• Amuses

    The Emperor and the elephant

    Today was the last seminar of term. Though I still have to write some papers, it felt as if the summer holidays had started. Certainly,  things will be easier at the office now. I won’t have to switch meetings around, or catch up on work at awkward hours. At least not until September.

    The best thing was how wonderful this class was, compared to the very first one. Remember me being worried that someone would laugh at me? Granny going back to uni? Well, today was light years away from that worry. For the past few weeks we had been giving each other feedback on our oral and written work. I suppose that helped in getting to know each other a little better, especially for me who is only there during classes – I am a live-at-home student :)

    Anyway, today’s class was fun. I found myself joking, commenting, being drawn into discussions – really being part of things. Very nice. Pity I will not see most of them again. Or maybe I will. You never know.

    Husband has been transporting me back and forth since Februari. Plus having to put up with me studying in the evening. Every evening. But he seems undaunted and has put his time to fruitful use. So, on a sunday where I do not venture outside and hide behind my computer screen, he ventures into the Royal woods we live close to, and makes this wonderful little movie creations. Have look at this and be sure to turn up the sound!

    Sundays when your wife is studying …

    I really should to get back to my paper writing now, but I have also completed two, which I want to tell you about. One of them I will not include here, because it is very technical – the one about collective speech acts that my temporarily-not-so-beloved professor was being overly critical about in an earlier version. I am keeping my fingers crossed about that one.

    The other one is on “language in cyberspace”, really, about why I am back at uni in the first place. The presentation went fine, and now the article was received well by my contempories and the skills-class professor. I am including it as an attachment, because if I publish the text here, my article won’t get through the plagarism check they do at the uni.

    Click here if you want to read it. It is the only way you will find out why this post is called “the emperor and the elephant”. The article is aimed at an audience like you, so if you have any comments, let me know. It is still the draft version, I will be handing in the final version in a couple of weeks.

    I just heard that the new time-tables will be up on the first of july, rather than the first of september. Which gives me lots of time to plan things out. Looking forward to next term. But first, finish this one .. I am buried up to my neck conceptualizing the “extended mind”. More about that in some other post.

  • Amuses

    Ripples

    Today was the last lecture day for two of my seminars. I had anticipated a feeling a loss, because I had been enjoying myself so much these past months. But it turned out differently.

    At this stage, both seminars were focussing on the papers we are meant to be writing in the next month. Because the philosophy of language seminar required a huge abstract and the philosophy of mind seminar only asked us to do a five-minute presentation of our paper-to-be, I had put most of my effort into the philosophy of language paper. Something had to go, because for the skills seminar I had to do a big presentation this week. I thought I had made the right choice, but in retrospect, I am not so sure.

    This is what happened. The big presentation which I had done a lot of work on, went fine. It was on “language and cyberspace” – in fact, about the connection between language and the protection of cyberspace. I only received positive feedback; no critical remarks, not on the content and not on the presentation, which I think did not happen to anyone else. However, I went almost 5 minutes over the time-limit, so I will certainly get penalised for that. Never mind. It will not be a bad mark.

    For the philosophy of mind seminar, I did a 5 minute presentation of the problem area that I wanted to investigate. I had checked with the professor beforehand if that was ok. However, it turned out that everyone else had put much more effort into their plan, so I felt a bit silly. Which was aggravated by the fact that I still not quite sure how to tackle the problem which I want to adress. Despite the research workshop I attended last week, which was great, but ended up saddling me with more questions than I had when I came in. Sniff.

    So, all my cards on the philosophy of language paper. My chosen topic was collective speech acts. I had really worked hard on it, and because we were required to write a huge abstract (1500 words for a 5000 word paper), I wrote a full first version. My work was based on an article provided by my professor, plus some more recent work which I had found myself. I had also done some analysis myself, so it was part original. I had to present this work, as the last of the group, and initially it seemed to go well. The group liked it, felt that I was nearly finished, and liked the work I had done.

    Enter my professor. He questioned the basic assumption, which is that groups, according to him, cannot have intentions, and certainly companies cannot. I was flabbergasted. This was the basic assumption of the article he had suggested himself. Also, I could not make head or tails of his statement that companies do not feel anything. Of course they do. They are groups of people. We agreed to differ and I will have to introduce a disclaimer in my essay that I take this “controversial” position, and sort out this issue at some later point. But I was disappointed. There was no feedback on the work I had done, just this going on and on about this one issue. It must have upset him in some way, he said afterward that he was agitated by my approach.

    My ever supportive husband told me not to be upset – because my professor has done this before, just to me. And yes, the group did not like it either, one or two started to defend me, which was brave of them. Husband also told me to take this somewhat-over-the-top criticality as a compliment. Which may be right, because the other students were given a much less critical treatment, even when their ideas seems sketchy or incomplete. Sigh. I suppose so.

