Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia (video)

Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia

This is the fifth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Anna Tropia who is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Prague. Following up on some earlier musings, we focus on issues of writing (philosophy) as they figure in my blogging. Here is a rough table of contents:

  • Introduction and the focus of “Handling Ideas” 0:00
  • How can and why should we avoid the delete button? 2:17
  • Dare to say something wrong! A general tip on writing 6:53

On shame and love in (academic) reading and writing

“What is the seal of attained liberty? To be no longer ashamed of oneself.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Like many fellow students around me, I learned writing by imitating others. How do I know about the others? Well, because there were no courses on learning how to write. So everyone was left to their own devices. Don’t get me wrong: there were and are many good guides on what desirable academic prose should look like. But these guides do not focus on the process of writing: on the despair, boredom, shame, and love that go into it. Actually, it was the lack of reflections on the process and the more doubtful stages that initially motivated me to start this blog. Speaking about these emotions is not meant as a form of venting or ranting about hardships (although they should have their place, too), but rather on the way these emotions can guide and inform our writing. In what follows, I want to say a bit more about this. I’ll start by looking at the way (emotional) experience figures in academic interaction and writing, and then zoom in on different forms of expressing thoughts.

Let’s begin with shame, though. – If you want to see how shame figures in guiding academic interactions, just start a course by asking what people did not understand in a set text. Most people will remain silent; the more experienced ones will point out passages that fail to be clear enough to be understood, passing the blame onto the text. – If you’re the odd one out who is willing to go for it, you’ll know that it takes courage to begin by admitting that you yourself do not understand. Shame is the fear of being seen or exposed in doing something undesirable (like making a mistake). When we speak or write, shame will drive us to avoid making mistakes. One way of doing that is remaining silent; another way is to pass the blame and criticise others rather than taking the blame. In writing or conversation, we can counter shame by developing technical skills, that is, by learning chops that make it look flawless, elegant, and professional. So we introduce technical jargon, demonstrating our analytical skills and what have you. While technical versatility is often equated with a sober or even neutral style, this asset might owe less to sobriety than to shame.

What’s love got do with it? – Iris Murdoch wrote somewhere that love is, amongst other things, the ability to see someone else as real. (See Fleur Jongepier’s great piece on Murdoch and love.) One way of taking this is that love is an ability, the ability to understand, not yourself and your desires, but the other. How do you do that? My hunch is that understanding others begins with trying to understand their experience. If you are able to express someone’s experience, the other might feel seen. In writing, this can be done in at least two ways. You can try to say what (you think) someone experiences or you can try to create an experience for the reader. Now you might think that this factor is totally absent from academic writing, but that isn’t true. Philosophers typically try to tap into experience by using examples or crafting thought experiments. What is rarely acknowledged is that these items do much more work than meets the eye. Strong examples and thought experiments often live on much longer than the arguments they’re supposed to back up. They are far more than mere illustrations of a point. Ideally, they allow the reader to experience a conceptual constraint on an almost physical level. Knowing a norm, for example, is one thing; being exposed (or imagining yourself) as having transgressed it is quite another.

How does this take on love as understanding the other play out in reading and writing? Returning to the example of asking people what they didn’t understand in a given text, it would be an act of love, in the sense explained, to acknowledge what you do not understand about the text. For if love is seeing the other as real, acknowledging the other’s reality would begin by acknowledging that there is something different, something you do not understand etc. In this sense, acknowledging the other (in the text) begins by admitting a weakness in yourself, the weakness of not understanding wholly. However, ultimately the point is not just to point out limitations but also to explore what constitutes these limits. This means that you also need to see what precisely blocks your understanding of the other (or the text). Seeing how factors in your personality, style, context and history enable or disable your understanding requires you to understand yourself. To use a radical example, if you have never been confronted with an optical illusion, examples of this sort of illustration wouldn’t work for you. Generally, if you never had access to certain kinds of experiences, these will constitute limits of understanding. Likewise, factors such as gender, race and class will inform the way a text speaks (or doesn’t speak) to us and limit the experiential resources available to draw on experience in writing. – It’s important to see that, in this sense, shame and love are in conflict. While love aims at seeing the other and involves the other (and thus ourselves, too) as being seen, shame drives us to disguise ourselves (at least in what we find undesirable) and perhaps even to blame the other for failing to be intelligible to us. In philosophical conversation, then, shame would make us avoid being seen (at least in undesirable aspects), while love would require us to lay bare our weakness of not understanding the other. As a result of this, shame and love play out in how we relate to (personal) experience. Arguably, shame blocks resorting to (personal) experience, while love as an approach to what constitutes borders between ourselves and others requires resorting to experience.

