How to read (part seven). A conversation with Daniel-Pascal Zorn about reading philosophy and twitter (podcast)

This is the ninth installment (not the eighth!) of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Daniel-Pascal Zorn who is a Lecturer of Philosophy at Bergische Universität Wuppertal. In addition to his scholarly work in comparative philosophy, he wrote a number of books and pieces that found much recognition widely beyond the confines of professional philosophy.

In this conversation, we focus on reading practices in philosophy (from 01:33 onwards) and social media, especially twitter and Daniel’s “twitter persona” (from 1:05:54).

Crucial for our discussion is a distinction between to kinds of attention or concepts, namely concepts of content and operation, the latter being the means through which we express content. You can read more about Daniel’s approach and the distinction here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Notes:

* If you prefer to watch this conversation as a video, click here.

* Here is the video in which Adam Neely introduces the idea of musicking (as opposed to seeing music merely as rhythm, harmony and melody). I try to liken the distinction between music and musicking to the one between content and operation.

* Part one of my series “How to read” is here.

* Finally, here is the link to a piece on the understanding of history in analytic philosophy we co-authored.

How to read (part four). Accepting confusion as the rule and understanding as the exception

Now that we have looked at how to get started, at some malpractices that might get in the way, and at some effects of reading for writing, I finally want to begin to get to the heart of the matter, that is, to the text itself. Looking at the eager faces of my students, I think many of them usually want to do everything well and present very smart ideas about the text. I was no different, but the first thing that needs to be done is to establish a rough understanding of the text. How is that done, though? Let’s get down to business.

Accepting confusion as the default state of mind. – Reading philosophical texts, I generally assumed that I would not understand very much. Confusion was the rule; getting something was a rare exception. The most impressive experience of that sort I had when I translated my first text from William of Ockham’s Quodlibeta. The title suggested that it was on the problem of universals, but I didn’t understand a word of what I had translated. By contrast, my students commonly want to grasp how things hang together. So they often ask how this relates to that. I love those questions and the eagerness to spot the system behind the remarks. But I often have to admit that I am not sure what the system is or whether there is one. My point is not to discourage consistent thinking. However, systematic consistency is first of all an expectation, typical for contemporary readers. There is no guarantee that a historical text will meet that expectation or meet it in the way we expect. Lowering expectations of systematicity, then, is what I mean by accepting confusion as the default. When opening a book, we often simply don’t know what to expect. So it helps to accept confusion and looking for islands that (seem to) make sense, rather than to start out wanting to get everything and see dark passages as outliers. Accept that you will understand very little. If you want to rush to conclusions, that’s very understandable, but you’re going to be frustrated much of the time.

What is the text about? The hermeneutic circle. – The first question that you will need to answer is: What is the text about? Assuming that you don’t understand much at this point, you will have to make a guess. That guess is usually prompted by the islands of understanding, i.e. some details that make sense. Perhaps this is the title of the text, although Platonic dialogues will be frustrating in this regard. Or it will be some line in the beginning, with some familiar words and phrases. Or it might be simply that your instructor has set the text as an instance of a text about a particular topic. The point is that, at this point, you’ll be hooked by some detail and draw a conclusion about the general topic. The projection of of such a general topic works like a hypothesis, to be confirmed or frustrated by the next details you’re going to look at. In any case, the move from some detail to a general assumption about a topic and back to further details back to the general topic or a refined understanding of it is what is called the hermeneutic circle.

Approaching details. – Once you decided that a text is about a particular topic, you will begin to see the details as relating to that topic. If the genre allows for it, you should try and see which general conclusion the text argues for. Typically, a conclusion is introduced by words like “thus” or “therefore”. But sometimes it’s more hidden than that. Anyway, once you think that a text is designed to make such a claim, you will begin to see arguments as an (attempted) support of that claim. In other words, your general understanding guides how you see details. If something doesn’t make sense or is not in keeping with your assumed topic or conclusion, you must either figure out whether this is owing to a deviation like special use of terminology or you must refine your hypothesis about the claim or topic. When you hit on something like this, try to analyse exactly where your understanding breaks down: Is it about an unusual term or the unusual use of a term? Try to search for such uses online! Is it a whole sentence? Or the connection between sentences? Try to analyse the sentence or find a paraphrase! Is it a whole section? Try to figure out the function of the section or paragraph! Is the author speaking sincerely? There are a number of questions you can ask. What helps me most of the time is look at related or similar texts. Do they have the same kind of oddities? – Above all, remember that understanding a text as whole is the exception, not the rule.

