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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Welcome to Philosophyland!

by Sven Ove Hansson

[This is a guest post by my colleague Sven Ove Hansson, originally published in Theoria. Sven is a professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and History of Technology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. The piece was originally meant as a welcoming speech to a class of graduate students in philosophy, but it provides witty insights into the full academic philosophical culture.]

It is a pleasure and a privilege to bid you all welcome to your long – perhaps lifelong – journey into Philosophyland. As undergraduates you have been told of the expeditions and findings of the great pioneers. Now, as graduate students, you will explore that terrain yourselves.

You already know that Philosophyland is an awe-inspiring landscape with sceneries that seem impossible, marvellous fruits of thought that grow nowhere else, and astounding flowers of imagination that look more real than reality itself. You probably also know that most of the places where new discoveries can be made are highly inaccessible. Your perseverance and your mental strength will be put to test repeatedly.

It is now time to tell you something that you have not been told before, since we prefer to talk as little as possible about it. It is my duty to inform you that Philosophyland is also a highly dangerous territory. Some have permanently lost their sense of orientation here, others have disappeared mysteriously, and a few have even lost their minds. I am now going to inform you about the dangerous entities and places in Philosophyland. Before doing so, let me assure you that they can all be averted. You should always heed the warnings of your personal guide, the supervisor. When you find yourself in danger, never hesitate to call for help. If you wait too long it may be too late.

The Detour Demons

From your very first day in Philosophyland you must beware of the Detour Demons. These are entities that delay your explorations by persuading you to digress from your chosen route into some interesting sidetrack. Most of the Detour Demons are fairly benign. As long as you do not lose control it is not dangerous to follow one of them for a short while now and then. But be sure to avoid them when they come in swarms. They have the nasty habit of taking turns to lead you further and further away from the chosen track of your expedition.

The Detour Demons can take many guises. The more benign among them tend to materialize as friendly seminar participants, whereas the more vicious ones try to enter you mind in the form of afterthoughts or other diverting thoughts that may be hard to distinguish from deliberations that are part of your endeavors. In the more serious cases a whole swarm of Detour Demons invades a person’s mind, transforming her into one of the eternal wanderers in Philosophyland. You may already have met one of these miserable philosophers. They have visited more places than the rest of us, and they often have interesting things to tell, but they are doomed never to finish an exploration before hastening to a new one.

At an early stage, before the Detour Demons have invaded your mind, they can be dispelled with incantations such as “In this essay, I will not treat . . .”, “I will leave for later investigation . . .”, and “For our present purposes we can assume . . .”. Please consult your guide for more details on when and how to use these spells. They are indispensable. In fact no one has been able to complete an expedition in Philosophyland without using them more than once.

Followers and Mindcatchers

Newcomers to Philosophyland are particularly susceptible to the affliction of following. A follower is a philosopher who has ceased to engage in the usual, direct forms of exploration, and instead follows the trails of some other philosopher, her Mindcatcher. Followers are easily recognizable since they incessantly interpret, explain and defend their Mindcatcher. When a Mindcatcher has many followers they often swirl around him at high speed in astoundingly coordinated movements. They look like a school of fish, but they are of course a school of philosophers.

Some philosophers become Mindcatchers while still alive, but it is the ghosts of dead philosophers that attract the largest numbers of followers. Since the ghosts of dead philosophers cannot speak for themselves, they leave much more scope for interpretation. Such scope is much sought for by followers, but it also leads to quarrels and dissensions. Violent collisions are inevitable when several competing schools swirl around a dead Mindcatcher.

The best way to avoid becoming a follower is never to come too close to the ghost of a dead philosopher. You will be safe if you always keep what we call a critical distance. The length of that distance is not easy to determine, but you know that you are too close when you cannot see the bruises and blemishes anymore. Strangely enough, the imperfections are more difficult to see the closer you come.

Unfortunately, full-blown cases of following are often incurable. The standard diagnostic test is to ask the person what type of philosopher she is. If the answer contains the name of another philosopher, in particular in one of the two forms “I am an *-ist” or “I am an *-ian”, then she may already be beyond help. As so often, prevention is better than cure.

