The past two months I spent writing and waiting. Writing papers, and waiting for my grades. I just did not want to post anything before knowing if my labouring led to anything at all. As you might remember from previous posts, hard work does not necessarily get me a good grade, particularly not with my own professor who is very critical. But this time, the work paid off. Two ‘9’ s – I was over the moon. These are not just for the papers, but the overall grade for the course- of which the papers are a major part.
“Evolution of language” paper
My paper on “naive normativity” is publishable, my professor said, if shortened. It would have to be, it was over 12.000 words (supposed to be 5.000 so it got a little out of hand). Apparently I might hand it in as a Master’s thesis, because it fits the requirements. Then, if I switched to the regular MA course, I would already be finished. But I won’t do that. I am enjoying myself, and I feel there is still so much more to learn before I can start on my PhD with any kind of confidence.
I won’t post the whole paper here, because the professor wants to talk to me about it, and I am not sure what his plans are. So I will just post the abstract below, that will give you an idea what is is about. All about chimps, of course. Did I mention I was deliriously happy when I received the feedback for this paper? I am beginning to think this adventure – the old bag back to uni – may go well. I intend to go on writing papers until I am at least hundred years old. Anyway, first things first.
Abstract of “Naive Normativity”
Kristin Andrews’ theory of naïve normativity invites us to take a fresh look at normative behaviour. She proposes a minimal definition of social norms and underlying cognitive abilities, which does not rely on mind-reading and may be applied to humans and animals alike. The first part of this paper explains her theory. The second part addresses the question on how to assess supporting evidence. In the third part, evidence that Andrews puts forward in support of specific candidate animal social norms, is reviewed. Inconsistent or irrelevant evidence is laid aside; the remainder is reviewed based on the criteria established in part two. Some candidate animal social norms pass. Most do not. The paper concludes with recommendations for further research.
Methods and Skills – position paper
I told you about my struggles with this before. I wrote a paper on metaphors early in autumn which I had hoped would be the final version. I had put so much work into it! But it turned out that the professor disagreed with me on the contents. Privately I feel that the problem was not with the contents but that I had taken on too much, combined with my professor not being quite-up-to-date on the topic. It did not help that he is so incredibly knowledgeable about everything else;he must be used to being right all the time. What we call, in my other life, an expert judgement – always extreme. This expert judgement also got me very high grades on other papers in the course, so I must not grumble. Anyway, I turned the metaphor paper into a play and made it humourous – and it worked, after submitting a second draft.. You can read it here. It is quite safe, not so heavy. You may enjoy it.
If you read it, you will come across Anna Majofski. She is inspired on the great-grandmother of my great-grandmother, who was a daughter of Theo Majofski who was an important Dutch actor some centuries ago. None of the acting or musical talent found its way into my genes! Still, it is an interesting heritage. My great-grandmother was chucked out of her chique family on account of her becoming pregnant by the local carpenter . My grandmother did not care to talk about this – pregnancy before marriage, worse, sex outside your class, was considered a big shame at the time – so most details remained hidden until records became available on the internet for me to find. Anyway, I needed a character for my little play, so I picked her. Not a lot is known about her, so I felt free to credit her with all sorts of opinions. I hope it would have amused here. The play certainly amused my professor, and during two drafts I saw him coming around to my way of thinking. A little trick I learned at the office: if there is an argument with too many voices, stop arguing and give space to the voices. Through an animation, a film, a dialogue, or as in this case, a play.
This semester I have four seminars. A big one on folk psychology, which is part of Philosophy of Mind. I already know the lecturers from last year. They are great. And three slightly smaller ones, on Ethics for Artificial Intelligence, Computational Psycholinguistics, and Kant, Logic and Cognition. That last seminar is in Amsterdam, starts at the end of March; the other three are in Nijmegen, and started last week. Seminars from 10:30 until 17:15 without a break (well, we get small breaks during the lectures) – it is quite tiring. I wasn’t particularly rested, so when I finally rolled into the Cultuur cafe to have a pizza with Husband, I was exhausted. Also, I had stupidly worn new shoes and not thought about having to walk some distance between buildings. So my heels are rubbed raw. Fortunately I still had a full package of blister-plasters – at home. Been wearing them ever since. Hopefully my feet will heal up soon.
I also need to start writing my “state of the art” paper, which is the official preparation for my Master thesis. I think I might have to postpone it until the summer holidays, coz it is going very slowly. Never mind. There is no rush. I might complete the whole course in two years (as if I were a full time student), or perhaps take another half year. It does not matter. This first year has gone well. I am amazed at how much difference the course, and my return to university has made to me, and to my life. Whatever next 🙂
I will keep you posted on the new seminars and what I learn. It is my last 6 months doing seminars before I have to start my thesis. Exciting!
At X-mas, it came to me. Honestly. It must be because of this forced rest. My brains not being made to study 12 or more hours in a day. It is not voluntary, this rest, you understand; it is just happening. We go to bed a little later, wake up up a little later; go for a walk, meet up for coffee. Decorate the tree, watch a movie, wrap a present, prepare a new recipe, drop in on a neighbour. Study for a few hours. See the Amsterdam light festival from a canal boat at night. Prepare Xmas dinner – game one day, fish the next. Survive my own desserts – I so love limoncello. And gin with lemons. And X-mas presents.
