The only constant

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein are the authors of "Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes."

The buzz in the philosophers’ corner of our neighborhood Starbucks is that the buzzword “change” has become a constant. All the candidates are mouthing it.

But just whose concept of change do they have in mind? Heraclitus? That pre-Socratic Golden Ager famously proclaimed that we can’t step into the same river twice.

Hmm, if everything is always changing, what exactly is your point, Barack? And what exactly are you taking credit for, Hillary?

For a change of pace, the 19th century French philosopher and epigramist, Alphonse Karr, wrote “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” -- the more things change, the more they stay the same. That would seem to imply that changing things less would actually change them more, so, if we want change, we should write-in Dick Cheney. (This logic works better in French.)


No philosophical discussion of this topic would be complete without an inspection of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s notion that change flows inevitably from the fact that the “universal elements” that constitute any particular thing are in contradiction. These contradictions result in the “disintegration of their unity” -- a new combination, and therefore, a new entity is the result. Like, the universal elements of the Bach B Minor Mass already contain the seeds of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time.” Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and over again.

Hegel said change happens as a result of the unfolding of the World Spirit, not because some politico makes it happen. Maybe this is what Barack Obama is alluding to when he claims that he is change, not the creator of it. For that matter, maybe it’s what Mitt Romney has in mind when he uses the word: kind of like saying, “I’m for whatever happens next.”

Yet, as is so often the case for philosophers, our inquiry leads back to Aristotle, and in this case, Ari’s warning against the subsection of the fallacy of ambiguity known as amphiboly, a statement that misleads as the result of ambiguous grammar. Like, “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas.”

But in the cases at hand, the problem is that there is generally no grammar. “Change” is hung out there stark naked without a “from” or “to” to predicate where we’ve been or where we’re going. It’s like those slogans on margarine that claim “50% less fat!” Less than what? Lard? Pork bellies?


By the way, most of us may want to change presidents, but that will happen regardless of which candidate any of us votes for or if we vote at all -- although apparently Romney was calling that into question when he said: “Well, you know, I think the race in Iowa was really a very clear call that people want change in Washington, not in the White House, in Washington.” That’s logic Aristotle wouldn’t touch with his excluded middle.

But it is John McCain who wins the Aristotelian Rhetoric Prize for his creative use of another sub-fallacy of ambiguity, equivocation, in which double meanings do their magic. Attacking Romney for his flip-floppery, McCain said, “I agree, you are the candidate of change.”

As for us, we tend toward the Buddhist concept of change when it comes to politics, as in the Buddhist cab driver who pocketed a $20 bill and informed the waiting customer, “Change comes only from within.”