These strange things happen all the time.

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These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Wed Jan 16, 2008 8:33 pm

So I have finally decided to engage in that most self-indulgent of TLS endeavors (aside, perhaps, from posting pictures of yourself in the Off-Topic forum) – the production of a blog. This decision was, of course, furthered along by the possibility of being featured as a “Blog o’ the Week” and thus earning much sought-after recognition from Papa Bear Ken. Oh, how I crave approval. We’ll see.

My (slightly less ego-centric) ‘true’ motivation is to provide a single e-space to record my e-thoughts and e-musings on this whole law school application e-shebang. Put more simply, my goal here is to produce posts containing advice on a variety of application issues. One reason that I would prefer to do this is that I often feel as though I am providing the same advice over and over again; consolidating my thinking here may actually lead to fewer headaches. An important disclaimer, however: some of what I will be saying may run counter to the ‘conventional’ advice usually proffered on these topics. Eager reader, do not take my thoughts without their necessary sprinkling of salt! I offer only opinions – many of which may be half-assed. That said, if you find that my reasoning is plausible, perhaps it will be of use to you. So let us begin.

Oh yes, but before we do so, one more thing. From time to time the jetsam and flotsam of my life and thoughts on other subjects besides law school applications (I do occasionally have them, contrary to the opinion of friends and family) may find their way in here. Ignore these effluvia.

Beginning at the Beginning… Or, How I Learned to Stop Thinking and Love the LSAT

The obvious, and obviously important, place to begin is with the LSAT. I could muse endlessly on the power and wonder of this test, but will refrain from doing so (at the moment). Suffice it to say, your LSAT score will be the single most important variable in the admissions decision calculus (but hopefully you already know that by now). How best to study for it, then?

Nearly all posters, when asked by some bright-eyed (and presumably still bright-spirited) youngster on how best to begin preparing, recommend taking a diagnostic exam. My inclination is to agree with this advice prima facie; a diagnostic is useful to gain a nascent idea of the nature of the test and identify early on any areas that may prove to be particularly problematic. Where I am inclined to differ from the conventional wisdom, however, is in the stock placed on the result of a diagnostic. Whereas a high initial diagnostic is obviously a great sign, I’m inclined to believe that a low diagnostic should not yet lead one to sound the alarm bells. For those who come from non-humanities backgrounds, the skills necessary to succeed on the LSAT may be foreign; a low score does not, in this instance, indicate much. Many people also do poorly on the Logic Games section of the test in their diagnostic – and with good reason, as most of us have never had to seat around a table people who demand a variety of nonsensical restrictions as to how they must be placed. So, for these reasons, I would advise newcomers to the LSAT (oh, how I pity their poor souls! And yet, was I not once young?) not to obsess (overly much) over their diagnostics.

So, eager future lawyer, you have taken your diagnostic. Now you have seen the beast that you must face. Where do we go from here?

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Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Wed Jan 16, 2008 8:34 pm

It’s Not / What You Thought / When You First Began It…. (Study Materials)

Many posters persuade eager inquirers to obtain three things: the Powerscore Logic Games Bible, the Powerscore Logical Reasoning Bible, and as many preptests as they can get their grubby little hands on. Here, I am in complete agreement. Taking preptests is by far the most useful way to improve on the test (how I recommend doing so will be discussed later on), and as far as I can tell, the Powerscore books are the best of their kind. But once you’ve bought the books, how best to proceed?

Of the two Powerscore books, I’m of the opinion that the Logic Games Bible is more useful. Frankly, this little wonder is worth its weight in gold, and as long as the yuan keeps skyrocketing, it will soon be worth its weight in that too. My recommendation is that upon completion of your diagnostic (and the inevitable hand-wringing that will accompany it, despite my urgings to the contrary), you work through the LGB in its entirety. But before you do, perhaps a little foresight will prove useful down the road. You might consider leafing through the book and photocopying every game it contains. I often found it useful to work back through these games, both to stay sharp on the fundamentals and to keep my confidence up. The fact that each of these games has detailed explanations in the book is extremely useful – in fact, I found the explanations to be among the most instructive elements of the book.

As you read through the Logic Games Bible, make sure that you complete every exercise therein. Furthermore, read every explanation, even if you solve the game perfectly. As I noted above, these explanations are quite useful. As you are taken through the methodologies of solving each game, make sure that you carefully understand the reasoning behind the approach being taken. Take notes if necessary. In my experience tutoring, I’ve found that when people struggle on Logic Games, this struggle takes two forms: difficulty in creating a desirable game set-up, and difficulty making inferences. Often, the latter follows from the former. The LGB is particularly useful for people who struggle with these tasks—you’re given specific instructions on how best to set up each game, notate rules, etc. The key here is not to follow the book’s instructions exactly…especially if they feel unintuitive or clunky to you. Instead, the key is to develop a systematic and consistent system of notation for each type of game you may encounter. Doing so will, in and of itself, help you to draw inferences.