    I am still wondering how to solve the philosophical problem, about collective intentions. It may well be that in fact the same problem is at the bottom of my philosophy of mind issue – which is how life develops from a single autopeiotic system, say, a cell, into a social entity through adaptivity. Because social entities eventually develop language. Not as individuals but as members of a group. So I have written to the philosophy-of-mind professors to ask them about group-intentions in herds, schools, and flocks.

    Now it it time for a drink. A large one. With ripples.

  • Amuses

    World of wonders

    A moment of quiet between the mountains of Things To Do – you remember me complaining about this in my last and ultra brief post. I am more or less on schedule, and I am hoping to complete this half of the academic year by the third week of June, and then go off for a little holiday. Not too long, coz we get homesick (tell no one, it is a secret).

    Some things have being changing, taking shape. To my surprise, I have started to take part in university life. Not too much. I am a live-at-home student, cannot stay at the university beyond the lectures, because I also have a full-time job. But I find myself drawn into discussing issues with other students outside of the seminars. I have even asked to join the ReMa WhatsApp group. Mind you, this happened mostly at the initiative of the other students – they come up and talk to me, ask questions, show interest; offer suggestions; today one of them suggested doing a mutual review of our papers. It is .. yes, nice. Really nice.

    I have also become a little more courageous. I worked hard to understand what the seminars in Philosophy of Mind and in Philosophy of Language were about, exactly, and it has payed off. Gone are the awkward silences when I ask ‘my’ professor a question, because now we share some common ground, and I understand the issues much better. The second lecturer in the Philosophy of Mind seminar has picked up on my way of thinking. Often when I ask a question or offer a suggestion, he expands on it. Emboldened by these little successes I have dared to send the occasional mail, to get a question answered or suggest something, or even share some academic tid-bit – and received encouraging replies. It is so very different from communication at the office, such a relief.

    So, time for a leap of faith. Recently, I have also written to other professors, at other universities. In one case, because I wanted to get my hands on a book that was very expensive and not in our university library (notice the “our”?). Would you believe it, after the official refusal, I received a electronic copy “for my personal use only” I proudly passed it on to ‘my’ professor (I am assuming he is included in the personal use stipulation) who was just a tiny bit impressed I think, and more importantly, liked the book very much.  And there is more of this new brave academic me. A colleague has recently done a PhD in a related topic (rule based language interpretation). I was interested to see if it touched on my interests. Her text contained a claim about the formal language system she uses being grounded in speech act theory which I knew to be wrong. So I asked the professor who has created this formal language system about it, as I assumed my colleague got that particular text from his department. I received a very nice email, stating that I was right, he will have that text amended (not in the dissertation, but online), and he also sent me lots of other relevant information about a book he is publishing in the fall.

    Wow. Once I retire, in only 10 years :) I can do this all the time. Get in touch with these incredibly knowledgeable people, ask questions, exchange ideas. The only thing I have to do, is become sufficiently knowledgeable about what the issues are and why. Today, ‘my’ professor said that he would happily pay 10 euro for a video of a great ape instructing another ape. You might not immediately see the significance of this (I did not a mere two months ago). The idea or actually the problem is that great apes can learn but they do not instruct, nor to they correct other apes. Which implies that normative behaviour, such as language (depending on which school of thought you are in), is exclusively human. Anyway, the professor said something about St Andrews, so tonight I tracked down the researcher who goes by the name Naked Primate on Twitter, and asked her. Super quick reply. Alas, I will not be earning 10 euro!

    You might wonder how my husband it taking all this mental expansion. Well, it turns out he has been trying to talk to me about quite a lot of things. Remember, he is into these big books? These books are often on philosophical issues, but somehow I have not felt comfortable talking about philosophy until I went back to uni. Strange, eh? Particularly because a lot of these topics, about analytical philosophy, for instance, are exactly what I am dealing with now. Anyway, I am now trying to convince him to read some books for me, but I have a feeling he will stay firmly on his own track.

    What is next? Well, two things. Next week, there is a day long seminar at which all of my professors are speaking plus some important ones from abroad. Originally that date was reserved for team-building at the office, but was cancelled only days ago. So I can attend! This is the universe helping me, I think. This seminar is connected to what I intend to write my philosophy of mind paper on, 6000 words on the “enactive mind”. Remember the Lego in a previous post? That’s the one. The picture at the top of this post explains this theory well, better than I can at this moment. Have a look at the video on Vimeo, the first part. It shows how life develops, one step at the time. Mind you, it is an artistic translation selected for this purpose by a enactive mind researcher (in reality this video belongs to a Kung-fu-motion art project).

