• Amuses

    To be human

    Something weird is happening to me. I am changing. I had no idea this would happen. But it is. As Husband puts it: you are turning into a normal person. Right. So I am. I really want to tell you about it, but I don’t know how. I mean, I don’t want to tell you some self-obsessed and tearful story about my mangled psyche. And some Martian in shining armour, invoked by my shiny new insight into my deepest innards, sweeping me off my downtrodden feet and carrying me off to Heaven.

    Let go straight for the jugular. Hold tight. Last week, I received this email from the professor teaching this term’s Methods & Skills class. He also happens to be the Dean of our faculty. I told you about him in some previous posts.

    Imagine me reading this. I was sitting at my desk and just stared at this mail. I felt as if I had been thrown from a plane. Floating in a tin can, well, Major Tom knows how (this is the music I grew up with).

    You may think I am exaggerating. Not so. I had been told on several occasions that “10” were never given – just forget it, several professors had said, we never give them. Ne-ver. Not on principle, but there is always sómething that can be improved. And now I get, not one, but two!

    So I went up in the air, came down, bounced about, kissed Husband, and was deliriously happy. Until I realised that I would never (yes Ne-ver) be able to top this. I might as well stop. Shit. This is terrible.

    It took a couple of days to get things in perspective again. You may think that I am exaggerating about that too, but do you remember how scared I was I could not do this, back in Februari? I told you, honestly! Anyway, if you want to read them, there is one on “what is philosophy“, one on Heidegger and Plato, and one on the question of animals being persons. Just short papers. Don’t worry, I am never going to ask you about it. But they are there if you want.

    I was going to tell you about how I am changing. Well, it is a bit weird. I get angry. I cannot remember when I last got angry or really lost my temper. I remember being upset, hurt, frightened, ashamed, silly, all of those things. But when was I last able to become angry? Many many years ago. Spectacularly. But not beyond 30. I have been so – I don’t know. Sad, maybe. Anyway, I am waking up. My mind is sharp again, and I am enjoying it. Somehow it makes me more courageous.

    Hello world. It’s me.

    PS. Husband has just read this and feels obliged to comment. I am supposed to tell you what I get angry abóut. There will be some amusing stories in posts to come …

    PPS Past Performance Is No Guarantee of Future Results. My new found courage today led me into an argument with the same professor that gave me this great grades. Oops. Well, I will have to regulate my new found self 🙂 Will tell you about it some other time.

  • Amuses

    Into the woods

    In my last post I promised you the story of the philosophy of language research project. Well, as you can tell from the featured image on the blog, I am out there, in the woods. Intentionally speaking (this is a joke which I will explain some other time). Anyway, some serious research is really happening out there because the research project is about the evolution of language. In a nutshell, how did language happen to us, and not to, say chimpanzees. Given that chimps only differ from us in 1.2% of our genes, how come they don’t talk? Because they cannot? Because they have nothing much to talk about? Because all the important things can be expressed without language? Because … well, use your imagination. That is what we students have to do. Apart from reading stacks of research. And doing “some good old-fashioned thinking” (the professor’s famous last words).

    It is a wonderful project that speaks to the imagination and can be explained to normal people. Like my 85 year old neighbour who is the queen of our little neighbourhood. As she put it: “how nice that you are doing something I can understand!”… note the unspoken “I did not have a clue what you were on about before”. Well, yes. It is a change. Normally philosophy of language would not a popular choice as a conversation piece at parties, as I explained in this earlier post. But evolution of language really is a lot of fun. Even Husband is engrossed in Frans de Waal and his chimps. Can you imagine us sitting talking late at night about how chimps may or may not show normative behaviour? We do! There is me marking the pages for the examples he has found. I want him to read much more, but he is holding back for some reason 🙂

    You might think, how come she is suddenly interested in evolution? I will have you know that I have always been interested in biology. And evolution. I will quickly bandy some proofs around. I took Biology at A-level. From a Welsh teacher, who fancied himself speaking English. Imagine me fresh out of Holland, trying to understand him. A nightmare. I got a C for Biology, which was my lowest grade but also the highest grade in Biology that year, and he came up to me, saying: how on earth did you get that? Emphasising the “you”. Well, it was not for his help in having his assistants sharpening my dissection knives without my knowing about it. When, during the examination, I tested the blade on my hand I bled profusely all over my dogfish and then I still had to separate out all the nerves.

