The Faulty Philosophy of Islands by Caleb Hara (Gilbert K. Chesterton)

© Copyright 2021 Caleb Hara, Ryerson University

The Faulty Philosophy of Islands

The Philosophy of Islands is a free-written prose piece first published in The Venture, Volume 1. It was officially released in 1903, and was written by “the prince of paradox,” Gilbert K. Chesterton. It is an ambitious, and colorful trip through human nature, in which Gilbert uses a variety of eclectic and unorthodox references to argue his point. Said point, will be outlined in the following few sentences, as it is as elaborate as it is verbose. Gilbert’s first argument is that human beings tend to forget that the limitations they are affected by are almost always self-administered. He says, “there are those who think that it has only been the power of priests or of some very deliberate system that has built up boundaries” (5). That is to say, that these boundaries are something that occur naturally, and often arise unintentionally. He uses this concept to transition into his second point, which involves explaining that human beings isolate things in order to understand them, or give them meaning. In the context of the previous example, the catholic church would be something that human beings have isolated to give meaning. The rules and boundaries set by the catholic church, are the limitations that make it isolated. Outside of the references used by Gilbert however, the paining Jackson Pollock No. 5 by the namesake artist is a perfect representation of the point being made. Refer to the to the image below for reference.

Jackson Pollock No. 5

As it can be seen, this drip painting at face value is a collection of indiscriminate marks thrown onto a canvas. This comes off as homogenous spread across the face of the painting, and because there are too many marks to properly isolate focus on one, the painting is only understood and meaningful as a whole. In comparison to a painting with more discernable shapes, the meaning and understanding of that painting could be focused into to those shapes rather than the painting as a whole. Lastly, Gilbert argues that this process of isolation shouldn’t be looked upon negatively. Because it is a natural process, it should be something that human beings embrace rather than reject. From the formation of countries, to the skipping of sidewalk tiles when children walk down the street, these patterns of behavior should be accepted and even exalted. This final point is what this essay argues against, as the dangers of letting such behavior go unchecked are immense. This essay argues that the human tendency to isolate should only be encouraged at the most rudimentary level of understanding; as when taken beyond this level, the resulting negative effects greatly outweigh the benefits. Isolation taken to an extreme, causes an number of complications that are detrimental to humans on both an individual and societal level. A prominent modern example of this, is the rise of consumerism due to the isolation of brands as status symbols. This rising trend causes a number of individual problems, related to mental health and social wellbeing. However, it also holds the potential to cause a philosophical phenomenon in which the isolated objects become more valued because of their isolation than for their function.

The examples used by Gilbert to convey these notions are numerable, and arbitrary. On a small scale, there’s the aforementioned fact that children skip over every other stone when walking along the sidewalk. This small, seemingly insignificant act of isolation is used to illustrate how naturally this tendency occurs. On a greater scale though, Gilbert cites the attractiveness of the titular island as being an example, along with national pride that comes from the borders diving countries. These are fine surface-level illustrators of the concepts being presented, but they are poor representation of how deeply these levels of isolation can impact meaning. For that, Nanay will be consulted for an experiment labelled Danto’s gallery of indiscernibles (3). This study along with the image featured below, features two identical red paintings that only differ in name. One is called “Red square,” and the other is called “The Israelites crossing the red sea.” Nanay states Danto’s contentions plainly, which entail that the inherent value placed upon each painting differs almost unanimously across all participants despite the identical physical nature of the paintings (3). The title of the painting gives the it historical context, which effectively adds another layer of meaning that didn’t exist prior. The significance of that object is then changed, and continue to change depending upon how much isolation is added (Nanay 4).

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Danto’s Gallery of Indiscernibles

            A perhaps the best modern example of this extreme isolation taking place within modern society, is the rise of consumerism. More specifically, brand name consumerism, in which the brand name becomes a status symbol. This form consumerism follows a paradigm that is strikingly similar to the painting experiment mentioned in the previous paragraph. Envision two black t shirts, one from the brand George’s at Walmart, and one made by Louis Vuitton. These t shirts are both made from %100 cotton, both crew necks, both completely black, and both of a similar bodily fit. However, the George’s t shirt retails for $5, whereas the Louis Vuitton retails for $535. The hype surrounding the brand making the t shirt increases its alleged value by almost 100-fold, despite the t shirts both being largely indiscernible. This gained brand value is based on a number of different isolation layers, which changes the way that something as simple as a t-shirt is understood.

There is however, an unmistakable limit to how far this effect can be pushed before it becomes malignant. As the nature of the isolation complexifies, the more potential it has to negatively affect those who interact with it. There is a sound line of philosophical reasoning as to why it isn’t beneficial to cross the modern thresholds that exist today, that will be discussed in the later paragraphs. For the time being, a precedent has to be established in order to portray the negative effects that often result from taking this isolation process too far. Within the purview of brand name consumerism, there is a myriad of psychological and ethical issues that arise from this extreme modern pattern. These are severe, and do not exist at this same level of severity through the simple act of purchasing a t shirt. It is only when a complex level of isolation is reached that these problems arise.

