Aristotle and the Drip Pan

"There is very little technical mathematics in this book, and what there is can easily be skipped over without loss of the principal ideas," writes Philip J. Davis '43, Ph.D. '50, at the start of his memoir, The Education of a Mathematician (A.K. Peters, $25). Professor of applied mathematics emeritus at Brown and author of 15 books, Davis is anecdotal, lighthearted, good company when writing about his life and work, and informative about how mathematics has shaped the world during his time. Here is the entirety of an early chapter entitled "Why I Didn't Take Philosophy A."

As an entering freshman I wondered which of a wide variety of courses to take. Mathematics and astronomy, certainly. English? Well, I couldn't get out of that. Physics, of course. That left one more course that might be taken. Ah yes, those damn "distribution" requirements without whose fulfillment one could not graduate (like the swimming test). Art? Never. History? No way. Psychology? Yukkk. Philosophy? Well, maybe. Let's see who's giving the course. Ah. Prof. Raphael Demos.

The name Demos, which I took to be of Greek derivation, reminded me that Philosophy A would probably be all about Plato and Aristotle and those guys. So I went to the reference room of the library, pulled down an encyclopedia, and looked up Aristotle. Finding a very long article, I read at random.

There are four causes, said Aristotle, the material cause, the formal cause, the final cause, and the efficient cause. As I understood it, the material cause was simply the material involved, e.g., a piece of paper, a feather. The formal cause was the form or the shape of the material. The final cause was the purpose or the goal or the outcome of whatever was under discussion. Lastly, the efficient cause was whatever set the whole business going in the first place.

I wrestled with Aristotle's four causes and they seemed in no way to be connected with my experience; a world of ideas I then saw no reason to enter. A week before, I had just been driven down to Cambridge with my bags by my older cousin Shirley. Her father, my mother's brother, was a man whom I liked very much. It was said by all those who knew him that he would never go anywhere outside of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and never had done so for years and years. One day I asked him why this was the case, and without any hesitation he answered, "I need to empty the drip pan under the ice box every day."

This seemed sufficient cause for his action, but I could not fit this explanation into Aristotle's scheme. Was the material cause the ice box, the cake of ice, or the drip pan? Was the formal cause the cubical shape of the first two or the cylindrical shape of the latter? Was the final cause that my uncle never left Lawrence? Was the efficient cause the fact that my aunt was not in condition to empty the pan or that the flat they lived in didn't have a drain hole?

I decided that Philosophy A was not for me. My damned distribution requirements were not fulfilled until my senior year (with advanced German), and the residue was a deep and abiding suspicion of all embracing systems of thought. Such general philosophy as I now know, I picked up "behind the garage," so to speak.  

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