Each readily falls into excess

Bacon’s 55th aphorism in the Novum Organum, translated by Joseph Devey, some two centuries before Darwin on lumpers and splitters:

The greatest and, perhaps, radical distinction between different men’s dispositions for philosophy and the sciences is this, that some are more vigorous and active in observing the differences of things, others in observing their resemblances; for a steady and acute disposition can fix its thoughts, and dwell upon and adhere to a point, through all the refinements of differences, but those that are sublime and discursive recognize and compare even the most delicate and general resemblances; each of them readily falls into excess, by catching either at nice distinctions or shadows of resemblance.

Cf. Stravinsky.

See how high the seas of language can rise

from Kripke’s Naming and Necessity (1980):

If one was determining the referent of a name like ‘Glunk’ to himself and made the following decision, ‘I shall use the term “Glunk” to refer to the man that I call “Glunk”‘ this would get one nowhere. One had better have some independent determination of the referent of ‘Glunk’. This is a good example of a blatantly circular determination. Actually sentences like ‘Socrates is called “Socrates”‘ are very interesting and one can spend hours talking about their analysis. I actually did, once, do that. I won’t do that now, however, on this occasion. (See how high the seas of language can rise. And at the lowest points too.)

Even the subtlest experts

from Kripke, “Outline of a Theory of Truth”:

The versions of the Liar paradox which use empirical predicates already point up one major aspect of the problem: many, probably most, of our ordinary assertions about truth and falsity are liable, if the empirical facts are extremely unfavorable, to exhibit paradoxical features. Consider the ordinary statement, made by Jones:

(1) Most (i.e., a majority) of Nixon’s assertions about Watergate are false.

Clearly, nothing is intrinsically wrong with (1), nor is it ill-formed. Ordinarily the truth value of (1) will be ascertainable through an enumeration of Nixon’s Watergate-related assertions, and an assessment of each for truth or falsity. Suppose, however, that Nixon’s assertions about Watergate are evenly balanced between the true and the false, except for one problematic case,

(2) Everything Jones says about Watergate is true.

Suppose, in addition, that (1) is Jones’s sole assertion about Watergate, or alternatively, that all his Watergate-related assertions except perhaps (1) are true. Then it requires little expertise to show that (1) and (2) are both paradoxical: they are true if and only if they are false.

The example of (1) points up an important lesson: it would be fruitless to look for an intrinsic criterion that will enable us to sieve out—as meaningless, or ill-formed—those sentences which lead to paradox. (1) is, indeed, the paradigm of an ordinary assertion involving the notion of falsity; just such assertions were characteristic of our recent political debate. Yet no syntactic or semantic feature of (1) guarantees that it is unparadoxical. Under the assumptions of the previous paragraph, (1) leads to paradox. Whether such assumptions hold depends on the empirical facts about Nixon’s (and other) utterances, not on anything intrinsic to the syntax and semantics of (1). (Even the subtlest experts may not be able to avoid utterances leading to paradox. It is said that Russell once asked Moore whether he always told the truth, and that he regarded Moore’s negative reply as the sole falsehood Moore had ever produced. Surely no one had a keener nose for paradox than Russell. Yet he apparently failed to realize that if, as he thought, all Moore’s other utterances were true, Moore’s negative reply was not simply false but paradoxical.) The moral: an adequate theory must allow our statements involving the notion of truth to be risky: they risk being paradoxical if the empirical facts are extremely (and unexpectedly) unfavorable. There can be no syntactic or semantic “sieve” that will winnow out the “bad” cases while preserving the “good” ones.

This notation sucks!

Paul Votja on Serge Lang:

During my time at Yale, I gave two or three graduate courses. Serge always sat in the front row, paying close attention to the point of interrupting me midsentence: “The notation should be functorial with respect to the ideas!” or “This notation sucks!” But, after class he complimented me highly on the lecture.

While on sabbatical at Harvard, he sat in on a course Mazur was giving and often criticized the notation. Eventually they decided to give him a T-shirt which said, “This notation sucks” on it. So one day Barry intentionally tried to get him to say it. He introduced a complex variable Ξ, took its complex conjugate, and divided by the original Ξ. This was written as a vertical fraction, so it looked like eight horizontal lines on the blackboard. He then did a few other similar things, but Serge kept quiet—apparently he didn’t criticize notation unless he knew what the underlying mathematics was about. Eventually Barry had to give up and just present him with the T-shirt.

One does well to listen to them

The opening of Nietzsche’s lesser-known incomplete book, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (c. 1873), translated by Marianne Cowan:

There are people who are opposed to all philosophy and one does well to listen to them, particularly when they advise the diseased minds of Germans to stay away from metaphysics, instead preaching purification through physis as Goethe did, or healing through music, as did Richard Wagner. The physicians of our culture repudiate philosophy. Whoever wishes to justify it must show, therefore, to what ends a healthy culture uses and has used philosophy. Perhaps the sick will then actually gain salutary insight into why philosophy is harmful specifically to them. There are good instances, to be sure, of a type of health which can exist altogether without philosophy, or with but a very moderate, almost playful, exercise of it. The Romans during their best period lived without philosophy. But where could we find an instance of cultural pathology which philosophy restored to health? If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker. Wherever a culture was disintegrating, wherever the tension between it and its individual components was slack, philosophy could never re-integrate the individuals back into the group. Wherever an individual was of a mind to stand apart, to draw a circle of self-sufficiency about himself, philosophy was ready to isolate him still further, finally to destroy him through that isolation. Philosophy is dangerous wherever it does not exist in its fullest right, and it is only the health of a culture—and not every culture at that—which accords it such fullest right.

