Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kids these days

In the last year or two I have come across (or perhaps only just now noticed) students who not only try to get away with not doing the assigned reading but who seem genuinely shocked at the idea that they would be expected to read it. This is not reading that is incidental to the course. On the contrary, the one or two students I have in mind (and it is certainly a minority) are people who wrote papers whose thesis was along the lines of "Martha Nussbaum's capabilities approach is wrong" without having read what Nussbaum says. But in the one case I have in mind (and perhaps it really was only one student, but that's like thinking you only have one cockroach when you see one in the kitchen) the student's reaction to getting a low grade on a paper like this (probably an F, but I don't remember) was roughly: What am I supposed to do? Read the thing?! (I let them re-write, by the way, so an F is not devastating to their final grade. In fact it's normal on a first draft.) That was a year ago but I'm still reeling.

And lately I've noticed students not seeming to get the idea of evidence, of supporting claims they want to make with empirical data or rational argument. I'm obviously going to have to spend more time explaining the need for, and value of, such things. But I wonder why this seems to be more of a problem now than it used to. It probably is partly me not explaining well enough what I'm looking for, but I don't think it can be just that. Students appear to be so used to not reading, not thinking, and just asserting their opinions that to some of them it simply goes without saying that this is what you do in an essay. It's not just that they haven't taken a philosophy course before and think that that's what philosophy is. So what's going on?

I can think of several things. One is that some courses are probably not very demanding because Chad must be entertained at all costs. Another is that many of my students have political loyalties that are not conducive to rigorous academic work. I have conservative students who are extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, and hard-working. But a lot of conservative politicians and propagandists discourage intelligence and knowledge (no doubt some liberal ones do too, but the problem is not equally distributed across the political spectrum), and I think the results are showing. And then there's this by Karen Swallow Prior:
But in the past decade or so, I have found that students are seldom if ever held accountable for or even actually expected to read the assigned texts. Years of their so-called "reading" is spent "making connections" between themselves and text or the world and the text, but the foundational step of actually reading the words on the page is neglected often to the point that actually reading the assignment isn't necessary: Students become skilled at responding to leading questions that solicit merely their opinions or experiences. And they apparently get decent, or even excellent, grades for doing so.
And not to criticize a book I haven't read, but it might not be a good sign that there is a popular textbook called Everything's an Argument. I wonder how many students are being taught that whatever they write is inevitably going to be an argument. Or that there is no such thing as truth. Or that there can be no reasoning about matters of value. Not just no mathematical proof (although they seem to have more faith in empirical evidence than logical demonstration), but no reasoning at all. At any rate, these seem to be extremely common beliefs. There might be versions of these ideas that are worth taking seriously, but the common undergraduate versions are not so sophisticated. It's almost as if the entire value of a philosophy course might consist in partially undoing the damage done by other courses. It's also as if I'm just a grumpy old man, of course.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Nameless horror

(More on object-oriented ontology and Wittgenstein. The post's title refers to HP Lovecraft, who was fond of the phrase. A search for "nameless horror" in these collected stories gets five hits.)

Brian Kim Stefans writes:
The one principle that is inarguably shared by these philosophers [i.e. "speculative realists"] is quite simple: they wish to retrieve philosophy from a tendency initiated, or at least made unavoidable, by the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the subject (meaning a human being) can [n]ever know anything about the external world due to the very fact of subjectivity.
Surely many philosophers, including Wittgenstein, reject this skepticism. But there is more to speculative realism than this:
Harman’s philosophy displaces the mind→object relationship with that of object→object, the “mind” being just one object among many.     
Compare Chon Tejedor on the early Wittgenstein:
Wittgenstein suggests that, given the fundamental contingency of facts, it is a source of profound wonder that any possible state should obtain as a fact. This sense of wonder arises in connection to all facts: physical facts (involving the rocks, plants, animals and human physical bodies we describe in language and think about) but also mental facts (i.e. our thoughts, desires, beliefs, emotions and, more broadly, our minds and empirical selves). Being clear in one's grasp of certain formal concepts involves being disposed to use signs in particular ways so as to reflect the fundamental contingency of facts. But this involves treating ourselves (i.e. human beings) as facts on a par, with respect to their contingency, with all other facts in the world.
Now back to Harman:
An idiosyncratic feature of Harman’s philosophy is that “objects” for him are not just things, and certainly not just natural things, but also concepts, imagined entities, and nearly any entity that can have some effect on reality for however long or short a time, on however large or small a scale, and at whatever level of availability to human perception or “science.” 
This is not a radically new idea. Compare Russell’s notion of a term in The Principles of Mathematics
Whatever may be an object of thought, or may occur in any true or false proposition, or can be counted as one, I call a term. This, then, is the widest word in the philosophical vocabulary. I shall use as synonymous with it the words unit, individual, and entity.  A man, a moment, a number, a class, a relation, a chimaera, or anything else that can be mentioned, is sure to be a term; and to deny that such and such a thing is a term must always be false. (p. 43) 
See also Frege: “Places, instants, stretches of time, logically considered, are objects,” p. 42— “On Sinn und Bedeutung” in The Frege Reader.  I speculate more about what the early Wittgenstein might have meant by 'objects' and, especially, 'things' here