Ah, inferences. When I first began working on Logic Games (capital letters necessary, thank you very much) the thought of having to produce these little wonders on test-day left me with a feeling of cold terror. And yet, as you work through the LGB, you’ll quickly find that the vast majority of inferences can be easily and mechanically discovered. Read the section on producing inferences carefully, as much valuable wisdom is condensed into those humble pages. Of the advice contained therein, there are two specific points I’d like to draw your attention to. Firstly, consider with keen scrutiny any rules about where a variable may not be placed. As the LRB does a fine job of explaining, these rules, once carefully considered, often explode into a veritable cornucopia of inferences. Secondly, pay careful attention to situations in which you have three variables and two slots. Again, the Logic Games Bible does an excellent job of explaining how this situation leads to ready-made inferences.

I’ll be offering more advice on tackling Logic Games in due time, but I’d like to keep this section (ostensibly) devoted to my thoughts on study materials and how best to utilize them. So, onwards, dear reader. You’ve finished the Logic Games Bible, and perhaps you’ve even done a few sections of Logic Games out of some old preptests (under strictly timed conditions, of course). Kudos to you! Let us turn our attention to the Logical Reasoning Bible.

Although I think that the LRB is plenty useful, I believe it may be slightly less so than its brother. Part of the problem lies in the sheer number of different types of stimuli that you’ll encounter on the LSAT. It’s rather difficult to memorize the advice advocated on each of these types of questions, and I’d venture to guess that come the big show it’ll prove too difficult to try and remember how the LRB suggests you approach a specific stimulus. That is not to say, however, that I do not suggest working through this book carefully and in its entirety. Among the most useful aspects of the book is its substantive treatment of sufficient and necessary conditions, a subject that may already bore you after you’ve spent some time on it in the LGB. Tough luck, kiddo. Work through this stuff again. It’s so unbelievably crucial to success on the LSAT that it’s greatly worth your while to drill this repeatedly. Make sure you understand how certain terminology translates into conditional reasoning and all the rest of that jazz. The LRB is also useful in giving you a general overview on the various questions you’re likely to encounter, and offering you broad attack strategies for each. If, over time, you find that a particular type of question often gives you trouble, refer back to the LRB to refresh your understanding. I also found the work done on statements containing ‘some’ and ‘all’ to be quite fruitful. For some reason, the more complex of those types of statements often gave me trouble (a particularly infuriating statement about the likeability of Persian cats comes to mind?), and the method advocated, although tedious, proved to work wonders.

One way to consolidate the information in the LRB is to briefly jot down what you find to be the most important insights about each type of question on one or two pages. I did something like this with one of the students I tutored, and it proved useful as a quick reference point.

So now you’ve worked (slogged?) through both Powerscore books. Perhaps you’ve taken a few sections of Logic Games and Logical Reasoning (always under strictly timed conditions) to test out your new found strategies and wisdom. Feeling good? Well, young grasshopper, your kungfu is still weak. There is much to learn. But before we move onto how I’d recommend approaching preptests, a word (or three hundred) on other study materials.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I haven’t recommended anything specifically geared towards Reading Comprehension (and how perceptive of you, I might add). This is in part because I was lucky enough to already be strong in this section and did not spend a lot of time intensively studying it in and of itself. Some posters also claim that there is no feasible ‘systematic’ prep for the RC section – an argument that has some merit, but that I am also wary of. More on this later (unless I get distracted… which is quite likely, actually). One book that I have frequently seen mentioned in connection with RC Prep is Nova’s “Master the LSAT”. I’ve never even glanced in this book, and thus will refrain from offering an opinion on it. But perhaps the more intrepid among you will venture to the bookstore and find its advice useful. Report back to the shut-ins, dear readers.

Perhaps you’ve finished the Powerscore Bibles but find yourself with the undeniable urge to read more preparatory material. Fair enough. One book that I found useful for further Logic Games practice was the Kaplan Logic Games Workbook. Essentially, this little book consisted in dozens of Logic Games and brief explanations of how to solve each game. Although the explanations are nothing spectacular, the games themselves are quite useful for further practice. Unlike some other books (*ahem McGraw-Hill ahem*), the questions simulate actual LSAT questions quite closely and the explanations are clear and cogent. I would often take this book to class with me and amuse myself by sitting in the back and solving games, whilst musing at the unfortunate turn my life had taken. But enough about that (well, not really. I’m sure we’ll revisit that (sad) topic plenty in the posts to come). One further recommendation about Kaplan’s book: I had long felt uncomfortable using Powerscore’s method of solving unfixed sequencing games, and I discovered that Kaplan’s method was far more intuitive for me. Your mileage may vary, but if you feel similarly to me, this book may be worth the investment.

