Unreal Nature

April 27, 2009

Why Reading Philosophy Books Drives Me Crazy*

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:06 am

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving day meant, as it does for most Americans, eating a grotesquely large meal. We usually invited several family friends to join us in this ritual. One of those friends was an elderly lady who must have read, somewhere, that old business about it being best if you chew every bite of your food ninety-seven times. So she did. She also liked to talk. Between the interminable chewing (she chewed very deliberately, like a cow chewing its cud) and the talking (during which she would put down her fork and stop chewing!), for all of the rest of us (there were a lot of us) time seemed to stop. We, who were all very fast eaters (we inhaled it, more or less — no chewing involved) would become transfixed on the progress of her fork. Sometimes she would load it up (with a much-too-small bite), start to lift it to her mouth (as we all followed its progress with our eyes, silently urging it on), then think of something to say. The fork would return to the plate. This could go on for hours. It was horrible.

The sensation I get when reading most philosophy books is very similar to what I felt while watching that lady chewing every bite ninety-seven-times. Everything had to be chewed whether it needed chewing or not. Mashed potatoes have to chewed. Ninety-seven times.

The only thing worse than the chewing ninety-seven-times was when she stopped chewing. That’s what footnotes are like.

On rare occasions, footnotes can be (slightly) welcome because, in footnotes, the author seems to think its actually okay to just get to the point. For example, the footnote with the bit about blindness that I quoted yesterday from Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama by Tzachi Zarnir (2007), looks like this on the page:

(click the thumb to enlarge)

Another example of a stop-everything footnote, from the same book is this, from the chapter about Othello:

(click the thumb to enlarge)

If they have something to say, why can’t they weave it into the text so I can read the damn thing without doing this circling and qualifying and stop-and-start, where-was-I will-this-ever-get-to-the-point madness? I know, I know, it’s philosophy, which has its own logical requirements and expectations. Shakespeare said the same stuff quicker, better, and without any footnotes.

*A lot of the things in life that I love drive me crazy.




  1. Useful though footnotes can be, and it’s painful to say it among footnote users, I arrived at writing partially via a formal technical documentation course, and that rather instilled the prejudice that footnotes are merely a sign of the writer having failed to organise their material. Online, I think collapsible regions are the way to go – inline, so no jumping to and fro, but openable on a need-to-know basis.

    click the the thumb to enlarge

    Aargh! I clicked too much.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — April 28, 2009 @ 6:20 am

  2. Deleting the previous comment. (Bad joke related to Ray’s wonderful enlarged thumb picture.)

    On footnotes, I don’t mind the ones that simply identify a source. It’s those, as you (Ray) say, that seem to me to show a lack of planning or decisiveness on the part of the writer that annoy me.

    Comment by unrealnature — April 28, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  3. Ray: love the thumb!

    Julie: sorry I missed the joke :-)

    Although I tend to restrict my own footnotes mainly to source referencing, I do have a different view from you two of more comprehensive ones as well.

    There are many occasions when I read something where the author has included a lot of explanatory material in the main body which is (to me, but not perhaps to other readers) unnecessary. There are also many times when I read something which omits material which is (to me, but probably not to other readers) essential to understanding unfamiliar content. In both cases, I wish that the extra material was available in footnotes where a heterogenous readership could quickly and easily consult it if, and only if, required.

    On a web page, there is the problem that footnotes don’t really exist … unless the passage fits within a single screen, they are really endnotes. Endnotes mean (as Ray says) “jumping to and fro” whereas true footnotes (at the foot of each page).

    I can think of a couple of other on screen alternatives. Markers within the text which open pop up windows are one possibility, but require either subsidiary blog entries to serve as note containers (I started trying this with bibliographies, but it’s too tedious to last). Margin notes, where the supplementary material is direstly alongsid eht paragraph to which it refers, is another possibility … it could be done in Blogger (I almost typed “Booger” … excessive Unreal Nature influence!) pages using HTML tables … perhaps I’ll give that one a spin and see how intuitive it is to do.

    Comment by Felix Grant — April 28, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  4. “… could quickly and easily consult it if, and only if, required.”

    That’s where the trouble starts. I see that little footnote number and I say to myself, “Do I require to know what I will find at the bottom of the page?” and of course, I can’t know if I require to know until I’ve read it and found out that I didn’t need to know it. Also, I seem to be constitionally unable to ignore a footnote. Something is down there . . .

    Endnotes don’t bother me at all if a story is completed on one page. I can happily read to the bottom, without worrying that I’ve left some important bit of information behind on another page. When I reach the end of the story, there they are.

    Comment by unrealnature — April 28, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

  5. On a web page, there is the problem that footnotes don’t really exist … unless the passage fits within a single screen, they are really endnotes.

    Yep. That’s part of the problem. With forced format, as in a print page, the jumping-about factor isn’t so much an issue. On a web page, pop-ups are an option – if you can be sure they pop up where required. On more reflection, I like collapsible regions a lot (I’ve used them in math packages – you have statements where you can show the derivation if you want). But they are still a dog to code in ordinary web pages.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — April 28, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

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