Dangerous Terms

December 10, 2006

My roommate, in trying to elicit my views on communism, just tried to argue that I must have “an abstract concept of human nature”. Suspicious of the term “abstract concept” and not wishing to encounter Euthyphro’s fate in the eponymous Platonic dialogue, I refused to admit that I had one. He did not understand.

Whether I had one or not would have been irrelevant to any debate about communism.

Locked Doors

December 10, 2006

Reading Wittgenstein’s aphorisms in Culture and Value I had, for the first time, an urge to collar him and interrogate him on what exactly he means by this and that. I have of course been puzzled by practically every philosopher I’ve read but never have I felt so personally moved to get the creator of the words I read to justify them in front of me.

And I suspect he would only say that if I don’t already understand what he’s written, there’s no point his explaining it. “For if a book has been written for just a few readers it will be clear just from the fact that only a few people understand it. The book must automatically separate those who understand it from those who do not… Telling someone something he does not understand is pointless, even if you add that he will not be able to understand it.” (Culture and Value, 1930)

I am looking for something behind those words. There isn’t. If I don’t get it when I see them I couldn’t possibly with further explanation. If I don’t see a cube in the Necker cube I can’t be taught to see it.

I hope I am wrong about this.

Plato was so extremely clever

December 10, 2006

I read: “…philosophers are no nearer to the meaning of ‘Reality’ than Plato got, ….”. What a strange situation. How extraordinary that Plato could have got even as far as he did! Or that we could not get any further! Was it because Plato was so extremely clever?

–Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1931.

If I ever do return to philosophy as a career I have no doubt Wittgenstein will have a large part to do with it. And he would be horrified that he is having this kind of effect. I must not have truly understood what he’s saying, if I still think philosophy is worthwhile. But it is exactly because I have not truly understood it (and what many others have said) that I want to do philosophy. Or does he expect us to accept his warnings without testing the waters for ourselves?

At any rate, I acknowledge my previous mistake in attempting to evaluate the “progress” of philosophy.


December 10, 2006

I’d forgotten how much I enjoy writing about Wittgenstein. One always worries, though, that one is misreading him. More so than for anyone else because it seems that for him more than anyone else, he’s liable to snap back at theories that advance too far. Stay within what I say! Don’t read anything behind what I say! I can imagine him saying. And no it’s not a picture or a recording or a movie clip in my head.

I’m in that stage where I feel the adrenaline because I think I have good meaty interesting ideas. Recalling Pauli’s “not even wrong” retort helped to kickstart it. Because a lot of what Wittgenstein is saying is that this or that method is not even wrong. There is a superficial resemblance with what Goethe says about science. But Goethe says this or that method is wrong. Goethe isn’t trying to take us out of one dimension, but only trying to move a marker up or down a one-dimensional spectrum.

More on that after I’ve finished the paper, which as of this morning was still intended to be entirely on some issue in Wittgenstein’s treatment of aspect perception, but by mid-afternoon had irreversibly evolved into a comparative study of Goethe’s [supposedly] descriptive notion of science and Wittgenstein’s descriptive notion of philosophy.

Curiously, it’s so far been one of the least agonising philosophy papers to write. I find it more agonising to explain Plato than to explain Wittgenstein. The latter’s philosophy makes a lot more sense to me. Sometimes trying to support some Platonic argument feels to me like trying to support a literal interpretation of the Bible. Never with Wittgenstein, who always feels natural. He’s also a lot easier to explain without feeling foolish. When I write about the ancient Greeks I often feel like I’m committing a category mistake every other sentence, and I just have to do that because they do it all the time and if I reject their entire theoretical framework my papers would be very short and uninteresting.

To describe, not to explain

December 8, 2006

Think, for example, of certain involuntary interpretations that we give to one or another passage in a piece of music. We say: this interpretation forces itself on us… And the interpretation can be explained by purely musical relationships: — Very well, but our purpose is, not to explain, but to describe.

Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol I., 22.

This hits on a point which troubles me from time to time about music analysis. Music analysis involves relating musical relationships in a piece to more abstract, or general, concepts. These abstract concepts are what endow a piece with meaning. A musical cadence by itself, as the notes itself, is meaningless. It is the cadence with its abstract meaning of “bringing to a close” which makes the cadence meaningful. So then, my naive thought was (and possibly is), why analyse to death the musical details which makes music sound this way or that? Isn’t the point just that it sounds this way or that? Doesn’t the experience come before the interpretation, as Wittgenstein says? We experience musical meaning before we interpret it.

