[The post below is a response by Daniel C. Dennett to one of my recent posts; it is published with his permission.--ES]
In my long lapsed career as a sculptor I once devoted considerable time and energy to conceiving of (but not executing) a series of conceptual art objects that were exemplary Fs or Gs or Hs except for one feature, which made them useless.
- Needle: a 3-inch-long cylinder of stainless steel, sharpened to a fine point at one end, and pierced with an eye at the other. Only problem: its diameter is not, say, 1/16 of an inch but 1 inch. Rather too blunt for use.
- Dice: two pieces of white plastic with all the pips from 1 to 6 properly arranged in opposition: Only problem: instead of being cubes, they’re spheres.
- a length of rope ten feet long and 2 feet in diameter.
- individual Kleenex sealed in plastic sleeves.
- a porcelain hammer
- a soluble anchor
The giant paperclip on my desk is the only concrete result of that bout of fantasy.
Why do I mention this? Because sometimes the most interesting and important fact about something is that it is almost an F. Norms are ubiquitous; there are good and bad toenails, good and bad skipping stones, good and bad heaps, good and bad stool samples, . . . . Is one optimizing when one sees the faint but improvable resemblance of a piece of driftwood to a horse’s mane?
When I was teaching at UC Irvine almost fifty years ago, a rather posh restaurant opened in Corona del Mar, California, called The Five Crowns. It presented itself as an authentic English pub, with dozens of polished horse brasses hanging on the walls, serving wenches with frilly white décolletage blouses and caps to match, and a red pillar box (post box) and canonical red telephone booth outside. (It still thrives, according to its website.) When a rather crusty British philosopher came to town to give a few talks in our department I decided it would be a lark to take him to the Five Crowns for dinner. It was not lost on the maître d’ that he had a genuine English pub-frequenter dining that evening, and at the end of the meal he wafted by to ask if the distinguished guest from across the pond had noted any jarring details that the restaurant might repair. Authenticity was their goal. “Yes, there is one dead giveaway,” said the Brit, and the maître d’s face fell: “The urinals don’t stink.” A proper English pub would have a loo with an aroma that made one dizzy.