So what came to me? You are going to find it boring, I am afraid, but I am quite excited about it. Just a little thing that I have understood, you see. I have been working on my social cognition paper, the one I did the chimp research project for and have been talking about in past posts. It is not an enormous paper – at least 5000 words ex referencing, so about 10 pages, although I will likely write a bit more. However, a paper like this is like doing embroidery: so many things to get right. I have mapped the whole thing out in my new toy called Atlas.TI (forever grateful for student software discounts). It really is a wonderful program, allowing you to code texts and then build mind-map-style networks out of codes and quotations, across however many documents you like. The only drawback is that you need a large screen. Of which I now have three(!) which interconnect, thanks to Husband’s technical skills. He is joking that I need a second row of screens, on top of the first one. Like a cockpit.
This paper is about finding the roots of social and moral behaviour – the word used in Philosophia is “normative”. I am looking at articles by Kristin Andrews, on animal cognition. Animal includes humans. I really like the way Kristin Andrews writes. She is amazingly clear and knowledgeable. I would like to think that I have found her research myself, but on second sight she is no stranger to great researchers I read articles and books by before, including my own professor. Anyway, what she says, is that the idea that humans are morally/socially superior creatures because we reason/think about our behaviour, is actually wrong. We don’t. We are very bad at mindreading or at predicting other people’s behaviour. What we do, is attribute beliefs and desires to ourselves and to others in an attempt to justify our behaviour. Resolve cognitive dissonance (you feel better if you think someone you love mistreated you for a reason because then you don’t have to throw him/her out). We do have mechanisms which make us follow norms, but these mechanisms are exactly the same as they are in other animals. It is all about in-out group recognition, group membership, following group norms if you want to belong; and sanction/restoration mechanism if a norm gets violated. It does not matter what the norm is about.
Now this may be a little hard to swallow. Which why I have posted a picture of a particularly attractive group at the top of this post. But seriously, in the past months I have seen (not literally!) enough instances of non-human normative behaviour to see this theory at work. For instance, female chimps who on migration to another tribe stop using efficient tools for nut-cracking and adopt less efficient tools. For a chimp, to relinquish easy access to food, that means a lot! It also makes evolutionary sense. Obviously humans have a great deal of learning taking place in the long years of childhood, but this is cultural learning and the development of cultural learning abilities. The underlying cognitive abilities appear to be similar across the animal kingdom, or at least in the great apes.
This theory has a number of very interesting implications. Such as (this is going to be a haphazard list):
- a moral/social issue between individuals who do not regard each other as belonging to the same group, cannot be resolved;
- there is no point in passing laws before the relevant norms are in place and accepted;
- you cannot change a group from the outside (there is something to think about for all those 3-years-in-one-job managers);
- the worst thing that society can do to itself is anonymity (internet, corporations, committees) because this dissolves group-membership.
If I look at my job-life through this lens, a number of issues light up. Some of the things I have done are absolutely spot on (like setting up a community of practice, uniting professionals), and some are absolutely useless (like explaining things to people who do not regard themselves as part of my community). Interesting. Still, I have to learn lots more before I can start to think what to do with these new found insights.
I will leave you with an anecdote. Husband and I decided to watch this film. At Xmas Eve. I thought I could take a night off 🙂 It was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the original one. The subtitles were wrong, in Swedish or something. So we spent at least 10 minutes trying to get it right – until it finally became clear that this was the first joke. On us, yes. My own fault for becoming too serious. Although it is kind of amazing that Husband fell for it too, but we won’t tell anyone.
My favourite animal in all the world is the Cheshire Cat, from Alice in Wonderland. You know the one, with the grin: “It vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin which remained some time after the rest of it had gone”. The image from the top of this post is from the Walt Disney movie. The original one is in black-and-white. Usually I prefer that one, but there is something in the vivid blue-green of its eyes that attracted me today.
I suppose this is the third and final part of my triptych on humanity. Today I am lamenting my feebleness. I can feel the cat disdainfully staring down at me. Such a weak human. And yes, so I am. This week I was out late on Tuesday (uni-assignment, an event I had to write a report on) and Thursday (good-bye dinner sending a colleague off to retirement). ‘Late’, for me, means, home by 22:30. I also ate out on Wednesday (pizza at the uni ‘coz we try to avoid the traffic back to Apeldoorn) and on Thursday (full dinner). I suppose it was the latter that did me in. In spite of Husband driving me everywhere. I handle restaurant food badly. It usually interferes with my CFS. I also handle staying out late badly. I need my rest. So now I am writing this draped in lounge wear feeling sorry for myself. Everything hurts. I tried to get through the day, but had to go to bed in the afternoon. I was so cold! Not fit for human consumption. I can feel the Cheshire Cat grinning at me, baring its teeth ever so slightly. Never mind.
So what can I tell you? I have been off work since the beginning of December. Belated summer holiday. It feels great, just to concentrate on studying. Had to complete the project report on chimps and language, which I told you about in my last post. If you want to read the report, it is here. My professor was impressed with the report, which was a novel experience. I have never known him to be so full of praise. Maybe he is overcome by the Xmas spirit. But to be honest, the report turned out so well because of the last-minute data-analysis. And I only did that because the professor more or less forced us to abandon our own inquiry and look into the relationship between normative behaviour and various types of coordination. I found evidence that implies we should distinguish between an animal acting as a group member (according to an existing group norm) and that same animal solving a problem in a social context. May sound obvious to you, but researchers are not currently making this distinction. If you want to think about the origins of language, it is the problem solving in a social context that is of interest, so this distinction may be important.