    The other event is that as part of my ReMa Skills class I have to do a presentation aimed at an educated public (i.e. not philosophers or high-level academics). Wish me luck. It is will be on “Cyberspace and philosophy of language”. Not a usual combination! I have constructed the narrative around the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes. I am hoping my colleagues at the office will allow me to try it out on them. Husband has already agreed to help too. I will tell you how it went in another post.

  • Amuses

    Working, working

    I have been silent, I suppose. Unless you happen to follow my progress in my conceptual playground, it might look as if nothing is happening.

    Well, it is delivery time. I have to hand in 3 papers, including presentations, in 6 weeks. That is a lot, even though I tried to plan the work. Also, I spent the last week on holiday, enjoying the Dutch seaside. Pictures on https://www.berkenhagen.eu/blog/ (courtesy of my husband).

    Now, it is back to serious thinking. I will let you know if I manage to compete all of these assignments ….or any at all…

  • Amuses

    Conceptual Lego

    This was the week I had to do a presentation for the Philosophy of Mind seminar. I had assumed that it would be ok, because the paper was by an author we had read before. Things were also going well in the other seminars. I had written the survey article for the Skills & Methods class. This time I had asked my” professor for recommended reading (remember my fiasco with the fundamentalist book review), and I even plucked up the courage to ask him to review my effort. It turned out I had drawn an overhasty conclusion. Sloppiness, really. I still have to get used to checking wording en phrasing really carefully. Anyway, my professor also gave me feedback on the structure of my article, so by the time I handed it in, I was happy with it.

    A little too relaxed

    So maybe I was relaxing a little too much. I wasn’t even bothered when the article I had to present was changed just a week beforehand. Only 13 pages, that would be a doddle, I thought. Hubris! Then everything happened at once. At work, a situation which had been smouldering for a while, suddenly exploded, causing all kinds of havoc. Also, I had taken a fall at the sauna a week before, causing a bad knee scrape. Suddenly this wound got inflamed so badly I had to go to the first aid post on a sunday morning. They gave me a shitload of penicillin, which made me feel so sleepy I had to take time of work, plus I had to miss one of my classes. And then there was the normal study workload plus this presentation to do. I already felt sorry for myself before I even started to do the actual prepartion.

    Deconstructing jargon

    So, the article. It was by a guy called Di Paolo, who specialises in the “enacted mind”. The great mystery to be explained is how cognition develops. I made a wordle out of the text for your amusement.

    Now this is not a simple subject, and the way this Di Paolo guy writes about it is a nightmare. He doesn’t really explain much, he refers to other papers, by himself, and by other philosophers. Plus it is all jargon, meant for an in-crowd which I certainly don’t belong to. I had to go through his source material, and read up on lots of reviews to help me understand what his theory was all about. Because the article did not have a helpful structure, I constructed “conceptual Lego” as the basis for my presentation. See below. Colourful, eh?

    conceptual Lego

    Thanks to my husband who is still (!) driving me to university, I was well in time to set up my presentation. I really was nervous. Fortunately, the professor-duo teaching this class apologised for the horrendous text as soon as they saw me. That took the edge of my nerves! The conceptual Lego worked even better than I had hoped. I felt I really liked this theory I was presenting. Maybe a good topic for the end-of-term paper I am to write soon.

    Busy bees

    It is all so very interesting, and I am learning so much! None of these theories were around when I first went to university. Back then, there was no joint research between disciplines. Now it is like a beehive, philosophical bees, psychological bees, sociological bees, neurological bees, all working on cognition. And on language, as a special form of cognition. I just wish there were more hours in a day :)

  • Amuses

    My bestest notes

    I am a stationary fetishist. At the side of my desk sits a tall chest of drawers. I have separate drawers for pencils, for pens, for blues, for rulers. Two for fine-liners. I own a Japanese style layered pencil case containing coloured pencils, markers, felt-tip pens, glitter pens and automatic pencils in different thickness. My collection of fountain pens live on my desk; inks in various colour in a nearby desk draw. I have reams of beautiful note books and many different kinds of paper in every imaginable shade. There is only one problem. My handwriting. It is perfectly functional. If I do my best, it is even legible. But it is not at all nice to look at.

    The ever-thinning notebook

    All my life I wanted to have beautiful handwriting. At primary school, handwriting was a big thing. The problem was, at the time – in the mid sixties – there were two dominant handwriting systems. One was the old-fashioned “longhand”, and the other was “block letters”. Every school made its own choice. I was a bit unlucky. Because my parents kept moving house, I attended four different primary schools. Every time I switched school, I also had to switch handwriting, and spent long hours compulsory copying notebooks. Maybe that is the cause. Or may it is because I lack the gene for proper sensory motoric learning (seriously!).

