Monday, July 27, 2009

Apocryphal philosophy stories

This comic about an apocryphal philosophy story made me think about another one: the one about the philosophy professor whose final exam consisted of a single question, "What is courage?" and the only student who ever got an A+ in all the years the professor gave that final exam wrote the word 'this' and that's all. (Or, maybe the student stood up, said, "this is" and walked out of the room without taking the exam at all. Oooooh.)

Several people have told me that story since I first got interested in philosophy. I think the first time I heard it an exasperated fellow philosopher told it, but I've heard it at least five times from non-philosophers who thought it represented a profound truth I had never considered and would be captivated by.

I always thought it was a dumb story, but now that I actually am a philosophy professor who routinely gives exams (and how), I have a whole appreciation for how incredibly stupid it is. Let me count the ways.

1. If I ask a question like that, I am not asking for an example. I am asking for what it is about the example that makes it an instance of courage. I am asking for an account of the nature of courage--a non-trivial set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.

2. If I do ask for an example, there are hundreds of better examples. ("Give me an example of courage." "This." "...")

3. If "courage" is anything, it's a character trait. Actions might be courageous or exhibit courage, but they are not themselves literally courage. The student therefore makes a basic category mistake that would rule out the A+.

4.I'd wouldn't use a final exam to do a "formulate and defend your own view"-type question; I'd use a paper for something like that. The way I see it, exams are best suited for "did you do the reading and were you paying attention during class"-type questions. Asking students to formulate and defend their own views on an in-class exam is a guaranteed way to get a huge stack of hastily-written, poorly-though-out garbage in illegible handwriting. At least with papers you can demand that they type it.

5. If I did use a final exam in this way, I'd want to see an argument, or at least a consideration of some objections. i.e. "This. I think so because.... However, some would say it's not, because.... But that's wrong, and here's why...."

6. If the student actually walked out without writing anything down, there's some possibility that I wouldn't know his name and that I'd be unable to award credit for whatever courage he displayed. It's always a wise policy to attach your name to your work. Maybe if he wore a baseball jersey with his name across the back.

7. Philosophically, the answer is deeply problematic in itself. Perhaps reflection on Aristotle's doctrine of the mean would reveal that, rather than exhibiting it, the student commits the vice of excess relative to courage. If that were the case, the student deserves an F since "this" is foolhardy, not courageous. The student in the story did not demonstrate that he had considered this possibility, and so at best deserves a C.

8. Furthermore, it is a genuine instance of courage only if it is not. For suppose the act is courageous and the student knows it (if he didn't know, why did he do it?) If the behavior is courageous, then he knows he'll get the A+; if he knows he'll get the A+, then it didn't take courage to submit the answer. So submitting the exam was not genuinely courageous. But if it didn't take courage to submit the answer, then he couldn't have known that he'd get the A+. And if he didn't know he'd get the A+, then it did take courage to submit the answer. But if it did, then it didn't. And so on.

This seems to me to be a vicious regress that not even awarding an F would stop (because if he deserved the F, submitting the exam as written would be courageous). The only conclusion to draw is that the story is impossible.

--Mr. Zero


cross the breeze said...

That story is stupid. I never heard that version though. I always hear a variation in which the question is "what is the meaning of life?" And someone puts some brilliant one-liner (or leaves the page blank) and gets an A. This version is also stupid.

"...I've heard it at least five times from non-philosophers who thought it represented a profound truth..."

What is this profound truth I wonder? Probably something about the uselessness of fancy book learning?

Anonymous said...

The version I have heard, which is equally stupid, was that the entire exam had one question: WHY? And the only kid to ever get an A was the one that wrote: Why not?

I also hate the USC story. Could God prevent the professor form breaking the chalk again? Of course not.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious! I <3 Mr. Zero.

Anonymous said...

In the story I know the exam question is "What is risk?". Hhhm.

Platowe said...

A few years ago an administrator on my campus who is religious circulated the chalk story to everyone on staff via email, and presented it as an actual occurrence. I replied-to-all that not only is the story bogus, but that I took personal offense as misrepresenting my profession in just about every conceivable way. The administrator publicly apologized.

Anonymous said...

It's a pretty good demonstration of what horseshit most people think philosophy is. "This" and "Why not?" are nonsense answers, and the fact that some people think they could be wonderful answers to philosophy exam questions doesn't say anything encouraging about public perceptions of philosophy.

Luckily, most of us probably think most philosophy is horseshit, too, so we're unlikely to take offense.

Anonymous said...

Feminist Philosophers has a doozy (sp?) of a final exam question posed on their site today:

Anonymous said...

If he wore the baseball cap backwards, should his name be on the front?

Anonymous said...

There's a classic anecdote about William James and Gertrude Stein, which I had thought was apocryphal. But in trying to google it up, I found it in this NYTimes piece, so perhaps it is not so apocryphal after all!

Glaucon said...

I wonder if the chestnut about
the philosophy professor and the jar
-- I received it several times via email from non-philosophers -- paints an even worse (because more insipid?) picture of philosophy.

My favorite no-doubt apocryphal philosophy story (told to me by my dissertation advisor) concerns two maids in an elevator at the hotel at which the APA Eastern was being held. "What kind of convention did you say this was?" asks #1. "A philosophy convention," replies #2. "Hmmm. I've never seen so much talking and so little fucking at a convention in my entire life."

Anonymous said...


Most of the "philosophy" in the story is reminiscent of Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." He claims to have derived his principles from the self-help books of the nineteenth century, so the "fit the big rocks in first" idea probably didn't originate with him.

By the way, if you're a procrastinating or otherwise frustrated dissertator, you wouldn't go too far wrong by reading "Seven Habits," if you can hold your nose through the cheesy bits. It's like talk therapy that you can get from the library for free, and it has helped a lot of people stop fucking around and get stuff done.

Anonymous said...

Every year or two, when I admit to someone that I got my BA in philosophy, I get the reply "Oh, I took a philosophy class, and the final exam was one question - "Why?" I wrote "why not?" and got an "A"!" It's never a story about someone ELSE that it happened to, but THEM. And for some reason, it's usually St. Cloud State University (in Minnesota) where they supposedly took the class.

When I explain the extraordinary stupidity and implausibilty of this to them, they don't normally back down. Even if you analogize it for them into something like "Ok, if a college math final was " + = " and you put in 2, 2 and 4 to make "2+2=4" and aced it, would the faculty, administration and students stand for that? Because that's the mathematical equivilent of what you're claiming happened", people still insist it happened. I have no idea why this apocryphal tale exists, or why so many people feel the need to propagate it, but it's a near certainty that it's complete nonsense

Anonymous said...


You should have the good fortune to have a student in your intro class claim this happened to his mom. Fun.