Waxing Philosophical (Again!): I Take the 2013 “Bac Philo” Exam

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July 2, 2013By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update bac PHILO
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

Late June is one of my favorite times of year in France. The weather is (usually) mild, the sun doesn’t go down until after 10pm, the markets are full of freshly-picked, fructose-packed cherries and peaches, the Abba fan upstairs goes on vacation, and, best of all, the questions from the bac philo are announced.

For readers who need a remedial introduction to this sophisticated intellectual exercise, I recommend the following bibliography (take notes!):

Jaggard, David: “Waxing Philosophical: I Take the ’Bac Philo’ Exam.” C’est Ironique, vol. 3 no. 27, 17 July 2012, pub. ParisUpdate.com, pp.1-1.

And for readers who are too lazy to do their homework, here’s the CliffsNotes summary:

To graduate from the equivalent of high school in France, students must pass a five-day nationwide standardized examination that most of them remember to the grave as the most arduous, demanding, nerve-racking, continence-compromising scholastic ordeal of their entire lives.

The exam is called the “baccalauréat,” a term that, contrary to urban legend, is not a subliminal message encouraging students to “eat Italian salt cod,” and it always contains a philosophy section.

Since expounding at unwarranted length on philosophical (or, in most cases, pseudo-philosophical) hypotheses is something of a national sport in France — again, I refer you to the voluminous and respected oeuvre of Jaggard on this topic — people all over the country are eager to find out, after the baccalauréat, what the philosophie questions were.

So eager, in fact, that they don’t even take the time to pronounce whole words and just call the test the “bac philo.” And so eager that the questions are published in the newspapers and on the Internet.

Which is where I, eagerly, looked them up last week. This year’s themes were:

• What do we owe to the State?

• Is language only a tool?

• Is science limited to codifying facts?

• Does one interpret for lack of understanding?

• Does work enable one to gain consciousness of oneself?

• Is it possible to act morally without taking an interest in politics?

French teenagers are more or less qualified to deal with this type of subject matter because they take required philosophy courses in school. But, as a product of the American public school system, I know for a non-philosophical fact that when I was graduating from high school I, and virtually all of my classmates, would have had a pretty rough time with abstract propositions like that.

My answers would have looked more like this:

• What do we owe to the State?

Well, let’s see. For one thing there’s this test. Besides owing it to my parents and myself to pass, I feel that I owe it to the whole country to do well this week so that people in places like France will stop harping about how American teenagers are so dumb that they confuse similar-sounding scientific terms like hieroglyphics and hydroponics, think “cosine” is what their mom has to do to get them a credit card and wonder if it was actually Lisa who wrote the Odyssey but her dad took the credit.

What else? My boss at Taco Warehouse says that he owes his left nut to the IRS, so I guess taxes are part of the picture here too. For the common good, we all have to contribute to the national government so that we can have stuff like roads, police departments, schools, FedEx and NASCAR.

Nonetheless, everyone is always complaining that their taxes are too high. So I say that the State owes it to us to lighten the load a bit.

I personally would recommend easing the burden on law enforcement by lowering the drinking age to 16, raising the speed limit to 90 and not pursuing allegations of shoplifting for little things like batteries, ice cream bars and quantities of beer under a six-pack. Make it a case.

Also, we could halve the education budget by cutting the school year down to four months. And the number of philo questions down to one.

• Is language only a tool?

A tool can be defined as a utilitarian instrument for achieving a stated objective. Given this definition I have to answer “no” to this question, because in my experience verbal communication, regardless of the kind of vocabulary, syntax and tone of voice employed, never helps me to accomplish any of my most important goals, including:

1) Convincing Dad to let me have the car more often.

2) Convincing Mr. Kulkic that I should be excused from gym class due to my allergy to that yucky chlorine smell in the locker room.

3) Convincing my girlfriend Lindy that there’s more to love than just kissing. Especially when Dad lets me have the car.

Therefore, language cannot be qualified as “only a tool.” Or if it is, it’s a pretty lousy one compared with other more effective utilitarian instruments that I think would have a better chance of achieving my stated objectives, respectively:

1) Enough money to pay my own speeding and parking tickets,

2) A stolen prescription pad,

3) Frankly, I don’t really know, although a face transplant from John Travolta would probably do it.

• Is science limited to codifying facts?

Science is based on empirical knowledge and thus necessarily arises from facts. But it is not limited merely to codifying them: “facts” are not only derived from observation but can also be posited through theoretical proof.

As an example of the latter, it’s an accepted scientific fact that if you could travel faster than the speed of light, you’d go backwards in time, but no one has ever actually done it. Although I must have come pretty close last Halloween when I was TP-ing the sycamore in Mr. Kulkic’s yard and heard the front door open.

As for observation, it’s a codified fact that Lindy won’t get any “faster” with me than lip contact. I’d even settle for some cold fusion, if you get my drift.

But, just as for the physicists researching the nuclear kind of fusion, each apparent breakthrough is immediately counteracted by yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle. To put it another way, she’s got her shortstop between first and second.

There are some remarkable parallels between these two situations. Both are the focus of much effort and source of much frustration, and both, should they come to fruition, would result in a tremendous upturn in the quality of life on Earth.

I guess we’ll see who gets lucky first.

• Does one interpret for lack of understanding?

I’m going to have to interpret this question.

I think it means that when you don’t understand something objectively, you think about it subjectively, weighing its different aspects selectively and prospectively until you can perceive them collectively and effectively assimilate their significance retrospectively.

Ergo, to answer the question: it depends.

• Does work enable one to gain consciousness of oneself?

I’ll say. My work at Taco Warehouse provides a good illustration. When I’m at the counter, I have to wear this staggeringly dorky orange smock and a yellow hat and a nametag shaped like a burrito that says, “I’m Full of Beans!”

The other night, the entire varsity backfield came in with their habanero-hot girlfriends, and I’ve never felt so self-conscious in my life. So yeah, tell me about it.

• Is it possible to act morally without taking an interest in politics?

I happen to know for a definite empirical fact that the answer to this question is “yes.” I assert this with confidence because of a recent personal experience that happens to have a direct bearing on this very issue. A field experiment, if you will.

Two weekends ago, Lindy signed us up to hand out campaign flyers for her uncle, who’s running for city council. At first I was ticked off because I finally had the car for an afternoon, and I was hoping we could drive out to the lake and, like, admire the scenery for a while.

But then it occurred to me that taking an interest in this particular aspect of politics might be a chance to show her that I have depth and maturity — that I’m not just thinking about what she calls “that” all the time. Even though I am, but I figured it would be good “politics” for me to act otherwise.

And guess what? It was bone-racking boring, my nose got sunburned, plus when I drove her home she didn’t even kiss me goodbye.

Conclusion: my actions toward Lindy, especially on this particular occasion, have continued to be as morally upright as they could possibly get, with the additional effect that I am now less interested in politics than ever.

In other words, I am living proof of the viability of this hypothesis.

Or do I mean the friability of this hypotenuse?



Reader Panama Red writes: “David should be advised as gently as possible that we all knew Lindy far,far, better than he. Especially when he was working late at the Taco Warehouse. In fact, one of us who later inherited a bicycle company has named one of his luxury models ‘The Lindy’.”

David Jaggard replies: “Come to think of it (now that I can think philosophically), where was she all those afternoons while I was taking that week-long test?”


2013 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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