Surely You're Joking, Prof. Wittgenstein!

Jokes and philosophy are an odd combination. Philosophy is mainly academic in flavour; full of terminology that locks most people out. Jokes make most people laugh. However Norman Malcolm wrote in Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, that Wittgenstein remarked “that a serious and philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes ( without being facetious )”. Jokes? Philosophy? Further investigation is required.

Jokes come in many forms: puns, funny gestures, pranks, irony, sarcasm, nonsense etc. Anything that in general makes us laughs. Comedians, of whom there are many fine examples, deliver jokes. Not a stand-up philosopher. Apart from a comedian’s sense of timing in delivering a joke, they can use gestures. Watch any clip of Tommy Cooper and you’re laughing before he speaks! All skills that a philosopher lacks.

However, Wittgenstein is clear: jokes need to be written down and therefore they must make the reader laugh without the aid of speaking or gestures. Some jokes that are delivered by a comedian can be funny in writing, in particular one-liners, for example one from Tim Vine “Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels.” Wittgenstein also stresses that the jokes have not to be facetious. No “why did the chicken cross the road ?” type jokes. Also, he was not considering jokes about philosophers but rather about philosophical problems.

So what was Wittgenstein on about? It is difficult to image Wittgenstein laughing at a joke. He was mostly in a state of tension with periodic bouts of suicidal thoughts. Although there are some remarks in Wittgenstein’s work about humour and jokes, they are never developed enough to gain any insight.

Early in his life Wittgenstein read the philosophical works of Schopenhauer which may have influenced his ideas on the connection between jokes and philosophy. Schopenhauer’s view was that a joke lies in an object that can, at a stretch, be classified under a concept, even though it differs greatly from the objects usually classification. We laugh involuntarily when we grasp the inconsistency: when we see the object doesn’t really fit the concept after all. Sounds complicated but an example may illustrate what he is getting at. Amongst the many Spike Milligan jokes that makes me laugh is: “A man loses his dog, so he puts an ad in the paper. And the ad says, ‘Here, boy!’” The phrase ‘Here boy’ said within the context of a man walking his dog in a park we immediately understand without any problems or confusion, if not irritated when we are trying to soak up the sun. However when we move the context by placing the phrase in a newspaper we laugh at the inconsistency.

Wittgenstein’s view was that problems in philosophy arise when there is a failure to recognise that the words being used have lost their sense. When we come across a misuse of words, when they have lost their meaning, they could create an inconsistency. And rather than spending lots of time puzzling over the meaning of the sentence we should grasp it for what it is: nonsense, laugh, and move on.

So how would it work? My attempt is based on solipsism, the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist, and goes ‘A man thought he was the only person in the world, until he looked in the mirror’. Would Wittgenstein have laughed? Maybe not but I would hope for a wry smile.

Talking About Wittgenstein

My interest in Wittgenstein was developed further through television. There were a few programmes about his life and work which were aimed at a broad audience and I found them very absorbing. The following is a collection of those programmes that can now be found on the web.

In Christopher Sykes’ BBC Horizon documentary Wittgenstein is brought to life through anecdotes from people that knew him, his letters to friends and commentaries on his work:

A series of programmes that I always looked forward to was the BBC’s The Great Philosophers with Brian Magee. The series covered the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, among others, and ended with a discussion with John Searle on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. In their discussion they cover Wittgenstein’s legacy; ranging from his early work, the Tractatus, to his posthumously published, Philosophical Investigations. Although the thought of two philosophers in deep discussion about Wittgenstein may feel daunting Brian Magee keeps the discussion at a level that is very accessible to the the non-academic:

The quality of the writing in the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations were mentioned in the discussion and the following sections show the difference in approach and style between the two works. First a section from the Tractatus that discusses language and the nature of philosophy:

4.001   The totality of propositions is the language.

4.002   Man possesses the capacity of constructing languages, in which every sense can be expressed, without having an idea how and what each word means—just as one speaks without knowing how the single sounds are produced.

