Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The contempt in kicking

"How did it become fashionable for disparagers of skepticism to tell the story of Dr. Johnson, who, receiving Bishop Berkeley's 'denial' of matter, kicked a stone, replying, 'Thus I refute you'? People who know nothing of the motives of skepticism know a version of this story. How strange a scene it offers. Why, to begin with, is kicking a hard object more a 'refutation' of immateriality than, say, sipping wine, or putting your hand on the arm of a friend, or just walking away on solid ground, or muddy ground for that matter? Why is a sensation in the toe taken to be closer to the things of the world than one in the throat or in the hand or on the sole of the foot? Does Samuel Johnson take himself to be closer to his foot than to his throat or his hand? Or is it the gesture that is important — the contempt in kicking? Emerson assigns to Johnson the saying 'You remember who kicked you.' Is Johnson's refutation accordingly to be understood as reminding the things of earth who is master, as an allegory of his contempt of philosophy left to its arrogance? Or is it — despite himself — a way of causing himself pain by the things of the world, implying that he knows they exist because he suffers from them? And, if so, had he then forgotten when he last kicked them, or brushed them by?"

— Stanley Cavell, "The World as Things" in Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, 248