Silly, right? Well, not half as silly as what I nearly did. I had joked about morphing my professor’s head into a chimp and a student took me up on it. So I promised to create it, and then as I did it, felt awful about it. Husband said, you cannot send this. They won’t be able to keep it to themselves. And I suddenly woke up. What is the point of being a security architect and knowing the GDPR inside-out, and then failing to realise you cannot do things to people’s head without their permission? Let alone the head of someone who had been very supportive of me and would probably hate this silly joke. So I chickened out and offered my own head in a morph instead. Stupid woman, I can hear the Cheshire cat murmuring out there on his branch. Well, yes.
The other major thing was the presentation of the position paper. We had to do a 10 minute “pitch”. This kind of thing I did before in part II of this course, so no big surprises. The good thing was that there was a professional coach available who gave really good feedback. It does not matter how many times you have given a presentation, there is always something to learn. The pitch went fine. I put a lot of work into it, but because of my argument with the lecturer on the content (yes, he is the one the great grades before) I got nervous and blanked out for a second. Apparently no one noticed. Lots of nice things were said about the presentation. It is here, if you want to look at it. I was happy I got the Escher metamorphosis animation in, and with the way the Daniel Dennett character turned out (he is the bearded man towards the end of the presentation) coz I sort of constructed him myself in Adobe Illustrator. I love that kind of work. In my next life I want to be a graphic designer. Maybe Escher or his granddaughter. Please God, give me a little talent. Just a bit. It is such fun to create this stuff.
Currently, I am trying to solve the problem of my lecturer’s criticism of my metamorphis argument. I really do not understand what he is saying. Not even after making an appointment to see him. That is, I have understood that he wants the paper to be written in a specific format, and that what I did was much too grand. I put far too much work in to it. It needs simplification, trimming down to size. Which I will do. But there appears to be another problem. He keeps repeating that what I suggest, that you should test your metaphors before sending them out into the world, cannot be true, because I also claim that there are metaphors in every sentence we use. So therefore, as a philosopher, you cannot test for them. Too much work. It seems such a silly argument, not at all like him. I have been wrecking my brains what can be the cause. I did notice that in the Philosophy department there is virtually no knowledge of the so-called analytic side of philosophy – philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I checked with my own professor, and he said, yes, that is so. Apparently part of his job is to read to the Philosophy MA and PhD theses, so he knows. He said that recently they gave him a thesis to read on the Philosophy of Language based entirely on Merleau-Ponty. Right. That is like calling asking the Cheshire Cat to share its branch with a mouse. I teased him that he should be the next lecturer for the ReMa course, but somehow I doubt it is going to happen.
It started to dawn on me that with my little project on metaphors, I have landed myself right inside several heated philosophical debates. On the usefulness of Philosophia as compared to science. Because I regard thought experiments as metaphors. On the use of empirical methods in philosophy. Because I want to test for effects on real people. On the responsibility of philosophers for what they say to the public. On a philosopher’s supposed right to use language in any way he or she pleases. Plus some other things that have not occurred to me yet. So, I am in trouble. Whatever I say will be wrong. Great.
So, I have embarked on a different course. Once I had to solve a problem in the office where everybody disagreed and got rather violent about whatever they felt. The issue then was Open Source – very dangerous programming practice from a security point of view – which has the status of a cult religion. Anyway, I got around that by creating cartoon videos of the problems Open Source was creating for us. I thought I might try something like that with this. So I asked and got permission to write my position paper in the form a play. Which is what I am doing now. It is fun to write out dialogues. Hopefully it will make my lecturer smile. That might help.
Time for Nature’s remedy for everything: Tea. The Cheshire Cat grins. Never mind him. The fire place in the living room is crackling with burning wood. Nice and warm and cozy. Just what the doctor ordered.
The evolution-of-language project is coming together now that I have moved to the new group, as I told you in my previous post. We are still struggling a bit because we have to try to understand chimpanzee behaviour without the aid of proper definitions for concepts like “norm”, “intentional behaviour”, “coordination”, and “communication”. This is intentional on the professor’s part: because most definitions from literature are either wrong or not useful, his idea is that we have to work things out for ourselves by starting from scratch.
I attended a couple of Skype meetings with my new group, and we have waded through nearly 100 examples of possible normative animal behaviour. I had fun setting up a data sheet and translating our decisions into a ruleset. The ruleset helps in detecting inconsistent judgements, very useful when you have to look at this many examples. If you want to get an idea of the things we are looking at, check out this link. It is a kind of dictionary of ape gestures, including video fragments and an explanation of what each gesture might mean.
Did we arrive at any conclusions as yet? Well, the clearest examples of normative behaviour seem to occur when there is danger, death, sex or food (shortage) to be dealt with. So we are going to dive into those and see what components these behaviours consist of that might be a precursor to communication. I will report back on this when there is more to say. Although I think the project might not be entirely successful, because its organisation flaunt virtually all the rules of proper project management. Which in itself is not so bad – project management is not a religion – but I think the project has too many variables – in terms of goals, structure and method. Still, things may be different in Philosophia as compared to Real Life. I will wait and see. At the very least I get to keep the extensive library that the professor has shared with us. I have put all the books and articles into my citation system. Have a look if you like, it is all here. The index that is, I cannot share the books and articles themselves. Eh … and I have not read all of that. Some. More later.
