New ideas: a partial answer (part 2)
In the past year, I have been thinking and reading, and trying to find out what other people have said on the subject that I wish to expand. I think I am now embarking on a different phase: pulling out all the ideas – like weeds 🙂 – and drawing them together into a narrative.
I have started on my dissertation “proper”. That is, I have set up the outline and am now in the process of filling in the blanks. You can check my progress if you like, but this comes with a warning. Some of the ideas should not be spread to security officers before I interview them, because it would render the interview useless. So, if you think you might be a candidate for interview on the meaning and implication of ISO norms on security, do not read my dissertation-in-creation. I trust you. Really. My dissertation-in-progress is on https://publish.obsidian.md/theartofmisunderstanding. It will ask you for a one-time password. If you want it, write to me, although you might guess it :-). The landing page will refer you to my progress page, and there you can see what I am working on at any particular moment. There is quite a bit of tooling behind the dissertation-writing process. I use Obsidian in combination with Zotero. If you are interested, ask me, or check out a showcase like this one. Also, videos by Brian Jenks are worth checking out. He uses Obsidian as an extended memory to manage his ADHD and has excellent structure and tips.
Meanwhile, my general progress report: I had a lot of fun finding out that the theory of speech acts which is at the basis of my research, has somehow escaped into the real world without language philosophers knowing about it. In fact, the ideas that have “got out there” are not just about language but about cognition and interaction in general—again, without philosophers being aware of it. I find this very amusing. On the one hand, you have these philosophers who are very seriously trying to work out what it all means, and then, on the other hand, normal, practical people borrow these ideas, and put them into practice, sometimes with astonishing success, but without any theoretical foundation whatsoever. And never shall the two meet ..
What kind of ideas? Well, the ideas about feedback being necessary to interaction. That particular idea originally came from biology, from two philosophers called Maturana and Varela, giving rise to such concepts as a PDCA cycle (Plan-do-check-act). The blanket term is “cybernetics”, and the underlying popular theory is known as “system theory”, which derives from autopoiesis. I was first introduced to this theory during my research master, and blogged about it here. The idea is that any system, whether a cell, an animal, or an organisation, will try to keep itself alive whilst engaging with the environment to increase its chances of survival. I am sure you find this idea, well, simple. This is how we commonly think. But we did not always think that way. It is something we learned to do, as a society, in the past 100 years, or even not much beyond 50 years.
The point is, this feedback-notion is an important philosophical idea which is rooted in a specific theory. Would you believe—this is for the IT people in my audience—that the agile and lean ways of thinking are derived from this, without any further theoretical grounding? I checked this extensively, and also talked about it with the Dutch cybernetics society. So, it appears that the philosophical ideas from the first half of the 20th century just went viral, and people tried them for practical purposes, adopting them if they seemed to work, and then of course went on from there to create more practices. Without there being any proper feedback loop to improve the initial theories. Incredible. How does anyone, philosopher or practical person, image we learn from this?
Did I intuit this before? Well, I did notice there was something going on, but I was not sure what exactly. I had previously noticed that frameworks like ArchiMate – a framework for describing organisational and IT structure—are, in spite of their claims, not derived from philosophy of language, just from practical application. Which is ok, but I do find the pretense of “scientific evidence” quite amazing in the absence of a proper theory and proper validation. And yet, the authors of Archimate tried—the same cannot be said of business concepts like “lean” and “agile” which are totally devoid of any theoretical basis whatsoever, and derive their strength from our natural tendency to work in small tribes, which we share with our chimp and bonobo ancestors. Which – for those of you that are agile-believers – does not necessarily mean the agile theory is wrong. Just that it caters to our cognitive disabilities as animals and apes rather than to any grand business theory ….
I had also noticed, in the work of Jan Dietz and his DEMO method for analysing business IT, that Dietz incorporated a notion of speech acts and commitment which went way beyond what was understood at the time and certainly had not found its way into other IT business or architecture thinking. That fascinated me. How did he manage this? So I interviewed Jan Dietz (a pleasant occasion at a café in Leiden) and found that indeed he had understood something that philosophers had not understood at the time. He told me wonderful stories about how his method saw the light, and what happened on his first projects. With respect to my search into the notion of “commitment” in his work, he referred me to the work of Winograd and Flores (1986). Both men are now nearing 80, but still very much part of the world, and, important to me, turned out to be willing to answer my questions.
Terry Winograd is the inventor of the Google search engine and the initial driving force behind the idea of artificial intelligence. I wrote to him, but as I expected, his particular expertise was not language and normativity but IT. That language bit, he said in a private message to me, had come from his co-author, Fernanda Flores, whom he was still seeing regularly.