So speculative realism does not sound all that incompatible with Wittgenstein's philosophy, except for its metaphysical ambitions. How does Lovecraft fit in? 
In Lovecraft’s version of reality, laws seem to function in ways that make our foundational certainties — Euclidean geometry, the private experience of dreams, the inviolable divisions between human, animal, plant, and the nonliving, etc. — merely contingent: just the way things appear to us, rather than absolute necessities.
This makes Lovecraft sound not so much anti-Kantian as a product of the post-Kantian world. Apparently what makes Lovecraft so great is that he takes the world to be weird, and he is not a linguistic idealist (nor someone who focuses on language rather than the world). Sounds like Musil. Or Wittgenstein (see the emphasis on contingency in the Tejedor quote above). (Or Kafka, for that matter. And many other people.) Wittgenstein certainly pays attention to language, but not because he's a linguistic idealist, and not because he isn't interested in life or the world.

Lovecraft seems Schopenhauerian, given his Kantian emphasis on the unknown but with a horrible, pessimistic twist. (He's also Shakespearean, or Macduffian, given this from Macbeth:
O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee!
To use Harman's words, I would say that here "language is overloaded by a gluttonous excess" of negatives and iterations of 'horror.' But I digress.)

And Wittgenstein's ethics, or religious attitude, if you prefer, is rather Schopenhauerian too, though in a different way. Schopenhauer links art and genius with a kind of knowing that is independent of the principle of sufficient reason. There is little room for the principle of sufficient reason in Wittgenstein's philosophy, at least in the early Wittgenstein. The only necessity is logical necessity, so there is no reason sufficient to explain why things have to be as they are. Compare also the later Wittgenstein on the two identical-seeming seeds that produce different plants. Wittgenstein challenges the assumption that there must be some undetected difference in the seeds.

In short I quite like the sound of speculative realism, but mostly because it reminds me of Wittgenstein. I wonder whether the two could be brought fruitfully together. Perhaps I should investigate further.

Monday, April 22, 2013

How significant is Anscombe?

In a list of all time greats in moral philosophy she's in the top twenty.

Oslo, August 31st

About as cheery as Grave of the Fireflies but very much worth watching is this film by Joachim Trier. At one point the main character, Anders, gives as an example of a typical contemporary magazine article a Schopenhauerian take on Sex and the City. If you've seen it, it's then hard not to think of Alain de Botton's piece on Schopenhauer and nightclubs:

According to de Botton, people who think they are going to nightclubs just to dance, drink, and have fun are actually unconsciously driven by the will to live to seek opportunities for reproduction. The women in Sex and the City are presumably in the same boat. They all seem to want a man in some sense (perhaps just sex, perhaps just a friend (male or female), perhaps a husband, perhaps some other variation on this theme, depending on the character and her mood at the time), but never seem quite sure what it is that they want. The Schopenhauerian view, I take it, is that this quest is all quite pointless but more or less inevitable given our nature. We are driven by forces that we rarely see clearly and that are themselves blind. So we don't know what is going on, what we are chasing, except in vague terms. The underlying, meaningless truth is veiled from us.   

Anders takes a similar kind of view. Married life does not appeal to him, not surprisingly given the view of it that is presented to him. And endless casual relationships seem pointless. So he's stuck. Can art provide a way out? Well, he doesn't have much faith in either journalism or his chances of making it as a journalist. And he doesn't seem to consider other kinds of writing. What about movies? He doesn't try to make one, but if he did I imagine it would be rather like this one, the one about him. It doesn't seem nearly as superficial as the magazine articles he mocks, but it is apt that he might think of it that way. Everything's meaningless when you're in despair. 