Meanwhile, there is my other seminar. I already told you a bit about the seminar and its professor in this previous post. It is the Skills & Method class which runs for an entire year, and I am greatly enjoying this semester. Already I have written three short papers which got an “excellent” or some such- but I am holding my breath, because I will have to wait until next week to find out the actual grades.
The “big” paper for this class is a so-called “position paper”. The idea is that you take a methodological issue, describe it and then position your own ideas in relation to it. It is not meant to be terribly long – only 3000 words, which is about 6 pages excluding footnotes and biography. I have decided mine is going to be on “metaphors” as a philosophical instrument. I tried to confer with my supervising professor, but he is not much into methodology at this moment. He did warn me that one might spend a lifetime on metaphors. Right. So I have found out. I have been reading several books and articles on metaphors. Last week I was off work and bliss! could study 14 hours a day without interruption, only surfacing for domestic chores, the obligatory walks and the occasional shared leisure with Husband (we are watching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid plus we went in search of mushrooms in the big woods surrounding Apeldoorn). I wish every week was like this, for the rest of my life. Only 3654 days until retirement 🙂
Let me tell you a bit about metaphors:
- Metaphors are omnipresent. The average person utters one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, about six metaphors a minute.
- Metaphors are powerful. They can explain and amuse but also persuade and deceive. For that reason, they are often used in politics and advertising. Did you know the GDPR (the data protection act) contains metaphors depicting Europe as a land of milk-and-honey where democracy and freedom and wellbeing reigns, surrounded by hostility that we need to protect ourselves against?
- Metaphors are mysterious. There is no consensus about what exactly a metaphor is, how it is constructed or how metaphoric meaning is related to literal meaning
- Philosophers have widely differing opinions on the significance of metaphors to philosophy ranging from condemnation to embrace
So, metaphors are a big topic. My position paper will be about how philosophers should deal with metaphors. I will argue that they can either study metaphors, as a philosophical topic, or use them, just like ordinary people. A metaphor or a thought experiment (remember my post on thinking tools?) does not become philosophical because a philosopher uses it, whatever Daniel Dennett says. The interesting bit will be on how you can use metaphors responsibly. I will borrow from my work-life and suggest extensive testing – the only thing to do when you cannot fully predict the result of your metaphoric exploits.
Just for fun, I want to show you this wonderful video. It is just geometrical shapes moving about, but the curious thing about us humans is that we tend to see a story unfold:
Sometimes my current philosophy course reminds me of my Oxford days, where a professor’s claim to fame would consist in investigating a niche subject, like “beekeeping in the 4th century A.D.” I am not being fair. I love my own “niche” subjects but I lose my patience when others do the same. Ahem. Still, I find most of Philosophia interesting, even if, as I have explained before, a philosopher needs a cow’s bell to signal his position, for lack of maps and structure.
Today, however, was an exception. It was about thought-experiments. Now don’t get me wrong: I wanted to know about this. Thought-experiments as a tool, or as some would say, as a method. But that was not what the lecture was about. It was about an ongoing controversy between scientists and philosophers. Whether philosophical thought-experiments are essentially different from scientific experiments. Because scientists feel that the term “experiment” belongs to science and not to philosophers. Because philosophers should leave empirical (read: scientific) work to scientists. The cartoon below says it all. It is from existential comics, a fantastic source if you want to see philosophers laughing at themselves.
To me, this controversy is much like the analytic/continental divide. It only looks like a debate, but underneath it is all about funding. The scientists get much more, whereas philosophy has to get by on crumbs. Follow the money, Husband would say. Grossly unfair and not very sensible in the long run. And yes, philosophers need to speak up and defend themselves. Yet by itself, such a consideration does not make a topic interesting.
There was an interesting part to this lecture, the historical focus: how well-known philosophers like Galileo or Locke used thought-experiments, not just to argue their point, but also to draw attention to controversies or confusions. If you are into these historical figures, it must be wonderful to find new layers to their text. Somewhat like re-reading your favourite author, say Murakami (my personal favourite) and discovering a new meaning. However, I have no interest in Galileo or Locke, so it was all a bit wasted on me. Which, in a way, is good news. At least now I know there are topics in Philosophia that I can live without.
So what are thought-experiments, you might ask? Well, this was also my question, and it was not answered. That is not quite true. The lecturer did not. My fellow students did not seem to understand my unease with the general claim that thought-experiments are the designated instruments of philosophy. The professor in charge of the Skills seminar understood my objection well enough though, even tried to explain it to the class, but I don’t think anyone really cared that much. Maybe they were tired. It was the end of a long day. Never mind.
So now we are amongst ourselves :-), what are thought-experiments? You may look it up on Wikipedia, but let’s give you some nice examples. Ever heard of Achilles and the tortoise racing each other and Achilles not winning?
Or this one, the trolley experiment in ethics, where you get to decide who dies how in order to save lots of other people.
Now have a look at this sketch. This is from the world of business and no philosopher would – at first glance – think to call this a thought-experiment. But it is. Have a look. You must watch it to the end. It is about integrity.
Or this one, inspired by George Orwell’s animal farm. We all know how it ends: some animals are more equal than others.
I suppose you get the idea, without me throwing more books, cartoons, plays, paintings, riddles, poems, simulation models, fairy tales etc at you.