Aside from the materials already discussed, I haven’t seen anything that I’ve really liked, in a *like them* like them kind of way. And so, gallant LSAT studier, we shall continue.
Last edited by alexb240 on Wed Jan 16, 2008 8:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Wed Jan 16, 2008 8:36 pm

We Used to Vacation. But Not Anymore, Because Now We Do Preptests.

I will be offering further advice on each section (and a few thoughts on the test as a whole) in due time, but first I’d like to discuss how to take preptests. The first thing worth noting is to always take the tests under strictly timed conditions. I don’t see much value in taking untimed tests. The more combative among you may argue that for the studier who is struggling, taking an untimed test can help her to gain her confidence and approach the test in a new light. There is some merit in this argument, but I’m still inclined to urge against taking untimed tests in most instances. Part of what the LSAT is designed to do is determine how well you work under pressure; eliminate that pressure and your practice test fails to simulate what you’ll be experiencing on test day. In fact, doing so may even lend you a false sense of confidence. It’s not particularly difficult to ace the test if you have all day to consider every answer carefully, draw hypotheticals for every question, etc. Of course, that doesn’t prove useful at all when you’re facing time constraints. So, in the final analysis, perhaps there are occasions when taking an untimed test can be a nice little confidence boost and help you to see things you were previously missing. But if you must do so, then do so with caution, dear reader!

I also strongly recommend taking a fifth section with each practice test. Designate a few old preptests as ‘experimentals’, and take one section of them along with the regularly scheduled programming. Doing so will help you to get a feel for the type of mental marathon that the actual test consists in. You want your practice to simulate as closely as possible the actual test-day experience; to this end, you should take five sections. Some of you may object that you will know you’re taking your ‘experimental’ when you do your fifth section, and thus won’t take it as ‘seriously’ as you would the regularly scheduled four sections. Frankly, when I read that objection, it annoys the hell out of me. Take it seriously.

When I was (young and naïve and) studying for the test, I didn’t see the point in taking a fifth section. On test day, I could feel myself wearing down by the time the fifth section rolled around. When I got my results back, I’d done perfectly on the first four sections and then missed three on the last section. Those three haunt me to this very day. I doubt that I’ll ever be free of them. So learn from my mistakes, or else they go in vain.

In the same vein as my earlier comments on taking a fifth section, you should be using the actual answer sheet and bubbling in your answers. Again, the goal is to use your preptests to simulate as closely as possible the actual experience of taking the test. Bubbling in your answers on preptests helps you to be careful to avoid transcription errors, and ensures that you allot time for doing so.

Now we’ve (finally) arrived at the most important reason why taking preptests is of great value to your study. As you take the test, circle every question that you think is difficult. After checking your answers, go back and re-examine every question you missed and every question you circled. I cannot stress this enough (well, I probably could, but it would require showing up unannounced at your home and screaming at you). It is this crucial tactic that ensures that you are actually learning from the preptests you take. For each of these questions, rework them and carefully examine not only why the correct answer is correct, but also why each incorrect answer is wrong. It is exactly this process that helps you to learn.

One of the students I tutored began by only re-examining the questions she missed. By doing so, she ignored the possibility that she had gotten the correct answer on questions she found difficult by sheer luck. Make sure you circle questions you found difficult and reconsider them. Think about why you found them difficult. Consider their place in this vast and lonely universe of ours. Meditate on them. Then, grasshopper, you and the LSAT become one.

Another advantage to circling questions you find difficult is that if you end the section with spare time, you can go back to those questions and spend the extra minutes thinking further on them. I’ve seen some people say that they don’t like to reconsider questions because they prefer to go with their first instincts; the aforementioned tutee expressed just such an argument. I’m not a fan of this type of thinking. You’ve got 35 minutes -- you might as well use them all. Occasionally, a question I had thought was difficult on first pass proved easy the second time around because I was able to more carefully consider its phrasing, or a particular answer choice, or whatever. On the Logical Reasoning section, coming around for another pass can also be a good time to attempt to recall the specific recommendations of the LRB and try to apply them to particularly troublesome problems.

