Ever wonder what a fly-bottle is? Wittgenstein mentions one rather casually, like it’s obvious. What is your aim in philosophy? He asks. To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. But, you know, why would a fly have a bottle? What’s he doing in there in the first place? What, in point of fact, does one do with a fly-bottle? Turns out, showing the fly the way out is the last thing you want to do. The fly-bottle’s purpose, its whole reason for being, its raison d’être, is to capture, confuse, and kill flies. A fly-bottle was used for pest control.
“Ludwig, how many times do I have to tell you? Leave the flies alone. They’re supposed to die in there. Go outside and play.”
It’s seems there’s two models of fly-bottle, one prevalent in Asian countries and the type they used in Europe. The European model looks a little more sophisticated, with an opening at the bottom that allows the flies to crawl in, rather than fly in the top, but the idea is the same, you lure the fly into the bottle with a succulent, fatted calf—or anyway a pile of sugar—and the fly, once inside, can’t figure out how to get back out. Your common house fly is phototropic; he will fly towards light. He doesn’t understand that while the glass lets light in, it won’t let him out. Confusion and repetitive action sets in. Often at the bottom of a fly-bottle you’ll find some sort of poisonous liquid; when your fly finally tires of buzzing the glass, he falls down and drowns. So much for phototropism. It’s an easy death.
One of the implications of this idea, though, is that once out of the fly-bottle, the fly has no more need of philosophy. He won’t have any moral issues to ponder; he won’t need to think about his place in society (such as it is for a fly); he won’t have any nagging epistemological problems, wonder about consciousness, other minds, the good life, virtue, justice…. He’s free, man! The examined life is not worth living.
The phrase ‘the examined life’ comes from the Apology where Socrates, who is apologizing for nothing, explains: I say that the greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue…and that the unexamined life for man is not worth living.
So it’s a big claim: the greatest good. Socrates prefers to die rather than to live the unexamined life. And he proves it too. Over the years the examined life has become synonymous us with the practice of philosophy, with philosophy as a lived discipline.
The Examined Life is also the name of a new film by Astra Taylor. I haven’t seen it yet. It will be in New York in February, but the trailers are intriguing: Cornell West comparing the philosopher to a bluesman, a jazzman of ideas; Peter Singer bringing down the shoe industry with a deft, entrapping example. The list of names is impressive; in addition to West and Singer, there is Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler and of course Slavoj Zizek, who it seems, will give us a discourse on garbage and why we need to pay attention to it—perhaps because it attracts flies. Read the rest of this entry »