Philosophical me (2)
In part one of this series I told the story of how I started my university studies as an Aristotelian philosopher, became thoroughly disenchanted by ancient Greek philosophy and, after a crisis phase, discovered that contemporary philosophy is so much more meaningful than what I had been doing, and so much more relevant to our lives in the modern world.
So I immersed myself into: the Philosophy of Science (empirical reasoning, its methods, consequences and justification); Evolutionary Epistemology (the cognitive mechanisms that were developed during human evolution); Linguistics and Linguistic Philosophy (language and how it works); Analytical Ethics (how problems I wrestled with during my ancient philosophy phase can be elegantly solved by understanding the linguistic mechanisms of discourse). This was so much more fun than thinking about people chained in a cave, facing a blank wall, as Plato did in his Dialogues; or seeking practical applications of Aristotelian syllogisms as presented in his Organon. More about all this transition in future articles.
I had rediscovered philosophy, and decided to continue on my chosen path for a university career. The first steps were taken: I had a very nice job at the university, as an assistant, and was well into completing my “Magister” (a degree which precedes the PhD). For my thesis I chose Analytical Ethics, which I will describe briefly. If you are not passionately interested in the details of modern analytical philosophy jump to the section entitled “Pencil and paper” below.
Moral philosophy, as I understood (and understand) it, should not be concerned with judgements about what is good or bad — leave that to moralists; neither should it systematically describe what different peoples and societies consider good or bad — that’s for anthropologists and historians. Philosophers should study the processes by which we reach moral judgements, identify which mechanisms come into play when we derive them, and decide what is subjective and what is objective.
For my Magister thesis I chose to analyse a moral dilemma most succinctly defined by the 18th Century philosopher David Hume. He marvelled at the custom of philosophers and moralists to proceed from descriptive statements to prescriptive (normative) ones, without a clear logical justification for the transition. It became known as the “is–ought problem” and had been recently revitalized by John Searle, a Professor of Mind and Language at Berkeley. Searle held a flamboyant lecture at my university in Hamburg, and turned me into an ardent student of Speech Act theory, as described in a previous article.
In a now famous paper (which you can still read here) Searle had proposed a counter-example to Hume’s proposal that there is a class of statements of fact which is logically distinct from a class of statements of value. This was the subject to my thesis: analysing Searle’s argument with the instrumentarium of Analytical Ethics. I basically agreed with him that the empirical objective statement “Jones uttered the words ‘I hereby promise to pay you, Smith, five dollars’,” logically leads to the normative statement (Searle traces five steps) “Jones ought to pay Smith five dollars,” and that denying this does not imply moral disagreement but rather linguistic confusion. That is a very brief and wholly inadequate description of the main subject of my thesis, and I promise to write more extensively on this very topical subject in the future.
My thesis was 119 pages long and described the development of Analytical Ethics, the Is-Ought problem, Speech Act theory, and its general application to major problems of philosophy in general. The last section was a preamble to a PhD thesis I was planning to write, a strategy devised by my professor at the University of Hamburg.
Pencil and paper
All this took place in 1977, and there were no computers, no “word processors” to assist in the production of an academic thesis. I did my first drafts on paper (very thin slices of wood) using a pencil (a instrument that uses a form of carbon to create marks on the paper) and an eraser (a piece of rubber that could remove these marks). Here’s what my notes looked like (click to enlarge):
While writing my thesis I kept showing my professor how I was progressing, and she was full of praise and most encouraging. Unfortunately the second professor who would be evaluating my thesis expressed severe criticism — actually clear rejection — of what I was doing. It was not real philosophy, he said. I should mention that he was from Greece and had witnessed my abandoning of Plato and Aristotle a few years earlier. My thesis would clearly not be something he would look upon positively.
So there was a problem. My work needed to be graded extremely well if I were to pursue a university career. I tried to have the evaluation switched to a different professor, citing bias (and quoting an outrageous statement the Greek professor had made to me: “It is a purely subjective opinion” — which is exactly what an academic evaluation should not be). But it did not succeed — students cannot select professors.
So I set out to make the thesis as well researched and erudite as I possibly could. I visited and subsequently befriended a leading expert in Analytical Ethics, Richard M. Hare, as described here. He helped me along, with wonderful discussions in his home over evening gin and tonic. So it was turning into a very substantive and well constructed thesis. But I decided to do something about the optics as well, about the overall presentation.
At the time it was quite normal to put the hundreds of footnotes and citations that a work of this kind required into a separate section at the back of the thesis, for the simple reason that there was no way a student or academic scholar could insert them where they belonged: at the bottom — the foot — of the page. Not a single thesis in the library of the University of Hamburg had deviated from the practice. Unfortunately, putting them in the back of the thesis meant they would be generally ignored.
So I came up with a technical solution: I used two typewriters (mechanical, of course — electricity had barely been invented), with different fonts, larger and smaller. I constructed two templates like the one shown here. They had numbers on the left margin, in descending order in one case and ascending in the other. Using the first I would type the main text, inserting index numbers for the footnotes, as superscript — you could turn the platen (the roller that holds the paper) back a little. Whenever I hit a line with a footnote I typed it out on the second machine, which showed me exactly how many lines my footnotes had so far taken. That was the space I had to leave free on the main page.
When a page was completed I would cut out the footnotes and glue them to the empty space at the bottom of the main text (an early example of cut-and-paste?!), drawing a line to separate text and footnotes. On the left you can see what a page looked like (as with all the images in this article you can click to enlarge). I had managed, for the first time in academic history, to place footnotes on typed pages exactly where they belonged.
But there was still a residual problem: the university stipulated that you had to hand in an original typed version of your thesis, together with two photocopied versions. Unfortunately my thesis was was twice as thick at the bottom than at the top.
So how do you solve that, if you are a devious person? I searched for and found a photocopy shop that had a very advanced (and expensive) machine. It could brighten the page and filter out defects — optically, not digitally, I would like to mention. I used it to make one very fine copy of my typed and glued pages. On the left you see what that looked like. Then I searched for a very poor copy machine and made two copies of the first copy.
I remember somewhat nervously handing in the three bound copies of my thesis. The lady in charge examined them, quickly flipping through the pages. “Ah, so this one is the original,” she said, “and these two are copies. Okay, that’s fine.” It had worked, I had got away with it.
My professor gave me the highest possible grade, and the co-professor a very average one. I protested (as planned) and the thesis was submitted to a third, external professor, a fairly famous expert on Analytical Philosophy. He gave the thesis a first grade and expressed bewilderment at how anyone could have given it substantially less. The dissenting evaluation was cancelled and I got the highest grade, “Mit besonderer Auszeichnung” (with special commendation), which was perfect for the start of a postgraduate university career. Everyone praised the extraordinary presentation, meaning of course the neat footnotes at the bottom of the page. And a number asked me to show them how I had managed to do this. Teach us, master!
I need to add that my intended career as a teacher of philosophy ground to a halt when I realized that there would be no vacancy for me at university to get a post — ever. I would need for a professor to die, and would then have to battle it out with a dozen of my best friends for the job. Which is why I went on to become a science journalist, making documentaries for German TV. That is described in another article which might be of interest.