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Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Wed Jan 16, 2008 9:24 pm

99 Problems (but the LSAT ain’t one). Also Known as: Questions from Readers

Before continuing on with my reflections on the LSAT (and hopefully, eventually, on other subjects as well), I’d like to pause to take a few questions from readers. Please feel free to send me a PM if you’d like to ask me a question.

“Alex, I appreciate all of your wonderful advice, but I’m a bit surprised that you would devote so much effort to helping out those who may be your competitors in the law school admissions process. What is your *true* motivation?”
--Sally; Albuquerque, New Mexico

That’s a good question, Sally. My *true* motivation is to offer such an overwhelming abundance of information and advice that sites such as TLS and its competitors become worthless and obsolete. Eventually, all will flock to my mighty blog. Then, over time, I will introduce an “Insider” section that requires a laughably high subscription fee. Slowly, the most interesting and substantive posts will be designated as “Insider Only” and the ‘regular access’ blog will be a hollow shell of its former self. See for details.

“Alex, your advice that I consult any other resources rather than the power of my own indomitable brain in order to conquer the LSAT smacks of candy-assed pansyness. Do you think we defeated the Japs and the Germs with that type of ‘help me, help me’ attitude?”
--Jimbob; Tacoma, Washington

--Hi Jimbob. Frankly, your analogy to the United States’ triumph in World War II does not make a lot of sense to me. However, feel free to disregard any of my advice at your leisure.

“Alex, won’t your advice destroy the efficacy of the LSAT as a variable measurement tool for law school admissions? If everyone follows your advice, we’re virtually guaranteed to get perfect or near-perfect LSAT scores. Faced with this unprecedented dilemma, will not law schools forego consideration of candidates’ LSAT scores entirely?”
--Hal; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A cogent point, Hal. Frankly, I believe that the LSAT is simply a club used by bourgeoisie oppressors to beat the proletariat into wearied submission. They hope that we will be too tired from our studying to resist their inevitable attempts to control the means of production. My philosophy on this subject is mainly drawn from the insightful posts of Thom_Doe. My attempts to render the LSAT null and void as a meaningful shibboleth for admissions is simply my means of subverting it.

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Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Thu Jan 17, 2008 9:53 pm

And there pour forth jejune words. Also known as: further LSAT Advice. Also Known as: Early-onset anhedonia.

Well, dearest reader, perhaps you’ve taken your diagnostic, read through the Powerscore Bibles, and taken a few practice tests utilizing the (impeccable) methodology previously outlined. By now, you should be beginning to feel the light of your once brilliant spirit slowly fading. Indeed, you are on your way to becoming a lawyer. Congratulations.

Those of you who have bothered to read this far (and I imagine you are few, you intrepid souls!) might be getting annoyed by this point. Shaking with barely controlled fury, you might be tempted to type bitter invective about how all of the advice thus far given has been of the most generic and obvious kind. You might write (albeit with more curse words sprinkled in) that I’ve written nothing novel, nothing interesting, nothing important. Well, perhaps you’ve made a fair point. But unfortunately, this blog is quite the authoritarian control device. You have no recourse. I’ll type, and you’ll read; that’s how it goes, friend. Eventually you’ll slowly become indoctrinated by my relentless propaganda, until what were once feeble protests become nothing more than contented bleating.

But see, I am (deep down) a kind soul, and am in fact quite happy to offer further advice and guidance on how to navigate the LSAT labyrinth. So I don’t think you should have gotten that angry quite so quickly; your anger was, in fact, quite unbecoming.

Allow me to begin with some advice about the Logical Reasoning sections. When tutoring, I prefer to devote a significant amount of time to LR because it comprises two sections. I’ve often found that advice given on the LR sections proves translatable (in some way) to the other two sections.

One of the things that I stress to my tutees about the LR sections is that they must develop a sense of timing about them. The sections generally comprise 25 questions and follow a fairly predictable pattern; the first ten or so questions are usually rather easy, the next ten prove to be of moderate difficulty, and then the last five tend to be rather difficult. This general pattern does not always hold true, but I think it offers a rough picture of how the section goes. Sometimes, the most difficult questions are in the middle of the section and the end is a relief. On some preptests, the increase in difficulty from the first ten (or so) questions to the next is marked -- it’s as obvious a pattern as completing the first two pages and turning to the next page. Often, the questions on the third page are simply obviously longer and more complex than those on the prior page. Although this seems to be a minor insight, I actually believe that understanding this trend (and understanding the reasoning behind it) is extraordinarily useful.

