Questions – an underrated genre

Looking at introductions to philosophy, I realise that we devote much attention to the reconstruction of arguments and critical analysis of positions. Nothing wrong with that. Yet, where are the questions? Arguably, we spend much of our time raising questions, but apart from very few exceptions questions are rarely treated as a genre of philosophy. (However, here is an earlier post, prompted by Sara Uckelman’s approach, on which she elaborates here. And Lani Watson currently runs a project on philosophical questions.) Everyone who has tried to articulate a question in public will have experienced that it is not all that simple, at least not if you want to go beyond “What do you mean?” or “What time is it?” In what follows, I’d hope to get a tentative grip on it by looking back at my recent attempt to teach students asking questions.

This year, I gave an intense first-year course on medieval philosophy.* I say “intense” because it comprises eight hours per week: two hours lecture and two hours reading seminar on Thursday and Friday morning. It’s an ideal setting to do both, introduce material and techniques of approaching it as well as applying the techniques by doing close reading in the seminars. Often students are asked to write a small essay as a midterm exam. Given the dearth of introductions to asking questions, I set a “structured question” instead. The exercise looks like this:

The question will have to be about Anselm’s Proslogion, chapters 2-4. Ideally, the question focuses on a brief passage from that text. It must be no longer than 500 words and contain the following elements:

– Topic: say what the question is about;
– Question: state the actual question (you can also state the presupposition before stating the question);
– Motivation: give a brief explanation why the question arises;
– Answer: provide a brief anticipation of at least one possible answer.

What did I want to teach them? My declared goal was to offer a way of engaging with all kinds of texts. When doing so I assumed that understanding (a text) can be a general aim of asking questions. I often think of questions as a means of making contact with the text or interlocutor. For a genuine question brings two aspects together: on the one hand, there is your question, on the other, there is that particular bit of the text that you don’t understand or would like to hear more about. But … that’s more easily said than done. During the lectures and seminars we would use some questions from students to go through the motions. What I noticed almost immediately is that this was obviously really hard. One day, a student came up and said:

“Look, this focus on questions strikes me as a bit much. I’m used to answer questions, not raising them. It seems to require knowledge that I don’t have. As it is, it is rather confusing and I feel like drowning out at sea.”

I’m quoting from memory, but the gist should be clear. And while I now think of a smallish group of students as particularly brave and open, this comment probably represents the attitude of the majority. The students wanted guidance, and what I wanted to offer them instead was tools to guide themselves. I had and have a number of different reactions to the student’s confession. My first thought was that this is a really brave stance to take: Being so open about one’s own limits and confusion is rarely to be found even among established people. At the same time, I began to worry about my approach. To be sure, the confusion was caused intentionally to some degree, and I said so. But for this apporach to work one has to ensure that asking questions eventually provides tools to orient oneself and to recognise the reasons for the confusion. Students need to learn to consider questions such as: Why am I confused? Could it be that my own expectations send me astray? What am I expecting? What is it that the text doesn’t give me? Arguably, they need to understand their confusion to make contact to the text.  In other words, questions need to be understood. But this takes time and, above all, trust that the confusion lands us somewhere in the end.

When I taught this kind of course in the past, I did what the student seemed to miss now: I gave them not only guiding questions to provide a general storyline through the material, but also detailed advice on what to look for in the texts. While that strikes me as a fine way of introducing material, it doesn’t help them develop questions autonomously. In any case, we had to figure out the details of this exercise. So what is behind the four elements in the task above?

Since questions are often used for other purposes, such as masking objections or convey irritation, it is vital to be explicit about the aim of understanding. Thus, finding the topic had to be guided by a passage or concept that left the questioner genuinely confused. Admitting to such confusion is trickier than meets the eye, because it requires you to zoom in on your lack of understanding or knowledge. You might think that the topic just is the passage. But it’s important to attempt a separate formulation for two reasons: firstly, it tells the listener or reader what matters to you; secondly, it should provide coherence in that the question, motivation and answer should all be on the same topic.

