Philosophy of Social Sciences and Norwegian Mountains

I’m back in Bergen after a week spent literally in the middle of nowhere, or simply at Vatnahalsen hotel. I was attending a PhD course in “Philosophy of Social Sciences” and let me tell you a little bit about it.

But first of all, why would I even attend such a course? After all, I’m not an anthropologist or a sociologist, but for some weird reasons I do belong to the Faculty of Social Science. Why? Because my supervisor doesn’t work at the Department of Computer Science, but at the Department of Information Science, which then belongs to the aforementioned faculty. Even though my work has nothing to do with social sciences, and even though I work at the Department of Computer Engineering (HiB), due to my affiliation with Information Science and in order to fulfill all the silly requirements of my PhD programme, I had to take this course. So how was it? Very good on one hand, and terrible on the other.

The bad part was that during the lectures I hardly learned anything new. Even if they were thought provoking and somewhat inspiring (oh right, did I mention that I have to write a philosophical essay in order to pass this course?), the lectures simply established the truth I already know: that continental (i.e. non-analytic) approach to philosophy is either fundamentally flawed, or that I am completely unable to understand it (I prefer the former). I felt like I’m back in the 3rd year of my philosophy studies, listening about Foucault, Horkheimer, Habermas, Hegel, Derrida and Carl Schmitt. Faisal Devji’s lecture about Gandhi (among other things) was a nice touch, but other than that I mainly listened to all the stuff I disliked most during my undergrad philosophy training. So that was the bad part.

Since we are asked to write some philosophical essays relating our own research to philosophy of social sciences and/or ethics, we had some group sessions organized. What they did is they put 4-5 people from different departments into each group and asked us to discuss our research dilemmas. I have to tell you that before the Vatnahalsen course I was a typical physicist – completely ignorant about what anthropologists, historians, economists and political scientists do, and obviously arrogant about how my solid (cough), formal research is substantially better than any other. Turns out these group sessions were the best part of the course, a true eye-opener. Both the suggestions from other discussion participants and listening about their projects were very beneficial for me.

Apart from the substantial part of the course, we also had some free time and an opportunity to take the Flåm railway all the way down. For anyone visiting Norway as a tourist this is a must see, because the trip is breathtaking even when everything is covered in snow, so one can only imagine how beautiful it must be during the summer. I took some photos with my phone but due to bad weather and due to the fact that iPhone 4 is not the best camera (despite what people say on the internet) they definitely don’t do any justice.

Another intriguing element of the course is that it was held, as I mentioned already, in Vatnahalsen. Vatnahalsen is a hotel in the mountains, in a very remote place. It’s about 100 meters from a Vatnahalsen Flåmsbana station, and about 2kms from Myrdal, which means that in the winter the only way to get there is by train (from Myrdal or Flåm) or… by ski. Apart from the hotel, there’s nothing there. No internet connection, flaky GSM reception, and in case of any heating or water problems you need to wait one day for a plumber (probably from Voss or Geilo). We were the only guests in the hotel, there was lots of snow everywhere, and the place was built in the XIX century as a hospital for tuberculosis patients, so one could feel like Hans Castorp or Jack Torrance. Besides, even the nearest settlement, Flåm, can hardly be called a town – there’s about 320 people living there (plus approximately 1 million tourists every year). The nearest civilization is probably Voss, about 90 kms to the southwest.

So, to wrap up this a bit too long and way too chaotic entry:

  1. Stay away from continental philosophy (as a matter of fact, stay away from any philosophy if you can);

  2. Read about research people do in fields other than yours; trust me, they do interesting research;

  3. Go to Myrdal and take a train to Flåm if you haven’t done it yet.

update: As one of my friends mentioned, I forgot about one thing: beer. What would be a week-long seminar in the mountains without a good beer, right? So if you happen to be in Flåm, visit Ægir Bryggeri – a micro-brewery close to the train station. It’s owned by an American guy who’s been a bank manager in California and at some point of his life decided to quit the job, pack his stuff, go to Flåm, and start brewing beer. The business is going well, Ægir Bryggeri is the 2nd biggest micro-brewery in Norway now (I believe that the 1st one is Nøgne Ø, but I’m not sure), and they do make some damn good beers. My personal favorite is the India Pale Ale, but you can’t buy it at the brewery (it’s 6,5 alc. so you can only buy it in a pub or at some Vinmonopolet), so just treat yourself with Bøyla Blonde Ale once you’re there. And for those outside Norway there’s good news: Ægir Bryggeri plans to start exporting its beers to the US, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany (if I remember correctly).

 · Flåm, Norway