For those who have difficulty with finishing LR on time, consider how your attack strategy might change if you understand and anticipate this pattern. Generally, prep materials recommend taking approximately one minute and twenty-five seconds on each question. However, if the early questions are generally easier, you might want to try consciously pacing yourself a little bit more quickly through these. Doing so will give you more time to consider the middle and end questions, which may require slightly more than the cookie-cutter prep book suggested time.

Understanding and anticipating the fact that the middle and end questions tend to be more difficult is important. It’s obvious why the test-makers do this – test-takers begin to panic as the section time winds down, and when they’re confronted with difficult questions this tends to exacerbate that panic. You can avoid this if you understand what’s happening. Move quickly through the first ten questions (perhaps attempting to only spend a minute or so on each one), and you won’t face the frightening time crunch.

Indeed, being aware of time constraints and actively seeking to maximize your opportunity to do well within them brings me to a broader point, one that I stress early and often with my tutees: to perform into the 99th percentile, you must understand the test, understand the motivations of the test-makers, understand how the test-makers expect most students to tackle the test, and understand how the test-makers foresee expert students slaying the dragon (by the way, my love affair with the run-on sentence began circa third-grade; it’s been, by far, my longest (and most agreeable) relationship). Perhaps this advice seems vague to you. Understandable, because it is vague. It’s a difficult point to drive home, and I doubt that I’ll be able to do so in my (humble) blog. The idea is to actively think like the test-makers – understand why certain answer choices are included, why certain phrases are phrased the way they are, etc.

I will write more on this at a later date, but for the moment I’ll leave off here. Consider how you might try implementing the advice in the above paragraph. Key here is to be an active participant in taking the test; thoughtfully considering its construction as you attempt to defeat it. My advice here is like a window. At first, you look at it, and see only the dim reflection of your own face (oh, how young you are! But that I could tell you to turn back now!). But as you learn, and your vision becomes clear, the teaching becomes clear, until at last it is perfectly transparent. You see through it and out onto what is truly important: your own face. Or something like that.

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Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Fri Jan 18, 2008 6:23 pm

Sometimes it is nice to reflect on things other than LSAT madness. A brief respite then, tired readers. We will make for the LSAT summit on another day.

The following story comes from the Edo period (1600 - 1868, sometimes known as the Tokugawa period).

Behind a temple there was a field where there were many squashes growing on a vine. One day a fight broke out among them, and the squashes split up into two groups and made a big racket shouting at one another.

The head priest heard the uproar and, going out to see what was going on, found the squashes quarreling. In his booming voice the priest scolded them. "Hey squashes! What are you doing out there fighting? Everyone do zazen [meditation]."

While the squashes were sitting zazen in the way the priest had taught them, their anger subsided and they settled down.

Then the priest quietly said, "Everyone put your hand on top of your head." When the squashes felt the top of their heads, they found some weird thing attached there. It turned out to be a vine that connected them all together. "This is really strange. Here we've been arguing when actually we're all tied together and living just one life. What a mistake! It's just as the priest said." After that, the squashes all got along with each other quite well.
-- Adapted from "Opening the Hand of Thought" by Kosho Uchiyama

"I am a Democrat." "I am a socialist." "I am a Republican." "I am an artist." "I am a thinker." "I am a jock." "I am sensitive and tough, macho but vulnerable -- good, clean, pure." Who are we without these labels? When you really let go of all the pros and cons, who are you then? Drop all your likes and dislikes, notions of career and position; then who is left? "God, I don't know... I am nobody, I am nothing."

That is how we feel, but it isn't true. When we really let go, we become everything. At that point we are identified with all things: the flower, the oak tree, the morning star.
-- Dennis Genpo Merzel, "The Eye Never Sleeps"

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Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Wed Feb 06, 2008 11:25 pm

“What I mean by the normal mind is the mind without artificiality, without subjective judgments, without grasping or rejection.”
--Ma-Tsu, Zen Essence

“And are not we as well, if you examine us physically, mechanistically, statistically, and meticulously, nothing but the miniscule capering of electron clouds? Positive and negative charges arranged in space? And is our existence not the result of subatomic collisions and the interplay of particles, though we ourselves perceive those molecular cartwheels as fear, longing, or meditation? And when you daydream, what transpires within your brain but the binary algebra of connecting and disconnecting circuits, the continual meandering of electrons?”
--Stanislaw Lem, The Seventh Sally

When I began my undergraduate career I was intent upon pursuing philosophy as my profession; graduate school, dissertation, publish or perish, and all that. I found exactly what I was looking for as a philosophy student. The difficulty was that I found it all too quickly. Preferably, what I learned should have been delayed, oh, sixty or seventy years, so that it might come in the dusk of a long day. Having found what I needed, I was left in the peculiar condition of the satiated man, he who finds himself without want for the first time in his life. The brain is hardwired to want; after satisfying material desires, we trudge up the hierarchy even if we don’t much care to admire the view at the top. To lack want is unfathomable and impossible. New wants spring up quickly. If the town you live in begins to bore you, you will find yourself irresistibly compelled to look onwards.

