Why don’t we mine contemporary philosophy for tools to do history?

Philosophers often turn to the history of philosophy for instrumental reasons. The aim is not to ‘do’ history but to prevent reinventing the wheel or to mine historical texts for interesting arguments or ideas. This approach is common both in teaching and research. Undergraduates are often taught surveys in order to develop some ‘vocabulary’, and philosophical discussions are often prefaced with some big names when introducing, for instance, a “Humean account of whatever”. To my surprise, I rarely find any appeal to the converse approach, that is: historians of philosophy instrumentalising contemporary philosophical arguments or ideas to capture historial ideas or debates. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a fruitful approach both for teachers and researchers.

Let me start with a simple example. I’m currently running a course on Condemned Philosophy where I discuss attempts at condemning or censoring philosophy. While focussing on a particular medieval case (the condemnation of 1277) I also introduced modern examples (such as the letter against Derrida’s honorary degree at Cambridge). The topic of this course is certainly interesting for a number of reasons. But when thinking about such motions and trying to capture what’s going on more generally I find it helpful to turn to terms coined in argumentation theory and social epistemology. An obvious feature of both condemnations is that certain standards of rationality or evidence are said to be protected against the opponents in question (against pagan or continental philosophers). So why not discuss these cases as instances of what contemporary philosophers call deep disagreement or epistemic injustice? Arguably, such classifications give us a way of capturing what is at stake in condemnations and what sort of reasons we should be looking for when exclusionary moves are being justified. What’s more, the notions of deep disagreement or epistemic injustice are of course controversial in themselves. But their controversial status actually helps in thinking about historical sources in pluralistic ways and helps in trying to get a nuanced understanding of what it is we’re looking at when poring over different cases of condemnation.

In a way, historians do this all the time. Interpreting historical ideas or debates involves taking them as something. Taking Ockham’s account of mental propositions or Locke’s theory of ideas as accounts of mental representation, for instance, is a common move amongst historians. But usually such interpretations are seen as historical accounts of the material, that is, they are either taken as historically well defended or as anachronistic failures that miss the mark. In other words, such interpretations are not taken as merely instrumental, but as proper or improper readings of the pertinent texts. By contrast, my take on the condemnations as cases of deep disagreements or cases of epistemic injustice does not involve the claim that the historical agents themselves would have accepted such descriptions as a valid reading of their disagreements. Rather, it is a tool to decidedly enrich our means of understanding, classifying and evaluating what is going on.

The point I’m trying to make is, then, that we historians should approach texts not just by trying to find historically adequate interpretations, but approach the material with various instruments and make good use of the ample conceptual resources provided in contemporary philosophy. Just like a contemporary philosopher engaging Aristotelian accounts of ethics doesn’t need to care about Aristotle, historians don’t always need to care about the question whether there is a real historical relation between projects or authors of different periods when using current conceptual tools. We don’t need to connect historical dots between the shunning of Aristotelianism in Paris in 1277 and the shunning of continental philosophy in 1992 in Cambridge to see that these events share more features than might meet the eye.

But why, you might ask, should historians bother to use such merely instrumental devices? Well, first of all they allow us to update our grasp of the material. Whether we like it or not, when we refrain from employing contemporary terms it doesn’t mean we’re closer to the actors’ categories, but most likely just closer to the 19th-century surveys that still dominate our historical approaches. Moreover, it allows philosophy students to connect the dots between historical texts and their courses in contemporary philosophy. So rather than arguing over adequate approaches to history, I’d suggest we make ample instrumental use of all the devices at hand.

Don’t read! Or how to start writing

I had an intriguing conversation with a student today. He told me about the thesis he is currently writing and complained that he’s drowning in the literature. He had just rushed through a list of names in the secondary literature when I stopped him by asking what his initial interest had been. After a little moment of puzzlement, he began to tell me, with sparkling eyes, about how he got interested in social notion of the self. It was clear that he was fascinated but had already had a hard time trying to relate this to the secondary literature he was supposed to invoke. – When people start writing a philosophical essay or thesis they are often advised to get an “overview of the literature first.” The next step is to structure the paper by comparing two positions and eventually taking a side. I made this mistake myself for too long. Somehow it seemed natural to set out by doing “the reading”. By now I’m convinced this is a bad strategy. More often than not it crushes good ideas and leaves you with a half-alien set of positions that you’ll have difficulty to form an opinion about. In what follows, I’d like to explain why these problems arise and how an inversion of the order might help. (Spoiler alert: you’ll still have to read, but much later in the process.)

