No, not you. Nor all the little children playing hide-and-seek (for their sakes, I wish them lots of shade). Nor do I refer to the song by a very young Frank Sinatra in 1994, an episode of the British TV series ‘Thriller’ aired on June 29th 1974, the orginal 1939 version of the Wizard of Oz featuring Judy Garland, or when Robert deNiro as Max Cady used these words in the movie Cape Fear(1991). Or any of the other 281 interesting entries on QuoDB which I have not checked yet. But you can see what the problem is, I suppose. I am at it again. The gathering of knowledge. Putting it all in a model. Having it for breakfast.
Felicitous holiday making
I have buried myself in the production of papers for my philosophy course for the past few weeks. Which is now finished! Everything has been checked, double checked, read by Husband, checked again – and handed in. Which is a weird feeling, suddenly having nothing to do. Well, other than the normal things. But no special brainfood. Husband and I had planned to take a short holiday to celebrate completion of the Grand 1/4 ReMa Philosophy – but the weather forecasts showed temperatures over 30, even over 35, so Husband asked: “did you take you free cancellation?” I get very grumpy when it is hot, you see. I had taken out free cancellation, so as we have air conditioning in the bedroom, which the holiday-home did not, I excercised the right to stay at home and swelter in peace. I have not made up my mind whether I am going to be working from home. Have done some calls and mail, but it might be nice to take the time off anyway. We will see.
I won’t be posting the finished papers as yet. Mainly because I am too nervous about them and want to wait for the results. I know, it is silly. I worked very hard at them and cannot imagine not getting a pass mark, but these philosophers are a funny lot. Remember my own grumpy-as-you-please professor complaining I had not distanced myself, in my draft paper, from some major debate which I had never heard of? As we say in Dutch, an accident may hiding in a small corner:
Actually, I finished my papers well in time, so I have been thinking since last week how to spend the holiday period
in a felicitous manner. Do you like the word felicitous? It is standard jargon in philosophy of language, meaning that whatever is saidis linguistically appropriate. J. L. Austin invented it, so thatwe can say of speech-acts if they make sense or not, rather than being true or false. I am proposingthat the holiday-act is likewise neither true not false, but may be deemedfelicitous if a) it is a break from work and b) I enjoy it and c) takes a considerable amount of time so I would not normally have time to do it. Right? Right. Let’s turn to my holiday project.
A nice little outline
I have been complaining on and off about how difficult it is to get a bird-eye view of ‘my’ area of philosophy, which is about language, mind, cognition and the evolution of our abilities in that area. So I thought I would do myself a nice little outline, starting with a text book by my philisophy-of-mind professor which should tell me what has happened in the last 30-odd years. The first chapter told me that there had been an paradigm-shift. Maybe you have heard of mind-body dualism, this idea that mind and mind and body are distinct and separate? That began with Descartes. Nobody believes that these days, or at least not officially. So the received view is that mind and body are not sepearate. That is as far as the agreement goes. Beyong that, there are many different opinions.
One of the hotly debated issues is currently about whether our thoughts are represented in our brain at a physcial level (representationalism). The picture below shows how that is supposed to work: when you see and egg, the image of the egg is represented in the brain. The opposing view, called embodied cognition, is that cogniton works in a totally different way, without representatons, but by shaping through the body and its interactions.
So there was me, happily charting the arguments against Descartes, when it suddenly occurred to me that my chart was not in fact about these philsosophers, or their theories, but really about statements which they did or did not agree on. You can see the problem below. I used the Rationale website to visualise the argument. The idea is that you collect argument for (green) and against red). The problem is the text inside the boxes. Sometimes that text represents a new theory, which is fine, but more often than not, these are statements. These statements will not stick to one line of argument or to one philosopher, but will pop up again and again as the building blocks of theories. In this case, I have modelled the arugment up to the point where two lines of arguments needed the same building block – which is something the rationale software cannot do, and I know from experience, messes up any mind map. Because mind-maps are not standardised. That is their beauty and greatest pitfall. So what to do?
