The press tells me that cricket-mania is sweeping the country, and I now have a datapoint of my own to prove it. This morning, for the first time, I’ve heard several cries of “LBW!” coming from one of the gardens just down the road from us — and, weirdo that I am, I find myself wondering whether the ball might just have pitched outside Channel Four’s “red zone” on the leg-side. I should have thought that the gardens round here were too small for a good game of cricket, but I think the people playing are quite small, too, so that may make a difference.

(I also found myself explaining in some detail the rules about substitute fielders the other day. That’s not a regular feature of life, either.)

Thursday Kitten Blogging

A rain delay after lunch on the first day of the fourth Test means I have time for a bumper edition of TKB. Here we see the kittens despairing of the Australian bowlers’ problems with no-balls:

Enkidu has found himself an advantageous perch at the top of the stairs:

A fearsome mouse…

And finally: Andromache pauses on her way down the stairs:

More to come…

Dictionary Definitions

As a lot of you probably know, some of my favourite books are dictionaries.

Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique leads the way (I own a copy of the translation which Thomas Birch organised in the 1730s, the ten-volume General Dictionary, Historical and Critical, and one of these days I’m going to have to shell out to get the folios rebound, as they aren’t especially usable at the moment); astute observers of Thursday Kitten-blogging will have spotted that I’ve got a copy of Raymond Trousson and Frédéric S. Eigeldinger’s Dictionnaire de J-J Rousseau (it’s the big yellow book on the right in the lower of the two pics, just below the black kitten’s paw); time with the OED is never wasted; and recently I’ve been using the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography a lot, which is also great fun, extremely useful, and partially written by my friends, current colleagues and former teachers, which is nice.

But that’s really just an over-long introduction to the question I wanted to ask, which follows (eventually):

Quite often — very often, in fact — undergraduate students begin their essays by telling you (the person who’s reading / marking it) what the key conceptual terms in the question they’re considering mean, and they do this by quoting from standard dictionary definitions, and generally from the OED. Now, on the one hand, there’s something handy about doing this. It helps to give clarity and content to words that might otherwise be slippery and vague, and – with a bit of luck – it gets the argument of the essay off on a firmer footing than might otherwise be the case.

On the other hand, it may also have a number of drawbacks. By presenting the conceptual terms as givens at the start of the essay, it makes it harder for the argument of the essay to do the work of clarifying the content of the concept itself. (We might think, for example, that we’d prefer to find a well worked-out concept presented at the end of the argument of the essay, rather than at the beginning.) If we think that the key concepts that are likely to appear in an essay-title are “essentially contested” ones (and this is is especially true in political theory essays), then quite a bit turns on which particular dictionary, and therefore which particular decontestation, gets presented in the language of the definition. And, thirdly, it concedes to the lexicographers an authority that they don’t really possess — and, in the case of the OED, an authority which its contents and design-principles contradict at every turn, with its concern to track usage rather than to prescribe meaning, and to pile up definition upon definition upon attestation upon attestation, all of which tends to a happy anarchy (“confusion’s masterpiece”?) rather than to any kind of precise, concicse authority. (Hobbes would have hated the OED — or perhaps he would have said that that’s what inevitably happens when you put the dons in charge of the dictionary.)

So the question’s really this: should students be encouraged or discouraged to go down the “at the start of your essay, define your key terms” route? Or should those of us who get paid to teach them just remain agnostic on the general subject, and point out when they either do it well or badly?

(I’m especially interested in answers from anyone who does teach, has taught, or plans to teach at university-level here, though obviously opinions from anyone else are more than more than welcome.)

And a supplementary question: anyone know where students pick up this habit of starting with dictionary definitions? Is it something teachers at school tell them is good practice, is it something encouraged by other university teachers, or is it something that students do because they think it’s what we want to see? Or — more boringly, but perhaps more likely — is it some kind of combination of the three? (Or, more interestingly, something else altogether?)

Occasionalism Now!

Is it just me, or does this week’s Onion article, “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory” present an argument eerily similar to everyone’s favourite Augustinian Cartesian Nicolas Malebranche’s metaphyisics of “occasionalism”?

From the splendid, every-home-should-have-one Cambridge History of C17th Philosophy [vol.1, pp.538-9]:

“The occasionalist conclusion drawn by Malebranche and Cordemoy is that an explanation of any natural effect which refers only to matter and motion – that is, which specifies only the shapes and sizes of material particles moving with given directions and velocities in accordance with certain laws – will ultimately fail to account fully for the phenomenon, since physical bodies have no causal efficacy. In fact, there is and can be only one true cause of any phenomenon, namely, the infinitely powerful will of God. God alone has a power to act, and there is a necessary connexion only between God’s will and its effects. All events in the natural world, all motions, collisions, separations, changes, and other effects in bodies have God as their direct and immediate author. Thus, any metaphysically complete explanation of a phenomenon must refer at least to the divine volition which is its efficient cause (although, as we shall see, in physics one need not take explanation to this high a level).”

OK, it is just me. It’s the last, parenthetical clause that gives M. the get-out.

Philosopher-King (of the Silver Dollar)

Simon has just posted this gem:

PHILOSOPHY AND ALT. COUNTRY LYRICS (CONT.)”The meaning of the world lies outside the world”
-Silver Jews on Carnap’s rejection of metaphysics.


“Everybody’s talking but nobody’s listening”
-Dizzee on Heidegger’s concept of ‘idle talk’.

“I’m no longer human- i’ve become an investment”
-Wiley on the Marxian concept of capital fetishism.

Simon doesn’t have comments over at his blog, so if anyone wants to post more examples — and not necessarily onlyfrom grime and alt.country — in the same format in mine, feel free.