Bob & Doug McKenzie were brothers, at least superficially, but they were also roommates. If you could call the stomach of a Kookookoo a “room”…
Not that their being brothers was ever in question any more than was their shared love of beer and smokes, but the definition of what exactly counted as a “room” was a philosophical point that they argued about quite a bit. Arguing about something – anything – definitely helped pass the time. And whether a “room” was more of a feeling instead of a specific type of structure was rather contentious between them. Bob, always the Pisces, asserted that a room just had to feel protecting and encompassing. Doug, always the telic box-ticker,i asserted that a room had to have a floor, a ceiling, at least four walls, and privacy-creating door/screen to properly define its boundaries while still permitting its porosity.
Needless to say, the 7 months and 11 days since Bob & Doug had accidentally found themselves inhabiting the mid-section of a rather large horned animal with long serpent’s tail for hind legs and clawed front feet – known to local Indigenous communities as Kookookoo – had felt to both of them like rather a lot longer. You though COVID lockdowns were time-distorting and disorienting? This was that, but 10x.
Their adventure began when they’d been out for a pack of smokes (Du Maurier) and a case of beer (Molson Canadian). That evening, walking along the newly built gas pipeline running through their small provincial town in the Great White North, they noticed an open pit in the ground, wide and long enough for at least one human body but not actually containing anything. Not even dirt. In fact, the brothers couldn’t see the bottom of the pit, even given the full moon. Of course, being curious and competitive siblings, it wasn’t long before they were double-doggy-daring each other to jump into the seeming abyss. Neither wanted to go first, naturally, so the gloves were promptly dropped and within a few moments of scrapping they’d hurled each other over the ledge and down, down, down…
On the other side of what could only be described by Einsteinian physics as a “wormhole,” the two emerged unscathed… if imprisoned. No longer were they walking around freely. Instead, they were trapped inside a slightly moist, relatively stinky stomach with a window on one side. Given the view, they could actually see a green snout with pink antlers above them and a mix of tails and feet below them, all from their vantage point about 10 feet off the ground. Odd. Also odd was that the two didn’t appear to be suffering any undue physical effects from the gastrointestinal confinement, neither from the acidic bath nor lack of fresh oxygen. They chalked it up to the protective benefits of being essentially already embalmed from decades of heavy smoking and drinking, though only to the extent that they gave much thought at all to that particular aspect of what was already a very strange set of circumstances. Those of you for whom Bob & Doug’s reputation is already well known might not be surprised by this “selective” reality filter.ii
And sure enough, it wasn’t long before the two brothers settled into their new “room” and started to lose track of time. Days turned to weeks turned to months, all the while they trolled each other in between bouts of embittered debate, and for who knew how much longer? Like a bookless yeshiva without adjudication, the debates between the two became evermore pedantic, like whether the stomach lining of the Kookookoo was more of a Candy Pink (Pantone 14-1911 TCX) or more of a Peony (Pantone 15-1816 TCX). Although shades of pink were the subject of days and even weeks of discussion, they were of course ultimately fruitless and pointless since neither of them had a Pantone colour chart on-hand. Not that the paper of the chart would’ve lasted very long in the deeply acidic environment of the stomach that was their current “room,” but it at least would’ve helped the whole debate feel that much less academic and circular.
Then one day, they looked out their stomach-window and saw three men digging around a large canvas-wrapped package (about the size of a human body) in the exact same pit that they’d fallen into all those months ago, the same one by the new gas pipeline, and under the same full moon. Except the pit itself had a bottom, and the package in it, and of course next to it was a 20-foot tall Kookookoo with a Bob & Doug safely aboard mid-ship, staring down wide-eyed at the happenings below. You’d think the three diggers would’ve looked up from their project to be good and properly scared of the giant mystical creature, but you’d be wrong. They didn’t seem to mind at all, if they even noticed.
Bob & Doug didn’t want to waste this opportunity for SOS, so they banged and banged on the stomach-window to get the attention of the diggers down below. But to no avail. The glass was too thick. The men down below didn’t notice or care.
At least superficially.
There’s this other distinction between telic and atelic activities.
So, I think these are cross-cutting distinctions. I think they’re easy: they’re related, and they’re easy to run together. Because Aristotle, who is one of my sort of guides here, is obsessed, I think, both with existential value and with what I call atelic activities.
So, the distinction here is between telic activities that have an endpoint to which they’re completed, like writing a book or getting married or having kids. You strive towards it, and at some point you’re done.
And, atelic activities are ones that don’t have a built-in endpoint like that, like going for a walk or parenting or spending time with friends. And, it kind of cross-cuts with ameliorative and existential.
So, there are things that have existential value that are telic, like writing a book maybe, or producing a piece of art, or playing a game with a friend. It will end, you’re done. You finish the board game or whatever–that was telic.
And, so, I think there’s a problem both with lives that are too consumed by ameliorative value and don’t have room for this sort of existential value that’s positively good. But, then there’s a further problem, which is the problem that when you’re focused on telic activities–think of them as projects–what you’re doing is sort of aimed at a completion. You’re not there yet. And then the moment you’re there, it’s done. It’s over. And, what you’re doing when you engage with it is, in a way, trying to finish it. So, you’re taking this thing that’s meaningful to you. And, what you’re, in effect, trying to do is destroy it. You’re trying to say, ‘Let’s get that out of my life. Let’s get that done.’ And, there’s something self-undermining about that. And, it’s not that telic activities or projects or achievements don’t have value, but that if you’re exclusively focused on them, there’s a kind of thing you’re missing, which is the value of the process. […]
There is a way in which the structure of academia, like the structure of many professions, sort of channels you into becoming more and more and more focused on these telic things. Namely: finish your Ph.D., get tenure, get an article into a review if you can, teach the next class, teach this grad seminar, apply for this grant.
And, you start to find–at least there’s a risk and it happened to me–that you are actually getting almost exclusively diverted into focusing on the telic activities, the projects. And, you are losing touch with the fact that, in a way, the point of engaging in all these projects is to be doing philosophy–is to be reflecting on these questions. And, that was the thing that I think I had really become detached from and had to really sort of struggle to recover around this, sort of, my early midlife crisis.
via Kieran Setiya as interviewed by Russ Roberts for Econtalk (archived). ↩