That's a bit obscure, so here's another version. In this movie the idea of an essay on how Schopenhauer might regard Sex and the City is presented as a joke, but if you think about what such an essay might say it's actually pretty close to this movie itself. And that is not an indictment of the film but one of the things that makes it so neat.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Blood for oil

The thing that most struck me when I read Rupert Read's review of Craig Taylor's book Moralism was how odd it was that Taylor implies criticism of an SUV-driver with a "No blood for oil" sticker on it and that Read criticizes this criticism by suggesting only that the driver might believe in collective but not individual action against blood for oil. Why not point out that you can be against oil-related war without being against the use of oil? But now Read makes that very point 
The slogan is a political slogan, protesting against war to buy oil. There is no inconsistency between such protest and driving a large car.
The wrong has been made right.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Life of Pi

No offence, but this has to be the worst movie I've seen in years. People liked the spectacle of it, I think, and perhaps on the big screen it looks great. On the not-so-big screen it all looks fake. And indeed the whole thing struck me a deeply phony. I'm not sure which was more annoying, the smug whimsicality (everyone is either charmingly quirky or inexplicably mean-spirited) or the long stretches of dialogue that consist of a man shouting "Aaaaargh!" at a tiger. The quirkiness and the painfully raw simplicity come together in the central metaphor: a man on a boat with a tiger. The only reason to watch till the end is to see how, or whether, this metaphor develops. I am a sucker for attempts to address the meaning of life, and quite fond of metaphors too. Plus I can't help wondering (although I think the answer is surely No) whether this image is taken from Wittgenstein, who writes in one of his diaries:
Is being alone with oneself--or with God, not like being alone with a wild animal? It can attack you any moment.--But isn't that precisely why you shouldn't run away?! Isn't that, so to speak, what's glorious?! Doesn't it mean: grow fond of this wild animal!--And yet one must ask: Lead us not into temptation! 
So I watched the whole thing. But what does it all mean?

Several things, I think:

  • Near the beginning of the film, the very religious (which in his case seems to be more a matter of having many religions than of being unusually devout) boy Pi (guess whether this quirky name has a quirky origin) is taught a lesson by his anti-religious father. When his father catches Pi holding meat through the bars of a tiger's caged home he shows him how dangerous this is by tying a goat there and making the boy watch as the tiger kills it and drags it through the bars to eat it. He tells Pi and his brother that anything they think they see in an animal's eyes is just a projection. Really, the lesson seems to be, nature is heartless, even cruel. The boy starts reading existentialist literature and feels the world to be disenchanted. So this is part of the point: being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger is like being in the goat's position. It means having to come to terms with nature, with creation (and hence, in a way, with God), having to learn to live with it, and, in the end, befriending it, as Pi does the tiger named (quirk alert!) Richard Parker.
  • I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think that the boat in which the tiger and the young man travel is also like our own earthly vessel, the body. Within it are two competing forces: the person and the wild beast, the ego and the id, the rational part of the soul or inner man and the insatiable monster of appetite. How can the two coexist harmoniously? Well, shouting "Aaaaargh!" a lot apparently helps. God works in mysterious ways.
  • At the end of the film Pi tells another version of his voyage in the lifeboat, one in which the various animals (at one point there is a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra on the boat as well) are replaced by people. He explicitly says that the tiger is him. So, I am the tiger. Each of us is a wild beast, capable of great evil, etc. 
  • Finally, now that we have two versions of the story, each consistent with the available evidence, Pi suggests that we choose the version we prefer. He also suggests that belief in God is like this. And he chooses to believe.  
If this has any value I think it might be in showing (at least part of) what Wittgenstein meant when he said, "And yet one must ask: Lead us not into temptation!" If we think of being with God as like being with a wild animal that can attack at any moment, whose presence is glorious precisely because of this danger, and that we must grow fond of, then we need to beware of seeing this as an easy task, and of sentimentalizing God.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


I try not to swear around my children so for several years I have been saying things like "Flipping heck you flipping flipper!" when someone drives badly or misses an open goal. I used to call bad drivers idiots, but that had to stop when the chants of "Mommy is a idiot" began (due to her allegedly driving too fast). I also make extensive use of the neologism jipe, which literally means jumping/leaping diagonally from one part of the floor at Kroger to another.