Fernando Flores is a person in his own right: a former minister of Finance in Chili, a philosopher, and a successful businessman; his communication advice costs about a million per piece. However, there was nothing in Flores’ writings that explained where he got his ideas from, so I wrote to him and managed to obtain an interview via Zoom. Amazing! We spoke for almost two hours. The idea of “speaking = acting = incurring commitment” is at the basis of the new Chilean plan-economy in the early 1970s, at the instigation of Flores himself. His communication-with-commitment ideas were shaped by Stafford Beer, the father of organisational management, who took Maturana’s original theory and applied it – without his consent – not to biological cells, but to organisations, i.e., treating businesses as living organisms. Flores himself spent years in jail after the right-wing coup—being visited by, yes, Maturana, amongst others. Cybernetics became associated with communism, which did not help its academic stature much. I recall being at school, as a teenager, at the time that all of this happened, and not understanding much. My parents were very right-wing, and I was told that anything to do with communism and socialism was bad. I remember getting a geography essay on Chili back with my teacher remarking that “I might have invested more effort”. Quite! Well, here is my karma, after all. There is a great book on this; see Medina, E. (2011). Cybernetic revolutionaries: Technology and politics in Allende’s Chile. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
I also found that psychologist Watzlawick’s ideas about communication, which I blogged on before and liked very much, stem from the very same cybernetic tradition, the idea that our social connections form a system within which we interact-much like a living system that strives for survival and expansion and interaction. The idea is, do not just look at the message. Look at the whole context. By the time I had found all of these cybernetic applications of a single under-developed philosophical idea about the connection between speech acts and commitment, I was getting quite excited. I wondered what had gone wrong with cybernetics and why the connection to philosophy had been lost? So I searched high and low and eventually came across a book by Novikov, which shows the entire area of application of cybernetic theory.
If, from the picture above, you get the idea that artificial intelligence is also not rooted in philosophical theory, you would be quite right. AI is all practice and practical application without any theoretical basis in language or philosophy whatsoever. But don’t tell anyone, because no one wants to know. Everyone wants funding and an audience.
Right. So now the only thing I have to do is to connect cybernetics back to its philosophical roots 🙂 and then, for language understanding, reconnect it to philosophical moral theory and cognition. Not exactly simple to do, but needs must, as they say. The problem, is that there is no system or consistency to the application of cybernetics to its operational fields. It literately escaped from the philosophical laboratory. So I would have to start either from the original theory of cybernetics from its inception by mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (1948) and work my way forward. Or I should posit my own theory and try to fit practical results from real life applications of the theory into my new theory. It will have to be the latter as I am not a historian, but it is daunting nevertheless.
I am leaving you to ponder over my new insights into cybernetics, but also with a book suggestion for which I thank both Husband and my friend Teja. Two female philosophers have written a book about four courageous women philosophers at Oxford at the time of the 2nd world war: Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley. See the review in the Guardian. (Dutch people: do not read the NRC review because it is pretentious clap-trap, sorry to say, just order it from here.) Anyway, such a great book! Finally, I understand why my many questions were not answered when I was there (at the time I blamed myself). The main pleasure comes from knowing why and under what conditions the important analytical theories were produced, as well as how the great philosophers interacted and how any other ideas were excluded. Lots of insightful gossip about horrible men and passionate quests for understanding. I love it. I’m halfway through the audiobook now. I am going to write to the authors when I finish, to thank them for putting analytical philosophy and my own Oxford experience into perspective for me. It is a delightful read, highly recommended.
My next journey is into agency, the connection between roles and norms and understanding. I will keep you posted.
PS. Did you see my post on LinkedIn about my son graduating in Law and moving to philosophy? For those of you that know us personally, you know we went to hell and back. So grateful it all ended well. I thank all of you that liked and/or commented. The young need our encouragement, as we left them so many problems to solve that we could not.
Done and dusted
The research master is completed. Done. And dusted. But my, what a lot of dust!
Before I embark on that “dust”, let me express my profound gratitude to the universe, teachers, friend and colleagues and above all, Husband, for guiding, supporting and generally putting up with me during the years. Can’t have been easy ❤️ It also really took it out of me: this was a full-time 2-year degree which I did whilst being employed full-time, and in less than ideal personal and work circumstances. Which I only managed coz I absolutely loved every minute of it, even the first 6 months when I was scared stiff my brains were no longer up for this kind of battering. Or that the real (young) students would laugh at the old bat 🙂
Now why do I lay this on so thickly? Coz I don’t need to convince you, most of you know this. Well, it is the “dust”. Let me explain. My supervisor had expected the rounding up of my thesis to go smoothly, and hence, so had I. But something entirely different happened. During my thesis “defense” I ran into a breed of academic that I had not encountered before. A well-respected researcher specialising in at least half of the stuff my thesis was about. Seriously, I read quite a few of his papers, and he is good. He was brought in as my second examiner. During the 50 odd minutes I had to defend my thesis, this second examinar held the floor for well over half an hour, attacking me on points of form and method. He seemed to think a particular method – a mechanism – I employed merely as a source of inspiration to construct a research paradigm, should have been used, to “prove” a specific phenomenon. A parallel with the outside world: that is like the difference between devising a business strategy versus writing out the technical specifications of an IT system: totally different things. He must have understood some of that because he branded me a “generalist”, and himself a “specialist”. As if one excludes the other. Now I think about it, it did feel a bit like the day job: explaining security policy to an infrastructure whizzkid, just as, I suppose, it was once explained to me. Anyway, this guy did not ask me one genuine question. Not one. Instead he seemed to be arguing a point, saying things like “just as I thought” “what do you actually think philosophy is” and “just to prove my point”. I was flabbergasted. Was this an examination? I pointed out that I had adopted a problem-solving approach to a difficult issue and that it yielded results. According to him, the reason the problem had not been addressed was that it could not be solved, otherwise it would have been solved – by someone else, was the implication. Wow. A street fighter.