There are actually two answers to that question. One is, if you do not know what to do, do nothing. Better to wait until you do know rather than forcing a situation out of frustration. The other answer is: find out! I am sure I need not worry about frustrating philosophers or philosophy (they are in the business of making problems for themselves), let’s try to find out. I have been grappling with the problem of systematizing knowledge all through my professional career-that-is-not-philosophy-but-information-technology, and I have never seen big solutions. However, I have seen a great many very expensive projects fail, so I will try not to do that. Looking afresh upon philosophy with my information-technology background, delivers the following insight: philsophy has not been modelled. At all. Everything is in books and papers. No indexes, no logical schemes, no roadmaps, no modelling tools – nothing at all. Just text. There is something called the Philospher’s Index which sounded very promising to my yearning ears. Unfortunately it is a bibliographical index. You can find any philsophical paper of interest there, and the editors have conveniently written an abstract and attached keywords for everyone of them. Nice, but not what I am looking for.
The “can” test
Time to engage in what Husband calls the “can” test. He claims that he has never met an IT person who passed it, apart from myself, but that must have been a fluke, because if I had thought about it, I would have given the wrong answer. Don’t tell Husband, it was only after the can-test that he proposed to me 🙂
Imagine you are somehow transported to another world. You are quite safe, but hungry. In front of you is a can of food (you know because there is a picture of stew or beans or whatever on the outside). How will you open the can? At this point all the IT people go off in search of a stone to hammer the can. But you are supposed to think: hey, this is a planet where they have cans, so therefore they will also have can openers. So you will go in search of a can opener or a person who has one. The test (I now know) derives from a old joke which was meant to mock economists, first mentioned in a book called “Economics as a Science” by Boulding. This is the joke:
A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on a desert island and all they have to eat are cans of food. They’re discussing the best way to open them. The physicist says, let’s not overthink this – just bash them open with rocks! The chemist says, “No, we need to create a fire anyway and we can simply use the heat to cause the cans to burst open by themselves, and the food will already be cooked!” The economist thinks for a second and says, “First, let’s assume we have a can opener.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assume_a_can_opener
A stroll around the web – showed me that I was not alone in my queste for a can opener. I came across this fantastic website by a guy called Deniz Cem Önduygu who has charted the history of philosophy. I looked him up. He has an Masters in Visual art & communication. What a great profession! As for this effort: he calls it a “never-ending work in progress”. His major sources are “Bryan Magee’s The Story of Philosophy and Thomas Baldwin’s Contemporary Philosophy, but ideas of others and his own had been added. It is not complete, but only last year the site received a huge update. To give you a flavour of what he has done, look see, I have done you a selection with Wittgenstein. As you can see, a philosopher is associated with a set of statements; the green and the red lines go out to other philosophers meaning they agree or not. Every line can be followed. You can even put in search words. Enjoy it yourself, go over his site and play around. Be sure to switch off your VPN if you use one, because otherwise the graphics might not load.
Obviously this is much more than a nice little outline. The only drawback is, strangely enough, its contents: it is difficult to formulate a philosophical statement such that the original philosopher would agree with it. It is all about interpretation and understanding, and moreover, quite a few of them are dead now. The ones that live sometimes change their minds (as do the ones that have died, Wittgenstein for one). Still, if I knew how to do this, I would happily have tried my hand at creating my own version. Unfortutenatly the basic work is all done in excel and then professionally programmed (so the site says), so that is of no use to me. What is next?
The return of an old friend
If you want to create a representation of knowlegde that is not free-format, one way or another you end up at the semantic web. It is a web for data, and extension of the internet which can be processed by (mostly) machines. The semantic web has its own language, called Resource Description Framework (RDF). Basically, it is a data model, for which several syntaxes (serialisation formats) exist, such as N-triples, JSON-LD, Turtle, etc. On top of RDF other languages haven been built, such as OWL and RFDS. Now these names may seem just random collections of letters to you, and indeed, so they appeared to me. But some years ago I decided that the world really needed a good security taxonomy, so I dived right in.
