Interview by Richard Marshall
'We claim that a goodly segment of the public is offended and harmed by today’s public sculpture. We think these harms are akin in structure, though perhaps not in degree, to the harms said to be caused by the public display of pornography. Merely seeing pornographic depictions of events offends many people; likewise, a good deal of today’s public sculpture offends the public eye—witness the letters, petitions, litigation and vandalism directed against this art in public. The public display of pornography is also claimed to have a negative effect on some people when they reflect upon it. If one is a woman, one is humiliated by the depiction of women as simply objects of lust. Analogously, viewing public sculpture and finding it ugly or silly or simply commonplace, the average person’s eye and mind are brought into conflict with the judgement of the aesthetic and political authorities. The citizen is likely to feel either aesthetically incompetent or the butt of a joke played at his or her expense.'
'A poem is good once and for all. Linguistic and cultural changes do occur. But you should not argue from the latter truth to the falsity of the former. If you do, you are ignoring the character of the medium of poetry, and thereby assuming this: before and after these linguistic and cultural changes take place, we are dealing with the same work. There is no such constant work. Cases of linguistic and cultural change are not evidence of the fluctuating quality of a poem. They are evidence of the unstable medium of poetry.'
' Ziff published mainly in the areas of philosophy of language, philosophy of art, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics, but also had articles in philosophy of religion and about Wittgenstein’s views. He has essays on the feelings of robots, defining art, evaluating art, ungrammaticality, behaviorism, the other minds problem, the existence of God, the number of English sentences, understanding, the logical structure of English sentences, differences between formal and natural languages, what we know call generics, seeing things, antiart, creativity, appreciating dance, reference to things that don’t exist, and more.'
'There are about twenty different approaches or solutions to the grue problem in the literature. Goodman pins his hopes on entrenched predicates, some appeal to natural kinds, others to a simplicity criterion, yet others appeal to real properties, or a counterfactual condition on inductive reasoning, some go Bayesian for a solution, and so on. Each year, journals appear with papers on the topic. There is no consensus solution, majority opinion, received answer or textbook solution. There hasn’t even been total agreement on what the problem amounts to.'
Douglas Stalker is a philosopher of science, epistemology, aesthetics, and logic. This is the second part of his interview (part 1 here) where he discusses the philosophy of art, how not to write about art, why asking about the value of art is the central question for philosophy of art rather than defining it, the obscure genius Paul Ziff, Grue issues, best ever students and what to do with retirement.
3:16: Your work in aesthetics and art criticism seems to be working in the same ball park as your critiques of pseudo-science. For example, you’ve written about the harmfulness of public sculpture on the grounds that the rhetoric supporting it is about public well-being and enhancement whereas it actually does nothing of the kind. As you yourself say, there’s a danger of you being misunderstood over this: it might seem like you’re attacking contemporary art and sculpture , but you’re not, are you? So can you lay out your argument which claims that the harms caused by public sculpture—and by extension much public art—is akin in structure though not in degree—to the harms of the public display of pornography?
Douglas Stalker: To my mind, the fundamental problem in the philosophy of art can be expressed in a straightforward question: “What is the value of art?” This is not simply a question about some ivory tower concern. There is a widely shared presumption in our country, if not most countries, that art---indeed fine art—is valuable. This presumption has practical consequences, as practical as dollars and cents. One part of this larger question shows up in the value of contemporary sculpture in public places. For example, the artist Carl Andre placed 36 boulders in rows on a lawn in Hartford, CT, paid for by the city. Andre called it “Stone Field Sculpture”. What is the justification for financing and placing these sorts of contemporary works in public spaces?
Clark Glymour and I published a paper about this, “The Malignant Object” in the now defunct journal The Public Interest. The journal made it into a symposium in print by having responses from art critics, administrators, and other members of the artistic community. It has been anthologized five or six times since, and occasions the odd call from newspaper reporters whenever the topic comes to the fore. Once a New York Times reporter called me about a tiff about public sculpture in New York, and he kept pushing me for a new quote, something new, not something from the old article. Well, I told him, so many years have passed since we wrote the article that I only recalled its general line of argument, and anyway we said it best in the article, so he had best read it and use it. He maintained that he needed a new quote. I hung up on him. If people won’t take the time to read what you have published when they feign interest in the subject, what can you say?
Our thesis is that much public sculpture, as it is nowadays executed in the U.S., provides at best trivial benefits to the public, but does provide substantial harms. The outright aesthetic benefits to the people are few and thin. The circumstantial evidence in support of this claim comes from various reactions to contemporary sculpture in public: e.g., letters, petitions, litigation, and vandalism. This evidence, of course, is indirect and impressionistic, but there is no other evidence to be had at present, one way or the other. Many artists and critics claim that contemporary sculpture provides more than aesthetic benefits: viz., intellectual, pedagogical, or economic ones. Though the work might not please your eye, it might please your mind or your wallet. The claims about economic benefits regularly ignore opportunity costs, the other things that might have been done and produced greater economic benefits. Most claims about lessons you might derive from a work are trivial things that a small sign could have delivered better and cheaper.
The claims about works expressing serious and interesting ideas are, well, where this topic aligns with my work in debunking pseudo-sciences. For example, the late sculptor and critic Robert Smithson claimed that certain works in the leaning girder style were actually research into a cosmos modeled after Einstein (that is a quote). This is somewhere between unlikely and silly. What is a cosmos modeled after Einstein? A cosmos modeled after some solution to the field equations of general relativity? Which solution, of the infinity of them, and why that one? I wonder if Smithson knows anything about relativity theory---indeed, whether he could tell a partial differential equation from a carrot? This sort of claim is all the rage with art critics these days. Countless critics spend their time fumbling with physics and philosophy in an attempt to argue that today’s art contains important ideas.
This type of art criticism is not serious, though it may sound deep to the untutored. While I was in Chicago, the local art newspaper, The New Art Examiner, carried a long article on a painter’s abstract works they interpreted as expressing the very same propositions as Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. They subsequently published a snappy letter from me about the matter. It came with an enclosure, a copy of an article about the Tractatus by my grad school professor Jay Rosenberg. The inner circle of established Chicago painters invited me to one of their monthly gatherings to confront the artist in question. I soon learned that the best approach was to smile a lot and drink their beer, since they really didn’t have a clue about Wittgenstein’s work. It just sounded good to them, on the order of prose poetry.
Back at Delaware, I added this pseudo-intellectual art chatter to the list of topics in my Clear Thinking course. I dubbed it Turkey Talk, which upon examination turned out to be either trivially true, flat out false, or meaningless --though it sounded oh so profound. One of my students, an artist himself, drew a fat turkey smoking a pipe while typing away at a typewriter, which became the central figure on my very official-looking Turkey Talk Award, with had a bordered area for the recipient’s name. I had a copy center run off hundreds of these award certificates, and have awarded them to a professor at my own university as well as glossy art magazines like Artforum—for its many years of gobbling away about art. The one I awarded at DE was for an honors course description whose opening sentence was pure Turkey Talk. The lead sentence was this: Art is the enchantment of transformation. When you permute the words in this sentence, all the variations seem on a par as far as sense.
The chairman of the offended faculty member denounced me at length in writing to the President, Provost, and Associate Provost of the university as well as the Dean of my college, my chair, and the Director of the Honors Program, who was the philosophy chair who hired me. The offended eminence also threatened to sue me for something or other—he claimed he kept an attorney on a retainer-- and have me dismissed from my job. I guess the petition that came with the award, signed, voluntarily, by 231 students in my class, might have had something to do with his reaction.
[Image: D Stalker: 'He Wakes to Some Immodest Taboo']
The thesis of our paper has two parts, one about benefits and one about harms. We claim that a goodly segment of the public is offended and harmed by today’s public sculpture. We think these harms are akin in structure, though perhaps not in degree, to the harms said to be caused by the public display of pornography. Merely seeing pornographic depictions of events offends many people; likewise, a good deal of today’s public sculpture offends the public eye—witness the letters, petitions, litigation and vandalism directed against this art in public. The public display of pornography is also claimed to have a negative effect on some people when they reflect upon it. If one is a woman, one is humiliated by the depiction of women as simply objects of lust. Analogously, viewing public sculpture and finding it ugly or silly or simply commonplace, the average person’s eye and mind are brought into conflict with the judgement of the aesthetic and political authorities. The citizen is likely to feel either aesthetically incompetent or the butt of a joke played at his or her expense.
The public display of pornography is also thought to promote sex crimes and to cause as well as sustain the repression of women and the discrimination against them. The public display of pornography, it seems reasonable to expect, contributes to the erosion of taboos against immodesty and public sexuality in various forms, and thus to cause society to evolve in a way inimical to the interests of those who prefer a society in which its members confine their eroticism to private circumstances. This sort of thing also happens with today’s public sculpture because the public display of contemporary sculpture begets more of the same. It does so by way of artistic influence and by influencing the tastes of the young. Everyone has an interest in society developing in such a way that his or her sensibilities are not everywhere outraged, and much of today’s public sculpture acts against that interest. Finally, the harms associated with public art are repeated and repeated. Citizens can only escape by moving their homes, changing where they work, altering their normal activities, or cultivating indifference. In our view the harms done by the public display of contemporary sculpture far outweigh the benefit such displays afford to a certain segment of the public, chiefly the benefit of seeing this art without having to visit a museum or art park.
This is a cost/benefit argument about the public display of a certain type of art. It is not an argument against contemporary art and a defense of some other kind of art. Though we explicitly warn against this misreading, an art critic from Time magazine saw our paper in just this way. Our reasoning does not depend on whether contemporary art is generally good or bad art. Our paper does not denigrate contemporary art, but it does denigrate certain accounts of the value of that art. The truth is that I like many of the contemporary works that we mention; I am a fan of lots of contemporary art. Clark, however, is not. Pieces of contemporary sculpture sat on the few plots of grass around the Chicago Circle campus. Clark wanted to form a protest group known as the Aesthetic Avengers, and take hand tools to the works. When suasion would fail on our walks through campus, physical restraint prevailed.
3:16: It seems that an important strand of your thinking about people who defend contemporary art is that they often suffer from the kinds of confusions, bullshit, and pseudo-thinking that afflicts pseudo-scientific thinking. Is that right? Can you give examples of what you are targeting here? Paul Ziff used to say that when it comes to writing about the arts, academics—including philosophers—tend to produce “nonsense on stilts”. You both created the academic Arthur K. Andasill to illustrate this thesis.