In the beginning, I spent most of the time with analysing two items: the motivation and the formulation of the actual question. After setting out an initial formulation of the question, students had to spell out why the question arises. But why do questions arise? In a nutshell, most questions arise because we make a presupposition or have an expectation that the text does not meet. (Here is a recent post with more on such expectations.) A simple example is that you expect evidence or an argument for a claim p, while the author might simply say that p is self-evident. You can thus begin by jotting down something like “Why would p be self-evident, according to the author?” This means that now, at last, you can talk about something that you do know: your expectations. Ideally, this provides a way of spelling out what you expect and thus what the text lacks (from that perspective). Going from there, the tentative answer will have to provide a reason that shows why p is self-evident for the author. Put differently, while the motivation brings out your presuppositions, the answer is an attempt at spelling out the presuppositions guiding the text (or author). With hindsight, you can now also fix the topic, e.g. self-evidence.

But things are never that straightforward. What I noticed after a while was that many students went off in a quite different direction when it came to answering the question. Rather than addressing the possible reasons of the author, the students began to spell out why the author was wrong. At least during the first letures, they would sometimes not try to see what reasons the author could invoke. Instead, they would begin by stating why their own presupposition was right and the author wrong, whatever the author’s reasons.

This is not surprising. Most discussions inside and outside of philosophy have exactly this structure. Arguably, most philsophy is driven by an adversarial culture rather than by the attempt to understand others. A question is asked, not to target a difficulty in understanding, but to justify the refutation of the interlocutor’s position. While this approach can be one legitimate way of interacting, it appears particularly forced in engaging with historical texts. Trying to say why Anselm or any other historical author was wrong, by contemporary standards, just is a form of avoiding historical analysis. You might as well begin by explaining your ideas and leave Anselm out of the equation altogether.

But how can an approach to understanding the text (rather than refuting it) be encouraged? If you start out from the presupposition that Anselm is wrong, an obvious way would be to ask for the reasons that make his position seem right. It strikes me as obvious that this requires answering the question on Anselm’s behalf. It is at this point that we need to move from training skills (of asking questions) to imparting (historical) knowledge. Once the question arises why an author claims that p, and p does not match our expectations, we need to teach students to recognise certain moves as belonging to different traditions and ways of doing philosophy, ways that do not square with our current culture. My hope is that, if we begin with teaching to raise questions, it will become more desirable to acquire the knowledge relevant to providing answers and to understanding our own questions.

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* I’ve really enjoyed teaching this course and think I’ve learned a lot from it. Special thanks to my patient students, particularly to my great TAs, Elise van de Kamp and Mark Rensema, whose ideas helped me enormously in shaping the course. – Now, if you’ve read this far, I’d like to thank you, too, for bearing with me. Not only for the length of this post. Today is a special occasion: this is post number 101.

Silent academics and the decline of (higher) education

Yesterday alone, about three articles about manifest maltreatment of university staff came my way: The SOAS University of London “sacked all of its casualised academic staff in one go”; the University and College Union published a report about “dehumanisation” of casualised staff, and a group of researchers on higher education published a paper revealing “an acute situation of endemic bullying and harassment, chronic overwork, high levels of mental health problems, general health and wellbeing problems, and catastrophically high levels of demoralisation and dissatisfaction”. Academics read such news a lot, but three articles of that sort in one day are a bit much. Now there are many good analyses of the situation, but I’m increasingly convinced that many of the problems come down to one simple issue: silence. By and large, academics seem to remain silent about these issues. And the silence signals or translates into a lack of solidarity with those under threat. Given the articles above, you might think that the community is rather vocal. But my impression is that this is the tip of the iceberg. Only, the iceberg has become quite huge by now.

Looking at the situations worldwide, it is clear that universities are under threat in many places: Hungary and Brasil look particularly bad, but Turkey, Romania, the US and many other places seem to fare no better, when it comes to systematic attacks on higher education practices.* The articles mentioned above are about the UK. I am writing from the Netherlands. While our system struck me as fairly good on arrival in 2012, I now begin to see rather worrying signs. Whenever I say that the attacks on the education system are systematic, I get a number of frowns: “Surely, it’s bad, but no one wants to harm universities”, is what people want to say. – I’m not so sure. Education is a pillar of democratic participation, and that makes it a nuisance for those who just would like to have things their way. Anyway, what strikes me as systematic is the following ubiquitous chain of events: (a) The government reduces the education budget and incentivises research competition among universities (via grant agencies). (b) Universities compete by setting up staff to fulfil incentives; neglect of teaching follows. (c) Fulfilment entails increase of incentives and casualisation of teaching-oriented tasks. (d) Research grows while the outsourced teaching is pushed to the fringes so much that the field of study might be perceived as irrelevant for students and thus for other stakeholders. (e) Finally, people note the irrelevance, close the pertinent departments and repeat from (a). The upshot is: the business model of universities feeds on research and casualises teaching. Rather than forming a unity, teaching and research (or rather the pertinent performance indicators) are played off against one another.

