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Food for Thought

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens

Tim Madigan presents a symbol most fowl for philosophy.

“The sun isn’t yellow, It’s chicken” Bob Dylan, Tombstone Blues

When choosing an animal symbol for philosophy, the one which immediately comes to mind is the owl of Minerva, which as Hegel tells us, only flies at dusk. But consider what that means: by the time the owl comes to understand what is going on, the moment has already passed. What kind of a symbol is that for a discipline which prides itself on its prescience and relevance?

Therefore I propose another bird to be our symbol – one which, unlike the owl, comes to life with the break of day. I’m speaking, of course, about the chicken: a regal creature who crows for joy as the sun arises, and who struts about majestically rather than furtively skulking about in the dark constantly asking ‘who?’ Instead, the chicken makes bold assertions: cockle-doodle-DO. This is pragmatism in action. The owl asks – the chicken does.

Indeed, the chicken has had a long and illustrious connection with the history of philosophy. After all, Socrates’ dying words in The Phaedo were “I owe a cock to Asclepius.” Diogenes the Cynic famously compared Plato’s definition of a human (‘a featherless biped’) to a plucked chicken (see my ‘Food for Thought’ in issue 65 for details). Tradition tells us that Francis Bacon, ever the experimental philosopher, sought to demonstrate the possibilities of food preservation by packing a chicken with ice, thereby catching pneumonia and dying shortly after. Immanuel Kant, while working on his masterpiece The Critique of Pure Reason, was driven to distraction by the constant crowing of a rooster, and fled his apartment to escape from the noise.

If he had only listened to that wise old bird he might have solved a few antinomies. For the chicken has played a very useful role in understanding philosophical conundra. Consider Bertrand Russell’s famous paradox of induction:

“Experience has shown us that, hitherto, the frequent repetition of some uniform succession or coexistence has been a cause of our expecting the same succession or coexistence on the next occasion… The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.”
‘On Induction’, The Problems of Philosophy (1912)

Prof Russell’s chicken, at least, has learned a valuable lesson. And as William Poundstone reminds us in his book Prisoner’s Dilemma, Russell had a second chicken analogy in his repertoire, that of the game (popularized in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause) whereby two cars drive directly toward one another and the one which swerves is deemed to be ‘the chicken’:

“Bertrand Russell saw in chicken a metaphor for the nuclear stalemate. His 1959 book, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, not only describes the game but offers mordant comments on those who play the geopolitical version of it… Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War (1960) credits Russell as the source of the chicken analogy.” (Prisoner’s Dilemma pps 197-198)

So, far from being a victim of strangulation, Prof Russell’s chicken now emerges as a symbol to save us all from nuclear destruction. What could be more endearing?

In ethical theory, in addition to the work on ‘speciesism’ done by Peter Singer, whose depictions of chickens in their modern-day industrialized coops in Animal Liberation is the stuff of nightmares, there is the noted ‘Coolidge Effect’, often utilized in discussions of whether humans are naturally monogamous. As the story goes, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife were visiting a farm one day and were given separate tours. When Mrs Coolidge saw the lone rooster, and asked if he was sufficient for all the many hens, the farmer replied that he serviced them several times a day. “Really?” Mrs Coolidge said. “Please tell that to Mr Coolidge.” Upon hearing it, the President asked “Same hen each time?” “No,” the farmer admitted, “a different one each time.” “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.” As the great philosopher Howlin’ Wolf once sang, “Little Red Rooster’s on the prowl.” Apparently Calvin Coolidge understood.

There are a host of other poultry paradoxes with which we are all familiar, and which still drive us to distraction. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is chicken soup really good for the soul? Which weighs more, a ton of bricks or a ton of chicken feathers? And, most famously, the granddaddy of all conundra: why did the chicken cross the road? This perennial stumper has led to countless ingenious answers, many attributed to philosophical greats. For instance:

Plato: For the greater good.
Aristotle: To actualize its potential.
Epicurus: For fun.
Marcus Aurelius: He had no choice but to do so.
Pyrrho the Skeptic: What chicken? What road?
Zeno of Elea: To prove it could never reach the other side.
David Hume: Out of custom and habit.
Karl Marx: It was an economic inevitability.
Nietzsche: Because if you gaze too long across the Road, the Road gazes also across you.
Jean-Paul Sartre: In order to act in good faith and be true to itself, the chicken freely chose to cross the road.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The possibility of ‘crossing’ was encoded into the objects ‘chicken’ and ‘road’, and circumstances came into being which caused the actualization of this potential occurrence.
(For a plethora of other possibilities, see eserver.org/philosophy/chicken.txt)

An entire history of philosophy could be taught using nothing but chicken-crossing-road examples. What other creature has so inspired us? Not Machiavelli’s fox or lion; not Schopenhauer’s poodle; not Schrödinger’s cat; and certainly not Buridan’s ass. It is the chicken which continues to provoke discussion and deep thoughts. Let us therefore spurn the night-dwelling owl, and put the yard bird in its place. In the immortal words (if not the exact meaning) of Henry David Thoreau: “Our winged thoughts are turned to poultry.” Ask not for whom the cock crows – it crows for thee!

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2008

Tim Madigan is noted for counting his chickens before they hatch.

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