To be precise, I dived into OWL, because this appeared to be the favourite language amongst semantic scholars. I installed the free OWL environment called Protege from Stanford University and worked my way through the “pizza example”. I came as far as a basic understanding how to construct an ontology (= a formal taxonomy written in OWL or another RDF based language) plus being to read one, but that was it. My problem was that to make a useful ontology you need to define many things in a specific technical or logical way. There was no gentle explanation beyond the pizza examples. I even posted a help-request on LinkedIn. Nothing. So in the end, after many many hours, I gave up. Too difficult for me. With friends like OWL you need no enemies, I thought.
Imagine my suprise at myself when I found myself back at the Protege tutorial, trying to set up a really simple ontology for what philosophers agree and disagree on, inspired by Deniz Cem Önduygu. I was not aiming for his wonderful red and green lines, but I was hoping to create something visual, say with bubbles. I did get a bit further this time. I succeeded in creating part of the ontology, but got stuck when I want to created relations between the various parts. The main thing was that now I understood that creating the ontology is only the first step. The next step is to put in the data, that is populate the ontology with philosophers, statements etc. And then, to create a program or some kind of view which allows you to use the insights which are part of the ontology. I imagined that I might succeed at step 1 and 2 if I spent another couple of days. But the last step was beyond me. I am not a programmer anymore. Or rather, the modern world no longer need an RPG-II programmer (not even a really good one) and I don’t know any modern programming languages. I suppose that learning Java or something like that just for this purpose would be a bit silly – once you stop using it, you forget it very quickly. So, yet again, I gave up. With a slightly better idea of what the problem is that I am trying to solve.
Another old friend
Before I returned to the field of security in my information-technology life,
I spentsome years on methods and techniques for application development. One of the issueswas software quality, how to set and monitor requirements. I shall not bore you with the details, but it turns out that software quality has several aspects which partly depend on each other, and work out differently in differently programming languages and environment. To grasp the necessarycharacteristics, you need a different kind ofdatabase, one which does not force you to know beforehand how many levels of relationsthere will be between the top-level requirement and the bottom-level actions and measures. I learned this from a book by a researcher called Stefan Wagner. To accompany his book, he also developed a prototype, for which he used a graph database. This is a database where you store the relationship between data alongside the data themselves, as opposed to classic databases which have a predefinedstructure for storing data. With a graph database you can not only modelbut also graphically present data. Exactly, in bubbles. Just what I like. Unfortunately we did not use graph databases at the office. The programmer on my who tried to get Wagner’s prototype to work on a private computer, got hopelessly lost, but refused to admit it, therebydestroying the project. I am still a bitsad about that. Anyway, I can install whatever I like on my home computer, so I went ahead andgot myself a community version of NEO4J. It turns out that you have to learn a query language called Cypher to be able todo anything at all. It is said that it is not difficult, but I really did not know where to start. I like to learn by example or trial-and-error. In this case, I did not even have a set of data to play aroundwith. There was no help to be foundanywhere. There are no manuals for straying philosophers with only a conceptual working knowledge of databases and query languages. So yet again, I gave up. At this point, Husbandasked what the problem was. I had been swearing at my inability to understand something which herds of people were apparently very proficient at. He concluded that “it must be a different logic”. Hmm. Maybe. So I put NEO4J in with the other friend that I don’t need: Protege/Owl.
Between me and my data
By this point it was dawning on me that I was trying to solve a problem with another problem and so on. Yet another opportunity for the “can” test I though, perhaps someone else is getting as frustrated as I am about the same thing. You guessed right. People are. I found this wonderful visualisation of my problem. You won’t understand it, and neither do I, but my experimenting has taught me all the words that I do not want to be involved with. Basically, what I want is to achieve bliss, i.e. what happens at the very bottom (my insights), by connecting to a data-source somewhere on the web (the very top layer), without all the hassle of the in-between stuff. Simple, eh?