How things might go wrong. – Students are often asked to find a topic or even provided with a set of suggestions. In academic philosophy, this often amounts to finding a position or conclusion to be defended. How do you do this? Well, start reading (secondary literature) and something will come. But this way of beginning often means putting the cart before the horse. Firstly, in view of the vast literature, taking a position will always feel arbitrary. Secondly, given the overall unfamiliarity with the literature, students will likely feel unsure about whatever they say. – Of course, the advice to read first is understandable: it is designed to avoid reinventing the wheel. The incentive is to get an overview and develop one’s own position by ever so slightly deviating or contradicting the literature. Yes, the wheel won’t be reinvented. But the likely outcome is that good ideas get crushed under the wheels before they are looked at.

The problem of legitimacy. ­­– Why do ideas get crushed? Well, think about what reading authoritative texts (in the secondary literature) does to you. Even dry reports of the state of discussion exert normative force. You’ll be inclined to align your terms, your thoughts and your arguments with the state of discussion. This alignment makes your own piece sound authoritative but it will likely bury your initial thoughts. You will now think of them as immature beginnings that eventually led you to the actual discussion. In other words, secondary literature has a deligitimising effect on your ideas. Your ideas? Worthless musings… Of course not. But the effect of supposed authority is strong. Going this way, you’ll structure your piece in line with the actual discussion, you will hopefully tick all the right boxes, apply the hip terms correctly and forget about your early musings. At the end, you’ll note a small unclarity in the literature, improving the field with a valuable correction.

What to do? – Look, I don’t want to talk you out of this. Much of the time this works nicely, even if it leaves you a bit unsure about your aims and goals. If you’re in a hurry, it is good to go along with this advice. Why then change a running system? – Well, perhaps because it might work slightly better and because it might allow you to connect to your own ideas. So here is a suggestion of how to begin in a different way: Try to retain as much as possible of your original ideas. That doesn’t mean to stubbornly hold on to them. Rather, you should try to figure out what you actually think. Often that’s not altogether easy or clear. But you’ll get used to it. But what are your ideas anyway? Now, that is not so obvious. If you want to find your own ideas, you’ll have to watch your reactions. Observe how you react to other ideas! Be it in discussions or in (primary) texts. Something might stand out, upset or irritate you – that’s where your ideas lurk.

The beginning: locating an issue. – If you think you should start by finding some literature about your topic, you overlook that you already have begun with something else. But what was that? When the time comes for you to find a topic for a paper, you should not look ahead but back. Yes, you already have begun. Probably you were confronted with some funny idea or read a bit of primary literature that seemed interesting or puzzling. That is your starting point. Stick with a concrete formulation or the concrete passage that gave you pause. Quote that passage or sentence. Think about it by going through every sentence. Clarify any terms that are unclear with a dictionary. Then write a paraphrase in your own words. Start playing with it. Take out sentences and ask yourself what that does. Formalise it, if you like. Get a feeling for what the passage depends on. Create a map of where that passage belongs. What are other bits of text or associations that support it? Etc.

Understanding yourself through the text: seeing friction. – Remember you picked the passage because it stood out. Now try to spell out what exactly is so very interesting or puzzling and why. This has two parts: (1) You have to figure what the precise formulation is and (2) how it irritates or even counters your expectation. The first step means locating the precise word or idea that gives rise to the issue. It might sound trivial, but it is that term or phrase that your whole paper will be about. Because it is this piece that needs explaining. The second step is more difficult. First you have to see why this concerns your expectations: Well, if something irritates you or looks odd, it’s often because you expected something else to be said. Something is said that you would not have said or not have said this way. That is your expectations frustrated, as it were. But your expectation is not in the text. It’s in your head. Now, your expectation (frustrated by the text) is your entry point for the explanation or argument that your paper is to develop. Unfortunately, it is often not entirely obvious what gives rise to your irritation. Is there something in the text that sounds unfamiliar? Does it counter a belief you hold? What belief? Your task is to find out the assumption (you hold) that makes the text come out wrong, odd or unfamiliar. Once you see that, you have a friction between the text and yourself. Now you begin to understand how your reactions to the text arise. Now you enter into a conscious dialogue with the text. This dialogue arises out of your ideas; the friction makes them visible.

The next steps. – Now it’s still not time to read. Probably the temptation is enormous by now to search for bits and bobs of discussion on the web, but that has to wait. Once you have an understanding of the tension that guides you, it’s good to write an abstract (or introduction) and design a structure. What needs explaining? What is the friction or problem you see? As I have said in an earlier piece, you can employ a number of strategies to spread out your proposal. Only when you have done so, should you begin to dip into the literature. The upside is that now you will have concrete questions that you want answered. At the same time, the fact that you have written out your ideas will (hopefully) prevent you from feeling delegitimised by the discussions you are going to encounter. Rather you will enter the discussion with your own questions and worries. Those need answering.

