The teat of interpretation

Andrea Long Chu in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital—or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say—in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god.

In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.

What has not been (properly) talked about

from Susan Sontag’s introduction to The Best American Essays, 1992:

The word essay comes from the French essai, attempt—and many essayists, including the greatest of all, Montaigne, have insisted that the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness, its disavowal of closed, systematic ways of thinking. Its most obvious trait, however, is assertiveness of one kind or another.

To read an essay properly, one must understand not only what it is arguing for but what it is arguing against. Reading the essays written by our contemporaries, we easily supply the context, the public argument, the opponent, explicit or implicit. The passage of a few decades can make this almost impossible.

Essays end up in books, but they start their life in magazines. (It’s hard to imagine a book of recent but previously unpublished essays.) The perennial comes now mainly in the guise of the topical and, in the short run, no literary form has as great and immediate an impact on contemporary readers. Many essays are discussed, debated, reacted to in a way that poets and writers of fiction can only envy.

The influential essayist is someone with an acute sense of what has not been (properly) talked about, what should be talked about (but differently). But what makes essays last is less their argument than the display of a complex mind and a distinctive prose voice.

Wisdom will get in anyhow

from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872):

I tell you what,—he said,—there’s so much intelligence about nowadays in books and newspapers and talk that it’s mighty hard to write without getting something or other worth listening to into your essay or your volume. The foolishest book is a kind of leaky boat on a sea of wisdom; some of the wisdom will get in anyhow. Every now and then I find something in my book that seems so good to me, I can’t help thinking it must have leaked in. I suppose other people discover that it came through a leak, full as soon as I do. You must write a book or two to find out how much and how little you know and have to say. Then you must read some notices of it by somebody that loves you and one or two by somebody that hates you. You’ll find yourself a very odd piece of property after you’ve been through these experiences. They’re trying to the constitution; I’m always glad to hear that a friend is as well as can be expected after he’s had a book.

Not one-tenth of them

from Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” (1931), translated by Harry John:

Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. At this point many of you will remember with pleasure the large library which Jean Paul’s poor little schoolmaster Wutz gradually acquired by writing, himself, all the works whose titles interested him in book fair catalogues; after all, he could not afford to buy them. Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like. You, ladies and gentlemen, may regard this as a whimsical definition of a writer. But everything said from the angle of a real collector is whimsical. Of the customary modes of acquisition, the one most appropriate to a collector would be the borrowing of a book with its attendant non-returning. The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books. If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?”

In praise of the antilibrary

from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007):

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

[…]

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

Casting off this useless burden

from Simeon Potter, Our Language (1950):

English has likewise been fortunate in shedding grammatical gender. Just as we say der Fussdie Hand, and das Auge in Modern German, so in Old English foot was masculine, hand feminine, and eye neuter, epicene, or common. All nouns were placed into one of these three inherited categories which were not primarily associated with sex. Womanquean, and wife were synonymous in Old English, all three meaning ‘woman’, but they were masculine, feminine, and neuter,  respectively. Horsesheep, and maiden were all neuter. Earth, ‘Mother Earth’, was feminine, but land was neuter. Sun was feminine, but moon, strangely enough, was masculine. Day was masculine, but night feminine. Wheat was masculine, oats feminine, and corn neuter. Clearly, there was no conceivable relationship between grammatical gender and any quality in the object denoted. English has surely gained everything and lost nothing by casting off this useless burden which all the other well-known languages of Europe still bear to their great disadvantage. How, may we ask, has English contrived to cast it off? Is there such a thing as the ‘genius of the language’? Can a language be changed by the ‘corporate will’ of the people who speak it? Perhaps we should look for more specific causes. The gender of an Old English substantive was not always indicated by the form of the ending as it was, with rare exceptions, in Latin and Greek, but rather by the terminations of the adjectives and demonstrative pronouns used in agreement. When these distinguishing terminations were lost in everyday speech, all outward marks of grammatical gender were likewise lost. Weakening of inflexions and loss of gender went on together. In the north where inflexions weakened earlier the marks of gender likewise disappeared first. They were retained in the south as late as the fourteenth century.


from Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language,” in A Tramp Abroad (1880):

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print—I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

Gretchen.
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm.
She has gone to the kitchen.

Gretchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm.
It has gone to the opera.

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female—tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it—for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.

Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.

In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not—which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman—Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: “die Engländerinn,”—which means “the she-Englishwoman.” I consider that that person is over-described.


from Otto Jespersen, Progress of Language: With Special Reference to English (1894):

This doctrine of an antagonism between language and history is a pet theory which Schleicher never abandons; in his first book (ii., p. 134) he speaks of “die geschichte, jene feindin der sprache”; and in his Darwinian period he puts it in this way: “The origin and development of language is previous to history, properly and strictly speaking. . . . History shows us nothing but the aging of languages according to fixed laws. The idioms spoken by ourselves, as well as those of all historically important nations, are senile relics.”

According to Schleicher, then, we witness nothing but retrogression and decay; but as the same view is found as early as Bopp, and as it is the fundamental belief, more or less pronounced, of many other linguistic speculators, we are justified in supposing that with Schleicher the theory is not really due to the Hegelian train of argument, but that here, as not unfrequently, reasoning is summoned to arms in defence of results arrived at by instinct. And the feeling underlying this instinct, what is it but a grammar-school admiration, a Renaissance love of the two classical languages and their literatures? People were taught to look down upon modern languages as mere dialects, and to worship Greek and Latin; the richness and fulness of forms found in those languages came naturally to be considered the very beau idéal of linguistic structure. To men fresh from the ordinary grammar-school training no language would seem respectable that had not four or five distinct cases and three genders or that had less than five tenses and as many moods in its verbs. Accordingly, such poor languages as had either lost much of their original richness in grammatical forms (e.g., French, English, or Danish), or had never had any (e.g., Chinese), were naturally looked upon with something like the pity bestowed on relatives in reduced circumstances, or the contempt felt for foreign paupers.

[…]

In Jacob Grimm’s singularly clever (though nebulous) essay on the Origin of Language (1851), I find such passages as the following: “Language in its earliest form was melodious, but diffuse and straggling (weitschweifig und haltlos); in its middle form it was full of intense poetical vigour; in our own day it seeks to remedy the diminution of beauty by the harmony of the whole, and is more effective though it has inferior means”; he arrives at the result that “human language is retrogressive only apparently and in particular points, but looked upon as a whole it is progressive, and its intrinsic force is continually increasing”. The enthusiastic panegyric on the English language with which he concludes his essay forms a striking contrast to Schleicher’s opinion that English shows “how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink”.

The immediate perceptive epithet

from Bruce Wilshire, “William James’s Pragmatism: A Distinctly Mixed Bag,” in 100 Years of Pragmatism, edited by John Stuhr:

William James is a tragic figure. I will try to fully explain what I mean by that. But right off the bat, we can point out a feature of this tragic stance. It’s fairly widely believed that James is a major philosopher. Yet in no other such philosopher’s work, I believe, are great strengths so vividly mixed with major defects. His famous, often read—too often read, I think—popular lectures, Pragmatism, gaudily illustrate this claim.

What does it take to be a major philosopher? A most difficult question. Wilfrid Sellars’s one-liner statement of what philosophy seeks to discover is hard to better: how things, in the broadest sense, hang together, in the broadest sense.

But how does one start a process of discovery without begging crucial questions that philosophy should endeavor to answer? How does one begin to comprehend the farthest reaches of complexity without prejudging things—or occluding whole horizons of possibilities and viewpoints—stupidly? James’s description in Pragmatism of expertness in philosophy is arresting: “Expertness in philosophy is measured by the definiteness of our summarizing reactions, by the immediate perceptive epithet with which the expert hits such complex objects off” (P, 25). Thee summarizing that emerges through perceptual epithet! A taking in at a glance that delivers the first sketch of the whole lay of the land. Is there any better way to avoid getting lost in the details of some corner of the subject matter, any better way to begin doing philosophy unprejudiciously?

Supplies are limited

the introductory note to “Further Reading” in Nigel Warburton, Thinking from A to Z:

There are a number of books which purport to give a thorough grounding in critical thinking. Unfortunately many of them demonstrate their authors’ limited abilities to think critically.

The world is awash in bullshit

from the introduction to the course Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World, taught by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West at the University of Washington:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.

What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:

Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

Calling bullshit is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.