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.
The start of the new school year. I loved that time when I was a child. Everything new: new teachers, books, notebooks and a fresh set of pens and pencils (you might remember I am a stationary fetishist, from this earlier post). This stayed with me: the nostalgia of the New Year starting in September. Even if it did not, for the past 30+ years, but now it does again. Such a pity I have gone all digital. I toyed with the idea of getting some pens and paper just for the fun of it, but in the end I did not: I have so much stationary already. I did buy myself a scanmarker air, for scanning bits of text from non-digital books. With student-discount. The Dutch love their discounts and I am no exception.
The academic year started with lots of information and introductions and meetings for new Research Master students. I had missed out on that info when I started back in January. I found that by now I was fully up to date, but still, it was nice to check and make sure I had missed nothing. I was reminded we all have to write a study plan which has to be officially approved before you can complete your thesis. Also, it was fun to see all the new students. I bet they were not half as nervous as I was when I started, but still, I could tell they were. And I was not! Amazing how I have changed in just 6 months. Remember me being shaky on my first day, afraid they were all going to laugh at me and worrying if my memory would hold up? Anyway, I know all of them will turn into confident graduates soon, coz I have already seen it happen.
As I explained in my previous post, I will do two seminars and one position-paper this semester. I have spent all summer doing the background for the background for my position-paper (which is on speech acts, common ground and intentionality). A large part of that background is “consciousness” and there are literally hundreds of different theories about what consciousness is and how it works. In my time at Oxford, Philosophy of mind was about Analytic Philosophy (is there any other kind:-)?) I talked about that in a previous post. At length, because the existence of continental philosophy had passed me by completely. Anyway, these days, Philosophy of Mind is all about consciousness, starting out with generic denial of Descartes mind-body theory (Descartes claimed that mind and body are essentially made out of different stuff). To be able to say anything about the deliberate use of language, particularly if understanding language is not about mind-reading or some such psychological notion, you need to be able to say what it means to express something deliberately. I think so, anyway. So I spent a lot of time sorting out these new theories. It is all on my wiki, have a look at the topic “consciousness”. if you like. The main taxonomy is in the pink bit; every line is a separate page. It is not finished by any means: I have now started to catalogue arguments which connect and separate theories. You might notice I sometimes copy in cartoons. This is to liven things up. It is dry stuff. So let’s be thankful for existential comics.
My seminars for this next half year are: the Skills course, which is compulsory, the first part (I did the second part before the summer). The other one is a seminar on the evolution of language. That will be great I think. I know most of the students there from previous seminars. We will look at communication in apes and other animals and see how that might translate to humans. The basis is a theory by my professor, which says that language is not about expressing ideas or mind-reading others, but about cooperation and getting others to cooperate. By the way, he seems to be in a good mood, much better than last semester. He has been publishing a lot, one paper after the other, and I think his new theory has reached a stage where it is becoming widely recognised. So all the academic work is new and shiny and interesting and very much “now”. Who needs the ancient Greek philosophers?
The Skills class is taught by the Dean of our department. It turns out he was also at Oxford, a few years after me. An amazing guy: he has so much energy, such a devoted teacher and interested in everything. The Dean reminds me a bit of myself before I got CFS. Energy wise. Academically there is no comparison, obviously. Because he is so dedicated, he uses every minute of the allotted lecture time. Gone are the days when we were given the last hour off. Which is hard on all of us, because this set of lectures runs late: from 15:30 to 19:15. Everybody is so tired at the end. Except for the Dean it seems 🙂 He even wants to know about me, where I work, why I am there, what I want to do. He keeps pushing me toward this new Security centre which the university now has. So I told him I had already written to the professor there but that he not replied to my email yet. (Which is understandable because in that letter I challenged a bit of not-so-sensible advice, on Open Source, which that professor he had given the Dutch Minister of Security). We will see what happens.
Anyway, the Skills class, like last time, is a mix of things I already know, things I don’t know and things I did not know existed. In the latter category: there is a Dutch protocol for the integrity of academic research. You can find it here. This protocol directly results from academic scandal, some professors inventing research data to fit their theories. Three prominent cases happened at the Social Sciences department at Tilburg University, and the whole academic world went pale and speechless. Because there was a general lack of assurance on this issue, this nation-wide protocol was set up. Attached to this protocol is a data management protocol, which I will have to look into if I want do empirical research – which I well might.
