Plato’s Beard and the Pegasus-Idea

Hey guys! I think I see Pegasus!

On What There Is“, a brain-twisting piece by philosopher Willard Quine (1948), opines that when we say something doesn’t exist – for example Pegasus – this is not necessarily true.  This is because Pegasus must exist in some manner for us to even be able to take sides on its existential dilemma, poor thing.  That is, the material, breathing, hoof & wing Pegasus is not akin to the idea-Pegasus in our minds – and it this latter which offers us a common ground, an agreed semantic framework for discourse whose existence cannot be denied (that’s right, Pegasus will not be denied! Neigh!).

Quine happily explores the particulars of this ontological – or perhaps more appropriately semantic – puzzle by assuming various approaches to correctly expressing Pegasus’s material quandary.  For example, instead of saying Pegasus doesn’t exist, we could instead say: “Pegasus does not have the specialized attribute of actuality”.  Or, more succinctly, “Pegasus is an unactualized possible”. And by so doing, we multiply the number of potential Pegasi available to us all in the name of philosophical precision.  This “slum of the possibles” as Quine so puts it, is quite the breeding ground for disorderly elements, as it means a litany of existence-caveats would litter every avenue of discourse.

Going even further along his merry way, Quine indicates yet another approach may involve treating the noun Pegasus as a derivative, and instead have this be identified as “the thing that is-Pegasus” or even “the thing that pegasizes”.  Even Pegasus had to snort somewhat at the latter with its french conjugation overtones, as it’s a matter of time before nous pegasons is understood to mean collective flights of philosophical fancy.

P.S. This ontological ride has some origins in the Sophist, where Plato introduces the idea that what “is not” – in some sense – still “is”.  To wit, Quine nicknames this ontological puzzle Plato’s Beard, seeing as it’s been dulling Occam’s razor for centuries.


Ernie & The Forest of Envy

Once upon a time, there lived a small rotund creature named Ernie.

Ernie was a happy sort of chap.

He liked meandering through his domain, chatting with friends here and there.

One day though, Ernie happened upon a patch of forest he had never seen before.

Ernie decided to explore further, completely ignoring all childhood tales of woe associated with dark woods.

As he entered, he passed small warning signs that are sometimes referred to as foreshadowing.

Yep, he pretty much blithely sailed on through many such warning signs..

Ernie wasn’t always the most astute observer, especially when he was having a good time.

As he sauntered on, Ernie didn’t really notice that the light was getting dimmer and that he was slowly forgetting his way back home.

All of a sudden, Ernie stumbled upon something he found highly unusual – a person with a crown!

Ernie watched, fascinated!  He had never seen a crown before – and, oh – how it gleamed..Ernie found himself possessed by a strange yearning – never had he seen anything so enchanting..

As he thought back to his life, it seemed but pale and ridiculous compared to the beauty of the creature’s crown.

Ernie grew obsessed by the idea of the golden crown!  He had to have it!

What Ernie didn’t know that he had inadvertently stumbled into the Forest of Envy, which blinded the souls of all who entered, filling them with insatiable longing for the fortunes of others.

All he could think about was the crown – the precious crown.

By night he would lie awake in the forest, ruminating obsessively about the crown.

By day, he would watch the crowned one, a dark and hulking shadow.Needless to say, Ernie grew increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied.

One day though, Ernie noticed something strange.The crowned one was staring fixedly at another in the distance – one with a crown.. and a sceptre!

As Ernie watched, he could almost see a transformation take place in the crowned one…

Ernie wanted to yell – what are you so unhappy about, you at least have a crown!

All of a sudden Ernie was struck by a realization.

And with that, Ernie’s heart grew large towards the crowned one.

With those single words, the clear rays of light came shining through the Forest of Envy.

And with that, Ernie decided it was time to go home and strolled away, leaving the changed forest behind.

Years later, when asked about his time in the Forest of Envy, Ernie was fond of expounding the wisdom of Bertrand Russell, and would simply say:“To find the right road out of this despair civilized man must enlarge his heart as he has enlarged his mind. He must learn to transcend self, and in so doing to acquire the freedom of the Universe.” – Bertrand Russell

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Ernie and The Secret of Plato’s Cave

A long time ago in a galaxy sort of near, lived a small rotund creature named Ernie.

Ernie was a happy type of chap.

He would meander through his domain…

… channeling Mr. Rogers with all his friends.

One day though, Ernie came across a dark opening in his world..

Ernie drew closer…

.. and closer …

… and close-

How rude!

Anyway, Ernie finally plucked up the courage to go inside the cave…

Where he witnessed a strange sight!  He saw others of his kind, shackled, facing a blank wall of flickering light.