Wherever the chain sketched above or some variation is seen as the proper business model of universities, the silence among staff members follows almost automatically. Of course, no one really seems to want the outcome (e) or even the decline of teaching. Thus, it will get portrayed as an undesired result of focus on research. At this point, however, we have already forgotten that what is being measured most of the time is not really research but performance indicators, in other words: jumping through hoops. Jumping through hoops and worries about failing to do so ultimately block collective action and promote silence instead. Mariya Ivancheva describes this as follows:

“It is quite difficult to unite and organize resistance around a common cause while higher education has a huge reserve army of workers on precarious fixed term and fractional contracts, unsure if they will have secure employment and bread on their table in a few months. And this while even permanent academics feel ever more vulnerable and threatened …”

Dutch academia is currently addressing this issue in the guise of overwork. While overwork was already a topic a while ago, the government recently intervened by reallocating (and effectively cutting) money for universities. Thus, gone are all the measures thought out for balancing the situation. Ingrid Robeyns explains the situation as follows:

“Colleagues report negative effects on their mental and physical health, sleep deprivation, constant worrying, deterioration of their friendships and other social relations, insufficient time for self-care including doing exercise, and so forth. The main problem is that the notional hours that are given to teach a course or do supervision … are inadequate, and hence a 70% teaching load leads to a more-than-fulltime workload. And since everyone also wants to, needs to, and/or is expected to do research, that also still needs to be done. Add some administration and/or leadership tasks, and societal outreach, and we easily make 55 hours a week. For colleagues who only teach, and who are on the lowest pay scales, this also means they have troubles buying a house or starting a family, since those contracts are almost always part-time, and hence also create financial stress. … [T]he Minister of Higher Education has acknowledged that the universities need a structural increase of their yearly budgets with 1.000.000.000 Euro (one billion!) but she claims she doesn’t have that money available.”

Too bad, isn’t it? You would think that this would create some momentum, but it doesn’t. But why not? I have no clear idea, but my first hunch is that it has something to do with the way criticism is portrayed. You would assume that criticism is mainly seen as a means to spot problems or weaknesses in a system. But in a competitive system, spotting weaknesses is likely turned against the critic. If you spot a weakness in the system, then you are too weak for the system. Arguably, academia is therefore often driven by the pretence that everything is just fine. A second reason might be that political criticism in universities is currently framed as an indication of left-leaning biases or even what is called “Cultural Marxism”. Accordingly, criticising the system can be framed as a political attitude that is deemed unfit for academics, who are taken to be sworn to dubious standards of neutrality. If you want a whiff of this just listen in on Trump likening climate scientists to “foolish fortune tellers”.

It seems, then, that there are three mechanisms that govern the silence in academia: (1) The competitive set-up incentivises pertinent priorities among staff members. This is not per se an incentive to remain silent; it just directs the focus on performance rather than cooperation. However, the following two points might reinforce adherence to the status quo more strongly: (2) In a competitive set-up, criticism can be portrayed as the display of a weakness (“oh, this is too much for you?”). (3) The ‘external world’ frames criticism as “left-leaning politicisation” of academia.

How can this be countered? Given the well-founded worries, it should be on the tenured staff members to speak up first. But contrary to common opinion we should also be reminded that university administrators are not enemies by default. It is clear that such framing helps dividing different university staff groups, but it is by no means a given that people involved in administration are enemies of researchers and teachers. In fact, many people in higher administration have condemned the policies of the government in the clearest terms. (Here is an example from the president of Groningen University.) So a second measure would be to doubt the common construal of academics against administrators, not least because administrators often are academics. We should return to seeing ourselves as a community with quite a number of shared goals and interests. In this spirit, criticism should not be construed as putting blame on someone else or oneself, but as a normal way of detecting problems. Reinstating vocal criticism with this aim would hopefully reinstate some trust between different status groups and stakeholders. But, yes, as Ingrid Robeyns pointed out already, one of the first things one should do is: join a union.

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* Just over the last two days there were a lot more reports. Let me just name France, where a new research law is under way: “France’s new research law is yet to be made public. But judging from preliminary discussions, Professor Huneman feared it could make the previously permanent positions of assistant professor and CNRS junior researcher temporary.”