DS : I could give as many examples of Turkey talk about the arts as you have time for. I have taken to collecting examples that come my way; I am, you might say, a curator of all things conceptually pathological. You can spot examples easily enough if you open the pages of glossy art magazines and flashy books that aim to explain the wonders of some school of today’s art. You can find examples about painting, film, literature, you name the art form. They are distinguished by the kind of value they claim for this art—always more than artistic ones, most often intellectual value-- and the bad reasoning they use to support such claims. The latter point is where they overlap with the pseudo-sciences at times.
Both the pseudo-scientists and the art community are generally all thumbs when it comes to supporting their claims, out of their depth without knowing it. I discuss an odd convergence of the two in my paper “Rhyme Without Reason”. Before I go into that, let me tell you about Arthur K. Andasill. Ziff originally came up with the name to answer a question students would ask in his undergraduate philosophy of art class when he was talking about good paintings. Invariably a student would chime in with “Who’s to say?” So Ziff started to reply with “Arthur K, Andasill, that’s who.” When I was a visiting professor at Chapel Hill in 1983, I was living at Ziff’s house and so we had lots of time for talking about philosophy. Somehow Arthur came up and I suggested that he really needed a position and a publication; we had just finished a co-authored paper, so what was one more? The position was easy enough; you just make it up, in this case professor at the Institute Du Pre in Montreal. We entitled the paper “Aesthetic Presence.” I brought home a stack of continental philosophy books by people like Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Dufrenne, which we consulted higgledy piggledy when we needed a quote. We were helped along by frequent glasses of cream sherry.
The paper was full of sentences that neither of us would touch with a stick. A work of art was “the embodiment of an expressive gesture emanating from the creativity of the noumenal states” of the artist. Artists were truly philosophers because they encountered themselves when they confronted their work in an I-self interaction, and then we would throw in a quote from across the waters. Aesthetic presence, according to Andasill, was “a potential rooted a-priori in the perceiving subject”. Why? Because it involves an I-self encounter wherein the self or selves“ ground the relation in both an objective and subjective a-prioricity.” After a while, Ziff exclaimed that the paper was making sense to him, and I had to caution him about flights of fancy. I submitted the paper to three or four journals who will remain nameless. Arthur, using my home address because he was on leave from the Institute in Montreal, received perfectly serious rejection letters, sometimes with comments—one referee thought Andasill made some good points but needed to read more Dufrenne.
Submitting the requisite copies and cover letter gets old, as any publishing philosopher knows, certainly back in the day of regular mail and print copies. I stopped submitting, but am confident that if I had persisted, Arthur would be in print. After all, it was the same sort of nonsense that we had seen in print year after year, certainly in the more artsy places. Since I still have copies, I might try to place Andasill’s eternal verities, his nonsense on stilts. I learned the phrase “nonsense on stilts” from Paul Ziff, who learned it from reading the collected works of Jeremy Bentham. Around the same time, I was asked by a literary quarterly to write a review article on an award-winning didactic poem by James Merrill, an award-winning poet for many decades. The book was titled The Changing Light At Sandover, and it was 560 pages long. Two thirds of the poem consists of lightly edited transcriptions of Ouija board messages from the Great Beyond. Yes, you read that right: Merrill and his friend David Jackson actually used a Ouija board to write the poem. Moreover, they didn’t use it as just a novel way to come up with lines; they took themselves to be in contact with the spirit world and to be receiving serious and vital messages about that world and its connections with our world, how the earth was created, the history of our species, and the fate of assorted civilizations, and the divine laws governing everything. It doesn’t stop there, hardly. The poem has a cosmic purpose: to warn us about a global disaster from over-population and a nuclear holocaust. The spirit messages are supposed to show us how to avoid this consequence and instead create a paradise on earth. The spirits put bizarre myths, legends, and fables right alongside garbled discussions of ideas from atomic physics, molecular biology and evolution.
They keep on saying that the really important truths come in the form of metaphors and not literal statements, though the spirits seem to be speaking literally most of the time. Many of the remarks about science are incompatible with the contents of introductory texts on the relevant science, and many of the scientific terms are word-play on the entries from the glossary to a primer on natural science. The spirits and the poets put forward no end of crank views and curiosities that have been debunked years ago: e.g., astrology, pyramid power, numerology, the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, human auras, Atlantis, Edgar-Cayce-style visions, theosophy, and mystical interpretations of modern physics. Merrill has won a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award for all or part of this poetic trilogy. The critics do not ignore the spirit side of this poem when making a case for its greatness. Since it is a didactic poem, they can hardly take the willing suspension of disbelief option and say the occult content of the poem, and the claim to be receiving real spirit messages, are just decorative. Many critics go along with the notion that this poem is conveying great truths, and that the truths are coming from the spirit world by means of a Ouija board. In books like James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry and James Merrill: Essays in Criticism, critics endorse the contents of this poem as meriting serious consideration.
Surprisingly (or not?), there is considerable overlap between the general content of Merrill’s didactic poem and books by the mediums Jane Roberts and Ruth Montgomery—such as Seth Speaks and Companions Along The Way . And the literary critics argue their case in much the same way these mediums argue against the skeptics out there. These critics try to justify the ways of cranks, and proceed at the same level and in much the same fashion, as typical cranks. These are not passing points of similarity; they show that these critics are cranks in their own right. For example, both these critics and mediums think that the amazing happened as they produced—the poets with a pointer and the mediums with typewriters-- their spirit messages, so amazing they could not have a natural origin.
To burst their bubble, one has only to note that automatic writing has been explained for a century and a half: the indicator moves as the subject thinks it will or should, although they are not aware of making it do so. Their beliefs and expectations are translated into involuntary muscular movements known as ideomotor actions. William Carpenter, along with Chevreul and Faraday, established experimentally that ideomotor action is behind everything from Ouija boards to divining rods. One critic rejects this explanation because many people fail to get such amazing results when they sit down at the Ouija board---something else must be going on! Jane Roberts takes the same line when questioned about her amazing output—how could she, a mere mortal, produce seven years of books while in a mere trance? Ditto for Ruth Montgomery when she looks at some passages—how could she, plain old Ruth, come up with such thoughts? This is the argument from astonishing results. It is true that lots of people sit around a Ouija board or go into a seeming trance and fail to produce anything much. This is not remarkable. No end of people try to do something and only some succeed. Lots of youngsters set out to become Olympic gymnasts but find they don’t have enough ability to do more than a front roll. Athletic ability differs from person to person.
[Image: D Stalker: 'A Straight Revocation of Spirit']
Should we nevertheless invoke the spirits to explain Simone Biles? The ability to write is also an ability that varies in the general population. Lots of people attempt to write novels and poems, and only some succeed, and even fewer succeed to any great extent. Should we invoke the spirits to explain Pound’s Cantos and Hemingway’s novels? The ability to write automatically is just another ability that differs from person to person. Some can’t do it at all, some can do it a little, and some can do it easily and at length. James Merrill and friend have the knack for it, just as Simone Biles and her teammates have the knack for gymnastics. And if you want astonishing results from spirit writing, the current group are lessers compared to Leonore Curran, who started receiving messages in 1913 when she was a housewife with only an 8th grade education and no literary background. She, and/or her spirit guide Patience Worth, produced four books.
My paper examines four or five more examples of how some literary critics go around the bend into the world of mediums who publish books dictated by their spirit guides. These critics are practicing a diseased form of literary criticism, an intellectual degeneracy, which should be called out for what it is. They should have checked with their local debunker before buying Ouija board messages in verse.
3:16: Is philosophy of art part of the problem? And does the problem arise from philosophers trying to define art? Why do they keep trying to define art and are they good ones? How should philosophy approach the arts, or should philosophers just leave it alone? In your essay on a good poem you focus on the question of whether Landor’s poem is a good poem or just a good poem according to me, or for its time and so on. Can you say what you were trying to do there, and is that an example of what you think academics writing about the arts should be doing?
DS: You are asking about a number of different things here: viz., whether philosophy itself contributes to the conceptual hooey surrounding today’s art, what good is philosophy of art if you are interested in the arts, what should academics write about art, and what I argue in some of my papers about more usual philosophy of art problems. Where, as they always say, to start?
Analytic philosophy and philosophers have come in for some abuse over the years---they are nit pickers, too concerned with words, ignorant of this or that (usually science), and no great shakes compared to the great names of the past. They have not, as a rule, contributed to the hooey and humbug written about contemporary art. Indeed, they went after such writings with their first excursion into aesthetics, the anthology titled Aesthetics and Language (1967), edited by William Elton. This volume includes John Passmore’s sober essay “The Dreariness of Aesthetics”, which covers a dullness that results from trying to say nothing in a pretentious way. He recognizes the tendency to see art as an instrument for getting at reality and metaphysical ideas, and then to see a spurious unity therein and express it in an empty formula. This wooliness, back in the day, came from both aestheticians and critics.
However, as analytic philosophy became the dominant school of philosophy in the English-speaking world, fewer philosophers went off the reservation, as it were, and into the brambles of humbug. John Hospers did his part in Meaning And Truth In The Arts (1946), as did many of the authors in Sidney Hook’s Art And Philosophy (1966), a volume with the proceedings of a symposium held at NYU. The humbug had been ousted from analytic circles and was left to flourish over the border among the arts writers themselves. Thus, in this symposium, Paul Ziff dismantles the claims made by the art critic Meyer Schapiro in his lead paper about how perfection, coherence, and unity make for a beautiful work of art. The paper is educated wooliness, and Ziff, politely, lays into it. Thus I see the rise of analytic philosophy as clearing the hooey out of aesthetics by most philosophers of the analytic persuasion, although Stanley Cavell, as I recall, did fall back two steps or more in some of his writing about film.
But humbug was free to reign in the art journals and magazines, and only came in for a discouraging word when an analytic philosopher wandered over for a look-see, as I did in the late 70s and on. Of course wooliness has always existed in the works of continental philosophers, and on far more topics than aesthetic ones, but this is old news. And I know we are supposed to be beyond the old days of scorn for continental philosophy, but I, for one, am not, having read a goodly sample of this bilge. There is, I add, more that goes by the name ‘philosophy’ than philosophy; there is also pseudo-philosophy (see my former colleague Roy Sorensen’s book, Pseudo-Problems) and the continentals lead with their chins here. Analytic philosophy has standards of clarity, precision, and argumentation that almost exclude, by definition, the hooey surrounding the arts. Thank heaven for analytic philosophy. The real problem is that analytic philosophers usually stay at home doing their analytic philosophy work. They should get out more often and do some public service against the bad, the bogus, and the lame.
