• Amuses

    Begin at the beginning

    If you are an Alice-in-Wonderland fan, you will have recognised the quote immediately. It is from a conversation between the Cheshire cat and the King. It goes like this.

    The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “ Where shall I begin, please your Majesty ? ” he asked.
    “ Begin at the beginning, ” the King said, very gravely, “ and go on till you come to the end : then stop.

    Sound advice, eh? Well, I think so. I live by it. Except that the end may take a very long time. Treebeard-style for fellow Lord-of-the-Ring fans.

    In my earlier post on “the right words” I told you about how difficult I found it to get into my subject. I even had to take days off work for extra reading. I had put this down to general stupidity on my part (that is, faulty memory and old age). But tonight, as I prepared for yet another article I have to write for the Skills & Methods seminar, I opened the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind, which is a collection of essays. The introduction opens with the following observation:

    Philosophy of language is usually presented as a deep‐end subject. One is expected to jump in and eventually get the hang of it. And yet it can be a very technically demanding area of philosophy for the beginner. It is surely not special in this regard. However, it seems to us that it has lagged behind other sub‐areas of philosophy in presenting its key concerns in accessible form, with the result that there is a considerable gap between the professional literature and understanding of the novice. Professional philosophers often advise students to read classic papers in the area such as ‘On Sense and Reference’, ‘On Denoting’, ‘Meaning’, ‘Truth and Meaning’, the second chapter of Word and Object, ‘General Semantics’, ‘The Logic of Demonstratives’, ‘The Meaning of “Meaning”’, any chapter of Naming and Necessity. However, in each of these readings students will encounter aspects of the discussion that are opaque and that presuppose detailed knowledge of other parts of philosophy of language. This is by no means a criticism. These articles were not written for novices. But this is a problem if it deters the interested student from pursuing these topics further. It is all the more unfortunate for there is much about the philosophy of language that is deeply engaging and can be made accessible to every philosophy student. One gains the best understanding by first getting to grips with some of the fundamental debates in philosophy of language. By focusing on a particular debate and acquiring a thorough and detailed mastery of it one is able to extend that understanding to other areas, gradually working one’s way into the field as a whole.

    Wow! There must be lots and lots of frustrated Philosophy of Language students out there. If things are this bad, that even the top professors and researchers worry about it, the problem must be huge. Academic professors and researchers are not commonly known for their empathy with lesser mortals. Let alone writing a whole book to make things better for their unhappy students. Plus, I very much doubt my own Professor has read this introduction. I see him watching me struggling at the deep end. Will she, will she not… drown. Yes, I love you too :)

    Which makes me wonder, perhaps it is worthwhile or even profitable to set up a “Confused Philosophy of Language Support Centre”? Well, food for thought. It would be amusing. But at least I now can be sure I am not alone. My struggle has been acknowledged. Before I even started on this adventure, they had already written the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language, back in 2009. The answer to all my problems. I will read it and let you know …

  • Amuses

    The wronged book

    The story of my book review – it all started with the book I selected for it. We were supposed to pick a philosophical book in our own field and review it such that other philosophy students would understand it. I received this assignment before my first day at uni, even before I saw the reading list for my other seminars. So how to pick the right book? I did not have a clue what happened in philosophy of language in the past 30 years. Plus, I suddenly felt I might have forgotten all I knew before. I needed some kind of overview, I concluded, something to provide me with a basic understanding of relevant issues. It never occurred to me to ask my own professor. Or perhaps I was embarrassed. Or too nervous to ask. I don’t know. Anyway, I found myself a nice little book written by a Dutch professor at another university, on the philosophy of language and meaning. I found several book reviews in newspapers and journals, always a good sign. So I went for that one and thought I had cleared that first hurdle rather well.

    Christian enclaves

    I won’t tell you about the book itself because that is all in the book review which I have included at the end of the post. I will just tell you how it felt to read it. I was halfway through before I realised something was off. You may think me dense, but I had never encountered a philosopher, never mind a professor who would use his position to further his private religious beliefs. I thought such practices had died out decades ago, in western Europe at least.  I was outraged. Then I worried about how to do the book review, because by then I was ashamed of my choice, but did not have time to pick another book. I discussed it with the professor and he advised me to be “a bit British” in my criticism, not to go over the top. He also explained that Christian enclaves exist at some universities. Most of them are in the US, but we have one here in the Netherlands: the so-called Free University in Amsterdam, the VU. No prizes for guessing at what university the author of my book teaches.

