21 May 2005

Philosophising on a Mountain

Do you remember the story of Wittgenstein walking through the streets of Cambridge and seeing a bookstore in which there were three posters, in a row, of two great thinkers from the past (I forget who they were--Goethe and Kant??) and then a poster of Bertrand Russell; and Wittgenstein shuddered and almost wept to think that Russell, so shallow in comparison, was now being placed in line with these others?

I came across something this evening that evoked a similar reaction in me.

After the conference, the participants met for dinner at the Water Street Cafe in Gastown. Following the dinner, I bought a fine Cuban cigar in a Water Street shop and smoked it while walking the promenade at Canada Place, watching the sunset. Canada Place is a pier that juts out into Vancouver harbor. It has an exhibition hall with tent-like structures reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House.

Along the promenade were various placards which explained the sights one can see in the harbor and in the distance. One in particular caught my attention, about Mount Baker. I copied it out to post here on this blog:

On a fine clear day, visitors to Canada Place may glimpse he snowy peak of Mount Baker in Washington State. At 3285 meters, it is the highest peak in the immediate area. Snow covers the summit all year.

Its appearance inspired Westcoast Indian names which translate as 'white shining steep mountain' or 'Great White watcher.' In 1790, the Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper called it 'Gran Montana de Carmello' for its resemblance to the type of white robes worn by Carmelite monks. The Lummi Indians called it by a name meaning 'shot at the point', apparently referring to the fact that Mount Baker is an active volcano.

However, it was Captain George Vancouver's name, chosen to honour his officer, 3rd Lieutenant Joseph Baker, that was charted onto the maps with which we are now familiar. Baker described it as 'a very high, conspicuous craggy mountain...towering above the clouds; as low down as it was visible, it was covered with snow.'

Now why--I thought--if you had the chance to call a mountain 'Great White Watcher' or 'Shot at the Point', would you call it, instead, Baker Mountain? Why ever would you name it after someone who could say no more than that it was 'a very high, conspicuous craggy mountain'?

I shuddered, and to me that this summed up much of what someone might lament about 'secularization' in Western society.