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.

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

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.  

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

Repressed ideas? For an embedded history of philosophy

Over the weekend I posted a piece of news according to which one of the last representations of academic psychoanalysis in Germany is under threat. What I found particularly interesting were the somewhat heated discussions that ensued on various social media. While some regretted the prospect of seeing psychoanalysis pushed out out of academia, others saw it as an instance of scientific advancement. More than once was it claimed that, after all, we wouldn’t have chairs in astrology either.* Lacking expertise in psychology, I am not the right person to make a case for the current role of psychoanalytic research, but I was struck by the frequent and ready dismissal in favour of a current status quo. Yet, what this insistence on the status quo obscures is the likelihood that future historians will see many of our current ideas as similarly outdated. Our most recent neuroscience will become tomorrow’s astrology. In this post, then, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to imagine that our current theories and even our own beliefs will be deemed outdated. The idea behind such an embedded history** is to historicise the present and pave the way for seeing our very own ideas like a historian of thought, that is: seeing our beliefs in their contingent relations to our (social) world rather than as items in the space of reasons.

Condemning ideas. –  What makes people condemn ideas or approaches? Our study of the mind has a long and complicated history. Many ideas are now outdated. Although Aristotle is held in high esteem, no one will want to maintain his views on the heart-brain system. However, controversial ideas present a different case. Disciplines like psychoanalysis are still evolving and are held in high esteem by many, but their precise status in the academic landscape has become dubious. The reasons for advacing doubts are varied: they might be internal to the discipline but also of a political or moral nature. Despite substantial criticisms, however, certain ideas not least from psychoanalysis pervade much of our current culture and are known, not only by experts, but the public at large. What’s interesting about ideas that are both common and controversial is that they present us with normative questions: They are held, yes, but should they be held (in the future)? Now the normative attitude according to which, for instance, psychoanalysis should be condemned to the past can itself be historicised. This is what a embedded historian would do. Rather than taking a side for or against a particular view, the embedded historian would try and historicise the controversy. For the embedded historian, discussions invoking perceived progress, then, would shed some light on our current normative historical attitudes, that is, attitudes about things that we begin to see as belonging to the past and that we (or some of us) think should no longer be present.

But how can we turn into embedded historians? – Peter Adamson once suggested seeing our current philosophy just as the latest stage of the history of philosophy. Naturally, I agree. As I see it, this approach not only helps us achieving a better understanding of the current philosophical landscape, it also shifts our attitudes in intriguing ways: Being convinced by an argument is quite different from explaining how someone like you (in your day and age) would encounter and be compelled by a certain argument in a certain context and style. This is what Bernard Williams called “making the familiar strange”. But how is it done? Having ideas is one thing. Rejecting ideas as belonging to the past is quite another thing; it carries the force of condemnation. But what if you find yourself on the other side? What I’d like you to imagine is that you hold ideas that future historians will think of as outdated. This, I submit, is how you can become an embedded historian about your own ideas. You can do this in two steps: first, you study a theory that is considered outdated, try to embrace it by looking at the best arguments for it, and then you look at the refutations. Second, you take the most forceful refutations and try to have them carry over such that they attack your own convictions. (The second move is of course much harder, but if you want to see it in action it might help to consider how Wittgenstein attacks some of his own ideas in the Philosophical Investigations.)

How can you attack your own convictions? – Somehow attacking your own convictions seems paradoxical, because they are your convictions. But are they (still) your convictions, if you can attack them? Here is a start: Think of the latest good idea that convinced you and try to give a reason for holding it. But now try to do this, not when you’re clear-headed, but rather when you get up at six in the morning, straight away. What I’m after is the difference between what we say on the fly as opposed to what we think we should be saying (i.e. our best version of our argument). This is the way many historians approach, not their own convictions, but the material they study: they take the explicit (badly formed) reasons, and then say what their author should have said but didn’t. (Historians shunning anachronism will then often go with the explicit badly formed reasons, while others opt for the best reasons because they apply the principle of charity.) Now just allow yourself the (bad) reasons you invoked on the fly. You can then imagine how a future historian will dissect your account easily.