Exploration. – As is perhaps obvious, the idea is not to discourage reading. Quite the contrary: you should read as much as you like, be it to explore or whatever. But if you want to write, you have to find a way to protect a space for your own ideas to unfold. Your ideas and questions are not your own because no one had them before or because they counter the secondary literature. They are yours because you find them interesting. They guide you. But you have to find them through the friction with others.

Oh no, not that!

Is it a good idea to publish rubbish on a blog? Perhaps it’s even a bloody privilege. Who knows? Anyway, I’ve been thinking through a number of issues I wanted to write about. But whenever I sit down to write, I end up wanting to write something different. So everything I attempt to say crumbles into something else.

The frustration of these failed attempts is so strong by now that I simply want to voice it. Here, now I said it. So what now? Might I not say something sensible while I have your attention? – Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Thinking about that is like plunging into the Kantian manifold – without the I accompanying anything. – So here is me trying to be clever when some important issues need addressing? Well, not now. I give up, I can’t write a thing now. Perhaps that’s worth saying.

In any case, take care!

Oh, and if you’re interested, here’s a piece of music that features this dithering impatience:

Waiting for Autism. A guest post by Paul Lodge

I have written in a couple of places over the last two years in tentative ways about ‘what it is like’ to live as someone with a bipolar disorder diagnosis (see here and here). I continue to be happy with the idea of representing myself to others as falling under this category in writing, and do so in day to day conversations with people in my more immediate vicinity. But there is always a serious concern in the back of my mind about the crudeness of the criteria that are used to lump people together under this heading. It is manifest in the fact that one of the ways of breaking the ice in those conversations is to allow a slightly uncomfortable joking about some of the more traditional conceptions of manic behaviour: “No, you don’t need to worry about whether I will take my clothes off and dance on the table in the middle of the next faculty meeting – however preferable that might be to the in which such meetings usually unfold.”

I found a way to conceptualise another of the background concerns in the wake of reading a series of papers by Louis Sass and Elizabeth Pienkos, in which they discuss differences between what it is like to be bipolar and schizophrenic. The issue here was that my status as bipolar left me falling into the schizophrenic camp far more often than Sass’ and Pienkos’ analyses should have allowed.

Interesting as the bipolar vs schizophrenia issue is in itself, I want to focus here on something else, though the relationship to this realization should be readily apparent. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that a person working in another faculty has taken on a central role in the University’s strategy for equality and diversity issues. I’ve worked with this person from time to time over the last fifteen years or so and always found them sympathetic. I put this mainly down to the fact that they speak with a strong northern regional accent (as I did before my years living in the US), and have been involved in the efforts to increase the representation of students from state-funded schools in Oxford (something which has been central to the identity of the college in Oxford of which I am a member). However, it is also because they say what they think without seeming to care too much about the ramifications.

Too cut a potentially long digression short, we agreed to meet up to talk about the ways in which ‘mental disability’ might be more of a focus as the strategy moves forward. Not unsurprisingly to me, it was a really enjoyable, long, and lively conversation, of the kind I find relatively easy with one, but no more than one, other person. It was perhaps easier than usual, given that we both disclosed our diagnoses very early on, and it is here that we get to the focus of this post. They told me that they had received an autistic-spectrum diagnosis very recently. And, as we talked about how that related to the struggles they have navigated, and performed into the shadows, on their journey to becoming a Full Professor, I heard many things that resonated. We discussed various social difficulties that I had thought were best bundled under the bipolar label, or treated as a function of poor socialization, egotism, or simply a result of growing up in Yorkshire.

The meeting was enough to get me thinking. But it was followed the very next day by attending the first event organized by Neurodiversity at Oxford which is aimed at anyone, students or staff, who are looking for community. The event was centred around readings by writer poet and Joanne Limburg, another person who received an autism diagnosis later in life. As she read a selection from her beautiful writings and talked about her experiences growing up as a child and fashioning a life as an academically high achieving individual, I found myself very emotional (as I do even now while reflecting on it) holding back the floods of tears that wanted to emerge. It was like watching Elsa singing ‘Let It Go’ for the first time all over again. I was also very moved to hear of how Joanne’s life has been transformed by finding spaces in which she can meet with others who have the same diagnosis, where she can be herself without feeling social anxiety and the constant fear of performing the ‘wrong’ version of what it is to be a person. And I was also intrigued by her discussion of the way in which she has reconstructed her sense of self in the wake of the diagnosis.

Afterward the event I talked to another of the late autism academics who was there, and asked in more detail about how the diagnosis had changed her life and how she got the diagnosis in the first place. The next day I called my local doctors’ surgery and passed the initial screening required for a referral, doubtless aided by the fact that they already have me down as someone with a mental health problem. All this will happen on the NHS, and it seems the wait will be around 6 months.

