I got the very good news eight or nine days ago of an award under the AHRC Research Leave scheme, to complete a book on Gentzen’s proof(s) of the consistency of arithmetic (how the best versions work — not obvious — and what their philosophical significance is — not at all obvious). As quite a few people have said to me, there’s a very real need for such a book, and I hope I can make a decent job of it. I’m aiming to write something that is as accessible as my Gödel book as far as the technicalities are concerned (why is it that books on proof theory can be such tough going?); in other words, I want at least beginning grad students in philosophy who’ve done an intro math logic course to be able to follow it. And as for the philosophical commentary and critical discussion as we go along, well again I hope that will be accessible to the same audience too. (As my Explaining Chaos and Gödel books should show, I’m all for maximum accessibility: there’s no point in trying to write a book for a readership of eleven, if only because no publisher these days would touch it.)
Now, I posted here a week ago, saying that I’d got the grant (and praising the AHRC for a conspicuous lack of ageism). But I added a remark — in what was supposed to be tone of world-weary amusement — about the fact that my research proposal was ranked “an outstanding proposal meeting world-class standards of scholarship, originality, quality and significance”, suggesting that “world-class” was going it a bit.
Where two or three philosopher are gathered together these days, we often bemoan the exaggerations that have become routine in writing references, commenting on grant proposals, etc. etc. A student, to get into a US grad school, has to be the best you’ve taught in a dozen years; a planned piece of work has to be of ground-breaking originality, with the world waiting breathlessly. (In fact, I wrote here about reference inflation just a few weeks ago: we all know the phenomenon only too well).
Well, I don’t know about you, but to me “world-class” means really, really, outstanding. How many world-class philosophers are there active in the UK? How many would you put into your world first eleven? Ok, let’s be generous, your world first twenty-five all-stars? The fingers of one hand would be enough to count them, surely.
And one thing is for certain, by my lights most of us who get AHRC grants are not “world-class”. We are trying to usefully move things on just a bit; we hope our stuff might get onto reading lists and get talked about a bit in its area. In other words, we try to be decently interesting and make some good new points. But in my idiolect, as in that of most philosophers, that hardly makes the work discipline-changing world-class stuff.
So, I said I was amused by the seeming gap between “world-class” and the useful, pushing-things-on-a-bit book that I’m writing. And I lamented the way that exaggerations of that kind have become rife in political and management discourse (ok, I used that philosopher’s term of art “bullshit”).
Well, what was supposed to be a weary old lag’s comment on a linguistic decline has apparently caused serious offence. In particular, it has been suggested that describing my planned book as doing for Gentzen what I tried to do for Gödel, i.e. “explain clearly and make a few philosophical comments along the way” was inconsistent with its being proper research, with the implication that I shouldn’t be getting the grant and had been deceiving the AHRC. But “making a few philosophical comments along the way” was of course exaggerating in that understated Cambridge way, to counterbalance the “world-class” exaggeration in the opposite direction. So I do apologize if someone got the wrong end of the stick. Of course what I’m doing is serious business, pushing things on as best I can. That should go without saying: but it seems that I need to say it.
Ok, back to thinking about provably terminating computations …