It took me a while, at least 15 minutes, to understand what was happening, and even then I could not believe it. I have been an examiner myself at some points in my life. To my mind, what this guy did was unprofessional, nothing to to with a neutral assessment of someone’s knowledge and work. But I was too much taken aback to say so. Thankfully my supervisor interrupted a couple of times with questions of his own, allowing me some time to regroup. He also made remarks about a third examiner, and how my end grade would be a weighted average, and that he himself had hoped for a different outcome, even that my work had giving him some new insights. It took me until the next day to deduce that there must have been a disagreement between examiners, which is by procedure is the only reason the third examiner is ever called upon.
So how did this end? Well, the damage is not too bad. My final score drops by .25 point to an 8.2 coz my thesis got a 7.5. So no big deal. I still get cum laude, say my diploma supplement. But I am annoyed. No, not annoyed, upset. Sad. It is not about the grade – if I had even been asked why I had used that particular approach in my thesis and they not agreed with the answer, that would have been fine. But this is not what happend. This little man I do not even know, single-handedly spoiled the very last event of my research master by embarking on some kind of personal war, without clear reason, without regard, completely out of the blue. What on earth could have made him so angry? It cannot have been the idea of a mechanism for enactive cognition, coz I wrote once a paper on that which was marked by his co-researcher and got a high grade. I suppose I did argue that, in philosophy of language, a broader view should be taken than is generally taken by individual, specialist researchers. I did propose, from my model, new issues to research, or to research differently. But that is not something to get angry about, is it? But I suppose the real reason has to remain a mystery. I have decided that I will not lodge a complaint because I can see that university procedure was followed meticulously. I will also not bother my supervisor with this, because I can tell he already did what he could. But I will, in my student-evaluation, suggest that the university amend the Research Master thesis defense-procedure to allow for situations like this – to give the student a chance to be informed of the objections of a second examiner in time to defend or amend. Might not do any good, coz this may be a rare case, but at least I will have voiced the issue.
What have I learned? Well, as my friend Teja has told me a thousand times, a university is not always a safe place. And as Husband often reminds me, I tend to be too trusting. Right. Wake up time, and let’s be grateful I learn it now and not years hence. This kind of situation certainly is not a risk I will run for my PhD. I will find some other medium to express interesting stuff, and stick to the well worn approach for university work. I will also make sure that I connect with every professor judging my Phd research well in time until I am sure that I have explained myself sufficiently and ironed out any creases. Which also means that I have to find another way and environment to express my more daring thoughts and interesting notions. Not at work, though, coz that runs into the same but different problems 🙂 I will think on this, maybe do a series of short papers or publish informally on some blog or medium or other. Do drop me a line if you have ideas. I do want to voice my newly found insights on the crossroads between language, security and IT – there are so many old, even obsolete, philosophical theories still believed in by the general educated public, that I itch to dispel some of them, and replace by something more productive. Such as the idea that using language is no more than stringing along words derive their meaning from referring to an entity in the world. That is an old idea, introduced by Frege, but even he give up it up towards the end, as I found to my surprise in my little Frege adventure. Yet everyone in IT seems to cling on to this idea as if it were a religion. The reverse is also true: Ashby, a psychiatrist who in the previous century pioneered in cybernetics and invented the “homestat”, and with that, the idea of a double feedback loop in status tracking, the basis of every now existing quality control and assurance program. There must be millions. In philosophy, this concept is not discussed often or not in connection with language, which I think is a pity. But my research will change that, I hope ;-), or at least throw a crumb in that direction.
So what is next? Well, I here post links to my thesis and to my research proposal. I am proud of both. There are summaries to both of them, so please don’t feel obliged to read them (I will never question you about them, honestly). But some of you seem to want to read these, so needs must.