Expressing thoughts and experience. – If the forgoing makes some sense, we might say that shame and love inspire different attitudes in philosophical conversation: shame makes us shun (expressing thoughts by) personal experience, while love requires us to explore experience. Going from shame and love as two guiding emotions, then, we can easily discern two styles of reading and writing. Driven by shame, we find ourselves in a culture that often shuns resorting to experience and relies on techniques that correct for supposedly subjective factors. It is no surprise, then, that philosophers often highlight skills of so-called “critical thinking” as an asset of the discipline. More often than not these skills boil down to learning labels of fallacies that we can tag on texts. Looking at my student days, I often found myself indulging in technicalities to shun the fear of being seen for what I was: someone understanding very little. That said, such skills can be developed into a real art of analysis. Paired with patience, the careful study of arguments can yield great results. Then, it is no longer merely a way of avoiding shame but itself a set of tools for understanding. – Conversely, inspired by what I introduced as love, experience is crucial for understanding what sets us apart from others and the rest of the world. As I said earlier, this approach requires taking into account facors such as personalities, context and history. Crucially, such an approach cannot rely on the skillset of the writer or reader alone. It requires a dialogical readiness that might always undermine one’s own steps of understanding by what remains different. Perhaps it is not surprising that this approach is found mostly in areas that have traditionally enjoyed less acclaim, such as certain approaches in history, standpoint theory or experimental philosophy. – However, while it is important to tell such driving forces and styles apart, they are hardly ever distinct. As I said in an earlier post, if you open any of the so-called classics, you’ll find representations of both forms. Descartes’ Meditations offer you meditative exercises that you can try at home alongside a battery of arguments engaging with rival theories. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus closes with the mystical and the advice to shut up about the things that matter most after opening with a rather technical account of how language relates to the world. Yet, while both kinds are present in many philosophical works, it’s mostly the second kind that gets recognition in professional academic philosophy If this is correct, this means that experience doesn’t figure much in our considerations of reading and writing.

Can we teach failure? – Trying to pin down what characterises this sort of love as an approach in reading and writing, it ultimately seems to be a process of failure. Trying to understand others fails in that success is simply unthinkable. There is no exhaustive understanding of the other, a text, a person, a thing, whatever. Love, in this or perhaps in any sense, has nothing to do with success, but everything with dialogical trying and undermining. Of course, this can be taught. But it has no place in learning outcomes. As teachers of reading and writing, though, it might be helpful to point out that “analysing”, “reconstructing”, “discussing”, “contextualising”, “arguing” and such like are not success verbs. Showing how we fail in these attempts might go a long way in understanding and overcoming shame.

“Songs make you feel thoughts.” Music as a path to feeling philosophy

Being an amateur musician, I often indulge in watching music education videos on youtube, especially by Adam Neely, Rick Beato and Aimee Nolte. I’m struck not only by their great didactical resourcefulness, but also by how much many of their attempts carry over to philosophy. In other words, if you want to teach or learn something about philosophy, you might straightforwardly benefit from watching these and other videos. Why is this the case? On the one hand, I think there is the simple fact that these instructors do a great job of contextualisng their ideas from a number of perspectives. A recent video essay by Adam Neely on “the most elegant key change in all of pop music” is a case in point and worth watching till the very end. (This will also reveal where the quotation in the title is from.) On the other hand, I think there might be a deeper reason: As I see it, there is a kinship between philosophy and music (and perhaps other arts) that is often neglected for the simple reason that philosophy is more often taught in tandem with logic rather than with rhetoric. In what follows, I’d just briefly like to suggest how to begin thinking about this tenuous relation.

I don’t know about you, but I was drawn to philosophy and related literature way before I understood a thing. Part of me still thinks that I even was (and am) drawn to it because there is much I don’t understand. There is the promise of something meaningful, and you cannot get it or at least not all of it. So much thinking basically leaves me confused. (At the same time there can be an emotional precision that my thinking can’t catch up with.) Even if my ways and approaches to philosophy have become more refined over the years, I still think that is how philosophical thoughts feel to me: often confused, infinitely richer than my understanding will reach.

Music strikes me as a very similar kind of art. There is so much meaning but I understand so little of it. But unlike in philosophy, in music it’s totally fine if you don’t understand the more technical aspects. You can listen to a song and enjoy it – and that’s just fine. In philosophy, that seems different: if you don’t understand what’s going on that’s taken as a shortcoming. Doing philosophy, it seems, is often construed as successful understanding or thinking. Otherwise it seems to be some kind of mysticism. Right now, I don’t want to argue for a particular view on this matter. But I want to stress that not understanding or unsuccessful thinking is what attracts me in philosophy. Just like I can enjoy a very complex piece of music without understanding the details of it, I can equally enjoy thinking or reading without understanding it. Even if I want to understand (both music and philosophy), the desire and enjoyment is there before I understand. Perhaps even partly because I don’t understand. In this sense, I think that thoughts have an emotional dimension, just like music has an emotional dimension. What’s more, we’re engaging in the practice of philosophy or music or indeed any practice well before we master it. Arguably, such engagement is carried by the emotional and more tacit un-analysed features of our being. (Victor Wooten makes this case beautifully for music and language learning.)