Ernie noticed with curiosity that they stared fixedly at the shadows cast on the wall..

… and muttered darkly amongst themselves about the images they were seeing.

As Ernie looked on, the strange ones bickered about their world..

… which led Ernie to be a little immature..

Over time though, Ernie started to find it less funny and even a little sad, for it seemed that this world of shadows was all they knew –

Ernie decided it was time for a change!

Little did he know at the time, but as it turns out Ernie had accidentally stumbled across his world’s version of Plato’s Cave.

Ernie was glad to finally leave the cave.... but couldn’t help but muse upon what he had seen.

Years later when asked about his experience with the cave-dwellers, Ernie would smile enigmatically and pronounce:

“Everyone has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolours the light of nature…” – Sir Francis Bacon

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The Importance of Being Ernie-est

Once upon a time there lived a small rotund creature named Ernie.

Ernie was a fairly simple soul, and he lived a peaceful and quiet life…

..enjoying many rich friendships along the way.

One day though, Ernie received a letter!

“Dear Ernie”, it read. “We have noticed your interpersonal skills and would like to invite you to join our prestigious organization: the Senate, or the house of sober second thought.”

Ernie felt a rush of pride!  Nobody had ever asked him to be ‘a somebody’ before.

He also felt the stirrings of other strange and new emotions.. perhaps a touch of vanity.. and a small, slight glimmer of greed.

These created some changes in Ernie – he started to stand a little straighter…

.. walk with a hint of a swagger…

.. and found his previous pursuits not quite apropos to his new found status.

Ernie took to curling his tuft of hair into little ringlets…

… and traveling by litter so as to not sully his person with the common folk.

Having a gift for oration, Ernie rose quickly in his new senate position…

.. and soon found himself in high demand…

…with multiple social engagements and societal responsibilities.

Anyway, time passed as it always does…

…and Ernie started to find himself wearying of all the demands on him.

He found himself longing for more simple times..

…and thinking of his old friend Rosebud the bird.

One night Ernie bolted awake: he had an epiphany!He realized that he had given – nay – thrown!  to others freely the only thing he truly had in life – his time!

At that moment, Ernie resolved: no more.  And with that, his spirit rejoiced (and his hair uncurled).

He wasted no more time in saying goodbye to the gilded cage that his ambition, greed, and vanity had created, and ran off into the forest…

.. and lived peacefully – and contentedly – ever after.

Later, when asked about his time in the Senate, Ernie was fond of quoting Seneca, and would say with a small smile: “Sir, when you see a man repeatedly wearing the robe of office, or one whose name is often spoken in the Forum, do not envy him: these things are won at the cost of life.  In order that one year may be dated from their names they will waste all their own years.”

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Ernie and the Conquest of Happiness

A long time ago in a galaxy very very near, there lived a small rotund creature named Ernie.

As you can see, Ernie was a saccharine mix of innocent, playful, and roundly cute. Ernie loved to frolic in the woods with all the birds and the bees (not in that way) and in general his days were full of joy and slightly annoying laughter.

One dark day though, Ernie came across a puzzling creature in the forest: “Bernie”.

Ernie was at a bit of a loss at this odd treatment but chose to interpret it as one would the darker passages of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (which on his planet was known as the Rinse Cycle).  Being a creature of perpetual sweetness and light, Ernie decided to overlook this omen and engage Bernie in friendship.

Despite Bernie’s strange social skills and beanie, Ernie was intrigued by his new friend and sought to cultivate the relationship.

He offered strolls…

He tried shows…

Even the building blocks of life were met with derision.

Anyway, this went on for a while.  As he continued to spend time with Bernie, Ernie noticed something strange was happening.  He started to find himself a little less full of sweetness and light.

In fact, Ernie was also becoming noticeably less rotund, while Bernie, conversely, seemed overly inflated..

He couldn’t quite put his paw on it, but Ernie knew that something was amiss.

One memorable day though, Ernie had a lot of coffee and wine at the same time and experienced an epiphany!

At this very moment, Ernie realized that he had let Bernie become the authoritative downer on how his time should be experienced.  With that realization, Ernie’s joie de vivre instantly expanded to its former rotund proportions – he was free of the tyranny!

Years later, when Ernie was asked about this dark period in his life, he was fond of paraphrasing Bertrand Russell. With a knowing air, Ernie would straighten up and proudly pronounce:

“The person who says he has many dislikes and is disinterested in so many things has given themselves less opportunity to enjoy life.  Conversely, those with many interests have given themselves just that many more opportunities for joy”.

And he lived happily ever after.

For more Ernie stories click here!