If things go as planned, I will start my research in september. It should take 4 years full time, but who cares if it takes 7. I want to finish it before I get pensioned off though. Through the day job, I have managed to secure positions both on the board of the international committee creating norms on information security and on the national governmental board of professionals directing compliance with said norms, so I am exactly where I want to be to run the research I want on both “sides” of the normative coin. Also, coz I am nearly 60 now, I now get a day off every monday. Great employer, eh? The universe smiles, I suppose. Let’s go for it. The old bat is up for it 🙂
And so, dear diary – things are finally coming to an end. A temporary end, from which things progress further. As Robert Jordan wrote: there are neither beginnings nor endings to the Wheel of Time.
Yes, I am in contemplative mood. Or just exhausted. Same difference. You know that feeling, when you just keep going, that feeling of plodding on, through imaginary wind and snow and rain, until yesterday and tomorrow blur into each other?
I think these years I must have reached my very own Olympic peak in “compartmentalising” – the little trick I taught myself when I was very young, to separate out the things that needed living through in time, space and attention. It is a simple process: just fit every task, every emotion, every thought, into its own little pigeon hole and set the alarm for when it must opened. And shut again.
Occasionally my human mind will seize control, but nothing that cannot be crowded out by listing to a favourite audio book (yes, Scandinavian noir). Only just before I fall asleep the pigeons will fly out to where I cannot catch them, and I murmur about it to uncomprehending Husband before my power supply goes dark. A more sensible person than myself might think it time for a holiday.
I went bit over the top with my pigeon holing. For the past couple of years I have forced myself to do one thing at the time, and one only. Every day and every moment. Well, admittedly there is that bit of working through my mail backlog whilst participating in some digital work conference that is beyond slow but I am supposed to listen to patiently (I am not allowed to peel potatoes secretly anymore coz it has my colleague in stitches with laughter). But mostly, I stick to one task at the time, for multitasking is not a good idea if you want to do something well and you don’t have the time or the opportunity to re-do it. Alas, some tasks will not wait for the next pigeon to fly out. So I find myself setting my phone alarm for the oddest things. Check the rising of the bread rolls in 10 minutes. Call Son to remind him of something or other at 9:00. Complete the home-delivered shopping by midnight on Wednesdays. Stop studying by 22:00 and have a drink with Husband. I even have a winding-down alarm reminding me I should be preparing to go to bed in 45 minutes.
So, what has come to an end? Well, a couple of things. Some of them are a bit too personal to share here – you know, the sad stuff that happens to all of us eventually, and seems to happen a lot more frequently as we get older. Let’s say I won’t be sending this update to as many subscribers as I did before.
But one momentous thing I must share with you. I have officially ended middle age and am now an old crony. Officially, because as a civil servant I can trade in some of my holiday leave plus a tiny portion of my salary in what is called an PAS scheme (no one know what the letters stand for) to get one full day off every week. Is that not incredible? I suppose they will soon throw it out or delay it because the pension-age used to be at 65 but got extended, by nearly 2.5 years in my case. So, I still have another 8 years to go, but on a 4-day work week. Wonderful. That gets me three full days a week for uninterrupted studying. And all it took (because I could have applied for it last year already) was to swallow my pride and admit that I am, well, not so young anymore, perhaps. Maybe.
What else has happened? Well, yes, finally. I handed in my state-of-the art paper, my thesis and my research proposal. It was a frightening thing to do, coz once you handed it in, then what? Wait. Bite nails. Wait some more. Actually, I wrote three state-of-the-art papers. One on the topic that my supervisor (the loveable grump) suggested and I gave up on. One on what I wanted to research. And a final version added as a glossary to my thesis coz I decided to review three different theories and one cannot expect the examiners to be familiar with all of them. State-of-the-art papers don’t get graded, just pass or fail, and apparently I passed. Today my supervisor wrote to me and said he really liked my research proposal. Which is great, coz that will be my job description for my unpaid PhD candidate job for the next few years (just as well I got a day off from work). A whole new road ahead (yes, mellow yellow).
Which leaves my thesis. It was already reviewed once, and deemed of sufficient academic quality, but I was advised to make it “easier to read”. And could I not plug in a few examples? I was surprised. This is the kind of comment I might get at the office, but surely not here, with all these super clever academics? My supervising professor laughed outright when I said that. But anyway, I got the point: academics want to be catered to even if they pretend they don’t need earthly comforts like summaries and the like. Also, it turned out I had not used the APA referencing system quite correctly and I also had to flesh out my research question a bit – in short, I have just handed in a second version. Hopefully it will be ok. And then the procedure starts – well, it has already started. The examiners (there are three, my supervisor included coz he happens to be chairman of the examination board) receive both the thesis and the research proposal by June 20th and once they have read it all, I get a chance to defend it semi-publically. When I received notice of this, I wondered if I would have to wear a gown and cap (I still have mine though they might be moth-eaten), but when I consulted another student, it turned out I did not. Just as well I asked, imagine how silly I would have looked 🙂
So what did I write about in the end? I will post the documents on this blog once they are approved. The thesis, or publishable article as it is officially called, is about 11300 words excluding glossary and bibliography so you might have better things to do considering Spring has just arrived and corona measures are finally being lifted. But basically, what I did is try and work out what philosophy of language is about these days, and how to further it in a sensible manner. It turns out that the field was invented some 150 years ago, and developed in roughly four phases which nobody bothered to document very clearly as they were too busy killing each other. My previous degree did not go beyond phase 1, which explains why I had to work so hard to understand what was going on and who was arguing what against whom. Here comes the abstract to the thesis which is called: “it is in the singing, not in the song” – a multidisciplinary approach to language use.