We have already been set a small paper in the Skills class. This time, I tried to use all the big and small insights I gleaned from the feedback from my own professor back in July. I felt happy with it and it got a “very nice essay” (no grades as yet). There was just one time where I did not speak my mind because I could not “prove” it – this was about two philosophers who would probably hate each other but I did not say so. I got a remark on this, why I had not said so. So next time I will write out my intuitions too, stating that they are intuitions, I suppose.
So, back on track. I have taken the whole of December off, so hopefully this will give me enough time to finish all the papers I have to write this semester. Already I am back in the flow. Lovin’ it! Husband is still driving me back and forth, which is a great time-saver. Plus, it is nice to have a partner-in- crime to talk to about all the things I learn and that happen. Sometimes I think his ears must ring with all my ravings. But he is unperturbed, as always. Also, he found himself a cosy little setup in the Hortus tea garden which apparently is full of female volunteers who love to give him tea. Dozens of them, he tells me with twinkling eyes. Adventurous times ahead!
Yesterday I had my long awaited meeting with my supervising professor. You know, the grumpy one that I regard as mine. There were several things that needed discussing. Obviously my paper, which got a good but not an excellent grade; the past and the future. And some human stuff.
We had arranged to meet at a café at Utrecht Central Station rather than at the university. Husband travelled up there with me, the idea being that we would meet up later. At the station I ran into several colleagues. They were on their way to a team meeting which I should have attended too had I not been on study leave for the afternoon. I was glad I had not booked a meeting room at the Utrecht office: in my head, academic and work worlds don’t mix well. I had half an hour to spare though so enough time to get back into the academic spirit.
There was a bit of an awkward issue that I needed to discuss with him. I told you about it in previous posts: he and I are fine in a one-to-one meeting, but in a class setting where I have to take the floor, his feedback becomes rather too vicious for my taste. Particularly compared to the very careful way he handles the other students. I did not quite know how to bring this up. Fortunately, a chance opened up to address this issue right at the beginning, and it went fine. He apologised, saying that he had heard this about himself before. He had just been matching my directness which he found pleasant (as it livened up an otherwise rather unresponsive class). So I pointed out that I was just as vulnerable as the other students in academic matters; and we agreed; and that was that. Good. Relief.
My paper was next. I had reread it, and his review of it the night before, and I was glad I had left it for a while. I could now see that he had judged my paper on a different basis than I had intended the paper to be read. Which a priori means that I had not been clear. You see, it was a difficult topic, on collective speech acts, on which there is almost no research. The papers that I did review, I found to be of meagre quality. The problem was, that I had not said so explicitly. This because I felt I was not sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject to do a “deconstruction” of the work that these philosophers had done. So I had been a bit vague in my approach to compensate for not saying what I really thought. Which put the reader (the professor or anyone else) on the wrong foot. It was not so much that I should have a highly critical or argumentative stance, but rather, that there was no good story-line to my paper. That was mistake number 1.
The 2nd point was about my not being sufficiently critical. Now this is not something I hear very often! It took me a while to understand, but what I need to do, is to question every concept, approach, idea that I review and explain why I put it in the paper OR explain why I don’t question it. So my simple idea of reviewing papers and going along with the argument to see where we might end up, would have been fine, IF I had explained that was what I was doing. Which I had not. Because again I had been too shy.
The 3rd problem was that the paper was too big in scope. In retrospect, the professor said, scope-wise it would have been fit for a Master Thesis. This is because I left so many concepts and ideas to investigate. For practical reasons, I had simply accepted concepts without question, i.e. as given in literature. Had I done otherwise, my paper would have exploded, and it was only supposed to be 6000 words. So yes, I could see he was right, the scope I had chosen was much too ambitious to do well. It is either quantity or quality. There is also a style difference, I think. He works inside-out, and I work outside-in. Which means I have to read much more but that is not the worst of it. Here the difference between audiences comes alive. If I write something as a civil servant, I must avoid being too detailed for fear of losing my audience. The general consensus is that details can always be given later, in a separate paper, in a presentation, during a talk, whatever; but later. The same is not true for a philosophy paper. That paper has to be complete in itself; there is no “later”.