So now I am waiting. I’m not quite sure for what. The colleague I mentioned first (I think I really can, and should, say ‘friend’ at this point) warned me that she initially ‘failed’ at the first step of the diagnostic testing – which is a very long questionnaire – because she showed up as too empathetic. It seems it was only her capacity to articulate the reasons for this that got her through to the next stage. I’m not sure whether I will fall at that hurdle too, or others. I’m also not sure how it will feel if I don’t come out with a diagnosis, though I know part of me would like to have the chance to find out what it is spend time with people who find community with those who are autistic. And, as a someone who has spent so much time in academic philosophy, I’m already thinking in that kind of way about what it might be to be in a position to use lots of new concepts to understand my past, present and future self and its actions and relations with other selves. It’s exciting and daunting. But mainly it’s just a messy thing waiting to fall out one way or another.

Joanne Limburg is a very impressive person and a wonderful writer. No doubt aware of the fact that she was talking to a room of people self-identifying as neurodivergent in various ways, she pulled away on occasion from her own identity as autistic. At those times she spoke to something else, her sense of the way in which being autistic allowed her a kind of freedom that went beyond the freedom engendered by her new-found sense of explicit solidarity, a freedom to feel more comfortable with her sense of being ‘weird’. Even if I don’t end up being autistic, I’m grateful to her and to my new friend for already feeling more comfortable with some of the bits of my weirdness that I could never squeeze into my bipolar diagnosis. And, of course, that is really a matter of already feeling just a little bit less weird and less alone in that weirdness after so many years.

Philosophy, language, and my long road to tenure (podcast)

After one of my lectures on the history of philosophy for students from other faculties, Daniel Rebbin and Colm O’Fuarthain, two psychology students participating in the lecture, kindly invited me to a conversation on their Mental Minds Podcast.

So we talked about many things: for instance, about my approach to philosophy, the importance of being confused, language, dialogue, my way into academia, pretence, anxiety, and the meaning of life. Enjoy the conversation and check out their other podcasts. Below I added a rough table of contents (the times might not always be correct):


00:00 Introduction              

01:40 Why should we study and how did I get into philosophy?                      

03:15 On confusion and expectations

10:10 Do we always focus on what people say rather than on phenomena?

12:36 Language as a mode of direct perception

15:31 Interaction through language

18:37 Limits of language, and how we share experiences

29:19 On going into academia and the relevance of philosophy for our lives

43:05 The role of luck, chance, and shame

52:34 Intrinsic motivation? – Adolescent wishes

56:30 What have professors gone through to become professors?

1:21:30 My anxiety disorder

1:30:40 What advice would I give my younger self?

1:42:00 What gives me meaning in life?

Curing my anxiety disorder and the pitfalls of rationalism

As I noted in an earlier post, I have been suffering from illness anxiety disorder, formerly known as “hypochondria” for about twenty years. Five days ago, I had my last therapy session. The reason is that I reached the main goal of the therapy, that is: being able to live with uncertainty. Since I had so many kind reactions to my last post on this issue, I thought it would be nice to post an update and say a little bit about the therapy and how it helped. It was what is called cognitive behavioural therapy, and I received treatment for about eight months. On the whole, I think that the therapeutic devices are so straightforwardly mechanical that they might help with other troubles, too. At the same time, I am still struck by the rationalist thought patterns that might be responsible for part of my anxiety. Let me try and put some order into my thoughts now.

The worst of all possible worlds. – Imagine you notice something, for instance some unusual sensation like a spot on your arm that wasn’t there the evening before. You might think, “oh, a spot” and move on. The fact that I can think that, too, now is perhaps one of the greatest successes of my therapy. Usually, I would think that this is probably the symptom of an incurable disease. If you don’t believe this, it’s easy to shrug it off, but if you do believe it… But how did I get out of this structure of catastrophic beliefs? It’s helpful to break down this question into two parts: (1) What sort of belief made me enter catastrophic thought cycles? (2) How did I block them? Question (1) has a number of answers. Let me focus on the most surprising aspect. One of the most problematic thoughts I tend to have is that there is an explanation for the “symptom”. Now you might think that this is indeed a plausible thought to have. And indeed, as someone trained in the history of philosophy I know I am not alone in recognising this as a variation of the rationalist principle of sufficient reason (PSR).  There is an explanation for everything. Fine. Problems start if you actually expect that you or your doctor or the internet can provide an explanation. For if you’re like I’ve been and there is no obvious or reassuring explanation available, you think, “hey, this might have a sinister or rare cause”. So the PSR keeps the search going until you either find reassurance or an even worse “symptom” to worry about. The thought I didn’t ever entertain is that there might be no explanation available.* So when my therapist suggested this idea I just gave him a blank stare. This leads us to question (2). A common approach in behavioural therapy is to “challenge” such thought cycles. So how do you challenge the PSR? Well, first you try to figure out and write down your precise thoughts. Then you raise challenging questions. The most successful question was this: “Is it actually helpful to worry about this symptom or search for an explanation now?” If you’re honest and not in an actual emergency, you’ll end up having to answer this question with “no”, again and again. What I learned to accept is that it is often more helpful to resign to the fact that no explanation is available rather than keep searching for one. This is, for me, a very concrete way of learning to live with uncertainty.

