Sunday, October 13, 2013

Courageous Ostension: Or How Philosophy Can Ruin a Perfectly Good Joke

by Russell DiSilvestro

Have you heard this joke before?

A philosophy professor determined all student grades for the semester by a two-hour in-class written essay exam. On the day of the test, he strolls in and announces that there will be only one question on the test, and struts to the chalkboard to write three words in big capital letters: “What is courage?”

All students begin writing furiously, knowing that their entire grade hangs on what they can scribble on paper in the next two hours. But one student on the front row stands up, slaps his paper on the professor’s desk, and marches out of the room.

The professor picks up the paper, and on it are just two words: “This is.”

Why is it that we find this joke amusing?

It’s probably not the historical accuracy of the joke. I suspect this is a kind of academic urban legend that never actually happened.

It’s also probably not the wisdom of the joke’s hero, the student—at least not his practical wisdom or street smarts. Granted, some tellings of the story have the happy ending of the student getting an ‘A’ from the professor. But it is risky for a student to pull a stunt like that on a final exam. Like a nearly identical story—in which the relevant question-and-answer are “Why?” and “Why not?”—our original story might well include a safety disclaimer like “don’t try this at home.”

No doubt there is something attractive about the student’s bit of chutzpah: even if he’s not wise, he’s bold, and righteously so. And hence his two-word answer is true. The act is courageous. (While Aristotle would remind us to distinguish courage from recklessness—see previous paragraph—I shall set that to one side.)

But I’d like to focus on something that catches my attention about the story for a moment: the student said a lot just by pointing to something particular.

Philosophers sometimes call this pointing ‘ostension.’

You can look up ‘ostension’, but beware. When I searched ‘ostension’ in the dictionary bundled with my computer the closest word I found was ‘ostensive’ (“adjective; directly or clearly demonstrative; Linguistics-denoting a way of defining by direct demonstration, e.g. by pointing”), and Wiktionary online included among the definitions a theological one (“the showing of the sacrament on the altar so that it may be a receive the adoration of the communicants”).

Of course, the student in the story wasn’t pointing with his finger. He was using scribbled letters to point.

And he wasn’t pointing at someone else, or even at some physical point in space. He was pointing at himself. Or more precisely, at his own words on the sheet. Or, more precisely still, at his act of intentionally writing those words and then submitting them. He was pointing at a pointing. It was a kind of reflexive, self-referential pointing.

How is ostension possible to begin with? I will let my philosophy of language colleagues jump on that one.

How is human ostension similar to, or different from, the sorts of things non-human animals and/or computers do? I will let my philosophy of mind colleagues catch that one.

But I’ve been thinking a bit recently about ostension as a way of making a philosophical “point” (pun intended) in the context of moral concepts. Like courage.

I think we slip into ostension frequently when doing moral philosophy. What’s morally good? “Those are” (pointing to a pair of students helping a classmate pick up a pile of dropped books). What’s morally wrong? “That is” (pointing to a student sleeping at the front of class). And so on.

These ways of pointing to particular things in a moral context are sometimes just ways of getting the discussion going by giving examples. But they are sometimes used as a way of pushing back against a demand for a more precise definition, like Justice Stewart’s famous quote fragment about how some types of obscenity may be hard to define, but “I know it when I see it…”

Socrates would not have been satisfied with the student’s answer. The student gave a particular example of courage. But the professor’s question may have been aimed at getting a general definition of courage—the thing in common in all particular examples of courage.

Perhaps—and this may over-explain things—this is what gives the joke some of its charm. The philosophy professor asked a question that he wanted a Socratic-style definition for; the student gave an answer that, while correct, ignored Socrates. Perhaps ignored Socrates on purpose.

In my own research, I sometimes notice that ostension is used in discussions of a thing’s “moral status.” Here are a few distinct questions that each get at the “moral status” of some thing or other: What things have the sort of moral value that it’s good to have them in the world? What things have interests, and can be harmed by having those interests set back? What things have moral entitlements or rights, like the rights to life and liberty?

And such questions are often answered, at least initially, by pointing, with words or gestures (or both): ‘This thing here.’ ‘That thing there.’ ‘Me’ (pointing to myself). ‘You’ (pointing to you).

Moral status discussions sometimes happen when we are talking about the proper way of treating nonhuman animals, like those used for food (chickens, cows) or medical research (chimpanzees, guinea pigs). And they sometimes happen when we talk about human organisms at different stages of development (infants, fetuses) or states of disease (brain-damaged, comatose).

In this area and others, I think ostension can often be, not just a discussion-starter, but a game-changer. It sometimes functions like “the buck stops here.” And sometimes legitimately so. Example: “Your clever theory entails that there’s no love anywhere? But this here [pointing] is love. So too bad for your theory.”

How can philosophy ruin a perfectly good joke?

This is how.

Russell DiSilvestro
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Russell, before reading this I would not have said that providing an example is ostensive in nature. My reasoning would have been this: When we give an example, we are still achieving a certain level of generality by referencing specific properties So (for example) if someone were to ask me what kindness is and I were to say that it is kind to brighten a melancholy person's day with a compliment, then this would certainly fail to satisfy Socrates' request for a definition, but still go well beyond what I could achieve by pointing at a person who had just done so. Ostension, by contrast, is an act of communication that seems to leave all the generalization to the person on the receiving end.

    To put the point differently, if giving an example is ostensive, why not just say that giving a definition is ostensive? After all, a definition like "kindness is a disposition to alleviate the suffering of those to whom one owes no particular obligation" points in the same way that an example does, it just points much more explicitly without requiring us to generalize past the level that is implied in the definition.

    But is this perhaps part of your point? Ostension, exemplification and definition are not categorically distinct, but lie on a continuum.

  2. Russell DiSilvestroOctober 15, 2013 at 3:56 PM

    RD@Randy: I am friendly to your continuum suggestion. I do think that examples are more like ostensive gestures than definitions. I realize it’s possible to ‘point’ to a definition (like when a child asks “what is the definition of ‘anaconda’ and his teacher points to an entry in a dictionary to say “this is”), but that is different.

  3. Thanks, Russell. Just to clarify, I wasn't talking about pointing at a definition. Rather, I am saying that if examples point, then so do definitions. They point at a set of properties (or whatever.)

  4. Russell, I thought I knew what you were getting at and agreed for the most part, but your response to Randy makes me wonder whether I missed something. I took you to be claiming in the "ruined" joke that we can "point" to something of significance by our actions, not by act of point or speaking directly to it, as with our finger, but by acting in a way which brings to mind for observers an objection to something said or done, though the objection is in the action of getting up and leaving, not of speaking the objection-asserting words. But your response to Randy's suggestion, that definitions might point similarly to some state of the world, makes me unsure if ostensive gestures are really limited to gestures, physical gesturing. I think I agree with Randy, as an example might gesture toward some property instantiated in the example, or a definition might "gesture" toward some state of affairs of the world, a relation or object, or condition, or possibility, etc. In your response, pointing to the definition in a dictionary mis-locates the instance of pointing. What do you think? (ps, I believe the joke is now completely ruined... ;))