Placing your own steps in the conversation. – Many people think of reading as receiving what the author says or, perhaps worse, as receiving information. That is never true. When you read and begin to think or stumble along silently, you will have (at least) two voices. You’ll hear the voice of the author and your own voice. Your tacit questions, your despair or impatience, your paraphrases, or your nodding and occasional disagreement are present throughout. Take it seriously! Reading is a dialogical act. And your mumblings are the voice that engages with the text, making it come alive and vice versa. Keep a record of what you find important or strange in the text. But also keep a record of what you think and feel. A passage makes you feel uneasy? Note it and try to figure out what exactly makes you feel this way. You find yourself nodding agreement all the time? Why? Are there reasons in the text? Does it speak to your sentiments? You find yourself lost? Note what it is and start a search. – If you’re supposed to discuss the reading and you find that this is too difficult, begin by offering your own responses to the text. They are just as good as the other voices to enter the conversation.

Here is part five of this series.

How to read. Some basics (part one)

It’s a commonplace among lecturers that students don’t know how to read anymore. The culprit is often found quickly: Social media and mobile phones are responsible for almost everything. I’m not sure about this, but I think that it might be a good thing to devote more attention to reading techniques. When I was a student, I was often told to read or even to read carefully. However, what no one really told me was how careful reading is actually done. The situation reminds me of a conversation with my colleague Andrea Sangiacomo, who remarked that we are often told to “concentrate”, but no one tells you how it’s actually done. Just sitting and staring at what you’re supposed to focus on probably isn’t concentration. It’s something one needs to learn and cultivate. The same goes for reading. Ask a fellow philosopher or philosophy student what they do. “I read much of the time”, they might reply. Ask them then how they do it. At this point I often merely get a “well, I just, well, read.” In what follows, I want to say a bit more about the basics of reading. Philosophers shouldn’t shy away from stating or thinking through the obvious. So I’m sure it’s going to be worth your time.

Getting comfy and preparing yourself. – It might seem obvious, but when you begin to read a text, say a primary text in philosophy or a paper, you should get comfy first. Pick a nice place where nothing disturbs or distracts you (too much) and get your text out. Experience teaches many of us that reading real printed texts rather than virtually on a computer file yields better results. But no matter which way you are going to read, make sure that you have some device to underline or highlight phrases and to take notes. I stress this because I see many students coming to class without their texts, let alone notes. While some people have an admirable memory of what they read, the point of highlighting phrases and taking notes is not just to memorise text chunks. Highlighting words or phrases makes you see connections that arguably remain obscure to you otherwise. In reading, we often focus on “the meaning”, but it is important to also see some material aspects of the text: the words and phrases, the way paragraphs are set etc. It gives you a sense of how terms reappear in the following sentence or section, how phrases are picked up again or rephrased in different words, how one sentence is (or isn’t) connected to the previous one and so on. (Frege, for instance, devised his formal notation system, the Begriffsschrift, to visualise logical relations that are salient but often unnoticed in common forms of writing.) After all, one simple way to grasp the topic or strategy of a text is to see which words come up most. Moreover, highlighting phrases or taking notes will draw you into a dialogue with the text. How’s that? Well, if you underline, for instance, you might underline words and then come back to wonder why you underlined those and not others. You notice and also begin to question what you find important in a text. So get out your pencil or the comment mode in your pdf! It’s of course also a way to make the text your own. Coming back after a couple of years and seeing what you highlighted back in the day will make you see your old copy and sometimes make you chuckle or wonder why you worried about that. Now if you forget to bring your annotated text with you in class, you cannot turn to these material connections when the text is discussed.