Riddle-talk and symbol-juggling

Riddle-talk is an easily recognized disorder: Those afflicted cannot be understood by others since what they say is ambiguous or even devoid of meaning. Almost all philosophers have minor spells of riddle-talk now and then. I know from my own experience that at times, the temptation to hide an unsolved problem behind an obscure phrase can be almost irresistible. The condition grows serious if this becomes the preferred and habitual way of speaking. Often a search for beautiful phrases aggravates the condition. In the most serious cases the riddle-speaker spends most of his time uttering beautiful gibberish such as “The oneness of being transcends its existence” or “The everything is everythinging”.

The best cure for riddle-talk is exchange of thoughts with friendly critics. This is what saved me from a couple of spells of riddle-talk.

Since followers want to have a role as interpreters, they almost invariably look for a Mindcatcher who is also a riddle-speaker. But mindcatching is theft of another person’s mind. That is an abominable crime, so please do not even consider a career like that.

You may have noticed that some philosophers carry around symbols on their expeditions in Philosophyland. When they arrive at a philosophical problem-area, they cover parts of it with symbols which they tie together in intricate ways and juggle to make them form a pattern similar to some interesting structure in the problem area. Since the symbols are governed by very precise rules, interesting regularities in the area under study can be discovered in this way.

The difficult art of operating these symbols can be practiced by manipulating them in free air where no philosophical subject-matter restricts their movements. Some philosophers have become obsessed with these exercises and spend most of their time juggling symbols high up in the air, trying to create as intricate and beautiful patterns as possible. Just like the riddle-speakers, the symbol-jugglers have sought beauty at the expense of philosophical meaning. But the two groups despise each other. There is no animosity in Philosophyland stronger than that between riddle-speakers and symbol-jugglers.

Compulsive symbol-juggling can be socially disastrous since the symbol-juggler withdraws from company in order to juggle. Many symbol-jugglers have periods of several days when they neither sleep nor eat due to ceaseless juggling. Not surprisingly, many of them are lonely, socially isolated people. When you meet a symbol- juggler, speak kindly to him (it is almost always a man). Gently invite him to a philosophical expedition and ask him to bring his symbols. Take him to an unexplained formation and ask him to investigate it with his symbols. I know of several symbol-jugglers who have been cured in this way and now use their symbols in worthwhile philosophical investigations instead of just throwing them up into the air.

Dangerous places

Before describing some dangerous places in Philosophyland I should say a few words about its geography. Philosophyland is situated in a large plain at the very center of the confederation of disciplines commonly known as the Republic of Science. It is surrounded by mountains inhabited by the various sciences, such as the Mountain of Physics, the Mountain of Biology and the high and inaccessible Mountain of Mathematics. In fact all the other disciplines have a border to Philosophyland, but most of these border areas are very sparsely populated.

The volunteer border-guard is the most disorganized troop of fighters that mankind has seen. They all have different opinions on the location of the border that they have sworn to defend. Many of them try to reduce rather than extend the territory they are supposed to defend. “This is not philosophy”, they shout at colleagues transgressing what they consider to be the border-line. “Do not enter that terrain, it is not for philosophers.” The border-guard has never in historical times united to fight a common enemy. Instead, they engage in innumerable skirmishes among themselves. Due to their ineptness, the borders of Philosophyland have in practice been decided by the more well-organized troops of the neighbouring disciplines.

I strongly advise you not to enrol in the philosophical border-guard. Personally I am instead a member of another troop of volunteers, the Joint Defence Forces of the Republic of Science. This is not the occasion to expound on its glorious mission, but talk to me afterwards if you wish to enlist.

The surrounding mountains of learning can be seen from virtually everywhere in Philosophyland. Many philosophers use optical devices to study them closely, or even visit them on occasions. But quite a few philosophers have developed a deep-seated aversion to any form of dealings with territories outside of Philosophyland. Some of them cannot even stand the sight of the mountains, and therefore move to places where they can see as little of them as possible. Most of these philosophers eventually end up in the Dark Cave, a large underground formation in the middle of Philosophyland. It is the only place where one cannot catch even the slightest glimpse of the mountains. Since it is completely dark you cannot see anything else either.