Colloquial language is a part of the human organism and is not less complicated than it. From it it is humanly impossible to gather immediately the logic of language.

Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.

The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated.

4.003   Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness. Most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language.

(They are of the same kind as the question whether the Good is more or less identical than the Beautiful.)

And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems.

The following section is from the Philosophical Investigation and discusses again language and the nature of philosophy:

122 .  A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of the use of our words.—Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity. A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connexions'. Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases. The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a 'Weltanschauung'?)

123 . A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about".

124 . Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it. A "leading problem of mathematical logic" is for us a problem of mathematics like any other.

125 . It is the business of philosophy, not to resolve a contradiction by means of a mathematical or logico-mathematical discovery, but to make it possible for us to get a clear view of the state of mathematics that troubles us: the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved. (And this does not mean that one is sidestepping a difficulty.) The fundamental fact here is that we lay down rules, a technique, for a game, and that then when we follow the rules, things do not turn out as we had assumed. That we are therefore as it were entangled in our own rules.

This entanglement in our rules is what we want to understand (i.e. get a clear view of). It throws light on our concept of meaning something. For in those cases things turn out otherwise than we had meant, foreseen. That is just what we say when, for example, a contradiction appears: "I didn't mean it like that."
The civil status of a contradiction, or its status in civil life: there is the philosophical problem.

126 . Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything.—Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us.

One might also give the name "philosophy" to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions.

127 . The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.

It would have been fascinating, although daunting, to have attended one of Wittgenstein’s lectures at Cambridge University. His rooms were in Trinity College and they had a large view of the sky and also of Cambridge roofs. They were were sparsely furnished and extremely clean with a deck chair, or two, and virtually nothing else. His lectures were given without preparation and without notes. He would openly struggle with his own thoughts about a philosophical problem and passionately question his own thinking as well as those of the students. The closest example of what it would have been like experiencing one of his lectures is from Derek Jarmin’s film Wittgenstein:

Although Wittgenstein never committed to any formal religion he had a lifelong interest in religion and claimed: “I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.” In television series Sea of Faith Don Cupitt gives a different aspect on Wittgenstein’s life and work. The clip starts with a short introduction about previous religious thinkers:

On First Reading Wittgenstein

Over the years, a handful of books have pointed my curiosity in new directions. But there is one book that is still opening up new areas to explore.

In the late 70’s, after completing my first degree in Agricultural Engineering, there was a sudden drop in the job market as many manufacturers left the UK. I have always, and still do, enjoy mathematics and decided that I had better job prospects building up my mathematical skills. Cranfield University provided a course that took engineers, programmers, and scientists and developed their mathematical skills to Masters level in Applied Mathematics.

The course was full of mathematical terminology that was strange to me and I struggled. Luckily a normal day was structured with lectures in the morning and then we were free in the afternoon to catch up with the work. Most of my fellow students went back to their rooms in the hall of residence but I stayed in the students room at the end of the maths block along with one other, Mike. Mike was much older than me and after a BSc in mathematics had been writing software for the Civil Service. The course was a way to get a better job to support his increasing family. I was sure that I irritated him with my many questions about mathematical problems but with great patience he always had an answer.

During summer, the maths building would get very warm and to cool down I would go to the library situated in the middle of the campus. It had high ceilings and big windows and was well stocked with mathematics books that I could search through to help with the course work. One day I found a copy of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whithead’s three large volumes of the Principia Mathematica which was their attempt to establish the foundations of mathematics. It was notorious in world of mathematics for taking over four hundred pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. I could read the first few pages but my eyes glazed over when logical symbols filled the pages. On returning to the maths department I asked Mike if he knew of anybody who had ever read the three volumes. He replied that there was at least four people: the authors, Kurt Gödel and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I had heard of Gödel because I attended a seminar held in the department, which was way beyond my comprehension. But not Wittgenstein. Mike went on and described how he came from a very rich family in Vienna, started as an engineer and became interested in mathematics and its foundations. After studying with Russell he produced not one but two great works in philosophy the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations. The thought of an engineer turning out to be a great philosopher gave me a some hope with my mathematical struggles.