Why should we do it? – Now that you have a beginning, you might still ask why such a thing is worth your time. Well, attacking your own convictions is the only way to create headspace for ideas that seem to be in opposition to your own. There are so many ideas that are out of touch with the current status quo that it would seem ridiculous to believe that we – we of all people – would have the best ideas and the best methods of approaching them or putting them to use. Rather than dismissing ideas quickly in the name of progress (= status quo), we should be triangulating for objectivity.*** And this we can do only with attempting to understand those who we consider controversial, outdated or opposed to what we believe. That said, there is yet another reason: Studying the ideas that we reject might uncover the reasons for rejections which, in turn, might uncover ideas that tacitly underpin our beliefs. After all, condemned ideas might become repressed ideas. But that’s for another day.

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* While David Livingstone Smith, for instance, presents substantial criticism against most psychoanalytic traditions, at least a quick browse through the research done at Frankfurt leaves me with the impression that abolishing this kind of work would mean a severe impoverishment of academic psychology.

** The term “embedded history” is reclaimed from the term “embedded journalism” which, though a problematic practice in itself, captures intriguing aspects of the way we are involved when doing history and thinking about ourselves and others.

*** I use “triangulating” as a term of art from Davidson. Here is a lucid passage from his “Rational Animals” (also quoted in Jeff Malpas’ great introduction to the term): “If I were bolted to the earth, I would have no way of determining the distance from me of many objects. I would only know that they were on some line drawn from me towards them. I might interact successfully with objects, but I could have no way of giving content to the question where they were. Not being bolted down, I am free to triangulate. Our sense of objectivity is the consequence of another sort of triangulation, one that requires two creatures. Each interacts with an object, but what gives each the concept of the way things are objectively is the base line formed between the creatures by language. The fact that they share a concept of truth alone makes sense of the claim that they have beliefs, that they are able to assign objects a place in the public world.”

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.

History is about you. On teaching outdated philosophy

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

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

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

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

Condemned Philosophy? Reason and faith in medieval and contemporary thought

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

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

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

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

Solitude standing. How I remain a solipsist (and you probably, too)

“… solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism. The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.” Wittgenstein, TLP 5.64

When was the last time you felt really and wholly understood? If this question is meaningful, then there are such moments. I’d say, it does happen, but very rarely. If things move in a good direction, there is an overlap or some contiguity or a fruitful friction in your conversation. Much of the time, though, I feel misunderstood or I feel that I have misunderstood others. – Starting from such doubts, you could take this view to its extremes and argue that only you understand yourself or, more extreme still, that there is nothing external to your own mind. But I have to admit that I find these extreme brands of solipsism, as often discussed in philosophy, rather boring. They are highly implausible and don’t capture what I think is a crucial idea in solipsism. What I find crucial is the idea that each of us is fundamentally alone. However, it’s important to understand in what sense we are alone. As I see it, I am not alone in the sense that only I know myself or only my mind exists. Rather, I am alone insofar as I am different from others. Solitude, then, is not merely a feeling but also a fact about the way we are.* In what follows, I’d like to suggest reasons for embracing this view and how its acknowledgement might actually make us more social.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater. – In 20th-century philosophy, solipsism has often had a bad name. Solipsism was and is mostly construed as the view that subjective experience is foundational. So you might think that you can only be sure about what’s going on in your own mind. If you hold that view, people will ridicule you as running into a self-defeating position, because subjective states afford no criteria to distinguish between what seems and what is right. Rejecting subjective experience as a foundation for knowledge or theories of linguistic meaning, many people seemed to think it was a bad idea altogether. This led to an expulsion of experience from many fields in philosophy. Yes, it does seem misguided to build knowledge or meaning on subjective experience. But that doesn’t stop experience from playing an important part in our (mental) lives. Let me illustrate this issue a bit more so as to show where I see the problem. Take the word “station”. For the (public) meaning of this word, it doesn’t matter what your personal associations are. You might think of steam trains or find the sound of the word a bit harsh, but arguably nothing of this matters for understanding what the word means. And indeed, it would seem a bit much if my association of steam trains would be a necessary ingredient for mastering the concept or using it in communication. This is a bit like saying: If we want to use the word “station” to arrange a meeting point, it doesn’t matter whether you walk to the station through the village or take the shortcut across the field. And yes, it doesn’t matter for the meaning or success of our use of the word whether you cut across the field.  But hang on! While it doesn’t matter for understanding the use of the word, it does matter for understanding my interlocutor. Thinking of steam trains is different from not thinking of them. Cutting across the field is different from walking through the village. This is a clear way in which the experience of interlocutors matters. Why? Well, because it is different. As speakers, we have a shared understanding of the word “station”; as interlocutors we have different experiences and associations we connect with that word. As I see it, it’s fine to say that experience doesn’t figure in the (public) meaning. But it is problematic to deny that the difference in experience matters.

