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
I had this realization after teaching the Platonic Dialogues to a class of college freshmen. A quick explanation for the uninitiated: Plato, the great philosopher and mathematician who lived in Athens around 500 BC, was also the most prominent student of Socrates, whose ideas and style of dialogue he recorded for posterity, for example in his aptly-named “Dialogues.” The Dialogues are short works in which Plato recreates various conversations Socrates had (or might have had), including his statements at his own trial and a conversation he had with another student, Crito, on the eve of his execution, in which he invents the idea of the social contract. It is in the Dialogues that we get the detailed descriptions of the “socratic method” he apparently employed to irritate his countrymen to such a degree that they finally used the power of the State to have him killed. The socratic method is deceptively simple: it’s a dialectical method entailing the relentless questioning of your interlocutor in order to critically interrogate a point they’re making, usually with the goal of proving that there is no such thing as objective truth or whatever. “I know only that I know nothing,” is Socrates’ famous (and somewhat disingenuous) statement, and the conceptual framework upon which all his logical maneuvers depend.
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
— Well, Socrates, I am happy to tell you what a sandwich is, as I have great knowledge of these things as you know.
— Thank you, Euthyphro, I will be glad to listen to you, for you are a learned man and I am just a poor beggar. So tell me, please, how can we know that which is a sandwich, apart from those things that are not sandwiches?
— Socrates, it could not be more simple. A sandwich is anything edible held in a container that is also edible.
— I see; that is very clear indeed. So this taco is a sandwich.
— No Socrates, that is a taco. A sandwich is something quite different, as you may quickly see by noting that they are called by different names.
— And yet, Euthyphro, here we have some soy ground beef—surely this is edible—and as you see, it is held in this container, which is a fried tortilla, and which I eat along with the material inside. Surely this is a sandwich!
— Well, Socrates, that is not quite right. I will try to be more clear: a sandwich is that which is edible, held in a container made of bread, surely.
— So then this hot dog, of course, is a sandwich. Thank you, Euthyphro!
— Well Socrates… a hot dog is something very like a sandwich, and yet it does not seem to me to be exactly a sandwich either, somehow. I see where you have misunderstood—let me clarify. A sandwich consists of some edible material, in between TWO pieces of bread, which must be separate from one another.
— I see; that is very clear indeed. So this pizza placed face down atop this other pizza, this is a sandwich.
— No, Socrates, I see that you do not understand at all. That is nothing like a sandwich.
— Now Euthyphro, how can this be? For truly here I see edible items—those are cheese, tomato sauce, and vegan pepperoni—and they are indeed to be found in between two pieces of bread—that is the pizza crust. How can this not be a sandwich, then?
— Well, Socrates, you have twisted my words around somehow. I did not mean ANY edible items in between ANY type of bread; I meant something rather more specific.
— Now Euthyphro, you are teasing a poor old man. You told me you would explain what a sandwich was, so that I might learn from your wisdom, yet now you seem to have told me nothing at all.
— Socrates, I will try to explain so that you might understand. A sandwich must be easily held in the hands, whereas two pizzas atop one another, as I’m sure you can see, are quite impossible to hold easily in the hands, as the whole is much too large and floppy.
— Ah, thank you Euthyphro, now I feel we are getting somewhere. Truly, now I think I understand. If a sandwich is something edible in between two pieces of bread, with the whole composed in such a way as to be easily held within the two hands, then obviously three pieces of bread, held together in the hands, is a sandwich.
— I do not see what you mean, Socrates. Surely a stack of pieces of bread is simply a loaf of bread, as any man knows.
— Now Euthyphro, you seem to be teasing me again, for look, here is a piece of edible bread, placed in between two other pieces of bread, the whole of which, you must agree, I hold quite easily in my hands, withered and shaking though they may be.
— Well Socrates, it is true, now that I think on it, that these three pieces of bread do in fact ascribe to my earlier definition. And yet, anyone could tell you that this is not a sandwich.
— Then Euthyphro I think you must start over, if you are ever to help me understand. Come now, don’t keep an old man waiting. Surely one as learned as you should easily be able to explain what a sandwich is to a poor old fool such as myself. Please begin again, and this time try to be more clear.
— Socrates I really must go, I will be late for my appointment.
At some point one student will protest that it’s a pointless exercise because no definition of sandwich can ever fully encompass all possible sandwiches while excluding all non-sandwiches. This is the perfect segue into the conclusion of the exercise, where we talk about what conceivable value there could be in such a pointless debate. I bring it back to poor Euthyphro, so confident that he knows what is pious and what is impious that he’s going to prosecute his own father for murder.
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 makes one wistful when one contemplates all the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of a certainty based on nothing. If we can’t even define “sandwich,” how can we possibly presume to define “truth,” or “justice,” or “freedom”?
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.