The notebook as intellectual form

Benjamin, Arcades Project

Leopardi, Zibaldone

Valéry, Cahiers

Weil, The Notebooks of Simone Weil

These are acts of creation, not just acts of compilation (though they the work of the latter can inspire the former), and they depart from the diary, from the personal journal, in their analytical and intellectual focus. They are more records of thinking than records of personal life. On the act of compilation, see also: commonplace book, formulary, gnomologium, hypomnema (include Erasmus’s Adages, Francis Bacon’s Promus, Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books).

Hysterical misery into common unhappiness

From the end of Freud’s “Psychotherapy of Hysteria” in Studies on Hysteria (1895), with Josef Breuer:

When I have promised my patients help or improvement by means of a cathartic treatment I have been faced by this objection: “Why, you tell me yourself that my illness is probably connected with my circumstances of my life. You cannot alter these in any way. How do you propose to help me then?” And I have been able to make this reply: “No doubt fate would find it easier than I to relieve you of your illness. But you will able to convince yourself that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With mental life that has been restored to health you will be better armed against that unhappiness.”

Committing philosophy upon him

From the opening of Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations:

Children think an argument involves raised voices, anger, negative emotion. To argue with someone is to attempt to push him around verbally. But a philosophical argument isn’t like that—is it?

The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premisses you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief.

Though philosophy is carried on as a coercive activity, the penalty philosophers wield is, after all, rather weak. If the other person is willing to bear the label of “irrational” or “having the worse arguments,” he can skip away happily maintaining his previous belief. He will be trailed, of course, by the philosopher furiously hurling philosophical imprecations: “What do you mean, you’re willing to be irrational? You shouldn’t be irrational because…” And although the philosopher is embarrassed by his inability to complete this sentence in a noncircular fashion—he can only produce reasons for accepting reasons—still, he is unwilling to let his adversary go.

Wouldn’t it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddhalike. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. How’s that for a powerful argument? Yes, as with other physical threats (“your money or your life”), he can choose defiance. A “perfect” philosophical argument would leave no choice.

What useful purpose do philosophical arguments serve? Do we, trained in finding flaws in history’s great arguers, really believe arguments a promising route to the truth? Does either the likelihood or arriving at a true view (as opposed to a consistent and coherent one) or a view’s closeness to the truth vary directly with the strength of the philosophical arguments? Philosophical arguments can serve to elaborate a view, to delineate its content. Considering objections, hypothetical situations, and so on, does help to sharpen a view. But need all this be done in an attempt to prove, or in arguing?

Why are philosophers intent on forcing others to believe things? Is that a nice way to behave toward someone? I think we cannot improve people that way—the means frustrate the ends. Just as dependence is not eliminated by treating a person dependently, and someone cannot be forced to be free, a person is not most improved by being forced to believe something against his will, whether he wants to or not. The valuable person cannot be fashioned by committing philosophy upon him.

With virtually no patina

Listening to WHRB yesterday in the car, I was floored by a recording of Perahia playing Handel’s Suite No. 3 in D minor, HWV 428. The final two movements—air with five variations, and presto—are thrilling. I’d never heard the piece, and I still don’t know much about the seventeen keyboard suites published in two collections—first eight (HWV 426–433), known as the Great Eight, in 1720 (at age thirty-five), then another nine (HWV 434–442) around 1733—beyond the one that gives us the “Harmonious Blacksmith” (HWV 430, in E major) and another (HWV 434, in B-flat major) from which Brahms borrowed the theme for his Handel variations. (Schiff has a splendid recording of the latter on a disc with the Brahms.)

My ignorance is not totally my fault: very little seems to have been written about the suites—they do not command the same attention as Bach’s French and English suites or the partitas—and the only near-complete recording I can find of all seventeen on piano is by Richter and Gavrilov, but inexplicably they leave out the resplendent 434. Here is what Hungarian-American musicologist Paul Henry Lang writes in George Frideric Handel (he speaks of eight suites in the second volume, but there were multiple printings, apparently, and ultimately a ninth was added):

