Hegel, Traffic Signs, and Swiss Cheese: A Synthesis

File under whimsical expressions of philosophical thought.

Even though I was born in Switzerland and lived there until my teens, I have never driven much in Switzerland and after some twenty-seven years away, the rules of the road are somewhat unheimlich, both familiar and unfamiliar at once.

Case in point: Whilst driving on Swiss roads, you often see this sign:

‘You are required to carry a slice of cheese in your pocket at all times’

After about a week of encountering these signs on the road, a notion reluctantly forms in your mind that these signs are somehow important, even if you don’t quite know how. Presumably, official street signs exists to denote meaning of some sort related to the rules of the road and, if you are driving down roads that bear these signs, it might be necessary to know what they mean at some point.

Thesis: Minds like to find meaning where meaning seems to loom large, or so says the later Wittgenstein. A first stab at the nebulous purpose of these street signs yields the thesis that you are required to carry a slice of cheese in your pocket at all times. This is less absurd than it seems at first, because the signs at face value do indeed seem to contain a slice of cheese in the center and we are in Switzerland, a place where cows and dairy are so ubiquitous and ingrained in the national consciousness that you cannot imagine life without them. If you are diagnosed with lactose intolerance in Switzerland, for example, the official guidance you receive is to substitute the milk in your coffee with cream diluted in water, since cream contains less lactose. The thought of avoiding dairy altogether is foreign. In short, it’s not unthinkable that some token homage to cows and their tinkling cow bells is required at times.

Antithesis: Still, our original thesis seems lacking. For starters, no one in our car ever seems to carry a slice of cheese and we have yet to encounter any consequences as a result. By itself, this observation is not antithetical to our original idea, since there are other road signs that are of no consequence to us. For example, in the Bernese Highlands, we often encounter road signs indicating when mass takes place in the local churches, but we do not attend any of them, to no apparent ill effect. The antithesis is revealed when a local versed in the rules of the road enters the scene to explain: These signs indicate that you are on a Hauptstrasse or main road and that you have the right of way. The signs often go together with a shark tooth pattern painted onto the road that delineates the main road from a side road (Nebenstrasse). This new explanation immediately makes sense and actually solves a problem: Our interpretation of the right of way had been oscillating uneasily between hesitation and insistence. Knowing when you have the right of way is decidedly helpful.

Synthesis: As explanations go, there is a problem, though: The antithesis is exceedingly boring. Knowing that the sign means you have the right of way is important, but pragmatically anticlimactic. It just won’t do. Similarly, the sign is hardly intuitive outside the hurly-burly of its semiotic context, as it fails to indicate its meaning to foreigners. Its warm, yellow center diamond, contrasted against the simple clean shape of the black surround seems to promise … more.

So how can we combine our now defunct cheese slice thesis and the anticlimactic antithesis to form something new? Simple, when I am on a main road, I am the big cheese. Je suis le fromage grand, the right of way is mine.

We are satisfied. In the three senses of aufgehoben at play in Hegel’s dialectic, our original thesis was negated, as you are not required to keep a slice of cheese in your pocket whilst driving on certain roads in Switzerland; the cheese slice thesis was also preserved in the apparent contradiction that is part of the dialectic, since a part of the idea continues to live on in the notion of being the big cheese and having the right of way; and finally, our understanding was sublated, since we arrived at a new understanding of Swiss road signs that is not contained in either the thesis or the antithesis alone.

7 thoughts on “Hegel, Traffic Signs, and Swiss Cheese: A Synthesis

  1. This whole argument, much like the supposed slice of cheese, is without holes; except of course for us North Americans, the aggregated notion of ‘cheese’ + ‘swiss’ necessarily conjures up a multitude of holes of varying sizes. Does this then render this whole discussion any less Swiss, or, god forbid, any less cheesy?! 😮 (Ossia: file under wot?)

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    • Every cliché contains a grain of truth, and so the cliché about holes in Swiss cheese must be true also. If the cliché is true, then the claim about the lack of holes in the argument cannot also be true. Therefore, the argument about the supposed slice of cheese must be false.

      Reminds me of the ‘spot the bad argument’ session we ran during our philosophy summer camp for kids in July!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. LOL – not sure about ‘must’: surely there are hole-less cheese of Swiss origin too (tho not necessarily the same thing as the supposed North American (mis)conception of Swiss Cheese) – that doesn’t render the claim about the argument being without holes completely false, does it? Unless you know it to be so 😛 (I think I’ll keep my day job in favour of being an ersatz philosopher!)

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    • You are hardly an ersatz philosopher! And, yes, there are lots of ‘unholy’ Swiss cheeses. The are north of two hundred kinds of Swiss cheese, with varying degrees of holiness.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Is it too soon to introduce cheese-hole dualism, since you have just reified the holes? This Cartesian cheese and hole separation will lead to all sorts of interesting, nebulous issues, such as the question whether the holes can exist independently of the physical cheese. Some will take a nonreductionist stance–holes are the soul of the cheese–whilst others will claim a more materialistic position: no cheese, no holes. Finally, ‘unholy’ cheeses will be deeply offended by this cheese-hole dualism, feeling relegated to second class, Grade B cheeses or fearing that their cheesiness has been negated wholly, leading us headfirst into a heated debate about what constitutes being cheese … and to the birth to the birth of an entire new field, the philosophy of cheese.

      This could go on for a while! 🙂

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