For me, then, understanding thoughts does not only involve understanding the content or structure, but also the emotional and phenomenal qualities of thinking. You think that thoughts and emotions are separate? Well, think again! Most thoughts are expressed in language. Already the way they are expressed (whatever their content) has emotional features. The language can be dry or enthusiastic, complex or simple, feel like withholding something etc. If thoughts are verbally expressed, you get the whole register of tone of voice etc. If you see or imagine the speaker, you get their facial expressions etc. These features are not merely subjective but mostly culturally coded. If you take into account the vast history of traditions of thought, you begin to see quickly that the current way of doing philosophy in Western philosophy departments is far from the only way of doing and expressing the feel of it. As I see it, such features matter for the identity of thought. And while they might draw you in or repel you, they can also become the object of study. Yes, it’s worthwhile not just to study Kant’s ideas but the sound and rhythm of his prose. People often say they find him difficult. But the reasons behind these difficulties might owe less to his ideas and perhaps more to the emotional and phenomenal properties of his prose. In other words, the rhetorical features might weigh no less than the logical features. But for some strange reason rhetoric is largely neglected in our current practice of philosophy. Thinking about music (or other arts) and the way thoughts feel might go a long way in re-establishing such insights.

On trying to cure my anxiety disorder

It was around the time of finishing my PhD, so well over twenty years ago, when bouts of my anxiety disorder manifested themselves so clearly that I sought professional help. The reason I want to write about my condition today is that, for the first time, I am hopeful to have found a way of curing it, to a considerable degree at least. I’ll begin by saying a bit about the condition and then move on to what I consider a potential step towards a cure. Since I don’t really understand my condition and the cure very well, I’m not sure that this will be of help to others. But perhaps adding my voice to the people who talk about such things openly can’t do harm. However, before you read on please note that I am not in any way an expert in these matters. All I have to offer is a personal story.

Being a hypochondriac. – Although I have some special anxieties like a fear of hights and fear of flights, my main problem is a more general disorder that goes by the name of “illness anxiety disorder”, formerly known as “hypochondria”. There is a lot I could say about this condition. The main issue is that, often following a perception of what I classify as a “symptom”, I assume to have some rather threatening illness. The kind of illness changes; what’s crucial is that I consider the worst-case scenario. The drama then typically unfolds as follows: I will first heighten the anxiety by paying selective attention to the “symptom” and indulging in refined self-monitoring. “Is it still there? Is it getting worse?” But now it’s not merely the object of my anxiety but knowledge of the anxiety itself that plays into the cycle: Knowing that I have the anxiety disorder suggests to me that my fears are overblown. But if they are overblown, I go on to think, it must be possible to find reassurance. Thus, I seek reassurance either by “investigating via google” or from people close to me, who will often confirm this and allow me to avoid seeking proper medical advice. This is my avoidance strategy. However, knowing that this is an avoidance pattern suggests to me that I am avoiding confronting the initial “symptoms”. Thus, reassurance amplifies the initial fear. This tangle works best in tandem with anxiety-induced symptoms such as an increased heart rate, but believe me it works with just about any kind of “symptom”. While proper panic attacks never last longer than 30 to 45 minutes, such anxiety cycles can go on for as much as five days. Often such cycles run for a couple of days. Then I have some days of gradual relief before they start again, often with a new perception of a different “symptom”. Since I have developed coping strategies that allow me to function well, I can go through these cycles without people around me noticing, unless I ask for reassurance. This means that the anxiety is often present at the back of my head, like an unpleasant noise in the background that sometimes spirals to very high volumes and then feels more like a disability.

For a long time, I didn’t realise that I had what people formerly called hypochondria. Simply because I sought reassurance, not through pestering doctors, but through other means. When I finished my PhD and lived on social security, the disorder worsened considerably. Among the “best of” of my worries was fearing to fall over in the street or during talks, job talks in particular. At the time, I had three meetings with a behavioural therapist. After understanding how anxiety works (especially understanding that its symptoms disappear after a certain amount of time), I felt relieved and got better again. But anxiety works in mysterious ways: Getting a permanent job in 2012 cured me of many existential worries. It’s been a game changer for sure. But something inside of me resisted the good news and clung to the strange belief that bad things will happen to me inevitably. Self-identifying as an optimist, I refused to embrace that belief consciously, but it seems to have worked its way up nevertheless. Having witnessed a number of troubles, illnesses and deaths in the family, I guess that this belief could take hold despite my avowals to the contrary. For quite a number of years, avoidance was my main coping strategy. Let’s look at some things I think were particularly unhelpful.