What good is philosophy of art if you are interested in the arts? Of course it is good for mental sanitation, which I have harped on about long enough. It may help you understand this or that feature of an art form: e.g., Goodman’s notion of exemplification can help you see what a drippled Pollock is all about. But make no mistake, philosophy of art is philosophy. It is not art history, art appreciation, or art criticism. If you have the wrong expectations, you won’t find them met in the best works of philosophy of art. More generally, philosophy of art is in second place compared to works that are about an art form proper. If you are interested in music, say, you won’t get far without learning musical notation and some music theory, say enough to follow along with a score in hand. It helps much more to learn to play an instrument than to read a book on the philosophy of music. Each art form has its technical terms, and there is no substitute for learning them first. I studied voice for a number of years, and also reviewed lieder and art songs for The American Record Guide. I never looked at any philosophy anything to help me with my vocal studies. I needed to know what a turn was in an art song, and how to do one vocally, not some philosophy.
I would abstain from reading any philosophy articles about poetry, mine included, let alone the recent collection Philosophy Of Poetry , whose papers run the gamut (whose endpoints I politely refuse to name) until I had read through a book like William Harmon’s The Poetry Toolkit. You don’t know jack about poetry if you haven’t read this book, or could pass a multiple choice test on its contents. Harmon is one of this country’s finest poets as well as an (now) emeritus chaired professor of English at Chapel Hill. By the way, is there really philosophy of poetry or just some problems from other areas of philosophy you can, but need not, illustrate with lines from poems? You can append that phrase to any other noun or noun phrase and you don’t thereby come up with a sub-area of philosophy. More generally, it is perhaps wise to heed what Paul Ziff would say in the first class of his undergraduate philosophy of art class. He used to issue a general warning about what philosophy may or may not do for you if you are interested in the arts. He used to say that we want to understand art. Why bother to do that, he would ask? It might be a bad idea. Suppose you want to understand your fellow creatures, why they do what they do, and suppose you come to understand this and see that their motives are vicious, their desires warped, and why they do things is generally despicable. As a result, you no longer get along with them, and end up insular and insolent. Well, you wanted to understand their motives, and you did, and it ruined your relations with your fellow creatures. Or, he would go on, suppose you never understood Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” but enjoyed reading it ever so much. Then you came to take a course in which you understood what Yeats was saying in that poem. It was a bunch of religious and astrological nonsense. Now you hate to read that poem. Ziff’s point was that you may think understanding something will help you, but it need not at all.
What should academics write about the arts? This is my rendition of two of your questions—one about how philosophy should approach, or not, the arts, and one about what academics who write about art should be doing. Certainly those into writing hooey about the arts should cease and desist, but fat chance this will happen. They are having a fine time, indeed a fine career, doing this. They will continue on, power to the hooey! I don’t have any prescriptions , but I do have my gripes about what needs attention from philosophers of art. Here is the main one: where are the articles and books about the value of art? Certainly in our culture, if not most cultures, there is a widely shared belief that art—indeed fine art—is valuable. It is something that we ought to pay attention to or in some ways our lives will be less than they could be; it is something we urge our children to study and appreciate; it is something that we take efforts to collect, preserve and display by means of institutions like museums; it is something deemed worthy of special and detailed study in colleges and universities; it is even something we are willing to sustain and help flourish with our tax dollars. But what, precisely, is the value of art? Why should we honor paintings more than pinball machines, pieces of sculpture more than postage stamps?
To my mind, this is the most important question about the arts. Moreover, given recent developments in arts, this question demands an answer that explains how works of contemporary art are valuable. It seems one thing to explain why Cardinal Borgehese should subsidize Bernini for works like “Apollo and Daphne”; it seems quite another thing to explain why the NEA should subsidize Carl Andre for a work like “Stone Field Sculpture”, which consists of 36 boulders deposited in rows on a lawn. How do boulders deserve our respect, let alone our time and money? Of course some people do value this art, but why should we as well? Today’s philosophers rarely, if ever, address questions about the value of art, especially contemporary art. This is a failing, indeed a big one, if you ask me. What is the point of all the defining and clarifying if art isn’t a big deal to begin with?
Now for your question about defining art. No end of people have spent time on defining art, myself included. Some definitions are laughable—think of Bell and Langer—and those usually come from people who are not analytic philosophers. One year I asked my students to define art, and they happily set about it. I collected some of the results, about thirty definitions, and typed them on one page to use as an exercise in evaluating definitions---looking for circularity, hooey phrases, counter-examples, etc. Of course I didn’t expect tyros to come up with good definitions, but they never, not one of them, thought the assignment was beyond them. None balked at the task; all thought they were up to it. I guess no end of people think they are capable of deep thoughts. I will confess that I never had a deep thought in my life. People seem to be essentialists from the get go, and imagine that all their questions will be answered if only they can divine the essence of X or Y or whatever concerns them. Thus we have the parade of definitions of art over the years, despite a push back about essences from Quine and his cohorts.
When I got my credentials to philosophize, George Dickie’s definition was in vogue, then came Danto’s definition, and more recently, so I gather, we have the historical definition. If you look at them, they don’t seem to be revealing the good old essence of art that would be oh so informative. The definitions, in order to be counter-example proof, have been drained of content: i.e., art is having the status of candidate for appreciation; art must be something you can interpret, indeed, deeply interpret; art is something you regard like other art fans regarded their art in previous times. The lights don’t simply come on when you hear these definitions; your questions about art are not answered, unless you think that there isn’t much to being art. But the quest continues. I wrote a paper on whether that was wise, asking why should you try to define art? Yes, philosophy of art is the name of the field, but you can easily philosophize about something without defining it: e.g. philosophy of language, where you rarely find people asking what’s a language, what’s not. The name for an area of philosophy hardly indicates which concepts are in line for analysis. Sometimes it ends up that way, sometimes not. Philosophy of religion courses don’t start off by defining religion; the same for philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of history.
[Image: D Stalker: ' That Occasion for No Definition. Again']
Since there are plenty of examples of things that are art, there is no occasion for a definition here. We need some reasons to suppose that defining art is important. From time to time, a philosopher will allude to a reason here, make a claim that presupposes a reason there. George Dickie claimed that our (we present-day Westerners) concept of art is a basic concept that structures and guides our thinking about the world. He doesn’t draw the conclusion, but it is there to be drawn: viz., a special concept is one to define. I take it that Dickie means that our concept of art is an important concept, a fundamental one, and not a frill. It should be on a par with our concept of a person, a physical object, an event, a property of an object or event, perhaps even our concept of size. You can’t settle the matter by turning inward to scan our conceptual scheme. I adopted a linguistic approach and scanned the structure of our language. I did that by scanning the entries of Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary and its pocket abridgement. I had access to the definitional data sets for these two dictionaries, and they provide semantic data relevant to locating our concept of art in the scheme of things. In the concordance index, you could see how often a word occurs in definitions throughout the dictionary.
The most frequently occurring non-function words will be the semantically basic ones. In the alphabetization index, you could see the defining formulas used in the dictionary, and the most frequently occurring formulas also indicate what is semantically basic. A defining formula is a set phrase such a ‘the quality or state of being’, ‘the act of’, or ‘one who’. Words that rank high in one index usually rank high in the other. What does the concordance index to the pocket edition show? ‘Person’ is the most frequently occurring non-function word (853 definitions) ; it also appears in the form of ‘one who’ and ’someone who’. The word ‘body’, as in ‘material body’, is next in line (outright in 528) The words ‘act’ and ‘action’ also rank high (1210 together). The word ‘small’ also occurs a lot (721). Where does ‘art’ show up? It appears outright in 141 definitions and 17 times in other forms, but this includes all four of its senses. We are interested in only one of these, so the real figure of interest here is less than 158. In our sense ‘art’ might be on a par with ‘flat’ (109). Or lower, since ‘art’ usually occurs in definitions of nouns such as ‘speedboating’, ‘industry’, or ‘confectionery’. The dominant sense seems to be the one about skills you acquire by experience or study. In any event, there is a clear direction to the data: ‘art’ is not up with the important words.
In the alphabetization index for the full dictionary, we get to see where a word occurs in a definition. Defining formulas are highly significant places from a semantic point of view. They head definitions and so indicate how something is being categorized. They seem to be data relevant to Aristotle’s claims about categories. English is a predominately noun language, and so I looked at the formulas used in defining nouns. As before, persons and bodies rank high, as do properties. The formula ‘one who’ occurs at the head of 808 noun entries; ‘something that’ at the head of 800, and the phrase ‘the quality or state of being’ at the head of 1250 entries. ‘Art’ appears as the formula ‘work of art’, and heads a mere 8 entries. This is so low that the phrase may not even count as a defining formula, a set phrase, which would take something like 25 occurrences at the head of an entry. Again, the direction of the data is clear. It points away from Dickie’s claim about our concept of art as basic.
Sometimes you can find a philosopher making a pitch for defining art because a definition would have a practical payoff. Francis Coleman, in the introduction to his anthology, claims that a definition of art could settle disputes about whether something is art or not. There are some real and very practical disputes about what’s art, but they don’t take place in the philosophy journals or art magazines. They take place in court, usually case connected to estate, copyright libel, or tariff laws. Most of the cases have been in connection with tariff laws. Art is a duty free import, but the tariff laws don’t define art. They mention obvious art forms and art materials, and the laws mention some qualifications, such as a work of art is not an article of utility. That, too, is left open to interpretation like vague terms in many laws. The most notorious case involved Brancusi’s “Bird In Space”, which the customs appraiser decided was not art and should be taxed as turned bronze. The owner disagreed and went to court. The presiding judge read briefs, examined affidavits, listened to testimony, and looked for precedents. He reversed the appraiser’s decision, but a philosopher’s definition did not figure in any of this. I couldn’t find a case that did because the courts don’t need to bring philosophers into the proceedings. They already have everything they need to settle such cases. In the Brancusi case, the expert testimony came from the usual sources—sculptors, art critics, editors of art publications, directors of museums. The attorneys did not summon the aestheticians of the day (the 1920s, so Dewitt Parker or David Prall). This would have been superfluous. The Judge only wanted to determine if the plaintiff was trying to smuggle some semi-precious metal into the country. He only needed to check on who made the piece, how he made it, and what it was made to do. The plaintiff’s attorneys knew they needed to establish four specific points: viz., that the piece was an original piece of sculpture or statuary, that it was the professional product of a sculptor, that it was made as that, and that it was not an article of utility. They relied on expert testimony from people who deal professionally in a direct way and on a day-to-day basis with particular pieces of sculpture. They would know a piece of sculpture when they saw one and the reputation of the sculptor in question.