    Because my handwriting was not pretty, I also did not like my notes. Every time I received a new notebook, I would be thrilled. I would feel its newness, sniff the fresh pages, and vow to fill all of its pages with beautiful writing. Inevitably, this did not happen. Unable to bear my own ugly pages, I would tear the worst out. The teacher frowned at my ever thinning notebooks.

    On a roll

    At secondary school and at university, I was free to use whatever handwriting style I wanted, but I never achieved the beautiful penmanship that I coveted. Not for lack of trying, either. It became a big problem when I had to write weekly essays for tutorials at Oxford. I never seemed to get beyond the first page before I made myself copy it all out again. I hit on a solution though. I wrote out bits of text in my best handwriting, and cut them out. The day or night before my tutorial I layed them out in the right order, and cellotape them together. I have memories of sitting across from my tutor and unrolling my essay. Like a papyrus roll.

    Notes on notes

    Since I went back to university, I have been trying to find a note taking system that works. Not by hand, obviously. Fortunately, in this digital age, handwriting is no longer a problem. Efficiency and cross-device access I worked out long ago. I had already set up my own reference system with automatic citing last year. My annotation system for reading new digital texts also works fine. And looks fun, I wrote about it in an earlier post. But I found I had to find a way to collect bits of information so I can access them later. I simply cannot remember things verbatim anymore, particularly not as I have a more or less full-time job to attend to. Plus, I want to be doing this for many years, so I need to build up my personal store of collected knowledge. I feel silly being able to remember the structure of an argument without the words to go with it.

    Notes 3.0

    In the past few weeks there were no lectures, so I had a bit of time to sort this out. I knew what I wanted: my own private wikipedia. I ran into lots of technical difficulties, but I have it now. It is on the same website as this blog, but in a separate part. Have a look if you like. You can get to it via the “concepts” page on the top menu or just click here.

    I am so happy with how it works and looks. One paper I have to read for this week’s seminar is already in there. The paper is on “assertion”. You can just put the word in the search window as if you would with a real Wikipedia. There are the beginnings of other wiki-pages. Now I shall devote myself to filling it. Week by week, for years to come.

  • Amuses

    Begin at the beginning

    If you are an Alice-in-Wonderland fan, you will have recognised the quote immediately. It is from a conversation between the Cheshire cat and the King. It goes like this.

    The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “ Where shall I begin, please your Majesty ? ” he asked.
    “ Begin at the beginning, ” the King said, very gravely, “ and go on till you come to the end : then stop.

    Sound advice, eh? Well, I think so. I live by it. Except that the end may take a very long time. Treebeard-style for fellow Lord-of-the-Ring fans.

    In my earlier post on “the right words” I told you about how difficult I found it to get into my subject. I even had to take days off work for extra reading. I had put this down to general stupidity on my part (that is, faulty memory and old age). But tonight, as I prepared for yet another article I have to write for the Skills & Methods seminar, I opened the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind, which is a collection of essays. The introduction opens with the following observation:

    Philosophy of language is usually presented as a deep‐end subject. One is expected to jump in and eventually get the hang of it. And yet it can be a very technically demanding area of philosophy for the beginner. It is surely not special in this regard. However, it seems to us that it has lagged behind other sub‐areas of philosophy in presenting its key concerns in accessible form, with the result that there is a considerable gap between the professional literature and understanding of the novice. Professional philosophers often advise students to read classic papers in the area such as ‘On Sense and Reference’, ‘On Denoting’, ‘Meaning’, ‘Truth and Meaning’, the second chapter of Word and Object, ‘General Semantics’, ‘The Logic of Demonstratives’, ‘The Meaning of “Meaning”’, any chapter of Naming and Necessity. However, in each of these readings students will encounter aspects of the discussion that are opaque and that presuppose detailed knowledge of other parts of philosophy of language. This is by no means a criticism. These articles were not written for novices. But this is a problem if it deters the interested student from pursuing these topics further. It is all the more unfortunate for there is much about the philosophy of language that is deeply engaging and can be made accessible to every philosophy student. One gains the best understanding by first getting to grips with some of the fundamental debates in philosophy of language. By focusing on a particular debate and acquiring a thorough and detailed mastery of it one is able to extend that understanding to other areas, gradually working one’s way into the field as a whole.

