Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Thoughts on university rankings

I've been thinking about university rankings.  In light of the latest hullabaloo in the online philosophy community about whether the Philosophy Gourmet Report (PGR) should continue, I wanted to drink some scrumpy, and express the rather conflicting feelings I have on the matter of rankings.

*N.B. I'm not going to voice an opinion on the more personal aspect of this whole affair.  I have a view, and I think it's the obvious one in light of the information I have, but I don't want to perpetuate what must be a very distressing affair for certain people.  My thoughts are about what the PGR is, not how it is done or who does it.

As a (soon to be ex-)grad-student looking for their first job, I feel like my application for any job will be judged based on the school I went to.  As someone who's already paranoid about being judged on non-scholarly grounds, this causes me no small amount of trepidation (even though I went to what I consider to be a very good school!).  Even if this is not the case, I feel like it is, and I know for a fact that I'm not alone in thinking this.  A lot of grad-students lose a lot of sleep worrying about whether their school is good enough, and whether the school they get their first job at will affect their chances of good employment further down the line. With this perception, the damage is already done.  Even when I get  job, I'll feel like the school I'm working at will have in impact on how I'm viewed as a scholar.  For many, this will extend to how they perceive their worth as a scholar (not just how they think others will perceive their worth).

I think the presence of rankings exacerbates this problem.  I obsessed over the PGR when I was applying for grad-school, and since then I've seen more than a few other people do the same.  The presence of rankings encourages students to think of themselves and their peers in terms of those rankings.  A student at a middle rank school may end up thinking of themselves as a mediocre scholar (and conversely, students at top ranked schools may hold the default assumption that they are therefore better and more worthy than those at lower ranked schools).  Indeed, even the application process reinforces this; when someone from a middle ranked school is reluctant to apply to high ranked schools simply because of their institution rather than their ability.

The contrast to this is that prospective grad-students DO WANT this kind of information.  When I applied to grad-school I was very aware that where I ended up could affect my future career, and I wanted to get into 'as good a school as possible'.  Whilst I confess to engaging in that kind of thinking then (and to some extent even now), I really don't think it is helpful.  It contributes to the kind of authoritarian thinking and smug elitism that I (and I hope many others) take philosophy to be against at its very core.

Now, idealism is one thing, but the fact is that the world we live in is the way it is, and a PhD from Oxford is given more value than one from a school lower on the rankings.  Choice of programme IS important, but it should not be because of how a school is ranked.  Having supervisors who support and challenge you, and a lively and engaged research community, are by far the most important things (apart from a well subscribed library).  There's nothing to stop any department from having these features.  Indeed, different students thrive in different environments, so there's no one set standard by which to judge how well a department will serve a student's interests.

I genuinely can't imagine that I could have gone to a better (for me) school.  My grad-school experience was fantastic.  I had amazing peers and supervisors that helped me to unlock potential I didn't even realise I had.  No ranking or external report could have told be that in advance, and there are many schools higher in the rankings where I'm convinced I would have ended up as a worse scholar than the one I am now.  Now, here is the obvious problem for all prospective grad-students:  How do I end up in a school that's so well suited to me?

Sorry folks.  I just don't know.  The reason why I am so conflicted is because I recognise that the choice of department is important, and being the intellectually rigorous folk we are, we want to make informed decisions.  I don't know how we can provide prospective grad-students with the information they need to make good decisions, but I really don't think rankings are the way to help people find the programmes that are right for them, nor do I think it is helpful to the profession as a whole for someone at one school to be able to look down on someone else for being at or from a "shit school" (oops!  Gave myself away, there.  Consider it a reward for reading till the end).

Monday, 24 June 2013

Irreducibly collective sexism?

I've been thinking about sexism (still).  In particular I've been thinking about particular discussions of sexism that I've encountered on various blogs, and videos on Youtube.  There is a certain tension that often seems to arise in these discussions that I want to explore, but in a return to form I'm going to do so via a quasi-frivolous discussion of the metaphysics of sexism (if I've just invented a thing, then you should totally reference me).

