josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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25 Jan '14 04:49:52 PM

On the Kürnberger motto to the Tractatus

25 Jan '14 07:46:55 AM

'… they had no job stability and did not know whether they would be teaching courses from one semester to the next.'

21 Jan '14 10:01:00 PM

Or, improvisation's place in philosophy.

21 Jan '14 09:53:12 PM

The concept of 'sight reading' is one that's missing from philosophy. Why?

Although you can sight read—meaning, play (or at least hear in your head)—a piece of music you've never seen before, which just means that you don't try to study it extensively before playing it, alone, I think that maybe one reason for the use of the term 'sight reading' as opposed to just 'playing' or 'reading' is its reminder of the sort of situation in which the fact that one has 'just seen' a piece of music is most significant: when there are others there too, and you want to play it together—maybe all for the first time.

Philosophers certainly have their first readings, but in their performances, whether spoken or written, they seem only to face their audiences alone, and prepared to the teeth. They don't play together; they recite, deliver. And if the formality of the setting is the thing, well, I only ever saw a few seminars or reading groups (the latter were always the best) in which people seemed to believe that their performances right then and there mattered, that they had a part to play in their gathering—maybe otherwise not thinking of it as a kind of practice or rehearsal, but more as a conference from which they hoped to steal away with more than they gave. (Since many of the seminar meetings centered around academic papers, one of the least generous genres ever to exist, maybe people felt, resentfully, that they weren't being given much themselves.)

It occurs to me that sometimes I might have been trying to supply instances of this missing concept. Not too long after I defended my dissertation (so, when it was all still live for me), J., P., and I held a panel at our annual state philosophical association conference which was billed as that—a 'panel'—but was actually just a conversation. We met beforehand to talk through some ideas about Wittgenstein, to reassure ourselves that we could sustain a conversation. And then for the session itself, we just sat together at the front of the room—which was awfully packed!—and talked to each other. Once we got going for a while, we brought the audience in, so that everyone could be involved. When we were done, more than one person remarked that it got somewhat hard to follow at times. And more than one person came up smiling, enthusiastic at not having had to be subjected to yet another paper-and-followup-'discussion'.

(We tried to do something similar once after the papers at a Wittgenstein society meeting, about Wittgensteinian pedagogy; it didn't work.)

I taught an aesthetics class in which we often did much the same thing, which I guess you could call 'sight listening': I played some music, and then we talked through it. My impression was often one of eliciting performances from my students, which required in turn that I perform a little: enact a depiction of a person (myself) looking for the words and structures (of sounds and of words) that would help me articulate the things we could hear, or recognize some of the terms in which we could keep having a conversation about more than just the present example.

I often do something similar in any philosophy classroom, but at times in ways which probably strike students as difficult. Mainly because I'll do it without a text, without a score: in preparation for a unit, or a reading, or a discussion of one, I'll try to walk us through the relevant landscape, which I usually think of in quasi-grammatical, quasi-social terms: 'what we say', 'what people think'. Basically, mapping out some concepts. I'm a little allergic, when I do this, to opinion. I would rather multiply examples than line up options for belief, with the idea that doing so might give my students a better idea of where all the things in their readings come from—which is something I personally find mysterious. But I worry this can give them the impression of not being given much. They have opinions, and want to contest with them; or don't, and want to settle on some. My usual belief is that we are where the things in their readings come from, so that when I'm trying to lead this kind of discussion, I'm hoping that they come to see what use they can make of themselves when they do philosophy. I might do better to think of it as a kind of sight reading: where, because there's no text, no score, so that if anything we're 'reading' ourselves (our language), the feeling of being put on the spot is managed somewhat if everyone involved tries to play together, and if it can be acknowledged that we can do without a score (because for this, there isn't one). Or, say, without being ready: because just doing it is how you get ready.

20 Jan '14 02:20:48 AM

We use stones to mark graves.

20 Jan '14 12:46:47 AM

'They conjure and interpellate a more expansive "we".'

19 Jan '14 08:46:42 PM

Not $746,090. Nope.

17 Jan '14 04:08:30 AM

Counting and telling

17 Jan '14 03:38:38 AM

A few days ago I had an idea. I have ideas all the time, but they don't always go anywhere. It's often hard for me to let them play out: you have to have a less clouded mind for that, I think. But for once I had an idea that seems to let me chain several ideas together. I'm not quite there yet, so ever since I've felt peculiarly suspended, in a too-rare but familiar way. I can remember summer days in my office, in different offices, places where I would sit, listen, pace, jot, lay down a paragraph or so at a time in between cautious trips to the cafe or the library or a bench beneath a tree, cautious so as not to lose track of that feeling, of a definite but not yet expressed thought hanging there nearly in front of me, like a cloud of words I could almost feel myself already having said. In this mood, you are seemingly idle: you can't read much, you'd rather not be pulled too far into conversation, you sit quietly a lot, you write maybe a paragraph or two a day, but can't do anything else for several days until you've finished, until you've seen it through.

The feeling aside, often the way I know I have an idea like this is just that I start pacing. I never noticed before that I couldn't really pace in the last two places I lived, but here, I remember: I pace, I am a pacer.