[While trying to get my C.V. in order for some university committee that wanted it, I stumbled across an article I had written for a journal called “Topoi” on the topic What’s to be done?. I think they asked a couple of hundred philosophers to write short essays. This was in 2006, but since I mostly deal with timeless topics, my views haven’t changed. So I thought I would recycle it as a Christmas blog, since it’s sort of cheerful and with respect to the Eastern APA, seasonal.==jp]
Topoi provides an excellent expression of a view of philosophy that I share:
Topoi’s main assumption is that philosophy is a lively, provocative, delightful activity, which constantly challenges our received views, relentlessly questions our inherited habits, painstakingly elaborates on how things could be different, in other stories, in counterfactual situations, in alternative possible worlds. Whatever its ideology, whether with the intent of uncovering a truer structure of reality or of soothing our anxiety some with Exhale Wellness, of exposing myths or of following them through, the outcome of philosophical activity is always the destabilizing, unsettling generation of doubts, of objections, of criticisms.
As one who has taught philosophy in American Universities for forty years, there are a couple of things I would add. First, philosophy taught at the undergraduate level is often that which puts students in a frame of mind to be adventurous about their college education, by encouraging them to ask questions they have not been encouraged to ask before, by showing that such questions can be approached seriously, and by introducing them to a class of people relatively invisible outside of the university, “professional”— philosophers, faculty and graduate students— who often are among the most weird and interesting and even inspiring whom they have encountered.
Secondly, a thought about this wonderful and interesting group of people, my philosophical colleagues. I have a very distinct memory of arriving at the Eastern Meetings of the American Philosophical Association some years back, when they were held at a hotel in Baltimore. The meetings began just after a National Football League playoff game had been played in that city, and the previous occupants of the hotel seemed to be mainly people connected with this game. Since I was flying from the west coast, and had to attend some meeting or other in the early afternoon of the first day, I arrived the night before most of the other participants. I was able to watch the amazing transformation that took place as the football crowd checked out and the philosophy crowd checked in. The NFL people were large, some very large, most quite good-looking, confident, well-dressed, big-tipping, successful-looking folk; the epitome of what Americans should be, I suppose, according to the dominant ethos. We philosophers were mostly average-sized, mostly clearly identifiable as shabby pedagogues, clutching our luggage to avoid falling into unnecessary tipping situations. We included many bearded men— some elegant, some scruffy— all sorts of interesting intellectual looking women; none of the philosophers, not even the big ones and the beautiful ones, were likely to be mistaken for the football players, cheerleaders, sportscasters and others who were checking out. The looks from the hotel staff members, who clearly sensed that they were in for a few days of less expansive tipping and more modest bar-tabs, were a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. The talk, as philosophers recognized each other and struck up conversations, was unlike anything that ever had been or would be heard in that hotel lobby: whether there are alternative concrete possible worlds; whether there is anything in Heidegger not better said already by Husserl; whether animals should be eaten; not to mention topics that aroused truly deep passions, mostly related to proper names.
What a wonderful group of people, I thought, and how wonderful, and lucky, that the world has managed to find a niche for us. Even if philosophy had no real intellectual content at all — was as silly as astrology or numerology certainly are, or as I suspect, in dark moments, that certain other parts of the university are— it would still be wonderful that it existed, simply to keep these people occupied. Especially me. What would I be doing without this wonderful institution? Helping people in some small town in Nebraska with their taxes and small legal problems, I suppose, and probably not doing it very well.
But of course we philosophers do intellectually valuable and often socially useful thinking. For the past three years Ken Taylor and I have put on a weekly radio program in San Francisco, “Philosophy Talk,” in which we discuss all sorts of issues philosophically, most far beyond the areas of expertise that either of us possess. We are joined by philosophers from all over the world, mostly by telephone, who do know something about the topic at hand; some are famous, many I had not heard of before. I have been struck by the depth and breadth of relentlessly questioning our inherited habits and painstakingly elaboration of how things could be different is going on by philosophers of all sorts on all sorts of topics. I am inevitably stuck by what a great contribution this or that person must be making to students and colleagues at their university.