A typical objection to this point is that private or subjective experience cannot be constitutive for meaning. But this goes only so far. As interlocutors, we are not only interested in understanding the language that someone uses, but also the interlocutor who is using it. This is not an easy task. For understanding language is rooted in grasping sameness across different contexts, while understanding my interlocutor is rooted in acknowledging difference (in using the same words). This is not a point about emphatic privacy or the idea that our experience were to constitute meaning (it doesn’t). It’s a point about how differences can play out in practical interaction. To return to the earlier example “Let’s go to the station” can mean very different things, if one of you wants to go jointly but it turns out you have different routes in mind. So understanding the interlocutor involves not only a parsing of the sentence, but an acknowledgement of the differences in association. It requires acknowledging that we relate different experiences or expectations to this speech act. So while we have a shared understanding of language, we often lack agreement in associations. It is this lack of agreement that can make me vastly different from others. Accordingly, what matters in my understanding of solipsism is not that we have no public language (we do), but that we are alone (to some degree) with our associations and experiences.

Arguably, these differences matter greatly in understanding or misunderstanding others. Let me give an example: Since I started blogging, I can see how often people pick one or two ideas and run. Social media allow you to test this easily. Express an opinion and try to predict whether you’ll find yourself in agreement with at least a fair amount of people. Some of my predictions failed really miserably. But even if predictions are fulfilled, most communication situations lack a certain depth of understanding. Why is this the case? A common response (especially amongst analytically inclined philosophers) is that our communication lacks clarity. If this were true, we should improve our ways of communicating. But if I am right, this doesn’t help. What would help is acknowledging the differences in experience. Accordingly, my kind of solipsism is not saying: Only I know myself. Or: Only my mind exists. Rather it says: I am different (from others).

This “differential solipsism” is clearly related to perspectivism and even standpoint theory. However, in emerging from the acknowledgement of solitude, it has a decidedly existential dimension. If a bit of speculation is in order, I would even say that the tendency to shun solipsism might be rooted in the desire to escape from solitude by denying it. It’s one thing to acknowledge solitude (rooted in difference); it’s another thing to accept the solitary aspects of our (mental) lives. Let’s look more closely how these aspects play out.

Even if philosophers think that experience doesn’t figure in the foundations of knowledge and meaning, it figures greatly in many of our interactions.** We might both claim to like jazz, but if we go to a concert, it might be a disappointment when it turns out that we like it for very different reasons. So you might like the improvisations, while I don’t really care about this aspect, but am keen on the typical sound of a jazz combo. If the concert turns out to feature one but not the other aspect, our differences will result in disagreement.  Likewise, we might disagree about our way to the station, about the ways of eating dinner etc. Now as I see it, the solitude or differences we experience in such moments doesn’t sting because of the differences themselves. What makes such moments painful is rather when we endure and paste over these differences without acknowledging them.