So what do I think thought-experiments are? Well, apart from lots of complicated questions about how our thoughts work, I think they are a means to an end. For the use of philosophers and non-philosophers alike to clarify whatever needs clarifying. Just like “real” experiments, the only restriction being that thought-experiments do not take place in the real world but in our imagination. I think there are no essential differences between a mental model, a guided meditation, a play, a painting or a mathematical formula IFF (if and only if) they are being used for instructional purposes. It does not matter who you are trying to instruct. It may even be yourself.
A thought-experiment has succeeded when it has clarified whatever it meant to clarify. Full stop. It also means that a philosopher (or any other person imparting information to a less knowledgeable audience) should try his or her utmost to provide clear thought-experiments, models, explanations. Because that is an important purpose of Philosophia: to clarify. If it does not do that, it might as well not be there.
On this slightly belligerent note, I conclude this post. Next, I will tell you about how things are going in the research project on the language evolution. As so many times before during this ReMa, I am learning things that I did not know I had to learn. It is still very recent as today I had to ask my professor to help sort out my group, so I am still sorting out my own thoughts. Plus, I am tired. I worked very hard these past few weeks. Next post, I promise.
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!
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”.
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.
I often have to find ways to express ideas without words. Many people simply not like reading. This may be because they are already overloaded with information. Or because they simply prefer other ways of communication. Have fallen out of the habit of reading or were never much good at it (a surprising number of managers are dyslectic, in my experience). Or don’t want to be inundated with information about a topic that they do not understand/have no knowledge about/are not interested in.
One group is exempt from this very general statement: philosophers. They live, breathe, and dream text. Also, they have nothing other than text. No diagrams, no visuals, perhaps the odd cartoon, but that is about it. Books, papers, articles: text, text and text. But that won’t stop me trying to find ways to visualise philosophical issues as well. Meanwhile, I browse visuals just for the fun of it. Below are a couple. I don’t understand them all, but wow, are they pretty.
Before I do, I promised to post my presentation for the Skills&Methods seminar, you know, the pièce de résistance that was one the main outputs of that seminar. I already posted the draft version of the article in another post. The presentation is quite different though. Don’t feel obliged to look at it, but if you do, make sure to look at in in presentation mode, so you don’t miss any of the animations and the little cyber-criminal quiz (where you have to point at little circles to make up the match; you will see. Use page-down to go from slide to slide, and click to see the animations within the slide. Anyway, here is the link. The file is 24 MB, so the best thing is to right-click the link and save it. If you are on a PC. Faster that way.
Intermezzo (the real reason for this post)
You probably thought that I am spending my “holidays” (only the day-time job) catching up on those wonderful philosophy books that I have been collecting. Well, so did I. But we were quite wrong. I just like collecting books. So what did I do? Except for sweltering in the heatwave like the rest of Europe? Well, I have been playing with my Wiki. You know, the one called concepts, which you can go to via the menu at the top of this blog). It is filling up quite nicely, but what I was playing with was not so much the content, but the construction. I have spent a great many hours getting this bit of machinery to work. So I thought, if I have to do that again, I will have forgotten it all, so I’d better write it down. And then I thought, that would be true of all the “tools” I use. From my citation system to my note taking routines to my internet sources or my WordPress tips, it adds up to quite a bit. Perhaps that is is true for many people. But Husband and I have just spent very pleasant evenings watching new episodes of Lewis that has just become available on our provider. We thought. Towards the end we confessed to each other that we had probably seen them before. Years ago. So better not to rely too much on the good old memory. I have created a another sub-site, next to concepts, called tools. Here I have started to share my notes about my bag of tricks. If you subscribe to this blog, you will not be notified because it is separate from this blog, which is probably just as well :-). Have a look, it is pretty (and very different from this one).
Back to the visuals. Below I included a few I liked. In the next weeks I will post a collection of good sources on the tool-blog, on this page.
The one thing I used to love about chemistry was its periodic table. It ticks all the boxes: clean, concise, clear, colourful and complete. I was not very good at chemistry – well, not the first time around, in my Dutch Grammar school. That was because I could not get my head around the idea that you have to learn the periodic table (and more besides) off by heart, in the same way
that youhave to learn your tables of multiplication. Second time around, in my UK school, I quickly made up for old laziness and became quitegood at it. So good, that they suggested I’d take a fifth A-level. Suggested is too weak a word, in fact. They wept (almost) and raved ( a bit). But I declined. I knew there came a point in chemistry where things become too abstract to my liking (which is when I get frustrated and have to put many hours in working through examples).
I would have loved one of the big mugs with the periodic system on it, but as you now understand, I
was not entitled(having dropped Chemistry after O level). Alas. So imagine my delight when I ran into the “periodic system of arguments” (see header image of this post). It has recently been constructedby a guy called Wagemans (Dutch or Belgian I assume), partly in collaboration with the university of Dundee. You might wonder just how I came across this? Well, from my previous post you know I had been going crazy over finding the right approach to finding and storing information about phil osophical subjects. There are lots of aspects to this question, but one I did not (much) touch on, is which tool to useto map arguments. Now if you think I might be a bitcrazy in my quest for knowledge, I am certainlynot the only one. There is a wonderful site where someone has been collecting and reviewing all mind-map software in the world. Here I came across OVA+ which is an ontology-based mapper for arguments. It is developedon top of an argument specification interface which these guys also developed. Specifications are useful because once everyone is using the same one, you can change tools without having to change your data. Like LibreOffice and Microsoft, because of acknowledged document interchange format specifications. generally
I started to play around with this tool, but found out quickly that it uses a classification of arguments which I was not familiar with. And that is how I eventually ended up with Wageman’s periodic table for arguments. Which, I will say it again, I am in love with. I could never remember the long list of types of logical arguments and fallacies with wonderful Latin names like “ad hominem” or “a Minore ad Majorem” because there seemed to be no structure to them. This periodic table of arguments is the structure: clean, concise, clear, colourful and (hopefully) complete. I have done a rehash of the information and papers, with information and pictures mixed in from other sources. If you like, you can have a look on the concepts-side of my blog: click here for a direct link.
