The trouble with philosophical abstraction is that it tries to create a space separated from the world.
The metaphor of the slippery slope, for example, has become almost literal. That’s why it is often effective. Who wants to slide down a slippery slope? What is unstated but operative is that this metaphor encourages the reader/hearer to assume – without question – that there exists a place that is not slippery, where one cannot slide or fall.
In our complex world (and especially with regard to ethical and legal questions that affect people’s lives), we seem to have a craving to be able to state our understandings in a universally-applicable and absolute way, even about topics that are not absolute and cannot be absolute. That’s why “top-down” understandings must play against “bottom-up” ones, where a multitude of examples and perspectives of experience can realistically inform both theory and practice.
Why am I having these thoughts today? It’s all about the old question of whether the glass is half empty or half full.
I’ve heard a lot of answers to that question. Some will say it is both half empty and half full, or even that it is neither half full nor half empty. Your personal preference of interpretation can be used as a measure of optimism or pessimism. There are hundreds of jokes.
Last night I read the hands-down best answer to the question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. That answer illustrates a kind of blind spot for absolute abstraction and universalizing. It illustrates the importance of perspective and context in a completely different way. Just by the wayside, it made me laugh so hard that I felt compelled to share the joy. I think that only a woman could have come up with this answer. In this case, a grandmother.
I didn’t find it in a philosophy book, but in a chapter on grandparents in Cosbyology: Essays and Observations From the Doctor of Comedy, a short book by Bill Cosby. At Temple University, he had been assigned to debate one side or another. The question seemed unanswerable to him.
So I went home that night — and my grandmother was there — and she saw me concentrating and so she asked me what was the matter.
“I’m supposed to figure out if the glass is half full or half empty,” I told her.
Without a moment’s hesitation, in a split second, my grandmother shrugged and said:
“It depends on if you’re drinking or pouring.”