A visit to the Dark Cave is a surreal experience. Among its inhabitants, the philosophical cavemen and cavewomen, disagreements are even harsher than among philosophers elsewhere who at least tend to agree on that which they can all see. Some of the cavepeople do not want to hear at all about any mountains. Others talk incessantly about mountains, but only the mountains of their own imagination. All that matters to them is what some mountain might thinkably contain, not what the real mountains are like. In the cave you can for instance meet epistemologists exploring the knowledge of infinitely intelligent creatures without memory, meta- physicians studying causality in a world with three time dimensions and one space dimension, and moral philosophers investigating the moral life of twin monsters such that each of the twins can only become happy if its counterpart becomes unhappy to the corresponding degree.

There is a sure antidote against the compulsive urge that has driven so many all the way to the Dark Cave. That antidote is philosophical mountaineering in the form of regular visits to the high mountains of learning that surround Philosophyland, preferably with a local guide willing to explain some of the wonders to be seen there.

The Philosophical Stonemasonry

The Philosophical Stonemasonry is situated quite close to the Dark Cave. It is a kind of writers’ workshop where philosophers gather to write books. Their tools are chisels and mallets, and all books have to be hewn out on large stone tablets from the first page to the last. This method yields durable products but of course it does not allow for changes or corrections as one goes on. Since the Guild of Philosophical Stonecarvers forbids the use of drafts or sketches, the carvers are under considerable strain to avoid mistakes. Not surprisingly, their progress is invariably slow. One former student of mine has been there for twelve years. After seven months he carved the words “If we consider” on the top of his first tablet. Since then he has been intensely pondering how to complete the first sentence of his coming masterpiece, but as far as I know he has not reached a conclusion yet.

Although relatively few philosophers actually live and work in the Stonemasonry its impact is immense. This is due to a surprisingly common form of bilocation: a philosopher can have her body somewhere else but her mind in the Stonemasonry. Although you find her physically for instance in an office or a library, her mind is in the Stonemasonry. This is a dangerous, potentially paralyzing condition. Its characteristic symptom is that the afflicted persons sit for long periods of time with their writing equipment ready for writing but without writing a single word.

The only known remedy and prophylactic is daily writing exercises. Write daily, not for eternity but for later improvement. This will drastically reduce the risk of having your mind translocated to the Stonemasonry.

The Language Walls

Scattered around Philosophyland you will find beautiful gates with signs such as “Welcome all speakers of Kakadu” or “Welcome all speakers of Atakapa”. There is one such gate for each language, so you will find one for your own native tongue. Each of the gates leads to a language enclave where everyone speaks the same language, which they also cultivate as the best language for philosophy. In particular in the smaller enclaves you will soon find yourself to be the leading expert in quite a few philosophical topics – an exhilarating but also somewhat treacherous experience.
The enclaves are fortified with strangely constructed so-called language walls.

Contrary to the bulwarks of a traditional fortress they do not hinder anything from coming in. They only prevent philosophical utterances from leaving the enclave unless they are expressed in the enclave’s own language. Messages in that language are sent out quite profusely, but they are seldom understood outside of the enclave. On the other hand, communications from the outside are freely imported, although they often arrive somewhat belatedly.

In the outskirts of Philosophyland there are quite a few eremites’ enclaves where a private language is spoken. If you ask me what is going on there, I am sorry, I have no answer. Unfortunately, the same is true of most of the other, somewhat larger language enclaves.

The language enclaves are mind-blunting places, but they do not keep prisoners and no one is prevented from walking out of them. It is not dangerous to visit a language enclave as a tourist. The natives tend to be quite friendly to visitors who speak their language, or try to do so. But do not even think of becoming a resident there.