Seeing the checkered floor you can, perhaps, imagine how tempting it is for kids to do this, and yet a busy supermarket is not a great place for diagonal leaping. So jiping, while no terrible crime, is not a good thing. And a flipping jiper is not a good person to be. Nor is a jipey flipper. (I know non-parents are nauseated by such talk, and others might be too. It is over now.)

Anyway, that partly explains the title of this post, but my real subject is teaching. Marcus Arvan has a wonderfully honest piece about teaching as a Visiting Assistant Professor here. It's a rather grim tale, but one of the happier bits is this:
I attended a teaching workshop which emphasized the "flipped classroom" -- i.e. getting students to do more work in the classroom, rather than being the "sage on the stage." My wife and mother also suggested that instead of working myself into the ground prepping for classes, I should prioritize getting students to work. I did. I now spend 1/3 of my 2-hour classes discussing mandatory reading responses students prepare, another 1/3 having students do group work in the classroom, and the final 1/3 giving a lecture. It has worked wonders. My student evaluations have soared, and more importantly, my students are improving beyond my wildest dreams. Getting them to work -- to do philosophy themselves, both in the classroom and at home -- works wonders.
I have read about this kind of thing before, but the idea seemed to be that instead of lecturing in class something like lectures would be delivered outside class through textbook readings and video tutorials, or things of roughly that sort. And my concern has always been that students might not bother to do the reading or watch the videos, or that they would bother but would not understand and that class time would end up having to be spent on lectures covering the material they were supposed to have covered on their own. Giving mandatory reading responses is an obvious solution, but it doesn't ensure that students will understand the reading they are responding to. And it brings other potential problems. How mandatory are these responses if they are not graded? And if they do count for part of the grade for the course, how much do they count? And what has to be cut to make room for this extra work? These are not meant as rhetorical questions. I just would like to know how it's done. More on this below--I found out!

And then there's the group work. My two concerns here are what the nature of this work would be and how to avoid making students feel like guinea pigs or lab rats. My ideal class is a conversation, and in a conversation you don't make people split into groups and perform some exercise you have prepared for them. I have seen people do this kind of thing well (though not in philosophy), but I can't imagine myself doing it well. I would feel manipulative. And self-conscious.

But enough criticism and skepticism. How might I flip my classroom, if I did do it? I think the first thing to do would be to assign short or easy readings (since they have to be able to make sense of them on their own, without a lecture from me). Then the mandatory responses would require students to do something like identify the thesis and the argument(s) for it in the reading, and to identify a likely objection (which might be one mentioned by the author or one that the student comes up with herself, or finds by doing some extra research). Discussion of these responses would involve students reading out their answers and then collectively identifying the best ones and correcting any that are incorrect. Most of the discussion, I imagine, would be about the relative merits of various possible objections, but it might also focus on exactly what the author is arguing for, or how she argues for it. You would have to collect the responses at the end to make sure that everyone had really prepared one and didn't just repeat what others had said, but the grading could be some combination of credit just for trying and bonus points for contributing well to the discussion (by correctly identifying arguments, etc. or helping others to see where they had gone wrong). Maybe a C for preparing something that looks like a reasonable effort and up to an A for positive contributions in discussion. And all of this might be, what, 30% of the grade for the course? It could amount to about 20 pages of writing, after all.

Next, group work. Students might work together on another piece of philosophical writing, doing the same kind of thing only this time as a group and with limited time. Or they might prepare an answer to the question: why does this matter? (For instance, if they have been reading something about personhood, they might think about the implications this might have for the abortion debate or belief in life after death.) Or they might discuss among themselves whether the author's argument or the best objection to it is stronger. Then each group could report back to the rest of the class, and the class as a whole could discuss the various answers. This group work would have to count for grade, too, but maybe less than 30%. And then the final lecture could summarize, correct any possible misunderstandings, and set the stage for the next class.

I don't really see much here that couldn't be achieved in other ways. For instance, requiring reading responses and then spending most of the class on traditional lecturing interspersed with "Socratic" (scare quotes because this kind of thing is not really very like what Socrates actually did) questioning of individuals (if you like calling on people) or the whole class (if you prefer to ask for volunteers, as I do). But I had no idea what kind of responses people like Arvan require, nor what kind of group work they have their students do. I don't think mine would enjoy the kind of thing I've described above, but I haven't tried it. 