    Peer reviews

    I did my best to write a book review which others might find informative and pleasant to read. However, the initial review from the professor was not altogether positive. He wanted more structure and more facts. I expected the class review to be along the same lines because the other ReMa students seemed serious and inclined to listen to their elders en betters. Once I had read the reviews they did, I found that some of them had not stuck to the format, and like me, had tried to write a narrative, tried to pick a style which suited the topic. One was superb, even lyrical in places, and made me want to read the book she reviewed. Yet when I complimented her on this before class, it turned out that the professor had also been critical of her writing. Something stirred inside me.

    The rebel awakens

    We spent an entire afternoon discussing all the book reviews. I was determined to find out the review criteria, so I questioned the professor closely. He kept saying he was not the audience; we were all the audience. I had a little fun proving that this was not so. Every time the group disagreed with him, usually on an issue I had drawn out, I smiled at him. Repeated his judgement and confirmed that he was the audience. Halfway through, he gave up the pretence of not being the only authority. I think one or two of the other students might have picked up on what I was doing. The professor certainly did, but as he really is the sole authority, there was no real disagreement. Also, he is a nice guy.

    The verdict(s)

    My book review was the last but one. I was nervous because I did not relish being attacked by a whole group on lack of clarity or information even if I had braced myself to learn to write to proper academic standards and take all criticism like a woman. Imagine my surprise when the other students, one after the other, declared how much they loved my review. They even quoted from it. Assured me to change it as little as possible. Never to change the ending. Etc, etc. The professor just stared. I looked at him and said I would put in more facts at the beginning of the review. We were agreed. The group smiled at me and gushed some more about my writing. I felt grateful. Not only was my style of writing not so inappropriate as I had thought, these students wanted to be nice to me. It felt good.

    The thing itself

    I have included the review below. I will change it somewhat to please the professor. He is the audience, and he does try to teach us a general recipe for writing a good book review. Meanwhile, here is the original. Enjoy.

    Philosophy of language and text. René van Woudenberg, Filosofie van taal en tekst, Budel: Uitgeverij Damon, 2002,  175 pages, ISBN 9055732508. Review by Inge Wertwijn, Radboud University Nijmegen.

    The nature of meaning has been a philosophical issue since Plato addressed it in the Cratylus dialogue. In this book, René van Woudenberg presents his view. He explains his intentions in the preface. He wants to establish exactly what we mean when we say a word, sentence or text, has a meaning. He will achieve this, not by presenting an overview of the current debate, but by explaining the philosophical problems underlying the concept of meaning. Van Woudenberg freely admits that the solutions he provides in this book will not always reflect the accepted philosophical views but may represent his specific ideas on the matter.

    Van Woudenberg has taken pains to make this book attractive to the reader. He usually avoids unnecessary technical jargon and illustrates his claims with many examples, some of which are very humorous. For instance, the snail who writes I love you on the beach – without spaces between the words, “because snails don’t jump” (p.148).  Does this I love you have meaning? Van Woudenberg thinks not, because there is no intention behind the sentence, the writing is just a collection of haphazard snail trails. He then has the reader pick up the imaginary snail, turn it over, and find little rubber wheels on the bottom. Now the symbols on the sand suddenly gain meaning:  this may be a proposal. Or a joke.

    Throughout the book, van Woudenberg uses a particular approach to instruct the reader.  He will first present a philosophical issue about the concept of meaning in some detail; explain why it is an issue and then offer two or more theories which might solve the problem. Next, he will test these theories against several inventive examples. It soon becomes obvious that either these theories will not fit or will yield contradictory results. This inevitably confuses the reader.  According van Woudenberg (p.118), this is a necessary step in the reader’s enlightenment process, because having become confused and  exasperated,  the reader will now be open to a true answer. In the last step, the author patiently explains what that correct solution is. One imagines the reader heaving a contented sigh.

