Good Philosophy Gets You to the Bathroom in Time

“St. Jerome in His Study”
Albrecht Durer, 1514

Good Philosophy Gets You to the Bathroom in Time

In 1988, the atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer published an article for Britain’s widely read Sunday Telegraph, titled,

“What I Saw When I Was Dead.”

In the atheist circles in which Ayer traveled, if one had an experience while one was deemed clinically dead, one certainly didn’t talk about it!  The philosophers I knew coughed embarrassedly when they alluded to Ayer’s article and agreed that “Freddy had lost his cool.”

I felt differently.  A philosopher had had an experience that contradicted the views he had painstakingly worked out over a professional lifetime and he was making that fact public!  Ayer hoped he wouldn’t lose his membership in the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.  But he stood prepared to risk it!

Being blackballed is, in some respects, a fate worse than death.  I thought Ayer’s decision to go public with an experience inadmissible in his society, took courage.  Alone among the philosophers I knew, in 2004 I published “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” in Philosophy, the journal of The Royal Institute of Philosophy.  If Ayer was honest enough to risk his professional reputation and social standing, someone should pay attention.

What kind of experience did Ayer describe?  It wasn’t the by-now familiar one of leaving one’s body, going through a tunnel toward The Light, meeting dead relatives and so on.  The experience he reported was a painful one.  To me, it looked as if Ayer was being forced to live inside the philosophical worldview he had espoused, and was finding that worldview untenable.

To explain briefly: Ayer belonged to a philosophical school of thought that held all knowledge to depend on “sense data,” the perceptions we get from sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.   For such philosophers, the problem to solve is how to get from mere perceptions, which are private and subjective, to the world of physical objects that exist in space and time whether or not we perceive them.  If a philosopher can’t bridge that gap between the subjective and the objective domains, then he or she can’t account for the space/time world that the natural sciences describe.

Ayer made a number of attempts to show that it would be possible for philosophers to start with subjective sense data and get from there to the world of physical bodies in objective space and time.  However, his own honesty prompted him to admit that each of his arguments depended on some sleight of hand or other.  Even so, he was not yet ready to give up the attempt.  It was at this point that he “died” in a hospital bed and had the vision he reported in the Telegraph.

In his vision, “the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should … space, like a badly fitted jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint … was awry … .”  Since time and space are treated “by Einstein’s theory or relativity … as a single whole,” Ayer decides in his vision to cure the problem of space by “operating upon time.”  Trying to warn the “ministers of time,” he waves his watch at them, but – as with the ministers of space –- fails to get their attention!

The world that Ayer experienced, where space and time were out of joint and “the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should” was an uncomfortable one for the philosopher.  It was lit by a bright, red, painful light.  It was not a world Ayer could live in with any sense of ease.   Yet – and this is the amazing part – it was the very world that his own philosophical arguments had constructed.  It was as if sent to the philosopher as a warning that his favorite views were false.  False because one couldn’t live inside them.

I don’t know if the annals of philosophy contain any other experience of that kind.  Ayer was honest enough to receive a vision that refuted his views and had the still-greater honesty to make it public.  Wow!  Doesn’t happen every day.

Is it only philosophers, and the most honest ones at that, who are open to seeing that their favorite views – if they tried to live inside them — would be like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t fit together?

Let me supply an example of an ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle that we can all recognize.  Let’s take the … uh … French, or Italian, or anyway Continental … philosophical view (it has several provenances) that the seemingly objectively external world is actually a societal construct.  Now let’s proceed to take this fashionable view to the public bathroom, as I did on two recent occasions.

A few weeks ago, Jerry and I stopped in New York’s Metropolitan Museum before going to a memorial meeting being held in midtown for a deceased friend.  It happened that we both needed a bathroom.  The Met, a place I once knew like the back of my hand, had its rooms divided differently from the way they used to be.  I didn’t know where I was.  I couldn’t find the bathrooms.  This wasn’t good.  Like many women, that’s the first thing I look for in a new place.

A guard directed us.  There’s no Men’s Room or Women’s Room any more.   There was only one “Family All-Gender” bathroom.  The line for it was very long.

In an earlier world, the processing of guys was much faster because a row of urinals took care of them in most cases.  Women can’t deal with urinals without damage to their clothes, modesty and hygiene.  Guys can.

In the Family All-Gender room, there were only about six booths.  Each had doors extending to floor level, possibly to thwart voyeurs with smart phones.

In sum, wait times were longer and convenience reduced.  But the philosophical postulates were safe from challenge, dieu merci.

Last Thursday, Jerry and I drove at my behest to a mall where a new, fashionable and dirt-cheap line of clothing is sold.  At bathroom time, we again found the expected All-Gender bathrooms.  There were two of them.  Each held one booth with a door that closed and one sit-down toilet with no door to hide it.

Out of long habit, Jerry and I separated, each going through a different All-Gender door.  Jerry is not shameless but he is practical.  Seeing the open toilet, he used it, turning his back to whoever might enter.

A woman did enter and, seeing the back of a man standing there, gasped and quickly withdrew.

I do not know why these All-Gender bathrooms can’t include a row of urinals for the convenience of the row of male backs that ornamented bathrooms in my Fulbright days in Paris.  Is it because the presence of urinals would be an acknowledgment that males possess an appendage that makes urinals practical for them – but not for females?

Even if architects won’t admit the existence of these appendages,

all the same

they do exist.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to Good Philosophy Gets You to the Bathroom in Time

  1. Pingback: Androgyny? | "Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column"

  2. It takes courage to authentically ask “what is real” vs. “what do I old is real”?

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