Postcard from Ravello

Down to Ravello for a few days to do nothing-very-much, after a busy stay in Naples (not a city we really knew at all, so a great deal to see!).

For holiday entertainment — having speedily devoured Kate Atkinson’s immensely readable new Transcription, picked up at the airport — I’ve been reading Norman Lewis’s classic Naples ’44.

No, perhaps entertainment is not quite the right word. The wartime diary is wonderfully well written, and often wryly amusing. But too many scenes are cruel reminders of how fragile our social order can be. Not perhaps what I needed right now. I just get all the more angry at the mad Brexiteers’ casual destructiveness.

And there I was, promising myself a temporary holiday from fretting about all that …

IFL2: the introductory chapters again

[Updated file, linking to revised document, brought to front of the blog] After a hiatus, it’s back to work on the second edition of my Introduction to Formal Logic. I’ve been tidying and improving the first tranche of chapters — so here they are again (with an embarrassing number of corrections kindly provided by Scott Weller).

IFL2, Chapters 1 to 7 [link now removed]

The headline news is that these really are introductory chapters (general scene-setting before we start work in earnest on propositional logic in Chapter 9).  So I introduce ideas like: validity, deduction vs induction, showing validity by ‘proofs’, showing invalidity by ‘counterexamples’. I also briefly discuss logical validity in a narrow sense vs deductive validity more generally. A quick look at the Table of Contents should give you a better idea of what these chapters are about.

Hopefully, the presentation is accessible and reasonably user-friendly without talking down to the reader. So this first part of IFL2 should be of interest and of use to any philosophy student about to start a logic course this next term/semester (indeed, they should be of use to any beginning philosopher). Do please spread the word, and do point prospective students to the link!

I’ll leave these chapters online, freely available, for the some weeks. In the meantime, all further comments/corrections as always most gratefully received!


A chance find in our favourite, delightfully well run, richly stocked, Oxfam bookshop (the one in Saffron Walden, since you ask) — a copy of Madeline Miller’s recently published Circe. The novel has been very well reviewed (and some readers I follow on twitter have been bowled over). But we weren’t planning on getting this, as — for whatever reason — neither of us really took to the author’s previous best-seller, The Song of Achilles. Still, here was the really rather beautifully produced hardback of her new book, at a fraction of the price. And after reading the first couple of pages … well, I had to snap it up.

By another chance, I finished the novel I had been reading recently the very next day (Philip Roth’s American Pastoral since you ask – much featured in those lists of “the five novels of Roth’s which you must read” which appeared after his death, and yes, I hadn’t read it before, and yes, I should have done, because yes, it is terrific.) So I picked up Circe again straight away and continued reading. Tales of gods and witches and magic are not usually my thing at all. Nor is writing which can be consciously mannered, sometimes echoing old translations from the Greek epics, oddly mixed with modern vernacular. And yet — by witchcraft! — it works wonderfully well. Once you allow yourself to be swept up in the rhythms of the prose, there is much delight to be found in the writing. And the unfolding of tale itself becomes entirely  compelling. Circe describes the trickster Odysseus as a “spiral shell. Always another curve out of sight”; but what Madeline Miller does is bring vividly into sight Circe’s own spiralling journey into the human world. I felt rather bereft when the book ended.

I’m not sure though what happened to the men turned into swine …

IFL2, back to the drawing board …


Well, it’s not back to square one, but it is time to radically re-think plans for the shape of the book (and what will go into it, and what will survive as online supplements). Let me explain the practical problem — as all thoughts and comments will be gratefully received. Being retired has all kinds of upsides, but I can no longer buttonhole colleagues or long-suffering grad students over coffee. So, dear readers, it is your help and advice I seek!

Background info. The first edition of my Intro to Formal Logic has a little  under 350 text pages between the prelims and the end matter. Of those, about 270 pages gently cover “core” material that will survive in rewritten/improved form into the second edition (introductory chapters on the very idea of validity; PL languages and truth-table testing for tautological validity; extending this to deal with the conditional; explaining how QL languages work; defining validity for quantificational arguments; adding the identity predicate and functions to formal languages; a bit of philosophical commentary along the way). The other 80 pages cover propositional and quantificational trees.