A good place to start for this is in sexist tropes in the media.  I've recently been watching a Youtube playlist that highlights certain media tropes that the author takes to be sexist (or at least reinforcing sexist preconceptions).   These usually come with a cool name like "the Smurfette principle" (the inclusion of 'token minorities in the casts of tv shows, made worse in the case of women because they... well, they just aren't a minority!'), or the "mystical pregnancy" (plot lines where a female cast member is impregnated by some mysterious force/alien/magical doowhatsit, but by the end of the episode everything has returned to normal and no serious consequences ensue from this gross violation).  The main example I'm going to talk about here is the "damsel in distress".  The common trope in films and video games where the brave, usually male, hero has to go off to rescue the helpless woman who has been abducted by some dastardly (usually male) villain. I won't bother talking about why this trope is perceived to be harmful, because I think that's pretty obvious.

In response to feminist citing this trope as being representative of what's wrong with a lot of our media, there is a common response (that is, after the abusive ones).  This response is usually made quite eloquently, and has a certain appeal to common sense that I can imagine might be quite convincing to a lot of people who perhaps haven't thought through the issues that much.  It's because of this prima facie convincingness of the response that I think it's important to show what's wrong with it, rather than ignoring it as someone being ignorant.  The response goes like this:

"What's wrong with a storyline that involves a man  rescuing a woman?  The whole point is that the villain has taken away someone that the hero loves, and the hero is doing everything they can to get them back.  The fact that it's a woman is not what's important.  what's important is that it's someone the hero cares about, and since the hero is a man, his love interest is most likely to be a woman.   If the woman could stand up for herself, then there wouldn't be a storyline, so that's why she has to be helpless."

Okay, ignoring anything else that might be wrong with this kind of defence, I first want to focus on what I take to be a rather convincing (though ultimately point missing) aspect of it.  This is the idea that portraying a woman as weak isn't bad.  After all, there are weak woman out there.  There are strong woman, weak men, tall children, etc.  So it really isn't being sexist, it's just giving a story that is compelling, and happens to contain a strong man and a weak woman.  This kind of reasoning applies to the other tropes as well.  The mysterious pregnancy might be a compelling story.  The angry straw feminist might just be someone who is a rubbish feminist, that group of friends might just contain one woman, one disabled person, and one ethnic minority (so what if they're all efficiently run into one character?).  This presents an interesting point.  It does seem to be true that (some) instances of these tropes aren't particularly sexist when considered on their own (some rally are though, but we'll ignore them for now).  

Here's where the defence goes wrong.  We shouldn't consider them on their own.  Just because a single instance of treating/representing a female character shittily isn't sexist, doesn't stand up to scrutiny when you consider how incredibly pervasive these tropes are.  The sorry fact is that most TV feminists are represented as ignorant militaristic vagisaurus rexs, damsels in distress are a staple of most modern entertainment, and a crazy number of weird pregnancies happen in sci-fi and fantasy shows.  It's the sheer volume and proportion of these instances that make them sexist, not the individual occurrences of them.

Right, time to get metaphysical (and proportionately more whimsical).  We can now ask the question, could it be the case that there are instances of irreducibly collective sexism?  That is, trends or tropes which are sexist, but where this sexism cannot be directly attributed to any of their instances being sexist?  Assume it is the case that there is a media trope, call is X, none of the instances of which are sexist in themselves (I realise this is a big assumption).  It seems plausible that this could still be a sexist trope, if the pervasiveness of it, rather than the specific instances of it, causes it to be sexist.

