Wednesday, 18 February 2015

UCLan’s masterplan

Not many phrases and ideas from recent philosophy have made it out into common parlance. (It will be interesting to see whether Tom Stoppard will succeed in getting ‘hard problem’ onto the lips of those middle class business men and women who now ride on the Clapham Omnibus.) But one phrase and idea that would have been familiar at least to panellists on Radio 4’s much lamented show ‘Stop the Week’ is Gilbert Ryle’s category mistake or category ‘howler’ in his The Concept of Mind [Ryle 1949 / 2009].

Ryle argues that accounts of intelligent action which postulate additional mental acts behind the bodily actions, or more generally postulate a Cartesian spectral ‘ghost in the machine’, are making a category mistake. Perhaps the best example he gives of such a mistake in a clearer context, best because it helps shed light more directly on the analogical application to the nature of mind, runs:

A foreigner watching his first game of cricket learns what are the functions of the bowlers, the batsmen, the fielders, the umpires and the scorers. He then says ‘But there is no one left on the field to contribute the famous element of team-spirit. I see who does the bowling, the batting and the wicket-keeping; but I do not see whose role it is to exercise esprit de corps.’ [ibid: 6-7]

But the more famous example (after nearly 70 years, it is striking and a bit embarrassing that both examples presuppose the ignorance of ‘foreigners’) is:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University.’ It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. When they are seen and when their co-ordination is understood, the University has been seen. His mistake lay in his innocent assumption that it was correct to speak of Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the University, to speak, that is, as if ‘the University’ stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members. He was mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to which the other institutions belong. [ibid: 6]

This passage, though not its intended analogical significance, struck me a couple of weeks ago when my university, UCLan, announced bold plans for the development of the university campus area of Preston. The aim would be to create more attractive walking routes between buildings, public spaces with greenery, the exile of university caused traffic to a single carpark away from the rest of the university and a clear central focus or hub: Adelphi Square, a kind of symbolic meeting place of academia and commerce.

Bracketing practical thoughts about how funding the new developments might impact on other areas of the university’s life, on what else it can afford at the same time, the underlying conception of the relation of university and city seems to me very attractive. Why should there not be an exercise of influence by the university on the city planners to change traffic movements etc given their mutual dependence?

The connection to Ryle is something like this. In Oxford – except perhaps from the top of the Radcliffe Camera – it is impossible to get a perspective on the university as a whole. One is always in media res, in an intermingling of town and gown and so it is hard to have a geographic sense of the university. This contrasts with my previous employer: Warwick University (like York and some others built at the same time on green field sites) seems modelled on a medieval settlement with central academic buildings surrounded by halls of residence (though York deliberately mingled offices and accommodation within the campus boundaries). One effect of this was that it was easy to have a sense of the bodily presence of the university. When I worked in space planning at the LSE, we were acutely aware that it was very hard to get a sense of where and hence what the LSE was physically. There was huge difficulty drawing an appropriate campus map or plan, for example. I suspect that that was a main reason for our failed attempt to buy County Hall.

Whilst the logic of Ryle’s example is not affected, a coherent university campus at UCLan with a clear focus provides a practical answer to his hypothetical confused foreigner. Standing in the middle of the future central square, one could point a sweeping hand and say ‘This is the university’.

(This would be a simpler response to the question than the one I, playing the role of ignorant foreigner, was offered when I spent a month as a guest of UniversitĂ© Paris Descartes. Asking my sponsor over Sunday lunch in his grand apartment where the university was – with the intention of going there the next day – he shrugged and said: ‘Why, the university is in our hearts’.)

Ryle, G. (1949 / 2009) The Concept of Mind, Abingdon: Routldge