Now, of course, there are more complex layers of musical meaning which are not immediately experienced, and do require explicit thought (they are not forced upon us in the way an image of a three dimensional cube is forced upon us when we see a Necker cube). My beef is with how, in a typical introductory harmony class, one plays over and over again certain stock figures, and learns to associate them with certain emotions or abstract concepts (this cadence sounds complete, that one sounds fake, etc.). And then learns all these explanations for why one sounds complete and the other doesn’t (the “tendencies” of leading tones and so on). However, none of these explanations are psychological. They are completely based on the geometry of musical notes. Which always seemed to me to be missing the point altogether. We do not experience the geometry of musical notes when we interpret a harmonic progression as sounding resolute. The interpretation forces itself upon us. Even upon untrained listeners, as long as they have, presumably, been brought up in an environment of Western tonal harmony. So how, then, can mere geometry be an explanation for what we hear? An explanation would answer why we would tend to hear the leading tone as “wanting” to move up a semitone. That the leading tone “wants” to move up a semitone because of its intervallic relationship with the tonic scale degree is something we conclude after the facts, after the interpretation we make immediately has been analysed on paper, laid out in neat black soundless notation. I don’t mean that it’s an insufficient explanation. I mean that it’s not even an explanation. It misses the point altogether. It could be there is some universal instinct to treat small intervals in sound frequency as “wanting” to close up. But more likely reactions to music are an acquired habit, at least for more geometrically complex musical entities which still elicit emotionally immediate (unintellectualized, “forced upon us”) reactions, such as the minor mode. Music is a language. We have learnt to associate certain flavours with certain musical patterns, the way words have flavours to us. Therefore the answer cannot lie in the specific patterns, but in how the association came about.

Parochial babble

December 7, 2006

Two great classes next quarter possible, with two great teachers, on two great topics.

John Haugeland (intro M&E) or Bob Richards (evo-psych)?

I could of course not take the music analysis course, but that too is a topic close to my heart, with one of the best music theorists in the field.

I registered for Haugeland’s because I suspect M&E is a much harder topic to learn on one’s own than evo-psych, but I regard it as a great pity that I’ll probably have to graduate without taking a class from Richards.

The cold is really getting to me. I rarely say this because I do take some masochistic pleasure in walking into warm buildings from the cold, and in the cocoon-like feeling of being sufficiently insulated. But for the last six days, ever since that big storm on Friday, it’s been cold enough that I’d have to wear more than would be comfortable indoors to feel sufficiently wrapped up outside. Even my Patagonia mountaineering pants aren’t sufficient, and heaven knows I feel warm enough in them indoors.

And I have been itching, itching to hop on my bike and start spinning again. Especially after dispatching my last final today. (There’s still a Resemblance take home exam and paper to write, but since I actually enjoy writing about that topic, I don’t regard that as much of a chore.) But there’s no way I can enjoy spinning outside in this weather. And it doesn’t help that most of my alley is iced over, so I have to walk my bike out to the street. That sounds like a small inconvenience but my will is that weak now.

I love Wittgenstein’s metaphors involving imaginary numbers. I think it might be even possible to spin an entire paper interpreting that one metaphor (as applied to aspect perception). It’s deeper than it sounds. We’ll see.

Made students cry

December 6, 2006

Since the course evaluations are only available to people on the university’s network, I shouldn’t name the professor this comment was made about, but I thought it was hilarious:

Made students cry, insulted people, yelled at us, asked unclear questions and then humiliated people

It was one of the most enlightening classes I’ve ever taken, but it did seem that he was often being unnecessarily provocative about religion and irrationality in general (and obviously enjoyed it). This is not much of a problem given the kind of students this university attracts and the kind of students within the university the class topic attracts (I never saw anyone cry or be seriously humiliated), but a staunchly Christian acquaintance of mine once got into an argument in class with him over whether people (like her) who believed that Joshua literally made the sun stand still were “not in their right minds”. I have no doubt it was entertaining but the quarter is already short enough without having to waste valuable class time on unenlightening arguments.

I imagine he would be disliked a lot more if he didn’t bring his dog to class.

Another timesink

December 2, 2006

Andras Schiff’s masterclasses on Beethoven’s piano sonatas, downloadable for all courtesy of the Guardian. He plays the “Moonlight” sonata about twice as fast as it is normally played, and I like it much better that way. In explaining to the audience who Ludwig Rellstab (the poet who imaginatively gave the sonata that moniker) is, he plays one of the songs from Schwanengesang, and even begins singing shakily, to much amusement.

Just listened to the “Tempest” masterclass as well. One thing I learnt that I didn’t know: at the end of the exposition of the first movement, before the first repeat, Beethoven quotes Bach’s St. John’s Passion. And Schiff claims he quotes it in Op. 101 as well.

One point that Schiff made which I thought was very true: Beethoven’s last movements are always the strongest in the piece, whereas Brahms’, Schumann’s and Schubert’s tend to be the weakest. I haven’t heard much Brahms and Schumann but I have definitely noticed it for Schubert. I have gotten into the habit of skipping his last movements altogether. I love the D960 B flat sonata and think the first three movements are probably amongst the greatest piano music ever written, but I loathe, loathe the last movement, and never understood how it could be used to end such an epic work. Same goes for the D784 A minor sonata. Schiff phrased it like “but when it comes to the last movement they fall down”, and kept apologising for criticising these composers in a most amusing tone of voice.