Now I do have an idea what Arvan does. He tells me here:
The daily reading responses I have students complete are always the same. They are asked, in no longer than 1/2 page double-spaced, to:
(A) Summarize in their own words a *single* important claim from the reading, and
(B) Motivate a serious philosophical question or worry about it.
I grade them on the importance of the idea they summarized (is it important, or a trivial point unrelated to the author's argument?), how accurately they summarize it, and how well they (briefly) motivate their question or worry. These get them to think about the material and lead to great class discussions.
The group assignments are somewhat different. Sometimes I have one group assignment at the beginning of my lecture (asking a question or two about the reading) and then one at the end (asking a question or two about my lecture). Other times I sprinkle the group assignments in the middle of my lecture, to get them to think about arguments I've just presented.
Typical questions for group assignments go something like:
"What is Philosopher X's argument on p.Y, second paragraph? Summarize it in your own words. Next, raise an objection and state how you think Philosopher X would/should respond."
"I just put Philosopher X's argument into premise-conclusion form. Is the argument valid? Is it sound? (Are all of its premises true?)"
These also lead to great class discussions, not to mention opportunities to clear up misinterpretations (which helps them read more accurately for future classes. Because group assignments make up 20% of their final grade, they have real incentive to learn from their interpretive mistakes!).
John Protevi describes his practice at NewAPPS:
Everyone who stresses student in-class work has their own percentages, so I thought I'd share mine. As I give individual comments on RR [reading response, I take it] papers by email rather than in class (but not everyone writes a paper each week; I have them in teams of 3, with one drafter, two commenters, and then the drafter revises and sends in the final), I don't have that component.
A typical class for me has 15-20 minutes intro, group work, then concluding discussion with each group presenting their work. In the group work I divide the reading into sections, and then assign each group to a section. I mostly ask them for an outline of the main points, the structure of an individual argument, or sometimes a diagram of the concept.
I'm torn. Teaching like this does involve getting students to do real work, and apparently leads to both real learning (or the production of good work, anyway, which seems like evidence of learning to me) and great teaching evaluations. And yet it still seems a little too distant from my conversational ideal. My favorite class this semester is an interdisciplinary seminar on Wittgenstein's Vienna (loosely based on the book of the same name). I think some of the students are a bit lost, and I feel a little at sea myself when I deal with non-philosophical stuff (although I don't spend much time on completely non-philosophical material), but we have great conversations about the reading in class. It's fun while still having a serious focus. And they have to write several papers, which I grade demandingly. Those who pass the course, and I hope they all do, will have really learned a lot, I'm sure, and grown up a bit too. I don't know if that could happen in a flipped classroom. Maybe it could. My main belief about teaching is that you have to use methods that you believe in. Students want teachers who know their stuff and genuinely believe in what they are doing. I think they are right to do so. So if flipping works you should flip. I'm just not sure it's for me. I am tempted to give it a try though.     