Firstly, brand name values have been found to undermine the social well-being of youth and adolescents that obsess over them. According to Monika et al., a preoccupation with brand name consumerism has been shown to cause a number of socially maligning behaviors (518). These are included but not limited to, selfishness, jealousy, competitiveness, and general frustration. All of which are associated with reporting less happiness and fulfillment in daily life (522). Instilling youth with values aligned with brand names holding any form importance, will make them more prone to developing long lasting negative tendencies as they transition into adulthood (523). Secondly, and on a somewhat related note, brand name consumerism has also shown to be intrinsically linked with a heightened susceptibility to tobacco and alcohol addiction. According to Helen et al., brand associations created through the seemingly harmless outlet of fashion lead to a greater fondness for the similar brand associations that take place within tobacco and alcohol competitors (1136). The association of personal identity with these fashion brand names, or the status that the acquisition of certain brings is recreated in the purchasing of both the aforementioned substances (1139). Alternatively, it could also be brought about as a coping mechanism used to handle the extensive list of mental health issues that arise because of brand name consumerism. This list will be mentioned in detail moving onto the next source. Regardless of reason, Helen et al. contend that brand name consumerism can contribute to both a greater chance of abuse, even if developed at an early age. Finally, and most importantly, brand name consumerism is linked with a myriad of mental health issues in adolescents. Many of these issues result in long term psychological damage, or in extreme cases threaten loss of life. According to Julie et al. brand name consumerism, and the culture surrounding brand name consumerism can increase levels of mental illness in youth and adolescents (291). Being immersed within consumer culture in a comparative fashion can cause, or increase both depression and anxiety in the aforementioned two demographics. In the most extreme cases consumerist culture desensitizes adolescents to the practice of self-harm, making it into a more common occurrence (300).

These effects aren’t something that will result from the simple action of purchasing clothes. The act of wearing a t shirt, or any other article of clothing is, in and of itself a functional and benign practice. It is only at the level of isolation at which a brand name provides unnecessary value to these clothing articles that it becomes potentially harmful. Consumerism is an example of isolation that has complexified to the point of crossing the threshold of benefit. It is no longer a matter of understanding, or giving basic meaning, it is an entirely different creation. While thus far that threshold has been both intangible and undefined, the final point against Gilbert’s argument sets its parameters exactly. It is also the line of philosophical reasoning mentioned earlier, and it goes as follows. As much as isolating an object will at first give that object meaning, taking that isolation too far will result in that same meaning being taken away.

This duality is well expressed by Jean Baudrillard in his magnus opus, Simulacra and Simulation. In this book he expounds upon the phenomenon of post modernism, in which modern society perceives objects as holding far more value than their functional worth (19). As it pertains to the previous example of consumerism, the functional worth of a t shirt is its ability to keep one warm and covered. The example of the Walmart t shirt is an accurate representation of the value such a clothing article should represent, whereas the Louis Vuitton example is greatly overvalued. Baudrillard states that society has become fixated on these simulated images of value, that are greatly removed from the actual value of the objects in question. Though artificial, these values replace those that hold real meaning, resulting in people seeking their happiness through simulacra (175). Society opting for simulations of meaning instead of its actual sources, then has a compound effect. Its entire framework becomes a collection of signs attempting to invoke comparable feelings, and distract the individual from recognizing that the legitimate meanings of old have been eradicated (211). To assist in the understanding of this concept, refer to the following image of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.

Andy Warhol. Campbell's Soup Cans. 1962 | MoMA

Campbell’s Soup Cans

            The painting is quite literally identical rows of Cambpell’s soup cans, without any alteration or flourish. A simulation of an image that can easily be seen within any grocery store of Warhol’s era, yet more well-known and meaningful to many individuals than its real-life muse. Just as a Louis Vuitton shirt adopts a meaning separate to that of the simple t shirt that it is, the painting of Campbell’s Soup Cans becomes a means of conveying some form of message rather than an existing as a simple item of food. In the former example, the isolation of the t shirt has eventually led to the object’s deconstruction. It is no longer understood or valued as a means of warmth and cover, despite that being its most important attribute. It has been obfuscated into a tool of manipulation, by which the populace has been conned into believing it is worth far more than it should be.

In conclusion, Gilbert’s arguments feel short sighted when placed into a larger perspective. The examples he chose to illustrate his point are both overly selective, and lacking in detail. When analyzed to an extent of proper intellectual rigor there are several things wrong with allowing the human tendency to isolate things go unchecked. The extensive list of issues caused when this level of isolation is pushed too far, is a ripe deterrent for such behavior to be tolerated. When it’s allowed to run rampant, it gives rise to brand name consumerism and many similar poisonous edifices. Such edifices cause mental health issues, addictions, and hindered social prowess. If it is allowed to continue without impairment, it has the potential to turn society into a perverse simulation of itself. According to Baudrillard, it may already be too late to fight back. Doomsaying prophecies aside, Gilbert wasn’t wrong about saying that it is natural for human beings to isolate things in order to understand them, or give them meaning. He was only wrong for suggesting that just because it is innate, that it is right, or good. Perhaps with the insight granted through a century of watching the world unfold could have enlightened the prince of paradox to the dangers of his propositions. Or, perhaps help him realize that entire thesis of The Philosophy of Islands is an appeal to nature fallacy.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean, and Sheila Faria Glaser. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Bauer, Monika A, et al. “Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being.” Psychological Science, vol. 23, no. 5, 2012, pp. 517–523.

Chesterton, Gilbert K. “The Philosophy of Islands.” The Venture, vol. 1, 1903, pp. 2–10.

Danto, Arthur. Danto’s Gallery of Indiscernables. 1981.

Kramer, Juli B. “Ethical Analysis and Recommended Action in Response to the Dangers Associated With Youth Consumerism.” Ethics & Behavior, vol. 16, no. 4, 2006, pp. 291–303.

Nanay, Bence. “Cognitive Penetration and the Gallery of Indiscernibles.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, no. 1527, 2014, pp. 1–6.

Pollock, Jackson. No. 5. 1948, New York.

Sweeting, Helen N, et al. “Positive Associations Between Consumerism and Tobacco and Alcohol Use in Early Adolescence: Cross-Sectional Study.” BMJ Open, vol. 2, 2012, pp. 1136–1142.

Warhol, Andy. Campbell’s Soup Cans. 1962, New York City, New York.