If at first you don’t succeed ..
Try, try, try again? Wrong! There are cases where you ought to consider simply giving up. For instance, when you are studying philosophy of language in the early 1980s at Oxford and you find yourself unable to understand what all the fuss is about. I remember one of the essay questions at Finals: “If Pegasus does not exist, how can he be a Winged Horse?”. Well, that is easy. Like this:
That, of course, is not the right answer. If you must know, dive into the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here. Don’t even think of complaining about a headache afterwards. Been there, done that. It gets much worse, trust me.
How to explain? When I first started this Research Master I ran into the so-called divide between analytic and continental philosophy. I wrote a post on the topic at the time. It is here, if you like to (re)read it. The general distinction is that the analytics think (according to themselves), whereas the continentals talk. This analytical thinking, back in the 1970s and early 1980s in the analytic nest that Oxford was, revolved about there being a a connection between language and truth, or words and the world. The idea was – ‘is’ to some- that through logical analysis of language one can know what is true and vice versa.
I can honestly say that I never believed this. It seemed a ridiculous idea to me at the time and still does. Why should there be a holy connection between Language and Truth? What does Logic have to do with Truth? Or Language? Not that I could not do Logic. I was very good at mathematics at the time (a straight A at A-level, although I can barely count now, well, use it or lose it, I suppose). Being in my early 20s, I assumed the problem had to be with me. It may even have contributed to my decision not to pursue an academic career at the time. Why continue to study something that does not resonate? I was bored. So I did not. I went into the wild world and did my thing out there.
Coming back to academic life and analytic philosophy this time around, I was very pleased to find that the kind of philosophy of language I want to study, now actually exists. Which is why I picked my current university, for the professor who is there and now is my supervisor. I think I told you about that encounter in a very early post. Or perhaps I only told you the result. Never mind. By the way, Philosophy of mind has also changed completely. There is no Logic in the curriculum whatsoever (or Language), it is all about Cognition and where the Mind lives. Rubbing shoulders with cognitive psychology, which was my other subject – a connection I could only have dreamt of back in the days. So for a while reckoned I had found academic Heaven.
However, I felt a bit, well, chickenish, for not looking my old enemy in the face. I was also a tiny bit worried that I might need to reacquaint myself with the old school stuff. That was my professor’s doing, coz he said at some point that he did not want to do Logic to me “yet”. Ominous. So I took a course on Advanced Topics in the Philosophy of Language, which ran at the University of Amsterdam. This time around, I enjoyed it. I also found it very difficult. Again. The Amsterdam professor was nice and very knowledgeable, but not nice enough to make me like Logic. I diligently did all the reading though, plodded through, understood most of it, and amazed myself. At least I have an idea now, of that approach to Language and Philosophy, and what it attempted to accomplish.
This being a formal academic seminar, there was an essay to write, a presentation to give, an exam to make. I did my presentation on my professor’s work, which is very modern, with a little bit of myself thrown in, explaining how the new approach emerged from the old school. They liked that, apparently my supervising professor is a bit of a hero, which was interesting to find out. He is a most unlikely hero. I have not told him yet 🙂 Anyway, I felt that my essay had to be on the hard core stuff. So I decided on Frege, the famous mathematician, who is the original corner stone figure of the whole language = truth approach. Frege was called out, overturned, by Russell who pointed out some fatal flaw in his reasoning which left Frege in disarray, just before retirement. Poor guy. The comic below explains what is was about. If you want further explanation, follow the link underneath the comic.
Actually, I feel a bit bad to leave you with Frege as Voldemort. He does not deserve that. Imagine, he received this devastating blow when the second volume of his masterpiece “Foundations of Arithmetic” was being printed. So what did he do, this most honourable man?
I did a close reading of one of Frege’s last papers, der Gedanke (1918).I also read the original German version, and checked translations. To my amazement, I found that he had changed his mind on many important issues. In fact, by 1918 Frege seems to have abandoned his entire Logic project, describing the world in terms that, believe it or not, I understand and agree with. There was only one small problem. Almost every Frege expert in the world assumes that there is a continuous line of thought from his early to his later papers, even if there is no textual proof. I myself do not have anything resembling all-encompassing Frege knowledge, and I did not dare to take on these academic giants. So in my essay, I did not come out with what I really thought, I just sort of showed it. Which got me an final grade “8” which I suppose was fine, but I felt that I had understood more and deserved a little better – but then, I should have been more clear. And more daring, I suppose. The essay is here, if you want to read it. It is called “Frege im Frage”. I regard it as a fitting end, if belated, to my dealings with the “old school” philosophy of language. I have paid my dues. At last. Bridged the gap between my old and new academic self.
Just to make sure I don’t incur any more karma, the wonderful picture at the top of this blog is by Rob Gonsalves. There are many more, take a look.
The story ends, this time, with the experience of a wonderful international workshop with hotshots from the academic field, on Delusion and Language, of all topics. I would never have known about if if I had not embarked on this course. It was great! Two days of constant lectures, packed full of ideas. What a diet. Only the definition of delusion itself remained elusive 🙂 More about that at some future date.
This was the third out of four posts about my academic exploits in times of Corona, or should I say, during the first wave, as we know now. The fourth post will follow soonish.