I usually teach two books in my “Contemporary Philosophy” class: A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, and Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Ayer’s book nicely illustrates the limits of verificationist semantics, the problems with phenomenalism, and the futility of trying to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy. Kripke’s book shows how metaphysics survived – and ultimately exploited – the “linguistic turn” taken by 20th century analytic philosophy. One thing that both books have in common, however, is at least a passing concern with unicorns.
Ayer uses the sentence “Unicorns are fictitious” to illustrate how surface grammar can systematically mislead philosophers into spouting metaphysical nonsense (e.g., that since ‘unicorns’ seems to be the subject of this sentence, they must “have a mode of real being which is different from the mode of existing things”). Kripke, on the other hand, uses his scientific essentialism to argue that unicorns not only do not actually exist; they could not even possibly exist.
Well, we were talking about Ayer’s discussion of unicorns in class today, and Shannon, one my sharpest students, later tweeted me that “‘Back to the unicorns’ is something one only hears in Harry Potter or philosophy classes”, to which I responded with “Indeed…”, followed by the title of this post.
This got me thinking, though: just how extensively are unicorns used in the philosophical literature? (There’s a book to be written here, if it hasn’t already been published). To get a rough idea, I did a quick search of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite resources), and found that the mythological creatures trot onto that particular stage in no less than twenty-nine – count ’em, 29 – different topics! Here’s a link to the list, for all of you unicorn junkies out there.
In his Charlie Rose interview last week, Bill Murray said the following while trying to describe his experiences on the set of George Clooney’s latest picture The Monuments Men–
“It’s fun to watch someone like John Goodman, who is such a natural actor, and yet it takes work… you know, people say: ‘He’s not acting, he’s just being himself’… Well, it’s hard to be yourself, it’s hard to be yourself, you know what I mean? It’s impossible, it’s the hardest job in the world.”
Five years, as of today… that’s how long I’ve been posting items of personal interest to this online scrapbook. I’ve been engaging in this exercise mostly just for myself and friends, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many posts have been of interest to total strangers. Google Analytics informs me that there have been, on a monthly average, around 266 page views by 154 unique visitors; hardly more than a blip in the universe of internet statistics, but enough to make me think that there is something here of value to someone other than myself. If you’re a returning visitor (around 20% of the total), odds are I know you from elsewhere, and I hope you’ll keep in touch by other means as well. If I don’t know you and you’ve stumbled upon something amusing or interesting here, I’m glad.
I know that the odds are against it, but I sometimes imagine that 10,000 years from now, an internet archeologist might dig up one of my fossilized posts, and it will help to confirm or disconfirm some obscure hypothesis about life at the start of the 21st century. We now leave digital traces of ourselves, much like cave dwellers left a few palm prints on the walls. Let’s hope that the walls of our digital caves turn out to be as solid as their stone ones.
It wasn’t that Hoffman had so many good parts… it was that he made so many parts good. Here’s a scene from one of my favorite Hoffman performances, from 1999’s Magnolia-