The rewards of creative activity

the second paragraph of Allan Forte’s Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice (1962):

We hold the conviction that the primary aim of serious music study is to illuminate the subject, not to surround it with trivia and bury it beneath detail. At the same time one must realize that a technical approach to music, like a technical approach to any subject, involves specific tasks which are often detailed. These include the learning of a new terminology, the memorizing of certain facts, and the intelligent working out of exercises in order to achieve basic skills. Without these one cannot hope to approach the general concepts essential to the art, nor can one a ain that level of minimal ability which will enable him to enjoy the rewards of creative activity.

Neat, plausible, and wrong

Two versions of the opening of Mencken’s essay “The Divine Afflatus”:

I. As it appears in A Mencken Chrestomathy

Every man who writes, or paints, or composes knows by hard experience that there are days when his ideas flow freely and clearly and days when they are damned up damnably. On his good days, for some reason quite incomprehensible to him, all the processes and operations of his mind take on an amazing ease and slickness. Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

This unpleasant experience overtakes poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, painters and sculptors, and also, no doubt, philosophers and journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement writers and the rev. clergy. The characters that all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless. Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal quest, horribly bedeviled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache, eye-strain and festering conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for his crime of having ideas. The normal man, the healthy and honest man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows nothing of all that travail. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and for bidden streams.

How are we to account for it? My question, of course, is purely rhetorical. Explanations exist; they have existed for all times, for there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand, and one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there are explanations less supernatural but no less fanciful—to wit, the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and not to be resolved into any orderly process—to wit, the explanation that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired—finally, to make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arc-light, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

II. As it appears in Prejudices: Second Series

The suave and oedematous Chesterton, in a late effort to earn
the honorarium of a Chicago newspaper, composed a thousand words
of labored counterblast to what is called inspiration in the arts.
The thing itself, he argued, has little if any actual existence; we
hear so much about it because its alleged coyness and fortuitousness
offer a convenient apology for third-rate work. The man taken in such
third-rate work excuses himself on the ground that he is a helpless
slave of some power that stands outside him, and is quite beyond his
control. On days when it favors him he teems with ideas and creates
masterpieces, but on days when it neglects him he is crippled and
impotent–a fiddle without a bow, an engine without steam, a tire
without air. All this, according to Chesterton, is nonsense. A man who
can really write at all, or paint at all, or compose at all should be
able to do it at almost any time, provided only “he is not drunk or
asleep.”

So far Chesterton. The formula of the argument is simple and familiars
to dispose of a problem all that is necessary is to deny that it
exists. But there are plenty of men, I believe, who find themselves
unable to resolve the difficulty in any such cavalier manner–men whose chief burden and distinction, in fact, is that they do not employ
formulae in their thinking, but are thrown constantly upon industry,
ingenuity and the favor of God. Among such men there remains a good
deal more belief in what is vaguely called inspiration. They know
by hard experience that there are days when their ideas flow freely
and clearly, and days when they are dammed up damnably. Say a man of that sort has a good day. For some reason quite incomprehensible to
him all his mental processes take on an amazing ease and slickness.
Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have
badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary
efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly
and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself
out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work
that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been
capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on
the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

I challenge any man who trades in ideas to deny that he has this
experience. The truth is that he has it constantly. It overtakes
poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, philosophers and
journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement
writers, chautauqua orators and the rev. clergy. The characters that
all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow
of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of
rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches
itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless.
Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all
his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for
dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his
lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal
quest, horribly bedevilled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache,
eye-strain and evil conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for
his crime of being intelligent. The normal man, the healthy and honest
man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows
nothing of all that travail. It is reserved especially for artists
and metaphysicians. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue
strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and
forbidden streams.

Let us, then, assume that the fact is proved: the nearest poet
is a witness to it. But what of the underlying mystery? How are
we to account for that puckish and inexplicable rise and fall of
inspiration? My questions, of course, are purely rhetorical.
Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always
a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and
wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods:
sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one
reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by
the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there
are explanations less super-natural but no less fanciful—to wit,
the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and
not to be resolved into any orderly process—-to wit, the explanation
that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist
happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired–finally, to
make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian
complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all of these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with
mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arclight, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

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.