    Wow! There must be lots and lots of frustrated Philosophy of Language students out there. If things are this bad, that even the top professors and researchers worry about it, the problem must be huge. Academic professors and researchers are not commonly known for their empathy with lesser mortals. Let alone writing a whole book to make things better for their unhappy students. Plus, I very much doubt my own Professor has read this introduction. I see him watching me struggling at the deep end. Will she, will she not… drown. Yes, I love you too :)

    Which makes me wonder, perhaps it is worthwhile or even profitable to set up a “Confused Philosophy of Language Support Centre”? Well, food for thought. It would be amusing. But at least I now can be sure I am not alone. My struggle has been acknowledged. Before I even started on this adventure, they had already written the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language, back in 2009. The answer to all my problems. I will read it and let you know …

  • Amuses

    The wronged book

    The story of my book review – it all started with the book I selected for it. We were supposed to pick a philosophical book in our own field and review it such that other philosophy students would understand it. I received this assignment before my first day at uni, even before I saw the reading list for my other seminars. So how to pick the right book? I did not have a clue what happened in philosophy of language in the past 30 years. Plus, I suddenly felt I might have forgotten all I knew before. I needed some kind of overview, I concluded, something to provide me with a basic understanding of relevant issues. It never occurred to me to ask my own professor. Or perhaps I was embarrassed. Or too nervous to ask. I don’t know. Anyway, I found myself a nice little book written by a Dutch professor at another university, on the philosophy of language and meaning. I found several book reviews in newspapers and journals, always a good sign. So I went for that one and thought I had cleared that first hurdle rather well.

    Christian enclaves

    I won’t tell you about the book itself because that is all in the book review which I have included at the end of the post. I will just tell you how it felt to read it. I was halfway through before I realised something was off. You may think me dense, but I had never encountered a philosopher, never mind a professor who would use his position to further his private religious beliefs. I thought such practices had died out decades ago, in western Europe at least.  I was outraged. Then I worried about how to do the book review, because by then I was ashamed of my choice, but did not have time to pick another book. I discussed it with the professor and he advised me to be “a bit British” in my criticism, not to go over the top. He also explained that Christian enclaves exist at some universities. Most of them are in the US, but we have one here in the Netherlands: the so-called Free University in Amsterdam, the VU. No prizes for guessing at what university the author of my book teaches.

    Peer reviews

    I did my best to write a book review which others might find informative and pleasant to read. However, the initial review from the professor was not altogether positive. He wanted more structure and more facts. I expected the class review to be along the same lines because the other ReMa students seemed serious and inclined to listen to their elders en betters. Once I had read the reviews they did, I found that some of them had not stuck to the format, and like me, had tried to write a narrative, tried to pick a style which suited the topic. One was superb, even lyrical in places, and made me want to read the book she reviewed. Yet when I complimented her on this before class, it turned out that the professor had also been critical of her writing. Something stirred inside me.

    The rebel awakens

    We spent an entire afternoon discussing all the book reviews. I was determined to find out the review criteria, so I questioned the professor closely. He kept saying he was not the audience; we were all the audience. I had a little fun proving that this was not so. Every time the group disagreed with him, usually on an issue I had drawn out, I smiled at him. Repeated his judgement and confirmed that he was the audience. Halfway through, he gave up the pretence of not being the only authority. I think one or two of the other students might have picked up on what I was doing. The professor certainly did, but as he really is the sole authority, there was no real disagreement. Also, he is a nice guy.

    The verdict(s)

    My book review was the last but one. I was nervous because I did not relish being attacked by a whole group on lack of clarity or information even if I had braced myself to learn to write to proper academic standards and take all criticism like a woman. Imagine my surprise when the other students, one after the other, declared how much they loved my review. They even quoted from it. Assured me to change it as little as possible. Never to change the ending. Etc, etc. The professor just stared. I looked at him and said I would put in more facts at the beginning of the review. We were agreed. The group smiled at me and gushed some more about my writing. I felt grateful. Not only was my style of writing not so inappropriate as I had thought, these students wanted to be nice to me. It felt good.

    The thing itself

    I have included the review below. I will change it somewhat to please the professor. He is the audience, and he does try to teach us a general recipe for writing a good book review. Meanwhile, here is the original. Enjoy.


    Philosophy of language and text. René van Woudenberg, Filosofie van taal en tekst, Budel: Uitgeverij Damon, 2002,  175 pages, ISBN 9055732508. Review by Inge Wertwijn, Radboud University Nijmegen.

    The nature of meaning has been a philosophical issue since Plato addressed it in the Cratylus dialogue. In this book, René van Woudenberg presents his view. He explains his intentions in the preface. He wants to establish exactly what we mean when we say a word, sentence or text, has a meaning. He will achieve this, not by presenting an overview of the current debate, but by explaining the philosophical problems underlying the concept of meaning. Van Woudenberg freely admits that the solutions he provides in this book will not always reflect the accepted philosophical views but may represent his specific ideas on the matter.