Of all of Handel’s works it is the many harpsichord pieces that may provide a glimpse of his creative youth. This is natural, because keyboard music was the German cantor’s native soil. Chrysander published a collection of these pieces, to which he gave the title Klavierbuch aus der Jugendzeit. Here we can find many prototypes and original versions of some of the pieces reworked and published later. “Reworking” is the key to the uneven quality to Handel’s output in this area, for the keyboard pieces show a wide range in quality, from the slight and insignificant to the magnificent and highly artistic. When an old piece was used in its original shape—that is, when Walsh or a Continental pirate published it without Handel’s permission—the result was unworthy of the great composer. When Handel had a chance to “correct” a youthful piece we are dealing with an altogether different kind of music, and, of course, the new pieces added to the collection by the mature master are almost all first-rate Handel. The music is no longer that of a young provincial German composer but of an elegant, experienced, and knowledgeable international composer intimately acquainted with Italian and French music.

The success of these pieces was phenomenal; they were the most popular compositions of their sort in all of Europe. Published by John Cluer and Walsh as independent volumes of “Lessons,” selections often appeared both in London anthologies and in the pirated publications of Dutch, Swiss, French, and German printers. In sales the harpsichord volumes outdid by far Couperin’s, Rameau’s, and Bach’s similar collections. As usual when the business methods of the estimable publishing house of Walsh are combined with Handel’s own ways with his musical hoard, things become hazy as to time, place, and even the identity of the composer. The first volume of suites, of 1720, was not yet within Walsh’s grasp; it was published by John Cluer “for the Author.” These suites could not have been composed before the Italian journey. Perhaps some of them were written in Hanover, but, at any rate, they surely were thoroughly gone over for the “corrected” edition. The second set, published by Walsh in 1733, without Handel’s permission, also contains eight suites, but this music is considerably weaker than the 1720 collection, undoubtedly because the material, somehow filched by Walsh, was not subjected to Handel’s usual reconditioning treatment. Among other reasons that indicate an arbitrary collection is the neglect of tonal order. The scheme in the first book of suites is carefully arranged and contrasted: A major, F major, D minor, E minor, E major, F-sharp minor, G minor, F minor. In the second book there is no orderly succession, and it is most unlikely that Handel would have agreed to pairs of consecutive suites in the same key. Of the third set, published later, not only the date is uncertain: one wonders whether these “suites” were not put together by the publisher from single, unrelated pieces. Indeed, we are not even sure Handel had anything to do with this largely insignificant music.

It is a shame pianists do not play these more often. As Richter writes in his notebooks, “these Suites are veritable miracles, laminated in gold but with virtually no patina.”

Fortunately there are several recordings of 428, in D minor. Here’s a smattering of the ones I like, timestamped to the final two movements. Richter’s is the least exciting, even dull; he makes up for it with his verbal endorsement. As the other piano versions make clear, these pieces should not be relegated to the harpsichord repertoire—or the dustbin of musical history.

  • Gould, on harpsichord, played as if on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Daria van den Bercken, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Richter, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Perahia, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Shura Cherkassky, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Éric Heidsieck

Air:

Presto:

  • Ottavio Dantone, on harpsichord

Air, with a blow out at the end of the fifth variation:

Presto:

Reading

Burrows, Handel

Dean, The New Grove Handel

Lang, George Frideric Handel

The heaven of legal concepts

The opening of Felix S. Cohen, “Transcendental Nonsense and the Functional Approach” (1935):

Some fifty years ago a great German jurist had a curious dream. He dreamed that he died and was taken to a special heaven reserved for the theoreticians of the law. In this heaven one met, face to face, the many concepts of jurisprudence in their absolute purity, freed from all entangling alliances with human life. Here were the disembodied spirits of good faith and bad faith, property, possession, laches, and rights in rem. Here were all the logical instruments needed to manipulate and transform these legal concepts and thus to create and to solve the most beautiful of legal problems. Here one found a dialectic-hydraulic-interpretation press, which could press an indefinite number of meanings out of any text or statute, an apparatus for constructing fictions, and a hair-splitting machine that could divide a single hair into 999,999 equal parts and, when operated by the most expert jurists, could split each of these parts again into 999,999 equal parts. The boundless opportunities of this heaven of legal concepts were open to all properly qualified jurists, provided only they drank the Lethean draught which induced forgetfulness of terrestrial human affairs. But for the most accomplished jurists the Lethean draught was entirely superfluous. They had nothing to forget.