In the meantime, protests in the UK include a growing number of academics refusing to act as external referees: “29 professors said they were resigning as external examiners and refusing to take on new contracts because of pension cuts and insecure contracts throughout the sector, as well as gender and ethnicity pay gaps, heavy workloads and stress.”

 

Why playing air guitar is underrated. A delayed response to Jenny Judge

Think of your favourite piece of music, please. No, don’t put it on; imagine it! Imagine how it begins and moves towards your favourite parts. – Now I have a question for you: What is it precisely that you imagine? Do you have the sound in mind? The melody, perhaps also the harmonic shapes, and the rhythm? Do you hear it on the specific instruments or through the particular voice you love so much? Or do you hear an undifferentiated whole? Depending on your memory and experience, imagining music comes in different varieties I guess. But you probably have some bits or instrumental or vocal lines that you focus on. Have you ever consciously thought about performing that piece, be it by yourself, as a member of a band or orchestra? What I would like to do in the following is to suggest that we all can take the perspective of a performer, if only an imagined one, and that we should embace that perspective.

In one of her books, Tracey Thorn (yes, she’s the singer from Everything but the Girl) claims that the reason we like certain voices more than others might reside in the fact that we could fairly easily sing in the range of that singer. So the reason that you like, say, Joni Mitchell in particular might not only be down to her being a fantastic musician. Rather, what might be crucial in your appreciation is that you have the same range. Pick another singer if you like; but I guess the point still holds: You might like those singers whose range is close to yours (whether you know it or not). The gripping thought behind Thorn’s idea is that sameness of range means similarity of bodily dispositions: You have certain bodily features similar to that of your favourite singer. That similarity might matter more than we think. As I see it, such similarities go a long way: We feel in sync with certain singers. If singing is not your thing, you might want to think of dance moves. The core idea is that your body can relate to the music in a way that goes beyond the appreciation via your ears.

I’ll never forget the first days when my brother brought along drum sticks (I was at around the age of nine perhaps). He put on the record player and drummed along on a pillow. I watched in awe. At some point, my body began to relate more clearly to the piece. Later still I picked up the drum sticks and began to “accompany” pieces. What happened in the mind and imagination of this fairly uneducated child? I don’t know exactly, but I began to develop a kind of “drummer’s perspective”: I listened to songs no longer as undifferentiated wholes but as someone who thinks of themself as performing the part of the drums. Of course it was to some degree merely the perspective of an imaginary drummer, but it mattered greatly for how I related to the music. The point is not that I became a drummer (I didn’t ever, really), but that I had that perspective. That perspective means to this day that when I listen to a piece I can feel the music from a drummer’s point of view. Even if I could never accurately perform a certain piece, I feel the beat in my hands and feet: Listening to whatever piece, I feel the snare drum the drummer hits not just in my ears or legs (like someone wanting to dance), but like someone actually hitting that snare drum. I feel the stick in my hand, how it resonates on the drum etc. The same goes for singing, which is something almost all of us do, even if only in the proverbial shower. Again, the point is to take the perspective of the performer, to feel the pleasure, the sound and how it fills my belly and mouth, how it comes out and travels through space and returns.

The point I want to make is simple. We all have a bodily relationship to music. We can feel what the performer would feel. Depending on the instruments we play, these relationships broaden, but most of us have at least the voice. What I want to suggest is simply this: in addition to being a hearer, you are also a performer, whether you know it or not. Your body relates to the music played. If you make that relation conscious, you might sing along or begin to tap your foot, drum on the table or even play air guitar. Why is this worth noting? Well, arguably this relation to the music opens a door to a dimension that is different from what you do when merely listening.

Perhaps this form of ‘playing music’ should be compared to pretend play in children who often indulge in pretending to act in certain roles. Watching my daughter, I notice (and remember) that certain phases in learning languages also involve pretending to speak a certain language by imitating the phonetic qualities of a language. The same kind of prentend play or learning might be said to figure in our understanding of music or active listening. If you think about it more carefully, you’ll realise that there is no such thing as “merely listening”. Your body is always involved. But what you can do is enjoy, flesh out and indulge in that perspective. (Watch Rick Beato’s clip on “how to listen to music”.)