A requirement for genuine expertise

David Foster Wallace in conversation with Dave Eggers, The Believer, 2003:

We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication. It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. That sounds a bit gooey, but I think there’s some truth to it. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes. Practical examples: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius—which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise.… Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.

Why not be, rather, fully human?

Schönberg, preface to the first edition, Harmonielehre, 1911, translated by Roy E. Carter; on searching for the sake of searching, cf. Walker Percy:

This book I have learned from my pupils.

In my teaching I never sought merely ‘to tell the pupil what I know’. Better to tell him what he did not know. Yet that was not my chief aim either, although it was reason enough for me to devise something new for each pupil. I labored rather to show him the nature of the matter from the ground up. Hence, I never imposed those fixed rules with which a pupil’s brain is so carefully tied up in knots. Everything was formulated as instructions that were no more binding upon the pupil than upon the teacher. If the pupil can do something better without the instructions, then let him do so. But the teacher must have the courage to admit his own mistakes. He does not have to pose as infallible, as one who knows all and never errs; he must rather be tireless, constantly searching, perhaps sometimes finding. Why pose as a demigod? Why not be, rather, fully human?

I have never tried to talk my pupils into believe me infallible—only a ‘Gesangsprofessor’ (professor of singing) finds that necessary. On the contrary, I have often risked saying something that I had later to retract; I have often risked giving instructions that, when applied, proved to be wrong and so had to be corrected. Perhaps my mistakes did not benefit the pupil, but they hardly caused him much harm. Indeed, the fact that I openly acknowledged them may have set him to thinking. As for myself, since the instructions I gave were untested products of my own thought, I was compelled by my errors, which were quickly exposed, to examine my instructions anew and improve their formulation.

This, then, is the way this book came into being. From the errors made by my pupils as a result of inadequate or wrong instructions I learned how to give the right instructions. Successful completion of assignments by the pupils established the soundness of my efforts without luring me into the fallacy that I had solve the problem definitively. And I think neither the pupils nor I have fared badly that way. Had I told them merely what I know, then they would have known just that and nothing more. As it is, they know perhaps even less. But they do know what matters: the search itself!

I hope my pupils will commit themselves to searching! Because they will know that one search for the sake of searching. That finding, which is indeed the goal, can easily put an end to striving.

Our age seeks many things. What is had found, however, is above all: comfort. Comfort, with all its implications, intrudes even into the world of ideas and makes us far more content than we should ever be. We understand today better than ever how to make life pleasant. We solve problems to remove an unpleasantness. But, how do we solve them? And what presumption, even to think we have really solved them! Here we can see most distinctly what the prerequisite of comfort is: superficiality. It is thus easy to have a ‘Weltanschauung’, a ‘philosophy’, if one contemplates only what is pleasant and gives no heed to the rest. The rest—which is just what matters most. In the light of the ‘rest’ these philosophies may very well seem made to order for those who hold to them, whereas, in that light, the tenets which constitute these philosophies are are seen to spring above all from the attempt at self-vindication. For, curiously enough, people of our time who formulate new laws of morality (or, even more to their liking, overthrow old ones) cannot live with guilt! Yet comfort does not consider self-discipline; and so guilt is either repudiated or transformed into virtue. Herein, for one who sees through it all, the recognition of guilt expresses itself as guilt. The thinker, who keeps on searching, does the opposite. He shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved. As does Strindberg: ‘Life makes everything ugly.’ Or Maeterlinck: ‘Three quarters of our brothers [are] condemned to misery.’ Or Weininger and all others who have thought earnestly.

Comfort as a philosophy of life! The least possible commotion, nothing shocking. Those who so love comfort will never seek where there is not definitely something to find.

There is a mechanical puzzle that consists of three small metal tubes of different diameters sealed in a glass-covered box. The problem is to get the smaller tubes inside the larger. Now one can try to do it methodically; then it usually takes quite a long time. But it can also be done another way. One can just shake the box at random until the tubes are inside one another. Does that happen by chance? It looks that way, but I don’t think so. For an idea lurks behind this method. Namely, that movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails. Is it not the same with the learner? What does the teacher accomplish through methodology? At most, activity. If everything goes well! But things can also go badly, and then what he accomplishes is lethargy. Yet lethargy produces nothing. Only activity, movement is productive. Then why not start moving right away? But comfort!? Comfort avoids movement; it therefore does not take up the search.