If I am right, then I don’t feel misunderstood because you don’t happen to care about the sound of the combo. I feel misunderstood, because the difference remains unacknowledged. Such a situation can typically spiral into a silly kind of argument about “what really matters”: the sound or the improvisation. But this is just silly: what matters for our mutual understanding is the difference, not one of the two perspectives. In a nutshell: True understanding does not lie in agreement, but in the detailed acknowledgement of disagreement.***

But why, you might ask, should this be right? Why would zooming in on differences in association or experience really amend the situation? The reason might be given in Wittgenstein’s claim that solipsism ultimately coincides with realism. How so? Well, acknowledging the different perspectives should hopefully end the struggle over the question which of the perspectives is more legitimate. Can we decide on the right way to the station? Or on the most salient aspect in a jazz concert? No. What we can do is articulate all the perspectives, acknowledging the reality that each view brings to the fore. (If you like, you can imagine all the people in the world articulating their different experiences, thereby bringing out “everything that is the case.”)

Writing this, I am reminded of a claim Evelina Miteva made in a conversation about writing literature: The more personal the description of events is, the more universal it might turn out to be. While this sounds paradoxical, the realism of differential solipsism makes palpable why this is true. The clear articulation of a unique experience does not block understanding. Quite the contrary: It allows for localising it in opposition to different experiences of the same phenomenon. In all these cases, we might experience solitude through difference, but we will not feel lonely for being invisible.

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* Of course, the title “Solitude standing” is also a nod to the great tune by Suzanne Vega:

** In this sense, degrees of privacy can be cashed out in degrees of intimacy between interlocutors.

*** And once again, I am reminded of Eric Schliesser’s discussion of Liam Brights’s post on subjectivism, hitting the nail on the following head: “Liam’s post (which echoes the loveliest parts of Carnap’s program with a surprisingly Husserlian/Levinasian sensibility) opens the door to a much more humanistic understanding of philosophy. The very point of the enterprise would be to facilitate mutual understanding. From the philosophical analyst’s perspective the point of analysis or conceptual engineering, then, is not getting the concepts right (or to design them for ameliorative and feasible political programs), but to find ways to understand, or enter into, one’s interlocutor life world.”

Must we claim what we say? A quick way of revising essays

When writing papers, students and advanced philosophers alike are often expected to take a position within a debate and to argue for or against a particular claim. But what if we merely wish to explore positions and look for hidden assumptions, rather than defend a claim? Let’s say you look at a debate and then identify an unaddressed but nevertheless important issue, a commitment left implicit in the debate, let’s call it ‘X’. Writing up your findings, the paper might take the shape of a description of that debate plus an identification of the implicit X. But the typical feedback to such an exploration can be discouraging: It’s often pointed out that the thesis could have been more substantive and that a paper written this way is not publishable unless supplemented with an argument for or against X. Such comments all boil down to the same problem: You should have taken a position within the debate you were describing, but you have failed to do so.

But hang on! We’re all learning together, right? So why is it not ok to have one paper do the work of describing and analysing a debate, highlighting, for instance, some unaddressed X, so that another paper may attempt an answer to the questions about X and come up with a position? Why must we all do the same thing and, for instance, defend an answer on top of everything else? Discussing this issue, we* wondered what this dissatisfaction meant and how to react to it. Is it true? Should you always take a position in a debate when writing a paper? Or is there a way of giving more space to other approaches, such as identifying an unaddressed X?

One way of responding to these worries is to dissect and extend the paper model, for instance, by having students try other genres, such as commentaries, annotated translations, reviews, or structured questions. (A number of posts on this blog are devoted to this.) However, for the purposes of this post, we’d like to suggest and illustrate a different idea. We assume that the current paper model (defending a position) does not differ substantially from other genres of scholarly inquiry. Rather, the difference between, say, a commentary or the description of a debate, on the one hand, and the argument for a claim, on the other, is merely a stylistic one. Now our aim is not to present an elaborate defense of this idea, but to try out how this might help in practice.

