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From Neuroanthropology, May 28, 2008

On the interdisciplinary New Humanities Initiative being created by David Sloan Wilson and Leslie Heywood at Binghamton University.

Proposal here.

Would Wittgenstein have favored closer research ties between the humanities and the sciences? Given his general disdain for academic culture and cultural conservatism, the answer is likely not. Then again, his conception of philosophy as an adverbial does promote  – in theory at least – interdisciplinary work, if only to contrast philosophy with science.

The differences between philosophy and science make the prospect of interdisciplinary work exciting. According to Wittgenstein, science provides causal explanations of empirical phenomena; philosophical problems, by contrast, cannot be solved by experience or causal explanation, since they are conceptual, not factual. They need not new information or discoveries, but greater clarity about linguistic meaning. The second-order reflections of philosophy on our conceptual apparatus can address in scientific practice, according to Wittgenstein, the contempt for the ‘particular case’ and the ‘craving for generality’. Instead of seeking analytic definitions, we should be mapping the various uses of words in linguistic practice.

One danger of ‘false difficulty’ in the humanities lies in the constant ballooning upwards and outwards of ideas and theories brought on by every surge of academic commentary. The origin or source of the problems that occupy us are lost as we gleefully alight here and there onto the latest ‘interpretation’ or ‘jargon’ and go with it where we will.

Well, every tree has roots. As a tree grows upwards and outwards, and becomes a mighty specimen to hold up in awe and rapt observation, its roots dig deeper into the earth, deeper into the dark. Every theory or interpretation that contributes a new word to the industry of ‘false difficulty’ also contributes a deepening of the roots – a deepening into the dark – and we are in danger of becoming lost to the interminable ‘chatter’ of half-baked scholarship. The roots are almost inaccessible to us now, so what hope do we have of recovering the problem itself?


From the Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2008 

Are you nervous? Good. You should be. Anxiety means you are taking the enterprise seriously and your adrenalin is flowing. Without adrenalin you will be a boring speaker.

But too much anxiety will get in the way of what you have to do; too much adrenalin, and you will not think straight.

The purpose of the following rules on presenting a paper at a scholarly conference is to enable you to embrace your anxieties and put them to work — both for you and, just as important, for the arguments you have to make and the stories you have to tell.

Dorothy Kenyon, a great feminist and civil-rights activist who spent much of her time speaking in public, once observed that a public talk must “always seem to be improvised, but it must never be improvised.” If you want to hold your audience, you must plan ahead, and plan carefully.

Entire article here.

A excerpt from the 1996 movie on Alan Turing called Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi as Turing. Watch to the end for the dialogue on Wittgenstein.



From the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 14, 2008

Put down the pen, turn off the computer: Writing a book is only the first part of becoming an academic author. Today, more than ever, you also have to become your publisher’s partner.

It’s easy to imagine what that might mean while the book is still cooking. But the real work of promotion begins when the book is done. This isn’t the moment to be tired of your subject — you’re the only one to whom your book is old news. Here are a few things authors can do. Some require plane flights and hotel stays, others you can do from home.

Talk to Your Publisher’s Publicity Department.

Get its take on your book’s potential. If it’s a trade book, can you get a breakfast appearance or an autograph session at BookExpo, the massive booksellers’ jamboree? Can you get on “Fresh Air?” Cable? Network TV? For most academic authors, those aren’t likely prospects, but it’s always worth asking politely. If you’re not big media fodder, there are plenty of other ways in which to take part in your book’s career. Be sure you’ve filled out the author’s questionnaire that the publisher sent you to guide its promotion efforts. Fill it out completely. Which means all the parts.

Make the Net Work for You.

If you’re a blogger, you already have a platform. If not, maybe you’ve been a lurker on a forum or an e-mail discussion group. Now is the moment to step into the cyberspotlight and say something about your exciting new project. Don’t be afraid to e-mail friends and acquaintances. Spam filters and institutional protocols may set limits on what you can do, but an e-blast is a good way for you, or you and your publisher, to reach carefully selected lists.

