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 On teaching outdated philosophy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 It is this latter approach I want to suggest as a way of reading and teaching what could be called outdated philosophy.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.


* 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.


*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.

Two kinds of philosophy? A response to the “ex philosopher”

Arguably, there are at least two different kinds of philosophy: The first kind is what one might call a spiritual practice, building on exercises or forms of artistic expression and aiming at understanding oneself and others. The second kind is what one might call a theoretical endeavour, building on concepts and arguments and aiming at explaining the world. The first kind is often associated with traditions of mysticism, meditation and therapy; the second is related to theory-building, the formation of schools (scholasticism) and disciplines in the sciences (and humanities). 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 an account of how language relates to the world. However, while both kinds are present in many philosophical works, only the second kind gets recognition in professional academic philosophy. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this lopsided focus might undermine our discipline.

Although I think that these kinds of philosophy are ultimately intertwined, I’d like to begin by trying to make the difference more palpable. Let’s start with a contentious claim: I think that most people are drawn into philosophy by the first kind, that is, by the desire understand themselves, while academic philosophy trains people in the second kind, that is, in handling respectable theories. People enter philosophy with a first-person perspective and leave or become academics through mastering the third-person perspective. By the way, this is why most first-year students embrace subjectivism of all kinds and lecturers regularly profess to be “puzzled” by this. Such situations thrive on misunderstandings: for the most part, students don’t mean to endorse subjectivism as a theory; they simply and rightly think that perspective matters.* Now, this is perhaps all very obvious. But I do think that this transition from the one kind to the other kind could be made more transparent. The problem I see is not the transition itself, but the dismissal of the first kind of philosophy. As I noted earlier, the two kinds of philosophy require one another. We shouldn’t rip the Tractatus apart, to exclude either mysticism or the theory. Whether you are engaging in the first or second kind is more a matter of emphasis. However, interests in gatekeeping and unfounded convictions about what is and what isn’t philosophy often entail practices of exclusion, often with pernicious effects.

Such sentiments were stirred when I read the confessions of an ex philosopher that are currently making the rounds on social media. The piece struck many chords, quite different ones. I thought it was courageous and truthful as well as heart-breaking and enraging. Some have noted that the piece is perhaps more the complacent rant of someone who was never interested in philosophy and fellow philosophers to begin with. Others saw its value in highlighting what might be called a “phenomenology of failure” (as Dirk Koppelberg put it). These takes are not mutually exclusive. It’s not clear to me whether the author had the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy in mind, but it surely does invoke something along these lines:

“Philosophy has always been a very personal affair. Well, not always. When it stopped being a personal affair, it also stopped being enjoyable. It became a performance.

… Somewhat paradoxically, academia made me dumber, by ripening an intellectual passion I loved to engage with into a rotten performance act I had to dread, and that I hurried to wash out of my mind (impossible ambition) when clocking out. Until the clocking out became the norm. Now I honestly do not have insightful opinions about anything — not rarefied philosophical problems nor products nor popular culture nor current events.”

What the author describes is not merely the transition from one approach to another; it is transition plus denial. It’s the result of the professional academic telling off the first-year student for being overly enthusiastically committed to “subjectivism”. While we can sometimes observe this happening in the lecture hall, most of this denial happens within the same person, the supposed adult telling off themselves, that is, the playful child within. No doubt, sometimes such transition is necessary and called for. But the denial can easily kill the initial motivation. – That said, the author also writes that he has “never enjoyed doing philosophy.” It is at this point (and other similar ones) where I am torn between different readings, but according to the reading I am now proposing the “philosophy” he is talking about is a widespread type of academic philosophy.** What he is talking about, then, is that he never had an interest in a kind of philosophy that would deny the initial enthusiasm and turn it into a mere performance.