Magical thinking. – Observing my thought processes, I often wondered why I was so glued to certain patterns. One miserable day I was lucky enough to catch one of the culprits in the act. I thought something like the following: “If I don’t take this symptom seriously, it will turn out even worse.” The thought was so elusive that I had trouble ‘catching it’. But even when I got hold of it, I had trouble seeing what it meant. But suddenly it struck me: This is a variation of the magical thoughts I had as child. Magical thinking is the assumption that your thoughts or some neglect in thinking will cause bad events, like “if I think badly of my parents, they’ll have an accident.” I’m told this is fairly common in children, while adults grow out of it. And of course, I wouldn’t dream of ascribing such assumptions to myself. But here I was! I realised that my thought “if I don’t take this symptom seriously, it will turn out even worse” could most plausibly be rendered as a magical thought like “if I don’t keep fretting over this symptom, I will deserve the illness I ignore right now.” The causal assumptions in the magical thought are closely tied to a moral judgment of deserving or being guilty of my threatening fate, if I neglect it. Of course, it’s hard to be sure, but I’m pretty convinced that it’s this childish superstition that glued me to my anxiety variant of the PSR. While I was shocked and somewhat ashamed to discover this in me, I was equally relieved, because seeing this pattern greatly helped distancing myself from my obsessive search for explanations.

Moving on. – Catching precise formulations and what they mean is actually quite crucial for moving on. I know that I cannot be straightforwardly cured of anxiety, but I can aid the cure by “learning to live with uncertainty”. The reformulation of my therapeutic goals alone already helped me embracing them as something positive rather than as negative. Being interested in social philosophy, you can imagine that I often annoyed my therapist by venting about the missing social aspects in therapy, though. What you (or at least I) need is not just overcoming my mental habits. What I need is a social infrastructure that is understanding and able to deal with conditions like mine. It makes a hell of a difference how a doctor or indeed anyone articulates their diagnosis or suspicions. But you can support your social environment in this. To achieve this, I began to force myself to apply the question “is it actually helpful to worry about this now” not only to my “symptoms” but to all sorts of issues my interlocutors confront me with. Pushing back against concerns of others like this did not make everyone around me happy… But despite some misgivings here and there, this change in my conduct seems to have overall positive effects. What helps is taking the time to explain how and why I attempt to respond and challenge requests with this question now.

The upshot is that, despite my initial scepticism, I would really recommend this therapeutic approach. It is not a magical cure, but that might be for the better.


* I think this “anxiety PSR” is also an epistemic variation of what is known as the just world fallacy, but I might go into this another time.

Relatedly, I just came across a nice piece on the epistemic merits of CBT: “A common idea about CBT is that it does not contribute to the person’s understanding of reality (validity) but encourages ways of thinking that boost the person’s wellbeing (utility). In our brief commentary, we argue that CBT can also contribute to some of the person’s epistemic goals.”

A brief note on the ethics of the principle of charity

The principle of charity is often introduced as a maxim for reading texts or conversing with interlocutors. In such contexts, it’s mostly taken as the idea to interpret your interlocutor in the most rational way possible. So if you read something and you have trouble understanding, you should try to reconstruct it in the best possible way, rather than dismissing it as nonsense. However, as I see it, the principle also has an ethical dimension in that it is rooted in our mutual recognition as humans.

Why do I think that? Donald Davidson famously claimed that the principle of charity is not optional. While he says this in the context of discussing conceptual schemes, I like to see it as the precondition of shared rationality in virtue of shared humanity. It should be in place when you interpret your interlocutor as a fellow human, as a fellow rational being. Recently, I put it as follows: The more you give your interlocutor the credit of being rational, that is making good sense of your interlocutor, the more you see them as human.* Conversely, the more you attack, try to find holes and belittle what your interlocuter says, the more you tend to dehumanise them. Of course, not every uncharitable reading is a form of dehumanisation. But there is certainly a number of problematic degrees, starting from local and perhaps voluntary misunderstandings, moving on to ‘othering’ your interlocutor, ultimately resulting in forms of dehumanisation.**

When you can’t see clearly, you’ll try to adjust your view or change the perspective. By contrast, when certain philosophers can’t understand someone well, they charge their interlocutor with talking nonsense. Isn’t it strange that we philosophers, of all people, are often so uncharitable? Given that the rest of the world makes mostly fun of us for being incomprehensible, you’d think we should know better. A ressentiment?


