Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dr. Seuss's Cartesian, Sartrean Birthday Philosophy






































One of my favorite birthday books is Dr. Seuss’s epic Happy Birthday to You. This is a deep philosophical text, so I hope I don’t lose anyone in my analysis. (And listen to this as you read - the entire thing!)


Happy Birthday to You (hereafter HBtY) is the story of the Birthday Bird (hereafter BB) from the land of Katroo (hereafter Katroo), who arrives one night at the bedside of a boy on the eve of the boy’s birthday. The BB sweeps the kid up and takes him to Katroo for the hugest sugar-carb-filled birthday ever seen.

Seuss writes, on the BB:

“Katroo is the only place Birthday Birds grow.

This bird has a brain. He's the most beautifully brained

With the brainiest bird-brain that's ever been trained.

He was trained by the most splendid Club in this nation,

The Katroo Happy Birthday Asso-see-eye-ation.”

Even though Seuss does some loopy question-begging here, we see that the BB is smart. How smart? The BB has the “brainiest bird-brain that’s ever been trained.” 

The word “brainiest” is a superlative, indicating incomparability. The BB has (thinking on Anselmian lines) “a brain a greater than which cannot be conceived.” But, you say, it’s still only a bird-brain. Correct. But if it is the “brainiest” bird brain, indicating a brain a greater than which cannot be conceived, then the BB has omniscience. The BB seems to be, like God, an omniscient being.

The BB’s brain is “beautiful.” Like Nobel Laureate John Nash, the BB has “a beautiful mind.” Here one does not mean the brain’s physicality but its sheer cognitive mental powers. But if the BB’s brain was “trained,” does that not imply that the brain-trainers of the Katroo Happy Birthday Asso-see-eye-ation have brainier brains than the brainiest brain of the BB? Logically, that is impossible. So here Seuss is logically incoherent. "Dr." Seuss made his living on logical incoherencies. But that fact should not cause one to dismiss what comes next, for to do so would be to miss some of the best philosophizing in all of Western culture.

“He [the BB] knows your address, and he heads for your bed.

You hear a soft swoosh in the brightening sky.

You are not all awake. But you open one eye.

Then over the housetops and trees of Katroo,

You see that bird coming! To you. Just to you!

That Bird pops right in! You are up on your feet!”

This is troublesome. A total stranger who:

1) Knows your address? How did the BB know your address? Because an omniscient being knows all things that can possibly be known, which would include your address.

2) The BB “pops right in.”

3) The BB “heads for your bed.”

This is disconcerting. The boy does not know the BB. He does not know the BB is omniscient. Even if he did know that the BB is omniscient, this does not imply that the BB is omnibenevolent. As far as the boy, and we as well, know, the BB may be malevolent. So here we have a scene where an omniscient and possibly malevolent Bird pops into your room and heads for your bed. This is not necessarily good. Here I think we can excuse Seuss, who is writing before our troubled times when neighborhoods were Rockwellian and windows and doors were left unlocked.

The BB says to the boy, “Get dressed!” He sweeps the boy away and on to Katroo! Does “Katroo really exist? No, in the same way “Oz” does not really exist. As they fly out we read:

Five minutes later, you're having a snack

On you way out of town on a Smorgasbord's back.

"Today," laughs the Bird, "eat whatever you want.

Today no one tells you you cawnt or you shawnt.

And, today, you don't have to be tidy or neat.

If you wish, you may eat with both hands and both feet.

So get in there and munch. Have a big munch-er-oo!

Today is your birthday! Today you are you!

My concerns and thoughts include:

• The use of ‘cawnt’ and ‘shawnt’ are typical Seuss-isms as he desperately tries to keep the rhyme going.

• The assumption is: on your birthday, no one has the right to tell you what you can or cannot do.

• All food groups and food non-groups are fair game on your birthday.

• Forget all sanitary rules.

• Even eat with hands and both feet. (The thought of eating with both feet disturbs me. Especially since, at my age, I can barely touch my feet.)

• On your birthday you can eat like a pig with its snout everlastingly nuzzling in the trough of all calories.

OK – not good stuff. This is anti-parental antinomianism. But here’s where Seuss engages in some big-time philosophizing. He writes: 

“Today is your birthday. Today you are you!”

You are you. ‘A’ is ‘A.’ This is the logic of identity. It’s tautological thinking, redundant stuff, Kantian analytic predicating. Leibnizian "identity of indiscernibles." When the subject is the self and the predicate is also the self we have a powerful, existential statement of personal identity. We are now heading in two converging directions; viz., Cartesianism and Kierkegaard’s idea of truth as subjectivity. Let us proceed.

“If we didn't have birthdays, you wouldn't be you.

If you'd never been born, well then what would you do?

If you'd never been born, well then what would you be?

You might be a fish! Or a toad in a tree!