You can take this practice further, for instance by inventing variations: Once you can mentally play along, yoz can begin altering what the actual performer (you’re identifying with) does, and think of yourself doing something else. This way, the thing played is one option among several. Begin to play differently; try to play half or twice as fast. Throw in some off beats or triplets, play a with a swing feel over straight eighths, play three against four. Imagine a second voice. Whatever. Once you can move back and forth between the music played and the variations you imagine on top, you can lock in with the actual music more easily.

In any case, your playing along in the imagination will enhance your experience and grasp enormously, compared to the kind of listening that is suggested by someone sitting still in a seat in a concert hall. Feel the sound coming through your body, the strings under your fingers, or the sticks resonating after hitting that drum. Jenny Judge has developed this idea as crucial for the philosophy of music in a small piece that came out a while ago:

Performers rely on touch and proprioception (a sense of where the instrument is in relation to their body) in order to control their instrument; they also depend on visual and haptic cues to synchronise their actions with other performers, as well as with the audience. But the evidence suggests that even the experience of the passive musical listener is thoroughly multisensory. Studies show that visual experience can influence our judgements not only of the high-level properties of a musical performance, such as virtuosity, but also of basic aspects of auditory experience like tone duration. Not only that, but our experience of rhythmic beat involves basic interactions between hearing and proprioception, which in turn implies that talk of “feeling the beat” may not just be a figure of speech. It’s becoming clear that a discussion of music in terms of “sound alone” leaves far too much out.

The central move is to get beyond the perspective of a typical audience member or listener, and become a participant in the performance. Now you might want to object that this approach is limiting because it depends on knowing how to play a certain instrument. What if you don’t play the piano but love piano pieces? Can you fully enjoy them that way? – Well, you already do. But my guess is that there is a reason why you enjoy them. My advice would be this: Think again, even if you’ve never learned to play the piano, your body does already relate to the instrument. That’s why you like this instrument in particular. Explore that relation! Feel it in your fingers. Hit something in front of you if need be. Try to figure out what you like about the sound. I bet it’s not merely how it sounds; it will be the physicality of feeling how the keys are touched.

Once you focus on a particular instrument, the piece will change for you. You will listen to more details, the details that you play or rather simulate playing. We all recognise this effect when watching how music is performed. Listen to an orchestra. Once the camera (or your attention) moves to the horns, for instance, you’ll actually hear them more clearly. The same happens if you deliberately focus on a particular instrument.

The point of this approach is not (merely) to approach music by focussing on a particular instrument. Once you take the perspective of a performer, the music becomes part of your body. Arguably, this opens a dimension of aesthetic appreciation that goes beyond the act of reception. You become active, you become part of the music. And the music literally is more than it used to be. So the next time you see someone playing air guitar or making other strange moves, note that these people are appreciating an extra dimension of the music. Time to join in. The step from playing imaginary instruments to playing real instruments is only a gradual one. If you perform with your imagination you are already playing music. And actually playing music requires projecting it. If you think about it and feel it in your fingers or your mouth, your performance is already becoming a reality.

“I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Travelling in times of the climate crisis

Last week a good friend from Sydney came to visit Groningen and give a paper at a small workshop on early modern philosophy. We met the evening before to do some catching up. Not having had a proper chat for about a year meant that there was quite a bit to talk about, but our conversation was dominated by the climate crisis. Although we enjoyed the meeting, we soon realised that it is hard if not impossible to pretend that all is well. Many people’s lives are more or less directly affected, the news are full of it. But here we sat in a cosy restaurant when my friend spoke the words that continue ringing in my head: “I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Just re-read that sentence, will you? In the meantime, I try to ponder on what it might mean.

Listening to my friend’s account of what had been going on over the last months was scary enough.* But that sentence made it sound like we’ve moved beyond a so-called tipping point. I guess no one needs a reminder of the bushfires that are destroying enormous parts of Australia, while the government is still in denial of the facts. (Here is a recent account by John Quiggin. And if you’re up for it, try the hashtag #AustraliaBurning on Twitter.) Of course, there is much talk about tipping points in relation to climate change, but there are also “personal tipping points” that one will confront. Imagine that you will soon return from a different continent but have no idea what your home will look like or whether it will still be there, whether your friends and family are ok, and what will become of your plans. Whatever might happen, whatever help will be available – there is a sense of reality altered. Something has already changed, but you don’t know exactly what it is and what it will involve. All you know is that it happened, and perhaps sooner than expected or hoped. Such moments are to some degree ubiquitous, while they can also be deeply personal. One might experience personal tipping points in relation to all sorts of things: encounters with others, diseases, loss, war, I don’t actually want to go through all the options. The effects of climate change might be experienced on an equally personal level, but they still feel different in that we know how much they will equally affect others: not only current animals, human and non-human, our ecosystems and cultures, but also, and in much worse ways, our children. Let alone further future generations.