Every so often I read that there are more scientists alive today that there have been in all the history of the world up until now. I suppose the same must be true with philosophers. There seems to be a lot of philosophy going on. When I was a graduate student, forty-five years ago, one could pretty much keep track of the new books that were published, at least in English, and one didn’t even feel terrifically overwhelmed by the number of journals and articles. Now there seem to be as many books coming out each month, as there were articles then. At the APA conventions, in the reviews, at some bookstores with good philosophy collections, one sees more interesting looking books that one could possibly read.
The old codger in me is tempted to suppose that this is because standards have fallen since I was a boy, and besides word-processors have unleashed floods of drivel. But that doesn’t really seem to be the explanation. An enormous percentage of these books and a good percentage of the even more overwhelming number of articles that are published, seem to be, when one digs into them, interesting contributions to interesting topics. And, unless my perceptions are totally off, I think the more or less continentally inspired books are getting more rigorous, and the more or less analytically inspired ones are getting more adventurous.
I am a pessimist about almost everything. We inhabit a fragile planet, which has been warm enough for a couple of thousand years to produce philosophers, but is now doomed, due to our folly, to get too hot, and then, because of the remorseless uncaring cycles of sun and earth, get too cold. Space travel isn’t going to work. The American government, run by mediocre minds and mean spirits for much of its history, has sunk to new lows. There are too many people. Universities sell out. Women will always prefer undeserving men, and men will always prefer undeserving women. More animals suffer every year to produce a less inspired cuisine.
All of culture, philosophy included, is a huge trick on nature, breaking the natural connection between pain and pleasure and the things Mother Nature cares about—-reproduction of one species in service of the digestive needs of another, for the most part—and using them for our own purposes. Mother Nature will eventually catch on and reassert herself. But for right now, if one lives in a free society, or at least one that allows philosophers to read what they want and say what they think, and if one can find a job or a stipend, it’s a wonderful time to be a philosopher: so much to read, so much to think about, so much to write about, so many places to expose one’s thoughts to whoever will read or listen. What’s to be done? As Topoi say, it’s a delightful activity. Read, talk, write, enjoy.
Interesting email from Neil Murray. Comments? JP
My wife, a procrastinator, sent me a link to your essay on structured procrastination. She finds in amusing. I find it annoying. Perhaps it provides an effective way to deal with procrastination. But it does not explain the phenomenon, nor does it speculate on why it is far more common in the groves of academe than elsewhere. As a college teacher myself, I have noticed that many of my colleagues sit on essays for weeks, foul up the grade reporting process with late submissions, and drive the book store batty with delays of weeks and even months. Why? I suspect part of the reason is the spirit of perversity that Dostoyevsky described in Notes from Underground–an impulse to engage in self-harmful behavior simply to prove that one is not a machine. But I think the main cause is academic arrogance, the belief that ordinary rules do not apply to the great thinkers, even if flouting those rules results in harm to others. So I think your essay is neither humorous nor helpful but a symptom of one of the major problems in higher education.
by John Perry
October 7, 2011
Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace. I write this on a MacBook Pro, using the Apples Pages program (inexpensive compared to Word), while listening to music I bought from the ITunes, played through my MacBook. The speakers the music comes out of, and the pipe I am smoking, and the clothes I am wearing, are virtually the only parts of my present existence that don’t owe something to Jobs. Quite a guy. This has led to think about what writing used to be like.
By the time Jobs was born, in 1955, I was already twelve and doing a lot of typing. My parents had an old L.C. Smith machine in the basement which my brother and I both used. He wrote science fiction, a life-long passion. I wrote history, mainly summaries of what I read in Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World, H.G. Wells’ Outlines of History, and Van Loon’s Story of Mankind.
The main enjoyment came from using the big machine, still a shiny black after years of use. You hit the keys and then they made a very satisfying “whap” on the paper, a nice comforting noise of accomplishment. At the end of the line you threw the carriage return, on the right side of the L.C. Smith machines, unlike most others. This break in typing, it turns out, was a main reason generations of manual typists didn’t get carpal tunnel syndrome. At least I think I read that somewhere.