    Also, I went on a Biology marine field course in Wales which must have been the best course I took in my entire life. I remember how it felt strange to be back in a world where all the lines were straight. Anyway, this was when I was eighteen. Since then, my biology-exploits have restricted themselves to participation in National Geographic gene project. I have about 4% of Neanderthal genes, and at the time they said that was a lot. Perhaps I should have my genes re-tested, because I think they know much more about Neanderthals now.

    It is useful to know a bit about biology and genetics when you do a project like this. Mendel is all a-b-c to me, as are double-helix DNA structures and stuff. But there is also such a thing as “philosophy of biology” and particularly “philosophy of evolution”. Had to look into those, because I needed to clarify all concepts I came across. Took me about a week, but now I know that concepts like “species” and “fitness for survival” are not the clear concepts I took them for.

    I was going to tell you about what happened in my research project. Remember, I had to ask my professor to help me sort out my group? Well, I will not bore you with all the things an elderly student may say about a younger generation. It all happened. It was not as bad and it was worse. But the curious ingredient into the mix was me.

    Image. There is me who know how to run a project. I have been a project and program manager, spending millions of tax-payers’ money on projects which were not entirely unsuccessful. There is also me who is an architect. I know how to translate complex concepts into projects; manage interfaces, scope creep, stakeholders, requirements, scenarios, dependencies, the lot. Including all the tools of the trade. Then there is the student me who, unlike most of the other students in my seminar, already knows some of the important concepts because I happened to take a seminar with the professor last year.

    So what do I do in my new research group? Do I take charge, outline the work, divide the labour and make the group produce results? Ah no, nothing of the sort. Of course I suggest things. I make things. I organise. I read. I explain. But when my group mates want to go off on their own track, or are plainly uninterested, I just let it go. Because I don’t want to push. After all, they are the student and I am ? Yes, there is a thinking error there.

    In the end, and much too late, I showed my professor what was happening, or rather, what I could not make happen. There was a simple but sensible solution. Just go to another group. As it turns out, the other group really wanted me to join. So, there is me camping out in the woods. The chimps are out there and waiting.

  • Amuses

    Back to school

    The start of the new school year. I loved that time when I was a child. Everything new: new teachers, books, notebooks and a fresh set of pens and pencils (you might remember I am a stationary fetishist, from this earlier post). This stayed with me: the nostalgia of the New Year starting in September. Even if it did not, for the past 30+ years, but now it does again. Such a pity I have gone all digital. I toyed with the idea of getting some pens and paper just for the fun of it, but in the end I did not: I have so much stationary already. I did buy myself a scanmarker air, for scanning bits of text from non-digital books. With student-discount. The Dutch love their discounts and I am no exception.

    The academic year started with lots of information and introductions and meetings for new Research Master students. I had missed out on that info when I started back in January. I found that by now I was fully up to date, but still, it was nice to check and make sure I had missed nothing. I was reminded we all have to write a study plan which has to be officially approved before you can complete your thesis. Also, it was fun to see all the new students. I bet they were not half as nervous as I was when I started, but still, I could tell they were. And I was not! Amazing how I have changed in just 6 months. Remember me being shaky on my first day, afraid they were all going to laugh at me and worrying if my memory would hold up? Anyway, I know all of them will turn into confident graduates soon, coz I have already seen it happen.

    As I explained in my previous post, I will do two seminars and one position-paper this semester. I have spent all summer doing the background for the background for my position-paper (which is on speech acts, common ground and intentionality). A large part of that background is “consciousness” and there are literally hundreds of different theories about what consciousness is and how it works. In my time at Oxford, Philosophy of mind was about Analytic Philosophy (is there any other kind:-)?) I talked about that in a previous post. At length, because the existence of continental philosophy had passed me by completely. Anyway, these days, Philosophy of Mind is all about consciousness, starting out with generic denial of Descartes mind-body theory (Descartes claimed that mind and body are essentially made out of different stuff). To be able to say anything about the deliberate use of language, particularly if understanding language is not about mind-reading or some such psychological notion, you need to be able to say what it means to express something deliberately. I think so, anyway. So I spent a lot of time sorting out these new theories. It is all on my wiki, have a look at the topic “consciousness”. if you like. The main taxonomy is in the pink bit; every line is a separate page. It is not finished by any means: I have now started to catalogue arguments which connect and separate theories. You might notice I sometimes copy in cartoons. This is to liven things up. It is dry stuff. So let’s be thankful for existential comics.