And yet, here we were, getting ready for what has been a most common event, an academic meeting of the sort of which there have been many. One thought that eerily struck us was the idea that people would get on with their business as if nothing were happening. Of course, we do that, too. But how common will that be in a few years from now? My friend told me of recent academic talks in Australia, speaker and audience trying to supress coughing while the smoke is creeping in from under the door. No acknowledgement in the face of the obvious. But indeed, what can we do?

There are a number of things that can be done. Whilst there is much public debate and still a grotesque amount of denial, climate scientists and social scientists have designed concrete plans of action, policies that try to keep the social and economical costs at a minimum. (The PIK in Potsdam is one such institute studying the impact of climate change while working on plans of action. Listen to them in addition to other media outlets!) While I admire a lot of individual action, putting collective pressure on governments to act in accordance with such plans should have priority. In the news, measures to counter the climate crisis are still too often presented as either-or scenarios, while there are in fact many nuanced approaches available. In this sense, the credo of movements like Fridays for Future strikes me as just right: Listen to the science! And keep talking, not least to those who don’t listen or sit on the fence. I often hear the accusation that these movements make high-brow demands and nothing else. This is a lie. They are advised by scientists, and they are pointing to institutions that do have worked out policies. But discrediting climate activism and even climate science is currently rampant. While no surprise, I am struck by the increasing amount of unfounded accusations and hate directed at institutions and individuals.

Like many others, I have been wondering a lot what do. Whenever I listen to the news, my attempts at writing something (e.g. here, here, here and here) strike me as futile. So I guess overcoming the feeling of powerlessness and keeping up hope is vital. That will probably involve amplifying the voices of well-informed politicians and movements, countering denial and silence both as a citizen and philosopher, wherever possible. (My colleague Diego Castro has written an instructive piece about countering denial.)

It’s likely that our habits and ways of interaction (not least in academia) will (have to) change. Sooner than we think we might be travelling around the world for quite different reasons. But we have to be careful. At the moment, we see a lot of incentives to change our forms of travelling. Some people not only take the train rather than the plane, but also begin to refrain from travelling altogether. I’d worry if that should signal a tendency towards gradually cutting ourselves off from others, at locally distant places. Especially now we have to keep in touch.

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* I can’t possibly give a recollection of even the most crucial things that my friend mentioned. But here is a quote from a different, enormously helpful and detailed personal account I found through a Twitter search today, which corroborates many of the facts my friend mentioned (and which you might want to read in full): “Even in our cities, where we are safe from the worst of the fires themselves, many days the acrid taste of smoke in the air has been so hazardous it’s risking your health to even go outside. Many days have been designated as total fire ban days. Even many of National Parks have been closed for fear of having to evacuate visitors. […] Since the bushfire season started in September 2019 we have had:

  • 28 lives lost – another fire fighter was lost on 12th January
  • Over 2000 homes lost, not including other buildings such as sheds, barns, and community halls
  • 17.9 Million hectares of land burnt out – already 46% more than the Brazilian Amazon fires
  • Over 1 billion animals lost – including much of Australia’s distinctive wildlife
  • Possible extinction of up to 20 threatened species in just one day of fires on Kangaroo Island (part of South Australia)
  • The largest peace time evacuation in Australia’s history to move thousands of Summer tourists trapped in coastal towns in NSW South Coast and Victoria

Much of this has only happened since New Year’s Eve. We are only 2 weeks into the start of the new year. There’s at least another 2 months of bushfire season to come.

Sydney is known for being the first major city for New Year’s Eve fireworks. This year it felt like we were the first major country for severe climate change impacts.”

Monitoring failing rationality. A reminder of Ruth Millikan’s critique of meaning rationalism

Meaning rationalism is the assumption that you can tell by pure reflection whether your thoughts are clear, coherent and non-contradictory, whether your apparent beliefs actually represent anything, hence could have truth-values, and whether your inferences are valid. It assumes that further experience, observation or experiment never bear on these questions. Without doubt, meaning rationalism is pure common sense, but occasionally common sense is a repository for obdurate error. What is so terrible about meaning rationalism is that lying at the very root of almost all classical and contemporary thought on language and thought, it is at once nearly invisible and deeply mistaken.