    Van Woudenberg has taken pains to make this book attractive to the reader. He usually avoids unnecessary technical jargon and illustrates his claims with many examples, some of which are very humorous. For instance, the snail who writes I love you on the beach – without spaces between the words, “because snails don’t jump” (p.148).  Does this I love you have meaning? Van Woudenberg thinks not, because there is no intention behind the sentence, the writing is just a collection of haphazard snail trails. He then has the reader pick up the imaginary snail, turn it over, and find little rubber wheels on the bottom. Now the symbols on the sand suddenly gain meaning:  this may be a proposal. Or a joke.

    Throughout the book, van Woudenberg uses a particular approach to instruct the reader.  He will first present a philosophical issue about the concept of meaning in some detail; explain why it is an issue and then offer two or more theories which might solve the problem. Next, he will test these theories against several inventive examples. It soon becomes obvious that either these theories will not fit or will yield contradictory results. This inevitably confuses the reader.  According van Woudenberg (p.118), this is a necessary step in the reader’s enlightenment process, because having become confused and  exasperated,  the reader will now be open to a true answer. In the last step, the author patiently explains what that correct solution is. One imagines the reader heaving a contented sigh.

    Such a didactic recipe is not common to academic writings. It is reminiscent of a sermon  – indeed, throughout the book, van Woudenberg references his personal religious beliefs. These are not in the core of his argumentation, but intertwined with the many examples he gives. There is a general sense of the outcome of some important theological issue hinging on the outcome of this philosophical treatment of meaning and language, but van Woudenberg does not make this relationship explicit.

    The book consists of four sections: the meaning of words, the meaning of sentences, the meaning of texts and the ontological meaning of meaning. Three general theories on meaning are examined: referential, representational and behavioural. The latter two theories are somewhat misrepresented, and this sets a pattern for the whole book.  Bloomfield’s behavioural theory, for instance, is reported to imply that when a word has a particular meaning,  some situational and response characteristics must always be the same whenever that word is used. This idea is first taken to extremes, then refuted with obvious relish. Bloomfield, however, said something different. He held that meaning is related to the situation in which a verbal act takes place, and that this connection should be investigated further by science, not by linguists or philosophers.

    But Van Woudenberg’s interests do not lie with individual theories. In the name of common sense, he makes a more general claim which cuts across all theories of meaning:  the meaning of a word cannot be identified, he says, by referring to an external object or conditions. Therefore we must ask ourselves “what it means for two expressions to have the same use” (p.35) – which is a well known question asked by Alston.  This is the central argument and van Woudenberg spends quite some time on it.

    First,  he explains Austin’s speech act theory. This holds that when someone says something, he or she also performs an action. Speech acts exist at three different levels: a locutionary act which is the uttering of a word or sentence, an illocutionary act which is the dimension of the intention behind the utterance, and the force of that intention, and a perlocutionary act, which is about the intended effect. For example, when I say “Great shirt!”  (locutionary act), what I do is to compliment you (illocutionary act). The intended perlocutionary effect is that you might like me better or will lend me the shirt sometime or perhaps compliment me in return.

    Second, he explains Alston’s additional idea that two sentences have the same meaning, if their standard illocutionary act potential is the same. Van Woudenberg strongly agrees with this and takes it one step further: two words usually have the same meaning if they can be swapped without changing the illocutionary act potential of the sentence they are used in. For example, in the sentence “the police is coming”, one may swap the word “police” for “cops” or “pigs” or “fuzz”, so these words must mean exactly the same. How one might determine which words may be swapped without affecting sentence meaning, or how usual ‘usual is, is not discussed.

    Van Woudenberg then moves on to the connection between meaning and truth, or rather, the lack of connection between them. This is an important distinction: sentences with propositional content (this shirt is red”) can be either true or false, but this is not a characteristic of intended meaning (great shirt!”), because what we intend cannot be true or false.  He wants to establish that sentences with propositional content are essentially verifiable even if containing inherently vague words or metaphors.  First, he notes that some words, like “city” or “science” or “religion”, are inherently vague. A sentence like “Amsterdam is a big city” may be both true and untrue, depending on which city Amsterdam is being compared to. Now this cannot be, a sentence cannot be both true and untrue. The  solution is to reformulate the sentence to eliminate the vagueness, which, so van Woudenberg states, is always possible. In any communication, one should always strive for maximal clarity. Any vagueness that remains is due to inherent vagueness in the words themselves.  Such a sentence can always be re-expressed as a precise proposition.