Well, in theory I guess so, but in reality, probably not.  The unfortunate fact of the matter is that individual instances of such tropes are rarely as innocent as the (fancily italicized to distance it from my views as much as possible) quote above.  It's not just how common such instances are that makes them harmful, it's usually not just representing some woman in a bad light, it's usually doing so by playing off the fact that she is a woman.  It's effectively using the fact that she is a woman (in thus, often a rather shallowly written character) to present this negative feature.  Incidentally, the same is often done for poorly written characters of other disadvantaged groups, and even of advantaged groups.  Next time you watch a load of TV, look out for the two-dimensional white middle class guy.  there's a lot of them around, just be thankful that we don't have to suffer too much for them.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Why not being a sexist is not enough

I've been thinking about sexism.  Now, normally I try to throw in a couple of jokes to liven up posts to this blog, but I don't really have any this time.  It's a serious topic, so today I'm going to be serious.

I'll start off with a confession.  Whilst I don't think I am, or have ever been a sexist, I don't think that I have taken sexism seriously enough thus far in my life.  This, suffice to say, was wrong of me.  I used to be of the opinion that so long as you weren't sexist, that was enough.  So long as you respect than men and women are equal, you could leave it there.  With this in mind, I often found it frustrating when I was confronted with feminism, which in retrospect I think I perceived as a militant voice telling me off for things I hadn't done and nagging me about things I already knew.  I thought "look, I know that women and men are equal, so stop going on about it".  This was an ignorant position.  There are some factors which might help to explain (though not justify) why I held this position, wrong as it was (I include these not as excuses, but more as a spotters guide for anyone out there who may be in a similar position).

1 - Various autobiographical factors: Growing up I really didn't perceive that much gender imbalance.  Most of the authority figures in my early life were women.  Obviously this was a skewed perspective, but I think it left an impression that I didn't really shake until later than I should have.  Also, the early 'feminists' (I use the scare quotes because whilst self describing as feminists, these people were not at all representative of what feminism is really about) were aggressive caricatures who's position was more informed by 'angry feminist' tropes from TV than from any moderate and well thought out set of beliefs.  I reacted negatively and defensively to relative strangers accusing me of being a sexist for no real reason.  Again, this impression lasted, and unfortunately tainted later encounters with people who describe themselves as feminist.

2 - The media:  I know this sounds cliché, but the media portrayal of feminism and feminists is shocking.  I've recently been reading a lot about these kinds of issues, and I was surprised to find the extent of this negative portrayal, and mightily embarrassed at just how oblivious I was to its extent.  I wouldn't do it justice to describe this kind of bias here, but Google it, there's plenty of insightful discussion on this topic out there.

3 - (and most embarrassingly of all) I just didn't re-evaluate my views on the topic often enough.  I try to confront myself on my beliefs on a regular basis; normally I'm quite good at this.  However, when it comes to sexism I was surprisingly dug in, and reluctant to spare it the time for re-evaluation.  I'm not sure why, but unfortunately it is the case.

Anyway, that is my confession.  I don't think I was a sexist, but I definitely had an ignorant view towards sexism, and that means I was still part of the problem.  There is no excuse, and I'm sorry.  But why is it a problem?  Why isn't it enough to just not be a sexist?  Here are a few reasons:

1 - It's a view that breeds complacency, and makes it harder to spot sexism around you.  If you think that the only important message feminism has to offer is that women and men are equal, then there is little motivation to listen to feminists, or think about sexism.

2 - It creates a hostile atmosphere for the support and exploration of feminist ideas.  Remember that stuff I said about the media?  Exactly.  Like it or not, women are a disadvantaged group, belittling the problems they face, regardless of your intentions, stultifies progress towards equality by making people embarrassed or doubtful when these problems present themselves.

3 - To refuse to think about the problem is often tantamount to denying that there is a problem.  There is a problem.  We should not deny it.  We should think about it.

4 - By simply resolving not to be sexist, you may be setting a good example (to an extent), but you allow the kind of insidious sexism to proliferate.  We must do our part to raise awareness of all the sneaky underhand forms that sexism can take, otherwise we allow it to flourish.  Just because you can spot when someone smacks a colleague on the arse at work, does not mean that you can spot sexually abusive relationships in the work place.  If you can't spot it, you can't do anything about it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope I've made my point.  I'm guessing that to many people a lot of this will seem either pretty obvious, or perhaps still pretty naive/ignorant, but hey, I'm trying.