Over time, I studied a variety of disciplines and found some pleasures in all of them. The curiosities that led me to philosophy were transmuted into new interests. I found that my interests orbited the same set of ideas and beliefs, about the social and psychological forces that govern human life. That eventually I would fall prey to the awesome gravity of the law seems, in hindsight, inevitable.

The decision to attend law school was not made lightly. There are paths that I once eagerly anticipated walking down, but are now permanently closed off. But a broad avenue lies ahead and it may yet lead to the destinations I desire. It is difficult to tell, but I am hopeful.

I can no longer remember how I fell upon TLS, or what I thought of it when I did. I was probably quite pleased to have discovered a community united by the same immediate goal as myself. I can recall, quite easily, the quick and brutal realization that I knew extraordinarily little about my goal or how to achieve it. There was a hint of panic in there, but also relief that I had found a niche.

Nearly a year later, it is impossible to imagine having undergone this journey without this site. I feel as though I know the people who post here – not just their ambitions, but their values and their ideas and their beliefs. I have sought advice from countless number, for questions both minute and immense. I have shared my anxieties and my neuroses, and also my moments of great happiness and joy. I have quibbled with and laughed with the same people, often in the course of the same conversation. I have learned a great deal from them.

As the weeks and months went on, I began to offer my own advice and opinions. We are all fellow travelers and each of uses what we can to illuminate the darkness. I tried to offer what I could in recognition of what had been offered to me. I tried to do so always thoughtfully and carefully. There have been plenty of times when others have disagreed with me, and I tried always to find merit in opposing views. I tried to recognize with humility that I did not know everything, or even very much.

Over time, the sense of community only grew. Perhaps more than anything, I am appreciative of the opportunity to pour out my thoughts and suspicions and arguments and annoyances about the whole damn thing. And I am both relieved and excited when it is confirmed to me that others are feeling the same way. We are all fellow travelers.

I have decided to take a hiatus from TLS. I still delight in the conversation, but my energies must be channeled elsewhere. Although there is much that lies before me, I have also gone a long ways. I could not have done it without the fellow travelers. But the time has come for rest.

I am as of yet unsure of the nature my hiatus will take. I may be back shortly, or I may leave for some time. Almost certainly I will still come around every once in a while, both to ask and to answer. My respite is not a lacuna never to resume; it is, simply, a momentary pause. For the moment, the mad dash towards law school has left me winded.

“Doubt is a state of openness and unknowing. It’s a willingness to not be in charge, to not know what is going to happen next. The state of doubt allows us to explore things in an open and fresh way… Positive doubt can allow us to see what this life is about. It can help us get rid of our complacency.”
--Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields, “Instructions to the Cook”

“Whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.”
--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

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Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Tue Apr 08, 2008 11:30 pm

Lately I have been musing quite a bit on the relationship between Wittgenstein, Zen Buddhism, and hermeneutics. Much ink is spilled over the (supposed) links between each; that academicians devote their doctoral theses to these matters is probably an amusing irony, considering. Nevertheless, I thought I might compile a few interesting quotations I've found floating around.
...the problems vanish when you are in the nonverbal dimension of consciousness. You see the answers to all the questions that theologians and metaphysicians ask and you see why their questions are absurd. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Tractatus 6.52. Found at: http://ordinary-extraordinary.blogspot. ... stein.html
In particular, those associated with this interpretation [new Wittgenstein] understand Wittgenstein to have avoided putting forth a "positive" metaphysical program, and understand him to be advocating philosophy as a form of "therapy." Under this interpretation, Wittgenstein's program is dominated by the idea that philosophical problems are symptoms of illusions or "bewitchments by language," and that attempts at a "narrow" solution to philosophical problems, that do not take into account larger questions of how the questioner conducts his life, interacts with other people, and uses language generally, are doomed to failure.
Found at: ; brackets mine.
The possibility of communication between different beings depends on them being able to agree on the meanings of the signs they may exchange. The great question is, how do we know whether someone else understands the same thing we do when we use language to try to communicate with him, and how do we know that we understand the language the same way the other person did when he issued it?
Found at:
Wittgenstein believes that the same philosophic problems will plague human beings “[a]s long as there is a verb ‘be’ which seems to work like ‘eat’ and ‘drink’; as long as there are adjectives like ‘identical’, ‘true’, ‘false’, ‘possible’” (WR 55). I would argue that the same religious problems (or rather, the same problem of religion) will continue to plague us as well for the same reasons. In another statement of the same problem, Wittgenstein says, “The primitive forms of our language – noun, adjective and verb – show the simple picture to which it tries to make everything conform” (WR 61).

