The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Re-Post: Philosophy and Light Bulbs


There’s been a bit of discussion on philosophy (which pleases me, by the way), so I thought it was time to resurrect this one from the vault of Livejournal about 6 years ago, with a few minor edits.

How many philosophers does it take to change a light-bulb?

A preposterous question. Obviously, it depends on what sort of philosopher we’re discussing. I’m sure this has been done before, but here are my answers:

Pragmatist: Hey, if holding the bulb while four of your friends turn the chair makes you happy, then that is the right way to change a light-bulb for you.

Empiricist: We can’t know how to change a light-bulb, we can only know how it has been reportedly changed in the past.  But we can make lists of how big it is, the wattage, the thickness of the glass, the composition of the filiment…

Thomist: When we examine the concept of “light-bulb” one requirement is that it light up. Hence, if it does not light up, it is not a light-bulb.  If it is not a light-bulb  there is no reason to change it.

Aristotelean: Changing of light-bulbs can be divided into: manipulation of the old bulb, and manipulation of the new bulb. Bulb manipulation, in turn, can be divided into: Turning motion, raising motion, dropping motion. We cannot understand motion.

Kantian: While having light is a categorical imperative, by understanding the light-bulb-in-itself, it becomes, for us, a new light-bulb, and thus there is no need to change it.

Platonist: The closer our light-bulb gets to the Ideal Light-bulb, the less it requires changing.

Dialectical Materialist: None. The light-bulb changes because of it’s own internal contradictions.

Skeptic: We can’t know if we’re changing the light-bulb. We can’t know if changing the light-bulb is an improvement. In fact, we can’t really know if it’s dark. Especially with the lights out.

Hegelian: A light-bulb that will not produce light is irrational. When the light-bulb becomes irrational, it ceases to exist; when the light bulb no longer exists, it is irrational. Insofar as a new light-bulb sheds light on the Absolute Idea, it becomes a rational light-bulb  and comes into being as part of our striving for the categories of logic.  Thus the transition: burned out bulb, to changing the bulb, to a working bulb, recapitulates the process of our thinking within the phenomenon of light, which in turns raises our minds to truth and freedom.

Positivist: If we cannot demonstrate mathematically the process of light-bulb changing, the bulb is not important. If we can, then the mathematical demonstration is sufficient for our purposes.

Post-structuralist: By rejecting neo-Enlightenment notions that privilege “light” (which privilege we find textually included in the subject narrative), we can conceptualize the relationship between optically-oriented envisioning and those signifiers that address interpretations of post-colonial modernism as an established text within the framework of which, intertextually, we are lead to reject any causal relationship between the operands and the motivators, thus redefining darkness on an individual basis that turns the meta-narrative into its own form of de-categorized photonic emission.

Memetics: The speed at which the notion “a burned out light-bulb should be replaced” has spread is inexplicable unless one looks at the idea itself.

Existentialist: Why change the light-bulb?


Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. Also:

    Objectivist: It’s not my light-bulb and I don’t care what happens to it. Or to you for that matter. Fix it yourself or die in the darkness, it’s all the same to me.

    Nietzsche: You must have the darkness within you to change a lightbulb.

    Quine: “Whistling in the dark is not the method of true philosophy.”

  2. skzb

    Nice. Also, Sensationalist: Ouch. That hurt. Next time I’ll wait till it cools down.

  3. With the lights out, it’s less dangerous.

  4. Thank you. Coincidentally I have a problem with a light bulb, one of the save energy and spare the planet variety, which has ceasoned to function in the traditional manner.

    In short, its life has been altogether too short; by my rough calculations it should have lasted at least another year. My working hypothesis is that someone went back in time and switched bulbs…

  5. Nihilist: It doesn’t matter. We’re all going to die anyway.

  6. Amish: dont change the light bulb, use a candle

  7. Number of Animists to change a light bulb: Only one, but the light bulb really has to WANT to change.

  8. skzb

    I cry foul. Those are religions, not philosophical systems. That’s a whole different series of jokes. I admit I’m being a bit Aristotelian here.

  9. Non-Aristotelian: Can use mental powers of Null-A to see in the dark.

  10. Cartesianism: The light exists in the physical world and my perception of the light in the mental world. The more benevolent god is, the less the light will go out. Cogito ergo lumen.

    From a given determinate cause the effect follows necessarily; and conversely, if there is no determinate cause, it is impossible for an effect to follow. The light going out being the determinate cause will hence offer the solution of a suitable number of philosophers.

  11. Austrian school: A free market in lightbulbs will supply the correct number of philosophers in the most efficient possible way. Deciding ahead of time how many philosophers to use is an example of central planning and is always wrong.

  12. Socratic method: Is changing the light bulb necessary for life and virtuous pursuits, or would a working light bulb actually be a hindrance on your ability to experience life as you are meant to?

    Malcolm Gladwell: If you have sufficiently studied the topic of light bulb maintenance, then your first reaction will likely be the most correct.

  13. Marcus Aurelius the stoic emperor would say this:
    “Say to yourself in the twilight: I shall manage this evening a non compliant, open circuited, incandescent, non efficient old technology globe. All of these things have come upon it through the manufacturer’s ignorance of real foresight and innovation of new technology… I can neither be harmed by it (unless I smack my leg on the bedside table in the darkness and that would be an indirect consequence), for no blub will involve me in blindness, nor can I be angry with my globe or hate it; for we have come into the world into this world together… but it leaves and is replaced with a more energy efficient (albeit more expensive to buy) CFL.”

  14. Kant: If you can universalize “I will change the lightbulb for the purpose of lighting the room”, then your maxim is a moral one, and the action from the maxim, moral. Also, nobody lie.

    Hume: You only feel like you need to change the lightbulb because you associate light with justice.

    Leibniz: God pre-established the monad of the lightbulb to be permit being changed in accordance with His decree that the most possible phenomena flow from the least possible principles.

  15. As an Objectivist, I’d change the light bulb. It’s just you all who think it’s my job to do it for you because you don’t know how. Sorry you’re angry about that 🙂

  16. skzb

    Ethan: Well, if you really want to go there, then as an Objectivist you are given a new light bulb, lighting fixture, and electricity, and after changing the bulb you believe you should own the house because YOU DID ALL THE WORK. Sorry, but you brought it up. 🙂

  17. I think maybe the old feminist answer is also appropriate for Objectivists.

    Q: How many Objectivists does it take to change a light bulb?

    Objectivist: That isn’t funny!

  18. Hi Steve,

    Nah, I don’t.

    While it’s true that many objectivists talk only about ideal societies, there are many who recognize that that is kind of pointless. For example, the idea that all property should be privately owned. One need only look at roads and realize that this is impossible. If you were starting out building everything from the ground up you might make it work, but with the existing system, how would that work. You can’t get there from here. Did you know who the the biggest villains were in Atlas Shrugged? Big corporations lead by the corrupt

    Anyways, what I really want to say is that people love to fight straw men, because they are easy to knock down. This isn’t limited to people attacking objecitivsts, but most arguments in general. Even objectivists do this. It’s sad because no one really discusses anything. Evil thrives on this type of thing.

  19. Not schools of philosophy per se, but:

    Sun-Tzu: With extreme subtlety, the victorious warrior will deceive the light bulb into changing itself.

    Machiavellian: The light bulb must be changed, then destroyed, lest it seek revenge.

Leave a Reply