    Such a didactic recipe is not common to academic writings. It is reminiscent of a sermon  – indeed, throughout the book, van Woudenberg references his personal religious beliefs. These are not in the core of his argumentation, but intertwined with the many examples he gives. There is a general sense of the outcome of some important theological issue hinging on the outcome of this philosophical treatment of meaning and language, but van Woudenberg does not make this relationship explicit.

    The book consists of four sections: the meaning of words, the meaning of sentences, the meaning of texts and the ontological meaning of meaning. Three general theories on meaning are examined: referential, representational and behavioural. The latter two theories are somewhat misrepresented, and this sets a pattern for the whole book.  Bloomfield’s behavioural theory, for instance, is reported to imply that when a word has a particular meaning,  some situational and response characteristics must always be the same whenever that word is used. This idea is first taken to extremes, then refuted with obvious relish. Bloomfield, however, said something different. He held that meaning is related to the situation in which a verbal act takes place, and that this connection should be investigated further by science, not by linguists or philosophers.

    But Van Woudenberg’s interests do not lie with individual theories. In the name of common sense, he makes a more general claim which cuts across all theories of meaning:  the meaning of a word cannot be identified, he says, by referring to an external object or conditions. Therefore we must ask ourselves “what it means for two expressions to have the same use” (p.35) – which is a well known question asked by Alston.  This is the central argument and van Woudenberg spends quite some time on it.

    First,  he explains Austin’s speech act theory. This holds that when someone says something, he or she also performs an action. Speech acts exist at three different levels: a locutionary act which is the uttering of a word or sentence, an illocutionary act which is the dimension of the intention behind the utterance, and the force of that intention, and a perlocutionary act, which is about the intended effect. For example, when I say “Great shirt!”  (locutionary act), what I do is to compliment you (illocutionary act). The intended perlocutionary effect is that you might like me better or will lend me the shirt sometime or perhaps compliment me in return.

    Second, he explains Alston’s additional idea that two sentences have the same meaning, if their standard illocutionary act potential is the same. Van Woudenberg strongly agrees with this and takes it one step further: two words usually have the same meaning if they can be swapped without changing the illocutionary act potential of the sentence they are used in. For example, in the sentence “the police is coming”, one may swap the word “police” for “cops” or “pigs” or “fuzz”, so these words must mean exactly the same. How one might determine which words may be swapped without affecting sentence meaning, or how usual ‘usual is, is not discussed.

    Van Woudenberg then moves on to the connection between meaning and truth, or rather, the lack of connection between them. This is an important distinction: sentences with propositional content (this shirt is red”) can be either true or false, but this is not a characteristic of intended meaning (great shirt!”), because what we intend cannot be true or false.  He wants to establish that sentences with propositional content are essentially verifiable even if containing inherently vague words or metaphors.  First, he notes that some words, like “city” or “science” or “religion”, are inherently vague. A sentence like “Amsterdam is a big city” may be both true and untrue, depending on which city Amsterdam is being compared to. Now this cannot be, a sentence cannot be both true and untrue. The  solution is to reformulate the sentence to eliminate the vagueness, which, so van Woudenberg states, is always possible. In any communication, one should always strive for maximal clarity. Any vagueness that remains is due to inherent vagueness in the words themselves.  Such a sentence can always be re-expressed as a precise proposition.

    Metaphors can also be reduced to precise expressions. His reasoning is: in principle it is not impossible that for a vague expression x, let us say “I smell a rat”, there exists a precise lexical equivalent. This is not impossible because we can imagine it. So if this not impossible, it follows that it must be possible, in principle,  to have  a precise and lexical equivalent of “I smell a rat”. If in practice we cannot find this lexical equivalent, this must be because “there is a hole in our language” (p.62).

    This is not a convincing argument as is demonstrated by substituting terms:  “It is not impossible that people are kind. Kindness is a characteristic which we imagine all people may have. Therefore kind people exist. To find a kind person, one must simply look in the right places,”. Next, if we replace “people are kind,” by “God is good,”, the argument becomes: “It is not impossible that God is good, because  goodness is a characteristic which we imagine God may have. Therefore it is possible that God is good even if you don’t see it.  If, in practice,  if you cannot see that God is good, there is something missing in you.”

