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When losing your bottle unravels the knot

I recently received a letter from an unemployed philosopher called Ralph Tellerbein which touched me deeply. Here it is.

Dear Mr Kington, I am an unemployed philosopher with a first-class degree. Can you help me? I have noticed that from time to time you engage the services of experts to answer reader's queries, and I wonder if you would be interested in hiring a philosopher on a part-time basis.

I would be delighted, Mr Tellerbein. In fact, why don't you take over straightaway and let us see how you make out?

Here's a knotty little problem for starters, Mr Tellerbein. When I take bottles along to the bottle bank I sometimes find I have a black bottle with me, and I never know whether I should put it in the bottle bank marked "clear" or "green" or "brown". What is a philosopher's view of this?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: You have fallen into the trap of supposing that the available answers are the only answers. The three commonest bottle colours are green, brown and clear, therefore the bottle recyclers offer facilities for these three. It does not therefore follow that they actually want bottles of any other colour, or that the black bottle should be put in any of the three pre-existing categories. Would you take a bright red bottle to a bottle bank? I think not. Would you take a bright blue bottle, of the kind favoured by glass-makers in the Bristol area? Not unless you lived in Bristol, where for all I know they have bottle banks for blue glass.

Sorry, I'm lost. Are you saying that I should just throw black bottles in the bin?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: Yes.

Is Ralph Tellerbein your real name or is it an assumed name?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: What is a real name? What is a false name? You speak of an "assumed" name, but all names are assumed. None of us are born with a name. They are all given to us. Some we assume for ourselves. To that extent, all names are false. But they are also all real, because any name that is chosen for or by a person therefore becomes real. What is Madonna's "real" name? What was Eva Peron's real name? What is Baroness Thatcher's real name? She started out life as Margaret Roberts, then became Mrs Margaret Thatcher, and has ended up as Baroness Thatcher - in other words, has discarded or changed all the names she had in Grantham. What is her "real" name? It is the same thing with bearded men.

What is the same thing with bearded men?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: When men grow beards, you often hear friends say that they can hardly remember what the bearded one "really looks like". In fact, it is the man with a beard who has the natural appearance. That is what he really looks like. It is those of us who are shaven of whom it should be asked: what does he really look like?

What has that got to do with people's names and Baroness Thatcher's titles?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: Nothing. I just thought I would throw it in to sound impressive. It's an old philosopher's trick.

Which old philosopher?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: All old philosophers.

How should I vote in the next general election?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: Very slowly and very noisily - if possible, very drunkenly. As the process is almost entirely meaningless and insignificant, you might as well get as much fun out of it as possible.

I really meant, which party should I vote for?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: Then you should have said so. You should have said, "What shall I vote?" and not "How shall I vote?", which means something quite different.

When you say you are an unemployed philosopher, Mr Tellerbein, what do you mean by this? Do you mean that you are unemployed as a philosopher but employed as something else? Do you mean that you are a philosopher who is not employed as anything, including philosophy? Or do you mean that you are a philosopher who has given up the habits of philosophy?

Ralph Tellerbein writes: None of these. In fact, I lied in my letter to Mr Kington. I am actually in real life a researcher for Esther Rantzen who has gone undercover in an NHS hospital for four weeks masquerading as a patient, and time has lain heavy on my hands, so I have taken to writing fake letters to the media.

Miles Kington writes: If I had known this earlier, I would never have let Mr Tellerbein take over the column for a day. Rest assured, he will not be back.