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Object-oriented ontology

Posts like this from Jon Cogburn have made me interested in object-oriented ontology (and speculative realism), despite my general lack of interest in ontology (and philosophical speculation). Now he's co-written a paper with Mark Ohm that explains what it's about in a very accessible way, and makes it sound quite intriguing:
Besides a deep fondness for H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps the only non-trivial belief held in common by the original four speculative realists (Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux) is the Hegelian conviction that metaphysics buries its own undertakers.
I'm no Hegelian, but I do like Lovecraft. And Cogburn and Ohm go on to say other things to which I'm sympathetic, such as this:
Until very recently nearly every English major in the United States was subjected to a “theory” class where students worked through Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction. Assignments invariably involved writing different interpretations of random texts according to whatever hermeneutic of suspicion was being covered at the time: Freudianism, Marxism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism, etc. Now that “theory’s empire” has begun a period of decline in literary study, the benefit of hindsight reveals what was lost during its ascent.
            Simply put, such approaches systematically robbed their practitioners of  the ability to say anything illuminating about specific texts. This is because the central idea of theory was to mine the hermeneutics of suspicion so as to give critics general procedures to unmask “what is really going on” in any given text. But when applied to works of art the effect is too often that of wearing blue tinted glasses and then saying that everything is blue, or evidence of class struggle, the will to power, castration anxiety, the failure of the metaphysics of presence, phallo-logocentrism, etc., etc., etc. But what really happened is that one too often either cherry picked works that could easily be read in terms of one’s hermeneutics, or one ignored everything about a work that did not validate the story. The end result is that there are no longer any textual objects, but rather just an encompassing textuality equally present in Dr. Seuss and the Constitution of the United States.
Which is similar to Rebecca Schuman's claim that in graduate school:
you’ll never have time to read books, and when you talk about them, you’ll mostly be using made-up words like “deterritorialization” and “Othering”—because, as Ron Rosenbaum pointed out recently, the “dusty seminar rooms” of academia have the chief aim of theorizing every great book to death
I like the anti-theory elements of all this, anyway. Cogburn and Ohm offer a fictionalist reading of the Bible, which is interesting but leads to some odd claims (along the lines of "it's fiction but it's true"). Fictionalism in ethics and religion seems to me to be a step in the right direction (depending on where you're stepping from, obviously), but not the whole truth. Not that I can say what the whole truth is myself. Mostly I just want to encourage people to read Cogburn and Ohm's paper, and Rebecca Schuman argument against getting a PhD in literary studies. Or to say 'Like' to both of them, at least.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What do you mean "what's it mean?, what's it mean?"?

Philosophical Investigations 123 says that a philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about." The German is Ich kenne mich nicht aus. According to my dictionary this might also be translated "I am stumped" or "I am at a loss." Auskennen means to know one's way about, to know what's what. Wittgenstein's words suggest feeling trapped, not knowing how to get out. Hence, presumably, the need for the liberating word. Language traps us, but the problem is really one of the will. So perhaps really it is the will that traps us. Or perhaps we cannot so easily distinguish between language and the will. It is our language, after all, and the problems of philosophy seem to arise, according to Wittgenstein, when we want to say things that in some sense we cannot say, or when we cannot find any words that mean what we want them to mean, or when our will is frustrated by language. Involuntary nonsense is a result of a certain kind of coming together (or not coming together, perhaps) of language and will. This means there is an ethical aspect to linguistic analysis: the will is involved, and willing can be evaluated as good or bad.

In this review of G. A. Cohen's Finding Oneself in the Other, Ralf M. Bader writes:
While Cohen does not provide an analysis of what it is for a statement to be unclarifiable, he puts forward a sufficient condition (which he attributes to Arthur Brown), namely "that adding or subtracting (if it has one) a negation sign from a text makes no difference to its level of plausibility: no force in a statement has been grasped if its putative grasper would react no differently to its negation from how he reacts to the original statement" (pp. 105-106). This proposal seems problematic insofar as the plausibility of the proposition that Fellows' lawn has an even number of blades of grass at a particular time seems to be equal to the plausibility of the negation of this proposition, yet neither of these propositions is bullshit. While the unfounded assertion of either statement might constitute an act of Frankfurt-bullshitting, in that the assertion would be groundless and as such not display a concern for truth, it would not be a case of Cohen-bullshitting since the statements are both perfectly clear and can be grasped (though not evaluated) straightforwardly.
I wonder about this. What could someone possibly mean by saying that the lawn has an even number of blades of grass on it? If they have some way of knowing then it makes sense. Perhaps the grass seed is planted in some way such that, would you believe it?, we know exactly how many blades there are (or perhaps we don't know the number but do know that it can only be an even number). Perhaps our new spy satellite is so good that it can even count the number of blades of grass on a lawn. But if we don't have anything like this kind of way of counting the blades, what could we possibly mean? (I don't mean that verificationism is true in general, but it seems to have some plausibility in this case.) I would not know what someone who said such a thing (i.e. something like "There is an even number of blades of grass on this lawn," assuming a normal, grass-covered lawn) meant. Because the assertion would seem so groundless and to show such a wild lack of concern for truth I would not feel that I could grasp the statement, nor that it was perfectly clear. There is a sense in which I know what "There is an even number of blades of grass on this lawn" means (it means what it says, I can paraphrase it in a Google-translate kind of way), but I would not know what someone who said it meant.