    My seminars for this next half year are: the Skills course, which is compulsory, the first part (I did the second part before the summer). The other one is a seminar on the evolution of language. That will be great I think. I know most of the students there from previous seminars. We will look at communication in apes and other animals and see how that might translate to humans. The basis is a theory by my professor, which says that language is not about expressing ideas or mind-reading others, but about cooperation and getting others to cooperate. By the way, he seems to be in a good mood, much better than last semester. He has been publishing a lot, one paper after the other, and I think his new theory has reached a stage where it is becoming widely recognised. So all the academic work is new and shiny and interesting and very much “now”. Who needs the ancient Greek philosophers?

    The Skills class is taught by the Dean of our department. It turns out he was also at Oxford, a few years after me. An amazing guy: he has so much energy, such a devoted teacher and interested in everything. The Dean reminds me a bit of myself before I got CFS. Energy wise. Academically there is no comparison, obviously. Because he is so dedicated, he uses every minute of the allotted lecture time. Gone are the days when we were given the last hour off. Which is hard on all of us, because this set of lectures runs late: from 15:30 to 19:15. Everybody is so tired at the end. Except for the Dean it seems 🙂 He even wants to know about me, where I work, why I am there, what I want to do. He keeps pushing me toward this new Security centre which the university now has. So I told him I had already written to the professor there but that he not replied to my email yet. (Which is understandable because in that letter I challenged a bit of not-so-sensible advice, on Open Source, which that professor he had given the Dutch Minister of Security). We will see what happens.

    Anyway, the Skills class, like last time, is a mix of things I already know, things I don’t know and things I did not know existed. In the latter category: there is a Dutch protocol for the integrity of academic research. You can find it here. This protocol directly results from academic scandal, some professors inventing research data to fit their theories. Three prominent cases happened at the Social Sciences department at Tilburg University, and the whole academic world went pale and speechless. Because there was a general lack of assurance on this issue, this nation-wide protocol was set up. Attached to this protocol is a data management protocol, which I will have to look into if I want do empirical research – which I well might.

    We have already been set a small paper in the Skills class. This time, I tried to use all the big and small insights I gleaned from the feedback from my own professor back in July. I felt happy with it and it got a “very nice essay” (no grades as yet). There was just one time where I did not speak my mind because I could not “prove” it – this was about two philosophers who would probably hate each other but I did not say so. I got a remark on this, why I had not said so. So next time I will write out my intuitions too, stating that they are intuitions, I suppose.

    So, back on track. I have taken the whole of December off, so hopefully this will give me enough time to finish all the papers I have to write this semester. Already I am back in the flow. Lovin’ it! Husband is still driving me back and forth, which is a great time-saver. Plus, it is nice to have a partner-in- crime to talk to about all the things I learn and that happen. Sometimes I think his ears must ring with all my ravings. But he is unperturbed, as always. Also, he found himself a cosy little setup in the Hortus tea garden which apparently is full of female volunteers who love to give him tea. Dozens of them, he tells me with twinkling eyes. Adventurous times ahead!

  • Amuses

    Embroidery

    Yesterday I had my long awaited meeting with my supervising professor. You know, the grumpy one that I regard as mine. There were several things that needed discussing. Obviously my paper, which got a good but not an excellent grade; the past and the future. And some human stuff.

    We had arranged to meet at a café at Utrecht Central Station rather than at the university. Husband travelled up there with me, the idea being that we would meet up later. At the station I ran into several colleagues. They were on their way to a team meeting which I should have attended too had I not been on study leave for the afternoon. I was glad I had not booked a meeting room at the Utrecht office: in my head, academic and work worlds don’t mix well. I had half an hour to spare though so enough time to get back into the academic spirit.