Now you might say that this is just the course of a (professionalised) life. But I doubt that we should go along with this dismissal too readily. Let me highlight two problems, unfounded gatekeeping and impoverished practices:

  • The gatekeeping has its most recognisable expression in the petulant question “Is this philosophy?” Of course, it depends on who is asking, but the fact that most texts from the mystic tradition or many decidedly literary expressions of philosophy are just ignored bears witness to the ubiquitous exclusion of certain philosophers. It certainly hit Hildegard of Bingen, parts of Nietzsche and bits of Wittgenstein. But if an exaggerated remark is in order, soon anything that doesn’t follow the current style of paper writing will be considered more or less “weird”. In this regard, the recent attempts at “diversifying the canon” often strike me as enraging. Why do we need to make a special case for re-introducing work that is perfectly fine? In any case, the upshot of dismissing the first kind of philosophy is that a lot of philosophy gets excluded, for unconvincing reasons.
  • You might think that such dismissal only concerns certain kinds of content or style. But in addition to excluding certain traditions of philosophy, there is a subtler sort of dismissal at work: As I see it, the denial of philosophy as a (spiritual) practice or a form of life (as Pierre Hadot put it) pushes personal involvement to the fringes. Arguably, this affects all kinds of philosophy. Let me give an example: Scepticism can be seen as a kind of method that allows us to question knowledge claims and eventually advances our knowledge. But it can also be seen as a personal mental state that affects our decisions. As I see it, the methodological approach is strongly continuous with, if not rooted in, the mental state. Of course, sometimes it is important to decouple the two, but a complete dismissal of the personal involvement cuts the method off from its various motivations. Arguably, the dismissal of philosophy as a spiritual (and also political) practice creates a fiction of philosophy. This fiction might be continuous with academic rankings and pseudo-meritocratic beliefs, but it is dissociated from the involvement that motivates all kinds of philosophical exchange.

In view of these problems, I think it is vital keep a balance between what I called two kinds but what is ultimately one encompassing practice. Otherwise we undermine what motivates people to philosophise in the first place.


* Liam Bright has a great post discussing the often lame counterarguments to subjectivism, making the point that I want to make in a different way by saying that the view is more substantial than it is commonly given credit for: “The objection [to subjectivism] imagines a kind of God’s-eye-perspective on truth and launches their attack from there, but the kind of person who is attracted to subjectivism (or for that matter relativism) is almost certainly the kind of person who is suspicious of the idea of such a God’s eye perspective. Seen from within, these objections simply lose their force, they don’t take seriously what the subjectivist is trying to do or say as a philosopher of truth.”

Eric Schliesser provides a brief discussion of Liam’s post, 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.”

** Relatedly, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between philosophy and the performative craft of academic philosophy in his post on “Being good at being good at philosophy”.

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.


* 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.

Philosophical experience. A response to Andrea Sangiacomo

Sometimes I begin a seminar or lecture by just standing or sitting in front of the course and saying nothing. I wait, sometimes for two to five minutes. That’s a long, long time. I sense that the students expect me to say something. Sometimes a student breaks the silence by asking me what’s going on or by inviting me to speak; sometimes I break the silence when I feel that the discomfort is growing. – In any case, I can be sure that in these two minutes there is at least the onset of a shared experience. The students expect me to speak and are either amused or irritated when this expectation is not met. Referring to this experience, I can then talk about the deeply ingrained expectations, roles, norms and what have you. Moreover, I can be fairly sure that the students will connect the experience to what is said. Often they will participate more actively in the seminar. Depending on how such experience is conceptualised, it gains the status of evidence, illustration or even of the content of discussion. I think that such experiences can crucially enrich philosophical activity. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we should integrate such experiences more systematically into philosophical work.*

