This is my philosophy necklace. What, you might ask, does an ampersand symbol stamped in brass have to do with philosophy? Well, hearkening back to the good old days of undergraduate Symbolic Logic, I can tell you that and is a linking term used to join sentences. In my logic book and in my notes, the symbol used is an ampersand. Some people prefer a simple plus sign or perhaps a cute, inverted cursive E, but I’ve always loved ampersands. It’s a pretty symbol, and years ago I practiced and practiced to be able to draw them just right, just like I practiced my two-story lower-case a’s. I’d prefer not to hear what a handwriting analyst might have to say about that—but truly I’m no perfectionist. I love the physicality of writing as much as the internal process—the feeling of a good pen gliding lightly across acid-free paper, the way that I can write anywhere I find myself as long as I have my trusty pen and notebook stashed in a purse or pocket.
You know you’re a (former) philosophy major when you tend to speak in if-then statements, when someone asks you an either-or question (white or wheat, whiskey or bourbon, men or women or both) and you’re tempted just to answer “yes,” because only one clause must be true for the statement to be true, but you resist the urge because you know most people don’t care for logic jokes.
Steve Martin was a philosophy major, and his early absurdist comedy was inspired by the potentially nihilistic rabbit-hole that certain forms of philosophy can lead one down. About his experiences, he said, “If you’re studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.” Well said, Steve, well said.
Still, I have a fondness for the ampersand, and its siblings: ˜ (negation), ∨ (disjunction ), ⊃ (conditional), and ≡ (biconditional). Maybe one day I’ll collect the whole set in brass necklaces. I like the way each sentence of an argument stacks up so neatly. I like drawing that straight line at the end, right above the conclusion. Like this example from Symbolic Logic:
If P, then Q If Dr. Horrible is adorable, then Captain Hammer is a tool.
P Dr. Horrible is adorable.
Therefore, Q Captain Hammer is a tool.
(B. Caplan, Philosophy 250 class notes, Fall 2008)
I took a little break from philosophy a few years after college. It was a sad time, and I boxed up most of my old books and sold them for pennies. I could no longer understand how truth might be reached via such a subjective thing as language, when most words depend so heavily on connotation, and when even the wisest philosophers couldn’t seem to agree on ostensibly simple definitions. I rented a pretty old house with a friend, and as winter crept into my bones and in through the drafty windows and all the little cracks and crevices, I locked myself in my little blue bedroom and tried to search for truth in silence instead.
But soon enough spring returned, and the redbud tree outside my bedroom window burst into radiant magenta blooms, and I switched from silence to poetry. I found my own apartment, filled with lots of light, and I bought new bookcases and unboxed the surviving philosophy books. I planted a little garden, and I sat outside and lit candles and began to write again. Old habits die hard, I guess, and I’ve always loved words more than anything else. Words, oh how they can cut and bruise, but also they can inspire us, they can make us weep with joy or wonder, they can call once-complacent men and women to action. No, I can never give up on words for very long.
Here is the part where I tell you a brief history of ampersand, how it evolved from a combination of the Latin et, how the name came from schoolchildren reciting the alphabet, which, for somewhat arbitrary reasons, was followed by ampersand at the end—“x, y, z, and, per se, and”—which means, “and, by itself, and,” and which, when recited by a roomful of five-year-olds, morphed into “ampersand.” I miss that old alphabet, in that special way you can long for things that you have never actually experienced.
I like Amanda Palmer. She has a song called “Ampersand.” It’s about what it feels like to lose your self-identity when there is an ampersand between your name and someone else’s. I cried a little bit at my desk while listening to it the other day, but don’t worry, I often cry during songs and TED Talks and independent film trailers and starry nights, and anyway, the crying turned to laughing when some of Amanda’s sexier, punkier songs queued up (see “Map of Tasmania” and “I Want You, but I Don’t Need You”).
But, I digress. I’m not here to convince you that logic symbol necklaces are the next big fad, or that philosophy might ruin your life, or that you, too, should listen to Amanda Palmer at work. But you might want to try your hand at drawing ampersands.