A couple points about Philosophy clues

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A couple points about Philosophy clues

Postby marnold » Wed Feb 29, 2012 12:11 am

In general, there's always something of asymmetry problem with selecting clues: something that reads like a really good description when you have the answer choice in mind might prove to be totally useless in terms of unambiguously pointing towards an answer for a player without the context. This problem is particularly pronounced in philosophy questions. Here's a brief example based on a tossup from Regionals:

This author collaborated with Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek on Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. This thinker tracked the attitudes of Hegel and various French interpreters towards desire in her dissertation published as Subjects of Desire. She explored the connection between femininity and the materiality of the body in one work. One of her works analyzes Julia Kristeva’s thoughts on maternity in its section “Subversive Bodily Acts”. This author wrote Excitable Speech and Bodies that Matter. In her most famous work, this author argues that feminism erred in establishing a dichotomy, instead asserting that gender is by nature performative and more fluid than society generally allows. For 10 points, name this author of Gender Trouble.
ANSWER: Judith Butler


After the first two sentences narrow it down to "some chick who writes continental philosophy," you have the sentence I emphasized. Now, if I had to sum up the argument of Bodies that Matter (or at least, what I've read about the argument in Bodies that Matter, because god knows I'm not putting myself through reading it), I'm not sure I could do much better than that: that is, in fact, a fine sentence-long summary of the work. But I would be absolutely floored if someone buzzed off that clue or even found it terribly useful in narrowing down the answer. The fact is, this sentence sounds like a ton of other arguments made by the other continental women philosophers it could possibly be. For example, Irigiray's pseudo-second-wave feminism arguments also explore how feminine identity is determined by the material conditions of the body (and, as it happens, she comes out on the opposite side of the argument as Butler). I don't really know if Kristeva and Cixous also make arguments that could be described as "connecting femiminity and materiality of the body" but I'd guess probably yes. I don't think that clue makes the tossup bad or anything, but it really does nothing to narrow down answer choices except to emphasize that this is continental feminist philosophy - and note that this uselessness happens even though it is a fine summary of the book whose title is coming later.

To make this a general point, this seems like it happens a lot in philosophy questions, especially when the answer is a philosopher. Philosophers talk a lot about the same things as each other and the differences can be super-technical. Saying "this dude offered a deflationary account of truth" will look like it's a great, concise clue when you read it on IEP or plato.stanford.edu, but since there are, like, 5 guys who make the same arguments (or arguments so subtly different question-writers shouldn't be expected to pick up on it and players certainly won't rely on question-writers picking up on it), it will just be a wasted clue or - worse - will somehow get assimilated into quizbowlese as an auto-buzz clue for one dude when it isn't unique at all.

Where this comes from is writing philosophy questions with the philosopher as the answer in the same super-structure as a literature question where the author is the answer (minor-work plot, minor-work plot, minor-work title, minor-work title. Major work plot FTP, major-work title) and plugging in ambiguous and unhelpful summaries of complicated arguments where the different "plot" elements go. The solution isn't to obsess over every word or to force yourself to slog through the works themselves so you can get a precisely accurate sentence-long summary of the argument into that "plot" slot. After all, you really aren't going to improve much on that sentence summary of Bodies That Matter. Rather, the right strategy is to realize that while a one-sentence summary of a piece of literature can give character names, settings or plot arcs and the omitted details don't make the clue actively misleading or confusing, the same can't be said for philosophy questions.

If you want some other classes of clues that are more helpful, there are plenty that I don't think are used frequently enough that can be helpful. The people who have done English translations of foreign philosophy, for example, are often very important and authoritatively linked to a particular philosopher in a unique and memorable way. In fact, lots of different relationships between philosophers also don't get clued sufficiently: "A reviewed B," "C publicly debated D," "E dedicated this work to F, his colleague at Z," "G succeeded H as the Chair at Y," "I, a contemporary scholar specializing in J's works" - all of these are way more useful than hand-waving summaries of works.
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Re: A couple points about Philosophy clues

Postby Fond du lac operon » Wed Feb 29, 2012 2:25 am

marnold wrote:If you want some other classes of clues that are more helpful, there are plenty that I don't think are used frequently enough that can be helpful. The people who have done English translations of foreign philosophy, for example, are often very important and authoritatively linked to a particular philosopher in a unique and memorable way. In fact, lots of different relationships between philosophers also don't get clued sufficiently: "A reviewed B," "C publicly debated D," "E dedicated this work to F, his colleague at Z," "G succeeded H as the Chair at Y," "I, a contemporary scholar specializing in J's works" - all of these are way more useful than hand-waving summaries of works.


Although I'd add that, like with clues for everything, this should be done well. Saying "this philosopher criticized an idea of A.J. Ayer" (to make up an example off the top of my head) isn't uniquely identifying, because (again, all off the top of my head) Austin criticized his sense-data theory, Gettier criticized his epistemology, I think Tarski and a bunch of other people criticized the verification principle, and probably a bunch of people criticized emotivism, but I'm not an ethicist, so what do I know. It's not the worst clue (I'd probably consider buzzing and saying Austin if I heard it actually come up), and it's certainly more useful than "this female continental philosopher wrote about femininity and the body" (at least to me), but it'd be better to say "this philosopher criticized Ayer's sense-data theory" or "this mathematician pointed out a logical flaw in Ayer's verification principle" or "he criticized Ayer's account of knowledge," all of which basically narrow it down to one person, or at least one person who's likely to get asked about in quizbowl.

Actually, though, I think if the arrow of criticism/review/whatever points in the opposite direction, it probably works better. If you can find a paper/argument that really seems to deal with one guy's theory, and it's decently well-known (i.e. not written by Prof. Whoisthis at Bumfuck State U), it might well make a good early-middle clue. So while "this philosopher criticized an idea of A.J. Ayer" is a not-great clue for Austin, "Austin criticized his sense-data theory in Sense and Sensibilia" is a pretty good mid-late clue for Ayer (as far as I know; I haven't actually read S&S.) However, saying "Kripke criticized his theory of names in Naming and Necessity" is probably bad, since it's referred to as the Frege-Russell theory throughout that book. An example of what I think would be a pretty dynamite early clue or even lead-in, pulled from a paper I'm literally just this moment reading:

Daniel Dennett defined this person's name to mean "to deny resolutely the existence or importance of something real or significant."
...
Answer: Willard Van Orman Quine


It's not too easy or transparent, it's uniquely identifying, it comes up in a paper that actual quizbowl people might have read and certainly might have heard of ("Quining Qualia"); how much it narrows the answer space is up for debate, but certainly, knowing Dennett, one could make an educated guess that it's likely to be an analytic philosopher. And if you know more about Quine than I do, maybe you can even get an inkling that we're looking for him.
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