Things that didn’t really help. – (1) Being “reasonable”: For someone who enjoys – to some degree at least – things like thinking, understanding, and animated discourse, I found living with bouts of hightend anxiety or panic particularly frustrating, because understanding my own condition often did not help or even made it worse. Of course, understanding how anxiety plays out physically and knowing that I have the condition, for example, helped me seeing why things unfold the way they do. But at least my type of anxiety can get heightened through knowing that it might be partly irresponsive to reasons. Knowledge about anxieties can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you know that your heart rate will go up with your next bout of panic, that very knowledge might actually increase the fear of your heart rate going up, and, as a result of this, increase your heart rate. (2) There is a common dualism according to which conditions like anxiety disorders are only or mainly “in your head”. Even if such claims are meant as a reassurance to someone worrying about their physical health, they don’t help in the long run. Apart from the fact that superficial reassurance can backfire quickly by initiating problematic cycles of seeking ever more reassurance, they underestimate the fact that anxiety comes in many physical manifestations. (3) Reassurance or confrontation? Reasonable reassurance that everything is fine (for good reasons) or confronting your fears, for instance, by going to the doctor can certainly help in singular instances. If a friend points out a good reason why a particular worry is unfounded or if I go to the doctor to get a proper check up, these are good things. The problem is that they are useless once they are turned into general coping strategies. Why? Well, it seems to me at least that anxieties will absorb any coping strategy into the anxiety cycle itself. – I’m not saying, then, that these ways of approaching things don’t ever help anyone. Rather, I wish to stress that they might not help in case you have an anxiety disorder. Of course, if you discover something about yourself that makes you worry, any of these approaches might help very well, but they can fail if they are turned into coping strategies. Why? I guess because using them as strategies makes them part of an anxiety cycle. The toxic thing about anxiety is that anything, even something perfectly helpful, can be turned into part of a cycle that ends up feeding the anxiety.

Moving forward. ­– Last year was particularly bad for most of us. Strangely enough, the threat of coronavirus did not overtly add to my anxieties. Rather, I learned to “embrace fatalism” a bit and became a bit more confrontational about my condition. Thanks to the suggestions of a good friend, I also managed to catch up with some medical check ups that I had avoided for about ten years. Worrying that my daughter Hannah might pick up my behavioural patterns, I also considered starting therapy again. Living in two different places during what is called lockdown, the fairly recent death of my father and some work-related pressures made this seem an even more appropriate consideration. I started behavioural therapy again now. But while I don’t want to pass judgement on this, what eventually made me take a good leap is something else.

What helped me, after all these years, is so strikingly simple that I still don’t know what to make of it, except that it definitely does help greatly. So what happened? After a conversation about a recent bout of anxieties, a dear friend sent me a video explaining a simple thing: to slow down my breathing (like in yoga), and providing an image to think about when doing so. Whenever I experience anxiety, I now take a few deep breaths and most of the problematic anxiety symptoms disappear. The heart rate slows down and I feel good. That’s it.

Why does it work? Don’t get me wrong. I have known that this kind of thing might help for a long time. I’ve been doing a lot of physical exercise for many years. In moments of hightend anxiety I instinctively took to slowing down my breathing anyway. There is nothing fancy about the breathing technique as such. Nothing I do is special; most of it isn’t even new to me. So why does it have such a great effect? I think there are two main aspects: First, the image I am thinking of when inhaling absorbs my attention, away from anxiety symptoms, to the positive impact of inhaling. Second, the fact that this video was presented to me as a personal response and gift turns the exercise into a relational act. Both aspects, simple as they may be, strike me as indispensable in explaining the effect it has on me. I am not saying that this has cured me of my anxiety, not least because I ultimately think that at least some of this disorder is the dark side of my personality, inevitably triggered in a certain kind of context. So I’m not saying I’m cured, but what seems to make a difference, for the time being, is that I can accept this, and yet break the cycle effectively. Even if it only works for certain situations, it restores a sense of agency that many of my coping strategies seem to have deprived me of. – I’m not sure this carries over or can help you. But perhaps a bit of hopefulness will inspire trying to look for unexpected resources.

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PS. It goes without saying that I am immensely grateful to many friends who helped along the way. You know who you are.

Meditation in philosophy. A conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo (podcast)

Meditation in philosophy. A conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo (podcast)

This is the fourth installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo who is an associate professor of philosophy at Groningen University. In this conversation, we focus on meditation both as part of philosophical traditions as well as an approach that might be a resourceful factor impacting (academic) philosophy, teaching and academic culture. While Cartesian and Buddhist ideas* form a continuous resource in the background of our discussion, here is a list of themes in case you look for something specific:

  • Introduction   0:00
  • Meditation and Descartes’ Meditations   2:20
  • The notion of experience – and objections against experience as a basis in philosophy   9:00
  • Meditation in teaching   21:14
  • Why aren’t we already using these insights in education?   37:00
  • How can we teach and learn effectively?   44:36
  • How can we guide and assess?   52:50
  • Where is this approach leading, also in terms of academic culture?   1:03:00

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* The opening quotation is from Andrea’s blogpost What can we learn today from Descartes’ Meditations? Here is the passage: “Since last year, I appreciated the text of the Mediations as real meditation, namely, as a way of practicing a meditative kind of philosophy (for lack of better term), a philosophy more concerned with what it means to experience reality in this way or that way, rather than with what a certain set of propositions means.”