Either [tentative, perhaps random] movement generates searching or else searching generates movement—one or the other way must be taken. It does not matter which. Only action, movement, produces what could truly be called education or culture (Bildung): namely, training (Ausbildung), discipline and cultivation (Durchbildung). The teacher who does not exert himself because he tells only ‘what he knows’ does not exert his pupils either. Action must start with the teacher himself; his unrest must infect the pupils. Then they will search as he does. Then he will not be disseminating education (Bildung), and that is good. For ‘education’ means today: to know something of everything without understanding anything at all. Yet, the sense of this beautiful word, Bildung, is entirely different; and, since the word now carries a derogatory connotation, it should be replaced by Ausbildung and Durchbildung.

It should be clear, then, that the teacher’s first task is to shake up the pupil thoroughly. When the resultant tumult subsides, everything will have presumably found its proper place.

Or it will never happen!

The shadow of lost knowledge

William Johnson Cory in Eton Reform II as adapted by George Lyttleton in writing to Rupert Hart-Davis, discovered in a piece by David Bromwich on free speech and the university:

At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.

Preaching one’s own heresy

Chesterton on Bernard Shaw, 1909:

A peculiar difficulty arrests the writer of this rough study at the very start. Many people know Mr. Bernard Shaw chiefly as a man who would write a very long preface even to a very short play. And there is truth in the idea; he is indeed a very prefatory sort of person. He always gives the explanation before the incident; but so, for the matter of that, does the Gospel of St. John. For Bernard Shaw, as for the mystics, Christian and heathen (and Shaw is best described as a heathen mystic), the philosophy of facts is anterior to the facts themselves. In due time we come to the fact, the incarnation; but in the beginning was the Word.

This produces upon many minds an impression of needless preparation and a kind of bustling prolixity. But the truth is that the very rapidity of such a man’s mind makes him seem slow in getting to the point. It is positively because he is quick-witted that he is long-winded. A quick eye for ideas may actually make a writer slow in reaching his goal, just as a quick eye for landscapes might make a motorist slow in reaching Brighton. An original man has to pause at every allusion or simile to re-explain historical parallels, to re-shape distorted words. Any ordinary leader-writer (let us say) might write swiftly and smoothly something like this: “The element of religion in the Puritan rebellion, if hostile to art, yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.” Now a man like Mr. Shaw, who has his own views on everything, would be forced to make the sentence long and broken instead of swift and smooth. He would say something like: “The element of religion, as I explain religion, in the Puritan rebellion (which you wholly misunderstand) if hostile to art — that is what I mean by art — may have saved it from some evils (remember my definition of evil) in which the French Revolution — of which I have my own opinion — involved morality, which I will define for you in a minute.” That is the worst of being a really universal sceptic and philosopher; it is such slow work. The very forest of the man’s thoughts chokes up his thoroughfare. A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.

AI as CogSci

Douglas Stewart in conversation with Herbert Simon, Omni, 1994:

OMNI:

What is the main goal of AI?

SIMON:

AI can have two purposes. One is to use the power of computers to augment human thinking, just as we use motors to augment human or horse power. Robotics and expert systems are major branches of that. The other is to use a computer’s artificial intelligence to understand how humans think. In a humanoid way. If you test your programs not merely by what they can accomplish, but how they accomplish it, they you’re really doing cognitive science; you’re using AI to understand the human mind.

Some fine net of classification

Sontag, “Remembering Barthes,” The New York Review of Books, May 1980, collected in Under the Sign of Saturn:

Roland Barthes was sixty-four when he died on March 26, but the career was younger than that age suggests, for he was thirty-seven when he published his first book. After the tardy start there were many books, many subjects. One felt that he could generate ideas about anything. Put him in front of a cigar box and he would have one, two, many ideas—a little essay. It was not a question of knowledge (he couldn’t have known much about some of the subjects he wrote about) but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention. There was always some fine net of classification into which the phenomenon could be tipped.