What are you reading anyway? – Now that you’re all set, it’s time to look at what you’re going to read. Isn’t that clear? The author and title of the text are on the jacket, no? So no worries there. – Far from it! If you pick up Nietzsche’s famous The Will to Power and think that it’s a book by Nietzsche you’re quite mistaken. The Will to Power was compiled from Nietzsche’s notebooks, put into order and attributed to Nietzsche by his sister Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche. Yes, Nietzsche had thought about this idea at length, but the book is fake. This is why it is crucial to consult not just any old version but the critical edition that has been carefully researched from the actual manuscripts. (Here is a brief account of critical editions of ancient texts, but such issues apply across the board.) If you don’t read German and thus cannot study the original, you should be aware that you are reading a translation. The enormously great work of translators often goes unacknowledged, but it should be seen, and seen for what it often is. A translation is not just “the same text” in a different language. It is a new text, developed on the basis of the original version. To get a feeling for this, you should try and paraphrase a bit of text. You’ll soon run into ambiguities or issues that require opinionated choices. Such choices silently come back to you when you read a translation, and there is often more than one translation. There can be whole different traditions of translations. Ideally, you compare different translations and pick central terms from the original to see how they are rendered in the various versions. In any case, you should pick a translation that is based on a reliable critical edition. – You might think that such issues apply mainly to historical texts, but that would be a mistake: Papers in modern or contemporary philosophy can also come in different versions and translations of course. What is more, the question of what you’re actually reading affords you a critical distance to the tendency of identifying a text with the author who purportedly wrote it. And note at least that even correctly attributed authors don’t always believe what they have published under their name …

Why are you reading? – Again, this question seems obvious. You’re reading because you’ve been assigned a text in one way or another. Perhaps you’re even reading for fun. But that’s not what I mean. Well before you begin to read, you will have expectations about what you’re going to encounter. These expectations can be fairly concrete and detailed if you know the author or have heard about the work in question. In any case, it helps to do two things now. (1) you should make your expectations clear to yourself, so that you notice when the text deviates from what you expect it to say. This tells you at once how the author might differ from what you assumed them to say and how you think about the matter. This is interesting because it is a real meeting of minds, a confrontation of your expectations and what the author says. You might then wonder what is responsible for this difference. (2) In any case, you should also make clear to yourself what you are looking for. Are you just exploring what the author has to say? Fine. But more often than not you’ll read with a (tacit) question in mind, like: What does the author say about X? Where X is (related to) the topic of the course you’re following. The more clear it is what you’re looking for, the easier it is to watch out for pertinent key terms or arguments, but also to differentiate what is currently important for you from digressions or sections that simply speak to other issues. Ideally, then, you watch out for your own expectations as well as for items that are unclear to you. What is important to note is that both (1) your expectations and (2) what you are looking for do not as such yield an interpretation of the text. But they will inform, often tacitly, what you highlight in your interpretation or understanding. So it’s good to get clear about these issues. However, don’t worry about this too much at the beginning. Reading, careful reading in particular, is a very slow process, not linear, but involving going back and forth many times, of trying and failing and trying again.

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Click here for part two of this series.

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):

Contents:

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?

Are we really polarised? A conversation with Emma Young (podcast)

This is the sixth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Emma Young who is a research master student in philosophy at Groningen University. We focus on the issue of (political) polarisation. While it seems common to portray public discourse as being polarised, we rarely find the assumption itself questioned or investigated as such. Here is a rough outline of topics:

  • Introduction 0:00
  • Is polarisation empirically discovered or an assumption structuring our perception? 5:58
  • Does the assumption of polarisation create a self-fulfilling prophecy? 9:30
  • First summary. And does polarisation obscure problems? 12:10
  • Division over corona policies as an example 15:50
  • How polarisation promotes the illusion of a (neutral) centre 23:00
  • How this illusion figures in history (of philosophy) 33:03
  • Interests in or beneficiaries of polarisation 45:02
  • Is polarisation irrational? 48:26
  • Does philosophy fail in overcoming polarisation? 52:28
  • How do we build solidarity? 1:07:04

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.

Intellectual regrets. How do I figure out what to think? (Part II)

“The ‘thorough’. – Those who are slow to know think that slowness is an aspect of knowledge.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

“Damn! I should have thought of that reply yesterday afternoon!” Do you know this situation? You’re confronted with an objection or perhaps a somewhat condescending witticism, and you just don’t know what to say. But the next day, you think of the perfect response. Let’s call this intellectual regret, whishing you had had that retort ready at the time or even anticipated the objection when stating your thesis, but you haven’t. Much of our intellectual lives is probably spent somewhere between regret and attempts at anticipating objections. What does this feeling of regret indicate? To a first approximation, we might say it indicates that we think of ourselves as imperfect. When we didn’t anticipate or even reply to an objection, something was missing. What was missing? Arguably, we were lacking what is often called smartness, often construed as the ability to quickly defend ideas against objections. But is that so?  

