Is This a Sandwich?

Teaching the Platonic Dialogues through sandwiches, by Dr. M. Ritchey, PhD

Mr. Mike Merrill
Aug 7, 2014 · 10 min read
The author, Dr. M. Ritchey, in the classroom.

I met Mike 15 years ago, when he moved to Portland after getting kicked out of the army due to his relentless pushing at the logic of all rules (something the army generally frowns upon). This characteristic, so foundational to Mike’s character, has been irritating his friends ever since.

One of the most infamous ways Mike’s logic-pushing tendency has manifested in recent years can be seen in his insistence on hectoring everyone he knows into fighting with him about what objective qualities can be said to constitute “a sandwich.” This conversational maneuver has effectively ruined many convivial lunchtimes and splintered several friendships, but after getting sucked into it many times against my will (once while trying to plan my wedding), I suddenly realized that the “sandwich debate” is actually not only meaningful, but its deft deployment can even teach valuable citizenship skills that, if understood by a majority of the population, would make our world a better place.

The Platonic Dialogues

Socrates was the first known “Dog Whisperer”

As I started working through the Dialogues with my students, I noticed that they tended to find Socrates frustrating, so much so that they routinely described him as “a jerk.” This made me think of Mike and his infernal sandwich debate and the ruined friendships littering its wake. I suddenly realized that even though he’d never read Plato, Mike was nonetheless engaging in a classic Socratic dialogue whenever he forced his friends to define a sandwich. Furthermore, I came to understand that he was doing it with the same goal in mind: namely, that of demonstrating how thin is the tissue of “common sense” underlying our experience and ordering of daily life. For Mike, the sandwich stands in for the dancing shadows on the wall of the cave in Plato’s famous allegory. According to Plato (and Mike), the objects (and, by extension, the ideas and values) we think we experience as demonstrable, obvious realities are merely the ghostly shadows of those realities. The real realities—Plato’s “ideal forms”—are unseeable and unknowable except to the Philosopher, a somewhat mystical figure who leaves the cave and sees reality with his own eyes. Unfortunately, the Philosopher is doomed to be hated and destroyed by his fellow cave-dwellers, who resent being told that everything they thought was real was actually an ephemeral, ungraspable dream. For Plato, this is part of why democracy doesn’t work, but that’s a whole other story.

I decided to do an exercise in my classroom that would attempt to engage my students more deeply with the socratic method and perhaps help them realize its usefulness in their own lived realities. For some reason, reading about Socrates asking Euthyphro if what is pious is pious because it is loved by the Gods or whether the Gods love that which is pious was not really making much of a dent in my students’ understanding of the world, so instead I had them try to prove that they knew what a sandwich was. I put them in pairs and instructed them to create as clear and literal a definition as they could—one that encompassed all things they knew to be sandwiches, while providing criteria for excluding all those things that were obviously not sandwiches. Furthermore, anything they were going to submit as examples of a “sandwich” also had to pass the thought experiment of imagining ordering “a sandwich” in a restaurant and being brought that thing—because after all, this is an exercise about common knowledge. We all “know” what a sandwich is. Their definition had to somehow account for this shared mental understanding. So “a bowling ball between two pieces of lettuce” would not count, for example.

I’ve done this now with five classrooms full of students, and each time the exercise progressed in the exact same way. Initially, they think it’s funny and stupid, and also easy. They set to work, bending their heads together over a shared piece of paper. After ten minutes, I ask one group to read its definition aloud, and I write it on the board. It’s usually something like: “any edible material in between two other quantities of edible material.” Then I say, “does anyone have a problem with this definition?” And from there things immediately devolve into a screaming match, just like all those interminable lunches with Mike. Many fruitful tangents are explored, such as the differing degrees of sandwichness of hot dog vs. hamburger; hand placement and orientation; “stacks” vs. “patties”; and of course the classic “what is bread” maneuver, which usually allows me to confidently say that lasagna must be a sandwich, which infuriates them.

Euthyphro and Socrates: The Sandwich

The Truth

What kinds of acts are made possible when we believe we know the objective truth? In what ways are our social practices, personal relationships, moral judgments, foreign policies, and political beliefs based on foundations of “knowledge” that, when pressed, we can’t even satisfactorily define or demonstrate? What implications does this have, for how we see the world and our place in it, for how we relate to one another, for how we move through space and time? And why, actually, IS this kind of debate so frustrating? Why is critical thinking experienced as uncomfortable? Why, for example, did the Athenian senate vote to have Socrates LITERALLY KILLED for engaging people in debates like the sandwich debate? What were the charges they actually brought against him? They said he “turns the worse argument into the stronger” and that he “teaches these things to the young.” Socrates’ annoying arguments about definitions were felt to be such a threat to the existing power structure of ancient Athens that even some of his supporters’ attempts to get his sentence changed to lifetime exile were unconvincing, and he was democratically voted into death.

A Sandwich of Freedom and Justice

It’s true that each day we must make choices and decide what is the best thing to do. We can’t truly inhabit a world where there is no truth and words don’t mean anything, as even the most staunchly postmodernist philosophers have demonstrated. But how much better things would be if we at least recognized our own fallibility, our own essential blindness and lack of understanding in the face of the unimaginable complexity of the universe, our own knowledge that “all we know is that we know nothing.”

For this reason, I have become a convert to Mike’s annoying sandwich debate. It’s been enormously useful in my pedagogy—by the end of the semester, my students—who have forgotten so many of the things we’ve learned together—remember the socratic method and what it’s for. And they remember Mike, which is very funny to me. They bring him up all the time. He and Socrates become inextricably linked in their minds, as examples of annoying jerks who are nonetheless great and important thinkers.


Working with Dr. M. Ritchey we’re developing a New Theory of Sandwich at IsThisaSandwich.com.

Please join us in this important work. We believe that together we can solve the most burning question of our generation and create a new future of sandwiches.

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