Ashtrays and non-ashtrays

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Like children many of us even as adults are in the habit of recalling what are often the most inconsequential (and sometimes less than flattering and inconvenient) details of life. It would for example appear to be no large compliment to my first philosophy professor at Glendon Hall that the only thing I recollect from a year of his instruction is him saying, "The world is divided into two things: ash trays and non-ashtrays". I might add that my professor chain-smoked those preposterously long, slim cigarettes from which he never took more than two puffs before extinguishing it. To this day I marvel that ashtrays then abounded in the small classrooms at university.

Anyway, getting back to the kernel of truth captured in that proposition, I cannot but admit that as a starting point it is helpful in clearing the deck for deeper critical analysis. It is after all a fundamental beginning and one that is difficult to contradict or debate. The only thing I can see getting in the way of such a thesis is the more esoteric considerations of the likes of Plato and Descartes who questioned the very existence of reality and themselves. But getting past those initial hurdles, I think it is safe to say in essence that everything is either this or that. This is not to be confused with the yin and yang business in Chinese philosophy which is more about complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, things like dark and light, low and high, male and female, hot and cold and so on. No, the "this or that" theory is more directed to what is rather than how one achieves it.

Every philosophy needs a starting point. There is all that kerfuffle about whether we’re born with everything already built in, or whether we acquire it with experience, but in either case it only confuses the subsequent deliberations upon what is happening around us. Focusing upon this very essential statement highlights the broad and highly discernible distinctions which exist at the most rudimentary level. It employs the clever device of illustrating a view by taking an apparently absurd example of it, an undiluted approach to life which my own father has canvassed for years. By way of illustration, my father was thus enabled to extrapolate from such a basic principle an equally compelling economic concept; viz., "You can’t have money and things." This is an advanced proposition of immediate persuasion and one I accept for anyone other than Cornelius Vanderbilt. There are always aberrations to any strategy.

It is not unusual in life to confound our situation by getting away from the basics. In psychology for example it is commonplace to find the physician leading us back to our childhood, those less complicated days. Even if those days were not less complicated, no doubt there were fewer distractions and competing elements to add to the confusion. A clear mind will give simple solutions.

How we get beyond the extremes of life is where the going gets thicker. It does however assist the process to start with a broad view of the landscape before deciding exactly what route to pursue. Not only is it easy to become mired in detail, but more importantly it is easy to lose sight of where one is going. It is refreshment to the mind to enable oneself to eliminate the superfluous jargon of life and return to the palpable features of living. Let’s face it, the object isn’t all that perplexing. Interestingly the scheme of analysis is more abstract than empirical, which at first seems to offend the need for a hands-on approach to life. Nonetheless stepping back from the picture has its advantages; it permits us to withdraw from the overwhelming fabric of our existence and allows us to imagine where we might be, not just where we are. Ashtrays and non-ashtrays. Simple!