This doesn’t sound like what a philosopher of art does in his or her job. Their expertise was, for this practical purpose, beside the point. Joe Margolis once, or twice, made the pitch that a definition of art was of theoretical importance, and thus worth getting. Sometimes a definition is part of a larger project—a theory perhaps—and it may play an important role in that project. It is worth having, in this case, because of what it does. So does a definition of art do something important like this? Do what, exactly? He goes on to say that a definition could condense the results of work on other problems in aesthetics, and then display them in a compact fashion. It would be a way to put your theory in a nutshell. Collingwood did that when he pronounced that art is imaginative expression. That is the odd duck, you might say. In our day, it would indeed by odd to find a definition doing that. We typically work on a smaller scale. We see a definition of art as a standard necessary and sufficient condition piece of analysis, and not as setting down everything you ever wanted to know about the arts in a bumper sticker fashion.
But what if a grand synthesizer arose in our midst and worked out a big theory about the arts and left defining until the end? This doesn’t leave an important role for an analysis of art because it just comes as a by-product of the important work, not an integral part of it. Indeed, it ends up on a par with a mnemonic device. I like to ask why I should define something before I set out to define it, and with art, I don’t know of a good reason why. Aestheticians usually do it out of habit. Perhaps it is a habit they should break. I mean, really, do you think there is some informative essence to the hodepoge of things, events, and whatnots that we call art? Perhaps it is better to face, not the facts, but the hodge of the podge.
At last, we come to what I wrote about good poetry. It is actually about the abstract character of aesthetic judgements, and that is just an instance of the abstract character of our speech, a topic that Paul Ziff worked on more than anyone else. He appears to be the first and only philosopher to appreciate this phenomenon. Of course I knew about this topic because Ziff was my mentor and so I heard him lecture about it, and read his articles that dealt with it, as well as some of his unpublished efforts to explain what is going on.
Almost all of the words we use to talk about things depend on taking a very abstract point of view. We ignore and discount all sorts of factors, particulars, and specifics. When you say you have been driving the same car for the past three years, you are speaking of the car as an enduring entity. The car, however, is not physically identical in every respect to the car you bought three years back. It may have a different water pump, some rust now, a few scrapes and dents. The car is not even physically identical in every respect to the car you drove yesterday: e.g., paint chips off, tires wear down, carbon deposits, dirt accumulates, fabrics wear down a bit more. When you speak of a car, you discount, ignore, abstract from certain differences and factors. And when you speak this way, you are understood. Sometimes you are warranted in abstracting, sometimes not. Suppose a doctor decides to abstract from factors that we do not, say from reference to persons. When prescribing drugs this doctor blithely says “It’s a good drug, so you should take it.” The abstraction is not warranted. If you have diabetes, insulin may be good for you, not for me since I don’t have diabetes. When prescription drugs are in question, we do not discount differences between persons.
Things can go the other way, too. Someone might refuse to abstract from things that we do. Suppose you want a bright red car and ask a local car dealer if he has a car in that color. The dealer refuses to abstract from persons, places, and times; and so he says “I have a car that looks bright red to me here and now.” Unless there is something bizarre going on at the lot and with the dealer, he is unwarranted in refusing to abstract from these factors. You want a bright red car, not a car that looks bright red to some, sometimes, and somewhere. With any abstraction or refusal to abstract, you can ask if it is warranted. Also, notice that some things are only good for their time. In 1911, a Bugatti could finish the Indianapolis 500 race well up in the standings in six and a half hours. That would not even qualify for this year’s Indianapolis 500. Bugattis were good for their time, we say, refusing to abstract from that factor.
A good racing car, then, may not remain good. The same goes for refrigerators, elevators, adding machines, building materials, tools like drills, instruments like scalpels, athletes like distance runners. No end of things are good for their time, not another. What about poems, like a four-line epigram by William Savage Landor? Should one refuse to abstract from spatiotemporal factors with poems? What would incline you in this direction? Linguistic and cultural changes. Once a full rhyme, not always a full rhyme. An image may lose its power over the years. Once the sense of a word, or its social tone, not always. For example, take full rhymes. In his 62nd sonnet, Shakespeare rhymes ‘eie’ with ‘remedie’ It is now only an eye rhyme. Pope rhymes ‘join’ with ‘divine’, Donne rhymes ‘great’ with ‘get’, and Milton rhymes ‘feast’ with ‘rest’. Long vowels can become short ones over time. Sound changes can also create puns. In “Lycidas”, Milton speaks of floating upon “his watery bier”. In Milton’s time, they spelled our word ‘beer’ the same way, but they pronounced it like we pronounce our word ‘bear’, so there was no pun in Milton’s time. There is a pun in ours; the clang association alters the character of the line.
When the sense of a word changes, it can also alter the character of a line. Spenser writes of some flowers that they are pompous. In his time, that meant splendid. In our time, it means pretentious. Pope advised Robert Harley that it was in vain to retreat to deserts. He did not have the Sahara in mind because ‘desert’ in his day just meant a place in the country. Spenser writes about a ghastly bug, but he does not mean an ant or roach; the word meant ghost or hobgoblin back then. Cultural changes can alter the character of an image as well. In his elegy to his mistress, Donne writes that his mistress should picture him going over the Alps. Our Alps are not Donne’s. In his time, the image would conjure up a picture of great fright and peril, a sure robbery and death in the cold. Here and now, the picture is one of a sunny ski village with classic chalets, strolling skiers, superb restaurants, just the place for a vacation. The Alps image has now lost its power. I could go on listing examples of changes in a poem until you yelled for me to stop.
In the Oxford edition of “Lycidas”, a poem of 193 lines with the spelling, punctuation, and capitalization updated, there are 192 notes to the text, and most are about linguistic changes. They do not cover cultural changes, such as the change in social tone to the word ‘shove’. The question is: could such changes add up to changes in a poem significant enough to warrant saying it was a good poem for its time and place, not ours? No. It is a mistake to think they do. These changes do show that the medium of poetry is not stable. If you have a work in an unstable medium, what you have at one time may not be the same poem you have at another time. There is no need to refer to spatiotemporal factors here; there is a need to get straight about what you are evaluating. If you don’t, you may be inclined to say a poem is good for its time. You just can’t assume that what you are reading is the same poem as the one in Milton’s time.
While you can get a mint condition Bugatti here and test it out for speed, you can’t get a mint condition “Lycidas” here today. The medium is not metal. You can try to read “Lycidas” as it was read in the 1600s, but success is not guaranteed. If you fail to see that a poem is a work in an unstable medium, you might think of a good poem like you think of the good apple you bought the other day. If you carry that apple around in your briefcase for a week, it will have turned into a bad apple. The same apple went from good to bad. Similarly, you might think that “Lycidas” has become a bit bruised as well and so isn’t so good anymore. Though you may have the same text of the poem as in a rare first edition of Milton’s works, you may not have the same work when you read it.
Think of a poem like you think of chemical elements and their combinations. The poem is a fragment of a natural language and that fragment might prove to be either composed of stable or unstable elements. Gold is a very stable element; it doesn’t change with time. The little epigram by Landor has not changed in more than a century and a half, and so it is on its way to being like gold. “Lycidas” is like silver that has tarnished and is going to silver oxide, albeit slowly. Some poems are like radioactive elements with respect to their associations, and so are like pieces of bismuth 210, which in 40 days is almost all plutonium 210, and in another 30 years is almost all lead 206. With the elements, we can predict these changes. With words in cultures, we cannot. A poet can’t do anything much to write a poem as stable as can be. It would have been senseless to counsel an Elizabethan poet to avoid the phrase ‘in the pocket’ because in the 20th century there will come to be a game called football in which a quarterback will be protected as he throws the football by running back into a pocket of blockers.
You can see this chemical way of thinking about the medium of poetry in connection with painting because paint is an unstable medium and in predictable ways. Whistler used linseed oil to keep pigments on his canvas in a state of flux so he could work on a portrait day after day. Indeed, he used too much linseed oil and so it has darkened with time. Whistler’s portraits are going too dark to make out the figures in them. Linseed oil has a higher amount of linolenic acid and its glycerides than most other oils used in painting. If you expose these components to moisture and keep them out of the daylight, they will darken. When you look at some Whistler portraits now, you are looking at a work that is altogether different from the one that is good. A totally dark brown canvas is hardly a good portrait. The Whistler that was good is still good; we just don’t have that work before our eyes. Franz Kline knew that he was not painting for the ages when he put house paint on plywood. You are now faced with, in some cases, different works: the strength has faded along with the colors, and the surface is buckled plys of wood.
So let me sum up my discussion. A poem is good once and for all. Linguistic and cultural changes do occur. But you should not argue from the latter truth to the falsity of the former. If you do, you are ignoring the character of the medium of poetry, and thereby assuming this: before and after these linguistic and cultural changes take place, we are dealing with the same work. There is no such constant work. Cases of linguistic and cultural change are not evidence of the fluctuating quality of a poem. They are evidence of the unstable medium of poetry.
[Image: D Stalker: 'An Instability.']
3:16: Your mentor is Paul Ziff, and we have both mentioned him. You think he’s a philosopher who is being wrongfully neglected. Could you introduce us to him and the debates that he stepped into, and hazard a guess or two about why he has fallen off the radar today?
DS: I have known two, maybe three, geniuses in my time. Paul Ziff is one of them. I took seven courses from him; he directed my M.A. and Ph.D. theses; I was his Kenan Research Assistant and was present for all of his undergraduate courses as his teaching assistant, present for virtually every other class he taught during four years, and even lived at his house my last year of grad school. I would go to the gym with him after his morning class, have lunch with him, and walk around campus while he discussed this or that philosophy problem. I knew who he was before he came to Chapel Hill for his interview for the chaired position he eventually obtained; I owned and had read his two books to date while an undergraduate. Ziff, as his colleague Jay Rosenberg put it, was one of a kind and we will not see his like again.
