Saturday, August 15, 2009

Demolition Derby & a Philosophy Lecture

It's county fair time here in Monroe County. A few nights ago I went with my son Josh and some of his friends to see Demolition Derby. As I was waiting for the destruction to begin I thought of a Philosophy Lecture I recently attended at the University of Michigan (Matthew Evans on Mind-Body Dualism in Plato's Phaedo). . I began to wonder: what are the similarities and differences between these two events?

1) Numbers. There were, maybe, 12 of us at the Philosophy Lecture (PL). This includes myself and three college students I brought with me. There were 5,000 at Demolition Derby (DD). If you conclude that DD is more popular than PL, you would be correct. Perhaps the vast difference in interest is an indicator of our greater societal problems. We are not, as Plato desired, a nation ruled by philosopher-kings.

2) Venue. PL was in the philosophy library at the U of Michigan. Two rows of about 20 chairs were set before a small podium. The PL organizers were not expecting many to come. DD was at the Monroe County Fairgrounds in a coliseum-type atmosphere. Grandstands and bleachers surrounded a large dirt area that was periodically watered-down so the cars would not achieve high speeds. This dirt area was encased in large cement barriers, much like the cement barriers that protect the White House from terrorists, only these barriers were meant to keep the terror inside the track. The U of M philosophy library was inside a large Greco-Roman style building with massive columns framing ascending steps. DD was held outside. There were mosquitos. There were no bugs in the philosophy library, just the smell of old philosophy books.

3) Understandability. The PL was challenging for me. While I have read the Phaedo, I am far from a Phaedo scholar. I am very interested in mind-body issues. So I felt I was able to keep up with Evans's presentation fairly well, due especially to the clarity of his presentation. But when the U-M philosophers began dialoguing with Evans there were times when I was totally lost. DD, on the other hand, was easy to understand. Which makes me think that this is one reason why more people were at DD than at PL (but not the only reason, as we shall see). There's an old child's game we used to play called "King of the Hill." The last person standing on top of the hill at the game's end is the winner. In DD the last car driving at the game's end is the winner. In this regard DD is to be applauded for its simplicity and clarity, which makes me think that if we want to be ruled by philosopher-kings then philosopher-kings must bring the philosophical ideas down to this level.

4) Food & drink. Food and drink were not provided at the PL. I have been at a few PLs where cookies were provided, but the cookies have never been homemade. At DD one could purchase: popcorn, elephant ears, funnel cakes, funnel sticks, pop, hot dogs, cheese nachos, cotton candy, snow cones, ice cream, corn dogs, caramel corn, lemonade, hamburgers, bratwurst, and more I am sure. PL-hosts might learn something from this if they desire at all to increase attendance at their PLs. But it is not at all clear that they wish to do this. I sensed no disappointment that only 12 attended the PL with Matthew Evans.

5) Purpose. The purpose of the PL was: learning. The purpose of DD was: entertainment and money-making.

6) Mood. The mood at the PL can be described as: cordial, polite, serious, academic, controversial, long-winded, at times boring, and individuated. The mood at DD was: raucous, violent, sexual (see the many teens and adult teen-wannabies constantly parading their assets before the throngs of people), occasionally exciting, loud, primitive, at times boring, long, and tribal.

7) People. At the PL - sitting in the chair in front of me was the brilliant philosopher Peter Railton. Victor Caston moderated the event. The rest were, I assume, U of M philosophy professors. I was sitting in a room of great Western philosophical minds - the ultimate individuated experience! At DD - I sitting in a grandstand with the Kierkegaardian "masses" and the Nietzchean "herd." The tribal experience par excellence.

8) Personal. I enjoyed the PL very much. I learned a few things and got some direction for personal research and study. I loved the environment. I'm glad I live close to one of the world's great philosophy departments so I can catch an occasional lecture or event. There's a familar "feel" about it for me, reminding me of my undergraduate philosophy classes that got smaller and smaller and the course numbers got higher and higher. I think of the very small Ph.D classes and seminars I was a part of when I attended Northwestern U. I enjoyed DD as a cultural event. I especially liked it when two cars would race towards each other and hit, full-force, head-on. It reminded me of some relationships I am trying help.

9) Conclusion. When I was at DD I pulled out my 3X5 note cards and began writing. Things like DD, which is like life, always drive me to philosophy and theology and the humanities. I wish Peter Railton had been with me! I'd love to ask him, what are you making of this?