Dilemma? Critique? Quandary? We can have a pod of whales, a pride of lions, but a crowd of philosophers, 2,000 of them at the Washington Hilton through tomorrow to discuss everything from Wittgenstein's criterial semantics to a symposium on sex and love. . .
"They look like dentists with beards," offered Phillip Scribner, a philosopher on the American University faculty-red-bearded himself, but lacking a chairside manner in leather jacket and jeans.
"The bell people say we don't tip well, that the only people who are worse are the psychiatrists," said Deborah A. Rosen of the University of New Orleans.
"We can sound vicious and cutting, but we aren't. We just like to argue," said Robert V. Stone, an ethicist with a magnificent promontory of brow to lend him credence.
Philosophers are like unicyclists or poets-convening wouldn't seem to be their style; but there they were, glad-handing, debating, thumbing through the publishers' stalls full of titles such as "Aristotle's De Motu Animalium," by Martha Craven Nussbaum, or "Semiotics in Poland, 1894-1969." by Jerzy Pelc. And job-hunting-about 700 of them scouring the "slave market" as the placement information area was known, brandishing credentials in phenomenology, contingent truths or apriority.
"I had to take off my name tag, because everybody knows we have a position open," said a department chairman who truned out to be Stephen Barker of Johns Hopkins.
His wife, Evelyn, a philosopher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County branch, said that even so, there were lots of good reasons, to be there: "We have work in professional ethics, now, medical and business; we're showing a film for the first time; there's new work in philosophy in the media, even."
The concourse-level snack bar offered a philosopher's special named the "Dream Muffin," no doubt uninformed that some of the talk of the convention was about feet-on-the-ground, non-academic jobs for philosophers. Computers, corporations and government, it seems, have a small but growing need for people who have just 10 years or so analyzing abstract minutiae such as "redness," perception and inherent qualities thereof, which in fact seemed to be an important part of the coverted Carus Lecture, delivered by Wilfrid Sellars. In any case they have talents. For one thing, it takes a lot of trivia to bore these people, and they tend to be very careful in reaching conclusions.
One noted attraction was the meeting of the Society for Philosophy of Sex & Love, at 11:30 a.m. ("Don't they usually meet at night?" asked John Brough, chairman of the department at Georgetown.)
If the prurient itch had driven anyone to the meeting, the reading of a paper entitled "The Definition of Love in Plato's Symposium" elicited no immoderate chuckles at the more telling phrases: "Ordered hierarchy" or "Plato's ontology" or "horns of a dilemma."
One woman even wrote a postcard. In aqua ink, beneath the oratory on the intrinsic worth of love, regardless of its object, she began: "Thanks so much for the leather purse."
Another young woman seemed to be turning boredom into an amatory art from with her small sighs, surveys of the ceiling and an occasional pout that made her look as if she just might be whistling to herself.
Her companion, in beard and lumberjack shirt, even slipped his arm around her when the speaker, Donald Levy of Brooklyn College, got to the part about how all human activity is motivated by love.
"Everything was valid, I suppose, and the statements were cogent, but perhaps more was being made of it than necessary," she said afterwards in the hallway, being Susan Muller, a Long Island painist who "takes an interest in philosophy, but more usually analytic philosophy."
Down by registration, Charles Stevenson, one of the great ethicists of the University of Michigan, emeritus, now teaching at Bennington in his retirement, said he'd seen the sex and love business but "I thought it was crackpot. Maybe I was wrong."
Stevenson, who studied at Cambridge, was no doubt ready to exchange a few Wittgenstein anecdotes with anyone handy ("He never wore a necktie, you know") but he was more concerned with all these innovations.
"Logical positivism, which dismissed all metaphysics, has now become a historical movement, I'm sorry to say. But for all the change, it's slow. In physics, if you're out of it for five years, you're dead, but in philosophy you can be out of it for 50 years and it doesn't make any difference."
Sure enough, there were plenty of old chestnuts among the papers and seminars: Aristotle, Spinoza (was he fooled by the ontological argument?), even God, truth and such conundrums as: "Is Your Toothache in Your Tooth?" and a discussion of "Why People Prefer Pleasure to Pain."
Well, why indeed; but then again, Maryland's Evelyn Barker, who so favors the modern trends, pointed out that "asking why they prefer pain to pleasure would be a whole lot more interesting."
Just down the hall from the philosophy of sex and love gang was the child-care center.
Three young women looked after two boys wearing Williams football jerseys, Paul Tong, 6, and his brother John, 21 months.
They had come all the way from Williamstown. "Mathatoosy," the elder Tong said. "Both my Mom and my Dad are philosophers."
What's a philosopher, he was asked.
"I don't know," said Tong, thereby showing the makings of a good epistemologist who wasn't shy of absolutes, either, when asked if he'd like to be a philosopher when he grew up: "No."