Language, as a social practice, involves abilities not specific to language, e.g. agency, attention, interaction, perception, memory and inferencing. Philosophical perspectives on language use can be enriched by integrating research with cognitive psychology and philosophy of biology. To show how this may work, I outline three ‘rebel’ theories: autopoietic enactivism, cultural evolutionary psychology, and normative inferentialism against a general background of the evolution of language.These can be combined into one levelled framework if we assume cognition to be normative and embodied, and to be constructed out of old animal parts. Two central processes impact all levels of the new framework: normative regulation and identity-generation. Suggestions are made for further research based on predictive processing.
And the abstract for the PhD research proposal, which is called – yes: “the art of misunderstanding”. It is not just armchair philosophy either, I get to enjoy myself by doing a nice bit of empirical research on my colleagues.
Speech act theory offers a central insight: utterances do not just convey meaning, they are actions that assert, request, warn, promise, invite, predict, offer, direct, etc. In conversation, we generally recognise speech acts automatically and correctly, and almost as soon as the other starts to speak. But in some situations there is a problem. With regulatory texts on specific subjects, even the experts frequently disagree exactly what responsibility these texts confer onto whom. I propose to show that in these situations, the misidentification of speech acts is a major source of confusion; that the author(s) and audience have different interpretations of what speech acts are contained in these texts, and what the normative dimensions of these speech acts are. These findings will be interpreted in the context of Brandom’s normative inferentialism, and against the background of the cognitive theory of predictive processing; both sharing an notion of common ground and score keeping. Together, these theories may be combined to provide a framework for normative agency and interaction, of which speech acts are an instance. From this combination of philosophical insights and experimental findings, I aim to provide recommendation to improve understanding of regulatory texts on information security.
I leave you with a picture of one of my favourite flowers: buttercups. I adore meadow flowers like daisies and poppies and buttercups. Find yourself a field full of them to roll around in – I certainly will.
Next time I will tell you about the thesis itself, and what fascinated me about it, and what I discovered and how all of that is related to shades of glorious yellow. And after that, I will be talking about the research project – which will take me four years, so plenty of time for that.
Trust me, I don’t know either
Water, sea, waves, skies – I adore them. I stand in great awe of artists who manage to capture their light. Like Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky who painted the translucent waves of the picture at the top of this blog. He did many more (you can use the link to check him out). This particular one he did towards the end of his life, and is special because there are no ships, people, or shoreline. Just water and light. So breathtakingly beautiful.
I am not quite sure why I wanted this particular picture for today’s post. Possibly I am missing the sea. In other years we usually take mini-holidays near the sea so I can walk bare-foot along the the sea line. I can do that for hours on end. If Husband would not suggest we’d better turn back, I believe I would not stop. I love wading between the little islands that form between tides. I sing to the waves and talk to the birds, but mostly I breathe and splash water with my feet. Yes, quite like a child. Adulthood is overrated 🙂
I suppose wild water signifies opposite things to me. Beauty, freedom, light, strength, life. But also force and danger and sudden change. A bit like living, perhaps. And there is my link. I wanted to tell you about trust. Trust is risky business. I have been thinking about it in connection to language and cognition, and I developed my own little theory. Which is probably wrong, but it is my first, so bear with me.
This is also the long-promised fourth and last instalment of my mini-series ‘studying in times of Corona’. The first wave (hmm) as it now transpires we are heading into the third. I think the Netherlands must be the very last densely populated European country to go into lockdown. But we are. From tomorrow. Not before time, either. Husband has gone out, trying to get coffee beans. It appears he is not the only one. Even though coffee is ‘essential’, surely.
My last “big” seminar was on “folk psychology”. You might think that is people pretending to be psychologists, but it is a bit different. The idea is that we read each others’ minds. All the time. We do that, supposedly, to understand and predict each other. We know or we think we know ‘what makes other people tick’. We think in terms of belief-desire: we are rational beings that believe and want things, and that is what makes us act. The idea is from Hume, and draws on Aristotle’s de Anima. So it has been around a long time, long enough for you and I to believe it firmly. Sounds plausible, eh? Flattering too: the Homo Sapiens really got it all sussed. No wonder we are at the top of the evolutionary ladder.