A few days later I was walking past the campus book shop and I dropped in my my regular visit. It contained text books that covered the wide variety of course that the Institute offered. However, I was surprised to come across a copy of the Tractatus. I read a few pages and, although I didn’t understand, it caught my attention with its short sentences that had the appearance of logical statement yet have a poetic feel to them:

1 The world is everything that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

I bought the book.

Over the months of reading the Tractatus it emerged that it was not a text book about philosophy but a solution to all philosophical problems. Wittgenstein’s approach was to recognise that when we misuse language then words can lose their meaning and when meaningless words are used they lead to problems in philosophy. The Tractatus was an attempt to show when words lose their meaning and when this happens in the case of philosophy the problems disappear.

I successfully graduated in Applied Mathematics, and over the years gathered many books and papers, about Wittgenstein and his work, including his second philosophical work the Philosophical Investigations. The Philosophical Investigations criticised large sections of the Tractatus and developed a new approach to identify when words lose their meaning.

Wittgenstein’s work is full of sharp observations about the use of language in a wide range of subjects ranging from mathematics and logic to music, religion and culture. I continue to enjoy exploring these subjects which I probably wouldn’t have explored if it hadn’t been for a chance conversation that lit my curiosity.

Three Improvements for Online Learning

Online learning is increasing the access to education and training. However the quality of the courses is very mixed. I have gathered some of the problems that I have experienced and suggested some solutions.

Over the years I have used online learning to increase my knowledge about a wide range of subjects and develop new skills. The online courses that I have taken include: creative writing, journalism and film making courses through the Open University and FutureLearn, developing business skills using digital technology with Digital Business Academy, learning about the underlying algorithms of Artificial Intiligence by entering into Kaggle competitions, and the impact functional programming on bioinformatics by solving problems on the Rosalind website. I have enjoyed these courses and learned a lot but there are some key changes that could be implemented to improve the quality of future online course:

1. Course Description

Often the course description is aimed more at marketing the course rather than specifying what the student will achieve. Although this approach can attract student numbers it can fail to meet a students expectations by either being too easy or too difficult.

Another aspect is pitching the entry competence at too low a level for the course to attract numbers of students. For example “ … it involves no computer programming, although you need some experience with using computers for everyday tasks. High-school maths is more than enough”. But once the course has started the competence levels required suddenly shoot and up moves into highly advanced topics that would be considered difficult at first year university!

What is needed is a clear description of what the learner will achieve by the end of the course. One approach would be to have a simple quiz to help the student decide whether they had the correct competence level for the course. Another is a system that could be developed which would monitor the progress of the student and if they were struggling then other online course or additional material could be recommended e.g. top up via Khan Academy.

2. Rate of Learning

My experience has been that the rate at which new concepts are introduced and reinforced can vary: one minute the ideas are straight forward and clearly described with supporting examples but suddenly jump to new concepts which are difficult to understand. All this can make the rate at which I learn very difficult as I find myself going back to the beginning of the course to find the content that I misunderstood, or search the web for a better explanation.

Another barrier to the speed of learning is the presentation of the material. Unfortunately some of the material looks like cut-and-paste from a lecture notes, or worse, sections are written by different authors and are not consistent in the use of terminology. Sometimes videos are involved, but they can be difficult to link to the course content because they usually cover areas outside of the course.

Usually the student can monitor their own progress through the course by answering questions at the end of each section but the questions rarely test a deep understanding of the material. Also, the answer can be of the yes/no type but if the learning requires the application of a concept then the workings are not checked only the final answer. A lot can be learned from applying a concept and therefore it would be helpful to analyse and point out where the application was going wrong.

The courses produced by the Open University remain the benchmark for online learning and the book Teaching Through Self-Instruction: How to Develop Open Learning Materials gives an excellent description of the process of developing a course. Their approach could be adopted for future online courses. Another aspect is improving the style of writing and lessons could be taken from Look and Learn which was a British weekly educational magazine for children. Its aim was to inspire the imagination of its readers with sharply written articles and with a mix of photographs and diagrams gave it an overall feeling of adventure.