Ruth Millikan

“Hilary is a woman, isn’t she?” My three-year-old daughter Hannah and I are watching a video that briefly features Hilary. In the recent months, Hannah had a lot of fun subsuming things and especially animals, both human and non-human, under concepts. Given how she applies them, I am fairly confident that she has mastered quite a number of concepts. Despite my protests, “stupid” is a concept that obviously applies to me. And Hannah’s smiles tell me that she enjoys my responses. Mastering concepts in interaction with the world and other people is a great part of what makes us rational. What often puzzles me is the widespread confidence in this kind of rationality. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that our rationality fails every now and then? Yet, especially philosophers seem fairly confident that they are rational, at least many of their waking hours, while they are equally confident in being able to track irrational moves in others. But it’s one thing to be rational, and quite another thing to assume that one is rational. If rationality and monitoring rationality can come apart, it’s vital to understand how we actually monitor rationality. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we sometimes don’t merely fail to be rational but fail in our ways of monitoring rationality.

Often when I hear someone calling out someone else for failing to be consistent, unambiguous, clear or what have you, I am reminded of Ruth Millikan’s critique of what she calls meaning rationalism. Let’s look at this idea for a moment. Crucial for the mastery of concepts is identifying something as the same (kind of) thing again. If you identify Hilary as a woman, this normally comes with a number of other abilities of identifying. Identifying Hilary as a woman, for instance, precludes identifying her as a toddler. At some point, my daughter Hannah occasionally did not seem to make this kind of distinction, but somehow she grew out of it. If a grown-up were to assert without irony that some women are toddlers, we would probably assume they had an impaired rationality. More precisely, we would assume that they couldn’t apply the concept “women” or “toddler” coherently. Tracking coherence in our speech acts and concepts is something we do all the time.

But what makes us so confident that we monitor others’ and our own consistency correctly? The answer is: language. That’s a very old idea, of course. Bacon, Spinoza, Locke and others famously criticised that we confuse “thinking in words” with thinking. Wittgenstein cast further doubt on the assumption that thinking or speaking is under the control of the thinker. What Millikan’s critique adds to these worries and uncovers is, inter alia, that many philosophers still assume that we have a means to monitor thoughts reliably. While she targets interlocutors in philosophical debates, I think that her point deserves general attention. How does language create this illusion? Well, we can literally see that people who say p and then say not-p contradict themselves. What a powerful tool! In any case, it seems to foster the assumption that we can monitor rationality a priori. Language seems to allow us to spot contradictions in virtue of its form, without us having to actually figure out what one thinks. Millikan’s point is that this confidence is overblown and not justified. If her critique is applicable, then language does not provide a reliable means to figure out what one thinks and whether someone is contradicting themselves. One concequence of this view is that we might say seemingly contradictory things without contradicting ourselves, and vice versa. Rationality is not “in the head”; nor can it be read off the surface of linguistic units, as it were. Rather, it is to be found in the world, and that includes of course the social (and linguistic) world. But the stability that we seem to find in the overt structure of language is not necessarily corroborated by the world.

When we suspect an incoherent thought, we tend to call out the error. “You said p, now you seem to say not-p”. “Oops! Did I mean to say that?” All of this strikes me as more elusive than language makes us believe. And sometimes I genuinely don’t know what I think. In this context, the distinction between the confidence in monitoring our own and others’ thoughts is really telling. I am called out way more often than (I think) I am at fault. Reviewer 2 can confirm this. But if I contradict myself so often, why should you think that you’re in a better position? If this mismatch between monitoring one’s own and other’s thoughts shows anything it is that language is not a reliable means of monitoring rationality. As I see it, that is not a problem. It still seems to work often enough. But it does turn into a problem when we are lured into assuming that we have a reliable means to monitor rationality. Give yourselves and others the benefit of the doubt.

So what about Hilary? Is Hannah right? I don’t know, and I say so. The moment passes, but the question remains. Perhaps more importantly, it is not set in stone what determines the answer to this kind of question: the world, the social world? Panta rhei.

Happy Twenties, dear fellow readers.