Notice there is some kind of magic connection called SPARQL which seems to do all I need? It turns out that SPARQL is not just a query language but that there are lots of SPARQL “endpoints” which you can connect to if you want data. What endpoint? Well, how about the whole of wikipedia? Or streetlevel crimes in Wales? Art in Holland? It is a motley collection to be sure, but growing steadily. You can even get an extension on your browser so you can check if the website you are browsing is using a linked-data format which would allow it to become a SPARQL endpoint.
Below the surface: structure!
If you have made it up to this point, chapeau! I tried not to scare you off with difficult words and ideas, but basically this is the story of how I got lost and found in this tangle, so I know how you feel. What is so great about this new discovery (which ofcourse is not so new, people have been working on it for years and years), is that there is structure below the surface of the internet. Have a look at this wikipedia page, on Wittgenstein. After you have done so, look at the image below. It is the very same wikipedia page, but seen through the “eyes” of the linked-data browser, showing all the RDF entries. Every wikipedia page is structured like this, which is why you can query Wikipedia from the outside!
Getting there in the end
So where does this take me? Well, a very long way. I have found several places on the web which will allow me to do a layman’s SPARQL query. For instance this one, called Sparklis. I can just ask questions like this:
And it gives me a list of exactly 17 philsophers that have pragmatism as a main field of interest. Or anything else I want to know! I can export these data, or reuse the query in another program, which I have also been playing with, called Gephi, which will construct graphs for me. Yes, my bubbles. Finally I am getting to the kind of questions that I wanted to anser for my felicitous 🙂 holiday hobby project. I want to be able to tell how a philsopher was influenced by other philosophers, so I can decide on which common link to read up on. Or not. Saves quite some searching around, and the feeling of being able to see, in a virtual sense, the big picture, and draw conclusions from it, is great. I love it. Have a look at some examples what I have found so far. I will put them in with the concept side of my blog.
Today was the last seminar of term. Though I still have to write some papers, it felt as if
Certainly, thingswill 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.
Plushaving 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!
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.
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 focusing on the papers
we are meantto be writing in the next month. Because the philosophy of languageseminar 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.
is whathappened. 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 ofcyberspace. 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 certainlyget 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 givena 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.
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 takepart 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
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
tinybit 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 particulartext from his department. I received a very nice email, stating that I was right, he will have
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 exclusivelyhuman. 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 meabout 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 longseminar at which all of my professors are speaking plus some important ones from abroad. Originally that date was reservedfor 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 connectedto 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.
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 tocompete all ofthese assignments … .or any at all…
This was the week I had to
do a presentationfor 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 botheredwhen the article I had to present was changedjust 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 dothe actual prepartion.
So, the article. It was by a guy called Di Paolo, who specialises in the “enacted mind”. The great mystery to
be explainedis 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.
Plusit is all jargon, meant for an in-crowd which I certainlydon’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?
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.
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, –)
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
ownreference 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 tocollect bits of information so I can access them later. I simplycannot 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 persona lstore of collected knowledge. I feel silly being able to remember the structure of an argument without the words to go with it.
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 s
ohappy 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.
nnatititiioTfrf=oo=onfrfri ei rnl
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, verygravely, “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
ar e not commonly knownfor 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 ownProfessor 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 …
The story of my book review – it all started with the book I selected for it.
We were supposedto 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 ownprofessor. 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.
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 bitBritish” 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.
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 determinedto 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 certainlydid, but as he really is the sole authority, there was no real disagreement. Also, he is a nice guy.
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 somemore 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
d o to teach us a general recipe for writing a good book review. Meanwhile, here is the original. Enjoy. es try
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 eithertrue 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 toinherent 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.
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 madeto 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 forauthor’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 : –)
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.