Finally, progress of the student could be be monitored using an approache similar to Knewton with its technology that adapts to students’ proficiency levels with each interaction. Students don’t have to complete a formal assessment or diagnostic to get the instruction and practice they need — it’s provided just-in-time as students work to complete assignments. For problems where the application of a concept is important then there is an opportunity to develop AI based technology using similar approaches to Q-Learning.

3. Student Support

An important aspect of online learning is the level of support provided to the student, which in most cases is via forums where questions are asked and fellow students help to answer them. The answers are usually voted on and the best one has the most votes. The forums that I have experienced have moderators but unfortunately their involvement has been minimal and therefore opportunities to help with learning have been missed. For example when a question is asked sometimes the people answering may answer a different question. If the moderator had intervened to tease out the underlying problem that is troubling the student then a better answer would be found. All forum moderators should be trained to get the most out of forum activity. Or technology could be developed to analyse the question and relate it to the course content in a way that provides guidance to an answer.

Another aspect is helping students who are struggling to keep up with the course due to motivation, or othe emotional issues. A lot of research has been done in this area for example the work carried by Ormond Simpson contains lots of practical advice.

Online learning has increased the access to education around the world which has had an impact on many peoples lives. However, the next challenge for online learning is to improve the quality of the course content so that the participants will approach the same levels as universities and therefore have a credible level of knowledge. This will require more investment in developing the courses as well as identifying new opportunities for ground breaking technology.

The Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast with its steady and clear voice takes our imagination out to a ship that is clinging onto a cold grey sea.

"Forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency at 5:05 on the 6th September. The general synopsis at midnight Low 50 miles west of Bailey 979 expected Norwegian Sea 991 by midnight tonight. New low expected 125 miles west of Fitzroy 999 by same time. High Biscay 1025 dissipating The area forecasts for the next twenty four hours. Viking Southerly, veering southwesterly, 5 to 7 occasionally gale 8 at first. Moderate or rough, occasionally very rough for a time in north. Rain at first.Moderate or poor, becoming good. North Utsire, Southerly gale force 8 expected soon, Southerly, veering southwesterly, 5 to 7 occasionally gale 8 at first, Moderate or rough, occasionally very rough for a time in north, Rain at first. Moderate or poor, becoming good..."

The Air Ministry started broadcasting its weather shipping programme in 1924, using 13 maritime zones, twice daily on the Home Service. It was suspended during the Second World War, but was relaunched in 1949. Today the Shipping Forecast is produced by The Meterological Office and it’s broadcast four times throughout the day: 5:20 am, 12.01 pm, 5.45 pm and 00.48 am. Sailing By is a short piece of light music composed by Ronald Binge is used before the late forecast to give the helmsman time to tune in. When the late forecast is finished the National Anthem is played.

There are now 31 zones, which are given out in strict order, beginning at Viking in the north-east bordering Norway, and proceeding in a clockwise direction round the British Isles. Only seven areas survive from the original list: Forties, Humber, Dogger, Thames, Wight, Shannon and Hebrides. The last change to the zones was in 2002 when Finisterre became FitzRoy, which is name of the pioneering meteorologist Admiral Robert FitzRoy and who was captain of HMS Beagle on which Charles Darwin sailed to South America.

The forecast is full of precise technical terms that have to be decoded. For example, the terms ‘veering’ and ‘backing’ refer to the change in wind direction. When a wind is veering it is changing in a clockwise direction, whereas backing is anti-clockwise direction. Also, ‘variable’ means winds of less than force 4 that are changing by 90 degrees and ‘cyclonic’ means there will be considerable change.

The rhythmic, measured pace with which the Shipping Forecast is recorded has ensured that it is a as a cultural icon in the UK. Many artists have used it in their work, and it was prominent in Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Opening Ceremony. But it is best captured by the pen of Seamus Heaney in The Shipping Forecast:

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.