Let’s begin by looking at some kinds of experiences that figure in philosophical exchange. When you say or write something, you (hopefully) get a response: nine times out of ten that response will take the form of an objection to what you say. If this is correct, the typical experience in current philosophical discourse is the exchange of claims and objections. While this practice gets us some of the way, it strikes me as a very limited use of the resources we actually have. To be sure, we use a few more things to stimulate our imagination: we draw on thought experiments, examples, analogies, formal methods and such like. But except for formal methods, we pay fairly little attention to the way these ‘tools’ work. What do I mean by this? – Well, if you reconstruct an argument by rendering it in a formal code, you engage in a sort of translation: in writing “if p, then q” you turn a sequence of sentences into sequence of symbols. This is a practice that has to be learned. Once you are familiar with it, it widens your resources of thinking. It enables a shift of focus (for instance on truth-values), a number of decisions (what sort of conditional is this?), and it stimulates your imagination, since you literally have to play around with the sequence. Depending on your goals, some translations will be more adequate or helpful than others. This practice is enormously helpful in various ways and has developed into a clear component of philosophical education. The same is true of the growing education in statistical reasoning. Arguably, such conventions afford us certain ways of making (highly cultivated) philosophical experiences. Once established, they turn into resources of handling ideas and arguments that enable us to move around and redirect our focus. (As I pointed out earlier, this thrives on forms of alienation.)

However, far less, if any, attention is given to other forms of thinking and cultivating attention. We spend far less time analysing or applying examples, analogies, translations into other languages, the use of pictures and drawings, forms of literature, film, theatre, music and other arts. I think this is an enormous loss. If we look at the history of sciences such as biology, it is clear that forms of representation, not least artistic representation, provided enormous boosts. Painting things larger than life, as it were, turned our attention to unregarded details. Why should that not be true of philosophy? The idea, for instance, that our moral reasonings could have developed independently of inventions by novelists strikes me as absurd. But if this is even remotely correct, then why don’t we pay more attention to the interaction between literary experience and philosophical intuitions? Why should we assume that Iris Murdoch’s Black Prince does not afford us with philosophically relevant experiences? We don’t necessarily have to become novelists ourselves, but the transformation of such experience into other forms of thought and vice versa strikes me as both vital and wholly underestimated. How, then, can such resources figure in our philosophical experience?

Perhaps you have already asked yourself now and then why at least the first chapters of Descartes’ Meditations are such a widely and persistently appreciated text. Why does it speak even to first-year students in such a direct way that other works never will? Let me give you a hint: it’s not the structure of the arguments; neither is its philosophical content. It is because it is a meditation. In a series of posts, Andrea Sangiacomo recently reminded us of this fact and also of the fact that we never really pay attention to the form. The point is that Descartes directly appeals to our experience and guides us, by example, through an experiential journey in which we focus on certain modes of perception and on blocking them. You can read the text as a series of arguments, but you can also do what Descartes insinuates: experience what he suggests. Arguably, it is this latter feature that speaks to people directly in that they don’t need anything but their means of perceiving and thinking to play along.

You might object that the appeal to experience is somehow “not philosophy”. At least, it is this estimation that often blocks the inclusion of other approaches and indeed of whole traditions. According to Kristie Dotson, our philosophising is driven by a “culture of justification” that excludes appeals to other forms of philosophy, relying on other practices or lived experiences. But in fact we don’t even need to leave the so-called western tradition to encounter such appeals. Wishing to introduce a concept, we often help ourselves to examples. If you want to talk about illusions, for instance, there is a number of stock examples ready. Most of us are familiar with optical illusions, such as the stick appearing bent in the water or the Müller-Lyer illusion. Such examples are often invoked in discussions of perception and can help demonstrate various aspects. Sometimes they are invoked as a mere illustration, sometimes as evidence for a claim, sometimes they are a topic in their own right, for instance, when we ask how and under what conditions they arise. What is rarely noted, however, is that exposure to such and other examples might constitute a philosophical experience. Presented with an example, we step out of the verbal exchange and consider an image or a scene. Even if this experience is guided by concepts and explanations, it is not wholly determined by them. It gives rise to sensations that are deeply linked with other experiences. It connects with all sorts of things, sensations, intuitions, feelings etc. and might trigger way more or other sensations and associations than expected. Arguably, it is the exposure to the experience of the illusion that triggers new lines of arguments.