Due to the fact that we almost always formulate our linguistic utterances as arrangements of nouns, adjectives, and verbs, many false analogies arise. For example, we talk about both singing and existing as verbs. However, singing is an action and existence is a state; these two things are very different, but they appear to be connected by a false grammatical analogy. This false analogy, then, leads to the apparently deep (but actually meaningless) question that many philosophers seek to answer, such as, “What is being?”. After all, if we can answer, “What is singing?” we should be able to answer, “What is being?”. Unless, of course, the analogy between them is false.

There is another kind of false analogy that Wittgenstein does not mention explicitly, which deals with nouns rather than with verbs. The fact that we say both, “The cat is in the cupboard,” and “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” seems to suggest that both ‘the cat’ and ‘beauty’ are entities that exist, and that have the power to move from place to place. (If beauty is in my eye, couldn’t it conceivably go elsewhere?) However, since cats are entities and beauty is just a concept, the analogy is false...

...When we talk about the world and the thoughts that we have about it, we always use nouns. Thus, we say things like, “We must seek justice,” or “Where has kindness gone?”, yet none of the things to which we are referring are actual existents that can be sought or that can leave us.
Found at: ; ellipses mine.
Zen does not explain anything. Zen does not analyze anything. It merely points back directly to our mind so that we can wake up and become Buddha.
Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen; p. 38

"Why did Bodhidarhma go to the East?
The tall bamboo is tall, the short bamboo is short."
-- Popular Zen saying.

There is a lot of fruitful ground to cover but the introspective student must be wary. Somewhere down this road lies solipsitic nihilism for the traveler gone astray. Nietzsche once declared that when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

Yet I have also found a lot of clarity in ruminating on these matters. Gadamer said that nothing exists except through language. There are multiple ways to interpret this statement. Conventional praxis shoves Gadamer and Wittgenstein into a tired philosophical position declaring that language creates reality. We might, however, opt for a different tact. Nothing exists, except when it is communicated via language. Then its existence is lost.
I remember a short conversation between the Buddha and a philosopher of his time.
"I have heard that Buddhism is the doctrine of enlightenment. What is your method? What do you practice every day?"
"We walk, we eat, we wash ourselves we sit down."
Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys; p. 7

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Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Wed May 14, 2008 4:08 pm

Despite my diminished posting pace (as I wrote in an earlier post, I could hardly hope to keep up my once frenetic tempo), I still occasionally receive private messages of various sorts. Usually they take the form of a requested critique of some admissions-related document; more rarely, they simply ask for advice on one matter or another.

I am always happy to help, for I understand (all too well!) the anxious need to produce the perfect statement and the desire for impartial counsel. That said, I have been feeling a bit guilty lately about my protracted response time to many of these urgent requests. Please forgive me -- as my cycle has drawn to a close, I have turned my attention to other matters. I am still quite willing to be of any service I can, but I must caution that it may be several days before I actually follow through on my good will.

One more note on this matter: I am happy to meticulously critique your work, but I prefer that you edit it as much as possible yourself before sending it my way. This saves me time (and, by extension, makes me less aggravated) and will also make my editing more useful to you. Sending me an early rough draft will lead me to correct many of the errors you yourself would probably have caught -- thus diverting me from considering other issues in your work.

On to other matters. It should be obvious by now that I have abandoned the original intention of this blog -- writing endlessly on the LSAT strikes me as a great bore. I imagine this space will now take the form of most of the other blogs on this forum -- a clearinghouse for various ideas, musings, and experiences.

"Anecdote of the Jar"
Wallace Stevens

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

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Posts: 129
Joined: Sun Feb 25, 2007 10:14 pm

Re: These strange things happen all the time.

Post by alexb240 » Fri May 23, 2008 5:45 pm

A friend of mine is writing his graduate dissertation on a phenomenological investigation of cross-disciplinary interactions in academic discourse. This work is heavily inspired and influenced by C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures,” which, if I had my druthers (which, lamentably, I rarely do), would be required reading for the entire human race. Snow argued that there is a breakdown in communication between the scientists and the humanists, and that this collapse is severe enough to produce divergent attitudes on what constitutes social progress. My friend is examining how the two academic “cultures” (to put it broadly, science and the humanities) interact with and understand each other, and considering the interesting lacunae where communication failures occur.