Typewriters were invented in the 1870’s. The first generation of typewriters, until about the turn of the century, typed in the mechanically simplest way; you pressed the key down, which pressed one end of the typebar down. Like a teeter-totter, the other end of the typebar went up, hitting the paper and the platen on the bottom. You couldn’t see what you had typed. You had to rotate the platen about a third of a turn to see, and then rotate it back to continue typing.
A more complicated mechanism led to typebars that hit the front of the platen. These were called “Visible Writers”. The underwriters were doomed, although advertisements from their purveyors warned that seeing what you were typing was distracting, and could lead to confusion and dizziness. About this time a number of configurations were tried out. One of the most popular machines in offices near the turn of the century was the Oliver. The typebars were large U-shaped things, coming up in two batches, to the left and the right of the platen. When you typed, they whapped down from above, putting gravity on your side. The Oliver remained a best-seller for ten or fifteen years, until the company decided to market them directly through the mail, rather than through stores. That didn’t work and the Oliver faded into history.
Also at that time something akin to the later IBM Selectric, with its print-ball, was developed. The type was all on a cylinder; when you typed the cylinder was turned and raised and lowered just the right amount for the required letter to hit the platen.
Everyone has heard about the QWERTY keyboard. The configuration of keys we have now was developed early, to keep people from typing too fast, and to make it probable that successive key strokes were from different sides of the keyboard. This helped prevent jams. The fact that we still use QWERTY keyboards is a tribute to the principle that non-optimal arrangements survive, when the reason for adopting them is long past, if change requires new habits.
A number of turn-of-the century typewriters had two QUERTY keyboards, one for regular letters and one for capitals: a difficult system for for touch typists, one supposes. The standard configuration of three rows of letters and a top row of numbers took a while to become universal. Many typewriters had just three rows, with two shift keys, one which gave you capitals, the other which gave you numbers and other odds and ends. One of the most popular of these was the first portable, a Corona whose keyboard folded elegantly onto the platen, so the whole thing could be fitted into a small case. You can still find these at flea-markets and antique stores; I paid $10 for one a few years ago, but now they are closer to $100.
Once the standard configuration was settled on, and the underwriters and the Olivers bit the dust, typewriters were all pretty similar and didn’t change much for about fifty years. There were Underwoods, the biggest sellers, Royals, the handsomest, L.C. Smiths, Corona portables, and then Smith-Coronas when those companies merged. Less popular were the Woodstocks, but they became famous when Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee convicted Alger Hiss on testimony from Whittaker Chambers; a Woodstock was a key bit of evidence. I think it was found hidden in a pumpkin in Chambers’ garden, although maybe it was something else that was hidden in the pumpkin. A pumpkin would have to be pretty big to hide a Woodstock.
Virtually all typewriters were black enamel until the forties,, and then sort of slightly textured grey or brown finishes became popular. The typewriters used in my typing class in high-school were like that; brown Royals I think; the keys were blank to force you to memorize the letters so you could look at the paper instead of at your hands. There were also lots of portables; no longer foldups, just smaller versions of the big machines. Writers like Hemmingway used them, carrying them with their luggage on trains and ships to Paris and Havana and other exotic places.
Sometime in the late fifties or early sixties IBM developed electric typewriters, and these eventually became standard in offices. My father had a small law firm in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his brother and their father. I remember going there in the mid-fifties, and they were still using manuals. The secretary, Mildred, could type sixty or seventy words a minute flawlessly, with five or six carbons. The contracts and briefs they typed at a law office weren’t supposed to have any mistakes. It was quite amazing to watch her type, and the whole operation was very noisy in a pleasant way.
Carbons? Do young people know what carbon paper and carbon copies were all about? I wonder.
For graduation from Lincoln Southeast High in 1960 I got a pale green Smith-Corona portable; until then I had used the L.C. Smith in the basement when I needed to type an essay. I used this portable though my undergraduate years at Doane College, and for most of graduate school at Cornell. It never let me down; never crashed; never interrupted me in the middle of an essay to tell me I needed to update software; never became obsolete because software didn’t work on its operating system, never had any mechanical problems at all. In this brave new world, we now also have so many staff working remotely so it can be very wise to invest in some quality remote employee monitoring software as that makes managing those staff so much easier. As an undergraduate I typed all of my assignments, and many of my wife’s, on this great little machine.