He has published four more posts on this topic on the blog of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Thought. They are:

ADHD, struggling with decisions, and the myth of autonomy in academia. A conversation about mental health with Jef Delvaux (podcast)

ADHD, struggling with decisions, and the myth of autonomy in academia.
A conversation about mental health with Jef Delvaux (podcast)

This is the third installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Jef Delvaux who is in the third year of his PhD programme in Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Although we had a number of themes lined up, we ended up focusing on what is called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which despite an increasing attention to mental health in academia still seems to be flying somewhat under the radar. Jef addresses this issue not as a specialist, but from the perspective of someone affected by it. The aim is to provide an understanding of the condition and how it can be addressed (and perhaps ameliorated) in academic settings. One thing we discuss in particular is the difficulty of deliberating and making decisions. It’s a long conversation. So if you feel like skipping bits or want to focus on a specific topic, here is a rough overview:

  • Introduction   0:00
  • Mental health and ADHD   2:00
  • Belittling ADHD   4:00
  • What is it like to live with ADHD?   7:20
  • Teaching students with ADHD: buddy systems* and autonomy   12:20      
  • Decision paralysis with and without ADHD: what is the difference?   22:15
  • ADHD during the pandemic   1:02
  • “What if I could talk to my undergraduate self?”   1:08

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* Regarding study buddy systems, I (Martin) state that Groningen has them for writing theses. But it turns out that we also offer them for BA and MA students generally.

What kind of thing is the canon?

“Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Given the ever-increasing amount of initiatives on diversifying the canon, it is striking that one crucial question does not seem to be tackled much: What kind of thing is the canon?* While I have sketched my view on the function of the canon in an earlier post, I don’t really have found an answer either. I find this question crucial because it will tell us something about the fate and success indicators of the initiatives. What if it turns out that the canon is a kind of thing that cannot be altered? Or at least not in the way envisaged in the current projects? In what follows, I’d like to suggest that it’s crucial to see that, like a standard language, a canon has both a descriptive and prescriptive dimension.

Description and prescription. – Like in music or literature, the canon in the history of philosophy is a historical and normative entity. It has grown over a long time and is related to a larger set of norms and conventions interwoven with our habits and actions. Here, the canon is not just something adhered to; it’s a point of reference equally for those who wish to maintain it and those challenging it. If I write atonal rock music, I know that I do that against a canon of tonal music. My writing atonal music might be a challenge to the canon or might slowly be integrated. Both is possible. What’s crucial is that it’s not under my control whether my pieces alter the canon. The same might be said of the way we speak and write or even the way we build our cities. For me, the upshot is that the canon has at once a descriptive and prescriptive dimension. It tells us how things were and became. But it also tells us how things should be done. And whether your or my contributions figure in that is not for us to say.

The canon as a standard language. – Given the co-presence of descriptive and prescriptive aspects, the canon might be compared to a standard in a language, like Standard English as opposed to certain dialects. It is a historically grown entity as well as a set of rules determining what counts as “proper”. In this sense, we can compare canon diversification projects such as Extending New Narratives to attempts at ameliorating linguistic practices by suggesting different words or grammatical features so as to make underrepresented groups linguistically visible. The emphasis on more diverse and chosen pronouns, for instance, resembles the attempt to make minorities visible in the history of philosophy. Likewise, the political backlashes and difficulties are on a par with those in historiography. But just as language is only partially under our conscious control, the (philosophical) canon cannot be altered simply by adding so called “minor figures” to it. Adding expressions to the standard language does not mean that they will be used in conversation or seen as a (new) standard. But they may be. Who knows?

Can we change the past? – If canons are both descriptive and prescriptive, attempts at altering the canon are not only prescriptive and designed to nudge us into a different future practice of (history of) philosophy. They are also descriptive, and that means they describe the past in an altered way, for instance, by including hitherto underrepresented figures. For this reason, they are often met with the silly objection that they would distort or even erase history. The objection is silly because it identifies the challenged canon with the past or with history. But the canon is not the past. The canon is a way of approaching the past. And such a way is always guided by values and thus selective.