Given our adversarial culture, we often take ourselves as either winning or losing arguments. Thus, we tend to see oppositions to our ideas as competitive. If we say “not p” and someone else advances arguments for “p”, we have the tendency to become defensive rather than embrace “p”. Accordingly, we often structure our work as the defence of a position, say “not p”. The anticipation of the objection “p” is celebrated as a hero narrative, in which p is anticipated and successfully conquered. This is why intellectual regrets might loom large in our mental lives. As I see it, however, the hero narrative is problematic. As I have argued earlier, it instils the desire to pick a side, ideally the right side. But this misses a crucial point of philosophical work: Taking sides is at best transitory; in the end it’s not more battle but peace that awaits us. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we tend to misconstrue the nature of oppositions in philosophy. Rather than competitive positions, oppositions form an integral part of the ideas they seem to be opposed to. Accordingly, what we miss out on in situations of intellectual regret is not a smart defence of a position or dogma, but a more thorough understanding of our own ideas. But in what way does such an understanding involve oppositions?

Understanding through antonyms. –  How do you explain philosophical ideas to someone? A quick way consists in contrasting a term with an opposed term or antonym. Asked what “objectivity” means, a good start is to begin by explaining how we use the term “subjective”. Wishing to explain an “ism”, it helps to look for the opposed ism. So you might explain “externalism” as an idea countering internalism. Now you might object that this shows how philosophers often proceed by carving out positions. It does indeed show as much. But it is equally true that we often need to understand the opposing position in order to understand a claim. So while the philosophical conversation often seems to unfold through positions and counterpositions, understanding them requires the alternatives. Negative theology has turned this into a thorough approach. – Now you might object that this might be a merely instrumental feature of understanding ideas, but it doesn’t show that one idea involves another idea as an integral part. After all, subjectivism is to be seen in opposition to objectivism, and if you’re holding one position, you cannot hold the other. To this I reply that, again, my point is indeed not about positions but about understanding. However, this feature is not merely instrumental. Arguably, at least certain ideas (such as subjectivism or atomism) do not make sense without their oppositions (objectivism or holism). That is, the relation to opposed ideas is part of the identity of certain ideas.

Counterfactual reasoning. – It certainly helps to think of opposed terms when making sense of an idea. But this feature extends to understanding whole situations and indeed our lives as such. Understanding the situation we are in often requires counterfactual reasoning. Appreciating the sunshine might be enhanced by seeing what were the case if it were raining. Understanding our biographies and past involves taking into account a number of what-ifs. Planning ahead involves imagining decidedly what is not the case but should be. Arguably, states such as hope, surprise, angst, and regret would be impossible if it were not for counterfactual ideas. So again, identifying the situation we are in involves alternatives and opposites.

Dialectical reasoning. – You might argue again that this just shows a clear distinction between ideas and their opposites. I do not deny that we might decidedly walk through one situation or idea before entering or imagining another. However, at least for some ideas and situations, encountering their oppositions or alternatives does not only involve understanding their negation. Rather, it leads to a new or reflective understanding of the original idea. You will have a new sense of your physical integrity or health once you’ve been hurt. You understand “doubt” differently once you realise that you cannot doubt everything at once (when seeing that you cannot doubt that you’re doubting) or once you thought through the antisceptical ideas of Spinoza or Wittgenstein. Your jealousy might be altered when you’ve seen others acting out of jealousy. Just like Hume’s vulgar view is a different one once you realise that you cannot let go of it (even after considering the philosophical view). The dynamics of dialectical reasoning don’t just produce alternatives but new, arguably, enriched identities.

Triangulation and identity. – Once we recognise how understanding opposites produce a new identity for the idea or the understanding of our very own lives (the examined life!), we see how this pervades our thinking. Entering a town from the station is different from entering it via the airport or seeing it on a map. Here we have three different and perhaps opposing ways of approaching the same place. But who would think that one position or one way of seeing things is true or better or more advanced than another? All of these ways might be taken as different senses, guiding us to the same referent, or as different perspectives in a triangulation between two different interlocutors. When it comes to understanding what we call reality, there is of course a vast amount of senses or triangulations. But who would think one is better? Must we not say that each perspective adds yet more to the same endeavour? So while we might progress through various positions, I would doubt that they are competitive. Rather they strike me as contributing to the same understanding.

