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  • The Philosopher’s Demise: Learning French
  • Patrick Henry
The Philosopher’s Demise: Learning French, by Richard Watson; 133 pp. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995, $22.50.

An internationally known expert on caving and the life and works of Descartes, Watson writes traditional philosophical criticism as well as novels like The Runner (1981) and Niagra (1993). The Philosopher’s Demise, however, is the final part of a very loosely woven trilogy that is neither traditional philosophical discourse nor fiction. These are certainly lighter texts than the ones on Cartesian metaphysics—indeed, they are all funny—but they also contain a good deal of practical philosophy.

The Philosopher’s Diet. How To Lose Weight and Change the World (1985), for example, deals with the issue of fat, tells you how to get it off and keep it off but, in very lean prose, it also probes deeply into the form of commitment. It contains chapters on fat, food, and roughage but others entitled “Running,” “Sex,” “How to live,” and “How to die.” Fat functions here as a metaphor—it is “what clutters the unexamined life” (p. 26)—representing “the nagging triviality, the utter banality, and the inevitability of ordinary reality that separate us from what we think we want to be” (p. 145).

With an occasional nod to Sartre (We are what we eat as we are what we do.) and Pascal (By altering our behavior, we can alter our beliefs.), Watson writes to provoke his readers to make a commitment to get the fat out of their lives, to take control of their actions and, perhaps, by changing themselves, to change the world. If we can, for example, “control [our] own eating habits apart from the norm imposed by society” (p. 75), we can begin to act as individuals in all other matters and completely transform our lives and, possibly, those of others. Watson, who contributed a chapter to World Hunger and Moral Obligation (1977) and who, during the 1960s, wrote a still unpublished volume entitled Sex and Revolution in which he claims that if people could revolt sexually against the [End Page 420] taboos of America, they could then perhaps be convinced to take control of the world’s food production, now remarks here, as if in passing, that if we fast for a day or two to make up for binges, we will get “a gut comprehension of what hunger really is for as many as a third of the world’s people” (p. 129). At its deepest level, The Philosopher’s Diet unveils an entire world obsessed with food—“the rich are worried about eating too much and the poor too little” (p. 56)—and underscores the immorality of not trying to change a system of food production and distribution in which we are overfed while millions are starving.

The Philosopher’s Joke (1990) is a tougher book to get a handle on. It contains five chapters written in the dominant styles of philosophical writing popular in each of the last five decades. Two additional chapters complete the volume: “How to Die” which appeared almost verbatim in The Philosopher’s Diet and “A Pig’s Tail (The End of the Second Millenium).” As the book’s cover warns us, it is not always easy to ascertain the author’s position vis-à-vis the opinions reached in the specific essays. The first two chapters, though, are clearly parodies of purely formalistic writing, while the third is a skeptical but straightforward and serious attempt to establish that all interpretation is subjective. The fourth deals with deception in Kierkegaard and the themes of innocence sullied and human entrapment in Western culture. The main joke here has been played on Kierkegaard by God, “the original con man” (p. 87). Chapter six examines recent novels and films that treat the relationships between humans and apes and asks, seriously, what it would mean regarding animal rights and the place of human beings in the cosmos, if it could be shown that apes and humans can interbreed. Chapter seven brings the volume full circle. It shows how form carries content in its examination of the circular form, multiple circles, and epicycles of...

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pp. 420-423
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