Another amusing point near the end when he said that the ending of the Tempest sonata deserved a moment of silence because of its sheer emotional effect. Then he complained about those concert-goers who like to show that they know the piece and know exactly when it ends by clapping immediately after the last note, when the performer would prefer to sit in silence a while. He proceeded to give a demonstration of the phenomenon, which had the audience rolling in laughter. I, of course, feel quite the same about those people. Admittedly, there have been times when I have been underwhelmed by the ending of a performance and felt the period of silence to be uncomfortably long, but if the performers are not budging, it means that they are not inviting applause yet, and it is only appropriate to respect their wishes.

Apparently Schiff prefers to bring his own piano for the “Waldstein” sonata, so that he can play that glissando in the last movement that cannot be played as a glissando on modern pianos.

Forget the Year: If Only

December 1, 2006

The annual physics department party was held tonight. People are still gobbling down desserts as I speak, but I left once the entertainment ended. The entertainment being a series of skits by graduate students parodying professors. Most were not too funny. There was a strange obsession with Emil “Defender of Justice at Night” Martinec, the parodies of whom I found not funny at all, though perhaps I would find them funny if I’d taken a class from him. Sid Nagel was repeatedly represented on stage as someone obsessed with showing everyone the wonders of “something you see in your everyday life — a drop of water”. The really funny parts, those that got me laughing rather than just chuckling, were the parodies of Leo Kadanoff asking questions at a colloquium. Anyone who’s been to any colloquium is almost certain to have heard one of his classic questions. They are generally not terribly scientific and quite impossible to answer in anything but a vague general way. The ominous “yes, Leo?” of the chair of the colloquium inviting a question from Kadanoff has been ingrained in my mind, even though I have attended relatively few colloquiua. And the parodies were, if not verbatim quotations, spot on in terms of the nature of the questions Kadanoff tends to ask: “Time and time again, I hear that this theory is the best thing ever. Is this theory the best thing ever?” (Ans: “Yes.”) “Time and time again, I hear of theories that contain farm animals. Does your theory contain farm animals?” (Ans: “Possibly.”)

There was also, sadly, an unhealthy obession with Sean Carroll. As I recall, Sean Carroll, who was hugely popular with both undergraduate and graduate students, was denied tenure more than a year ago, so I would have thought all the acts of protest would have played themselves out in last year’s party. I was wrong. The issue came up on at least three separate occasions. One was when they were parodying the particle theory group, and mentioned that the group had celebrated wildy after denying Carroll tenure. Another was when they were parodying the workaholic assistant professor Juan Collar, and had “tombstones” of physicists who were denied tenure. Sean Carroll’s was headed “started a blog”. The third was in the presentation of the traditional “Spherical Cow Awards”. Three nominees were listed for “best teacher”. Carroll was not one of them. Nevertheless, they stated that the award would go to him, and dropped it in a huge paper bag to be taken away. I noticed that whenever these Carroll references came up the room went quieter than usual, and there were only nervous giggles. I do not know if Carroll “deserved” tenure or not, but I do think it was silly to go on about it.

Remark: one of the parodies was of Emil Martinec using the Cauchy-Goursat theorem and complex residues to prove that 1+1=2. Which reminded me that I only found out recently that I had been needlessly using the residue theorem and complex contour integrals to evaluate the integrals along the real line of functions of the form a/(b^2+x^2), when a simple substitution of x= btanu would have sufficed. Evidently, Narasimhan’s nightmarish complex analysis class has bludgeoned my mathematical common sense into oblivion.

December 1, 2006

Went to bug KL again about more stat. mech. issues. In the derivation of the average number of particles in each state <n_i>, one does an infinite sum for a geometric series from n_i = 1 to infinity. However, one of the conditions for determining the chemical potential is that the sum of all n_i is equal to some finite number N.

As before, the query came to nought. Reif doesn’t say a thing about why this is possible, and neither do Leggett’s course notes for some graduate course or other which the TA referred us to.

It can’t an approximation issue because any approximation would be dependent on having large N, and as far as we know quantum statistics applies for all N. So something else must allow us to not have to impose the condition on the sum over n_i until the very last step, where we have to determine the chemical potential. Or perhaps it’s not just a matter of not imposing the condition. We must be able to assume that n_i does take on all integer values, a much stronger statement. Why that is so, I have no idea.

Ed: Forget it. The TA cleared it up for me. Quantum statistics has to apply only for large N because small ensembles would, for obvious reasons, have high probabilities of disobeying the second law of thermodynamics. So I don’t know how true it is that quantum statistics has been experimentally shown to hold for small N. How small? Something to look up on Google Scholar once finals are over.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.