My God man, drilling holes in his head is not the answer…

I survived my second day in Philosophy 105 class yesterday. Given that I’m a weird teacher/student hybrid I thought it appropriate to introduce myself off the top, and I led with a story anchored in a scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where, after time travelling back to 1986, Bones is yelling at a 1986 doctor about his barbaric practice of medicine.

What I failed to factor in was that most of the students in the class were born after 1986, so had no idea what I was talking about. Relatively speaking it was as if, when I was in college in 1986, someone attempted to make a point by referencing Lilies of the Field from 1963.

So, note to self: ensure all future pop culture references are contemporary.

My other realization yesterday was that I remember absolutely nothing about science or history. I had no recall, except in the vaguest terms, of what quantum mechanics is, or heliocentric vs. geocentric, or what Einstein’s theory’s were revolutionary. Part of this is simply because of the passage of time. But, to be honest, I can’t ever remember a day when I could understand and explain concepts like this clearly. So perhaps I am just a dullard.

On the philosophy side, I’m finding the language of the discipline almost impenetrable. Here’s a snippet from one of the suggested readings for the course:

With this sketch of practical reasoning we can come to closer grips with what sorts of things admit of change. Let us begin with health and the claim that the physician has an account of health. It is health that is the cause of the steps in the practical reasoning because it explains what is to be done. In what way does health admit of change? One possibility is that what constitutes health is not invariable; thus the account of health would not be invariable. While it seems unlikely that health is variable in this sense, what obviously admits of change is whether health exists in this particular case or not. If health does not exist in this case, it is up to medicine to restore it.

I’m vacillating between thinking I’m stupid because I can’t parse sentences like that in a way that squeezes any meaning or relevance out of them, and thinking that philosophers are stupid because they can’t talk like regular everyday people. Surely these concepts are not so otherworldly as to necessitate phrases like “admit of change.” Or perhaps they are.

Tomorrow we attack 20th century technological revolutions.


Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on January 8, 2009 - 19:36

I hated philosophy for the same reason — people write about it in code. They love to make it a “science”.

But if you read the great texts it is more clear — I have a couple of great cheat books at home and will email you their titles when I return

You will amaze your fellow students with your erudition having read them

L.'s picture
L. on January 8, 2009 - 20:47

How about sharing the titles with the whole group?

Fussner's picture
Fussner on January 8, 2009 - 21:55

Had the same problem in a class I instruct. Had to stop using Star Trek references and jokes a couple of years ago ‘cause I was the only one that thought they were funny — none of the students knew what I was talking about. Kind of a sad moment for me.


oliver's picture
oliver on January 9, 2009 - 14:11

Yeah, I’ve resorted to that Stanford encyclopedia a few times and been shocked by how obtuse it was. I don’t think it’s you, and I’ve wondered before who writes those things (graduate students maybe). At least it’s free, which I guess is why it’s your assigned text. I think you’re probably especially vulnerable to shocks if all you’ve been reading for awhile, like most of the general public, are texts written for people not obliged to read them.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 9, 2009 - 14:40

About your Stark Trek IV reference being too old for them, couldn’t it just be that university types don’t watch movies with “IV” in their titles? Anyway, they had to be familiar with the time-shifted person-from-the-future scenario, so your analogy can’t have been a total waste. You may have walked away with more street cred than if you’d cited “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Since people only switched to DVDs in the 90’s and some are already on to Blue Ray, it may be going out on a limb to reference anything made before 1997.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 9, 2009 - 15:02

Most disciplines are full of jargon and specialized terminology. Philosophy is no different than say, computer science or biology in this regard. Not to say that language has to be obscure, but some of this stuff is inevitable.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 9, 2009 - 16:52

I tend to think jargon and specialized terminology, while often explained away as “necessary shorthand,” simply reflects laziness.