    There was a bit of an awkward issue that I needed to discuss with him. I told you about it in previous posts: he and I are fine in a one-to-one meeting, but in a class setting where I have to take the floor, his feedback becomes rather too vicious for my taste. Particularly compared to the very careful way he handles the other students. I did not quite know how to bring this up. Fortunately, a chance opened up to address this issue right at the beginning, and it went fine. He apologised, saying that he had heard this about himself before. He had just been matching my directness which he found pleasant (as it livened up an otherwise rather unresponsive class). So I pointed out that I was just as vulnerable as the other students in academic matters; and we agreed; and that was that. Good. Relief.

    My paper was next. I had reread it, and his review of it the night before, and I was glad I had left it for a while. I could now see that he had judged my paper on a different basis than I had intended the paper to be read. Which a priori means that I had not been clear. You see, it was a difficult topic, on collective speech acts, on which there is almost no research. The papers that I did review, I found to be of meagre quality. The problem was, that I had not said so explicitly. This because I felt I was not sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject to do a “deconstruction” of the work that these philosophers had done. So I had been a bit vague in my approach to compensate for not saying what I really thought. Which put the reader (the professor or anyone else) on the wrong foot. It was not so much that I should have a highly critical or argumentative stance, but rather, that there was no good story-line to my paper. That was mistake number 1.

    The 2nd point was about my not being sufficiently critical. Now this is not something I hear very often! It took me a while to understand, but what I need to do, is to question every concept, approach, idea that I review and explain why I put it in the paper OR explain why I don’t question it. So my simple idea of reviewing papers and going along with the argument to see where we might end up, would have been fine, IF I had explained that was what I was doing. Which I had not. Because again I had been too shy.

    The 3rd problem was that the paper was too big in scope. In retrospect, the professor said, scope-wise it would have been fit for a Master Thesis. This is because I left so many concepts and ideas to investigate. For practical reasons, I had simply accepted concepts without question, i.e. as given in literature. Had I done otherwise, my paper would have exploded, and it was only supposed to be 6000 words. So yes, I could see he was right, the scope I had chosen was much too ambitious to do well. It is either quantity or quality. There is also a style difference, I think. He works inside-out, and I work outside-in. Which means I have to read much more but that is not the worst of it. Here the difference between audiences comes alive. If I write something as a civil servant, I must avoid being too detailed for fear of losing my audience. The general consensus is that details can always be given later, in a separate paper, in a presentation, during a talk, whatever; but later. The same is not true for a philosophy paper. That paper has to be complete in itself; there is no “later”.

    the Philosopher’s Bell

    Problem nr. 4 took me a while. I have developed, in my working life, a habit of writing authoritatively. Because I am an authority on certain matters. Husband taught me how to do this. I cannot remember how many times I got my texts back with remarks like: you use too many words, explain too much, go into too much detail etc. Which is all very well when you are writing government or company policy, but is not a good idea when you are writing a philosophical article. A philosopher needs to explain and explain well. My professor spends a lot of time on doing just this, and it has also been a issue in the other seminars I attended, so I might have known. But I think there is more to it than that. Because Philosophia is not very well charted, a philosopher constantly needs to ring a bell, so that others may understand where he is. Think of a cow in an Alpine meadow 🙂 That means that as a philosopher, you must allow other philosophers to understand exactly what concepts you are using in what context and why. Otherwise they get lost. Or you do. Depending on your point of view.

    So: a good philosopher knows the precise context in which she is putting forward her ideas (by the way, this is an example of “correct” writing, sometime during my absence from academia, they all started writing in terms of “she” rather than “he”). The problem of course is that I don’t. I am still an amateur. Which brings me to the research paper which I will be writing next term. Apparently this paper is not for a grade (it is pass or fall), but intended to allow to you prepare for the Master Thesis which has to written in the second half next year. This gives me a chance to consolidate my knowledge on a couple of topics which at the moment is only wafer-thin. The topic(s) will be: speech acts, collective acts and common ground. Right. I will enjoy getting my teeth into that. I promise you, my next paper will be like an embroidery: pretty, intricate, beautiful and state-of-the-art.

    The professor and I, we parted on most amicable terms after nearly 3 hours. I was really pleased that I had been able to pick up some new insights. Also, the luxury of someone spending hours on you to improve your thinking! When does that ever happen in Real Life, I ask you?