If this is correct, however, it means that attempts at diversifying the canon are not an attempt to give a more complete or accurate picture of the past. It rather means that we (want to) change how we approach the past and who or what we think counts as relevant. The goal of doing history of philosophy is not to present an accurate picture of the past, but to present an accurate picture of what we think matters for our present and future. If diversity matters for us, it also matters in our approach to the past. In this regard, it’s helpful to consider Wittgenstein’s likening of language to an ancient city. Like the philosophical past, the ever changing city has been there and yet is present in our life. But which precise places and streets we go to and build on is something that is up to us. It took a long time until, for instance, mosques in Berlin were not only found in backyards anymore but also in clearly visible places of town.

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* That said, a number of questions have been tackled, especially in Lonneke Oostland’s recent MA thesis “Canon ‘Enrichment’ and the History of Philosophy”. Besides Lonneke, I’d like to thank Han Thomas Adriaenssen, Daria Drozdova, Martin Krohs, Laura Georgescu and Felipe Romero for intriguing conversations about the status of the canon.

On being a first-gen student, hierarchies and harassment. A conversation about meritocratic ideology with Nora Migdad (podcast)

On being a first-gen student, hierarchies and harassment.
A conversation about meritocratic ideology with Nora Migdad (podcast)

This is the second installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Nora Migdad who majors in Biology and minors in Philosophy. Like me (but a long time ago), Nora is a first-generation student. While being a first-gen student is often (rightly) treated as lending itself to disadvantages, it also offers intriguing perspectives on the peculiarities of academic life.

Following up on a guest post about being a first-gen student, Nora eventually initiated a conversation about this topic. After some exchanges about possible questions to be addressed we finally found time for the virtual meeting recorded above. Among the issues we covered are:

  • being a first-gen student 0:00
  • work-pressure and hierarchies 11:17
  • hierarchies, misconduct and prestige 12:32
  • protecting harassers 15:00
  • dealing with harassment outside and inside academia 22:40
  • criticism within hierarchies in academia 31:52
  • depending on others 34:50
  • ideas for improvement 38:06
  • dealing with sexism and racism 41:55

The Stoic Foundations of Analytic Philosophy. On Susanne Bobzien’s groundbreaking discovery in Frege and Prantl

Words fail me. And I’m still torn between solemnly staring into the middle distance and making silly jokes. For historians of philosophy like me, Susanne Bobzien’s paper “Frege plagiarized the Stoics” is a sort of landing on the moon, nothing short of a sensation. But reading comments on the matter here and there, I also begin to worry that the implications of her findings might tempt people to dismiss them out of hand. Why? Because they shatter a much cherished historiography. Frege is famously considered the “founder of modern analytic philosophy”. If Frege copied crucial parts of his later works from (Carl Prantl’s presentation of) Stoic logic, then these parts of the foundation are not Fregean but Stoic. This shifts a number of things, in our understanding of our history, of crucial tenets that held various generations of analytic philosophers captive, but also assumptions of authorship or originality. In this post, I simply want to highlight some implications that I think need elaboration in years to come.

Let me begin with why this moves me personally. After finishing my PhD on Ockham’s account of mental language in 2001, I was mainly driven by one question: What is it that makes us assume that sentences are complete units? Working on a project proposal on “Sentences, Senses, and States of Affairs: Conceptions of Semantic Identity from the Middle Ages onwards”, I studied ancient, medieval and modern texts by philosophers and grammarians. Although I started out from Abelard’s theory of the dictum and began to look for paths to 14th-century authors such as Adam Wodeham and Gregory of Rimini, it was entirely natural to read some Stoic material as well as Frege. All these authors attempt to spell out an account of what complete sentences say in opposition to words or other smaller linguistic units. In my project on this longue durée of sentence theories, I tried to pursue three different questions: (1) What are conceptual similarities between these accounts? (2) Are there lines of historical influence between these accounts? (3) Why did the issues tackled in these accounts seemingly disappear (if they did) in the 13th, and after the 14th century, until coming up again in the 19th century?

Now when presenting my research to historical audiences, they often warned me that my approach was prone to anachronism: “What does Frege have to do with medieval or ancient accounts?” The similarities in the theories were often shrugged off by pointing out similarities between the questions asked. Conversely, when presenting in front of philosophers they mostly weren’t moved by the historical accounts: “Of course, Frege is still interesting. But these earlier accounts are of mere historical interest.” So without clear sources that allowed for connecting the dots my question (2) for historical lines was often seen as either anachronistic or trivial. An idea shared by most historians and philosophers, then, was that, despite some striking similarities, Frege’s account of sentences was to be seen as entirely different from the endeavours in the ancient and medieval contexts. So what did I think? Although I was hopeful to find some direct historical lines, I wouldn’t have dreamed of Frege as having copied Stoic material. Susanne Bobzien’s paper has has shattered my entire picture of the matter. What have I been looking at when reading Frege? Have I, in fact, (at least partly) been reading the Stoic account in the wake of which we understand Abelard and others? Have I been preempted from seeing this by the silly but pervasively linear timeline of history at the back of my mind? What are we really talking about when we invoke the “Fregean account” of sentences? What do these names refer to?  