* I’d like to thank Chloé de Canson and Ismar Jugo for great and greatly charitable conversations on this topic.

** Here, I take dehumanisation as a way of seeing others as subhuman in their rational capacities.  See David Livinstone Smith’s work for a thorough account. (Here is a start.)

De boekenkast van … Martin Lenz. An interview with Ismar Jugo from our student magazine

[During this summer, Ismar Jugo from our student magazine Qualia kindly asked me to do an interview for their series on bookcases.* We talked for about two hours about books, philosophy, reading, my daughter Hannah, the principle of charity, and new media. Ismar wrote up a text condensing and commenting on what might have been the gist of our conversation. I am very grateful for this piece and would proudly like to share it here.]

Most of us who have had the pleasure of having Martin as a teacher, know him as a specialist in medieval and early modern philosophy. Thus, I was surprised when he said that the philosophical work that influenced him the most was Ruth Millikan’s Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. The work came out in 1984 and, to use Martin’s own words, “it made quite a splash”. What made the book special for Martin is that is offered a systematic theory of almost everything. It touched upon topics of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, normativity, ideology and so on. “It was as if you were reading Leibniz,” Martin said. Such systematic philosophy is not so ubiquitous in contemporary philosophy.

As I already said, I found it quite strange that a professor in medieval and early modern philosophy had book about philosophy of mind as one of his favorite books in philosophy. According to Martin, however, this is not strange at all. “I see the history of philosophy as a natural way of engaging with philosophy,” Martin says, and he goes on, “because you want to see where ideas come about and where they go. And Millikan’s theory was for me, and still is in some degree, a most encompassing and convincing approach. I see it on top of a long history of philosophical ideas that happens to result in something like this.”  From Martin’s perspective everyone who engages with philosophy, engages with philosophy’s past, in some way or another. And, especially, when you are working on questions of philosophy of mind in medieval and early modern philosophy, it is interesting to see how such ideas develop through time.

Talking about the past, I got interested in what book influenced him the most when he was a student. And again my expectations were proven wrong. Nothing about the philosophy of mind, medieval philosophy nor early modern philosophy. The title that influenced him the most as a student was Morgenröte from Friedrich Nietzsche. He had something to explain. “When I was young, around fourteen, I started to grab books from the shelve that I did not really understand. The first book I tried to read was something on paranoia by Sigmund Freud. Later, some people would talk about Nietzsche. Then I found the Antichrist and did not understand a word. Morgenröte was the first philosophical work that I started to make sense of.” Morgenröte is a collection of aphorisms, a style of philosophical writing that Martin still finds interesting. He gradually started to understand these aphorisms. What intrigued him was not only the content of the aphorisms, but also the beautiful style of Nietzsche’s writing. Martin is still interested in Nietzsche. “As with music and recordings, the first one can set the standard for what comes later and therefore be very impactful,” as he said. And then he quoted from the Gay Science: “What is the seal of attained liberty? To be no longer ashamed of oneself.” “As I grow older,” Martin said, “I find ways of overcoming my shame. That is a process of liberation, but also an ethical idea. It is about how you treat others as well.” And as I experienced, making the problem of shame a topic of discussion in a dialogue, gives liberty to both interlocuters. 

Leaving my shame behind, I asked Martin about other philosophical books he found fascinating. He mentioned two works of one thinker: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. Both works were written by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Before reading Wittgenstein, Martin read a lot of Heidegger. Both thinkers are central in his web of beliefs. He started with the Tractatus and, again, did not understand a word of it. To be able to understand it, he self-studied a lot of logic and read many introductions to the work. Eventually he could make more sense of it.

However, there was something of what I could not make sense of. I could not make sense of the connection between the different thinkers we discussed so far and his own work in medieval and early modern philosophy. His answer: “I have problems with making that connection myself. As with a lot of things, there is a professionalized side of philosophy where I happened to be successful in. The things that you are interested in are not always found back in your professional work. It may be a driving force.” The reason why Martin became a professional in medieval and early modern philosophy is because of his teacher Kurt Flasch. “When I thought about medieval philosophy as a student,” Martin says, “I thought: “Oh my God… That must be the most boring thing one can imagine!””  He explained that Flasch gave a seminar about Nietzsche that he took. Martin started to greatly admire Flasch and he still does. “It turned out that Flasch was a medievalist by profession. He just did the Nietzsche seminar as a past time.” Martin asked me to see the resemblance with himself and his teacher. Maybe we were not looking for a connection but for a resemblance after all.

