Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Famous fleas

I am reading Sellars's lectures "The Structure of Knowledge" for McDowell's class. At one point, there is an incredibly bizarre line:
"Why might not individuals have parts, and these again and so on ad infinitum, as do the famous fleas which have other fleas to bite 'em."
This just looked too weird, so I rushed to Google. Wikipedia has the answer. It turns out that this is actually a reference to two things. One is a poem by Jonathan Swift which parodies some old views in biology. The other is a poem by De Morgan, which parodies the Swift one. The latter is reproduced here from the Wikipedia article.
"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on."
That Sellars must have been a very cultured guy.


Daniel Lindquist said...

I recall hearing this poem in elementary school; nice to see it again.

Currence said...

It's fleas all the way down.

Shawn said...

This verifies my point. He was so cultured as to be aware of elementary school poems.

I recommend checking out Wikipedia's page on flea circuses as well.