As someone who has worked in a variety of disciplines, and has (much to my regret) spent far more time than he should have in the Lit Crit and Philosophy departments of his university, I (of course) find this question fascinating. As Snow put it, it is a widely held proposition in the liberal arts university that every engineer should read some Shakespeare – so as to become “well-rounded”. Rarely, however, are the English majors asked to know the third law of thermodynamics.

Snow has faced his share of critics, but it strikes me as apparent that his central argument is correct. At its heart, the problem is over the search for meaning; as I see it, the two cultures are engaged in searches for two different types of meaning.

The scientist seeks meaning through the empirical testing of a falsifiable hypothesis. Resulting conclusions seek to give us “objective” information about the real world.

On the other hand, the humanist is searching for something else entirely. Consider an argument over literary theory. The presuppositions and arguments of post-structuralism are not falsifiable – nor need they be. The analysis of poetry does not seek the same type of meaning as the analysis of the petri dish.

The problem arises when the two cultures fail to realize each other’s (and, on occasion, their own) epistemological commitments. To put it in Wittgenstein’s terms, we can say that the two cultures are playing two different language games, and that the collapse of meaningful cross-discourse occurs because of a failure to recognize this.

This all serves to make a broader point – a consideration of our epistemological commitments helps to explain a wide variety of apparent conflicts. The endless arguments advanced by theists and atheists is the most obvious example; the Sturm und Drang over God’s (non-)existence strikes me as an example of each side’s failure to recognize the other’s epistemology. I offer an extended quotation below that I believe nicely illustrates the point.
Most of us wonder about our origins.

There have been two apparently contradictory accounts of it. [sic]

There is the account in Genesis of how God created heaven and earth and all living things in six days.

And there is Darwin’s account of how things evolved over enormously long periods, the mechanism of which is genetic variation and natural selection.

To many there is a hopeless contradiction between these two accounts.

The notion of language games helps us here, for it focuses on action rather than truth and falsehood.

We use the terms “true” and “false” in certain contexts.

Chiefly, when we are investigating whether something is so or not, as in a scientific investigation.

Darwin was imbued with the methods of science: observing, sorting the true from the false; using the methods of scientific inquiry to give an account of the origin of things.

But why can’t there be other ways of accounting for the origin of things, using other language games, ones that focus on other practices than dividing truth from falsehood?

A person for whom the practices of worship and prayer are central to his or her life might respond to fundamental questions in a different way and might find the account of origins in Genesis more real.

His search would be conducted differently from a scientist’s. He might pray for guidance. This would not necessarily produce an answer in the scientific sense, for he would be seeking different satisfactions.

So there need be no contradiction between Genesis and Darwin, but what is important is to be clear on the nature of one’s commitment.

Wittgenstein was deeply critical of modern man’s lack of self-knowledge, our lack of awareness of our particular commitments [sic]. Thus we tend to see the practices of non-literate people as “primitive” and that we are more “evolved” than them.

Take magic. We tend to see it as pseudo-science trying to do what science does, but badly.

We assume it seeks explanations for natural phenomena and that these are simply wrong.

Magic seeks different satisfactions from science. It is best seen as a highly developed gesture language, not depending on hypotheses or evidence, or seeking causal explanations as does science.

So there is no progress in magic as there is in science.

If someone is love-sick, a scientific explanation will not bring him peace, but the right gesture might help.

If we kiss the picture of someone we love, we are not trying to have an effect on the loved one. The kiss does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.

So it is the spirit in which one acts that is vital, and the notion of language games clarifies this.

One would not conduct a love affair in the same manner as one would a funeral.

You don’t investigate whether your partner loves you or not in the same spirit as a scientific investigation.

The notion of language games makes one attend to the spirit in which we act, and so throws light on magic.
From: Introducing Wittgenstein, John Heaton and Judy Groves. Pgs: 120-125.

This is not to say that theists and atheists can now reconcile their differences, or realize that their arguments may simply be ships passing in the night. As most things in life are, the actual situation is more complicated. It would seem that theists believe in an existent entity (or force, or what-have-you), and atheists do not. Perhaps an argument about epistemological commitments and language games does not extract us after all. A skeptic of Wittgenstein may argue that there is such a thing as a “fundamental” disagreement – one that occurs even when we are clear in our epistemic framework and use of language.

Wittgenstein obviously anticipated this criticism, and some of his more opaque remarks seem meant to address that argument. In a later post I will seek to explore an answer to the skeptic. I will consider both Wittgenstein's response, as well as the possible insights of post-structuralism and hermeneutics. Needless to say, I think the skeptic is wrong. ;-)

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