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The Philosopher's Demise: (Learning French) Hardcover – 1 May 1995

4.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 152 pages
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press (May 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0826210031
  • ISBN-13: 978-0826210036
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 14 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 6,667,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

About the Author

Richard D. Watson is president of SSHC, Inc., a leading HVAC radiant systems design and manufacturing firm in the Northeast with headquarters in Old Saybrook, Connecticut and a consultant to utilities and other organizations. Kirby S. Chapman, Ph.D., is professor of mechanical engineering at Kansas State University, and a widely consulted expert on radiant heating and cooling principles and applications. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Format: Paperback
...in late middle age.

Richard Watson is a Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, who has now "graduated" to emeritus status. But he still can run down a calanque near Cassis, France, per his website. He specialized in the philosophy of René Descartes. Among various factoids that I picked-up from Watson's book is that Descartes birthplace of La Haye, north of Poitiers, has been renamed in his honor, much like the French renamed Illiers to Illiers-Combray to honor the name of the fictional town in Marcel Proust's classic novel In Search of Lost Time (Proust Complete - 6 Volume Box Set) (Modern Library). At the tender age of 19, Watson learned how to READ French at the University of Iowa. Speaking it was apparently deemed not to be important. Thus, he was able to become a scholar of a French philosopher, yet did not speak his language. Considerably later than 19 I also learned how to read French, but I must rely on the wonderful tolerance of the French people (and I am not being sarcastic, as many might assume) to understand my French when I try to speak it. Watson and I seemed to be in similar situations, trying to learn how to speak it fairly on in life, and thus I felt his book was a must read when I read the central premise.

The year is 1995, and his audience would be potentially much more intimidating than mine. He has been invited to Paris, to give a paper, as they say in academic circles, in French, on Descartes. His self-assessment: "My fifty-five-year-old ear and tongue were stiff as boards. But I knew what was required, and if the quickness of youth was gone, the staying power of age was not. I would beat myself into shape.
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Format: Hardcover
At 55, Richard Watson, a distinguished Cartesian scholar and professor at Washington University, lived a linguistic paradox: he could read French like a native; but he could not actually speak the language. Then, Watson was invited to deliver a paper at a conference in Paris celebrating the 350th anniversary of Descartes's "Discours de la Methode". The director of the conference was sure "...that all participants would want to present their papers in French." Thus begins Watson's quest to acquire a passable French accent and learn conversational French.

In learning to speak French, Watson encounters several obstacles. First, he is hindered by a middle-aged "ear and tongue [that] were stiff as boards." Second, he, a scholar, remembers what he understands but finds "...it nearly impossible to pick up phrases and patterns by sound alone." Third, Watson is assigned an arrogant and inflexible teacher at the Alliance Francaise, where he, a professor, becomes a mere student in an intensive class meeting four hours a day and five days a week for four months.

In class, this teacher uses the French lycée style. Here: "You are to do exactly what you are told in prescribed lengths of time, and for everything there is a rule." And: "If you are told to do something by a teacher in France, you follow instructions exactly, or you are punished for it." This--a pedagogical issue--ultimately causes Watson great tribulation. He observes: "I was struck... by the fact that what we award students for--initiative, inventiveness, going beyond what is asked for, smart-a**ed showing off--is ruthlessly, even with great relish, punished in the French lycée system."