    Suddenly the clouds lift and the true objective of this book shines through. On the surface this book appears to be about speech acts and intentions, but it is actually about the distinction between what people mean when they speak versus what can be known to be inherently true. We are no longer surprised to find that the last section of this book ends with a chapter on the meaning of life – not a frequent occurrence in books on the philosophy of language. Despite its title and structure, this book is not about philosophy at all. It is a directive to the faithful, to strive for clear and precise formulation of thoughts and find the everlasting Truth within.

  • Amuses

    Learning to write

    In my last post, I explained how I have to re-learn how to read. Well, it does not end there. Writing is another problem. One I had not seen coming because I fancied myself as a fairly competent writer. I was an A++ literature student at school. At university I never had a problem with writing papers, I even helped fellow students. Later I honed my writing skills in a business environment.  I am fully into the IT jargon, and fluent in civil-service speak. So, did I have any reason to think academic writing would be a challenge in any way? Well yes. If only I had thought about it a little more carefully.

    Academic and business writing have different goals en different audiences, These differences show in communication. In a business environment, all communication is goal-oriented, sending a message. That message is tailormade for the intended recipient, including tone, structure, pacing, and length. The sending takes into account that the recipient may have little time or inclination to receive it. Every effort is made to make the message as digestible as possible.

    How different are things in the academic world. An academic writer may presuppose his audience to be sincerely interested, highly intelligent, knowledgeable and possessed of endless time and patience. The text is about the conveyance of knowledge. The author usually has several roles: teacher, researcher, reviewer, expert, visionary, to name but a few. Texts are important for author’s reputation and should therefore exude competence: well structured, concise, annotated, clear and above all: dense with information. There is no frivolity. No attempt to win over the audience, no effort to introduce concepts gradually, to build up a picture in the reader’s mind. Just information.

    Quite a switch! So you can imagine what happened when I wrote my first book-review. The professor deemed it beautifully written, very accessible. Other than that, he judged its structure “somewhat haphazard”, and pronounced the whole thing too low in information. 

    Right. Well, this book-review was only the draft, I have another chance. This week there is a general review session with 13 other students. We get to criticise each other’s book-reviews, and I am sure the professor will dip in. I am very interested to learn what he thinks is wrong with the other book-reviews. That is sure to provide me with even more insights on what I have to un-learn. Or learn, perhaps. Anyway, I may end up post-scripting this post :)


    The class-book review did not go quite as I had expected. I had intended not to say too much about the other papers because I felt that all of them had done a great job. Many book reviews in academic journals are of much lower quality. I had read the other 12 book reviews though, and had more or less automatically marked out areas of improvement, usually in style or grammar. I ended up sharing those, and the other students made me feel useful. Which felt good. One of them even enquired if I would attend the gala. I wish! I joked about my husband not allowing this. Regarding my book review – that is a story for another post.

  • Amuses

    The best words

    Four weeks into my new academic life and the moment of truth arrived. Well, a moment of truth. The issue being, can I do this? Do the reading, understand the concepts – will my brain to expand to fit it all in? One thing is clear. I thought my mental faculties were fine, well, rusty perhaps, but not in significantly worse shape than, say 30 years ago. Ha! Dreaming!

    Learning to read again

    It turns out, I have to learn to read again. You see, I stopped reading for pleasure around 40. I had always been a big reader, up to five books a week, every week, from when I was a little girl. Suddenly, from one day to the next, I could read only one or two pages. As if they suddenly switched a part of my brain off. I missed reading terribly, but life was disrupted anyway. These were the years of being a single working mother, with a scared little boy to take care of, in a strange place and no one to help me. Perhaps the universe wanted me to concentrate on getting through that in one piece. Unfortunately, the ability to read for pleasure has never returned. A few years later my later-to-be husband hit on a solution: audio books! I must confess: I am addicted. My little black Mp3 player is clipped on my shirt all day long, and I listen as I cook, bath, walk, cycle, wait, iron, you name it.

    Non-fiction I read all the time, but for never for pleasure. I am efficient. I speed-read, and I can scan a document, read “diagonally” as we say at the office, in just the time one takes to turn the pages. Useful skills – for a civil servant. In my new academic life, this ability is worse than useless. The papers I have to read are so dense with information, I can only read 3 or 4 pages an hour. So I have to force myself to read word for word, line by line. On tired days, the only way I can manage this, is by reading the document on screen, and then have the computer read out the text simultaneously.

