Making sense and going insane. A conversation with Anik Waldow (podcast)

This is the seventh installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Anik Waldow who is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. Starting out from a recent paper by Anik (on Hume calling himself an “uncouth monster”)*, we talk about the boundaries of normality today and in the 18th century.

Topics we cover include:

  • the social nature of rationality and emotions,
  • what it means to be a monster,
  • ascribing categories,
  • being normal,
  • scepticism as a trope in philosophy,
  • belonging,
  • feeling cut off,
  • excluding others,
  • gaslighting …

* Here is the ‘uncouth monster passage’ from Hume’s Treatise:

“I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude, in which I am plac’d in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expell’d all human commerce, and left utterly abandon’d and disconsolate. Fain wou’d I run into the crowd for shelter and warmth; but cannot prevail with myself to mix with such deformity. I call upon others to join me, in order to make a company apart; but no one will hearken to me. Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that storm, which beats upon me from every side. I have expos’d myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? I have declar’d my disapprobation of their systems; and can I be surpriz’d, if they shou’d express a hatred of mine and of my person? When I look abroad, I foresee on every side, dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; tho’ such is my weakness, that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning.”

You don’t ever write about things; you write about what people say

Seeing that I don’t write about things or topics but about what people say about things was one of the most important lessons I learned. I’ve said this a number of times, here and here, but a recent chat with a friend made me realise that it is perhaps worth highlighting again.

So, when you’re writing about stuff like justice, language, the supreme good or whatever, you don’t write about these things or phenomena, as it were. Rather you write about what people say about these phenomena. Or about what you yourself say (or think) about these phenomena. The point I’m trying to make is that what you’re targeting when you write is a piece of language: you’ll be writing about a claim or a passage, a specific argument, an example or a specific question.

Why is this worth noting? – Let’s begin with a pragmatic reason: As long as you think that you write about, say, freedom and necessity, you will be paralysed by the vast amount of things you could look at. Things provide no focus. A string of sentences by contrast gives you focus. Sentences pick out something; they leave open something else; and they deny something at least implicitly. In this way, they give you a dialectical field of positions and neglect. You can start immediately by picking on a word or phrase and ask what precisely it means. So instead of fretting where to begin you can start immediately by thinking about the phrases and what they evoke, by what they miss and by how you feel about them.

What you enter. – Once you realise that you’re not embarking on a boat tossed across the vast ocean of being, you will see that the idea of philosophy as a conversation is quite literally true. You are always dealing with someone’s (or you own) formulation. You will want to understand and thus ask for clarification, offering alternatives or counterexamples. The point is that the kind of skill you first and formost need is the skill of zooming in on the language.

Play with words. – Now of course this doesn’t mean that you can skip informing yourself about things. It just means that, in beginning to write (or talk) about these things, you will always target a formulation. You can begin with your own way of phrasing something and take it apart, one by one, or with someone elses and ask them about it. The skills that you can train for this are reading, reformulating (in other words, other terminologies, in other genres or examples or in formal language), translating, and, generally, playing with words. When you sit at your desk or in a talk wondering what is going on, don’t focus on the things, issues or phenomena. Rather focus on the words. That’s where you’ll enter.

So it begins. – So when you begin to plan and write your text or talk, I’d advise you to begin by quoting the paragraph or claim you want to focus on. And if it’s not someone elses point you want to focus on, then offer your best formulation. Write it down and begin to wander around it.

You think that this whole idea is odd? Perhaps I am just an old Kantian who thinks that the Ding an sich is not available to us.  


By the way, this month this blog is three years old. Thanks for bearing with me.

Mind the GAP. On the Essay Award Question 2021 of the German Society for Analytic Philosophy

[A critical comment, co-authored by Daniel-Pascal Zorn and myself]*

This year’s Essay Award Question of the German Society for Analytic Philosophy (GAP) is phrased as follows: What did Plato, Kant or Arendt grasp better than current analytic philosophy?

The question seems to target the relation of current analytic philosophy to the history of philosophy. The focus is a timely one.** But at least on social media, the precise phrasing of the question triggered some astonishment.

Daniel-Pascal Zorn and I got interested in an exchange about this question and we quickly noticed that our concerns converge. Thus, we decided to write a comment (in German) and address two issues: first, we want to look at the presuppositions behind this question; second, we want to consider criteria for possible answers to the question.

Our comment is currently published here.* If you like, feel free to leave a comment in German or English below this blog entry.


* Now also published, with slightly fewer typos, on the German philosophy blog praefaktisch.

** See also my post from 2019 directly on this issue.