    Now came the task of finding Husband. In spite of our shared-location app, I failed. Seriously, I walked around Utrecht CS with Google Maps displayed on my phone, and kept going in circles, from one entrance to the other, up and down the escalators. After quarter of an hour, I had to call Husband and admit total failure. He had to come and get me. Yes, you may laugh. Of course, he should have foreseen this (I get disoriented very very easily), so we agreed it was really his fault. Off we went, back to the Utrecht canals to have a drink and something to eat at the waterside. Very pleasant. It was a bit like a celebration. We had a nice meal and 3 Belgium beers each. Alas, it turned out that we can no longer handle this the way we once did. Walking back from Apeldoorn station was slow; and somehow we could not keep our eyes open after 10:30. Very amusing. Nice memory though.

  • Amuses

    1/4 down, 3/4 to go

    I received my grades! You know I was worried about them, so you are going to find this amusing. The grades were fine. But once I got used to the idea of having passed, and having passed well, I started worrying about why I did not get higher grades. Which is really, really silly. Remember how I struggled to get in and keep up, the first couple of weeks especially but actually all the way through. I was so relieved that I could do it at all. So, laugh at me, I deserve it. Husband does it too. Let me give you the figures. Dutch grades go from 1 – 10. From 8 it is cum laude territory. I got:

    • 8 for my paper on “Autopeiosis as a mechanism” for Philosophy of Mind;
    • 7.5 for my paper on “Collective speech acts”, which is Philosophy of Language
    • 8.5 for a collection of work (papers, presentation) for Methods & Skills.

    Time to party. This is an 8 on average. Which is why this post has a very cheery picture. Apart from the grades, I now have a total of 30 EC, which means that I am 1/4 through the Research Master (which is 120 EC- normal Master courses are 60 EC). Considering I did this with only 1 day off work every 2 weeks, I am allowed to be a little proud of myself. And of my husband for bearing with me and my late night studying. Driving me back and forth to Nijmegen. Listening to my rambling. Proofreading my papers.

    Yet I am not entirely satisfied. Yes, you may laugh, I said, didn’t I? On both the Philosophy of Mind and the Philosophy of Language paper I lost points for not being quite clear enough about my research question. Must improve that. Also, I did something revolutionary on the Phil-Mind paper which they did not quite understand because I had flown the idea in from informatics – and had not explained it sufficiently. Oh yes, and my own professor (you remember, the beloved grumpy one) decided to deduct marks for my writing being insufficiently clear whilst the other professors were raving about my writing and giving plus marks for same. Beauty in the eye of the beholder? Probably not. This is supposed to be academia.

    I am seeing my professor at the beginning of August, so I have a chance to discuss it. I really want to get to the bottom of this. I know he is a logician at heart, so maybe he wants me to be much more precise – which will be difficult to achieve if the text also has to comprehensible. Never mind. I will find out what it is I have to learn.

    On a lighter note: I had to change my glasses. I developed a chronic headache and sore eyes. First I thought that was because of all the studying, and then I had my eyes checked. It turns out I have a prism thingie – basically the brain not quite matching the two pictures from the left and right eye. So I have bought myself new bifocals, and also another one for computer work. What else does one have holiday money for? These glasses are really special – I can change the frame by changing the magnetic cover. So I now have glasses in many colours – green, turtle, red, purple and even bright pink! I have tried them out at the office. Swapped the frames midway through a meeting to change the atmosphere. It amuses my colleages. And myself. I change them at least 3 times a day. Have look at the manufacturer’s site if you want to see how it looks. Poor Husband. More new-fangled nonsense for him to put up with.

    I am now more of less on holiday (well, working full time, but the evenings and weekends are temporarily my own). In September everything starts again. Probably I will be doing two seminars and a “state of the art” paper, again 30 EC. But first: party time. This 1/4 is behind me now. I may now regard myself as a proper student, having finally fulfilled my own prophesy at the tender age of 23 – that one day I would go back to university. Well, it has happened and it is great.

  • Amuses

    The Emperor and the elephant

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

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

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

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

    Sundays when your wife is studying …

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

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

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

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

  • Amuses

    Ripples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Amuses

    World of wonders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Amuses

    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 …