Wednesday, March 4, 2015


A contest was announced to see who could do the best job of carving up a side of beef.  The judge was announced as a famous chef, who had earned two Michelin stars.  Attracted by the prize money, a butcher and an analytic philosopher entered the contest.

The Analytic Philosopher went first.  A fresh side of beef was placed on a large wooden table, and he approached to begin.  He was dressed in freshly pressed chinos and a button-down shirt.  The Analytic Philosopher laid a leather case on one corner of the table and opened it, revealing a gleaming set of perfectly matched scalpels, newly sharpened.  He selected one scalpel carefully and addressed the side of beef.  After inspecting its surface carefully, he raised his hand and made the first cut, a precise slice in a perfectly straight line.  Working steadily, but with meticulous care, he proceeded to make slices and cross slices until he had completed the carving of the beef, a task that took him the better part of an hour.  When he had finished, he stepped back, wiped the scalpel clean on a piece of paper toweling, replaced it in the case, and with a bow to the judge, withdrew.

The butcher was next up.  Her side of beef was on a table next to that on which the Analytic Philosopher had been working.  She was dressed in overalls and a butcher's apron, on which one could see spots of blood and stains from her work.  She took out a cleaver, a saw, and a sharp butcher's knife, and went to work on her side of beef, wasting no time.  Bits of fat and gristle flew here and there, some ending up on her apron and even in her hair, which she had covered with a net.  She whistled as she worked at the table, until with a flourish, she put down her saw, bowed to the judge, and stepped back.

The judge examined each table for no more than a moment, and then without the slightest hesitation, handed the prize to the butcher.  The Analytic Philosopher was stunned.  "But," he protested, "there is simply no comparison between the results on the two tables.  The butcher's table is a shambles, a heap of pieces of meat, with fat and bits of bone and drops of blood all over the place.  My table is pristine -- a careful display of perfectly carved cubes of meat, all with parallel sides and exactly the same size.  Why on earth have you given the prize to the butcher?"

The Judge explained.  "The butcher has turned her side of beef into a usable array of porterhouse steaks, T-bone steaks, sirloin steaks, beef roasts, and a small pile of beef scraps ready to be ground up for chop meat.  She clearly knew where the joints were in the beef, how to cut against the grain with the tough parts, where to apply her saw.  You, on the other hand, have reduced a perfectly good grade-A side of beef to stew meat."

Moral:  When butchering a side of beef, it is best to know something about what lies beneath its surface."
Observation:  This is also not a bad idea when doing Philosophy


  1. Analytic philosophers never wear chinos.

    I like the perverse echo of Russell's remark (pretty sure Russell) about carving nature at its joints. Russell, a paradigm analytic philosopher, virtually invented the notion of underlying logical form, which is about revealing the subsurface.

    So, I think the chino-clad poseur is most likely an arm-chair sociologist rather than a philosopher.

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    3. Oops! I see that Tad has already pointed out the source of the metaphor, and that I was incorrect. It is likely not to be the last time, I'm afraid.

    4. The metaphor regarding cutting reality goes back to Plato, found in, I believe, the "Sophist."

  2. You clearly hang out with a better class of philosophers!

  3. I've often been puzzled by how they cut up ducks at Chinese restaurants. You know, those whole ducks hanging in the windows of the Chinatown places. They look miserable with their dead heads hanging down - but they're delicious. Anyway, if you go in and buy one, ask for it whole. (Maybe get them to take the head off.) Because if they cut it up, they won't separate it into pieces at the joints, they'll take a cleaver to it and chop it to bits, willy nilly - crushing the ribs and all. I've often wondered whether there's something about Chinese culture to be gleaned from the different approaches to chopping up fowl, but there probably isn't.

  4. Hmm. But didn't Nietzsche refer to Kant as "the Chinaman of Königsberg"? But Nietzsche surely never had duck at a Chinese restaurant . . .

  5. Russell took it from Plato's Phaedrus 265e:

    The philosopher must "be able to cut up each kind according to its species along its natural joints, and to try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do."
    (Nehamas/Woodruff translation)

  6. David's wrong; I know lots of analytic philosophers who wear chinos, including myself. But the giveaway as a poseur was the "freshly-pressed".

  7. The reason the Chinese (and other east Asian cultures) butcher fowl the way they do comes from the dining culture of the region. Unlike the west, where it's considered vulgar to slurp, chew excessively, or make noises while eating etc., in China it is perfectly polite to slurp soup, suck the meat off bones, and pile bones up on your plate or the floor. The sensation and flavors derived from the act of chewing the duck bones and sucking the meat from them, then spitting them out is part of the whole sensory experience.

  8. Analytic philosophers also sport instant counter-examples. Well-pressed ones, at that.

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  10. Meta:
    I am an avid reader of your blog. As a non-native speaker I am fascinated by your use of "he" and "she". Are there any rules?
    I like the fact that the butcher is "she" and the philosopher "he" - at least in this post.

  11. Hey guys, it's a great joke!!! (I'm Veronique)

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  13. Story sounds like a tale from The Chuang Tzu:

    "Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

    “Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

    Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

    “A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

    “However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

    “Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

  14. Yes, the metaphor is found in Plato, who specifically uses the butcher analogy. See Phaedrus 265d-266a and Sophist 218d-221c.