Cows, Tigers and Tree Frogs

Tree Frog

I was introduced to philosophy in 1982 when I went on an Access to Higher Education course at Barnsley Technical College. About all I can remember from the Introduction to Philosophy course is that “All cows have four legs, except for the ones that don’t.” Fortunately for the students, there was no field work involved. In fact, we never looked at a cow at any time during the year, though I did propose it to the course organiser.

We spent a lot of time arguing whether or not a chair existed. The teacher argued that one particular chair didn’t exist, and used a real chair to illustrate his argument, which I immediately leaped on as a weakness in his case. Ironically, when the bell sounded to signal the end of the lesson, he was in such a rush to leave and have a cigarette, that he fell over the very chair he’d been arguing didn’t exist. If he had used an empty space to indicate his non-existent chair, at least he wouldn’t have fallen over it.

When I went to Leeds University to study philosophy, the arguments were much more sophisticated. One lecturer said that in order for the statement “the tiger growls” to be true, there must exist in reality at least one tiger and that tiger must growl. To illustrate his point, he spent a good part of the lecture impersonating a tiger and doing a lot of growling, which I thought was just silly. I was disappointed when the lecturer didn’t turn up for class the following week, and I learned shortly afterwards that he’d had a nervous breakdown.

I found the recommended reading was particularly difficult. Philosophers use a lot of words that I’d never needed when I was working as a bricklayer. Words like; ‘epistemological’, ontological’, metaphysical’, etc. And even word that I did know, they took liberties with. Words like; ‘chair’, and ‘tiger’, to name but two.

One lecturer gave me an essay question which was “What is the significance of iterating deontic operators?” That was difficult for me because I only understood the first five words. In the end, I gave up second year ethics and opted for something else (table tennis with one of the female students that I fancied).

After graduating, I found myself teaching philosophy for a couple of years to mature students at the same college where I got my first start. By this time, I thought cows and tigers were passé, so I latched on to the idea of tree frogs instead. I wanted to make the point that you do not have to have things that correlate to words in order for sentences to make sense. “The unicorn has a pointy horn” makes perfect sense even though unicorns don’t exist. I decided to substitute tree frog for unicorn, believing the former to be imaginary.

After that lesson, I went home, switched on the TV, and there was a natural history documentary on all about tree frogs! More recently, I saw some in the flesh, so to speak, at Roundhay Park in Leeds. They are beautiful little creatures and don’t seem to mind being philosophised over.

Tree frogs have many uses in philosophy. Question; if there was a tree frog in the middle of the room and we all left the room, how could we be sure the tree frog still existed even though we weren’t looking at it? Answers in the comments below, please.

Tree frog photo by Rego Korosi shared with permission by Creative Commons.

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