A Conversation with a Departmental Secretary

Kenji Tsuchiya

I found in my pigeon hole in the office a notice about a meeting of a certain committee to be held on that day. The following conversation ensued with the departmental secretary who is a female ex-student of mine.

Me "Could you do me a favor?"
She "What is it?"
"You see this notice of a meeting?"
"Yes."
"Could you pretend that I have not seen it?"
"No, I am afraid not."
"You can pretend that I have not been here."
"No. That would be even worse."
"I am not asking you to spread the word actively. You have only to say "no", when someone asks you whether you have seen me."
"That seems to make no difference, I am afraid. Are you asking me to tell a lie? What has become of your pursuit of truth?"
"Let me put another way. I am not asking you to tell a lie. It is true that I am asking you to say "no", but you don't have to say "no" categorically. You have only to shake your head from right to left. That wouldn't be too difficult, wouldn't it?"
"It is still the same as denying."
"But you shake your head when you don't deny anything, like when you are watching a tennis match. So you don't have to deny intentionally. All you have to do is to look at the right and left corner of this room alternately when someone ask you whether you have seen me. It will be good exercise as well."
"But in those circumstances, it means denying. So it comes to the same thing."
"But consider what 'those circumstances' are. Let's consider the factors that make up those circumstances. It is true that if you understand the question and shake your head, then it might mean denying. But the person who is asked the question might well not understand the question, or lose consciousness at precisely that moment. It would not be surprising if she coincidentally happens to want to look at the right and left corner of the room alternately at that exact moment."
"I am not going to lose consciousness or my capacity to understand just at your convenience. I have never lose them before."
"Are you sure? I would like you to remember when you attended my lectures. You can boast of your lack of understanding."
"That was only because your lectures were unintelligible. Generally speaking, I think I'm quite quick on the uptake."
"I didn't think you were so obstinate. I thought you were just not bright. I didn't noticed you had a personality problem as well."
"It's you who are obstinate."
"How obstinate you are! All right. You are claiming that I have seen this notice. But all you have been able to witness is my external physical movements, such as the movements of my eyes. How can you claim that I have 'seen' this paper, let alone 'read', from the mere fact that the paper was right in front of my eyes? You can't be certain about it, can you? That is precisely Hume's assertion. You wrote about it in your graduate thesis. So if you deny that I have read this notice, it does not mean that you have told a lie. Rather, if you reply, "I can't say for certain that I have seen him read it", then you would be honest and faithful as befits a student of philosophy."
"All right, then. I shall reply, "I only know that prof. Tsuchiya took the notice out of the pigeon hole and ran his eyes over it. I can say for certain nothing more than that, from a sceptical point of view." Are you happy with that?"
"Hang on a minute. That wording is grossly misleading, I am afraid, especially to those with no knowledge of philosophy. Let us be more faithful to philosophy."
"I doubt any good will come of it."
"What? What are you saying? Is that what a student of philosophy is supposed to say? Consider this. How can you say that you have seen my external physical movement, in the first place? Perhaps you had a hallucination or an illusion. From ancient times it has been said that perception is often misleading. Have you forgotten what I said in my lectures?"
"No, I haven't, unfortunately. I have always failed to forget what you taught in your lecture. Anyway, I refuted what you said in my term paper. Have you forgotten that?"
"I have forgotten what you asserted in it, fortunately. But I remember clearly that it was worthless."
"If so, could you make an objection properly? But never mind that. Let my term paper be wrong, if you insist."
"That makes me look like childishly unreasonable. I can't overlook your trying to gain the upper hand in that way."
"There seems to be little point in gaining the upper hand over you.
Will this satisfy you? I might have had an illusion, but, as Descartes said, I can't doubt that it seemed to me that I had perceived that you took the paper and ran your eyes over it. Or, if you prefer, I had sense-data to the effect that you took and read the notice. Does that make you happy?"
"Why on earth do you choose those expressions which will mislead laymen. Can't you say that you are not sure that I have been here, or that I have read this notice, putting special emphasis on 'not sure'? It would be far more favorable to say, for example, "It seems to me that I saw such and such. But it may have been an illusion. Probably it was an illusion". You see? It is certain that either it was an illusion or not, so that the probability of an illusion is as much as fifty percent."
"That reminds me of the position that denies either A or not-A. I mean, those who don't admit the law of excluded middle."
"Why do you remember nothing other than the things favorable to you? I have no time to discuss about it."
"You have never any time when it comes to difficult problems."
"It is not because the problem is difficult that I have no time to discuss it. There is no causal, nor conceptual relation between the difficulty of a problem and the time I have."
"But I have never seen you discuss those problems that you claimed you had no time to discuss, nor those you wrote you would leave to another occasion because there was not enough space. Let me say something on this occasion. You sometimes say, "I understand it in my mind. Only I can't express it", don't you? Isn't that also trickery?"
"What a pity! How unhappy one is who cannot trust one's own teacher's sincerity! I can't help feeling sad as your teacher. It is not the time to discuss the law of excluded middle, anyway. Let us be more straightforward. Let us frankly admit that either you have seen me or not. If you reflect sencerely, you will see that either it is me or not that you have seen. Moreover, either it was the Prime Minister or not, and, either it was a Martian or not, that you have seen. When you are asked whether you have seen me, I would like you to keep on enumerating these 'either or's until it gets dark. Then you won't have to tell a lie."
"I haven't time to do such a silly thing."
"I've got even less time. I haven't time to attend the meeting. That's why I am asking you."
"If you have no time, why don't you stop this ridiculous conversation? It is nearly an hour since you started talking to me, whereas it will take only half an hour to get through the meeting. Besides, I have a lot of things to do."
"I can't forgive you as a scholar for bending the truth merely for lack of time."
"It seems to be you that is trying to bend the truth."
"But at least won't you admit that you can not be certain that I have read this notice?"
"No. I am sure that you have read it."
"Have you still not understood? I can't believe that one who is doing philosophy can take such a dogmatic attitude. Don't forget the possibility of an illuson."
"If you never admit something as a fact just on the grounds that there is a possibility of an illusion, there would be nothing you can call a fact."
"Why not? You must be brave enough to accept the possibility whatever the consequences."
"It's not a matter of braveness, but a matter of intelligence."
"Then, be intelligent enough."
"It's you that must be intelligent."
"Maybe. Hang on. I might be confused a little. Confused as I may be, a fact is, as Husserl said, what the transcendental consciousness posits, and phenomenologically speaking, its existential character must be made clear by epoche by means of the transcendental reduction."
"It won't make any difference straining yourself to use such difficult words."

I was just trying to refute her decisively, when a colleague, also a member of the committee, appeared and said delightedly,
"How lucky! You are here! To tell the truth, I had almost given up on you, because I could not inform you of the meeting earlier. You have just seen the notice, haven't you? The meeting begins soon. Shall we go to the meeting room together?"
Many years of experience have taught me that it is no use trying to persuade one who is not an expert in philosophy. Being led from the office dejectedly, like a lamb to the slaughter. I turned back to see the secretary setting about her work with a rescued, relieved look, probably because she could escape from my complete refutaton.

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