To test and illustrate the idea (below), we have dug out some papers and rewritten sections of them. Before presenting one sample, let’s provide a brief manual. The idea rests on the, admittedly somewhat contentious, tenets that

  • any description or analysis can be reformulated as a claim,
  • the evidence provided in a description can be dressed up as an argument for the claim.

But how do you go about it? In describing a debate, you typically identify a number of positions. So what if you don’t want to adopt and argue for one of them? There is something to be said for just picking a side anyway, but if that feels too random, here is a different approach:

(a) One thing you can always do is defend a claim about the nature of the disagreement in the debate. Taken this way, the summary of your description or analysis becomes the claim about the nature of the disagreement, while the analysis of the individual positions functions as an argument / evidence for this claim. This is not a cheap trick; it’s just a pointed way of presenting your material.

(b) A second step consists in actually labelling steps as claims, arguments, evaluations etc. Using such words doesn’t change the content, but it signals even to a hasty reader where your crucial steps begin and end.

Let’s now look at a passage from the conclusion of a paper. Please abstract away from the content of discussion. We’re just interested in identifying pertinent steps. Here is the initial text:

“… Thus, I have dedicated this essay to underscoring the importance of this problem. I have first discussed two of the most prominent levels accounts, namely O&P’s layer-cake account, and Craver and Bechtel’s mechanistic levels, and shown that they both provide radically different levels accounts. I addressed the problems with each account, and it became clear that what is considered to be a problem by some, is considered to be a virtue by others. This led us to uncover a deeper disagreement, namely about what the function of a levels account is supposed to be and what the term “level” means.”

Here is the rewritten version (underlined sections indicate more severe changes or additions):

“… But why is this problem significant? I have first discussed two of the most prominent levels accounts, namely O&P’s layer-cake account, and Craver and Bechtel’s mechanistic levels, and shown that they both provide radically different levels accounts. I addressed the problems with each account, and it became clear that what is considered to be a problem by some, is considered to be a virtue by others. This is in keeping with my second-order thesis that the dispute is less about content but rather about defining criteria. However, this raises the question of what to make of levels on any set of criteria. Answering this question led me to defend my main (first-order) thesis: If we look at the different sets of criteria, we uncover a deeper disagreement, namely about what the function of a levels account is supposed to be and what the term “level” means. Accordingly, I claim that disparate accounts of levels indicate different functions of levels.

We consider neither passage a piece of beauty. The point is merely to take some work in progress and see what happens if you follow the two steps suggested above: (a) articulate claims; (b) label items as such. – What can we learn from this small exercise? We think that the contrast between these two versions shows just how big of an impact the manner of presentation can have, not least on the perceived strength of a text. The desired effect would be that a reader can easily identify what is at stake for the author. Content-wise, both versions say the same thing. However, the first version strikes us as a bit detached and descriptive in character, whereas the second version seems more engaged and embracing a position. What used to be a text about a debate has now become a text partaking in a debate.  (Of course, your impressions might differ. So we’d be interested to hear about them!) Another thing we saw confirmed in this exercise is that you always already have a position, because you end up highlighting what matters to you. Having something to say about a debate still amounts a position. Arguably, it’s also worth to be presented as such.

Where do we go from here? Once you have reformulated such a chunk and labelled some of your ideas (say, as first and second order claims etc.), you can rewrite the rest of your text accordingly. Identify these items in the introduction, and clarify which of those items you argue for in the individual sections of your paper, such that they lead up to these final paragraphs. That will probably allow you (and the reader) to highlight the rough argumentative structure of your paper. Once this is established, it will be much easier to polish individual sections.