At Cornell of course I had to write a dissertation, which I did on this portable. Typing an essay or a dissertation was a lot of work. You typed a draft of an essay or a chapter. Then, to revise, you had to type it again from scratch. I would lay out the pages on a couch and table, and then cut them into pieces and scotch-tape them together in the revised order that seemed appropriate. Additions were hand-written or typed, and taped in place. Then you put this mess on the desk — usually about 3 a.m. the day before the essay was due — and typed it all again — with a carbon, if you wanted a copy for yourself. But you didn’t just type the draft verbatim. Since you had to type each sentence, you thought about each sentence, and the thing improved with each draft.
While I was in graduate school, Smith-Corona came out with an electric version of their portable. At that time Frenchie, my wife, and Jim and Sarah, my two oldest, all lived on a meager (but much appreciated) fellowship from the Danforth Foundation. Nevertheless, I came up with the $100 or so required to buy one of these machines. It was fantastic. But it wasn’t as problem free as the manual portable. Twice as I was typing furiously the end of the `e’ typebar flew off, and had to be soldered back on (or maybe the whole typebar was replaced, I’m not sure). I typed the last version of my dissertation — that is, the version that my committee had for my oral — on that machine, making four or five carbons, which would have been impossible on the manual. Then the whole thing had to be retyped by a professional for the university’s archives; I was never a good enough typist to produce the error-free pages that were required for that.
Typewriters were an important part of my life at UCLA (1968–1974), used to write the articles that earned tenure (or at any rate sufficed for me to get it), as well as lectures, memos, and lots of anti-war materials, and a beautiful pamphlet that Tom Hill and I wrote to protest the firing of our colleague, Angela Davis, by Governor Reagan and the UC Regents. Burt Lancaster actually gave us some money to distribute the pamphlet—but that’s a different story. For serious stuff you could use the IBM self-correcting Selectrics in the Department Office. With them, it seemed to me that document preparation had reached perfection; nothing better could be imagined.
Things changed when I moved to Stanford in 1974. My colleague Pat Suppes had an institute —the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences, or IMSSS — which had a big computer, a DEC 10, I think. He had a lot of people working for him, and they were doing amazing stuff: developing computerized logic and set theory courses, among other things. In some dark corner of IMSSS Dikran Karagueuzian, now the esteemed leader of CSLI Publications, sat making Armenian computer-accessible. One fellow, a genius named Pennti Kanerva, developed a program called `TV Edit’ — one of the best pieces of word processing software there ever was. Kanerva is now becoming famous as his work on Sparse Distributed Computing comes to the attention to brain-scientists, but people my age at Stanford still associate him with TV Edit, the first word-processing program many of us used.
Suppes let philosophy graduate students and his faculty colleagues come over to IMSSS and use terminals running TV Edit., try the 65 tv wall mount that is the best for you and your home or business. Then you could print out your work on a huge printer, called a LinePrinter because it printed a whole line at a time. Talk about satisfying noises connected with writing! Kathunk, Kathunk, the whole building shook as your work was printed out. That was my introduction to Word Processing.
There was a downside to this. Up until then, when a graduate student gave me a draft of a chapter or a whole dissertation, I would go over it with them and gently make suggestions and criticisms. I knew that to deal with them, the student would have to retype the whole thing, and I counted on that process to lead to much more radical rethinking and revision, so the next draft would be substantially changed. But the Stanford graduate students, using TV Edit, didn’t have to do that. They could replace an offending paragraph, improve a disorganized section, change some terminology, just by cutting and pasting and searching and replacing on the computer. I could no longer count on mild criticisms from me, plus the discipline of retyping from scratch, to produce significantly changed drafts. For a while I tried forbidding my students from using TV Edit until their final draft, but that didn’t fly for long. I learned that to get substantial revisions, I needed to make all my criticisms explicit and say several times: “Don’t just cut and paste. Rethink and revise!”