In THE PHILOSOPHER'S DEMISE, Watson proves to be a wonderful guide through French culture.
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By takingadayoff TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 18 Feb. 2004
Format: Paperback
When Richard Watson tries to learn to speak French decades after having learned to read it fluently, he has trouble. He tries very hard, hires a tutor, labors hours every day over exercises and audio tapes, but it just won't come. He spends months in France and still, he can't pass his exam.
Watson is a philosopher, therefore he must analyze the situation to death. He dissects his failure, perhaps it is because French sounds un-masculine, maybe he doesn't like the French, perhaps it is something deeper. Well, seeing as how he has evidence that his French really has improved by the time he leaves France, maybe he just set his goals unrealistically high.
The self-analysis gets tedious sometimes, but the story is interesting and understandable. Everyone has difficulty learning something, no matter how smart they are. And the observations of different cultures are eye-opening. Watson's story about an American who speaks fluent Japanese, traveling in Japan, being refused lodging in an inn because he didn't speak Japanese, even though the lengthy conversation with the proprietor took place entirely in Japanese, was amusing.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars 6 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heaven-sent hatred that makes me weep with gratitude 13 Sept. 2004
By Gooch McCracken - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
What I particularly love about Richard Watson is that his francophobia has the breadth to include the French language itself: "The poem played on tape was about how to paint a bird. First you paint a cage, then you paint flowers and plants around it, a beautiful sky, and so on. You wait. Your painting is bad if a bird doesn't come and land in the cage. If one does, it is good and you can erase the cage and sign your name to the painting of the bird. Putting aside the cuteness of all this, what made me realize how much I disliked the sound of French was the continual, unctuous, caressing repetition of 'l'oiseau' ('the bird'). It is a word the French believe to be one of the most beautiful in their language. It is a word that cannot be pronounced without simpering, a word whose use should be restricted to children under five."

Confere Anthony Burgess's hatred of the consonant deficiency of French: "The French seem determined to destroy their Roman inheritance by chopping up words until they become as short as possible, and as capable of being confused with other chopped-up words as only a genuinely morbid condition of language can allow. Even when a French word or name bears some visual resemblance to its classical original, the spoken form submits to the axe. I can never grow used to pronouncing 'Jesus Christ' as 'Jezu Cri', and I feel that if the French could cut the holy name down to something like 'Je Cr', they would."
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars La langue est lourde... 10 Jun. 2013
By John P. Jones III - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
...in late middle age.

Richard Watson is a Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, who has now "graduated" to emeritus status. But he still can run down a calanque near Cassis, France, per his website. He specialized in the philosophy of René Descartes. Among various factoids that I picked-up from Watson's book is that Descartes birthplace of La Haye, north of Poitiers, has been renamed in his honor, much like the French renamed Illiers to Illiers-Combray to honor the name of the fictional town in Marcel Proust's classic novel In Search of Lost Time: Proust 6-pack (Proust Complete). At the tender age of 19, Watson learned how to READ French at the University of Iowa. Speaking it was apparently deemed not to be important. Thus, he was able to become a scholar of a French philosopher, yet did not speak his language. Considerably later than 19 I also learned how to read French, but I must rely on the wonderful tolerance of the French people (and I am not being sarcastic, as many might assume) to understand my French when I try to speak it. Watson and I seemed to be in similar situations, trying to learn how to speak it fairly on in life, and thus I felt his book was a must read when I read the central premise.

The year is 1995, and his audience would be potentially much more intimidating than mine. He has been invited to Paris, to give a paper, as they say in academic circles, in French, on Descartes. His self-assessment: "My fifty-five-year-old ear and tongue were stiff as boards. But I knew what was required, and if the quickness of youth was gone, the staying power of age was not. I would beat myself into shape." Before going to France, he was tutored, one-on-one, by a native French speaker in St. Louis. As he says: "She never let anything go. `Bonjour.' No, it is `Bonjour.' The `j' is farther back on your tongue. Watch my tongue. `Bonjour.' Now you try it. I despaired. How could someone who couldn't even greet a Frenchman properly expect to speak French?"

The heart of his story is his three months, in Paris, studying French, at the Alliance Française, with a multitude of other foreigners, trying to learn the language, obtain a certificate, or pick-up a woman (or visa versa). At times, funny and witty. At others, he seemed excessively negative and sardonic towards his hosts, which did not resonate, at least as strongly, with my own experiences. Of course, part of this, which I have blessedly missed, is his experience with the perennial snubs from his "colleagues" in academia, one more confirmation that it was fortuitous not to have taken that path. ("Our squabbles are all the fiercer due to the insignificance of the issues at stake.") As Watson says, at least in scientific fields there is a genuine impetus to some sort of meaningful collaboration - but in the social sciences, everyone is buried in their increasingly narrow niche, and what the next guy or gal is doing is not only irrelevant, but an utter distraction.

Watson never mentions some potential useful exercises that might limber-up the tongue, if not the ear, in late middle age.