You might be a doorknob! Or three baked potatoes!

You might be a bag full of hard green tomatoes.

Or worse than all that… Why, you might be a WASN'T!

A Wasn't has no fun at all. No, he doesn't.

A Wasn't just isn't. He just isn't present.

But you… You ARE YOU! And, now isn't that pleasant!”

Seuss sets before us a philosophical smorgasbord. There are so many choices here that one wonders where to begin!

1. “If you’d never been born, then what would you do?” The answer to that is, ‘you’ wouldn’t ‘do’ anything since ‘you’ would not be. "You" would not even be a "nonexistent thing," as if nonexistence could be predicated of nothing.

2. You might be “a toad in a tree.” But this cannot be true, since if ‘you’ had never been born then ‘you’ would not have been born as a toad in a tree. Had you been born as a toad in a tree you would not know it. We have toads croaking in our backyard as I write. Perhaps some of them are in trees. But I am certain not one of them is now thinking, “Wow – I was born as a toad in a tree!”

3. You could never have been born as a doorknob. No current physical theory allows for that kind of thing to happen. Doorknobs cannot procreate.

4. But… you might be a “Wasn’t.” That is, if you had never been born, even as a toad in a tree (but not as a doorknob) you would not exist at all and would be, ipso facto, a ‘Wasn’t.’ 

Pause here for a moment, as I make some comparisons between Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Seussian philosophy.

In the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy essay on “Sartre’s Existentialism” we read:

“Sartre’s ontology is explained in his philosophical masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, where he defines two types of reality which lie beyond our conscious experience: the being of the object of consciousness and that of consciousness itself. The object of consciousness exists as “in-itself,” that is, in an independent and non-relational way. However, consciousness is always consciousness “of something,” so it is defined in relation to something else, and it is not possible to grasp it within a conscious experience: it exists as “for-itself.” An essential feature of consciousness is its negative power, by which we can experience “nothingness.” This power is also at work within the self, where it creates an intrinsic lack of self-identity. So the unity of the self is understood as a task for the for-itself rather than as a given.”

The connections between Sartre and Seuss should be obvious. But just in case they are not:

1. Seuss’s “You are you” (or later, his “I am I”) is “independent and non-relational.” Here the Seussian self is not defined in relation to something else. It exists “for itself.” This is precisely the kind of birthday Seuss is advocating; viz., a birthday that is only about the self and for the self.

2. A ‘Wasn’t’ has an “intrinsic lack of self-identity.” That is, a ‘Wasn’t’ essentially, or ontologically, lack self-identity.

The philosophical excitement builds as Seuss writes:

“Shout loud at the top of your voice, "I AM I!

ME!

I am I!

And I may not know why

But I know that I like it.

Three cheers! I AM I!"”

Sartre’s definition of existentialism is: existence precedes essence. One first of all, primordially, exists. “I am .” Or: ‘A’ is ‘A.’ The predicate is self-identical with the subject. One’s existence is, drawing from Kant, “analytic” rather than “synthetic.”

Seuss continues:

“Sing loud, "I am lucky!" Sing loud, "I am I!"

If you'd never been born, then you might be an ISN'T!

An Isn't has no fun at all. No he disn't.

He never has birthdays, and that isn't pleasant.

You have to be born, or you don't get a present.”

Here a celebration breaks forth as the Cartesian certainty is clarified. I exist! Seuss’s Cartesian certainty is as follows:

1. I have a birthday.

2. Therefore I am.

Because you have to exist to have a birthday. Neither Seuss nor Descartes nor Sartre are making an evidentialist argument for personal existence. One’s own existence is simply a given, a datum, much like a Plantingian “properly basic belief.” (Note: you have to exist in order to utter the proposition "I have a birthday." Non-existent in the sense of once-existent persons cannot make such a claim, since claim-making requires actual existence.)

Which brings us to my favoritest line in the entire book:

 “You have to be born, or you don’t get a present.” 

Taking this line, and using a reductio, I reason:

1. I got presents today.

2. Therefore I was born.

3. Therefore I exist. (From 1 & 2)

The rest of Seuss’s book is a giant celebration of ego-centered, non-relational personal gluttonous existence. At the book’s end I am exhausted and touched, as Seuss writes:

“I am what I am! That's a great thing to be!

If I say so myself, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!"

Now, by Horseback and bird-back and Hiffer-back, too,

Come your friends! All your friends! From all over Katroo!

And the Birthday Pal-alace heats up with hot friends

And your party goes on!

On and on

Till it ends.

When it ends,

You're much happier,

Richer and fatter.

And the Bird flies you home

On a very soft platter.

So that's

What the Birthday Bird

Does in Katroo.

And I wish

I could do

All these great things for you!”

And why would I write about these things today? Because it’s my birthday, and I have nothing else to say.