Von Jhering’s dream has been retold, in recent years, in the chapels of sociological, functional, institutional, scientific, experimental, realistic, and neo-realistic jurisprudence. The question is raised, “How much of contemporary legal thought moves in the pure ether of Von Jhering’s heaven of legal concepts?” One turns to our leading legal textbooks and to the opinions of our courts for answer. May the Shade of Von Jhering be our guide.

Almost unable to despise

The thirty-second of Leopardi’s Pensieri (Thoughts), written in 1837, translated by J.G. Nichols:

As he advances every day in his practical knowledge of life, a man loses some of that severity which makes it difficult for young people, always looking for perfection, and expecting to find it, and judging everything by that idea of it which they have in their minds, to pardon defects and concede that there is some value in virtues that are poor and inadequate, and in good qualities that are unimportant, when they happen to find them in people. Then, seeing how everything is imperfect, and being convinced that there is nothing better in the world than that small good which they despise, and that practically nothing or no one is truly estimable, little by little, altering their standards and comparing what they come across not with perfection any more, but with reality, they grow accustomed to pardoning freely and valuing every mediocre virtue, every shadow of worth, every least ability that they find. So much so that, ultimately, many things and many people seem to them praiseworthy that at first would have seemed to them scarcely endurable. This goes so far that, whereas initially they hardly had the ability to feel esteem, in the course of time they become almost unable to despise. And this to a greater extent the more intelligent they are. Because in fact to be very contemptuous and discontented, once our first youth is past, is not a good sign, and those who are such cannot, either because of the poverty of their intellects or because they have little experience, have been much acquainted with the world. Or else they are among those fools who despise others because of the great esteem in which they hold themselves. In short, it seems hardly probable, but it is true, and it indicates only the extreme baseness of human affairs to say it, that experience of the world teaches us to appreciate rather than to depreciate.

I think of the opening of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important
beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

Everything to think about and much to remember

from the final section of Fahrenheit 451:

“What have you to offer?”

“Nothing. I thought I had part of the Book of Ecclesiastes and maybe a little of Revelation, but I haven’t even that now.”

“The Book of Ecclesiastes would be fine. Where was it?” “Here,” Montag touched his head.

“Ah,” Granger smiled and nodded.

“What’s wrong? Isn’t that all right?” said Montag.

“Better than all right; perfect!” Granger turned to the Reverend.

“Do we have a Book of Ecclesiastes?”

“One. A man named Harris of Youngstown.”

“Montag.” Granger took Montag’s shoulder firmly. “Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris, you are the Book of Ecclesiastes. See how important you’ve become in the last minute!”

“But I’ve forgotten!”

“No, nothing’s ever lost. We have ways to shake down your clinkers for you.”

“But I’ve tried to remember!”

“Don’t try. It’ll come when we need it. All of us have photographic memories, but spend a lifetime learning how to block off the things that are really in there. Simmons here has worked on it for twenty years and now we’ve got the method down to where we can recall anything that’s been read once. Would you like, some day, Montag, to read Plato’s Republic?”

“Of course!”

I am Plato’s Republic. Like to read Marcus Aurelius? Mr. Simmons is Marcus.”

“How do you do?” said Mr. Simmons.

“Hello,” said Montag.

“I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver’s Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag. Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”

Everyone laughed quietly.

“It can’t be,” said Montag.

“It is,” replied Granger, smiling. “We’re book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Micro-filming didn’t pay off; we were always traveling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it. We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ, it’s here. And the hour is late. And the war’s begun. And we are out here, and the city is there, all wrapped up in its own coat of a thousand colors. What do you think, Montag?”

“I think I was blind trying to do things my way, planting books in firemen’s houses and sending in alarms.”

“You did what you had to do. Carried out on a national scale, it might have worked beautifully. But our way is simpler and, we think, better. All we want to do is keep the knowledge we think we will need, intact and safe. We’re not out to incite or anger anyone yet. For if we are destroyed, the knowledge is dead, perhaps for good. We are model citizens, in our own special way; we walk the old tracks, we lie in the hills at night, and the city people let us be. We’re stopped and searched occasionally, but there’s nothing on our persons to incriminate us. The organization is flexible, very loose, and fragmentary. Some of us have had plastic surgery on our faces and fingerprints. Right now we have a horrible job; we’re waiting for the war to begin and, as quickly, end. It’s not pleasant, but then we’re not in control, we’re the odd minority crying in the wilderness. When the war’s over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world.”