The general idea is this.
- Take any argument, and decide on what is
statementto be proven, and what is the evidence; separate them out (write them in separate sentences if necessary). For instance: I am taking the washing inside because it it starting to rain. The statement “I am taking the washing inside” is what is to be proven(x); the reason I do this, the premiss, is because it is starting to rain( y).
- Next, decide on the subject and the predicates. Remember from school? The subject of the first sentence is “I”
,the predicate is “taking the washing in”. The subject of the second is “It” or “Rain”, the predicate is “starting to rain”.
- Next decide if the subjects are the same. They are not. Decide if the predicates are the same. They are not.
- That means this
argumentbelongs to the gamma-quadrant (=lower left) of the periodic table,which is of the form q(the to-be-proven statement, that I am taking the washing inside) is true because r(the premiss, that is is starting to rain) is true.
- Now decide what
kind ofstatements qand r actuallyare. The choices are: statementof fact(F), of policy(P= should, could, must) or of value (V). In this case, I would say that qis a policy statement, as it is my policy not to want to get the washing wet; whereas ris a statement of fact. This gives the argument the right to the colour purple (each 2-letter combination of F, P and V) has its own colour.
- Now we have a complete classification: this is a 2nd order subject argument with a fact and a policy, shortened as “2 sub FP”. It may be an argument from consistency (the only purple block in the lower left quadrant), but as Wagemans has not elaborated on that one yet, I cannot be sure (I have written to him about it but he is on holiday).
I am excited about this, because it works just like my old biology field guide of which I was inordinately fond as a child. I still miss it, but good old internet remembers it:
So, what have I learned? Well, there are people as mad as I am who spend their time constructing beautiful models out of chaos. Plus, I now have a method to recognise any argument and work out its internal structure, without having to resort to a long list of curious names which I cannot remember anyway. Great. One problem down, a million-minus-one-or-two to go.
- Take any argument, and decide on what is
No, not you. Nor all the little children playing hide-and-seek (for their sakes, I wish them lots of shade). Nor do I refer to the song by a very young Frank Sinatra in 1994, an episode of the British TV series ‘Thriller’ aired on June 29th 1974, the orginal 1939 version of the Wizard of Oz featuring Judy Garland, or when Robert deNiro as Max Cady used these words in the movie Cape Fear(1991). Or any of the other 281 interesting entries on QuoDB which I have not checked yet. But you can see what the problem is, I suppose. I am at it again. The gathering of knowledge. Putting it all in a model. Having it for breakfast.
Felicitous holiday making
I have buried myself in the production of papers for my philosophy course for the past few weeks. Which is now finished! Everything has been checked, double checked, read by Husband, checked again – and handed in. Which is a weird feeling, suddenly having nothing to do. Well, other than the normal things. But no special brainfood. Husband and I had planned to take a short holiday to celebrate completion of the Grand 1/4 ReMa Philosophy – but the weather forecasts showed temperatures over 30, even over 35, so Husband asked: “did you take you free cancellation?” I get very grumpy when it is hot, you see. I had taken out free cancellation, so as we have air conditioning in the bedroom, which the holiday-home did not, I excercised the right to stay at home and swelter in peace. I have not made up my mind whether I am going to be working from home. Have done some calls and mail, but it might be nice to take the time off anyway. We will see.
I won’t be posting the finished papers as yet. Mainly because I am too nervous about them and want to wait for the results. I know, it is silly. I worked very hard at them and cannot imagine not getting a pass mark, but these philosophers are a funny lot. Remember my own grumpy-as-you-please professor complaining I had not distanced myself, in my draft paper, from some major debate which I had never heard of? As we say in Dutch, an accident may hiding in a small corner:
Actually, I finished my papers well in time, so I have been thinking since last week how to spend the holiday period
in a felicitous manner. Do you like the word felicitous? It is standard jargon in philosophy of language, meaning that whatever is saidis linguistically appropriate. J. L. Austin invented it, so thatwe can say of speech-acts if they make sense or not, rather than being true or false. I am proposingthat the holiday-act is likewise neither true not false, but may be deemedfelicitous if a) it is a break from work and b) I enjoy it and c) takes a considerable amount of time so I would not normally have time to do it. Right? Right. Let’s turn to my holiday project.
A nice little outline
I have been complaining on and off about how difficult it is to get a bird-eye view of ‘my’ area of philosophy, which is about language, mind, cognition and the evolution of our abilities in that area. So I thought I would do myself a nice little outline, starting with a text book by my philisophy-of-mind professor which should tell me what has happened in the last 30-odd years. The first chapter told me that there had been an paradigm-shift. Maybe you have heard of mind-body dualism, this idea that mind and mind and body are distinct and separate? That began with Descartes. Nobody believes that these days, or at least not officially. So the received view is that mind and body are not sepearate. That is as far as the agreement goes. Beyong that, there are many different opinions.