So the only proof system in IFL1 is a tree system. Tree systems are very elegant and students find them easy to play with. And ease of use is not to be scoffed at (after all, exploring strategies for completing natural deduction proofs might be fun for the mathematically minded teacher, not so much for the more symbol-phobic beginning philosophy student!). Still, many/most teachers think that beginners ought to know something about natural deduction. Indeed I think that too! — but IFL1 started life as my handouts for a first year course given to students who were also going to do a compulsory second year logic course where they would hear about natural deduction, so I then just didn’t need to cover ND in my notes. Still, for a more standalone text, of wider use, very arguably I should cover ND. People certainly complained about the omission from  IFL1, and said that that was why they weren’t adopting it as a course text.

Now, I initially believed that in revising  IFL I could cut down various parts of the core material, speed up the treatment of trees (in part by repurposing some material as online Appendices) and “buy” myself some thirty pages that way. CUP said they would also allow me an extra 30 pages (maximum, to keep the overall length of the book under 400 pages). So I thought that would give me 60 pages for chapters on natural deduction.

Well, …

It doesn’t seem to be panning out quite like that ….! In various ways, I hadn’t thought things through properly.

(A) For a start, in reworking the “core” material in the first part of the book — up to the introduction of quantifiers — I seem to have added to the page length here. Yes, the result is clearer, more readable, more accurate … but not shorter. OK, I have been able to speed up the treatment of propositional trees while improving that too. But it balances out, and the first part of the book is more or less just as long as it was. So I’m not hopeful now of being able to save too many core pages and/or cut down the treatment of trees by much. On the other hand, the material on natural deduction for propositional and predicate logic looks as if it will run to about 80 pages, if I aim for a comparable level of clarity, accessibility and user-friendliness.

So instead of adding 30 pages, I’m in danger of adding something like 70 pages to the book, if I cover both trees and natural deduction — and there is probably no way that CUP will wear that.

(B) But in any case, I’m beginning to think that a full-scale treatment of both trees and ND — length apart — is just too weighty for an avowedly introductory book, too daunting. A beginning student shouldn’t come away from a first logic text feeling overwhelmed! Better to have mastered one way of doing things, while having been told that isn’t the end of the story.

So even if I could find and apply Alice’s magical “Shrink me” potion, and could cram everything in, I now not sure that would be a wise way to go. Which leaves me with two options:

  1. Keep the text as a tree-based text, of much the same size as present, while adding ND chapters as an optional extra available online. (Perhaps using just some of those permitted extra printed pages as an arm-waving introduction to what is spelt out in the online chapters.)
  2. Make the text a ND-based one, of much the same size as present, while offering tree-based chapters as an optional extra available online.   (Perhaps using just some of those permitted extra pages as an arm-waving introduction to what is spelt out in the online chapters.)

Keeping to (1) would, yes, give the world an improved version of IFL, but one still subject to the shortcomings that many perceived, namely that the book wouldn’t have a “real” proof-system.

Moving to (2) is therefore tempting, as I think I can present an intuitively-attractive Fitch-style system in a very user-friendly way.

But yes, I do still think that trees make for a very student-friendly way into a first formal system. But then, I do think natural deduction is more, well, natural — regimenting modes of reasoning we use all the time, so surely something beginners should know about early in their logical studies. And arguably (as now some commenters note below) a grasp of ND is something that students need to be able to carry forward into later studies.

So which way should I jump? Choices, choices …! I’m still mulling this over, and all thought-provoking comments that might help me decide will be most gratefully received.

[As well as comments below, there is a thought-provoking Twitter thread from Greg Restall, @consequently, with others responding.]

The Pavel Haas Quartet’s Dvorak, another triumph

Photo: Smetanova Litomyšl

Released near the end of 2107, it was my CD of the year; and now the Gramophone magazine have given it their Chamber Music Award for 2018. The Pavel Haas Quartet playing Dvorak  — in this case, the second Piano Quintet Op. 81, with their friend Boris Giltberg on piano, and the String Quintet Op. 97, with their more-than-friend Pavel Nikl as the second viola — is as good as it gets.

Leaving aside an early CD of Beethoven quartets, given away with a BBC Music magazine, the PHQ have now released seven CDs with Supraphon. Their debut CD won the Gramophone award for  Chamber Music disk of the year. And now so too have their last four recordings. This really is a quite extraordinary achievement, as far as I know quite unparalleled in any area of classical music. And it is against the stiffest of competitions, when you think how many stunningly good string quartets there are performing today.