In his recent essay on "Rhees on the Unity of Language," Lars Hertzberg quotes Rush Rhees:
Understanding what is being said; not just understanding what the words mean. Objection: “those are synonymous.” I do not think so. You can understand what the words mean even when nothing is being said. 
This reminded me of the following: O. K. Bouwsma reports that Max Black once argued that in some circumstances a sentence such as “I am here” or “I exist” would serve no purpose but that, even then, if one were asked whether it was true or false one would say that it was true. To this, Bouwsma says, Wittgenstein responded, “No! No! Of course not, etc. Context determines use” (Bouwsma pp. 14-15). Rhees distinguishes between what is being said (by a person) and what words mean. Wittgenstein (reportedly and implicitly, as I understand him) denies that one can say whether a sentence is true or false regardless of its context. This does not contradict Rhees, although one might wonder whether they would have agreed on all this. Can words have a meaning but be neither true nor false? Of course they can if they don't form a statement (a question has meaning but no truth-value, for instance). But Hertzberg suggests that Rhees does have statements in mind:
I would suggest that what Rhees means by “understanding the words” is not simply recognising the single words but also recognising the sentence as an English sentence, getting a “sentence feeling,” as in a grammar exercise in which nothing is being said: “The cat is on the mat.”
It is neither true nor false that the cat is on the mat, because this kind of grammar exercise is a kind of bullshit in the technical sense: the concern is not with truth. "The cat is on the mat" has a sentence feeling, but does it have a meaning? I don't see how to avoid the answer Yes and No to this question. There is no question of the speaker's meaning because there is no speaker. Even if a teacher of English were to pronounce the sentence, she would not be saying (asserting) it. Qua grammar exercise it cannot be asserted, i.e. in grammatical exercises one demonstrates and practices grammar, one does not make, is not making, assertions. Such sentences are mentioned but not used, so to speak. So if by "the meaning of the sentence" we mean the use to which it is being put then it has no meaning. (The sentence is being used, but in a special kind of way.) But of course it would be odd to teach and learn English using meaningless sentences. These sentences do have a meaning in a thinner sense. They can be paraphrased, and we can imagine circumstances in which just those words in just that order could be used.

Perhaps we could say they have a potential meaning, but everything has a potential meaning. So maybe we should say they have a standard meaning (or a literal meaning, which need not be the most common meaning since some words, e.g. 'literally', are most often not used literally). Then does "I am here" or "I exist" have this kind of meaning? Yes, I think so. But "I am here" doesn't have a clear standard meaning. It's literal meaning is tautological, but it's most common use would, I think, be much the same as that of "Here I am!" or "Cooey!" And cooey is neither true nor false. "I exist" has no common use outside of philosophy. But there it is taken to be true, at least usually. Is it therefore true? It seems to be, but Wittgenstein was apparently reluctant to say so. More than reluctant. He was apparently insistent that we not say that such sentences are true. Perhaps because he had a bit of Rorty's idea in him that to call a sentence true is to pay it a certain kind of compliment. I doubt he had more than a little bit of this idea in him, but it might have been enough.  

Do I have a point? What ties all these ideas together? Philosophy seems to involve a relationship between the self (the puzzled philosopher), other people (who created and sustain the language, and help determine what is correct and what incorrect), language itself (which has a limited kind of independence of its creators), and the world (which language, among other things, describes). In the grass case the philosopher is puzzled by how a speaker, his sentence, and the world (the nature of lawns, for instance) could go together. Is the speaker lying? Bullshitting? Kidding? Roughly the problem is: how can we be charitable to the speaker in this case? (There might also be questions of charity towards the world or towards language. Skepticism is a lack of faith, which is a kind of lack of charity. Or is that more bull?) And questions of meaning are not wholly separate, or separable, from questions about people, because words only have meaning in a full sense when used by people. (And on the question of the relation between language and the world, see Cora Diamond's recent essay "The Skies of Dante and Our Skies.") This is all a bit half-baked, but perhaps I will be able to finish baking at least of it later.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Killing animals and killing people

Questionable taste is everywhere. This article on vegetarianism by (full bragging disclosure: my Facebook friend) Stuart Rachels looks very good until you get to part 6: Industrial Farming and the Holocaust. The tone goes way off right here:
To compare industrial farming to the Holocaust, let’s consider the number of victims involved in each.
You can almost hear the sleeves being rolled up as we eagerly set about our business (at the beginning of the sentence and especially on the word 'let's'). There is no need to bring the Holocaust into the discussion at all. The previous five parts have catalogued quite enough horror.