Finally, had the uneasy feeling he was "sandbagging" some of the action at the Alliance Française, which led to his "demise" as reflected by the title. Thus, though I loved the dilemma, as well as most of his approach, overall, think the book rates 4-stars.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Funny debunking of the French and their pedagogical methods 15 Feb. 2013
By Ethan Cooper - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
At 55, Richard Watson, a distinguished Cartesian scholar and professor at Washington University, lived a linguistic paradox: he could read French like a native; but he could not actually speak the language. Then, Watson was invited to deliver a paper at a conference in Paris celebrating the 350th anniversary of Descartes's "Discours de la Methode". The director of the conference was sure "...that all participants would want to present their papers in French." Thus begins Watson's quest to acquire a passable French accent and learn conversational French.

In learning to speak French, Watson encounters several obstacles. First, he is hindered by a middle-aged "ear and tongue [that] were stiff as boards." Second, he, a scholar, remembers what he understands but finds "...it nearly impossible to pick up phrases and patterns by sound alone." Third, Watson is assigned an arrogant and inflexible teacher at the Alliance Francaise, where he, a professor, becomes a mere student in an intensive class meeting four hours a day and five days a week for four months.

In class, this teacher uses the French lycée style. Here: "You are to do exactly what you are told in prescribed lengths of time, and for everything there is a rule." And: "If you are told to do something by a teacher in France, you follow instructions exactly, or you are punished for it." This--a pedagogical issue--ultimately causes Watson great tribulation. He observes: "I was struck... by the fact that what we award students for--initiative, inventiveness, going beyond what is asked for, smart-a**ed showing off--is ruthlessly, even with great relish, punished in the French lycée system."

In THE PHILOSOPHER'S DEMISE, Watson proves to be a wonderful guide through French culture. Certainly, he enjoys Paris, despite its noise. But he also bristles at its imperious and aloof elites and spares us the usual obsequious observations about French food and French style. Further, he laughs at the complicated and imperfect solutions that the French sometimes devise for social problems. In New York, clean up after your dog or pay a fine. But in Paris, during Watson's stay, there was a fleet of motorcycles equipped with special tanks and suction devices hunting for doggy doo.

Ultimately, Watson learns to speak perfectly adequate conversational French, even on subjects in his highly specialized field. But the process is fraught and there are moments when the professor and his associates find joy in resistance. Here, for example, is the story of a distinguished English historian of science presenting at the Paris conference. He "...didn't do accents. Instead, he read French words as though they were English, with particular stress on all the endings that are silent in French. `That'll bloody well set them straight,' someone whispered in English behind me."

Recommended.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Philosopher Thinks Too Much 28 Jan. 2004
By takingadayoff - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
When Richard Watson tries to learn to speak French decades after having learned to read it fluently, he has trouble. He tries very hard, hires a tutor, labors hours every day over exercises and audio tapes, but it just won't come. He spends months in France and still, he can't pass his exam.
Watson is a philosopher, therefore he must analyze the situation to death. He dissects his failure, perhaps it is because French sounds un-masculine, maybe he doesn't like the French, perhaps it is something deeper. Well, seeing as how he has evidence that his French really has improved by the time he leaves France, maybe he just set his goals unrealistically high.
The self-analysis gets tedious sometimes, but the story is interesting and understandable. Everyone has difficulty learning something, no matter how smart they are. And the observations of different cultures are eye-opening. Watson's story about an American who speaks fluent Japanese, traveling in Japan, being refused lodging in an inn because he didn't speak Japanese, even though the lengthy conversation with the proprietor took place entirely in Japanese, was amusing.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't put it down 18 Nov. 2007
By kalyson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Richard Watson's book was an entertaining read -- it was hard to put down once I started reading it. It is not just about his struggle to learn French -- it is about how it feels to be on the outside looking in, and about how it feels to face unprecedented, inexplicable failure. The author is introspective, and he relates his experiences in an amusing and thoughtful way. Although he gives us a peek into a world most of us will never encounter (that of Parisian philosophers specializing in Descartes), we can easily empathize with his feelings of frustration, humiliation and cultural confusion. Since I am also struggling to learn to speak French for the first time, I was gratified to see I am not alone in my frustration.
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