You probably saw it coming: perhaps not. This is a big debate in current Philosophy of Mind now. I wrote a very, very long paper on it, far exceeding the number of words allowed for a paper, first reviewing the various positions on the issue, and then developing a bit of my own theory. If you want the read the paper, it is here. It got me an very good grade, but I suppose I was lucky the professor wanted to read it at all, as it did not conform to any of the usual requirements. He said it was majestic, but not a paper at all, more like the outline of a book or a dissertation. Well, yes, I suppose it was. I was so excited about the topic. Still, I felt lucky to get detailed feedback. Not used to get this much attention to my work. At the office no one is in the business of improving my mind, I suppose 🙂
I will try to tell you what debate on folk psychology is about, because otherwise I cannot explain my own little theory. Let’s take how we normally talk about each other as a starting point. We talk about our mental states a lot. About what we think, believe, feel, and why and why not. We are also very much aware of other people having thoughts, beliefs, etc. Children learn to do this at an early age, it is thought as early as 15 months. It is a fundamental ability for social interaction because it allows us to cooperate and coordinate. At all levels, in a family, in a shop, at school, at work or in government. You can see this ability at work very easily. We explain ourselves constantly in terms of what we believe and feel. And we call each other out: Why did you do that? What is the point of this? Such behaviour is characteristic of humans. Because there is little (or none, as some would have it) evidence of animals making each other justify their behaviour.
So what is the big debate about? Well, it is not about whether we display this behaviour or whether this is typically human. It is about whether this folk psychology is an innate, genetically inherited ability. The received opinion was and mostly is, that this innate ability is what makes human special, sets us apart. Philosophers who think that, usually also think that this ability lives in the brain, as some kind of specialised module. That we read our own mental states and others, because we have special equipment to do so given to us by Evolution. At great cost, because large brains are expensive in terms of energy. But those with the best mindreading abilities survived, because clearly this provided a competitive advantage. This is called the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. It also explains our intelligence and our ability to plan ahead.
There are some big problems with the view. One is that our reactions to other people are much faster than would ever be possible if we consciously evaluated mental states. Another one is that if you look upon other people in the third person, as agents with mental states that you can read, that leaves no room for true interpersonal experience, for experiencing together. Then there is the matter of the horse and the carriage – do our mental states explain our behaviour, do we act in accordance with our intentions? Or is it the other way around ? Cecelia Heyes, a philosopher-psychologist says that folk-psychologising is very clever, but that there is no neural basis for it. At all. It is an ability which we have discovered, fostered, taught to our children and hence transmitted across generations, through cultural learning. We teach our children from birth to respond and to learn, that is what makes us special. There are others, who say that cognition is not individual and not brain-bound; that is just an fairly recent idea which came from our own invention of computers. And so on and so forth.
The main idea, from the non-traditional camp, is that social cognition, including our mind-reading ability, is extended by language. Language is required for cooperation, specialisation and coordination. And as device for the enculturation of social memory. Not, as classic philosophy of language would have it, to express truths about the world – remember my post about Frege? No special genes, no special modules. Simply something we have learned to do well as a species. Much like to our ability to drive or play games.
You may shrug and think this new approach not a big deal, but I can assure you it is, in my little Philosophia bubble. It turns human cognition into something that is shared with other primates, which opens up a whole new vista of research. We do have to redefine the word “cognition” though, so that it does not refer to just to humans, but that should not be too much of a problem. Philosophers of language have done much worse in the past 🙂
And now it is curtains up for my little theory. It struck me that in neither “camp” there was a true discussion or inquiry into “why”. Why do we mindread? Or pretend we do? Obviously the survival-of-the-fittest theory won’t wash, as this ability is not genetically inherited. So why? I learned from cases in psychiatry that what therapists do, is to provide consistent feedback when patients cannot do this for themselves. As if they temporarily take over the social mindreading function until the patient can do it for him or herself again. Obviously that requires trust. If you look at this from the patient’s point of view, then what you see is a form of cognitive offloading – the patient outsources, as it were, mental work to the therapist. If you look at cognition in general, this what we do all the time, outsource, offload task to our environment. To the environment, to other people, to artefacts like books, and recently to smart devices – anything to free up cognitive resources. Even if we accept information from someone, you may regard this as a form of cognitive offloading. And all of it requires trust. If you cannot rely on whatever you outsource your cognitive labour to, you are at risk.
In a nutshut, social cognition requires constant risk management. So there. I will come back to this idea at later point, because it will be a theme in my PhD. Talked it over my professor today, and he agreed. I will tell you about the full proposal once I have written it up, but there will be a relation between felicitous conditions for speech acts, trust and what we do – in language – to compensate when we are not sure what we or who we are dealing with. Maybe I will find out something interesting. And if not, that is also of interest.
Next I will tell you about my tiny adventure with Continental philosophy and a French philosopher who causes my regular professors indigestion. And then it will be thesis time – these days called a “publishable article”. I was told today that I have already done all the preparation I need (which means my research log = state-of-the-art paper =10 EC), so I will be writing the outline in the next few weeks. Exciting. But there is also Xmas, and Husband and Son and Xmas dinner to cook and films to watch.