“Do you really think they’ll listen then?”

“If not, we’ll just have to wait. We’ll pass the books on to our children, by word of mouth, and let our children wait, in turn, on the other people. A lot will be lost that way, of course. But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them. It can’t last.”

“How many of you are there?”

“Thousands on the roads, the abandoned railtracks, tonight, bums on the outside, libraries inside. It wasn’t planned, at first. Each man had a book he wanted to remember, and did. Then, over a period of twenty years or so, we met each other, traveling, and got the loose network together and set out a plan. The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves was that we were not important, we mustn’t be pedants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell. Pick up that town, almost, and flip the pages, so many pages to a person. And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.”

[…]

But now there was a long morning’s walk until noon, and if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember. Perhaps later in the morning, when the sun was up and had warmed them, they would begin to talk, or just say the things they remembered, to be sure they were there, to be absolutely certain that things were safe in them. Montag felt the slow stir of words, the slow simmer.

Conducted behind their backs

A striking methodological salvo from the opening chapter of James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism:

The populist tendency of anarchist thought, with its belief in the possibilities of autonomy, self-organization, and cooperation, recognized, among other things, that peasants, artisans, and workers were themselves political thinkers. They had their own purposes, values, and practices, which any political sys­tem ignored at its peril. That basic respect for the agency of nonelites seems to have been betrayed not only by states but also by the practice of social science. It is common to ascribe to elites particular values, a sense of history, aesthetic tastes, even rudiments of a political philosophy. The political analysis of nonelites, by contrast, is often conducted, as it were, behind their backs. Their “politics” is read off their statistical profile: from such “facts” as their income, occupation, years of schooling, property holding, residence, race, ethnicity, and religion.

This is a practice that most social scientists would never judge remotely adequate to the study of elites. It is curiously akin both to state routines and to left-wing authoritarianism in treating the nonelite public and “masses” as ciphers of their so­cioeconomic characteristics, most of whose needs and world­ view can be understood as a vector sum of incoming calories, cash, work routines, consumption patterns, and past voting behavior. It is not that such factors are not germane. What is inadmissible, both morally and scientifically, is the hubris that pretends to understand the behavior of human agents without for a moment listening systematically to how they understand what they are doing and how they explain themselves. Again, it is not that such self-explanations are transparent and nor are they without strategic omissions and ulterior motives—they are no more transparent that the self-explanations of elites.

The job of social science, as I see it, is to provide, provision­ally, the best explanation of behavior on the basis of all the evidence available, including especially the explanations of the purposive, deliberating agents whose behavior is being scruti­nized. The notion that the agent’s view of the situation is ir­relevant to this explanation is preposterous. Valid knowledge of the agent’s situation is simply inconceivable without it. No one has put the case better for the phenomenology of human action than John Dunn:

If we wish to understand other people and propose to claim that we have in fact done so, it is both imprudent and rude not to attend to what they say. . . . What we cannot properly do is to claim to know that we understand him [an agent] or his action better than he does himself without access to the best descriptions which he is able to offer.

Anything else amounts to committing a social science crime behind the backs of history’s actors.

This is an especially pernicious flaw in a great deal of historical writing, where motives and explanations for large-scale social transformations—say, the American Revolution—are often identified solely and unreflectingly with the motives and explanations of elites (intellectual, social, political). Writing history is very hard, at least if one wishes to be truthful. One way to characterize the error Scott discusses is to say that it turns all history into intellectual history: the history of what intellectuals have said and done. (I am reminded that when I expressed an interest in intellectual history to one of my math professors at MIT—a world-famous algebraic geometer—he mused, skeptical of the need for the adjective and with all the false confidence of the naif, “Isn’t all history intellectual?” He meant something banal rather than provocative—isn’t historical work intellectual work?—but I still wince at his reflex to dismiss what he found unfamiliar.)