Nevertheless, there is a line that connects all these different titles and thinkers and Martin’s current profession as a specialist in medieval and early modern philosophy. Since he was young, he was fascinated with texts that he did not really understand. In these classes Flasch gave about medieval philosophy, Martin had to translate old Latin texts. “Flasch had a very hands-on approach to medieval philosophy. We needed to translate Latin texts and discuss these. So, I was again reading texts that I did not really understand. It was a bit like reading the Tractatus of Wittgenstein, a kind of medieval version of it. But, of course, if you start from such a low base, you can see your progress and that is something nice. It had also something pioneering and exciting, because in these Latin texts you get the sense that no one has looked at them before. Eventually, I could see my progress and that was very rewarding.” As a former history student, I can relate very well to what Martin is saying here. Accessing the past through old texts can feel like entering a foreign country that only you can see.

When I asked Martin what the role of reading was in his life, he answered: “Not quite the same as breathing, but it comes close.” I can well imagine that a professional academic has to read a lot of philosophy every day. So, I went on and asked what the relation was between philosophy and his daily life. “As a student I was all over the place and during my PhD I did not see myself as a philosopher. I was busy with playing music and other things that did not really relate. When I did my Post doc, I worked seven days a week. Closing the laptop rarely happened. That is a very unhealthy lifestyle. This is an important political aspect before we go on and talk about how ideas interfere with daily life.”  Now that Martin has a permanent job, he considers his relationship with the philosophical ideas he is engaging as very pleasant. “Philosophy helps making sense of my life. It also gives me new tools to think about music.” However, lately it works the other way around as well, according to Martin. “Everyday life creeps into philosophy for me. I feel a growing responsibility to respond to societal questions with the means that are given to me with philosophy. I do this in blogging and other ways of articulating ideas.”

I noticed that we wandered off from the books that were in Martin’s bookcase. I asked him what non-philosophical book made impact on him. It was not a book, but rather a story from a collection of stories. “If you’d allow for stories, I’d go with Ingeborg Bachmann’s Alles; it came out in the collection Das dreißigste Jahr.” He went on and said: “I would recommend it to anyone walking free.” The story Alles is about a man who will become a father soon. He asks himself what kind of father he will be when his child is born. The most interesting part of the story is an inner monologue of the protagonist, where the protagonist sees language as something that prohibits us of having a genuine relation with each other and the world. This part of the story brought Martin to one of his philosophical fascinations: “How do you move from what you think is within you to an articulation that still is in some sense true to that? There is a part that will fail and a part that still wants to go on pushing. The question of articulating what you want to say is one of the big questions in literature. And one of the questions in philosophy. It neatly binds the two together. It is actually a question for all of us.”

The protagonist in the story Alles had fears about failing as a father. I asked Martin if he had the same fears before his daughter Hannah was born. He laughed and answered that his worries were more of practical nature. However, Martin talks with a lot of love and fascination about his daughter who is now four years old. He reads a lot to her and is very surprised how she remembers the stories almost exactly word by word. So, there is no room for mistakes in misreading a word here. There is one book that does not contain any words, only very strong colors. The purpose of the book is to teach children how to deal with and express their emotions. Hannah is surprisingly good at doing that, according to Martin. “It was yesterday evening and Hannah was very tired and upset about something. With everything I said she responded with a way of impatience and whaaaa! And I asked her: ‘Can’t you express yourself in a nicer way?’ And she paused a moment and responded by saying: ‘Well…I am too tired to use nice words.’ I thought that that was amazing because she understood, obviously, something that I would not understand as a child, and even as an adolescent, that sometimes being tired is what does it for you…that blocks something.”  Martin thought it was very observant from his own daughter and, honestly, I think so, too. Being tired sometimes does it for you. In this way I am not only learning from Martin Lenz but from his four-year-old daughter, too.

The interview seemed to come to its end. We already covered a lot of Martin’s bookcase and even that of his daughter, Hannah. Nevertheless, there still were some questions to be asked about Martin’s reading. Many of the books that we discussed were philosophical works and even the non-philosophical works were interpreted in a philosophical way. Thus, I asked Martin if philosophy was also his favorite genre in literature. “Recently, I’ve written a blog post on how the paper model kills other good philosophical genres,” Martin said, “like the commentary and more experimental forms of literature. Going by a narrow notion of professional philosophy, I’d say no. Going by my wider notion I’d say it has to be yes, but then it includes literature, music and other forms of art; anything that is dialogical.” With “dialogical” Martin means a form of writing where there is not fixed form with only a thesis defended by some arguments. According to Martin, an engagement with a text is already a form of a dialogue: this text in the Qualia is saying something and you are interpreting it, talking back from your perspective. “The paper-model has a building block style: you have a claim that you want to defend against objections, and everything is already set. This is boring. The great thing about dialogues is that the unexpected might happen. Discoveries! Insights! That sort of thing. These things do not happen when you sit down to defend a claim. Of course, you might get ideas but these ideas you get from a self-dialogue.”

