Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stone School Inn

I have a lot of dusty philosophy books in my personal library. I acquired most of them during my years in graduate school when I still imagined myself capable of plumbing the depths. I read the classics of antiquity as well as modern giants: Descartes, Hegel, Marx, Kant and Heidegger. Along the way I acquired an interest in how European thinking made its way to America. I especially like nineteenth century American philosophical writings because they contain a wealth of new ways to think about old problems. This rich philosophical vein almost completely dried up after about 1920. I soon gave up reading anything by living American philosophy professors because it had so little to do with anything that matters. At the time I cared enough about this phenomenon to make it the subject of my doctoral dissertation, The Profession of Philosophy in America (1979).

I turned my back on the academic life in 1984 when I started law school. Still I find myself drawn to the philosophy section of bookstores. Thus it is that I encountered On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfort (Princeton Univ Press, 2005)

In a nutshell, Frankfort points out that the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. By this he means that the bullshitter seeks to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned at all about whether what they say is true. The central purpose of bullshit is to create a favorable impression of the speaker rather than to say anything meaningful about the subject of the conversation. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in bullshit can undermine the capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars implicitly acknowledge that truth matters.

I recommend this elegant and amusing little piece of philosophical writing. I have applied Frankfort's insights in my work as a judge with great success. I keep a copy of the book on my desk right next to the BULLSHIT stamp Merry bought for my birthday.

Once you are alert to bullshit you see it everywhere. It is so rampant in advertising and in most political discussion that it's hard to miss. I take it so much for granted that I don't expect anything more in certain types of discourse. Still, it often takes me by surprise.

This past week I was hearing cases in Hannibal, MO. Merry, Joli & I wanted to find a new place to stay. We generally like B&Bs but we needed to find one that takes dogs. That's how we settled on the Stone School Inn. The place is situated in the country up a long steep drive. For $5.00 extra per day they provide an outside kennel for a dog. It worked out very well. The two resident dogs, Daisy, a basset/beagle mix, & Coco, a chocolate lab, were nice to Joli and hung around with us. The room was private and comfortable. We had our own screen porch that looked out on the yard and a number of active bird feeders.

I was surprised that the stone schoolhouse had been almost entirely enclosed in a modern structure. Since the original structure was too small to serve as a modern house, and probably poorly insulated, it made sense but altered the historic building significantly. Like most B&Bs this one is for sale. The owners, Richard & Di Ann Hammon, told us they want to get out of the B&B business and move nearer to their adult children.

Thursday morning Richard fulfilled his promise to tell us his well-rehearsed story of the history of the inn. I was quite surprised when he started the story by reminding us of the great New Madrid earthquake of 1811 He segued to survivors of the quake moving far up river to the Hannibal area to settle on land acquired by the government. These survivors wanted a school, so about 1830 they build one of locally quarried stone. Richard noted the school was expanded later to add the chimney and served as a church for years. He made a big deal about a small trapdoor in the floor and claimed it led to a small space where runaway slaves were hidden. He showed us the trapdoor, now sealed. He claimed that slaves must have participated in the building because the stones and chestnut beams are so heavy. The locations of the local slave cemeteries were referenced. He regaled us with stories of visitors who returned to see the old schoolhouse where their great-great-great grandfather once served as superintendent.

My bullshit detector went off almost at once. The dates seemed totally wrong. If there was a surviving school building from before the civil war in good shape it surely would be a registered historic landmark. Terrell Dempsey, a lawyer who appears in my court, recently wrote a well regarded history of slavery in the Hannibal area ( I asked Richard if Mr. Dempsey knew of the trap door and slave history of the building. Richard claimed he did.

An hour later I saw Mr. Dempsey in court. I asked him about the Stone School. He had never heard of it. He further was amazed that any “purpose built” schoolhouse existed in the county from pre-Civil War time. He was familiar with the other educational institutions from the time, and was pretty sure the story I heard from Richard was not true. I've done some quick internet research and believe that Richard was pretty much making it all up.


No comments:

Post a Comment