P.S. I still this it's daft to start using 'she' all over the place in academic papers.  Look people, the English language gave us a perfectly good gender neutral pronoun.  It's called 'they', and it's not rubbish, it's great.  Switching to 'she' is just patronising, akin to patting feminists on the head.  And if there is anyone who disagrees with me, then THEY are free to make their case to me (heh, what do you know?  I did manage to get a joke in).

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Marriage and naming conventions

Recently two of my close friends got married (to each other).  This is great.  It does however raise a problem that's been in the back of my head for a while.  You see, like many people, these friends of mine have names.  And, as with many facets of life, living in the modern word has made this better, but also more complicated.

Back in the day (I like to use this phrase as often as possible to infuriate those friends of mine who are students of history (I also like to write in the passive to annoy those who study English (and lots of embedded parentheses to annoy all that don't study philosophy))) it was nice and simple...  Well, it was definitely simple.  Mr Smith marries miss Jones, and lo and behold, miss Jones becomes 'mrs Smith' in a transformation which is as far as I can tell, philosophically rather uninteresting.  This convention has come under scrutiny, and the seemingly widespread conclusion in the educated, liberal, and generally left wing circles I rotate in and orbit around, is that it is rather dated and sexist.  Not that there's anything wrong with a woman who wants to take on the surname of her husband, oh no, but there is definitely something wrong with the expectation that they should (there are also historical connotations about the ownership of women by their fathers and husbands, but I take this to be part of the same problem).  As such, modern women are (or at least should be) free to abstain from this particular convention if they wish.  In fact, several new conventions have arisen for such circumstances.  I have encountered three candidates, and have been forced to conclude that (based on certain assumptions about values) none of them are satisfactory.

Option one: The hyphenated name.  Under this convention, when mr Smith and miss Jones get married, both of them change their names.  Each acquires the surname of the other in conjunction with their own, in a double-barrel pump-action hefty-calibre name, chained together by the magical hyphen that presumably represents their matrimonial union with a semantic one.  There are several combinations available, Smith-Jones, Jones-Smith, or even each having the name in a different order.  I see some problems with this approach:

1 - Deciding the order.  Okay, so how much of a big deal this one is really comes down to what you make of it.  If we assume that the groom's name goes first then we've not really gained anything from this whole deviation from the norm.  If we assume the bride's name then we've made the exact same mistake with the addition of being either hypocritical or cowardly (interestingly this problem isn't so charged in same sex marriages).  I like the solution where each takes the other's name first/last, but it encounters another problem that I'll drone on about later.

2 - Think of the children!  Here are two anecdotal observations from my own childhood.  First, children make fun of other children for having hyphenated names.  Second, everyone ends up calling a child by the first surname anyway.  There's another problem relating to children, but we'll get there in a moment. 

Option two:  Both bride and groom retain their original surnames.  This one has the virtue of being simple, respectful, and light on paperwork.  However, there is a problem concerning the inheritance of names (I realise that many of these problems relate to children, and so couple not looking to breed needn't worry, but lets face it, statistically the overwhelming majority of married couples have children, and the naming conventions associated with marriage should accomodate this trend).  Say Mr Smith and Mrs Jones decide to bring a little baby Smi..., no, Jone... ah.  What surname does the child get?  Either way one parent misses out.  But wait, we all know what's coming next.  Let's name the child little baby Smith-Jones (or Jones-Smith).  Well, so at least the baby's name makes sense, but (and here comes our first assumption) it seems that it is generally a desirable thing for children to have the same surnames as their parents.  After all, that's pretty much why we started giving surnames in the first place right?  To tell who was related to who?  Anyway, if you can get past that then there's a problem I call 'the problem of exponential and exacerbating proliferation of surnames', or 'PEEPS' for short (suppresses childish grin).

