Philosophy Explained With Donuts

philosophy donuts

We’ve all seen them, on the board­walks of Venice Beach or of the Jer­sey Shore: poop-joke t‑shirts that state the gist of var­i­ous world reli­gions or philoso­phies by ref­er­ence to the afore­men­tioned bod­i­ly func­tion. Clever they aren’t, but the form adapts to anoth­er, more taste­ful for­mu­la­tion (pun most def­i­nite­ly intend­ed) in the list above, which briefly describes the philo­soph­i­cal pro­grams of six­teen promi­nent West­ern thinkers with ref­er­ence to that uni­ver­sal­ly beloved food, the donut. To wit: pre-Socrat­ic Greek philoso­pher Her­a­cli­tus gets summed up with “You can’t eat the same donut twice,” a twist on one of his famous few apho­risms. Lud­wig Wittgen­stein’s phi­los­o­phy becomes an ellip­ti­cal series of pos­si­ble donuts in var­i­ous lan­guage games: “Fried Pas­try, Zero, Park­ing lot spin, Spare tire.” And so on.

No need to point out the over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion inher­ent in this strat­e­gy; that’s kind of the point. It’s a joke, after all, but one the author—whoever that is—clearly intends as a means of break­ing the ice and get­ting down to more seri­ous explo­rations. But what if the donut is the seri­ous explo­ration? Such is the case in a 2001 arti­cle pub­lished in the jour­nal Basic Objects: Case Stud­ies in The­o­ret­i­cal Prim­i­tives by Colum­bia phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor Achille C. Varzi.

Sim­ply titled (in the British spelling) “Dough­nuts,” Varzi’s paper explores the donut, or “torus” in the lan­guage of topog­ra­phers, as a the­o­ret­i­cal object for an onto­log­i­cal thought exper­i­ment. In short, he asks whether or not we can say that the donut hole is an actu­al exist­ing enti­ty or sim­ply a fig­ure of speech, a “façon de par­ler.” In the tra­di­tion­al view, that of the topog­ra­phers, who prac­tice “a sort of rub­bery geom­e­try…. The only thing that mat­ters is the edi­ble stuff. The hole is a mere façon de par­ler.”

On anoth­er, more three-dimen­sion­al view of the rela­tion­ship “between void and mat­ter,” things look dif­fer­ent: “We must be very seri­ous about treat­ing them [donut holes] as ful­ly-fledged enti­ties, on a par with the mate­r­i­al objects that sur­round them.” The real exis­tence of the hole can­not be eas­i­ly dis­missed with­out run­ning into a prob­lem, “the dilem­ma of every elim­i­na­tive strat­e­gy: if suc­cess­ful, it ends up elim­i­nat­ing every­thing just in order to elim­i­nate noth­ings.” No hole, no donut. (Though, as Simone De Beau­voir appar­ent­ly rec­og­nized, “Patri­archy is respon­si­ble for the shape of the donut.”) The donut hole the­sis also forms part of the argu­ment in an aca­d­e­m­ic phi­los­o­phy paper from 2012 enti­tled “Being Pos­i­tive About Neg­a­tive Facts” from Phi­los­o­phy & Phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal Research. On the way to show­ing that “neg­a­tive facts exist in the usu­al sense of exis­tence,” authors Stephen Bark­er and Mark Jago, both of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Not­ting­ham, come to sim­i­lar con­clu­sions about the donut, with ref­er­ence to ear­li­er work by Varzi:

Holes pose some­thing of a philo­soph­i­cal quandary and, per­haps as a result of their mys­tery, are often treat­ed as imma­te­r­i­al enti­ties (Casati and Varzi 1994). Yet we seem to be able to per­ceive holes, gaps, dents and the like. The view of holes as imma­te­r­i­al objects is, we think, very much in line with think­ing of the neg­a­tive as the meta­phys­i­cal­ly undead. Giv­en our accep­tance of neg­a­tive facts, we can offer a sto­ry about holes on which they are mate­r­i­al enti­ties. If there is a donut hole then there is a spa­tial region involv­ing the instan­ti­a­tion of donut-dough which is inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with an absence there­of.

Make of these claims what you will, but I think what we see in both essays is that seri­ous inter­est in a friv­o­lous object can pro­duce illu­mi­nat­ing dis­cus­sion. That describes the the­sis of the site Improb­a­ble Research, who bring us both of these donut exam­ples; their motto—“Research that makes peo­ple LAUGH and then THINK.” I don’t know if either essay—or even the donut joke at the top of the page—really makes for ha-ha laughs so much, but these argu­ments about the mate­r­i­al exis­tence of the imma­te­r­i­al space of donut holes cer­tain­ly chal­lenged my think­ing.

via Improb­a­ble Research

Relat­ed Con­tents:

140+ Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Phi­los­o­phy Ref­er­ee Hand Sig­nals

Mon­ty Python’s Best Phi­los­o­phy Sketch­es

The Epis­te­mol­o­gy of Dr. Seuss & More Phi­los­o­phy Lessons from Great Children’s Sto­ries

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy, from 600 B.C.E. to 1935, Visu­al­ized in Two Mas­sive, 44-Foot High Dia­grams

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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