Year: 2008

Seminar styles

I put some quick notes together for myself for the Hodges reading group yesterday: I’ll work away at them again in the next few days (and certainly before the next seminar), and post the resulting after-the-event handout here, for it’s worth [Later, this might take longer than I wanted]. I must say that the Hodges book is turning out to be harder going than I had imagined: he is capable elsewhere of writing about difficult stuff with verve and great clarity, but here things get a lot denser. I thought it might just be that my pure maths (group theory and the like) is rusty enough for me not to be getting enough out of some of the examples he gives: but then some mathmos have expressed similar views about his approachability.

A very noticeable difference in style is emerging between a logic reading group run for philosophers and one with a mixed group of philosophers, mathmos and compscis. Philosophers — ok, our friendly local lot — seem to be happy to share their ignorance, and take turns week-by-week to introduce a chapter or a paper, albeit fairly briefly, even if they make no pretence to really be on top of the stuff. And they will dive into the discussion, cheerfully asking for clarification, or trying out toy mini-examples, etc. Mathmos and compscis on the other hand — although personally a perfectly friendly bunch! — seem on the whole very reluctant to volunteer to have a bash at introducing a chapter, or indeed to say anything much after someone has given the intro. Which is a pity, as I learn a lot from the exchanges when they do happen.

Logical Options, 4

For what they are worth, you can find my reading notes for next week’s seminar on Sections 2.5 and 2.6 of Logical Options here (they might help some students). Writing these notes has very much been displacement behaviour in the last day or two: I should really be preparing something on Ch. 4 of the Shorter Hodges for the model theory seminar this week, which I daftly promised to introduce. But heavens, that is not exactly an easy read. Gulp.

Three cheers for Andy Clark

Thursday’s Routledge Lecture here was given by Andy Clark. I thought he did a terrific job for a lecture intended for an audience not just of philosophers. I don’t know if he is right or indeed if I fully understand what his position about the messiness of the mind comes to (and for once “I’m not sure I understand …” is not philosopher-speak for “I’m damned sure he is horribly confused …”). But I certainly think that he is concerned with a bunch of interesting issues, the kind of thing that is actually worth working on in the philosophy of mind — engaging hands-on with the sciences of the mind.

I always thought of my old intro book with Owen Jones, The Philosophy of Mind, as an exercise in getting out of the way the relatively uninteresting a priori arm-chair stuff, kicking into touch various bits of mystery-mongering, leaving the field clear to get on with the interesting stuff engaging with work in cognitive neuro-psychology, artificial intelligence and the like. To be sure, we no doubt didn’t get the a priori story dead right. But who really cares? We only need to get it, so to speak, right enough to enable us stop worrying that there might be mysterious obstacles in the way to a many-pronged empirically-informed assault on the interesting stuff. When I dip into the journals is a bit depressing to find in some areas epicycles of armchair reflection still being piled up by philosophers of mind. So three cheers for the likes of Andy Clark who remind us that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Three cheers for Jonathan Bennett

I rather doubt that it is worth teaching history of philosophy to undergraduates very early in their careers (ok, they might profitably read small gobbets, ripped from their contexts, but that’s not the same, is it?). To my mind, the proper way of initially honouring the Great Dead Philosophers is to take some of their problems seriously — but it seems to me pretty unlikely that the best way to take their problems seriously (in the company of near beginners) is to start where they did.

But be that as it may: if you are going to teach sizeable chunks of e.g. Locke, Berkeley and Hume to beginning undergraduates, the least you can do is make them accessible by translating them into modern English first. After all, we are supposed to be teaching philosophy, not teaching how to read 17th/18th century texts in order to excavate the arguments. So three cheers to Jonathan Bennett for taking on that task and doing it all so splendidly (and it is difficult to think of anyone you’d trust to do a better job).

I can imagine that lots of his colleagues in the history-of-philosophy trade will be dismissive of the enterprise or think it a waste of Bennett’s great talents. But not me — his early modern texts site is terrific. Check it out if you haven’t done already! You might even find yourself, like me, reading chunks of the Great Dead Philosophers with some unaccustomed enjoyment.

Logic Options, 2: Reprise

Having given the seminar, and also found out what Michael Potter was saying about related stuff in lectures, I’ve redone/expanded the stuff on natural deduction in my reading notes on Logical Options Sec. 1.5.

Each round of tinkering makes the notes a bit more stand-alone: so if a student who has been introduced to logic by trees wants to get a handle on how axiomatic systems, natural deduction systems, and sequent calculi work for propositional logic, then this stuff should be useful even if they never open Logic Options (if only because it is more expansive than Bell, DeVidi and Solomon, and also it shuffles the techno stuff about the soundness and completeness proofs for an axiomatic system to the end, rather than cluttering up the exposition of the key features of the various approaches).