Alan's picture
Alan on January 9, 2009 - 18:27

Remember, though, that this quoted passage is not jargon or specialize terminology but a form of logic in the sense that it is an expression of mathematical reasoning. It is just a formula of progressing through an idea displayed in text. That is different from specialized terminology which reflects special knowledge, as with law or medicine. With respect, Rob, neither of these things are code. To call it that is to be merely dismissive of that which one do not easily grasp. It is not laziness, just exactitude. Do not dissuade Peter to quickly from his task. ;-)

Peter, expect to find the same sort of mathematical language structures when you read the great books as well as you will find the same thing in writings from Plato to Aquinas to Descartes to Kant. It is the nature of the beast and you should approach it with the comfort of knowing you unknowing it is as much about learning the structures of the use of words as the substance conveyed by those words. In other words, don’t give up learning French because you have not yet learned to purse your lips in a way that makes it sound unsilly.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 9, 2009 - 18:58

Peter, I know you believe that your lectures on computer technology are transparent and accessible to the masses, but realistically, they aren’t. Most people who write philosophical texts are also trying to be transparent. Laziness is a two way street buster.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 9, 2009 - 19:30

@Alan — good points, @Marian — use of word “buster” is not allow here.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 9, 2009 - 19:49

What I mean is your lectures on computer technology aren’t transparent and accessible to the masses *without some work*.

One thing that *would* make university accessible to the masses is if it were provided free of charge.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 9, 2009 - 20:00

Oh, sorry I meant to say BUB.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 9, 2009 - 20:10

@Marian Bub is much better.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 10, 2009 - 05:28

I don’t think it makes sense to say this text is mathematical reasoning. It’s logical, but it’s also stilted and repetitive. Need it be stilted and repetitive to be logical? I’m not sure. It’s more like ballet or square dancing than like math or speaking another language. Like dancing is moving for another reason than the usual, philosophy is putting words together for another reason than the usual. I prefer the usual. Usually, at least.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 10, 2009 - 05:29


Alan's picture
Alan on January 10, 2009 - 06:02

Try to replicate your elementary school math without looking stilted and repetitive. It’s math. But if you have no interesting in anything other than the usual that is up to you.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 10, 2009 - 06:15

Exactitude doesn’t by itself make a text accessible or user friendly. A novel that talked about “Joe” on page 3 and not again until page 300—invoking him only as “Joe” even while depending on you remembering that he’s Mary’s first husband—wouldn’t be math or a foreign language. It would just be bad writing. The fewer the road signs the more astute you have to be to sense where a text is taking you. When everybody’s worried about how smart everybody is, you get authors writing cryptically both to appear smart and so as not to appear to be insulting the intellects of their very smartest readers, who of course they are concerned about above all. It works the same in physics, where you frequently run into phrases like “it is left as a fun exercise to the reader to show…” and “as follows trivially from equation 3…”, which are probably the inspiration for the famous cartoon of the professor at a blackboard covered with equations except for one break where it says “then a miracle occurs” (i.e. nobody looks at equation 4 and thinks “fun!” or sees how it follows from equation 3). It’s nerd machismo is what it is. “Bad writing” makes it sound like an accident.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 10, 2009 - 07:17

Actually I don’t want to call it just “machismo.” There’s also some courtesy and economy in providing few reminders and sign-posts. Doing so does save the cleverer readers time, plus it saves on paper, ink and screen space. I just really dislike being confused or baffled by what I’m reading, so of course it seems crucial to me that writers avoid doing that. I guess I could forgive writers less easily peeved than me (than I?) for prioritizing differently.

Alan's picture
Alan on January 10, 2009 - 19:46

…I just really dislike being confused or baffled by what I’m reading, so of course it seems crucial to me that writers avoid doing that…

That both assumes you are not the problem and also presents the writer with the impossible task of making everyone happy despite the inconceivably huge variety of personalities and experiences readers bring to the work. A person far cleverer than I told me that it is a good practice to read anything serious five times before you should expect to have any grasp of it.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 11, 2009 - 17:31

@Alan, yes, I was confessing and questioning that assumption. I do think it’s right in some sense or to some degree, but not for all writing—maybe not for what you call “serious” writing, for example. Still, more writing may be serious than really needs to be. You shouldn’t have to read the instructions on a fire extinguisher five times to understand them, for example, and you want sixth graders as well as trained fire fighters to understand. Likewise, you may want to educate the populace about how and why a newly proposed policy will affect and ought to interest them even when there’s no obvious fire and few will feel feel driven to read you five times. Also note that most writing style conventions predate the Web and the free and easy access it gives vast numbers and all kinds of people to texts that once would have been read only by a select few.

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