My grandfather used to complain that the typewriter had ruined English literature, leading from the sort of florid prose that flowed from the pens of Dickens or Henry James to the telegraphic style of Hemmingway. I thought that was a sort of curmudgeonly point of view, but perhaps something like it is true in analytical philosophy, where short polished articles have given way to self-indulgent books, no doubt due in large part to how much easier it’s become to write such things.
Then Jobs and Wozniak invented the PC, and IBM and Radio Shack came out with their versions. Stanford helped those of us in the Humanities to buy machines, and everything changed. There wasn’t much more to the internet than file-transfer and email, which most people didn’t yet use. To do those things you needed a modem, usually 300 or 1200 baud. There were no hard disks, and you could only run one program at a time, and you had to load it from a floppy disc. Looking back it’s hard to see why such machines were the godsend that they were. But in a way things were easier; once your got your word-processing program working and started to write, there was no motivation to stop and surf the net, which didn’t exist.
Jobs’ Macintosh brought WYZIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processing, icons, the mouse, and other things to the world of PC users. The mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart at SRI, and the rest by folks over at Xerox Parc, but it took Jobs to put it all together. After his exile from Apple, he returned with his solid NEXT operating system, based on UNIX. Since then its been one thing after another. My MacBook Pro is based on a solid system, not the elaborations on kludges that the original PCs ran (and some still do). There is every conceivable temptation to waste time; you can watch movies, do email, surf the web, catch up on the news, and a hundred other things rather than write the essay you sat down to write. Or you can just write something other than what you intended to work on, which I have just done.
Back in the days when correspondence came in envelopes delivered by the post office, I wasn’t much good at keeping up. There was a certain regular rhythm to things. Mail came in, and I started opening it. For some reason or other, I sat down and dealt with certain items promptly. Other things, like bills, were put in a pile that I absolutely had to deal with once a month, and I eventually developed the habit of paying them on time, since the consequences of not doing so were so dire. Other stuff, some opened, some unopened, piled up towards the back of the desk, to be dealt with “later”. Eventually letters would begin to fall off the back of the desk to the floor, where they went unnoticed for long periods of time, perhaps forever. In this way the pile stayed manageable, a repository for finding tasks to do as a way of not doing other more urgent things that came along.
Occasionally this system led to unfortunate results. Some letters that fell off the back of the desk, or remained in the pile but were never opened, turned out to be important. But not that often. If answering a letter was truly important, I would usually get a phone call or a follow up letter, and then I would search for the original and deal with it. Even I am not stupid enough to overlook letters from, say, the Internal Revenue Service, that are marked “urgent”.
Sometimes the system worked quite well. For a while, when I was a young assistant professor at UCLA, I was in charge of admissions to the M.A. program. It wasn’t a very big program, and I tended to let things pile up until the chair of the department reminded me that I it was time to bring a list of the best candidates to the next meeting . A number of years later, I was trying to raise some money for a research institute at Stanford, and I had lunch with an executive of a company that made high quality modems. This was in the day when all people who wanted to use a computer from home dialed into a mainframe, and a 1200 baud modem was “state of the art,” an expensive bit of equipment that everyone wanted. His company made the best ones. He was very successful.
During lunch, it emerged that he had been philosophy major at state college in California, and had applied to UCLA to get a masters degree. He did so only because he couldn’t figure out what else to do upon graduation. He never heard from UCLA, but while he was waiting he started his modem company, from which he made a fortune. I said I thought I knew what had happened. His letter had come to me, been piled at the back of the desk, fallen off, and thus never dealt with. I felt bad, momentarily.
But this fellow was very grateful for the way I handled his case. M.A.’s in philosophy, even from UCLA, don’t usually lead to fame and fortune, especially for those who are applying only because they can’t figure out what else to do with their lives. So things had worked out very well for him. He didn’t give any money to the research institute, but he did give me a top of the line 1200 baud modem.
Now you would think email would change all this. But, at least in my case, the psychology of the structured procrastinator has easily outwitted modern technology.
Instead of a desk I now have in “inbox” on my computer. I get a daily influx of email. I use Gmail from Google, which does a good job cleaning out spam, and automatically diverting stuff into files that I don’t want automatically deleted, but I’m sure I will only get around to when I’m in a real procrastinatory funk— things like reports from my Congresswoman, or descriptions of the latest assault on the environment from Forests.com, or minutes from Rotary meetings.