I should say, though, that these notes are dashed off at great speed between a lot of other commitments, so there are no doubt typos/thinkos (which I’d of course be grateful to hear about!). Enjoy …

Another day, another logic lecture

These days, I use a data-projector for all my intro logic lectures. Mostly that works really well (I mean, compared with old-school chalk-on-the-blackboard, or fiddling about with transparencies on an OHP). Still, it can lead to new kinds of foul-ups. For a start, there can be those annoyingly distracting formal typo/thinko errors on the slides — correcting LaTeX-generated slides on the fly in lectures isn’t exactly as easy as reaching for the board rubber to smudge out the offending chalk or writing over transparencies! But worse, of course, you can suddenly realize that the slides just don’t explain clearly what you wanted to explain, and/or don’t tackle things in a sensible order, and your presentation falls to pieces in a rather conspicuous way! I managed to foul-up both ways in yesterday’s first year lecture. Grrrrrr. So annoying.

Oh well. But on the other hand I don’t have have the once common experience, e.g. when I was teaching a lot of philosophy of mind, of having a headful of objections and counter-objections to more or less anything I was saying — something I never really got comfortable with. Now, at least I believe what I am saying in lectures …

Logic Options, 3: Reading Dummett

I’ve just been putting together the third instalment of notes on Logical Options. In part these briefly comment on some things in the first half of Bell, DeVidi and Solomon’s Chapter 2, and review some key definitions (preparatory to doing the official hard-core semantics next time). But we are also reading Chapter 2 of Dummett’s Frege: Philosophy of Language.

Now, Dummett is often regarded as a particularly difficult-to-read writer. But not so. Or at least, certainly not in this chapter, which is extremely clearly written. He does have one really rather annoying general habit though that promotes the reputation for difficulty. He will cheerfully give us even a forty-page chapter (or longer) without a single section break. That can make everything seem unnecessarily daunting — and students can easily lose their bearings. So I thought that perhaps the most useful thing I could do is to suggest a way of chunking up the chapter we are reading into bite-sized sections (in the way that an interventionist editor might have insisted on Dummett’s doing in the first place). My suggested divisions start along the following lines:

  1. Introduction (the problem of multiple generality) [pp. 9 – 10]
  2. The fundamental insight — ‘sentences are constructed in a series of stages’ [pp. 10 – 12] In natural languages, the sequence of stages by which a sentence is constructed is not always transparently revealed by the linear order of the resulting sentence.
  3. The quantifier variable notation as a way of reflecting the fundamental insight [p. 12 – 15] ‘The point of the new notation was to enable the constructional history of any sentence to be determined unambiguously.’

And so on and so forth through the paper (for an expansion and continuation, see my notes).

Now, is doing this sort of thing ‘spoon-feeding’? I think not. Or at least, not in a bad way. We surely do want a near-beginner at logic to grasp Dummett’s ideas on the depth and significance of the quantifier/variable notation (after all, these aren’t just technical tricks which we are teaching). And anything that can be done to make the ideas more available by removing some merely surface difficulties in navigating through Dummett’s text is going to be worth doing.

Kilvert’s Diary

The Guardian last weekend had a piece on Kilvert’s Diary which recounted the distressing history of the wanton destruction of the most of the originals, with only a small fraction published. It also claimed ‘The one-volume abridgement, published by Penguin, and subsequently by Pimlico, has fallen out of print, while Plomer’s three-volume edition has long been unavailable’. Well, a bit of idle googling quickly showed that at least that‘s happily wrong. The abridged version is in apparently in print from Read Books (see here), and the three-volume version is certainly in print too (see here). You can readily pick up e.g. inexpensive copies of the Folio Society abridged version from abebooks too. In part it is a wonderful evocation of the landscape around Clyro, in part a touching record of a lost and simpler world, in part a moving reminder of the pretty dire lot of the rural poor, especially in age or infirmity. Kilvert is a humane observer who can write wonderfully. Read it!

Theories, models and Galois Connections

Our second meeting of the Model Theory Reading Group, and Nathan Bowler — a category theory PhD student — gave a terrific overview talk taking us through the rest of the second chapter of Hodges. Moreover, he briefly introduced us to Martin Hyland’s idea that it is illuminating to think of the relation between the set of all theories and the power set of the set of all structures, together with the ‘semantics’ function from theories to their set of models, and the ‘syntax’ function back from a set of structures to the smallest theory true of just that set as forming a Galois connection. A fascinating glimpse (resolution: I must get more on top of this sort of category-theoretic stuff).

Despite occasional light touches, Hodges’s second chapter is pretty relentless stuff (a few more vivid examples of various notions, and neat illustrations of various distinctions would surely have been very welcome). So Nathan’s talk turned a session that promised to be very hard going into an enjoyable and illuminating occasion.

An Even Shorter Model Theory

Justin Bledin, a grad student at Berkeley who gave a paper today at the conference here, has a useful seeming 35 page set of notes on material drawn from Chang and Keisler, and from the shorter Hodges, outlining some of the highlights from relatively elementary model theory.

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