Ziff started publishing in graduate school at Cornell in 1949, doing book reviews for The Philosophical Review , which was based at Cornell then. He worked with Max Black at Cornell. He kept on publishing for more than 40 years, and longer if you reckon in his posthumous book on ethics. Ziff published six philosophy books, 38 articles, five discussions, and 14 reviews. His first three books were published with Cornell University Press, his last three with Kluwer/Reidel because their managing editor at the time, Jakko Hintikka, offered to accept two of his book-length manuscripts as consecutive volumes in the Synthese Library series. His ethics book appeared in Kluwer’s Philosophical Studies Series. Ziff published most often in The Philosophical Review, The Journal of Philosophy, Analysis, and Foundations of Language . He was invited to contribute to various conference proceedings and collections (15 of his articles are in these); some were high profile collections in their area at the time, including Katz and Fodor’s The Structure of Language and Davidson and Harman’s Semantics of Natural Language . Most of Ziff’s articles show up in his books (31). One that didn’t, “About Proper Names” from Mind , was selected as one of the best philosophy articles of 1977 and reprinted in The Philosopher’s Annual .
Ziff published mainly in the areas of philosophy of language, philosophy of art, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics, but also had articles in philosophy of religion and about Wittgenstein’s views. He has essays on the feelings of robots, defining art, evaluating art, ungrammaticality, behaviorism, the other minds problem, the existence of God, the number of English sentences, understanding, the logical structure of English sentences, differences between formal and natural languages, what we know call generics, seeing things, antiart, creativity, appreciating dance, reference to things that don’t exist, and more. Some are classics; few have been discussed in the journals. He started his career at Michigan in 1951, moved to Harvard, Penn, Wisconsin, Chicago Circle, and finally Chapel Hill, where he stayed for 18 years, retiring in 1988. Along the way, he spent a term at Oxford with John Austin on a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and a year in Rome as a Guggenheim Fellow. He also worked as a consultant to the information retrieval staff at System Development Corporation. He died in early January of 2003.
I will say something about two of his books and one of his articles that are, in my estimation, classics. And why they are ignored today. His first book, Semantic Analysis , is certainly a classic when it comes to theories of meaning. It came out in 1960 and by 1967 had gone through five printings in hardbound and was also appearing in paperback. The book goes back to Ziff’s work in aesthetics. As far back as graduate school, he was thinking about the reasons why a work of art is either good or bad, and so he as interested in determining what the phrase ‘good painting’ means. From there, he went on to determine what the word ‘good’ means in English: viz., answering to certain interests. And then he worked out a method for confirming this claim.
When all was said and done, he had introduced a working semantic theory, albeit one he said was just an informal sketch. This theory would allow you to evaluate and choose between competing analyses of words and utterances. In short, he came up with a way to get beyond our “intuitions” about meaning. Semantic Analysis stared down, as it were, questions about meaning more seriously than any previous philosophy book. It brought ideas from structural linguistics (even some from the new generative grammars) right into philosophers’ discussions what this or that word means with a way of actually coming to a conclusion that could be sensibly defended. Some philosophers didn’t like getting this real (e.g., G.E.M. Anscombe, not surprisingly), while others did (e.g., Paul Benacerraf, Jerrold Katz, and William Alston). All four reviewed the book. Anscombe in Mind , while Katz did a long review in Language and Alston has an article-length one in The Journal of Philosophy —indeed, it was the lead article of the issue. They all praised the book but they also make criticisms of the theory. Ziff never replied to the criticisms, though they can be answered. Nor did any of Ziff’s students take them on, few as they were. Ziff only had a literal handful of doctoral students in his more than three decades of teaching in graduate programs.
In my own case, I wanted to write a defense of his theory against all comers as my dissertation, but Ziff told me to do a dissertation on Chomsky’s notion of deep structure. He knew what was in his book; he didn’t know what all the hoopla was about this deep structure stuff, and my job was to find out. Ziff did not produce disciples who promoted his views on meaning or art or whatever. He did respond to one criticism from Alvin Goldman in Analysis ; Goldman had simply misread a sentence or two, and Ziff’s response points this out. There was one other article about his semantic theory in Philosophical Studies, but, as usual, he did not reply to it. After the first reviews and two short articles, no one out there was using or studying or developing or even demolishing Ziff’s semantic theory. Semantic Analysis is a hard book to read; it makes demands on a reader because Ziff is as precise as he can be from start to finish. Throughout the book, Ziff points out that he is only giving a sketch of a semantic theory and that it should be formalized more. He ends the book by noting that an enormous amount of work is still to be done on his semantic theory, including removing fictions—such as a diachronic point of view-- he relies on at present, adding yet still more principles used in evaluating and formulating a semantic analysis, and finding an adequate theory of syntactic structure.
Ziff never did this additional work, nor has anyone. His theory was not refuted; it was side-stepped on the way to more fashionable alternatives. Ziff probably did not push on with the detailed work because he wanted to think about new topics, and felt that his effort to date was correct in all essentials. Someone should.
Ziff’s long paper, “Reasons in Art Criticism”, was published in an obscure place back in 1958, an anthology of papers ostensibly about the philosophy of education. It surfaced in the major aesthetics anthologies of the 70s but has since vanished from the aesthetics scene. In this essay, Ziff sets out a proper analysis of what is it for a work of art to be a good work of art. After a long discussion of types of reasons and more, he summarizes his view like this: a work of art is good if and only if a person performs a certain action in connection with it under certain conditions and the performance of that act is worthwhile for its own sake. Actions are what matter the most here. The actions must be nonterminating ones: contemplating a painting and not recognizing it is a landscape. Walking is a nonterminating activity; walking for a mile is a terminating one---it has a logical terminus, you are done at the mile marker. Ziff introduces a generic term for the various nonterminating actions in question: aspection. They are all acts of aspection and you can only find them by trial and error. When you say that a painting is good, you are, he notes, abstracting from all three—person, actions, and conditions are not specified-- and so disagreements can result. If someone is a prude and he judges an erotic painting by Picasso to be bad, I would discount his judgement. We can only get away with abstracting from persons if there can be, or actually is, a community of interest.
There is a lot more packed into this almost 30 page, yet still condensed and hard-to-read, essay. Despite being in the best aesthetics anthologies and at one time in the Bobbs-Merrill reprint series, no journal article examines this view. There is a section devoted to it in a paper on critical reasons by Peter Machamer and William Lycan. It is a selection in a volume of essays about art from around 1970. George Dickie examines Ziff’s view in a chapter in his book Evaluating Art . Both can be answered, though Ziff didn’t answer them. No one has. He didn’t know about the former paper. Dickie sent him a draft of the chapter from his book, but Paul just glanced at a little of it and left it to collect dust. When Ziff’s paper vanished from the aesthetics anthologies, you could only find it in Ziff’s collection published in 1966, Philosophic Turnings , which is no doubt itself collecting dust on library shelves. Ziff’s view has not been refuted; it has been removed from view.
Epistemic Analysis came out with Reidel in 1984, but Ziff had started it back in 1962 when he was in Rome for a year on a Guggenheim Fellowship. He stalled well into the manuscript, and didn’t start writing again until the early 1980s. The book has a subtitle: A Coherence Theory of Knowledge . Most of it was never published before. This book goes at the word ‘know’ like Semantic Analysis went at the word ‘good’. It may be one of the best discussions of ‘know’ that has been published. Ziff was an American John Austin who also read Science News and zoology books. The book went against the grain and didn’t extend the usual ideas. It didn’t have any of that “justified true belief” analysis and the search for the fourth condition to patch it up, or talk about varieties of foundationalism, externalism or internalism, let alone the merits of naturalizing. Ziff never mentions Gettier or most of the usual crowd then—say Goldman, Harman, Dretske, Pollock and Unger; a few pages are on Nozick.
He maintained that it was senseless to speak about a jusitified belief, that knowledge and belief do not require or can accept justification, that you don’t need evidence to know that p , that ‘know’ is univocal and means, at bottom, you are in a position to know, no matter whether it is knowing that or how to do something or knowing a person, that knowing something or someone always counts as an increase in global coherence compared to not knowing, and that coherence itself is a matter of logical structure. Ziff’s coherence view differs from the other coherentists (Lehrer, Bonjour, Rescher). He stated his analysis of know that p like this: you know that p if and only if p is true and you are in a position such that any possibility that you are wrong about the truth of p can be safely discounted. This is a fallibilist analysis, to use a label he would no doubt shudder at me using, and Ziff uses his view to counter skepticism in terms of a technical notion of a safe position in which we can safely discount the possibility of error.
The book also includes chapters on reference, counterexamples of most of the received ideas about knowing, and the most sophisticated treatment of actives and their correlative passives out there. The book was reviewed twice (by his old friend Gil Harman and Alan White) but not written about otherwise. Ziff did send a response—in the form of a letter--to one of the reviewers, Alan White in the UK, after I showed him the review. The book was simply not read by more than a handful of philosophers, which is sad as well as silly for those interested in epistemology. They are ignoring a truly excellent piece of work.
Ziff did not respond to critics much—three times as I recall-- nor did he produce students to carry on his work. He also was not a joiner, and could be abrasive at times. Indeed, he had the reputation for being that. This is not how you get your work noticed and remembered. He was never abrasive to me, though I can recount some episodes when he directed pointed comments at others whom he thought had misunderstood something he had written. He told me to give him a list of the schools I wanted to apply to for a job. Why? He wanted to see if I had listed any schools where it would be pointless for me to apply because people there disliked him so much they would never hire a Ziff student. As I recall, there were two such schools on my list, and I didn’t apply to them. Ziff was severe with philosophical matters, including, most people seem to forget, his own. He read the manuscript of Semantic Analysis backwards sentence by sentence---going from the last sentence all the way to the first, and in each case asking what each sentence meant and whether it was true. Philosophy has its loop, and Ziff used to be in the loop early in his career. But then moved away, physically, from the center of philosophical activity in the northeast, going from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to Wisconsin and then to North Carolina. While he spent two years at Chicago Circle, he commuted from Wisconsin.