Nothing by Coetzee is mentioned in the bibliography.

R.F. Holland

Roy Holland has died. He was 89.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Keats and Yeats are on your side, but you lose

I meant to talk about the purpose of college in that last post but never quite got to it. So let's try again.

One thing I said there was this:
What is college or university for? Perhaps to provide students with certain knowledge, skills, and character traits. Perhaps to provide employers with suitable employees, society with suitable citizens, and students with suitable abilities to live a happy life. Perhaps to allow young people to have a good time for a few years before settling down. Perhaps we don't really know what it's for, but it's what we've done for hundreds of years (in various forms) and changing that might spell disaster.
I think there's something in each of these ideas: we should be benefiting students, and the economy, and the political community. We shouldn't rush students through this time (although do they really need four years rather than the usual English three?). And we should be conservative in our approach, because there is a lot at stake and once undone it will probably be hard to restore any civilized or civilizing baby that gets thrown out with the bath water. So what are we looking at?

Knowledge (i.e. knowledge that, knowledge of various facts) is probably minimally important, since people forget it, it goes out of date, and you can google that stuff pretty easily these days. Not that there shouldn't be any of it, but it strikes me as a low priority. Skills are probably more important (and of course will often incorporate some knowledge that), although as far as usefulness goes it's probably better not to get into specific work-related skills too much. These can be learned on the job, and employers very often prefer to teach them themselves (as Philip Cartwright pointed out). Apart from technical skills (how to do calculus, how to perform various lab procedures, etc.) which are of no use to anyone (can I say that?) who won't be using them in later life (and therefore should not be part of general education requirements, and are clearly not part of the humanities) the kind of skills I think employers, parents, politicians, and probably students themselves would like to see developed are writing (by which I mean primarily the basics: spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and the ability to be clear, or, collectively, how to avoid making a fool of yourself), general problem solving (tricky, but supposedly improved by courses that require substantial amounts of reading and writing), and the wherewithal to avoid being fooled by spin, lies, deceptive rhetoric, statistics, etc. In short, I think general education requirements should include little in the way of maths and science (maybe one course on each, along the lines of how to see through statistical manipulation, bogus claims about climate change, etc.) and a lot of humanities courses (probably mostly English and history to ensure lots of reading and writing, and philosophy to ensure careful reading and writing, logical reasoning, etc. Of course some English and history courses involve careful reading, but not all do.). Something like what I outlined here, but with more English in it, probably as an addition to rather than as a replacement of anything I listed before. These general humanities courses should teach students about their own culture and hopefully also something about other cultures. I think this would kill all the relevant birds with very few stones: students would be enriched, they would become better writers and thinkers, and they would become better informed citizens. Technical skills would be developed in the major. One problem is that my last list of gen ed requirements had fifteen courses in it, and now I want to add probably at least a couple of courses in American literature. And maybe one on American philosophy would be nice too. Isn't that too many? I don't know. But if you had about twenty required general courses (and even I only have eighteen so far), ten in the major, and ten electives (which could be major-related if necessary) then that sounds reasonable to me.

Why don't we do this now? Perhaps some schools do. But not all do, partly because of a misguided attempt to be relevant, for instance by teaching courses in business that do little good (because they don't have the rigor that characterizes courses that do produce measurable benefits, and nor do they provide intangible spiritual benefits--probably the reverse). It's also partly because students don't want to read or write, and we let them choose which courses they take, so they can avoid reading and writing much if they want (and they do want). Most professors have little to no incentive to make their courses demanding. The more writing you assign, the more grading you have to do. And no one gets tenure or promotion (or hired in the first place) for doing a lot of grading. Increasingly you have to publish to get these things, and piles of grading only get in the way of that. Not to mention that demanding courses are unpopular (which can mean both bad student evaluations of your teaching and low enrollments in your courses, either of which can mean that your job is in danger). So there is considerable incentive to assign little writing. To make your courses less rigorous, less good. Reading and writing are also old-fashioned, of course, and there are often incentives to be original, creative, etc., which you can't really be if you're assigning the classics and having students write longish papers on them. And then major decisions tend to be made either by politicians or administrators with some agenda (e.g. to make a name for themselves) or else by committees in which not everyone has a voice and decisions are often made on the basis of concerns about turf. In short, even if we all knew what was best for students, there is little reason to think that's what we would deliver. The system isn't set up that way.