In short, the ultimate problem with any widespread convention of the linking of names (either upon marriage or childbirth) is that it's only a couple of generations before surnames are too large to be used without a portable usb.  If miss Smith-Jones marries mr Abdul-Mohammed, then they'll become some variation of mr and mrs Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed.  Of course, when little baby Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed grows up and marries miss Zhu-Raffioporto-Sidebottom-Agamemnon, then the earth shatteringly cool (but skull-splittingly unwieldy) surname Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed-Zhu-Raffioporto-Sidebottom-Agamemnon comes into existence.  Obviously this will just continue with every wedding/birth to unacceptable levels.

Of course, couples getting married can always chose one name from each and hyphenate the two, discarding the rest.  But here there lies a risk of offence.  Many parents would be pretty hurt to see their children discarding their name, and again, how do you chose which ones to ditch?

Option Three:  The combi-name.  Another couple I know of combined their names upon marriage.  When miss Wood married mr Smith, they both took the name Woodsmith.  I like this approach, but alas, you know I'm going to winge about it now.  First of all not every pair of names will combine as well as this one does.  Second, PEEPS is still a problem, except with really long single word names.  Third, again it seriously disrupts the continuity of family names (making genealogy very difficult).

I have a lot more to say on this, but I'll wrap up.  My final conclusion is that there is no satisfactory replacement convention that could be adopted for everyone (as the old convention used to be).  This doesn't mean that the above approaches are wrong for individual couples, I know of several couples for whom these solutions have been just dandy.  What it does mean however is that none of them could be adopted universally.  The only solution is (and maybe this is the westcountry in me coming out) that we only marry people who have the same surname as us...

Monday, 5 March 2012

Just how explicit is explicit?

I've been thinking about conventions.  In particular about implicit and explicit forms of conventionalism.  A lot of folk seem to think that the whole conventionalism about modality jig was up when Quine decided he didn't like it.  Shortly after he decided this, he also decided to say that it was wrong.  Now, I have this running joke that Quine is the smartest philosopher to be wrong about everything, and whilst this is meant to be taken light heartedly, it's unfortunate that 'Truth by Convention' lends weight to my facetious condemnation.  Whilst he may not be wrong that conventionalism is wrong (my own personal jury (of whom I'm sure you're both eagerly awaiting the verdict) is still out on that one), I'm pretty confident that if it is wrong, it's not for the reasons that Quine gives there.

What Quine says is (broadly) this.  The linguistic doctrine of necessity, if understood in terms of convention, can take one of two forms.  One is a formal system of explicit conventions that stipulate the truth of claims of certain forms.  The other is to talk about implicit conventions, but Quine refuses to understand this, saying that it is simply adding a layer of metaphor to an otherwise already mysterious doctrine.  Quine then goes on to say that the explicit formal system approach is inadequate because it leads to a vicious regress that prevents one from securing all of the necessary truths that we think there are.  This, combined with his dismissal of implicit conventionalism,  leaves Quine in a position to reject conventionalism.

Well, fair play to him.  He was writing in 1936 and the silliness of implicit convention was a pretty widely accepted position, so you can't really blame 'ole Willy-van.  However, we are fortunate enough to live in a post Lewis world where the notion of implicit convention is regarded in better light than silly things. 

However, the advent of the acceptability (or at least potential acceptability, let's not jump the gun here) of implicit convention leaves us with an obvious conundrum.  Where does the distinction between explicit and implicit lie?  The easiest way to think of implicit convention to my mind is just to say convention that isn't explicit.  I know that's a bit lazy, but there you go.  It's nice and flexible, and captures my intuitions well enough.  Any variation in how one interprets the difference should go on the explicit side.  So what is it for a convention to be explicit?  Well, that's a bit trickier.  Here are some (increasingly weak) ideas:

1 - Audible, public, verbal/written agreement:- We're playing a board game and decide it's not hard enough, so we agree that whenever you role a one on the dice you have to go back a space.

2 - Rules that can be formalised or expressed by specific sentences:- Even if we never publicly agreed to shake hands when we meet new people, we could (if we wanted to) say "when you meet new people, it is polite to shake their hand" or the imperative "when you meet new people, shake their hand".