He chose Carolina over Stanford because of the type of tennis courts on campus, not the philosophers. He wasn’t a member of any associations and he didn’t go to meetings unless invited to speak. If you wanted to see him, you had to find your way to Chapel Hill for most of his mature years in the discipline. Even when he went to speak at a meeting, he was no glad hander and he didn’t press the flesh. When I was applying for jobs in grad school, it had become routine for professors to phone their professor friends at other schools and talk up their grad students. Ziff told me he would not make any such calls, and that I would get my job on my own merits. I would not have had it any other way. Over the years Ziff became something of a recluse. He also switched from publishing with Cornell to Reidel. This happened when Cornell didn’t want to publish Antiaesthetics . After that, he worried if it could be published because he said it was too weird compared to the run of the mill book of essays.
So he struck a deal with Jakko Hintikka at Reidel: I’ll let you publish Epistemic Analysis if you also take the weird aesthetics manuscript. Ziff had no tolerance for rejection letters. The deal was, to my mind, the kiss of death because Reidel is where manuscripts go to die, to put it bluntly. The books are too expensive, too drably produced, and only bought by libraries. They almost guarantee that your book will be on a library shelf and nowhere else. This is not how to get your work seen and written about, let alone remembered years later. I knew that at the time, but for some reason I don’t recall, I didn’t make a point of expressing this. Ziff used to say all the time, just as long as it is in the library, that’s all that matters. No, that is not all that matters if you want the book to be read and remembered. There was one review of Antiaesthetics , two of Epistemic Analysis , and none of Moralities , which presents a relativist account of ethics. No journal articles discuss any of the three.
Again, it isn’t like Ziff’s work has been duly refuted and so sensibly ignored thereafter. Nor is it like he was just a run of the mill philosopher in his time. People just move on to the next big thing, I guess, even in philosophy.
[Image: D Stalker: 'A Riddle Happening'.]
3:16: You’re an expert on Goodman’s new riddle of induction, so can you sketch for us the riddle and your overview about how we should best understand its challenges and what its overall significance is?
DS: Goodman first published on this problem 75 years ago. He may or may not be the one who discovered the problem. Russell may also lay claim; see his Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits . The problem is easy enough to state. Goodman asks us to consider emeralds that have been examined before some future time t . All of them up to now have been green. These emeralds support the hypothesis that all emeralds are green, and the prediction that if we examine the next emerald after time t , it will also be green. Goodman introduces a new predicate to show that things are not as simple as they might seem. Something is grue, he tell us, if it is examined before time t and determined to be green, or it is not examined before time t and it is blue. It should be obvious how this applies to the emeralds examined before time t , and all of which have been found to be green. They are all grue. Thus, by time t, we have a good deal of support for the hypothesis that all emeralds are grue, and the prediction that if we happen to examine the next emerald after time t , it will be grue as well—that is, it will be blue. Indeed, we seem to have just as much support for the green hypothesis as the grue hypothesis. Each emerald has been green, and each emerald has been grue.
Be that as it may, we know that the green emeralds support the green hypothesis and that the grue emeralds do not support the grue hypothesis. Why do we have confirmation in one case but not the other? Goodman refers to those predicates at work in confirming hypotheses as projectible predicates., and the hypotheses as projectible hypotheses. I guess I am the pedant of projectibility and the guru of grue owing to my edited volume, Grue! The New Riddle of Induction , which appeared in 1994. My volume has fifteen essays, seven published before (three with new postscripts) and eight new essays. It also includes an annotated bibliography of 316 works about grue. The entries come from more than 40 different journals and more than 80 different books. In manuscript, this bibliography was close to 500 pages long, double spaced. The annotations range in length from one line to several hundred in small type. I compiled it by hand, going book by book and journal issue by journal issue in the university library. One review said, it has to be seen to be believed, as I recall. It became numbing work that took many years.
There are about twenty different approaches or solutions to the grue problem in the literature. Goodman pins his hopes on entrenched predicates, some appeal to natural kinds, others to a simplicity criterion, yet others appeal to real properties, or a counterfactual condition on inductive reasoning, some go Bayesian for a solution, and so on. Each year, journals appear with papers on the topic. There is no consensus solution, majority opinion, received answer or textbook solution. There hasn’t even been total agreement on what the problem amounts to. In the past decade or so, the counterfactual approach has attracted the most attention, and they all owe a debt to its first formulation by Frank Jackson. The typical solution consists of explaining the difference between projectible and nonprojectible predicates or properties or hypotheses. On a counterfactual approach, all predicates (or properties or hypotheses) are projectible. This approach relies instead on a defeasibility condition (a defeating condition) for inductive reasoning of the grue sort, and the condition is in the form of a counterfactual---if something had not been the case, then something else would still have been the case.
With the green emerald, this condition goes: if they had not been examined by time <em>t, </em>then they would still have been green; but with the grue emeralds, if they had not been examined by time t , then they would not have been grue because they would have been green and unexamined by time t . In recent years a spate of papers have tried to develop this idea. Projectibility is a problem for more than the type of inductive reasoning that Goodman introduced the problem with, induction by simple enumeration. Indeed, you need a projectibility constraint (of some sort) with all forms of probabilistic and inductive reasoning, from statistical induction to direct inference, statistical inference, and the statistical syllogism. The take home message is: it matters how you describe your evidence.
3:16: You were a professor of philosophy for more than three decades, and eventually you turned your attention to academia itself, its foibles and fashions, and wrote some pieces that were pretty strident criticisms. Can you explain all that, and be sure to tell us about the best ever students and duping?
DS: The life of a philosophy professor is not all philosophy. You are part of the business of higher education, and unless you live under a rock you eventually start to notice things that don’t seem right on campus. The powers that be practically rub your nose in these things by sending you no end of memos, emails , campus publications, and of course the local paper covers doings on campus. They do even more by offering incentives to join in the inanity of the moment. To keep my blood pressure within limits, I will talk about just two irritants of academic life that I have published on: puffery from the administration, and fashions in teaching. Though I didn’t publish on student course evaluations, I read around enough to verify that they are a scam as carried out at most colleges I know of. A first course in statistics is all it takes to see this. Perhaps those interested should read statistician Valen Johnson’s book on the topic (along with grade inflation) and a report by Philip Frank, professor of statistics at Berkeley, both of which you can find with a little Googling.
Nowadays, the dictum is that you are never to utter a discouraging word about your institution. Perish the thought that some piece of “negative publicity”, as they term it, should get loose among the public. At the turn of the century, the 21st of course, my university administration started to say that the current class of students were the best ever at the school, and then the next year’s would be the best ever, and so on each year. They told students they were the best ever at orientation, talks by administrators, and it even started to appear in articles in the school paper. After the first class one semester, I received an email from a freshman who wanted me to change how I assigned grades. He informed me that his class was, academically, the best ever at Delaware, which he learned at freshman orientation. With my philosophy class filled with freshman, he thought that my usual grading scheme would give too many low grades to such an unusually talented group. A few days later, I ran into a variant of the “best ever” claim in the school paper, right on the front page. The dean of students was retiring after 21 years and gave an interview about his time at the university. The reporter asked how the campus had changed, and the dean said that without a doubt the students were academically stronger now.
While he didn’t say stronger than ever—and who could mean that for a school dating back to the 1800s—he said enough to get me wondering. I was there during those 21 years, and my view was the opposite of his. For example, in my clear thinking course I had changed my grade cutoffs four or five times in the last decade. My goal was to get a reasonable distribution of A to F grades and keep the class average close to a C, which still, to me at least, meant an honest day’s work. Since I had based the cutoffs on a large sample of students—more than 350—I thought my work was done. But in a couple of years, the class average was a C-minus. So I moved the cutoffs down until the average grade was back up to a C, thereby making it easier to get a C and all the other grades. A few semesters later I moved the cutoffs south again—and then again and again. The dean and I seemed to be living in different collegiate worlds, so I emailed him to report on my classroom experience and asked him if he had any evidence that students are academically better now. He didn’t (and even admitted he was just trying to be upbeat as he drifted off to retirement) but he had mentioned my question to the vice president for institutional research. This vice president supposedly had the evidence that our students were academically much better than 20 years ago, and the dean of students suggested I contact him if I cared to see it.
Of course I did. I sent a long and perfectly polite email to this vice president in the fall. It said I was puzzled because of my own grade data over the past decade with something like 1,300 students using pretty much the same textbook, topics, lectures, and objective tests. Perhaps, I suggested, my clear thinking class was getting a progressively worse sample of students, unlikely as that seems; or I was becoming a worse teacher, unlikely I hoped. But then perhaps my classroom data were right and along with it my conclusion about things getting academically worse, not amazingly better. I thought it would be a simple matter for the vice president to prove that my data, and so conclusion, were dead wrong. In the spring I still had not received a reply to my email -- five months and counting. With an hour to kill one day after class in March, I took a few minutes to contact this vice president again, forwarding my original email along with a chipper note about how things can fall between the electronic cracks, and also reporting that my fall term grades were consistent yet again with my conclusion about things going downhill, not up. In April, the school paper reported another “best ever” claim, this time from the president of the university.
He was in a dorm for a chat with students, and they were concerned that with the students getting better and better, what about the faculty? Were they “best ever” faculty? He said the faculty were indeed keeping pace with the students. Classes came to an end for the term, and again I turned in grades that were consistent with my original conclusion. It had been more than seven months since my first email to the vice president for institutional research. Why not give it one more try, I thought, and so near the end of May I forwarded the forward from March and added another note to remind him of my concerns. The summer came and went, and we were into the fall term of 2001. It started with more “best ever” claims about the new freshman class on the front page of the school paper and in a glossy magazine from the Office of Public Relations. This fall’s entering class, it reported, was the most able in the history of the university. My clear thinking class was filled with these freshman and yet my grade roster was same old, same old. I had not received a reply to my original email in more than a year. I decided to write this episode up and submit it to the state’s largest paper as an op ed. They published it in mid-December of 2001 with a large headline: The best ever or a big bluff? They even added some artwork. My op ed took up the whole first page of their opinion section in the Sunday paper. I started receiving emails about it right away, many in support coming from members of the math department who had posted my op end on their office doors. Some came from parents of students who thought that their children’s courses were much harder than when they went to Delaware.