Martin thinks that the paper has its good sides, but people should keep seeing it in perspective. It is a way of stating results clearly and quickly, but it should not replace the dialogue. Martin tries to give that a place within his teaching: “When we teach philosophy, we teach students too much to insist on these building blocks. They look nice and shiny. But it takes away, to my mind, the crucial part of philosophy. For me that is, engaging in dialogue, learning something. There you get these moments of surprise where you say: ‘Oh! I wouldn’t have put it like that, but now you say it in this way, it makes perfect sense to me.’ You know these moments are the moments I live for.” He pauses and then goes on: “With these moments you get a step further because you see the light that you haven’t seen before. Sometimes you start to understand a position that you thought of as an absurd position. All of a sudden you get to grips with it. You even start to kind of embrace it because it is shining in a new light.”

            The last questions that I asked Martin were not about the books on his bookcase, but rather about the practice of reading itself. I got a specific interest in this topic and after what Martin said, I got interested in what he thinks about that. “Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins,” Martin started with quoting Heidegger, and went on with saying that “if language is the house of Being, then reading along with music paved the way into the parts of the world I want to inhabit most.” Thus, along with music, reading is very important in Martin’s life. He sees reading as perceiving the world through language. To understand this, we need to go back to one of Martin’s favorite philosophers, Ruth Millikan. “According to Millikan,” Martin says, “language works a little bit like your eyes or your sense of smell or touch. It is another sense modality. It is a more abstract sense. Language gives you another mode of perceiving that same thing you would perceive if you would look at it or touch it.” What Martin likes about this perspective on language is that “it makes language more direct. Direct in the sense that when I am telling you something you really did perceive this. There is a level of immediacy that is also given in language. Language is not the stuff that is hovering above the world. Language is right there with your body and the rest of the world. It allows you different ways of perceiving, different from the other senses.”

            Being intrigued in what Martin said, I asked him about his thoughts on the rise of new media. Martin is happy to be able to vent on that. “The new media have a bad name without good justification because whenever there was a new technology people saw the world ending. Miraculously it didn’t. Amongst philosophers there is a lot of talk about fake news as something that is dangerous. And that is true and I would be one of the last to say that that isn’t a problem. But I don’t think that it is a problem of the new media, but a problem of literacy. It is a problem of not making good sense of the media. Philosophers are trained to analyze arguments, but for the new media something else is important. That is knowing what kind of effect they have on us emotionally. How they can build a kind of glue and the opposite of that glue; a kind of poison.”

            Martin thinks that we need to become more literate about the new media. “It is not a given that we understand what we read. The opposite is more of a given. That does not only apply to difficult philosophical texts, but it applies to everything. This works on so many levels. If I would ask you: “How are you?” And you would answer: “I am fine.” That could mean so many things. Of course, there is a literal understanding of that you are in a good mood, but we both know that it is a conventionalized expression to disguise. Contextualizing such a remark is something you need to learn. When we read stuff online, we need to do that, too. Perhaps someone writes this in despair, perhaps drunk, perhaps it isn’t even a person. We need coherence markers; we need to get a picture of the Other to understand who that is. We need to rebuild that person. Like a writer does that with a world in a novel, we need to build it from scratch. And if something is wrong, then we need to notice that. We need to check if something in our reading is wrong or that something in the story is wrong. All these skills need to be learned and I have the feeling that we need to spend more time on this.”

Like with his critique of the paper model of philosophy, Martin tries to incorporate this critique of illiteracy in his education by introducing his students to the principle of charity. In the first place the principle of charity is about interpreting a text in the best possible way, thus in the way that it makes the most sense. However, according to Martin, “the principle of charity has a deeper footing. Donald Davidson at some point says that the principle of charity is not optional. It is the foundation of rationality. It should be in place when you interpret your interlocutor as a fellow human, as a fellow rational being.” Martin goes on saying that “the more you give your interlocutor the credit of being rational, that is making good sense of your interlocutor, the more you see them as human. And conversely, the more you attack and are trying to find holes and a sort of downsize what your interlocuter says, the more you tend to dehumanize them. In the sense of trying to find ways into deeming your interlocutor as not rational. And in that sense, it is not optional.” The principle of charity is, thus, not only epistemologically relevant, but ethically too.

I think that I can speak for Martin as well as for myself that the time went very fast during our interview, or dialogue. We touched upon many topics both inside and outside the bookcase. I heard Hannah asking for her dad and I thought that this could be a moment for me to be charitable in a way. So, I grasped the moment, ended the interview and, by that, gave her Martin back.


* Published in Qualia 17.3, a magazine edited by students of the philosophy faculty of the University of Groningen.

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.