Philosophy in the Old and New World

Updated: 5 days ago

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 the 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 only 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 brownish and 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 generalized 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 generally the spice of the conversation (Old World people of course love spices...). It sounds like an awful 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."

I remember when a good friend from the US visited my family in Athens many years ago and, after having gone to lunch with my family and some family friends, shared with me 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 the same 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 is not really alive. It needs to be said: the New World today is philosophically under-nourished. But how did this happen?

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