Same words, different meaning

I’ve been thinking a lot about cover versions lately. A cover is typically the same song as the original version. Even if the words are changed a little, the broader meaning is the same. An example I’ve used before is Willie Nelson’s cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Where Simon sings about “a girl from New York City”, Nelson makes it “a girl from Austin Texas.”

Yet there are also cases in which the very same lyrics can mean something different, because of a change in who sings them. Consider some examples.

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Footnote to an allusion

In an earlier post, I overthought the Paul Simon line “I was living in London with the girl from the song before.” In an earlier draft of that post, I quoted more of the song.

Good intention: I copied and pasted from a lyrics site, to avoid making a typo.

Poor execution: The site I copied from had “the summer before” as the lyric!

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The magic of allusion

I’ve been thinking about allusion recently, specifically the claim that “it is impossible to properly appreciate an allusion without considering what it is an allusion to.”1

Of course, it is impossible to understand an allusion in a semantic sense if you don’t know what it’s alluding to. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to properly appreciate it in an aesthetic or artistic sense.

Take this example, from the Paul Simon song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”:

I was living in London
With the girl from the song before

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Tips for writing a philosophy paper

Over on Twitter, Helen de Cruz asked: “Can anyone give me examples of philosophers (preferably recently) who have argued that philosophy’s all about argument–that stuff like emotions, moods, the beauty of writing, doesn’t matter to philosophical work and might even be distracting?”

I suggested that this comes out more in teaching than in written philosophy. It’s almost— but not quite— something I say in the page of writing advice that I hand out along with the first paper assignment in courses that I teach.1

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Winding down the on-line class, art

My Philosophy of Art class this term was synchronous, meaning that students and I typically logged onto a real-time Zoom meeting for class. I had students fill out a survey about their experience of the course. One question was about how the on-line experience compared to a face-to-face class, and this was the result—

From the standpoint of learning and engagement, having this course on-line was ____ having it in person.

…better than… 23%…about the same as… 41%…worse than… 36%

I would have said about the same, but that’s not quite right. There were definite differences, but some were for the better. On balance, it was a good course. Although I was adapting to the format as I went along, I’m not sure it would have been a better course face-to-face in a classroom.

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Avoiding books like the plague

Back in March, when lockdown started, I made one trip to the office to pick up things I needed to run my courses from home. I also picked up my copy of Albert Camus’ The Plague. It’s had been years since I’d read it, and I started reading a little bit in the morning with my coffee.

To be blunt, it was putting me in a sour mood.

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The persistence of realism

When someone cites one of my old papers, I get a notification. And I’m always surprised to see from responses to papers that I wrote a decade or more ago that parts of the scientific realism debate are going on in roughly the same terms that they’ve been going on for 40 years. Realism is taken to be the commitment that we should believe in unobservable posits of our best scientific theories, like electrons— alternately, that our best theories are probably at least approximately true.1

Lots of the debate seems to rely on treating realism as if it’s committed to finalism and overconfidence.

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Science journalism and the experimenter’s regress

The dialectic of science journalism, especially as refracted through social media, is to begin with the overenthusiastic claim “Study proves P.” Within a couple of days, the antithesis: “Study shows nothing of the kind, and anyway not-P.” Then there’s a storm, a cute puppy, or racism, and the matter is never resolved in a progressive synthesis.

Take the recent specimen of a study on the effectiveness of various kinds of face mask. Coverage popped up in my feeds from numerous friends.1 Most people took away the lesson that gaiters were worse than no face mask at all.

Yesterday, Slate ran the antithesis under the headline For All We Know, Gaiter Masks Are Fine.

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Mousetraps and kinds

In a recent paper, Nicholas Smith responds to Michael Bruno and J.M. Fritzman’s response to him about group belief. Smith, contra his critics, argues that two things’ performing the same function might be no reason at all to think that they’re the same kind of thing.1 This is a post about the work that kinds are doing in his argument.

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