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 …

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