3 - Rules that we can be explicitly aware of:-  It's not clear to me that this would be extensionaly different from 2, but it at least seems to me to be intensionally (or at the very least hyper-intensionally) different.

I haven't thought of others yet, but there probably are.  The particular problem I find is that none of these seem like particularly natural definitions.  Maybe I'm missing some really obvious candidate, but to me 1 looks too strict, and 2 looks too weak (and so 3 also).  I'm not sure where to stand on this yet.  Perhaps I have approached it from the wrong angle after all, and I should be looking for a definition to match my intuitions about what it is for a convention to be implicit.  But, meh.  I still don't like the taste of that.  Maybe I just need to get a grip and chose one, and accept that it may not matter much.  There are also other issues like the amount of freedom one has with regard to the formation of conventions, but I don't think this is directly linked to whether they're explicit or not.  

I have choices to make if I'm to go ahead with forming a taxonomy of conventionalist positions on essence.  I eagerly await being able to write on an implicit and expressive conventionalism which (thanks to Schmomas) I'll be calling 'impressive conventionalism'.  

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Convention: reductive or expressive?

Okay, just a quick post to help consolidate some thoughts.

I've been thinking about conventionalism, the old school badass conventionalism about logical truth that my realist metaphysician's upbringing taught me was a comical boogie man to be shunned.

There are some pretty standard attacks on traditional conventionalism, folk like Quine, Kripke, and Lewy seem leave some folk pretty confident that the matter has been put to bed, and the world has moved on (I suspect that this may not be the case outside of the metaphysical bubble that is Leeds university, but I'm in said bubble, so what are you gonna do about it, eh?).  To me these are starting to look like pretty thin reasons for abandoning convention as a source of necessity.  The main reason for this is that it's becoming less clear to me that the kind of thing the conventionalists were talking about is the same as the kind of thing that its critics were.

If you want to ground necessity (or logical truth) in convention then it seems that there are a few ways of going about it:

1 - The formal system:  In 'Truth by Convention' Quine lays out a formal system in an attempt to derive all the necessities from axioms.  He concludes that this cannot be done because you'll never be able to get the truth of all the necessities, a Caroll-esque regress follows.

2 - Identify necessity with analyticity:  Folk like Kripke and Putnam put this one to the sword, and rightly so (I reckon).

3 - Go hard-core anti-realist (as opposed to some kind of reductionist anti-realist) about necessity and treat modal claims in the same kind of way that expressivists in (say) morality treat claims like "pulling off Jimmy's face is wrong".  When we say "one plus one is necessarily two" we are expressing a commitment to use language in such a way as to never allow anything to count against our belief that 1+1=2.  Now, this isn't grounding any special kind of truth.  It's not reflecting anything special about the world either.  Just as my claim about Jimmy's face doesn't ground or reveal any ethical truth, neither do modal claims.  When I say it's wrong to pull off Jimmy's face, I'm expressing my lack of approval for such actions, and my preference that they not be done.  When I make claims about necessity, I'm expressing (albeit tacitly) the character and rules of the language I use when reasoning about stuff in the world.

The literature on conventionalists seems to presume that the position the first two.  I'm beginning to think that this may be something of an error.  I think that maybe (at least some of) the conventionalists had something  bit more like 3 in mind.  If they didn't, then they probably should have done considering the motivations that led them to be conventionalists in the first place.

Okay, so that's a thought about conventionalism about logical truth.  Now I need to start thinking about conventionalism about essential truth.  If I can consolidate and back up these thoughts for logical truth then maybe I can start to map out the positions available to the (as of yet seemingly hypothetical) conventional essentialist...  I anticipate taxonomical headaches.