    Reading, reading, reading

    Apart from the skills class, I take a seminar on Philosophy of Mind and another seminar on Philosophy of Language, which is my main subject. Both seminars set around 50 pages reading every week; the Skills class around 20 pages. Around 120 pages per week, i.e. 30 hours. I don’t know how I do this reading given the demands of a working week, but I do it. More, because sometimes I don’t understand what the article says, and go in search of another text. Or have to look up references.

    Anyway, I quite enjoy the process. I have my electronic commenting system with highlights and meaningful stamps. I had developed this when I was studying for the ISACA CISM exam in my other life. Sample below.

    Creative, don’t you think? Well, it helps. I started out making mind maps, thinking that would be a memory aid. It is not. I found myself looking back at intricate mind maps I created weeks ago, and thinking “who did this?”.

    The challenge

    Last week I was the first of my class to do a presentation on Gricean pragmatics, for the Philosophy of Language seminar. Gricean pragmatics is about how meaning is not confined to the words themselves, i.e. the direct opposite of referential theory.  I volunteered, because I could see the workload piling up at the end of the semester. The paper was to be followed by a short paper in the week after the seminar.

    I did my best, but I could not see what central issue was being addressed in the articles. Actually, that had also been the case in the first and second week: I did not understand where the seminar was going. So I was getting worried. Every time I asked a question (which virtually no one else does), the professor (whom I regard as “mine” because he is my mentor), looked at me as if I had been flown in from Mars. Once or twice I even seemed to confuse him. Not good.

    Having to do this presentation without feeling comfortable with the topic, felt weird. I never ever do any public speaking when I am not the expert, and I get to decide the timing, the format, etc. So this was a novel situation. It went well enough because the students were very nice and smiled at all of my little jokes. I suspected them of having even less of a clue where the seminar was going, which was a comfort. The professor was grumpy, because I had not quite stuck to the format, so he was pointing out all the little problems this caused. Yes, yes. It is difficult to lose a lifetime of professional habits I was not aware I possessed. Such as trying to get response during the presentation. Apparently that does not work with students. Well, live and learn.

    Content-wise I was still in trouble: I did not understand where the seminar was going. I blamed this partly on the professor, for experimenting too much with the course. He has said to me since, that perhaps the topic was more difficult than he thought. Right. But the course is geared at MA students, and I am a ReMa student supposed to be specializing in this stuff. I really, really had to find a way in. Fast.

    It so happened that the guy I work most with at the office, was on holiday, plus I had been working overtime in the weeks before. So I took two days off work and hunted day and night for books and articles that would give me a general overview. Finally, a frame appeared in my head and understanding dawned. I wrote a paper. My husband helped me to find the fault lines where my writing became unclear or incomprehensible (he has done that for me ever since he corrected my policy statements when we first worked together, an age ago). I felt I was getting to grips with the issue. Yes. Maybe. Hopefully.

    I handed the paper in last Saturday night, and I have been checking my mail from then until the next seminar. No reaction. All of this time, there was me thinking: if it is not at least ok, I am in trouble. I really cannot do much better at this moment. A mail appeared on Tuesday stating that he (the professor) would be sure to have read it by Thursday. Relief. At least the paper was not already a write off.

    The best words – or not

    The first thing the professor said during the seminar break, was: “it is a good paper”. And then he continued to point out every sentence where I had used unnecessary vague langue. 5 instances in 3 pages, or had taken too long to come to the point. I have been wondering why he did that. I think he wants me to write like an expert, not to care too much about the audience. His own texts are like that, clear and concise yet readable. Something else to learn, so different from what I am used to in my business life where communication is all about persuasion.  We ended up arguing pleasantly about the correct translation of “true”. I came away overjoyed. I will do this, I thought. Yes, I can. I can only improve.

    Perhaps not the very best words then, but the paper was good. I will sleep well tonight. Time for some light relief. The professor has been quipping regularly about Trump and whether what he does, might be deemed “communication”. Today it was about how good Trump is with words. Have a look below. Hilarious, particularly if you have just turned in your first paper on the theory of speaker meaning.