Likewise, if we pay attention to certain strands especially in the analytic tradition, the use and handling of examples and thought experiments is a guiding feature. Just re-read some classics: Frege, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Davidson, Millikan, to name a few. For once, don’t pay attention to their arguments but to the wonderfully crafted examples and imaginations that inform their writings. You will soon find that much of the convictions they leave us with depend on the strength of these examples. Far more than mere illustrations, they often carry the burden of argument. But they function so well because our imagination does a large part of the work. This is why they often form the outset of whole traditions of exchanges.

In the light of such traditions, it strikes me as an enormous impoverishment if the experiential reflexes we train others to respond with reduce to disagreement. Arguably, it is not disagreement but wonder that keeps philosophy going.


* In her latest post, Helen De Cruz kindly picked up on the idea: “I’m inclined to an expansive conception of philosophy where images, aphorisms, music, poetry, can all be part of philosophical conversation. … I do wonder whether there would be room for a journal that explicitly makes room for more wondrous philosophy–philosophy that is high in innovative content but low(er) in rigor, a journal of cool, exciting half-baked ideas of sorts. I don’t think there is such a journal yet.”

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.


* 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.

Have I been harassed? – Interpreting events through (fictional) texts

Having written a number of blog posts about interaction in academia, I recently began to wonder whether I should try out a different mode of writing. Examples and illustrations often help anyway. So why not extend these examples and use fictional scenes to get my point across? To tinker with the genre a bit I wrote a small sketch and shared it on facebook.* The responses were at once shocking and intriguing. They show that interpretations of texts (and described events) can be vastly different. Now, that in itself is probably not newsworthy. But what I find intriguing is that they shed some light on the fragility of authorship and on how this fragility might affect and alter interpretations of events. So much so that I now wonder whether I should see myself as a victim of harassment. In what follows, I’ll (1) present what I shared on facebook and briefly summarise some of the responses. (2) Then I say how I had come to write the sketch and what I had intended. I know that the reading intended by the author is just one possible reading. But the reactions make me wonder whether other readers might be in a better position to understand the events. So here goes.

(1) On facebook, I wrote the following:

Dear Hivemind,

I have a sort of interpretational request. Please read the following fictional sketch and let me know what comes to mind, be it a view of the situation, a feeling of what’s going on or something that is triggered in you, an association, whatever. You can just write a single word or phrase in the comments or be more elaborate. Many thanks in advance!

Standing by

She knew she shouldn’t have come. But now it was too late for her to change her mind. In fact, it was getting late and the afternoon wore on, but there she was, stuck in his office and in a flow of words that was whirling around her head. He kept repeating himself and the repetition made his proposal sound friendly, even funny.

Later that evening when she remembered the episode she hated herself, again. Why had she not just left the office? It would have been easy to fabricate an excuse, and he didn’t really seem to care anyway. As it was, she had agreed to help him, just to get away. Now she was stuck in a project that no one seemed to want, she didn’t anyway.

The responses to this sketch were quite different. The first tinkered with the genres and really made laugh. Most but not all suggest an academic setting. It’s clear that someone feels pressured into something undesired. A swapping of pronouns is suggested for a possible change of effects. One reading insiuates that we might be looking at an only “vaguely fictionalised account”. All of them strike me as careful readings, but there is a clearly dominant trend: Most people seem to read the scene as sexually charged or as one of (sexual) harassment. At least up until the last line: the word “project” seems to upset the sexual interpretation.

(2) Reading the responses, I thought it will be interesting to contrast them with how the story originated. Why? Not least because it allows for a comparison between the author’s intention and the dominant interpretation. So how did I come up with the sketch? – I wanted to capture a typical situation in academia: a regretful self-assessment of a situation in which we feel pressured into agreeing to something (of which neither our supervisor nor we might be really convinced). Although my time as a graduate student lies in the distant past, I remember some situations rather vividly.

