• 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

    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.

  • Amuses

    Food for thought

    These first weeks, everything is different. My husband and I have a new routine. You must understand, he spends the same time in Nijmegen (where the university is), as I do, because he still drives me there. He spends some of that time in the various WiFi-enabled cafe’s at the campus, with the inevitable big book on big things to keep him company. But as he was born in Nijmegen he actually knows people there. Plus he takes an interest in historical places, and in the Netherlands, things do not get much more historical than Nijmegen. He is also a keen photographer. If your Dutch is any good, you might have a wonder over to his blog. Yesterday’s pictures are to be found here.

    So my husband is around somewhere in Nijmegen when I take my lectures. We meet up at the end. Now there is a challenge. I get lost on the campus due to my lack of genes for spatial orientation, but he is the opposite. He knows his way anywhere, and has no idea how people like myself manage to survive in the real word. However, I have a trick. Since we have this phone app by which we can tell where the other one is, I am no longer lost. Or not for very long.

    At end of a lecture day, if it is late, we grab a pizza and an alcohol-free beer at the Cultural Cafe. Like everywhere else on the campus, it is clean and friendly. No one looks at us twice, ancient as we are, and the pizza is great and cheap. On other lecture days we might be home earlier than expected and I raid the freezer for strategically created leftovers or failing that, eggs on toast. So that is two days per week when we don’t eat a home-cooked meal at a set table – quite a change. We manage 🙂

    Actually, husband is overjoyed. He has long maintained that it would be efficient to eat the same thing every day, or at least on any one weekday. In the way that his breakfast has been the same for the past 60 years: yogurt, muesli and dried fruit. Eh, that would be 60 years minus 3 weeks. When we first started to live together, I used to present him with a full romantic breakfast every day: orange juice, eggs, jams, croissants, butter, cheese, ♥, etc. After 3 weeks he asked me if I would mind him eating yogurt? Eh, of course. Back to now: he was already cooking me my favourite pasta every Friday: spaghetti puttanesca and salad; plus due to the lecture schedule his other cooking day was being taken over by fried eggs on toast. Cooked by me. Bliss! Predictability has finally arrived.

  • Amuses

    Philosophical arguments

    One of my courses is compulsory. It is on philosophical skills and methods. It carries 20 European credits (=28 hour study load per EC) and runs over two semesters. Just to put things in perspective: the entire Research Master is 120 EC, so it is a substantial part. Because of that, I thought it would be something like the compulsory statistics in Experimental Psychology: long and heavy. But it is nothing of the sort. It teaches research master student necessarily life skills. It has taken me a while to find this out, but that really is what it does.

    Apparently it is a huge problem to get funding to do a PhD, and fewer and fewer students get financed. So the university is stepping in to help their brightest to jump through the hoops of the funding process. The funding process is heavily regulated. Decisions about funding are no longer taken at university but at national or international level. As I have my one leg firmly rooted in the non-academic world, I cannot help but think how similar this looks to a commercial process. Particularly because to succeed, you need to learn to write a proposal, present it, navigate your way around rifts in Philosophia which might you prevent from being chosen, even do a two-minute pitch, oh horror of commercial inventions. Then there are the skills which every modern PhD researcher must master: the writing of reviews, popularising article (no, that is not a typing error) and articles according to exacting standards. Because articles get published in journals, and this works as a CV to which you add all your researching life.

    I was oblivious to the above when I started the ReMa. It only sank in yesterday when in a private conversation I learned from the professor teaching the course how 21st century academic funding works. He expressed a great deal of worry about what he called “these kids”, the students of this course, his best and brightest. I suppose he is about my age. He told class about how he became a professor because he was asked to fill the position, as he ‘happened to be around, as he put it. Things would not work that way today.

    This, then, is the reason I get to learn about current rifts in Philosophia. The conflict between the “analytics” and the “continentals”  was on in the second week: we had to read up on it and subsequently discuss it in class. Supposedly this is the rift that every philosopher had been talking about for the past 100 years. Well, not at Oxford, I can tell you. I had never heard of continental philosophy and was utterly amazed to hear about it. Now I have learned that there is a reason for that: When I was at Oxford, this was the home base of the analytic philosophers, and they ignored everybody else. Stiff British upper lip. Amazing.I had to write an assignment about this as a preparation for the class discussion. I will include it for your amusement. By now I have recovered from my amazement, and I am thinking this argument between philosophers is not much more than a pissing contest. But perhaps I will learn to rephrase that.