I hope your Christmas will be pleasant.
This is supposed to be the last out of four blogs to tell you about my academic exploits in times of Corona. But meanwhile life has been catching up, and there are some other things I would like to share with you. Now preparing my master thesis. The first step takes the form of what is known as a “state of the art” paper. Yes, I have finally started. I think this paper is intended to be a place where you collect notes, insights, what-have-you about the topic you want to to you thesis on. It is not graded, just pass or fail. Mine will be on mindshaping. Yes, my professor suggested it, as I predicted, he seems to have an idea of where I am going even if I don’t.
So, what is mindshaping? Well, I don’t properly know yet. It is a new word, judging by what google ngram says about it. Seems to have been invented around 2009, and its use is gaining. It is a framework for social cognition, how we are biologically predisposed to create collective behaviours so that we may cooperate better. Bit vague? Yes. In fact I am going a little crazy with trying to get to grips with the idea. It does not help that I only have a few hours at any one time – and that only rarely – to study. Ha, making excuses! I hear you think. Well, that may be so. But I am groping about in semi-darkness though. I have started a logbook, just to keep track of things. It has already shown me that my ideas jump like fish, in and out of the bowl. My professor kindly sent me some additional papers to read, but I am struggling to connect these to the topic of mindshaping. I felt like a character out of a Murakami plot, specifically one I saw a movie of, called “Barns burning”. It contains the following scene:
As I mentioned, when I first met her she told me she was studying mime. One night, we were out at a bar, and she showed me the Tangerine Peeling. As the name says, it involves peeling a tangerine. On her left was a bowl piled high with tangerines; on her right, a bowl for the peels. At least that was the idea. Actually, there wasn’t anything there at all. She’d take an imaginary tangerine in her hand, slowly peel it, put one section in her mouth, and spit out the seeds. When she’d finished one tangerine, she’d wrap up all the seeds in the peel and deposit it in the bowl to her right. She repeated these movements over and over again. When you try to put it in words it doesn’t sound like anything special. But if you see it with your own eyes for ten or twenty minutes (almost without thinking, she kept on performing it) gradually the sense of reality is sucked right out of everything around you. It’s a very strange feeling.
“You’re pretty talented,” I told her.
“This? It’s easy. It has nothing to do with talent. What you do isn’t make yourself believe that there are tangerines there. You forget that the tangerines are not there. That’s all.
Right. Simply forget that the tangerine is not there.
It gives me a sense of real unreality or unreal reality that sort of suits me. As if I am floating in a sea of ideas. I have been trying to ground myself listening to audiobook detectives. In fact, I have devoured piles of them in the last few months. Not necessarily of great literary value. I love intoxicating who-dunnits that I listen to whenever I have to do some chore that allows for listening. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, cycling, whatever. To give you an idea:
- Arnaldur Indridason, an Icelandic writer: 8 detectives (all I could get). Iceland grows on you as you listen (except for the food which is heavy and greasy and without a trace of vegetables). Quite a lot in there about Iceland’s role in the 2nd world war which was unfamiliar to me.
- Thomas Engström, a Swedish writer. I devoured his “Ludwig Licht” quartet, which is a political thriller about an ex Stasi agent turned CIA. He tries to do the right thing in the wrong way, or the other way around. I sympathise.
- Nino Haratischvili is a Georgian author who wrote an epos about 6 generations of the family Jashi, orginally from Tbilisi. Sovjet history is definitely not Georgian history, nothing like it, in fact. It is a huge story – 900 pages, many audiobook episodes, but this Tolstoian effort I recommend highly. Is it a detective? Well, of sorts. This kind of historical writing is a bit detective like, in the classic “who-dunnit” sense.
- Eva García Sáenz de Urturi is a Spanish detective writer in the style of Carlos Ruis Zafon. You can hear the magic swelling through the striking lyrical descriptions which must originate from the Spanish (sadly I do not understand that language, as opposed to Son who is actively studying it). Great prose, great stories. She has published three detectives on audiobook. I am currently listening to final part of the trilogy of the White City, which is situated in Vitoria, the capital of the Basque country, with inspector Kraken as its main character. Kraken is actually a dee-sea monster with very long arms.
- Finally, Pieter Waterdrinker. He is Dutch. I am not sure how well known he is, but he is about my age and spent most of his life in Moscow. A prolific writer. He writes big books, epics, and has an ink black view of society. I adore his writing. A while ago I read “Poubelle” which is (partly) about European parliament and its politics. Now I have just finished “the Rat from Amsterdam”. It is about the charity industry, amongst other things. It is just layers and layers of images until you are completed wrapped up in them. Amazing. These are who-dunnits in a very different sense, showing up society and all of us – in a bleak and compassionate manner.