As one  — again bowled over — reviewer wondered, ‘How do they do it?’ That is really for the more musically perceptive than I am to answer. But even the amateur listener, hearing them live, can only be struck by the evident depth of musical understanding and the level of passionate commitment combined with the greatest technical control of fine detail. Long may they flourish with their new violist (above) who seems to bring yet more to the group.

Next up, a year hence, a CD of Shostakovich quartets …

The Pavel Haas Quartet at the Edinburgh Festival

Pavel Haas Quartet
Photo: Marco Borggreve

With their last CD newly shortlisted for yet another Gramophone Award, The Pavel Haas Quartet have started their new season with a concert at the Edinburgh Festival, playing Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7, Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet and the Ravel Quartet. You can listen for another four weeks at the BBC site, here. They are in terrific form – who would guess that they have only been playing with their new violist for half a year? – and the Schubert here (starting at 18.45) is quite exceptional, even better I think than when I last heard them play it in London. Catch this concert while you can!

Decaffeinated sets

It is a familiar enough point that while logic texts for beginners often fall into talking about sets (sets of premisses entailing conclusions, sets of objects being extensions of predicates, sets of objects being domains of quantification, etc.), this set talk is doing no substantive work at least in elementary contexts. It can be construed in a decaffeinated way, as talk about no more than virtual classes in Quine’s sense.

I found myself making a few remarks to this effect at scattered places in  IFL2, but doing so distracted a bit from the flow of exposition. So I’ve decided to gather together various remarks into one four-page chapter. Here it is:

What do people think? I’d very much welcome comments. I don’t want to avoid distractions of one kind by e.g. being thought distractingly misguided!

Old Glory

Now, how did that happen? Wanting to re-read Jonathan Raban’s Coasting, his evocation of a journey of discovery sailing round Britain, first published over thirty years ago, I just found a couple of days ago that our copy has disappeared from the shelves. A mystery:  I wonder what happened to it. So it is very good to discover that the book has recently been republished, along with four other books by Raban, by Eland, in rather handsomely produced paperbacks. I remember the book as being extraordinarily well written. The blurb on our new copy tells me that  Raban here “moves seamlessly between awkward memories of childhood as the son of a vicar, a vivid chronicle of the shape-shifting sea and incisive descriptions of the people and communities he encounters. As he faces his terror of racing water, eddies, offshore sandbars and ferries on a collision course, so he navigates the complex and turbulent waters of his own middle age. Coasting is a fearless attempt to discover the meaning of belonging and of his English homeland.” Which indeed is how I recall the book. I look forward to it!

I’ve been put in mind to read Coasting again because I have recently been re-reading with great  enjoyment two of Raban’s other books that are on our shelves (as it happens, another two of the five that have been republished by Eland). First there was For Love & Money, which is subtitled “Writing, Reading, Travelling: 1969–87”, and which reprints some early reviews and occasional pieces. The writing is consistently humane and insightful, but more than that, it is just so beautifully readable (the number of times I thought, “I wish I could write even half as well”). And then there was Raban’s early masterpiece, Old Glory from 1981, notionally recounting his voyage down the Mississippi in a small boat.

I say “notionally” as this complex work is lightly disguised as a straight travel book, a literal recounting of a journey taken. But the one-time English literature lecturer warns us clearly enough. One of the epigraphs of the book is from T. S. Eliot (writing of the  Mississippi), starting “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god …” The other epigraph is from Jean François Millet: “One man may paint a picture from a careful drawing made on the spot, and another may paint the same scene from memory, from a brief but strong impression; and the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact.” So we are set up for this to be a mythic tale, and for the “Jonathan Raban” who features as the narrator and his adventures to be a very inexact rendition of the author and his own journey. And a mythic tale is what we get, an ordeal by water, with auguries and signs, battles fought, a princess won (but also lost, for this is a flawed epic, and the journey ends in emptiness). But woven together with this are encounters with American myths of frontiers and journeys. And, presciently — so striking, reading again now, nearly forty years later —  Raban notes the “deep, unsatisfied capacity for hero-worship” that makes many Americans (far from the artificialities of the coasts) long for a “strong” leader, a saviour. This is a many layered book, artful in the artlessness of its transparent prose. Wonderful.

Getting it right …

After a bad day battling with my intro logic book and feeling really rather despondent about it, I stumbled over this, from Philip Roth, whose Americal Pastoral I’m currently reading:

“Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.”

Yes, one day, I will get it right …

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