Gareth B. Matthews
Review of Kindergeschichten [Children’s Stories] by Peter Bischel (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1987). Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 8(4): 1.
The first story in this delightful collection of provocatively whimsical children’s stories is called “The Earth is Round;” It is about a man who, being no longer married and having no children, spent his time thinking over everything he knew.
The man made a list of everything he knew. What he knew, we are told, is just what we know.
The man knew that you have to brush your teeth. He knew that bulls run after red handkerchiefs and that there are bullfighters in Spain.
The man knew that the moon revolves around the earth and that the moon has a face and that the face is not eyes and a nose, but craters and mountains.
The man knew that letters need stamps, that you drive on the right side of the road, that pedestrians have to use crosswalks, and that you shouldn’t torment animals. He knew that you greet people by shaking hands and by taking your hat off your head.
The man knew that there is sand in the Sahara Desert. He had never been there, but he had read about it. And he knew that Columbus, because he believed the earth is round, had discovered America.
The earth is round. The man knew that. If you know that the earth is a ball, you know that, if you keep going in the same direction, you’ll come back to the place from which you started.
Of course, the earth doesn’t look like a ball. Sometimes houses and trees get in the way. even when you get an unobstructed view, by the sea, you still can’t see the curvature of the earth. Everything just comes to an end on a line-the horizon.
In the morning the sun seems to rise out of the sea; in the evening it seems to sink into the sea. We know that it doesn’t really, and that what we see is only the earth rotating, making one complete rotation every day.
Everybody knows that. And the man knew it, too. He knew that, if you keep going in the same direction, after days, weeks, months, and years, you’d come back to the same place, from the other side.
“I know that;” the man said, “but I don’t believe it, so I’ll try it out:” And, since he didn’t have anything else to do, he did. But right away he ran up against another house. He needed a ladder, to climb over the house, so that he could keep going in the very same direction. The man started thinking of all the equipment he would need to complete this journey to climb trees and mountains, to go through rain and snow, to sail across the sea. Maybe he could put it all in a truck, he thought. But then he’d have to put the truck in a ship; and then he’d have to put the ship in a bigger truck. He would need a crane to lift all this equipment over houses. There was no end to what he would need.
By the time the man was ready to begin his trip, he was already 80 years old. He decided to set out as quickly as he could, so that he could get back before he died.
That was ten years ago. The man is not back yet.
“If you keep going in the same direction, you’ll come back to the place from which you started;” In a way, that’s a prediction; in a way, it’s not. Addressed to a super-conscientious 80-year-old, it’s certainly not a very good prediction. When I was a small child, a friend and I decided to dig a deep hole and build a swimming pool. Curious passersby warned us, “If you keep digging, you’ll come out in China:”
There are many ways to complete the sentence, “If you keep on digging… ;’ so that the result will be a true sentence. A good candidate is, “you’ll get exhausted;’ But “you’ll come out in China” is a very poor candidate, as a little knowledge of the earth’s insides should help make clear.
“Don’t be silly,” I can hear someone protest. That’s just a way of saying that China is on the other side of the world from where you were.
The suggestion is interesting (though it doesn’t really rescue truth, since some place in the Indian Ocean is what is really on the other side of where I was digging as a child). But can the suggestion be right? One would have thought that China’s being on the other side of the world would be the explanation of why one came out there, rather than its meaning.
Many clichés of our culture are highly problematic, if not downright false. (To the two we have been discussing we could add, “You can’t be in two places at once;” and “Everything that goes up must come down;”) We adults, whether we function as parents or teachers, seldom have much patience with a child who, like Descartes, asks whether what everybody “knows” is really so, and, if so, how we know. That’s too bad, as this story may convince us. Peter Bichsel’s whimsical treatment of “what everybody knows” demonstrates what many of us had long suspected that epistemology can be fun.