    To my mind there is a connection there with Brexit which really got under the skin of the professor: that this analytic-continent divide is part of what is at the root of Brexit. During a break he even went to look up the plausibility of what I claim on the internet, he wanted to disagree with this so much. He was still referring to it in the weeks after.

    Is there an unbridgeable gap between continental and analytic philosophy?

    The controversy between continental and analytic philosophy started at the turn of the 20th century. G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell came up with a novel approach to Philosophy which emphasised the notion of “meaning” of terms and propositions in natural language. This linguistic conception of philosophy revolutionised not only British philosophy. It also threw a very large stone in the pond of traditional Western philosophy, the teachings of Kant and Hegel particularly.

    Analytic philosophy developed in fits and starts. After the early days of proportional realism, Moore embraced common sense philosophy, whilst Russel and Wittgenstein came up with logical atomism.  Next came Ayer, another British philosopher who in collaboration with the Vienna Circle, developed  logical positivism. After the war, philosophers from Cambridge (Wittgenstein and Wisdom) and Oxford (Ryle, Austin, Strawson and Grice) invent ordinary-language analysis. In the 1960s, another shift: linguistic philosophy turns into the philosophy of language, then metaphysics and then yet another set of philosophical sub-disciplines. During its development, analytical philosophy found itself many new opponents: Husserl’s classical phenomenology and after, existentialism (Sartre, Camus), and postmodern philosophers (Heidegger, Foucault en Derrida).

    Analytical philosophers may have changed their beliefs and direction several times, they do possess a unifying characteristic in having a very precise and thorough style. They are also willing to explore narrow topics, rather than the great scheme of things as continental philosophers are prone to. They undertook much philosophical work, particularly in the fields of language and mind, which may have been neglected otherwise. Hans-Johann Glock says: “analytic philosophy is a respectable science or skill; it uses specific techniques to tackle discrete problems with definite results.”

    Clearly, a debt of gratitude is owed to analytical philosophy, but not without misgivings. There is something infuriating, about a group of philosophers claiming the exclusive right to “proper thinking” and denouncing the work of any opponent as sloppy and irrational.  The famous British stiff upper lip furthermore shows itself by ignoring the other side. From my personal experience as a philosophy student at Oxford in the 1980s, I can report that neither continental philosophy nor its philosophers were ever mentioned. What influence might this general disdain for ‘all things continental’ have exerted on those now sitting on the benches of the British House of Commons and debating Brexit?  Mostly educated at Oxford and Cambridge, they will have read classics, history or politics; courses which to this day contain an obligatory philosophy component.

    How then, to mend the rift? Not by using the time-honoured instrument of philosophical debate. The famous clash between Derrida (continental) and Searle (analytic) may serve as an example. This ended with both parties denouncing each other without either party making an effort to establish common ground.

    Indeed, what rift is there? As Bernard Williams points out, the distinction between continental (geographical) and analytical (methodological) is strange:  it is like dividing cars into “four-wheel-drive” and “made-in-Japan”. Let us have a Japanese four-wheel-drive. After a century of bandying hurts and insults, it is time to harvest achievements. To treat the gap that has engulfed both sides, not as philosophical in nature, but as psychological and historical in origin. If philosophers cannot set such an example, who can?

  • Amuses

    And so it begins

    It was a long wait, from the end of November until February when I finally could start on my research master (“ReMa”, as it is affectionally called at “uni”). I might tell you I used all that time really well, preparing for my courses and lectures, catching up on everything that had been happening in Philosophy during the past 30+ years.  But that would be nowhere near the truth.

    For a start, even though I had been formally admitted, there were lots of administrative details to be completed which made me feel as if I had entered a different universe. For instance,  a form which had to be signed by all sort of high-up people agreeing that I could start in the middle of the academic year, and which was already overdue.  Which is a bit strange considering the official starting dates of my particular course are September and February.  I got through all the red tape, eventually. Bit of my own fault really, by started the admission process backwards, I must have confused people. 