Why is Bobzien’s discovery groundbreaking? – Looking at some first reactions to Bobzien’s paper, it’s disheartening to see how some people try to debunk these findings. Two main lines of defence seemed to emerge very quickly: (a) One line is that “we have known this for a long time”. Pointing to earlier research, some people emphasise that certain conceptual similarities have already been studied very well. (b) The other line is that “Frege still deserves credit for having invented … [add a list of venerable items manifesting the status of the genius father].” What these defences miss is the historical claim of the paper: Bobzien makes a compelling case that Frege took the Stoic accounts from Carl Prantl’s Geschichte der Logik im Abendlande. This answers a large part of question (2) of my former project. It is not merely an account of striking similarities; it is historical evidence for a direct influence. For any historian of philosophy, that’s the best you can get. Given that most accounts deny such a direct influence and given that most protagonists in 20th-century analytic philosophy take Frege’s work as their point of departure, much of our history needs to be rewritten.

People wishing to defend Frege’s status as a founder of analytic philosophy seem to misconstrue Bobzien’s findings in a different way. They don’t emphasise that the similarities were known, but that they don’t mean much, in the sense that Frege is still vastly different. But Bobzien does not claim that Frege is deprived of this status. She acknowledges clearly that Frege thought through carefully what he took over. But we would deprive ourselves of our understanding of Frege’s foundational work, if we ignored that it is in fact of Stoic origin. Frege’s work needs to be rethought, too. And reading Frege might hold more for reserachers on pre-modern philosophers than the staunch hunters of anachronisms care to admit. – In this sense, Bobzien’s paper does not end but open conversations about the history of philosophy.

Finally, we need to see how we wish to tackle the issue of plagiarism. Bobzien herself opts for a “benign” understanding, involving acts of “appropriation” when taking over the ideas as “being freely available to anyone to help themselves to”. Of course, certain jokes at the expense of the Fregean idea of “grasping thoughts in the third realm” or at the expense of analytic philosophers considering the history of philosophy as a resource for “mining it for ideas” suggest themselves. However, there remains the more serious issue of how we want to conceptualise the fact, yes, it is a fact, that we tend appropriate ideas of others. Given that most of us do professional work on texts, I am struck by an often rather simplistic understanding of what constitutes authorship or originality. In my piece on philosophy’s adversarial culture I suggested a more fluid attitude towards authorship: “If you discuss an idea among friends, tossing out illustrations, laughing away criticism and speculating about remote applications, whose idea is it at the end of the night? Everyone might have contributed to an initial formulation, of which hardly anything might be left. In this sense, ideas very often have multiple authors. In such friendly settings, a common reaction to a clarifying criticism is not defence, but something along the lines of: ‘Right, that’s what I actually meant to say!’ ” What is lacking in cases where we detect copying, appropriation or plagiarism is often not a misconstrued form of originality, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of our interlocutors and of the fact that thinking is not a lonely grasping of abstract thoughts but a social process.

History is about you. On teaching outdated philosophy

Everything we take to be history is, in fact, present right now. Otherwise we wouldn’t think about it.

When I was little, I often perceived the world as an outcome of historical progress. I didn’t exactly use the word “historical progress” when talking to myself, but I thought I was lucky to grow up in the 20th century rather than, say, the Middle Ages. Why? Well, the most obvious examples were advances in technology. We have electricity; they didn’t. That doesn’t change everything, but still a lot. Thinking about supposedly distant times, then, my childhood mind conjured up an image of someone dragging themselves through a puddle of medieval mud, preferably while I was placed on the sofa in a cozy living-room with the light switched on and the fridge humming in the adjacent kitchen. It took a while for me to realise that this cozy contrast between now and then is not really an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about history, more precisely about what separates us from the past. For what my living room fantasy obscures is that this medieval mud is what a lot of people are dragging themselves through today. It would have taken a mere stroll through town to see how many homeless or other people do not live in the same world that I identified as my present world. Indeed, most things that we call “medieval” are present in our current world. Listening to certain people today, I realise that talk of the Enlightenment, the Light of Reason and Rationality is portrayed in much the same way as my living-room fantasy. But as with the fruits of technology, I think the praise of Enlightenment is not an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about what separates us from the past. One reaction to this prejudice would be to chide the prejudiced minds (and my former self); another reaction is to try and look more closely at our encounters with these prejudices when doing history. That means to try and see them as encounters with ourselves, with the ideologies often tacitly drummed into us, and to understand how these prejudices form our expectations when reading old texts. Approaching texts in this latter way, means to read them both as historical philosophical documents as much as an encounter with ourselves. It is this latter approach I want to suggest as a way of reading and teaching what could be called outdated philosophy. According to at least some of my students’ verdicts about last term, this might be worth pursuing.