Disagreement. – If this is a viable view of things, it might strike you as a bit neoplatonist. But there is nothing wrong with that. But what about real disagreements? Where can we place disagreements, if all oppositions are ultimately taken to resolve into one understanding? Given how stubborn humans are, it would be odd to say that oppositions are merely transient. My hunch is that there can be real disagreement. How? Whenever we have a position or perspective we can benefit from another perspective on the same thing or issue or idea. In keeping with what I said above, encountering such a different perspective would not be a disagreement but, ultimately, an enrichment. That said, we can doubt whether our different perspectives really concern the same thing or idea. We might assume that we now enter the same town we saw on the map earlier. But perhaps we in fact enter a different town. Assuming sameness is a presupposition of making sense or having a sensible disagreement about the same. But our attempt of tracing sameness might fail.

Returning to our intellectual regrets, what is mostly missing is not the smartness to outperform our interlocutors. Rather, we might lack a more full understanding that only the perspectives of others can afford us. In this sense, the oppositions in philosophy are transient. If we have to wait and listen to others, that slowness is indeed an aspect of knowledge.

Questions – an underrated genre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alienation: On learning to talk philosophy

Much learning happens through alienation.* Walking at night through an unfamiliar town in a foreign country requires you to find your way around by activating untrained resources. Wanting to get to the station, you need to look around, stay alert and imagine what awaits you round the next bend. You might have to get out your dictionary and ask others for the way – only to end up in an unexpected part of town. Reading philosophy is often like that. However, in professional and even educational contexts, people often pretend to already know their way around. Asking questions serves more as an opportunity to show off, making newcomers feel like outsiders. After a while, newcomers will also learn to show off and put some erudition on display. Actually, it might help getting some recognition, but it also blocks actual engagement and learning. In this post I don’t want to decry the state of the profession, but rather impart some very basic considerations of how to learn talking and reading philosophy.

There is a nice saying according to which trying to tell our children something won’t educate them, since they’re going to imitate what we do anyway. In other words, if we pretend to know our way around, people around us won’t learn to ask genuine questions. Likewise, if the main kind of response we teach students is to meet a claim with a “no”, headshaking or some other form of critical disagreement, we won’t incentivise attempts at understanding and creative exploration. Although it’s important to learn disagreeing, it’s equally important to ask questions (not veiled objections) and formulate tentative hypotheses that serve as the starting point of explorations rather than a defence. So how can we practise asking questions and forming hypotheses?

Alienation. – Let me begin with what I take to be a general principle for generating questions and hypotheses: alienation. Moving within familiar territory generates no questions or ideas. But anything can be questioned when taken out of context. Think of food. We eat daily. Take a step back and look at the food you eat: zoom in on a detail, look at the texture, the structure, and the colours. Doesn’t it seem strange, unfamiliar? What do you know about it? – Now imagine a face, but don’t think of it as a face! Try to imagine it as something that you don’t know but try to paint or draw: What is its structure? What do you have to do in order to paint it? Try different styles: pointillism, realism, abstract away etc. – Finally listen to people speaking: What do you hear? Words? Really? Try to hear the emotions couched in the utterances. Do you hear confidence, enthusiasm or a restrained sadness? Can you detect irony, sincerity? What are the markers of what you hear behind or within these sounds? – Now try to describe such impressions, it’s hard but not impossible.

Philosophising can take the shape of making things unfamiliar in such ways. A lot of it consists in looking at concepts or claims and arguments. Now you might say that looking at arguments is quite different from alienating one’s view on food or faces. Think again! You take strings of sounds or written traces appearing on a screen (or paper) and transform them into sequences of (formal) symbols or paraphrases that you call “valid” or “sound”. Such transformation is, first of all, a form of alienation. You take language out of context and put it into a different one. A crucial effect of that alienation is a shift of focus. You can concentrate on things that normally escape your attention: the logical or conceptual structures for instance, ambiguities, things that seemed clear get blurred and vice versa. Shifting the focus opens up space to move around and hopefully stirs the imagination, but as such it doesn’t generate questions.

Taking our space. – When I remember my early student days, I see a shy person, sitting in class and directing all his energy at remembering the question he meant to ask. When the time came and it was my turn, I would usually blush, avert or close my eyes (I still do that), and get out the sentences as quickly as possible. It was hard, but it must have been equally hard to get what I was trying to say. Can you imagine someone feeling like that and raising a question or considering a hypothesis? No way, just get it out and over with! When we want to learn or talk, we first need some breathing space. What is it that enables us to get into such a mode? – Trying to speak, we need to take our space, slow down and take the time it takes to get the sentences out, accentuate the words that matter. All that can be practised. But there is also the issue of content. How do we generate that?