    Secondly, I was suddenly afflicted with  a personal loss which I won’t elaborate on in these pages, but very nearly toppled me. I self-medicated on Belgium beer and the things that politician don’t inhale and I put in chocolates (rather than medication), and after some weeks, slowly picked myself up again. Thank you, my  husband, for watching over me.

    Third, my beloved employer on whose behalf I daily save the country, decided to reorganise all 30.000 of us yet at again.  This time they managed to eradicate the security organisation almost completely, so finding a new boss proved difficult for a while. Not that my workload has gone down, I still do the work of 2 or 3 people, and that is not including the work for my new boss. Must not complain though, because my employer pays half of my fees and I even get study leave (a day every two weeks), so that is grand. Just as a precaution, I decided on a social media strategy at work (we run an internal platform) so as to become more efficient at sharing information (and save myself many meetings in which I would constantly have to repeat myself). Let’s hope I can keep it up and not get side-tracked.

    In January I was finally administratively enrolled, and able to get access to the university digital environment. Which took me a while to get to know. I did not know where to start, so I did what I always do: I dived into the library. Ah, all those books, journals, publishers suddenly at my fingertips. Not that I had nothing before: I get full JSTOR access as an Oxford alumni, and I am a member of the Dutch Royal Library which has an extensive ebook section. Not to mention my international friends who graciously share their library access with me. But real university access is so much better. So I wallowed around in this newly found luxury for some days, reading all kinds of stuff just for the fun.

    After that came the settings up of email- and other accounts and my student pass. Aha, the student pass, with the student number. It entitles me to discount, and as I am Dutch, I cannot resist a bargain. So I have been buying useful software at knock-down prices. Husband graciously donated the use of his laptop (cannot take the company laptop into campus), and updated his own equipment at a discount. I renewed my local library card (50% discount), splurged on a great grammar checker (no discount) and experimented with speech-to-text software (which I decided not to buy because my typing speed is so high that there is not much profit, time-wise, to be gained).

    Then came module enrolment, a real pain in the neck. For a start, the schedules are not released until very late, and general descriptions are not, how shall I put this, information-dense. My professor had told me to look also at modules at other universities, which I did. The whole thing took several days of break-neck speed googling and consolidating; then validating the result with the professor.  The net result was that I should take 3 modules in the next 6 months which is the equivalent of a full-time study. Yes, I know, it is crazy. But husband and I had just watched Lord of the Rings yet again.

    Having arranged everything well in advance, I now sat back and waited. Nothing was happening on the courses I signed up for. I even sent a worry-mail to my professor, asking if I had somehow missed the posting of the reading list, as I wanted to buy the books, order them from the library? Aha, welcome to 2019! Reading materials are simply posted with the digital space every module has on the university system. I felt stupid. I nearly missed the reading materials when they were finally posted, because I had not set some parameter somewhere that meant I did not get informed, etc etc. Anyway, it took some late hours, but I read everything, for all 3 modules in time. Wow. My poor brain suddenly got stretched out again. Did it hurt, I hear you think? I am not sure. It is a mighty strange feeling. But addictive. I suddenly realised that most of my work comprises educating and guiding people, not getting new ideas myself. Well, of course I knew that, otherwise I would not have started on this whole escapade, but you get my drift.

    So I went to university, the first week of February.  I can get there by public transport, but husband insists on taking me by car, which is lovely and much quicker. 

    How did it go? I will tell you, in another post. I also need to tell you about what it is that I set out to do, in taking up this research master. Also another post. For now, I can just say this: No one laughed. No one even looked at me twice. The whole place was friendly, well organised, warm, bright, shiny and clean. I immediately felt at home. 

     

     

     

     

  • Amuses

    Back to the beginning

    Today, I received confirmation that I am to be enrolled on my coveted graduate course on Language and Logic. Great stuff. Now I am back in the world where the professor is God. I already went through an initiation procedure. Granted, the professor in question was very nice. He was just a bit worried about me wanting to do something practical – “this is not what we normally do ” 🙂

    The situation below depicts life until I have completed my own research. Which will take until my retirement – only 10 years away ….