The rest piles up in my inbox. For whatever reason, I deal with some of it the day it comes in, but never quite all. I try to get to some of the things lower down on the list every so often, and especially when the number of emails in my inbox gets close to 100. People send little messages suggesting that their previous email must have gotten lost, and so I search for their previous email and try to deal with it. But just like the stuff that used to fall off the back of my desk, there is a certain amount of stuff that remains undealt with for long periods of time. Sometimes, when I finally get to these emails, I feel very bad for having ignored them. Luckily, I cope fairly well with guilt. And, for every email I ignore for months, there is one that I deal with immediately, as a way of not doing something more important, sending back a reply so quickly that the recipient is amazed at my promptness.
I’ve tried to use the resources of email to manage things better. I started a file called “Really Urgent Stuff that Must Not Be Ignored” and forced myself for a while to put everything that might be important, that I didn’t want to deal with the very day it came in, into this file. But then I forgot about it, only to stumble on it months later.
On Gmail, you can click a little star on a message. Then later you can select all the starred messages, and that list appears instead of your inbox. This seemed like a great way to flag the important stuff I wasn’t ready to deal with, but wanted to get out of my inbox. But it just led to a second list about as long as the inbox, so there wasn’t any gain.
In some ways, however, the structured procrastinator has an advantage in avoiding some of the worst dangers of email. In the old days, if you got a letter, even if you sat down and answered it right way and sent your reply back, there would be a four to six day interval before you could expect further stuff in reply to your reply. But there seems to be a certain group of people out there who live for email, and the minute they get a response they send a follow up. This can be very frustrating to a procrastinator, who hasn’t finished patting himself on the back for answering one email when another one arrives from the same person. Such people learn that I am not one of them, for even if I answer the original email promptly, I will almost certainly procrastinate on the follow up. This is frustrating for the gung-ho correspondent, and I fall off their list.
The main problem email presents for the procrastinator is that even if you don’t answer your email you can spend hours looking through your inbox, following up links that people send you, and link from those links. Sometimes this pays unexpected dividends. You develop little pools of expertise, perhaps about the sorts of metal roofing that is available for a barn — if one has a barn, which I don’t —, or the history of Tajikistan. These pools of expertise occasionally prove useful in conversation, or working a crossword puzzle. But it is easy to fall into losing an hour or two procrastinating without having anything to show for it —or a day or two, for that matter.
The only way out of this trap that I have found involves that rarest of resources, will-power. Luckily, the really rare sort of will-power , the sort that allows one to stop in the middle of following up a email initiated trail of online links in order to do something useful, isn’t usually required. Surfing from irrelevant link to even more irrelevant link is a bit like watching junk TV. It’s very hard to stop watching a junky program you have started to watch, simply relying on will-power. I’ve waited for the better part of an hour just to see how much they charge for a ginzu knife, or a pocket fisherman, or green bags that keep your vegetables fresh, or a bottle opener that looks like a bass and plays “99 bottles of beer” when you use it, even though I have no intention of ordering any of those things. What is needed is something to break the spell, like lunch, or an urgent need to go to the bathroom, or a completely boring commercial, or any program involving Keith Olbermann pontificating or Paris Hilton or Glenn Beck doing anything whatsoever.
In the case of email, the best strategy is to get started on email only when some natural event is sure to interrupt you and break the spell. I try to deal with my email only when I am already hungry, or I’m pretty sure my wife is going to interrupt me with some urgent task before too long, or I am already feeling the first signs of a full bladder. If you use a laptop, unplug it before you start your email; the spell will be broken when the battery dies — although as batteries improve, this technique becomes less useful.
If nothing else works, set an alarm clock to interrupt you after an hour. The main trick is to only rely on the little bit of will-power that is required to put off starting your email until some natural or pre-arranged event is sure to break the spell after a while. If you expect to have enough of that rarer kind of will power to quit right at the point when another link or two will resolve all your questions about Tajikistan, it won’t work.