One of the hotly debated issues is currently about whether our thoughts are represented in our brain at a physcial level (representationalism). The picture below shows how that is supposed to work: when you see and egg, the image of the egg is represented in the brain. The opposing view, called embodied cognition, is that cogniton works in a totally different way, without representatons, but by shaping through the body and its interactions.
So there was me, happily charting the arguments against Descartes, when it suddenly occurred to me that my chart was not in fact about these philsosophers, or their theories, but really about statements which they did or did not agree on. You can see the problem below. I used the Rationale website to visualise the argument. The idea is that you collect argument for (green) and against red). The problem is the text inside the boxes. Sometimes that text represents a new theory, which is fine, but more often than not, these are statements. These statements will not stick to one line of argument or to one philosopher, but will pop up again and again as the building blocks of theories. In this case, I have modelled the arugment up to the point where two lines of arguments needed the same building block – which is something the rationale software cannot do, and I know from experience, messes up any mind map. Because mind-maps are not standardised. That is their beauty and greatest pitfall. So what to do?
There are actually two answers to that question. One is, if you do not know what to do, do nothing. Better to wait until you do know rather than forcing a situation out of frustration. The other answer is: find out! I am sure I need not worry about frustrating philosophers or philosophy (they are in the business of making problems for themselves), let’s try to find out. I have been grappling with the problem of systematizing knowledge all through my professional career-that-is-not-philosophy-but-information-technology, and I have never seen big solutions. However, I have seen a great many very expensive projects fail, so I will try not to do that. Looking afresh upon philosophy with my information-technology background, delivers the following insight: philsophy has not been modelled. At all. Everything is in books and papers. No indexes, no logical schemes, no roadmaps, no modelling tools – nothing at all. Just text. There is something called the Philospher’s Index which sounded very promising to my yearning ears. Unfortunately it is a bibliographical index. You can find any philsophical paper of interest there, and the editors have conveniently written an abstract and attached keywords for everyone of them. Nice, but not what I am looking for.
The “can” test
Time to engage in what Husband calls the “can” test. He claims that he has never met an IT person who passed it, apart from myself, but that must have been a fluke, because if I had thought about it, I would have given the wrong answer. Don’t tell Husband, it was only after the can-test that he proposed to me 🙂
Imagine you are somehow transported to another world. You are quite safe, but hungry. In front of you is a can of food (you know because there is a picture of stew or beans or whatever on the outside). How will you open the can? At this point all the IT people go off in search of a stone to hammer the can. But you are supposed to think: hey, this is a planet where they have cans, so therefore they will also have can openers. So you will go in search of a can opener or a person who has one. The test (I now know) derives from a old joke which was meant to mock economists, first mentioned in a book called “Economics as a Science” by Boulding. This is the joke:
A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on a desert island and all they have to eat are cans of food. They’re discussing the best way to open them. The physicist says, let’s not overthink this – just bash them open with rocks! The chemist says, “No, we need to create a fire anyway and we can simply use the heat to cause the cans to burst open by themselves, and the food will already be cooked!” The economist thinks for a second and says, “First, let’s assume we have a can opener.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assume_a_can_opener
A stroll around the web – showed me that I was not alone in my queste for a can opener. I came across this fantastic website by a guy called Deniz Cem Önduygu who has charted the history of philosophy. I looked him up. He has an Masters in Visual art & communication. What a great profession! As for this effort: he calls it a “never-ending work in progress”. His major sources are “Bryan Magee’s The Story of Philosophy and Thomas Baldwin’s Contemporary Philosophy, but ideas of others and his own had been added. It is not complete, but only last year the site received a huge update. To give you a flavour of what he has done, look see, I have done you a selection with Wittgenstein. As you can see, a philosopher is associated with a set of statements; the green and the red lines go out to other philosophers meaning they agree or not. Every line can be followed. You can even put in search words. Enjoy it yourself, go over his site and play around. Be sure to switch off your VPN if you use one, because otherwise the graphics might not load.
Obviously this is much more than a nice little outline. The only drawback is, strangely enough, its contents: it is difficult to formulate a philosophical statement such that the original philosopher would agree with it. It is all about interpretation and understanding, and moreover, quite a few of them are dead now. The ones that live sometimes change their minds (as do the ones that have died, Wittgenstein for one). Still, if I knew how to do this, I would happily have tried my hand at creating my own version. Unfortutenatly the basic work is all done in excel and then professionally programmed (so the site says), so that is of no use to me. What is next?
The return of an old friend
If you want to create a representation of knowlegde that is not free-format, one way or another you end up at the semantic web. It is a web for data, and extension of the internet which can be processed by (mostly) machines. The semantic web has its own language, called Resource Description Framework (RDF). Basically, it is a data model, for which several syntaxes (serialisation formats) exist, such as N-triples, JSON-LD, Turtle, etc. On top of RDF other languages haven been built, such as OWL and RFDS. Now these names may seem just random collections of letters to you, and indeed, so they appeared to me. But some years ago I decided that the world really needed a good security taxonomy, so I dived right in.
To be precise, I dived into OWL, because this appeared to be the favourite language amongst semantic scholars. I installed the free OWL environment called Protege from Stanford University and worked my way through the “pizza example”. I came as far as a basic understanding how to construct an ontology (= a formal taxonomy written in OWL or another RDF based language) plus being to read one, but that was it. My problem was that to make a useful ontology you need to define many things in a specific technical or logical way. There was no gentle explanation beyond the pizza examples. I even posted a help-request on LinkedIn. Nothing. So in the end, after many many hours, I gave up. Too difficult for me. With friends like OWL you need no enemies, I thought.