Expectations and deviation. – Let’s look at generating a question! The first thing to notice is that we are often dealing with two kinds of expectations: (1) We expect a text or an interlocutor to say certain things. We expect a lecturer to lecture, to know things, not ask us what we like for breakfast. If that expectation is irritated, we have a question. Either the irritation is genuine or we generate an irritation by alienating what is said.** Repeat a word and ask whether it means more than one thing! If it means more than one thing, there are at least two options of understanding what is said. So now you can ask which of the possible options is meant. It’s a simple question, but even so we’re not there yet. (2) When we raise our voice to speak, we know (tacitly) that people expect us to say certain things. We have an idea of what is expected of us. Most of the time, we want to align with such expectations. But if we align with such expectations, we probably want to look clever: that will make us remain silent or ask a clever rather than our genuine question. That’s fine, sometimes. But no one will learn anything if no one leaves the realm of mutual expectations. Thus, a helpful strategy might be to deviate from that expectation. You might feel silly to begin with, but it will be liberating. But how is it done? – By making explicit that you deviate from the common expectations. If you’re in a typical seminar setting and you’re asked to eplain what you mean, you can, for instance, go up to the board and draw a diagram that helps illustrating a conceptual relation. So rather than just answer the question and do as you’re told, you make an extra move. You don’t need to do something outrageous of course. Finding a peculiar example or analogy, drawing a sketch or diagram, saying explicitly that something sounds strange or would sound strange to someone’s ears, something like that might do the trick. Say: “this might sound funny, but what if we imagine the following …” Another way is to put a supposed side issue centre stage. As one student put it in today’s lecture on the Condemnation of 1277: “Isn’t the layout of the text quite important? Was the original manuscript structured in the same way?” Thus, she moved the attention from the content to the layout, which actually led to some quite significant insights no one had seen coming. – The point is to frame your contribution in a way that deviates from what you take to be the expected form of proceeding. Ideally, you draw on your resources and imagination, and literally play around with all the bits and pieces that catch your attention. Take an example or analogy dear to your heart; use a medium you feel comfortable with. The slightest deviation will be liberating. It will be liberating because it gives you space: options to move away from (supposed) expectations.

The point of such exercises is not to make you stand out as “odd”. The idea is to move into unfamiliar territory, but by using resources that you feel at home with. Using your resources, as many as possible, but your resources, is vital: often it’s best to try and think of areas that interest you ouside of philosophy. (Sara Uckelman has a wonderful piece invoking this idea.) By deviating from expectations, you create a friction that you can draw on to make further moves in a conversation. Ideally, you learn to move in a way that enables you to articulate the expected as well as the unexpected elements of your take. If a musical analogy is allowed: You should build up tension (by moving away from the expected) and release (by returning to the commmon expectation), just like a tune will build up tension and return to the familar tonic chord. This way you can state the supposed expectation and your deviation. This gives you two options to consider: “Is this a helpful example/illustration/phrasing or should we be looking at it the other (usual) way?” The crucial point is that it will open up space for your interlocutors, too. Once you stop aligning with expectations, others might feel entitled to do the same. At the same time, this might facilitate a situation in which you can begin to learn from your interlocutors. Not just by listening, but also by addressing questions at them directly. Not necessarily about the common object of discussion but about their take. Once you uttered your contribution, you don’t have to fall silent again. You can ask others whether they have the same question or thought about it along similar lines. Their answers will tell you something about their expectations and your intuitions. You might end up having a real conversation.

All of these moves are intended to make the “familiar seem strange”, to use a phrase by Bernard Williams. Once you learn to feel comfortable with such moves, it might allow you to explore, ask genuine questions and articulate hypotheses. It is a way of finding your own voice and concerns, even within the most formulaic styles of speaking and writing. We can stop pretending to know our way around; instead we can ask for the way to the station and decide to take a detour via the pub.

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* I have been reading much Brecht when I was around 16, but then put him aside. It’s funny how this past is now tacitly (?) coming back to the fore. Of course the idea has its roots in the Verfremdungseffekt pursued in Brechtian theatre practice. 

** In this sense, allowing ourselves and others to fail is quite a crucial part of the process. Sara Uckelman has pointed me to a beautiful post of hers touching on this issue.