Problem nr. 4 took me a while. I have developed, in my working life, a habit of writing authoritatively. Because I am an authority on certain matters. Husband taught me how to do this. I cannot remember how many times I got my texts back with remarks like: you use too many words, explain too much, go into too much detail etc. Which is all very well when you are writing government or company policy, but is not a good idea when you are writing a philosophical article. A philosopher needs to explain and explain well. My professor spends a lot of time on doing just this, and it has also been a issue in the other seminars I attended, so I might have known. But I think there is more to it than that. Because Philosophia is not very well charted, a philosopher constantly needs to ring a bell, so that others may understand where he is. Think of a cow in an Alpine meadow 🙂 That means that as a philosopher, you must allow other philosophers to understand exactly what concepts you are using in what context and why. Otherwise they get lost. Or you do. Depending on your point of view.
So: a good philosopher knows the precise context in which she is putting forward her ideas (by the way, this is an example of “correct” writing, sometime during my absence from academia, they all started writing in terms of “she” rather than “he”). The problem of course is that I don’t. I am still an amateur. Which brings me to the research paper which I will be writing next term. Apparently this paper is not for a grade (it is pass or fall), but intended to allow to you prepare for the Master Thesis which has to written in the second half next year. This gives me a chance to consolidate my knowledge on a couple of topics which at the moment is only wafer-thin. The topic(s) will be: speech acts, collective acts and common ground. Right. I will enjoy getting my teeth into that. I promise you, my next paper will be like an embroidery: pretty, intricate, beautiful and state-of-the-art.
The professor and I, we parted on most amicable terms after nearly 3 hours. I was really pleased that I had been able to pick up some new insights. Also, the luxury of someone spending hours on you to improve your thinking! When does that ever happen in Real Life, I ask you?
Now came the task of finding Husband. In spite of our shared-location app, I failed. Seriously, I walked around Utrecht CS with Google Maps displayed on my phone, and kept going in circles, from one entrance to the other, up and down the escalators. After quarter of an hour, I had to call Husband and admit total failure. He had to come and get me. Yes, you may laugh. Of course, he should have foreseen this (I get disoriented very very easily), so we agreed it was really his fault. Off we went, back to the Utrecht canals to have a drink and something to eat at the waterside. Very pleasant. It was a bit like a celebration. We had a nice meal and 3 Belgium beers each. Alas, it turned out that we can no longer handle this the way we once did. Walking back from Apeldoorn station was slow; and somehow we could not keep our eyes open after 10:30. Very amusing. Nice memory though.
Today was the last lecture day for two of my seminars. I had anticipated a feeling a loss, because I had been enjoying myself so much these past months. But it turned out differently.
At this stage, both seminars were focusing on the papers
we are meantto be writing in the next month. Because the philosophy of languageseminar required a huge abstract and the philosophy of mind seminar only asked us to do a five-minute presentation of our paper-to-be, I had put most of my effort into the philosophy of language paper. Something had to go, because for the skills seminar I had to do a big presentation this week. I thought I had made the right choice, but in retrospect, I am not so sure.
is whathappened. The big presentation which I had done a lot of work on, went fine. It was on “language and cyberspace” – in fact, about the connection between language and the protection ofcyberspace. I only received positive feedback; no critical remarks, not on the content and not on the presentation, which I think did not happen to anyone else. However, I went almost 5 minutes over the time-limit, so I will certainlyget penalised for that. Never mind. It will not be a bad mark.
For the philosophy of mind seminar, I did a 5 minute presentation of the problem area that I wanted to investigate. I had checked with the professor beforehand if that was ok. However, it turned out that everyone else had put much more effort into their plan, so I felt a bit silly. Which was aggravated by the fact that I still not quite sure how to tackle the problem which I want to adress. Despite the research workshop I attended last week, which was great, but ended up saddling me with more questions than I had when I came in. Sniff.
So, all my cards on the philosophy of language paper. My chosen topic was collective speech acts. I had really worked hard on it, and because we were required to write a huge abstract (1500 words for a 5000 word paper), I wrote a full first version. My work was based on an article provided by my professor, plus some more recent work which I had found myself. I had also done some analysis myself, so it was part original. I had to present this work, as the last of the group, and initially it seemed to go well. The group liked it, felt that I was nearly finished, and liked the work I had done.
Enter my professor. He questioned the basic assumption, which is that groups, according to him, cannot have intentions, and certainly companies cannot. I was flabbergasted. This was the basic assumption of the article he had suggested himself. Also, I could not make head or tails of his statement that companies do not feel anything. Of course they do. They are groups of people. We agreed to differ and I will have to introduce a disclaimer in my essay that I take this “controversial” position, and sort out this issue at some later point. But I was disappointed. There was no feedback on the work I had done, just this going on and on about this one issue. It must have upset him in some way, he said afterward that he was agitated by my approach.
