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Philosophy in the Old and New World

Updated: Aug 13, 2022

Earlier this week, while I was buying produce at the local farmer's market (laiki agora) in Kifissia, Athens, I stopped by a woman who was selling apples. I noticed that half her apples were selling for 2.5 euro/kilo and the other half were selling for 1 euro/kilo, and I asked her if the second ones were of the same variety, but a bit more rotten. She answered that they were the same variety but that the second batch were of less appealing-looking ones for whatever reason, and added with a smile, "Always, the first criterion is beauty." While munching on my slightly blemished apples later this week (because I could not afford to honor her priority of values), I reflected, as I have so many other times, on how much people in the Old World have an everyday, instinctive relationship to philosophy that is, by comparison, wanting in the New World. To Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian and other European peoples, it comes very naturally to make a general claim that is even an attempt to capture something about truth-in-itself. Statements like the one made by the fruit seller are the stuff of daily conversation and, though they are usually made in a passing and playful manner, they are craved-for spice of the conversation (and Old World people have a thing with spices...). It sounds like a terrible generalization to make, but it is rare to hear someone in the United States speaking in this way; this fruit seller's American homologue would probably say something more practical-sounding, such as that "Customers tend to prefer the rounder, redder apples that don't have dark spots, so I divide the apples into two batches." She would probably not make a general philosophical claim which invites my agreement or disagreement.

Indeed, in American culture, to the extent that it makes sense to speak of one, and doing so of course from my own impressions (!), people have such an instinctive aversion to this kind of talk, that they are likely to swiftly reprimand someone making such a general claim with the reminder, "That's just your opinion." In this frequently-deployed statement, there is the suggestion is that opinions do not need to be expressed and, if expressed, ought to be accompanied by caveats.

Relatedly, I remember when a good friend from the US visited my family in Athens many years ago; we had gotten lunch with my family and some family friends, and towards the end engaged in some discussion the contents of which I do not recall well. My friend later confided to me, with some regret, that in her own family people didn't talk in the more philosophical way that we seemed to; she said that at a meal they were more likely to talk about shops that had opened or closed in the suburb they were living in. But this was not just her family. When I visited other families in diverse parts of the United States, I saw a similar thing. An hour could be spent talking about the prices of sausages at different vendors; sometimes eating around a TV (even on Thanksgiving!) would be a substitute for making conversation. The playful habit of making bold but interesting claims for the sake of philosophical enjoyment, second nature to so many Europeans, is not very alive. In countless, small such ways, one could say that the New World today is philosophically under-nourished. But what would explain it?

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