High School Seminary

Even though I had three brothers attend high school seminary before me, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what the place was like.  I think I expected a quiet, dignified, solemn place, with holiness the object of students and faculty alike, to love God with their entire mind and heart.  What I found was a raucous, chaotic, bawdy place; the upper classmen’s goal was to torture and/or humiliate the incoming freshmen class, and the faculty’s goal to get through each day in one piece, square the child monsters away enough by 9:30 PM to retreat to their side of the building for a scotch or a brandy or some other intoxicant for a much needed break from the asylum of hellions on the other side.

Those first few weeks of high school were straight out of Lord of the Flies.   Establish dominance, and leave no doubt that you will not be intimidated.  If you couldn’t physically do that, you relied on a strong vocabulary, a crafty wit, and the ability to run faster than the angry sophomore or junior or senior who would chase you and pound you silly once he caught you.  I learned the verbal boxing talents I needed in the new environment by fending off the taunts of four, five, even six siblings at once during those cage matches my parents lovingly called “suppertime.”   I was not, however, as gifted in the running department; while I would manage to escape the occasional lumbering upper classman, the rest of them were much faster and much stronger.  Once you were caught, you were pounded accordingly.

I soon accepted that little if anything going on there was holy.  In my sophomore year, I saw teenage hormones revved in full gear.  While growing up in Detroit, my grandparents had the only pet in our household, a female tabby named Fifi.  I was probably ten years old when, one day, I noticed Fifi was sitting up high in a nook of the backyard pear tree, slightly flicking her tail but otherwise looking quite composed.  A second glance at the yard revealed something I don’t think I had ever seen before – at least twenty other neighborhood strays were sitting around the bottom of the tree, eyes glued to Fifi.

Fast forward five years.  With a new typing lab set to go, the school a hired a new typing class teacher – a woman.  There were no other women teachers at the school at the time:  just priests and laymen.  The student body reaction was a mix of curiosity and libido in overdrive.  I knew where I had seen this before:  if there had been a pear tree and Ms. Smith had had a tail, I would have bet she would have found a nook beyond the reach of that teenage horde of hormones, flicking a bewildered tail.

The Dream Argument

Descartes’s Dream Argument is a classic example of what philosophy of perception calls the “argument from illusion.”  It operates on the claim that, to a perceiver, genuine perceptual experiences cannot be distinguished from illusory ones.  Because of this, two very different situations confront the common sense realist.  For naive realism, normal cases of perception are a relation between a perceiver and an external object.  But with dreams and hallucinations, there is no physical object.  Any explanation of perceptual error for the common sense realist relies solely on the perceiver’s mental state.[1]

Because of his desire to secure sense knowledge on a foundation of certitude, Descartes submitted that “ideas” act as intermediaries between a perceiving consciousness and a perceived object.  These ideas are mental representations that may or may not be causally connected to a physical object that exists independently of mind.  In both cases, whether actually perceiving a tree or dreaming that one perceives it, the person has the idea “tree.”  While the connection between idea and external object remains in doubt, the connection between perceiver and idea is clear, distinct, infallible and beyond doubt.  The existence and nature of these ideas are independent of the nature of the perceptual state of the perceiver.  Descartes’s realism has an advantage over naive realism to the extent that perceptual error occurs in the connection between “idea” and physical object.  Without an intermediary “idea,” the naive realist has no explanation.

It is difficult for common sense realism to account for interpretation because it emphasizes the role of the physical object.  There is no sign of what, if any, active role the perceiver plays in dealing with these objects.  The common sense realist account of perception says nothing about whether different perceivers perceive the same physical object in different ways.  An adequate philosophical theory of perception, which explains both perceptual error and interpretation, cannot help but become some sort of critical realism.[2]

[1] Jonathan Dancy, An Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1985), 153.

[2] Ibid., 151.

A Bee and a Bus – Part One

Five mornings a week, I wait at a stop near my apartment building to catch the bus to my downtown job.  These are usually uneventful times—occasionally I will just miss a bus, the same occasions I really need to catch a bus so that I will not be late for work.  But most times, I am at the stop early enough to catch a bus well before needed, and I wait patiently with my fellow CTA travelers for our subsidized transport.

It was a mid-September morning, just as the Chicago weather was beginning to shift from a very pleasant Indian summer to an ever so slightly more brisk autumnal shade.  I was again waiting for the morning bus.  I had my headphones on, CD playing Elvis’s number one hits, when an overgrown bumblebee, made sluggish by the weather change, seemed to have decided that I should be his new best friend.  My brothers and sisters will tell you that I’ve never much cared to strike up any kind of relationship with insects that sting, and certainly not when they are as big as Kaiser rolls.

Without thinking I involuntarily swiped at the flying monster, not quite sure just what sort of bug wanted to snuggle up to me.  I regretted this almost the instant it occurred, for now as he flew right in my face, it became clear to me that I must have smacked him pretty good.  I was convinced he was now on a mission to end my very existence, even if he had to sacrifice his own to accomplish this.

Well, after running around the stop for a minute or so, with only one or two onlookers bemused by the event, salvation came in the form of an articulated bus.  Thankfully, the death bee had left me alone long enough so that I could board and put this miserable morning awakening behind me.  But of course, nothing occurs at random, all things happen for some reason.  [No philosopher ever escapes this assumption.]


I was born on a Friday at 4:35 PM in Detroit, Michigan.  My mom seemed to know more of the details and circumstances of some of the other kids’ births.    I do remember asking Mom what if anything she remembered about the day I was born.  Nothing really came to mind.  “What about the time of day?  Was I born in the morning, or the afternoon, or the evening?”  “I don’t really remember.”  Even seeing the time stated on the birth certificate, she said she still never would have even guessed it was at that time of day.

One of my earliest memories was brushing and combing Mom’s hair.  I guess I might have been four or five years old.  After the other kids had gone to school, she’d sit on the couch and had me sit on the top of the couch just behind her with a hairbrush.  She had some pretty thick black hair then – I think all I did was brush her hair from the front to the back of her head.  I don’t really remember talking with her at all – we might have, but I don’t remember.  I don’t know that I had any special feeling being with her brushing her hair then – but it was definitely one of the few times I ever had her all to myself, even if all I could do was stare at the back of her head.

Our house wasn’t all that big, especially with fourteen people living there.  The kitchen was maybe fifteen feet square (225 sq. ft.) – a good-sized kitchen.  The older brothers did a fairly extensive rehab of the joint in the mid 70’s or so – a nice update.  New cabinets, new sink, refrigerator moved from a corner to a wall.  If you pull up the house on Google Earth now, it’s just sad to see.  Maybe the pear and cherry trees are still in the back yard – it’s hard to tell.  Seven houses are left on the block – maybe half as many as there used to be.