Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rule-following

The first long afternoon after I see my philosopher off at the train station I typically spend feeling sorry for myself. Last Sunday that involved taking a two hour nap right before dinner and then going to bed about four hours later, at 10pm. Once the week gets underway, however, there is no time for self-pity.

This semester I have morning classes every day, which means that I actually have to get up in the morning, every morning. I didn't realized how attached I had become to my three days of working from home each week. Still, the transition is going well. I wake up at the same time everyday and I go to bed at roughly the same time, and I don't feel frantic every morning because I've overslept. 

On campus, my days have been very full. There have been lots of department meetings, two language exams,  and two colloquia, and I am still sorting out my class schedule. The good news is that I've finally winnowed my course selection down to four and no auditing, I have passed my German translation exam (I knew that college minor was good for something! Only three more language exams to go!), and my second Greek diagnostic went much better than the first (I can actually sight-read some Plato now). I have improved since September, and I will continue to do so.

My hopes for the coming semester have been bolstered by my reflections about the last. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein has a lot to say about rule following. He is particularly puzzled by the way in which students somehow comprehend the rules they are taught and somehow learn to go on applying those rules even in novel situations. Last semester I discovered that I knew how to "go on" in philosophy. 

I have known how to write exegetical papers for a long time now, but I found the methods of "first-order" philosophy utterly mystifying. I didn't understand how people came up with their clever counter-examples in seminars, how they grasped whole ideas and considered them under a kind of panoptic gaze, and I never felt, in my own critical work, that I was really getting hold of anything important beyond formal issues of structure. I still could not tell you how people do these things, but I know that in my work last semester, in my papers and presentations and comments in talks and classes, I started to do them. I took risks in my work last semester. Not all of the individual gambles paid off, but the results, over all, were good. My papers were less polished and less meticulously argued than normal, but the content was bolder and more original than it has ever been. Even better: the word has been sent down that the faculty agree with my assessment of my work. 

This serendipitous overlap of my own good opinion of my work with others' has made the beginning of the semester especially bright. Now that I know how to go on--and now that I know that I can--I'm raring to go.

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