Of course they never went into details. One came from a medical doctor who went after me rather than my conclusions. I had, for example, used the same textbook , lectures, and objective tests—what was I, a shirker who didn’t keep up with things. He seemed to overlook that things don’t change much in logic year to year; a syllogism is a syllogism is a syllogism. When I was on campus the next day, my chairman was angry with me. He brushed off my effort by saying that no one had read it. Well, I knew that some people had read it, in particular the board of trustees, who the very day my op ed appeared were at the president’s house for his annual Christmas party. One of the DuPonts, no less, had asked him about my op ed. It pays to treat the staff like real people, as I did, because they are around at such functions to assist, and I had a nice phone conversation with one staff member who was at the party. My chair then turned to a threat which became a promise: I could forget about getting an extra semester’s leave as part of my retirement package. I couldn’t care less, told him so and, leaning over his desk so he could hear every word, said I had only just begun to write op eds on academia. One untenured member of my department told me, when we were starting off to walk through campus for classes, that he would rather not be seen with me. I understood; pettiness comes out with promotion cases.
The administration assigned the associate provost with the task of replying to my op ed. He convened a committee of thirteen full professors to work on a draft. It took them more than a month, and it was lame: e.g., we had admitted more valedictorians than ever in recent years, but forgetting that this is a drop in the proverbial bucket of more than 3,000 students per incoming class. When they cited the average SAT scores of the incoming class, they forgot to plug those numbers into the school’s own equation for predicting freshman grades. When you do, as a friend of mine did for me (he is an expert on the SAT and college admissions, with a University of Chicago press book on the subject) the predicted grade point average increases so slightly that it would not be detectable in your classroom results. The best ever were, on this measure, hardly distinguishable from their predecessors. My response to their response—these iterations get hard to keep track of—was not published. The paper said it had spent enough time on the topic. It is, however, a topic that should get more time. Higher education in America is a business. Apparently in the education business, keeping the customer happy is more important than keeping your claims in line with the truth. When that happens inside collegiate walls—when puffery is passed off as straight talk—it is time to worry because customer satisfaction has joined the short list of educational values. Good old knowledge might become no more than nice to have when satisfaction is the aim. And truth might become optional.
There are now fashions in teaching, most seeming to percolate up from the public schools who love to retrain their teachers each summer in the latest fashions in teaching, and the administration promotes like they were a bottler of miracle water. I set out to satirize the situation in an article published in 2002 in The Chronicle of Higher Education , which is to academia what Barrons is to finance and Variety to Hollywood. The title of my article is: “How To Duck Out Of Teaching”. I refer to this phenomenon as duping. It is avoiding, evading, eluding, abstaining, dodging and good old ducking. It is on display on almost every campus in the country, and it is all the rage with professors who are tired of preparing and giving lectures to the drifting youth of America. I describe eight duping techniques that will work for any professor, tenured or not, in the time it takes to erase a moderate-sized blackboard. First, there is the title trick. You give the students honorary titles to make them feel special, and willing to take on new duties. For example, call everyone in class a peer editor so you can have them pair up and take turns going over, indeed grading, each other’s term papers. Tell them you are going to depower yourself to empower them, which encourages them to record all the grades and sign the grade roster for you. Have a drawing to choose the peer executive officer for the day, and remember to make a solemn display of handing over the official red pen, grade book, and grade roster to the PEO.
Second, we have the computer razzle-dazzle. If something is done with a computer, it must be educationally great. A computer dupe is easy: set up a computer-based course in which students have to send email messages to each other at least 10 times a day. To get them going, tell them that psychological research has shown that first thoughts are always best thoughts, and that contact with your peers is essential to building self-esteem. They will spend so much time on email that they won’t notice you haven’t logged on for days if not weeks. You can add a personal touch by sending randomly generated email messages to each student by modifying the horoscopes in your daily paper. Third, let me describe the great group dupe. Tell the students that yours is a problem-based course with group learning, and have them divide up into groups. It doesn’t matter whether any group actually solves the problems, what the problems are, or even if there are any problem at all. Everyone will be happy working in a group because they will believe that they are getting things done—even if nothing really happens. Like most people who can program a VCR, today’s students are perfectly happy to confuse the process with the product. Walk among them every few weeks, reminding everyone that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, to discourage individual effort.
Fourth, there is the mea-culpa escape. Stand before your students and confess it all. Tell them that higher education has become an institutionalized fraud because it keeps the students passive, subjects them to lectures, taking notes, enduring tests. All that is miles away from real multi-dimensional learning that lasts a lifetime. With a selfless gesture toward the exits, send the students out into the world to do experiential projects of their own devising, like running a lawn-care business for the semester. Make sure they do your lawn on their rounds so you can turn in some grades for the semester. Tell them not to come by too early in the morning; word that in terms of their being sensitive to the needs of others. Fifth, we have the ever popular tick-tock of pointless talk. You have about 2,000 minutes to fill during a 14-week semester. Anyone who watches daytime tv simply loves pointless talk, and, sooner or later, comes to believe that it has a point. With a class of 30 students, you can fill the week by getting each student to speak for only five minutes. Follow the three principles of chat satisfaction and this will be a breeze to bring off.
Principle 1: there is no topic like no particular topic. Your students can have a good chat by bouncing from an episode of “Friends” to anything else that pops into their heads---say the history of pizza. Principle 2: sticking to the topic is for dorks. Coherence is irrelevant; indeed, relevance is irrelevant. It is fine to have “Burping should be a collegiate sport” followed by “Cancun should be the 51 st state”. Principle 3, the basis of cognitive democracy: no one has to know what they are talking about. A marginal student is already equipped to talk at length about everything from Sumerian poetry to soggy French fries. Sixth, let me present the yo-yo presentation. Why do professors have to stand in the front of the classroom, like truly alienated workers, trying to explain things? Redress the injustice with the best role reversal around: class presentations. You go from active to passive; your students go from passive to active. The best topics are those with personal meaning to the presenter. Remind your students that information is not learning, which is code for no time in the library is required. Then just hand the students the formula: what __________ means to me. In class, they can say their talk is titled “A Personal Perspective On _______.” Anything can go in the blank—the Yalta conference, the supply curve, Kant’s categorical imperative. Recitations are a dandy variation. They have another benefit: You can dispense with assigned readings because you have students read the books out loud in class.
Plays are the paradigm here, but it can work with anything that has sentences. You also might want to suggest that your students act out a page or two of text. In a biology course, think about the improvisational possibilities inherent in the parts of the cell. As for grading presentations, see my article titled “A Classroom Application of the Radio Shack Sound-Level Meter”. Seventh, I give you the furniture flim-flam. Rearrange the classroom each day. Have the students put the chairs in different configurations—a circle, a triangle, any polygon or closed curve will do. If you spend 10 minutes per class moving chairs, in two and a half years you will duck out of teaching the equivalent of an entire three-credit course. The furniture flim-flam is actually a course-reduction measure. Today’s students are used to putting chairs in a circle, so most of them won’t ask any dumb questions about why they are moving the furniture. If a few cop an attitude, mumble something about the difference between confronting and communicating, or how a classroom should facilitate their transformation into a community of learners.
Eighth, let me describe the heavenly remote. Any hermeneuticist knows that the medium is the message. And what is the medium for today’s professor? Every plugged-in classroom has it: a VCR. Bring in a video for class, dim the lights, push the play button on the remote, and you’ve done your academic work for the day. You can use any video in any course. You have the presumption of relevance on your side: Everything that happens during class has something to do with the course. You can also rely on the dominant mental activity in higher-education circles, free association. Your students will believe that any video—tapes of the Weather Channel, old sitcoms, music videos, beach volleyball on ESPN—has something to do with the course. That is a logical pint—everything freely associates with everything else, ergo , you’re home free. It is truly a great time for a professor to be alive, isn’t it? Satire is comedy with a point, and mine is hard to miss here.
[Image: D Stalker: 'The Retired Spine']
3:16: I think it’s a fair comment to say that you’re a great advertisement for what to do when you’re retired from philosophy---you paint, write poetry, review music, weightlift and keep thinking philosophical thoughts. As a take home, can you tell us a little about your activities and perhaps say why philosophy, alongside all of these things, has been something worthwhile for you?
DS: I retired early, at 57, because I suffered from arthritis of the spine and too much time spent fighting the dingbats of darkness. My super ego also kept telling me that perhaps my line could do more good if a calculus teacher inhabited it. Besides, I could do what I really liked, the reading and writing and keeping up, from anywhere in the internet age, and without department meetings or a lick of committee work, not to mention boring more students with my lectures and enduring their complaints come final exam week. I now live in a whine-free environment. My university had a gorgeous early retirement package—in fact, in my time there, it had a benefits package that was the envy of professors elsewhere. I signed on the proverbial dotted line and moved below the snow line to a small SC town that had some amenities for the over-educated.
I had started painting while professoring as a way to spend some time without thinking in propositions. No words, just colors, shapes, lines, texture. A few hundred are stored in a spare room of my house, and many are up on the walls. My works have gone from figurative—lots of pained faces--to fully abstract. I have a studio set up at home, and paint or draw or otherwise play artist as the mood strikes. MFA type artists have told me that I should get a gallery connection, but I am hardly energized to do this. I can self-promote for a week and then never want to do it for a decade. Self-promotion is one of the most exhausting things ever thought of. I must correct you about the music reviews. I published 125 in The American Record Guide , but had stopped before retiring. Writing on a deadline was making me dislike listening to music. The magazine wanted me to stay, but my friends knew when a deadline was near because I became abnormally cranky, for me, that is. Here is one tip about retirement: you need projects in retirement, things to make you want to get up in the morning besides cable television and the sports page.
My general project is to read all the books I always wanted to read and study all the areas of philosophy and math and science that I have neglected. Though I have set about this in earnest, it is an impossible but enjoyable task. I have read, for example, all the fiction of Henry James, virtually all of the novels of Trollope, and the complete works of Roth, Bellow, Stanley Elkin, and the Austrian Thomas Bernhard; as well as the complete, new edition of the poems of A.R. Ammons, my old pen pal for a decade or so, most of the poetry of Albert Goldbarth, and all by Frederick Seidel. You can find molecular biology, virology, and sociology texts in the pile of books near where I recline to read. I keep writing poetry and run my efforts by my imprimatur incarnate, the poet William Harmon, and have more than enough from the past ten years to make a book or two, if I ever make myself type them up in proper form and email the ms. off to some small press. Working title: Old Guy Poems.