A non sequitur of numbing grossness

Strawson on Kant in The Bounds of Sense:

In the Second Analogy Kant expresses in a number of ways the thought that the order of perceptions of htose objective states of affairs the succession of one upon the other of which constitutes an objective change is—as, in the sense examined and with the qualifications mentioned, we see it is—a necessary order. The order of perceptions is characterized not only as a necessary, but as a determined order, an order to which our apprehension is bound down, or which we are compelled to observe. These may all perhaps be admitted as legitimate ways of expressing the denial of order-indifference. But from this point the argument proceeds by a non sequitur of numbing grossness.

Under the influence of argument

The opening of David Lewis’s “Elusive Knowledge”:

We know a lot. I know what food penguins eat. I know that phones used to ring, but nowadays squeal, when someone calls up. I know that Essendon won the 1993 Grand Final. I know that here is a hand, and here is another.

We have all sorts of everyday knowledge, and we have it in abundance. To doubt that would be absurd. At any rate, to doubt it in any serious and lasting way would be absurd; and even philosophical and temporary doubt, under the influence of argument, is more than a little peculiar. It is a Moorean fact that we know a lot. It is one of those things that we know better than we know the premises of any philosophical argument to the contrary.

Besides knowing a lot that is everyday and trite, I myself think that we know a lot that is interesting and esoteric and controversial. We know a lot about things unseen: tiny particles and pervasive fields, not to mention one another’s underwear. Sometimes we even know what an author meant by his writings. But on these questions, let us agree to disagree peacefully with the champions of ‘post-knowledgeism’. The most trite and ordinary parts of our knowledge will be problem enough.

To discover the why of it

From the introduction to Robert Hughes’s book on modern art, The Shock of the New:

I am not a philosopher, but a journalist who has had the good luck never to be bored by his subject. “Je resous de m’informer du pourquoi,” Baudelaire wrote after seeing Tannhäuser in 1860, “et de transformer ma volupté en connaissance”: “I set out to discover the why of it, and to transform my pleasure into knowledge.” Pleasure is the root of all critical appreciation of art, and there is nothing like a long, steady project to make one discover (and with luck, convey) what it was in the siren voices of our century that caught me as a boy—when I first read Roger Shattuck’s translations of Apollinaire, hidden from the Jesuits in the wrapper of a Latin grammar—and has never let me go.

In the same vein see Barthes on jouissance, and Ortega y Gasset on amor intellectualis; in the opposite vein, the Wordsworthian trope of murdering to dissect.

Useful work versus useless toil

First page of Morris’s Note (1898) on the founding of the Kelmscott Press

From William Morris’s Useful Work versus Useless Toil, first given as a lecture in 1884:

The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it—he is “employed,” as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only “industrious” enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself—a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.

Let us grant, first, that the race of man must either labour or perish. Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis; we must win it by toil of some sort of degree. Let us see, then, if she does not give us some compensation for this compulsion to labour, since certainly in other matters she takes care to make the acts necessary to the continuance of life in the individual and the race not only endurable, but even pleasurable.

You may be sure that she does so, that it is of the nature of man, when he is not diseased, to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions. And, yet, we must say in the teeth of the hypocritical praise of all labour, whatsoever it may be, of which I have made mention, that there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse; that it would be better for the community and for the worker if the latter were to fold his hands and refuse to work, and either die or let us pack him off to the workhouse or prison—which you will.

Here, you see, are two kinds of work—one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life.

What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.

What is the nature of the hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing?

It is threefold, I think—hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself; and hope of these also in some abundance and of good quality; rest enough and good enough to be worth having; product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic; pleasure enough for all for us to be conscious of it while we are at work; not a mere habit, the loss of which we shall feel as a fidgety man feels the loss of the bit of string he fidgets with.

I have put the hope of rest first because it is the simplest and most natural part of our hope. Whatever pleasure there is in some work, there is certainly some pain in all work, the beast-like pain of stirring up our slumbering energies to action, the beast-like dread of change when things are pretty well with us; and the compensation for this animal pain is animal rest. We must feel while we are working that the time will come when we shall not have to work. Also the rest, when it comes, must be long enough to allow us to enjoy it; it must be longer than is merely necessary for us to recover the strength we have expended in working, and it must be animal rest also in this, that it must not be disturbed by anxiety, else we shall not be able to enjoy it. If we have this amount and kind of rest we shall, so far, be no worse off than the beasts.

As to the hope of product, I have said that Nature compels us to work for that. It remains for us to look to it that we do really produce something, and not nothing, or at least nothing that we want or are allowed to use. If we look to this and use our wills we shall, so far, be better than machines.

The hope of pleasure in the work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers—to most of them! Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.

Thus worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.

All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.

Morris seems to have been particularly fond of the idea of “pleasure in the work itself”: he uses the phrase again some years later in his review of Bellamy’s Looking Backward. We are familiar with the pleasure he took in his textiles and illustration, but I like to think especially of the pleasure he took in printing books.

Colophon of the Kelmscott Press