Let’s begin with the way that especially medieval philosophy is often introduced. While it’s often called “difficult” and “mainly about religion”, it’s also said to require so much linguistic and other erudition that anyone will wonder why on earth they should devote much time to it. One of the main take-away messages this suggests is an enormous gap between being served some catchy chunks of, you know, Aquinas, on the one hand, and the independent or professional study of medieval texts, on the other hand. Quite unlike in ethics or social philosophy, hardly any student will see themselves as moving from the intro course to doing some real research on a given topic in this field. While many medievalists and other historians work on developing new syllabi and approaches, we might not spend enough time on articulating what the point or pay-off of historical research might be. – I don’t profess to know what the point of it all is. But why would anyone buy into spending years on learning Latin or Arabic, palaeography or advanced logic, accepting the dearth of the academic job market, a philosophical community dismissing much of their history? For the sake of, yes, what exactly? Running the next edition of Aquinas or growing old over trying to get your paper on Hildegard of Bingen published in a top journal? I’m not saying that there is no fun involved in studying these texts and doing the work it takes; I’m wondering whether we make sufficiently explicit why this might be fun. Given the public image of history (of philosophy), we are studying what the world was like before there was electricity and how they then almost invented it but didn’t.

Trying to understand what always fascinated me about historical studies, I realised it was the fact that one learns as much about oneself as about the past. Studying seemingly outdated texts helped me understand how this little boy in the living room was raised into ideologies that made him (yes, me) cherish his world with the fridge in the adjacent kitchen, and think of history as a linear progress towards the present. In this sense, that is in correcting such assumptions, studying history is about me and you. But, you ask, even if this is true, how can we make it palpable in teaching? – My general advice is: Try to connect to your student-self, don’t focus on the supposed object of study, but on what it revealed about you. Often this isn’t obvious, because there is no obvious connection. Rather, there is disparity and alienation. It is an alienation that might be similar to moving to a different town or country. So, try to capture explicitly what’s going on in the subject of study, too, in terms of experience, resources and methods available. With such thoughts in mind, I designed a course on the Condemnation of 1277 and announced it as follows:

Condemned Philosophy? Reason and faith in medieval and contemporary thought

Why are certain statements condemned? Why are certain topics shunned? According to a widespread understanding of medieval cultures, especially medieval philosophy was driven and constrained by theological and religious concerns. Based on a close reading of the famous condemnation of 1277, we will explore the relation between faith and reason in the medieval context. In a second step we will look at contemporary constraints on philosophy and the role of religion in assessing such constraints. Here, our knowledge of the medieval context might help questioning current standards and prejudices. In a third step we will attempt to reconsider the role of faith and belief in medieval and contemporary contexts.

The course was aimed at BA students in their 3rd year. What I had tried to convey in the description is that the course should explore not only medieval ideas but also the prejudices through which they are approached. During the round of introductions many students admitted that they were particularly interested in this twofold focus on the object and the subject of study. I then explained to them that most things I talk about can be read about somewhere else. What can’t be done somewhere else is have them come alive by talking them through. I added that “most of the texts we discuss are a thousand years old. Despite that fact, these texts have never been exposed to you. That confrontation is what makes things interesting.” In my view, the most important tool to bring out this confrontation lies in having students prepare and discuss structured questions about something that is hard to understand in the text. (See here for an extensive discussion) The reason is that questions, while targeting something in the text, reveal the expectations of the person asking. Why does the question arise? Because there is something lacking that I would expect to be present in the text. Most struggles with texts are struggles with our own expectations that the text doesn’t meet. Of course, there might be a term we don’t know or a piece of information lacking, but this is easily settled with an internet search these days. The more pervasive struggles often reveal that we encounter something unfamiliar in the sense that it runs counter to what we expect the text to say. This, then, is where a meeting of the current students and historical figures takes place, making explicit our and their assumptions.

During the seminar discussions, I noticed that students, unlike in other courses, dared targeting really tricky propositions that they couldn’t account for on the fly. Instead of trying to appear as being on top of the material, they delineated problems to be addressed and raised genealogical questions of how concepts might have developed between 1277 and 2020. Interestingly, the assumption was often not that we were more advanced. Rather they were interested in giving reasons why someone would find a given idea worth defending. So my first impression after this course was that the twofold focus on the object and subject of study made the students’ approach more historical, in that they didn’t take their own assumptions as a yardstick for assessing ideas. Another outcome was that students criticised seeing our text as a mere “object of study”. In fact, I recall one student saying that “texts are hardly ever mere objects”. Rather, we should ultimately see ourselves as engaging in dialogue with other subjects, revealing their prejudices as much as our own.

The children in the living room were not chided. They were recognised in what they had taken over from their elders. Now they could be seen as continuing to learn – making, shunning and studying history.