Sunday, 5 July 2015

An Inquiry into the Essentialism of Objects – A Practical Use of Philosophy

by Sophie Parekh



Yes, I know, it is a rather pretentious title but I am channelling the spirits of long dead philosophers and such-like so I feel it only necessary to say in a sentence what I could have said in about four words. Regardless, the purpose of this article is to apply some well-established philosophical ideas to a very 21st century issue.

I’ll explain what I actually mean by the title. Well, during one particularly unproductive stint on YouTube, I came across a rather curiously entitled video called, ‘Tampon Curls: Curl Your Hair With Tampons!’. I obviously watched this video and then discovered that this person had done a follow up video called, ‘Maxi Pad Curls: Curl Your Hair With Maxi Pads!’ which showed some rather vicious comments from the previous video. You know, things like “This is disgusting, you should be ashamed” and “I feel violated right now”, that sort of thing really.  And obviously, doing IB HL philosophy, I naturally wondered why these people felt so violated.

Thomas Aquinas: philosopher and saint
We could perhaps turn to some of the more traditional philosophers for an answer. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, the creator of the wonderful theorem called Natural Law, contests that in order for something to be ‘good’, it must fulfil its purpose. So, for example, a shelf stacker is only good if they fulfil their purpose, i.e. by stacking shelves. We can extend this idea to the content of the video. The purpose of a tampon is to absorb menstrual blood, and so by not doing so, it is not fulfilling its purpose and thus is a bad tampon. And perhaps these people are uncomfortable with the video because the purpose of the tampon is not being adhered to.

Thomas Aquinas was in fact a Saint and so I think it is safe to say that he was fairly religious. And even now the Catholic Church uses his philosophy as the basis of their religion some 800 years later. So it seems fair to say that his philosophy may be somewhat out-dated, considering he believed that atheism was wrong because one of the purposes of being a human being was to worship God and by being an atheist, you’re not really fulfilling this purpose…

Jean-Paul Sartre sometimes believed he was being chased
by a giant lobster  through the streets of Paris
But do not despair, for there is hope yet in the form of Jean-Paul Sartre. Monsieur Sartre lived in the twentieth century and was a fabulous existentialist, writing some of his best works on acid, believing he was being chased by a giant lobster through the streets of Paris. Unsurprisingly, J-P had some pretty cool ideas. He believed that everyone has radical freedom; so we are able to do whatever we want, whenever we want, except things that compromise other people’s freedom, so don’t go round killing people in the name of existentialism... This freedom was so essential to J-P’s philosophy, that he believed if we didn’t acknowledge our freedom, or lived monotonous or became our job or role, then we were living in bad faith. Bad faith = not good. It's basically the polar opposite of what Aquinas said.

So, with regards to the video, Sartre’s philosophy teaches us that we have radical freedom to do whatever we want (within reason, because we can’t fly or breathe underwater…) so why not curl your hair with tampons? It is perfectly within your radical freedom to do so. They are cleaner than most people’s curlers (being fresh out of the packet and all) and they are cotton so are much comfier than rollers. But why is it that their use has been ingrained into their existence?


The lovely David Hume
We could look to the lovely David Hume for the answer to this one. Hume says that nothing exists in an entity as itself, but merely the sum of its properties, this is bundle theory. For example, a daffodil is yellow, has long, narrow green leaves as grows in the spring. The word ‘daffodil’ is merely a culmination of all these properties, and therefore cannot exist without them. This is quite a weird concept initially, but try to imagine something without properties. I can’t… So going back to our delightful example, a tampon does not exist in itself, but merely as a sum of its properties; cotton/manmade fibre, usually white and has a bit of string attached. So Hume would say a tampon's use is separate from its existence because a tampon doesn’t actually exist, what exists are its various properties. Also, by saying that you cannot use a tampon for curling your hair because its not meant for that is redundant because you are not using a tampon per se, you are using an white, fibrous object with a string attached, which sounds pretty good to me.

In conclusion, I personally see no problem with this because although it does seem kind of odd, I think that’s mainly based on social constructs (which I really cannot be bothered to go into right now), it poses no threat to anyone’s health and because of what I said earlier using the philosophers and stuff.


I hope I’ve given you a bit of an insight into the wonderful world of IB philosophy; it's really interesting and, as it turns out, practical as well. 

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