Imagine my suprise at myself when I found myself back at the Protege tutorial, trying to set up a really simple ontology for what philosophers agree and disagree on, inspired by Deniz Cem Önduygu. I was not aiming for his wonderful red and green lines, but I was hoping to create something visual, say with bubbles. I did get a bit further this time. I succeeded in creating part of the ontology, but got stuck when I want to created relations between the various parts. The main thing was that now I understood that creating the ontology is only the first step. The next step is to put in the data, that is populate the ontology with philosophers, statements etc. And then, to create a program or some kind of view which allows you to use the insights which are part of the ontology. I imagined that I might succeed at step 1 and 2 if I spent another couple of days. But the last step was beyond me. I am not a programmer anymore. Or rather, the modern world no longer need an RPG-II programmer (not even a really good one) and I don’t know any modern programming languages. I suppose that learning Java or something like that just for this purpose would be a bit silly – once you stop using it, you forget it very quickly. So, yet again, I gave up. With a slightly better idea of what the problem is that I am trying to solve.
Another old friend
Before I returned to the field of security in my information-technology life,
I spentsome years on methods and techniques for application development. One of the issueswas software quality, how to set and monitor requirements. I shall not bore you with the details, but it turns out that software quality has several aspects which partly depend on each other, and work out differently in differently programming languages and environment. To grasp the necessarycharacteristics, you need a different kind ofdatabase, one which does not force you to know beforehand how many levels of relationsthere will be between the top-level requirement and the bottom-level actions and measures. I learned this from a book by a researcher called Stefan Wagner. To accompany his book, he also developed a prototype, for which he used a graph database. This is a database where you store the relationship between data alongside the data themselves, as opposed to classic databases which have a predefinedstructure for storing data. With a graph database you can not only modelbut also graphically present data. Exactly, in bubbles. Just what I like. Unfortunately we did not use graph databases at the office. The programmer on my who tried to get Wagner’s prototype to work on a private computer, got hopelessly lost, but refused to admit it, therebydestroying the project. I am still a bitsad about that. Anyway, I can install whatever I like on my home computer, so I went ahead andgot myself a community version of NEO4J. It turns out that you have to learn a query language called Cypher to be able todo anything at all. It is said that it is not difficult, but I really did not know where to start. I like to learn by example or trial-and-error. In this case, I did not even have a set of data to play aroundwith. There was no help to be foundanywhere. There are no manuals for straying philosophers with only a conceptual working knowledge of databases and query languages. So yet again, I gave up. At this point, Husbandasked what the problem was. I had been swearing at my inability to understand something which herds of people were apparently very proficient at. He concluded that “it must be a different logic”. Hmm. Maybe. So I put NEO4J in with the other friend that I don’t need: Protege/Owl.
Between me and my data
By this point it was dawning on me that I was trying to solve a problem with another problem and so on. Yet another opportunity for the “can” test I though, perhaps someone else is getting as frustrated as I am about the same thing. You guessed right. People are. I found this wonderful visualisation of my problem. You won’t understand it, and neither do I, but my experimenting has taught me all the words that I do not want to be involved with. Basically, what I want is to achieve bliss, i.e. what happens at the very bottom (my insights), by connecting to a data-source somewhere on the web (the very top layer), without all the hassle of the in-between stuff. Simple, eh?
Notice there is some kind of magic connection called SPARQL which seems to do all I need? It turns out that SPARQL is not just a query language but that there are lots of SPARQL “endpoints” which you can connect to if you want data. What endpoint? Well, how about the whole of wikipedia? Or streetlevel crimes in Wales? Art in Holland? It is a motley collection to be sure, but growing steadily. You can even get an extension on your browser so you can check if the website you are browsing is using a linked-data format which would allow it to become a SPARQL endpoint.
Below the surface: structure!
If you have made it up to this point, chapeau! I tried not to scare you off with difficult words and ideas, but basically this is the story of how I got lost and found in this tangle, so I know how you feel. What is so great about this new discovery (which ofcourse is not so new, people have been working on it for years and years), is that there is structure below the surface of the internet. Have a look at this wikipedia page, on Wittgenstein. After you have done so, look at the image below. It is the very same wikipedia page, but seen through the “eyes” of the linked-data browser, showing all the RDF entries. Every wikipedia page is structured like this, which is why you can query Wikipedia from the outside!
Getting there in the end
So where does this take me? Well, a very long way. I have found several places on the web which will allow me to do a layman’s SPARQL query. For instance this one, called Sparklis. I can just ask questions like this:
And it gives me a list of exactly 17 philsophers that have pragmatism as a main field of interest. Or anything else I want to know! I can export these data, or reuse the query in another program, which I have also been playing with, called Gephi, which will construct graphs for me. Yes, my bubbles. Finally I am getting to the kind of questions that I wanted to anser for my felicitous 🙂 holiday hobby project. I want to be able to tell how a philsopher was influenced by other philosophers, so I can decide on which common link to read up on. Or not. Saves quite some searching around, and the feeling of being able to see, in a virtual sense, the big picture, and draw conclusions from it, is great. I love it. Have a look at some examples what I have found so far. I will put them in with the concept side of my blog.