Philosophy vs. Rhetoric

Posted: March 6, 2008 in meta

Over the weekend, I was visiting a school that will soon be my new home. It was a recruitment weekend, and while it was exhausting, it was lots of fun and felt like a vacation. The hardest part, in many ways, was keeping myself separate and trying not to allow myself to be woo’ed, though that was what the weekend was for. I figured that where I spend the next four or five years is in itself an important decision, but the fact that for the rest of my life, that’s where my PhD will be from makes it even more important. So I wanted to be sure I was making the decision because it was the right one, and not just because people were really nice to me. I didn’t want to be that easily manipulated.

I like to think that I’m not; time will tell, but this school has made me the best offer, clearly wants me very badly (a nice little point for my ego), and is a very good school. So a few days after getting back, once I’d had time to sleep on it and let the glitz and glamour fade a bit, I made the commitment.

But that’s neither here nor there. The reason I’m writing this post is because of an event that occurred during the recruitment weekend. The other candidates and I, after touring around and hearing all the good stuff from the faculty and all the dirt from the students, were taken to a talk being presented by the philosophy department. The speaker, from NYU, was talking about avatars in online environments.

It was an interesting talk. He talked about how the avatars created in second life are real, even if they have nothing in common with their creators. I’m down with this; I’ve often believed that the real value of the internet is that it presents a place where people can be whoever and whatever they want; it’s a realm of the mind, where gender is not defined by physical appearance and even physical appearance is not defined by physical appearance. Some deride this idea with the ‘old’ saying “The internet: Where men are men, and so are most of the women,” but I think there’s real value to this idea. The way people see themselves is not always the same as the way others see them. Remember that time you looked in a mirror and were surprised by something? Maybe you had put on a few pounds, or lost some. Maybe, like me, you still don’t see yourself as having a beard, even four years later, and so that always surprises you. Whatever the case, that’s a small example of the difference between mental representations and real ones. It’s just like seeing your baby brother as always being seven, even on his wedding day.

The point is, I was willing to agree with the idea that avatars are good representations of people. But then the talk ended, and I felt he hadn’t really addressed all the most interesting stuff. At which point, the professor who was showing us around, one of the other candidates, and myself made comments and asked questions.

It was the intellectual equivalent of a Mongol invasion.

First, the prof asked a question that brought up some really interesting points about the avatars; the speaker had a few answers but nothing all that huge. Then another student, probably in philosophy (based on his rambling) asked a long question that almost made me forget how to speak English. Then there was the question asked by the kid who plays World of Warcraft and didn’t want to sound like a nerd. The speaker responded, and he said something that made me raise my hand.

I asked if he was saying that the avatars are REAL. Not like just saying they present other bodies that people can identify as being their bodies (as in the mind inhabits the avatar in the same way the mind inhabits the physical body), but that they were actually REAL in and of themselves. “If so,” I said, “How can someone both be one person and another person at the same time?”

He was stumped.

Now, I have to give a bit of background here; that question, whether or not one person can be two people at once, is basically what I studied in philosophy. I was arguing that if a person were duplicated, both of the duplicates would be the same person as the original, but not as one another; the identity of one person to another was dependent only on those two people, and not on any outside person (The Only X and Y Principle), so I had kind of stacked the deck. When the speaker threw out a book and author name at me, I responded to it (because I’d read the book). When he then mentioned that he wasn’t sure if the book he based his talk on mentioned this issue, the candidate sitting next to me assured him that it did, and told him WHERE. (it was awesome).

Now, aside from the big mind-body problem issue this speaker had (he was being pretty clear on his belief that the mind and the body are not the same, and that personal identity has nothing to do with body–which I don’t entirely disagree with, but is a pretty serious assumption to make), what struck me most about this particular situation was that it finally solidified the difference between what I used to do and what I’m doing now.

My senior thesis in philosophy was a breeze. I wrote thirty pages of my own thoughts, examining a problem (the only x and y principle) from every angle I could think of and coming up with all kinds of thought experiments. I added about 12 pages of research and ended up with, I thought, a pretty good thesis. My MA thesis in philosophy expanded those 42 pages, added a chapter, and ended up at 76 pages. Again, pretty good (I think). Why, then, is my current thesis (holding steady at  25 pages) causing so much difficulty? And, for that matter, how was it that three people from rhetoric tore this poor guy from NYU apart so easily? (The question of why this guy never brought up Derek Parfitt, who does personal identity stuff on the cutting edge and, last I heard, WORKS at NYU is one for the ages)

Yesterday, while telling my adviser the story, the answer came to me. The difference is that philosophy is all about figuring out how things work. Rhetoric does that (not quite as in depth, granted) and then asks “so what?”

That was the problem with the speaker (who I enjoyed, don’t get me wrong). He presented the idea that avatars are real people. Then he ended. We were left with the ‘so what?’ for ourselves. And so we asked. We attacked.

My only X and Y research never went into applications. I always figured that was for another paper (and it was… it was for a rhet paper). Now, though, I’m worrying about the point. Take what I’m doing now; I’m thinking about how usability studies and iteration are similar to writing studies. Then I’m asking what I can DO with that connection.

I never made an argument in philosophy and had someone say to me “well duh. So what?” Or if I did, that never mattered; the point in philosophy was to deal with the question.

Maybe that’s the difference. Philosophy was about the question. Rhetoric is about the answer.

Either way, I’m glad I am where I am, and I’m glad I’ve been where I’ve been; I don’t think I’d have the right perspective without my background.

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