P.S. Incidentally, if anyone thinks they can recommend any sources that might highlight this kind of distinction in the literature on conventionalism, please do let me know.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Modality de dicto and de re

I had a chat about my favorite topic in the pub the other day.  That's right, beer.  Shortly after that, I had another chat about modality.  What started off (as I recall) as chat about my research soon drifted off to a strange (but wicked cool) mid-point between my research and that of my friend, let's call him Schmomas.  Schmomas' research is into the nature of logical laws and structure, whether it is something worldly a la Sider, or something unworldly, a la Hirsch.  After apologising for what is probably a gross oversimplification of Schmomas' research, I'll get to the point.

Schmomas, I'm sorry for grossly oversimplifying your research. 

Having discussed the potential for essentialist accounts of modality, we started talking about how one might account for logical truth in particular.  Fine reckons that we can ground such things in the essences of logical concepts (though I'm guessing he doesn't really mean to say 'concepts'), but let's face it, that's kinda weird.  If we're going to be asking people to accept essences, let's at least try to slow down and not reify absolutely everything we can think of.  So Schmomas and I started to talk about the potential for an account that split modality in two. What would happen if you accounted for all the de re necessity in terms of the essences of things, but then turned to linguistic conventions when it came to things like logical truth and de dicto necessity?  This is a leap from a traditional essentialist picture which, as far as I can tell, takes the unconventional (excuse the pun) step of basically treating all de dicto necessity as just de re necessity about propositions or whatnot.  

So how about it?  It looks pretty weird at first.  Especially as it portrays a serious theoretical divide where folk don't often put one, and what's more it places necessity de re as the more real of the two, which bucks against the historical trend.  Now that's enough to get some hats spinning, but I think there's something to be said for it.  For a while now I've been wondering if modality de re and de dicto are just too different to be covered realistically by the same theory.  I remember making some slightly drunken midnight tweets about this a while ago (oh yeah, that's how I roll).  Imagine my joy to find that someone else actually had thoughts along the same lines!  It seems to me that modality de dicto and de re are really different, more so than most people acknowledge (at least publicly).  I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't a significant advantage of a theory if it accounts for the two in radically different ways.  Think about it.  Necessity de re is about stuff.  Could that thing be more like this other thing?  Did that thing have to be like that? etc.  Necessity de dicto just isn't like that.  It's about the way that we reason, the way that we think about the world.  The apparent overlap between the two doesn't really seem any more significant than the use of certain bits of vocabulary.  Normative claims involve the same kind of vocabulary, and we don't expect to cover those with the same account.  Of course there are de dicto claims that seem to overlap a lot more.  "It could have been the case that there was a dragon in my bathtub" seems to be talking about stuff (in a way) just as much as "My dragon can't get out of the bathtub!"  But let's look at that.  Whilst the latter is a modal claim about what's possible of the abilities of my dragon, the former just isn't.  It's a case of us reasoning about the world, and about the compatibility of properties.  The reason why we think there could have been a dragon in my bathtub is that we think the properties we associate with dragons are consistent, and that they are consistent with the mechanics of bathroom fixtures.  The only kind of stuff that the de dicto claims could be about are propositions, logical notions, properties, or the way we think about them.

Oh course, if you want a more unified account, but still don't want to go reifying things willy-nilly, then you could be a conventional essentialist.  You ground all modal facts in the essences of things, and you give essences to anything that you want there to be modal facts about.  This means just about everything.  Numbers, logical forms, the lot.  This can go along the lines of the Finean essentialist account of modality.  Then you just go and be a conventionalist about neo-Aristotelean essence and Bob's your uncle, you don't have to worry about reifying all those things you just gave essences to because those essences are conventional and don't commit you to much at all.  The advantage of this is that you get to talk about modality and think in modal terms without having to worry about any of the spooky stuff that us metaphysicians get bullied for not thinking of as being all that spooky.  A potential downside is this doesn't really seem to be the way we think.  It hangs on a fair few 'ifs', like the viability of a complete essentialist account of modality and a conventionalist account of essence (both of which I plan to write about in some depth), and also the slightly cringe worthy claim that all de dicto necessities are really just de re ones in disguise.

So there you go.  Some ramblings from the pub.  Feel free to digest and reject at your leisure.