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*Co-authored by Sabine van Haaren and Martin Lenz

“We don’t need no …” On linguistic inequality

Deviations from so-called standard forms of language (such as the double negative) make you stand out immediately. Try and use double negatives consistently in your university courses or at the next job interview and see how people react. Even if people won’t correct you explicitly, many will do so tacitly. Such features of language function as social markers and evoke pertinent gut reactions. Arguably, this is not only true of grammatical or lexical features, but also of broader stylistic features in writing, speech and even non-linguistic conduct. Some ways of phrasing may sound like heavy boots. Depending on our upbringing, we are familiar with quite different linguistic features. While none of this might be news, it raises crucial questions about teaching that I see rarely addressed. How do we respond to linguistic and stylistic diversity? When we say that certain students “are struggling”, we often mean that they deviate from our stylistic expectations. A common reaction is to impart techniques that help them in conforming to such expectations. But should we perhaps respond by trying to understand the “deviant” style?

Reading the double negative “We don’t need no …”, you might see quite different things: (1) a grammatically incorrect phrase in English; (2) a grammatically correct phrase in English; (3) part of a famous song by Pink Floyd. Assuming that many of us recognise these things, some will want to hasten to add that (2) contradicts (1). A seemingly obvious way to resolve this is to say that reading (1) applies to what is called the standard dialect of English (British English), while (2) applies to some dialects of English (e.g. African-American Vernacular English). This solution prioritises one standard over other “deviant” forms that are deemed incorrect or informal etc. It is obvious that this hierarchy goes hand in hand with social tensions. At German schools and universities, for instance, you can find numerous students and lecturers who hide their dialects or accents. In linguistics, the disadvantages of regional dialect speakers have long been acknowledged. Even if the prescriptive approach has long been challenged, it’s driving much of the implicit culture in education.

But the distinction between standard and deviant forms of language ignores the fact that the latter often come with long-standing rules of their own. Adjusting to the style of your teacher might then require you to deviate from the language of your parents. Thus another solution is to say that there are different English languages. Accordingly, we can acknowledge reading (2) and call African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) a language. The precise status and genealogy is a matter of linguistic controversy. However, the social and political repercussions of this solution come most clearly into view when we consider the public debate about teaching what is called “Ebonics” at school in the 90s (Here is a very instructive video about this debate). If we acknowledge reading (2), it means, mutatis mutandis, that many English speakers raised with AAVE can be considered bilingual. Educators realised that teaching standard forms of English can be aided greatly by using AAVE as the language of instruction. Yet, trying to implement this as a policy at school soon resulted in a debate about a “political correctness exemplar gone out of control” and abandoning the “language of Shakespeare”. The bottom-line is: Non-hierarchical acknowledgement of different standards quickly spirals into defences of the supposed status quo by the dominant social group.

Supposed standards and deviations readily extend to styles of writing and conduct in academic philosophy. We all have a rough idea what a typical lecture looks like, how a discussion goes and how a paper should be structured. Accordingly, attempts at diversification are met with suspicion. Will they be as good as our standards? Won’t they undermine the clarity we have achieved in our styles of reasoning? A more traditional division is that between so-called analytic and continental philosophy. Given the social gut reactions to diversifying linguistic standards, it might not come as a surprise that we find equal responses among philosophers: Shortly before the University of Cambridge awarded a honorary degree to Derrida in 1992, a group of philosophers published an open letter protesting that “Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.” (Eric Schliesser has a succinct analysis of the letter.) Rather than acknowledging that there might be various standards emerging from different traditions, the supposedly dominant standard of clarity is often defended like an eternal Platonic idea.

While it is easy to see and criticise this, it is much more difficult to find a way of dealing with it in the messy real world. My historically minded self has had and has the luxury to engage with a variety of styles without having to pass judgment, at least not explicitly. More importantly, when teaching students I have to strike a balance between acknowledging variety and preparing them for situations in which such acknowledgement won’t be welcome. In other words, I try to teach “the standard”, while trying to show its limits within an array of alternatives. My goal in teaching, then, would not be to drive out “deviant” stylistic features, but to point to various resources required in different contexts. History (of philosophy) clearly helps with that. But the real resources are provided by the students themselves. Ultimately, I would hope, not to teach them how to write, but how to find their own voices within their various backgrounds and learn to gear them towards different purposes.