    Metaphors can also be reduced to precise expressions. His reasoning is: in principle it is not impossible that for a vague expression x, let us say “I smell a rat”, there exists a precise lexical equivalent. This is not impossible because we can imagine it. So if this not impossible, it follows that it must be possible, in principle,  to have  a precise and lexical equivalent of “I smell a rat”. If in practice we cannot find this lexical equivalent, this must be because “there is a hole in our language” (p.62).

    This is not a convincing argument as is demonstrated by substituting terms:  “It is not impossible that people are kind. Kindness is a characteristic which we imagine all people may have. Therefore kind people exist. To find a kind person, one must simply look in the right places,”. Next, if we replace “people are kind,” by “God is good,”, the argument becomes: “It is not impossible that God is good, because  goodness is a characteristic which we imagine God may have. Therefore it is possible that God is good even if you don’t see it.  If, in practice,  if you cannot see that God is good, there is something missing in you.”

    Suddenly the clouds lift and the true objective of this book shines through. On the surface this book appears to be about speech acts and intentions, but it is actually about the distinction between what people mean when they speak versus what can be known to be inherently true. We are no longer surprised to find that the last section of this book ends with a chapter on the meaning of life – not a frequent occurrence in books on the philosophy of language. Despite its title and structure, this book is not about philosophy at all. It is a directive to the faithful, to strive for clear and precise formulation of thoughts and find the everlasting Truth within.

  • Amuses

    Learning to write

    In my last post, I explained how I have to re-learn how to read. Well, it does not end there. Writing is another problem. One I had not seen coming because I fancied myself as a fairly competent writer. I was an A++ literature student at school. At university I never had a problem with writing papers, I even helped fellow students. Later I honed my writing skills in a business environment.  I am fully into the IT jargon, and fluent in civil-service speak. So, did I have any reason to think academic writing would be a challenge in any way? Well yes. If only I had thought about it a little more carefully.

    Academic and business writing have different goals en different audiences, These differences show in communication. In a business environment, all communication is goal-oriented, sending a message. That message is tailormade for the intended recipient, including tone, structure, pacing, and length. The sending takes into account that the recipient may have little time or inclination to receive it. Every effort is made to make the message as digestible as possible.

    How different are things in the academic world. An academic writer may presuppose his audience to be sincerely interested, highly intelligent, knowledgeable and possessed of endless time and patience. The text is about the conveyance of knowledge. The author usually has several roles: teacher, researcher, reviewer, expert, visionary, to name but a few. Texts are important for author’s reputation and should therefore exude competence: well structured, concise, annotated, clear and above all: dense with information. There is no frivolity. No attempt to win over the audience, no effort to introduce concepts gradually, to build up a picture in the reader’s mind. Just information.

    Quite a switch! So you can imagine what happened when I wrote my first book-review. The professor deemed it beautifully written, very accessible. Other than that, he judged its structure “somewhat haphazard”, and pronounced the whole thing too low in information. 

    Right. Well, this book-review was only the draft, I have another chance. This week there is a general review session with 13 other students. We get to criticise each other’s book-reviews, and I am sure the professor will dip in. I am very interested to learn what he thinks is wrong with the other book-reviews. That is sure to provide me with even more insights on what I have to un-learn. Or learn, perhaps. Anyway, I may end up post-scripting this post :)

    Postscript!

    The class-book review did not go quite as I had expected. I had intended not to say too much about the other papers because I felt that all of them had done a great job. Many book reviews in academic journals are of much lower quality. I had read the other 12 book reviews though, and had more or less automatically marked out areas of improvement, usually in style or grammar. I ended up sharing those, and the other students made me feel useful. Which felt good. One of them even enquired if I would attend the gala. I wish! I joked about my husband not allowing this. Regarding my book review – that is a story for another post.

  • Amuses

    The best words

    Four weeks into my new academic life and the moment of truth arrived. Well, a moment of truth. The issue being, can I do this? Do the reading, understand the concepts – will my brain to expand to fit it all in? One thing is clear. I thought my mental faculties were fine, well, rusty perhaps, but not in significantly worse shape than, say 30 years ago. Ha! Dreaming!

    Learning to read again

    It turns out, I have to learn to read again. You see, I stopped reading for pleasure around 40. I had always been a big reader, up to five books a week, every week, from when I was a little girl. Suddenly, from one day to the next, I could read only one or two pages. As if they suddenly switched a part of my brain off. I missed reading terribly, but life was disrupted anyway. These were the years of being a single working mother, with a scared little boy to take care of, in a strange place and no one to help me. Perhaps the universe wanted me to concentrate on getting through that in one piece. Unfortunately, the ability to read for pleasure has never returned. A few years later my later-to-be husband hit on a solution: audio books! I must confess: I am addicted. My little black Mp3 player is clipped on my shirt all day long, and I listen as I cook, bath, walk, cycle, wait, iron, you name it.