If you have a Web site, use it to reward the curious. Offer more information (for example, visuals) about your project. Make the URL part of your e-signature. If you don’t want to mix holiday snaps with your professional writing life, consider creating a separate Web site dedicated to your subject.

Watch Amazon. Be sure your publisher has put up the cover of your book with the correct copy, advance blurbs, and good reviews as they come in.

Entire article is here.


In the final paragraph of my last column, I observed that the report of the New York State Commission on Higher Education slights – indeed barely mentions – the arts and humanities, despite the wide-ranging scope of its proposals. Those who posted comments agreed with David Small that “the arts and the humanities are always the last to receive any assistance.”

There were, however, different explanations of this unhappy fact. Sean Pidgeon put the blame on “humanities departments who are responsible for the leftist politics that still turn people off.” Kedar Kulkarni blamed “the absence of a culture that privileges Learning to improve oneself as a human being.” Bethany blamed universities, which because they are obsessed with “maintaining funding” default on the obligation to produce “well rounded citizens.” Matthew blamed no one, because in his view the report’s priorities are just what they should be: “When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I’ll rescind my comment.”

Although none of these commentators uses the word, the issue they implicitly raise is justification. How does one justify funding the arts and humanities? It is clear which justifications are not available. You can’t argue that the arts and humanities are able to support themselves through grants and private donations. You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.

Entire post here.

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 8, 2008

Many of the steps you must take before submitting an article to a scholarly journal are self-evident and can objectively increase your chances of acceptance. It’s what happens afterward — when the journal’s editor sends you reviews that may be mixed or even negative, and asks you to revise the article — that requires a far more nuanced reaction.

Helping tenure-track professors get past the “revise and resubmit” stage, or even overcome a not-so-categorical rejection, is the subject of this column.

The rise in the number of journals has made the publication game ever more complex. In just the past few years, I have seen almost a dozen new research periodicals in my own field. With profusion comes confusion. Which one should I submit my work to? Which one will “count” more, come tenure time? Which one is more, or less, likely to accept my work? What are the guidelines? What are the editors’ and reviewers’ predilections?

Entire article is here.

59. The problem with philosophy and with academic scholarship generally, especially in the humanities, is the danger of the swelling spiral of commentary. We heap comment upon comment, until the stink of it reaches so high that we lose sight of the real world. Not only do philosophers use their own jargon, but they wash their own laundry. Like any self-perpetuating bureaucracy, the tail we devour is our own.

According to Witgenstein, there are laid up in the forms of our languages and in the metaphors and similes we use as a matter of course, emblematic illustrations of our concepts. The picture of blindness as a darkness in the soul or that a person has a soul are examples of such iconographic representations.

At play in academia is the picture that illustrates the scholar as a stick figure with an inflated head. Many academics and institutions cleave to this form of representation. It influences academic experience, academic relations and academic values. The picture encourages the view that mind matters most. By contrast, the body is the incubator that digests and secretes. It is like a hollow test tube acting as pedastal for the overblown head that crowns and overcomes it.

The picture encourages false seriousness in human relations. For one wants to be seen to be extended beyond the mere obviousness of one’s body. In academic writing, the hold of the picture has been detected and is called ‘false difficulty’. Nonetheless, it is still widely judged to be a sin of the mind, not of the will. The air of soleminity at academic gatherings, such as the conference and lecture, gives to the feeling that something of vital importance is transpiring. The strong inclination to think this may show the resolve of the picture only, through whose spectacled frame we see whatever we look it. The appeal to tradition, to the great minds whose passing we still mourn and in whose name we speak in hushed tones: we merely curl and caress with our fingers the conceptual frame that sits on our nose. Don’t we ever wish to take them off? 

Available faculty or research positions in Philosophy are here, courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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