The Valley of Battles

There is one more group of spirit entities that I must warn you against, namely the battle criers. These are shouting spirits whose message is always that some philosopher deserves to be fiercely attacked. If you can hear a battle crier when no one else hears him, then you are at peril. He has invaded your mind.

Philosophers who are possessed by battle-criers derive enormous pleasure from every battle that they believe themselves to have won – and they believe themselves to win every battle. Therefore they move in the direction where they find as many willing combatants as possible. Eventually, this leads them to the Valley of Battles, one of the weirdest places in Philosophyland. This is where battles take place that have no referees and no fighting rules. Foul tricks such as ad hominem blows and feints with false quotations are common, and so are some even meaner practices that I had better not to mention in the presence of ladies and gentlemen. In contrast, all contests in the more reputable parts of Philosophyland have referees that blow the whistle at the slightest suspicion of a breach of the rules.

In the rest of Philosophyland, strawmen and strawwomen are protected from attacks, but not in the Valley of Battles. In fact, most of the fights there involve one or more from their tribe. They are also increasing in number since people who fight them incessantly end up being themselves transformed into strawpersons. Unfortunately, that is an incurable malady. The Valley of Battles is one of the few places in Philosophyland that I entreat you never to visit. It is just too perilous.

The Market Square

As you already know, new philosophical positions are held in high esteem in Philosophyland. Nowadays it is difficult to come up with a new position since the more plausible ones have already been taken by someone else. You may have encountered philosophers in search of originality who adopted some brand new but awkward position such as “All of ethics can be derived from the law of identity” or “All possible worlds are real except the illusionary one in which we live. It does not exist.” The invention and adoption of standpoints like these is an advanced form of mental contortionism. Just like the bodily contortionists elsewhere, some of the mental contortionists in Philosophyland show off their feats as street performers. You can see many of them in the Market Square of our main village, where they demonstrate their positions and implore others to imitate them.

Some of the mental positions exhibited in the Market Square are almost unbelievable. One of the best-known performers is able to put his sense perceptions among his a priori assumptions. Another produces effects without causes while at the same time resting all his counterfactual beliefs on a single tautology. Some of these feats can be quite thought-provoking, so by all means I recommend a visit. However, I must warn you against joining the performers in their mind-bending exercises. Once you have contorted your mind to one of these extreme positions you may not be able to bend it right again. And please remember that a philosophical position does not have to be new in order to be sound and suitable.

Speaking of philosophical positions, a rowdy pub in a dark street close to the Market Square features a philosophical positions contest on Friday nights. The contestants try to take as many philosophical positions as possible in as short time as possible. Some of these performances are shameless and indeed rather shocking, but to be honest I find them quite entertaining. Nevertheless, I advise you not to join the competition. Even those who enjoy the show tend to look down on the performers.

And finally . . .

I hope you have all made careful notes. As I said, we discuss the dangers of Philosophyland as little as possible, so you will not hear much more about them. But all these dangers can be avoided if you are aware and well prepared. You now know enough to keep away from them. Also, your guide, the supervisor, is there to help you. But you should be aware that once you have a PhD, tradition bids the rest of us to leave you to your own devices. If someone with a PhD, for instance, approaches the Stonemasonry or the Dark Cave, then her colleagues will do nothing to dissuade her from going there. It is now, as graduate students, that you must learn how to travel safely in the philosophical landscape.

Let me assure you that the wonders and marvels to be found in this landscape are well worth the small risks on which I have now briefed you. Therefore, once again, all of you, welcome to Philosophyland!


  1. Clever and much-needed update of Bacon's Idols.

  2. I hope Sven got a nice round of applause, since this is one of the rare talks actually worth hearing. Quite witty indeed.

  3. I'm trying to remember if Applied Math graduate school (1970s) was like this. I can't remember. Maybe it was the grass.

  4. Bravo. I'd like to join the Joint Defense Forces of the Republic of Science!

  5. Philosophy is the study of truth, and a philosopher is a lover of truth. So rather than warning those who pursue the truth of the dangers or risks along the Way, I would point out the reward is the light at the end of the tunnel, freedom, and most beautifully the absolute. =


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