My ever supportive husband told me not to
be upset– because my professor has done this before, just to me. And yes, the group did not like it either, one or two started to defend me, which was brave of them. Husband also told me to take this somewhat-over-the-top criticality as a compliment. Which may be right, because the other students were givena much less critical treatment, even when their ideas seems sketchy or incomplete. Sigh. I suppose so.
I am still wondering how to solve the philosophical problem, about collective intentions. It may well be that in fact the same problem is at the bottom of my philosophy of mind issue – which is how life develops from a single autopeiotic system, say, a cell, into a social entity through adaptivity. Because social entities eventually develop language. Not as individuals but as members of a group. So I have written to the philosophy-of-mind professors to ask them about group-intentions in herds, schools, and flocks.
Now it it time for a drink. A large one. With ripples.
I am a stationary fetishist. At the side of my desk sits a tall chest of drawers. I have separate drawers for pencils, for pens, for blues, for rulers. Two for fine-liners. I own a Japanese style layered pencil case containing coloured pencils, markers, felt-tip pens, glitter pens and automatic pencils in different thickness. My collection of fountain pens live on my desk; inks in various colour in a nearby desk draw. I have reams of beautiful note books and many different kinds of paper in every imaginable shade. There is only one problem. My handwriting. It is perfectly functional. If I do my best, it is even legible. But it is not at all nice to look at.
The ever-thinning notebook
All my life I wanted to have beautiful handwriting. At primary school, handwriting was a big thing. The problem was, at the time – in the mid sixties – there were two dominant handwriting systems. One was the old-fashioned “longhand”, and the other was “block letters”. Every school made its own choice. I was a bit unlucky. Because my parents kept moving house, I attended four different primary schools. Every time I switched school, I also had to switch handwriting, and spent long hours compulsory copying notebooks. Maybe that is the cause. Or may it is because I lack the gene for proper sensory motoric learning (seriously!).
Because my handwriting was not pretty, I also did not like my notes. Every time I received a new notebook,
I would be thrilled. I would feel its newness, sniff the fresh pages, and vow to fill all of its pages with beautiful writing. Inevitably, this did not happen. Unable to bear my own ugly pages, I would tear the worst out. The teacher frowned at my ever thinning notebooks.
On a roll
At secondary school and at university, I was free to use whatever handwriting style I wanted, but I never achieved the beautiful penmanship that I coveted. Not for lack of trying, either. It became a big problem when I had to write weekly essays for tutorials at Oxford. I never seemed to get beyond the first page before I made myself copy it all out again. I hit on a solution though. I wrote out bits of text in my best handwriting, and cut them out. The day or night before my tutorial I layed them out in the right order, and cellotape them together. I have memories of sitting across from my tutor and unrolling my essay. Like a papyrus roll.
Notes on notes
Since I went back to university, I have been trying to find a note taking system that works. Not by hand, obviously. Fortunately, in this digital age, handwriting is no longer a problem. Efficiency and cross-device access I worked out long ago. I had already set up my
ownreference system with automatic citing last year. My annotation system for reading new digital texts also works fine. And looks fun, I wrote about it in an earlier post. But I found I had to find a way tocollect bits of information so I can access them later. I simplycannot remember things verbatim anymore, particularly not as I have a more or less full-time job to attend to. Plus, I want to be doing this for many years, so I need to build up my persona lstore of collected knowledge. I feel silly being able to remember the structure of an argument without the words to go with it.
In the past few weeks there were no lectures, so I had a bit of time to sort this out. I knew what I wanted: my own private wikipedia. I ran into lots of technical difficulties, but I have it now. It is on the same website as this blog, but in a separate part. Have a look if you like. You can get to it via the “concepts” page on the top menu or just click here.
I am s
ohappy with how it works and looks. One paper I have to read for this week’s seminar is already in there. The paper is on “assertion”. You can just put the word in the search window as if you would with a real Wikipedia. There are the beginnings of other wiki-pages. Now I shall devote myself to filling it. Week by week, for years to come.
The story of my book review – it all started with the book I selected for it.
We were supposedto 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 ownprofessor. 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.
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 bitBritish” 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.
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 determinedto 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 certainlydid, but as he really is the sole authority, there was no real disagreement. Also, he is a nice guy.
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 somemore 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
d o to teach us a general recipe for writing a good book review. Meanwhile, here is the original. Enjoy. es try
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 eithertrue 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 toinherent 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.
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 madeto 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 forauthor’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.