    Non-fiction I read all the time, but for never for pleasure. I am efficient. I speed-read, and I can scan a document, read “diagonally” as we say at the office, in just the time one takes to turn the pages. Useful skills – for a civil servant. In my new academic life, this ability is worse than useless. The papers I have to read are so dense with information, I can only read 3 or 4 pages an hour. So I have to force myself to read word for word, line by line. On tired days, the only way I can manage this, is by reading the document on screen, and then have the computer read out the text simultaneously.

    Reading, reading, reading

    Apart from the skills class, I take a seminar on Philosophy of Mind and another seminar on Philosophy of Language, which is my main subject. Both seminars set around 50 pages reading every week; the Skills class around 20 pages. Around 120 pages per week, i.e. 30 hours. I don’t know how I do this reading given the demands of a working week, but I do it. More, because sometimes I don’t understand what the article says, and go in search of another text. Or have to look up references.

    Anyway, I quite enjoy the process. I have my electronic commenting system with highlights and meaningful stamps. I had developed this when I was studying for the ISACA CISM exam in my other life. Sample below.

    Creative, don’t you think? Well, it helps. I started out making mind maps, thinking that would be a memory aid. It is not. I found myself looking back at intricate mind maps I created weeks ago, and thinking “who did this?”.

    The challenge

    Last week I was the first of my class to do a presentation on Gricean pragmatics, for the Philosophy of Language seminar. Gricean pragmatics is about how meaning is not confined to the words themselves, i.e. the direct opposite of referential theory.  I volunteered, because I could see the workload piling up at the end of the semester. The paper was to be followed by a short paper in the week after the seminar.

    I did my best, but I could not see what central issue was being addressed in the articles. Actually, that had also been the case in the first and second week: I did not understand where the seminar was going. So I was getting worried. Every time I asked a question (which virtually no one else does), the professor (whom I regard as “mine” because he is my mentor), looked at me as if I had been flown in from Mars. Once or twice I even seemed to confuse him. Not good.

    Having to do this presentation without feeling comfortable with the topic, felt weird. I never ever do any public speaking when I am not the expert, and I get to decide the timing, the format, etc. So this was a novel situation. It went well enough because the students were very nice and smiled at all of my little jokes. I suspected them of having even less of a clue where the seminar was going, which was a comfort. The professor was grumpy, because I had not quite stuck to the format, so he was pointing out all the little problems this caused. Yes, yes. It is difficult to lose a lifetime of professional habits I was not aware I possessed. Such as trying to get response during the presentation. Apparently that does not work with students. Well, live and learn.

    Content-wise I was still in trouble: I did not understand where the seminar was going. I blamed this partly on the professor, for experimenting too much with the course. He has said to me since, that perhaps the topic was more difficult than he thought. Right. But the course is geared at MA students, and I am a ReMa student supposed to be specializing in this stuff. I really, really had to find a way in. Fast.

    It so happened that the guy I work most with at the office, was on holiday, plus I had been working overtime in the weeks before. So I took two days off work and hunted day and night for books and articles that would give me a general overview. Finally, a frame appeared in my head and understanding dawned. I wrote a paper. My husband helped me to find the fault lines where my writing became unclear or incomprehensible (he has done that for me ever since he corrected my policy statements when we first worked together, an age ago). I felt I was getting to grips with the issue. Yes. Maybe. Hopefully.

    I handed the paper in last Saturday night, and I have been checking my mail from then until the next seminar. No reaction. All of this time, there was me thinking: if it is not at least ok, I am in trouble. I really cannot do much better at this moment. A mail appeared on Tuesday stating that he (the professor) would be sure to have read it by Thursday. Relief. At least the paper was not already a write off.

    The best words – or not

    The first thing the professor said during the seminar break, was: “it is a good paper”. And then he continued to point out every sentence where I had used unnecessary vague langue. 5 instances in 3 pages, or had taken too long to come to the point. I have been wondering why he did that. I think he wants me to write like an expert, not to care too much about the audience. His own texts are like that, clear and concise yet readable. Something else to learn, so different from what I am used to in my business life where communication is all about persuasion.  We ended up arguing pleasantly about the correct translation of “true”. I came away overjoyed. I will do this, I thought. Yes, I can. I can only improve.

    Perhaps not the very best words then, but the paper was good. I will sleep well tonight. Time for some light relief. The professor has been quipping regularly about Trump and whether what he does, might be deemed “communication”. Today it was about how good Trump is with words. Have a look below. Hilarious, particularly if you have just turned in your first paper on the theory of speaker meaning.