So what was the material I drew on? I remembered a number of situations in which I sat in the office of my supervisor and listened to him detailing various ideas, sometimes repeating himself, either because he had forgotten about telling me earlier or for added emphasis. Sometimes he would come up with the suggestion that I might take on a certain task in a project that had some more or less direct relation to my own work. – I hasten to add that I have very fond memories of the discussions with my supervisor and think of the process with much pleasure. Moreover, the sketch does not draw on one particular situation; it’s rather coming out of a jumble of memories of several situations with him and other people. Yet, I also think that it can’t do harm to detail situations that, with hindsight, present us with what is called teachable moments. Remembering such situations, it didn’t take me long to write the above sketch. Looking at it again, I suddenly wondered what would happen if I used female pronouns for myself. Initially, I was pleased with the idea because, to my mind, it seemed to abstract away further from my situation and helped focus on the two things I wanted to capture: feeling pressured into a project, and the regret.

After reading the reactions, I notice a number of things. Although I know what I intended to say, I don’t think the deviating interpretations are wrong. Far from it, they construe the situation differently and make me wonder whether I should re-evaluate my experience. That said, I don’t think I have been harassed, certainly not intentionally. In fact, it took me quite while to even see how the sketch presents evidence for (sexual) harassment. Fortunately, the respondents took great care to argue for their readings. And at moments, their readings strike me as more plausible than my own. They highlighted a number of aspects that I didn’t notice myself, let alone intend to say, but that are still recognisable as features of the situation. The change of pronouns also hightens the creepiness that seems to figure in some of the interaction. Am I perhaps even gaslighting my former self? Being the author, then, does not make me the judge of interpretations or immunise my own reading against amendment by others. My intended take is but one reading. And in theory I could even give up on my own take. (Arguably, certain mental states might be indeterminate, such that we can’t say we are definitely in one state or have one thought rather than another.) Still, it takes some time to get used to the idea that others simply don’t read your stuff in the way you initially intended it. Yet while I agree that the description of the situation remains ambiguous, I know that I would not have called this behaviour harassment, neither at the time nor today.

But still, I wonder what to make of this kind of situation. The lesson I draw is that, clearly, the power imbalance between supervisor and student should not be underestimated. I am fairly sure that my supervisor thought that he would not pressure me into anything; he enjoyed chatting about ideas and wanted to pass on a task that occurred to him should be delegated. But while the set-up would have allowed me to refuse the task, my hierarchical inferiority facilitated the assumption that the refusal would have come at a price (that I didn’t want to pay). That might have been a false assumption, and perhaps that inferiority should not serve as an excuse for inaction or lack of honesty.

Yet, I tend to think that I would have been more at ease and in a position to refuse, had my supervisor done more to make clear that he didn’t see me under the (tacit) obligation to accept his ‘offer’. Perhaps. Perhaps not. On the other hand, I am well aware that he was raised in a culture in which is his behaviour would go through as entirely ‘normal’. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that he could have seeen his own conduct as an improvement over that of his former supervisors. On yet another hand, I also think we should be cautious when passing judgment on events that have ambiguous features. In the sketch, my self-assessment is dominated by regret over accepting a task. But as I see it, the pressure I felt was less founded in the actions of my supervisor than in the hierarchical structure. And as we all know the structures that not only surround but also carry us can become almost invisible, especially to those in a superior position.

In any case, it can’t do much harm to try harder and put ourselves into the shoes of others. Then again, it’s equally helpful to re-situate our stories in entirely different contexts. After all, the sketch can also be read as a snippet from a crime novel.


* Many thanks to my (facebook) friends for chiming in, especially (in the order of appearance): Mariya Ivancheva, Naomi Osorio, Sara Uckelman, Maurice Nette, Michael Morris, Linda Ham, Anita van der Bos, Charles Wolfe, and Lucy Nicolls.