I also got married for the first time, I should add, at age 63.My wife and I had dated back in my grad school years and then lost track of each other, but through the magic of Google I found her out in CA and single. She is a grad of UNC in creative writing. We have season tickets to the Aiken Symphony—yes, there is a symphony in town, its members drawn from all over the state and Georgia as well, and while they aren’t a big city orchestra, they aren’t chopped liver either. I am friends with a young poet at the local college in Aiken, Roy Seeger, and he likes to submit some of my poetry to “the workshop” type of dissection in between listening to my John Berryman stories from MN. I keep buying philosophy books and creating philosophy reading projects: e.g., I read four books about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and then went through that puzzling little book again, slowly this time; I read about five books by Carnap and a slew of articles about his work, many thanks to the generosity of Richard Creath at AZ State, a Carnap scholar who sent me stacks of his reprints; I learned some deontic logic by working through a text on the topic and reading a six-inch high stack of articles about famous problems involving deontic logic. My grad school teacher Lou Goble worked on deontic logic and I always wanted to learn some of it. I worked through Peter Smith’s logic text for fun (I recommend it), and read most of Judy Thomson’s work on ethics. She has to be one of the best philosophers in the past fifty years.
The most recent philosophy book I have read is Shadows of Syntax , which is the first-book length treatment of the conventionalist view on the truth of logical and mathematical statements. It is a striking book and shows how conventionalism is the only game in town for anyone who adopts a naturalistic stance on the world. Though I was hired to teach aesthetics and wrote in the area, I have not read much philosophy of art while retired. Truth be told, I did that area because I was hired to, and my duties have been discharged. I was a philosopher of language coming out of grad school, but there weren’t any jobs for a Chomsky-style philosopher of language, or any other style, at the time. Luckily, I was Ziff’s student and so I could pass as an aesthetician. The only thing I published in philosophy of language after grad school was my monograph Deep Structure ; I have never taught philosophy of language either, because others had dibs on the course, despite almost having completed the course work for an M.A. in linguistics while at Chapel Hill. I, unlike others I could name, taught and published in the area I was hired to. Moreover, the going rate in aesthetics never thrilled me. While sitting in my office in the mid 70s, Alex Michalos remarked that I had a lot of hard stuff on the bookshelf for an aesthetician. Indeed I did, and then tried to explain to him how a book on algorithms could be relevant to aesthetics. For better or worse, philosophers tend to think that if you like the arts, or do something like write poetry, then you are assuredly interested in aesthetics and probably already in the area. Artsy becomes equated with philosophy of artsy.
I did read, a couple of years back, some articles on aesthetic testimony to find out what the problem was, thinking that perhaps it would connect up with my friend Dave Schum’s work on credibility analyses in cascaded reasoning---probability applied to chains of inferences that involve testimony from people. It did not, not even close. Most of the long papers seemed to be written for the insomniacs among us. Not a year goes by that a journal doesn’t ask me to referee a paper on grue, and I always agree to, but always seem to reject them. Are they sending the good stuff to someone else? I reviewed one book for an aesthetics journal that was, I knew from the start, hooey. The book review editor thought my first draft was too critical if not harsh; he has not asked me to review again. My philosopher friends keep me busy commenting on drafts of their papers, which run the gamut—e.g., philosophy of religion, of statistics, some on grue of course, a little on ethics or philosophy of mind.
I subscribed to the Journal of Philosophy for a couple of years in retirement, but now subscribe to the Philosophical Review , which has become the journal for really long, formal papers. I hope all that formalism is being put to good use. This is a complete flip from the days of yore, say the 60s, when you could find Norman Malcom, Nelson Pike, and Peter Geach in an issue. After a ten year hiatus from exercise because of my back, I returned to working out by using the Nautilus machines and stair climber at the local college gym. I kept eyeing the big barbells and eventually decided to see what would happen. Nothing I couldn’t deal with, so I joined a cross fit place because they had the bouncing barbells, the ones with rubber plates. They put me in a corner to do what lifting I could. Next I rented a storage unit near my house, one of those climate-controlled ones, and equipped it with a lifting platform, rack, bench, and a seven foot Olympic bar and enough plates for someone my age.
Thrice a week I learn firsthand what aging does to your strength; I have declined to the point at which I can rarely do fifty percent of what I used to when young. Fight the fragility, I tell myself, resist the damn slow fade to black as another tendon gives way. I have done this for about five years, with time out for shoulder and heart surgery as well as the assorted injuries that come from failing to realize I am not in my twenties and competing. My storage unit gym is decorated with close to a hundred photos and posters of past and current Olympic lifting greats and near greats, and a few pluggers like myself. I kept in almost daily email contact with Tommy Kono until his death a few years back, and attended Norb Schemansky’s 91st birthday party near Detroit. I gave Norb a custom-made tee shirt with “Schemansky School of Weightlifting” on the front and a memorable quote of his on the back: “push, pull, squat and do it fast”. The NY Times did long obituaries for both of these greats, which is not something they do for just any weightlifter; both were chosen as among the best lifters of the 20th century.
I have also collected lifting photos and memorabilia from the 60s or thereabouts. I must have twenty five framed photos, patches, and magazine covers on walls of my house, and a whole corner for Norb Schemansky’s 1964 trophy for the best lifter at the national championships. You will also find a good number of photos in my home from my former student turned wrestler, Raven; also there is an article on my wall about my former student Brooks Clark, who was the American amateur champion triathlete and in the top three professional triathletes in the 80s. He trained at the now infamous Foxcatcher facility run by crazy John DuPont. There is also a display of photos of my old college friend Charlie Sanders up on the wall; when he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2006, I wrote him for some eight by ten glossies. He owed me, since we trained together for two years at Minnesota. Before there were strength coaches, there was Stalker training linemen who wanted to go pro.
It’s not all sports up on the walls either. You will find a display about a famous lieder singer from Austria, Wolfgang Holzmair, who included my reviews in his press kit , and a manuscript page from a long poem by Ammons (it won the National Book Award) and broadsides of poems by Harmon and Jonathan Williams, an original Black Mountain College student. After walking around my house, one person remarked: this is a damn shrine. Perhaps it is. I collect things. Don’t get me started on my collection of autographed poetry books or we will be at this all night.
Now for your last question, about why alongside all these abiding interests of mine, philosophy has been something I find worthwhile. It certainly is; just look at the money I spend on philosophy books in a year, the time I spend looking at philosophy papers online, and the hours I spend thinking about philosophy problems which, yes, I could spend on my other interests. From the first time I bumped into real philosophy, it struck me as important. I wanted to understand the problems it posed and arrive at settled positions on them. Fat chance, but for some I am content, for good reason I hope. It feels like I have a philosophy drive (neurosis? habit? mere exaggeration? ) akin to the drives old psychologists used to talk about for sex, food, and so on. This is what it feels like from the inside out. Even with more than enough to fill my time, I can’t go long without wanting to think about something philosophical. My other interests do not have what philosophy has: intellectual problems that reach out and grab you by the throat and say you had better get clear about this before you die. Why is this worthwhile? Most of the time you end up with the predictable answer: understanding these problems is intrinsically worthwhile. As they would put it in the South, say what?
Last year I bought the most expensive book I have ever purchased, a Springer anthology of readings on intrinsic value, the only collection on the topic. I read most of it, but am still waiting for the lights to go on with about intrinsic value, or, as the case may be, for them to go off.
3:16: And for the curious readers here at 3:16am, can you recommend five books that will take us further into your philosophical world?
DS: Here are the five books. I would also put in a plug for William Harmon’s books of poetry if you are into poetry: e.g., Treasury Holiday, Legion: Civic Choruses, One Long Poem, Mutatis Mutandis . I make this suggestion with a money back guarantee.
The Web of Belief, Second Edition, by W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian. This is a compact guide to rational belief and the underground guide to Quine’s systematic philosophy. I have been a Quine aficionado ever since grad school. I have used this short book in Intro. and my pseudo-science course, and I reread the preface on days when I am depressed. I provided extensive comments for the second edition. Both Quine and Ullian were outside reviewers for my tenure case at DE. I am surprised that The Web has not become a staple in those clear thinking courses from sea to shining sea, what with how useful its virtues that make for a plausible hypothesis can be in sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Fact, Fiction, and Forecast , Fourth Edition, by Nelson Goodman. I used this book in my epistemology course and wrote about thirty pages of handouts on it that passed muster with Joe Ullian. Goodman was also an outside reviewer on my tenure case. But I mainly include it here for the obvious reason, my volume Grue! The New Riddle of Induction . If you haven’t already read Goodman’s classic, where have you been and pray tell what have you been reading?
Understanding Understanding by Paul Ziff. All of Ziff’s books are worth reading, I will repeat to my dying day, but this is one that I helped Paul with in terms of research, doing the proofreading and the index. And I was there when he was working on half of the essays. The book includes essays on understanding, what is said, the logical structure of natural languages, formal compared to natural languages, Quine and Grice on meaning, seeing things, and conceptual schemes.
Thinking Things Through by Clark Glymour. Either the first or second edition. This is an introductory text that is unlike all others . You may have run across my blurbs in the advertising for it. I also read and commented on the first edition in draft. If you know of the work of Clark Glymour in philosophy of science, and in the Tetrad automated causal reasoning project at Carnegie Mellon, you know what to expect. The book covers the concept of proof, knowledge and skepticism with an emphasis on a Bayesian approach and the idea of reliability, philosophy of mind in terms of the computable view of minds, and a final chapter, in the second edition, which takes you into decision theory. I would have used this book in my Intro. classes if all my students were engineering majors, which would guarantee that they know how to work hard, have a good deal of smarts, and don’t turn off at the first sign of a symbol.
Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner. Gardner is one of the kings of debunking all manner of things, especially pseudo-science. Though an old book, it is still applicable since yesterday’s pseudo-sciences set the tune that today’s sing. As Lakatos might put it, they are a stagnant research tradition, but you had better strike the word ‘research’. You can find out the truth about everything from astrology and ESP and UFOs to the flat earth and lost continent of Atlantis. Gardner is always fun to read, and smart. He started out in philosophy as a Carnap student but found he could make a good living from writing. I once invited him to speak at DE and he sent back a small postcard that had a list of things that Martin Gardner did not do, with giving talks checked off. He later sent me a nice letter about some of my debunking efforts.
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