Right, so this is what I do when I want to escape reality. Or when I want to escape my own foggy brain. You may have gathered that I love stories which span history and continents. Gives a sense of perspective, even if it is probably false. But then, Truth is overrated 🙂
This week has been particularly weird, with all the media coverage in parliament of my beloved employer and Son at home preparing for exams at the same time.. And me working full time and trying to study. Whatever helps to keep us sane, right? See you in the next post, which will be the concluding post on academic exploits in times of Corona – well, the first wave, as we now know it. After that, I will move on to the here and now. I have a little theory which I want to share with you.
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.
It has been a while, I know. Like everyone else, my life has been constrained by #Corona. Thankfully my little household (consisting of myself, Husband and a somewhat crumpled Son delivered back to us from London courtesy of digital teaching) is healthy. Many events that unfortunately did happen to other people have passed us by, so we are grateful. But things are strange. I did not feel like writing for a while. Too much hassle. Work, study, family life, all across one desk, Have been doing lots of walking though. May is such a beautiful month. It has green colours such as you never see in the rest of the year. My little herb garden is filling out nicely.
Have a look at this beautiful video. You cannot hear the birds or smell the incredible honeysuckle rhododendron, but to compensate, Husband, who created the video, has put some very nice music with it. There is also a flash of me in there just in case that is what you really needed 🙂 This garden is our back garden (well, about 500 m from our home). We are incredibly lucky to be able to walk here every day.
So why write this post today? Well. It’s my birthday. In Holland it is Remembrance Day, the day before the 2nd WW ended – now 75 years ago. I always avoid TV on my birthday. And there is a #Corona bonus: no social event and no travelling to work means that no one is going to tell me horror stories about what happened to their grandfather or his village during the war. Call me insensitive.
I have planned my own birthday dinner as a present to myself. It is a quick-as-a-flash P-dinner: Pasta, Pesto, Pecorino and Pinot. And also mushrooms (“paddenstoelen” in Dutch). And (P)olives. As for vitamins, Son has prepared a large bowl of Sangria with fresh fruit. It is sitting in the fridge positively teaming with life. Must be the cointreau and brandy it is laced with. Anyway, Son is taking a digital exam today (one of three, and then his law degree will be completed), so we must wait until he is finished before we can party. He is playing happy music so I have a feeling we won’t have to wait too long.
I have taken the day off so I have treated myself to some papers by my Professor which I first read over a year ago and now start to understand (I think 🙂 will see what I think next year).
Later tonight we will watch one of the Tolkien films (well, part of a part coz they are very long). We decided we did not want to watch anymore #C talkshows, so Tolkien will keep us busy for a few weeks. Oh, those beautiful New Zealand hills and those round hobbit houses, I want to live in one of these.
I might as well tell you what I am up to these days. University has gone digital, which in my case means that I can attend lectures I could not go to before. I am doing four courses, two in Nijmegen and two in Amsterdam, but of course in practice all four are now video- and internet based.
- Philosophy of Mind, on what they call “folk psychology” which is not what you think it is. It is about mind-reading, or what we do when we predict what someone else is going to do, say, feel etc.
- Ethics for Artificial Intelligence. This is about how to engage in a fruitful conversation on ethics for the New Digital Era. A topic which in my day-job receives no attention whatsoever, so it is great to get handed a framework. I think it should be integrated into the TOGAF framework which guided digital architectures and have arranged, both with the Open Group and with my professors, to do a research brief outlining my ideas
- Advanced philosophy of language. This is about “belief” statements, such as “Trump believes Corona can be cured by imbibing disinfectant”. Very technical stuff, all about how such statements can be misunderstood and why. For this course I have to redo all the philosophy of language, particularly logic, that I did not like when I was an undergraduate (and young!) and more (coz they have added stuff whilst I was away). Very good for the soul, as my Professor put it once. Yes, like medicine. But it has to be taken, I felt, to get the background I need. So I shut my eyes and think of .. well.
- Computational linguistics. This is about how to get characteristics from large bundles of texts. Like authorship, use of emotion words, and even lies. Basically it is like doing detective work whilst playing around with tools. I am enjoying it immensely. I am planning to do my research paper on the documents the Dutch Tax Office has filed with the Dutch House of Representatives, you know, reports, answers to questions etc. It will be interesting to find out how many authors write these documents. Suppose it is only one?
If I complete the above in the next 2.5 months, I will have obtained all of my 80 seminar-based ECTS except for 2 points (must get those from somewhere), Then there is only my “state of the art” paper and my thesis to go, which is another semester at least. So there is still a chance I will complete the Research Master within 2 years, but if it takes longer, that is fine too. I might need extra time coz I am starting a new job – same employer, same job, different position and also, it seems as if suddenly many more people are interested in “security”, which is what I “do”.
I am going to leave you with a bit of virtual birthday cake. Stay safe and happy and healthy, and I will do the same for you.
Something old and something new
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.
Not fit for human consumption
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.