But to do so, I have to learn, to some degree, the idioms of my students and try to understand the deep structure of their ways of expression. Not as superior, not as inferior, but as resourceful within contexts yet unknown to me. On the other hand, I cannot but also lay open my own reactions and those of the traditions I am part of. – Returning to the fact that language comes with social markers, perhaps one of the most important aspects of teaching is to convey a variety of means to understand and express oneself through language. Our gut reactions run very deep, and what is perceived as linguistic ‘shortcomings’ will move people, one way or another. But there is a double truth: Although we often cannot but go along with our standards, they will very soon be out of date. New standards and styles will emerge. And we, or I should say “I”, will just sound old-fashioned at best. Memento mori.

Cavendish’s Triumvirate and the Writing Process

I’m working through Margaret Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666) at the moment. It’s not the first time (in fact, I taught a course on it after Christmas), but her writing is dense and is neither as systematic as someone like Descartes nor as succinct as someone like Berkeley. But the pay-off is a philosophy rich full of insights that genuinely does seem to be, if not ahead of its time (I don’t want to be accused of anachronism), then idiosyncratic to its immediate historical context in some striking ways. For example, I’m reading Cavendish alongside Keith Allen’s A Naïve Realist Theory of Colour (OUP, 2016), and there are clear signs that she had thought deeply about phenomena such as colour constancy (whereby we take objects to have remained the same colour even though a different coloured light is shining on them) and metamerism (objects with different microphysical qualities that appear to be the same colour) that are central to contemporary perception debates (Colin Chamberlain has written a great article on Cavendish’s atypical philosophy of colour). As far as I am aware, these aren’t issues that her contemporaries (Hobbes, Descartes, Berkeley, et al) were much preoccupied with. And while reading and working through Cavendish’s philosophy is a bit like trying to untangle a charger cable that’s been kept in a box in a drawer too long – each time you think you’ve untangled all the knots another one appears – it tends to be rewarding, even if it is near impossible to pin down exactly what she thinks about any given issue ‘X’.

Perhaps because of the inevitable struggle that comes with defending an interpretation of Cavendish’s philosophy, I’m also thinking a lot about the trials and tribulations of the writing process (it may also be because I have literally nothing else to do). For a long time, I’ve thought that one of the best pieces of writing advice came from Daniel Dennett who, in various platforms (including a keynote he gave here in Dublin last September) has encouraged writers to ‘blurt something out, and then you have something to work with’. I’ve regurgitated this advice to students several times, and it chimes well with me because I find it much easier to shape and mould a pre-existing block of text, than to face the task of squeezing something out of the ether (or my brain – wherever it comes from) and onto the page. Like Leibniz, I prefer a block to chip away from than a Lockean blank page. With that in mind, I’ve started to wonder whether a particular aspect of Cavendish’s metaphysics might provide us with a nice model for the writing process.

Perhaps one of the most interesting, and remarkable, aspects of Cavendish’s system of nature is her claim that all parts of nature contain what she calls a “triumvirate” of matter (note: Cavendish is a materialist, even the mind is composed of material substance in her system). She claims that each and every part of nature is made up of three kinds of matter: (1) rational matter, (2) sensitive matter, and (3) inanimate matter. Even if you could pick out an atomistic unit (although she rejects atomism herself), she thinks, you would find varying degrees of all three kinds of matter. Inanimate matter is matter as we would ordinarily think of it, bulky stuff that weighs the other kinds of matter down and does the important job of filling up space (a job I’ve gotten very good at myself during lockdown). Cavendish compares inanimate matter to the bricks and mortar used to build a house. Continuing this analogy, she suggests that sensitive matter plays the role of the team of builders, moving inanimate matter around and getting it to take up particular shapes and forms. The variety of ways that inanimate matter is put together, she thinks, explains the variety of things in the natural world around us. What’s more, if there were no sensitive matter to move inanimate matter around, she claims, the world would be entirely homogenous. Finally, she compares rational matter to the architect responsible for it all. For the sensitive matter wouldn’t know what to do with all the inanimate matter if it wasn’t told what to do by someone with a plan. In the section of the Observations entitled ‘An Argumental Discourse’ (one of the strangest philosophical dialogues out there, between two ‘halves’ of her own mind who are ‘at war’) she sums up the triumvirate of matter like so:

