and natural theories imaginable, she will have the perverseness to act directly in the teeth of his system, and flatly contradict his most favorite positions. This is a manifest and unmerited grievance, since it throws the censure of the vulgar and unlearned entirely upon the philosopher; whereas the fault is not to be ascribed to this theory, which is unquestionably correct, but to the waywardness of dame nature, who with the proverbial fickleness of her sex, is continually indulging in coquetries and caprices, and seems really to take pleasure in violating all philosophic rules, and jilting the most learned and indefatigable of her adorers. Thus it happened with respect to the foregoing satisfactory explanation of the motion of our planet; it appears that the centrifugal force has long ceased to operate, while its antagonist remains in undiminished potency: the world therefore, according to the theory as it originally stood, ought in strict propriety to tumble into the sun—Philosophers were convinced that it would do so, and awaited in anxious impatience, the fulfillment of their prognostications. But the untoward planet, pertinaciously continued her course, notwithstanding that she had reason, philosophy, and a whole university of learned professors opposed to her conduct. The philo's were all at a non plus, and it is apprehended they would never have fairly recovered from the slight and affront which they conceived offered to them by the world, had not a good natured professor kindly officiated as mediator between the parties, and effected a reconciliation. 
Finding the world would not accommodate itself to the theory, he wisely determined to accommodate the theory to the world: he therefore informed his brother philosophers, that the circular motion of the earth round the sun was no sooner endangered by the conflicting impulses above described, than it became a regular revolution, independent of the causes which gave it origin—in short, that madam earth having once taken it into her head to whirl round, like a young lady of spirit in a high dutch waltz, the duivel himself could not stop her. The whole board of professors of the university of Leyden joined in the opinion, being heartily glad of any explanation that would decently extricate them from their embarrassment—and immediately decreed the penalty of expulsion against all who should presume to question its correctness: the philosophers of all other nations gave an unqualified assent, and ever since that memorable era the world has been left to take her own course, and to revolve around the sun in such orbit as she thinks proper.
Irving goes on to give his reader "fair warning" that, as "an impartial historian," he feels that it is his "duty" to investigate the cosmological theories ("by which mankind have been so exceedingly edified and instructed") of such philosophers as Zenophanes, Strato, Pythagoras, Moschus (whose philosophy was "revived by Democritus of laughing memory, improved by Epicurus that king of good fellows, and modernized by the fanciful Descartes"), and Plato ("that temperate sage, who threw the cold water of philosophy on the form of sexual intercourse"), among many others. 

As Irving warns (and if you're going to put a "trigger warning" in your philosophy syllabi, this would make for a pretty good one):
...I am about to plunge for a chapter or two, into as complete a labyrinth as ever historian was perplexed withal; therefore I advise them to take fast hold of my skirts, and keep close at my heels, venturing neither to the right hand nor to the left, least they get bemired in a slough of unintelligible learning, or have their brains knocked out, by some of those hard Greek names which will be flying about in all directions. But should any of them be too indolent or chicken-hearted to accompany me in this perilous undertaking, they had bester take a short cut round, and wait for me at the beginning of some smoother chapter. 
Rather than be offended by Irving's mockery of philosophy, I think we should take it as a compliment. That a novelist would spend so much time joking about philosophers, and in a novel that was immensely popular, shows that there was a time in America when philosophy was part of the culture. 

So please, novelists, be inspired by Irving, and make fun of philosophers as much as you can (note: making fun of philosophers is not the same as making fun of philosophy, as the former requires reading philosophy, while the latter only requires hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson on a podcast). 

If people are laughing at philosophers, then there is a much greater chance that people will again laugh with philosophers as well.
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