I am struck by this passage in part because it helps to illuminate one dimension of the academic debate—never mind the more general culture war—about Nikole Hannah-Jones’s claims for the revolution in the 1619 Project (the most contested being that “one of the primary reasons” the United States fought the war was to preserve slavery): there is a historiographic contest over whose reasons for revolution matter—Ben Franklin’s and James Madison’s, your salt-of-the-earth antislavery New Englander’s, or that of the scale-tipping planter Virginian who had not yet gone over to the Patriot cause but was spurred to do so after Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation threatened to free his slaves.

The problem is not always political or ideological, or a residue of Great Man history writing (though it sometimes is, more than it ought to be). At bottom, the temptation to ignore the reasoning and views of nonelites is material and methodological: we typically have more records, more documents, more texts—or even if not numerically more, at least more easily accessible ones—from elites than from the masses. This is a lesson the full significance of which I have learned only gradually myself, not least because of my absorption in intellectual culture and my interest in the history of ideas. It is far easier for the graduate student, the journalist, or the researcher to reach for a popular book still in print, or a volume only an interlibrary loan away, or the carefully preserved archives of prominent or simply well-remembered members of society, than to try, painstakingly, to piece together a more faithful portrait of the full range of opinion from the vastly more unorganized mass of materials that record what the mass of most of us think. There is always more being said than what the most prominent or visible members of a society are saying. (And not only is there more being said; it matters, as a force of history. The conflation of history with elite history both rides on and reinforces the conceit that power only resides with elites—that only their beliefs and actions make anything happen.)

To put it more succinctly, this is just another example of selection bias. More than a half-century after the first broadsides in the new bottom-up social history of the 1960s were published, and forty years after the title of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States inaugurated a new formula for restoring agency to the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of history, the evidence historians choose to adduce remains predominantly elite, and the overblown conclusions they draw remain trained on a remarkably limited set of data. We like to criticize data scientists for analyzing whatever information just happens to be available, however biased, however unrepresentative a sample; we too readily forget that historians are data scientists, too, of a sort. All of them: even the ones who don’t do Franco Moretti–style quantitative social science or digital humanities. This is not to say that to write history one must do statistics. Historians just have a more capacious, less numerical notion of what counts as data. And when they choose to read whatever data is readiest to hand—off the shelf, in popular memory, national mythology, or other received wisdom—they almost inevitably distort the richness and complexity of the period they study. (As Sontag said in an interview for BR, “The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is.”)

I say almost inevitably, because a few conscientious objectors at least take care to cast their conclusions in sufficiently modest language, acknowledging that their limited datasets do not license grand claims. (The price we often pay for this modesty is tedious prose: we sacrifice the stylistic thrill of a breezy narrative, propelled by the easy causation of a story, for more insipid accuracy. The pressure to oversimplify that no writer can escape is perhaps above all stylistic, even more than cognitive. It is not so hard to think about complexity. It is very hard to express it elegantly.) “My goal isn’t to portray the full complexity of this period, but only this very tiny part of it” is always a way out of this trap. But even these more responsible projects—the best kinds of micro-history, now the dominant mode of so much academic work, which has forsaken the writing of Bigger History precisely for some of the reasons I’ve given here—must be subjected to scrutiny: why not do the harder work of writing the history that is not so easily told (whether because it is the history of elites, or because it is the history of terrain so narrowly drawn that only very few readers will be interested)? We must always be on guard against only writing the history that is easiest to write, just as we must be on guard against only thinking about those things that are easiest to think about.

Contrary to folklore

Paul Samuelson, “Heads I Win, and Tales, You Lose,” in the sixtieth anniversary edition of von Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior:

Contrary to folklore, mathematical ability is not a rare gift uncorrelated with other intellectual abilities: testing demonstrates that the child good with words and logic is most likely to have native potentiality for mathematics also. That schools […] should turn us out ignorant of and resentful of mathematics, is a crime. And not because, in the age of Sputnik and automation, mathematical proficiency is a prerequisite of national prosperity and survival, but rather because of the sheer fun that people miss […]

I think of this old title on my shelf: The Sheer Joy of Celestial Mechanics.

Sure to be noticed

Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death:

A person can go on living fairly well, seem to be a human being, be occupied with temporal matters, marry, have children, be honored and esteemed — and it may not be detected that in a deeper sense this person lacks a self. Such things do not create much of a stir in the world, for a self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss — an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. — is sure to be noticed.