as in the exstruction of a house there is first required an architect or surveyor, who orders and designs the building, and puts the labourers to work; next the labourers or workmen themselves; and lastly the materials of which the house is built: so the rational part… in the framing of natural effects, is, as it were, the surveyor or architect; the sensitive, the labouring or working part; and the inanimate, the materials: and all these degrees are necessarily required in every composed action of nature.

Observations upon Experimental (Cambridge Texts Edition, edited by Eileen O’Neill (2001)) pp. 24

This is, then, a top-down approach to understanding both orderliness and variety of things in nature. It’s all possible, Cavendish thinks, because there’s an ‘architect’ (the rational part of a thing in nature) that devises a plan and decides what to do the with bulky mass of inanimate matter. (Another note: Cavendish is a vitalist materialist or what we might retrospectively call a panpsychist: she thinks that every part of nature, from grains of sand to plants, animals, and people, has life and knowledge of things in the world around it.)

Right, so how does all this relate to the writing process? I don’t quite know whether this is intended to be a helpful normative suggestion, or just a descriptive claim, but I suggest that Cavendish’s triumvirate might provide a model for thinking about how writing works. In this case, the role of bulky, cumbersome inanimate matter is played by the words on the page you’ve managed to ‘blurt out’, to use Dennett’s technical terminology. Or, perhaps it’s the thoughts/ ideas you’ve still got in your head. Either way, it’s a mass of sentences, propositions, textual references, and so on, that you’ve got to do something with (another tangled charger cable, if you will). What options have you got? Well, structure and presentation are important – and while these are facilitated by your word processor (for example), they constitute a kind of medium between your thought and the words on the page. So I’d suggest that presentation, structure, perhaps even the phrasing of individual sentences, is what plays the role of sensitive matter: Cavendish’s labourers or workmen.

Finally, there’s the role of rational matter: the architect or surveyor who’s plan the sensitive matter is just waiting to carry out. I actually think this may be the hardest comparison to draw. It would be easy to simply say ‘you’ are the architect of your writing, but once you’ve taken away the words/ ideas as well the as the way they are presented or structured, it’s hard to know exactly what’s doing the work or what’s left (just ask Hume). Last year, I saw Anna Burns, author of the brilliant Milkman, give a talk where she was asked about her writing process. Her answer, which in the mouth of another could have sounded pompous or pretentious, was honest and revealing: she had literally nothing to say. She couldn’t explain what the real source of her writing was and, even more remarkably, she wasn’t particularly interested. In any case, there’s something that’s grouping together, or paying selective attention to, some ideas or notions and advocating that they should become a piece of writing. Whatever that is, I suggest it plays the role of rational matter: Cavendish’s architect.

How might this be helpful to writers? I’m not sure it can in any practical way, but I find it helpful when I hit upon a nice description of something I’ve grappled with or when it seems that someone is describing my own experiences (it’s one of the reasons I like reading both philosophy and fiction). Perhaps Cavendish’s triumvirate model can be useful in this way. It may also, and I have begun to think in these terms myself, provide you with a measure of where you are in the writing process. Am I still sourcing the bricks and mortar? Are the labourers at work? Or are they waiting for instructions from the architect? Sometimes, it’s helpful to know where you are, because it lets you take stock of what there is still to do – and, in keeping with Cavendish’s analogy, who’s going to do it.