Downtime

I Toot, Therefore I Am

A new philosophy paper attempts to answer a crucial question: What makes a fart a fart?

Plato and Aristotle from Raphael's School of Athens. A cartoon fart cloud emerges from Plato's butt.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Web Gallery of Art/Wikipedia 

My 14-year-old is, like so many others his age, a devotee of flatulence. I hate to be one of those boastful parents, but he truly excels at both the performance and appreciation of his art. As soon as I came across a breezy little philosophy paper called ”The Metaphysics of Farts,” I sent it to him.

“This paper,” my kid informed me when he finished, mere minutes later, “is actually good.” Score one for philosophy. Philosophers may be justly famed for being, well, gasbags, but they are justly less famed for their ability to appeal to teenagers. While many in the field are enamored with the idea of communicating what they know to the general public, as philosopher Helen De Cruz writes, the general public often has other plans.

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The right topic is one possible way to snag the attention of a distractible audience. After all, everyone farts. Farts can be noisy, smelly, embarrassing, ridiculous, and hilarious. Most of us have been embarrassed by a fart we’ve farted, have struggled to maintain a straight face when we detect that a nearby dignified stranger has emitted a silent-but-deadly, have affectionately overreacted by theatrically fanning the air when a loved one lets one rip.

Farts, then, are an appealing introduction to philosophy for the uninitiated.

The fart paper is credited to “Bill Capra.” Capra is Italian for goat. The institution with which he claims affiliation, the CHVR Institute, doesn’t exist and looks awfully like chèvre, the French word for goat. It turns out that “Bill Capra” is actually a pseudonym used by a certain professional philosopher who has published widely on more traditional topics. He spoke to me on the condition that I keep his real name under wraps, noting a long tradition of philosophers exploring views they may not endorse in full. Capra’s other philosophical output under that name, fittingly, includes a 2009 work in which he argues that everything is a goat.

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Capra decided to write about the metaphysics of farts after a convivial evening spent with a group of metaphysicians. Metaphysics is the subfield of philosophy that studies what reality is like, and the kinds of things that exist in it. If that sounds to you like a vast and imprecise subject, you are correct. Metaphysics includes attempts to answer such questions as whether God exists, whether robots can be conscious, if there’s a difference between causes and correlations, if the future is just as real as the present, whether we have free will, if you can step in the same river twice, whether we live in a simulation, and whether the dress is really black and blue or white and gold.

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Two of social media’s favorite yellfests could count as metaphysics. The full-throated arguments about whether cereal is soup and whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie are accompanied by careful explications of the essence of soupness and what it is, exactly, that makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie.

The metaphysical problem that Capra addresses in his paper is the origin of farts: Is a fart the air that is expelled from your bum? He calls this “essential-bum-origin” view—that is, that farts are, by their nature, things that originate in a bum. (“The editors changed my arse to bum for politeness,” Capra told me. “But I think arse is more accurate, really, since you sit on your bum, which is a large expanse. You don’t really issue farts out of that entire expanse.”)

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The other view—the one he argues for—is that a fart is the stench that someone is unfortunate enough to detect in their nostrils. Capra calls the view that a fart is an odor, “the phenomenological view.” The word “phenomenological” refers to an aspect of our experience, as opposed to something that exists on its own out in the world.

[Read: What Can We Learn About Farting From the World’s Most Famous Flatulence Artist?]

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To illustrate the crucial difference between the views, imagine you’re sprawled out on a sofa one evening, binging Season 2 of a tawdry-but-gripping historical drama. It’s been several hours since you wolfed down some roasted cauliflower, and the inevitable occurs: You emit three separate expulsions of air, which mingle into a single tenacious stench.

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If you buy into the essential-bum-origin view, there have been three farts. If you adopt the phenomenological view, there is but one sole fart. And if your dog chooses that very moment to perfume the air with wafts of rotten egg, and the scents mingle? Still a single fart, according to the phenomenological adherent.

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Capra writes, “On the essential-bum-origin view, we smell farts, whereas on the phenomenological view, we fart smells.” He is not claiming, of course, that the dictum “whoever smelt it, dealt it,” is true—after all, that would require a truly radical reconstrual of fart metaphysics. Rather, he is saying that a fart is a fart not when it is dealt, but when it is smelt.

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Capra makes a compelling argument for the phenomenological when he observes that if you buy into the essential-bum-origin, it would be possible to separate the quality of a fart from its smell—which makes little sense. It does feel intuitively true that a fart that smells bad is a bad fart, and that there can be no bad fart that does not also smell bad.

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Farts, though, have signatures: characteristic scents associated with individual creatures and the foods they may have eaten, such as broccoli or beans. The question is whether the distinctiveness of those fart signatures require acknowledgement of the specific bum that birthed them.

I struggle mightily, moreover, to concede that the glorious plenitude of odorless passages of gas—the firecrackers, the bathtub bubbles, the squeaks, the sad sighs, the sneeze-poots—are not real farts. They demand a place in our metaphysics of farts.

Capra informed me that the journal who published his paper, Think, will soon publish a letter by other philosophers responding to his argument. It will be a ripe opportunity to witness the back and forth of philosophical debate for the 14-year-olds among us, those who are 14 at heart, and anyone else who might cut their philosophical teeth on cutting the cheese.

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